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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS

Lawyers Research for Impeachment . Aired 10-11p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 22:00   ET

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


[22:00:00] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: The CNN special report WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS starts right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: This is a CNN special report, WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS.

After a devastating week for the Trump administration, tonight, a new borage of breaking news in the Russia investigation unfolding within the last few hours.

I'm Jim Sciutto.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: And I'm Pamela Brown.

And as the president begins his first overseas trip, CNN is learning that his legal team is starting to prepare for the possibility of impeachment.

SCIUTTO: Here's what we know at this hour. Breaking just a short while ago, exclusive new CNN reporting on fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his Russia connections. Our sources say that Russian officials bragged during the presidential campaign that they cultivated such a strong relationship with Flynn, that they could use him to influence Mr. Trump and his team.

Also breaking, fired FBI Director James Comey has agreed to testify in an open public session of the Senate intelligence committee he will appear sometime after Memorial Day. It will be the first time we heard directly from Comey since his ouster.

This as the New York Times reports that Mr. Trump told two top Russian officials inside the Oval Office that Comey was, quote, "a real nut job" and that letting him go eased the great pressure he faced because of the Russia probe.

With the gravity of the situation builds, the special counsel investigation begins. CNN has learned that White House lawyers have informally started researching impeachment procedures. In case that becomes a reality.

BROWN: We are covering all of this late breaking stories with our team of correspondents and analysts. First, let's go to Evan Perez, our CNN justice correspondent. Evan, you broke the story about preparations underway for possible impeachment. What have you learned?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela, we've learned that the White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures, and this is simply an effort to prepare for what officials still believe is a distant and unlikely possibility that the president would have to fend off attempts to remove him from office.

Now two people briefed on the discussion tells CNN that the research efforts are informal and are being done out of abundance of caution. The White House officials believe that the president has the backing of republican allies in Congress and that impeachment is not in the cards according to people briefed on these legal discussions.

We should note that even democrats have tried the calm impeachment talk this week out of concern that it is premature, but lawyers in White House counsel's office have consulted experts in impeachment and have begun collecting information on how such proceedings would work.

Now we reached out to the White House earlier, at first they said they wouldn't comment and now they have said that this report is actually not true. They said that the White House lawyers have not been researching impeachment.

BROWN: OK. But your reporting is that it has, the White House has been reaching out to outside lawyers in this research.

PEREZ: Yes.

BROWN: But what about the president? Does he now need to hire an outside lawyer?

PEREZ: Well, that's the discussion that's actually happening right now in the White House. It's a broader internal effort to bolster the president's legal defense which has become frankly more complicated with the Justice Department's appointment of a special counsel to pursue the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Earlier this week, close advisers to the president including two lawyers who serve as surrogates for the president, Michael Cohen and Jay Sekulow visited the White House to discuss his need possibly to hire personal lawyers then.

BROWN: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much for that. And it's clear, Gloria, from the exclusive reporting that Evan has is the developments this week has clearly influenced the White House's step that its taking to reach out about research. But the dems, the democrats haven't really been that outspoken.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

BROWN: About the idea of impeachment. Why so?

BORGER: Well, why get in the way of a bad story for the White House when they can just sit back and let the story take its course. As we seem to see a new story every day and every hour. And so, their point is, that if they sit back, they can say look, this is not a partisan investigation. These are not partisan issues. These are issues that the whole country should be thinking about. And right now at least, although the base is clamoring for more noise.

I think the smart political move for them and they believe this, is the smart political move is to sit back and let the story take its course.

BROWN: And what are you hearing on Capitol Hill, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting to hear the republican reaction. Of course, no one in the republican side is saying impeachment, but when you ask them, I talked to a lot of republicans I ask them specifically about concerns about obstruction of justice, concerns about what James Comey apparently wrote in his memo suggesting that President Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn.

They are concerned about that. They say that -- I've asked a number of members, do you think the president may have obstructed the justice? Do you think he may have interfered his investigation? They're saying I don't know. Possibly, and yes, I'm concerned.

