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THE SITUATION ROOM

Ex-CIA Chief: Contacts Between Trump Campaign and Russians; Senate Intel Chair: Contempt Charge Against Flynn Possible; British Raise Threat Level, Another Attack May Be Imminent; Interview with Sen. Chris Murphy; Trump: 'Evil Losers' Behind British Terror Attack. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 23, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Breaking news. Concerning contacts former CIA chief John Brennan drops a bombshell, telling lawmakers there were suspicious contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. And now CNN has learned that the president himself asked his intelligence chiefs to push back on stories about possible collusion. So what's next in this growing investigation?

[17:00:17] Contempt of Congress? The Senate Intelligence Committee meets behind closed doors as President Trump's former national security adviser refuses to cooperate with its Russia investigation. Will the panel hold General Michael Flynn in contempt?

Bomber identified. British investigators name the man they believe carried out a suicide bombing outside a concert, killing 22 people. Police are now carrying out raids and arrests as ISIS takes credit for the attack. Was it part of a larger terror plot?

And America on alert. The Manchester bombing outside the arena security perimeter is raising new concerns about a similar attack on American soil. How vulnerable are concerts and sporting events in the United States?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following two major breaking stories this hour, including critical new developments in the Russia investigation. Former CIA director John Brennan tells the House Senate Intelligence Committee that he was aware of information and intelligence showing concerning and very deeply worrisome contacts between Russian officials and individuals from the Trump campaign. In a statement, the White House says -- and I'm quoting now -- "There is still no evidence of any collusion."

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned director of national intelligence Dan Coats about reports that President Trump asked him to publicly deny evidence of collusion. Coats said he felt it was inappropriate to discuss his conversations with the president in public.

We're also following the suicide bombing that killed 22 people and injured dozens outside of a concert in Manchester, England. Investigators have identified the bomber as 22-year-old Salman Abedi, a university business student. Britain has just raised its terror threat level to critical, meaning intelligence officials believe another attack is imminent.

ISIS is climbing responsibility for the worst terror attack in Britain since 2005, but a British official tells CNN that so far, there's no evidence linking the bomber with a terror group.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Chris Murphy. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by, but let's begin with the critical testimony today about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, is working that story for us. Elise, troubling testimony for the White House.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. John Brennan was concerned about Russian efforts to get the Trump campaign officials to act on its behalf, prompting him to warn the Russian intelligence against meddling. And tonight senators want answers from President Trump's intel chiefs about new allegations the president urged them to push back against charges of collusion, undermining the FBI investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT (voice-over): Today the former CIA director described in new detail what he called Russia's brazen interference in the U.S. election.

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I encountered, and I'm aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals. And it raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.

LABOTT: And while John Brennan stopped short of saying he saw clear evidence that collusion took place between Russia and the Trump campaign, he did say what he saw demanded serious investigation into whether Trump campaign officials were working on Russia's behalf, either wittingly or unwittingly.

BRENNAN: Frequently individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they're along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.

LABOTT: Brennan, who left his post when Trump took office, even called the head of Russia's intelligence agency to warn him against meddling.

Across the Capitol, senators grilled President Trump's intel chief, Dan Coats, about reports President Trump asked him to publicly deny evidence of collusion, an apparent attempt to undercut the FBI investigation. DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I don't feel it's

appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president.

LABOTT: But when pressed on whether he would ever succumb to such a request...

COATS: Any political shaping of that presentation or intelligence would not be appropriate.

LABOTT: Coats demurred on whether he discussed the matter with Admiral Mike Rogers, who sources say received a similar request from the president.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Have you talked about this issue with Admiral Rogers?

COATS: That is -- that is something that I would like to withhold that question at this particular point in time.

LABOTT: A U.S. official tells CNN the White House was unsure about the president's power over the FBI, which could speak to why he appeared to be trying to quash the investigation, including during a private Oval Office meeting, in which Trump asked Comey to drop his of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, telling him, quote, "I hope you can let this go," according to a memo Comey wrote afterwards.

