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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Mysterious Death; Russia Testing Trump?; Flynn Resignation; Interview with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee; Interview with Senator Amy Klobuchar with Minnesota. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired February 14, 2017 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hard to understand why General Flynn thought lying in this White House would be considered not that big a deal.
THE LEAD starts right now.
A chat with Russia and the ensuing cover-up cost the national security adviser his job and his reputation, as Vladimir Putin possibly sees an opening, deploying a missile, violating an arms treaty with the U.S.
The sudden and mysterious death of Kim Jong-un's half-brother after he was reportedly attacked. Did his playboy lifestyle catch up with him or was something more sinister afoot?
Plus, a thundering flood, homes in danger, the race to patch up part of this nation's tallest dam with even more rain on its way.
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
The Dow closing at 20500 today, a new high. Lots of news going on.
But, first, we're going to begin with the politics lead. After a long and winding road of lies and misdirection going back at least a month, the search for a new national security adviser for President Trump is now in full swing with the resignation of former General Michael Flynn, a man the president had at his right hand throughout the entire general election, and the transition, and the first three weeks of his presidency.
Now, this all seemed to start in late December, when Flynn spoke on the phone with Russia's ambassador to the United States, and despite General Flynn's later denials, the two of them clearly discussed Obama administration sanctions newly imposed and the possibility of revisiting them later, what could clearly be perceived as the incoming administration undermining the Obama administration, literally providing aid and comfort to an American foe, if not enemy.
Now, a couple of weeks later, on January 14, Vice President Pence spoke to Flynn, who the president says assured him that sanctions had not been discussed with the Russian ambassador. That was not true. But the vice president repeated that lie the next day on CBS.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Then, on January 26, after acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, warned the White House counsel about the content of the call -- not surprisingly, U.S. intelligence monitors the phone calls of foreign ambassadors -- moreover, Yates to the White House, Flynn's misleading statements -- Yates told the Flynn's misleading statements could leave him open to Russian blackmail.
The White House counsel then informed President Trump of the situation. Now, all of that was confirmed today right from the mouth of President Trump's own press secretary, Sean Spicer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, as I mentioned, the first day that the Department of Justice made White House counsel available or sought to notify White House counsel was January 26. The president was immediately informed of the situation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: So, President Trump had been immediately informed of the situation on January 26, and yet Flynn remained on the job.
Nothing changed until "The Washington Post" broke the story. But here is what President Trump told reporters and, by extension you the public, when asked about the story last week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know about it. I haven't seen it. What report is that?
QUESTION: "The Washington Post" is reporting that he talked to the ambassador of Russia before you were inaugurated. (OFF-MIKE)
TRUMP: I haven't seen that. I'll look at that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Would you consider that to be a truthful, honest and forthcoming answer from the president about the national security scandal?
And another question, this one for the White House. Did President Trump lose confidence in his national security adviser because General Flynn made that call and then lied about it to the public and to members of the administration, or did President Trump lose confidence in Flynn because we found out about the calls and the lies? CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is live for us on the
Jim, we are just learning right now that the FBI apparently interviewed General Flynn in the early days of the administration. That's according to a White House official.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake.
CNN has confirmed from a White House official that FBI agents did interview the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn about that phone call with the Russian ambassador in the early days of the administration. No word yet what the outcome of that interview was or what the Department of Justice is doing with that information.
But, Jake, clearly at this point the White House is putting the blame squarely on Michael Flynn for misleading the administration about the call with the Russian ambassador. And the White House insisted the president was not misleading reporters himself when he maintained he didn't know about the story.
ACOSTA (voice-over): One day after the Trump administration offered conflicting stories about the fate of now former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the White House tried to give one simple explanation: Flynn lost the trust of the president and it was time to go.
SPICER: The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable instances is what led the president to ask for General Flynn's resignation.
ACOSTA: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says it was Flynn who sealed his own fate by misleading top official officials, including the vice president, about his phone conversation about sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador during the transition. But Spicer declined to say whether Flynn had intentionally lied about the call.
SPICER: I don't know that it was intentional. He may have just forgotten, but I think at some point, trust...
SPICER: But that's the point, Jim, is that at some point that trust eroded to a point where the president did not feel comfortable with him serving in that position and asked for and received his resignation.
ACOSTA: In his resignation letter, Flynn would only say he inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others "with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador." The White House says there were questions about Flynn's story. Last
month, the Justice Department relayed its concerns about the call to White House counsel Don McGahn, who informed the president. Spicer says a White House investigation concluded there was nothing illegal about Flynn's actions.
All of that raises questions as to why the president claimed he didn't know about a report about the matter when he was asked about it Friday.
TRUMP: I don't know about it. I haven't seen it. What report is that? I haven't seen that. I'm look at that.
SPICER: What he was asked specifically is, was he aware of a "Washington Post" story? He hadn't seen that at the time.
ACOSTA: Spicer deflected questions about what the president knew and when he knew it by claiming Mr. Trump had been tough on Russia.
SPICER: The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia.
ACOSTA (on camera): To a lot of Americans, it seems that this president has not been tough on Russia. How can you say that?
SPICER: There's a difference between the president wanting to have an understanding of how a good relationship with Russia can help us defeat ISIS and terrorism throughout the world. Look, the Obama administration tried to have a reset with Russia. They failed.
ACOSTA (voice-over): And there are other questions, such as why White House counselor Kellyanne Conway seemed to back up Flynn just hours before he resigned.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the president.
QUESTION: Were you out of the loop on this?
CONWAY: No, not at all. Both were true. The president is very loyal. He's a very loyal person, and by night's end, Mike Flynn had decided it was best to resign. He knew he had become a lightning rod and he made that decision.
ACOSTA: Clearly frustrated by the spectacle, top Republicans say the president had no other choice.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: You cannot have a national security adviser misleading the vice president and others. So, I think the president was right to ask for his resignation and I believe it was the right thing to do.
ACOSTA: Now, the White House says the president was not a aware of Flynn's conversation about sanctions with the Russian ambassador at the time.
But when asked a critical question, Jake, whether Trump aides had contact with the Russians during the campaign, that is one of the lingering questions for the president, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he could not say one way or the other, so, answers today, Jake, but also more questions.
TAPPER: Jim, do we have any determination as to whether he was fired or he resigned because he wanted to resign? We're getting two messages from the White House.
Top officials were telling me and other reporters late last night, Jake, that this was not the president's decision, that this was Michael Flynn's decision. He had decided on his own to step aside. But, of course, and you heard in that clip there from Kellyanne Conway on "The Today Show" as of this morning she was also making that same claim.
Now, later on in the day, something occurred and the White House determined that they felt that the president was the one who had asked Michael Flynn to step aside, but clearly this is a huge contradiction in terms of what the events were that happened over the last 24 hours.
Up until last night, we were being told that Flynn decided to step aside on his own, that the president was -- quote -- "hanging in there," was the way it was described to me by one senior administration official. But that story changed today, Jake.
TAPPER: Might be easier just to tell the truth and stick with it.
Jim Acosta, thank you so much.
Flynn's resignation is not the end of this. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the head Republican in the Senate, says it is -- quote -- "highly likely" the Senate Intelligence Committee will look at Flynn's communications with the Russian ambassador.
Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is on the Intelligence Committee and is a member of the Senate Republican leadership as well, also called for an investigation into connections between President Trump and Russia. He also says Flynn needs to talk.
CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me now from Capitol Hill.
Phil, can we expect House Republicans to continue to carry the water for the White House on this matter and leave the oversight responsibility of the legislative branch entirely up to the Senate?
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look, as far as what we heard today, it looks like the answer to that is yes.
Now, the House Intelligence Committee also has an investigation into Russian meddling into the election going on. But member after member on the Republican side of things seemed to defend Mike Flynn or instead go after the idea that leaks need to be investigated.
Not so in the Senate, though, Jake. Just a couple of minutes ago in this hallway down behind me, the Senate Intelligence Committee just broke up from a classified meeting where they discussed this issue specifically. And why does this matter?
This is the investigation that, by all accounts, if there is going to be one that has teeth, it will be this one. And if you want to know why, Vice Chairman Mark Warner, Virginia senator of this bipartisan committee, told me this morning he wants Mike Flynn to testify in front of this panel. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: I think it would be appropriate for Mr. Flynn, now that he has resigned, to testify. I think we need to know what he knows, and not just in terms of these conversations, which clearly he indicated by his own admission that he did not fully disclose information to the vice president. But I think there is more to come on this subject.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: Now, here's why this committee matters more than any other.
