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Interview with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky; Conservative Group Calls for White House Transparency on Russia. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 30, 2017 - 16:30   ET


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I see all of this reporting and I don't understand a bit about what people are talking about. What is the alleged impropriety with showing the president classified material?

[16:30:04] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I think what people are looking at is the fact that White House staffers shared it with one member of the Intelligence Committee and the ranking member as well, just the Republican --

PAUL: And --

BERMAN: Hang on. Just the Republican on it -- and, you know, without sharing with the whole committee, and then that ranking member made a point of -- sorry, the chairman made a point of rushing back to the White House to brief the president. Just looks odd, it looks odd they would tell him and he would tell him.

PAUL: Here is the point with the reporting. I hear that the suspects -- you are calling two people in the White House who work there whom I don't know and don't believe I have met, are you calling them suspects.

BERMAN: I never called them suspects.

PAUL: Well, the networks. I don't know which networks, but the networks are calling them suspects.

You know, really? These are two people that have -- what if these two people are whistleblowers? Don't we like whistleblowers in government?

Somebody spied on General Flynn and illegally released the information of a phone conversation he had to the media. That is a felony. This was in the Trump administration -- I mean in the Obama administration of the Trump campaign.

So, everything the president has said about this is true. Someone eavesdropped on his campaign including his national security adviser and then leaked it to the press. That's a news story.

BERMAN: Just a couple of things here, Senator. The president said wire tap, that he and Trump tower were wiretapped. Hang on, hang on.

Again, you are making your points here and they're valid point. I just want to make sure we get straight what they are. General Flynn was picked up in, you know, a conversation with the Russian ambassador during the transition. That wasn't during the campaign, it was during the transition.

Wouldn't that fall under the category of the incidental collection that we hear so much about?

PAUL: All right.

BERMAN: You know that we eavesdrop and surveilled foreign diplomats.

PAUL: A couple of points, phones don't have wires on them anymore. The term wire tapping essentially means to most people eavesdropping.

Was General Flynn part of Trump's campaign, part of the transition? Yes. Did someone eavesdrop on him? Absolutely true. Did someone illegally leak it to the press? Absolutely true.

So, I think we've been parsing this, but I think it is mostly been unhappiness over the election. People are unhappy that Donald Trump won, so they parse the words wiretapped. Was General Flynn's phone conversation listened to? Yes.

So, then, the media says it is incidental, it's no big deal. Well, actually, it is a very big deal. Many civil libertarians like myself are worried that a million Americans are having their phone calls listened to because we're targeting foreigners, but what's to stop them from reverse targeting Americans?

BERMAN: So you've been absolutely consistent on this for your entire career, you have, and you have been talking about this long before Russia. I want to give you credit for that, sir.

I want to ask you, I know you don't like talking about this at all. I know you would rather be talking about issues including healthcare, and I know you blame the media for a large part of this discussion. But do you hold the White House at all responsible for their lack of disclosure in their, you know, incremental disclosure and the way they handled this? Do you think they could do it any better?

PAUL: All of us can do a better job. All of us make mistakes, myself included. I do think it is sort of this witch hunt. I mean all day this breathless stuff, the suspects that met secretly with the chairman.

They all have the ability -- if someone is a whistleblower and they know someone illegally looked at General Flynn's information, absolutely, I want them to come forward. They probably can't meet me at a Starbuck's. They probably would meet you in a secure room, either in the Capitol or the White House.

But the fact that they may have met in a secure room in the White House doesn't make it wrong. It actually makes it knowable that someone is trying to clear up the mess of who spied on General Flynn because no one is denying that General Flynn was spied upon by the Obama administration. BERMAN: We don't know much about the information, but one of the

things Chairman Nunes told us is that it wasn't about Russia at all. This information was not about Michael Flynn and his conversations with Russia, but I do want to move on to healthcare for both of our sakes right now.

The president lashing out at conservatives in the House forestalling the healthcare overhaul. Today, he went to Twitter and this is what he wrote, "The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team and fast. We must time them and Dems in 2018."

