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Trump Backs Flynn, Says He Should Seek Immunity; Fired Adviser Flynn Wants Immunity, Has "Story To Tell"; Two White House Staffers Helped Nunes In Gathering Intel Material; McCain: "Appalled" By Trump's Remark About Putin. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 31, 2017 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00]

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- Bolduan. Thanks so much for joining us. Even for a president who loves tweeting, today's edition is a real stunner. President Trump wasting no time to weigh in on his former national security adviser's request for immunity.

Michael Flynn, the man the president fired three weeks into his presidency, now offering to testify before Congressional investigators on possible Russian interference in the U.S. election and possible ties to the Trump campaign, but it would come with a big string attached -- he wants immunity. Why?

According to his attorney, Flynn, quote, "has a real story to tell," and that has led to this, the president's tweet. Let me read it to you, "Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt excuse for big election loss by media and Democrats of historic proportion!"

All right, CNN's Sara Murray is joining me now live from the White House with much more on this. So, Sara, what are you hearing from the White House about this this morning?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, good morning, Kate. It's pretty clear that after the White House decided yesterday that they were not going to comment on the Flynn situation, the president had some other thoughts this morning, and it's worth noting in that tweet when he talks about this being sort of a manufactured story line from Democrats and the media that's been the White House's position on this Russia controversy essentially from the outset.

But remember, when FBI Director James Comey testified on the Hill, he pointed out that they began their Russia investigation in July, which is, of course, months before we knew the election results. Now the big question is will Mike Flynn testify on these probes? And as you pointed out, he said he will, but there's a catch, and that catch is immunity.

Now, his lawyer is justifying that approach, saying, of course, it's only prudent for him to ask for immunity, but he and the president were singing a very different tone when it was Hillary Clinton's associates who were asking for immunity just a few months ago. Listen to what they had to say then. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN (RETIRED), FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The very last thing that John Podesta said is no individual too big to jail. That should include people like Hillary Clinton. I mean, five people around her have been given immunity, to include her former chief of staff. When you are given immunity that means that you've probably committed a crime.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Her aides took the Fifth Amendment, and her ring leaders were given immunity! And if you're not guilty of a crime what do you need immunity for, right?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MURRAY: My, how things have changed. Michael Flynn and President Trump now apparently amending those views, no longer believing that asking for immunity is an indication that you, in fact, may have committed a crime -- Kate.

KEILAR: Much more to come, and I'm sure many more sound bites coming back to bite them. Sara, great to see you. Thank you so much.

Joining me now to discuss and there is a lot to discuss, CNN national security analyst and retired chief of Russia operations for the CIA, Steve Hall, former CIA analyst, Ned Price, also a spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama White House.

Also here with me, CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan, and criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor. Guys, thanks for coming in. So Paul, first to you, as a legal matter, you say this is a smart move. What does it tell you, though?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it does tell you that General Flynn obviously has something he's worried about or something his lawyer's worried about, something that could look incriminatory or criminal in nature. His lawyer, of course, will say he did nothing criminal, I'm just being safe.

But when you're asking for immunity, you're worried about something. Now, he's saying I have information to trade for immunity. What I want to know is, what is that information and how important is it?

Because prosecutors want to see that he's telling the truth and that his information is valuable and that he's going to offer somebody who's either in an equal position or a higher position than he occupied. And let's face it, he was at the top of the pyramid in the security part of the United States government.

KEILAR: Yes, for the time that he was there.

CALLAN: Yes.

KEILAR: And all along the -- and especially in the Trump campaign, which is kind of the time period that is in question when it comes, obviously to these investigations.

Steve, let me go to you. From the intelligence perspective, what does this tell you? Does this tell you anything? Does this raise any new questions to you about the calls that there was so much reporting on originally, if we can take us all the way back there, between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador?