Trump denies the charge, but the top Democrat on the committee said the allegations, if true, are troubling.

BLUMENTHAL: We see a pattern of this administration that anybody gets close to the Russia investigation loses their job or ends up in a difficult position. This is just not the way an American president should act.

LABOTT: And while they still want additional facts, more and more Republicans are voicing concern about the constant stream of allegations against the administration.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It's troubling obviously, but I can't leap to conclusions. I don't think that it's logical to assume that the president of the United States would ask the director of national intelligence not to investigate the Russia issue. I just -- if you'd have said that's going to happen, I'd say, yes, it's a lousy movie. You know? So I don't know how it all ends.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT: Now the White House, through an unnamed spokesperson, has reacted to today's hearing with former CIA director Brennan. The spokesperson said, quote, "This morning's hearings back up what we've been saying all along, that despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of any Russia-Trump campaign collusion, that the president never jeopardized intelligence sources or sharing, and that even Obama's CIA director believes the leaks of classified information are appalling and the culprits must be tracked down" -- Wolf. BLITZER: Elise Labott reporting for us. Elise, thank you.

Also on Capitol Hill today, a meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee weighing its options to get information for its Russia probe from fired national security adviser Michael Flynn. He's expected to invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to testify or turn over documents.

Our congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty is joining us from Capitol Hill. Sunlen, the chairman of the committee says all options right now are on the table when it comes to Flynn.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Wolf. A big headline coming from Chairman Burr just a few minutes ago here, and it's very clear, based on their tone and tenor and the words, based on the chairman and ranking member, that they are willing to fight over these documents that so far Michael Flynn has not produced.

They announced today a series of measures that they'll take in the short term to get -- to try to get him to comply with their request. One, they sent a letter back to Flynn's lawyer, questioning whether a person can actually plead the Fifth as it relates to document production.

And, two, they are now issuing two new subpoenas for Michael Flynn's business, two of Michael Flynn's businesses, to potentially get these documents that so far he's been unwilling to provide. We heard Chairman Burr questioning can businesses -- saying businesses can't really plead the Fifth.

So they're trying to look to new avenues, essentially, in Michael Flynn's life to get these documents turned over, and as you said, Chairman Burr did not rule out the possibility that, if Flynn does not comply with these steps, that they might potentially hold him in contempt of Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), CHAIR, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We've taken the action that we feel are appropriate right now. If, in fact, there's not a response, we'll seek additional counsel advice on how to proceed forward. At the end of that option is a contempt charge, and I've said that everything is on the table.

That's not our preference today. We would like to hear from General Flynn. We'd like to see his documents. We'd like him to tell his story, because he publicly said, "I've got a story to tell."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: So Burr there really reserving the right to potentially keep that option on the table if it comes to that. Of course, we will see how Flynn responds as well as his businesses. So the intel committee today, Wolf, really putting this ball back in Michael Flynn's court -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thank you. Sunlen Serfaty reporting.

Let's get a little bit more on all of this. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut is joining us. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Do you believe Michael Flynn should be held in contempt of Congress?

MURPHY: Well, I think that Senator Burr and Senator Warner are taking the right steps. They're going to give him another opportunity to do right by this committee and turn over these documents, but they've made it very clear that, if he doesn't take this second opportunity, then there's a contempt charge at the end of this.

[17:10:13] I mean, Michael Flynn can't hide for very long. Ultimately, he likely has legal liability for his failure to disclose his connections to both the Russian and the Turkish government; and if he doesn't tell this story, then he likely faces a lot of jail time.

And this is the big problem for President Trump. It is that he has got some people very close to him that may have been those that were talking to the Russians during the campaign who face pretty serious legal jeopardy, and they may start talking very soon.

