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CNN TONIGHT

High level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump in frequent communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence; Aired 11-12a ET

Aired February 14, 2017 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[23:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why is Donald Trump not willing to commit with keeping them in place. It is out of alignment with his own party.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he hasn't said anything about lifting the sanctions, but just like any good negotiator, he's dangling all possibilities out there. And maybe we can get Russia to help us defeat ISIS. And that would be a good thing. That doesn't necessarily mean you roll back the sanctions but you got to put your options. You got to let your options sit on the table.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: I just had Fareed Zakaria on saying the same thing and says why didn't he take that stance with China? Because it would be better if we have a better relationship with China. But he is not said only glowing things about China. He has only said glowing things about Russia. So to, and this Farred Zakaria speaking, the argument doesn't make sense. It's a talking point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But, you know, remember his first phone call to Taiwan put a signal to China. They did not like that. And so, there was - there is a carrot in the stick approach to negotiating as you know. But I mean, he caught all kinds of flak for that phone call to Taiwan, and yet, you know, this last week he said one China policy.

LEMON: We are getting into the weeds here but it is a fascinating conversation. I will have you both back. Thank you gentlemen. I appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: All right, everyone. It is the top of the hour. Thank you for joining us.

Our breaking news high level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians' known to U.S. intelligence. That is according to multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials.

This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon.

President-elect Trump and then President Barack Obama were both briefed on the details according to U.S. officials familiar with this matter.

I want to get straight now to CNN's Pamela Brown. Also Mark Preston is going to join us as well.

So Pamela, what more can you tell us about this breaking news that we have?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you point out, Don, high level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russian known to U.S. intelligence. This is according to multiple current and former intelligence law enforcement and administration officials.

President-elect Trump and then President Barack Obama were both briefed on the details of this extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business.

And as you recall last month during that big briefing and according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter. And both the frequency of the communications during the summer we were told, during early summer and the proximity to Trump of those involved raised a red flag with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement according to these officials. That communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to U.S. intelligence and among several senior Trump advisers regularly communicating with Russian nationals were then campaign manager Paul Manafort and then adviser Michael Flynn, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials we have been speaking with.

Manafort, as you recall, joined the campaign in March and then he was out mid-August. Flynn stayed on and resigned as Trump's national security advisor until last night. That's when resigned.

And we should point out that we reached out to both. Manafort for one, has denied any communication with the Russians. We repeatedly tried to reach out to Michael Flynn as well. We are awaiting response. But officials emphasize, Don, that communications between the campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments, they are not unusual. However, these communications stood out to investigators due to the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved.

Investigators have not reached judgment on the intent of those conversations. But adding to U.S. investigators concern were intercepted communications between Russian officials before and after the election discussing their belief that they had special access to Trump.

Now, of course, they could have been sort of inflating the access that they thought they had to Trump. But fact that there were these other intercepted communications between top advisers in the Trump campaign and Russian that were on the U.S. radar during the summer during the campaign all of this added to concern. And within the context that during this time, Don, the U.S. intelligence community was beginning to believe in growing confidence that the Russians were trying to tilt the election to Donald Trump's favor -- Don.

LEMON: And just to be clear, president-elect then Donald Trump knew about the contacts. He was briefed.

BROWN: That's right. So we are told that essentially the FBI, the intelligence community had all these in information about the intercepted communications between high-level Trump people involved in the campaign and Russian officials. And ultimately FBI director James Comey and others felt it was important to be transparent. They did this big briefing on the Russian hack, and they were coming out to say we believe the Russians try to sway the election in favor of Donald Trump and to hurt Hillary Clinton. And the feeling was and the thinking was it was important to be transparent about all the intelligence that they had including these intercepted communications between high-level Trump people and the Russians. And so we are told that in January shortly before Donald Trump became president he was briefed on all these details as well as President Barack Obama at the time -- Don.

[23:05:14] LEMON: And where is the investigation now? Still ongoing, right? Lots of details to sort of figure out here?

BROWN: It is still ongoing. In fact, even when Donald Trump was briefed about this, it was still in the early stages. And they are still trying to piece together the why, the motive, the intent. Why these communications were so constant, so frequent. The content of the communications, what it all means. They are trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And this of course, as you know, Don, comes at time when Michael Flynn was caught essentially discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador and he denied it. And then DOJ went to the White House and said in fact he did talk about sanctions. And it wasn't until nearly three weeks later the White House took action after "the Washington Post" broke the story about the DOJ warning that Michael Flynn resigned.

So there is a lot going on and still a lot of unanswered questions, frankly.

LEMON: OK. So Mark Preston, you first. Sean Spicer was asked in the briefing today about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back in January the president said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn had any contact with Russians before the election?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period -- we were very clear that during the transition period he did speak with the ambassador.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm talking about during the campaign.

SPICER: I don't have - there is nothing that we conclude me that anything different has change with respect to that time period.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So Mark, the president is meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tomorrow, but the story on Russia is going to continue.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Yes, no doubt. And you know, and those remarks today by Sean Spicer, in some ways you have to give him the benefit of the doubt in the sense perhaps he knew nothing about what this investigation was ongoing. I mean, we only have go back and look and see that Donald Trump knew about these discussions between the ambassador of Russia and Mike Flynn. And it took two weeks before his own vice president to learn.

So we will give Spicer the benefit of the doubt on that. But, you know, we talked about this last hour when Pamela first broke the story and detail started coming out, we didn't have names. Now we have names. And I think that it is very important that these two gentlemen were very close to Donald Trump. Now, it doesn't mean that they have discussion with Donald Trump. It doesn't mean nor are we saying that. We have no idea what the context of it is. But these aren't unnamed advisers or hanger oners (ph) as I had mentioned could be, you know, last hour.

I mean, this is now getting very, very serious. It will be interesting to see what the department of justice does and also what Congress does now because we do know that the United States Senate is going to investigate. United States house as of today said they are not going to investigate. It will be incredible amount of pressure now on house Republicans to investigate this matter.

LEMON: Mark, big picture this for us. What does this all mean now for the Trump White House?

PRESTON: I mean, look. When we just say what does this mean globally? This is a bizarre world that we are living in right now. That every day at about this hour, Don, more news breaks that is causing and putting this White House in turmoil. When you have all this turmoil on the outside, all it can mean is that there is turmoil on the inside. And I tell you I was talking to Republicans on Capitol Hill today and they are growing tired of this turmoil at this point. A lot of times, you know, so far been able to stomach it and going along. But if you have noticed you don't see Republicans rushing to the defense of this administration at this moment. And that's because they feel like they are under fire and they are having to answer questions for administration that's not giving them any information.

LEMON: Interesting point. OK, Mark and Pamela stick around.

I want to bring in now CNN military analyst lieutenant general Mark Hertling and major general James Spider Marks and General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme allied commander.

Thank you so much. Thank you all for your service. We appreciate you coming on. General Clark, to you first. We don't know for sure yet whether Trump

associates were coordinating with Russian intelligence operatives but new details of the story, it just keep coming out. Could this become major controversy for this Trump administration?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET), U.S. ARMY: I think it is a major controversy already. And as Mark said just a moment ago, when all of this is swirling around on the outside, you can be sure that inside the White House not much else is getting done as people are trying to get facts together and figure out what is going on.

It's been a mystery to me. I have never understood why President Trump didn't release tax returns, divest himself of businesses. All along there's been suspicion that for years he's gone after Russian money and now, it is all deepened by revelations of these contacts. We don't know what is in the context. Maybe somebody does but it has been not released yet. We don't really know the purpose of it. But I think it is incumbent on the White House to clear this up as rapidly as possible.

It may well lead to investigation but it shouldn't be pried out like tooth extraction. This is something the White House needs to really put together and come clean with, President Trump needs to address the country on it in some way if not President Trump, someone in his administration in authoritative way and get this cleared up and let's move on. There's important business to be done for America.

[23:10:35] LEMON: They keep saying they want to move on. And that's the way to do it.

General Hertling, I want to bring you in now. How is all this turmoil viewed inside the military?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's increasingly troubling, Don. You are not only talking about what some are perceiving as strategic advantage more so than ever before by the Russia in several fronts. You are talking about - they have tried to insert themselves in Afghanistan. They are certainly still going on in Syria. The Ukrainian front, as general Clark well knows because he is there as much as I am, has come almost to a stalemate. Not in Crimea, as Sean Spicer said today, but in the Donbas (ph), eastern region of Crimea. And what has happened since President Trump was elected is reinforcing units going into that area and really having a great deal of effect on the Ukrainian forces that are there. And that's not even counting some of the things that are going on in Europe across the board with threats to (INAUDIBLE) against the Baltics and some interference and some European elections.

So all of these things are strategic advantages that Russians are trying to take advantage of truthfully. But then in addition to that you have some of our commanders in the field who I talked to recently. You mentioned Tony Thomas a few minutes ago in the earlier show. Tony is trying to hold special operations command together and he just wants some direction for some things that he is doing. (INAUDIBLE) who are two general officers in Europe are continuing to train Ukrainian forces. So all of this stuff is happening while it's a turmoil in Washington.

LEMON: Let's talk about this General Marks. What the red flag was here, they said both the volume of the communications and proximity to Mr. Trump. So what does that mean? How much contact would there need to be to raise a red flag?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES SPIDER MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Don, I think the real issue here is what I would call a reasonable man's standard. There has been a great deal of discussion about the Logan act which would not be invoked in this case simply because if you interpret that in a very literal sense, every communication with foreign power whether you are in U.S. government or Europe, a priori assuming a position in government would be suspect.

The challenge that we have is that the nature of our relationship with Russia has never been more challenged. And because of their adventurism as described by Mark in Ukraine, specifically Crimea. Elsewhere, you know, Russia clearly is advantaged when there is turmoil on their near abroad which means we pay attention to what is happening on their borders. It allows them some comfort and freedom of action within their own borders.

We need to be able to pay attention to this very, very closely. General Clark nailed it. This president needs to come forward and say look folks, this is where we are. This is my choice for new national security adviser. And this is my relationship with that national security adviser.

You hear everybody discussing what the model is for that relationship. It depends upon what the president wants to achieve and how he wants to employ and influence power internationally. That's a very unique and very personal relationship. And that NSA either needs to be a policy guy which would be a huge mistake. You got Steve Bannon now assuming in an increased role there which I think is a mistake, but that's a decision the president has made or it needs to be integrator, which is really what you would look for with NSA to take policy input from the SEC DEV and DHF, homeland security, and integrate that and present policy options to the president. That's where we need to move right now so that we can get rid this white water, far too much turmoil.

LEMON: All right, general Hertling, I want to ask you about this. James Comey was very forthcoming about the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton. And because of his actions and lots more reporting, there was turmoil, the investigation of Trump associates. That was happening at the same time. So why not take action on that? Why didn't we hear about that?

HERTLING: Don, I'm baffled. I don't know. Other than the fact that it was an internal investigation and the FBI normally doesn't comment on ongoing investigates which was happening at the time. But I'm sure more evidence has come out and you are seeing truthfully some of these leaks giving that information because there are many inside the administration who are fearful that the truth will not get out, that it will be suppressed within the administration because that's the tendency we have seen so far. Why it was not released, I think it was part of ongoing investigation. Should it have been? I think seeing potential for clear and present danger her by a foreign government?

[23:15:30] LEMON: General Clark, the same question. Why didn't we hear about this when we heard so much about the other thing?

CLARK: Well, I think we are going to have to ask the FBI director that. But I would say this, Don. I think there are sort of three different possible explanations for all of this and the president has to take us through this.

One is that this was just innocent talk. There were talks with the British government. There were talks with the Israeli government. And people are sort of getting informed of what the issues are before the election. That's one.

Second is that maybe President Trump and Mike Flynn concocted this idea that, hey, you could do a reset with Russia. It would be like Nixon and China. You could completely flip things around, and we would have a really great relationship. It would be historic and think of the advantages, as in blah, blah, blah.

