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Flynn Offers to Testify in Exchange for Immunity; Flynn's Lawyer: "He Certainly has a Story to Tell"; Policy Shift on Syria? Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 31, 2017 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- citing history, saying, well, U.S./Russia relations are nearing a new low. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESMAN: New Cold War? Well, maybe even worse -- maybe even worse, taking into account actions of the present presidential administration.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Sara Murray joins us at the White House for more. What else are we hearing?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. Well, the White House consistently over the last couple weeks has tried to downplay the Russia story as a media-generated controversy. But it's worth noting in the wake of the president's tweet this morning, that FBI Director James Comey, while he was on the Hill said that their investigation into Russia began in July, which is, of course, months before we knew the election results.

Now, Adam Schiff, the top ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is looking into Russia's meddling in the U.S. election and any potential collusion between Trump associates and suspected Russian operatives, also had some thoughts today about the president's tweet. He tweeted back, "The question for you, Mr. President, is why you waited so long to act after you learned Flynn (through your VP) had misled the country?"

Now, of course, Michael Flynn is looking for immunity in exchange for his testimony. His lawyer says that that is only the prudent thing to do, but let's flash back for a second to what president Trump and Mike Flynn had to say about immunity when it came to Hillary Clinton's associates.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MICHARL FLYNN (RET), FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: When you are given immunity that means that you've probably committed a crime.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And if you're not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for, right?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MURRAY: My, how their tone has changed in the wake of recent events. Now, apparently, in their view, immunity and seeking immunity is no longer an indication that you are guilty or may have something to hide. Back to you, Poppy.

HARLOW: NBD, no big deal. Sara Murray, thank you very much.

Now to a developing story on the Hill, this morning, "The New York Times" reporting that House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes, that he was given that highly sensitive Intel by staffers inside the White House. So, that reporting adding to the bipartisan firestorm that Nunes is too cozy with the very administration that he's investigating.

Manu Raju is on the Hill with more. So, you don't have Congress in session today. He's back. Thinking about this a lot, I'm sure, in his home state of California. What are you hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right, and Democrats trying to figure out this central question -- what did Devin Nunes know and how did he get to learn it? Meaning, exactly the information that he saw that he only - he's seen so far that nobody else on the House Intelligence Committee has seen. That this information with some Trump communications or apparently incidentally collected during U.S. surveillance operations.

And how did he come into possession of that information. Who arranged for his visit? Now, the reports show that two or even three White House officials were involved in this effort. The question is about why the White House would try to engineer this to give it to Mr. Nunes to later brief the president before talking to the rest in his committee.

All in light of that president's, so far, unsubstantiated claim that he was wiretapped under the orders of Barack Obama. Now, Adam Schiff addressed all the questions that are surrounding this yesterday. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The timing certainly looks fortuitous and probably more than fortuitous. But for the letter, it said that the ranking member had been asking to review these materials, which, of course, I have. That suggests, of course, that these are the same materials that the chairman has reviewed.

And if that's the case, it begs the question, why all of the subterfuge, if that's what it was? Maybe there's an innocent explanation here. I don't understand it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, both the House Democrats and the House Republicans are trying to finalize witness lists, Poppy, for people that they actually want to interview going forward. And they're trying to come to some sort of consensus on who they can interview publicly and privately. The question, also now that Michael Flynn apparently wants some immunity in exchange for testimony. That is something not actually going over particularly well with House Democrats on that committee, pushing back on that notion.

Senate Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee and Senate Democrats are being very quiet about that immunity offer. So we'll see when Michael Flynn comes forward. But we do know that there's a lot of interest in talking to him as well as some other Trump associates. We'll see if any deal is cut, but right now it doesn't seem like there are any takers, Poppy.

HARLOW: All right, Manu Raju. Thank you so much for that reporting. Let's talk about all of the headlines with our panel. Alice Stewart is here, our political commentator and a Republican strategist. Steve Israel joins us, a former Democratic Congressman from New York, as well as Laura Coates, our legal analyst and a former federal prosecutor.

I've got to start with you, Laura. So, Flynn wants immunity, the president wants Flynn to get immunity, even they both - you know, they both said very different things about what it means if you are granted immunity just last year.

[10:05:04] How likely do you think it is that the FBI would actually grant him immunity, though?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST AND FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I mean, it's obvious why one would want immunity if you really do have some criminal liability or exposure. But the bigger question is why would the FBI give it to you?