BLITZER: Let's turn to the testimony we heard from former CIA director John Brennan today. What stood out to you from what Director Brennan had to say on Capitol Hill, because there were several headlines?

MURPHY: Well, you know, over the course of the last six months, the Trump White House and the Trump campaign has said consistently and unequivocally, "There were no contacts between our campaign and the Russian government."

And the head of intelligence, a non-partisan position in the U.S. government, said definitively today that there were indeed multiple contacts between personnel that worked on the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

And you just have to put it all in context here, Wolf. You have members of the Trump campaign talking to the Russian government at a time in which the Russian government was engaged in a massive effort to try to skew the election towards Donald Trump; at the same time that Trump was taking bizarre positions that were in favor of Russian interests to the point of changing the Republican platform to try to reflect Russian priorities, to today where they're now trying to scuttle and obstruct the investigation into the truth.

The walls feel like they are closing in on the Trump administration right now, and I'm not sure that they can hold them off for much longer. BLITZER: Director Brennan also said that people sometimes unwittingly

follow what he called a treasonous path without knowing what they're doing really is treasonous until it is too late. Based on what you know about Russian intelligence services, their techniques, is that recruitment tactic a common practice?

MURPHY: Well, the Russians are the savviest intelligence and clandestine operators in the world, second probably own to elements of the United States services, and -- it's hard to know what director Brennan meant by members of the Trump campaign perhaps being unwittingly turned into agents of the Russian government, but here's an easy way to prevent yourself from being turned into an agent of the Russian government. Don't talk to the Russian government. Don't talk to Russian intelligence officials.

I mean, the fact that anyone in the Trump camp during the campaign thought it was appropriate to open up lines of communication with Russia is a -- a damning indictment of that campaign in and of itself even if it doesn't end up proving that there was coordinated intentional collusion.

BLITZER: Do you believe any individuals in the Trump campaign unwittingly followed what the former CIA director called a treasonous path?

MURPHY: Well, listen, we have to let the facts lead where they may. I've been supportive of this independent counsel because, ultimately, I think that's the best way to find out if there was, indeed, treason committed by members of the Trump campaign or perhaps the candidate himself.

But let's just be honest. The facts are moving in only one direction. And Trump's spokesmen have lied and told half statements and mistruths over and over again. Today we heard definitively -- let's remember this -- that, on multiple occasions, Trump campaign officials were talking to the Russian government, something that the Trump surrogates told us, Trump spokesmen told us for months never happened. The facts are only heading in one direction.

BLITZER: We also heard important testimony today from the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats. He was questioned on recent reports that President Trump tried to pressure him to publicly deny evidence of any collusion with Russia. He didn't confirm or deny those reports, simply saying it would be inappropriate for him to discuss conversations he had with the president in public.

If the president, though, did try to pressure Director Coats, should he report that conversation to Congress?

MURPHY: Well, it would have been very easy for him to deny that that conversation took place today, and I think it's telling that he did not deny it. You played a clip in which he seemed to confirm that he had talked about the pressure that he received from the president with Rogers.

So, listen, if -- if he was pressured by the president to stop an investigation or stop intelligence gathering into a potential crime, then he has to share that with prosecutors, because that is potentially part of a case, an obstruction of justice case against the president of the United States or members of the White House. So he can refuse to answer that question today before Congress, but he ultimately is going to need to disclose that to investigators.

[17:15:22] BLITZER: Senator, stand by. We've got some breaking news that we're going to follow up on. Britain has just raised its terror threat level to critical in the wake that suicide bombing that killed 22 people. Is another attack imminent? We're going to go live to Manchester, England, for the latest. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:18] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. We want to talk to him about the other major breaking story that we're following this hour, the suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester, England, that left 22 people dead.

Senator, stand by. I want to get the latest information from CNN's Brian Todd.

Brian, there are critical new developments.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. ISIS is claiming responsibility, but tonight British officials are working to see if there really is an ISIS connection.