Now, he is talking about the freedom caucus which was in the House, but you were a big opponent of this healthcare also. What do you make of the fact that President Trump is effectively saying that he is going to campaign against people like you next chance he gets?

PAUL: I think the Freedom Caucus is doing what is best for America. They're very principle willed and honorable men. I think that we're trying to also let Republicans know if we pass something bad, if insurance rates are going up at 20 percent, 25 percent a year from now after Republicans have taken ownership of healthcare, that won't be good for the party.

[16:35:02] But it's also just not good for the country.

We do want insurance rates to go down. We want more people to have insurance at a lower cost, and I'm still talking to the White House. I am still talking to the Freedom Caucus. I am talking to anybody that will listen, and I do still think -- I think 70 percent, 75 percent we still get repeal of Obamacare, that we are going to find a good meeting place at some point.

BERMAN: Is pressuring conservatives in this way from the White House the right way to get to that deal?

PAUL: Everybody uses what they have. So, it does take pressure from all sides to try to get to an agreement. It is the way deadlines work. And we go at each other back and forth.

But the thing is as much as I have objected to the Ryan plan, I still think Paul Ryan and I probably agree on 90 percent of how we would do it. It just got mashed down from the top too much, and if they would let it percolate from the bottom up a little bit more and include conservatives in it, I still think there's a happy meeting ground that will please Paul Ryan, House Freedom Caucus, Senate conservatives and others, but it takes a little bit of time to hash these things out. But I think we get closer every day.

BERMAN: Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, I know we caught you between votes. I appreciate your time, sir.

PAUL: No problem. Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. It's a conservative watchdog group that sued to get Hillary Clinton State Department e-mails, now it is taking on the president.

Stay with us.


[16:40:16] BERMAN: All right. Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with politics now, amid the swirling questions about Russia and healthcare, senior White House official met privately yesterday with top leaders of conservative groups. In attendance was Thomas Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch. It's a watchdog group that sued Obama administration for access to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

Fitton is now calling on the Trump administration to be as transparent as possible when it comes to Russian. Thomas Fitton joins me now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

So, you were at this meeting yesterday, this private, somewhat secret meeting. What was the White House reaction to your suggestion that they be as transparent as possible when it comes to the ties between associates of President Trump and Russia?

TOM FITTON, PRESIDENT, JUDICIAL WATCH: Well, you know, I put in this context. It's my view the left is trying to destroy the Trump presidency and remove the president before 2020 through illegal means like the leaks of classified material that Senator Paul was talking about with General Flynn. And the response to that ought to be extreme transparency. Whether it'd be Benghazi, the IRS, Clinton e- mails and the Russia story, let's get the information out there.

I think President Trump doesn't understand that the bureaucracy is getting in the way with clearing the air on this and just releasing these records in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and such. And to rely on Congress to get at this, you're seeing the result of that.

Congress is in a bickering mode. The Republicans and Democrats are going to fight about the scope and nature of the investigation. So, you know, the president has an obligation to figure out what went on and order his agencies to start releasing information so the American people can get it straight out.

BERMAN: How did the Trump administration take your advice?

FITTON: I think they generally agree. I mean they were in receive mode. My chief concern is that the position of the Trump administration in our Freedom of Information Act litigation, even that over Clinton e-mail issues hasn't changed from the Obama administration.

And it's my view the Trump administration really hasn't come fully into power in terms of who is running the agency certainly on transparency issues. But, you know, it's now getting to April and May and, you know, this transitional period, there's got to be accountability. I think there's an opportunity for a transparency revolution on these issues, whether it'd be Russia or, frankly, the Clinton e-mails or President Obama's involvement in the Russia scandal.

BERMAN: On this issue of transparency, we have an issue over the last week where Chairman Nunes was briefed by White House officials on some intelligence more than a week ago, and people asked where he got it, who talked to him, they asked to see it. The White House didn't release it, the chairman didn't release it. And now, only today a week later, the White House is inviting other members of the Congress to come over.

That -- does that pass the transparency test?

