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New Reports Indicate Jared Kushner Attempted to Set Up Backchannel Communication with Kremlin; President Trump Does Not Yet Endorse American Commitment to Paris Climate Accord; Mourners Gather at Memorial for Manchester Terror Attack Victims; New Security Regulations May Affect Travel to U.S. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 27, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:02:08] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. I am Fredricka Whitfield.

The president is heading home to D.C. and into a cloud of new allegations involving his team's contacts with Russia. Today the White House responded to explosive new reports involving the president's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Kushner is now accused of considering setting up a secret communication line with the Kremlin. The president, though, stayed quiet on the brewing controversy while speaking at a U.S. military base in Sicily, the last stop of his nine-day international swing. CNN's Jim Acosta, senior White House correspondent, was there as the president spoke, and Jim is joining me right now. Still, there have been no press briefings, but this was the president speaking to military members and their families. It was kind of like a rally, wasn't it?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was really was. And this is how the president's advisers like to describe it, talking over the heads of the news media and talking directly to his own audience. And this audience today was U.S. military personnel at the naval air base here at Sicily. And the president claimed that he hit a homerun on this foreign trip, his first foreign trip abroad. And he scolded once again those NATO countries that he says are not contributing their fair share to the common defense of that alliance.

He also talked about counterterrorism and the need to step up those efforts. But, Fredricka, the undercurrent to this entire trip, and it's the one that's going to waiting for the president when he gets back home is of course this Russia investigation. And that is why for the most part we did not hear from the president in terms of talking to reporters. He gave speeches. He met in bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, but he did not answer questions from reporters in any kind of formal setting except for maybe a couple of occasions at the beginning of this trip. And he left it too his tops aides.

Today we heard from Gary Cohn, the economic adviser to the president, H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. Oddly, and this is unlike what we have seen in other foreign trips involving other presidents, oddly, these two officials spoke on the report but off camera, and they were bombarded with questions about the Russian investigation. They were asked about Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and these reports of back channeling or attempts to backchannel with the Russians during the transition, that this was something that Jared Kushner was considering. And they simply just swatted away those questions and said that, well, we're just not going to answer this.

H.R. McMaster at one point told reporters when asked, if you don't want to talk specifically about Jared Kushner, how do you feel about back channeling with other countries? And H.R. McMaster told reporters that is fine to backchannel with other countries. That is done from time to time.

But Fredricka, keep in mind, these conversations, these potential conversations that Jared Kushner was going to happen -- or have, happened during the transition. And that is when they were not in power. They were obviously waiting to take power. And so they're going to be all sorts of questions.

[14:05:07] The subject of the Logan Act will obviously come up in this conversation in the coming days. That precludes people who are not government officials from negotiating with foreign powers. But we should point out obviously federal investigators have said Kushner is not a target of any kind of investigation. He's just somebody they want to talk to in the context of their probe.

But the other aspect to all of this, the president did not take questions about his interactions very much with foreign leaders. Here at the G-7, six of the G-y countries said that they would sign on and continue to honor the Paris Climate Agreement. President Trump said no, he's not going to do that. He's going to make that decision later on this week.

And we can tell you, Fredricka, from talking to a French official, when the president sat down with Emmanuel Macron, the French president earlier this week in Brussels, the president indicated to Macron during that meeting that he feels he's under heavy pressure, domestic political pressure back home in the United States to pull out of that agreement, so something that we will be watching here in the coming days. When the president returns to Washington, he will be very much going back into that bunker trying to avoid a lot of these questions about the Russia investigation. But of course this climate deal is something that he says he's going to decide on later on next week.

WHITFIELD: Perhaps what's different now is he has the Pope in his ear, and he did say he's going to consider what the Pope said to him.

ACOSTA: That's true.

WHITFIELD: He said that directly to the Pope, so perhaps there's a bit more consternation, and that's why he does want to delay and wait a week, maybe still gage what's going on in the U.S. But at the same time Pope Francis might still be in his ear who had forward to him you need to stick with that --

ACOSTA: Perhaps some divine interventions, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Maybe. Maybe. We'll see. All right, Jim Acosta, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

All right, now to that inescapable firestorm that does await the president in Washington. Sources telling CNN the president's son-in- law Jared Kushner discussed setting up a secret communication line with the Kremlin in the December meeting during the transition with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Today National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn responded to those reports just what Jim was referring to, not on camera, but you will hear the recorded audio while in Italy.


