Return to Transcripts main page


Fired Reporter Arrested in Threats Against Jewish Centers; U.S. Steps Up Airstrikes Against Al Qaeda in Yemen. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 3, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Arnold Schwarzenegger says he's quitting the "Celebrity Apprentice," delivering a parting shot at President Trump, who mercilessly mocked his ratings.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Trump is back on the attack after new revelations that even more of his key advisers met with Russia's ambassador to the United States, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Mr. Trump is accusing Democrats of a witch-hunt, as they keep the pressure on Attorney General Sessions, saying his recusal from campaign-related investigations isn't enough.

Top Democrats are calling for Sessions to retestify under oath before the Senate after he failed to disclose his meetings with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearing.

Mr. Trump firing back on Twitter. He shared old photos of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer with Vladimir Putin and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi with the Russian ambassador, calling for investigations of their Russia ties.

But tonight some Republicans as well as Democrats are asking serious questions about the Trump's team multiple communications with Moscow during the campaign and the transition and its lack of transparency.

I will talk with Republican Congressman Mark Sanford. He's been critical of the president on some key issues. And our correspondents and analysts, they are also standing by, as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

Our correspondents have been digging on the Trump camp's communications with Russia, including the multiple meetings with Moscow's ambassador to the United States.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, what have you turned up?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, CNN has confirmed that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was at then candidate Donald Trump's foreign policy speech here in Washington last April. You can see Kislyak in the images on screen there. He is there

highlighting in oval in the middle of the screen there. The Russian ambassador was sitting in the audience as the president laid out his national security priorities, which included improving relations with Russia.

Also at the speech that day was then Alabama Senator and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who just recused himself from the Russian investigation after failing to disclose his contacts with the ambassador. Here is more of what the president had to say that day during that speech.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible.


ACOSTA: Now, three months after that speech, former Trump foreign policy adviser J.D. Gordon tells CNN he and other national security advisers for the campaign met with the Russian ambassador during the Republican Convention in Cleveland.

And Gordon says, yes, he did seek to change the Republican Party platform to oppose arming Ukraine in the fight against those pro- Russian rebels, telling me he was -- quote -- "doing what the boss wanted."

Now, the White House is certainly trying to seek some separate between the advisers and the president when it comes to these contacts with the Russians during the campaign. Earlier today, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the president had -- quote -- "zero involvement" with the Russians.

That is a very declarative statement that the White House has to hope that holds up over time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do we know, though, Jim, whether or not these aides to the president after their meetings with the Russian ambassador briefed the president, told the president, did they get encouragement from the president to continue these meetings even if the president himself didn't have any direct contacts with the Russian ambassador or other Russians?

ACOSTA: We don't have any confirmation there were any conversation between these advisers and then-candidate Trump about these conversations with the Russian ambassador.

But, Wolf, I want to take you back to a couple of interviews that occurred just after the Republican Convention, one with the former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was on "Meet the Press" and said, no, the Trump campaign did not seek those changes in the Republican Party platform, even though J.D. Gordon tells us, no, he was doing that on behalf of the campaign trying to reflect the views of then- candidate Donald Trump.

But Donald Trump, Wolf, on the very same day as that Paul Manafort interview was on "this Week With George Stephanopoulos" and said to George Stephanopoulos that he understood the change in the platform to be a -- quote -- "softening of the language" when it comes to Russia. So there you have it from the candidate himself calling it a softening of that language.

He's at least aware of the effort, Wolf, even though he says he was not directly involved -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Are officials there at the White House, Jim, explaining why there were so many denials of any contacts between any Trump advisers and Russian officials during the campaign? Are they explaining now, you know, how they got it so wrong? Because we have learned of these multiple contacts.



And as a matter of fact, yesterday I was on Air Force One, riding back from an event that the president had down in Newport News. And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a brief gaggle with reporters. And we pressed him on this, saying if you didn't know about Jeff Sessions having these meetings with the Russian ambassador, are you worried about other shoes that may drop?

Sean Spicer again said, no, there is still no there there when it comes to this investigation. And so there seems to be a bit of denial on this. But, Wolf, just a slight shift today when Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a different spokeswoman for the White House, told reporters today that she was emphasizing that the president had -- quote -- "zero involvement" with the Russians.

They're some separation now. They're almost acknowledging that, yes, these associates did have contacts -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta over at the White House, thanks for that report.

Let's go to our White House correspondent Athena Jones now. She's with the president down at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Palm Beach, where he's spending the weekend.

The Russian controversy, Athena, clearly following the president. What are you picking up?


