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Interview with Representative Ron DeSantos; Interview with Representative Bennie Thompson; Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 15, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:15] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. Thank you for joining us.

We certainly have a lot of news this morning, including new revelations involving President Donald Trump and his inner circle and ties to Russia. CNN learning that the President's high-level advisers during the campaign were in constant contact with officials in Russia before the election. U.S. intelligence officials became alarmed because of the frequency of the contacts, the timing, and how close those people were to President Trump.

BERMAN: And this all unfolded as Russian hackers were targeting the DNC and other Democratic operations.


BERMAN: And by the way, as candidate Trump was publicly calling on the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails, we do not know the content of the conversations or the motive behind the conversations, but the word that they happened is a big real development. Though we should note that both the Kremlin and Donald Trump this morning are calling it fake news.

CNN's Jim Sciutto has been working sources all day, all night, on this story. And, Jim, bring us up to speed on where we are right now at 9:01 Eastern time.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I should note, calling it fake news without the President or the White House yet responding to the substance of the reporting, which we've asked them to do. But let's get to what the reporting is.

One, two things caused alarm, raised red flags, in U.S. law enforcement and intelligence. First, the volume and frequency of these communications between Trump advisers and the Russians. Communications happen during campaigns, but typically at a much lower level and much less frequent than what they saw here.

The second thing is the seniority of the advisers involved. I'm told the senior-most advisers with great proximity to the President, including Paul Manafort who was then the campaign chairman and Mike Flynn who was then a national security adviser to the campaign as well as others.

Those two things raise red flags. One more thing I would note is that these communications, considered significant enough that they were included in the briefings to then President-elect Trump and President Obama when they were briefed by the senior-most intelligence officials during the transition.

HARLOW: Jim Sciutto, great reporting. Stay with us because we want to bring our panel all in to go through all of these.

Joining us now, CNN political commentator and political anchor for Spectrum News, Errol Louis is here. Our global affairs analyst Kimberly Dozier joins us. White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post" Philip Rucker is also here.

And let me begin with this, guys. Let's just play for you what the Vice President said when he did this round of media interviews on January 15th just before the administration took office, just to show the extraordinary difference and how antithetical it is to what CNN has learned through Jim's reporting. Let's play it.


CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS HOST: Was there any contact, in any way, between Trump or his associates and the Kremlin or cutouts?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Of course not. Why would there be any contacts between the campaign? Chris, this is all a distraction, and it's all a part of a narrative to delegitimize the election and to question the legitimacy of this presidency.


HARLOW: So, Errol, to you, in the Vice President's answer, he not only sort of shakes his head and says, of course not, he actually says not only was there not this, you know, contact, but it's all sort of being pushed by the other side to delegitimize this President. You say?

ERROL LOUIS, POLITICAL ANCHOR, SPECTRUM NEWS NY1: Yes, that's sort of the narrative we're hearing from the President himself. The President of the United States taking to Twitter this morning, a little over an hour ago, to say that all of these is a distraction and a way to sort of take some of the blame off of the Clinton campaign, as if we were in the middle of the campaign. We're well past that.

We've got facts on the ground from people who are clearly neutral in all of this, who are not politically partisan. You know, unless you're assuming there is some grand conspiracy that involves the mainstream press, CNN, the FBI, the CIA, the intelligence agencies that are sworn to protect us, we've got some questions that clearly need some answering.

It also appears clear that Vice President Pence was not in the loop when a lot of these contacts were going on, so let's assume that he was speaking honestly and openly. That raises even more questions about why he wasn't included in these many, many contacts.

BERMAN: Yes, what he said, January 15th, was not true. There were contacts based on Jim's reporting between the campaign and the Russians.

Sean Spicer said in a briefing yesterday, again, that was not true. There were contacts between the campaign and Russian officials, again, based on the reporting that's out there.

HARLOW: And the White House is not responding to the substance of Jim's report.

BERMAN: Right, and the White House is simply just ignoring the substance of the reporting. And again, you know, Errol talks about the tweet right there.

Let me just remind people what Donald Trump himself said over the summer while all these was happening, inviting the Russians to hack. Just listen to this.


[09:05:05] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.


BERMAN: So, Phil, to you, the Washington bureau chief of "The Washington Post" here, you have a good feel for what is going on in that city. You have Michael Flynn being pushed out because of a conversation he had with Russia. You have this new reporting on Russian contacts going back throughout the campaign. How much trouble is the White House in over this and who will apply the pressure?

PHILIP RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: Potentially a lot. This is a pretty explosive development, thanks to Jim's great reporting and "The New York Times" as well. And I think there are a lot of unanswered questions here.