GARY COHN, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL DIRECTOR: We are not going to comment on Jared. We're just not going to comment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Generally speaking, though, would you be concerned if somebody in the National Security Council or in this administration were to seek a backchannel communication system with the Russian embassy and with the Kremlin? Would that generally concern you, not to even address Kushner specifically, but in general terms?

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: No. We have backchannel communications with a number of countries. So generally speaking about backchannel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet matter. So it doesn't predispose you toward any sort of content of that conversation or anything. So no, I would not be concerned about it.


WHITFIELD: All right, we have a team of reporters covering this story, CNN Washington correspondent Ryan Nobles and CNN international correspondent Clare Sebastian in Moscow for us. So Ryan, let me begin with you. Explain to us further what we know about this backchannel with the Kremlin?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Fred, at this point, Jared Kushner has not denied the report. In fact, he has yet to respond to any specific inquiries on the matter. And this is what we know. CNN has confirmed that after the election last fall Kushner explored the idea of setting up a secret line of communication with Russia to discuss military operations in Syria and other matters, even though it's unclear why a channel like this would be necessary.

Now, Kushner first discussed the idea during a meeting in December with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The line was never establishment, but it would have given Kushner and the incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn a secret channel of communication with Russian leaders that would have been outside the purview of the Obama administration.

This story was initially reported by "The Washington Post" which revealed that Kislyak told his superiors about the proposal. Kislyak telling his bosses that this was Kushner's idea and would have been established inside Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S. Now according to "The Post," Kislyak himself was actually taken aback by the proposal because of the security risks that it could potentially create for both the Russian government and the Trump transition. This of course yet another story involving the Russian government and the Trump team directly tied to Kushner who is the son- in-law of President Trump and a senior adviser to the president. At the time of the proposal, Kushner was technically a private citizen, but that may not matter legally because he was an official member of the transition and did have a preliminary security clearance. Kushner's attorneys have said that he will cooperate with investigator, including those on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Fred?

WHITFIELD: OK, and so Clare, you are there in Moscow. How is this reporting playing out there, and has there been a response from the Kremlin?

[14:10:06] CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, not from the Kremlin but we did hear from the foreign ministry earlier today, the spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, responding to a text message and calling the report initially of course from the "Washington Post," she called it "McCarthyism, or simply internal political squabbles." We pressed her on whether the ministry was aware of this request to be made by Jared Kushner back in December. Of course, we assumed that they were given that this came from an intercept between Kislyak and his superiors in Moscow. She would not be drawn on that, and the Kremlin did not answer that question when we put it to them either.

But I think it's interesting you can see the increasing level of exasperation here in that comment from her. There are concerns that phrase McCarthyism, that Russia is being used as a tool by Trump's opponents to hurt the administration, and I think that's why you see here in Russia they're keeping a fairly low profile on these issues, not wanting to say too much, only just enough to defend Russia and create a sense that it's political chaos in Washington. But really they didn't want it to become any more politically toxic to Trump than frankly they are already are.

Just watching, though, Fred, it has to be said for any key policy statements coming out of Trump during his foreign visit, any sense of how his policy on Russia is going to develop of course as Jim Acosta was reporting, he said very little during that trip.

WHITFIELD: All right, Clare Sebastian, Ryan Nobles, thanks to both of you, appreciate it.

All right, still ahead, two new arrests made in connection with this weeks' terror attack investigation in Manchester. Stay with us.


[14:15:28] WHITFIELD: British authorities say two more men are now under arrest in connection with this week's terror attack at a pop concert in Manchester, England. They also say their understanding of the bomb plot is growing, and that has triggered a change in the country's terror threat level.

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, British security officials have lowered the official threat level from critical to severe. Now, critical was the highest level possible. It meant that security officials here in U.K. believed that another attack could be imminent. By lowering it to severe, they're still calling on the general public to exercise vigilance, but they don't believe another terror attack is around the corner.

