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Trump Aides in Constant Contact with Russians During Campaign; Trump Praises Flynn, Blames Leaks on Intel Community; Pentagon May Propose Sending Ground Troops to Syria; Russian Spy Ship Lurking Near U.S. Submarine Base. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Russian contacts. CNN has learned that high-level advisors to Donald Trump were in constant contact with Russian officials during the presidential race, even as evidence emerged of Russian cyber meddling in the campaign.

[17:00:14] Russian aggression. Increasingly bold harassment by Moscow's military forces, including war planes buzzing U.S. ships and now a Russian spy ship lurking off the U.S. coast. Is Vladimir Putin taking advantage of the chaos engulfing the Trump White House?

Trust or vilify. President Trump praises the national security advisor he fired, calling General Michael Flynn a wonderful man just a day after the White House says the president had lost trust in Flynn and then fired him. Mr. Trump blasting the leaks about Flynn as criminal. Does he deny whether they're true?

And one-state, two-state. The president backs away from long-standing American Mideast policy, saying he won't insist on a separate Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement with Israel. But he does urge Israel's prime minister to hold back on settlement construction. Will Benjamin Netanyahu listen?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. Multiple sources tell CNN that high-level advisors for President Trump were in constant contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign. That includes General Michael Flynn, who was fired from his job as national security advisor by the president.

But today Mr. Trump was praising Flynn, lashing out against leaks that led to his downfall. The president called the leaks criminal and questioned whether the NSA or FBI were behind them.

Also breaking this hour, a defense official is telling CNN that the Pentagon may propose sending U.S. ground troops to Syria to speed up the fight against ISIS. The move could come within weeks if it's approved by President Trump, who's ordered new plans to combat terrorist forces. We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests,

including Senator Roy Blunt of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Congresswoman Kathleen Rice of the Homeland Security Committee. And our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.

Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, and the latest on contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials.

Jim, what are you learning from your sources?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We have just learned, Wolf, CNN, my colleague Dana Bash and I, that General Michael Flynn, retired General Michael Flynn's security clearance has been suspended. This, we're being told by the Defense Intelligence Agency, we're told this is normal procedure when questions are raised about a person's compliance with security clearance standards.

This, of course, follows his resignation as national security advisor after the revelation that he lied about conversations he had with Russian diplomats, possibly about U.S. sanctions against Russia.

At the same time, we're learning new information that during the campaign, the most senior Trump advisors, including Flynn and others, were having repeated constant communication with officials of the Russian government and other Russian nationals known to U.S. intelligence.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): CNN has learned that high-level advisors to Donald Trump were in constant contact during the campaign with Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to U.S. intelligence. This, according to multiple current and former U.S. intelligence and law enforcement official.

Officials tell CNN then-President Obama and then President-elect Trump were both fully briefed on the extent of the communications between the Russians and people in and around the Trump business empire and presidential campaign.

In January, Trump denied having any knowledge of contacts with the Russians. This only five days after he was briefed on the matter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you or anyone in your campaign have any contact with Russia leading up to or during the campaign, nothing at all?

SCIUTTO: Occasional contacts between presidential campaigns and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual. However, both the frequency of the interactions and the close ties to Trump of those involved raised alarm. The discussions coinciding with evidence that Russia was hacking Democratic institutions in an effort to undermine the U.S. election. Among the Trump advisors communicating with Russia were then-campaign

chairman Paul Manafort and former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Manafort strenuously denied to CNN that he was in contact with Russia's government. Flynn has not responded.

Law enforcement officials tell CNN that additional concern stems from intercepted communications between Russian officials both before and after the election, discussing what they described as special access to Trump. All of these communications were intercepted as part of routine U.S. intelligence gathering, and no Trump associates were targeted. This according to U.S. officials.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[17:05:04] SCIUTTO: I've spoken to several members of previous presidential campaigns, who said that, during the campaign, they might meet with representatives of foreign governments once, a conversation once. But these multiple conversations, repeated constant, that, Wolf, is what drew attention of U.S. intelligence, U.S. law enforcement, as well as the very senior level of those Trump aides, some people with very close proximity to then-Republican nominee Donald Trump that raised alarm bells for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement.