There are three conditions. One, I've got to actually not already have the information that you want to tell me. Two, I have to believe that the information you are going to tell me, and probably most importantly to them, will it implicate somebody who's a bigger fish? Remember, immunity works under the theory of the fish rots from the head. Who is above you, or at least your same level that you can implicate in some way.

If that's not there to entice the FBI there may be no incentive to do so. But ultimately, this seems to be from the letter that he's written through his lawyer a matter of personal, perhaps professional vindication. And if that's simply the motivation, there's nothing more that would actually be able to illuminate the issue for the FBI.

They don't have a lot of incentive, except, Poppy, as you know, we've talked about. There is a lot of smoke, which means a lot of circumstantial evidence. And if that's the case, if there's no smoking gun, his testimony may be useful and invited, based with immunity to say piece together these different aspects of circumstantial evidence to give us a complete picture.

HARLOW: Alice, as a Republican strategist, what do you make of the strategy of the White House this morning, or at least the president this morning, who is tweeting, yes, he agrees that Flynn should get immunity, and therefore, it seems like he's encouraging him to tell his story.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, its shades of Hillary Clinton days, back when a lot of her people sought immunity back when they were undergoing questioning. -

HARLOW: Five of them got it.

STEWART: Absolutely. Five of them got it. And they also claimed there was a witch hunt here. Look, I'm not reading too much into the fact that he is seeking immunity for a lot of reasons, some of which Laura mentioned.

But also, you have to consider, is he also concerned about he might possibly get caught up in a technicality. We know they didn't file the proper disclosure papers when he is going through his security clearance. That could hang him up, and also his conversations with Russians during the transition period. So, he doesn't want to get caught up in that technicality while he's testifying about these other issues. So that makes perfect sense.

But that being said to Laura's point, there certainly is a lot of smoke here and who knows if it will lead to a fire. I would also imagine these other people that have offered to testify, Manafort, Roger Stone and others. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear them seeking immunity as well -- in exchange for their testimony. But, certainly, more than anything, it is better we're getting information now. And hopefully, we can put this part of the investigation behind us so we can look at the real threat, which is Russian interference in our elections.

HARLOW: I mean, no question he and all these folks can be and will be compelled to testify. The question is do they say anything or do they just take the fifth (ph) over and over and over?

Congressman Israel, to you, let me read you what Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intel Committee, just tweeted this morning about all of this. He tweeted, "The public should learn a lot more about why General Flynn wants immunity when Sally Yates testifies before the House Intelligence Committee." So, he's up in arms over what he calls this politicization -- I cannot say that word -- on Nunes' behalf, but isn't he also adding to that by tweeting things like this and then not giving any more details?

STEVE ISRAEL (D), FORMER NEW YORK CONGRESSMAN: First of all, Poppy, let me say that whether immunity is a good idea or a bad idea, lawyerly or not. There are three words that no politician at any level wants to hear in their narrative, and that is immunity from prosecution. And that is the narrative.

With respect to Congressman Schiff's comments, look, you have a chairman of the Intelligence Committee who is supposed to be bipartisan, who has consistently tried to protect the political interests of the White House. And the ranking member has an obligation to call him out on that. The ranking member has an obligation to set the record straight.

Right now, you don't have a straight record. You have hearings that were canceled, witnesses who were supposed to testify who were then told they would not testify, trips to the White House. Now two White House officials, who may have used classified information in order to advance the president's political agenda, silence in the face of that bias is not an option for Congressman Schiff.

HARLOW: But is Schiff -- OK, but my question to you was, is he just adding to sort of the politics swirling around this by tweeting things like this that leave, frankly, a lot more questions than answers?

ISRAEL: Look, I think you've got to get this information out in the public. In my view, Chairman Nunes is doing everything he can to withhold information, not to share that information with the Intelligence Committee and with the American people. Congressman Schiff has an obligation and a right to tweet and to make sure that the American people know exactly what the issues are and what's at stake.

HARLOW: So, one of the things that makes this legally all the more complicated, Laura Coates, is that it is the Department of Justice that would grant this immunity or not grant this immunity. And Sessions, AG, has recused himself from all things Russia. So then, where does that put us?

[10:10:01] COATES: Exactly. You would think that -- you need to have the authorization of the Department of Justice to give immunity at this level. Remember, the immunity they're seeking is basically prosecution from whatever it is you learn from what I tell you. And we're at the very early, although it's since July, stages of an investigation.

