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Yates Told White House Flynn "Could Be Blackmailed"; Lindsey Graham Wants to Probe Trump's Business Dealings; Trump Weighs More Troops to Afghanistan; Trump Mulls Paris Climate Accord as Obama Defends It; Health Care Shaping Early 2018 Predictions. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired May 9, 2017 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: The House plan tinkers with ObamaCare, he says, but comes nowhere close to repealing it.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In individual markets, in individual markets, and your insurance coverage is current, is current, nothing's going to change.




KING: More on that in a moment.

Plus former President Obama extols the virtues of fighting climate change just as the Trump White House nears a decision about whether to walk away from a global climate deal, known as the Paris accords. But we begin today with a question.

What would you do if you were the boss and were told this about an employee in one of your most sensitive positions?


SALLY YATES, FORMER U.S. ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: We felt like it was critical that we get this information to the White House because -- in part because the vice president was unknowingly making false statements to the public and because we believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians.


KING: With us to share reporting and insights as we try to answer that question, Abby Phillip of "The Washington Post," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Matt Viser of the "Boston Globe" and CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson.

That was Sally Yates you saw there and she raised a number of important questions in her testimony before Congress yesterday, this chief among them.


YATES: To state the obvious, you don't want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.


KING: Yates was acting attorney general when she and another high- ranking Justice Department official delivered the warning to the White House. That was in February.

But President Trump waited 18 days to fire General Michael Flynn and only then after "The Washington Post" report detailing the blackmail concerns.

"Why?" is the question the White House hasn't satisfactorily answered.

Did the president think Yates was exaggerating the risk?

Did he already know Flynn was lying and didn't think it was a big deal?

Did loyalty to Flynn blind him to the gravity of the situation?


Eighteen days.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SR. WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Those 18 days are going to be, you know, become a subtheme, I think, of this presidency in terms of inspecting everything that happened on that.

It's clear now that this was not -- should not have been a surprise to the president. Sean Spicer will have to walk back these words, among many others he's done, because it's clear that everyone knew about this.

We don't know though exactly what the president knew. This is one question I have on this.

Did his White House counsel tell him everything about this at that point?

We don't know that exactly yet. He knew at least some basic parameters of it.

But were they hiding things from the president or did the president know about this all along going forward?

The president is unusually silent this week so far. But these questions are looming large.

KING: Right and you make a great point that it's certainly about the judgment of the president.

Why would you leave someone in a job for 18 days?

He had been warned before. As the reporting came out yesterday, President Obama said don't hire this guy. But as they try to shift blame to Obama, about Obama gave him a security clearance, the Obama people had grudges against him, why should we listen to Sally Yates, she's certainly the Obama administration, they had grudges. Remember, his own transition raised questions about this. Chris Christie, who was the head of the transition for a while, didn't want him to get the national security advisers job.

So the president's job but also you mentioned the White House counsel judgment, front and center here, too.

MATT VISER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": He also had -- I mean, a lot of the information yesterday was not totally breaking news. It was interesting seeing Sally Yates say those things.

But one new detail was that she was called back to the White House a second day after she initially briefed the White House counsel, Don McGann, about this.

The question is, sort of what happened inside the White House after that first meeting?

Conversations maybe between the president and his counsel that required her to come back a second day from further questioning and further details.

KING: And she told Congress that Don McGann asked her how Mike Flynn did in his interview with the FBI, which is out of bounds. The White House counsel should not be asking that.

That White House counsel asked her for the underlying evidence about the investigations going forward, which is out of bounds for the White House counsel to be asking at the moment the acting attorney general of the United States.

Part of her testimony made crystal clear, the president tried to say this was a hoax, the whole Russian investigation, there's nothing there. Democrats are stirring this up because Hillary Clinton lost the election.

If you listen to Sally Yates, including this exchange, she makes clear this ongoing FBI investigation of General Flynn is serious.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONN.(?): What was that underlying conduct?

