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THE SITUATION ROOM
Senate Intel Chief Vows Comprehensive Trump/Russia Probe; Ivanka Trump to be Official White House Employee; Interview with Rep. Terry Sewell; Feds: State Department Worker Spied for China; Twice- Poisoned Putin Critic Warns U.S. Lawmakers. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired March 29, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Unprecedented probe. Senate intelligence leaders say their investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign and Russia will be the biggest in years. They want to question at least 20 people, and they say they'll follow the intelligence wherever it leads, even to the highest level.
[17:00:24] Stalled in the House. Amid partisan infighting, the House investigation grinds to a halt. Democrats accuse the Republican chairman of working with the White House. He refuses to step aside and indicates no public hearings will be held for weeks. I'll speak later with the ranking Democrat Adam Schiff.
An easy one. Just days after the collapse of the Republican Obamacare replacement bill, President Trump says making a health care deal is, quote, "an easy one." The White House says that's a joke, but some angry lawmakers aren't laughing.
And Putin's enemies. As Russia's Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissent, one critic who's been poisoned twice blames the attempted murders on the Kremlin and speaks out to Congress and to CNN.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news, the Senate Intelligence Committee has just signaled it's ready to pick up the slack left by its seemingly dysfunctional House counterpart. Republican Chairman Richard Burr says the panel is reviewing an unprecedented amount of intelligence documents of possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. He says the panel has asked to question 20 people.
Democratic Vice Chairman Mark Warner vows the committee will go wherever the facts lead and will get to the bottom of Russia's election meddling and will get it right. The first Senate hearing tomorrow will focus on Russia's capabilities.
The House committee's Russia probe has stalled amid partisan infighting that started when Republican Chairman Devin Nunes secretly visit the White House grounds and suggested he'd found evidence of surveillance and then rushed back to the White House without briefing his own committee. Beyond that, a cancelled public hearing and a cancelled committee
meeting are also fueling charges by Democrats that Nunes is working with the Trump administration. He's rejected calls to step aside and indicates there will be no public hearings until at least after the Easter recess.
I'll talk to a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell, and our correspondents, and analysts and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
Let's get right to our breaking news. Let's begin with CNN's Jessica Schneider. Jessica, one Intelligence Committee bogged down in bickering. The other ready and eager to get going.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
The Senate Intelligence Committee wasting no time. Chairman Burr revealing that a seven-member staff has already been knee-deep in documents, that up to this point have only been shared with the Gang of Eight and high-level staff directors. The chairman saying that access alone is unprecedented in the history of the committee.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee say they are pouring through thousands of intelligence documents as part of its bipartisan investigation into Russian meddling during the election.
SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: This is one of the biggest investigations that the Hill has seen in my tenure here.
SCHNEIDER: Standing in stark contrast to the House inquiry stalled by partisan finger-pointing, the Senate chairman and ranking Democrat stressed they are working together closely.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: We together with the members of our committee are going to get to the bottom of this.
SCHNEIDER: The Senate committee saying it is getting unprecedented access to intelligence and will hold its first public hearing tomorrow.
WARNER: Obviously, there's a lot of drama. It's important for us, at least, and I think all of us here, to remember to not lose sight about what this investigation is about.
An outside foreign adversary effectively sought to hijack our most critical democratic process, the election of a president.
SCHNEIDER: The committee has asked 20 people to testify so far.
BURR: I think it's safe to say that we have had conversations with a lot of people, and you would think less of us if General Flynn wasn't in that list.
SCHNEIDER: But General Flynn's lawyer tells CNN the committee has not interviewed Flynn and has only spoken to his attorneys. Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort will talk to the committee; and Jared Kushner has extended the same offer. Questions have been mounting about Kushner's meeting in December with the chairman of the state- sponsored Russian bank VEB, Sergey Gorkov.
BURR: The committee will conduct an interview with Mr. Kushner when the committee decides that it's time for us to set a date, because we know exactly the scope of what needs to be asked of Mr. Kushner.
