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CNN blocked from a White House Gaggle; CNN's investigation into conversations between White House and top FBI officials about ongoing investigations on President Trump's associates' contact with Russian intelligence. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 14:00   ET

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


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news here on CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me. The breaking news is the fact that we have just learned here at CNN that CNN has been blocked from a White House gaggle.

A gaggle, essentially, informal gathering of reporters, print, radio, television coming together to be briefed, in this case, by the White House. The White House daily briefing not happening today. And traditionally, you've seen the pictures, lots of reporters are included in that.

This is so incredibly significant because this has never happened in this administration. Not only is CNN blocked, other organizations blocked, The New York Times, the LA Times and Politico. Apparently, the White House Correspondents Association is protesting.

And as we're getting more information, just a little of context, as we've been taking CPAC, this conservative conference, in Washington DC, we heard from the president this morning and he doubled down on his tweet from just a couple of days ago, essentially saying the media is the enemy of the American people. His chief strategist, this time yesterday, calling the media the opposition party over and over.

Let's talk through this. I have Sarah Murray first joining me, one of our White House correspondents. And so, Sarah Murray, why aren't we there?

SARAH MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is a great question, Brooke. We lined up. We were told there was a list ahead of time, which is sort of abnormal, but we put our name on the list. And then when we went to enter, I was blocked by a White House staffer who said we were not on the list for this gaggle today.

Now, normally, if you were going to do something like this, an extended gaggle off-camera, you would have one person from each news outlet. As you know, we have multiple people from CNN here every day. So, if you're going to do something beyond a pool, which is sort of the smallest group of reporters that then disseminates the information, you would have one person from every news outlet.

That is not what the White House was doing today. What the White House was doing was handpicking the outlets they wanted in for this briefing. So, Breitbart, the Washington Times, the One America news network, news outlets that may be the White House feels are more favorable were all allowed in whereas I was blocked from entering, Politico was blocked from entering, The New York Times, the LA Times, all of these news outlets were blocked from going to a gaggle.

And, Brooke, as you pointed out, on a normal day to day basis, this would be an on-camera, on-the-record briefing in the White House Briefing Room where any one of these news outlets would have a chance to be called on and to answer a question.

And it's pretty clear that that is not what the White House wanted to do today and they wanted to just collect maybe news outlets that would be more favorable, which I do have to say, I think it's kind of unfortunate, Brooke, because when you think about the list of priorities that the president was ticking through earlier today, he was talking about serious immigration matters at CPAC, he was talking about serious tax reform, serious health care matters, things that our viewer really care about. And when we go into those briefings, that's an opportunity to ask questions about any number of new stories of the day. And, today, it's clear they did not want CNN to be involved in that.

BALDWIN: This story that CNN broke about the FBI and the White House talking when they absolutely shouldn't have been because of this investigation, so we -- this is not OK. Go ahead, Sarah.

MURRAY: The other thing is, the White House is clearly incensed over this excellent CNN reporting about conversations between the White House Chief of Staff and senior officials in the FBI. In fact, senior administration officials held a gaggle here this morning for almost 45 minutes discussing it.

The odds that that story is not yet coming up again, that those Russian contacts are not yet coming up again are very slim and yet they've decided to exclude CNN, the news organization that broke that story from this gaggle, which is also, of course, disconcerting.

BALDWIN: Sarah Murray, don't go too far. I may come back to you. Let me bring in Jeff Mason, the President of the White House Correspondents Association, who I mentioned off the top there, protesting this whole thing.

This is not OK is what I keep hearing myself think when I'm just learning this. Like the rest of us, Jeff Mason, what did the White House tell you all? Why is this happening?

JEFF MASON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: Well, we're still getting information about that. They clearly wanted to have a gaggle that was not on camera and that was not the full press corps today.

We don't object to there being briefings like that that aren't always on camera, but we have encouraged them when they want to do something like that, which is a gaggle as you explained at the top, that they still do it in the press room and do it in a place where all reporters have a chance to ask questions. So, we've made that clear and we're going to continue to have discussions with them about that and we're not happy with how this happened today.

[14:05:00] BALDWIN: So, tell me a little bit more about what we know. So, Sarah mentioned some of the organizations who were allowed to attend the gaggle. Breitbart, Conservative Times, and I understand some organizations are boycotting, like they could've been part of the gaggle, but because of what the White House is doing, they didn't go.