BLITZER: Yes, I will say this, Jim Sciutto. There's nothing normal about a retired three-star general. The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, now a former national security advisor, to a president having his classified -- his credentials, his classification suspended. That is by no means normal at all. It's very extraordinary, and I just wanted to get your thought.

SCIUTTO: No question. Listen, and that shows the seriousness of this. General Michael Flynn, he served his country for years. He held very senior positions. Only recently departed the national security advisor. Now he's losing that security clearance. It shows the seriousness with which the intelligence community is treating these questions.

BLITZER: Yes, even if they're suspended temporarily, that's a big deal, security clearances for such an individual. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

President Trump talked and tweeted at length about the scandal surrounding his fired national security advisor, but without addressing the heart of the issue.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. You're working that part of the story. Jim, what are you finding out?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Trump defended his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, at his news conference today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But time and again today, the president sidestepped questions about whether his team had contacts with the Russians during the campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA (voice-over): One day after the White House said former national security advisor Michael Flynn was forced out for misleading the administration, President Trump praised the man he fired.

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

ACOSTA: Then the president blamed leakers in the law enforcement and intelligence communities for disclosing to reporters that Trump's top advisors and associates were in constant contact with Russian operatives during the campaign. Leaks he tweeted were "very un- American."

TRUMP: It's a criminal action, 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.

ACOSTA: But after dodging tough questions by calling on only conservative news outlets at his news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president would not address a question from CNN about whether his campaign had contacts with the Russians.

(on camera): Mr. President, are you answering questions about your associates' contact with the Russians during the campaign?

(voice-over): An opportunity he passed on once again in the Oval Office.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you comment on the report that there were contacts with senior advisors and suspected Russian operatives during the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

ACOSTA: Top administration officials have denied there were any such contacts, including Vice President Pence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did any advisor or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, of course not. And I think -- I think to suggest that is to give -- give credence to some of -- of these -- of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.

ACOSTA: That's not enough for leading Senate Republicans. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: 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 responsibilities as to defend the nation.

ACOSTA: Democrats are pressing for hearings.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Absolutely. The question on everybody's mind is what did the Trump team do and when did they do it? We want to get to the bottom of these activities.

ACOSTA: Controversy over Russia largely overshadowed a visit with Netanyahu that made news on its own as the president pressured the prime minister to limit Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories as part of a path to peace.

TRUMP: 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.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: A start.

TRUMP: Doesn't sound too optimistic. But that's -- good negotiator.

NETANYAHU: That's the art of the deal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[06:10:02] ACOSTA: Now, as for the president's claim that these Russia stories are, quote, "fake news" or from the fake news media, reporters asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer what was fake about them earlier this afternoon, and he said he would get back to us on that.

Meanwhile, the president appears ready to return to what works for him. The White House says the president will hold a rally on Saturday down in Florida. Officials here are calling it a, quote, "campaign event," Wolf. So, take note, Democrats. The 2020 campaign apparently has already begun, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting indeed. All right. Jim Acosta over at the White House, thanks.

Let's get some more on all of this. Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is joining us. He's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You've called for an exhaustive investigation. What do you want to know and what would your focus be on?

BLUNT: Well, I think it's actually the president's advantage for this committee, the Intelligence Committee that's been asked to look at what happened before and after President Obama's report on the election to look at this. I think the best way we can do that is to look at everything that a reasonable person would think you would want to look at, talk to everybody that a reasonable person would think you'd want to talk to, and come to conclusions that both Democrats and Republicans can't argue with because of the facts.

And our committee was asked to do that. We have the kind of relationships with these intelligence and FBI agencies that I think allow us to do that.

Let me say one other thing about General Flynn. Served the country well for decades. I think we ought to appreciate that. And also should understand that, if you're going to be the national security advisor, your credibility has to be absolute. So, however that decision was made, I think both the president and General Flynn made the right decision for him to move on and let somebody else move into that critically important job.

You agree with me, though, there's nothing normal about General Flynn, at least temporarily, losing his security clearances?

BLUNT: Well, I've actually been on the Intelligence Committee a long time. And any time a retired officer or a current officer is questioned on an issue like that, it actually is normal for them to lose their security clearances, but nobody wants that to happen. And at some point I'm sure General Flynn expects to and hopes to get that clearance back.

