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Investigators Eye Meetings Between Trump Camp, Russians; Susan Rice: 'I Leaked Nothing to Nobody'; House, Senate Intel Panels Meet Behind Closed Doors; GOP Tries to Revive Plan to Replace ACA. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired April 4, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... and she said, "My eyes are no longer able to cry, it's been that painful." And that pain is what connects us.
TAPPER: Keep us posted on this. Reza Flores (ph), thanks so much.
[17:00:12] That's it for me. I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: breaking news. Odd timing. Investigators look into the timing of meetings during the transition between Russians and Trump advisers and whether they discussed easing U.S. sanctions. Was one campaign advisor once a recruiting target for Russian spies?
Unmasked charade. Accused of unmasking Trump associates whose names may have been gathered by U.S. intelligence, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice says she never leaked anything and never used intelligence for political purposes.
BLITZER: Health care rebill. The Trump White House tries once more to persuade conservatives to go along with a plan to replace Obamacare, but any changes that conservatives could accept may be a nonstarter for everyone else.
And North Korea's big heist. A chilling new report links Kim Jong- un's regime linked to cyber-attacks on banks around the world. Are the proceeds being used to fund North Korea's nuclear and missile programs?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees both go behind closed doors as new developments come to light in their probes of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
A congressional intelligence source says investigators are looking into the timing of meetings between people close to Donald Trump and Russian officials during the transition and whether they talked about easing U.S. sanctions. The ranking Democrat on the House panel, Adam Schiff, says his committee's investigation seems back on track. And a top Republican says there's agreement on witnesses to be interviewed. Schiff says new information is coming in daily and that possible
collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is one of the core issues. He says the White House wants investigators to lose their focus and says the White House is trying to conflate the unmasking of people picked up in incidental intelligence with leaking.
President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, flatly denies that she leaked anything. And she says she never used government secrets for political ends. Rice says if Trump associates were speaking with foreign officials who were under surveillance, their names could have been gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies and unmasked as part of the job.
I'll talk to Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
Let's begin with the investigation into Russia's meddling in the U.S. election and possible links with the Trump campaign. CNN's Jessica Schneider is joining us with new details.
What are you learning, Jessica?
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, details are emerging about two more people in President Trump's orbit who had met with Russian officials. And the one meeting that's drawing some scrutiny now happened just days before the inauguration. That's drawing attention from the FBI.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Investigators on Capitol Hill are raising questions about meetings between Russian officials and individuals with ties to Trump and whether the loosening of Russian sanctions was discussed. The FBI is looking into a meeting between Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, and a Russian connected to President Vladimir Putin nine days before the inauguration in the Seychelles Islands, according to "The Washington Post." Prince donated $250,000 to the campaign and is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Prince's spokesperson told CNN that the meeting had nothing to do with Trump, and the White House today denied any knowledge of the meeting.
Ambassador Nick Burns was a career foreign service officer for more than two decades and says back-channel meetings like these aren't how transitions usually operate.
NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: What normally happens is the president waits until January 20 and then becomes president and exercises the full responsibility of office. But there was no reason to find some Russian business person or some contact with the Russian government when you could easily have asked the State Department or the Obama administration.
SCHNEIDER: Senator John McCain said the revelations make clear oversight is necessary.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I make it as another shoe and another aspect of this unfolding drama that is going to be with us for a long time. And that's why we need an overall investigation of all aspects of it.
SCHNEIDER: The House Intelligence Committee is working to restart its investigation after partisan breakdowns, while the Senate Intelligence Committee is lining up witnesses to interview, including former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and Carter Page. Former foreign policy adviser Page admits that in 2013 he met with Victor Podobnyy, who turned out to be a Russian spy.
[17:05:05] Core documents show Podobnyy was recorded by the FBI referring to Carter Page, identified in these documents as Male-1, and describing his efforts to recruit Page as an intelligence source.
"Male-1 wrote that he is sorry he went to Moscow and forgot to check his inbox. He flies to Moscow more often than I do."