Even the second member to republican in the Senate John Cornyn said I'm concern and I want to get to the bottom of it. So now that the special counsel has been named, that's an area where clearly that this investigation is going to go. And if it does reveal something that can suggest the president interfered, then you can see the tight shifting significantly on Capitol Hill.

[22:05:03] BROWN: That's sure of, really.

SCIUTTO: Early this week, particularly with the special counsel and a lot of these revelations, it's the first time that I've heard from republicans on the Hill, a certain level of nervousness. I haven't but one early in the week republican lawmakers described this as a wide eyed reaction to this news. I'm curious if you're hearing a ratcheting up of that nervousness.

RAJU: Absolutely, Jim. And the Russia collusion story I think for a lot of republicans, they don't, they are not convinced that it's there yet. They see the smoke, they're not sure there is fire. But now that the president seems to be directly involved, potentially interfering with this investigation. It raises to a new whole level for their part.

(CROSSTALK)

PEREZ: It goes back...

BROWN: It's interesting I was just talking to a source at the Department of Justice source who said this week feels different. There has been this steady drum beat of Trump, Russia, but this week feels different.

PEREZ: I think that is exactly right. I think one of the things that happens in this types of stories, I mean, it's the old adage, right? It's not the crime, it's the cover up and this is what we're beginning to see these concerns that there perhaps might have been an effort at a cover up. At least pam handed one. Because for God's sake, you know, it's filling out into the newspapers page.

SCIUTTO: David Axelrod, I want to ask you, because a reality check perhaps. Because yes, enormous developments this week, I mean, Jesus, enormous develops in the last, you know, two hours, two, three hours. But we're not there yet, right?

I mean, there is a lot of smoke here, but even investigators that Pam and I speak with and Evan and Manu on the Hill say they haven't established, for instance, hard evidence of collusion. Tell us where we are not at yet in terms of the possibility of impeachment or danger for the administration.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, first of all, let me just say as someone who worked in the White House, I mean, we never experienced anything like this, but it's -- you know, Washington and the media environment explodes on you and it's hard to know where you are and keep your feet on the ground and orient yourself.

Because everything seems like the decisive event. There's a lot of distance to go on the story. What, for example, happens if Mueller who everybody sees as a paragon of integrity said at the end of this process that there were no crimes committed and closes the books on it or the crimes that were committed were not related to collusion.

The president claims vindication and he moves on. Now I think it's going to be very uncomfortable for him in the interim, but right now you look at this polling. He has taken a hit primarily among independent voters, but his base is holding right now. And probably will for some time.

So I think it's easy to overreact to it. I think the big question is, what he does. The fact of the matter is many of the stories have been brought on by the president's own indiscretions, his own inability to control himself.

What is he going to do, for example, when Jim Comey testifies after Memorial Day? Is he going to stay silent or is he going to grab his phone and start tweeting, is he going to do an interview, or is he going to speak to an ally and drop some thoughts on this, on them that becomes a story?

So he has been his worst enemy in this matter. He has exponentially increased his exposure and raises the saliency of the story. The story is, does he have it within himself to just shut up?

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Well, it is, it's going to be...

PEREZ: We haven't seen that, yes.

SCIUTTO: ... a remarkable moment when you have Comey there in effect and we expect him to publicly contradicting the president.

I want to go to you, Laura Coates, former federal prosecutor, on this key question of obstruction of justice. Looking at it now is there evidence based on what you've seen and heard?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The pendulum certainly have shifted in the direction of obstruction of justice. And remember, obstruction is a speaking-based crime primarily. The things that you are saying it actually define your conduct and demonstrate whether you are trying to intimidate or interfere or meddle with in some way or say anything to undermine the ability of the investigation to go forward.

And so what you are seeing here is a pattern of speech by the president that gives the contextual clues that makes prosecutors salivate. And the reasons that it's rare that you will have the low hanging fruit, we talk about a smoking gun in terms of evidence, well, you've smoking tweets here, you've got smoking statements that happen every hour on the hour either defiantly as a knee-jerk response or in its effort to defend himself in some interview.

