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Documents Show Flynn Told Mueller Trump, Congress Tried to Influence His Cooperation; Trump on Prospect of War with Iran: 'I Hope Not'; Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is Interviewed about Tensions with Iran. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired May 17, 2019 - 07:00   ET


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you to our international viewers for watching. For you, "CNN TALK" is next. For our U.S. viewers, there are new revelations about Michael Flynn's cooperation with the Mueller probe. They have just been unredacted, and they are very interesting.

[07:00:17] NEW DAY continues right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I like that he has no appetite for this, even though some of his supporters are rattling sabers.

CAMEROTA: Is the escalation between the U.S. and Iran one big misunderstanding?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I'd like to know why we took the action we did. There are a lot of senators feel like they're in the dark.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Flynn and his legal team got outreach from people connected to the administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is relevant to obstruction of justice. We have to vindicate the will of the American people to have oversight of the executive branch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're more interested in subpoenas than solutions.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president's trade fight with China gaining uncertainty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For politicians to dictate what my future is, it just seems wrong.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. And welcome to your NEW DAY.

New this morning, President Trump's former national security adviser, convicted felon Michael Flynn, says people connected to the president or Congress contacted him to discuss his involvement in the Russia investigation; and they did it in a way that could have affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation.

CAMEROTA: And this info has just been made public. It was redacted until now. So what did the president's team tell Michael Flynn to say? And who in Congress was trying to influence Flynn?

Joining us now to talk about all of this and more, we have Michael Smerconish, host of CNN's "Smerconish." We have Kaitlan Collins, making a rare appearance in the studio here.

BERMAN: First ever.

CAMEROTA: I know, first ever.

BERMAN: On the last day ever for this studio.

CAMEROTA: I know. Well done, for our swan song.


CAMEROTA: CNN White House correspondent.

And Jeffrey Toobin, who's here constantly, CNN chief legal analyst. OK!

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Sick of me here, you'll be sick of me in the new studio. It's a beautiful thing.

CAMEROTA: I look forward to being sick of you.

All right, let me do a dramatic reading, if you all will indulge me of what -- I want you to tell me if this sounds like obstruction to you.

This is the transcript of a phone call to Michael Flynn from John Dowd, we think, the president's attorney, to Michael Flynn as he is cooperating with Robert Mueller. What does this sound like to you, Jeffrey?

Here is what it says. Of course -- this is what John Dowd says to Michael Flynn. "It wouldn't surprise me if you've gone on to make a deal with the government. If there's information that implicates the president, well, then, we've got a national security issue, so, you know, we need some kind of heads up, um, you know, just for the sake of protecting all of our interests, if we can. Remember what we've always said about the president and his feelings towards Flynn, and that still remains."

I find that just fascinating, the psychology of this voice mail to Michael Flynn. TOOBIN: Well, it raises questions, as the lawyers like to say. I

mean, the issue is, is John Dowd simply saying, "Look, because you were the national security adviser, anything you say to prosecutors does have national security implications, separate and apart from an investigation." I mean, that's -- that's a benign explanation of that message. A less-benign explanation is the president likes you, don't leave the reservation, tell -- you know, tell a story that is helpful to us.

CAMEROTA: Well, doesn't the sentence -- remember what we've always said about the president and his feelings about Flynn. And that still remains. Doesn't that lead you towards one of the latter?

TOOBIN: It certainly raises that possibility. I mean, I -- you know, I don't want to convict John Dowd of obstruction of justice, you know, based on a phone message.

But, you know, you can see why, if you were a prosecutor, and you heard that message, you would want to know more and investigate any other contacts, what was said, and presumably, they did. Because Flynn ultimately cooperated with -- with Mueller and gave many debriefings.

BERMAN: His feelings towards Michael Flynn presumably wouldn't be a matter of national security.

TOOBIN: No, the feelings issue was very different.

BERMAN: And in the Mueller report, what they go on to say is they couldn't reach a conclusion on this, because executive -- not executive privilege, lawyer-client privilege made it impossible for them to probe the president's intentions on that.