BLITZER: Do you believe the president's aides had consistent contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the course of the campaign?

BLUNT: You know, I don't have any reason to know that yet. We -- we are looking -- our staffs looking at the documents that President Obama put together, talking to the former head of the CIA and the director of national intelligence. They never said that they could verify that. But we want to look at everything and see what happened and how it happened.

BLITZER: You think that then-candidate Donald Trump knew about these conversations that U.S. officials say some of his aides were having with Russian intelligence officials?

BLUNT: You know, the best that I've heard, I think both he and the vice-president say they were not aware that that happened. And I don't have any reason to question that. But everybody will be better off when we can get this behind us one way -- with all the facts out there and move forward.

BLITZER: When Iran tested a ballistic missile, Michael Flynn, he was then still the national security advisor. He went into the briefing room, and he said Iran is on notice.

This week when North Korea launched a missile, President Trump made a statement, but now Russia has launched a missile. There's a Russian ship off the coast of Connecticut. Russian planes are buzzing a U.S. destroyer. Why the silence from President Trump on what Russia is doing to the U.S. right now?

BLUNT: Well, you know, the president spent the last few days with the -- with the prime minister of Japan, the prime minister of Israel. Those meetings both, I think, have gone well. I'm not in a position to question what he's saying.

I think a point you did make, though, that we should emphasize here is it's critically important that everybody have confidence in the national security advisor, because more than any other single individual, what happens with the president and the advice he gets goes through that person. And it is -- it is a job where you need to have absolute credibility with the president, the vice-president, and everybody else.

BLITZER: But -- but, Senator, you know, the -- he's got time to do all sorts of tweeting, make all sorts of statements. He is silent when it comes to these Russian aggressive moves right now. So, why is he silent on that? If you take a look at his Twitter feed, he's got all sort -- he's got plenty of time to tweet about all sorts of other issues.

BLUNT: You know, you'd have to ask him that, Wolf. I don't know. Certainly, his secretary of state, the secretary of defense and others have been very clear, as has the president's person at the U.N. of our government's position on the aggressive and unacceptable Russian actions.

BLITZER: But why is he silent? Why is he silent on these issues? I assume you want him to speak out when Russia does these kinds of things.

BLUNT: Well, I think you'd have to ask him why he's silent. I think the Russians are a clear adversary and a dangerous adversary, and we need view them that way.

At the same time, that doesn't mean you don't need to try to have an opening. And that may very well be both Russia and China. It's critical that a new president do everything they can to see if it's possible to stabilize that relationship. President Obama found out it wasn't, though, as late as the reelection campaign he was still denying that the Russians were a problem. Why did he say that?

BLITZER: President Trump today at his news conference, he called Michael Flynn a wonderful man, said he thought he had been treated very, very unfairly. He blamed all of this on leaks.

And he tweeted this, and let me read it to you. He said, "Information is being illegally given -- illegally given to the failing 'New York Times' and 'Washington Post' by the intelligence community" -- in parentheses -- "(NSA and FBI) just like Russia."

Why is he pinning this on the intelligence agencies? He's pinning this on the news media rather than pinning it on Michael Flynn himself? He fired the guy.

BLUNT: Well, I think I've already said I think that that was -- the right decision was for General Flynn to leave. But you can't go unnoticed here the idea that wherever these leaks are coming from, they're not supposed to be coming from those places, and that clearly should be something that Congress looks at, as well.

I read in one source this morning that seven different people talked about what was in a transcript that no government employee should be talking about. And, so, there's a problem there. And the committee as well as the president needs to realize that's a problem.

BLITZER: Senator Blunt, thanks for joining us.

BLUNT: Thank you.

BLITZER: More breaking news coming up next. Amid the scandal over the Trump team's communications with Russia, a Russian spy ship is now lurking right off the U.S. coast.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:30] BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. The Pentagon may propose sending U.S. ground troops into Syria to speed up the fight against ISIS. Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York is standing by. We'll talk to her about that. She's a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

But first let's get some details from our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

You're picking up some new information, Barbara. What are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's not a done deal yet, but what we do know is the Pentagon is looking at the idea. Could they send a small number of conventional ground forces to northern Syria. Not the Special Forces, not the trainers that are already there. But conventional ground troops.