The president wanted today to be about school choice. It's a top priority when it comes to education policy. But what's been dominating the headlines and the conversation back in Washington isn't his visit to a parochial school in Orlando today. It's questions about his advisers and their contacts with Russian officials.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TRUMP: Beautiful class.

JONES (voice-over): President Trump discussing school choice and having a lighthearted moment with students in Orlando.

TRUMP: You're all business and you're going to make a lot of money, right? But don't run for politics after you do.


JONES: Before heading to his Mar-a-Lago resort for the weekend, leaving behind a firestorm brewing over his aides and their contacts with Russian officials during the presidential campaign.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I should not be involved in the investigating a campaign I had a role in.

JONES: His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, admitting to meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and not disclosing it during his confirmation hearings. Trump is standing by him.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general?

TRUMP: Total.

JONES: The president releasing a statement last night saying Sessions "could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional," accusing Democrats of a total witch-hunt, and today tweeting photos of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in 2003, calling Schumer a total hypocrite, and of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with the Russian ambassador in 2010, demanding an investigation.

Schumer responding, saying he would "Happily talk re: my contact with Putin and his associates. Took place in '03 in full view of press and public. Under oath, would you and your team?"

Many Democrats say Sessions' recusal isn't enough. Some are arguing he should reappear before the Judiciary Committee to testify under oath.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: I want to know from him why he falsely denied that he had that meeting.

JONES: Meanwhile, more Trump advisers are under scrutiny for meeting with the Russian ambassador. Senior aide Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, and ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn sat down with Kislyak in December at Trump Tower for a 10-minute introductory meeting, according to a senior administration official.

And several Trump campaign national security advisers met with Kislyak during the Republican National Convention in July.

Carter Page telling MSNBC last night:

QUESTION: But you're not going to deny that you talked to him in Cleveland?


JONES: And J.D. Gordon telling CNN his discussion was only about building a better relationship between U.S. and Russia, not about the campaign.

J.D. GORDON, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I talked to Ambassador Kislyak there in Cleveland, but I talked to other dozens of ambassadors there in Cleveland as well.

JONES: Meanwhile, Vice President Pence is facing scrutiny for his use of a private e-mail account to conduct state business while governor of Indiana, after regularly criticizing Hillary Clinton's private e- mail server on the campaign trail.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We commend the FBI for reopening the case, following the facts, because here in America no one is above the law.

JONES: A comparison Pence dismissed today during a visit to Wisconsin.

PENCE: There is no comparison whatsoever between Hillary Clinton's practice and a private server, mishandling classified information, destroying e-mails when they were requested.


JONES: The White House is arguing that that's an apples to oranges comparison.

Meanwhile, next hour, the president is set to attend a fund-raising dinner for the Republican Party. And one thing we're still waiting for, Wolf, is the administration's new travel ban. It had been expected this week, but as this week draws to a close, a spokeswoman for the White House says they don't have announcement on this yet, and that "We will let you know when we're ready to roll that out" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will see when that happens.

Athena Jones, down in Palm Beach, Florida, for us, thank you.


Let's some get more on all of this.

Republican Congressman Mark Sanford is joining us. He's a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, also a member of the Oversight and Government Reform committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: My pleasure. BLITZER: As you heard, CNN has learned that national security adviser at the time J.D. Gordon met with the Russian ambassador, Kislyak, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. That was back in July, along with another Trump adviser, Carter Page, and yet another adviser, Walid Phares.

Additionally, President Trump's senior aide, Jared Kushner, his son- in-law, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn met with the Russian ambassador in New York City over at Trump Tower in December. Do these meetings which we're only now learning about, do they concern you, because the suggestion is the ties could go deeper?

SANFORD: Of course they do, because what you see is a pattern here.

And it's not any one single conversation that I think is throwing up alarm with folks here at home. I was just in a town hall meeting over the last couple of hours, and a lot of people raised this. It's the pattern that concerns people. And, frankly, it's even the pattern at the top.

Then candidate and now President Trump has said a number of things that are very sympathetic to a Russian viewpoint. And I don't know what it is about Putin. You had Bush that many years ago saying he could look into the guy's soul and he was a good guy. And now you have got Trump saying awfully sympathetic things.

That alarms people. This guy is a murderer. There is an interesting book out that is -- "A Very Expensive Poison" I guess is the name of it -- talking about the death of Litvinenko, the social dissident there in London, and how essentially the fingerprints of Putin are on that murder.

And there are a number of other things that are really alarming to people that this is not a good guy, who doesn't want what's best for America, who is not sympathetic to the ideals of America and what our republic stands for.

And so people see a pattern of both the president saying sympathetic things and any number of different advisers having meetings that are now disclosed. People are say, what's going on here?