SCHNEIDER: Sources tell CNN the committee also wants to hear from Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who compiled a dossier alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
BURR: We're not going to get into names that are on our list, but I can assure you that it's -- that it's lengthy. Mark and I have both agreed that we're willing to issue subpoenas. It's tough to make a subpoena go outside of the United States, so we understand the limitations, but I -- I only say this. That he and I are tapping into everything that we can to understand how we increase our reach.
SCHNEIDER: The House Intel Committee, meanwhile, at a standstill. All hearings this week were cancelled. At least one House Republican says the Senate should take over.
REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: It sounds to me like they're kind of getting into a stalemate position, a bit paralyzed. The Senate is moving on a better trajectory. And I think we're going to have to rely on the Senate for a report on this Russian meddling in the election.
SCHNEIDER: Democrats continue to call for Chairman Devin Nunes's recusal.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: I think it would be in the best interests of the investigation going forward if someone else on the committee were to lead it. But we really need to get this back on track, and I think the majority can start out by rescheduling this hearing. We've urged them to do that, but we've yet to hear back.
SCHNEIDER: But Nunes says he is committed to staying put. The White House, meanwhile, trying to stay out of the public fight.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't think there's any actual proof or sustaining allegation about anything that's done. Again, I mentioned this yesterday. If you look at what Chairman Nunes has done, he has met with people who are cleared to discuss classified information regarding a review that he is conducting. That's how it's supposed to work.
SCHNEIDER: But still not offering answers about how Nunes got onto White House grounds to view classified documents or who provided those documents.
SPICER: I don't have anything for you on that at this time, but, again, I don't...
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Have you looked into it?
SPICER: I have asked some preliminary questions. I've not gotten answers yet.
SCHNEIDER: And now new questions are being raised about Chairman Devin Nunes's public statements. He told reporters yesterday he had invited FBI Director James Comey to testify again before House investigators but that Director Comey rescheduled.
Tonight, though, an FBI official tells CNN the FBI never received any official requests for a second round of Director Comey's testimony -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jessica, thank you. Jessica Schneider reporting.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, what's the White House saying about all of this?
ACOSTA: Well, they're still not saying how the House Intel Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, made his way onto the White House grounds for that mysterious visit here last week, but, Wolf, there is some news over here in terms of staffing here at the White House.
The president is adding a familiar face to his staff. The White House confirming just in the last few minutes that daughter Ivanka Trump will be an unpaid employee here, advising the president. Her husband, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, is already a senior adviser to the president, so a husband and wife team working inside the West Wing with the president.
We should point out, though, that some officials here are already doing some cleanup on a separate front after President Trump made some remarks here that he will have an easy time striking a deal on health care, an effort that Republicans left for dead less than a week ago.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nobody ever told me that politics was going to be so much fun.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Welcome to the art of the deal, take two. Just days after losing on Obamacare, President Trump told a bipartisan group of senators he now has a simple strategy for health care success.
TRUMP: That's such an easy one, so I have no doubt that that's going to happen very quickly. ACOSTA: Pressed on why the president was suddenly sounding so
confident, White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted Mr. Trump was only kidding.
(on camera): It sounds like -- you probably have heard this and come across this notion that he's just detached from reality in making those comments.
SPICER: Well, first of all, I think that -- again, I would respectfully ask you to review the tape. He was having a lighthearted moment. It's on tape. Everybody watching. He was poking fun and making a joke.
ACOSTA (voice-over): But listen to the full comments.
TRUMP: And I know that we're all going to make a deal on health care. That's such an easy one, so I have no doubt that that's going to happen very quickly. I think it will, actually. I think it's going to happen, because we've all been promising, Democrat, Republican, we've all been promising that to the American people. So I think a lot of good things are going to happen there.
ACOSTA: While one Republican senator in the room said the president's comments were met with smiles...
SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R), WYOMING: I think everyone in the room smiled when he said Republicans and Democrats alike.
ACOSTA: Democrats aren't laughing, demanding that Republicans focus on fixing Obamacare's problems, firing off a letter to the president, saying, "We respectfully request that you abandon your efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act."
