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GOP Concerned By Trump's Unwillingness To Embrace Plan; Trump To Call For 10 Percent Increase In Military Spending; Bush On Travel Ban: I'm For Policy That's "Welcoming"; Pentagon Sends ISIS Options To White House; Rep. Devin Nunes Speaks to Press on Russian Investigation. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 27, 2017 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: 24 hours before the president delivers a prime time address to Congress, a possible showdown now between Republican leadership and this president. Why? Obamacare.

CNN now that learning leaders are growing increasingly concerned that Republicans and the Republican president are not on the same page and time is running out.

Moments ago, President Trump met with governors, our nation's governors and talked about Obamacare's fate. Listen here.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I say to the Republicans, if you really want to do politically something good, don't do anything. Sit back for a period of two years, because '17 is going to be a disaster, a disaster for Obamacare if we don't do something. Let it be a disaster.

Because we can blame that on the Dems that are in our room and we can blame that on the Democrats and President Obama. Let it implode and then let it implode in '18 even worse. Don't do anything and they will come begging for us to do something. But that's not the fair thing to do for the people. Not the fair thing.


KEILAR: All right. With that, let's go to CNN White House correspondent, Sara Murray, who, of course, is at the White House. Sara, you've good the president talking to governors, meeting with health care CEOs, meeting with top Republicans on Capitol Hill, and this is a huge topic. But what more are we learning about the fate of Obamacare?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, in this meeting with GOP leaders later today, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that's going to be an important meeting because while they're going to go in to get a flavor for what the president is going to say in his joint address to Congress tomorrow night, they're also going in with an agenda.

And that's to impress upon the president that they want to see him really go out and really pitch, and sell the health care repeal and replace plan that the House Republicans have been working on.

Now we know the president's aides have been back channeling with Speaker Ryan's office and they've been working together on the steps of this plan, but we really haven't seen the president himself come out and deliver specifics on how he wants to repeal and replace Obamacare.

And not only sell the plan but also provide air cover to these members who are going to have to vote on it. Kate, you have seen what is going on at town halls when members are back when they were on recess last week and went back to their districts.

And so what I think the two Republican leaders are really going to try to impress upon him is the importance of him being out there and being the face of this, and the fact that if he doesn't do this, this plan could really be in jeopardy.

KEILAR: So this also comes, Sara -- this is a huge week for the president. We're also getting a first look at the president's budget priorities, his budget outline. It sounds like it's all coming down to two words, one word, security or national security. What are you hearing?

MURRAY: That's absolutely right. Budget officials held a call with reporters on background this morning and laid out what is a really large increase in defense spending, a 10 percent increase in defense spending. Now Kate, remember, this is a man who ran on saying he was going to cut the budget. That he was going to change the trajectory of the debt.

And so in order to do something like that, to have a 10 percent increase in defense spending, you need to offset it with really big cuts elsewhere. Now officials we're not very forthcoming today with where those cuts would come from.

They said most federal agencies will probably experience some kind of cut, but there would be cuts to foreign aid, but that is a very large chunk of money. It's something you certainly can't just make up with foreign aid unless you were potentially eliminating it entirely. And that could be a big hit to these agencies. Remember, Kate, this is just the first volley in a budget process.

KEILAR: Right.

MURRAY: The president will put out his budget at some point. This is kind of a preliminary look, and from there it has to actually be passed and approved. They're doing it in an interesting way, though. They're going to the agency heads first to sort of begin to look for cuts and changes within the agencies. We'll see how that process works. Remember, the first time that President Trump is doing this budget so it will be interesting to watch.

KEILAR: And also the very first step in a very long budgetary process, if they even do pass a budget. We'll see. That's of course the goal for the end product. Great to see you, Sara. Thank you so much. A lot going out at the White House. We'll be getting back to that in a second.

But joining me right now is CNN's senior political analyst and senior editor of "The Atlantic," Ron Brownstein, and CNN's political director, David Chalian as well. Gentlemen, happy Monday.