So, without a deputy attorney general firmly in place who's already been peppered with questions about how they will deal with the Russian investigation and whether they will appoint a special prosecutor, Jeff Sessions' recusal now has exponential implications for down the line. And you would think because this is based on the campaign dealings with the Trump administration and Sessions is a part of that, perhaps it would have been to the benefit of the Trump administration if Sessions had stayed on and perhaps denied immunity, allowing him not to testify to the way he wanted to testify.

HARLOW: So, the White House, Sean Spicer -- no one's given up on asking these questions over and over to him, but I want to play for you guys back to back his responses to these questions, both on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, and then we'll assess where we are now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: But when the information that is occurring now, which is two individuals who are properly cleared, or three, or whoever he met with, I don't know, that they are sharing something that is entirely legal with the appropriate clearances, and then there's an obsession on the process. And again, I understand that when things are leaked out in the media, that somehow, that is a standard that's acceptable but when two people who are cleared to discuss classified information, or three, or however many, discuss classified information, somehow, that's wrong because it's not being leaked.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: It's kind of odd, Alice, because then he said on Thursday, I can't talk about this, I don't have any more information.

STEWART: There's such a back and forth and back and forth. It is confusing. Look, I've always supported Nunes in his efforts to when he has information, he goes -- he and Schiff, at the time, would go right to the media and put it all out there so they wouldn't have to answer a million questions, and that is the right way of going about doing it. But when he went to the press and to the White House before he went to his colleagues on the committee, that's when things started not to add up and started to raise questions.

Now, the questions are whether he is working to protect the president or whether he is working to seek justice. And there's such a colossal effort to find information to vindicate or validate the president's tweets. Everything, the truth and justice has gotten lost in all of this.

So, in my view, I think the best thing moving forward forget about who gave the information to him on the White House, whether he got there in an Uber or a cab. That's irrelevant. I think we need to bring in someone new, someone independent, and seek justice in this case, because right now there's too much politics involved -- that's clouding our efforts to seek justice.

HARLOW: Alice Stewart, thank you so much, Laura Coates, to you as well. Congressman Steve Israel, you get the first answer next time because we ran out of time. Thank you.

ISRAEL: Sounds good. Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. Still to come for us, we are on top of this fast- moving story and all of the developments on General Flynn and how the White House is messaging all of it. Also, the clash between the president and the House Freedom Caucus -- is that really the way to get to yes on health care, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:17:00] HARLOW: So, former national security advisor Michael Flynn says he's going to tell his story, he's got a story to tell, but he wants a deal. As for the president, he says, go for it. But is the White House sending mixed messages? Craig Fuller is here, he's the former assistant for Cabinet Affairs for President Reagan and former Chief of Staff for President George H.W. Bush when he served as vice president. I said, Craig, you need a picture of Reagan behind you like Jeffrey Lord. CRAIG FULLER, FORMER ASSISTANT FOR CABINET AFFAIRS TO PRESIDENT REAGAN: You know, I'm rarely working, I try to stay neutral here, Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. All right, all right. So, with your neutral hat on, let's talk about someone. You worked in the White House. You worked under Bush 41 when he was vice president. We are 71 days in right now. I just want your take overall on the messaging that we're getting from the White House. Sean Spicer taking to the lectern every day and basically saying I've got nothing more for you on this Russia stuff and then the president encouraging Flynn to tell his story and to get immunity. What do you make of it?

FULLER: You know it's just so combative. And it seems to me it's also highly distractive from the work that people want to be done there on health care and trade policy and tax policy, that sort of thing. I think every time they talk about this Russia situation and the investigations, they're digging themselves into a deeper hole. I know it's difficult to leave it alone.

I think they ought to take a page out of Director Comey's book and show what it looks like to just say there's nothing more I have to say on that, and move on. And to actually be engaging in the question of whether or not a witness should have immunity from the Oval Office or wherever the tweet originated is just something I have never seen before. It makes no sense at all.

HARLOW: Then is the president through tweets like what we just saw this morning about this making it worse for the White House, making it harder for his staff?

FULLER: You know, there's every reason for the president and the staff around him to want him to be part of a story. But the story you don't want to be a part of is one in which you're having a former national security advisor investigated. The story you want to be a part of is the work of the administration. And every time there's a tweet, every time there's messaging along those lines it simply drags him back into the story.

And the notion that you would have, members of the White House staff, supposedly based on the reports, having a congressman come down - chairman come down to provide the information puts them (INAUDIBLE) there are not plenty of ways, there is a proper way to get information appropriate for an investigation to the Congress, a secret meeting in the old executive office building is not the path.