And are you convinced that the former national security adviser was truthful in his testimony to the FBI in January 24?

YATES: Again, I hate to frustrate you again but I think I'm going to have to because my knowledge of this underlying conduct is based on classified information. And so I can't reveal what that underlying conduct is.


KING: It's one of the many things we don't know.

Are there other conversations?

We know conversations between General Flynn and the Russian ambassador are a big issue. What that seemed to suggest is there's more to this.

ABBY PHILLIP, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right and people always seem to forget that there is an underlying FBI investigation still ongoing into the situation. So it's not just about why Michael Flynn misled the vice president. It's also about something bigger that we don't know about.

I think the other exchange with Don McGann --


PHILLIP: -- and Sally Yates that raised a lot of red flags in her testimony yesterday was when he basically questioned her, why does the -- why does the Justice Department care about Mike Flynn's misstatements to the vice president?

I think that --


KING: Why do you care if one White House official is lying to another White House official?

PHILLIP: That seems to kind of underlie, to Jeff's point, what did Don McGann tell the president?

He seemed to question the whole exercise in his conversations with Sally Yates. So it suggests that perhaps he didn't necessarily think that her raising this to him was important enough or that it was justified. And maybe he didn't convey that fully to the president. We don't know that yet.

But I think that exchange raised a lot of red flags for that exact reason. It suggested that he thought that it was inappropriate in some way that she was there and wanted to know why.

KING: Mike Pence, by the way, the vice president, is on Capitol Hill for health care meetings. Manu Raju just tweeting he walked into the leader, Mitch McConnell's, office and he wouldn't take any questions, ignored shouted questions about all this.

As we go forward, another interesting thing that came up yesterday, Lindsey Graham told Manu Raju this morning, he wants his subcommittee now to investigate Donald Trump's business relationships, possible business relationships with Russia.

This has been one of the questions all along, as Democrats say, release your tax returns, Mr. President. We need to know. Donald Trump has consistently said nothing, absolutely nothing there when it comes to Russia and business interests.

Listen here to the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, when this question came up.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), S.C.: General Clapper, during your investigation of all things Russia, did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you concern?

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIR. U.S. NATL. INTELLIGENCE: Not in the course of the preparation of the intelligence community assessment.

GRAHAM: Since?

CLAPPER: I'm sorry?

GRAHAM: At all?


CLAPPER: Senator Graham, I can't comment on that because that impacts the investigation.


KING: Now what does that tell us?

The intelligence community assessment was the assessment published before the election where the intelligence community came forward and said I want to tell the American people, Russia was meddling in the election and that they should have note of that. They did not get into some of the stuff we learned later.

But what does Jim Clapper mean when he says I can't comment on that because it impacts the investigation?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and that's the thing. We don't really know but it certainly raised some red flags in that initial exchange and with Clapper's initial answer, it seemed like, oh, maybe things were in the clear.

And then the follow-up with Lindsey Graham essentially saying he can't touch that and now Lindsey Graham saying he's interested, that this sort of essentially raises to the level of wanting to investigate this further; Democrats, of course, saying that's why we need to see Donald Trump's tax returns.

But that's the thing. It's sort of like reading tea leaves in a windstorm. You don't really know what's going on and what's going to come of this investigation.

You had Donald Trump later tweet -- we haven't really seen him in public much -- but tweeting. He's clearly watching this hearing, essentially saying this whole thing proves that this is a hoax and there's nothing there, no new information from that Yates hearing. But now at this Yates hearing we're investigating --


KING: Yes, there's a lot of -- now we don't know where it leads but there are a lot of new clues and red flags in that hearing. You're right, the president tweeted "Sally Yates make the fake news media extremely unhappy today. She said nothing but old news."

Not true. She said some very important new things. The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax. When will this taxpayer funded charade end?

We don't know the answers to collusion yet. But certainly both Sally Yates and James Clapper made clear that there's reason to have an investigation into that question.

