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Flynn's Abrupt Resignation Raises Serious New Questions; White House Was Warned Russia Could Blackmail Flynn; GOP's Blunt: "Exhaustive" Probe Into Trump Russia Needed; Trump Defends Devos: Went Through "Unfair Trial" Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 11:00   ET


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We are following breaking news, back panel talks with Russia forcing the first major resignation from President Trump's inner circle.

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is out after reports the Justice Department had warned the Trump administration weeks ago that Flynn not only misled the White House about discussing U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, but that he was now vulnerable to potential blackmail by the Russians.

House Speaker Paul Ryan weighed in just moments ago. Listen to this.


REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: National security is perhaps the most important function or responsibility a president has and I think the president made the right decision to ask for his resignation. You cannot have a national security adviser misleading the vice president and others. So I think the president was right to ask for his resignation and I believe it was the right thing to do.


BOLDUAN: So as for President Trump, he took to Twitter just a short time ago suggesting that the problem wasn't Flynn at all but rather this. I'll read it to you. The real story here, he writes, "Why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington."

There are clearly many sides of this story to get to right now. CNN's Sara Murray and Dana Bash are standing by. Sara, let me go first to you. You just heard from Paul Ryan, Sara. Paul Ryan saying that it was the right thing to do for the president to ask for Michael Flynn's resignation. Do we know that to be true?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: We don't know that for sure. So far the White House has essentially been saying that Flynn offered to resign and President Trump accepted that resignation. So we're asking for additional clarification.

I think what is clear and what has been clear over the last few days is that the president had lost confidence in General Flynn. And it wasn't necessarily so much about the fact that he may have had this conversation about Russian sanctions, but the sentiment that he misled the vice president and misled administration officials.

And that was the kind of thing that President Trump could not tolerate. We've been hearing over the weekend, he had been expressing frustration about General Flynn. So whether he asked Flynn to resign, whether Flynn offered up that resignation, I think it was clear that they were not on comfortable footing at the start of this week.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely right. And the last time, Sara, that we heard from the president was on Friday about this. And at that point, he didn't know about the story, he said.

MURRAY: That is what he said. Listen to how he responded to reporters who were asking about this story as it was really blowing up on Friday.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you make of reports that General Flynn had conversations with the Russians about sanctions before you were sworn in?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I don't know about it. I haven't seen it. What report is that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "Washington Post" is reporting that he talked to the ambassador to Russia before you were inaugurated about sanctions.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I haven't seen that. I'll look at that.


MURRAY: Now you may have been seeing a little bit of deflection on the part of the president as they were still deciding what to do with General Flynn because we know that they wrestled about this over the weekend and even yesterday when we ran into President Trump in the hallway, he did not want to talk about General Flynn.

He just said we have a statement coming, look at the statement. This was before Flynn's resignation. And again, Kate, I think this gets back to the point that it's not necessarily that Flynn had discussions about the Russian sanctions that's what had this White House up in arms and so uneasy, but the notion that Flynn would feel comfortable potentially misrepresenting those conversations to the vice president.

BOLDUAN: Yes, as Kellyanne Conway put it, the situation became unsustainable, what was unsustainable about it is part of the lingering question. Sara, great to see you. Thank you so much.

A key part of all of this is the Justice Department. Sally Yates, the then acting attorney general alerted the White House about what they had learned about Michael Flynn. That is the very same Sally Yates that was recently fired for refusing to defend the president's travel ban.

The big question remains right now, what did President Trump know and when did he know it about Michael Flynn and the contacts with Russia? CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, is joining me now with much more on this. Dana, are you get anything more clarity on the timeline here?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Not on this key question and it is one that we are going to have to drill down on because it will reveal some important information. And what I'm talking about is, as you mentioned, the acting attorney general at the end of January calling the White House counsel, Don McGann, and saying this is what we believed to have happened.

That your national security adviser talked to the Russian ambassador, talked about sanctions and that they even believed he was in danger of being blackmailed by the Russians. What we do not know is what the White House counsel did with that information.

Did he tell the White House chief of staff? Did he tell the president of the United States? Did he tell the national security adviser? That is a very important unanswered question because if he did tell them, then that means from the top on down, they've been sitting on this information for a long time.