SPICER: They have a right to put out a letter and draw their lines in the sand. But I think the president is committed to doing -- going down the path he is.
ACOSTA: Both parties are already brawling over the fate of Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch, with Senate Republicans threatening to use a drastic parliamentary maneuver called the nuclear option to break any Democratic filibuster of the nominee.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: We're going to get Judge Gorsuch confirmed, but it will be really up to them how -- the process to confirm Judge Gorsuch goes forward.
[17:10:08] SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY: This is no neutral, down-the-middle judge. The Republicans are the ones making the choice to go nuclear.
ACOSTA: One looming question is whether the president will be able to strike a deal on Gorsuch and recover from his failure on health care, an effort that was hampered by distractions of his own making.
During his reception with the senators, the president had another head-scratching moment on Iraq. TRUMP: Our soldiers are fighting and fighting like never before.
ACOSTA: It's a curious comment, given that U.S. soldiers are serving in an advisory role there.
SPICER: I think that there's been some progress, particularly in Mosul, the way that they have taken back that city.
ACOSTA: But after a rocky week, the president is trying to reset his agenda, highlight efforts to combat prescription drug abuse, the commission headed by an old primary rival.
TRUMP: We're fortunate to have Governor Chris Christie with us, a friend of mine, a great friend of mine, a very, very early, endorser, in fact an immediate endorser once he got out of the race. He liked himself more than he liked me but other than that...
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Still do, sir, but that's all right.
ACOSTA: Now, for a president who pays attention to the polls, Mr. Trump just received another urgent reminder of the negative public perceptions of his young administration. The Gallup daily tracking poll now shows the president's approval rating at 35 percent. That is underlining the need for this White House to find a win and find one quickly.
Wolf, that's a brutally low number.
BLITZER: Jim, thank you. Jim Acosta over at the White House.
Joining us now, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama. Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.
REP. TERRI SEWELL (D), ALABAMA: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: The chairman of your committee Devin Nunes says your committee will be holding more public hearings, but he also says he doubts those hearings will be held before the end of the Easter recess. That's weeks from now. Is he intentionally stalling this investigation? Do you believe that?
SEWELL: Well, listen, Wolf, I think that all of us have been quite disappointed in our chairman's inability to get this investigation started. I obviously think that we should be moving along now. I know that the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The American people deserve to have answers and transparency and independence is important. I think that my chairman has really -- his confidence, the confidence that we have in him and in our committee has been damaged by his actions of last week and by his cancellation of all of the hearings this week. Nevertheless, I can tell you that the Democrats on this House
Intelligence Committee are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
BLITZER: Do you believe the chairman was actually taking orders directly from the White House when he cancelled that hearing that had been scheduled for this week with, among others, the deputy -- former deputy attorney general, Sally Yates?
SEWELL: Listen, I think that the silence that my chairman has had, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee has had with respect to why he did what he did last week, has given all kinds of -- all kinds of -- led all of to us believe that there's all kinds of stuff going on.
So I'm not really sure what prompted him to -- to not have this public hearing, but I can tell you that the public hearing needs to -- needs to occur. I think it's great that the Senate committee is working well, but we on the House have oversight responsibility, and we should not shy away from that responsibility.
BLITZER: What excuse did he give you when he cancelled that hearing that was scheduled for yesterday with Sally Yates, with the former director of national intelligence, with the former CIA director?
SEWELL: So the chairman said that he wanted to have before that public hearing another private classified hearing with the FBI director and the NSA director. Obviously, we welcome that, but we don't think that that should be instead of a public hearing. We can have both.
BLITZER: Do Democrats -- you're a Democrat -- have any means of forcing the chairman to reveal the source of his claims regarding potential surveillance of members of the Trump team during the transition?
SEWELL: Yes. I think that it's really important that we have a complete witness list and that we in the House do all that we can to try to connect those dots between the Trump administration and what went on in Russia.