FITTON: Well, you know, it is hard to complain about information being disclosed to Congress who -- and the committee chairman who has the top responsibility for handling intelligence information in the Congress, and then a week later them further disclosing it to other members of the same committee.

You know, I think they're on the right path here, and I think if anything, they're too cautious in playing the typical Washington approach and saying, well, the president shouldn't get involved in this. So, therefore, we're going to let the staff deal with it only through Congress, and the president should just say, hey, I'm president.

The response to Nunes' involvement with the White House by the left seems to suggest they don't accept the president is president. And Nunes is right to go to the White House and right to go to the National Security Council about these matters, and, frankly, they should bring other people presuming they're going to honestly abide by the requirements of classification issues.

And as I say, declassify as much as they can in a way the American people know what's happening but in a way that doesn't harm our ability to gather this information in the future.

BERMAN: Let me just play something that the FBI Director James Comey said yesterday. He obviously has been at the center of a lot of these investigations, and a lot of the issues that you've been concerned about over the last couple of years. Listen to what he said.


JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: Now, we're not fools. I know when I make a hard decision, it is going to follow. But honestly I don't care. If I have thought about it carefully and am doing the right thing, making the right judgment, it doesn't matter what is going to follow because it's not about that. Honestly, the death of the independent FBI would lie on the path to considering impact.


BERMAN: Your response there? Do you think it is a fair assessment of how he does his job? FITTON: Unsurprisingly, Director Comey agrees with Director Comey on

Director Comey's decisions. You know, he is a political figure in Washington as much as the head of any other cabinet agency, and the FBI should be recognized as a political agency the way other agencies of the federal government are.

And Comey made political decisions in the handling of Clinton e-mail investigation, he made political decisions in the handling of the illegal leak investigation or non-investigation evidently over what the Obama people did with General Flynn's transcript and other information. He is as political a figure as Herbert Hoover was in my view.

[16:45:13] JOHN BERMAN, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Thomas Fitton, great to have you with us. Thanks so much for talking to us.

FITTON: You're welcome.

BERMAN: All right. The President this week addressed the war on ISIS saying U.S. troops are fighting like never before. But the war against ISIS is not just some gruesome fight waged on the streets of Iraq and Syria. It's a battle for the hearts and minds of the most vulnerable to the terrorist group's hateful ideology. We see countless examples of young men and women lured by ISIS propaganda who return home indoctrinated. But what turns a seemingly normal person into a potentially hate-filled killer? In a new documentary, "ISIS BEHIND THE MASK", CNN's Clarissa Ward explores how a former catholic altar boy fled the comforts Belgium for the brutality of the battlefield.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Meet Younes Delefortrie, a 28-year-old ISIS veteran. Eunice offers a rare insight into the mind of an unrepentant ISIS supporter.

YOUNES DELEFORTRIE, ISIS SUPPORTER: We are Muslims who are dreaming of a caliphate. Every Muslim in the world, even if he has a beard from one meter to one millimeter, a Muslim has to believe in a caliphate.

WARD: That dream led Younes to the civil war in Syria and to ISIS. He says he never killed anyone there. Let me ask you something. If you had been asked while you were in Syria to execute someone, would you have done it?

DELEFORTRIE: Look, in Islam, there's the pledge of alliance.

WARD: Would you have done it?

DELEFORTRIE: Because you have to obey the Emir.

WARD: So you would have?

DELEFORTRIE: That is Islamic law. And believe me, it is not a funny thing to execute people. It is something terrible, but, yes. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: All right. Clarissa Ward joins me now. That's a pretty fascinating profile. What, if anything, in your conversations with Younes surprised you?

WARD: I think what's so surprising about Younes is that on paper, he sounds every bit this kind of terrifying Jihadi. He wants to live under sharia law, he'd like it implemented in the west. He has no problems with the group's brutal tactics, with its warped ideology. But then, when you meet him and spend time with him, there's a kind of whiplash because in person he seems on the surface to be utterly unremarkable, to be very similar to other young men. He's wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans with his sneakers. He likes to play video games. He has women problems. He's been married three times. So there's a kind of disconnect between on the one hand embodying this hateful ideology and on the other hand being incredibly normal in many ways.

