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Flynn Pleads Guilty to Lying; U.S. Senate to Vote on Republican Tax Reform Bill. Aired 0-0:30a ET

Aired December 2, 2017 - 00:00   ET

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CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A guilty plea. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn admits to lying to the FBI and he's already pointing fingers. Flynn tells investigators a very senior official in the Trump campaign coordinated his conversations with foreign governments.

Also happening now, we're watching the floor of the U.S. Senate. These are live pictures. Republicans say they have the votes for tax reform. They're possibly about to hand the president his first major legislative win.

So you could be watching the best and worst day of the Trump presidency so far. We'll walk you all through it. I'm Cyril Vanier from the CNN Headquarters here in Atlanta. Thank you for joining us.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

VANIER: Guilty. With that one word, the investigation into Russian election meddling has pierced president Donald Trump's inner circle. You're looking now at disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn outside a federal courthouse in Washington on Friday.

The former White House official pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials last year. Flynn, who was fired by the president in February, also confirmed that he is now cooperating with investigators.

Flynn is the fourth Trump campaign official to be caught up in the investigation so far and the second to plead guilty. And he may not be the last. Flynn revealed that he was in constant communications with other members of the president's inner circle while he was talking with the Russians. Let's get more from Pam Brown.

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PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn arriving at a federal courthouse in Washington today before pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, making him the first person who worked inside the White House to be charged in the Russia probe and the fourth campaign official to face charges so far.

The charge and plea agreement center around conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in December of last year. Court documents show that others on the Trump team knew of Flynn's efforts.

On December 29th, Flynn called former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, along with other transition officials, at Maralago, where they discussed what to say to Kislyak about the new sanctions being imposed on Russia by the Obama administration.

According to Flynn, the transition officials did not want Russia to escalate the situation. Flynn immediately called Kislyak, asking Russia not to overreact to those sanctions. Shortly after that call, Flynn briefed McFarland that he did, indeed, discuss sanctions with the ambassador, according to two people familiar with the matter.

But in January, then vice president-elect Mike Pence told the nation that Flynn assured him he did not talk about sanctions with Kislyak.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.

BROWN (voice-over): Then on December 31st, three days after their conversation about sanctions, Kislyak confirmed to Flynn that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to Flynn's request.

Also today, court documents revealed another interaction Flynn had with Kislyak, calling him at the direction of a, quote, "very senior member of the transition" about a coming U.N. Security Council vote on Israeli settlements.

Sources tell CNN that person was Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. According to the filing, Flynn and Kislyak spoke about the incoming administration's opposition to the resolution and asked Russia to delay or vote against it.

CNN can also now report that there were intelligence intercepts that picked up Kushner in conversations with foreign intelligence targets, talking about efforts to stop the resolution, according to an official briefed on the matter.

Flynn didn't respond to shouted questions when leaving the courthouse today and afterwards visited his son, Michael Flynn Jr., who was also a potential target of the Russia investigation.

In a statement, Flynn acknowledged wrongdoing, saying, "My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the special counsel's office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country."

Last month Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his deputy, Rick Gates, were indicted for conspiracy to launder money, among other charges. Both men have pleaded not guilty. And Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded

guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian nationals.

The White House tried to down play the significance of the Flynn revelations today, with one source close to the president telling CNN that everyone lies in Washington. President Trump has long maintained there was no collusion with his campaign and Russia.

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TRUMP: The entire thing has been a witch hunt and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can --

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TRUMP: -- always speak for myself. And the Russians. Zero.

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BROWN (voice-over): But as the investigation intensifies, so does the scrutiny on the president and his inner circle.

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VANIER: So how is the president reacting to Flynn's guilty plea?

Well, it's hard to say. Mr. Trump isn't talking about it. He ignored questions from reporters while greeting the Libyan prime minister to the White House. One source tells CNN the president and his staff are in denial about the seriousness of the Russia investigation.

They believe that Flynn's guilty plea means the special counsel's probe is wrapping up and that the president will soon be cleared. That source says they are, quote, "totally in a bubble."

