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CNN TONIGHT

Sally Yates Testifies. Aired 10-10:30p ET

Aired May 8, 2017 - 22:00   ET

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


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[22:00:00]

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Hey, that's it for us tonight. Thanks for watching. Time to hand things over to Don Lemon. CNN Tonight starts now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Breaking news. Explosive testimony about the former attorney general regarding President Trump's first national security adviser.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.

Sally Yates telling Congress that she alerted the White House that General Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by the Kremlin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SALLY YATES, FORMER UNITED STATES ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: President Trump predictably responding to her sworn testimony with a tweet storm. We're going to report on all that. I want to begin with CNN's justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. Pamela, good evening. Thank you for joining us.

The former acting Attorney General Sally Yates said that she warned the White House that the former national security adviser, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, could be blackmailed by the Russians. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YATES: The Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done, and the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others. Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: So, having listened to that, Pamela, break down some of what

we heard today from Sally Yates, and from the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, she really laid out the chain of events, Don. She revealed for the first time that she discussed Michael Flynn with White House Counsel Don McGahn on three separate occasions starting two days after the FBI interviewed Flynn.

She said she initially called Don McGahn to express the concern that Flynn could be blackmailed by the Russians and she wanted to visit him at the White House in a secure location, and so when she met with him, she explained to him that she was concerned that Flynn could be blackmailed because he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, but lied about it to top White House officials including the vice president who as we know went on television denying Flynn had ever discussed sanctions.

And then she said the second time they met was the next day when McGahn had several questions including whether Flynn could be criminally prosecuted and there was a third conversation about allowing White House officials to see the underlying evidence of Flynn's behavior.

Now, James Clapper on the other hand, he stood by that earlier assertion that he had seen no evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign associates and Russians but he also acknowledged that he was unaware of the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into that matter, Don.

LEMON: So, Pamela, I know that this stood out to you today that Sally Yates said she offered the White House the opportunity to look at the classified information she was basing this warning on, but it's unclear if that happened, right?

BROWN: Right. So, we reached out to the White House to find out and we're waiting to hear back. Now, Sally Yates said that Don McGahn, White House Counsel, asked to see the underlying evidence and then she called him back to tell him that that would be OK. They worked out the logistics.

But she said she doesn't know if actually happened because she was fired that evening by President Trump for not backing his travel ban. But the fact the White House officials had this opportunity to look at the classified materials prompting the concern at DOJ undermines, undercuts White House spokesman Sean Spicer's assertion that DOJ only gave a mere heads up.

And it also compounds the question or raises the question why it took 18 days for the White House to take action against Flynn, only after a Washington Post report revealing that DOJ warning to White House officials, Don.

LEMON: All right. Thank you, Pamela Brown. I appreciate that. I want to bring in now John Dean. John Dean is the former White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon and he's also the author of "Conservatives without Conscience." Good evening to you, Mr. Dean. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: What did you think of the hearing today?

DEAN: Well, you know, there was more detail we received. We knew about the meeting. We knew that the warning had come in earlier and this is just further evidence this White House is not inclined to really deal with this issue. What they keep doing is just stalling, stonewalling, if you will.

They don't -- the tweets are not responsive. And he could clear this up so quickly if he wanted to. That's why everyone thinks there's something there, is the way he's responding to it and dealing with it.

LEMON: How could he clear it up so quickly?

DEAN: Well, he could say, listen, anybody on my staff who's even hinted at being involved in this will testify in front of any form, any grand jury, talk to any FBI agent, all documents will be made available, if there are any documents. Explain what happened to Flynn. Why they didn't move faster. Why it took a leak in the Washington Post. I mean, respond, react to these things. Rather than just try to make them go away and divert attention.

LEMON: And by not doing that, you say it gives the impression, at least, that there is something to hide.

[22:05:02] DEAN: It certainly does.

LEMON: Yes.

DEAN: It is cover-up 101.

LEMON: You have served in the role as White House counsel to Nixon. You served during Watergate and I want to get your reaction to something the White House counsel, Don McGahn, asked Sally Yates in one of their meetings according to Sally Yates. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YATES: One of the questions that Mr. McGahn asked me when I went back over the second day was essentially, why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another White House official?