You know, Wolf, I think that all of this has been a major distraction. The American people deserve to know what happened. We should know how they hacked. We obviously know why they hacked, and we know that it was influential, but we have to know the full scope of it and make sure that it doesn't happen again. And that can only work if both the House and the Senate committee fulfills its oversight responsibility, and I personally think that we must have an independent commission, as well. Independence and transparency is what's required.
BLITZER: Will you subpoena the visitor logs at the White House for the day that Devin Nunes, the chairman, was there?
SEWELL: I'm not sure what my ranking member will be subpoenaing, but I think that that sounds like it's something that we should get ahold of. I think that it's important for our -- for the -- the chairman of this
committee to be forthright and forthcoming about how he got into the White House, what he saw. He said only that he would let us know at some point. I think that that point has come and gone, Wolf. We deserve to know.
[17:15:13] BLITZER: What about the president's tax returns? Will you subpoena those?
SEWELL: Clearly, the tax returns I think are relevant. They're relevant because we need to know what ties. You know, we know that this president made over $10 million and that he has 564 relationships, business relationships. It's important for me as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, if we're going do true tax reform, I'd want to know that this president is not benefiting or instructing to us do things that will benefit him directly and that being the reason why he wants those reforms.
So I think it's important for us to know, and I think that having his tax returns are important.
BLITZER: I know you've called on the chairman, Devin Nunes, to recuse himself from this current Russia meddling investigation, but are you willing to go one step further and actually call on him to step down as chairman?
SEWELL: You know, Wolf, I've actually worked with Devin for four years on this committee. I also served with him on the House Ways and Means Committee. He's been a friend, and he's shown himself, up until this point, to be really collegiate and really professional.
And so I -- I think that it may be important to have him as part of the national security investigation but not this investigation of Russia, so I do want him to recuse himself. I'm not prepared at this point to go further than that. I'm hoping that the Devin that I know will come forward and be forthright in what he knows and -- and get this investigation back on track.
BLITZER: Congresswoman Sewell, I want to take a quick break and resume our questioning right after this.
BLITZER: Our breaking news, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, they're vowing a comprehensive investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, saying they will follow the intelligence wherever it leads.
But the House intelligence probe has stalled right now amid partisan infighting; and the embattled chairman, Devin Nunes, indicates no public hearings will be held until after the Easter recess. That's weeks from now. We're back with Democratic congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
I would like to ask you about the serious bipartisanship from the Senate Intelligence Committee at their briefing today, comparing their effort to the House investigation, do you feel some degree of embarrassment for how your entire committee has now devolved into some pretty bitter partisan bickering?
SEWELL: Well, Wolf, I am glad that the Senate, House -- the Senate Intelligence Committee is working well and in a bipartisan manner. You will remember that we, too, started out three weeks, four weeks ago with a press conference with both our ranking member and our chairman.
Look, I think that there's no two ways about it. We both -- both the Senate and the House have oversight responsibilities, and it is embarrassing that we are stalled where we are, but I know that we can get back on track if we work together. And I think that the confidence in the chairman has been affected, and I think that the credibility and integrity of our investigation has been tainted by his actions. And so in order for us to get back on track, I think that we must have a new chairman.
BLITZER: You want a new chairman, is that what you're saying? You want him to step down?
SEWELL: No. I want him to recuse himself on this investigation, I'm sorry.
BLITZER: I just want to be precise on that. Do Democrats on your committee bear any portion of the blame for the stalled investigation?
SEWELL: I think that we have been very forthright. I think that Adam Schiff, our ranking member, has been thoughtful and measured and has been cooperating with our chairman. So I'd like to think that we're the adults in the room, Wolf.
BLITZER: The Senate intelligence leaders, they revealed some new information during their news briefing today. According to Senator Warner -- he's the ranking Democrat -- paid Russian Internet trolls targeted their disinformation campaign in specific battleground states like Wisconsin or Michigan or Ohio. Can you tell us anything more about that? Warner -- Senator Warner said there were 1,000 Russian trolls specifically working on that.