With me now to unwrap all of this, CNN national security analyst Steve hall, criminal defense attorney Troy Slaten and Michael Genovese, author of "How Trump Governs."

Troy, as a lawyer, as an attorney, let's go to you first. Signing a guilty plea to reduce his criminal exposure, does that mean that Michael Flynn necessarily has something big or someone big that he can give up?

TROY SLATEN, ATTORNEY: Well, absolutely and that's indicated in both his public statement, where he says he's cooperating with the special counsel's office, and the fact that he had much more potential criminal exposure.

Each one of the allegations of lying to the FBI carries a maximum of five years in federal prison. That means if we take those four lies that we see in the information today, that's over 20 years of potential exposure.

So the fact that he's only pleading to one count, that all of these lies were consolidated into one count, means that he's absolutely cooperating with the special counsel and that he has information that the special counsel believes is important.

VANIER: What leaps out at you in that court document?

You're able to read between the lines better than most of us.

SLATEN: Well, what jumps out to me is that Michael Flynn was heavily involved in the Trump transition. And we've heard from the president and the administration so far that all these other people, that were indicted or pled guilty, like Papadopoulos, that he was low-level; that Gates, that he didn't rely know him that well; that Manafort, these are financial crimes from a long time ago.

But with Michael Flynn, he was the national security adviser. He was the person that, every single day, went to the president and told him about the worst stuff that's going on in the world.

So this was an intimate. He was intimately involved in both the campaign and in the start of the actual administration. So this is a big fish for Robert Mueller and, if he rolls over and cooperates, well, then that could be very damaging.

VANIER: And you're telling us that he's necessarily got something or someone that he can give up.

Michael Genovese, the White House has been saying since the beginning of this year, almost a year now, whatever happens to Flynn has got nothing to do with us. There's no direct connection, from whatever he may have done to the president.

And in fact, that's exactly what they said again today. Ty Cobb, Mr. Trump's lawyer, says this stops with Flynn.

Does that defense still hold today?

MICHAEL GENOVESE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the sound you heard from Washington was Flynn being thrown under the bus by the White House. But regardless of what the White House wants to be true, hopes to be true, believes to be true, the Flynn deal is a big one.

He's going to cooperate and so the White House is really caught in a bind. We don't know exactly what he's going to say; you don't know how much he's going to turn over. You don't know which rock he's going to uncover a family member, Don Junior, Jared or does it go to the president?

So it's been a rough day for the president.

VANIER: Let's bring in CNN national security analyst Steve Hall.

I think one of the questions everyone is going to be asking themselves and that would include, I assume, the leader of the Russian investigation, Bob Mueller, is could the U.S. president, could Donald Trump, at the time he was president-elect, when all of this was going on back in December of last year, could he have not known that Michael Flynn was reaching out to the Russian ambassador, given that Michael Flynn was getting instructions and exchanging information about this with senior members of the Trump campaign?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's very difficult to imagine that the highest levels of the government, to include the president, would not have known that. But I'm worried there might be a little too much focus on the contact with Ambassador Kislyak and policy decisions that were being made by the transition team.

I think what's actually going on here is this is just the first bar in a symphony that Mueller is about to begin playing. And I think he gets more to the collusion question and less about -- and I'll defer to the lawyers on this -- but less about whether or not it's appropriate or legal for somebody who is the national advisor elect to begin consulting with foreign governments before the inauguration.

Remember, the intelligence community first assessed that Russia was essentially attacking our elections. It was --

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HALL: -- trying to penetrate and conduct an operation to hopefully influence the outcome of the election. I think that the information that Flynn is going to give up has to do with that question rather than whether or not and when he spoke to Kislyak and other Russians.

VANIER: We're definitely going to get to the question in this conversation of whether that's legal, whether it's legal to do that.

We'll be getting to Troy. But I want to circle to my earlier question, which is Michael Flynn was -- everybody at the time figured he was going to be the national security adviser.