And so, we explained to him it was a whole lot more than that and went back over the same concerns that we had raised with them the prior day, that the concern first about the underlying conduct, itself, that he had lied to the vice president and others, the American public had been misled and then importantly that every time this lie was repeated, and the misrepresentations were getting more and more specific as they were coming out, every time that happened, it increased the compromise.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: OK. So, according to her, White House Counsel Don McGahn, asked why would the DOJ be concerned if one White House official lied to another? Is that the right question to be asking?

DEAN: Well, it's an odd question. It looks like he was searching for what the underlying crime or activity or interest of the Justice Department was in a poorly phrased question. If it's the way it came in. But not being privy to the conversation we don't really know. That's her best memory of it. The way the conversation started, anyway.

And it sounds like he was probing to find out how serious they were, had he lied to the FBI. She didn't get any responses to that and where this thing might go. And all she was doing was trying to alert them to the fact that there is a problem here. You have somebody who is dissembling apparently to your staff and the vice president in turn is taking that information and making it public.

LEMON: Yes. If you were getting, you know, in your role, if you were getting a red flag like this from the acting attorney general about the national security adviser, what would you do with that information?

DEAN: Well, you know, I vetted a lot of people. We didn't -- we had trouble with Watergate, but we didn't have any trouble with our vetting and they were very thorough and we reacted to this sort of thing. Nixon was something of a stickler on these kinds of issues. These small things were big things to him. He was somebody who wanted all of this staff to be clean as a whistle.

Notwithstanding the criminality that later occurred with Watergate. Conflict of interests, ethics violations and things like that. They were few and far between in the Nixon White House because of the process that we followed.

LEMON: Do you believe Michael Flynn could be prosecuted, Mr. Dean?

DEAN: Well, you know, that question indirectly came up today. Senator -- a couple senators asked questions, were probing as to whether there was a criminal investigation going on and whether he had committed various crimes, lying to the FBI, and whether he had committed a crime for taking money from Russia as an ex-officer without getting clearance, and they went through the whole litany.

So she didn't answer directly but there certainly appears like there's a prima fascia case here. This man is entitled to due process. We shouldn't convict him in the court of public opinion. We don't have all the facts. We don't know his side of the story. But it certainly looks like a crime or crimes, if you will.

LEMON: You were talking about transparency and said the president could clear this up, you know, right away if he put everyone out there involved with it, we have nothing to hide.

So, my question is, is he getting sound advice from his counsel based on everything we heard today and would it help if he even just admitted that Russians influenced the election? Because he won't even admit that.

DEAN: That would be a wonderful first start. Why he keeps stiffing this issue and refusing to accept it is something of a mystery. What he could do is what Gerald Ford did or when he took over or the way Jimmy Carter handled scandals during his presidency and that was to open the doors.

Say, come and talk to anybody on my staff, put them under oath, if necessary, and cooperate. So Trump is just doing the opposite and he's doing -- I don't know who's advising him on these things or anybody.

LEMON: Yes. You think he's getting good advice?

DEAN: I don't think he is. I don't -- his counsel is a campaign law specialist but he has built a very strong office. The White House Counsel's Office has some very good lawyers. People who left much higher paying jobs to go into government and they didn't do it to get themselves in trouble in that White House.

[22:09:56] So, there are people in there who know what to do in these situations so hopefully he draws on the best of them to get his advice.

LEMON: So then what does that say about -- you said they didn't go there to, what did you say, to do thing -- anything...

(CROSSTALK)

DEAN: Get in trouble.

LEMON: To get in trouble. OK. So then what does that say about them? They're not...

(CROSSTALK)

DEAN: Well, it may be that the way the White House -- the White House counsel has always been something of a middle-level staff person. Only rarely have White House counsel had direct access to the president. They have to go through the chief of staff or some other staffing system.

And that may be the case here, that these people who know what to do are not being called on and they're not able to get their ideas into the president through the staffing system. I don't know what's happening. This White House we still know little about. I just know from the announcements that have been made that they put together a very strong office for the White House Counsel's Office.

LEMON: But it could it be that they know something that, you know, maybe that they don't...

(CROSSTALK)

DEAN: Well, that's, of course, the question. The way he's handling it. The way he handles everything is to deny, to say it's all fake news, anything that's bad news is not to be believed. And I just think that's the wrong way. You're not going to make this go away by denials that are conspicuously off the mark.

LEMON: Yes.

DEAN: So it's just odd, Don, the way to try to make it go away.

LEMON: There is a, I know you are but what am I aspect to the way this White House conducts itself when it comes to these matters. Thank you, Mr. Dean, I appreciate it.

