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Trump to Announce New Labor Nominee; New Labor Nominee Name Released; Investigation into Leaks; Trump Campaign Russian Contacts. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 16, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:25] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.


It is yet another whirlwind day at the Trump White House where just minutes from now President Trump is set to announce his second nominee for secretary of the Department of Labor. This was supposed to be the day Mr. Trump's first pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, finally sat for a Senate confirmation hearing. But as you likely know, Puzder pulled out over a series of controversies that had turned even quite a few Republican senators against him.

BLITZER: This will be the president's second appearance before the White House press corps in two days. And it was announced just barely an hour or so ago.

Joining us now, CNN's special -- for CNN's special live coverage, our White House correspondent Athena Jones and our political director David Chalian.

Athena, set the scene for us. The president's going to come out into the East Room of the White House, I take it, and make his announcement who his nominee for secretary of labor will be. Will he then answer reporters' questions?


I think that is the question of the day. Not only will the president answer reporters' questions, but whose questions might he answer if he does choose to answer some questions. We've seen in recent weeks, in the last several appearances before the press, that the president has selected a conservative or right-leaning outlets to ask him questions and, in that way, has avoided some of the questions of the day, whether it was on his now former national security adviser Michael Flynn, or on this issue of the ties or the repeated conversations that high level trump campaign aides and associates had with people known to Russian -- known to American intelligence, these suspected Russian operatives. So the question is, will he get questions on that?

We did hear him talk about what the White House has been choosing to focus on, which is the leaks of that information. He said again this morning in a spray (ph) we just saw. He said, "we are going to find the leakers. They are going to pay a very big price." So it's clear he has something to say on it, but he's chosen to focus on the leak aspect and not on the substance of those leaks.


BLITZER: And, Athena, this news conference scheduled for right at the bottom of the hour. They're calling it a news conference, not just an announcement. He will introduce his nominee for secretary of labor. Presumably we'll hear from that nominee as well, right?

JONES: That's generally how these things work. That's what we expect to happen. Sometimes things are called a news conference. It doesn't necessarily mean it will be more than a statement, but we certainly hope there will be more than just the president introducing this nominee. I believe he called him a man in that -- in that pool spray (ph) that we saw just now in the West Wing. So hopefully he'll not only announce that nominee, have that nominee talk, but then perhaps answer who knows how many questions, if any.


BLITZER: All right, we'll stand by with you, Athena.

David Chalian, this is unusual. Usually there's just a paper statement that the White House does when they issue some sort of nomination, but this is a much bigger deal right now.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, I mean, we've seen him roll out some of his nominees standing next to the person throughout the transition period, but not all of them. You're right, a lot of them were paper statements despite the very public sort of dating process when he would do the interviews of potential nominees.

What I think is interesting to note here is how quickly the White House is trying to move here. And, obviously, they have been battling a week of just terrible headlines from Flynn to the reporting about the constant contacts of campaign associates with Russians, to Puzder's nomination going down in flames and withdrawing that nomination. Clearly trying to reverse course here, get back on track and get out.

Now, I do think there's one question important here is, how long is this person, since the Puzder nomination just went down yesterday, this person that he's going to roll out, what has the vetting process been like? I mean part of the problem with the Puzder nomination was perhaps the vetting was not completely thorough. A lot of things emerged after the nomination was announced whether about his issue with taxes, paying payroll taxes on a household employee, issues with his ex-wife and the allegations there that she later recanted and her appearance on the "Oprah" show. And so the question here is, you know, are they doing this almost too quickly or has this been a process that's been ongoing even -- and perhaps they saw the writing on the wall with the Puzder nomination and they had this teed up and a fully vetted person that they plan to unveil today? BLITZER: We're going to get back to you, David Chalian, Athena Jones

over at the White House as well.

And, Jake, he makes -- he makes an excellent point. This person who is about to be nominated to become secretary of labor, the vetting process must have been going on for weeks presumably. It takes -- it takes a while to get someone ready for this. So they must have had someone in the wings, as they say.

TAPPER: Well, keep in mind also, and we'll talk about this with our panel, but when they come up with their picks for these various cabinet positions, it's often they have a list of three or four more individuals and there might be vetting of several of them before President Trump ultimately makes his pick.