Also, just moments ago, the British government raised the terror threat level there to critical, the highest level. The first time it's been that high there in a decade. And authorities are scrambling tonight to learn more about the 22-year-old suspect and whether he had help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight a U.S. counterterrorism official tells CNN the bombing outside the Manchester Arena looks like an ISIS attack but says U.S. intelligence officials are working with their British counterparts to learn more.

ISIS has claimed responsibility, but a British counterterrorism official says so far, authorities there have discovered no evidence of a link between suspected attacker Salman Abedi and an established terror group. British police tonight are working furiously to see if there's a connection.

CHIEF CONSTABLE IAN HOPKINS, GREATER MANCHESTER POLICE: Our priority, along with the police counterterrorist network and our security partners, is to continue to establish whether he was acting alone or working as part of a wider network.

TODD: Today police blew in a door and raided a house associated with the suspect; and forensics teams were spotted, as well. The suspect, Abedi, was of Libyan descent according to members of the Libyan community in Manchester. He was enrolled in business classes at the University of Salford near Manchester but didn't live on campus. School officials say they also have no evidence he was active in college life.

A witness who helped some victims described the kind of injuries he saw, which could help police determine the type of bomb used.

STEPHEN JONES, WITNESS: You know, like a nail gun. It was some type of nail sort of thing, things like that and bits of glass, you know, all stuck in, and plastic and stuff like that that come from the explosion, but these nails. We did have one. I don't know what we done with it. About that long.

TODD: The explosion triggered a dangerous stampede inside the arena.

CORAL LONG, WITNESS: Everyone just went crazy and was running and screaming and trying to get out and jumping over seats. We managed to get through the doors, and how we wasn't crushed to death is a miracle.

TODD: A key question tonight: how important was this target to the terrorist? The attacker selected one Europe's largest arenas. And a concert where hugely popular American singer, Ariana Grande, was performing.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I don't think it was a coincidence that an American singer was singing at this concert. After all, when ISIS attacked in Paris in 2015 at the Bataclan Theater, it was an American group that was playing.

TODD: Like the bombing outside the Stade de France that night and the Brussels airport bombing last year, this terrorist may not have attempted to enter the main venue, instead waiting just outside the security perimeter for his moment.

Tonight, U.S. officials are reviewing their own security measures for these events.

FRANK CILLUFFO, CENTER FOR CYBER & HOMELAND SECURITY: You know, at major events, I think you are going to see new approaches of security. Historically, the intent is to keep people from getting in. Now obviously, you're seeing an increased number of attacks outside particular targets.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: That homeland security expert, Frank Cilluffo, says at future events we may see security cameras, not just next to arenas but installed several blocks in each direction to monitor for suspicious activity.

Also, resources like so-called vapor wake dog teams. Those are teams specifically trained to sniff out suicide bombers. Also things like geofencing that can detect computer-activated bombs. But he says some of these measures may only be deployed for big events and not necessarily individual concerts like the one last night in Manchester, simply because officials don't have enough resources -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thanks very much.

Let's go live to Manchester, England, right now. Our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, is on the scene for us.

Clarissa, how is this attack different from others we've seen in Europe?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, for the most part, the attacks that we've seen in Europe, the slew of terrorist attacks that we have witnessed over the past couple of years, have mostly been so-called lone-wolf attacks. Of course, I'm not talking about the Paris attacks or the Brussels attacks here. I'm talking more about the attack in Nice last summer. I'm talking about the attack in Westminster in London that we saw just a couple of months ago. They have been lone-wolf attacks and have been using improvised weaponry, whether it's a vehicle, whether it's a knife.

The concern that authorities have here is that in this case an explosive was used, a bomb was used, a powerful bomb. That may indicate that there is a larger network at play here.

And, Wolf, I just want to bring you up to speed on a couple of other things that we're learning about the bomber. We now know that he's 22 years old, that he was of Libyan descent.