SEWELL: Well, listen, I really can't divulge what I know or don't know with respect to classified information, but I can tell you that it's important that we get to the bottom of Russia's meddling. I mean, they attacked America.
They tried to and did affect our U.S. election systems, and what we learned in the public hearing that we had is that it can and it will happen again. So I think it's really important that we get to the bottom of how it happened and make sure that it never happens again.
BLITZER: Yes. Your colleagues in the Senate, they totally agree. Congresswoman Terri Sewell, thanks very much for joining us.
SEWELL: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: WE have some breaking news coming into the situation right -- SITUATION ROOM right now. A State Department employee who had access to top-secret information has been arrested for making false statements and is accused of spying.
Our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, is with us right now. Laura, this woman is facing some serious charges.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. In a lengthy federal complaint released today, federal investigators say this State Department employee allegedly failed to report thousands of dollars of gifts and other benefits she received from two intelligence agents from the Chinese government, including cash, meals, vacations, going back years, they say.
Now, according to the complaint, this individual named Candace Claiborne was an office management specialist since 1999, and she used -- she held, I should say, a number of posts overseas, including in Beijing, China, but she's now accused of purposefully misleading federal investigators about her contacts with these foreign agents, even going as far as alleging, confiding to someone that the Chinese agents were, quote, "spies."
[17:25:21] Now the government says after the State Department and FBI investigators contacted her, she instructed her co-conspirators to delete evidence connecting her to these foreign agents. Claiborne made her initial appearance in court this afternoon, and she has pled not guilty. The State Department says that it's cooperating with federal investigators, Wolf.
BLITZER: Serious development indeed. We'll stay on top of it. Laura, thanks very much. Laura Jarrett reporting.
We're also standing by to hear from the top of Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff. He'll be joining me live for an interview later in THE SITUATION ROOM. Is the House investigation into Russian meddling and the U.S. presidential election about to implode?
Also, a new warning about Russian leader Vladimir Putin from a critic who says he survived not one but two poisoning attempts.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee promising a very serious, thorough and bipartisan investigation of Russia's meddling in the presidential election. The committee holds the first in a series of public hearings tomorrow.
[17:30:54] Let's bring in our experts, and Brianna Keilar, you're with us. They clearly wanted to instill confidence today. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that they were on the right path.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is such a different scene in the Senate than it is in the House. I mean, can you imagine Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intel Committee, and Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman, coming together and having a press conference? I don't think so, right?
We're seeing this sort of partisan clown show play out on the House side, and so you have two senators trying to show that there's a bipartisan effort to get to the bottom of something, which the intelligence community has determined quite some time ago was the Russians interfering, or at least attempting to interfere, in a way that would undermine faith in the democratic process, something that is so key and that, certainly, Mark Warner and Richard Burr feel goes beyond politics which we heard today.
BLITZER: Burr and Warner, the chairman and the vice chairman. Right at the top before they even answered any questions, said, "We're not going to discuss what's going on in the House Intelligence Committee."
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Probably a good thing to stay away from.
First of all, this is outside of the comfort zone for the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is not usually a public venue. To handle this kind of high-profile public investigation is requiring them to go beyond what they usually do, and so far they are handling it a lot better than House.
I think what you're seeing in the House is the dysfunction, the kind of parliamentary polarization of the House. This is the way the House operates on most issues over the last several years. And what we're seeing here is the public getting kind of a window into what happens on many of the substantive issues, the same thing we did on health care, for example, where there was really no effort right from the beginning to have any bipartisan buy-in.
Here's something where you need it. They can't cross that bridge.
BLITZER: Years ago, not even that recent -- not that long ago, there was similar bipartisan cooperation in the House Intelligence Committee, as well.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, you're an expert in this area. You used to work at the CIA and the FBI. Senator Burr -- he's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- refused to rule out the possibility that President Trump's associates, his team was involved in some sort of cooperation with Russia, but I want to play for you the specific words of what we heard last week from the FBI Director, James Comey, because he does not make a statement like this casually.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Now, he doesn't say that lightly. What's your understanding? You seem to have a little smile there.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Because I think you might see these two statements from Burr and from Comey in the same light. I think they're radically different.