In addition, the Puzder nomination has been in trouble for quite some time. He, a few weeks ago, was talking about not even wanting to go through the confirmation process and there were rumblings about that. In addition, it was last week or the week before, I believe, when two Republicans came out, including Johnny Isakson, who is certainly not somebody who normally expresses concern about Republican cabinet nominees, Johnny Isakson talking about how he was waiting to make up his mind. And so I mean I think the writing has been on the wall for some time that this nomination has been in trouble.

Let's talk about it more with our panel.

And, John, we don't know yet who he's going to pick, but there is one community that has been very forceful and outspoken in terms of the fact that there have been no Latino nominees for this cabinet. And it would -- I think it's the first cabinet in decades without any representation for the fastest growing minority population in the country. So this would theoretically be an opportunity to fix that.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And let me say, I'm waiting. We have a process here to clear reporting, so I'm waiting to have some reporting cleared, so I can't get as specific as I'd like to be, but --

TAPPER: Although you -- although from what I just said, you know that I have an idea of what you're about to report.

KING: I believe your question -- I believe your question is about to be answered. And to the vetting question, the gentlemen I'm told, and we're waiting for the sourcing to be cleared, because we're cautious here, that's what we need to be about such reporting, is that the gentleman has served in a prior administration, the George w. Bush administration. So, a, you have some vetting that's already been done in certain (ph) sensitive (ph) positions but --

BLITZER: All right -- All right, hold your thought for a moment because Jim Acosta is over at the White House. I believe he's got some breaking news.


We have been able to confirm at CNN that Alexander Acosta, the former U.S. attorney from Miami, will be the next labor secretary, if his nomination goes through. He is the pick for President Trump after Andy Puzder withdrew his name from consideration yesterday. And just as an aside, no relation. But we are expecting the president to announce that here in just a few moments here in the East Room of the White House.

This is very surprising, as you know, Wolf, because we were just here 24 hours ago trying to ask the president about these stories that have been in the news lately about his national security adviser Michael Flynn stepping down, about our reporting about constant Russian contacts that were made by people in his campaign, advisers and associates to him during the campaign. And so we'll see if he's going to take that question as well. We understand that he may be taking questions when he comes out here. But as you saw earlier this morning, Wolf, things happen pretty fast over here at the White House these days.

One thing that we should point out that was mentioned by the president when he was sitting down with Republican members of Congress earlier this morning, when he announced that he was holding this news conference, he issued a warning to people who were leaking information to the press in the federal government. He said that he is going to -- that we're going to come after you, essentially is what he said, in that spray with those members of Congress.

Wolf, that is a very, very stern warning from the president of the United States and a reflection of just how frustrated he is with all the leaks coming out of his administration right now.

BLITZER: Set the scene for where you are in the East Room. Reporters are there. I assume they're all getting ready and they're hoping to be able to ask the president of the United States a question.

ACOSTA: That's right. And as you'll recall, and perhaps, you know, this generated some talk here in Washington. Over the last three news conferences, the president has only selected members from the conservative news media. And that process has served to shield the president to some extent from questions that have been in the news as of late. And so we're going to see whether or not the president decides to deviate from that strategy that has been hatched here at the White House.

Obviously some of the reporters who have been asking questions lately are good reporters, come from good, journalistic backgrounds. But typically what we see when folks from the conservative media ask these sorts of questions, they may not be exactly the same kinds of questions that we would ask. And so we're hoping, Wolf, that we'll get that opportunity at this news conference to ask about this Russia story that has just mushroomed in recent days, resulted in the firing of his national security adviser Michael Flynn. The question, wolf, is just how many questions he'll take, who he'll call on and we'll, of course, all be watching that. BLITZER: We'll stand by for that. Jim Acosta, no relation to Alexander

Acosta, who's about to be nominated by the president of the United States to become the next secretary of labor. He's the dean of the Florida International University College of Law.

TAPPER: That's right. And Ana Navarro, CNN contributor, Republican from Florida, has been saying that she knows him. He's squeaky clean. He has an excellent reputation. Somebody that, obviously, the Trump administration would like an easy confirmation process.

KING: Has served previously on the National Labor Relations Board. So he does have some experience in this environment. Was a clerk for Judge Alito, now Justice Alito, when Judge Alito was on the appeals court. So he has good conservative credentials coming forward. To your point, will calm the complaints from the Latino community that you have a cabinet without a Latino member. And I think to Ana's point, the president, clearly, after a very bumpy ride, a very disappointing and a very embarrassing, actually, ride for the White House in not being able to get Andy Puzder through. They want this one to go through quickly.