MASON: Yes. I don't want to speak for other organizations. I like to speak for in the context right now is the Correspondents Association, Brooke. And as I said, we've been in touch with the White House for the last good hour about this and working to make sure that something like this does not happen again.

BALDWIN: OK. Jeff, let me keep you on the phone. I've got Dylan Byers sitting next to me. There are organizations who are boycotting this.

DYLAN BYERS, CNN SENIOR MEDIA AND POLITICS REPORTER: There are. What we have so far is the Associated Press and Time Magazine. We can imagine it happened -- Spicer held this gaggle, certain organizations were told they couldn't attend, certain media outlets, at least the Associated Press and Time, decided they weren't going to stand for that and then left the gaggle.

I have to say this is extraordinarily troubling. By the way, I understand every White House administration's frustration with the press. The press doesn't always get it right. I understand the strategic effort here to demonize the media and why that plays well with the president's base.

But when you get to the point where you are handpicking which media outlets get information from the White House, from the Press Secretary, from the spokesperson for the White House, that is extremely troubling, that does not speak of American democracy.

In fact, Peter Baker, veteran White House correspondent for The New York Times tweeted -- look, he covered the Clinton administration, Bush administration, Obama administration, he never remembers anything like this happening before.

BALDWIN: Brian Stelter is on the phone just as another voice to chime in. I think Dylan made an excellent point, Brian. And to his point, what are the -- if you're handpicking who you allow to get information from the White House, what are the broader ramifications of that?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, I'm here in Atlanta at a Media Law Conference, just ran back here to CNN Center. And one of the big concerns at that Media Law Conference is something like this: President Trump not just complaining about the press, but actually taking action, using the power of the presidency in various ways in order to quash coverage.

Now, this is a relatively small step in the grand scheme of things. He is not telling CNN to get out of the White House entirely. However, it's a very troubling first step that we're seeing from this administration.

I remember last summer interviewing now President Trump about this. Remember, during the campaign, he blacklisted certain news outlets, not allowing them to come to his rallies with press credentials.

I said to them in the interview, are you going to do that if your president? Are you going to blacklist reporters? Are you going to revoke White House press credentials? And he said absolutely not. I will not do that if I'm president.

Now, Brooke, he's not quite going that far today, but he sure is taking a step in that direction. So, that's one of the reasons why this is very troubling to journalists.

BALDWIN: Brian, standby. Jeff Zeleny is our senior White House correspondent. And Jeff is normally the one who is sitting there asking the questions to Sean Spicer. This is normally when we see him in the room.

If anything has expanded, which I -- by the way, I think it's a great thing. They brought in the Skype seats, local reporters and anchors across the country who never before had gotten an opportunity to talk to the White House in this manner, but now we learn, Jeff, this news that CNN was blocked in addition with other organizations, what do you make of this?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, I think that this is just a -- something that is the continuation of what this Trump presidency, this Trump administration, how it views the media. The president has long benefited from having an opponent.

For so many months, it was his republican rivals. And then it was Hillary Clinton, of course. And now, I was at the CPAC conference this morning. It's very clear that he now is following his chief strategist's advice, Steve Bannon, in making the media the opposition party here.

I think Brian is right in the sense that we not hyperventilate over this. Yes, it is unacceptable in every form to not be allowed into a briefing, but it is also not like people are being thrown out of the room at this point.

Interestingly, we're still getting to the bottom of this. Yesterday, at the end of the briefing, as I was sitting there in the room, Sean Spicer indicated that there may not be an on-camera briefing today. That was done -- a decision made long before our CNN latest reporting agitated this White House. It was largely going to be done, I was told, because they wanted the president's CPAC speech to sort of speak for itself.

And that is not all that unusual. There's not a press briefing every day. It happens most days. But if the president is holding a press conference or if he's giving a big speech, it is not required of them to have a briefing every day. But the White House clearly wants to get its point across on this FBI story that we've been doing, reporting on, and they clearly are upset at this. And these other news organizations are protesting because there was a blockage here, so this is -- we'll have to see how serious this goes if there are more ramifications from this.

[14:10:08] But, look, the White House does not mind this fight. That's what we should keep in mind. The White House, in some respects, the president wants this fight. It fires up his base to a large degree.