Salman Abedi was a student at the University of Salford. He was studying Business and Management, reportedly not attending any of his lectures. And people on campus say very little known about him, not involved in social life or campus life. The focus of now to authorities is did he act alone, or is he part of a larger network -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And critically important questions. Clarissa, the attack, this attack in particular seemed to have targeted a lot of children, young people. Do authorities think that was part of the plan?

WARD: Well, certainly, this would bear all the hallmarks, Wolf, of an ISIS attack, because ISIS is always seeking to stoop to the next lower level of human depravity, not just because it gives them pleasure to inflict this kind of violence and carnage and mayhem on innocent people and on children but primarily because they're seeking to push buttons. They want to get a reaction. They're looking to cause a retaliation against the Muslim community living here in the United Kingdom, the so-called gray zone. They've talked about Muslims living in the west.

They want to sow the seeds of discontent and really cultivate this idea that there can never be peace between the Islam and the west and there can never be happy co-existence for western Muslims living in cities like Manchester -- Wolf. BLITZER: Clarissa Ward in Manchester for us, thanks very much.

Let's bring back Senator Chris Murphy of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, if ISIS is, in fact, responsible for this terror blast, what does that tell you about their capability to strike targets abroad, despite some recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria?

MURRAY: Well, I think it's an important point. We've been celebrating the fact that we've had success in pushing ISIS out of their strongholds in the Middle East, Mosul and hopefully soon to be Raqqah.

But given the fact that they can use online recruitment to push a lone-wolf attacker into something like this shows you how lethal they still are, and it means that we've got to have a comprehensive, whole of government approach to stopping ISIS. It can't just be about a military campaign in the Middle East.

I think we have to learn some lessons from Europe. The fact of the matter is, in many countries in Europe, England included, Muslims suffer a de facto segregation, which sometimes allows for these perversions of Islam, radicalization, to take root. And we have to make sure that we don't allow that to happen here.

So we have to have a full comprehensive approach to stopping ISIS and not focus only on the military campaign in the Middle East.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Senator, that the attacker deliberately targeted this concert in Manchester because it featured an American performer? Some have suggested that.

MURPHY: Yes, I don't know. I have not been briefed on this attack yet.

All I know is that ISIS has designs on bringing the fight to us here in the United States, which is why we have got to compliment this military strategy with increased intelligence, increased intelligence sharing with Europe, and a commitment to try to stop giving ISIS recruiters recruitment fodder. And so many of us are worried about some of the rhetoric of the Trump administration, because we worried that that, combined with robust online recruitment, might end up in an attack like this happening in the United States.

BLITZER: Which raises the question do you believe American counterterrorism officials are prepared for similar attacks here in the United States outside that security perimeter, let's say, at a stadium or at some sort of a concert?

MURPHY: Well, I think we have to be honest with ourselves when all it takes is one deranged individual with a bomb strapped to their body to create so much destruction. We can never be 100 percent protected as a country.

And -- you know, we do need to remember here in the United States that there have only been on average a couple of people a year who are killed in terrorist attacks. You are much more likely in this country over the last ten years to have been killed by a falling object than you are by terrorism.

So I think we want to right-size the threat here in the United States, while recognizing that we all need to step up our efforts to make sure that something like that doesn't happen here.

BLITZER: Senator Murphy, thanks for joining us.

MURPHY: All right, thank you.

BLITZER: We're going to have much more on the breaking news, including President Trump's defiant message to terrorists like the one behind the Manchester bombing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[17:30:04] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will call them from now on losers because that's what they are. They're losers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We continue following two major breaking stories, including the British terror attack that killed 22 concert-goers and injured dozens more in Manchester. ISIS is claiming responsibility for the attack; and the bombing overshadowed President Trump's day in Israel and the West Bank.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's traveling with the president now in Rome. Tell us about the president's reaction, Jim.

