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Interview With Oregon Senator Ron Wyden; Republicans Seeking Health Care Votes; New Report on Russian Election Meddling. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired June 23, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It was a direct shot at the heart of our democracy.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: brand-new details on Russian cyber-attacks, Vladimir Putin's direct involvement in them, and President Obama's secret struggle between fighting back and what he saw as protecting the integrity of the U.S. election.

Critical condition. Another Republican senator is out, putting the GOP's health care push into a deeper hole. Could the president's promise to repeal and replace Obamacare be in trouble?

Plus, out of line. Just a week after an assassination attempt on Republicans, the Secret Service is now looking at actor Johnny Depp for joking about killing the president.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead, a highly detailed account of how U.S. intelligence first learned of the alarming extent of Russian hacking and alerted the White House, along the way, a secret task force, Situation Room debates, and a lot of second-guessing.

"The Washington Post" detailing the Obama administration's -- quote -- "secret struggle," saying it was sourcing deep inside the Russian government that helped lead the CIA to conclude that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered and directed the unprecedented cyber-operation and that President Obama approved planting cyber- weapons inside critical Russian systems if Putin didn't cut it out.

Today, multiple investigations continue to explore exactly how the cyber-attack was carried out and crucially how to stop another one.

Let's start with CNN's Michelle Kosinski.


MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "The Washington Post" tonight starkly lays out the U.S. intelligence community's case pointing not only at Russia meddling in the election, but at Vladimir Putin himself, detailing that intelligence sources had captured Putin's own instructions directing the broad hacking and misinformation campaign, plus its goals, to defeat or hurt Hillary Clinton in the election and help Donald Trump.

But the "Post" interviews with former senior Obama administration officials reveals the pain now among some of them that more was not done to punish Russia. Quoting one: "It's the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked."

They say the administration was worried about appearing to try to influence the election themselves, as well as provoking Russia. One official explained: "Our primary interest in August, September and October was to prevent them from doing the max they could do."

And after the election, some of the harsher options for punishing Russia, like a massive cyber-attack on them or sweeping sanctions, faced concerns and roadblocks from a number of corners.

Former Deputy National Adviser Tony Blinken today defended the Obama administration.

TONY BLINKEN, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: Maybe the judgment was wrong. Maybe we should have acted differently. Maybe we should have done things that we didn't do. But given everything we were dealing with, given, first of all, again, the perception that Russia's main objection was to undermine confidence in the elections, that was really one thing that motivated to be careful about how we played this in public.

KOSINSKI: The Obama administration did set the ball rolling for a secret program to infiltrate Russia's infrastructure with cyber- weapons that can be controlled remotely, like cyber-bombs to cripple Russia's systems, still, though, in its early stages.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: I wish that he and the administration would have acted differently here, but what's important now is, we know what they did and we have a president today who sits in the Oval Office who doesn't appreciate the attack that occurred, that doesn't acknowledge it.

KOSINSKI: In the Russian administration, congressional probes continue. The House Intelligence Committee today waiting to receive fired FBI Director James Comey's memos and planning a next week with Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, whose e-mails were hacked.

The White House today again downplaying any effect Russia may have had.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: Not a single vote was changed. And we're going to stand by that. We know that Donald Trump won fairly and squarely.


KOSINSKI: So this "Washington Post" reporting is extensive. It's almost like this time machine taking you back to the Obama administration.

You see them struggling, Jim. How public do we go with this? When? We don't want it to look like we're playing politics. But now it's had the opposite effect. So, some of them feel like politics had a role anyway, because the risk of it, the fear of having that influence, they think, influenced what should have been done.

And it's also interesting as we see the Russia probes expanding. Now the Senate Judiciary Committee wants more information from President Obama's former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to see if she might have improperly influenced the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation.

SCIUTTO: And it's also interesting when you look at this Obama administration. Everyone -- no one expected Trump to win. And that was part of their calculation, it seemed, in these decisions.

KOSINSKI: And being too careful and the effect that that might have had. That's something we always seem to go back when we talk about that administration.


SCIUTTO: Michelle Kosinski, thanks very much.

At President Trump tries to press on with his own agenda, the White House cannot escape the ongoing Russia investigations, today answering whether President Trump plans to fire the special counsel now overseeing the Russia probe for the Justice Department.

Mr. Trump himself has said he is -- quote -- "bothered" by Robert Mueller's relationship with former FBI Director James Comey.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has the response today from the White House.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And, by the way, other things are happening. We have done a lot. This is a big one. We have a lot of good ones coming.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump signing a new law today to reform the Veterans Affairs Administration, rare bipartisan action in a divided Washington.