And then the third is something darker which is with the 35 page paper, with the idea that there are some kind of pressure put on Donald Trump, and through his finances to his previous relationships, and for some reason he is being pulled in certain direction which is distracting him from what would normally be the president's focus on national security and taking guidance and information from the intelligence communities that are loyal to the United States of America.

So I think you go from the benign to the almost silly and amateurish into something that's much darker. And I think as this starts to unravel, I think the American people have a right to know what is going on.

LEMON: Generals, thank you. And again, we appreciate your service. Thank you so much.

When we come right back, much more on our breaking news. High level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in frequent communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:20:27] LEMON: Our breaking news, high level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in frequent communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. That is according to multiple current and former intelligence and law enforcement in the (INAUDIBLE) officials. President-elect Trump and then President Barack Obama were both briefed on the details according to U.S. official familiar with the matter.

Here to discuss, CNN presidential historians Timothy Naftali and Douglas Brinkley and Douglas' latest book is called "Rightful Heritage, Franklin Roosevelt in the land of America. And also joining us is historian Jon Meacham, author of "Destiny and Power." It's historian trifecta. And I'm so glad to have all of you.

Very serious news to get to.

Mr. Meacham, what is going on?

JOHN MEACHAM, AUTHOR, DESTINY AND POWER: Well, more comfortable in the 1790s which at least made a little more sense. We may be heading into unchartered waters here in many ways. I joked about 1790s, but that was a period where you had one party in the country that was allied with France. One party that was allied with Britain. There was an enormous amount of conspiracy feeling in the country. But what we are looking at now is a very serious set of questions about what did the nominee and now the president know and when did he know it, as my fellow Tennessean Howard Baker put it in 1973.

LEMON: Douglas Brinkley?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Yes. This reminds me a lot of Watergate period of Richard Nixon. Nixon didn't have a bad first 100 days back in 1969. But this idea of the amount of problems in the White House, the leaking, this sort of strange Donald Trump foot soldiers, you know. You are looking at General Flynn now, people are going to charge him with the Logan act, but I don't believe the justice department will pursue that.

But did Flynn lie to the FBI and where does this all lead to? And it tells you how maybe the whole country was remiss in not somehow getting Donald Trump to release his tax returns. We always called it unprecedented that he didn't and all left scratching our heads and this is getting grimmer and grimmer by the day, things are unraveling in the Trump White House.

LEMON: I want to ask you this, Timothy. And I save it to you because I just sort of written it here on my iPhone, right. So coincidence or not? Who knows, alright? Russia hacks the DNC leaks, right, emails that hurt Hillary Clinton. Trump argues that the DNC hack wasn't Russia despite strong evidence still says that they interfere with the election. Trump consistently defends Putin. Trump's campaign manager resigns due to Russian ties. General Flynn is up lying about a conversation with Russia resigns three weeks after the DOJ warns White House. Now proof that Trump camp was talking to Russia all along. Russia celebrates when Trump wins. Is this - that's a lot of coincidences?

TIMOTHY NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Yes. And you could add to that the fact that the Trump camp tried to change the Republican position on Ukraine for some reason. And the fact that Putin responds to the U.S. sanctions by doing nothing despite Russian tradition of throwing American diplomats out when we throw theirs out.

LEMON: So then, what is logical explanation?

NAFTALI: Well.

LEMON: Again, it could be nothing. It could be nothing. We don't know right?

NAFTALI: Here is the reason why this all smells badly. It's that people who understand the challenges for a president knew that the worst thing that Donald Trump could do in the election was to put himself in a box and to close off his options. And time and again he was given an opportunity of opening his options by saying that maybe Putin was doing something wrong in Crimea. By saying perhaps its right, perhaps it's true, the U.S. intelligence community is right about the role of the Russians in hacking.

But each time he said no. He said he didn't believe U.S. intelligence. He thought the rest was fake news. Time and again when he should have opened possibilities, he did, which led people who aren't necessarily conspiratorial to think why does he have this romance with Putin? And then at the same time, he had people around him who clearly were engaged in contacts with the Russian, why do that if people are already criticizing you for being too pro-Russian.

