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CNN TONIGHT

U.S. Drops Mother of All Bombs on ISIS; British Intel Passed Trump Associates Communication with Russia on to U.S.; Ex-Trump Adviser Can't Rule Out Russia Sanctions Talk; Trump Distancing Himself From Steve Bannon; Aired 10-11p ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 22:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

[22:00:06] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Breaking News. U.S. military hits ISIS with the "mother of all bombs."

This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon. The massive weapon is the largest nonnuclear bomb the military has ever used in combat. Only used in testing, today it was deployed in Afghanistan for the very first time. President Trump praising the mission, but the commander- in-chief won't say whether he's the one who gave the green light.

And we have more breaking news. Sources telling CNN that British intelligence and other European agencies intercepted communications between Trump associates and Russian officials during the campaign and passed them on to U.S. officials.

We will bring you the very latest on all of this. Let's begin with the military targeting ISIS in Afghanistan. I want to bring in CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling and Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

Good morning to all of you. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jim, you first. The "mother of all bombs." It's the largest nonnuclear bomb, as I said, the U.S. has ever used in combat. The president is calling it a success. Let's take a look first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that to -- really to what's happened over the last eight years, you'll see there's a tremendous difference. Tremendous difference. So we have incredible leaders in the military and we have incredible military. And we are very proud of them. And this was another very, very successful mission.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: And Jim, it's important to note here that this is the second major military strike by the Trump administration in a week.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. The "mother of all bombs," that's actually the nickname, it's actually an acronym for Massive Ordnance Air Blast. It's a bomb designed to actually explode before it hits the ground, but then destroy underground structures, tunnels, et cetera.

It's huge. Biggest under a nuclear bomb. But let's be clear, it's about 1,000th, 1/1000th of the size of a smaller nuclear weapon. So this is not close to a nuclear weapon, but it's a big conventional weapon. And beyond destroying underground structures, one of the functions is to really demoralize enemy forces. It shakes the ground like an earthquake for miles around. And that's one of the functions here.

Does it measurably change the battle against ISIS in a country like Afghanistan where there are many places to hide, et cetera? No. But a show of force. And I don't think, Don, you could discount the possibility that this is a message intended not only for ISIS there, but for other countries that have underground military facilities. Think of North Korea, perhaps, right, where there's discussion of a possible underground nuclear blast. Not that you would use this particular weapon against it. But again a show of force for that theater. But I think also for around the world.

LEMON: General Hertling, let's continue our conversation, let's talk a little bit more about this bomb. The U.S. military has had this nearly 2200 -- 22,000, excuse, pound bomb since the early 2000s. But this was the first time that this MOAB, "mother of all bombs," has been used in combat. Was this the right bomb for the right targets? I mean, these ISIS tunnels in eastern Afghanistan?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, it was exactly the right bomb, Don. I was actually in the Pentagon when this thing was developed. And we kiddingly called it the "mother of all bombs" because this was about the time when we had Baghdad Bob saying we were about to have the mother of all battles. So the Air Force kind of came up with this term.

It is the perfect weapon. And General Nicholson, who I know very well, chose the perfect weapon for this facility. The reason why, this is an area in Nangarhar Province, it is a perfect area for dropping this kind of bomb. It's rocky, it's hilly, it's has a lot of gorges. The overpressure will collapse those tunnels. It doesn't penetrate the ground. This is not a penetrator. They have another bomb much larger than that one to do that if you need this to get underground.

But it has a concussive effect and it collapses the tunnel. This is also a bad guy area, to be sure. This has been giving the Afghan forces and the Americans in the area problems for over a decade, this Nangarhar Province area. But this particular bomb, this GBU-43 as it's called, replaced another one from the Vietnam era called a "Daisy Cutter." And you know, when you're talking about a commander, and I'm going to channel some of my former combat commander status on this, you literally look when you target areas, it's something called a Joint Munitions Employment Manual.

It's a guide for your targets to say, this is the target, this is the kind of situation we have, what kind of weapons should we drop on this, this is a perfect kind of thing. It's a tactical system, though, and we shouldn't get all breathless about this being something that President Trump ordered because this was something commander on the scene wanted to drop in those areas.

LEMON: That's interesting you should say that then, Lieutenant Franco, this goes perfectly, because the president wouldn't say if he green-lit using this bomb. Here's exactly how he responded when asked.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Everybody knows exactly what happened. So -- and what I do is I authorized my military.