Page insists he believed Podobnyy was working at Moscow's United Nations office in New York and stressed he only shard "basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents on energy policy. In doing so I provided him nothing more than a few samples from the far more detailed lectures I was preparing at the time."
The Trump team has tried to distance themselves from Carter Page, even though then candidate Trump talked about Page's contribution to the election effort in March 2016.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You might be announcing your foreign policy advisory team soon, if there's anything you can share on that.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to be -- Carter Page, Ph.D.
SCHNEIDER: It turns out the Russian spy Carter Page communicated with was part of the same spy ring as another man employed by VEB Bank. That's the state-sponsored Russian bank whose chairman met with Jared Kushner back in December 2016 at the height of the transition and at the request of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jessica Schneider reporting. Thank you.
A new round in the battle over who unmasked whom. Now a top former Obama official is speaking out. CNN senior congressional reporter Manu Raju has been looking into this for us.
Manu, what's the latest?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, House and Senate Republicans are raising questions about former Obama national security advisor Susan Rice and her role in allegedly unmasking the names of Trump officials who were having communications with foreign officials.
Now, Republicans say this needs to be part of the broadening investigation into Russia and those allegations of coordination with the Trump campaign, but tonight Wolf, Susan Rice is pushing back.
RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, former President Barack Obama's national security adviser under fire for allegedly seeking to learn the names of Trump operatives communicating with foreign officials.
SUSAN RICE, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That's absolutely false.
RAJU: She insists that asking for the identities of Americans swept up in intelligence reports was part of her job as national security adviser.
RICE: There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to: name not provided, just "U.S. person." And sometimes in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that U.S. official was.
RAJU: Republicans are skeptical and say the matter warrants further investigation.
MCCAIN: If it's the case, of course, it's just dereliction of duty. There are certain protocols that that person is very aware of, and if it's true -- but, first of all, we have to have factual evidence.
RAJU: And the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is not ruling out asking Rice to testify.
SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: If there's intelligence that leads to her, she'll be part of the -- our review.
RAJU: Democrats say there's nothing unusual about the unmasking of individuals in intelligence reports and say the White House is seizes on Rice's alleged role to distract from the larger Russia investigation and to provide cover for the president's unsubstantiated tweets that Obama ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: I haven't seen anything that indicates that there was some effort to surveil or wiretap candidate Trump and his team. There's nothing to justify the tweets that he sent out. But we will be more than happy to review any concerns that are raised about incidental collection.
RAJU: The Rice controversy, the latest in the saga that began when Republican Chairman Devin Nunes went to the White House last month to brief the president on intelligence he said showed some Trump officials communications were incidentally picked up. Nunes refusing to answer questions today.
(on camera): Can you stop for a second? Answer some -- take one good second.
REP. DEVIN NUNES (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: No. No, I've got into the...
RAJU: Nunes told House Speaker Paul Ryan that the information came from a whistle-blower, but it was later revealed at least two White House officials were reportedly involved in letting Nunes access the information.
What gives you confidence it was a whistle-blower and that Mr. -- Chairman Nunes...
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-MN), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I don't know who it was, but Chairman Nunes has my confidence.
Reporter: now, Wolf, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee earlier today were briefed on the contents of that information that both Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff saw in those separate briefings at the White House.
And today, also we're learning that the House and Senate Intelligence Committee as a whole will get a chance to look at that information. We don't have the date when, but that information will also be part of this broadening information on Capitol Hill, Wolf.
BLITZER: Very interesting. All right, Manu, thank you. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.
[17:10:02] Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. He's a member of both the Intelligence and the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Thanks for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's get through some of this. Your investigation, as you know, has been quiet since Chairman Devin Nunes went to the White House to brief the president. Since then, you and other Democrats on the Intelligence Committee have called on Nunes to recuse himself from this investigation. But your committee got back to work today. How did that meeting go?
CASTRO: Well, it was good. You know, compared to the last few weeks, it was good. And we've said very clearly that, first we preferred an independent commission after Devin Nunes did what he did and went to the White House to get the information and then gave it right back to the president. We said that he should recuse himself.