[11:05:11]While the national security adviser has been doing his job, been in the most sensitive of meetings and discussions with the president, and so forth even though he clearly misled the president and the vice president.

If the White House counsel didn't tell anybody, why? So in either case, it is something that is unclear, and it really leaves even more questions than answers.

And it is certainly something I'd imagine that the White House press secretary is going to get asked about and probably it's hard to imagine is not being discussed as we speak inside the White House as they try to contain and deal with the fallout.

And what could be just another example of deep, deep communications issues inside the White House or an example of the president just wanting to stay loyal to somebody who has been loyal to him. We don't know the answer to that yet.

BOLDUAN: It seems the only person that does know right now is President Trump. Dana, great to see you. Thank you so much.

Now with me, Republican senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, of course, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator, a very busy day. Thank you so much for coming in.


BOLDUAN: Your reaction to the resignation of Michael Flynn?

GRAHAM: Well, I guess the first thing I want to say about General Flynn is I served with him in Afghanistan. He's been in uniform most of his adult life, and I think he's a terrific military officer, served our country well. But apparently got to the point of where the vice president believed that General Flynn misled him about a conversation with the Russians which led to his demise as national security adviser.

Really what I want to know, I haven't seen the transcripts. I don't know what we're talking about. What did General Flynn say to the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions? Did he say anything at all or is this just being spun by the media?

So I think Congress needs to be informed what actually General Flynn said to the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions, and I want to know, did General Flynn do this by himself or was he directed by somebody to do it?

BOLDUAN: And that is an important question. Do you believe at this point, Senator, that Flynn misled the White House or was he authorized to talk sanctions with Russia before President Trump took office?

GRAHAM: I'd have a hard time believing that General Flynn would get on the phone with an ambassador and say, don't worry, we will revisit this when we get to be president in terms of executive sanctions without some understanding that the administration would be sympathetic to the idea. I may be wrong. Maybe he did this in a rogue fashion. Maybe General Flynn went rogue, but that's --

BOLDUAN: You know him. Do you think he could have?

GRAHAM: I don't know. He's a pretty strong-willed fellow. But I think most Americans have a right to know whether this was a General Flynn rogue maneuver or was he basically speaking for somebody else in the White House?

BOLDUAN: Well, and that's an important point because we're hearing reaction from Capitol Hill right now from some of your colleagues on the House side. We heard from Jason Chaffetz who thinks that the situation is now in the past. We heard from the chairman of the House Intel Committee who thinks that some of what you need to know, want to know isn't knowable because that may be protected under executive powers. Do you think that's the case, or do you think you have the right to know?

GRAHAM: That's a good question. I don't know exactly how much Congress can compel the White House to talk about communications between the national security adviser and a foreign government, but we do have allegations now coming from the media that the Department of Justice informed the White House that the national security adviser may be subject to blackmail by the Russians.

I think that's something Congress has a right to know. So I don't know where this is going to go, but I would suggest the administration answer a few basic questions like did General Flynn do this by himself?

If he didn't, who directed him to engage the Russians because that in and of itself is, you know, not going to -- maybe is not that important. But the idea that we don't know how this happened and that maybe General Flynn somehow was compromised by the Russians, I think we need to know that, quite frankly. BOLDUAN: You are trying to investigate Russia. You're trying. You're pushing an investigation into the Russian hacks into the election. We know Marco Rubio could even before Flynn resigned say that his conversation with the Russian ambassador should be part any of investigation. Do you want to hear from Flynn? Are you going to ask him to testify?

GRAHAM: I don't know if we'll ask him to testify, but the first thing I want to know is what were the conversations about? I'm having to comment on things I have no direct knowledge of. So if there are transcripts of communications between General Flynn and the Russian ambassador sanctions, that's something I want to know about because I do think that's something that Congress should be informed of.

[11:10:09]BOLDUAN: Kellyanne Conway this morning said what brought Flynn down was his lying to the VP, not the actual contents of his conversation with Russia. What's the bigger crime here?

GRAHAM: At the end of the day, you know, talking to Russia by the national security adviser is generally a privileged communication. I don't --

BOLDUAN: However, this was before --

GRAHAM: Right.