BERMAN: Now that he's back in Belgium, what is his life like? And do the authorities there, did they know about him?

WARD: Well, of course, authorities know about him well. He did had a three-year suspended sentence and he has actually recently been charged with domestic abuse. So he is certainly on the radar of authorities. But Younes poses a unique problem to European Security Services and there are thousands of Europeans who have gone and joined the battlefield with ISIS, because how do you know whether someone is actually a ticking time bomb or whether they just hold really offensive beliefs? Because technically, as you know, there is freedom of speech, we have religious liberty. You're not able to arrest someone simply for having an ideology that is morally apparent to many other people. But that leaves authorities with the very difficult decision of trying to ascertain who's a ticking time bomb and who is maybe just an extremist. And that's not an easy thing to ascertain.

BERMAN: These are important questions and this documentary sounds fascinating. Clarissa Ward, thanks so much. Be sure to tune into Clarissa documentary "ISIS BEHIND THE MASK", this is tomorrow night at 10:00 p.m. A staff shake-up just a couple of months into the administration of the west wing. Who's leaving and why?


[16:50:00] BERMAN: All right. Welcome back. Sticking with politics, lots to talk about with the panel today. You know, the New York Times reporting that two White House officials helped give Chairman Devin Nunes intelligence reports. You know, White House sources, people that work in the White House, Errol Lewis, are these whistle-blowers?

ERROL LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's interesting. As a legal category, if they should have resort to that. I mean, they are - I would classify them as political operatives who found an easy mark, who picked up one of the more distasteful political chores that the White House was looking for somebody to pull off. Sean Spicer couldn't pull it off, the intelligence agencies wouldn't play ball, the Senate Intelligence Committee wanted nothing to do with it, they wanted to conduct a real investigation. Devin Nunes was there for the - for the plucking and two operatives went after him and it looks like they succeeded.

BERMAN: Sean Spicer directly, Alex Burns, the other day said the idea the White House coordinated this information with Devin Nunes, it doesn't pass the smell test. What's it smell like now?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, interestingly, I think it was the same briefing Sean Spicer repeatedly cited Devin Nunes' own words in saying that his source was not a member of the White House staff, but Spicer himself did not make that claim, right? So it is sort of a denial that appears now not to hold up, that was sort of a - you know, a laundered through the member of congress, right? So, look, it's pretty striking as you said earlier in the show that Sean Spicer wouldn't come out and deny this report, giving how free the White House is about denying things. And like everything about the Russia investigation, you just see question piled on top of question piled on top of question.

BERMAN: The chain of custody of this information is peculiar, it just is. I mean, what the White House told Devin Nunes who then told the President and what - who knew, what, when. But S.E. Cupp, what about the information itself? I mean, so, at a certain point don't we need to know exactly what was said and shouldn't that be measured on its own merits?

[16:55:07] S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it's remarkable that Sean Spicer was so hostile with the media about these process questions. And really, the process here matters. I tend to agree with Sean that most of the American public generally doesn't care about process. But when it comes to this story, I think the process is going to prove really, really important. We want to know the chain of this information moving through. Why they went to Devin Nunes and not to the committee? Why now they're opening it up to everyone on the committee as they should have probably done before? It's very clear that people are not talking to other people, and I actually wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that Sean didn't really know where the information came from when he said it didn't come from the White House. We've seen him do that before, where he's said, no, this didn't happen and then it turned out it did and he kind of had to say, well, I didn't know at the time that it happened. What we do know is there's a lot of disorganization, and what is surprising is Trump might not know how these investigations work, but certainly people inside the White House like Mike Pence and Reince Priebus do. So you'd think they would be a bit more careful and organized.

LOUIS: I mean, John, we should keep in mind this is pretty low-grade information, right? This was - they were looking for somebody to try to and make the President's unfounded claim about being wiretapped -

CUPP: True.