BALDWIN: The president today speaking at CPAC. This is when I mentioned a moment ago, right, he had tweeted a couple of days ago and then he doubled down on this notion that he thinks that the media is the enemy of the American people. Here he was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there were none. They are very dishonest people.

In fact, in covering my comments, the dishonest media did not explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people. The fake news. They dropped off the word fake. And all of a sudden, the story became the media is the enemy. They take the word fake out.

And now I'm saying, 'oh, no, this is no good.' But that's the way they are. So, I'm not against the media. I'm not against the press. I don't mind bad stories if I deserve them. And I love good stories.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: So, Dylan, let me just turn to you. Out of what the president said this morning and, listen, he's been saying this over and over, even before he became president. But, again, you look at the latest numbers, the CBS News Poll, the Quinnipiac poll on the president's approval versus disapproval, and it's approximately -- it's hovering around 38 percent approval. So, to me, the American people are speaking in terms of trust and distrust for the president.

BYERS: Right. And there's even a more significant number, which is, who do you trust more? Do you trust President Trump more or do you trust the media more? Among Republicans, the number is overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump. Everyone else, it's in favor of the media. It's 52 percent trust the media more than Donald Trump versus 37 percent of American voters trust Donald Trump more than the media.

When you start getting into Democrats, of course, younger voters, the numbers skyrocket in favor of the media. This is a winning strategy among the base. It is a losing strategy overall.

And I think to Jeff's point, it's absolutely right that we should not hyperventilate over this. We're still trying to figure out all the details of what happened. I have tried to get in touch with every single person in the White House Press Office that I can, not hearing anything back yet. We need all the details before we know exactly what happened here.

That said, if you look at the news outlets that were blocked, CNN, The New York Times, you're looking at news outlets that have had some of the most aggressive coverage of the Trump administration in recent days. It seems to me there's a reason that they were blocked. Again, that's really troubling.

BALDWIN: And on the flipside, you look at those who are allowed in, Brian Stelter, namely Breitbart and the conservative paper, The Washington Times, there's a theme.

STELTER: Yes. That's the essential point, I think. We've seen this administration stacking the deck with friendlier news outlets. And when I say friendlier, what I mean are news outlets that have a point of view, in some cases are openly rooting for the president.

We don't see CNN or The New York Times rooting for any president, whether a Democrat or Republican. But the Breitbarts of the world, they do root for a candidate and root for presidents. There's not anything necessarily wrong with that. It's a point-of-view form of journalism.

But what we've seen is this administration taking a lot of questions from conservative outlets, from friendlier outlets and that's a way of stacking the deck in order to have more favorable coverage.

I wanted to mention one of the outlets that wasn't invited into this briefing, to give our viewers some perspective. CNN right now has about 1 million people watching, sometimes more, sometimes less.

OANN, One America News, one of the channels brought into this briefing, is so small it doesn't have Nielsen ratings. And yet, the White House is giving it a lot of access because it views it as a friendlier outlet. So, that's an example of the sort of imbalance.

When we talk about The New York Times and the CNNs of the world, you might think they're biased, you might think they're not fair, but they are among the biggest news outlets in the country. And that's why all administrations, whether Clinton, Bush or Obama, would allow that kind of access to the big news outlets that cover every White House.

That's why we didn't see President Bush take this kind of action or before him President HW Bush or President Reagan. They recognize the importance of reaching big news outlets and speaking with those journalists that speak on behalf of the public.

So, that's the challenge here. We're seeing a norm not among Democrats or Republicans. This is bipartisan in the past, fair treatment of a variety of news organizations. And President Trump is challenging that by blocking these new outlets today.

BYERS: To Brian's point, if I may, if we just pull back here, if we get past sort of the media's frustrations with the Trump administration and vice versa, what we're looking at actually is we're looking at the White House Press Corps trying to fight for the notion that we've lived with for most of the 20th century, which was a common narrative, an understanding that there were certain news outlets that were tasked with covering the most important office in the land and that they would do so responsibly and effectively.

[14:15:18] This administration is starting to chip away at that. Whatever happened in the briefing today, there is a reason that Time, there is a reason that the Associated Press boycotted a gaggle that they were invited to and it's because they saw something happening there, they saw an administration trying to shift the narrative in its favor by blocking certain media outlets that have no other goal than reporting the truth without fear or favor.