[22:05:03] We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: So, Colonel, I need to tell you that sources are telling CNN that General John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, signed off on this. But the White House was informed of the plan ahead of time.

Here's the question. Realistically, a bomb with a nickname of "mother of all bombs," something this big, the largest nonnuclear bomb ever dropped in combat, would that happen without the direct signoff of the commander-in-chief?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think so. And that's what sources at the Pentagon are telling us. We were, you know, talking about this earlier today. The president has authorized the theater commander and also the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to employ these weapons.

It's a tactical weapons. I think the general was very clear on this, this is a tactical weapon. This is not a strategic weapon, this is not a nuclear weapon, this is not a chemical weapon. This is a tactical weapon. We could have dropped 1,000 pounds -- sorry, 20 1,000-pound bombs at the same force, it wouldn't have the same psychological effect but we wouldn't be on this conversation.

So it doesn't require that high of a level of signoff as General Hertling said. The J-Men tells you what effect the munitions will have on a particular target. You use that guide, you say this is the target, this is the effect I want to have, this is the weapon that will do it. This is the weapon and it's the perfect weapon for this one location.

LEMON: Jim Sciutto, a senior administration official saying that they don't approve every strike, and that, quote, "This administration has moved further away from dictating military strategy from the White House." What about civilian control of the military?

SCIUTTO: Well, that's a question, and listen, the commander-in-chief is still the commander-in-chief. But I do think -- I don't know if there's been a dramatic constitutional change here, but you are seeing what appears to be a relaxing of the process.

The Obama administration was famous, perhaps notorious for how many hoops the military had to jump through to approve strikes. And that was a headache. I spent a lot of time in the Pentagon and that was often a frustration there. On the flip side, though, the reason behind that was a desire to minimize civilian casualties, and to be fair, if you look in the last several weeks, there have been a number of strikes -- and listen, this happens all the time. It's risky to drop bombs in areas, you know, wherever you're doing it.

But you have a number of strikes in the last several weeks, a bomb in Mosul, friendly forces struck in Syria in the last 24 hours. You had the use of this weapon. So there is evidence, maybe not conclusive yet, but there's evidence that the military has more leeway to use weapons, and I'd ask that the generals here, and the Lieutenant Colonel Francona to see if they agree, it appears they've been given more leeway to push the limits a bit and increase that risk of collateral damage.

LEMON: A shake of the head there. I think they agree with that. Do you agree with that?

HERTLING: Yes. I'm not buying that, Don. I've got to jump in because having been in combat, knowing what commanders go through to get strikes and knowing the conscience that commanders live under when they're striking targets, yes, there may be fewer rules in terms of the processes but they are still going to look very closely at collateral damage. As a commander, you don't want the death of innocents on your conscience.

The other thing is, this comment by the president saying, we've done more in the last eight weeks than we've done in the last eight years. That to me is insulting. There have been a lot of people fighting hard in many theaters, and just because there's been a couple of big bomb drops and a Tomahawk strike in Syria, we're saying that we're doing more in eight weeks than ever before? That's just wrong and it's incorrect.

SCIUTTO: And Don, just so I can interject as Mark knows me well. I certainly don't mean to intimate that the generals are suddenly not concerned about civilian casualties by any means because I spend a lot of time with the military, I know that the care that they go through in the command centers to do that. But just -- if we look at -- if we look at the evidence, it just raises a question that is worth asking. And we do know that there was frustration with the decision-making process under the Obama administration. Has that changed? We'll have to see.

LEMON: Quickly, Colonel, can you wrap it up for us?

FRANCONA: Well, I keep asking that question. I talked to a lot of people at different levels in the chain of command and I get the answer that, no, the rules haven't changed. So they say it hasn't, but it sure looks like it does. So I'm not exactly sure. So I take Jim's point.

LEMON: Yes. All right. We'll continue to investigate. Thank you, Colonel. Thank you, General Hertling. I appreciate it. Colonel Francona.

Jim, I want you to stick around because I understand you have some breaking news tonight on the Russian investigation. And Jim, you and our CNN colleagues came out with some new reporting about the Trump campaign and Russia. What can you tell us?

SCIUTTO: I'll tell you, you may remember, CNN was the first to report some weeks ago that U.S. intelligence had captured repeated conversations between advisers and associates of the Trump campaign and Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to U.S. intelligence. The NSA and others said they had intercepted those communications.