The idea is could this meet one of President Trump's requirements to have some ideas in hand to speed up the fight against ISIS?

Now, you'll remember President Obama always rejected the idea of ground troops. It is a very risky proposition, Wolf.

BLITZER: You're also learning, Barbara, more about a Russian spy ship lurking off the coast of Connecticut right now. Tell our viewers what you've learned.

STARR: This is a ship called the Viktor Leonov. I think we have a graphic showing its capabilities. About 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut. It is essentially a Russian spy ship that tries to pick up signals.

It's happened before. They've run this ship up and down the East Coast of the United States. It goes down to Cuba, goes back to Russia, comes back. But this is the first time it's headed so far north off Connecticut. Usually, it turns around by the time it gets to Virginia. Something the U.S. Navy is keeping a very close eye on, Wolf.

BLITZER: There was also a disturbing incident in the Black Sea, Barbara, with Russian jets buzzing a U.S. destroyer. What can you tell us about that?

STARR: Another Russian provocation that the U.S. is watching very closely, there were Russian jets that buzzed the USS Porter, a destroyer in the Black Sea, three times. Here are some photos taken by the U.S. Navy from the deck of the ship as it happened.

Big Russian aircraft, they flew by close at very high speed. Has it happened before? Yes. Is it a concern? You bet, because at these speeds and these low altitudes, you can have a miscalculation. You can have a disaster, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff indeed. All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Congresswoman Kathleen Rice is joining us.

Congresswoman, you're a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Your district, by the way, is on Long Island, not very far away from that Russian spy ship that's -- is lurking off the Connecticut coast right now. Only 30 miles or so off the coast. What do you make of that?

REP. KATHLEEN RICE (D), NEW YORK: Well, I think it's just another incident, Wolf, of provocation by Russia; and now it's directed at America. And the question is how is President Trump and his administration going to answer this?

And that's why all the issues that are going on here, domestically, are affecting, I believe, the president's ability to have an objective response to clear provocations by one of our enemies.

So, it's a very fluid situation right now, and I think what we need to do is try to resolve as many of the issues that are going on. It's only been 25 days or so since Trump has been in office. There's a lot of disorganization, a lot of disarray. There's no national security advisor at a time when we desperately need one. So, hopefully, he'll get focused on what's important here.

BLITZER: CNN, as you know, has been reporting that high-level Trump advisors were in constant contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign. What would that mean for U.S. policy and what do you want to know about those conversations?

[17:25:11] RICE: Well, it's not just what I want know and what everyone here in Washington wants to know. Wolf, it's what the American people deserve to know.

Now, up until the past month, these were all allegations. They were rumors. People -- Donald Trump would say, "I love these leaks. It's great. Russia, go get all these e-mails that Hillary Clinton is missing." But now that it's coming back at him, now that we know for a fact --

look, I spent 30 years, almost 30 years as a prosecutor before I came here to Washington three years ago. So, I'm very fact and evidence oriented. And the facts are indisputable. There's no question that Mike Flynn had a conversation with Russian intelligence people before Trump was sworn in. There is no question about it. There's no question that he lied to Mike Pence about it, the vice president. There's no question that President Trump found out about this three weeks ago, 2 1/2 weeks ago, and chose to do nothing until it became public.

Now, what that says is that he's interested, President Trump is interested in having a very secret administration; and that's not what the public deserves, right? There's -- we need more clarity here.

BLITZER: The FBI interviewed Michael Flynn in the early days of the Trump administration about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States here in Washington. Does it concern you, Congresswoman, that Flynn was still given access to top-secret intelligence, especially if there was concern in those days that he potentially could have been blackmailed by Russia? What does that mean for the U.S.?

RICE: It could have catastrophic results. There's no question about it, Wolf.

And, look, this is the -- one of the issues that we are seeing with the Trump administration is that, in their effort to "drain the swamp" and go against the establishment here in Washington, they basically did away with all the processes, right, the vetting that should be done before or as you put your cabinet together. So, people like Flynn, people like Puzder today who just withdraw his name from consideration from becoming secretary of labor, none of these people were vetted properly by the administration, to say nothing of the vetting that would have to take place in a public arena at their confirmation hearings.