TAPPER: And, Nia-Malika, I mean one of the reasons I think we're seeing such an immediate announcement from President Trump -- we didn't know that this press conference was even going to happen --


TAPPER: Is a desire to change the narrative. The narrative being this was a big defeat to have Republicans defecting and saying we're not going to confirm Andy Puzder to be your secretary of labor. And not just the more moderate Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine, but very conservative Republicans saying we're not going to do this.


TAPPER: We're not going to walk this bridge for you. A desire by President Trump to change the subject.

HENDERSON: And he will immediately. I mean all of a sudden what was a very, I think, negative mark on his presidency with Andrew Puzder having to withdraw, and as you reported early on, John King, he was having second thoughts. And the Trump administration wanted him to hang in there and then those very embarrassing revelations around his marriage came out. The -- his ex-wife, of course, retracted some of those allegations. But he's able to change the subject here with this review. He'll allay some of the real concerns that people have from the Latino communities about a not very diverse cabinet. So he adds diversity to that.

And this is, I think, in some ways a skill that this president has. He's sometimes able to change the subject pretty quickly. He's trying to do that with the leaks as well, focus on the leaks -- the leakers and not the leaks. But I think this will be effective and certainly please a wide array of folks who want to see some progress and a real win come out of this White House. BLITZER: All right, guys, everybody stand by. We're waiting for the

president of the United States. He's about to make his announcement on his new secretary of labor nominee. Expected to nominate Alexander Acosta from Florida to be that nominee. Will he also address other issues, including the latest controversy surrounding ties to Russia?

Much more of our special coverage right after this.


[12:17:13] BLITZER: Any minute now, President Donald Trump expected to announce his pick for labor secretary of the United States. We have learned his new pick is Alexander Acosta from Florida. He's the dean at the law school of the Florida International College. We're going to bring you the announcement, the comments, see if the president takes questions from reporters.

All that coming up, Jake, but there's other important news we're following as well.

TAPPER: That's right, to the departure of President Trump's national security adviser after just 23 days on the job. At least two Republican congressmen are now calling for a formal investigation into whether classified information was compromised when General Flynn spoke to the Russian official and that information was shared with reporters. A few minutes ago, the speaker of the House agreed with that idea.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: If classified information is being leaked, that is criminal. And so I think there should be an investigation as to the leaks of information leaving, wherever they're coming from. And if it's classified information, that is criminal, and there should be a criminal investigation to these leaks. That does compromise our national security.


TAPPER: With us now, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and senior congressional reporter Manu Raju.

And, Barbara, let me start with you.

This -- the president and Speaker Ryan sound very serious about focusing attention, the attention of the government, on the leaks and not necessarily the subject of the leaks. And that, of course, being whether or not there was inappropriate contact and communication between members of the Trump White House and the Trump transition team and the Trump campaign with individuals in Russia who are known to U.S. intelligence.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Jake. And at this point it's hard to see a way ahead in which there is not a full investigation because, as Manu will tell you in a minute, I'm sure, there are now Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill calling for a much deeper look into this. And, in fact, a short time ago, the House Oversight Committee, led by Republican Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who is -- has led many an investigation against the Democrats, they have sent a letter to Mike Flynn's speaker's bureau. They want all the documents about who paid. Which Russian entities might have paid Mike Flynn for some of his appearances and speeches in Russia, especially that 2015 dinner in Moscow when he was seen seated next to Vladimir Putin. All of this, of course, before he joined the Trump administration. But it's an indication that across Washington there is an effort now to investigate the leaks, but there are Republicans and Democrats who are very much saying that it does need to go further.

And, of course, what we are also waiting to hear, if the president speaks about, is the notion that he will ask one of his personal friends in the New York financial and investment community to head up a full investigation to review the intelligence community agencies and how they are operating. He may find that very problematic to do because under statute, it is the director of national intelligence who has the authority to do that. So I think there are a lot of balls in the air for President Trump on this one and he's going to have to figure out how to deal with them and Congress is figuring out which ones it wants to focus on as well.