So David, as Sara was laying out, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, they are heading to the White House today. The president is speaking to governors and health care CEOs, but when it comes to this meeting between Republican leaders and the president, it sounds like something of a come to Jesus moment over the future of Obamacare.

What do they need to do to convince -- what do they want to need to convince the president of right now?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I think it's more that they need to draw something out of the president, not necessarily convince him of something. I think these leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, need to leave that meeting with a clear understanding of how the president wants to point Congress in what direction on repeal and replace.

They clearly, as Sara, was just telling you, draw out of him a commitment to selling wherever they land. But I think most importantly, right now it's been sort of the House and the Senate, each in their own corners, doing their own thing, there have been some conversations as you know with White House staff.

[11:05:05]But we haven't had that sort of presidential leadership moment yet. Tomorrow night, obviously the big opportunity to sort of set the course. Here is where I want the Congress to go on repeal and replace. This is what I want on my desk by x date to sign.

And I think that kind of clarity is really what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell hope to emerge from the oval office with.

KEILAR: But Ron, this is a president that has no shortage of opinions on big issues that he cares about. Why do you think that the Republican leaders have gotten to the point where they're concerned that he hasn't gotten on the same page with them, that they need to draw something out of him, and that it's crunch time?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Because it is crunch time, because of the fundamental contradiction in the contrast between what Republicans want to do on health care and the nature of their new coalition. I think the core problem they have, 20 million people got coverage under Obamacare, not all of them, surprisingly, are Democrats.

And if you look at all of the states in the Midwest that tipped this election, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, most of the people who gained coverage under the ACA were blue collar whites, non- college whites, who are the core of the Republican coalition, the Trump coalition that won those states.

And all of the ideas that Republicans are looking at to lower cost essentially have the effect of shifting cost from younger, healthier people, who are paying more now under Obamacare toward older people with greater health needs, which are the core of their coalition, the majority of Donald Trump's votes came from whites over 45.

Sixty percent of the House Republicans represent districts that are older than the median age nationally and the problem they've got, I think many people in the White House recognize is that many of these reforms will impose costs on their own voters. They're trying to find a way to square that circle. It is simply not easy to do.

CHALIAN: Kate, I'll add, it's not just a political or demographic problem. It is a policy problem for them as well, because Kellyanne Conway, for instance, the White House counselor, has said on the record, anybody who got coverage under Obamacare is going to be able to keep coverage. And that just becomes an impossibility from a policy prescription point of view if indeed the Republican plans that we've seen coming out of the House are enacted.

KEILAR: Right. Just as similar as if you like your doctor, you can keep it. These are the type of lines that really comeback and bite you. Let me ask you, guys, about another big headline that happened this morning. David, President George W. Bush did a rare interview with NBC. He was asked about the president's travel ban. Here is how he answered it.


FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think it's very important for all of us to recognize one of our great strengths is for people to be able to worship the way they want to or not worship at all. I mean, the bedrock of our freedom, a bedrock of our freedom is the right to worship freely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you for or against the ban? Are you against the ban?

BUSH: I am for an immigration policy that is welcoming and upholds the law.


KEILAR: Very interesting, and carefully chosen words, David, I mean, not forcefully criticizing the president, definitely not throwing his support behind him either. What does that tell you?

CHALIAN: Certainly not. Obviously, George W. Bush doesn't want as a former president to get into the fray of specific details about President Trump's travel ban, trying to respect that Presidents Club notion of not throwing the current president under the bus.

But clearly, in an entirely different place, just rhetorically and in terms of the priorities than the current president is, this should of course surprise nobody who watched George W. Bush's brother throughout the nomination race and watched George W. Bush's administration. But it just reminds you of just what a different place this administration is, even from its most recent Republican predecessor. KEILAR: Yes. And Ron, another bit that President Bush was asked about, he was asked about President Trump's statements recently, of course, on Twitter and many other places that the media is the enemy of the American people. Listen to this.