[22:10:00] What we learned today is that British intelligence and other European intelligence agencies picked up similar conversations again between Russian officials, others known to western intelligence, and people associated with the Trump campaign.

So what's significant about that is not just one intelligence service that was picking up this kind of back-and-forth, it was our allies, the UK and others, who were then seeing it, seeing it as significant enough to then share with their partner the U.S. And it adds into this bigger picture, which is, we know still the subject of an active investigation of the FBI, and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, is what do these communications mean?

And one open question has not been established yet, does that indicate that there was some sort of cooperation or collusion between some people in the Trump orbit and Russian nationals as they were interfering in the U.S. elections.

LEMON: So --

SCIUTTO: That's not established yet. But the communications are material to that investigation.

LEMON: So we are not aware of the nature of any of these communications and what they reveal about the Trump team, just to be precise here?

SCIUTTO: We don't know, for instance, the content of the transcripts. It is just the fact that they happened. The frequency with which they happened. And that European intelligence agencies considered them important enough that they shared them with their American allies.

LEMON: OK. The British intelligence agencies, do we know if they were specifically targeting members of the Trump team?

SCIUTTO: No. And it's a good question because as you know, Donald Trump accused Britain -- accused President Obama of using Britain, tasking British intelligence with spying on Trump and his campaign. That's not how this happened. And I've spoken to European intelligence. This is what's called incidental collection.

The Europeans just like the Americans are regularly monitoring the communications, particularly of U.S. adversaries overseas. And that certainly includes Russia. Sometimes when they're monitoring those communications, they pick up on the other end of the line an American or they pick up Russians talking about an American. When that happens, the U.S. takes notice certainly, but so do our allies. And this is a case where incidentally they picked up these communications, they said, listen, Russians are talking to Trump associates, et cetera. We felt it was important to share it with you, and you then look at it and decide what you're going to do with it.

LEMON: So do we -- why didn't our U.S. intelligence agencies, why did they not capture it? Or maybe they did?

SCIUTTO: They did.

LEMON: They did.

SCIUTTO: And we reported that earlier. So --

LEMON: Is this duplicate?

SCIUTTO: So several intelligence agencies now have done that. U.S., British and other European intelligence agencies, so it wasn't just one who happened to pick up this kind of back and forth. It was several.

LEMON: OK. So these are -- are these duplicates? Or that's the same communications being captured by British -- by European intelligence agencies, U.S. intelligence agencies and others or is this --

SCIUTTO: Listen, it's possible some are duplicates. But you have to imagine, and some of this is the nature of cooperation between these countries, where, for instance, the Five Eyes program, which -- you have sharing of intelligence between the U.S., Europe and other allies. They will task certain countries, intelligence services, with focusing on certain parts of the world. Doesn't mean that the U.S. isn't operating there. But Britain, part of Britain's responsibility is focusing on Russian communications. So the British might pick up things that the U.S. would not.

LEMON: Jim, I have a short time here, but how does this -- how might this affect the investigations that are going on now?

SCIUTTO: We don't know yet. But they're certainly going to look at it. I spoke today with a source close to the Senate intelligence investigation. They said, listen, if these conversations are relevant to our investigation, we're going to take a hard look at them.

LEMON: Jim Sciutto, thank you. Appreciate it.

When we come back, a closer look at the investigation and what this could mean for the Trump's -- the Trump administration going forward.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [22:17:14] LEMON: Breaking news. Sources telling CNN that British intelligence and other European agencies intercepted communications between Trump associates and Russian officials during the campaign and passed them on to U.S. officials.

Let's discuss now with CNN's Fareed Zakaria here, the host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" and Robin Wright, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson Center.

Thank you so much for joining us. We're going to start with you and get your reaction. Jim Sciutto was just on reporting that foreign intelligence officials passed along information to the FBI and the CIA about Trump associates' contacts with Russia. What do you think?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN GPS HOST: I think we're getting the same picture from a number of sources over a number of days. And it all points to, frankly, one of two possibilities. Either the Trump campaign was an extremely disorderly, chaotic, and somewhat corrupt affair with a lot of grifters, freelancers, and you know, trolling in various ways, and interacting and intersecting with all kinds of strange characters, including people associated with Russian intelligence, the Russian government, or there is some actual connection and collusion.