James Clapper also said the president keeps saying -- almost saying like almost this didn't happen or this wasn't a big deal. Listen to Jim Clapper -- and I should say, the current Director of National Intelligence, Mike Rogers, just told Congress that they -- we, the United States passed a heads-up to France about the hack that we learned about in the final stages of their election.

And he said it -- Mike Rogers saying today (INAUDIBLE) about Russian activity again in France. Listen to James Clapper talking about the Russian activity in our election, 2016.


CLAPPER: They must be congratulating themselves for having exceeded their wildest expectations with a minimal expenditure of resource. And I believe they are now emboldened to continue such activities in the future, both here and around the world, and to do so even more intensely.

If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it.


KING: When you listen to that -- and again, his successor just said the Russians are still doing it in France -- and then you look at what, in the tweets or the words of the President of the United States, this is a Russian, a state-sponsored act to interfere in the elections of Western democracies, including the United States. And the president just continues to blow this off as if it's nothing.

What is the impact of that?

If you're the current Director of National Intelligence, he's the former director, the president said in an interview the other day, I'll accept that it was Russia but it could have been China or it could have been somebody else. He refuses -- now his own people are telling him this --


KING: -- and he refuses to accept it.

ZELENY: It is so puzzling to me because it would seem that this is now a stipulated problem. Republicans agree to it. Democrats agree to it. They know it will happen in elections coming up, probably in 2018.

KING: So why is it important to the president to convince people this isn't important?

If you're doing that now, you have some thoughts about where we're going.

ZELENY: No doubt. And to me, my big question has always been, why hasn't he just come and said we will not have people interfere in our elections, we'll do an executive order or a bipartisan commission?

He loves doing commissions and studies. There are a lot of them on the shelves and the books (INAUDIBLE) first 100 days. I don't know -- he's so reluctant to do it on this.

But the question here is, if you have a Republican senator, obviously Lindsey Graham is not a huge fan and friend of this administration but he's still a Republican senator who says we need to look into this. This is the beginning, again, of something that's going to go on for a long time.

KING: And that's the question I can't answer, do they know things?

Democrats keep hinting there's stuff in the classified information that we don't know publicly. Sometimes I think that's reckless and irresponsible of the Democrats. If it's there, prove it. And get us to the finish lines.

But are Republicans (INAUDIBLE) because of something they see or are they doing that because of the president's approval ratings and they want to distance that?

That's another on the long list of unanswered questions we'll come back to a bit later.

But next, America's longest war still raging and now President Trump has to decide whether to risk more American lives in a big way.




KING: Welcome back.

Big decisions facing the president in the coming days before his first overseas meetings with U.S. allies. One, whether to pull the United States from a global climate change deal known as the Paris accords. In Italy today, this nudge from the former president, Barack Obama.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For all the challenges that we face, this is the one that will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than any other. No nation, whether it's large or small, rich or poor, will be immune from the impacts of climate change.


KING: Big decision number two, whether to accept a Pentagon recommendation to boost U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Sources telling CNN the options range from 1,500 more troops to as many as 5,000 more troops to help train Afghan forces but also -- and this is the serious part -- to fight ISIS and the Taliban at times.


GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There's plenty of work to do for all of us there and the actual tactical activities on the ground I don't want to go into details right now. We owe a degree of confidentiality about our plans.

But we will work it out to our NATO allies and our best way forward. War sometimes doesn't give you all good options. It's the nature of war. It's not a good situation.


KING: An understatement there from the Defense Secretary, James Mattis. And the NATO secretary general was standing with him at that, saying NATO is disposed to send more troops to Afghanistan. Well, that's part of the equation.

The president will be traveling overseas to meet NATO allies. This is, I think, one of the stunning examples, and you see this from any new president, of how being president is very different than when you're in the private sector.

Here's a couple things Donald Trump tweeted back in 2012 and 2013,

"84 percent of U.S. troops wounded, 70 percent of our brave men and women killed in Afghanistan. Time to get out of there.

"Can you believe the Afghan war is our longest war?"

This is 2013, four years ago.

"Bring our troops home. Rebuild the U.S. Make America great again."

It's very different, it's sobering to go from the private sector, from being a candidate to suddenly sitting in the Oval Office, when they come to you with those recommendations.

And you know what's going to happen on your watch when you say yes.

PHILLIP: Yes, and you cannot have it all here. You can't both pull the U.S. back from engagement in the world and also win in these seemingly intractable conflicts overseas.

And this is what Trump faces right now, is that he really doesn't want to be extending wars or engaging in sort of hand-to-hand combat overseas. But he also wants really badly to just win some of these conflicts.

And those are the terms that he's talking about, talking to his Pentagon officials about it. And right now he's facing that choice. And I think he's going to end up having to decide some global ideas about how he wants to govern as a president.

Does he think it's important to just keep Americans alive and out of conflict even if it means ceding some ground in foreign conflicts?

VISER: He also hasn't talked a lot about Afghanistan and his approach. I think this is a moment for him to figure out what the strategy is dealing with Afghanistan. He has made decisions to bomb places. And he's bombed Syria and we've had engagements elsewhere.

This is a different type of decision. This is troops. This is putting troops on the ground in a conflict, which it's a sobering thing for a new president.

KING: And when you do it, you own it. When President Obama came in, saying we're going to get out, we're going to get out and we largely got out of Iraq but we didn't get out of Afghanistan. This -- now it's on President Trump's watch.

And as this plays out, two of your colleagues in "The Washington Post" today have a fascinating story about the internal debate within the administration. And they characterize it this way.

"Inside the White House, those opposed to the plan have begun to refer derisively to the strategy as 'McMaster's war,' a reference to H.R. McMaster, the president's new national security adviser.

"The general who once led anticorruption efforts in Afghanistan and was one of the architects of President George W. Bush's troop surge in Iraq, is the driving force behind the new strategy at the White House."

The new strategy being, sir, we have to increase troop levels. There's been some chatter that suddenly after being happy to get General McMaster to replace General Flynn, that the president is upset but then there's the subplot to that of people saying, this is Steve Bannon and the America first crowd, somehow trying to suggest General McMaster is out of favor.

On the president's schedule today, we don't see him publicly, there's a meeting with General McMaster.


ZELENY: Right. And foreign policy, like everything else is, you know, falls under a lot of this buzzsaw that goes on inside the West Wing, even though this is a matter of life and death, of course. There are people with very, you know, strong views on this and Steve Bannon is one.

Of course, he will have different views than H.R. McMaster. I'm told that is -- that story was potentially slightly overstated, in the sense that the president might not be thrilled with everything from McMaster but still respects him greatly.

And at the end of the day, he did say he would allow his generals, his military advisers, to sort of make some of these decisions.

So if he were to retreat and walk away, that would be pretty extraordinary. It would be a defining moment for him. But look, he's on record in 2013, 2014, 2015, as we saw, saying, come home. But he's also said he'll be flexible.

And he used flexibility as a badge of honor and not something that the politician shouldn't have, saying --


KING: He's promised to defeat ISIS --

ZELENY: -- he has but I think this is the biggest decision of his presidency, something that he controls. It's unlike health care, unlike tax reform. It's something that is -- he's deciding, which is one of the reasons we're not seeing a lot of him this week, trying to decide this.

KING: I would say if you're debating whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, how long to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan, they should let everybody speak. They should have a debate. They should air it out. They should throw things off the wall. It's what's interesting about this White House is how much of that spills out into the public and the rival factions within it.

Let's -- on the same topic is the decision about the Paris accords. And one of the remarkable things about that is we are told internally Steve Bannon wants out. We have seen publicly, which is remarkable, the head of the EPA and Rick Perry, the Energy secretary, on television during a debate inside the White House know what to do to go on television and say we should withdraw. And if you -- again, if you believe these accounts and you talk to

people inside the White House, Jared Kushner is more skeptical and Ivanka Trump is saying, can we find a way to stay in the Paris accord even if we change U.S. environmental policy at home a little bit?

So another very public tug-of-war, how is it going to end?

HENDERSON: Yes, and we don't know. We saw President Trump on his first 100 day, that big speech, he said there will be some sort of announcement on this in two weeks, and has sort of been teasing.

And of course he promised during his run that he would pull out of this agreement, saying that it's sort of globalism and reducing American sovereignty.

The problem is they really gutted a lot of regulation that would lead to the United States meeting the agreements that they signed onto in terms of carbon admissions with this climate agreement. So it's a really tricky thing.

Now it's sort of a legal question whether or not they can still stay a part of it or reduce the actual carbon emissions that they're saying we would agree to by 2025. So it's very complicated in this New York faction versus the Bannon faction.


KING: And they want the answers because he's about to go overseas and he's going to be at the table with other players in this.

VISER: There's a U.N. meeting going on right now to address some of this. The United States has sent seven participants, which is fewer than Zimbabwe sent to this. Paris, France, has 42 delegates at this meeting.

So I think that that is an indication of the White House commitment to the climate deal. We're not sending people to engage on this. And whether we remain a part of it is sort of papering over, like Nia is saying, we're not committing to reducing the emissions as the deal is...

HENDERSON: And does it roll back America's role in the world in terms of leading on climate change and the way you're talking foreign policy more generally?

PHILLIP: I think that's an argument the president would actually be somewhat sympathetic to. That if we lose standing because of this, maybe it's not worth it.

KING: Right. And his good friend, the president of China, is actually, for now, at least, it took a long time to get the Chinese to the table on this. But they're at the forefront. Everybody sit tight. When we come back, all politics is local until it isn't. A warning from a political handicapper to Republicans. That's next.



KING: Welcome back.

On the board here, a map of the House of Representatives.

You see all those lines?

Those are the 435 House districts across the country. Election 2018, 546 days away. That's 18 months. That's a long time. But politicians are always worried about the next election. As members of Congress, as they worry, they pay a lot of attention to one man here in Washington.

Veteran handicapper Charlie Cook of "The Cook Political Report," who, in the wake of the big House health care vote, writes this, "Analysts who have watched congressional elections for a long time are seeing signs that 2018 could be a wave election that flips control of the House to the Democrats."

You want to know what a wave looks like?

This is 2016. Let's go back to the last big wave. Look at all that blue. This is the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi is Speaker. After Obama is elected president, you see all that blue?

Then they pass ObamaCare and the 2010 elections come.

See all that red?

Take a look again.

You want to see a wave?

A wave is when you go...

Look down there. Look up here. Look over here. Look just about everywhere. Look at the blue.

See that red?

That was the Republican takeover of the House. Now, again, there's a huge difference between "could be a wave" and "will be a wave." But the blowback at Republican town halls is one of the reasons Washington has a lot of wave buzz.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the individual market, in an individual market, and your insurance coverage is current, is current, nothing's going to change.



KING: Now that's Ron Bloom in Iowa at a town hall. Interestingly, Ed O'Keeffe (ph) of "The Washington Post" caught up to him as he was out there and he said this, "Republicans are going around the country saying we're keeping our promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare."

Here is what the congressman said.

"This is isn't the repeal and replace. This is ObamaCare 2.0. We've probably changed 10, 20 percent of this bill, is all."

KING: So he's getting grief from his constituents and then he's essentially conceding, you know, we didn't really keep our promise.

ZELENY: And he's in one of those Eastern Iowa districts that voted for Obama in 2012 and voted for Romney -- I'm sorry -- Mr. Trump in 2016. So the reality here is, he voted for it. It might be a vote that he regrets.

And for what?

Because the Senate is sure to change it, which is going to put him in even more of a box. And I think, first and foremost, we have to give him some applause for having a town hall because a lot do not.