BUSH: I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy, that we need an independent media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.


KEILAR: Ron, do you think comments like this from a former Republican president who was no fan of the media during his time in office for sure, do you think comments like this can have an impact on President Trump?

BROWNSTEIN: No. I don't think it will have an impact on President Trump. This is what he sees himself as running against. But it does reflect the reality that if you look at the Trump electorate, the Trump coalition, the biggest problems he faces are less on policy than on his personal behavior and values.

The doubts about whether he is temperamentally fit, whether he has the judgment, the expedience, the qualifications to be president, that I think is the weakest link. Don't forget, over one quarter of the people who voted for him on election day said they did not think he had the temperament required to be president.

[11:10:00]That is what the kind of remarks from former President Bush recall reinforce there. You look at the polling, since he's been president that again is where I think the biggest vulnerability remains. The personal doubts, more so far than the agenda, although there are elements of the agenda that are obviously very polarizing.

KEILAR: Absolutely, we're seeing that play out in just the first month. Guys, great to see you. Thank you.

All right, breaking news on the fight against ISIS, the Pentagon just sent President Trump new options for how to pick up the pace in that fight. You'll recall of course that the president signed an executive order in his first just days in office, telling his military chiefs he wanted them to submit a plan, how to pick up the pace here within the first 30 days.

Let's go to CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, for much more on this right now. So Barbara, this was a campaign promise from President Trump, but what are the details that you're learning about these options?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we know now is that there will be a White House meeting this afternoon of top cabinet level officials to sit down and talk about this, now that the plan is over at the White House.

You can expect the new national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster to be there, taking perhaps a very academic, intellectual, thoughtful military look at these options.

It's possible Steve Bannon, who is also part of Principals Committee at the White House, that he will also be there, what views he may have from the political adviser portfolio that he carries are unknown.

This is really the beginning of the discussion we are told. We know that the Pentagon was thinking about asking for more troops to go into Syria, not necessarily into direct combat, but to help the troops there get armed, get ready, provide some support to them as they pursue their fight inside Syria.

We know that there's talk about more arming of local forces. One of the big questions, do you want to cooperate more with the Russians. Defense Secretary Mattis perhaps signaling he's not a big fan of that, signaling several times he's not ready for more military cooperation with the Russians.

This all comes as we saw President Trump a short time ago at the White House says that the military no longer wins wars. That may be something that the Pentagon finds a very difficult premise to swallow -- Kate.

KEILAR: It might come up in that meeting when they lay out those options for the president and the president can choose to choose from them or not. Barbara, great to see you. Thank you so much.

All right, coming up, breaking his silence, the father of the fallen Navy SEAL killed during President Trump's first major military operation is demanding answers now. We are going to hear what he has to say next.

Plus, leave your phones at the door, friends or not so much friends. The White House press secretary looking to his own staff to crack down on leaks.

And new details also on what happened behind the scenes of this epic fail at the Oscars.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We lost, by the way, but you know --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guys, guys, I'm sorry, no. There's a mistake. "Moonlight," you guys won best picture.



KEILAR: We'll take you straight to Capitol Hill. We'll listen to the chairman of the House Intel Committee speaking about their investigation into the Russian hacks. REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: But I'm just looking forward to taking your questions. So with that, I'll just open it up to all of you.

QUESTION: Can you say categorically that there were no contacts whatsoever between any officials affiliated with the Russian government and the Trump campaign?

NUNES: Not -- not that I'm aware of. We still have not seen any evidence of anyone that's -- from the Trump campaign or any other campaign for that matter that's communicated with the Russian government.

QUESTION: And also, why would you agree to be -- to talk to reporters at the behest of the White House, knowing that you're still looking into this matter?

DUNES: Yeah, so that -- that story was a little odd, I thought, because if you ask me to contact the White House and said, "Hey, could you set me up with somebody at DOD or the intelligence agencies," I would say sure. So it was kind of an odd story, I thought.