Again, it's just -- it's really troubling and I hope when we do learn everything about what happened in that briefing room that there is some reasonable excuse for why this happened.

BALDWIN: Speaking of learning more, let me now quickly go back to Jeff Zeleny, our senior White House correspondent, who has something new. Jeff, what did you just learn?

ZELENY: Well, Brooke, I'm hearing from our -- one of our White House producers Kevin Liptak and he is talking to or hearing from reporters who are inside that gaggle with Sean Spicer -- let me relay this to you.

He said that Sean Spicer is telling reporters inside his office in this gaggle, as we call it, basically an off-camera briefing, that originally this event was supposed to be for pool coverage only.

Let me just sort of explain in layman's terms what that means. That means a smaller group of reporters. So, there'd be one organization, one print reporter, one radio reporter, a wire service reporter et cetera. And he said he expanded it as he saw fit, meaning he invited these other news organizations that Brian and Dylan have been talking about, generally conservative leaning news organizations he invited in and did not invite the rest of the people.

And this is one of the issues that happens when you don't have a come- one, come-all briefing in the press room. And so, Sean Spicer is apparently talking about this in this small gaggle right now and we will get more information on this.

I just heard from someone else in the communications operation at the White House that their intent was not to exclude people. So, at least that is one person's explanation, but it excludes people they indeed have.

So, Dylan's right, we have to learn more about this. But, again, this is something that the White House does not see a problem with this. We've seen throughout the course of this week the administration is fine with picking these fights because it's -- it, A, is a distraction for them and, B, it does indeed fire up some of their base.

Most people -- most supporters of the president do not mind if CNN and others are blocked from this briefing. They believe that it makes us sound like we're whining about this. We indeed on a beautiful day here in Washington have other things to do, but we are there to ask questions on behalf of the American people and report this.

So, that's a little bit of context here. But, again, let's wait until all this unfolds. This is happening in real time here and let's get back to you when we know more on this, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. Jeff Zeleny, thank you. I've got the other Jeff still on the phone. Jeff Mason, President of White House Correspondents Association. So, Jeff Mason, I just want your reaction to Zeleny's reporting that the White House was saying this was a pool report, they did not mean to exclude people, that they don't see a problem with this. Your response to that?

MASON: Well, I like being the other Jeff first of all. And second of all, I would say that we're -- I would encourage everyone not to rush to conclusions about how this happened today. We're getting information. We have passed on our sense of protest about how it was done. And I think it's in everyone's interest to be sure that something like having reporters excluded doesn't happen again.

But I think for context for your viewers, it is important to note that there is some precedence for doing briefings just to a pool. On Air Force One, for example, there is just a pool on the plane that is briefed by the press secretary or White House officials or even the president. And then that information is shared with the rest of the press corps.

In this case, because it's at the White House and it's not a working day when many other people in the press corps are available, we encourage them to make any kind of briefing they have, be it what we call a gaggle or a regular televised briefing to be open to the whole press corps. That's what we did today and that's what will continue to do.

BALDWIN: All right, Jeff Mason. Thank you. And, of course, to our Jeff Zeleny, Don and Brian. As soon as we get more developments, just hop on, and we will relay that along to the audience.

Meantime, coming up next, we'll talk about CNN's exclusive reporting we were alluding to in the context of that story about these conversations between the White House and the FBI over this ongoing investigation. I'm Brooke Baldwin. This is CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:23:56] BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. President Trump is once again slamming the intelligence community, but this time he's focusing in on the FBI. His criticism comes after CNN first reported that the FBI rejected a request from the White House to publicly refute media reports about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

So, Pamela Brown is working this for us. She's one of our justice correspondents, part of the team that broke this exclusive story wide open. So, Pamela, what have you learned? PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We've learned a few things here, Brooke. The irony of the president going after the FBI for leaks today is that the White House actually held a background briefing with reporters, meaning officials from the White House asking reporters not to be named, but relaying information.

And what the senior administration officials told reporters during this impromptu meeting that happened this morning in response to our exclusive reporting that the FBI refused a White House request to knock down stories about Trump's associates contacts with Russians during the campaign.