Clearly, it's a serious investigation that the federal intelligence agencies are undertaking and the FBI. And we don't yet know what the substance of the conversations that the Trump officials were having with the Russian operatives. And that's a really key question, whether there was any sort of collusion going on.

Apparently, the sources are saying there's no evidence of that yet, but this investigation is not over. And I expect that the Congress is going to begin to investigate this very thoroughly, which is only going to create a lot more drama and upheaval for this young White House.

HARLOW: So, Phil, I'm glad you mentioned that because, Jim, to you, just to be clear for our viewers, that is part of your reporting and the "Times" reporting that, so far, no evidence of collusion between the two campaigns, but this evidence of a lot of contact, frequently, and people close.

What would be damning to the White House when you look at this, Jim? What is that thing that would really turn the tables here?

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, not for me to judge. It depends on where the investigation goes and what his party and the Democrats hold him accountable for.

I think on the collusion, no evidence of collusion, but the context is important. And this is what officials keep reminding us. You know, these contacts were not happening in a vacuum. It's not like they were contacting a U.S. ally repeatedly or China, another country.

These were repeated contacts at the most senior level in the midst of an unprecedented cyber attack on the U.S. election system, political organizations, parties, individuals, et cetera. So that context adds to the alarm and concern why. Why have those contacts in the midst of what was going on? And that's something that's a legitimate question.

It hasn't been answered yet, and it's the kind of thing that the White House and others have to give a substantive answer to. And they haven't done that yet.

BERMAN: And I hope people are listening to you, Jim. You're talking about the frequency of it and also the high level of the conversations because that is truly remarkable.

And if I can take another step back and talk about, again, why this all matters when we're -- what, 27 days?

HARLOW: Twenty-eight days in.

BERMAN: -- 28 days into the administration. General Tony Thomas, who runs Special Operations Command, he was speaking and he said something, I think, that raised a lot of eyebrows about the overall situation, 28 days into this administration.

He says, "Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we're a nation at war. As a commander, I'm concerned our government be as stable as possible."

Kimberly Dozier, you know, you're incredibly well-sourced in the security community. I'm not sure I've heard a general speak like this before when he's talking about the stability of our government.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, in fairness to General Thomas, we did catch him off guard at a conference where he was speaking yesterday and asked him, what do you think of the turmoil? And he answered honestly.

That said, he also said that, from his perspective, special operations raids, missions, et cetera, were going forward without delay, without hiccup, but he expressed disappointment with what happened with Mike Flynn.

And others in that community are saying, you know, they can handle this for a while. The wheels will keep turning. But if there's a major sustained crisis, the wheels could start coming off in terms of the decision process, which is why they say they need somebody in charge at the national security council as soon as possible, to keep this on the level.

We have a Russian spy ship now off the U.S. coast. There are going to be questions about, OK, what is the U.S. strategy and policy for that, and who is guiding the ship?

HARLOW: Philip, to you, Senator John McCain sort of echoed a little bit of what the general said. Just to summarize what he said, he said, when you see you don't know who is in charge, he calls it a dysfunction of the Trump administration, significant dysfunction in the country's national security apparatus.

Obviously, important note to that, John McCain doesn't exactly love the President, but this is significant.

RUCKER: That's exactly right. And we have to consider this Russia situation is not happening in a vacuum here. You have a lot of other factors that are coming into play to create this feeling of upheaval in the administration.

[09:10:07] Just over the weekend, President Trump was dealing with the North Korea situation in an open-air dining room at his golf club, in front of an audience of all sorts of people who could hear what he was saying. He's had very testy conversations with world leaders including our allies like Australia.

And you have a lot of foreign leaders, ambassadors that I've talked to over the last few weeks who are very concerned. They don't know who is in charge. They don't know who to talk to. They don't really understand what direction this administration is going.

And so I think it's incumbent now, four weeks in, upon the Trump White House officials to really kind of take control of this situation and project more an air of confidence and competence.

HARLOW: Errol Louis, Philip Rucker, Kimberly Dozier, Jim Sciutto. Great reporting, Jim, to you, Pamela Brown and Evan Perez.

All right. Coming up, the Trump administration, obviously facing many questions this morning. Will Congress ask them?

BERMAN: Lindsey Graham raised the possibility of a select committee. Will others follow suit? A key member of Congress joins us next.

All this happening as the White House awaits Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is due to arrive very shortly.