So, this is one of the problems with Trump's kind of go it alone attitude. You know, for someone who claims to be such a great and successful businessman, he has not shown great managerial skills up to this point.

BLITZER: And as we report at the top of the hour, Flynn's security clearances have been suspended for now. Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us.

RICE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still ahead, the very latest on the breaking news. CNN has learned that high-level advisors to Donald Trump were in constant contact during the campaign with Russian intelligence officials and other Russian nationals well known to U.S. intelligence.

Also, surprising developments in the mysterious death of the North Korea leader Kim Jong-un's half[brother. A woman has now been arrested in what now is a case of suspected poisoning. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We are following multiple breaking stories this hour, including President Donald Trump's coming to the defense of Michael Flynn less than two days after asking for Flynn's resignation as the national security advisor.

[17:32:47] The president now says Flynn was treated, in the president's word, quote, "very unfairly" by the, quote, "fake media."

Let's bring in our experts. Dana, this whole notion of one day the White House says Flynn was fired because they lacked confidence in him, they lost trust in him. Today the president is saying he's a wonderful guy, and it's the fake media and the intelligence agencies for leaking, illegally leaking all this information that's to blame.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And that's just not true. It's just absolutely not true. We listened to the White House press secretary for the entirety of his press conference yesterday talk about the fact that the president and the vice- president lost trust in their national security advisor. That is why they asked for his resignation.

And, look, the fact of the matter is I'm reporting tonight with Jim Sciutto that the Defense Intelligence Agency has asked Michael Flynn -- has suspended his intelligence, excuse me, security clearance while they're investigating. That doesn't happen because of the fake media. That happens because there is concern about something that he did.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a huge deal.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: A guy like this, with his experience, having his security clearances even temporarily revoked...

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... suspended, that's a big deal.

The president in a tweet, Nia, he denied CNN's reporting. He called it conspiracy theories, but just an hour or so later he tweeted that, quote, "The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by," quote, "intelligence like candy." Is he undermining his own denial by then saying the intelligence is being leaked?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he is. I mean, there has really been no, you know, sustained denial from this White House, no sustained refutation of a lot of the leaks that are coming out. He's got no real strategy here. He has these talking points about leaks, which are similar to talking points that are being picked up by other Republicans and conservative outlets.

But again, I think this speaks to the disarray in this White House. There is no communications director. And this is -- I mean, in terms of the severity of what is coming out about this administration and possible ties to Russians during the campaign, people who worked around Donald Trump, having unusual number of contacts with people, Russian intelligence official. I mean, this is like DefCon, right, DefCon 10. And to see that their main response is tweets from Donald Trump, I think it speaks to their inability to get a story out and really push back in a significant way.

BLITZER: Can he be sure, Phil Mudd, that these leaks are coming from the intelligence community, which he continues to smear, or could they be coming from political aides, if you will?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I mean, are you kidding me? This guy has to read a book.

I joined government in 1985. Every president comes in office and says, "Wow, there's gambling in Vegas; and people in Washington, D.C., leak."

The second challenge you find when you determine that you get leaks like that is not all of them come from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the NSA, people you don't like. Some have come from within your own house, in this case the White House.

So I think one of the questions we have here is we've got a smoke screen. We have a national security advisor who had inappropriate conversations with the Russians and lied to his boss. And the blame goes on the National Security Agency? Are you kidding me?

Happens every year, every administration, Wolf. And I think this president is having a hard time accepting that.

BLITZER: And look at this tweet, Phil. Quote -- this is the president -- "Information is being illegally given to the failing 'New York Times' and 'Washington Post' by the intelligence community, NSA" -- that's the National Security Agency -- "and FBI." And then he adds these words. "Just like Russia."

Now, he's not comparing them to Nazi Germany, but he's saying just like Russia. That is a real smear, if you will.

MUDD: Sort of, but people like me who are inside the business, that have been inside the business for decades are transitioning, within 30 days of a president of the United States taking office, from paying attention and being offended by this stuff to realizing that this is the way life works every day and ignoring what the president says.