But either way, you've got the possibilities coming together saying listen, we didn't have low hanging fruit before. We didn't have the direct evidence. Now we've got statements that are being made that show that it's not about double-talk whether you fired Comey because of the political motivation or to impede the rest of the Russian investigation or for a benign reason.

[22:10:01] But that pendulum keep shifting back towards that very high bar of obstruction of justice when you have more indications of actual intent to do precisely what was done.

SCIUTTO: Right. It may have come from the president's own public statements and tweets as you say.

COATES: Right.

SCIUTTO: Listen, at home, I'm sure you are having trouble keeping up because there are so many headlines. But I want to give you more details on another breaking news story tonight.

And that is multiple sources telling myself, Pamela Brown, Gloria Borger here that Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated such a strong relationship with former Trump adviser Michael Flynn that they believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team.

The conversations deeply concerning U.S. intelligence officials that even impacted what intelligence the incoming administration was privy to because some Obama intelligence officials acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn himself.

Pamela, you've been following this story for some time. We're learning new details as well about the conversations that Flynn had with the Russians. Specifically the Russian ambassador.

BROWN: Right. Of course, that call in December that you recall, and one major concern was the subject of those conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place shortly after President Obama slapped new sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election. And sources tell us that Flynn told Kislyak that the Trump

administration would look favorably on the decision by Russia to hold off on retaliating with his own sanctions. And then the next day as you recall, Putin said that he wouldn't retaliate.

And sources also say that Flynn told Kislyak that the incoming Trump administration would revisit U.S. sanctions on Russia once in office. So, all of this adding to concern when the transition was underway.

As we know, Trump has angrily denied any collusion with Russia this week. He denounced this newest investigation now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller as a witch-hunt.

Gloria Borger joins us and you also have reporting and reaction of Obama administration officials when these conversations were picked up.

BORGER: Well, you can imagine that the sirens went off, Pamela. I mean, one former official told me that the way the Russians were talking about Flynn was regarded as a five-alarm fire from early on. Because the Russian's conversation indicated they regarded Flynn as their friend, sources told us.

Officials cautioned us, however, that the Russians might have been exaggerating their sway with Trump's team during those conversations.

SCIUTTO: So we reach out of course at the White House and to General Flynn. What have been the reactions to our reporting tonight?

BROWN: Well, General Flynn's attorney declined to comment. The White House says look, there is no evidence of collusion. You have top Obama officials say the same. But it's important to point out here, we are not saying that there was collusion, only that there were these conversations and that did catch the attention of people within the U.S. Intel community.

SCIUTTO: One thing that has been remarkable throughout this is that President Trump remained loyal to General Flynn. Of course he did fire him. But, you know, after a lot of very hard warning signals and we are hearing that even maintained some loyalty to him.

BORGER: Right. And we were told at the time that Donald Trump was the last person on board with the firing. And you know, we know from the Comey memo that we learned about this week that the president apparently although he denies this, that Comey memorialized in his notes that the president wanted him to shut down the Flynn investigation. So yes, he remains very loyal to Michael Flynn.

SCIUTTO: David Gergen, we have the advantage, it's always an advantage to have you but the particular advantage that you served multiple administrations going back to Nixon time, you served the Clinton administration before their impeachment challenge.

Place this in some context for us. The current state of this White House, a special counsel and leaks from inside the building legal challenges. How does this rate comparing it to the experience of the Clinton administration and the Nixon administration. Are we at that level now?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think we are well beyond what the Clinton administration was. No one thought that Bill Clinton would ever leave office, even though there was impeachment proceedings. But he clearly wasn't going to succeed in the Senate.

And I think there were a lot of people who thought that it was overreached by the Republican Party to go after him that way. But there are similarities to the Nixon experience that I think only get more obvious as time goes on. And that is the deepening crisis inside the White House itself.

Senator Corker, the republican senator from Tennessee said this week that the administration was in a downward spiral. You know, that's probably got a lot steeper today.

What we're seeing, Jim, I think as we haven't seen this since the Nixon administration, is that the White House itself has lost control of the narrative. You know, they are no longer able to tell their story because it's so drowned out by this cascade of leaks that are coming out and things the president has said or done that he shouldn't have done.

[22:14:59] You know, he'd been so much wiser not to have done. But just look at today while they were in the air leaving the United States going to Saudi Arabia, that long flight, you know, they are landing in the midst of even more chaos and more uncertainty in a story that overwhelms what they are doing in Saudi Arabia.

That is not a good spot for a president to be. It's a very dangerous place to be even as a growing number of people in the country wonder whether Trump himself is a danger to the country.

SCIUTTO: David Axelrod, one of the ironies here, is that some of the most debilitating leaks are coming from not from the intelligence community, from the deep state, et cetera, but from inside Donald Trump's own White House.

AXELROD: Yes. Well, this speaks to the dysfunctionality that we have seen for moments since. You have a White House filled with factions and people who are uncertain about their future in the White House. And people without long histories of association with Donald Trump who don't feel that deep sense of loyalty to him.

And the result of that has been really an unprecedented array of leaks and the kinds of things that have been leaking out from White House sources. It's quite phenomenal. And if I'm a Trump, I'm feeling very, very isolated and very alone in my own White House as a result of all of that. Just adds to the sense of crisis and besiegement.

One point I want to make about the Flynn matter, though, Jim, is that when you -- the report you guys did tonight helped explain the story that came out a couple of weeks ago about the fact that President Obama felt he should warn Donald Trump not to appoint Michael Flynn as national security adviser in that first meeting at the White House. It was obviously an admonition that president-elect Trump dismissed.

But I don't think that was an idle warning on the part of President Obama. He obviously was privy to the intelligence and he -- it feels like to me was trying to give Trump an honest recommendation here that this would only be trouble for him and of course it turned out to be.

SCIUTTO: And of course that was followed by Sally Yates's warning we know that went to the White House counsel later even after the inauguration.

BROWN: Exactly. All right. Well, just ahead, new information about Jim Comey's mindset and his attempts to cope with what he saw as interference by President Trump.

[22:20:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: And we are back with the CNN special report WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS.

We are following a lot of breaking news tonight including new word that fired FBI Director James Comey has agreed to testify in an open hearing in the Senate intelligence committee.

A big question tonight as we go through all of this breaking news, what is the mind set of James Comey as he prepares to talk publicly for the first time since we learned that he wrote memos about his meeting with the president and Mr. Trump's alleged attempts to pressure him.

CNN's chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here. And you're learning from your sources, Gloria, about Comey's mind set.

BORGER: As are you. As are you, right, both reporting. I think when Comey first started hearing from the president and first met with him, he memorialized everything. And I think what we are learning is that at that point James Comey thought he was dealing with the president and an administration who just didn't understand the protocols of how to deal with these kinds of legal issues.

And I was told by a source that in fact the FBI director thought that he could teach them. And that they would perhaps learn about the right way to deal with these kinds of investigation.

However, I was also told as for you, Pamela, that after Comey was fired, the question of the president's intent became a bit more problematic.

BROWN: That perhaps the president was trying to influence him.

BORGER: Exactly.

BROWN: And you know, it makes you wonder, I don't mean to cut you there, but it just makes you wonder, Gloria, you know, I know in retrospect, hindsight 20/20 obviously, but why didn't he flag this to Congress? Why did people...

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Well, first of all, he wasn't sure what it was. Number one.

BROWN: Yes.

BORGER: This is what I've been told. But number two, I was also told that what is he going to do when he is not sure what he's dealing with. Go to Congress. And Manu, you can talk about this. Go to all these people on the Hill and they are going to leak about it. Comey is familiar with leaks from Capitol Hill as we all know. And I think that was one of the reasons he didn't do it.

PEREZ: But that's his only answer, right.

RAJU: Right.

BORGER: Right.

PEREZ: That's the only answer is that I didn't smell obstruction at this point.

BORGER: Exactly.

PEREZ: Because if he -- if he said that he did, then he puts a lie to Andy McCabe who testified that he didn't see any obstruction.

BORGER: Exactly.

PEREZ: And also, it also raises the question of why he is sharing these thoughts with people outside his friends who are now leaking to the press about his thoughts and his memos. So why is, you know, why is he saying all of this stuff to people outside and not to members of Congress?

BORGER: Well, but why didn't he tell this team, it's because he was uncomfortable with what he would hear at the least.

SCIUTTO: It's going to be a remarkable moment. It's interesting to hear people who have read these memos describe them in public. That was pretty big story. But to see the former FBI director in a public hearing the Senate intelligence committee directly contradict the president. That's going to be a remarkable moment.

RAJU: And under oath, too. I mean, and everything from whether or not there was a loyalty asked by the president, whether or not the president asked him to drop the Flynn investigation which the president has now publicly denied.

PEREZ: He said three times.

BORGER: Right.

RAJU: As the president said three times he said that he was not under investigation. James Comey will be under oath and will publicly rebut him. And some of the stuff maybe...

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: And he is a witness now in this investigation.

RAJU: The question is, though, how much does Bob Mueller as a special counsel want him to say and does not want to say? I'm sure they will have discussions about him in part.

SCIUTTO: Well, Senator Chuck Grassley, he tweeted this tonight that perhaps the special counsel will not let him speak.

BORGER: Right.

BROWN: Well, obviosly there will be a lot of negotiations going on.

BORGER: Well, there are. But you know, the congressional investigation is trying to get at the truth for the American public. The prosecutor looks for criminal culpability. They have very different roles as they did during the Iran-Contra hearing. And it's very difficult to reconcile them and that is now a problem.

PEREZ: And keep in mind, keep in mind that this, you know, critics of the president might not like to hear this, but there is a legal opinion of the Justice Department that says that you cannot charge a sitting president.

[22:25:03] So, the only solution for this, if Bob Mueller finds culpability by the president and he finds that the president committed any crimes, is that he has to go to Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General and then he has to decide whether to refer that to Congress which then decides whether or not there's impeach. That's a long way away, but those are important questions that we still don't know.

BORGER: Exactly.

BROWN: And as all this news is breaking tonight, President Trump is flying to Saudi Arabia for his first overseas trip since taking office. And he's due to land soon. But there is no escaping the crisis here at home.

I want to go straight to senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta in the Saudi Capital Riyadh. And it's been a busy day to say the least. The damaging new developments, Jim, starting with that New York Times report.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

BROWN: What are you hearing from the White House?

ACOSTA: Well, the White House is just not saying a whole lot more about all of this. Besides that statement that they put out in response to that bombshell story in the New York Times that the president was talking about with the Russians how he fired the FBI Director Jim Comey to take pressure off of him during this Russia investigation. Just to remind our viewers of the extraordinary comments the president

made the White House by the way, and talked to White House officials, they are not disputing what is reported in terms of what the president said.

Here's what he said, we can put it up on screen. "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy. A real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia and that's taken off. I am not under investigation."

And then when asked to respond about all of this, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did issue a statement. And it basically accuses Comey of grandstanding and politicizing this investigation. He said, "By grandstanding and politicizing this investigation of Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. The investigation would have always continued and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real stories at our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."

So once again, Pam, this White House appears to be more concerned about the leaks coming out of the White House and the leaks coming out of the administration, not so much what is being said about the president's actions and what he has said throughout all of this.

BROWN: And Jim, tell us what you are hearing about former Trump campaign staffers. We're learning something new.

ACOSTA: Right. Well, one of the questions that have asking the White House officials for the several hours is whether or not their staffers at the White House are receiving legal guidance as to what to do if they are contacted by federal authorities.

And I talk to a White House official just in the last half hour who said, listen, we are just not commenting on all of this, but we do know that former campaign staffers and former transition officials are obtaining legal representation to deal with these questions.

I talk to a former campaign staffer who worked basically for free throughout much of the campaign. He said he was never paid for his services. He is saying that Donald Trump, the president should be setting up some sort of legal fund to help former staffers of his campaign who now have to talk to federal authorities about all of this.

Just some of the things he said to me over the phone, Pam. He said, "In many ways the Trump associates are the real victims here. The world is going after them and Trump is leaving them, abandoned on the battlefield, yet many lives will be ruined in the process."

So people who were really giving their lives to this president during the campaign trying to get him elected president are feeling left behind and not protected as they now are also being brought into this investigation and questioned by federal authorities, Pam.

SCIUTTO: No question. They are often the ones with the least means to pay that sort of that fee.

Thanks very much to Jim Acosta in Riyadh. Still ahead, the first reaction from former CIA Director Leon Panetta as we're learning new details about some intelligence officials limiting how much sensitive information they share with Michael Flynn during the transition.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[22:30:00] BROWN: And we are following multiple breaking news stories including CNN learning that White House lawyers have begun researching impeachment procedures.

Joining us to share his perspective is Leon Panetta. He has searched as Defense Secretary, CIA Director and White House Chief of Staff. Secretary Panetta, thank you so much for coming on the show.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Nice to be with you, Pam.

BROWN: First question. What is your response to this breaking news tonight that the White House has reached out to legal help, for legal help to prepare for possible impeachment proceedings.

PANETTA: Well, it doesn't surprise me. You know, we are -- we are witnessing, again, I guess this is probably the third time in my lifetime, a scandal, a huge scandal in Washington that is impacting on the President of the United States.

And the result is going to be that, you know, our institutions and our leadership in this country, our courts our whole system is going to be tested again to determine whether or not we can withstand the impact of this scandal. It's going to create a lot of -- a lot of consternation and it's also going to put the president in a position where he is going to have to seek outside counsel.

BROWN: When you say scandal, what is most concerning to you? What do you mean by that?

PANETTA: I think we have a situation where there are a number of issues that broke out not only this week, but in the past few weeks that are going to be the subject of an investigation now by a special counsel who is going to look at each of these issues to determine what happened and whether there were violations of law.

And you know, when you look at each of those issues, obviously it raises concerns about whether or not the president stepped over a line. The whole issue with Mike Flynn and basically threatening to cutoff an investigation of Mike Flynn. The issue of the Russian investigation and firing of Director Comey which now appear to be related. And it raises implications on that investigation.

[22:35:03] So there are a series of issues that are going to have to be looked at by the special counsel and by the committees in the Congress that are going to consume the attention of the American people for a period here.

BROWN: And do you think that the president has overstepped a line?

PANETTA: You know, I'm going to -- I'm going to leave that to the special counsel to look at all the facts that are involved here. And to determine whether or not there is evidence to establish that kind of charge.

I think part of the problem here is that in many ways the president through kind of his reckless comments that he's made in these various areas, is establishing the potential for a case against him in each area.

So what the counsel has to do is to determine where the truth is. And I've always felt that no president can stand in the way of finding the truth. I think that will be the case with this situation as well.

BROWN: And you mentioned that the president's comments according to the New York Times President Trump told the Russians in the Oval Office that former FBI Director James Comey was nuts. That aside, what is your reaction to the fact that these conversations in the Oval Office are leaking?

PANETTA: Well, it's chaotic. I mean, the White House is in total chaos right now. I'm sure there are leaks coming out left and right and at the same time the president himself has created a lot of these problems by virtue of what he said and what he's tweeted.

And there is I think a sense that things are spiraling out of control. And that's not good for the country. I mean, all of this frankly takes our attention away from the challenges that we face not only here in this country, but the challenges that we face in the world.

BROWN: You say things are seemingly spiraling out of control, do you think that is because the president is essentially his own worst enemy in this?

PANETTA: Well, there is no question that, you know, his kind of erratic impulsive behavior in making these comments and in, you know, many ways not even adhering to the talking points that the staff and the White House were trying to put out on many of these situations.

His comments have added to the concern about what exactly was he trying to accomplish here, what was he trying to do in terms of these investigations and in terms of the Russian issue which has, I think with every comment he has made, the Russian interference issue and the potential of collusion has become that much more serious.

BROWN: And Secretary Panetta, CNN is reporting tonight that Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser retired General Michael Flynn and believed that they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team.

The conversations are deeply concerned U.S. intelligence official, some of whom acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn and others during the transition. Your reaction. PANETTA: Well, I can tell you as director of the CIA. We focused a

great deal on efforts by the Russians to destabilize our country. They are an adversary. They are foreign adversary. Their whole goal is to try to destabilize the United States.

And every effort we make was to try to anticipate what exactly they were up to that could hurt our country. To now have them in a situation where they are trying to not only influence and interfere with our elections, but raise the implication that they might be working with the people at the highest levels of government to pursuit their own objectives creates a huge concern. Not only among the intelligence community people that are working on this issue, but among law enforcement and those involved with national security.

[22:40:01] So this is an issue that concerns the national security of the United States. And it is for that reason that we have to find out exactly what happened and whether or not anyone at the highest levels of government was involved.

BROWN: All right. Secretary Panetta, thank you very much.

PANETTA: Thank you, Pam.

BROWN: And up next, more on the breaking news. White House lawyers begin researching impeachment. And our new reporting about how Russian officials bragged about using Michael Flynn to influence Donald Trump. We'll break it all with our specialist and analysts up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to our special report. We are covering multiple breaking stories tonight. I want to start with one of them and go to you, Tim Naftali, our presidential historian. Because CNN reporting tonight that White House lawyers beginning at least to research and consult about lawyers, about an impeachment process. You with the Nixon library put us, how rare is that one and how much of an alarm bell is that of the White House?

TIMOTHY NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, first of all, that's a terrible sign for the White House. I don't care what era you are living in. That's not what you are not expecting to be researching.

I want to put this a little bit into context. Richard Nixon did not get himself a criminal lawyer until after the Saturday night massacre. And it happened...

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Which was several months in...

[22:44:58] NAFTALI: It was October 1973 that's well over a year after the third break in. It happened because the special prosecutor got some of the tapes and listened to them and said to the White House chief of staff, "The president is guilty. He needs a criminal lawyer." So he gets a criminal lawyer starting in 1974. Things are happening so

much faster in this story. For them to be talking about impeachment now is astounding. And no doubt that is not doing anything for morale at the White House. I can imagine people are also looking for their own lawyers.

SCIUTTO: Well, David, David Sanger, we are hearing that. Jim Acosta was just reporting that you have a lot of Trump staffers who are concerned they're feeling a little left out, right. They got to hire lawyers and they are going to incur debts here and at the same time of course, we are hearing a lot of leaks from inside the White House that are not very complimentary of the president himself.

DAVID SANGER, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: You know, of the White Houses I covered, I've actually never seen that leaks as much as this one does. Either they are leaking official leaks or there are unofficial that are coming out. But there is no sense of real discipline right now in this White House.

And in part that's because they are having a very hard time segmenting the world of governing from the world of dealing with this crisis of the moment. And past presidencies that we've seen starting to actually back the Clinton administration which came back to Washington after being a foreign correspondent, they were pretty good at that.

They had one part that said ignore Monica and all those issues go on and do your program. These staff have to be able to do that right now and they have a president who seems to be incapable of separating those two as you see from the reports about how he dealt with Lavrov.

SCIUTTO: There are all roads here lead to Moscow in effect the Russia story our reporting tonight on Flynn contacts. Juliette, I wonder if you can just explain how important this Flynn the idea that Russia was. They thought that they had a Russia influence inside the White House, the way one source...

(CROSSTALK)

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Not just inside the White House, right, overseeing the national security apparatus and with direct access to the Oval Office. I will admit this is overwhelming to the viewers. It is overwhelming the last 12 days for even people who follow this stuff have been overwhelming.

And so instead of thinking about each piece as being some smoking gun, you know, Putin was calling Trump and there is proof of collusion. We'll never going to find that. That's not going to happen. That likely did not happen.

What you have to think about is that each of these stories cumulatively begin to build a case. That's what's happening at the FBI and we don't know what it's a case for. It might be collusion, right? So think of it as a spectrum. It might be this financial dealings that we are hearing about. It might be nothing.

And so, the fact that we're not at any moment yet that we don't have a smoking gun seems sort of irrelevant to me at this stage. Because all these different pieces, the two stories that broke just in the last four hours, the 17 stories since Monday are building a case.

And I would cumulatively, we are moving away, very far away from benign coincidence and much closer to something that does not look good for the White House. I don't know who and I don't know what, but you cannot rationally look at this data and say anymore coincidence.

BROWN: Go ahead.

SCIUTTO: We have Steve Hall as well, advantage here, former CIA chief of Russia operations. Steve Hall, is this something that Moscow does to try to get what they perceive to be at least an agent of influence inside the White House?

STEVE HALL, RETIRED CHIEF OF CIA RUSSIAN OPERATIONS: Yes, this is one of the differences, Jim, between the way a lot of western intelligence services work and the way the Russians work. The western intelligence services they have more of a tendency to collect and get that information to consumers.

The Russians view information much more as a weapon and much more operationally. How can we use this information as an intelligence service? And so what they would do is, you know, obviously everybody wants to have a spy inside the White House or spy inside the Kremlin, but to have somebody who is actually as you indicate, an agent of influence. Somebody who can actually take tasking from Moscow and then try to get that influence executed inside -- and Juliette is right. It's not just the White House. It's the whole national security apparatus.

That's something that the Russians would be absolutely more, actually interested and probably than just having a source who can tell them what's thinking. And of course, you could argue that perhaps they don't need that because the president himself is telling them what is, what, you know, what's going on inside the White House.

But yes, they would be very interested in having that agent of influence. And Michael Flynn I've always held would be their number one target.

SCIUTTO: And as my colleague Pamela Brown is reporting that said that Obama administration officials are so concerned by what they were seeing, that they were not sharing classified information during the transition.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: Or Mike Flynn team.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, how is this crisis playing out in the White House? We'll have that right after this break.

[22:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: And welcome back to the CNN special report. We want to get some insight from this room, American Conservative

Union president, Matt Schlapp. Matt, this has not been a good week for the White House.

MATT SCHLAPP, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE UNION: Nope.

BROWN: So that's an understatement. And it strikes me that all of these leaks coming from the White House, these conversations the president has had in the Oval Office. These are closely held conversation, classified documents. And at the same time you have a White House that's always harping on leakers.

What is President Trump feeling right now, he's on his way to Saudi Arabia, he is surrounded by his team. That must feel really lonely and just -- bring us in.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHLAPP: And there are two ways that this is historic. You're never seen so many stories about Oval Office intrigue where you have 17, 16, 18, 20 sources. I mean, it has all of this reading all of the coverage because you really feel like you know, what's happening. There's like this competition I guess among staff to try to shape these stories.

And the stories usually what happens, and I could say this as a White House veteran, usually you're trying to shape the stories as the impact the president. It seems oftentimes these staffers are shaping stories ay they impact themselves. At the same time you have leaks from people who evolve kind of a national security structure which I think is very unnerving and very unusual and I think that's rattling for the president.

SCIUTTO: But inside the White House you don't leak like this when you have a happy healthy team, right?

[22:55:00] Does it not show that folks inside there are unhappy with the leadership.

SCHLAPP: I think it shows that there is, you know, they came to Washington. Donald Trump came to Washington taking on the swamp, taking on the news media which he often calls obviously fake news, taking on, you know, think about all the insults for a presidential as he came to Washington taking Washington on.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

SCHLAPP: And he has a team, that's a team of outsiders who don't have a lot of experience. Not all of them at this game and everybody is taking Trump on. I mean, everybody is pushing back on that war and I think it's incredibly stressful for that team.

BROWN: It's so interesting, though, I mean, many people would argue that President is making his own bed in a way. I mean, I ask Leon Panetta there, do you feel like Trump is his own enemy. What's your take, quickly.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: He's contradicting his own self.

SCHLAPP: Yes. No, I don't think that's right. I think, what I think Donald Trump is trying to do what the voters told him to do, which is to take on these interests, which is to upset the order of things in Washington. Which is to change the way Washington does business. The problem is the swamp is fighting back.

And if he is to withstand the swamp fighting back he's going to be -- he's got to have his A-team and they can't make errors.

BROWN: All right.

SCIUTTO: Matt Schlapp, thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you very much. And coming up next to CNN special.

SCIUTTO: It's an exclusive interview with fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Anderson Cooper is next.

[23:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)