QUESTION: Is it compromised in any way, the fact that you have already made this determination?

NUNES: How is it compromised if I'm trying to be transparent with the press? And if the White House asks me to talk to a reporter, which by the way, it was one reporter, I don't know -- if the White House asked me to talk to you, would you think that would be OK or not OK?

QUESTION: What's your response to that?

NUNES: Well, what's your response to it?

QUESTION: Well, you're investigating this -- you're investigating this matter and the White House is urging you to make -- to knock down these stories that are raising questions (inaudible).

NUNES: No, that -- that absolutely didn't happen.


QUESTION: Is there anything that you have learned in the course of this investigation that really conflicts with public reporting?

NUNES: Well, if you look at -- if you look at what's happened, there's been -- major crimes have been committed. And what I'm concerned about is this, no one is focusing on major leaks that have occurred here.

And so right after the leak of the transcript that President Trump had with the Australian ambassador -- I mean, with the Australian prime minister, I was in contact with the Australian ambassador. I was also in contact with the White House and the appropriate agencies because we can't run a government like this. A government can't function with massive leaks at the highest level of our president talking to foreign leaders. And so that, I think, is one of the focuses that you all should be concerned about because these are high-level leaks.

QUESTION: (inaudible) -- how big is the circle of individuals who have access to those transcripts?

NUNES: Well, this is out of -- you know, I didn't really realize this, but evidently, the way I understand the process is is that the last administration had it set up to go down to the State Department and the I.C. and perhaps any other stakeholders within the NSC or the appropriate people within the White House.

And so, you know, we don't know how those got out. But clearly, you know, how are foreign leaders going to be able to talk to our president if they don't -- if they don't think that this is going to be leaked to the press?


QUESTION: Just to follow on (inaudible) question because you said no contacts with the Russian government. As I'm sure you're aware, there are many Russian businessmen, oligarchs, et cetera that report back to the Kremlin as part of their circle of intelligence gathering. Have you eliminated that possibility, that the people that Trump advisers were speaking with have connections to the Russian government even if they're not officially working for the Russian government?

NUNES: Well, we -- we haven't -- just to be clear, we haven't eliminated anything. The only thing that I want to make sure that we do is before we go after American citizens and subpoena them or bring them before the legislative branch of government, that it's not just because they appeared in a news story somewhere.

QUESTION: What you're saying...

NUNES: And so -- but as of -- as of...

QUESTION: You're still investigating them, communications between Trump campaign advisers and Russians known to U.S. intelligence...


NUNES: It's not -- I wouldn't limit it to Trump only or Trump officials. I would say that it would be also any contacts with any political candidates anywhere at any level, including in the United States or in foreign -- other foreign countries.

QUESTION: Are you saying then that there were Clinton advisers that were speaking to...

NUNES: I'm just saying that -- no, no, no. Let's not...


NUNES: There would be no -- there would be no evidence of that nor is there any evidence that I've been presented about Trump advisers speaking to Russians.

But we do know for a long time that the Russians have been very interested in manipulating elections, manipulating the press. They're very good at propaganda. And so -- I mean, that's what caused me a year ago to come out and criticize the intelligence agencies for the largest intelligence failure since 9/11 because of the lack of good intelligence we were getting on Putin's plans and intentions.

So I'm -- so that's why I really appreciate the amount of press that showed up here today because, you know, we do need to have some scrutiny put on to the Russian government and we do need to know if there are any Americans that are talking to the Russians and anybody connected to the Russian government or Russian agents.

But at this time, I want to be very careful that we can't just go on a witch hunt against Americans because they appear in a news story somewhere.

QUESTION: And by Americans, do you mean Michael Flynn, the former NSA?

NUNES: Any -- any American.

QUESTION: (inaudible) referring to Flynn...


NUNES: Well, I think specifically, there was -- I think the more important question on that was there were three Americans, of which the only name I know is Manafort, the other two I don't know.