BOLDUAN: -- he had the job. Before this was his job to do so.

GRAHAM: Yes, the idea of one president at a time makes a lot of sense. I could imagine if the shoe were on the other foot that if the Obama administration were reaching out to Iraq or Iran to change Bush policy before they got in office, we'd be all pretty upset. So I'm not --

BOLDUAN: To say the least, Senator.

GRAHAM: And I think rightfully so. I'm not accusing General Flynn of committing a violation of the Logan Act. Maybe it doesn't apply to people in transition who are going to take over duties. The fact you talk with Russia before you get in office that alone doesn't bother me. But we've got a situation where a man had to give up his job.

The Congress is very intent on not waiving current sanctions. We'd like to impose new sanctions. The idea that maybe the national security adviser was somehow compromised by the Russians is certainly within my wheelhouse as to what I want to know about because I want to know what Russia is up to in terms of the United States political system.

How they tried to compromise this last election? What kind of contacts they had with any campaigns if any, and if somebody in the administration is likely to be blackmailed, I think that's something I'd like to know about.

BOLDUAN: And that's a pretty serious charge. I mean, you now, Senator -- GRAHAM: And there may be nothing to it.

BOLDUAN: But you still have a lot of questions that have not been answered.

GRAHAM: I think if the shoe were on the other foot we'd want to know the answers to this question. Did General Flynn act alone?

BOLDUAN: You now have if you look at the recent history. Two top aides to Donald Trump -- Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort before him -- who have resigned over their posts over ties to Russia. And we also are just learning that Republican Senator Roy Blunt is calling for an exhaustive investigation into Trump's personal ties with Russia. Do you trust this president when it comes to Russia?

GRAHAM: Our differences are well known. What I like about this president that he hasn't been trying to hide some secret plan with Russia. He has a different view of re-engaging Putin than I do. That's an honest disagreement. He's president of the United States. I think we should punish more -- Russia more, not less. I think Russia is trying to --

BOLDUAN: But are you confident that Donald Trump feels the same way?

GRAHAM: No, I'm confident he doesn't and that's not a crime. That doesn't disqualify him to be president of the United States. We can have different views about foreign policy. The one thing we can't do is allow a foreign government to interfere with electoral process without being punished, have a foreign government potentially compromise somebody in the administration without them paying a price and Congress not knowing about it. That's different than a policy dispute.

BOLDUAN: Senator, do you think now, after all of this fallout, do you think it now makes it impossible for President Trump to even talk of lifting sanctions against Russia?

GRAHAM: I don't know. Here's what I do know. I would fight to my last ounce of breath here to prevent this administration or any other administration from lifting sanctions against Russia for their invasion of the Ukraine and the seizing of the Crimea and all the other things they have done since then to include interfering in our own election.

I don't think they change the outcome but tried to interfere in our election. They've never been punished for that behavior. The current sanctions having in to do with what they tried to do in the 2016 election. They deserve to be punished because if you don't punish Russia, you are screaming weakness to Putin.

Iran and China could do the very same thing in 2020 if they get mad at Trump. It's important that both parties come together here in a bipartisan fashion to punish Russia for trying to interfere in our elections.

And if General Flynn was contacting the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions imposed by President Obama before they took office, I want to know why he made that phone call. Did he do it by himself or was he directed by somebody else because it does run afoul of the one president at a time policy?

BOLDUAN: One quick clarification. When Roy Blunt says he wants an exhaustive investigation into Donald Trump's personal contacts with Russia and how that has played out, is that now part of the investigation that you will be conducting into Russian contacts?

GRAHAM: I don't have any evidence that the president has exhausted contacts with Russia. I am focused on what Russia did in our election and what they are trying to do to undercut democracy all over the world.

BOLDUAN: Does this change your investigation now, this news?

[11:15:03]GRAHAM: I think what we need to know is the contacts between General Flynn and Russia before they took office. And whether or not there was any information the Russians had that could have compromised him because that goes to the ability of any administration to operate.

BOLDUAN: The last time that we heard from Michael Flynn really publicly, he put Iran on notice. I know you remember that very well. He is now gone. What does that mean now for U.S. policy toward Iran? What should it mean in your view?