But it does seem strange, if you think the first, that there was an actual collusion, the number of times that Trump association -- the Trump campaign associates, affiliates, seem to have had some kind of contact or bumped up against some kind of Russian, somebody noted, somebody watched. The British, the FBI, if this is a coincidence, it's a remarkable coincidence.

LEMON: Yes. And Robin, some of this came from the British, you'll recall, that the president created a diplomatic incident when he claimed that the British had tapped his phones in Trump Tower, at the former President Barack Obama's request. They say this communication was picked up during incidental collection during routine surveillance of known Russian targets. That's different. Just as it happened with the U.S. That's different, right?

ROBIN WRIGHT, JOINT FELLOW, INSTITUTE OF PEACE AND WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Absolutely. And the deniability of the evidence becomes ever harder. The pressure now will grow on Congress to investigate even deeper. You know, the layers of this keep adding. And there will be more and more questions. Over the past week, the administration has gained from the fact that the focus has shifted to foreign policy in Syria and then Afghanistan.

But, you know, long-term, this is something that will haunt the administration. I think at some point it has to either come clean, try to help facilitate answers because I think the American public really wants this issue to go away.

LEMON: Haunt, why? How?

WRIGHT: I mean, how to pressure them?

LEMON: No. How will it haunt the administration? [22:20:00] WRIGHT: I think the idea that some of its personnel were

engaged with Russia will come back to haunt this administration. Particularly given the kind of tensions we have with Russia that were apparent this week when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow. His meeting with Vladimir Putin and the Foreign minister.

This is a time that they're trying to sort out a number of very significant issues and to have this haunt the administration, I think is going to be very difficult.

ZAKARIA: You know, I think that part of what Robin is saying, it feels to me the Trump administration does not have a strategy to deal with this. You don't get the feeling that they have figured out, OK, this is a problem. And here's what we are going to do. Here are the two people who are the point people for this. Here's all the -- they're going to answer all these questions. They're going to do their own internal review. They're going to have some statements to make.

Instead what you get is this is drip, drip, drip of information, reporting, congressional inquiries that keeps coming in. And as Robin was saying, what it does is it keeps diverting the narrative from anything that the Trump administration wants to present. And every now and then, yes, the Syria strike will divert it, but then you get back to the next --

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Well, that's because it keeps going like this, right? There's not a straight line.

ZAKARIA: Right. And --

LEMON: Because the original tweet was something that is completely different to what this has evolved into.

ZAKARIA: Right.

LEMON: And not a natural evolution.

ZAKARIA: Right.

LEMON: It's a forced evolution.

ZAKARIA: Right. And you would think that somebody in the White House, the chief of staff frankly, should be tasked with saying, how are we dealing with this, what is our response to it, who is the point person, what is the internal investigation?

You know, some kind of political and communications strategy. And instead, you feel as though there's nothing other than an occasional defensive tweet from the commander-in-chief.

LEMON: Well, I think they realize that it is a weakness. And so --

ZAKARIA: Still, you've got to have a strategy for weaknesses as well as strengths.

LEMON: Do you think that these other -- that British intelligence, the European intelligence, Robin, would give us everything that they have? Because I tried to -- you know, to sort of get Jim Sciutto to break this down specifically. Did they -- were these duplicates? Was this new communications? Will they give us everything that they have?

WRIGHT: They haven't given it to me, so I don't know. But I suspect they gave us -- they provided a good bit of information. And I think there's a sense in the international community that they want to see this issue resolved as well. They want to see how deep these connections go and what it means. I think there's a discomfort generally among many of our allies about what happened in this election because the Europeans also face the same kind of issue with the Russians in terms of their meddling in, for example, the French or German elections. And so there are a lot of questions that play out among our allies as well as in Washington.

LEMON: Does this mean that other world leaders would know about these contacts and the nature of them, Robin?

WRIGHT: Absolutely. You have to believe that whether it's Angela Merkel or -- in Germany or Theresa May in Britain, that a lot of them know exactly what their intelligence agencies picked up and what may have been happening, what interference the Russians have engaged in when it came to the United States. And I think this is -- you know, we talk about a new Cold War with the Russians. There's a lot at stake on this issue. It's not just what happened in the run-up to our election. This is what broader Russian intentions are, how it's engaging, how much we can engage with them. So the stakes are huge on this issue.

LEMON: Yes. And of course, the narrative now is being twisted. And that's really -- can we have a free and fair electoral process or election process in this country without the Russians or foreign countries --

WRIGHT: And can any democracy.

