Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

White House Press Briefing; Rep. Adam Schiff Talks Trump Campaign/Russia Ties with Media. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired February 27, 2017 - 14:30   ET

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


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, there's several pieces of Obamacare.

[14:30:00]

Some can be done by executive order, some get done with 50 votes, some have to be done specifically in reconciliation, I think, going to Major's (ph) point on a previous question, that there are certain things that have to be done in certain ways legislatively and -- to create a comprehensive and holistic approach to both repealing it and replacing it.

And we're aware of that. We're working with the House and the Senate to make that happen.

QUESTION: And on a second topic...

SPICER: Of course.

QUESTION: All right. The immigration executive order, travel ban. Is the president going to address the American people and Congress in his speech tomorrow night and specifically describe and defend the immigration ban?

And when will we see the revised executive order?

SPICER: So we're not going to -- I would not anticipate the speech being a defense of legislation and executive orders. I don't think many previous presidents have gotten through and used that as a legislative walk-through.

But you will hear about his commitment to immigration and his desire for border security and what it means not just about keeping the nation safe, but what impact it's having on the economy.

So you will hear a lot about immigration tomorrow night. And he will talk about why it matters and the goal we have and why we should come together on areas like this.

(CROSSTALK)

SPICER: Caitlin (ph) -- hold on, Caitlin.

QUESTION: Order. Where's the next order? SPICER: Oh, I'm sorry, the next order I think we should have it out probably middle of this week, looking towards the middle of the week. And we'll have further updates as we get through the schedule.

I think obviously our priority right now today was to really get the budget process kicked off, and then continue to prepare for the joint session.

Caitlin.

QUESTION: Can I follow on that?

SPICER: You will in a sec.

QUESTION: Internal (ph) reports in 2015 identified $125 billion in wasteful Pentagon spending. So how can you justify adding $54 billion to the defense budget? Is that going to go to hiring soldiers or bureaucrats or contractors? And is the president concerned with wasteful spending at the DoD?

SPICER: Of course he is concerned. And he's concerned with wasteful spending throughout the government. But I think there's also a big difference between rooting out waste and fraud in various programs and offices and understanding that when you're talking about adding to the fleet or increasing airplane costs, that can't be driven just through those.

And the commitments that you have to make to purchase some of those very needed upgrades to our infrastructure and to our arsenal and to planes and ships, doesn't just come through that.

Because even if you could start to really identify it, you wouldn't be able to make the financial commitment that needs to be done to rebuild some of the ships and planes in particular that need a substantial investment on the front end.

John (ph).

QUESTION: If I could just follow on Alexis's (ph) question. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has just denied your request to suspend proceedings in regard to the initial executive order, that order came out just within the last few minutes.

So do you plan to continue defending your first executive order in court? And what's the purpose of doing that as opposed to simply rescinding it and then rendering that case moot?

SPICER: Well, I haven't been able to read my phone while this has happened. So I appreciate it. (LAUGHTER)

SPICER: So with all due respect, I would ask that I be able to get back to you tomorrow on that after we consult with the counsel's office and go through the briefing and -- excuse me, the reading of what the court has said. But give me a little time, let me get off the podium.

QUESTION: I mean, the rescinding it question still stands.

(CROSSTALK)

SPICER: I understand that. And I think the president has made a commitment right now to continue to defend what we did. And...

QUESTION: For what reason?

SPICER: Hold on. Because this is the strategy that he believes that we have the authority vested in U.S. code. I talked about this extensively in the past. And I think that if you allow me, once we get done with the briefing, I will follow up with the counsel's office...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: But what some of us are trying to understand is, if you have a new executive order that you believe addresses the concerns of the many courts who have weighed in on this, why continue to defend an executive order...

SPICER: Because I think he's right. I mean, because we were right the first time. And I think that...

(CROSSTALK)

SPICER: No, but I think it's not a question of proving a point. It's that the manner in which it was done in the first place was what we believe and continue to believe was the right way to address this problem.

And while the second executive order attempts to address the court's concerns that they made, the goal is obviously to maintain the way that we did it the first time because we believe that the law is very clear about giving the president the authority that he needs to protect the country.

So, just dropping that is not necessarily the most prudent thing. And I think part of it is for us to recoup right now, figure out what the court has said, and then reassess the strategy.