If you're at the CIA or you're at the FBI, you're listening to Mike Pompeo and Jim Comey and saying, "We have the president of the United States, who can't resist kicking us in the ass every day," so you stop paying attention.

Meanwhile, you've got North Korea popping missiles. You've got to figure out how Iran is dealing with nuclear sanctions. You've got to figure out what's going on with the Palestinians when they heard what the president said from the podium today with Netanyahu. You've got real business. So, I think people are going to start to say, "We're going to ignore this guy."

BLITZER: Yes, and when he -- when he accuses the NSA and the FBI of behaving, if you -- as you see, like Russia, that's not necessarily Nazi Germany as he did the other day, but it's still obviously very serious.

BASH: And remember, and Phil knows this better than anybody, they might be desensitized inside the intelligence community to tweets like this. But at the end of the day, the president needs these intelligence operatives...

HENDERSON: Yes.

BASH: ... to help him do things like what Phil was saying, with North Korea. I mean, this is -- we're talking about the safety and security of this country and the world. And they need to be -- find a way to work hand in glove and not for the intelligence community to simply ignore the commander in chief.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more information coming in. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:39] BLITZER: We're back with our political and counterterrorism experts. And Nia, the president, he dodged CNN reporters' questions today on his campaign staff's constant contact with Russian intelligence officials. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, are you going to answer any questions about your associates' contacts with the Russians during the campaign?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Can you make a comment on the reports that there was contact between your senior advisors and suspected Russian operatives during the president campaign, Mr. Trump? President Trump, no comment on that?

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: That sounds like the press in Israel.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It certainly is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Sara Murray and Jim Acosta asking those questions. How concerning is it that he doesn't answer these kinds of questions, and they certainly were not raised at the news conference?

HENDERSON: It's concerning that he isn't answering them. And I think it's concerning for this president, in the long term, that his team around him is clearly shielding him from these questions. I mean, they are essentially giving questions to conservative outlets in these press conferences, and they're not asking the questions of the day, the questions that are challenging for him, around Flynn, around Russia.

I think they think they are -- they're certainly shielding him, but in the long run, he's at some point got to answer these questions. And this notion that he can just talk about it on Twitter, and that's enough for him to address it, I think it's going to be hard to sustain that.

And guess what's going to happen? There are going to be more and more leaks. I mean, that's one of the reasons that the leaks are coming out, right, because this White House hasn't been that transparent in terms of what was going on inside the White House with Flynn and then previously with this candidate Trump and Russians.

So, you're going to see more of these leaks in all the major papers, on CNN's airwaves. And good for Jim and Sara for being great reporters and asking him.

BLITZER: A question for Phil Mudd, because you're an expert in these areas. Dana Bash and Jim Sciutto at the top of the hour, they broke the news that Michael Flynn's security clearances have now been suspended as the investigation goes forward. What are investigators looking for, and is that a big deal or a little deal that his security clearances have been suspended?

MUDD: First of all, they're looking for discrepancies, and they're looking for differences between what happens, not only between what General Flynn said about the conversations with the Russians, but what other individuals might have said about their conversations months ago.

The other thing nobody is talking about, Wolf, is if you're in government, you have to make declarations about where your income comes from. Every year, I had to file a declaration about things like what stocks I held, what bank accounts I had. In this circumstance, you've got to ask the question, over the last year, anybody who had those conversations with the Russians, have you received sources of income that you haven't declared in your financial declarations when you got a security clearance?

Lastly, on your question of seriousness, this is a game, Wolf. And that game is the difference between the word "normal" and the word "common."

There is a rare circumstance when you have this level of investigation, you suspend somebody's security clearance. If you say it's normal, I would say, yes, in that very uncommon circumstance where you get that level of investigation, it's normal to suspend their clearance. That's not to say that that's common. I saw this very rarely in government.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You broke the news, Dana. What did your sources tell you?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That this was clearly something that the intelligence community, in this particular case, the Defense Intelligence Agency, which governed his security clearance since he's a retired general, thought that it was necessary. And then Jim Sciutto heard from the DIA that it was, as Phil said, kind of part of the process of an investigation. But the fact that he is being investigated is hardly normal.