BLITZER: Because some of the advisers do say critical things of the Russians, of Putin, during the confirmation hearings, for example, the new secretary of state, the secretary of defense.

But the question is this. Why don't we hear from the president himself? Why is he either silent or saying nice things about Putin and the Russians?

SANFORD: We don't know. And I think that that's the value of the whole investigation process that has begun.

It's not again an epiphany or a surprise to anybody that Russia would want to try and have influence here. They're out there. They're flexing their muscles. You can see that in the Balkans. You can see that in Ukraine. You can see it in Syria. You can see it in other elections around the country.

It's not surprising that they would try to have an impact. The question now is, was there collaboration? And I think that's what's begun in earnest on both on the House and Senate side. It was just yesterday that the agreement was reached between Republicans and Democrats on the Intel Committee in terms of size and scope of the investigation. The investigation has already begun on the Senate side.

BLITZER: In addition to the investigations in the House and the Senate, would you have a problem if there was an independent special prosecutor looking into the Trump campaign's interactions with Russia?

SANFORD: We may get to that.

But I think that the important thing is to do first things first. I don't think that Dianne Feinstein, a senator from California, wants to do any favors for Donald Trump. But she's one of the six different members on the Intel Committee on the Senate side who signed off on that process as the starting point.

I think that one of the difficulties here is, you have classified information, and that's very more difficult in a public setting. It can be handled within in the standing committees that are already exist in the House and Senate on the intel side.

BLITZER: But do you have any explanation why all these meetings with the Russian ambassador that we're only now learning about were not made public either at the time or long before, even during Attorney General Sessions' confirmation hearings? Why are we learning about them through news media reports?

SANFORD: Well, I think because it's gotten to something of a cumulative breaking point.

You saw that with General Flynn. You see that now with what would be probably viewed as a normal oversight. These hearings can be long that the senators go through in the confirmation process. You could be seated there for hour upon hour upon hour. And a comment, I don't think there would have been that much fanfare of a meeting that he didn't think about that involved 50 different ambassadors at the RNC.

But because there has been these different involvements by different people, it's coming out and it's coming out, now that which would be viewed as not that a big deal is probably viewed as a bigger deal. As to why, I don't know.

BLITZER: Would you advise the president and the White House, for that matter, if there are additional meetings that we still don't know about, to just release all that information now, rather than wait for a drip, drip, drip?


SANFORD: Yes, drips can be very dangerous in the world of politics, because it keeps it out there that much longer. I think that if I was advising the president, and I'm not attempting

to do so, if there is something out there, it needs to be out and dealt with, because, if not, the Intel Committees are going to find it. And if they're the ones finding it, I think it's much more dangerous and frankly upsetting in political terms.

BLITZER: Yes, there is a lot of investigations under way, the FBI, the Intelligence Committee hearings, the news media, a lot of investigations under way. We will see what emerges.

Congressman, there is more to discuss. I'm going to ask you to stay with us. We will take a quick break and we will be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with Republican Congressman Mark Sanford.

There is some breaking news, Congressman, coming in. A senior Department of Homeland Security official is now telling CNN the agency is considering a proposal that would separate women from their children who cross the border together illegally.

I want you to react to this. You believe this is something you could support?

SANFORD: I don't -- you catch me a bit flat-footed. I would want to learn more.

It sounds highly unusual, this notion of separating parent and child, and counter to much of what I have seen in terms of immigration policies thus far.


SANFORD: I would want to learn more before I comment on it.

BLITZER: We were totally surprised by it as well.

The department apparently believes that this would be an effort to deter undocumented immigration into the United States. But there is already a lot of concern being expressed about the reality of this, leading potentially to unsafe situations for young children separated from their mothers.

You understand the potential concern?


I mean, if you were to pick up winds that are blowing in Washington, D.C., it would be toward this notion of DACA, or deferred action, on young people. What I'm hearing sounds the opposite of at least the political winds that I have been hearing over the last two weeks in Washington. I would want to learn more. BLITZER: Yes. No, we're just getting this information in. I was

just anxious to get your reaction. We will learn some more and we will all be a little bit smarter.

Let's talk about another issue involving the Department of Homeland Security. It now has now come out with an intelligence assessment that finds most of the foreign-born violent extremists here in the United States were actually radicalized years after entering the United States, and the suggestion from this Department of Homeland Security report is that it undercuts President Trump's overall reasoning for a new travel ban.

What's your reaction?

SANFORD: Well, we certainly have seen that. We saw it in San Bernardino, we saw it in Orlando, and we have seen in Boston.