But most of all, we've said that we're not going to let this investigation go. Whatever form it takes, we're going to make sure that we're there to get to the bottom of whether any Americans conspired with the Russians who interfered with our 2016 elections.
BLITZER: So do you still have faith in Devin Nunes as the chairman of the committee to investigate this very sensitive issue, Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election?
CASTRO: Well, I would prefer a different chairman at this point. But it is what it is. We don't get to make that decision, and as long as there is an investigation that's going to happen, we want to make sure that it moves forward, that we call our witnesses, that we subpoena documents if we have to and that we get to the truth in the end.
BLITZER: Republican Congressman Peter King says investigators have now agreed on a witness list to appear before your committee. Who will investigators be talking to?
CASTRO: Well, you know, I can't disclose those names. But you can imagine, a lot of the usual suspects that have been bantered about in the media. And hopefully, it will be a comprehensive list. I know that it's also subject to change and to expansion; and most of all, we have to make sure that it's comprehensive and that we get to the truth.
BLITZER: I would also like your reaction to these reports of a secret January meeting between a top Trump donor and a Russian close to Vladimir Putin. We should note that we don't know the content of what was discussed at all at that meeting, so it wasn't necessarily improper. Still, there are questions, I assume questions you would like answered. What are they?
CASTRO: Well, most of all, Wolf, what we keep seeing is this pattern with the Trump administration where they've not been honest or forthright about the deep connections that many on the Trump team have to Russia, Russian agents, Russia businesspersons. And that is just one more tale that's coming to light, if the reports are to be believed. We haven't been believed on them in the committee, but if the reports are accurate, it is one more tale and one more deep connection between the Trump team and Russia.
BLITZER: We do know the FBI is already looking into this meeting that occurred back in January during the transition. What more can your committee uncover, as opposed, let's say,, to the FBI?
CASTRO: Well, when you look at the totality of the facts, it's clear that Russia achieved a deep infiltration of the Trump team and a deep infiltration of the United States government. And those are the things that we need to uncover. Those connections.
BLITZER: What about the revelations that another Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, in this particular case, met back in 2013 with a Russian spy? That was well before Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president. Does that still concern you?
CASTRO: Absolutely. The fact that he had these strong connections with Russia, that he became a foreign policy adviser for Donald Trump, what you see with Trump's campaign is this constant picking up of more and more people who have all these strong Russia connections, and it's amazing that in this relatively small campaign, small circle, so to speak, that you would have so many people with so many deep connections to Russia.
BLITZER: So what does that say to you? What's your fear?
CASTRO: Well, there's certainly, as all Americans have seen by now, quite a lot of smoke. The investigation is to determine whether there's a fire or not.
BLITZER: Well, have you seen any hard evidence of collusion yet?
CASTRO: I guess I would say this: that my impression is I wouldn't be surprised, after all of this is said and done, that some people end up in jail.
BLITZER: Really? And how high does that go in your suspicion? That's all we can call it right now.
CASTRO: Well, that's yet to be determined.
BLITZER: But you think some people are going to wind up in jail, not just one individual, but people plural? Is that what you're saying?
CASTRO: That's my impression, yes.
BLITZER: You want to elaborate a little bit on that, give us a little bit more? Because that's obviously a very intriguing statement.
CASTRO: I wish I could, but I can't at this time.
BLITZER: But at this point, you're confident that at least some Trump associates will wind up in jail?
CASTRO: If I was betting, I would say yes.
BLITZER: Including some who are still -- who are working in the new administration, or people who worked or advised the president during the campaign and maybe during the transition?
[17:15:10] CASTRO: As you can imagine, Wolf, I'll have to comment on that later. But again, if somebody asked me my impression, I would -- my impression is that people will probably be charged and, I think, people will probably go to jail.
BLITZER: Without sharing the evidence, because I know it's classified, but do you believe there's enough evidence already, evidence that you've seen that would justify someone going to jail or some people going to jail?
CASTRO: If the claims hold up, most likely.
BLITZER: Really? All right. Well, that's pretty shocking to hear that.
Another important issue. As you know, President Trump and many of his aides, they're seizing on these reports that President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, may have requested the unmasking of Trump advisers included in U.S. intelligence reports. Have you seen any evidence that Susan Rice did anything illegal or improper?
CASTRO: I have not. And I just caught a part of her interview today. She said that she's willing to be helpful, you know, and I read from that obviously she has nothing to hide. She was doing her job legally and properly.
Remember, as the national security adviser, she's the top adviser on national security to the president; and so the fact that she's dealing with all this sensitive and highly-classified information should not be a surprise to anyone. The ranking member, Adam Schiff, has said, and we all agree, that there are instances where it's proper to unmask a name of somebody, because you need to figure out the significance of that connection and what kind of threat that poses to national security.
BLITZER: The ranking Democrat on your committee, as you point out, Adam Schiff, he says the White House is now trying to conflate unmasking with actual leaking. Do you believe Chairman Nunes is participating in that effort?
CASTRO: That I can't be sure about, Wolf. I do think that -- it seems as though the episode of him going to the White House, receiving the information the way he did, perhaps by White House staffers, and then going back the next day and delivering that same information to the president in another part of the White House, seems quite odd to everybody.
BLITZER: I know you haven't seen that evidence, that information yet, although Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes have seen the exact same information that the White House shared with them. But I do understand both of them briefed you and your committee colleagues on that information. Give us a description as best as you can, what you learned.
CASTRO: About that information?
CASTRO: As you mentioned, Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes have both seen it. We have not seen it yet so...
BLITZER: But did they brief you on it?
CASTRO: We have not been briefed yet, no.
BLITZER: Because we were under the impression they already had briefed you. But you anticipate in the coming days you'll see that exact same information?
CASTRO: Yes, I expect that we'll see it very soon. I think we absolutely should see it before the recess, the two-week recess that we're going to take at the end of this week. BLITZER: All right. Congressman, there's more to discuss. We're
getting more information. Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:22:38] BLITZER: We're talking with Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence Committee. Congressman, stand by.
We're getting some other news, and I want you to react to it. After an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the House conservatives, now the Trump administration, the Republican congressional leaders are once again giving their Obamacare replacement plan at least another try.
I want to quickly go to our White House correspondent, Sara Murray. Sara, what's the latest?
SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. They are trying to give it another go, at least through some back-room negotiations. So far no consensus on how health care might proceed. And even though the president and his top aides say they want to get a deal done, you wouldn't have guessed it by what President Trump had to say publicly today.
MURRAY (voice-over): As Republicans take another shot at reviving a health care plan, today the president is talking about anything but.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not and I don't want to be the president of the world. I'm the president of the United States.
Did you ever think you'd see a president who knows how much concrete and rebar you can lay down in a single day?
I've signed one action after another to eliminate job-killing regulations.
MURRAY: Donald Trump going out of his way to tell an NBC reporter on Monday evening that he's serious about renewing the push for health care reform.
But by Tuesday, Trump apparently had little appetite to tout those efforts.
MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a great privilege to be able to welcome you to the White House.
MURRAY: Instead, Vice President Pence appears to be tasked with much of the hard sell, after the administration's first bid to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsed last month.
PENCE: We continue to work earnestly with Congress for a new future on health care reform. And the president and I remain confident that working with the Congress, we will repeal and replace Obamacare with healthcare reform that will work for the American people and work for the American economy.
MURRAY: The V.P. even heading to Capitol Hill Tuesday evening for yet another healthcare meeting with members of Congress.
This as the White House floats a proposal to allow states to opt out of some Obamacare regulations, including a requirement forcing insurers to cover essential health benefits like maternity care and substance abuse.
But among Republicans, there's still no clear consensus that will appear both the moderates and conservative factions needed to pass legislation. Today House Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged conversations are ongoing but appeared to downplay expectations.
[17:25:10] RYAN: The vice president has been instrumental in bringing together the different groups from our conference to talk about concepts. So right now, we're just at that conceptual stage about how to move forward in a way that can get everybody to 216.