LEMON: That's my question. What is the logical explanation?

[23:25:00] NAFTALI: The logical -- part of it, part of it I think is hubris or arrogance. General Flynn was DIA, head of defense intelligence agency. He knew that countries considered adversaries are followed. That their conversations are intercepted. And yet had conversations with Russians.

LEMON: I'm going to ask you Jon. Jon, what is logical explanation. Again, and I preface it saying (INAUDIBLE), there could be nothing. What is the logical explanation here for all these coincidences or, you know, it just happens to be the time line of how this all played out or is playing out?

MEACHAM: Well, here is the conventional wisdom on this. If in fact there is nothing in terms of back channel contacts with the highest levels of the Trump operation, including perhaps the nominee and president himself, you have one of the most remarkable confluences of events that many of us can remember. Where, as Tim was just laying out, you have this remarkable - and you laid out, you have this remarkable set of circumstances where Trump, a strong economic nationalist, man of enormous pride and a man with enormous swagger, who at every point has deferred to the head of Russia.

Now, the argument for that is that he wants to, as Tim's old subject, be like Richard Nixon and Kissinger and use Russia in some sort of new kind of balance of power. That's possible but there's a reason the law enforcement agencies. There is a reason the press. There is a reason that I for one hope there's a select committee in the Congress that will look into this, because that's how we have gotten out of these big national moments before, Watergate, Iran-contra. And I think we are headed into that scale of question. Because there's really no other plausible explanation but that there's back channel contact as Russia attempted to hack our election.

LEMON: Douglas Brinkley, I have a host of questions for you but I will ask you right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:30:57] LEMON: Back now with my panel. Timothy Naftali, Douglas Brinkley and Jon Meacham.

So Douglas to you now, and let's get to this reporting. Pamela Brown is reporting that president-elect Trump and then president Barack Obama were both briefed on the details of these contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials. So what do we need to hear now from President Trump?

BRINKLEY: I think Donald Trump needs to address the American people the way Ronald Reagan eventually did during the Iran-contra. Iran- contra went on 85 and 86 and took 87 for Reagan to kind of get the cloud off of him. And people like a National security advisor point- Dexter and -- rained indictments. Needs to come clean, release taxes. I doubt he is going to do such a thing. But we have no idea what his business dealings are. Does he -- has Russia been loaning him money over the years?

I mean, there are so many questions here. And it is so unusual presidency. Donald Trump takes a step forward every day and then gets booted backwards two steps. And he starting to lose people in the Republican Party, not just McCain and graham, but others starting to say we can't wait to have president pence in there. I think Donald Trump has to show he's representing all of the American people. Come clean. Be transparent. Talk about fumbling out of the gate and clean up this mess quickly.

LEMON: What do you want to say? Because I see you. You are kind of (INAUDIBLE). There is something you want to say.

NAFTALI: What I want to say is that up to now Donald Trump and his associates have acted as if they have something to hide.

LEMON: So now you are answering my question for me.

NAFTALI: Well, I wanted to make clear that I don't have proof of this, and therefore it is speculation. It is speculation informed by the '68 Nixon experience where Richard Nixon, his campaign engaged in conversations with a foreign government, with the goal of affecting the election. Donald Trump admires Richard Nixon. Donald Trump has people around him, some people who worked for Richard Nixon. It doesn't mean that they are going to act like Richard Nixon but this has happened before in our history. And there was also intercept information at the time but it didn't leak. It didn't leak because J. Edgar Hoover wanted to stay chief of the FBI and he made sure it didn't leak. But it has leaked this time.

And it is very possible that there was collusion of one sort or another between the campaign and people representing Russia or at least there was end. And what makes this so dangerous is that makes it impossible for Donald Trump to have a policy with Russia that we are not all going to wonder twice about. And that is a disaster.

LEMON: That is what you think. And again you said you have no proof but history shows us -- NAFTALI: The pattern is - the thing about it is the pattern is the

same.

LEMON: OK. Jon Meacham, I think you wanted to react to this Go ahead.