But the Russia investigation is threatening to overshadow the president's agenda. He raised new questions today about the objectivity of special counsel Robert Mueller, suggesting in a FOX News interview he's too close to fired FBI Director James Comey.

TRUMP: Well, he's very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome. But he's also -- we will have to see.

ZELENY: The president didn't mention that he interviewed Mueller for the FBI post one day before the Justice Department named him to conduct an independent investigation into Russia's role into the 2016 election. TRUMP: Look, there has been no obstruction. There has been no

collusion. There has been leaking by Comey.

But there's been no collusion, no obstruction, and virtually everybody agrees to that. So we will have to see.

ZELENY: Inside the West Wing, the president is growing increasingly furious at the widening Russian probe, CNN has learned.

One day after finally admitting he didn't tape his conversations with Comey, the president said he had no regrets for what amounted to a 41- day wild goose chase in Washington.

TRUMP: My story didn't change. My story was always a straight story. My story was always the truth, but you will have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed. But I did not tape.

QUESTION: It was a smart way to make sure he stayed honest in those hearings.

TRUMP: Well, it wasn't very stupid. I can tell you that.

ZELENY: Beyond the Russia investigation, the administration facing criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for not speaking out about Russian meddling.

The U.S. intelligence community said it has no question Russia interfered.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: The reality is in two or four years, it's going to serve Vladimir Putin's interest to take down the Republican Party, and if we weren't upset about it, we have no right to complain in the future.

ZELENY: The White House banning cameras again today at Press Secretary Sean Spicer's briefing, part of an ongoing quest to limit transparency. Three days after saying he didn't know if the Russian interfered in the election, Spicer said the president thinks it was Russia.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Of course he's concerned about any country or any actor that wants to interfere in our elections. I confirm that he stands by that.


ZELENY: But by saying any country or any actor, Jim, that is still the softest language, the softest posture toward Russia of anyone in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike.

In fact, many Republicans are still so concerned by the fact this president has still not acknowledged in a harsh, sharp way about the Russian interference.

Now, speaking of Russia, it is possible at the meeting of the G20 early next month in Germany President Trump and Vladimir Putin could come face to face for the first time in their first meeting since Trump took office -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And might the president deliver a warning there?

Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

He has been one of the toughest critics of the Trump administration's handling of the Russia investigation. Does Senator Ron Wyden think the White House is doing enough to prevent another Russian cyber- attack? He joins us after this.



SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with politics and the breaking news today, article in "The Washington Post" detailing Vladimir Putin's direct involvement in the hacking of the U.S. election, as well as President Obama's secret struggle to address it.

My guest today may have had the most tense and memorable public moment in the Russia investigation in recent weeks as he grilled Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

And joining me now is Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thanks for taking the time today.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: The "Washington Post" report says that the CIA's assessment that Putin was directly involved, in fact, directing this cyber- attack, comes from sources deep inside the Russian government.

Is it your understanding that U.S. intelligence has such sourcing close to the president of Russia?

WYDEN: I can't get into classified matters.

But, look, a big part of this story has been to try to get more information out to the American people. For example, way back in November, I pushed with six senators to get more declassified. In January, I pushed then Director Comey to discuss his investigation in public in a way that was consistent with sources and methods.

And, at every step of the way, we have got to get more information to the public. Just this past week, you had officials who have expertise in elections in effect withholding information from the American people about which states were attacked. That's not acceptable.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, because the president himself has shied away, from before and after the election, from very starkly and aggressively naming Russia and speaking with urgency about these attacks. And again today, we heard Sean Spicer say, well, the president thinks that anyone who attacks the country -- but, in fact, the intel communities, agency -- or agencies, community, has pointed its finger very directly at Russia.

Are you concerned by the president's reluctance to do that?


I think it is very obvious and it has been clear since late last year that Russia, not X country or Y country, Russia in particular attacked our institutions.

[16:15:05] And what we need is to have all hands on deck. And the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, the president won't acknowledge what all of the intelligence leadership has said in the past, I just don't think helps the effort.

SCIUTTO: One official in the "Washington Post" story said, and I'm quoting here: It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we, the Obama administration, sort of choked.

We've heard that frustration from others. In your view, did the Obama administration blow it?

WYDEN: I'm troubled by the matter of what has been alleged with respect to the Obama administration not doing more. It seems to me that these matters should not be part of politics. They should be about protecting American institutions. So, yes, I am troubled by the allegations.

SCIUTTO: But let me ask you this. If today you and other Democrats say that the Trump administration is not moving quickly enough on measures to counter the next attack or to call out the Russians publicly, why isn't it fair to criticize the Obama administration for not moving quickly enough to, for instance, issue punitive sanctions against Russia or take other actions in response to the interference?

WYDEN: Well, I just said that I am troubled learning this new information, that the Obama administration didn't do more. And I think the standard has got to transcend one particular administration, Democratic or Republican. It has got to be to protect our institutions first and politics to the wind.

SCIUTTO: Senator Wyden, there is still so much to talk about including President Trump's famous tale of the tapes. So, please stick around. We're going to be right back.

WYDEN: Thank you.


[16:21:02] SCIUTTO: We're back now with Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. Senator, I want to ask you about healthcare legislation, but first, one final question on Russian hacking. Secretary Johnson testified earlier this week that Russia probed some 21 states during the 2016 election. Great concern among intelligence officials I speak to that they were laying the groundwork for possible intervention in voting systems in 2018 and 2020. Is that your concern, that Russia may take that next step in future elections?

WYDEN: Again, I can't talk about classified matters, but there is no question that what we are talking about is making sure we are taking steps to protect our voters in 2018 and 2020. And I made the point at the hearings, an open hearing, that there is a way to do it, and that is to take Oregon's vote by mail system nationwide. We have a paper trail for every single ballot. That's about the best pushback that you can possibly get against these people overseas that are trying to disrupt our democracy.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you now on health care. Another Republican senator came out today against the Senate version of the health care repeal bill as it stands. So, now, we have a total of four conservatives and one moderate senator who have come out publicly, and there they are now, Paul Cruz, Johnson, Lee and Heller.

In your view, is this bill in effect on life support or do you believe Republicans will get the votes they need?

WYDEN: Let's take two categories of senators. It seems to me that Senator Heller was basically leaving the door open for some kind of sweetener. What I can tell you about the conservatives is other than Senator Paul, I don't believe that any of those conservatives actually intends to vote against this bill.

You know, I've seen this game before. I mean, what you try to do is sort of pretend that you're against this, then you take a cosmetic change and say, you know, that's the way it should have been to protect conservative voters. It's really part of the con job. There is nothing Americans dislike more than a con job.

And the fact is this is a con job for the ages, and you see it in terms of the tactics I just mentioned among those conservative voters, and this overall bill after the president promised more heart and a bill that was less mean, this bill just doubles down on what they already did.

SCIUTTO: So, it sounds like you believe they will get the vote.

WYDEN: Certainly today, what we have to do is show how flawed this bill is. I'm the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. There is a huge cut in capital gains in this. It's retroactive. So, if somebody got a million-dollar capital gain, say, in February, this has been pointed out, that person would get a $38,000 tax break.

So, what's the choice here? Are we going to have $38,000 tax breaks that are windfalls, or are we going to make it possible for somebody who is a baby boomer who might have a stroke to afford nursing home coverage? SCIUTTO: Senator Ron Wyden, thanks very so much.

WYDEN: Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: You just heard a Democrat senator say Republican opposition to the Senate bill is a con job. So, is the bill really in jeopardy? Stick around. We're going to talk about it.


[16:28:32] SCIUTTO: We're back now with more in our politics lead. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has one week to get to 50 yes votes on the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. And with now five Republican senators opposing the draft legislation in public, McConnell needs to walk the line of swaying at least two conservatives wile still keeping moderate senators on board.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is on the Capitol Hill.

Ryan, you've been digging in to the proposal, which some Republicans say doesn't go far enough in repealing Obamacare. Of course, others think it goes too far.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim. I mean, that's really the big problem right now for Senate Republicans. The further that this bill moves to the right, the more difficult it's going to be for moderates to continue to support this legislation and Mitch McConnell only has two votes to spare.


NOBLES (voice-over): It is decision time for Senate Republicans. At stake, the fate of health care reform. Fifty-two Republicans are now weighing the pros and cons of this bill. Their decision will impact millions of Americans while at the same time putting their political futures on the line.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I certainly need enough time to understand the bill myself, get input from constituents.

NOBLES: The politics are getting the attention, but so is the policy. The bill calls for major changes to the future of Medicaid, a point Democrats are seizing on.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The president said the House bill was mean. The Senate bill may be meaner.

NOBLES: Under Obamacare, states, if they choose to participate, receive federal funds to expand Medicaid to provide health coverage for low-income Americans. The House bill would end Medicaid expansion in three years and give states a block grant to fund Medicaid as they see fit.