MURRAY: Even as some critics of the first replace and repeal effort expressed optimism that a solution could be in the works.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: My impression is that no one has given up on this. I've not given up. Freedom Caucus has not given up. I also don't think the White House has either.
MURRAY: Now pretty much all parties who were involved in the last failed attempt at this health care push are still feeling a little bit burned by that effort. To that end, White House press secretary Sean Spicer pointed out today that he didn't want to raise expectations as to where things are going with health care. Of course, remember, Wolf, Congress heads off for a two-week recess beginning at the end of this week.
BLITZER: I certainly remember. Thanks very much for that, Sara Murray.
We're back with Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. And quickly, what do you make of this attempt, Congressman, to try to revive this Republican health care bill which was pulled from consideration last month; they didn't have the votes?
CASTRO: Well, I've got to imagine, if Paul Ryan and the president are going to bring this bill back with the support of more members of the Freedom Caucus, which is basically the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, it means one of a few things.
No. 1, nothing in the bill has really changed; but many of those members have succumbed to the bullying on Twitter and by other means that Donald Trump has perpetrated against them.
Or it's also possible that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan have made the bill even worse, have moved it even further to the Rice to cater to the Freedom Caucus.
And so it will be interesting to see how exactly they think they're going to pick up those votes. But the bill was only supported by 17 percent of Americans, because it was so horrendous. Twenty-four million people would lose coverage. Even those who had a policy, their policy would not be worth the same thing it was worth before under the Affordable Care Act. And so this could be another disaster for them.
BLITZER: We're now being told, Congressman, that the vice president, Mike Pence, who himself served in the House of Representatives, he's got an 8:30 p.m. Eastern meeting scheduled later tonight with members of the Freedom Caucus to review where they stand, to see if they can get up to what they need, 216 votes, in order to get it through the House and send it to the Senate where we have no idea what's going to happen in the Senate. But let's see if it even comes up for another vote.
I want to quickly turn to this horrific chemical attack in Syria. You're on the Intelligence Committee. You've seen the images, dozens of people killed, including, unfortunately, so many children. Our Barbara Starr is reporting this appears to be a sarin attack and that the attack has the fingerprints of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The White House is saying President Obama's weakness -- President Obama's weakness and failure to uphold that red line he drew in Syria, led to this current sarin attack.
Just last week, the secretary of state, though, Rex Tillerson, said it was up to the Syrian people to pick their leaders and that removing President Bashar al-Assad was not necessarily a priority. Is the White House now being hypocritical, statements from Rex Tillerson but really blaming President Obama for this horrific war crime today?
CASTRO: The White House is being hypocritical, and most of all, they're not being helpful. Their policy has been all over the map, including giving Assad essentially free reign to do what he wants to do to his own people and also allowing the Russian to do what they want to do.
That video is absolutely devastating and horrific and I'm sure very hard to watch for Americans and people around the world. And so it really is a tragedy. I know the administration has now made a statement about it, but -- and I would also point out that, when President Obama was ready to take action in Syria, it was the Congress that refused to get together and issue an AUMF to work with the White House to essentially devise a strategy for Syria. So there was a lot of failure there. I hope that we can do a better job in the coming months and years.
BLITZER: AUMF authorization to the use -- the use of military force. But you -- but remember, just to be fair, Congressman, he did draw that red line. The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad used poison gas, launched that attack, and the U.S. didn't do much, if anything, about it.
CASTRO: Well, the strategy... BLITZER: The Congress didn't pass an authorization to use military force, but the president really didn't do anything responding to that red line threat.
CASTRO: Well, I would -- I would point out that the strategy really was a compromise, right? Because remember, after years of war in the middle east and Iraq and Afghanistan, quite honestly the American people were very wary of wars, you know, abroad.
And so the middle ground was a train and equip policy to try to help Syrians essentially take on those battles for themselves. Now, you know, obviously that was not as successful as we would wish that it had been, but there was a strategy to essentially start a resistance within the Syrian people.
BLITZER: Yes. That has been a -- turned out to be a disaster. What, 400,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria over these past several years.
CASTRO: I agree.