You're a national security analyst. Would it be normal for the incoming national security adviser, would it be expected for him to discuss things with a Russian ambassador without his boss, the candidate, then president-elect, knowing about it?

Would an incoming national security adviser have that level of autonomy on a campaign?

HALL: I would doubt that, based on my experience. I don't think that an incoming national security adviser -- or, really, any senior member of an incoming team, which is still very much forming itself at this particular stage, would undertake such a serious cooperation or coordination, discussion, negotiation with the Russians without the president-elect knowing about it. I think that would be unusual.

Again, whether or not that was appropriate or legal to do it, prior to the inauguration, is another question. But it's difficult for me to imagine a situation, where president-elect Trump would not have known that Michael Flynn was having these conversations with the Russians.

VANIER: All right. Steve, troy, Michael, stand by. I'll come back to you in a moment.

For more on how Russia is responding to the news of the Flynn plea deal, let's go to Clare Sebastian in Moscow.

Clare, Moscow has been asked and various levels of officials in Russia have been asked the same question for over a year.

What is their reaction to what's going on in the U.S. and to every new bit of information that is revealed in this Russia probe?

Do you have any reaction where you are?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Cyril, so far they are saying very little and that may well be a policy in itself. They have, in recent months, certainly kept very quiet on all the incremental revelations coming out in the Russia investigation.

We approached the Kremlin and they have yet to respond to our request of our comment. The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, in a text message to me yesterday, simply saying, what has this got to do with us?

Perhaps an interesting echo of the White House response there.

As for the former Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, who, of course, is implicated in all of this, it was his conversations with Michael Flynn that are detailed in that conversation from Flynn yesterday. Well, he has maintained all along that, yes, while there were contacts that took place, sanctions were never discussed.

But I just want to bring you one reaction that we have had from a Russian senator, Franz Kasevich (ph), speaking to a Russian news agent here. He said the former U.S. national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was just the one they caught. The main object of this attack is of course Donald Trump.

And that very much affects the line that we've heard from Russia for the last few months, certainly, that the whole Russia issue, the whole Russia scandal is simply being used by Trump's enemies as a method of discrediting him.

But certainly, Cyril, this has been very closely watched, you can only imagine, in the halls of the Kremlin and other official circles here in Russia.

VANIER: Yes. Very interesting. The early reaction that Clare as got so far, "What has this got to do with us?"

And it's true Vladimir Putin was saying it even recently, this is all U.S. domestic, local politics and local concerns. Doesn't really impact relations with Russia.

All right. Clare Sebastian, speaking from Moscow, thank you very much.

And also, any moment now, the U.S. Senate will vote on the Republican tax reform bill. The vote is expected to split down party lines. Changes are still being made to the massive bill. But Republicans are now saying the bill's lower corporate tax rate

will get businesses to add jobs and, importantly, since about the middle of the day Friday, they've been saying they have the votes to pass this.

Democrats say that strategy has never worked and the bill is nothing more than a tax break for the rich. The bill also ends the law requiring individuals to have health insurance. Phil Mattingly has the details.

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PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Cyril, at this point, it's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when Senate Republicans will pass their almost historic tax overhaul, something that hasn't been done in 31 years.

It is a far cry from where they were just 24 hours ago, the idea that perhaps the bill would stall out altogether became a reality at one point on Thursday. By Friday morning, that was all wrapped up. They had a deal. They had the votes.

One thing they did not have was the bill. Hour after hour after hour, senators waited for the deal to actually turn into legislation, legislation that they could eventually vote on. The reality behind the scenes was they were trying to draft what they'd all agreed to.

The types of provisions that will apply to millions of people, every company, every industry, kind of scattershot, put together at the last --

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MATTINGLY: -- minute to try and actually get things through. As it currently stands, the Senate is pushing through various amendments towards a final vote. A final vote that everybody already knows the end game on.

Senate Republicans will pass the bill with 51 of their 52 members voting for it. Those issues that they had last night, those issues about the deficit, something like Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee, who made very clear he had problems with that, they just decided to dispatch with them altogether. Corker now a no vote.