[12:20:28] TAPPER: And, Manu Raju, on Capitol Hill, do you think that the tide is turning, that more Republicans are starting to appreciate that what the leakers were leaking about the alleged ties, conversations, communications between team Trump and individuals in Russia known to U.S. intelligence, that that might be more interesting to the American people, more important to the American people than who did the leaking? Is that changing at all?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: You know, that's from the Senate side, I am hearing that, Jake. You're hearing, actually, a bit of a disagreement between Senate Republicans and House Republicans about how to move forward on this investigation. I had a chance to talk to Senator Richard Burr, the Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, this morning and I asked him, are you going to use the senate Intelligence Committee to look into the leak, the leakers, and whether they broke any law? And he said no. He said that actually he believes that the Justice Department, the FBI, the White House, that's their purview. That is not his purview. They want to look more into the Russia meddling of the elections, as well as the ties between Flynn, Michael Flynn, and the Russia ambassador, those contacts. He said that they had requested transcripts between Flynn and the ambassador as well. They're waiting to see those transcripts.

But on the House side, a bit of a different approach. Paul Ryan, as you just heard, calling for an investigation into the leaks and also saying that the House Intelligence Committee should look into the leaks. He made that very clear that he believes it is within the House's pursue. And the chairman of that committee, Devin Nunes, has expressed concern about going after the communications between Trump and Flynn over the Russian ambassador context because he believes that could violate executive privilege. And also Pete King, who -- the congressman from New York who sits on the committee, telling reporters earlier today that he believes getting those transcripts could be a bad precedent for Congress to set in violating communications between the White House and some foreign entities.

So a lot of disagreement within Republicans about how far to go and certainly some disagreements between Senate Republicans and House Republicans.

TAPPER: Manu Raju and Barbara Starr, thanks so much.

BLITZER: You know, let's get Pamela Brown, who covers the Justice Department, into this conversation.

What your hearing from your sources over there on the investigation that presumably is ongoing right now into this phone conversation that the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had with the Russian ambassador to the United States?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So we've heard at this point that the FBI does not plan to press any charges against Michael Flynn, who was, of course, as we know, the embattled former national security adviser to President Trump. In the FBI's view, he wasn't lying to them in the interview. He was a little nebulous on some topics, we're told through our sources, but the FBI does not believe that he was, in fact, lying and they don't plan to press charges for this particular phone conversation.

However, there is this broader probe that Michael Flynn is part of. And right now the FBI is looking at the conversations that he had with Russians during the campaign. What those conversations consisted of, the motive, the why, along with other Trump aides, as we reported a couple days ago, along with my colleagues Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez. There were these constant communications between people surrounding Trump during the campaign, including Manafort, as we know, the former campaign chairman, and others in his campaign and Russians that were known to U.S. intelligence. And so at this point, no conclusion has been reached in terms of the why. Why these conversations were ongoing.

But, of course, the big answer -- the big question that investigators still have is whether there could have been anything -- anything in the works in terms of them knowing that the Russians had this stolen e-mails from the DNC and from Clinton's campaign chairman. Whether, you know, there was any sort of collusion. At this point, there's nothing to indicate that, no evidence to prove that, but it's still an open question.

BLITZER: But it's a full-scale investigation that's going on.

BROWN: It's a full-scale investigation.

BLITZER: And in the meantime, very significantly, at least I think, the defense intelligence agency, which Flynn used to run, has suspended his clearances, his ability to access classified information. Their security clearances --

BROWN: Right.

BLITZER: At least for the time being have been suspended. BROWN: And, of course, you know, they say that this is administrate.

This is -- this is protocol. This is what we do. But the key is, is its pending review of any wrongdoing. And so clearly this is still very much under the microscope. What will be interesting to see is whether the Department of Justice answers the calls from members of Congress for the transcript of the call between the Russian ambassador and Michael Flynn. The Department of Justice could say, we're not going to hand this over to you because we have an open, active investigation. This is law enforcement sensitive because of the broader probe that I just mentioned earlier. So it -- we'll have to wait and see what happens.

[12:25:12] BLITZER: All right, everybody standby. We're only minutes away from the president of the United States, Donald Trump, making a major announcement about his new pick to become the next secretary of labor. We just learned that pick is Alexander Acosta. He will be in the East Room for that announcement. We're going to bring you the announcement and see if the president takes questions from reporters who are there on the scene.

Our special coverage continues right after this.


BLITZER: We're waiting, we're watching for President Donald Trump. At any moment now he's expected to formally announce that Alexander Acosta will be his pick to become the next secretary of labor. We'll have his statement. Acosta, Jake, we're told, is there with him as well. Presumably he'll make a statement at the same time and then we'll see if the president answers questions.

[12:30:00] TAPPER: Let's bring in CNN's senior economics analyst Steve Moore now. He was the former senior economic adviser for the Trump campaign. He joins us now from Columbia, South Carolina. Also with us, CNN's senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who is live in the East Room.