But I don't want to get ahead. As you point out, you're reading it to me now, I would like the opportunity to maybe go read it and actually have a lawyer read it, because (INAUDIBLE) won't do very much.

Go ahead.

[14:35:00]

QUESTION: Thank you. On anti-semitism (inaudible) is there anything (inaudible)

SPICER: When can it be lifted? I think we've to go through the process to lift the sequester and so we'll deal with that. With respect to some of the activity that we've seen at Jewish cemeteries in particular, look, I think we have to work with law enforcement at the local and state level. I'll leave to it the Department of Justice to comment further on what additional steps can be made.

But I think, as been pointed out multiple times, I think, one of the things that we can do is speak from this podium in particular and other places to make sure that every American understands what our values are and that that kind of behavior and activity is wrong and won't be tolerated. And the highest levels of government denounce it. So I think, it starts as that and then I think there's a law enforcement component that I would ask you to touch base with.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: On the budget?

SPICER: Yeah?

QUESTION: I understand this is a blueprint, I understand the president has previously said he doesn't want to

[14:36:10]

(VIDEO SWITCHES TO REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-CA, PRESS AVAILABILITY)

[14:37:09] REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D), CALIFORNIA: -- either at CIA, FBI or elsewhere to knock down stories it doesn't like is completely inappropriate and threatens the independence of those agencies and their investigation. If, indeed, Mr. McCabe had conversations with officials about whether allegations in the press were accurate about the nature of the investigation, that is not appropriate. If the CIA director was tasked to call reporters on backgrounds and knock down stories, that's even more inappropriate and threatens the independence of that agency and any investigation that that agency may be undertaking in terms of counter-intelligence.

In my view, the predominate challenges we will have in conducting a credible investigation are, one, we have to make sure that it remains bipartisan. It will add little value if it's not. Number two, we will need the cooperation of the FBI. We will need the FBI to share with us what leads they have chased down, what leads they have not chased down, what investigation they have done, what they have not done, so that we can evaluate whether they have done a comprehensive job.

This is not unlike what the joint congressional inquiry did after 9/11. It did not simply assume that the agencies had gotten it right. But it did an independent investigation. And that's what we need to do.

And I have yet to be convinced, I think, by the director of the FBI that we will have the fulsome kind of cooperation that we will need. We can't become the FBI. We can't send out our own investigators fanning all over the globe. We may have a limited capacity to do some of that. But we cannot recreate everything the bureau may or may not have done. We will need their cooperation. And whether we will get that in as fulsome a manner as we need has yet to be determined, at least in my view. Finally, one of the other challenges we will have in doing a credible

investigation is whether we have the staff to do it. We have an excellent staff, both majority and minority. But it is a limited staff. Of all the national security committees, we have the smallest staff, often half of what the other committees do. Now, the chairman and I have made an appeal to increase our staff and I'm hoping that will be approved. But even so, we are very limited in our resources.

In my view, we ought to be doing our investigation jointly with the Senate Intelligence Committee. It makes little sense in my view we bring in the same witnesses, we obtain the same documents, we do the same work in parallel. I think we could multiply our resources and our capabilities were we to do it jointly as did the join inquiry in Congress did so after 9/11.

So those are a few thoughts on where we are. But, again, just to summarize before I go to your questions, we are going to be agreeing on our terms of reference. We've largely agreed already. We just put them down on paper. Hopefully, we can declassify any classified portion of that and share that with you. We have, I think, reach no conclusion, nor could we, in terms of issues of collusion because we haven't called in a single witness or reviewed a single document on that issue as of yet. And it's very important, I think, that we not prejudge either the conclusions of our investigation or any conclusion that our intelligence agencies may or may not reach without doing our own independent analysis.

Yes?

[14:39:58] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Chairman Nunes said earlier today that based on the briefings that you have gotten with intelligence officials he sees no evidence of collusion between campaign first and the Russians. You have gotten the same briefings he has. Is he right that there is no evidence?

SCHIFF: Well first of all, we haven't obtained any of the evidence yet. So it's premature for us to be saying that we have reached any conclusion about the issue of collusion. In order for us to make that determination, we are going to need the FBI to come in and testify on what they looked at, what they haven't, what they found, what they didn't, what leads are yet to be investigated. We have had none of that. At this point, we don't even have any of the documents underlying the intelligence community's assessment of Russian hacking. We are having to send our people to the I.C. and review it there. And with the limited staff resources that we have, that's even more difficult. So we are in the very infancy of this investigation, and it's premature to be taking any conclusion.

I would say, you know, on the basis of conversations that the chair and I are having with intelligence official, we can't draw any conclusions, and nor should we. We shouldn't be prejudging where the facts lead.

And if White House is going to reach out to either our committee or the intelligence agencies every time they see a story they don't like and ask us or the intelligence community to push back on it, then we are of necessity going to be revealing classified information we shouldn't. Because when you confirm a report or deny a report you tell something about the evidence you are receiving.

So in my view, I would urge members of both the hipsy and the sissy not to be talking about what we are concluding or not concluding. It's fine to be talking about where we are generally in the investigation, what steps we have taken, what more has yet to be done. I don't think we should be drawing any conclusion thus far.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You think intelligence officials may know more than what they are telling you right now?

SCHIFF: What I'm saying I don't think that anybody should prejudge at this point whether there were contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, either directly or indirectly, through cutouts, their business people, or any other way. We as an Intelligence Committee doing investigation don't know. We don't know the answer. And the most that we've had are private conversations, the chair and I, with intelligence officials. That's not a substitute for an investigation. So we should not be drawing conclusions at this point.

Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Curious, there was a report out last month with regards to an FBI officials giving a statement that was wired in regards to the DNC's responsibility in beefing up their own security in that when the FBI tried to get access to their servers the DNC rebuffed them. Is that going to be looked into, or no?

SCHIFF: Yes, we are going to look into what was the intelligence community and the FBI response to the Russian hacking? And that is, how soon did we know that they were in the DNC, for example? What steps were taken? Were they adequate? Were they not adequate? What needs to be done in the future.

One of the seminal conclusions of the intelligence community was the Russians will do this again. One of the questions I have -- and I can share with you the questions I have, I can't share with you the answers that we have gotten or may get - is, did the I.C. first perceive this as an intelligence gathering operation. Does that account for the response of the I.C. or the FBI? At what point did we learn it was not just intelligence gathering but rather weaponization of that data. All of those questions have yet to be answer. And many of those were not answered in the report that the I.C. put out publicly. And it's part of the reason we need to look forth into this.

Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIOAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It seemed that Congressman Nunes was saying he received an interpretation of the intelligence, told there was no "there" there when refer to communications between Trump campaigners and Russian officials as they have described. Are they giving him a read on intelligence that you haven't seen or assessed yet? SCHIFF: My concern is that our committee not reach any conclusions on

the basis of essentially conversations with some of the intelligence community leaders in response to a newspaper article. That is not how we should be conducting an investigation.

Now, obviously, you look at, you know, this story, which has become such a central focus of things. And we are not in a position to discuss in detail, nor should we, how the Russians operate, how they seek to exert their influence covertly, whether that they do that through third parties, individuals, business people, directly, electronically, through encryption -- there are a whole host of issues that need to be investigated so that we understand the totality of what the Russians did. And I don't think FBI officials or CIA officials or members of our committee or the sissy ought to be reaching any conclusions. We certainly shouldn't, not if we are doing a real investigation of this.

The chair and I have discussed it. We agreed we need to investigate this issue of collusion. We are not prepared to draw any conclusions. I'm going to hold the chairman to that.

And if there gets to be a point where I don't feel I can do my work, I will certainly be very public about it. But I'm still - I'm going to do everything I can to conduct this investigation as long as its confined to our committee on the House, and our committee alone, I'm going to be doing everything I can to make it thorough and objective.

[14:46:05] SCIUTTO: So there is not so much attention just on one story. The "New York Times" said communications between Trump advisors and Russian intelligence. Just remind you, CNN's reporting was communications between Trump advisors, and other Russians known to U.S. Intelligence. I asked the same question to Congressman Nunes. On that particular point, has that possibility been investigated and answered already? Are you saying that's something that is still being investigated?

SCHIFF: I'm saying in our committee as part of our investigation we have not investigated that yet. That will be investigated. We don't know the answer. We shouldn't prejudge it. And any conversations that individual members of the Gang of Eight or others have with I.C. officials are not the conclusion of our committee. They are not the end point of the investigation. They can't be.

And just as -- well, just as any other credible investigation, when you are just in the beginning stages, you don't reach conclusion on one of the key issues.

So all I can tell you is, from the committee's point of view, that's obtain no documents, heard no witnesses, and not been given any testimony by the FBI what they have investigated, there is no basis to draw that conclusion. One way or the other. And I don't think that conversations with intelligence leaders are a substitute for doing a thorough investigation.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Mr. Schiff?

SCHIFF: Yes.

RAJU: Are you concerned that a chairman may have in any way compromised the investigation by saying he has seen no evidence, rebutting these reports and down playing any sort of contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign? Are you campaigned in any way he may have compromised the investigation?

SCHIFF: I'm concerned that the FBI engaging in conversations with the White House about an ongoing investigation or a potentially ongoing investigation. If the CIA director was brought in to push down news reports, that threatens the integrity of what they are doing. The White House can reach out any time they want to Republican members of the House and Senate, of our committee or any committee, of either party. They have every right to do that.

But I would urge the members of our committee, and the sissy, including our chairs, if they are reach out to by the administration on the subject of our investigation, they should politely decline, because obviously one of the key issues is whether people associated with the administration during the campaign may have colluded with the Russians. And on that subject, there are a profound potential conflict of interest. So I don't think members of our committee ought to be discussing those allegations with the administration.

RAJU: You don't think it has been compromised yet?

SCHIFF: Look, the chairman and I have I think an important working relationship that we both want to keep intact. Itch expressed concern to the chair about these issues. I'll continue to do so whenever I feel it important to do so. But I still want to do everything in my power to make sure that we do a thorough and objective investigation. And if I get to the point where I conclude that's just not possible, I'll be vocal about it. But at this point, I think the members of our committee want this to be credible and want this to be thorough. And that's when we're going to try to achieve.

Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said that you have set the scope of your investigation. Will it include investigating the leaks that have led to these news stories that have us sitting here today talking about this, or not?

[14:49:54] SCHIFF: It will. The scope of the investigation will include leaks. You know, I think as a practical matter, it may be difficult to carry that investigation -- that element of the investigation to completion unless we are prepared to bring in people from the White House to talk about what access to information they had and who they shared it with. So I think there are some limitations that the White House may put on our ability to bring people in before the Intelligence Committee. But we are going to be looking at that.

You know, I do think in the broader scheme of things and, obviously, there is a difference of opinion between the probably the chairman and I, as well as many of the members of the committee, while leaks are an issue, and I didn't approve of the leaks that took place during the Clinton investigation, I don't approve of the leaks during this investigation, I would hate to lose sight of what's really at stake here. And I think a lot of what the president says on this subject is designed to distract attention from the real serious issues that are there. And in my view, it's this, we are engaged in a desperate battle of ideas with Russia right now. And I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that the success of liberal democracy around the world will depend on how this struggle turns out. They are not only interfering in our political process, but they are in Europe and France and Germany and elsewhere. They use a whole host of methods including blackmail, extortion, paid media trolls, fake news, hacking, dumping, forging of documents. And if we are going to inoculate ourselves against further Russian interference in our elections and Democratic affairs, we need to know exactly what they have done. And so that context is enormously important and shouldn't get lost in this.

The reason why the conversations with Flynn are so significant is that they involve potentially an administration official or soon to be undermining sanctions on the very interference in our political affairs. It's not, I think, something that we view in isolation. It's important because it went right to the heart of the Russian interference in our Democrat affairs.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can I follow up? You said at the beginning of your answer that you would have to bring in White House people to testify. Chairman Nunes earlier today compared potentially bringing in some campaign officials to McCarthyism, saying I'm not going to do this to American citizens. Do you buy that? Seems like there is a disagreement between the two of you here?

SCHIFF: I strongly disagree with comments. We have a capability to get to the bottom of this. The fact that people's --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you want the call them, to testify, the people who are named -- the three Americans who were listed in the "New York Times" report?

SCHIFF: Well, I certainly believe that Mike Flynn needs to come in and testify. And I think we've seen bipartisan support for that, having him come in.

And with respect to Mr. Flynn, he -- he deceived the vice president of the United States. The vice president of the United States then misled the country. That's a serious business.

And of course, we know some of the history involving Mr. Flynn and RT and being paid to attend this conference with Putin. So I think he is certainly a witness that we are going to want to bring in before the committee.

In terms the others, I think we follow the evidence where it leads. What I would like to know is, what has the FBI investigated on this, if anything, what have they concluded, and what would the basis be for bringing these conditions or any others, before the committee? But I don't think, at this stage, we ought to exclude anyone or any issue.

And, you know, at this point in the investigation, we are, as I said, still in the phase of gathering documents or actually trying to get personal custody of the documents in the hipsy. We are also in the process of developing some very preliminary witness lists on these baskets of issues. But we need to follow the evidence wherever it leads. If it leads to those particular U.S. persons, then we will subpoena them to come into committee.

Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why hasn't the FBI given up the information to you yet? And secondly, have you asked the Senate if they want to do a joint investigation?

SCHIFF: Well, I've certainly raised the issue of joint investigation. And at this point, while nobody has explicitly ruled it out neither have they welcomed the idea. There may be a few reasons for that. But it was a formula I think that worked very well post 9/11. And again, given the tremendous mismatch we have in investigative resources vis-a-vis the agencies and vis-a-vis the size of the issues here, because we still have a day job in the Intelligence Committee of overseeing these massive agencies. It would be a force multiplier if we did the investigation jointly.

And so the other part of your question?

[14:55:11] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Has the FBI been dragging their feet on giving you the information? You mentioned it several times that you haven't gotten anything. You've asked?

SCHIFF: Well, we are requesting the director come in, brief our whole committee, as he apparently did to the sissy. And the chairman and I have had preliminary discussions with the director.

But beyond that, we need really to get a full debriefing on everything that the FBI has looked at. What have they investigated? And at this point, I'm not clear we are going to get that. I don't have the assurances that I'd like to have from the bureau.

Now I'll give you a sense of why. In an ordinary course of events, the bureau doesn't talk about pending investigations. And the bureau doesn't talk about closed investigations. Now, obviously, with respect to the Clinton investigation, that policy was departed from, and violated an extreme as we got closer to the election.

So among other things I think it's insupportable for the bureau to take the position. We can talk about that, we can't talk about any investigation involving the Trump campaign. That's not going to be sustainable.

At the same time, there is a strong institutional reluctance to discuss ongoing investigations, not only publicly, but even with Congress.

But here we have a bipartisan investigation into these allegations. It's been agreed to in the House and Senate. It has support of Republican leadership in the House and Senate. If we are going to take on that responsibility the FBI is going to have to be fulsome in the discussion of any investigations they are doing or have done. I haven't gotten that commitment yet from the director and we are going to need that commitment in order to do our work. Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Congressman Schiff, earlier today, Chairman Nunes was also saying that if it turns out that Flynn in those discussions with the Russian ambassador, did say, you know, hold off on the response to the sanctions that came out from the Obama administration right after Christmas, that he said we should be thank him and not going after him for deescalating a potentially dangerous situation. I'd like your take on that. And is that the stance of the chairman going forward, hopefully, having Flynn testify before the committee?

SCHIFF: My perspective is this -- again, it gets back to the context in which Flynn was talking to the Russian ambassador. Russia has just hacked into our elections. They have just dumped information that was helpful to the now president of the United States. And in the period prior to the new administration coming into office, the Obama administration leveed sanctions against the Russians. And then you have a conversation, or conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador. What was the subject of those conversations?

Now, I would like to -- I have had a briefing. I have not seen any transcripts yet. Ultimately, I would like whatever transcripts exist to be published so the American public can see, given that the American public was misled about that conversation.

But the significance of that conversation is that, if it was of a nature to assure or reassure the Russians that they didn't need to respond because the new administration would take care of it, then you have the incoming administration affirmatively undermining sanctions imposed by the current administration, the current, being the Obama administration. That's serious business. And when you add to it that the national security adviser, Flynn, was dishonest about the nature of those conversations, that certainly shows at least a, I would say as a former prosecutor, some consciousness of wrongdoing. If there was nothing to be concern about, then why -- why not be open and honest about the course of those conversations? Why did Mike Pence go out on TV and fine the need to reassure the country that they had not been engaged in undermining the sanctions imposed by President Obama?

You know, the final point I would make on this, which I find deeply disturbing, is it's bad enough that Mike Flynn wasn't truthful to the vice president. It's even worse that the vice president then unknowingly misled the American people. But what is most troubling to me is the president was aware of all this and he was OK with it. What only forced him to act weeks later was when it became public.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: On the point of the transcripts, because you said you want the see them, Nunes also raised the concern that maybe it would be problematic because they were illegal released -

(CROSSTALK) SCHIFF: Whether -- whatever the leak investigation finds out in terms of who leaked information about what Flynn --