I think it fits to the reality of what we have seen here in this country. But it still begs this larger question, which is the list that was originally put together was put together under the Obama administration. And, you know, what they looked at in those countries there in the Middle East was the inability to determine whether one was a friend or a foe in coming from that country to ours.

We concurrently had with that folks basically saying that they would use the pipeline of refugee status as a way of getting into the United States and bringing harm to us. So I would have to go back to an earlier report, which is to say we know out of these countries, we have a real problem in terms of clarification on background, and that being the case, the idea of a 60-day pause I think is reasonable.

BLITZER: You're one of two Republicans, Congressman, calling on the House and the Senate right now to formally request copies of President Trump's tax returns. Have you received any response and why aren't more of your fellow Republicans joining this effort?

SANFORD: I wouldn't presume to speak for fellow members. It's just something that I think it's important.

I happen to be one of two former governors that is a member of the House of Representatives. And as part of that experience, I released my tax returns when I received the Republican nomination for the governorship of South Carolina.

And what I know is that, if you no longer do it at the federal level, believe me, governors across this country won't be doing it. And so I suspect that that may be part of the reasons as to why I stand in a relatively unique spot in calling for them.

I think it's important in continuing a tradition that's existed for 50 years in this country. This ultimately is not about Donald Trump's tax returns. It's about continuing that tradition and its implications for down-ballot races like governorships.

BLITZER: You're on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Jason Chaffetz is the chairman. If

Have you discussed this with him? Because if you want to subpoena those tax returns, he could clearly set the stage.

SANFORD: Yes, but I'm also about to a month on that committee and the idea of going to my chairman in the first month and saying, why don't you step into this different world, I don't think is wise as a new member.

I think I need to become a working member of that committee, more than a four-week working member of that committee, and then I will have any number of different requests for the chairman.

BLITZER: I spoke with the chairman, Jason Chaffetz, about this about a month or so ago. He didn't think it would be wise in his words to go on a fishing expedition. That was his explanation. Your reaction?

SANFORD: I don't think tax returns represent a fishing expedition.

Again, I think that they represent a 50-year tradition that has served our country very well in giving each voter out there another data point in making their own determination and their own conclusions in deciding who they want to represent them as president of the United States.


And I think that more information is better than less, and I think we need to be careful. As parties, oftentimes, we protect our own, but to be equal in this. If Hillary were the president of the United States, I can bet that most Republicans out there would be pushing for her to release her returns, had she not done so. I think it's something that is awfully important.

BLITZER: And do you think your fellow Republicans who are resisting -- a lot of the Democrats, of course, want to see those tax returns. But do you think your Republicans who are resisting are acting inappropriately?


Again, everybody has got to walk their own walk in the world of politics. I have a unique experience based on the fact that I have actually had to release mine. And it gives me a pretty I think strong viewpoint, given my personal experience. And I speak up as I do accordingly.

BLITZER: On another important issue, the future of the Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, you have already said you can't support the Republican repeal plan, at least as it stands right now, for the Affordable Care Act, as you say, in your words, in its present form.

Why isn't there consensus yet? It's been under consideration for repeal and replace, as you know, for a long time.

SANFORD: Well, there may be a little bit of mixing of words here. I have said that I support the idea of repeal, but I didn't support it without a replace.

And I think that that distinction is important. It's not that I don't support a repeal. I do support a repeal. I just think that you have got to couple it with something. And I say that because, again, an example of a town hall meeting that I was again at over the last couple of hours, people are passionate about their health care.

There is nothing more personal and more vital than one's health care. And the idea of simply repealing without telling folks what comes next, not only opens up problems in terms of the commercial and the insurance marketplace. It really opens up problems with regard to people's own health care. And, therefore, I think that it's vital that you couple the two.

BLITZER: As you know, the debt ceiling, it is going to have to be raised within the next few -- they could have some maneuvers over the next few months, but March 15, that's formally when the U.S. reaches the debt ceiling.

Are you going to vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling?

SANFORD: Well, my knee-jerk reaction would be no.

Typically, it's coupled with something else. The last couple of debt ceilings have been raised or struck to a number -- excuse me, to a date, not an amount, or a number.

I think that one of the reforms that ought to take place, if the debt ceiling is to be raised, is going back to a number. If I gave you my credit card and I say you have got it and it's good until August vs. I say you got it until you spend $10,000 on it, those can end up with two very different numbers.

I will wait and see what's coupled to it. My knee-jerk reaction would be no.

BLITZER: Because the debt ceiling formally goes over on March 15, but the Treasury Department has some steps. They can delay it for a few months. You guys are going to have a big problem presumably down the road.

Representative Sanford, as usual, thank you so much for joining us.

SANFORD: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Coming up, we will have more on the Trump camp's contacts with Russia, the who and when. We have a new timeline of events.


BLITZER: Tonight President Trump is accusing Democrats of a witch- hunt amid revelations that even more of his key advisers met with Russia's ambassador to the United States, something the president and his team have been denying for months. [18:33:23] CNN's Brian Todd is here. Brian, these contacts between

Trump's campaign and the Russian ambassador, what, they go back almost a year.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, they go back at least as far as last April. Tonight, we've investigated the timeline of contacts between the Trump team and Russian officials. And when you put them all together, the pattern, the consistency of those contacts are extraordinary.


TODD (voice-over): For months the denials have been emphatic and definitive.

MEREDITH VIEIRA, CO-HOST, NBC'S "THE TODAY SHOW": Can you say with 100 percent confidence that Mr. Trump or anybody in this campaign had no -- no conversations with anybody in Russia during the campaign?

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: No, I'm just telling you it's all phony bologna garbage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did any advisor or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who are trying to meddle in the election?

PENCE: Of course not.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you say whether you are aware that anybody who advised you had contacts with Russia during the course of the election?

TRUMP: I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does. contact with Russian.

TODD: It now appears those denials were at best deflections.

CNN has confirmed a growing list of people affiliated with the president's campaign who had contact with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, as far back as last spring.

In April of 2016, Kislyak was in the audience in the same room with Attorney General Sessions as then-candidate Trump gave a speech calling for the U.S. to ease tensions with Russia.

TRUMP: Strength.

TODD: Three months later, Kislyak was in Cleveland, on July 20, on the sidelines of the Republican convention. CNN has learned at least three Trump campaign national security advisers met with the Russian ambassador. One of them tells CNN nothing inappropriate was said, that there was no collusion with the Russians to aid the Trump campaign.

[18:35:07] But was Trump's Russia policy affected by those meetings? Trump's team allegedly pushed convention delegates into changing the GOP platform language to offer less help to Ukraine in their fight against Russian separatists. Days later Trump told ABC this.

TRUMP: He's not going into Ukraine. OK? Just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine. All right? You can mark it down; you can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's already there.

TODD: During his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also denied any contacts as part of the campaign.

SESSIONS: I didn't have -- not have communications with the Russians.

TODD: But on Thursday, Sessions admitted he,, too, met with the Russian ambassador in Cleveland.

SESSIONS: In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, "But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times. That would be the ambassador."

TODD: The week after that meeting in Cleveland, e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were released, embarrassing Democrats during their convention. The Trump campaign denied any involvement.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign, and Putin and his regime?

PAUL MANAFORT, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN: No, there are not. It's absurd, and you know, there's no basis for it.

TODD: Days later, Mr. Trump was back in front of cameras, seemingly daring the Kremlin to help take down Hillary Clinton.

TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

TODD: U.S. officials now say the Russians were engaged in a concerted effort to help Trump get elected through hacks and fake news. On September 8, Sessions, still a surrogate for the Trump campaign, met with the Russian ambassador a second time, this time in Sessions's Senate office. Sessions says the subject of Ukraine came up.

CNN has learned contacts between the ambassador and Trump advisors continued after the election. In December, a senior administration official now says the ambassador met briefly at Trump Tower with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his appointed national security adviser, General Michael Flynn. Despite news cameras rolling constantly in the Trump Tower lobby, Kislyak was apparently never seen by reporters entering or leaving the building.

Later that month, Michael Flynn had a flurry of phone calls and a text with the Russian ambassador, he says touching on everything from holiday greetings to sanctions. It was then that President Trump expelled more than 30 Russian diplomats and leveled sanctions on Russia. Yet, Vladimir Putin said he wouldn't respond in kind. Trump praised Putin's move in a tweet: "I always knew he was very smart." Two months later, after "The Washington Post" detailed the timing of

the calls, Flynn was forced to resign, the White House says for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with the ambassador.

The next day, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was still trying to answer questions about Trump campaign contacts with the Russians before the election.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

TODAY: Two days later, the president himself was again asked, and again denied that anyone on his campaign team had contacts with Russia during the election.

TRUMP: No, nobody that I know of.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you're not aware of any contacts during the course of the election?

TRUMP: How many times do I have to answer this question?


TODD: Now, it seems the president and his team will have to continue answering these questions as congressional investigations are looming.

Now, it's important to note it's not unusual for members of the president-elect's team to meet with foreign dignitaries after the election. None of these contacts also appear to have been illegal, and the Trump administration says it did nothing wrong -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.

Let's get some more from our experts and our analysts. And Laura Coates, you're our legal analyst, former federal prosecutor. When you look at the meetings, Laura, when you look at the denials, what does it tell you?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It tells me that where you have secrecy, it will breed suspicion. And that's what's happening right now.

The reason people have turned their attention to these is not because we have the ultimate conclusion. We're in the very kind of initial phase of the investigation, what was the influence of Russia, if any, what was the involvement of key campaign staffers and surrogates?

But when you have people who are a little bit mischievous in their response or misleading, it makes you raise an eyebrow. And it really reminds you of the federal prosecutor. When you have a question, and they have amnesia, and they can't really recall.

And you threaten them and say, "You have an oath. Perjury has to be a consequence of it. And you have a great memory of what's just happened. That leads to further suspicion and it makes people say, "We need to make sure that the investigation that's currently under way, if it's really happening, is being led by somebody who's objective and could actually monitor appropriately.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, these meetings -- how typical or atypical do they seem to be to you?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, I -- on the surface, I don't view these as particularly significant. Let me tell you why.

Let's say the Trump team comes into office after the inauguration, and somebody says, "What do you think Russian thinks about Syria? What do they think about Europe and NATO? What do they think about steps forward with the Iran nuclear program and the deal with Iran?"

And the Trump team says, "We're uncomfortable meeting with the Russians and the Russian ambassador, so we've got to start from ground zero." I as a voter, Wolf, would not be comfortable with that story.

I'll tell you, though, we're missing a key piece, and I hope over the next few days, Brian Todd and everybody else asks one question: put this in perspective for me.

[18:40:14] Two ways to look at that: No. 1, the Trump team met with the Chinese, the Russians, the Saudis, the Indonesians, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Mexicans, the Germans. I would step back and say, well, Jeff Sessions, a couple meetings with the Russians, no big deal. That's what the campaign did.

Conversely, Wolf, let's so we ask that perspective question, and somebody says, "Wow, the only people they seem to have met with consistently weren't the Germans, weren't the British. They weren't the Chinese. They were the Russians. Depending on the context, Wolf, I think your answer to the question about how significant this is takes on different colors. So that's why I'm waiting for more answers.

BLITZER: And why deny those meetings over and over and over again? If they're typical meetings that people have with foreign leaders, with foreign ambassadors, why repeatedly deny that they even took place? Now we know they did take place.

MUDD: Well, let me take you inside Washington. I think one of the things that happened here wasn't necessarily lying. It was people who don't have a lot of experience and who started realizing that they were facing questions. They answered those questions tactically. They didn't go back and review their journals. They didn't go back and think seriously about what had happened at the convention months ago last summer. And they suffered a death by a thousand cuts when "The Washington Post," CNN and others started to reveal information.

They never got in front of the story because I suspect their inexperience in Washington didn't lead them to get out in front of this and say, "Wow, before we answer another question, we ought to sit down and not let this go out piecemeal. We ought to let everything out there door." I don't think this is lies. Maybe in some circumstances it is. I think it's bad management at the White House.

BLITZER: What do you think, Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that there's an element of bad management here. But I do think that most of the people involved have a lot of experience in Washington, principle among them Jeff Sessions, who's a long-time senator and is also an attorney and understands what it means to answer a question or to over-answer a question, as he did in his Senate hearing.

I think people like Sean Spicer in the White House, Reince Priebus, they understand how this works. They may have overlooked at it in an effort to tamp down the questions, but the real solution here would have been to come clean at the very beginning.

Because as Phil said, these -- these meetings are not, in and of themselves, suspicious or, in any way, wrong necessarily. But not disclosing them is part of a pattern, and over the past couple of days, we've seen several meetings suddenly disclosed between the ambassador. That shouldn't be happening. They should have disclosed them early on to dispel any suspicion.

BLITZER: Laura, what should the White House now be doing to get ahead of this story?

COATES: They should be focusing on whether or not there's going to be a criminal investigation into the misstatement -- key word here -- perhaps perjury of Sessions. The issue is not just about whether or not we have an ultimate conclusion of Russian interference. That's -- that is a separate issue. It may be investigated. It may ultimately come to pass.

But the issue right now is you have several people who are key members of the administration, most recently Flynn, and now we have Sessions, who are making false statements. And remember, the person who runs the Department of Justice is keenly aware of the responsibility of what it means to testify under oath.

And don't give him a pass simply because he maybe has misunderstood the context that Senator Al Franken gave him. He also got the question in writing, Senator Leahy, which shows you there may be more of a pattern than you even believe.

And so the recusal perhaps is the most prudent course, but what they have to focus on now, is listen, get your ducks in a row, because the Russia problem is not going anywhere.

BLITZER: Quickly to you, Phil. What do you think the White House needs to do right now?

MUDD: Look, this is pretty basic. I agree with this. They cannot allow the media to own this story, drip by drip, a drop of blood every day as sharks in the Congress, the media, and among the American people rip a hole in them. They ought to get out front and say, "Look, we've hired somebody" --

I'd suggest -- I'll throw him under the bus -- Robert Mueller, former FBI director. He has access to diaries, phone records and interviews, and over the course of the next 30 days, he will interview everyone in the campaign, or at least most of the people, review their diaries and their phone records. And the White House doesn't let drops of blood go in the water. They dump a tub load of blood in the water and say, "We will give you every answer you want and more"?

They are way behind the curve, and they're way too tactical.

BLITZER: The president responded today by tweeting -- tweeting about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, making fun of them and the meetings they had with the -- with the Russian ambassador and with Putin on the part of Schumer himself.

PHILLIPS: Yes, it seems to be helping to muddy the waters around this. But also illustrates an important thing, which is that Nancy Pelosi didn't remember that she'd had that meeting or didn't think that it was appropriate in that context, which sort of helps their argument that maybe there's -- there's a reasonable expectation that Sessions could have been trying to do the right thing but just simply made a mistake.

BLITZER: All right, guys, Stick around. We've got more coming up.

Just ahead, an arrest in connection with a wave of threats against Jewish sites across the country.

Plus, a dramatic escalation in air strikes against al Qaeda. Why is the U.S. now stepping up the air war?


[18:50:01] BLITZER: There has been an arrest in connection with a series of threats against Jewish institutions across the United States.

CNN's Brynn Gingras has the latest.

Brynn, a former reporter now suspected in making some of those threats.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. According to authorities, Juan Thompson is believed to be behind eight bomb threats against Jewish institutions.

Now, he does not appear to be the main person behind the wave of threats that targeted centers across the nation, rather jumping on the anti-Semitic acts and doing it to harass his ex-lover. In one example, authorities believe Thompson actually e-mailed the Anti- Defamation League headquarters and used his ex-girlfriend's name. He told the center she is behind the bomb threat against Jews.

The FBI says Thompson continued with this kind of pattern, trying to frame his ex by making threats to JCC centers and schools in four states, and in some cases, we're told, he even tried to make it seemed like his ex was framing him. Authorities say Thompson had been targeting, his ex, harassing and intimidating her since July. And these threats that were made, these were just a culmination of all of that.

We also know, like you said, Wolf, Thompson is a former reporter. He actually worked for "The Intercept" last year and the publication sent us a statement. They said, "These actions are heinous and should be fully investigated and prosecuted. Thompson worked for The Intercept from November 2014 to January 2016 when he was fired after we discovered he had fabricated sources and quotes in his articles."

Now, Thompson previously has denied that reason for the firing to CNN. We should also mention, Wolf, today's arrest comes on the same day FBI Director James Comey met with religious leaders to ensure that the agency has their back. They're going to continue investigating who is behind the other threats, calling it a priority for the agency -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He's being charged with eight of more the more than 100 phone calls, bomb threats, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, swastikas painted. So, clearly, they're looking for more suspects out there.

GINGRAS: Absolutely. And they have -- law enforcement officials have said they do believe that the majority of these threats are coming from either a person or a group of people from overseas and it's possible there is another copycat case out there. But like I said, the FBI today saying this is a top priority, which is something these religious institutions wanted to hear, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brynn, thank you. Brynn Gingras reporting for us.

Meanwhile, other important news, fear of a terror plot in the works has the United States stepping up airstrikes against al Qaeda in Yemen.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's working the story for us.

Barbara, you're picking up new information.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf. Tonight, it is increasingly clear Donald Trump's Pentagon has opened a new campaign in the war on terror.


STARR (voice-over): A dramatic escalation against al Qaeda in Yemen. U.S. warplanes conducted over 30 airstrikes in two days, a campaign approved by Donald Trump and delegated to the Pentagon to carry out.

A former Obama administration official says attacking this terror organization is the right move.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It would be good news if the Trump administration continues to go after this group.

STARR: The urgency elevated by fear. Al Qaeda in Yemen known as AQAP may be planning direct attacks against the U.S., according to a defense official. The group considered one of the top threats to the U.S. homeland, has gained strength during the turmoil of the ongoing civil war.

CAPT. JEFF DAVIS, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: Make no mistake, AQAP, while we talk a lot about ISIS, AQAP is the organization that has more American blood on its hands.

STARR: The terror group's record of inspiring attacks is long and bloody, including 2009, the underwear bomber on an airliner landing in Detroit, attempting the first potential attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

2010, bombs hidden in printer cartridges were mailed from Yemen, set to go off on cargo planes over the U.S., intercepted in the U.K. and Dubai.

2013, the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston marathon said to be inspired by AQAP's online magazine.

2015, the attacks against the "Charlie Hebdo" cartoonist offices in Paris.

More U.S. military action is planned in addition to the three missions already conducted. On March 3rd, ten air strikes were carried out in three al Qaeda strongholds.

On March 1st, more than 30 air strikes in the same regions.

On January 29th, that controversial raid that killed Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens and several civilians and did result in vital intelligence, U.S. officials insist.

SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION: There are often times a lot of value in getting access to al Qaeda's own internal information.

[18:55:05] It gives you a lot of insight into how they're thinking strategically, operationally, and tactically.


STARR: Now, U.S. Special Forces do continue to quietly move in and out of Yemen, at times conducting small classified missions on the ground. One of the key things we do not know, wolf, is the full price being paid by civilians on the ground who may be caught in the crosshairs of these attacks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thanks very much. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

This Sunday, in a new season of "Finding Jesus," historians explore lots of significant developments that we've learned.

CNN's David Gregory has a preview -- David.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN ANALYST: Wolf, the series premiere focuses on a central figure in the death of Jesus, the Roman governor at the time, Pontius Pilate. So, who was he? And is there now evidence about his life that helps to confirm the account about him in the gospels? We went to the Holy Land to explore.


GREGORY (voice-over): On the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, there is an ancient secret as old as the birth of Christianity. Here in Caesarea, the majestic Roman port, a fatal determination changed history. The Roman governor based here, Pontius Pilate, was called on to decide the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. He would be a harsh judge.

SHIMON GIBSON, ARCHAEOLOGIST: He was brutal. We hear massacres and bloodsheds that were connected to the time that he had the rule over Judea. He was not a nice person.

GREGORY: We have come to the amphitheater in Caesarea with Dr. Shimon Gibson, an archaeologist who has spent more than 20 years conducting excavations in the Holy Land. Here in 1961, archaeologists discovered proof of Pilate's existence.

GIBSON: You wouldn't really sort of think that at this spot, under this wooden stand, this inscription was found. Latin inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate. But this was one of those pivotal moments that changes everything, because suddenly, Pontius Pilate comes out of this written inscription. It's not just this figure in the gospels.

GREGORY (on camera): The Israel museum here in Jerusalem is a treasure house of artifacts from the 1st century. To visit here as a religious pilgrim or a historian is to discover crucial evidence of the end of Jesus' life.

(voice-over): The left side of the Pilate stone was chiseled away to fit into the theater, but the inscription is clear, Tiberium Pontius Pilate perfectus Judea -- a stone thought to commemorate a lighthouse dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius.

JONATHAN PRICE, PROFESSOR OF CLASSIC, TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY: It was a wild moment, because first of all, this is the only physical object from time of Pilate which has his name.

GREGORY: The Gospel of Luke tells the story. Pilate was called to Jerusalem amid the uproar over the ministry of Jesus, considered a rebel leading a messianic movement. "Are you the King of the Jews?" Pilate asks in the Scripture. And he answered them, "You have said so."

PRICE: He probably thought of Jesus as a minor rebel of the kind of which he saw many in his governorship.

GREGORY: The ornate ossuary next to the Pilate stone is thought to belong to Josephus Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest and a pivotal figure in the trial of Jesus. Dr. Gibson's excavations next to the Tower of David Museum have uncovered further evidence of Pilate's time in Jerusalem.

Based on the gospels and writings from the period, the archaeologist imagines Pilate's judgment.

GIBSON: He decides to make an example of Jesus and to have him crucified. I don't think he would have had a sleepless night over it.

GREGORY: There are no records of Pilate's last days or his burial place. History records that he was called back to Rome to account for the brutality of his rule. Pilate may have ended the life of Jesus, but for the faithful, this crucial episode marks just the beginning.


GREGORY: Pilate's portrayal in the gospels is controversial. Was he reluctant to condemn Jesus to death or was that simply an attempt by the writers of the gospels to shift the blame to Jewish authorities? Historians from the period cast Pilate as part of brutal Roman rule. The mysteries about all this persist, but so does the interest, given evidence of Pilate's rule and the evidence of the final week of Jesus' life -- Wolf.

BLITZER: David Gregory reporting. Thank you.

The new season of "Finding Jesus" begins this Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific only here on CNN.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.