The two men have been effusive in praise for one another. They're going to have a joint press conference soon. You can bet or you can hope --

HARLOW: Yes. BERMAN: -- that President Trump will face questions about this new

reporting on Russia. I suppose we'll have to wait and see who he calls on. We'll discuss, coming up.


[09:15:30] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: News that senior Trump campaign advisers were in constant communication with Russia sparked a strong response from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham this morning who raised the possibility -- really pushed for a select committee to investigate. Listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Here's the question. If there's contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials outside the norm, that's not only big league bad, that's a game changer, and I would change my view as to what Congress should do.

If there are contacts between Trump officials and Russian intelligence operatives during the campaign, we need a joint select committee in Congress to get to the bottom of it and also look at Trump's business ties to Russia if it is true.

But I can tell you this, Congress is not fake. There are real members of Congress up here, Republicans and Democrats, who love our country and are going to make sure that checks and balances that have been in place for 200 years work even when the president's in your own party.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Here to discuss with us now, Republican Congressman Ron DeSantos, he's a member of the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees, as well as the Freedom Caucus. He joins us from a loud Capitol Hill this morning.

Thank you so much for being with us. I hope you heard Senator Lindsey Graham raising the possibility of a joint select committee in Congress to investigate these Russian connections between the Trump campaign. What's your take on that? Do you agree with the senator?

REP. RON DESANTOS (R) HOUSE FREEDOM CAUCUS: Well, I think what we need to do is let's get the actual transcript from Mike Flynn's communications with the Russian ambassador. And I'd also like get the 302, if the FBI did interview him so we can see what the truth is and what's just simply innuendo.

A select committee is used when there's overlapping jurisdiction so we did it in Benghazi, so you had four different committees investigating it. They were cross-purposes of one another. I think this matter falls squarely within the Intelligence Committee. It should be very easy to get this transcript and to get some of the information from the FBI to see what did Flynn discussed, did he do anything wrong and then obviously how did he communicate that to the White House. HARLOW: So what would you have to see then, Congressman, in that

transcript that would tell you, OK, a select committee is needed. Because as you noted, in the Benghazi investigation, you called for a select committee, you called for a special council to investigate Hillary Clinton's e-mails. What do you want to see in that transcript to tell you that's needed?

DESANTOS: Well, in Benghazi, remember, we had four dead bodies, we had Susan Rice go out on the Sunday shows and concoct a false story. We were not getting any information from the administration. It was in the middle of a campaign. So you clearly had a terrorist attack there and then you have the stonewalling.

Some of the stuff about the Russian contacts, I read "The New York Times" article, and they've said that there's no evidence that there was coordination. So it kind of undercut the splashy she a little bit.

HARLOW: I don't know --

DESANTOS: So the select committee --

HARLOW: Congressman -- Congressman, with all due respect, you don't have answers from the administration today. I mean, they're not even responding to Jim Sciutto's reporting. They're calling it fake news and they're saying the leaks are really the issue here.

BERMAN: And one more point, Congressman, you know, as recently as January 15th we had Mike Pence who was vice president-elect saying there were no conversations. Yesterday we had Sean Spicer denying that there were conversations. But that doesn't appear to be the case. So the story from the White House doesn't appear to be based on reality.

DESANTOS: Well, I think we would get, if you get the transcripts from Flynn's conversations, you can see what they discussed. On one land, discussing the sanctions, although I'm opposed to relieving sanctions on Russia, I want to increase sanctions. If they discussed it, to me I don't think that that's actually a criminal offense because they're an incoming administration, they can kind of say hey, here is where we're looking to go.

So if that's what they discussed and then Flynn wasn't honest with people in the White House, that obviously is going to be an issue. How then the White House handled it, I know that supposedly the DOJ went and reported that there could be an issue, I'm not sure how that checks out either. They may have done some investigation. But I think those are a lot of questions that the White House will answer.

Remember, when we tried to investigate things with Obama's White House, we wanted to investigate the Iran deal and Ben Rhodes' role, we didn't get anybody because they're going to claim executive privilege. So I think we have to focus on the agency action, let's focus on what the FBI knows, let's focus on what the intel committee knows.

BERMAN: Well, executive privilege -- you just -- and I don't want to (INAUDIBLE) the time here, but just on executive privilege, this happened before he was president, so it isn't at all clear that there's any --

HARLOW: Any coverage.

BERMAN: Executive privilege.

DESANTOS: No, but you're saying once Flynn reported it and then the vice president was told something else, they were already in office then as an administration.