What they said in response to that is basically no one did anything wrong, that the White House didn't do anything wrong, the White House officials acted appropriately in asking the FBI to publicly knock down the reports because the FBI's Deputy Director Andy McCabe was the first to make contact about it asking for a five minute one-on-one last week with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to say the coverage was inaccurate.

[14:25:22] And at that point, administration officials say, Priebus asked what could be done. And these officials say that after that Priebus spoke by phone with both McCabe and FBI Director James Comey and the FBI declined to speak publicly because "the FBI could not get into the position of making statements on every story."

But adding to this drama, Brooke, administration officials say Director Comey gave the OK to Priebus to go out and say 'top intelligence officials say The New York Times report was untrue.' The FBI has declined to comment. Brooke?

BALDWIN: How unusual is just even the interaction given the fact that this investigation is going on, just even for the FBI and the White House to be talking about this?

BROWN: It's very unusual. The communication between the White House and the FBI is supposed to be restricted because of a decade old restriction on such contacts specifically laid out of these two Department of Justice memos.

So, if McCabe, the Deputy Director of the FBI, said this to the White House, he may have overstepped since it is an ongoing investigation, as you point out, not to mention an investigation involving the president's associates in Russia.

A US official says, McCabe did not discuss aspects of the case, but wouldn't say exactly what he told Priebus. And the request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations.

Now, of course, the White House says, it wasn't asking about the investigation. It was asking about The New York Times article, but that article was all about this ongoing investigation that's happening, as we speak, in the FBI's counterintelligence division, looking at Donald Trump's associates' contacts with Russians during the campaign. BALDWIN: Got it, got it. Pamela Brown, thank you so much. Excellent reporting from your crew there in Washington. Let's broaden this out. I've got Larry Noble with me. He's the General Counsel for the Campaign Legal Center and former General Counsel for the Federal Election Commission.

Also, joining me, James Gagliano, former FBI Special Agent who served as Chief of Staff for the Assistant Director of the FBI's New York office who also had FBI Deputy Director McCabe working for him here in New York in the mid-90s.

So, gentlemen, welcome to both of you. James, I want to, of course, ask you about Mr. McCabe in just a second. But, first, just so we're all on the same page, based upon what Pamela just said, since this investigation is ongoing, her word was supposed to be restricted. Any kind of communication between the White House and FBI, that communication never should have happened. Correct?

JAMES GAGLIANO, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Well, I mean, there are gray areas. In most instances, if there's investigation on the president of the United States, the FBI falls into the Department of Justice, which essentially is a part of the executive branch. Communications with the White House go through the Counsel for the White House. They don't go directly to the president. Oftentimes, it would go to the vice president.

In this instance, my understanding is what some of the communications were about between the Chief of Staff for the White House and with Deputy Director McCabe involved The New York Times article which the White House pushed back on and said, hey, listen, it's not being sourced correctly and we want to give our opinion on that and can you change the optics. The FBI is not in the optics business.

So, I'm certain, knowing Andy McCabe for 20-plus years, he's a straight shooter. I'm sure he pushed back to the Chief of Staff and said, respectfully speaking, sir, that's not our business.

BALDWIN: But to Pamela's point, they should never have been talking about the investigation. And if they're saying they were talking about the article, but the article was all about the investigation, therefore, they were kind of talking about the investigation.

GAGLIANO: Sure. But you also understand that the FBI Director goes to the Oval Office, if not daily, at least a few times weekly to brief the president on things. If he doesn't go, the Deputy Director goes.

So, when you're in the West Wing and you happen to be passing somebody in the hallways, as this impromptu meeting has been characterized, I don't think it's outside the realm of responsible behavior to have a conversation, say, sir, we can't get into that.

BALDWIN: OK. I want to come back to you on Deputy Director McCabe and did he overstep or not.

Larry, let me just ask you. Because the president has tweeted about this; and in tweeting about it sort of acknowledging that it happened, but comes down on the leaks.

He tweets: "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security "leakers" that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on the US."

So, he's fixating, Larry -- I want you to just respond to the fact that what he's fixating on is the leak.

LARRY NOBLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right. And that's wrong thing for him to be fixating on. Obviously, the president does have a concern if there are leaks going on and every president has had concerns about leaks out of the White House or out of other agencies. But that is not the problem. The problem is that the White House asked the FBI to make a statement about an ongoing investigation.