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A Lot of Smoke but No Fire; The Mystery Behind Trump's Affinity to Russia; Sweeping Obama Holdovers; Connecting the Dots. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired March 10, 2017 - 22:00   ET



[22:00:00] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Breaking news, dozens of U.S. attorneys abruptly fired by the Trump administration.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.

Dozens of prosecutors told to clean up their desks by midnight in a move that one source says, quote, "could not be handled any worse."

What's behind the surprise? Plus, a handful of counterintelligence agents working in the shadows. Secret briefings on Capitol Hill, but what do we know about Russia?

Now, a week after President Trump's infamous wiretapping accusations the leaders of House intelligence committee telling CNN they still haven't seen any evidence to back up the president's claims.

So let's get to our breaking news now. The surprise firing of dozens of U.S. attorneys.

Joining me now is John Flannery, the former federal prosecutor for the southern district of New York, CNN legal analyst, Laura Coates, attorney Stuart Kaplan, a former special agent with the FBI.

Good evening to you, so glad that all of you could join us this evening.


LEMON: Laura, I'm going to start with you.


LEMON: It was a total surprise to the U.S. attorneys who were fired tonight, many of them are shocked, some are traveling on government business now. How was this handled?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, it's not particularly strange that a new administration has called for the existing or the hold over U.S. attorneys to actually resign. This usually happens at the beginning of every administration. What is odd is the abruptness.

And of course you're dealing with a president who has some pending lawsuits across the United States which makes people kind of raise their eyebrows and think themselves, is this about a personal rebuke or is this about a professional administration trying to simply clean House to have people in place who will continue their policies or certainly betrays their policies.

So I think it's very shocking in terms of the abruptness but not in terms of the overall plan to transition.

LEMON: Stuart, it is not unusual for a first-time president -- for a new president I should say to clean House, as Laura said. But why to pack your bags and get out kind of tactic? Is there a message behind the politics here?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, we have a president who has a specific agenda. And I think he's made it very clear and when we just talk about the immigration policy that he is steadfast on implementing, he wants to make sure that the lead federal law enforcement officers, that being each and every U.S. attorney and keep in mind there is 93 of them throughout the United States, that they're going to adhere to his policy.

And you know, I don't read into the abruptness of it. You know, in fact, if ironically Jeff Sessions was forced to resign going back when Janet Reno became the attorney general back in 1993 when Bill Clinton was elected. So I don't necessarily see it as being so abrupt. I think it was just a matter of when it was going to happen and it just happened today.

LEMON: OK. So, John, this comes less than 24 hours after Fox News personality, Sean Hannity, a friend of the president said this.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Now for weeks we've been warning you about the deep state Obama held over government bureaucrats who are held bent on destroying this president, President Trump. Tonight it's time for the Trump administration to begin to purge these saboteurs before it's too late.


LEMON: So, coincidence do you think or is this another example of the president reacting having a knee-jerk reaction to a right wing news story.

FLANNERY: I think that it's a plan actually. I mean, after all, Sean Hannity is kind of Trump's troll and those two have been trading information and patting each other on the back since through the campaign. The real question here, is this spoils decision or is it an effort to conceal on compromise ongoing investigations.

Just take New York where the U.S. attorney was told when he was perceived to be investigating democrats that his job was secure. Now he's gone. I think it could have to do with the Deutsche Bank, a foreign bank in which our president has $300 million in debt. And that bank is under serious investigation in the southern district of New York and it's also under investigation in the U.K. for money transfers involving Russia. Rubles for dollars and dollars than then left Russia.

So it's very suspicious when you consider which assisting you -- which U.S. attorneys will be persisting in office and those who won't. And I bet it will be curious pattern to observe if it's sanctuary cities, as New York is one, and others, because some people are being told we're going to keep you the.

So, we look at a number of 46, but then maybe we're selecting which investigations concern us. I think that that's a critical question to ask any U.S. attorney and these people are not inside, you know, trying to overthrow the government. These are people who are very serious lawyers who do civil and criminal cases and represent the government and have been probably assistant U.S. attorneys before.

LEMON: We'll talk about the people who were asked to stay in a...



LEMON: But go ahead. Go ahead. I'm sorry.

[22:04:59] KAPLAN: I mean, Don, look, I disagree. When you look at the -- when you look at the politics that have played out in New York City more recently with respect to the U.S. attorney Preet Bharara who has clearly crossed party lines to prosecute one democrat after another.