MEACHAM: Well, you know, Mark Twain is alleged to have said that history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. And I think that this is rhyming at the moment. And there are -- these are just big questions and they can be answered. What we haven't seen in the last -- my God it's only been a month, the longest month in American history, this makes April 1865 look like a walk in the park.

LEMON: You sound like you were there to remember it, Jon.

MEACHAM: It was a rough one. But we are saying that this White House has an incredibly difficult time just turning the difference between the fact and alternative fact. And so, I admire what Doug said a moment ago. But I think the idea that Donald Trump is going to come out and make a clean breast of things is the triumph of hope over experience at this point in time.

LEMON: Republican strategist, John (INAUDIBLE), told the "New York Times" as he says if you had no idea - if you had no drama Obama, you got all drama all the time Trump. What do you think of that, Douglas Brinkley?

[23:35:12] BRINKLEY: Well, that's the way it seems so far. No two polar opposites than Barack Obama and Donald Trump. But this whole idea of alternative facts of the Trump administration and brow-beating the press. And it's just been so negative and divisive. I'm shocked that Trump didn't want to find some way to try to unite the country. And it's just being disunited every moment. And so, I'm buckled up here for a lot of rough months to come because Trump has no sense of history.

Richard Nixon, as Tim and Jon well know, read history books Galore. It was Winston Churchill and the goal and he is expert on it. Donald Trump doesn't read history. He doesn't maybe even know what dangerous waters he is in right now because he is of conspiratorial mind about everything. Here is the guy demanding that Barack Obama release his birth certificate but he still won't release his taxes. And I don't think he will release them but I think we still have to put pressure on that to happen.

LEMON: Jon - go ahead.

MEACHAM: Doug has really interesting point because there was an interesting term used today couple of time by Sean Spicer about how Trump instinctively thought that there was no violation of the law on the General Flynn's phone calls. Used instinctively several different times. And that's Trump's explicit endorsement of his own abilities. His argument to the American people was that he is an instinctive deal maker. He is an instinctive player. He compared himself to Babe Ruth. The sports writer asking Ruth, hey babe, how do you hit the long ball? And Ruth said I don't know. I just swing at it, you know. He just swings at things. And I think that style may have some virtues but I think we are now seeing what its vices are.

LEMON: Yes. But sometimes when you swing you miss.

(LAUGHTER)

LEMON: Thank you very much.

When we come right back, more on our breaking news. High level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in frequent community communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:40:44] LEMON: Our breaking news, high level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump in frequent communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. That's according to multiple current and former initials. The administration facing tough questions from all sides on its relationship with Russia.

Let's discuss now. Jill Doherty is here of the Evan School at the University of Washington. She is a former CNN Moscow bureau chief. Jonathan Sanders, Stony Book from the University School of Journalism. Nada Bakos from the foreign policy research institute. Steve Hall, retired chief of CIA Russian operations.

Great panel we have assembled here to discuss this.

Jonathan you first. Let me get your reaction to the news that CNN is reporting that high level members of the Trump campaign regularly communicated with Russian nationals. What is your response?

JONATHAN SANDERS, STONY BOOK, UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM: There's a delicious thing in here Don. Right after the elections a deputy foreign minister in Moscow (INAUDIBLE) said we have been in high level negotiation with the Trump team and a spokesman for the Trump campaign said, no, that's not true. The Russians were telling the truth. The Americans were lying. The Russians came right out and said this right after the election and nobody believed them.

LEMON: And how here we are, Nada.

SANDERS: Now here we are.

LEMON: And now here we are. Nada, U.S. intelligence agents say that the frequency raised red flags. So take us into the thinking. What is the biggest concern?

NADA BAKOS, FORMER CIA ANALYST: Working inside the CIA as analyst, we would always look for indicators. So that would be an indicator. There would be a need at that point to have that kind of frequent communication with another country. It should be congratulatory calls and issues like that. They shouldn't be discussing policy at this point.

LEMON: Steve, I will ask you the same question. What is the biggest concern here? What's the thinking?