They have subpoena power and they laid out explicitly when they announced their investigation into Russian meddling in the election that they were going to be looking specifically into campaign contacts with Russian intelligence, something that Senator Warner made very clear would include the contacts with General Michael Flynn.
Now, the big question going forward, though, will this investigation matter? An interesting comment from Senator Bob Corker, chairman of a very important Senate Foreign Relations Panel. Listen to what he told me.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: My sense says that this is going to end up driving some further looks into this by Congress, and as it should be.
MATTINGLY: So, do you think committees...
CORKER: Yes. I think, you know, look, there has been so much about this. I think that, for many reasons, just to put it to bed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And, Jake, that's been the prevailing view that I have heard from several Senate Republican aides today. They recognize this isn't going away any time soon. Democrats have made very clear they are not going to let it go away
any time soon. There needs to be an investigation of some sort. While Republicans don't want an independent-led inquiry, they are certainly willing, as you noted from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to let the Senate Intelligence Committee do their work, Jake.
TAPPER: Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill for us today, thank you so much.
And right as Russia's relationship with General Flynn cost him his spot at the White House, the president himself may be getting his first major test from Vladimir Putin, reportedly a secret missile deployment, one the United States says violates a treaty that led to the end of the Cold War, and a Russian spy ship spotted off the East Coast of the United States.
CNN's Michelle Kosinski is live for us at the State Department.
Michelle, is it possible these pokes and proddings by Russia right now are just a coincidence in terms of timing?
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Probably not. We're seeing kind of it all, the spy ship floating off of Delaware. It is in international waters, by the way.
Stepped up of its missile -- that it violates a treaty. Both of those, we have known about and have made appearances before. We're also seeing these unsafe, provocative maneuvers by Russian planes against a U.S. ship in the Black Sea.
We're seeing this all within a matter of days of each other. It's confusing because Russia says it wants a good relationship with the U.S.. The Trump administration says it's open to a good relationship with Russia. But this is clearly Russia asserting itself.
Doesn't like the sanctions that the Obama administration put on it, after the allegations of hacking. It doesn't like those accusations leveled against it. It doesn't like the Russia-phobia that it keeps saying the U.S. has toward it. It's Russia clearly putting itself out there, making itself known in these somewhat provocative ways.
And the U.S. is, you know, moving forward and trying to still work together, at least in some areas.
TAPPER: All right, Michelle Kosinski live at the State Department for us, thank you so much.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, says he wants an independent investigation with the power to bring criminal charges against former General Michael Flynn. What are the chances that will happen? We will talk to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next.
[16:18:11] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.
Sticking with politics now, the White House today insisting that ousted National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was asked to resign due to, quote, "an eroding level of trust." Now, top Senate Democrats and Republicans are calling for an investigation into Flynn's contacts with Moscow as we are now learning the FBI interviewed Flynn about the call he took from the Russian ambassador just days after President Trump took office.
Joining me now to discuss this all is Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. He's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator Corker, always good to see you. Thanks for joining us.
I want to ask you. Your colleague, Republican Senator Roy Blunt, who serves in the Intelligence Committee, says there needs to be a, quote, "exhaustive investigation" into the ties between Donald Trump and his advisors and Russia. Will you support that?
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Sure. I think we ought to get all of this behind us, Jake. There's -- from March on and maybe even going back beyond that. But there's been a lot of nefarious activity from Russia. I think the American people should understand fully what that is. We certainly should. And I think this additional component is something that in addition should be looked at.
So, look, we should have a fulsome investigation and everything that's been occurring between Russia, our elections and any alliances that they have here.
TAPPER: Your colleague, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the Democrat, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that General Flynn should testify under oath before lawmakers about this issue. Do you agree?
CORKER: I think that would be a great contribution. I understand that if there happened to be other investigations that are underway -- and I don't know of any, but if there happen to be, for instance, an FBI investigation or some other type of investigation, that could complicate that. But, no, I think it would be very useful for General Flynn to come before the committee and talk about what the relationship was and I hope that's going to take place.