What's new this morning also, Michael Smerconish, though, is in this unredacted filing from overnight, we learn that prosecutors say that people in Congress, that there were multiple communications from persons connected to the administration or Congress that could have affected both Flynn's willingness to cooperate and the completeness of the cooperation, from Congress.

Who in Congress, who, by the way, could be the ultimate jury in some kind of impeachment proceeding, would be calling to influence a witness? That to me is stunning.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, HOST, "SMERCONISH": Well, I think you could exclude half the chamber.


[07:05:02] SMERCONISH: But beyond that, I'm not really sure who they're talking about.

May I make one additional observation and follow up to what Jeffrey said about that voice mail? The voice mail is inconclusive, relative to the president's state of mind and the president's attempt at obstruction, if that's what it was. But what struck me about it is how incredibly -- I want to be kind -- careless -- that's not the kind of information you convey in a voicemail. If you convey that at all, you do it face to face. You sure as hell don't leave it on somebody's voicemail, where later it's the subject of a transcript.

CAMEROTA: That's a very good point that Michael just made -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: And that's why we're seeing what a central part of this that Michael Flynn played and why the White House was so worried about this, and why not only clearly the president's attorney is reaching out, but also around that time, the president himself reached out to Mike Flynn, we also know, shortly after he left the White House, but this shows that they would not have known about things like this voicemail unless Michael Flynn told them.

So it shows truly what all the information he knew that he helped prosecutors with, and it raises questions about a decision that Attorney General Bill Barr made.

And I think Democrats are going to have a lot to say about this, because you can't really distance the president's attorney from the president that much.

So the question is, did the president tell John Dowd to do this? What was his involvement in this? And those are the questions that lawmakers are going to have over the next few days.

BERMAN: And what is Michael Flynn's view of it? Because my take on this, Michael Smerconish, attorney at large here, is exactly zero of the conversations that Michael Flynn had in the fall of 2017, as he was making a deal with prosecutors, would be privileged under executive privilege. He did not work for the president anymore.

So if he was feeling pressure from the administration, from the president's friends before Congress, he could testify to that, if the House Judiciary Committee wants to call him.

SMERCONISH: Well, and it seems from the timeline as if his cooperation with the Mueller probe extended well beyond a point where many of us thought it had ended. So it does raise a question, as you point out, as to where his motivation lies now.

CAMEROTA: All right, let's talk about Nancy Pelosi. Because she said something yesterday that it sounds like the furthest she has gone towards impeachment. And she had a different rationale for why she would consider impeachment at this point, rather than other methods of getting information, so here she is.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): We have to exhaust every other remedy on the way, and again, use the tools at our disposal, even if that means saying one possible use of this investigation might be impeachment, even though I don't want to go to that place. But if that's what protects us in court. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: So Jeffrey, what she's saying is she still doesn't want to go down the impeachment road, but they might be able to get more information.

TOOBIN: Right. That's a hypothesis that Democrats have, at least some Democrats have, that legally, you know, they're getting -- they're in all of these fights with the White House over access to information.

CAMEROTA: And they're not getting it! I mean --

TOOBIN: They're getting nothing.

CAMEROTA: Stonewall.

TOOBIN: They're getting absolutely nothing. And the theory is, with some support in the law, I'm not sure it's all that conclusive, that courts will consider an impeachment investigation a greater justification for obtaining documents, for obtaining witnesses than if it is simply an oversight investigation.

My own view, frankly, is that, if a judge is going to tell -- tell an administration official to testify, they're going to tell them whether it's oversight or impeachment. So I don't think this difference is all that great.

But, you know, it's -- it's an example of the continuing frustration that the Democrats have had. And I think really unexpected. You know, when the Democrats retook the House, everybody thought, oh, there are going to be all of these big oversight investigations. And the president and his allies have very successfully stonewalled. And here we are in the middle of May already.

BERMAN: The reason they think that impeachment gives them more justification is because of Watergate in 1974. The reason that there was this massive turnover of information and documents to Congress, the judge ruled, at that time, was because there was an actual formal impeachment proceeding.

TOOBIN: That's true, but there was also a serious investigation of Watergate by the Senate Watergate committee before any impeachment process began. President Nixon didn't stonewall Congress as effectively as the president --

BERMAN: It was an article of impeachment, though. His stonewalling the Congress was an article of impeachment. Kaitlan Collins, impeachment is something that we are led to believe is something that the president is almost goading Congress into doing.

Does the White House think they can trap Congress in some way?

COLLINS: Well, they're essentially arguing that if this is this constitutional crisis that you're claiming it is, then why aren't you trying to impeach the president? That's what their message has been in their stonewalling so far,

saying, essentially, you know, the president is not above the law, but he's also not below the law.

The question is, is the strategy so far of stonewalling working, and some would say it is, especially people inside the West Wing, because they're preventing Democrats so far successfully from having people like Don McGahn testify and be able to talk about what's in the Mueller report, have that play out on television, and potentially garner more public support for impeaching the president.

That's what they're worried about. That's why they do not want all of these officials being trotted out to testify in front of the cameras. And you see Democrats are growing frustrated with that. They're having to read the Mueller report themselves on television, because they don't have those witnesses to help them make their case.

CAMEROTA: OK, Michael Smerconish, let's talk about 2020. And in particular, your state of Pennsylvania. So that's where Joe Biden this weekend is having a big campaign rally, and he's focusing his headquarters -- he's building his headquarters there.

And that, of course, speaks to how important Pennsylvania is going to be. And we were just talking to Harry Enten about the numbers, and I think that what candidates are trying to figure out is was Donald Trump's win there an anomaly? Because it had been so Democratic in the past? Or has something fundamentally changed in Pennsylvania?

SMERCONISH: I would say it's more that it's an anomaly. And I'm not surprised at all. In fact, I thought that Joe Biden would open a headquarters in Philadelphia. Proximity on the surface makes some sense, because he's in Wilmington, and the headquarters is in Philadelphia. But he's not going to be coming to the headquarters. It's not like he's going to go there and punch a time clock. It's all about politics.

Joe Biden is someone who lives within the Philadelphia media market. He's so well-known to Southeastern Pennsylvania in particular. The suburbs, which we speak so much about, are going to be of critical importance. And I think you'll hear more reference to Joe being a son of Scranton than a product of Delaware as this campaign progresses. It's a smart play to try and have him return to the Democratic fold voters who historically, as Harry Enten have pointed out, have been Democratic stalwarts.

BERMAN: Kaitlan, I've heard, particularly, anxiety from Republicans when it comes to Pennsylvania and Joe Biden.

COLLINS: Oh, yes, because that's what they're worried about. That's why the president is calling people regularly before 6:30 in the morning to talk about Joe Biden. Because he's worried that he can secure those voters that the president -- that the president won, but wasn't -- he doesn't have their support guaranteed for him.

Some of them are people who voted for Barack Obama, and then they voted for Trump. Those are the people who are going to be so fascinating to see what do they -- what decision do they make in this election? And that's what the president is worried about. That's why he's going to Pennsylvania for a rally on Monday night.

BERMAN: And Jeffrey -- Jeffrey, can I -- I don't do this often, but the president just wrote something on Twitter, and I want your take on it.


BERMAN: I'm not going to -- I'm not going to read you the whole thing but just the end. The president says his campaign was conclusively spied on, which isn't true.


BERMAN: But then he goes on to say, "Tt's a really bad situation. Treason means long jail sentences, and this was treason."

So the president's official statement, which Twitter is, the president just threatened to throw people in jail.

TOOBIN: Well, and treason is a crime for which death is a legitimate -- is a potential penalty. I mean, it is so reckless and irresponsible to talk that way.

You know, one of the things that this president has done has violated so many norms. It's not illegal to say what he said, but the idea of a president accusing people of any crime -- remember, he accused Michael Cohen's in-laws of crimes.

I mean, accusing -- a president, who is the head of the Justice Department, the head of the FBI, accusing people of crimes, much less crimes punishable by the death penalty, is really a grotesque abuse of power. It's gone on for so long now, that we're kind of, oh, well you know, it's just another tweet. But it is worth pausing to recognize how reckless that is.

COLLINS: And the president's advisers do not want him tweeting things like this. They want him to move on from the Mueller investigation, because they think it cleared him. They say that he should put it behind him and move on with his presidency.

But you see when the president rolls out an immigration plan like he did yesterday, but then he tweets something like this, the message is not going to be about this immigration plan.

CAMEROTA: All right. Thank you very much, Kaitlan, Jeffrey. Michael, thank you.

Be sure to watch "SMERCONISH." He will speak to David Coleman, the head of the college board, about these big changes that are coming to the SATs. All parents need to hear this. So that's tomorrow at 9 a.m. Eastern, only on CNN.

BERMAN: That is such a fascinating subject.


BERMAN: I can't wait to hear Michael's take on that.

CAMEROTA: I want to hear Michael's take on that, as well.

BERMAN: All right. Lawmakers say the administration has left them in the dark when it comes to Iran. So what do they want to know? We're going to ask one key senator on the Foreign Relations Committee. That's next.



[07:18:28] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran?

TRUMP: I hope not.


BERMAN: There is growing concern on Capitol Hill about a potential confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. In a letter to President Trump, four Democratic senators have accused him of inflating threats and bending intelligence on Iran.

Joining me now is one of the Democratic senators who wrote that letter, Senator Jeff Merkley. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for being with us.


BERMAN: Let me just read from that letter: "We are concerned above all that these assessments fit into a larger pattern of inflating threats and bending intelligence to justify dangerous predetermined policies." To be clear, you haven't seen the intelligence yet?

MERKLEY: I have not seen it yet. We'll see it next Tuesday.

BERMAN: What, then, is the president bending?

MERKLEY: Well, what we're seeing is a question of who's provoking whom. Because we have this situation where we left the JCPOA, the international agreement that was negotiated. We designated the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. We cut off their oil by eliminating the waivers for Japan and Korea and China and India.

We have moved a carrier battle strike group into the Persian Gulf. We've moved a bomber squadron into the region. We've consulted with Iraq to say, "If something goes wrong with Iran, don't worry too much."

All of this is very provocative. And then the administration says, "Hey, look, they put some missiles"

-- because they've said this with the public -- "they've put some missiles onto some commercial boats. Iran is provoking us."

And so you can see that this dynamic is one in which it's very easy to ask, who's provoking whom, and have some trigger, maybe Shiite militia in Iran attack an American, and suddenly we're at war.

[07:20:17] So this is a very dangerous moment. And so to take this intelligence that they're putting missiles onto a boat and convey it into, "Iran is preparing to attack us" is a big leap.

BERMAN: You heard the president just there in that sound bite say, "I hope not," when he was asked whether the U.S. would go to war with Iran. We've also had reporting that the president is frustrated that his advisers, specifically John Bolton, may be pushing harder for confrontation than he would like.

MERKLEY: Yes. And John Bolton is responsible for the worst policy and security decision --

BERMAN: He was involved in that.

MERKLEY: Very, very involved. And very involved in misrepresenting intelligence regarding Iraq. And so there's kind of like -- this is almost like a replay of a bad movie. A bad movie that led to enormous security problems, with Iran having to access to kind of an arc of influence that extends into Syria and Lebanon. And not having kind of the natural resistance Iraq next door.

So -- so here we are. The same man who wrote an article saying, "Bomb, bomb Iran," who looks at everything with the -- kind of the hammer of force rather than diplomacy and allies. So this is -- and in this situation, we don't have allies with us on this.

BERMAN: Are you actually suggesting that John Bolton is trying to cause a war with Iran?

MERKLEY: John Bolton would very much like to go to war. He wrote and has said multiple times, "Look, Iran will never stop their nuclear program. The only way to respond is to destroy it." He sees the world and he says, "I don't want negotiations. I want bombs."

BERMAN: I've read all this, and I know what he says he wants. I guess my question to you is do you think now, do you see actions where you believe he's trying to cause that?

MERKLEY: He is certainly setting the stage where it could happen. And that is what is very dangerous.

And I think if the president really is reacting to that and saying, "I'm not OK with -- with how this is going. This is not what I want," that's -- I'm glad to hear that. Because that's -- that's important. I never would have expected it would be President Trump who was putting out the caution flag, but he's got really an -- the individual advising him in that inner circle, who has one vision, and he would like to see bombs dropping over Iran.

BERMAN: I want to ask you about immigration, which I know is an issue that you care deeply about and have worked on very hard over the last several years.

There's a story in "The Washington Post" today about the president's involvement, micromanaging construction of the wall. "The Post" says, "The bollards or 'slats,' as the president prefers to call them, should be painted flat black.; That's what the president wants. "A dark hue that would absorb the heat in summer, making the metal too hot for climbers to scale, Trump has recently told White House aides, homeland security officials and military engineers. And the tips of the bollards should be pointed, not round, the president insists, describing in graphic terms the potential injuries that border crossers might receive."

How do you assess the president's apparent micromanaging of this?

MERKLEY: Well, I'm less concerned about him weighing in on the paint than I am about him trying to make it impossible for folks fleeing persecution to seek asylum in the United States of America, which is part of the plan that he's laid out.

He said, "We're going to charge them fees. We're going to make it -- we're going to keep them locked up." I mean, this is -- this -- There's a whole kind of tradition in America of treating people with respect and decency who are fleeing persecution. That doesn't mean they're going to win their asylum hearing.

But whether they stay in the U.S. and win asylum or leave, they should have the experience of being treated with respect and decency while they're here. And the president is heading the other way.

BERMAN: The president unveiled part of a legal immigration plan yesterday, that both Democrats and Republicans say is dead on arrival. One of the problems that many Democrats have is it doesn't bring up the DREAMers at all. I get that.

Leave that aside, if it did bring up the DREAMers, are you open to a discussion, though, that would somehow change the ratio between what the president calls "merit-based immigration" and immigration based on family connection? Is there any room there, in your mind as a Democrat, to change the ratio?

MERKLEY: If we go back to the 2013 bipartisan deal that went through the Senate, won super majority support, there were a lot of compromises on both sides. And so but that's in the context of a serious intention to address some really big issues in our broken immigration system.

And so, let's -- when the president is ready to have that conversation, which he's not, then let's address it.

Meanwhile, we have -- we have a horrific situation with children. We have over -- something like about 13,000 migrant children locked up in prisons across the United States. This is unbelievable. If this was happening in Canada, we'd be doing resolutions saying,

"Canada, what happened to you? You're massively locking up migrant children?"

And now the president is working very hard to establish a vast system of internment camps for migrant families. This -- we need to keep bringing this up, because this is not America. America is better than this.

BERMAN: I have to let you go, but when are you going to endorse in the Democratic presidential primary candidate?

MERKLEY: I'm really enjoying pushing all the candidates to take on democracy reforms, to take on the bread-and-butter challenges of housing and health care and education and infrastructure; and I'm going to keep pushing them on.

BERMAN: That's not an answer. You're dodging the question.


BERMAN: You're dodging the question.

MERKLEY: I am, indeed.

BERMAN: Senator Jeff Merkley, great to have you here with us.

MERKLEY: Thank you.

BERMAN: Thank you very much.

Twenty-three Democrats vying for the nomination and apparently the endorsement of Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, which he's unwilling to give just yet. They're also fighting for fundraising dollars, while the Republican National Committee is raking it in for President Trump. The head of the RNC joins us with some of those big numbers, next. '