STEVE HALL, RETIRED CHIEF, CIA RUSSIAN OPERATIONS: Well, for me, it's a bit common sensible. I don't think you have to be intelligence professional to ask yourself, under what conditions would members of even his campaign be in touch with, I believe the allegations are Russian intelligence, but you know, the Russians side. It raises many more questions and it answers. And I think for that reason, I'm going to join the course of everybody else, which is to say the only way that we can get to the bottom of this is to do a really serious investigation. And by that I mean, having some spent some time on the counterintelligence side of things. You have to look at both, you know, the worst case scenario and the best case scenario. But again, you got to as under what conditions would these people have these contacts. It just doesn't make a lot of sense.

LEMON: You said two scenarios. What is it? What are they?

HALL: Well, I mean, if you're talking about -- let's just take the topic de jure, General Flynn, worst case scenario and best case scenario. The worst case scenario, of course, is perhaps somehow the Russians have managed to either by obtaining some type of information on him or cutting some sort of deal with him, gained some sort of control over a guy who is almost at, you know, at very top of U.S. decision making and has the most access to most sensitive information in the U.S. government. That's worst-case scenario.

The best case scenario is you have guy who has spent his entire military career as an intelligence officer supposedly well-versed and well-understood in terms of, you know, counterintelligence issues and yet deems that it's OK to go to Russia, to basically take a paycheck from RT, the propaganda outfit for the Kremlin and they refuse to disclose exactly how much he took from them. And I mean, under what scenario could he think that was going to be OK? From a counterintelligence perspective, it looks very suspicious. From a political perspective, how is he going to explain that? And then the cherry on top of all the cake or the ice cream or whatever analogy you want to use is he obviously has integrity problems because his boss caught him lying to him and had to fire him. So even the best-case scenario isn't real good.

LEMON: OK. Jill, I want to bring you in here because I got a question for you. But just what is your response to the conversation that we have been having here?

JILL DOHERTY, EVANS SCHOOL, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: You know, I mean, thing I'm watching right now is what are the Russians saying about this. And then what is the Trump administration doing vis-a-vis Russia that's a little different. And I must admit I was very surprised to hear Sean Spicer saying Trump has been incredibly tough on Russia. Am my ears, of course, pricked up on that because that is not what anyone I think who looks at the situation would think. So why are they saying that?

[23:45:17] LEMON: Jill, can we play that and then you can continue to discuss it? Let's play it and you can talk about it.

DOHERTY: Sure.

LEMON: Yes. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia. His ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stood before the U.N. Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You said earlier in your comments that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. How is that possible? As you see he has made comment after comment over the course of the campaign, the transition where he defended Vladimir Putin. He has an interview with Bill O'Reilly where he was asked, you know, if Vladimir Putin is a killer, he said, well, you know, America hasn't been that much better in that regard. To me it seems nothing to a lot of Americans seems this president has not been tough on Russia. How can you say that?

SPICER: Because I just walked through it. I think there's a difference between the president wanting to have an understanding of how a good relationship with Russia can help us defeat ISIS and terrorism throughout the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Jo ahead, Jill.

DOHERTY: Yes. You know, Crimea, I mean, all of a sudden they are talking about Crimea. But remember during the campaign it appeared, although it was very loosely phrased by then candidate Trump, that maybe it was OK that Russia had Crimea because maybe the people there wanted to be part of Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well they do.

DOHERTY: I mean, what they are doing now is they were pivoting I would say. Well, yes, actually that's true. But the way it was done, many people at least in the European part of the world would say it was done incorrectly. That you should have had a real live, you know, some type of referendum. And that was not done. But that's another debate.

The point is what he was saying then is very different from what he is saying now. And I think there's a reason for this pivot. And I think the best way to describe it would be to say that they are becoming kind of more catholic than the Pope. There could be a bit of ensuring that the administration doesn't look pro-Russian by saying no, no, we are tough on Crimea. No, no, no. We are tough on Ukraine.

SANDERS: I think there's something else there.