In your view, do those calls with the Russian ambassador, would that be enough to inspire an immunity request, or do you now think there's something more?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to try to play one on TV, but from a counterintelligence perspective, though, I'm actually much more concerned about what happened before the election with regard to Flynn and the Russian government than his connections with Ambassador Kislyak.

I think we have to remember, and this is something that I think the White House wants us very much to forget, is that the real question here is, prior to the election -- we already know that the Russians were trying to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump.

[11:05:07]So the real question that we need to focus on is was there some sort of collusion or cooperation between members of the Trump team prior to the election and the Russians. If I were a Russian intelligence officer and looking for somebody to help me do that -- and I'm not saying that that happened, we need the investigation to find out.

But if I were the Russian intelligence officer who was tasked with finding somebody to do that, Flynn is the ideal guy. He's a former intelligence officer himself, he understands counterintelligence and the need for discretion, and he's close to Trump and the administration.

So, that's -- my hope is that now that Flynn is perhaps, or his lawyer's talking about things like immunity, perhaps we can get to the bottom of some of those key questions that really only he can answer on this.

KEILAR: Yes, and there are more questions than answers, obviously, at this moment. Ned, you have had plenty of criticism for this president and this White House. I mean, you left the CIA because of it. What impact does think now that the former national security adviser is seeking immunity some 60 days into this presidency?

NED PRICE, FORMER CIA ANALYST, QUIT BECAUSE OF TRUMP: Well, it raises profound questions, Kate, about why it is exactly that he's seeking immunity. Of course, we know of the calls to Kislyak and the supposed reason for his tendered resignation, misleading the vice president.

But you know, to paraphrase Mike Flynn, when you're seeking immunity, you've probably committed a crime. In this case, it seems more than probable, and it goes well beyond those phone calls. You have potential violations of the Logan Act, you have lying to federal investigators looking into the Kislyak matter. You have this crazy kidnapping plot involving a Turkish cleric who resides now in the Poconos that was reported earlier, and of course, he was acting as a foreign agent even as he moved into positions with the administration.

The question that remains, though, is what don't we know? What does he know about others? And the Department of Justice, I do not think will be willing to grant immunity if he is just seeking immunity for his own crimes. If he knows of crimes of others, that could be a different story.

KEILAR: Yes, I mean, I think we can safely say, what don't we know? A whole lot! And that's why it's hard, you can't make a determination one way or another, other than this is a significant development. Also significant just this morning, Paul, the president tweeting about this.

The president weighing in, saying that Mike Flynn should ask for immunity, he believes, because this is a witch hunt. There's the tweet again. Is this a legal issue in and of itself? I do wonder if the president understands what immunity means and what he's kind of suggesting here.

CALLAN: I don't know. It's strange because, of course, the president had previously said that why would you ask for immunity if you didn't do something wrong. Now he's --

KEILAR: Well, of course, that was all in the context of the campaign. It's different of course when you're in the White House.

CALLAN: So he's changed his tune now. But you raise an interesting question, because really, the president is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. I mean, he heads the FBI and the Justice Department.

KEILAR: It's a tangled web now.

CALLAN: He's expressing an opinion about granting immunity to Flynn, and I think the president shouldn't be sticking his nose into this. He should be relying on his Justice Department. He should be relying on the FBI to do the right thing. He's really imposing on the bureaucracy and forcing it in the direction of giving immunity to Flynn. And you know, we don't know what information he has. We also don't know what crimes he might be immunized for.

KEILAR: You raise a really interesting point. He says you should be requesting immunity, and if the FBI then doesn't grant it, we end up in a very interesting situation on this one. Ned, as a former spokesman for the National Security Council, I do want to ask you about the other big story we're getting to in the show.

CNN has confirmed that White House officials played a role in giving Devin Nunes, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, the surveillance information, helping him gather the surveillance information that he then went to brief the president on last week. You have called this amateur political theater and you say that the president has turned national security into a spectacle. Why do you say that?