HARLOW: How -- given that you did work in the White House, how rare or unheard of is that, what "The New York Times" is reporting, what Maggie Haberman and her team broke, that these two White House officials were the ones who called Nunes down to the White House to show him this information? Is that just unprecedented?

[10:20:00] FULLER: Well, not to raise something that was somewhat unpleasant, but I lived through the Iran-Contra issue. We turned over thousands and thousands of documents and had many interviews and conversations, but again, all through a proper channel of document discovery.

First of all, whatever you find in one document is perhaps interesting, but it only becomes relevant to an investigation when it's looked at in the context of many other conversations and issues. So, just one piece of information is not terribly helpful, and delivering it in this manner gives it perhaps far more credence than it deserves. We just don't know.

But my point is, yes, it is unprecedented to be delivering information this way to a chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

HARLOW: Look, more shake-up inside the president's inner circle. Former -- current until yesterday, now former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh is leaving the White House. She's going to the south side group America First. The White House line on this, it is quote, "air cover" because they saw with the failure of the health care bill. They need help pushing their message and agenda outside of the White House. She is, you know, former RNC. She's tight with Reince Priebus. How do you read this? Is there more there? Is this about the president's inner circle changing a lot, and what do you think it means for Reince Priebus?

FULLER: So, I don't want to suggest I actually have insight into this particular move. It does make sense for somebody that has a close relationship, professional relationship with the chief of staff, to go out and take on something like this.

But I think probably there is going to be a broader shaking out in the White House. It occurs in most White Houses. You have a lot of people who are involved in the campaign who have come into the White House. And I think they need more discipline, and that's going to only come as you begin to, you know, shake out some of that staff inside the White House.

HARLOW: All right, final thing. I want to get your take on what vice president -- former vice president Joe Biden said yesterday. Let's play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you could give president Trump one piece of advice, what would it be?

JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Grow up. Stop tweeting. You know? And start focusing.

The words of a president matter. They have enormous, enormous, enormous, reverberating sounds around the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: You know, he says that the president needs to stop tweeting and grow up, your take? He's being very vocal.

FULLER: Well, it is terribly important for the words of a president to matter. He needs to build a majority for his legislative initiatives. People have to be able to trust him. And the sideshow that occurs on occasion with tweets is not helpful to it.

I once operated on the premise that every day we'd try to put sort of political capital in the bank for the president, knowing that it was going to have to be spent. President Reagan got a tax bill passed. He got budget bills passed with majorities in a House that was controlled by the other party, by the Democrats.

That's only possible if you really build trusting relationships, if you respect both the members of your own party and the opposition party, and that needs to happen if there are going to be any kind of legislative successes down the road in this first year.

HARLOW: Craig Fuller, nice to have you on. I can't wait to see the photo behind you next time we have you on, who you choose. We'll see you again. Thank you.

FULLER: I'll work on it.

HARLOW: All right, still come for us, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson overseas and making some major headlines. Did he just signal a major policy shift on the U.S. stance on Syria's dictator? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:28:08] HARLOW: Is the United States' position on Syria's dictator dramatically shifting? New words from the nation's top diplomat raised that exact question. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: At the same time, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said "Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out." She went on to say, "We can't necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration did."

So, what does this really mean? Our senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward is here with more on this in her very special report "ISIS: Behind the Mask," which airs tonight. So, we'll get to that in a moment. I mean, yes, the Obama administration used different words when it came to Assad, but they didn't use different actions.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, exactly. I think the rhetoric of the Obama administration never actually really matched the reality on the ground. What you're hearing from the Trump administration is significant only because does it potentially portend the possibility that the U.S. is now considering working with the Russians together in Syria to fight ISIS? Could that even mean they would work with the Russians and the Syrian regime to fight ISIS?

And I think a lot of people would be very concerned that that might be a very short-sighted strategy, because the very reason that ISIS and extremist groups like it have continued to thrive in Syria and Iraq is because they tell people, America doesn't care about you, Muslims, America doesn't care -- the west doesn't care about you, they're willing to let you hang out to dry, essentially, and leave you to the savagery and the brutality of the Assad regime, and this potentially really reinforces that message.

HARLOW: Yes, it's why Senator Lindsey Graham basically said it is nuts. You're helping Russia and Iran with this kind of language.

All right, so, let's turn to your report. It's a special hour tonight on CNN, "ISIS: Behind the Mask." Before we talk about it, here's a clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARD (voice-over): Younnes denies committing atrocities in Syria --