GRAHAM: The three people named to replace General Flynn as potential candidates the media are all excellent in different ways. General Petraeus is one of the smartest people I've ever known. He would serve the president well.

But Admiral Harward, I actually served with him in Afghanistan. He was in charge of detainee operations. I did my reserve duty under his command. He would be an outstanding choice. He understands the region very well. He speaks Farsi.

So the idea that we'd put Iran on notice is a good thing. I supported General Flynn when he made that statement and we need to tell Iran that if you continue to develop ballistic missiles, you'll pay a heavy price and get sanctioned again and keep all options on the table.

So what I'd like to see the president do is get a better deal. I'd suggest the Arabs and Iranians have the same ability to produce peaceful nuclear power that we help the Arabs build nuclear power plants and the Iranians build nuclear power plants.

But we, the Russians, the Chinese and the United States control the fuel cycle so nobody over there can turn fuel into a bomb. To me, that's a better deal for the whole world and I hope they'll look at that.

BOLDUAN: Senator Lindsey Graham, we'll put you in the category of, we have a lot of unanswered questions now after the resignation of Michael Flynn. You'll be asking them. Thank you, Senator, for your time. We appreciate it. GRAHAM: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Just in, Donald Trump, President Trump speaking at the White House alongside his new education secretary, Betsy DeVos. We have new tape in. Let's listen to it together.


PRESIDENT TRUMP: So easy. It doesn't get any easier than that.


PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, I'm delighted to welcome everybody to the White House, and Betsy DeVos, who has gone through -- our new education secretary. She went through a -- an interesting moment. You'll do a fantastic job. I know you would have done it again if you had to do it again, right?

DEVOS: Probably.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: She had no doubt that final night waiting for the vote. I just want to congratulate you. You showed toughness and genius. As I said, we want every child in America to have the opportunity to climb the ladder to success.

I want every child also to have a safe community, and we're going to do that very much. We're going to be helping you a lot. A great school and some day to get a really well-paying job or better or better, owning their own company.

A lot of people are looking at that. It all begins with education. That's why we're here this morning. And I am here also to celebrate a little bit with Betsy because we started this journey a long time ago having to do with choice and so many other things with education and I'm so happy that that all worked out.

Right now, too many of our children don't have the opportunity to get that education that we all talk about. Millions of poor disadvantaged students are trapped in failing schools and this crisis, and it really is a crisis of education and communities working together, but not working out.

And we're going to change it around especially for the African- American communities. It's been very, very tough and unfair. And I know that's a priority and certainly a priority of mine. That's why I want every single disadvantaged child in America, no matters what their background or where they live to have a choice about where they go to school.

And it's worked out so well in some communities where it's been properly run and properly done, and it's a terrific thing. Charter schools in particular have demonstrated amazing gains and results, and you look at the results.

We have cases in New York City that have been amazing in providing education to disadvantaged children and the success of so many different schools that I can name throughout the country that I got to see during the campaign.

I went to one in Las Vegas. It was the most unbelievable thing you have ever seen and they've done a fantastic job. So there are many such schools. We want to do that on a large-scale basis. We can never lose sight of the connection between education and jobs.

I'm bringing a lot of jobs back. We're bringing a lot of big plants back into the country. Every said it was impossible and before I even took office, we started the process, and tremendous numbers of plants are coming back into this country, car plants and other plants.

And I have meetings next week with four or five different companies. Big ones that are going to bring massive numbers of jobs back. So we're doing it from a job standpoint but education only makes it better.

[11:20:08]Our goal is a clear and very safe community, great schools and we want those jobs that are high-paying jobs. We've lost a lot of our best jobs to other countries. And we're going to bring them back. So I'm going to do my job and Betsy at the education level will do her job and just to do it very, very formally.

I want to congratulate you on having gone through a very tough trial and a very unfair trial and you won and something very nice about that. And I'll tell you, the real winner will be the children. I guess a couple of adults, but will be the children of this country. I just want to congratulate you.

DEVOS: Thank you, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Perhaps we'll go around the room and everybody knows our fantastic vice president, Mike Pence. But if we went around the room, that would be very nice. Why don't we start? Betsy, you might want to say a few words.