DEAN: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: When we come back, why Sally Yates said the problems with Flynn went way beyond lying to the vice president.

[22:15:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Revealing testimony about a former acting Attorney General Sally Yates telling a Senate subcommittee that she alerted the White House that President Trump's first national security adviser Michael Flynn, General Michael Flynn, could be blackmailed by the Russians.

I want to bring in Susan Hennessey, she's a CNN national security and legal analyst, Michael Moore, the former U.S. attorney for the middle district of Georgia. Julia Ioffe is a senior writer for the Atlantic, and Michael Isikoff, the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo news.

Good evening. So good to have all of you on to have all your expertise. Susan, I'm going to start with you because there's a lot to discuss here from the hearing. Let's listen a little bit then we'll talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YATES: The first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself. Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn't true.

And we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: OK. So Susan, when Sally Yates testified today that the "underlying conduct," and that's in quotes, "underlying conduct," of the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, was problematic in and of itself, that it was more than just him lying to the vice president, that's key, right?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right, so this is actually -- it seems like such an old story at this point, but we seem to forget that this actually -- President Trump wasn't president yet. This was in the transition period, and so in this period of time we

have sort of a one president at a time rule, where it's considered highly inappropriate, if not a technical violation of something called the Logan Act, for a private citizen, which is what Michael Flynn was at that point, to be having those kinds of communications with a foreign government.

So that's one element of why the underlying contact is problematic. The other piece is the substantive offer, right, why was the Trump administration, representatives of the Trump administration, offering to lift sanctions or undercut sanctions that the Obama administration had just applied in order to counter really, really serious interference in the U.S. election?

LEMON: OK. Michael Isikoff, so Sally Yates warned the White House counsel about Michael Flynn, President Obama warned then incoming President Donald Trump about hiring Michael Flynn in that first meeting that they met in the Oval Office. Why do you believe all of these warnings appear to have been ignored?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Well, for one thing, we don't know to the answer -- the answer to the supreme number-one question in all this, which is if Michael Flynn was talking to the Russian ambassador about possibly lifting sanctions that president -- then-president Obama had just imposed, was he authorized to do that by then-president-elect Trump? Did he brief then-president-elect Trump on those conversations?

And until we know the answer to that, it's hard to evaluate everything else including how Don McGahn as the White House Counsel was responding to all this because if this was coming from the very top, it puts an entirely different cast on everything that took place after that.

And that's why today's testimony in many ways just ratchets up the pressure and the questions that go to the White House and the president himself.

LEMON: Julia, listen, listen to what Michael just said. The White House Counsel, Don McGahn, asked why it was concerning to the DOJ if one White House official lied to another. She explained that Flynn was compromised. If the White House was looking at this as more of an internal administrative matter, does that raise concerns about the White House judgment at the time?

JULIA IOFFE, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Well, it seems like they're saying, you know what, this is our turf, you stay on your turf, but it is really interesting that he seemed to be implying that it's actually kind of OK that if, you know, just we'll resolve it or we won't resolve it, but it's our own issue, it's our dirty laundry, you stay out of this.

And it seems like he wasn't going to do anything about it or as Susan has pointed out, or he had no influence with President Trump, that he couldn't take this up to him and say, you know, this is what DOJ is saying, what do you think? LEMON: Michael Moore, does this speak to judgment for you?

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: I lost you on part of that, Don.

LEMON: Does this speak to judgment at the White House?

MOORE: Yes, absolutely, absolutely it speaks to judgment. I mean, I've said this all along, I got a real question and I think it defies all reason to think that the inner circle of the White House didn't know what was going on.

[22:20:05] But let -- let me kind of jump to one thing. I spent a lot of time today talking about the travel ban as opposed to talking about the judgment and the process within the White House. I think that makes -- this administration has been a master at directing the news cycle and in this case, what they're able to do is talked to Sally Yates on the 25th, they brought her in on the 26th, they talked to her on the 27th then on the 30th they got rid of her.

They got rid of her under this guise she was against them on the travel ban, a ban that we all agree has been pushed out White House without much preparation without any kind of instruction to the field. So I think it might have been a way at the same time for them to manipulate the dialogue, change the cycle a little bit.

At the same time, I mean, I think it justifies reason to think that the White House counsel was not talking to the chief of staff or on up the line.