NUNES: But they appeared in a news story and the questions that we had 10 days ago when that story broke, for many of you who attended the different press availabilities that I had, the question was whether or not we were going to investigate those Americans.

And, at this point, here at the committee, we still don't have any evidence of them talking to Russians.

QUESTION: And do you have all the evidence at this point that you expect to receive?

Or would you say you're still in the preliminary stages of receiving and reviewing that evidence?

NUNES: Well, we're working on the -- we had the scoping of our investigation finished. And then we're going to move into actually receiving the evidence.

But, as of right now, the initial inquiries I've made to the appropriate agencies, I don't have any evidence.

QUESTION: I just want to be really clear, so the FBI specifically told you that they have found no contacts between any Trump associates and Russian officials?

NUNES: Yes, so I want to be -- we're not going to just -- we're going to say the whole I.C. here, I'm not going to get up to specific to any one agency. But as of right now, I don't have -- I don't have any evidence that would -- of any phone calls.

That doesn't mean they don't exist but I don't have that. And what I've been told is, by many -- by many folks, is that there's nothing there.

QUESTION: But you're still looking at it?

NUNES: But we're still -- we're absolutely looking into it. And we want the information. But I just can't -- I just can't call in American citizens with no information.

QUESTION: When you say -- when you say there are no contacts (inaudible), are you referring to direct contacts, for instance, Manafort had a lot of contacts with Ukrainians (inaudible).

NUNES: Yes, well, I think, specifically, this would be on contacts with any association whatsoever to anyone, even within the realm of the Russian intelligence apparatus.

QUESTION: You just said that many people have told you this.

Can you be more specific?

I mean, who has told you that there are...


NUNES: No, I'm not going to get into -- I'm not going to get into specifically the conversations I had -- you know, I had with the executive branch and the appropriate agencies.

But I will say that we long have had a very good process in the Congress here, where we have the Gang of Eight. When counterintelligence issues arise, they brief us on those counterintelligence issues.

And we keep them, because they oftentimes involve American citizens, and I -- and it's important that we keep it that way, when those investigations are ongoing.

But, in this case, as it relates to any campaign officials dealing with Russians, we don't have any evidence right now.

QUESTION: Mr. Chairman, if you've been told that there's nothing there, why are you specifically investigating whether there are any links between the campaigns and Russian officials?

NUNES: Well...


NUNES: ... well, unlike what -- I think what's been reported, we've had a long ongoing investigation into Russian activities. I would have preferred for that not to be out and talked about in public. But you may remember, for the last several years, we've been concerned about Russia's cyber activities. And we remain concerned about those activities.

Since the election, we've broadened the scope of that investigation to include any involvement in this -- in our elections here and, of course, any ties that there might be to any government officials at any level.

So it's not just -- not just here in Washington but governors and others. If there's anything out there, any American citizens from political campaigns coordinating with the Russian government, we clearly would want -- we would want to know that and we would want to investigate it.

QUESTION: Just (inaudible), have you seen the transcripts of Mike Flynn's phone calls with the Russian ambassador? NUNES: No, but I've been briefed -- I've been briefed on them. And it would be unusual, actually, I think unprecedented for us to get transcripts that were illegally leaked out and discussed, for us to have those here in Congress.

QUESTION: Was there any...

NUNES: And I think we've got to be very careful about the legislative branch of government getting FISA warranted communications and that we start combing through private conversations that American citizens are having. We've got to be very careful where we go with this.

QUESTION: Do you think it's concerning, you know, if -- that you (inaudible)?

NUNES: No, I think -- what it appears to me like is that it seems to be there is a difference between what Russia's sanctions are to people like myself, which, when I think Russia sanctions, I think of dealing with Crimea, dealing with the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians and the sanctions that we've put in -- into place, working with our allies, with the E.U. and others, and then what happened right at the time after Christmas, when President Obama kicked some Russian diplomats out, that -- I don't really consider that to be sanctions.