But everybody else that had a problem with this is now on board. Senator Susan Collins, she's on board because of the inclusion of a state and local tax deduction for property taxes capped at $10,000.

People like Jeff Flake, he's on board because of an expanded expensing provision.

Senator Ron Johnson, he is on board because of an expanded tax cut for pass-through entities, basically business entities that pay taxes through the individual side.

That all came together in quick fashion. But the optics, the idea that Senate Republicans are going to pass a bill that's so meaningful, so consequential to so many people, so many industries companies from around the world, without actually having a final text for the vast majority of the day, well, Democrats have seized on that issues, attacking Republicans, holding up of the bill that had handwritten changes on them throughout the debate, calling on Republicans to start over or at least give them a couple of days to read the bill.

Republicans, they're not going to do that. They have the votes. They are going to vote. They are on track to pass this, which means that is one more major hurdle that they will clear in their effort to lock down a cornerstone domestic legislative achievement for President Trump, something they've fallen short of throughout 2017.

Big question now is, once they get it through the Senate, how do they reconcile a bill that differs in so many ways from their House counterpart?

Republican leaders in both chambers, they're confident that they can get that done in the next couple of weeks. But as of now, still an open question. But in the Senate, no more questions. Just an answer. They actually have the votes -- Cyril.

VANIER: All right. Phil Mattingly reporting from near the floor of the Senate there. We'll keep going back to him throughout the night.

The Russia investigation now striking closer to the Oval Office than ever before. We'll be back with our panel to discuss the fallout from Michael Flynn's plea deal just ahead. Stay with us.

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TRUMP: Michael Flynn, General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media.

Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. When I looked at the information, I said, I don't think he did anything wrong. I think he did something right.

He's, in my opinion, a very good person. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don't even know and immediately run out and fire a general.

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VANIER: That was the president months ago, singing the praises of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, that he had just fired. Fast forward to Friday, there you go. Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI --

[00:20:00] VANIER: -- about his contacts with a Russian ambassador. The two called one another several times during the presidential transition last year. But Flynn lied to investigators, specifically FBI investigators, when they asked him about his contacts with Russian officials in January.

Let's get back to our panel now: CNN national security analyst, Steve Hall, is with us, as are criminal defense attorney, Troy Slaten, and Michael Genovese, author of "How Trump Governs."

Troy, Michael Flynn admits that he influenced foreign policy during the transition period. At the time, he was weeks away still from becoming national security adviser. So he was just a private citizen working on a campaign, albeit a successful one.

He called the Russian ambassador, asking Russia not to react to the sanctions that Barack Obama was passing against Russia. They did not. And then they circled back to him. The ambassador called him back and confirmed to him, we did what you asked of us.

So my question to you, is that illegal?

SLATEN: Well, there's a question about whether or not that violates a late 1700s statute called the Logan Act. I think it was 1790- something when it was put into law and it basically says that, unless you're a member of the United States government, you're not allowed to negotiate on behalf of the government.

And it's never been tested and no one's ever been convicted of it. And many constitutional scholars think that it might be unconstitutional. And so that would be the allegation. But I think aside from that, the --

VANIER: So Troy, let me just stop you there.

So is that the trump card -- no pun intended.

But is that the major legal leverage or tool that Bob Mueller has on Michael Flynn, then?

SLATEN: Well, I'm not even sure, because here -- it's clear that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Here, he's being convicted of and has pled guilty to lying to the FBI. He didn't plead guilty to colluding with Russia. He didn't plead guilty to helping Russia defeat Hillary Clinton or help Donald Trump become elected.

And that's the mandate for the special counsel. And that is the problem that special counsel investigations tend to have. They tend to metastasize and grow beyond their mandate.

So even if everything that the special counsel's office says here is true and even if everything that Michael Flynn pled guilty to is true, it doesn't paint a picture that the Trump administration colluded with Russia in order to tip the scales in the 2016 election.

VANIER: Yes, Steve, Michael, I want to hear you both on that very question. I think that's what everybody watching is wondering, each time they get new revelations from the Russia investigation.

Are we any clearer on whether or not there was, indeed, collusion?

Steve, you first.

HALL: You and I are not any clearer on it, I don't think today, because we don't know what Bob Mueller and his team know. I think there's a little bit of confusion, a little bit of bleed-over in people's minds, understandably so.

These are complicated legal and counterintelligence issues. Between, you know, these times when Flynn went out and spoke to Kislyak and whether or not that was permissible, legal, appropriate, whatever, and what I think Mueller is really trying to get at, which is he got cooperation out of Flynn because of this -- people would argue relatively small charge.

But I think what Mueller is hoping for and what he's planning on is getting additional information to the collusion question. I don't think Mueller is in this to try to, you know, get people thrown into jail because they lied to him. He's trying to investigate exactly as you indicated, whether or not the Russians were -- well, we already know from our own intelligence assessment the Russians were trying to do something in the election.

The question is was anybody on the Trump team trying to cooperate with them and, if so, how?

That is, I think, where Flynn's assistance to the special prosecutor, that's what is really going to be valuable as to whether or not that happened and how it happened.

VANIER: Michael Genovese, on how you see Friday's revelations fitting into the bigger picture?

GENOVESE: Well, that's the key because this is just one small piece of the big puzzle. And, in fact, Mueller has a lot of information about Turkey, about other things that Flynn may have done, other things that Manafort may have done, other things that Jared may have done.

Remember, all these people have been talking to Congress. It's perjury if you lie to Congress. They've been testifying under oath in some cases.

So you're building the case. We're still at the very early stages. And this is the tip of the iceberg for Flynn because what they got him on was one smaller thing. And in response to some of the other comments, it is not unusual for a president's team in a transition to make contacts with other governments.

But they're usual courtesy calls, get-to-know-you calls, sort of just, you know, hello, how are you, this is who I am. Let's just have a little chat.

In the context, though, of this campaign, where there was Russian activity to undermine the election, that's --

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GENOVESE: -- the sensitivity to that was absent. If, in fact, there were those kinds of actions by Russia, which we knew there were, when Flynn had these meetings, then common sense would tell you, you don't talk about policy things like the U.N. vote or the sanctions that the Obama administration had imposed.

So it's really a muddied water here and we only know the very tip of that iceberg.

VANIER: Absolutely, just the tip of the iceberg. Michael, Troy, Steve, thank you very much for your insights tonight.

Still to come on CNN NEWSROOM, the first of many official outings to come for Prince Harry's American fiancee, a royal welcome for Meghan Markle -- coming up after the break.

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VANIER: Pope Francis on Friday used the word "Rohingya" while he was on his Asia trip and he met with members of this persecuted group in Bangladesh and said this, "The presence of God today is also called Rohingya."

Now more than half a million of the mostly Muslim Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August, upwards of 600,000 people. The pope has defended them in the past but didn't publicly say their name while he was in Myanmar earlier in the week.

And that drew criticism as the Rohingya issue has dominated the pope's Asia tour. He is now wrapping up the trip and has visited a church in Bangladesh.

Prince Harry's new fiancee says she's eager to get her boots on the ground in Britain. And on Friday, Meghan Markle did just that in the couple's first official royal appearance. They greeted cheering crowds in Nottingham, a city where Prince Harry has spent a significant amount of time working with the community.

The pair visited a charity fair, marking World AIDS Day and spent time at a local school.

Before we go, football news. The draw has been made for next year's FIFA World Cup in Russia. There's no clear group of death, as there sometimes is, but there are definitely some interesting matchups. Spain and Portugal are set to face off in Group B. that pits Cristiano Ronaldo against some of his Real Madrid teammates. Should be interesting.

In Group D, underdog Iceland is making its World Cup debut. It will take on Lionel Messi and his squad, Argentina.

That's it for us on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. We'll have more on the World Cup draw coming up. "WORLD SPORT" up next. But first I'll be back with the world headlines. Stay with us.