LEMON: Well, it's interesting to me because we learned that the White House let the national security adviser serve while he was compromised and there should have been, correct me if I'm wrong, some probationary period, and yet we're talking about, they were directing, as you said, to talk about a travel ban and also some concerns were why are they talking about leaking, which if there wasn't a leak, then we may not have known about Michael Flynn?

MOORE: Well, I think, I think that's a big reason we ought to be talking about independent counsel and an independent investigation. I mean, it would sort of take away the tarnishing of partisanship in this thing, and we can actually get on to talking about what happened to our democracy, what happened in the election, are there ties that shouldn't be there to the Russians?

LEMON: I want to read here's what President Trump tweeted in advance of today's hearing, and said about Sally Yates. We were talking about, you know, leaking and unmasking and all the things that -- secondary things as I said.

As Clapper said, important, but I think he said, secondary. "Ask Sally Yates under oath if she knows how classified information got into newspapers soon after she explained it to White House Counsel."

So what the president is implying here, he's implying that the former deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, leaked. So, you know, I hate to keep relying on you so much, Michael Moore, but you are a former U.S. attorney.

MOORE: Sure.

LEMON: If this was any other person implying this, would this be considered witness tampering?

MOORE: If it was any other person if they were implying it about, maybe so. I mean, I think, again, this is just a clear example of Trump trying to go and shift the attention of the investigation and shift the focus of what we're talking about.

I mean, he spent more time tweeting probably than he did either listening to his advisers or checking out the background of Mike Flynn as we went through this thing. So the suggestion that somehow this investigation is going to turn into Sally Yates' interpretation of the travel ban or an investigation on whether or not she talked to a news source somewhere about information I think tells us a lot about where this thing may be headed.

And, again, I don't want to ring the bell every time I get on here, but it tells us that it might be a good time for us to have an independent counsel and an independent investigation.

LEMON: You're allowed to do that, Michael. We have you here to speak to your expertise on this. Listen, this is another tweet from the president this morning.

"General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration, but fake news seldom likes talking about that." Susan, it is very important to point out here that General Flynn was fired by the Obama administration and the security clearance is different when you become national security adviser.

HENNESSEY: Right, so General Flynn held a clearance obviously while he was director of the DIA as well as during his military career. The most sort of troubling conduct and conduct that was frequently public occurred in the period after the Obama administration fired him but before Trump hired him.

So the notion that President Trump is not responsible for certainly that entire period. You know, the other sort of trying to shift responsibility for the selection of the national security adviser onto the previous president, it's a little bit strange.

There is lots of information that was available to President Trump. There was lots of information available before the inauguration. Now we know that Sally Yates and others brought even more questionable activity to his attention.

He retained -- he retained Michael Flynn, incredibly sensitive national security position. Sort of this -- it reads a lot like deflection, to sort of focus on the idea he had served in the Obama administration with a clearance.

LEMON: All right. Everyone, stick around. Michael Isikoff and Julia Ioffe, you're going to weigh in more when we come back, why was Flynn on a call between the president and Putin after the White House was warned about him?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates telling Congress she warned the White House that President Trump's first national security adviser was at risk of being blackmailed by the Russians.

Back with me now, my panel. Michael, I want to ask you about this. Michael Isikoff. President Trump is now blaming the administration when it comes to security clearance. They didn't trust President Obama, his warning about Michael Flynn. So are they trying to have it both ways here? The security clearance given by the Obama administration was good enough, but the warning given by the Obama administration was not good enough.

ISIKOFF: Right. Well, first of all, the idea that the renewal of the security clearance in 2016 was an Obama administration move, yes, it happened -- it would have been done by mid-level bureaucrats at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Hardly something that would have gone up to anybody at the political level.

And let's also remember the revelations of just last week from the house oversight committee indicating that General Flynn had not fully disclosed his payments from the Russian government through R.T. in the security clearance renewal process.

So if he got the security clearance under false pretenses by failing to report that he had gotten payments from a Russian government entity.

[22:30:00] Even after being warned that in order to accept those payments, or emoluments, he had to get preapproval from the army or the DIA, you know, it raises further questions about Flynn's conduct rather than whatever mid-level bureaucrats in the Pentagon re-approved his security clearance.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Julia, it is problematic, if you look at this picture, I'm wondering how problematic is it that the former national security adviser was in the room. We're talking about Michael Flynn, there you see him highlighted there, when President Trump spoke with Vladimir Putin on January 28th after these warnings from the DOJ.

JULIA IOFFE, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Just one second before we weigh in on that, can we just say, remember Michael Flynn standing on the stage at the republican national convention last summer and saying, if I had done a fraction of what Hillary Clinton...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: I'd be in jail.

IOFFE: I'd be in jail. And here we have him potentially lying on his clearance forms, potentially violating the Logan Act. I mean, all kinds of, at the very least, red flags, if not outright violations of the law.

LEMON: How problematic is it, though, you think, that he's there?

IOFFE: That he's on the call with Putin?

LEMON: Yes.

IOFFE: I think it's -- well, I -- it's hard to say. On one hand it's problematic because he is, you know, as Sally Yates said, potentially compromised. On the other hand, it seems like that whole inner circle -- Trump inner circle has been compromised by connections to the Russians.

So he's in there on the call, but at the same time he has been advising Trump throughout the campaign. Perhaps he is the reason for Trump's very friendly stance, very consistently friendly stance on Russia, on eliminating sanctions, on orchestrating this beautiful friendship with Vladimir Putin and the Russians.

So at that point, whether or not -- I mean, I think it is obviously problematic that he's on the call, but there is this larger, you know, to some extent, the damage has already been done.

LEMON: Michael -- Mike -- go ahead.

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: I was going to say, it's problematic, Don, because it allows Vladimir Putin to think that he has an in in the oval office. Sally Yates in her testimony today said part of the problem was that Russian knew what was going on.

And so it's problematic because it creates the perception in an enemy's mind that they've got an insider in the White House. And I think for this negotiation, any negotiation going forward, for any discussion or any conflicts that may happen around the world, that's a problematic impression that has been created because the nonsense that's gone on in this administration.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Don, can I point out, there was another piece of news that came out in this hearing today that had been a bit overlooked, but Senator Feinstein asked former DNI Director Clapper about a Guardian newspaper report that there were -- that the British intelligence -- British intelligence and other European intelligence agencies had passed along information about potentially suspicious contacts between Trump advisers and the Kremlin as early as late 2015.

She asked him, is that accurate? He -- clapper said, yes, it is accurate, but he can't discuss the details because they are quite sensitive. And I thought that was a pretty stunning acknowledgement.

It's the first public confirmation we have that there were such reports passed to U.S. intelligence that we don't know what the nature of these contacts are, we still don't, we don't know how reliable the reports are, but it is -- it does put -- give us additional contexts about one of the fundamental questions is about whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. LEMON: I want to talk about, today, about how Sally Yates conducted herself at these hearings, because she was -- you know, she had a tense moment, or some tense moments with Senator Ted Cruz and I think some people thought he may have thought it was a got you moment, or what have you. I want to play this and I want to get your response to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK KINGSTON, FORMER UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: Ted Cruz dismantled Sally Yates, showed her to be the political hack that she is and basically said this was a woman you can't really rely on. So when she goes to Don McGahn with information, it's very hard to trust, particularly when you have every motivation in the world for a Sally Yates or a Barack Obama to say something bad about General Flynn.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Susan, I want your response to that first and then I want Michael to weigh in, because Michael, you know Sally Yates. But Susan, what do you make of that, of Jack's response?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Look, Sally Yates has had an honorable and storied career as a career prosecutor in the Justice Department for 27 years. The notion that she's a political hack is something that would strike most people, both republicans and democrats, as just patently absurd.

[22:34:54] You know, I thought she conducted herself really quite well. You know, we talked earlier about sort of the president's tweets implying that maybe she leaked classified information. She was asked that question. She gave an unequivocal no, I'm not the source of that information, I haven't had contact with the press.

She was very clear in her rationale. She was very careful in her protection of classified information. So really I think she conducted herself rather well, quite honorably and clearly very difficult circumstances.

LEMON: Michael Moore?

MOORE: Yes, Sally handled herself like a pro. She is that. She's conscientious and professional. I think the only schooling that happened was she schooled Senator Cruz on how to read the statute and the fact he needs to read both parts of a statute as opposed to just picking out one and reading it out of context.

I think you can see she's had an honorable career. And what she did is she followed through on what she pledged to do during her confirmation hearing and that was to stand up to a president if the president ordered her as deputy attorney general at the time, of course, she was acting attorney general, but if the president ordered her to do something that she felt like was wrong or illegal, and so she did that and ultimately then she lost her job because she did exactly what the now present attorney general, Attorney General Sessions, asked her to do when he was a sitting senator. So I applaud her for that. I think that you can take this and spin it

any way you want to and people can say folks are hacks and, you know, and here again, I'll take my liberty of here a few seconds to ring my bell again and say if they think every democratic appointee is a hack, then let's have a special counsel.

An independent counsel, that can move forward in this investigation in a way where we can take all that tarnishing aside and we can get to the bottom of what happened with the Trump campaign, Trump's advisers, and ultimately the Russians.

LEMON: Thank you, panel. I appreciate it.

When we come back, the Russian investigation has the White House on the defense. How the president is responding tonight.

[22:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right. Has the hiring and then the firing of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser affected Donald Trump's presidency?

Let's discuss now with historian Jon Meacham, the author of "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House." Thank you, sir. Always a pleasure. So let's discuss now.

Earlier today, we learned that during their meeting in the Oval Office, two days after the election, that President Obama warned then- president-elect Trump against hiring Michael Flynn, and as we know, the president dismissed President Obama's warning, but what if Trump had been inclined or capable of taking president Obama's advice?

Would this presidency be going in a very different direction right now? Because I think that was sort of the first thing to happen was announcing that Michael Flynn had to -- was fired.

JON MEACHAM, HISTORIAN & AUTHOR: Yes. Well, I think that if President Obama wanted to give job security to Michael Flynn, he couldn't have found a better way to do it. You know, by telling Trump not to do something. Particularly about someone so close to him. I suspect that that had a boomerang effect.

And I think that one of the fascinating questions right now is what did Trump know and when did Trump know it? Which is the old formulation of Howard Baker's question about Watergate. To what extent was Flynn a free agent in talking to Russia, to what extent was any kind of Russian influence an ambient reality around the campaign and the transition?

And then those first number of days when Flynn was in office. Remember, we would not be standing here -- sitting here talking about this if arguably the story had not been reported. It wasn't the underlying facts that drove Flynn out of office. It was the leaking of those facts into the media.

LEMON: Even though this administration knew from the prior administration the problems with Michael Flynn. Listen, so, listen, a top Senate judiciary hearing today, democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse brought up Watergate in relationship to this investigation and had this to say. I want you to listen.

MEACHAM: OK.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: We need a more thorough accounts of the facts. Many years ago, an 18-minute gap transfixed the country and got everybody's attention in another investigation.

In this case, we have an 18-day gap between the notification of the White House that a senior official had potentially been compromised and action taken against that senior official's role.

At best, the Trump administration has displayed serious errors of judgment, at worst, these irregularities may reflect efforts that compromise more corruption at the hands of Russian intelligence. My sincere hope is this hearing and those to come will help us find out. Thank you, chairman.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So that was at the top of the hearing. So what -- how would you -- or would you compare this to Watergate, Jon?

MEACHAM: Well, it's an imprecise analogy. We think, ultimately Watergate was about the President of the United States using government agencies to cover up the criminality that was in his own political operation.

And so when he was forced to resign ultimately was because he had tried to use the FBI and the CIA and all to cover up the fact that the plumbers who were supposed to plug leaks, so as Mark Twain has said to remark, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

We did have a president then who was obsessed with leaks and who wanted to control the narrative, control his government as much as possible.

I think that the central question here is what did the president know about any kind of Russian involvement in both the campaign and then during the transition? That's the first question. He's already said that it's a ruse, that it's fake news. He has gone remarkably far in trying to say that, in fact, he's not even sure Russia did the hacking, which the intelligence community unanimously, and as you know, you can't get anything unanimous in government, says happened.

[22:44:58] So one of the things that he's -- one of the reasons we continue to have this conversation is he has not been clear about what he knew and whether General Flynn was a free agent or whether he was talking to the president or other people around the president about the Russia connection.

LEMON: Yes. Listen, no matter what, how much damage control this White House tries to do, they can't really get anything -- they can't escape all this Russia stuff.

MEACHAM: Yes.

LEMON: Is it just beyond their control now, you think?

MEACHAM: Well, to some extent. I mean, the great question here, and I think we've talked about this before, I think, to me, the Russia story is a great test for what some people have called the post-truth era. That is, you know, if we were on another network right now, I suspect that they would be having a different view of what happened in those hearings and what was discovered and learned today.

Is, in fact, are, in fact, is the country able to take on facts to agree to those common facts and then make a decision about the conduct of the president? There are basically President Trump has made a significant bet both as a candidate and now as a president that he can speak to his base. He can tell his base what is true and what is not true and that they will be with him and that if there's a contrary fact, he simply dismisses it. No matter how self-evidently true.

And I think this a hugely important -- I don't mean to be too grand about it, but a hugely important political and cultural moment for the republic, itself. Can we have conversations, can we have a public life where we agree on when it's dark, it's night, and when it's light, it's day? And right now -- right now there's a lot of dusk.

LEMON: Unless you're in an alternative universe.

MEACHAM: Yes.

LEMON: But don't you think, though, even when I speak to some people who are Donald Trump supporters when they come on the show they'll say one thing on camera then another thing off camera.

MEACHAM: Yes.

LEMON: You can't get them to say it on camera because they just will -- you know when people say, hey, if you ever say this, I'll deny it to the very end. But don't you think at the end of the day or deep down people really know the truth, they just don't want to admit it because it would cause some sort of cognitive dissidence where their world would be thrown out of whack. They have to know the truth. They're just denying it.

MEACHAM: Yes. If you take one card out of the house of cards, does it collapse? I think you're right and I think you're exactly right about -- every presidency is like that. Everyone will sort of take on the -- people in political life like a lot of us take on the coloration of the person they're talking to, right?

Salesmen do this. Pastors do this. Political people do it. And so there's always some, you know, yes, I know that -- you know, I agree with you, you the commentator, you the reporter, who's being somewhat adversarial.

But this is that phenomena on steroids. LEMON: Yes.

MEACHAM: And everybody lives in terror of not praising the president to the skies. Look at the tape of the house rally in the Rose Garden last week about the health care bill. You know, it was almost as though they'd all gotten the order at once about extravagantly praise the president and then talk about what you've done to one-sixth of the economy. Extravagant...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Yes. I got to go.

MEACHAM: Yes.

LEMON: I got to go. Thank you. We get your point. We'll see you soon. Thank you, Jon Meacham. I appreciate it.

MEACHAM: Got it.

LEMON: When we come back, President Trump is blaming the former president for his problems with Michael Flynn who's ultimately responsible for the Flynn scandal? We're going to discuss.

[22:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates saying under oath today that she warned the Trump administration that Michael Flynn was at risk of being blackmailed by the Russians. But the White is pointing the finger of blame at the Obama administration, so here is what Sean Spicer said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, UNITED STATES WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The security clearance that he had had been reapproved in April of that year. And they took, not only did they reapprove it, but they took no steps to suspend it. So the question has to be what did they do if they had real concerns beyond just not having, you know, not liking him for some of the comments that he made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So I want to bring in now CNN political commentaries Brian Fallon, the former press secretary for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign; and Jack Kingston, the former senior adviser to the Trump campaign.

Good evening, gentlemen. Brian, you first. President Trump argues that the onus is on the Obama administration for renewing Michael Flynn's security clearance. Is that how it works?

BRIAN FALLON, FORMER HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN PRESS SECRETARY: It's a crazy argument. It's not clear to me what else the Obama administration could have done. I mean, first of all they fired the guy. Secondly, it came out today that President Obama during the transition specifically urged Donald Trump to cut the guy loose and Donald Trump went ahead and made him national security adviser anyway.

And then, you know, after Sally Yates raised this flag to Don McGahn, the White House Counsel, they kept in place for 18 days. They can't blame that on Barack Obama. So what's the basis here at this point for the Trump administration not to just acknowledge this was a bad hire?

I mean, he lied to the Vice President, Mike Pence. You'd think Donald Trump would side with his vice president over this guy that was a bad actor and that Barack Obama warned was a bad actor. The only -- the only suspicion I have as to why they continue to cover for Mike Flynn and make excuses for him is that Michael Flynn wasn't just operating as a free agent when he spoke to the Russian ambassador in late December.

LEMON: And that's an assumption.

FALLON: yes.

LEMON: But Jack, the question is should President Trump have listened -- or President-elect Trump have listened to President Obama?

KINGSTON: I think it would be very difficult for him to do that at that particular time. Even now as a matter of fact and I could tell you why. I sat down with former opponents and sometimes giving them advice and sometimes hard from them and you just don't know what you can really trust.

I mean, just because he's president of the United States in the Oval Office and the election is over doesn't mean everything from here on now is going to be totally transparent. I think there's just going to be a natural leeriness and I'd say that leeriness went on to Ms. Yates from probably the same story...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Jack, Jack, leery about what? What did you -- don't you think they're showing them the information? Don't you think they're giving him classified information about this? What would you be leery about. If someone comes and whispered in your ear, hey, Jack, I want to -- this isn't that.

This is information that acting attorney general...

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: Well, I'll tell you.

LEMON: ... who is appointed by a republican and you have the president of the United States. That's not someone who's just repeating rumors about someone.

KINGSTON: Well, yes. But here's what she said. She said that he did not tell the truth to Mike pence and that Mike pence was using this information, therefore and for right to information and that the Russians knew that Flynn had lied to the vice president.

[22:55:00] LEMON: Yes.

KINGSTON: Now you know that's a lot different than saying good gosh, you realize he's selling nuclear secrets out the back door.

You know, he lied to the vice president and that is certainly something that you want to get rid of. But I think all this trauma that the democrats are having is a little bit hyper ventilated and still not getting over the election.

I think frankly what the president did with this he shifted, he started shifting from somebody who was a loyal soldier in many respects on the campaign trail to a friend and confident and realized, you know what, this is serious.

LEMON: OK.

KINGSTON: Not ready to act on it quite yet but I have my eye on this guy. I think he had to digest and that's what our friends do.

LEMON: I want Brian o get in. But listen, for this administration she wasn't appointed by a republican but she had been before. She had worked for both republican and democrat administration. Go ahead, Brian, what do you want to say.

FALLON: And that's an excellent point, Don. You know, going into today the White House's clear strategy was to try to smear Sally Yates to try to describe her as some kind of partisan when she'd spent 27 years as a apolitical career prosecutor in the middle district of Georgia's U.S. attorney's office.

And I know Jack probably will have a different opinion on this since he's a Trump supporter. But if you look at what other Georgia republicans...

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: To some are Georgians.

FALLON: If you look at what other Georgia republicans have said throughout her career...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: She's from Atlanta as well.

FALLON: She wouldn't be where she is say, Bob Barr conservative and a former a colleague of yours hadn't hired her when he was U.S. attorney down there in Georgia.

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: But Brian...

FALLON: And both senators, republican Senators Isakson and Chambliss supported her for deputy attorney general.

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: OK. One question, Brian. Why would...

FALLON: He made strong statement endorsing her as an independent prosecutor because that's what she is.

KINGSTON: OK. Why is the Democrat Party trying to recruit her to run as a democrat for governor and not the Republican Party if she's such a neutral objective above the fray for person? Why isn't the Republican Party taking to her and why isn't she consider in lending this republican because she's not. She's a democrat.

LEMON: Can we get back to the...

(CROSSTALK)

FALLON: Jack, I think you saw today with her performance that she turned in, that sterling performance where got better of Ted Cruz. It was important. She defeat everybody. She out lawyered Ted Cruz came in so smugly...

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: Ted Cruz dismantled her. She...

FALLON: I don't know what hearing you were watching, Jack, but she, the performance that she gave today...

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: I'll talk forward for it. Ted Cruz...

FALLON: The performance that she gave today under fire from those republicans that were trying to change the subject on her and make it all about the travel ban. That is why a lot of people think that she would be a very attractive political candidate but I heard nothing that suggest that she is actually conspiring it.

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: The only thing...

FALLON: I think she should be the next attorney general for whoever the next democratic president.

LEMON: OK, guys, wrap it up because I have to go.

KINGSTON: Let me say, one thing, Don, I want you to remember. The hearing today, Ms. Susan Rice, I hope she will show up, I don't know what she's hiding. That's very important. Another opportunity lost by the democrats...

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Jack, listen to me. Susan today was not -- the hearing today was not about Susan Rice. The hearing today was about Russia and possible collusion.

KINGSTON: Which is Susan Rice is all about and how Sally Yates did warned the White House. It did nothing to do with Susan Rice. That is a complete destruction that's not true. Don't do that, Jack. That's not fair.

(CROSSTALK)

KINGSTON: That's true.

LEMON: Thank you. When we come back...

KINGSTON: Another day without any...

LEMON: ... I'm going to speak to a senator who questioned Sally Yates today and get her thoughts on the hearing.

[23:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)