LEMON: Yes. Absolutely. Stick around, everyone. Stick around, Fareed and Robin. When we come back, more on the "mother of all bombs." We're going to break down what message the blast could send to other countries President Trump is targeting.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[22:27:58] LEMON: We're back now. And we've been talking about our breaking news on the investigation into the Trump administration and Russia. And now to our other big breaking news story. The U.S. military dropping what's called a "mother of all bombs" on ISIS targets in Afghanistan. The first time a weapon of this type has been used in battle by the Pentagon.

Back with me now, Fareed Zakaria and Robin Wright.

Fareed, how surprised are you that 12 weeks, 12 weeks into this presidency that we dropped one of the largest bombs that we have on Afghanistan, other than a nuclear bomb?

ZAKARIA: Well, it doesn't surprise me in the sense that I don't think it represents some kind of dramatic change in the political or military strategy. It does seem from what one can tell the military was right that this was a particularly appropriate bomb given what they were facing, which was a lot of tunnels, and it was difficult to get at this stuff. But I think it does raise a bigger issue that I bet you many Americans and people around the world who watch this program, you know, were reminded of. 16 years after 9/11, we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan. This is the longest war in American history. There are I think 8,000 or 9,000 American troops.

LEMON: Is that why General Hertling was so offended by the president saying we've done more in eight weeks than we've done in the last eight years?

ZAKARIA: I think so. This has been a steady slog for a long time but it reminds you, you know, you can drop a lot of these bombs. What is the political strategy? What is the political objective?

LEMON: In Syria. In Afghanistan.

ZAKARIA: Exactly. And the only way we're going to achieve a measure of success is if we have some kind of political settlement on the ground. Right? That there's somebody there who has legitimacy and power and can take it over.

LEMON: Yes.

ZAKARIA: Otherwise, 16 years from now, we will still be talking on this program about dropping these bombs.

LEMON: All right. So that's strategy. But does it send a message, Robin Wright? And the president was asked about this earlier, about North Korea as well. Here's the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I don't know if this sends a message. It doesn't make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[22:30:02] LEMON: OK. So no strategy mentioning there except the problem will be taken care of. So to Fareed's point, how will North Korea, Iran, and other countries view this action?

WRIGHT: Well, I think that this bomb was actually dropped because of the conditions on the ground. What opportunities that were provided by whatever -- wherever the ISIS fighters were, whether it has repercussions militarily or psychologically in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq, maybe. But, you know, I don't necessarily think that that's going to be decisive.

I think a lot of these places will have their own strategies and continue, whether it's what North Korea does in the next couple of days launching a sixth nuclear test.

But I do think Fareed is right. I just came back from Iraq and I think that the thing that haunts all of us who are involved in covering these wars and have been for decades is that there is not a strategy beyond dropping bombs to find a way out of these wars, to end the military environment. All of the military experts you've had on the show will certainly agree that, yes, you can go after and use whatever weaponry, sophisticated weaponry you have to intimidate or kill the opposition, your enemy.

But you have to -- at the end of the day you have a strategy, a complementary, parallel strategy that comes up with a means to whether it's find peace in Afghanistan after six years, and dealing with the Taliban. And when I was in Mosul in Iraq, you know, there is a sense of how you provide military security for Mosul, but there's no plan for the political governance in a way that will make all the parties on the ground feel that they are invested in the process.

And they don't want to -- sign up for the next iteration of al Qaeda or ISIS or whatever is next. That there are these big questions that nobody's answering. The Trump administration most of all. You know, the Obama administration, the Bush administrations both grappled with these issues. Never got in eight years with each of them to that incredible nexus of political or diplomatic and military operations.

And there's a deep concern that for all the bombs that have been dropped in the past week, the Trump administration is as far away if not further away from that as well.

LEMON: I want to ask you, Fareed, because Senator Lindsay Graham, you know, he's been critical of this administration. He said I hope America's adversaries are watching and now understand there is a new sheriff in town. Is he right?

ZAKARIA: Not really. I think that again to Mark Hertling's point, we've been doing this for a while. In fact, President Obama dropped more -- did more drone strikes, I think, in his, you know, first two years than George Bush had done in all eight years of his presidency. Obama has actually been very comfortable using drones, using bombs, using special forces.

I think that the real challenge again is not the military. The United States has never lost or gone astray in these engagements because it has lacked military power, firepower. You know, we've won every battle.

LEMON: That's political rhetoric.