PRICE: Well, Kate, senior officials on the National Security Council, including those senior officials who are reported to have provided Devin Nunes with this information could go straight to the oval office. If their real intent had been to inform the president of what they had found, they could have walked straight from the Eisenhower Building into the west wing and had a meeting right there with the president.

But the fact that they had to launder this intelligence through Devin Nunes and then this political theater to have him hold a press conference on Capitol Hill, rush down the White House to brief the president, hold another press conference to give this information some credibility suggests it was pure spectacle. It was all theater.

KEILAR: Even if the substance of it is important, I mean, unmasking of civilians is an important issue. The way that it's played out, you say just smells funny.

PRICE: But Kate, we don't even know what the substance is.

KEILAR: No, and that's the thing.

PRICE: Devin Nunes has changed his story so many times.

KEILAR: I agree, we don't know what the substance is. I do want to ask you real quick, Steve, because this did happen, Russia, of course, denies any meddling in the U.S. election, and that of course came straight from Putin, I think, just this week.

His spokesman today was speaking to ABC and he said this that "U.S./Russia relations could be at its worst point, maybe even worse than the cold war," Steve. Do you think that's the case, Steve?

[11:10:10]HALL: Well, from the Russian perspective, you have to remember that the cold war really never ended. I mean, you've still got folks there in Russia in charge, Putin and the rest of them, Peskov is the spokesman you're referring to.

These folks still see the United States as the main enemy, and they have been working to try to divide the west. Now they're working to divide internally our own government, and they're being pretty successful at it. So for them, the cold war is still a very real thing.

As to whether or not we are going to engage in those type of cold war policies and how our own policy is going to move forward, we have yet to hear from the administration what Russia policy's going to be and that's a critical thing. We just don't know yet what it's going to be.

KEILAR: Great to see you all. Thank you so much. A lot happening on this and I'm sure more will happen throughout this hour. So, you have this new chapter in the Flynn saga, but bookmark that for a second. CNN now confirming two White House staffers helped the Republican in charge of the House Intelligence Committee to gather intelligence. What does this now mean for the White House and the investigation? That's ahead.

Plus, David Axelrod is joining me live on the rough start for this presidency and why he's sitting down with former rival, John McCain.

And Hillary Clinton speaking moments ago, just 48 hours after her most political speech since the election. We have her remarks and also, why did Joe Biden just take a swipe at her campaign?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:15:18]

KEILAR: New this morning, CNN now confirms two White House staffers assisted the House Intelligence Chairman, Devin Nunes, in gathering surveillance information that Nunes has been calling very troubling. What's not clear, though, is exactly what their role was and if this contradicts how the chairman previously laid out his story.

CNN senior Congressional reporter, Manu Raju, is live from Capitol Hill. He's been following all of this and following the whereabouts and movements of Devin Nunes since this all kind of played out. Manu, what do we know right now?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, we do know that at least two White House staffers were involved in helping Mr. Nunes get this information. Now, Nunes has said privately, at least to Speaker Paul Ryan, that a, quote, "whistleblower" was the person who helped provide him this information.

And Speaker Paul Ryan's office still says that's their understanding based on what Devin Nunes told them, saying that they have their fully support of Mr. Nunes staying as chairman, even as Democrats step up their calls for him to recuse himself from this investigation because of their belief that he's grown too cozy with the White House.

Now, what the Democrats are trying to figure out is this, what did Devin Nunes know and how exactly did he learn this information. Those are questions that Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, still has yet to understand.

He responded to the White House's request yesterday, or at least their opening for him to review the information asking those questions, whether or not this new information that the White House is going to make available to Adam Schiff and other top leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee.

The same information that Mr. Nunes read privately last week before briefing the president of the United States. We don't know the answer to that question yet, and the White House is not saying that either. We'll see if Sean Spicer does later today -- Kate.

KEILAR: All right. A lot more questions, Manu. Thank you so much. It's going to be another busy day. Let me bring in right now, David Axelrod, CNN political commentator and a senior adviser to former President Obama. Great to see you, David.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Good to be here.

KEILAR: So, where do you think this is headed with Devin Nunes and how this is looking right now?

AXELROD: Not good, obviously. And he made a point, as Manu mentioned, of saying that a whistleblower gave him this information. It really looks like he was whistled down to the White House to run an errand for them, which is to take this information and come back the next day.

And the question really isn't what he knew so much as who in the White House knew about this and how far up did it go, and was he used, essentially, to do a political chore for the president? If such, it does create a cloud over his chairmanship.

KEILAR: That gets to some of the pushback we've heard over and over from the White House about this. First and foremost, they say we are all focusing too much on the process -- what time of day Devin Nunes came to the White House grounds, when he got in, how he got in and we are not focusing enough on the substance.

First of all, we would all focus on the substance if there was substance, if it had been offered up, because Devin Nunes hasn't even told his own committee what the substance of it is, but do you think process matters in this?

AXELROD: Well, the process matters only in that if the process was not honest and straightforward, it creates concerns. Why does the White House -- if the White House had information, why didn't they call both the chairman and the ranking member down to look at this information?

Why was it done in such a ferretive way? Why did he refer to these people as whistleblowers? So you know, look, I agree with the bigger question. There's a bigger substantive issue, which is the Russians hit our elections very hard.

KEILAR: Right.

AXELROD: And there are questions about whether there was any collusion or not, and that is the main question. This is a brush fire that was started when the president made his allegations about being wiretapped, which has since been disabused.

KEILAR: And this is a side note, because Devin Nunes, one thing he said consistently is this one's not about Russia, but let's veer back to the broader picture.

AXELROD: Yes.

KEILAR: And the important news today with regard to the investigation with Russia. Michael Flynn now asking, through his attorney, asking for immunity. His attorney saying he has a story to tell. Should the White House be worried about this?

AXELROD: Well, certainly, somebody in the White House knows whatever story Flynn has to tell. I mean, there's someone there, I don't know whether it's the president or someone beneath the president knows what Flynn knows so they have a sense of this. I was interested in those -- I guess that's why they call them sound bites, but those bites of Flynn back in the summer talking about immunity. They have come back to bite them. So, no, I think this could be a significant development in this investigation.

[11:20:04]KEILAR: I also was, as you were walking in, I was wondering, if you were in your old post, what would be going through your mind if President Obama had tweeted what President Trump did this morning, about the fact that he thinks Michael Flynn should get immunity. What does -- I can only imagine what is going through Reince Priebus or Steve Bannon's mind.

AXELROD: If I were at my old post, I would be grateful that I was on the first floor of the White House because I would be leaping out the window at this point. This is what makes life as a presidential aide under Donald Trump so difficult, because I guarantee you he didn't call a staff meeting and say, I think I'm going to tweet that Flynn should go for immunity this morning.

This is all of his own creation, and then everybody in that building has to scurry around trying to follow up on it. I mean, poor Sean Spicer should be in "Cirque de Soleil" for all of the different twists and turns he has to take based on what his boss says.

KEILAR: Yes. And he's going to get more questions today. I mean, it would be malpractice for reporters not to be asking about it, and he --

AXELROD: I talked about it as a hot mess. It is a hot mess and I don't think it's getting better any time soon.

KEILAR: When it comes to the Russia problem, this began -- we know the FBI started their investigation back in July. This, of course, that means during the Obama administration. Democrats have been critical that President Obama and maybe looking back, they wish President Obama had done more, had come out for forcefully against Russian interference in the election. Do you think that criticism is fair looking back?

AXELROD: You know, I am not here as a spokesman for him --

KEILAR: Of course, not.

AXELROD: But knowing how he thinks and what he said, I'm sure that his concern was not to do anything that looked like he was, in fact, politicizing the investigation and putting his thumb on the scale in some way. And he proceeded with caution for that reason.