[09:20:04] So there's a question in the press about OK, well, why did they wait a couple of days? What were they investigating? I don't know the answer to that. But I think it would be hard for Congress to be able to get that, whereas we can get the transcript from Flynn's communications, we can potentially get the FBI and we should get, and Chairman Nunez in the House is working to get, the information about who is leaking all this stuff because you really have a concerted effort to undermine the sitting president.

That is not the appropriate role of the Intelligence Committees, to act as political actors and to do selective leaking.

HARLOW: Right. So on that point, Nunez is calling for an investigation into the leaking but not into the Russia connections here. I wonder if you're in agreement with Senator Rand Paul who came out yesterday and said, I don't think it's useful to do investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. He went on to say you're not going to get anything done, like Obamacare, et cetera.

Do you agree that -- regardless of party, do you agree that that is a good frame of mind that is helpful to the American people to say maybe it's not the best thing to investigate our own party?

DESANTOS: No. Our job is to investigate facts. And when there are legitimate issues like Flynn's conversations, we should get the truth for the American people. That's our job. At the same time, you know, a lot of my Democratic colleagues, they were out there reading -- Nancy Pelosi was reading fake tweets from Mike Flynn supposedly. I mean, they're very upset about the election, they're throwing everything against the wall seeing what will stick. So we shouldn't necessarily get caught up in that milieu either. But yes, we have that responsibility to get the facts. Let's get that transcript and see what actually transpired.

BERMAN: If you don't get the transcript, Congressman, what's your next step?

DESANTOS: Well, I think you're going to have Chairman Nunez investigating in the House, and I support his efforts. And then the Senate Intel Committee is investigating broader than just the leaks and I think they're well positioned to do it.

We've done things on the Oversight Committee in the past. But any time we get into the classified communications, we basically hit a brick wall and it gets referred to the intel committee. HARLOW: Congressman, we appreciate you joining us this morning.

Thank you very much.

DESANTOS: Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: All right. Still to come for us, Democrats have a message for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, step aside. Why some lawmakers say he should recuse himself from an investigation into Michael Flynn, next.


[09:26:30] HARLOW: Good morning to you. I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. Thanks for joining us. A lot going on this morning. As of right now the Trump administration is not responding to our questions about the contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials.

While that is going on or not going on more specifically, Democrats are calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to step aside from any possible investigation into former National Security adviser Michael Flynn.


SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: The White House counsel cannot lead this investigation, and the new attorney general cannot be -- Jeff Sessions cannot be the person to lead that investigation.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: It's not an investigation that should take place by Jeff Sessions. Jeff Sessions is too tied to the campaign, too tied to the president. It needs to be an independent or a special prosecutor.


HARLOW: With us now, Democratic Congressman Bennie Thomson. He's the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee. It's nice to have you on.


HARLOW: Do you believe that Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself from this investigation and any investigation surrounding Michael Flynn?

THOMPSON: Well, I don't think there's any question. Attorney General Sessions was intricately involved in the campaign, made serious political positions as he moved into the campaign. And so for the American people, I think it's absolutely essential for the integrity of his office and for the American people to know exactly what's going on. So step aside, independent prosecutor. I'm one of those individuals who are asking for an independent commission to look into this situation. So Democrats are interested, the American people are interested in finding out exactly what went on.

BERMAN: You know, Congressman, you released a pretty scathing statement yesterday. You said President Trump campaigned on hiring the best people, on being the best manager, but the unnecessary chaos and drama he has brought to the American people in just three weeks is bordering on sadistic and -- without a doubt a clear threat to national security.

What evidence do you have at this point that it's harming national security?

THOMPSON: Well -- what I can't tell you because I received it in a classified setting. But there's a lot going on. So much of what they've done in the White House has put us at risk. And so for the issuance of that statement is to say, look, we need to pause, and look at this situation and fix it. The White House is in disarray, there's competition among staffers against each other, and it's not good for the safety of this country.

HARLOW: Back to you saying no question Jeff Sessions shouldn't lead any investigation having to do with Flynn, he was a sitting senator, the first sitting senator to endorse Donald Trump as a candidate. He was involved in that role in the campaign as a senator. Then he was nominated and confirmed as attorney general. What makes it so different than the close ties between former attorney general Eric Holder and President Obama, for example, that you believe that Jeff Sessions can't do his job?

THOMPSON: Well, I think if there had ever been a question of impropriety on the part of someone in the Obama administration, I think Attorney General Holder would have stepped aside. With the question of President Clinton meeting with the former attorney general, she stepped aside on the investigation of Hillary Clinton.

I think what we have to do is look at it and give the public the clearest view and unbound -- interview so that they can see exactly what's going on.