This comes as British police continue to carry out raids both here in Manchester and surrounding areas. They arrested two individuals today in connection with this investigation. That brings to 11 the total number of people that are now in custody. And of course the investigation does have an international focus to it with investigators trying to track down the network that they believe enabled the attacker to carry out his plot.

All of this is happening as behind me you can see this memorial continues to grow. Thousands of people have come here today to pay their respects even though it has been raining and the weather has been gloomy. People are still coming out here as we speak. And in one of the more emotional scenes that we have seen so far, some of the family members of the victims, the 22 victims who have lost their lives in the attack, came here today to pay their respects, and certainly in perhaps the most emotional scene that I have seen here today, the family of Georgina Callander came here to the scene. You'll remember Georgina was an 18-year-old girl. She tweeted an image, a photo of her smiling next to Ariana Grande. In a symbolic gesture her relatives brought yellow balloons and they stood in the middle of this tribute and they released those yellow balloons into the sky as a way of saying farewell. And the moment they did that, hundreds of people that had gathered around again applauding as a for them to honor the 22 lives that were lost here in Manchester. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: So sad. All right, thank you so much Muhammad Lila.

All right, new security measures could affect thousands of U.S. bound flyers. Straight ahead, we'll find out what electronics could be banned from your next flight.


[14:21:38] WHITFIELD: Either today, former vice president Joe Biden delivered the commencement speech at Cornell University. And much like Hillary Clinton at Wellesley College yesterday, he couldn't help buy wade into politics.


JOE BIDEN, (D) FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: We saw the forces of populism not only here but around the world call to close our nation's gates against the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The immigrant, the minority, the transgender, anyone not like me became a scapegoat. Just build a wall, keep Muslims from coming to the United States, they're the reason I cannot compete. That's why I don't have a job. That's why I worry about my safety.

And imagine, I imagine, like me, many of you seen this unfold was incredibly disorienting and disheartening. Your reaction, you graduates in particular, is understandable. But I assure you that this is a temporary state of affairs. The American people will not sustain this attitude for long, I promise you.



WHITFIELD: Joe Biden today.

Millions of Americans are expected to fly out for a holiday this Memorial Day weekend. And starting soon, there might be an added headache for flyers. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is now considering expanding the electronics ban that already applies to some foreign flights coming into the U.S., and that could affect any electronic device larger than a cell phone. CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh takes a look at what that could mean for your travel plans.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Travelers are on the move in expected record volumes and the terrorist risk is as high as it was on September 11th. That's according to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

JOHN KELLY, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: What I have learned in the last 120 days is this relentless attempt on the part of terrorists to blow up airplanes, ideally big airplanes with a lot of people. We are watching a number of very, very sophisticated, advanced threats right now.

MARSH: Travelers flying to the United States from 10 airports in eight Muslim majority countries are already under a laptop ban, meaning electronics larger than a cell phone are not allowed in the cabin of the plane over fears they may be used to detonate or conceal explosives. The ban is expected to expand to more countries soon.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: So this heightened language without any policy changes really leaves the American public at a disadvantage. That kind of advantage makes the American public do one of two things -- freak out or tune out. And neither it is a good place to be.

MARSH: Travelers at 10 U.S. airports may experience new TSA screening measures on larger electronics. The agency is testing screenings those items separately before allowing them on board.

All this on the heels of a terror attack on concert goers in Manchester, New England, and just four months after a gunman retrieved a 9 millimeter handgun from his checked luggage at the baggage claim, and opened fire at Fort Lauderdale. Now Secretary Kelly is warning Congress homegrown, lone wolf attacks will continue. [14:25:12] KELLY: As horrible as Manchester was, my expectation is

we're going to see a lot more of that kind of attack.

MARSH: It's why some are alarmed at President Trump's proposed 2018 budget cuts to TSA's VIPR program. The program dispatches 31 teams of law enforcement and explosives experts to soft targets based on the threat level. The budget cuts would only leave eight teams in place.

KAYYEM: There is no consistency between the language of Secretary Kelly about the terror threat and what his budget looks like.


WHITFIELD: All right, that was CNN's aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

So much more straight ahead in the newsroom at the top of the hour. Thanks for being with me today. I am Fredricka Whitfield. I'll see you again tomorrow. "Vital Signs" with Dr. Sanjay Gupta begins right after this.