[17:35:00] JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. That's right, Wolf. President Trump is now in Rome, where he will meet with Pope Francis here at the Vatican tomorrow. Earlier today he was in Israel and condemned the terrorist attack in Manchester. He also gave a label to the concert killer that was vintage Donald Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump tapped into his branding skills from the business world to stamp the terrorist who carried out the Manchester concert massacre and others like him...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God!

ACOSTA: ... evil losers.

TRUMP: So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives, murdered by evil losers in life. I won't call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that's a great name. I will call them now on losers, because that's what they are. They're losers. ACOSTA: In addition to tweeting, "We stand in absolute solidarity

with the people of the United Kingdom," the president spoke in Bethlehem. Along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he took note of the timing of his remarks that were intended to jump start Middle East peace talks.

TRUMP: And it's so interesting that our meeting took place on this very horrible morning of death to innocent young people. This wicked ideology must be obliterated, and I mean completely obliterated, and the innocent life must be protected. All innocent lives.

ACOSTA: Appearing later in the day at Israel's Holocaust museum, the president listened as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to bring the lessons from the massacre in Manchester closer to home.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Well, I hope this heralds a real change. Because if the attacker had been Palestinian and the victims had been Israeli children, the suicide bomber's family would have received a stipend from the Palestinian Authority. That's Palestinian law. That must be changed.

ACOSTA: It was another reminder to the president that the peace process in the Middle East won't be as simple as he first thought.

TRUMP: Making peace, however, will not be easy. We all know that. Both sides will face tough decisions. But with determination, compromise and the belief that peace is possible, Israelis and Palestinians can make a deal.

ACOSTA: The president has arrived in Rome, where the welcome was more muted than the pomp and circumstance on display earlier in his trip. At the Vatican, Mr. Trump is set to meet with Pope Francis, who has a decidedly different take on stopping terrorism.

Last month in Egypt the pope, who's been at odds with the president on a whole host of issues from climate change to immigration, issued his own warning on overreaching in the battle against terrorism. The pope said evil only gives rise to more evil and violence to more violence.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And the president earlier today spoke with the British prime minister, Theresa May, offering U.S. assistance in the Manchester investigation. He'll sit down with other European leaders later on this week when he travels up to Brussels to meet with NATO leaders there and then on to Italy, where he'll also meet with G-7 leaders.

And, Wolf, earlier today, a senior administration official was asked whether the president has been distracted by all of the Russia news back home. The White House says they are focused on the objectives of this trip -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta in Rome for us. Thanks very much.

Let's bring in our specialists. And John Kirby, let me start with you. Surprisingly, we didn't hear President Trump call this Manchester attacker a radical Islamic terrorist. He came up with this new term, "evil loser." What do you make of that shift?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I don't know if it's going to be a long-term shift for him. Clearly, in this case, he chose to use "evil loser." I think he's trying to find a word that denigrates and delegitimizes them in a way that he understands, and it's stock right out of his time as a CEO and a reality game show host.

That said, I think if you're looking for something that really can matter to these jihadis -- and I'm not an expert on their lexicon -- you want to pick a word like "murderer." Because as he rightly pointed out in his Riyadh speech, they have murdered more Muslims than any other type of individual, and it's obviously against the teachings of the Koran.

So I think "murderer," if you're looking for another word, is probably better than evil loser, but look, if it works and you're using it to delegitimize them, it will resonate with western audiences. Again, I don't know that it will resonate much with the jihadis themselves.

BLITZER: Dana Bash, let's turn to the other breaking news we're following: the stunning testimony today from the former CIA director, John Brennan. This was the most explicit testimony we've heard so far from Director Brennan.

What prompted this, I think it's fair to say, unprecedented level of disclosure?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It seems as though it's as basic as he was asked. He was invited to come as a now private citizen to Congress to testify, and he was asked the question that we have heard others who were working in -- in the government, in levels akin to his.

[17:40:07] For example, we've heard from James Clapper on a couple of -- on a couple of occasions ask the same question. Was -- did you have concern, and the details of what those concerns were.