ZAKARIA: No, the problem is, what do you then do? How do you then stabilize the situation? Because if you don't stabilize it, you leave, and the bad guys come back. And it's that dynamic of figuring out -- think about Iraq. We went in, smashed a lot of stuff, but we weren't able to create some kind of political dynamic that was stable and successful. Same in Afghanistan. It's been a little -- it's been better than Iraq, but that's the difficulty. And I -- you know, I wonder whether Donald Trump will come to realize this because, you know, his national security adviser, McMaster, is actually one of the world's experts at this.

How do you actually stabilize a place politically after you've bombed it? The bombing -- the U.S. does it very well. It does it better than anyone in the world. It did it well under Obama, it did it well under Bush, it will do it well under Trump.

LEMON: Yes.

ZAKARIA: The question is, what do you do after the bombings?

LEMON: Nation building? Was that what we call it?

ZAKARIA: You know what, it is nation building. And Trump has been (INAUDIBLE) opposed to that. And McMaster and Petraeus and people like that believe in it because they believe it's the only way to stabilize. And so you say, well, Trump won't do it. Except that this week, Trump has reversed himself on six different things, maybe that will be the seventh thing he'll reverse himself on.

LEMON: Fascinating conversation. Thank you, Fareed. Thank you, Robin. Appreciate it.

When we come back, more on the investigations to Trump associates' ties with Russian officials. Plus what one of Trump's former policy advisers is now saying about his own communications with Russians.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[22:38:31] LEMON: More on our breaking news tonight. It wasn't just U.S. intelligence officials who picked up on contacts by Trump campaign associates with Russia.

Here to discuss, Dan Rather, the host of AXS TV's "The Big Interview," and David Axelrod, CNN senior political commentator.

Good evening, gentlemen. Mr. Rather, I want to ask you, start with you, your reaction to Jim Sciutto's reporting about British and European intelligence officials passing on, intercepted Trump communications? How significant do you think this development is?

DAN RATHER, HOST, AXS TV'S "THE BIG INTERVIEW": Well, we can't know until we know in detail what the facts are. And that brings us to the need or the imperative need for an independent bipartisan commission to look into this.

With the Republicans in control of the Congress, it's unrealistic to think that either one of the investigations at Congress are going to go beyond a certain point. But this is part of what somebody earlier called a drip, drip of the story. This story is not going away for Donald Trump. And the significance of what we learned tonight, how little we learned, is that it continues.

It's going to haunt the Trump presidency until and unless the story gets out and the story is, well, Trump has no culpability anywhere. But that runs hard up against the wall of -- if there's nothing there, why is the Trump administration seeking so hard to change the subject, change the narrative? They keep trying to bury this story, which fuels the idea there must be something there because otherwise they wouldn't be working so hard to keep burying it.

LEMON: Yes. That's a good question.

[22:40:02] A good question, I think, David, is what does it mean for the White House that there is apparently information out there about these contacts? That information presumably known to leaders across Europe.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. You know, I wonder who in the White House knows where all these tentacles go? And is there someone who's -- Fareed said earlier, I think, that there ought to be someone in charge of this story.

LEMON: He did.

AXELROD: But even internally, I wonder if the president, I wonder if the people around the president know where all these tentacles have gone.

Let me just say one thing about this, though. The reason why this is so insidious and so dangerous, other than the implications of potential collusion between members of his team and the Russians to subvert the elections, which is obviously deeply disturbing, but even if none of that were true, the fact is that now when the president speaks on matters that involve Russia, you saw it this week, he took a huge turn in terms of how he discussed Russia.

And rather than looking at the merits of what he was saying, people naturally were asking, well, is this a way to try and establish independence from Russia? And then you had his son out there saying as much, saying, well, now people can see he really isn't in the thrall of Russia. Sean Spicer made similar comments. And so you politicize a very fraught global relationship. And so it's really in the interest of the country to get to the bottom of this. Even wherever the bottom leads. Just to satisfy people about what actually happened.

LEMON: If there's no there-there, it's easier to show that there's no there-there and then move on instead of having it hang over your head.

This news, Mr. Rather, comes as the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who was monitored by the FBI, is providing a conflicting story about his contacts with Russian officials. This is what he said to ABC News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: In any of these conversations with Russians, either in Russia or back here in the United States, did you ever suggest to any of them that President Trump, that candidate Trump would be open to easing sanctions on Russia?