This is the most important institution in our democracy, and so, you want the president to be cautious about how these matters are handled. When they had the information and he felt comfortable that all the agencies were together on it, they made a declaration that the Russians had been involved. But look, we're sitting here today, we still don't know all of the details.

KEILAR: Right.

AXELROD: So, to give a half story at that point would have been I think highly political.

KEILAR: And looking forward, the whole argument you always hear from the White House, the president can walk and chew gum at the same time. Do you think that applies with this? The president can deal with this cloud hanging over the White House and still move his agenda forward or do you think it gets in the way?

AXELROD: We've seen examples of it. Bill Clinton was under an impeachment threat and still managed to do things when he was president. It can be done. I don't think the problem -- I mean, this is obviously a distraction, and it's certainly something that's sucking up a lot of time in the media.

KEILAR: Yes.

AXELROD: But the bigger problem is incoherent strategy on other issues for the presidency.

KEILAR: That may not have anything to do with Russia.

AXELROD: Right, exactly. I think that there are a lot of strains as a result of that.

KEILAR: You have a podcast.

AXELROD: I do.

KEILAR: A little-known podcast. I hope you can sense my sarcasm on that. It's hugely popular and it's going big time. It's going to be a special tomorrow night airing on CNN. And in this, you sit down with John McCain. And as you sit down with John McCain, one of the issues that comes up is Russia.

AXELROD: Yes.

KEILAR: Just a preview for our viewers. Here's a little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: Fair to say you despise Putin, and you've made that very clear. What did you think when you saw the president with Bill O'Reilly, when O'Reilly called Putin a thug and a murderer, and the president said, well, you think we're so innocent?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Killer. What O'Reilly said -- it stands out in my memory -- he said "he is a killer," and the president said, well, aren't we killers, too? That was so appalling to me, to have a moral equivalency between this fellow who is -- I don't know how many deaths he's responsible for, for example, in Chechnya, where he put down any opposition with great --

AXELROD: There were several assassinations just last week?

MCCAIN: Yes, one guy was thrown out of a fourth-story window. So, to state that there is some moral equivalency between an imperfect nation -- that's the United States of America -- and Vladimir Putin is appalling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: John McCain feels very, very strongly about this issue.

AXELROD: There's probably nobody on Capitol Hill who feels more strongly about Putin. John McCain's lost close, personal friends who were in the resistance in Russia who were assassinated on orders of Putin, so he feels very strongly about it, and he was deeply, clearly, deeply, deeply offended by what the president said.

And I asked him during this conversation about the comparisons that some people make or some of Trump's supporters, between Trump and Ronald Reagan, who was very close to McCain, and he really blanched at that, and he said I don't see that at all. He said, can you imagine Ronald Reagan saying something like this? And he was very sharp about that.

[11:25:06]KEILAR: It's a fascinating conversation, regardless, also fascinating with the history. John McCain was a rival -- you ran against John McCain in this election.

AXELROD: That's an important point, because one of the things that's happened to our politics is there is so much heat that you can't have, as we've had in the past, relationships with people with whom you've had political differences. I can disagree with John McCain, and I do on many things, but I respect him and I admire him and I think he's a patriotic American and a courageous man.

And so, we've got to try and take some of the heat out of our politics and recognize that we're all Americans and we can have differences and yet, still admire each other.

KEILAR: I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the conversation.

AXELROD: Thank you.

KEILAR: Great to see you, David. Thanks so much.

AXELROD: Great to be with you.

KEILAR: All right, a reminder to all of you again, catch "The Axe Files" special airing tomorrow night, 9:00 Eastern right on CNN. Great to see you, David.

Coming up for us, hundreds of thousands have been killed in Syria's civil war. Right now, is the Trump administration signaling a big shift in policy there? And why is one Republican calling it the biggest mistake since President Obama drew his red line? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)