LOUIS: - appear somewhat plausible, if not actually true. So it was always kind of just an excuse. It wasn't any kind of real devastating information. The notion of incidental collection, OK, we all learned a little bit of something but it seems kind of obvious and not all of that information in a way.

BERMAN: Look, all we do know because all Devin Nunes has told us is that this is probably legal. It probably was incidental collection and it wasn't about Russia. Rand Paul before, you know, he thinks that any incidental collection is spying. I don't think people in the Intelligence Community feel the same way. Incidental collection means you are recorded on a conversation, picked up on a conversation with someone they are looking into. You know, it's a separate and different thing. Alex, if we can move on to a couple other political issues because there's a ton else that happened today. The second major White House departure - and we're 69, 70 days into this administration, Katie Walsh, the Deputy Chief of Staff, gone. You know, what does it tell you about the inner workings of this White House?

BURNS: Well, it tells you that the - certainly the direction that the staff is moving is not where you would expect it to be at this point in the administration. This is an administration that is understaffed as it is. They have not filled out all of the sort of senior posts in the cabinet, even some of the senior post in the White House. And so, to have a staff departure at this point, you know, what they come out and said is that Katie Walsh was going to - you know, go support this outside group that will provide air cover with advertising for President Trump's agenda. It is really, really early in the political cycle for that kind of thing to happen. And you know, the folks I have spoken to in Washington are really skeptical of the notion that everything is fine except they want more television advertising.

BERMAN: You know, and look, it is important. She is a Reince Priebus guy. I mean, she was - her loyalty was to the Republican National Committee and Reince Priebus and you have to wonder what his future holds. The White House says no other departures. It doesn't mean anything for him. We will wait and see.

We have two other questions. I want to talk Supreme Court, I want to talk Freedom Caucus. Which one do you want?

LOUIS: Freedom caucus to me is absolutely fascinating. The notion that Paul Ryan wants to sort of leave his political fate and the fate of this important piece of legislation in the hands of people who had demonstrated over and over and over again, much to his embarrassment, that they're not all that interested in legislating.

CUPP: Well, I don't know if that's fair. These people have constituents back at home.

BERMAN: These people, by the way, whom the President attacked today. He said he wanted to run against potentially in 2018.

CUPP: Yes, try passing legislation without 30 people. You can't get a bill passed without 207 -

LOUIS: And without Democrats.

CUPP: Right. You can't get a bill passed without someone in the Freedom Caucus, some Democrats, maybe. So that's not very politically smart. But these guys have constituents at home to answer to. And back at home the ObamaCare repeal, the new healthcare bill was not popular. So I actually think they're doing exactly what they were elect to do, which is not to make the President look good, which is not to hand over what the President demands, but what is to represent their constituents.

BERMAN: All right. Just the last few minutes we have breaking news. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he will vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch to be a Supreme Court Justice. Alex Burns, Jo Manchin, probably the most conservative member of the Democratic Caucus. What does this mean ultimately for the confirmation process?

BURNS: Well, the bigger question is not where he's going to vote in final confirmation but whether he will vote in favor of the democratic effort to filibuster.

BERMAN: He won't. Manchin won't do that. He's not going to filibuster.

BURNS: But in terms of the - will he vote - you know, with republicans to change the filibuster rule or will he sort of stick with the democrats -

BERMAN: He won't.

BURNS: - and force the republicans to walk the line on the -

BERMAN: He doesn't want to - he told me this morning (INAUDIBLE) filibuster rule either.

BURNS: So that being the case, I think, what you can see here is that if the democrats see the writing on the wall and Neil Gorsuch is ultimately going to go through, then maybe one or two red state senators is up for reelection in 2018, we'll get a free on this one so that they can go home and say, "look, I haven't opposed the President all the time."

BERMAN: I will tell you, the White House will say bipartisan support, now that Joe Manchin is involved. Errol Louis, S.E. Cupp, Alex Burns, thanks so much. That is all for THE LEAD, I'm John Berman in for Jake. I turn you now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM".

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Happening now, breaking news, secret sources revealed?