I think the panel is correct on Burr. He's got to come out looking at the train wreck on the House in the last few weeks and say, look, we're going to do this fundamentally differently.
The Comey statement is far more interesting and, I think, profound. I think we've underplayed it.
Look, going back to last summer, Comey came out and said, "We're opening an investigation." Then he says in the election cycle, before the election, we're closing it, and as you remember he had to come out and embarrass himself and say now we're closing it again.
Now he comes out a few months later and, again, puts his foot into it after that embarrassment and says, "We want to announce publicly," which the FBI director rarely does, "that we're opening an investigation on this."
Let me give you the bottom line, Wolf. He doesn't do that if there's just smoke. He does that if there's fire. We on the public side have seen the smoke in the Russian investigation. I think when he said that, he realized that had this is going to get a lot more difficult for the White House and that the FBI and the Department of Justice, which has to make the decision on prosecution, is heading toward potentially indicting somebody.
BLITZER: Because he went one step further. We didn't put this extra sentence in the clip. I'll read it to you. This is Comey once again last week: "As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed." That sort of underscores your point, right?
[17:35:07] MUDD: That's right. He's got to decide -- remember, the FBI conducts the investigation. Then they walk across the street to the Department of Justice and say, "Look, we only investigate. You have the lawyers. You're responsible for determining whether we actually cab prosecute." That -- that sentence you just read suggests that he's looking at a crime, which the Department of Justice was -- would then prosecute.
Again, I can't believe he would come out and say that without having some evidence we haven't seen that suggests to him that it's OK to tell the American people we've opened the investigation, because a month or two or three down the road he's going to say, "We're closing it," and somebody is going to get prosecuted.
BLITZER: Brianna, the FBI rarely even tells anyone that they have an investigation that's underway. For him to publicly reveal there is a criminal investigation under way, as Phil just said, that's a huge deal.
KEILAR: It is a huge deal, and I think part of it is setting the record straight, because if you listen to the White House briefing, the line that you hear from the press secretary, Sean Spicer, over and over is there has been no finding of collusion, and he scoffs at the idea of it.
The truth is this is something that is in progress, and we got that today from Senator Burr when he said we would be crazy to draw conclusions at this point in time. Part of what he was saying was, "This is what we're looking at. It's going to take weeks. We're going through all of this information as our staff members are, as well."
And I think when you're hearing from the White House, if you were just to take them at their word, it sounds like, oh, it's over and done and nothing has been found. That is not the truth.
BLITZER: And the president in his most recent tweets, he keeps calling it a hoax...
BLITZER: ... this whole Russia investigation, and says it's the work of the fake media.
BROWNSTEIN: Those tweets and Sean Spicer's admonishment yesterday of April Ryan just is so -- are so upside-down. When Sean Spicer was saying, well, everyone who has looked at this has concluded there is no collusion.
Everyone except the head of the FBI, who is conducting the actual investigation and who, in the clip that you played, said they are actively investigating. They have not concluded there is, but they certainly have not concluded that there is not. And so this is clearly an ongoing investigation, and to kind of put it in the -- put it in the rearview mirror is, I think, more wishful thinking than status report.
KEILAR: Donald Trump says it's a hoax, because it is something that he feels is just an effort to undermine the legitimacy of his president [SIC]. And let's be honest: I think there are some of his critics who are happy to do that.
But what you see, and I think you should take to the bank is when you see Richard Burr and Mark Warner standing side by side. And there's bipartisan agreement that this is very serious, and it goes beyond politics.
BLITZER: You heard Mark Warner, the vice chairman, say this is the most significant issue, investigation in all of his years of public service he's ever been involved in.
All right. Stand by. We have a lot more coming up. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:42:27] BLITZER: We're standing by to speak, once again, live with the House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, Representative Adam Schiff. Stand by for that.
But right now, I want to get back to our experts.