[16:20:07] TAPPER: One of the things that I think is confusing is that, at least as early as January 26th, the White House was aware that General Flynn had lied to the public and to the Vice President Pence about his conversation with the Russian ambassador. But the White House didn't do anything about this until it was made public by journalists.
Does that trouble you at all?
CORKER: I have no idea what their internal machinations were, what they were looking at, maybe they were trying to do some additional verifications. I just don't know. But, you know, at the end of the day, he felt like his credibility had been obviously damaged, and General Flynn, who served our country with great distinction and handily was beginning to set up the interagency process in the way it should.
But, look, he made a mistake, mistake in judgment. He resigned. Now, we're moving on.
But I -- again, I don't want to dismiss the fact that I think it will be very useful for us to understand what that relationship was and I think this whole Russia situation in every regard relative to elections and everything else, we should know fully what's occurred and get it aired and it should be done in the best way possible. And, hopefully, the Intelligence Committee is going to do most of that and do it well.
TAPPER: President Trump tweeted today, quote, "The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington. Will these leaks be happening as I deal on North Korea, et cetera?"
Do you agree?
CORKER: I'm stunned at the number of leaks that are coming out of the White House and, of course, that's something they can deal with internally. But, yes, it's been amazing to me that in eight years during the Obama administration -- I mean, it was a tight ship, very few leaks came out, and yet during the first few weeks here, it seems like every day there is some new leak.
So, certainly if I were president and I had a huge group of people working around me at the White House, I'd want to ensure that I set up some system to keep that from happening.
TAPPER: Tomorrow, you're holding a hearing to look at efforts to end modern-day slavery worldwide. I think there are probably some Americans watching right now who would be surprised to hear that there are still slaves in the world, including some right here in the United States.
CORKER: That's right, Jake. Thanks for asking.
There are 27 million slaves today in the world, more than at any time in the world's history. And every country in the world it's illegal, but it still exists, including here in our own country. And we should end it.
And I think we've begun the effort of bringing the world community together around this. We passed a landmark piece of legislation recently in December. We're off and running. Just like we led on pet far, just like we led on so many other initiatives, this is one where U.S. leadership can leverage dollars from other countries and from the private sector to use best practices to end this scourge on mankind.
So, yes, we're going to highlight that tomorrow and end it day is next week. We've got a lot of work in front of us.
TAPPER: All right, Senator, come back here and talk to us about the issue. We know it's an important one. Appreciate your time today, sir.
CORKER: Thank you. Thank you so much.
TAPPER: President Trump today reacting to Michael Flynn's resignation, suggesting the real problem is not his conversations with Russia, but the leaks about them to the media. That story next.
And half brother of Kim Jong-un dies suddenly after falling ill at an airport. The latest on that investigation ahead.
[16:27:58] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.
Continuing with politics. Lawmakers from both major political parties are calling for investigations into the Trump administration's contacts with Russia. Not only the conversations between now ex- National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador, but also, any communications from before Election Day.
Let's bring in Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She's one of many pushing for investigation.
Senator Klobuchar, good to see you.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer today echoed the president's reaction, partly blaming leaks for how this story unfolded. Take a listen to Spicer just a few hours ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The idea that not just in this administration, but the Obama administration, going back to the Bush administration back, that we have an issue where classified information of which this would be, is handled in such a way that it is being given out within the amount of leaks that are coming out, of people that are entrusted with national security secrets and classified information are leaking it out. That's a real concern for this president.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: What's your reaction?
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: My reaction is, first of all, this has been going on way before through the Trump campaign before they were even in office. You had the campaign chair resign over issues related to Russia. And while they are free to look at leak, that's fine.
I think, you just heard Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you know, Obama had run a tight ship. You didn't see these kinds of things.
That is not the issue here. The issue is that after only 26 days the president's national security advisor has resigned. The fact that you had 17 intelligence agencies say that Russia tried to influence our election and on the very day that the prior administration put in place sanctions that both parties had called for, that day, you have the national security advisor calling the Russian ambassador and talking about this. We still don't know what he said.
And, so, I think what you see here, they're fine asking about leaks here and there. That's not the issue. The issue is, who did he talk to? What did he say? How long has this been going on?
And most importantly, the why -- who, what, where, why -- why were they so concerned about placating the Russians, about trying to get them on their side?