BLITZER: And I think you also agree, Congressman, if a president of the United States draws a red line and issues a warning like that and doesn't deliver after that warning is ignored, that's a big problem.
CASTRO: It certainly is. And I think the administration essentially recognized that by -- during its term and, you know, here we are.
BLITZER: Yes. All right. Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. We'll continue this conversation down the road. Thanks so much for joining us.
CASTRO: Thank you.
BLITZER: Coming up, the growing online threat from Kim Jong-un's hackers. We have new details of a report linking North Korea to attacks on banks in 18 countries.
[17:35:27] BLITZER: This afternoon's breaking news. Just now, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the House Intelligence Committee member, Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, predicted that some people will likely go to jail after the investigations of the Trump team's contacts with Russia.
Let's bring in our experts to discuss. And Chris Cillizza, you're the newest member of the CNN team. Welcome...
CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: Thank you.
BLITZER: ... to CNN. Editor at large, CNN Politics. Good to have you here.
That's pretty much of a bombshell. I haven't heard a member of the House or Senate Intelligence Committee yet say, based on what they have seen so far...
BLITZER: ... there is probably enough to send people to jail.
CILLIZZA: Neither have I. And what's hard is we don't -- because it's the Intelligence Committee, we don't know how much Joaquin Castro has seen versus how much Adam Schiff or Devin Nunes. Obviously, Schiff and Nunes have seen more. But we don't know.
But if you are ready to make that conclusion, Schiff has been relatively guarded about this, essentially saying, you know, "I'm not going to say there was collusion, but I do think what I've seen warrants more investigation." Now, that is different than what Joaquin Castro told you, which is there is criminal potential here.
The thing that is difficult for Donald Trump is, if he wants it to go away, if he wants this to go away, the only way to do so is say, "I'm going to answer every question. I'm going to encourage my people to answer any question. I've said there's no fire here; it's smoke but no fire."
Up until then or short of that, you're just going to see these stories day after day after day. It feels like every day. I ran through a list of people who have some connection to Russia and Trump, I mean, it's a very long list. And that's a big problem that's not going to go away.
BLITZER: Very good piece you wrote today for CNN.com, CNNPolitics.com.
You know, Brianna, we know there is a criminal investigation. The FBI director, James Comey, said when he testified before the House Intelligence Committee there is a criminal investigation underway, and it's actually, he says, been underway since last July.
So they're looking at possible crimes that may have been committed. But until today I haven't heard anybody from the Intelligence Committee say they think there's enough to send some people, not just one person, some people to jail.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And so you wonder how much of this is based in fact about the information that is out there and available that some -- could possibly, as Joaquin Castro says, send some folks to jail; how much of this is about politics.
Because remember, this is coming on the heels of what was a blunder by Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to President Obama. She handed a little bit of a victory to Donald Trump and the Trump White House, as everyone is focused very much on her comments.
So some of this, I think we're seeing played by both sides here, is about what are we focusing on as the media? Are we focusing on what Susan Rice said? Are we focusing on the fact that there are a lot of unusual contacts between former Trump campaign officials and Russian officials? Are we focusing on the Democratic member saying some people may go to jail? I think there's a competition here for the headline.
BLITZER: That's a pretty stark statement. Susan Hennessey, you're a former lawyer for the National Security Agency. You're familiar with the law in this particular case. Were you surprised to hear Joaquin Castro, the congressman, make that bold statement?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, FORMER LAWYER FOR NSA: All right. So just to clarify, Director Comey says that there is an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, and that counterintelligence investigation included an inquiry into whether or not there were any -- any criminal conduct on behalf of U.S....
BLITZER: This is exactly what he said. He said, "A s with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed."
HENNESSEY: Right. Exactly. So that criminal element is always an inherent part of counterintelligence investigations, which makes it notable that he felt the need to sort of specifically call that out.
BLITZER: Because it was extraordinary, A, that he said that there was even an investigation. FBI doesn't even talk about investigations. But then he went into specifics and said counterintelligence investigation and whether any crimes were committed. That was extraordinary and sent a powerful message, in and of itself. But he didn't go as far as Joaquin Castro, predicting that individuals will wind up in jail.
HENNESSEY: And look, it's relatively rare for a counterintelligence investigation to lead to criminal prosecutions. This is very sensitive intelligence. The laws here are fairly technical in nature. So it's unusual, right, to see charging -- charges under the Espionage Act and that sort of thing.
Now, what Representative Castro may be referencing is seeing evidence of other types of sort of clear criminal conduct. So somebody lying on clearance forms or lying to federal prosecutors. That's kind of -- that's the thing that commonly gets people, sort of those lesser crimes.
[17:40:07] And we've heard allegations about violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act; FCPA, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations. There's all these different sort of rules and players, and some are only tangentially connected to Russia; some are only tangentially connected to Donald Trump. It's a very sort of murky situation.
And so I think sort of for now statements like that, if they aren't backed by evidence, we have to sort of dismiss and take with a grain of salt. It's largely political rhetoric.
BLITZER: So what you're saying is, to make a legal case and to file criminal charges against someone in an intelligence claim like this, it's hard, because you may have to release classified information. HENNESSEY: Right. And ultimately that decision is for the Department
of Justice to make. And so the fact that a member of Congress thinks that it's the kind of thing that should be charged, it's not quite the same as saying DOJ is likely to have charges here.
CILLIZZA: But to Susan's point, it -- the murkiness may actually help from a legal perspective. It is terrible from a political perspective. In that there are so many questions. It feels like every day, there's a story. This one has some connection, or they met with him. From a political perspective, it's dominating every week of Donald Trump's presidency to date. He has done things that -- regulatory rollback, a number of things that Republicans and conservatives will cheer, drowned out. This is to Brianna's point about message. What message breaks through? Right now the Russia message just over and over again.
BLITZER: We've got more to discuss. There are other developments unfolding. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:46:11] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with our experts. And, Susan Hennessy, let me start with you. Rand Paul, the senator, he's coming to the defense of the President saying that the new revelations about unmasking of American individuals and surveillance, eerily similar, he says, to what the President tweeted about almost exactly a month ago. Listen to Senator Paul.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: We used the term wiretapping to mean eavesdropping, so now we know that someone in the Obama administration was eavesdropping and specifically searching a database --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do we know that?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where did you get that?
PAUL: -- looking for the Trump people, that's a big deal. It is a huge deal that we are collecting millions of Americans' phone calls and that someone can go to a keyboard and put your name in and search it without a warrant. This is an illegal, warrantless search.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You worked with the National Security Agency, you're a lawyer. Is he right?
SUSAN HENNESSY, MANAGING EDITOR, LAWFARE: No. So Senator Paul seems to be a little confused here. So what he's describing is something that's fundamentally unrelated, something that occurs in the 702 program, what's known as the backdoor search loophole. Now, this has been a pet sort of reform issue for Senator Paul for
many years. So the question is whether or not he is genuinely confused. There's absolutely no evidence that this was involved. In this case, it's completely unrelated to this unmasking question.
So, really, the issue is, is he intentionally capitalizing on sort of the general state of confusion in order to push sort of his pet reform issue, or is he sort of fundamentally confused about the way these different legal authorities work?
BLITZER: Yes. And I've looked at those tweets that the President tweeted a month ago, including "How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon Watergate. Bad or sick guy."
I haven't seen any similarities, any confirmation of those four tweets, based on what we've learned so far.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: I think you've seen for the last month an allegation in search of evidence, and I think that's what you continue to see. Again, trying to align surveillance -- well, it's all the same stuff -- well, that's not -- well, what -- President Obama may not have done it.
What we know, according to Jim Comey, according to James Clapper, according to Devin Nunes, Wolf, is this did not happen the way those tweets that you just read said it happened. Now, we can debate Susan Rice. We can debate other things, but that we know is not true.
BLITZER: And, Brianna, the White House and the President and his supporters, they think they've got something going now.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: With what Susan Rice has said?
KEILAR: That's right because this is an issue, what she said, because you cannot say what she said, which was that, you know, she knows nothing about it. She knows nothing about what? She knows nothing about, this is what she was referring to, the incidental collection of intelligence of Trump campaign officials. So secondary, right? Because the idea being that foreign officials are being targeted, and they were sort of caught up in this because they were talking to the foreign officials.
You can't say that if it also true that you requested to unmask, even for a completely, not necessarily benign, but for a very good purpose of national security, to unmask the identities of Trump campaign officials who were caught up, what, incidentally in foreign surveillance. Those things cannot be true.
And so what we saw was Susan Rice getting herself really into a lot of trouble but just handing -- I don't want to say trouble. I don't mean to be unartful in how I describe that, but I mean handing, certainly, this strategic victory to Donald Trump as she tries to make this case. It's given him something to hang on to as he tries to make that case.
[17:49:42] BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stay with us. Don't go too far away.
There is another alarming report that we're getting word on. This report links North Korea to cyber attacks on banks, get this, in 18 countries.
BLITZER: A new report ties North Korea to cyber attacks on banks. Brian Todd is investigating.
What are you learning, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, a federal law enforcement source tells CNN prosecutors in Los Angeles are now investigating one of the alleged bank heists tied to Kim Jong-un's regime, the theft of some $81 million from the Central Bank of Bangladesh. It's another strong indication that Kim's hackers are getting more aggressive, trying to grab as much cash as they can for Kim's weapons programs.
TODD (voice-over): New information tonight that Kim Jong-un's army of hackers is brazenly attacking banks around the world. One of his elite hacking groups, dubbed "Lazarus" by investigators, has been linked to cyber attacks on banks in 18 countries.
That's according to the Russian cyber security firm Kaspersky, out with a new report tonight. Kaspersky says while the attacks can't be definitely traced to North Korea, they found one occasion where the hackers failed to cover their tracks.
VITALY KAMLUK, DIRECTOR OF GLOBAL RESEARCH & ANALYSIS TEAM, KASPERSKY LAB: There was one strange connection, a very short, single connection, single session, coming out of this quite rare and unexpected I.P. range that was originating from the North Korean.
TODD (voice-over): They also spotted Korean language in the computer code.
KAMLUK: It was quite a sophisticated model operation. There were a lot of smart tricks that were designed to trick the investigator. They used a lot of anti-forensics techniques.
TODD (voice-over): The hackers stole $81 million from Bangladesh's Central Bank, the only known loss so far. Another clue which could trace these attacks to North Korea, officials at the cyber security firm Symantec, who've also researched these hacks, tell CNN the malware code used in the Bangladesh bank heist is similar to the code used in the Sony Pictures hack in 2014, which the FBI blamed on Kim's regime.
[17:55:13] If Kim Jong-un is behind the hacks, experts say, he is likely planning to use the stolen money to pay for his nuclear weapons and missile programs and to buy cars and other luxury items for North Korean elites to keep them from turning on him. Analysts say, for Kim, hacking is a fast and easy way to grab illicit cash.
MARCUS NOLAND, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT AND DIRECTOR OF STUDIES, PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: They've tried drug trafficking. But, again, interdiction efforts are tightening on those. They've tried currency counterfeiting. Again, interdiction efforts are tightening on those. So the tradition ways of raising money are facing increasing problems and they increasingly resort to cybercrime.
TODD (voice-over): Kim's believed to have several thousand hackers working for North Korea's notorious Reconnaissance General Bureau, including an elite unit called "Bureau 121." Could they follow Russia's lead and try to hack America's political campaigns or even its military?
JAMES LEWIS, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: North Koreans have the capability to hack weapons systems, electoral systems like what we've seen here. What the Russians did to the DNC is largely what the North Koreans did to Sony.
TODD: Experts say it's also possible that Kim's hackers could target Americans' bank accounts. The group Symantec tells CNN the same group of hackers has a hit list of other banks to be targeted, including some inside the United States. An official we reached at North Korea's mission at the United Nations would not comment on these alleged bank hacks, Wolf.
BLITZER: What a story. All right, Brian. Thank you.
Coming up, more breaking news. We'll be right back.