LEMON: OK. We'll stand by and take -- DOHERTY: Let me --

LEMON: Stand by. We will get back, Jill and Jonathan. I will let you guys finish on the other side of this. I got to get to it. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:51:48] LEMON: Back now wit Jill Doherty, Jonathan Sanders, Nada Bakos and Steve Hall.

So Jonathan, Jill was basically saying that she believes that this administration has sort of changed its messaging here.

SANDERS: You know, I don't quite see it that way. I was covering that Security Council session when Nikki Haley spoke and I was really stunned. And I went back and listened to the tape a second time and I said are they saying the Russians have to take troops out of Crimea or get out of Crimea? And they said they had to get out of Crimea which is really a blind alley for U.S. policy because as a matter of fact most people in Crimea want to be part of Russia and not part of Ukraine.

And what I think it is is when you are dealing with Donald Trump on foreign policy, we have to interpret what he says and not translate what he says. And when push comes to hard shove, he has yet to show that he has the courage of his convictions. We saw that on the Taiwan, on China deal. We are seeing it again with what Haley said. And she may be the only one in the administration doing a really good job right now. And I think it is that he doesn't have the courage of his convictions. Perhaps it is because he doesn't have any convictions. Perhaps the establishment pushes back on him too hard.

LEMON: OK.

DOHERTY: Jonathan --

LEMON: Go ahead, Jill.

DOHERTY: You know, the Russians are actually predicting this might happen. They are worried about it. Because what they are worried about is look at the optics. If the administration is perceived as being pro-Russian, then perhaps a smart thing is to not look pro- Russian. So what do you do? You criticize Russia. And I think that's where the Russian are fearful of. That Donald Trump even though he wants get relations, et cetera with Russia may turn around and be forced to because he wants to preserve himself politically. He may have to go after Russia in a hard way.

LEMON: All right. I want to bring the other panelists in on that.

Jonathan, we have exhausted that. I want -- Steve, the Russians launched a cruise missile in violation

of the arms controlled treaty and have a spy ship off the east coast of the U.S. What are they up to? HALL: Well, I would say it's certainly not a coincidence. This is I

think part of what we are actually seeing other countries doing as well which is sort of testing I think the Trump administration.

And you know, getting back what Jill was talking about. I mean, there is an interesting dynamic where all of a sudden, where are the Russians in this and what are they -- perhaps they are in a type of position where they are trying to predict what President Trump's next move is as well. But they can't - I don't think they can count on just, OK, this is what we think he is going to do. They have to do the traditional stuff as well. It's quite clear in a new presidency that the Russian security apparatus is going to want to push the envelope, see how close they can get, see what they can get away with and most importantly see what reaction they are going to elicit from the United States.

LEMON: Nada, a lot of analysts and experts in the media have been asking why is Donald Trump so friendly to Russia. Now we have an administration in turmoil, a top official fired and multiple ties to the White House. Is this exactly what Vladimir Putin wants?

[23:55:14] BAKOS: It certainly seems to play into his hands, doesn't it? Russia or Putin wants to be top of the global order and he thinks by probably removing us and he is making turning us into chaos, that probably achieves his goal, but I think we can get back on track. I think we need to focus on building another security council. We need to immediately put in a new national security adviser. When I think at this point we absolutely need an independent commission to be investigating what role Russia and his possibly some of his advisers have had to play.

LEMON: Yes. Lawmakers on both side of the aisle are calling for more investigations and they are asking for this to be looked at. And for Flynn, to testify, do you think that we are going to see him, we are going to see an investigation? Do you think we will see him under oath, Jill?

DOHERTY: Flynn? They are saying they want to hear from him. And ultimately, I think Nada is right that you have to eventually try to come to some sort of explanation for the American people of what is going on because precisely correct that seeing the United States in chaos is very bad. And it can be exploited by Vladimir Putin or any other country that wants to make the United States look ridiculous.

LEMON: I got to go.

DOHERTY: It is form of democracy look bad.

LEMON: All right. Thank you all. I appreciate it. Fascinating conversation.

Our coverage continues now with Michael Holmes in Los Angeles and (INAUDIBLE) in London.

I'm Don Lemon. Thanks for watching.

END