NUNES: Well, look, Russia sanctions on a global stage, most of the meetings that I have with foreign leaders, they always revolve around -- when we talk Russia sanctions, that's what we're normally referring to. I don't -- when President Obama kicked out a few diplomats, that was -- number one, it was way too late. Number two, it was extremely weak. And number three, the Russian government didn't even respond to it because it was so ridiculous.

QUESTION: When the White House asked you about, you know, talking to this reporter, did you know that they had also asked Senator Burr to do the same thing? And did it feel to you like some sort of a coordinated effort to push back?

NUNES: No. I mean, if anything -- if anything, it was the opposite. So many of you -- many of you who were around ten days ago, you know that I took your questions as it related to the New York Times piece as it related to three Americans and whether or not we had any information or not.

So I had already talked to many of you about that several times, both in press runs and also on individual interviews. And so, by the time -- all it was was a White House communications person passing a number and a name of a reporter over for me -- if I would talk to them following up on what I had already told all of you in the days before that.

So I'm not sure how you generate a press story out of that, but I can't control what you guys write.

QUESTION: Did you know that they had asked...


QUESTION: Are you saying the FBI has not supplied you with the evidence or the FBI has told you there is no evidence?

NUNES: Well, look, I'm not going to get into which agencies, OK? I think it's important.


QUESTION: ... the intelligence community.

NUNES: But -- but the intelligence agencies have not provided me or the committee any information about those three Americans communicating with Russians and...

QUESTION: But they have not told you that that evidence does not exist? There's a difference there.

NUNES: Yeah, I -- the way it sounds like to me is it's been looked into and there's no evidence of anything there. You know, obviously we'd like to know if there is.


NUNES: Then it's pretty serious, then it would be the intelligence agencies then misleading Congress, which opens up a whole other problem.

QUESTION: Why not just not name a special prosecutor to take away the notion that this could be tainted by politics in any way?

NUNES: Well, I mean, look, this is -- we're the legislative branch of government, we're elected. I think the history of special prosecutors is mixed. And at this point, what are we going to appoint a special prosecutor to do exactly, to chase stories of American citizens that end up in newspaper articles? I mean, that's -- right now, I mean look, if -- some point, we have serious crimes have been committed, it would be something that we would consider. But at this point, we don't have that. The only serious crimes we have are leaks that have come out of our government to the press and others.


QUESTION: You had written a letter to the FBI about the leak. Can you give us an update on (inaudible)?

NUNES: Well, we -- I wrote the letter, and obviously, it's a classified letter. There's a classified version and an unclassified version. And we're expecting answers to that. So I think we have some briefings this week and next week and those briefings will continue.


QUESTION: ... committing resources to investigating these leaks?

NUNES: Well, as anything, we can't -- just like I think it's very similar to us not having any evidence of who -- of these American citizens that were allegedly talking to Russians, we also don't know exactly who would have known about General Flynn.

Now, the good thing is about FISA and the way it works, there should be a record of who in the government knew about General Flynn talking to the Russian ambassador and from there we should be able to do know who is in the realm of the possible, who we would need to talk to.


QUESTION: Can I ask you, who made the decision under the last (ph) administration to unmask Flynn? And was it appropriate?

NUNES: We don't know yet, but that's a very good question. And we are -- and that's -- those are some of the -- I think that we should be able to find out. We should be able to find out who within the executive branch knew about the initial conversations and then who went to who to get Flynn's name unmasked. So there -- that should be a relatively small number of people.


QUESTION: When the intelligence community begins presenting evidence to you, is that evidence going to be turned over to your committee or is it going to be housed -- continue to be housed in the intelligence community?

NUNES: Well, that will be -- that's one of the contentious issues right now of where the information is housed. We'll probably have some here, some may remain at the agencies.

QUESTION: Do you have any -- have you heard any evidence at all, seen anything about anyone in the White House directing Mr. Flynn to discuss the issue -- any issues with the Russian ambassador? Did anyone in the White House tell him to do that?