The fact is that the answer was yes, and he had the information, the real-time information, since he was CIA director during the 2016 campaign, about the fact that the intelligence community was deeply worried about the fact that Russians wanted to influence the election and wanted to get to Trump campaign officials or at least people in Donald Trump's orbit.

There's no question -- I totally agree with you -- that this was the most explosive and serious charge, and -- maybe charge is not too word [SIC], but the most serious level of detail that we've heard from somebody who had access to the information, real-time.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, Brennan was apparently raising these concerns to leaders in Congress and the White House as early as last summer. Here's the question. Was the Obama administration caught flat-footed?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think flat- footed, Wolf. We know that the president confronted Putin at the G-20 in China on this issue and warned him about trying to directly hack into the American voting process.

We know that the intelligence community, presumably with the cooperation or the ascent of the White House made a public statement in October before the election that the Russians were the guilty party in terms of hacking into the DNC. So I don't think flat-footed.

The question is how far the president could responsibly have leaned in, based on what John Brennan said today. Brennan said today he was -- he was worried about contacts between Trump campaign officials or people associated with Trump and the Russians, but he couldn't yet say whether -- based on what he saw, he couldn't say that it was collusion. That's what the FBI investigation that's ongoing is all about.

So what would have happened if the president, based on what Brennan said today, had gone beyond what -- where he was at that time? There would have been enormous hue and cry about an attempt to try and influence the election the other way. But these are questions that are going to be debated, I'm sure, for many years to come.

BLITZER: I'm sure about that, as well.

Rebecca Berg, what is Director Brennan's testimony? Yet another very serious blow to President Trump's repeated claims that this entire Russia investigation is fake news, a charade, a hoax.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, no doubt about it, Wolf. For Brennan to come out and publicly confirm that he knew of some contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign is earth- shattering in terms of this investigation, and it really does confirm that such an investigation is necessary.

But what I would point to, Wolf, as proof that the president is really standing alone saying this investigation is a hoax, that it's a witch- hunt, is that what we are hearing or not hearing from Republicans right now. I mean, even in this highly-politicized environment that we are in, you don't hear Republicans agreeing with the president that this investigation is a witch hunt. You don't agree -- hear Republicans agreeing with the president that this is a hoax, that there's no "there" there.

Instead, we are hearing from Republicans, is that they want to wait and see what this investigation turns up, that they do feel that this is a legitimate investigation; and they want the FBI to be able to go through the process and see what is there. So I think it's highly significant what Brennan said today, but look at the consensus amongst intelligence officials so far that we have seen and also the deafening silence that we are seeing and hearing from Republicans on this.

BLITZER: You know, John Kirby, Director Brennan, he raised the possibility that cooperation with Russian intelligence may have happened unwittingly. Let me play that moment from his testimony.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRENNAN: I've studied Russian intelligence activities over the years and have seen it, again, manifest in many different of our counterintelligence cases and how they have been able to get people, including inside of CIA, to become treasonous. And frequently, individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they're along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You're a retired U.S. admiral. Does Director Brennan's statement fit in with everything you know about the tactics used by the Russian intelligence services?

KIRBY: Absolutely. I mean, sometimes they're very overt about it. They'll use electronic signals to try to get knowledge on somebody or get leverage against somebody.

[17:45:00] Sometimes they'll use other things such as bribes, such as sexual favors. They'll try to overtly but they often do it very covertly, and that's what he's talking about here.

And sometimes, the target really doesn't even know that the Russians are sidling up to them and trying to get information from them. And then once you figure it out, then oftentimes you've already given over information you didn't even mean to. So I'm certainly not as much as an expert as Director Brennan, but from my experience, everything he said absolutely rings true.

BLITZER: We're going to have all of you stand by. There are more developments unfolding right now. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:13] BLITZER: We are back with the breaking news. The Senate Intelligence Committee is seeking new documents from the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and the Chairman of the Committee says a contempt charge against Flynn, quote, "still is on the table."