BLITZER: Yes, he was once the head of the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Guys, stand by. Coming up, one of the very latest on the breaking news. CNN has learned that high-level advisors to Donald Trump were in constant contact during the campaign with Russian intelligence officials, Russian nationals known to the U.S. intelligence community.

Also, today's surprising new clues in the sudden death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's older half-brother.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:26] BLITZER: We're following disturbing new developments in the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's older half- brother. Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd, who's been doing some reporting on this.

Brian, I take it South Korea intelligence officials now suspect he was intentionally poisoned?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. Tonight, South Korean intelligence officials are telling CNN, they do indeed believe Kim Jong-nam was poisoned intentionally. They are calling this a murder, and they believe this was the work of two women.

Tonight, there are serious questions in this investigation over who those women are and who might have ordered them to do this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, two mysterious women are suspected in the murder of Kim Jong-un's older half-brother at Kuala Lumpur's airport. That's according to South Korean intelligence officials who tell CNN they believe Kim Jong-nam was poisoned. One woman carrying a Vietnamese travel document has been arrested.

It's not clear tonight if Kim Jong-un ordered the killing of his brother, but analysts say, even though the two brothers had never even met each other, Kim Jong-nam had previously been targeted by his brother's regime.

BRUCE KLINGNER, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW FOR NORTH EAST ASIA, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: There was a standing assassination order against Kim Jong-nam. In 2012, there was an attempt on his life. And in 2012, he sent a note to North Korea, intercepted by the South Koreans, where he was pleading for his life, pleading for this assassination order to be rescinded.

TODD (voice-over): In Kuala Lumpur, North Korean officials were sported, their vehicles seen at the mortuary where everyone is anxiously awaiting the results of an autopsy. North Korea has a long history of attempted assassinations of

political enemies.

MICHAEL GREEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR ASIA AND JAPAN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: They've always had a very lethal and well-trained covert operations arm.

TODD (voice-over): In 2011, a North Korean spy was caught trying to meet up with an outspoken defector in South Korea. He was carrying this poisoned needle pen. A South Korean intelligence official demonstrated it for CNN. To activate it, you twist it three to four times, then push the top part. He also had a pen that could shoot a poison bullet.

In this case, the target and the timing are under real scrutiny. Exiled for years, Kim Jong-nam had been living the life of a pleasure seeker, mostly in the Chinese gambling haven of Macau. He wasn't considered much of a threat to his younger brother except, experts say, maybe in Kim Jong-un's own mind.

If Kim Jong-un ordered this, what does it say about him and his paranoia?

GREEN: I mean, he's had an upbringing that none of us can possibly contemplate in that ruthless regime. He's largely isolated. He killed his uncle, and his aunt is essentially senile. He's rotated and moved out and executed generals and advisers.

KLINGNER: I think it really shows that Kim Jong-un feels threatened. He goes after anyone that who's either a real or even an imagined threat to his control of power.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, a key question tonight. If Kim Jong-un ordered this killing, what could the consequences be for him? Analysts say, internally, it could mean he'll face more high-level defections, or someone inside his regime could move against him.

Externally, they say this could place more pressure on the United States to place North Korea back on that list of countries that support terrorism. And that could mean more sanctions for Kim's regime, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, there also were resentments between the factions representing both these brothers, right?

TODD: Long simmering resentments, Wolf. Kim Jong-nam, for years, had been considered the natural heir to power because he was the oldest son. He and Kim Jong-un had the same father -- of course, that was Kim Jong-il -- but Kim Jong-un had a different mother.

[17:54:7] And Kim Jong-un's mother -- her name was Ko Yong-hui -- she is said to have been a Lady Macbeth type figure inside North Korea. Analysts say she positioned the young Kim Jong-un against his older brother, and that she was effective in convincing their father to push Kim Jong-nam out of favor. A lot of long simmering resentments for decades between two factions representing these two brothers.

BLITZER: Lots of intrigue, indeed. All right. Brian, good report. Thank you.

There's breaking news next, new details of the investigation into contacts between top Trump campaign aides and Russian officials. How were the communications intercepted?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:00:01] BLITZER: Happening now. Constant contact. Officials raise a disturbing red flag about President Trump's Russia connections.