Phil Mudd, you're still with us. I want to get your reaction to something that the president said last night about the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're doing very well in Iraq. Our soldiers are fighting and fighting like never before, and the results are very, very good, so I just wanted to let everyone know.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. He says, "The results are very, very good. Our soldiers are fighting and fighting like never before."
But, remember, the U.S. has been -- has had troops in Iraq, what, since 2003, since the second Gulf War that liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, and, what, we lost about 3,000 U.S. troops. Tens of thousands came home severely injured. We used to have 150,000 troops fighting there. The point he's saying they are fighting like never before, your reaction?
MUDD: That's a setup. I suppose -- I haven't been around for 250 years, Wolf, surprisingly, but I suspect every president in the history of the United States has done this, and that is claim credit for stuff he hasn't done.
ISIS made progress and embarrassed the Iraqi military through about -- I'm going to roughly estimate this -- mid-2014. After that, the Iraqi military, surprised, got off the back foot and started going on the offensive. Through 2015 and 2016, Ramadi, Tikrit, going into 2016, the biggest fight. They started last year, before this president was in office, the fight for Mosul and made a lot of progress.
I'm sniffing around what the president is saying with the words he used about fighting never before; and I'm guessing within the next couple of months he's going to say, "My policies are responsible for the turnaround." And I'm going to say that's a penalty flag. What happened was the Iraqi army turned around, and they started fighting the ISIS adversary; and that happened well before this presidency.
BLITZER: Yes. The U.S. now has about 5,000 troops in Iraq, mostly advising, supposedly, as opposed to on the ground troops, but we'll see how that works out.
Another statement the president made, Brianna, last night. He says he thinks there's still a very good possibility of a health care deal, repealing and replacing Obamacare. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: And I know that we're all going to make a deal on health care. That's such an easy one, so I have no doubt that that's going to happen very quickly. I think it will, actually. I think it's going to happen, because we've all been promising -- Democrat, Republican -- we've all been promising that to the American people, so I think that a lot of good things are going to happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[17:45:00] BLITZER: You're smiling here, too. Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, said the President was just joking. Don't take that seriously. He didn't sound like he was joking. He was speaking to Democratic and Republican senators at a reception last night at the White House.
KEILAR: Or if he did, he then sort of pivoted to what certainly sounded serious. I mean, I don't think Donald Trump is the first politician to say what he would like to be true. I think he's very aware of the fact of how difficult this is. But I think this --
BROWNSTEIN: If he wasn't, he is.
KEILAR: Yes. I mean, he certainly is after last week. I think talking to a bipartisan group there, he wants to put the pressure on. He wants this to be done. And I think that where the White House is, is they understand that, at some point, just having dropped the ball and not going forward with the repeal on ObamaCare, one of his major promises, if they have a chance to do this again, they have to do this in order for him to make good on that.
BLITZER: But he says this is such an easy one dealing with health care.
BLITZER: A month ago, he said no one anticipated how complicated dealing with health care would be.
BROWNSTEIN: Look, if they honestly wanted to go forward with Democrats involved, they have both a political problem and a substantive problem.
The political problem is that his disapproval rating among rank and file Democrats today in the Gallup Poll is around 90 percent, far higher than any new president has ever had disapproval among voters in the opposite party. That makes it hard for Democrats to work with him on too many things.
Substantively, the problem is that there are two different issues in ObamaCare. There's the purchase of private insurance on the exchanges. And there, there is a real problem with markets being destabilized and the potential for a narrowly crafted agreement that could bring in some Democrats to try to stabilize those markets. The problem is that the Republican bill also includes the repeal of
the expansion of Medicaid and goes beyond that to block grant Medicaid to the point where 14 million people would lose coverage. That is a nonstarter for Democrats. It is the biggest budget savings, though, for Republicans. So if that's part of the deal, very hard to see those Democrats coming on board.
BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's much more coming up.
And in just a little while, by the way, I'll be speaking live with the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam Schiff. Will the latest partisan bickering derail the Committee's investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election?