We're back with our specialists. Dana Bash, you spoke with a top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee today about their investigation into Russian election meddling. Let me play a moment from that conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We see a pattern here. We see a pattern of this administration that anybody gets close to this Russia investigation loses their job or ends up in a difficult position. This is an administration that says there's no there there. They sure as heck aren't acting like there's no there there.

And they say that this is not important. They may be the only people in the America, the White House itself, that doesn't acknowledge the fact that the Russians massively intervened in our elections and that this is as important as anything that our Justice Department and FBI, and from my mind, Congress is doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Warner says he sees a pattern, Dana, but he doesn't explicitly say that the President is committing any sort of wrongdoing by trying to stifle this investigation. So is he just being cautious?

BASH: Yes, he is being cautious. As he should. He is the top Democrat in what is genuinely a bipartisan investigation.

He came out later today, about an hour ago, with the top Republican, the Chair, Richard Burr, and gave a joint statement about the way things are going. That's the way it should work when you're talking about something of this magnitude, of this importance. So, yes, he is being cautious.

I also think that he generally just doesn't know yet where this is going because, for example, on the question of obstruction of justice, he has seen the reports. He's probably gotten briefed, although he won't say it, on what happened in the Oval Office with the President and the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador, what he said to them about intelligence, about James Comey, all of those things.

However, he is looking for transcripts. He is looking for information about it. So he does want to do his due diligence before he comes to a conclusion.

What I do think is interesting and really noteworthy -- and this could be a really significant change in the way this is going -- is that the two of them, the Chair, Richard Burr, and Mark Warner, the top Democrat, came out and said that when it comes to Michael Flynn, that they are going to go through a few steps to try to compel him to give over documents that they need to see.

And if he doesn't, at the end of that road, contempt of Congress is there, and that is jail time, potentially, for Michael Flynn. So they mean business and they're doing it in a bipartisan way. And that is something that should be kept in mind when you hear the President, people at the White House, call this a witch hunt and so forth. Richard Burr, the Republican and the Chair, is not Republican who does witch hunts after fellow republicans.

BLITZER: That's a fair point. So, David Axelrod, does the pattern of behavior we're seeing from the Trump administration, at least in recent weeks, suggest they have something to hide?

AXELROD: Yes. Look, if there's nothing there, they're doing themselves a tremendous disservice, Wolf, because every single signal they're sending is one that brings greater suspicion on themselves.

The President's own frantic handling of this issue, the conversations with Comey, the call to the intelligence chiefs to ask for them to back him up, the weird strange handling of the General Flynn appointment, the information that they got from Sally Yates that they didn't act on for a couple of weeks, all of this. And you know, I haven't even mentioned the President's intermittent tweets. All of this has created a great deal more suspicion. They are not

acting like people who don't have something to worry about. They are acting like people who are trying to hide something. And if they're not trying to hide something, they ought to change their direction very quickly because they're making their situation much more serious, I think.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stay with us. And to our viewers, be sure to stay with CNN for new developments of the Russia later tonight. You can see all of our reporting in one place, a special report, "WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS," with Pamela Brown and Jim Sciutto. That will air 11:00 p.m. Easter, 8:00 Pacific, only here on CNN.

[17:55:00] And stay with us for the latest developments in these two major breaking stories we're following. The former head of the CIA reveals he was worried by all the suspicious contracts and interactions between members of the Trump campaign and Russians agents.

And based on new intelligence, British officials have now raised the terror threat level in the U.K. to critical. This is the first time in a decade. Is another attack imminent?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Treasonous path. Former CIA Director John Brennan goes public with his concerns about contacts between the Trump and Russia, warning some of the President's associates may have been lured into criminal behavior without even knowing it.

[18:00:09] In contempt? As Michael Flynn defies a Senate subpoena, the Intelligence Committee pushes back.