CARTER PAGE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER: Absolutely not. STEPHANOPOULOS: Never? Not once?

PAGE: I never offered that, no. Nothing along those lines. Absolutely not. I mean, it may -- I don't remember -- we'll see what comes out in this FISA transcript. It's not --

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you know what you did.

PAGE: Well, I don't recall every single word that I ever said. But I would never make any offer, or intimate anything that --

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it sounds like from what you're saying it's possible that you may have discussed the easing of sanctions?

PAGE: Something may have come up in a conversation -- I have no recollection and there's nothing specifically that I would have done that would have given people that impression, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you can't say without equivocation that you didn't discuss the easing of sanctions?

PAGE: Someone may have brought it up. I have no recollection. And if it was, it was not something I was offering or that someone was asking for.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: What do you think?

RATHER: I want to know the facts. I will say, as a general proposition, when someone says under repeated questioning, very often, I don't remember, that sometimes is a sign they don't remember because they don't want to remember. I'm not accusing him of anything at all.

Again, Don, right down the fact, we need to know what happened here.

LEMON: Right.

RATHER: It's not a partisan political matter beyond a certain point. We know the Russians were involved in some ways in trying to affect the political -- the presidential election.

LEMON: The intelligence agencies have said that.

RATHER: We need the facts. We need the facts and the fact need to be put in front of the American people. It's not a matter of preaching about it. That's why I come back to this absolute necessity of having a bipartisan special commission to look into it. And that's going to take a lot of time.

LEMON: David, getting specifically back to Carter Page. You saw that interview. Let me get your response. What did you think of his answer?

AXELROD: Well, look, Carter Page is not looking for my advice, but if I were to give him advice, I'd say, stay the heck off of television, man, if you can't answer questions. The fact is that he looked equivocal. He looked guilty in that interview. He knows whether or not he had a discussion with any Russian representative relative to sanctions.

LEMON: So let's see what comes up in the transcripts or -- yes, I'm paraphrasing there.

AXELROD: Yes. I mean, really, translated, that sounded like, I don't want to answer this too specifically because I need to know what they have. And you know -- but for the life of me, I don't understand why he's out there.

LEMON: Yes.

AXELROD: He's not helping himself.

LEMON: David, he's --

AXELROD: He's not helping himself.

LEMON: He's been asked multiple times who brought him on to the Trump campaign and he won't give a name. Who do you think is responsible? Do you have any idea?

[22:45:08] AXELROD: Listen, I -- this won't shock you, Don, but I was not privy to the intimate details of the operations of the Trump campaign. You remember, I mean, there was a human cry about the fact that Trump had no foreign policy advisers. And in desperation, once he threw out a few names, of which -- and Carter Page was one of them, it's not clear exactly what the relationship was.

I don't know who assembled his foreign policy advisers. I don't know what his relationship, for example, with Paul Manafort was. I don't know any of that. I suspect that those who are conducting investigations right now know a lot more about this than any of us.

LEMON: Yes. We're going to continue on with this conversation. We're going to talk about this "mother of all bombs" dropped on Afghanistan today. Why the previous administration didn't use it. And some talk about Steve Bannon as well, and his possible waning influence in this White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: All right. I'm back with my panel now, Mr. Dan Rather and Mr. David Axelrod.

I want to -- Dan, can you weigh on this other breaking news that we have tonight.

[22:50:03] The United States dropping this nonnuclear bomb on ISIS' tunnel complex in Afghanistan. Candidate Trump promised that he would, you know, bomb the you-know-what out of ISIS he said. Is this a president delivering, do you think?

RATHER: Well, I do. You know, first of all, the commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson, a great commander, he should have the leeway to use whatever weapons at his disposal.

LEMON: So you think it was him who made the decision, right?

RATHER: I do. I think that kind of decision probably had to go somewhere up a ladder. I'm puzzled by the president not acknowledging that he either signed off on it or he didn't sign off on it. But saving American lives, even one American life and doing something to beat the enemy at that place, no problem with that whatsoever.

The difficulty with Afghanistan is, what is the strategy? When do we know we got out? We've been there, what, 15, 16 years. Dropping bombs is not a strategy. It can be used as part of a strategy. But what's the goal now in Afghanistan? And keep in mind, by the way, that he's been asking for more ground troops. He's not granted the ground troops. Bombs are not a strategy. With the guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan, we know that on a broad general way they're not very effective in winning the war.

They can be effective in, you know, one off situations such as I believe happened in Afghanistan with this so-called "mother of all bombs." Let's put an asterisk moment page, by the way. That name is the mother of all conventional bombs. The "mother of all bombs" and the atomic weapons.

LEMON: Yes.

RATHER: Hydrogen bombs. That's the mother of all bombs.

LEMON: Yes. And very good point. David, before you weigh in, I want to play what the president said about the bombing today and then get to your response.

AXELROD: Yes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We have the greatest military in the world and they've done their job as usual. So we have given them total authorization. And that's what they're doing. And, frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately. If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that to -- really to what's happened over the last eight years, you'll see there is a tremendous difference. Tremendous difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: David, as a former president's former senior adviser, what is your reaction to those comments?

AXELROD: Well, I mean, I'm not going to respond to that element of it. Everything was terrible for the last eight years and everything's been great for the last 10 weeks according to Donald Trump. So there is no point in reacting to that. And I agree with Dan on the -- on the use of the weapon. I assume that was done for good military purposes. I don't ascribe any particular political motives to the use of this weapon. But it is interesting that the president in that -- in that scrum with

the reporters seemed not to have -- he didn't want to answer that question as you guys point out. Did he order it? Did he -- you know, what was his involvement in this? And he said well, you know, I trust -- essentially said I trust my generals. And what's interesting about that is we all remember it wasn't that many months ago when he was telling everyone that he knew better than the generals.

And it's one more instance in which he has changed his posture on his relationship with them, on what his role would be as president, versus them in terms of setting strategy. My guess is that this was a decision that was taken by the military for good military reasons.

LEMON: Let's talk about the strategy and the people around him really because "The Wall Street Journal" asked President Trump if there will be any changes to his inner circle in the coming months. And the president responded saying, I don't intend to. He added that he may change his mind from day-to-day, I don't know. And that's a quote from him.

President Trump has been distancing himself from his chief strategist Steve Bannon recently.

Dan, do you think Bannon's waning influence is driving the changes that we're seeing now? You?

RATHER: I'm sorry. I thought you were asking David. I beg your pardon. Well, this is very strange. The answer is I don't know. Who can know? But there's no precedent for what's happened here. Never in the modern presidency, and I don't think going all the way back to George Washington, has there ever been a president who talked to a tabloid newspaper and dished, which is what he did, said uncomplimentary things about one of, if not his main advisers. There is no precedent for that.

LEMON: "I like Steve, but," he said.

RATHER: Yes.

LEMON: And that was the beginning of it.

RATHER: Right. And this is -- in most White Houses, if that had been done, you would see -- you would say to yourself, Bannon politically is what the mafia calls a walking corpse. He's dead in terms of influence. But with Donald Trump, who can say? But what's been lost with all the talk of the Tomahawk missiles and "mother of all bombs" dropping, is the narrative that was taking hold before them.

[22:55:06] In the White House there's a lot of back stabbing, back biting scrambling for position. The picture was sort of painted at least from the outside that inside the White House they would turn on each other like those women in the television program "Desperate Housewives." They're turning on one another all over. But who knows where this leads?

LEMON: Yes. RATHER: But it can't be good news for Bannon that Trump has said what

he said.

LEMON: I want to get your response. I like Steve Bannon but, and then, I like Steve, but -- he said he was just a guy who works for me. What's your response to this quickly?

AXELROD: Well, just a guy who works for you doesn't get named chief strategist, placed on the National Security Council, given co-equal status with the chief of staff. He obviously was more than that to Donald Trump. But these first 82 days haven't gone particularly well. Bannon was associated with two of the biggest failures which was the travel ban and the -- which were the travel ban and the Affordable Care Act repeal failing.

And I think that there were always forces there, whether it was General Mattis, General McMaster, and some of the more globalist forces on national security who were interested in circumscribing his power, Flynn's power, and then on the economic front, you have -- you know, you have Jared Kushner, you have Gary Cohn, he's chief economic counselor, head of the economic -- National Economic Council. They were going to try and prevail over the nationalist impulses of Steve Bannon.

LEMON: Steve Bannon. Yes.

AXELROD: And you have a president who had no particular philosophy.

LEMON: Yes. I got to go.

AXELROD: OK. See you.

LEMON: All right. Thank you very -- thank you, Mr. Axelrod. Thank you, Mr. Rather. I appreciate it.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)