And you have Bill de Blasio investigation, you have the Cuomo investigation, certainly it would seem to me that it would have been or it is in Trump's best interest to keep them in place. And I'm not necessarily sure that the U.S. attorney in the southern district is going to step down.

I just don't see it that way. While he asked for the resignations, it doesn't need -- it doesn't mean he has to accept it.

LEMON: John.

COATES: Well...


FLANNERY: Well, you know, in Wall Street -- I'm sorry. Excuse me. Yes, go ahead.

LEMON: Go ahead, Laura.

COATES: One of the things that you're missing, though, is of course the idea that, yes, the president could choose not or Jeff Sessions could choose not to accept resignations, but it's the timing of the Sean Hannity comment in conjunction with the statements that Sean Spicer earlier today about this sort of deep state. If it's were simply a matter of a presidential administration with

simply trying to clean House in a benign sense in a way to show that they're trying to have U.S. attorneys in place who are going to be harsher on drug offenders and other things that Jeff Sessions has talked about, that's one thing.

However, the timing of it to come so quickly and almost insinuates that people who are Obama-era appointees are going to be in such trying to compromise or undermine this administration. Interestingly enough, one of the things that U.S. attorney is supposed to do is to be the objective enforcer of the law and that if the congressional laws stand, that's what they're enforcing.

And so it's a little insulting to career appointees, it's insulting to career attorneys and certainly to U.S. attorneys who are being removed not because of a normal transition but because of an implication that they are somehow trying to corrupt or undermine this administration.

LEMON: But I'm wondering also, too, John, you were -- I mean, say it plainly. Do you think that he's putting people in there favorable to him that this is saying...


FLANNERY: Absolutely.

LEMON: ... he has something to hide. You mentioned Deutsche Bank, you mentioned him owing money by your assessment.

FLANNERY: Sure. Well, yes, I do. And it goes right to his violation of the constitutional clause about emoluments. Here we have the bank of $300,000 to $170,000 of that was involved in the Washington bank that has bears his name. He's done nothing to discord or separate himself from these things in a traditional sense.

So we he have a president with a built-in conflict. Also the head of the Justice Department who has his own set of conflicts trying -- and then what is he doing? Purifying the department of people who are some of the most outstanding lawyers in America. U.S. attorneys, republican and democrat, don't go into those offices usually except to serve the public.

They're giving up all sorts of other benefits because they really want to serve our country. And we've had past presidents who's continued them and they have worked with them when they had investigations. This is exactly the opposite.

This is cutting them at the legs, leave your keys on the desk and get out of the building. We don't do it that way in the past, so you have to question why we're doing here. And if it's based on alt-right state paranoia, what kind of a government is that that we run our government out offer, we don't trust the people who have been working for us for four and eight and six years doing the most complicated litigation in the world, it's just amazing.

LEMON: Well, there does seem a bit of paranoia here especially when there have been so many leaks and they're concern about where there, you know, these leaks are coming from, asking people to turn over their cell phones and so going on the media saying that we're going to track down these leaks instead of figuring out how to fix the problem and where the leaks came about. But, you know, two of you mentioned...


FLANNERY: But run government -- yes, I'm sorry, but run the government well and you won't have these leaks. Do what's honest, do what's right. The problem with our government it's perceived to be corrupt by everybody except the alt-right and the ditto heads that follow Trump's tweets.

That's not the way to run a government. We go from one crisis to another. Here we are on Friday talking about another mess-up and there are other words you could apply, and every other day we have something. That's no way to run a government.

LEMON: Yes. It's late but not that late we can't use those words, John. But again, you guys mentioned two of you mentioned the people who were asked who were called back. The president had to call back the acting deputy attorney general and the man nominated to be deputy A.G. and asked them to stay on. So what is this say about his thinking, the thinking that went into this? Laura.

COATES: Well, obviously he is somebody who's aware that a lot of his appointees are not getting through with the speed that he anticipated. And, remember, these U.S. attorneys have to be confirmed by the Senate, they can't simply just be somebody that he appoints and says now you go and do the job. They have to actually pass the muster.

And so the people that they're talking about right now, you got Dana Boente who is eastern Virginia U.S. attorney who stepped in when Sally Yates stepped down. We'll call it stepped down when she was fired by President Trump to replace the travel ban. And he stepped in and willingly have said he would enforce that law.

[22:09:56] And you've got Rosenstein who is the person who has been called on by prior attorney generals in the past, handled Whitewater, worked for Kenneth Starr who has been the longest-serving U.S. attorney across different presidential administrations.

So what this says is that he does have some faith in the ability of U.S. attorneys to be objective across party lines and that politics in the way have all the place of it. But it does show there may be a lack of foresight and long-term planning as well that these people are going to leave a void across the country, across 46 different divisions of U.S. attorney's offices where they're going to have to have somebody who's acting in their stead. And acting in their stead will also kind of slow the judicial process for a lot of people.

LEMON: I wonder what happens to all these cases the prosecutors are working on, is it irresponsible to leave them midway through.

Stuart, we'll get to that on the other side of this break. When we come right back, the latest conspiracy theory bouncing around the White House. The deep state and what Sean Spicer said about it today.


LEMON: Breaking news, all the remaining Obama era U.S. attorneys abruptly told to resign. Another night of turmoil for the Trump administration.

Joining me now Michael Crowley, he is a senior foreign affairs correspondent for Politico, Kimberly Dozier, CNN global affairs analyst, and investigative reporter, Ronald Kessler, the author of the "The First Family Detail."

So good to have all of you on this evening. Ron, I'm going to start with you. Tonight, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions has fired all the U.S. attorneys and one law enforcement source says it couldn't have been handled worse. Some learned about it through news accounts. How do you, what do you think of that?

[22:15:03] RONALD KESSLER, "THE FIRST FAMILY DETAIL" AUTHOR: Well, they should assume that of course when a new president takes over their job is finished and there's no nice way to fire people, you know, if they're fired, you know, it doesn't help to have a lot of advanced warning given that they already had the warning that Donald Trump was elected president.

But, you know, I just like to give you very briefly what Donald Trump really is like, having known him for two decades, having been a friend, a journalist. I first met him when I did a book on Palm Beach which I called "My Mid-life Crisis" I usually write about the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service. But I want to have more champagne and more parties, so, I did a book...


LEMON: We have a short time, so, we have a short, Ron, I don't mean to be rude but go ahead.


LEMON: Quickly, please.

KESSLER: And on the way down on his plane with my wife Pam, Donald imitated the nasal constricted tones of the blue bloods, the old guard and Palm Beach condemning his club Mar-a-Lago because it admits blacks and Jews. Because there are still clubs in Palm Beach to this time who will not admit blacks or Jews. And he took on the town council which didn't want to give any approval to the club several of those...


LEMON: Ron, what did this have to do with firing the attorneys?

KESSLER: Well, I'm trying to give you something more beyond the latest news, but...

(CROSSTALK) LEMON: We're here...

KESSLER: ... it's your show.

LEMON: ... that's we're here. That's what we're here to discuss, though.


LEMON: So, then I'm going to move on to Michael. Today, Sean Spicer was asked about this so-called deep state people who have worked for the government administrations. Listen to this.


SEAN SPICER, UNITED STATES WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that there's no question when you have eight years of one party in office that there are people who stay in government affiliated with, you know, joined and continued to espouse the agenda of the previous administration, so I don't think it should come as any surprise that there are people burrowed into government during eight years of the last administration.


LEMON: So is the president trying to get rid of people who could oppose him or people who opposed him?


LEMON: It's not normal to fire attorneys; it's just the abruptness of it.

CROWLEY: Yes. But what Sean Spicer is talking about is larger, I mean, this idea that there's a conspiracy, that the federal bureaucracy is out to get this president. Now you might say that when Trump came into office and compared the intelligence community said there were echoes of Nazi Germany he wasn't making any friends and you could understand why there would be a bad reaction.

But I also think that there's a supposition there that the leaks about these Russian investigation, in particular are motivated by some kind of partisan animus, that these are people like Barack Obama doesn't consider the possibility that there really is something untoward happening, that these investigations are turning up troubling evidence that this administration has shown no sign of wanting to take seriously.

And I think they're frustrated. So certainly there are people in this bureaucracy who don't like Donald Trump, doesn't help that he compared them to elements of Nazi Germany but I also think you have to take seriously the idea that these investigations are churning up troubling facts. And this administration doesn't seem interested in them and so people want to get the word of that.

LEMON: But as Stuart say this is the figment of the imagination or is it an alt-right conspiracy theory.

CROWLEY: Look, it's not, it's a conspiracy theory to say that the intelligence community and what people are calling the deep state is controversial term is just a bunch of Barack Obama loyalists who are out to get this president. I'm sure there are some people who don't like Donald Trump...


LEMON: Some of these people have worked for several -- several administrations beyond the Obama.

CROWLEY: These are career non-partisan professionals. Some of them put the lives on the line to collect intelligence and to defend this country. And they're just all being smeared with a broad brush.

And the point is really, Don, this is just bad for the country to have the president at war with the intelligence bureaucracy, it doesn't help anyone at the end of the day.

LEMON: Yes. Kimberly, I want to bring you in. Now the president has been driven crazy by leaks. Is this Friday night massacre meant to stop those leaks?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It certainly seems to be part of it. I've spoken to White House officials and Trump administration officials who do believe that in the national Security Council and beyond that there are Obama holdovers who are putting out this damaging information about them.

What they don't seem to realize is, as Michael was saying, there's these cadre of professionals who don't like what they see and feel like it is their right as American citizens to speak out. And they know people like me, people like Michael, and they reach out and share what they think needs to be set right.

So there is a little bit of truth to these accusations, but to call it the deep state means that they are ignoring the fact that you've got these professionals who once things get going in what they believe is the right contribution, they'll settle down and get to work.

LEMON: So Ronald, here's a chance for you to talk about the president's personality here because among those let go is Manhattan U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. He was called to a meeting within President-elect Trump during the transition. He was asked to stay. Let's listen to it and then we'll discuss it.


[22:20:04] PREET BHARARA, U.S. ATTORNEY: President-elect asked presumably because he's a New Yorker and is aware of the great work that our office has done over the past seven years, asked to meet with me to discuss whether or not I'd be prepared to stay on as the United States attorney to do the work as we have done it independently without fear of favor for the last seven years. We had a good meeting, I said I would absolutely consider staying on.

I agreed to stay on, I have already spoken to Senator Sessions who is, as you know, just nominated to be the attorney general. He also asked that I stay on and so I expect that I'll be continuing to work at the seventh district of New York.


LEMON: So, Preet Bharara is well-known for prosecuting public corruption cases and you know, respected by many. So my question is and you mentioned his personality and he's fair and all that. Why tell him he can stay and then can him just a few months later?

KESSLER: Well, obviously Sessions came in and he had a different opinion. These are political appointees, every administration has the option of replacing political appointees. The fact is that some 90 percent of the federal employees who contributed to the last campaign contributed to Hillary Clinton and this is something that every administration faces.

The bureaucracy, first of all, doesn't like change. That's true in any organization, but especially in the federal government where they can't be fired. And secondly, they do tend to be on the liberal side and the administration wants people who are more consistent with their own -- their own approach.

But one more point about Donald, which I think will help explain a lot of his tweeting and some of his provocative comments, and that is I interviewed Norma Foerderer who are was his top aide for 26 years. When she joined him he had only five other employees.

She knew him better than anybody on both the business and the social side. She would deal with the girlfriends that were calling all the time, she was in charge of a lot of contracting. And she said that there are two Donald Trumps.

One is the Trump who makes these provocative comments, outrageous comments in many cases, according to her, in order to get attention for his brand. When he first started there was no such thing as a real estate brand and this is a way to get media attention on his brand, Trump meaning luxury and prestige.

But then there's the real Donald Trump, she said, and that's totally the opposite. And you see that over and over again when people who criticize him then meet with him and they emerge, for example, the head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott all of his properties, you remember when he first started running.


KESSLER: Then he met with him, he emerged, he told CNN, my God, it was amazing. I spent over an hour with him, he listened he was not full of bombast, and now this person is on his Hispanic advisory council.

LEMON: So what are you saying? KESSLER: So in other words, you know, if you understand this, I think

of it as a compass to Donald Trump, he on the one hand has this stick of making these comments on Twitter to get attention. On the other hand, the real Donald...


LEMON: But, Ron, I understand. OK. So then everyone has to sort of understand that there are two Donald Trumps or different Donald Trumps. It's not up for people to understand Donald Trump, it's for Donald Trump to understand the position that he's in.

When I was a child I did childish things. When I was real estate agent I did real estate things. When I'm the president, I do presidential things. Those things are not presidential. We'll continue to discuss. We'll be right back.


LEMON: The FBI, the House and Senate intelligence committees all investigating the Russia connection, but what do we really know? What do really know?

Back with me now, Michael Crowley, Kimberly Dozier, and Ronald Kessler. So Michael, to you, the White House insists there is no there-there when it comes to Russia ties. But you did the digging, and you put together an amazing diagram on all the various connections. What concerns you the most?

CROWLEY: Well, look, I think fundamentally we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the Russian government intervened in our election to try to affect the outcome. So, we appropriately focus on the details of how many meetings where there with the Russian ambassador. What did Mike Flynn say, what did Jeff Sessions say?

And in this chart that I did we showed the web of connections many of which on their own aren't necessarily damning but add up to a picture that really gives pause. But I think people sometimes lose the big picture, which is the intelligence community has unanimously concluded that there was an orchestrated Kremlin campaign to effect the presidential election.

And what you hear from the Trump White House and people around Donald Trump, is of course it had no effect they didn't hack into the voting machines, which no one disputes, but you really can't prove that it had zero effect. And when it comes to WikiLeaks Donald Trump at the podium at campaign events...


LEMON: Love WikiLeaks.

CROWLEY: ... waving the e-mails around. He wasn't doing that because he thought they would have no effect he was doing that because he thought it might help him get elected. So I think that's the most concerning thing. You know, it would take

time to go case by case by case. I think some are more concerning than the others. I think it's the totality of it in that context.

LEMON: But are there any direct links between the president and Russian wealthy oligarchs?

CROWLEY: Well, I mean, there are ton, and I encourage people to look at this chart just for one, just to take one example, when he took his Miss Universe pageant which he used to own since sold. He took it to Moscow in 2013, kind of unexpectedly why would you bring it to Moscow.

And he co-sponsored it with a guy named Aras Agalarov who is a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, has gotten big contracts from the Kremlin. There's no question this guy is friendly with Putin. Trump went over there for the past agent; Putin sent him a note in like an engraved box.

I mean, that's just one example of several where Trump or people very close to Trump like Paul Manafort have very clear demonstrated relationships with oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. And business is done in Russian through these oligarchs.

[22:30:01] LEMON: OK. Kimberly, let's talk about Michael Flynn, Shall we. We now know that he was working as a foreign agent for Turkey while working for the Trump campaign.

CNN has learned that Flynn's lawyer contacted the transition team before the inauguration and flagged his business dealings. The Press Secretary Sean Spicer was pressed on that today. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Attorney calling the transition saying that the person...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the person who is in line to be the national security adviser may need to register as a foreign agent. That doesn't raise a red flag?

SPICER: It's not a question of raise a red flag, John. It's the question of whether or not they gave them the advice that they're supposed to which is it is not up to them to make decisions as to what you need to do or not do.

As you know there's certain activities that fall under each of these requirements. As far as what the threshold is, what activities, who the funding source was, et cetera, et cetera. It is not up to, nor is it appropriate, nor is it legal for the government to start going into private citizens seeking advice and telling them what they have to register or not.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: And by the way, that was John Roberts, Kimberly, a Fox News

reporter who kept pressing him on this and Sean Spicer kept trying to avoid him and go on to other reporters, but John stood his ground.

Flynn was getting national security briefings with America's most sensitive secrets at the time as he was working for the foreign entity. So, should that have disqualified him to serve as national security adviser? How is that not alarming?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, let's back up. In terms of him working for a foreign entity, he was working for a Turkish-American businessman who has ties to the Turkish government and that's why his lawyer, it seems with an abundance of caution, told him, you know, now that you're not a national security adviser, now that we know Congress is going to be looking at every aspect of your life with an abundance of caution, you better register as a foreign agent, as having lobbied.

So those details are important. We have to remember back right after Donald Trump got elected. Looking at Mike Flynn's background and who he worked for, they were trying to figure out, wow, we just won, do we have an orchard set up who are we going to hire for these positions?

It was a mad scramble. So in a sense you can see why this might have gotten lost in the shuffle. Also, there were other members of the Trump campaign who had worked for foreign governments like Paul Manafort, and who this is all sort of come out in the wash afterwards.

It's going to be months of investigative reporting as we dig into where did many of these people work before they took on jobs with this campaign. So, yes, it's really -- it's concerning, I've talked to members of congressional staff who got lobbied by Mike Flynn in the run up to the election on behalf of they felt the government of Turkey.

Because he was arguing that Fethullah Gulen this radical cleric or this cleric that the Turkish government doesn't like had some sort of ties to Islamic militancy. So, I think we're going to hear a lot more about it and Sean Spicer is going to have to deal with more difficult questions from the podium.

LEMON: Yes. And speaking of that, Ron, Spicer says that the president didn't know but certainly members of his inner circle did. What does that say to you, if anything, about their judgment?

RONALD KESSLER, "THE FIRST FAMILY DETAIL" AUTHOR: Well, it says that certainly during the transition, which I think was mainly under Chris Christi who didn't do a very good job, they were not performing as they should have. They absolutely should have made sure that Donald Trump knew about this, this was unacceptable, this should have been full disclosure and it was wrong.

As Vice President Pence recently said, that it simply reaffirms Donald Trump's decision to get rid of Michael Flynn. So I think that, you know, definitely is a bad mark on the transition process. You saw the same outrageous behavior with Petraeus. He was a wonderful general, he was a wonderful CIA director and then he gives classified to his lover and lies to the FBI and he is still covering up.

He was on TV about a month ago on this week and he was asked about lying to the FBI and he said, I didn't think at the time that what I was saying was false. Well, what does that tell you? It tells you he's still trying to cover up what he did because there's no such thing as I didn't think it was false at the time. He knew it was false. And.


LEMON: Isn't than kind of what happened with Sessions, though?

KESSLER: No. I think that comment was totally in the context of the campaign with Sessions. To me, that was a lot of nothing, you know. People can't remember every meeting they had. He had meeting with 25 ambassadors.

[22:34:59] And, by the way, as far as meetings go, I wonder if Michael Crowley's chart included the 22 meetings that the Russian ambassador had in the White House with the Obama people. I wonder if it included an encounter that he had with Nancy Pelosi, a luncheon. So, you know, to just have a chart and show all these connections people know someone...


LEMON: Yes. I'm out of time, Ron.

CROWLEY: Except that Russia wasn't trying to elect the democrats, wasn't trying to elect Pelosi or none of those people.


KESSLER: Well, he was trying something.

LEMON: I've got to go. Those people are not in power. Nancy Pelosi but she's not the speaker and President Obama is no longer in the White House.

But Ron, listen, I do appreciate that you know the president and you have perspective on him and when the conversation fits we'll have you back to come on and talk about that aspect of it. But on this particular subject these two, you know, segments that we did, we just didn't have room for it. So thank you for that.

And by the way, I want to say that Kimberly has a piece ought on article called "U.S. spies live in fear of Trump's next tweet." So make sure you check out that next article from Kimberly Dozier, it's at the Daily Beast.

Thank you all. I appreciate it. Have a great weekend.

When we come right back, Russia's ambassador talked with an awful lot of people on team Trump. Lots of smoke but no fire yet. So what does it mean for the relationship between the Kremlin and the White House?

[22:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: The House intelligence committee holds its first public hearing on Russia this month, but so far it's not at all clear that they'll be able to connect the dots.

So joining me is Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, and Alexander Vershbow, he's a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia.

Gentlemen, good to see both of you. You know, Fareed, the connections between the president, his campaign aides and Russia, so far there seems to be a lot of smoke but there is no fire. And this latest example is this, you know, sort of connection between this bank in Russia and a Trump, you know, computer system somehow or server. But is all this just noise?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: You know, you're exactly right. So far there's mostly smoke but no fire. But we begin with the kind of intellectual puzzle, which is Donald Trump's view on foreign policy has been pretty consistent his whole life. The rest of the world is screwing America. That's the view he had in the 1980's as a real estate developer he took out ads saying, you know, the Europeans never pay their fair share, the Japanese are screwing us, the rest of the world humiliates us.

And every book he's ever written that's exactly the position he's taken except with one country, which is Russia. He thinks that Germany, Britain, and France are countries that screw America and we should be tough with them. But Russian, poor Russia is misunderstood and if only we could get on with it better.

So there's this puzzle, it's really about one country. Then you have the series of contacts with this one country.


ZAKARIA: You do not have an equivalent set of contracts that Trump campaign officials, friends have had with China.


ZAKARIA: With Germany, with you know, so, again, you have this puzzle of a country with which he has this one exceptional view with whom the campaign has had a series of unusual, perhaps unique contacts, and, as you say, maybe it's all smoke, but it sure it's a lot of smoke.

LEMON: But, I mean, ambassador, does Fareed have a point here because you can't show the type of connections or as many contacts with other countries. If you look at the contacts of people associated with President Trump that had through the course of the campaign, does that seem like an unusual amount of contact to you or does that seem normal?

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Well, it does seem like a lot of contact but we really at this point have no idea that anything particularly nefarious took place it these contacts. I am more concerned about what Fareed was just talking about which is the peculiar fondness for Russia and treatment of Russia like the only good guy among all these horrible players in the world that are doing us in.

And so I'm more suspicious about where is the Trump administration going with respect to its policy towards Russia than about all these bizarre contacts and the computer server connections which we have to look into that, but I'm not -- not convinced there's a lot of there- there.

But, you know, particularly the relationship has gone way downhill for one big reason, Russia has started carrying a direct military aggression against its neighbors. It's occupying parts of Ukraine, its promoting this kind of insurgency there and it's lying about it. It claims he doesn't have its troops there.

How do you have a normal relationship with a country that's behaving like that? So you have to tackle these kinds of problems and not sweeping under the rug.

LEMON: I've got to ask you this pretty early on in this interview. Because you know, that Jon Huntsman is being tapped to be the ambassador to Russia. you know what that's like. What's going to be his biggest challenge?

VERSHBOW; Well, it's a very challenging job I can say. I was there in the early Putin days when it was a little easier but some of the negative trends that we see today were already underway.

I think it's, you know, maintaining yourself as a credible interlocutor but being able to speak truth to power. You have to often present a very unpleasant message to the Russian leadership because we have so many areas in the world where we're working across purposes.

So you have to be faithful to American values. You have to stay connected with Russian civil society which is under tremendous siege, non-governmental organizations have been shut down, the press has been muzzled, America has to stand up for these people as well.

LEMON: Fareed, do you think that was a good choice? What do you think of the choice, I should ask?

ZAKARIA: He's a very smart guy, he was a good ambassador to China. He knows nothing about Russia but that is not a disqualification. Many of the best ambassadors have been people who school themselves.

The crucial question to being a great ambassador is whether you have a relationship with the president. I don't -- I don't sense that Ambassador Huntsman has a soon to be Ambassador Huntsman has a relationship with Trump.

[22:44:57] As far as I can tell, this is partly a way of further humiliating Mitt Romney by choosing the other prominent Mormon politician in the Republican Party. Maybe I'm wrong.

But I think the point Ambassador Vershbow is making is actually very important, which is that the real shift that we have to keep in mind is Russia has changed under Putin, Russia's foreign policy has changed. Russia went from in the early -- in the 1990s and early 2000s talking

about wanting to be a member of NATO, wanting to be -- Putin talked about wanting -- you know, seeing himself as a European country. Russia's destiny was in Europe. Right now I think it's fair to say that the actions that Ambassador Vershbow was talking about, Russia is the major spoiler in the international system. So what's...


LEMON: What happened?

ZAKARIA: It's invading countries, it's, you know, interfering in democrat elections, it's setting up its alternative ideology as it were. What happened is an interesting question. I think Putin realized there was more power in stoking Russian natiolism, the price of oil tripled and Russia became much more powerful.

They did feel betrayed by the west in various ways and all of these parts of the former Soviet Union started to assert their independence, like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova. And that was something that for Russian nationals like Putin was absolutely unacceptable.

He used force in the way that the western world could not accept. So we face a frontal challenge to the western order from Russia.


ZAKARIA: More than from any single country in the world, and the question is are we going to take it seriously or are we going to say no, you know, we can just get on with Russia, it's just a big misunderstanding.

LEMON: It probably didn't help that as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton questioned legitimacy of his election, ambassador.

VERSHBOW: Yes. The Russians clearly had it in for Hillary and that's why, as we saw, they not only hacked our election but they were targeting the release of leaked information to undermine her candidacy. Because they saw her as promoting the kinds of forces that we saw in Ukraine bring down the government of Yanukovych, Putin felt that we were going to do the same thing to him.

He's obsessed with regime change and despite his swagger he's, I think feeling very insecure about his grip on power looking down the road. But Fazeed is absolutely right, we're facing a Russia that is directly challenging the whole international order that we've come to depend upon since the end of World War II.

And it would be beautiful to cooperate with Russia in fighting ISIS but we shouldn't do that at the expense of our values and principles. I would measure at the success of the new policy towards Russia as one that actually solves the problems that Russia's created in Ukraine, restores respect for Ukraine's borders at least in the eastern Ukraine where...

(CROSSTALK) LEMON: Ambassador.

VERSHBOW: ... Putin seem to be ready to do next.

LEMON: I want to -- I have to ask you, I mean, very bluntly, why do you think President Trump has an affinity for Vladimir Putin and Russia?

VERSHBOW: It's still a mystery to me. I think there's a couple things that sometimes ring true. One is, so just the attraction to a strong man, decisive leader who can be so divisive because he has no checks and balances, no real parliament to answer to.

The other thing is I think he's bought into some of Steve Bannon's class of civilizations analysis of the world, the battle between good and evil and for President Trump and for Bannon Russia is on the side of the angels because it's a conservative country fighting political correctness and LGBT rights and all these things. Things the president ran against in the election.

So there's some affinity there that I don't fully understand, but that may be part of it, this clash of civilizations view of the world.

LEMON: Ambassador, thank you very much and I appreciate you joining us here. Have a great weekend. Fareed Zakaria is going to be with us on the other side of this break where we'll talk he gained a unique perspective from an interview with Vladimir Putin. We'll discuss that right after the break.


LEMON: Did Vladimir Putin use his power to elect Donald Trump? That's the question behind our new CNN special report "The Most Powerful Man in the World." Fareed Zakaria hosts, and he is back with me now.

I can't wait to see this. It's going to be fascinating.

You interviewed Dmitry Peskov, right? He is a top aide and a longtime spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin. You're wasting no time you ask him about the Trump associates meeting with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Listen.


ZAKARIA: So what was it the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was talking to so many of Donald Trump's associates about?

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESMAN: This is his job. He was talking about bilateral relations. He was talking about what is going on in the United States, so we have a better understanding in Moscow. This is what has been performed by every ambassador of Russia abroad, every ambassador of the United States abroad, including in Moscow. Because the more the ambassador talks to people in his country of residence, the better job he does.

ZAKARIA: Did he have similar meetings with Clinton campaign officials? Because I don't know of any.

PESKOV: Well, if you look at some people connected with Hillary Clinton during her campaign, you would probably see that he had lots of meetings of that kind, but there were no meetings about election, electoral process. There was in no way it should be perceived as interference in the electoral process.


LEMON: Do you believe him when he said there was no interference in the electoral process or the election process?

ZAKARIA: Look, this is sort of some level be on my pay grade but what I can tell you is there are 17 American intelligence agencies. They rarely agree on anything. They did not agree, for example, on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They did not agree on the size of the Soviet economy.

Seventeen American intelligence agencies all agree with high confidence that Russia tried to affect the outcome of the American election.

[22:54:58] And they issued a joint document which said, a, Putin personally ordered it, b, he did it because of the reason you mentioned in the last segment, which is that he believed that Hillary Clinton tried to stop his return to power.

Remember there was a period where he was prime minister trying to come back as president. Hillary came out in favor of Russian demonstrations at the time.

LEMON: I have 30 seconds left here, and I hate to give you short trip, but what can we expect Monday night with this Putin special? It can become at a more timely manner.

ZAKARIA: Unbelievable program that everyone should watch. I think what we really try to explain is who is Putin and what is he after. You know, we've spent all this time talking about Putin and Trump, but what is Putin trying to get up, what is his goal?

LEMON: What's interesting is President Trump should be the most powerful man in the world, but because of his actions towards Putin he's made Putin the most powerful man in the world.

ZAKARIA: I think that's true. And I think that is probably I imagine the title of this documentary will give him no pleasure, but of course he doesn't watch CNN.

LEMON: He'll be watching Monday night. Trust. Thank you, Fareed Zakaria. I appreciate that. You can see Fareed Zakaria GPS Sunday at 10 p.m. and 1 p.m. Eastern. Plus, Fareed expose the relationsip between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in a new CNN special report, The Most Powerful Man in World. We're talking about Vladimir Putin, that's Monday night at 9.

Have a great weekend. Thank you again. We'll be right back. [23:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)