But up next, as Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissent, a critic who has been poisoned, not once but twice, has a dire new warning for U.S. lawmakers.
[17:51:43] BLITZER: As Russia's President Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissent, one vocal critic here in Washington is warning U.S. lawmakers about Putin's aggression. Brian Todd has been investigating all of this.
Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, we spoke face-to-face, excuse me, with Vladimir Kara-Murza, a man how has publicly blistered Vladimir Putin and who says he's come near the brink of death twice as a result.
There are indications tonight that Putin is feeling increasing pressure from opponents, in Russia's streets and in Washington. And observers are concerned about how he's going to retaliate.
TODD (voice-over): Vladimir Kara-Murza says he's been poisoned and sent into a coma twice. And tonight, he's lived to tell Congress about it. It's the price, he says, for speaking out against one man.
VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, RUSSIAN ACTIVIST: It's a dangerous location, to be in opposition to Vladimir Putin's regime and Russia.
TODD (voice-over): Kara-Murza, an anti-Putin activist who's been campaigning for more open elections in Russia, is speaking out tonight on Capitol Hill, warning lawmakers about the aggressions of the Russian president.
KARA-MURZA: I think if you look at the general track record of Mr. Putin's regime, the suppression of independent media, the rigging of elections, the blacklisting of NGOs, repressions against independent journalists, opposition activists, and human right activist, I think the trend is clear. TODD (voice-over): Kara-Murza says he was poisoned in 2015 and almost
died. He recovered, but last month he was stricken again. Investigators haven't proven that poison was the cause, but his case is eerily similar to that of former Russian intelligence agent, Alexander Litvinenko. He had been digging up information damaging to the Kremlin.
In a Cold War style operation in 2006, someone slipped the radioactive substance, Polonium, into Litvinenko's tea in London, which ultimately killed him. The British investigated.
ALEX GOLDFARB, AUTHOR, "DEATH OF A DISSIDENT": There were all sides represented. There were tons of evidence. And on the basis of that evidence, British judge found that Mr. Putin is likely to have ordered this killing.
TODD (voice-over): Vladimir Kara-Murza says he is especially concerned about new crackdowns by the Russian president. Anti- corruption protesters in dozens of Russian cities were rounded up Sunday. Among them, Alexei Navalny, a man whose ambitions to challenge Putin in next year's presidential election are being stymied by his various arrests and dubious charges.
Just last week, Putin critic and former Russian lawmaker, Denis Voronenkov was gunned down in broad daylight in Kiev, and a lawyer for a Russian whistleblower was badly injured in a suspicious fall from his Moscow apartment window. Analysts say Vladimir Putin's opponents, like Kara-Murza, have to be on guard.
HOPE HARRISON, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I expect that we're going to see, you know, sort of out of the public eye, offices are going to be closed down. People are going to be followed. Some more people are going to be arrested.
TODD (voice-over): Kara-Murza says that won't stop him.
KARA-MURZA: We will continue our work because we know that there are many people in Russia who reject this regime, who reject everything it stands for.
TODD: Vladimir Putin and his aides have denied involvement in Kara- Muza's illnesses and in all of these cases. But tonight, Kara-Murza is taking steps to protect his family. He tells CNN he's gotten his wife and children out of Russia, though he says he plans to return soon to resume his work. And, Wolf, he's got to be taking his life in his hands when he does that.
BLITZER: Yes. Through all of these, Brian, Putin remains incredibly popular in Russia, right?
[17:55:04] TODD: That's right. He's approval ratings there are at about 80 percent, Wolf. Analysts say more and more people, though, are especially growing frustrated with the economic stagnation there, especially young people there. The sense that Putin and his cronies are enriching themselves while so many people are struggling. Alexei Navalny, that opposition leader, has been investigating that kind of corruption.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thank you.
Coming up, our breaking news. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee say they're ready and eager to get going with a comprehensive investigation of ties between Russian and the Trump campaign. But the House Intelligence probe stalls amid partisan infighting. I'll speak live with the ranking Democrat of the House Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff.