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WAPO: Obama's Struggle to Punish Putin, Protect Election; WAPO: Putin Ordered Hacks to Aid Trump, Damage Clinton; Some Republicans Voice Concerns over Health Care Bill. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 23, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: But at the same time, apparently, President Obama wanted to protect the United States from any more harm. One of "The Washington Post" reporters on this story, Adam Entous, described it to me a short time ago.


ADAM ENTOUS, STAFF WRITER "THE WASHINGTON POST": Obama wanted to avoid what he saw as a worst case scenario, which would be that the Russians actually intervened to try to actually affect the voting itself on Election Day, on or before Election Day. So, that was the priority. So, he didn't want to retaliate before the election for fear any retaliation would just provoke Putin to make things worse.

So then they decided to go after the election. And when they started having this debate over what to do, of course you had different institutions, State Department, CIA, the Treasury Department, they all wanted to kind of protect their own equities in this. So the result was kind of a more watering down approach, which required Susan Rice in a key meeting to basically say, you know put, you know, stop -- you know, stop bickering among yourselves, let's settle on this package.

That said -- that package, by pretty much all accounts, could be called modest in its impact and largely symbolic. Because in the end, you know, there really wasn't much that the Obama administration could do in terms of sanctions that wouldn't have blowback effects that would affect either U.S. businesses or European allies.


BERMAN: All right. Keep in mind. The current president, President Trump, says he still wonders if, if the Russians hacked the elections. But this "Washington Post" story not only goes into the intelligence that they in fact did, but the fact that Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, he directed it and directed it to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Listen to how President Obama learned about this intelligence.


ENTOUS: The CIA sent this very sensitive document by courier to the White House. It was clearly instructed to be given only to a select group of the president and his top advisers for their eyes only. After they read the document, they were instructed to put it back in the envelope, send it back to Langley via courier as soon as they finished reading it.

It was that sensitive. This was so sensitive. In fact, the initial meetings excluded some very senior top officials, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. That's how sensitive this was and how restricted this information was held within the Obama administration.

BERMAN: And this intelligence, which you know is stunning from where it came from, the sources with inside Russia said, what? That Vladimir Putin was directing attacks to hurt Hillary Clinton and to help Donald Trump.

ENTOUS: That's right. And specifically, what happened here is the CIA obtained the precise instruction from Putin.


BERMAN: All right. Let's discuss this now, joining us, Andre Bauer, CNN political commentator, former lieutenant governor of South Carolina, Abby Phillip, CNN political analyst, White House reporter for "The Washington Post" and Brad Woodhouse, former communications director for the DNC.

Abby Phillip, through osmosis, since your paper broke this story, I'm going to give you the first question. This is a really dramatic account with several things that jump out, the Obama administration response, the type of intelligence that was provided to the Obama team right from the very beginning, and the level of involvement of Vladimir Putin. A memo, as was described to me by your colleague, Adam Entous, which is practically the order from President Putin to his team to launch these cyberattacks on the United States. Pretty dramatic stuff, Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND WHITE HOUSE REPORTER "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, absolutely. And I think it really highlights the sort of high wire act that the Obama administration felt that they were in in the last six months of the election where they were worried that anything that they could do to retaliate or stop the Russians from doing this might actually provoke an even more harsh attack that could go at the very heart of the election.

And then, the other thing that really strikes out is just the degree to which Vladimir Putin has publicly, in the last couple weeks, denied that he and the Russians had anything to do with the cyberattack. I think the evidence out there is pretty clear and pretty definitive at this point. There is no doubt in the Intelligence Community. I think our reporting solidifies that.

And it should be, to some extent, a warning to the folks in the Trump administration who are very engaged in a project of trying to broker better relationships with Vladimir Putin. He is clearly not someone who is a trust worthy figure and people have been saying that for quite some time. But there's still an effort underway in this administration to get closer to him. And I think that this report will really highlight the risks of that strategy.

BERMAN: You know, the current president, President Trump still says, if the Russians hack the election, yesterday, the White House said the president thinks they probably did. So he's not at that definitive point that "The Washington Post" seems to be in this reporting, the Intelligence Committee thinks this morning.

[10:05:01] Brad Woodhouse, one of the remarkable things in this article is it charts how the Obama team, the White House, responded. Well, there was a face-to-face, you know, confrontation, not fisticuffs, but a confrontation between President Obama and President Putin. Listen to how Adam Entous described this to me.


ENTOUS: What the president said was effectively, knock it off or else. You know, the threat there was that the U.S. would do something very serious to the Russian economy. Putin responds to the president by saying, we weren't doing anything. You know, basically saying that there's nothing here. You are accusing the wrong guy.

Now, this is at a point in time when, you know, the administration is trying to prevent the Russians from actually intervening in the vote. And the president's take away from that encounter, when they looked at the intelligence that followed that encounter was that Russia did not escalate. Of course, at that point, the damage, if you will, had already been done.


BERMAN: So, Brad Woodhouse, that's something the president, actually did. But this story is really an account, as much as what the White House did not do. The senior administration official saying it's the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked. As a Democrat sitting here this morning, reading this account, do you feel like the Obama White House choked here?

BRAD WOODHOUSE, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR DNC: Well, look, I think hindsight is always 20/20, John. I trust that the prioritization of making sure that vote tallies were not changed, that people -- that they didn't hack systems in a way that draw people off the election rolls, that somehow they didn't affect the outcome of the vote count. That, to me, was the big priority. Now, I think after the election should sanctions have possibly been stiffer? I think absolutely that is the case.

BERMAN: Do you think, Brad, do you think one of the things that happened is the White House, I think, was scared off. When we heard this from Jeh Johnson in his testimony this week, they were scared off by the political implications. They thought that if they came out and said something, people would say, oh, this is politics. Trump is already saying the election is rigged. So they were scared.

WOODHOUSE: Well, look, I think that's right. I mean, I think one of the overriding factors here they did not want to make the interference by the Russians in our election to worse by creating the political issue that might advantage one candidate or the other or might suppress American votes.

Look, if you believe that your vote is being hacked by the Russians or the Russians are being -- violating our election system. And if Donald Trump is already out there saying that the election is being rigged then it might have the effect of suppressing the vote, of upsetting the counting of the vote, of making a bad situation even worse.

Look, I don't know if they made all the right decisions. I do know this. They didn't have a lot of great options. The best they could do, is make sure that matters didn't get any worse.

BERMAN: They ended up not taking a lot of action as a result. Andre Bauer, to you, you have been a Trump supporter throughout the campaign and now, in his time in the White House.

Your Kellyanne Conway, you know, senior adviser to the president, we were pressing her this morning here on CNN about this report. She won't even address it. She won't even acknowledge, hey, look, more evidence that the Russians hacked into the election, more evidence of what in the administration, not even the Trump administration did not do to address it at the time. Do you think it is time for President Trump and the administration to take this on much more directly, Andre?

ANDRE BAUER (R), CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR SOUTH CAROLINA: I think there's an opportunity to bring some finality. You know, Edgar Allan Poe once said, "believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear." And we really haven't seen a whole lot of evidence that Russia tried to help one party versus another but there needs to be finality brought to this.

The American people need to know that we have taken some type of action to make sure that not just Russia, but any country that tries to meddle in our election, that there will be repercussions. So, I would like to see the administration take steps to do something and have a discussion with Russia to say there are going to be implications in the future if you do this.

BERMAN: So, Andre, one of the things that they may be able to do is to keep in place something else we learned in this "Washington Post" story, some sort of covert actions. Listen to Adam Entous described it to me.


ENTOUS: He signed a covert finding which authorized the CIA, the NSA and Cyber Command to basically put in place these little implants. Maybe little is not the right word, to put these implants in place that potentially, could be set off in future in order to basically, again, deter the Russians from doing this.

Keep in mind here. This is a finding that basically stays in effect unless Trump basically issues a second order to remove it. So, unless Trump acts to remove this finding by Obama, it stays in effect. [10:10:00] BERMAN: That's fascinating. Do we have any evidence yet that the president, the current President Trump has countermanded this effort as of now?

ENTOUS: As far as we know, the answer is to that is no.


BERMAN: Andre, as a supporter of the president in the White House, would you like to see them keep these measures in place?

BAUER: I would. One other fact, John, I think it's a little interesting that the former president says he didn't want to meddle in the election because it may look like he was favoring a candidate. You know, we all know he was traveling around Air Force One with Hillary Clinton. I'm not sure that's the best tact for the Democrats to say he didn't want to look like he was favoring a candidate because we know he was endorsing Hillary and speaking on her behalf.

BERMAN: That doesn't mean he was right about that decision. And that he may, during the time, as we saw in that article, a lot of Democrats and senior White House officials regretting what they did and did not do.

Andre Bauer, Abby Phillip, Brad Woodhouse, thank you very, very much.

All right, the president threatened James Comey on Twitter with possible tapes of their conversation. Then, he said, he didn't have the tapes. Now, just now, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says it wasn't done to intimidate the former FBI director. What does he mean?

All right, may be within a week, Republicans, Democrats will vote on the new Senate health care bill. What is the vote count as we sit here this morning? Stay with us.


[10:15:39] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL HEMMER, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Democrats say the president was trying to intimidate James Comey. Was that the intent a month ago? Suggested --

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Quite the opposite -- no, quite the opposite. I think the president made it very clear that he wanted the truth to come out. He wanted everyone to be honest about this and he wanted to get to the bottom of it and think he succeeded in doing that.

The reality is that he wanted to make sure the truth came out and by talking about something like tapes it made people have to -- made Comey in particular think to himself. I'd better be honest. I'd better tell the truth about the circumstances regarding the situation.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: All right. That's White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer moments ago answering a question about whether the president was trying to intimidate James Comey when he apparently made up the notion that somehow their conversation was taped. The notion he now says it's simply not true.

I'm joined by retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, a CNN military and diplomatic analyst, former State Department spokesman and Steve Hall, CNN national security analyst, former CIA chief of Russia operations.

Guys, you know neither of you are attorneys here prosecuting cases like this, witness intimidation. But Steve Hall, to you here, a guy like James Comey, you know knowing the type of guy he is, you know, the president floating the notion that maybe there are tapes. Do you think that would make James Comey more or less honest?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST AND RETIRED CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS: Well, I think James Comey is the, you know, ultimate professional in terms of law enforcement, legal issues and certainly briefing administration and high level officials. So, he's no stranger to all of this. He understands very well how the system works and I think he probably understood the ramifications of the president saying that, regardless of whether or not the actual capability existed of having tapes in the Oval Office or not.

He's been very careful. Comey has, about how he approached this. And you know, we just have to see at the end of the day as the investigations go on, primarily Mueller's investigation is to how Comey ends up in all of this.

BERMAN: You know and Admiral, to you, you spent a long time in the communications business. The White House and Trump supporters now trying to explain that original tweet is some kind of a grand strategy. You know, it's more possible -- it seems more likely to me that he was just either, messing with us, messing with the public or just making something up.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST AND FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Yes. That's where I am, John, to be honest with you. I mean, I don't think -- I don't know Mr. Comey at all. But he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy that needs to be reminded through a tweet that he should be telling the truth and be honest. It just doesn't wash. I think he just threw this out there.

And I do think it was a chance to sort of intimidate and to affect and to inject himself into what shouldn't even been a public discussion in the first place. So, I don't see a lot of strategy coming up from the communications side, period, out of this White House. It certainly wouldn't ascribe this a strategy.

BERMAN: Let me ask you about your communications office when you were part of the Obama administration at the State Department specifically, because this "Washington Post" story that came out this morning, absolutely fascinating in its level of detail. A step by step account of how the Obama administration did and did not respond to very specific intelligence about Russian hacking into the election and the fact that Vladimir Putin ordered it.

So, Admiral, to you, you know you were there. You were inside the State Department. Secretary of State John Kerry was brought in. Apparently, late to the process as this was going on. But what can you tell us about what the environment was within the administration at the time? How concerned were you all and did you feel like you were going far enough?

KIRBY: In a word, very concerned. I can't speak to the specific discussions as Secretary Kerry had. I wasn't part of them and even if I was, it wouldn't be appropriate. But I can tell you that the secretary, he made it very clear to all of us, that this was something we need to take seriously. That we needed to send a message not just to the American people but to our friends and allies around the world that we were taking this seriously, that Russia was at the heart of it and that we were going to do everything we could to preserve the sanctity of the vote here in the United States. So, it was something that we obviously took very seriously.

BERMAN: And Steve Hall to you. You are a Russia guy. You spent a lot of time, you know, working on the Russia situation. That the lead of this whole article describes an envelope arriving at the White House with eyes only secret, you know, information that Vladimir Putin directly ordered this cyberattack, this operation, you know, against the United States to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Based on what you know of Russia and Vladimir Putin, does that surprise you?

HALL: Not at all. I mean, this is absolutely -- this question has come up a couple times. It's a fascinating "Washington Post" report by the way.

[10:20:02] It outlines some of the difficulties that one can encounter, that an administration can encounter when you come by amazingly good intelligence. But then, what can you actually do with it?

It's not at all a surprise that Vladimir Putin would have, you know, known about this and probably even been tempted to direct it himself as a former intelligence officer. But certainly given your -- this is also not something new. I mean, the Russians have tried to get in the past U.S. elections and tried to get in to European elections.

But the article really brings a good focus, I think, on to you know what Putin's goals are and the difficulties an administration has when trying to figure out a response short of - you know, a nuclear warfare, conventional warfare. I mean, if you go down the path of, OK, you've cyberattacked us. We are going to cyberattack you. It's a very, very slippery slope and it's extremely difficult to control that sort of things.

So, it's fascinating to see the political deliberations that went on in a very difficult situation. How do you respond when one of the very basic parts of our democracy is threatened and undermined by Russia? It's fascinating.

BERMAN: Admiral, as an official quote within the article on Obama administration official saying, "We choked." Your thoughts on that?

KIRBY: I think, again, if everything in the article is accurate and I know these are great reporters. I would tell you that it certainly shows the difficulty in trying to work your way through, how to respond to a situation like this. In particular, John, in the middle of an election, I mean, there are never any really great options but when you are in the middle of national elections, those options become even smaller. And I think this shows the degree to which the administration really struggled with how to do this appropriately, keeping in mind that we wanted to preserve the sanctity of that election. There simply was no easier quick solution here.

BERMAN: No. And they were afraid of the political implications and at some cases, perhaps they froze. John Kirby, Steve Hall, thank you very, very much.

All right, the ink was barely dry on the Republican Senate health care bill. When there were protests on Capitol Hill. But the greatest threat to passage might come from within the Republican race.


[10:26:12] BERMAN: What is really going on with the Senate health care bill this morning? Can they get to 50? How close are they for real? These four Senate Republicans say they cannot support the bill as it is right now. They are asking for changes. Changes are coming. One senior White House official says it will be a game of whack-a-mole though, with changes that might please one group only to anger another.

On the subject of anger, it was quite visible outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after he announced what was in the bill. Capitol Police forcibly removed demonstrators. Many of them disabled or chronically ill who say, the Medicaid cuts would be catastrophic to them.

CNN's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill this morning. No reporter in America better understands what is going on right now and where this might be headed than you, Phil Mattingly. So, tell us everything.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, I think the best way to kind of view yesterday -- view the release of the discussion draft is exactly that. It was a discussion draft. It was the first step in a very complex process going forward.

You mentioned, these four Republican senators coming out, saying they couldn't support the bill as it currently stands. Those are conservatives, but John, you got to pay attention to moderates as well, several senators. Dean Heller, Susan Collins, saying they have serious concerns about the direction of this bill.

What is happening right now behind the scenes? Senate is out today. Senate has gone home for the weekend. But staff has worked on a level of try and figure out how to address the concerns, how to thread the needle, how to not lose too many conservatives but also keep a couple of moderates on as well, in their ability to find that sweet spot will decide whether or not this bill actually can get to 50 votes, whether or not it can move back here to the House.

Well, the big question I think for a lot of people is, where does the White House kind of stand on this, particularly in the wake of four Republican senators coming out, saying they have problems with the initial bill. Take a listen closely to what President Trump had to say on Fox this morning.


AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: You have the White House, you have the House, Republicans have the House and the Senate, but you have these senators that are not on board.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, they're also four good guys and they're four friends of mine. And I think that they'll probably get there. We'll have to see.

You know, health care is a very difficult situation. If you look, the Clintons tried to get it and after years and years, they couldn't do it. Obamacare was murder for them to get. And now it failed. It's virtually out of business. Obamacare is a disaster. And we're trying to do something in a very short period of time.


MATTINGLY: John, two things there, first and foremost, not bringing the hammer down on these Republicans who are not on board, yet, kind of recognition that space is needed here in the Senate. That's space that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has asked for. But also, underscoring, that this is a very complicated process and the Senate is partaking this process in a very compressed time schedule. Make no mistake about it.

Senate leadership makes it very clear. Mitch McConnell still wants to have a vote next week no matter what. That makes the behind the scenes efforts were really important. But I do want to underscore one thing. And John, you know this very well.

Mitch McConnell is as good as it gets in trying to thread the needle, figure out how to get things done in the Senate floor. He knows his conference extremely well. Not only where their behind closed-door meetings with all 52 members. I'm told there are private meetings. There are private phone calls. He knows what his members need to get their vote to yes.

The question is, again, can he get enough? Can he get 50 from kind of those two ideological sides of the party inside their conference? It's an open question right now. But what happens from here on out, the behind the scenes, we are trying to get there. We'll see if they can get there. They have a short period of time, John.

BERMAN: All right. Yes, interesting that none of those Republicans I spoke at, didn't say no, not ever, they just said no, not now and we think it will change. I think they left the door wide, wide open there. But we will see. Phil Mattingly thanks very much. Joining me is someone who is, I think, currently a no vote and likely to stay that way, the Democratic senator from Maryland, Chris Van Hollen. Senator, thank you so much for being with us.

You know, you have been in this business a long time. What do you make of these four Republican senators who say no right now? Because I spoke to Republican senator this morning, who I'm not going to name, who said you know what, I actually think at least three of them are going to get to yes pretty easily.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Yes. John, I'm not confident that those four are going to stay no. And I think that the real focus here is going to be with respect to the so-called moderate senators including a lot of Republican senators who come --