DEVOS: Well, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, I am just very honored to have the opportunity to serve America's students and I'm really excited to be here today with parents and educators representing traditional public schools, charter public schools, home schools, private schools, a range of choices.

And we're eager to listen and learn from you your ideas for how we can ensure all of our kids have an equal opportunity for a high quality, great education and, therefore, an opportunity for the future. So, again, I'm just honored to have the opportunity to serve and looking forward to fulfilling the mission that you have set forward.


BOLDUAN: President Trump right there at the White House speaking with, sitting with his now new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after what clearly was a grueling confirmation process in getting her in place there at the White House for the first time together.

Coming up for us -- the man who until a month ago was deputy national security adviser, of course, under President Obama. What is his take on how this all went down with Michael Flynn? That's next.

Plus, another one of President Trump's cabinet picks in serious jeopardy right now, some key Republican support may be fading away for Andy Puzder. Hear why Oprah, his ex-wife and a videotape are now involved.

Just days after North Korea launched its first test from the Trump administration, CNN is live in North Korea. We'll have that ahead.



BOLDUAN: Back to our breaking news right now, the resignation of President Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Joining me to discuss is the deputy national security adviser under President Obama, Tony Blinken, who of course is now a CNN global affairs analyst. Tony, a lot to get to right now --


BOLDUAN: We kind of started this conversation last week. Now there's a lot more to it. Kellyanne Conway just this morning saying that the real crime in their view was Flynn lying to the vice president about the call with Russian diplomat. Not the contents of the call itself. What do you think is the bigger problem here?

BLINKEN: Well, the main thing is, Kate, we have a lot of unanswered questions. I heard Senator Graham with you just a few minutes ago. He's exactly right. These questions need to be asked. We don't know, for example, whether there were conversations between Mr. Flynn and the Russians during the election period. That is before the election itself. That needs to be looked at.

It's unclear whether Mr. Flynn was acting on his own volition as a free agent or instructed to have these conversations with the Russians. That needs to be looked at. It's hard to understand why having been given this information that Mr. Flynn apparently misled his own team.

They sat on it for three or four weeks apparently before firing him. An it's -- you have to wonder had this not come to light in "The Washington Post" whether Mr. Flynn would still be on the job. There are lots of questions that remain unanswered here.

At the same time going back to your question, were the conversations themselves inappropriate? We have this tradition of one president at a time. And the conversation Mr. Flynn had with the Russian ambassador seemed to suggest to the Russian ambassador, never find the sanctions that President Obama has just imposed on you for meddling in our elections. We'll take care of it when we take office in January. That's right on the line if it's as reported.

BOLDUAN: Let me ask you this, Tony. Did President Obama's national security adviser, any of them, have any conversations with foreign diplomats without the president's knowledge? My point is this? Is it possible that President Trump did not know about it?

BLINKEN: Look, it strikes me as unlikely, improbable, not impossible. You wouldn't necessarily report on every single conversation, but, you know, usually in the Obama White House, we had a daily meeting with the president. And certainly the national security adviser, the deputy had been talking to the Russian ambassador or any senior official from an important country that would probably come up.

BOLDUAN: Your former colleague, Ben Rhodes, wrote a little about this on Twitter. He wrote this on Twitter today. "When campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, NSA, national security adviser, both resign over Russia ties there is more. Manafort and Flynn had nothing in common except Russia and Trump. There is more." Tony, do you agree with that?

BLINKEN: Well, you know, again, it really goes back to, at least delving into these unanswered questions. Whether there's more there remains to be seen. But as Senator Graham said, Congress should be looking at this. I certainly urge the White House to put everything that it knows out. Get in front of it.

We see this every time in Washington. What really turns into a problem is when you sit on information that's going to come out anyway. So if there's more, they should put it out and let's get to the bottom of it. But the larger question really is, again, were there conversations going back before the election? And was the president involved in this or not?

BOLDUAN: One thing that came up on Capitol Hill in response to this is the House intel chairman suggested that conversations between Flynn and the president -- how the president directed Flynn if he did at all, any of that could be covered and protected under executive privilege? Would you agree with that?