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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Flynn Pleads Guilty, Probe Now In Trump's Inner Circle; NYT: Trump Told Sen. To End Russia Probe 'As Quickly As Possible'; Any Minute: Senators Could Vote On Tax Reform Bill; Sources: Jared Kushner & KT McFarland Were Transition Officials Who Spoke With Flynn About Contacts With Russia Ambassador. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired December 1, 2017 - 21:00   ET

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


[21:00:12] JAKE TAPPER, "THE LEAD" HOST: Good evening and welcome to the special prime time edition of "The Lead". I'm Jake Tapper. We're going to start with today's breaking news.

Tonight, a source close to the White House tells CNN that the president and the White House are in a bubble when they should be in a state of red alert. This after a bombshell in the Russia investigation today, Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general, the president's fired national security adviser and influential official in both the Trump White House and the Trump campaign, today pleaded guilty in federal court for lying to the FBI about conversations he had with Russia's ambassador during the presidential transition.

Flynn is also now cooperating with the special counsel investigation. He is talking. He has flipped in a move widely interpreted as his only play in order to guarantee that he and his son, Michael Flynn Jr. avoid jail time for a series of questionable and potentially illegal activities. This also means this is just the beginning and likely to go only higher.

Not long after this news brokers sources told CNN that a very senior member of President Donald Trump transition team mentioned in the court documents, the person who directed Flynn to have conversations with the Russian ambassador that went against the foreign policy of the people in the White House at the time, the Obama administration, but that senior official is the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

And we also learned that another senior member described in this is former Trump adviser K.T. McFarland.

The charge against Flynn is the first against someone in the Trump White House as supposed during the Trump campaign, for a crime lying to the FBI that occurred while he was employed in the White House as national security adviser.

Flynn is now the fourth member connected to the Trump campaign to be charged as part of the special counsel investigation, and these questions loom large today. Why did Flynn lie to the FBI? What was the then-national security adviser so afraid of our own investigators finding out about why? It would be worth such a risk of lying to them with so many serious consequences. What was Michael Flynn hiding?

I want to bring in my political now panel to discuss. Let me start with Michael Caputo, a source close to the White House, Michael, described the president and his team as in a state of denial on the Russia investigation telling our own Jim Acosta that they're totally in a bubble, the source said they should be taking this news much more seriously. You were a former Trump campaign adviser. What's your take on how important today's news is and how the White House should be handling it?

MICHAEL CAPUTO, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Well, I think the White House is taking this very seriously. But it's also, by the way, nothing we didn't know for already, what, 11 months ago. "The New York Times, " by the way, through a felony leak told us that at a general Flynn lied to the FBI. The other shoe on that was going to drop, and we've been expecting it for quite some time.

I'm really happy, in fact, that it dropped now instead of -- let's say for example, March, because it drags it on more and more. In my opinion since this is a crime that's on Michael Flynn and only Michael Flynn, at this time I'm glad we're going to be able to get to the bottom of this now so that we're not dragging this on a lot more. And it appears that Mueller is moving through this fairly resolutely.

TAPPER: Well, you say and the administration also today saying that this is all on Flynn, but now CNN is being told from sources that Flynn was directed from Jared Kushner, by Jared Kushner. So how is it just Flynn if we're also being told that Kushner is the one who told him to have these conversations during the transition?

CAPUTO: Right, but what Flynn pled guilty to was lying to the FBI about meetings that he had or discussions that he had with the Russian ambassador, which were completely in line with the duties of his job description in the transition. What we didn't find out here was anything at all about Russian collusion. In fact, they're not talking about anything that happened before Election Day. So why people think this is about collusion with Russia, and I don't know.

And let me tell you something. If you put K.T. McFarland out there, as somebody who might conspire (ph) against the United States, that's the most laughable thing I've ever heard. Knowing K.T. McFarland, she's loyal to this country as anyone else.

TAPPER: All right, let me ask you Amanda Carpenter, sources have told CNN the Mueller's team met with Kushner earlier this month. What might this mean for Kushner or is Michael right that, you know, the crime here is just lying to the FBI? Others speculate that -- this is also, this one small crime because there's a whole bunch more going on and they're just trying to get Flynn to flip for a bigger fish?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I do think there's a lot of Republicans who wish that Flynn deal was happening (INAUDIBLE) and that -- within the contacts of this huge timeline where Jared Kushner set up the Trump Tower meeting, you know, Donald Trump called on Russia to hack into Hillary's e-mail and release it during the campaign. Made a big deal about WikiLeaks. Jared Kushner tried to set up a back channel in December. There's this huge timeline that this happen within.

[21:05:04] And so, I think we have to get a little bit out of the process and revisit what the big question is here, and it's -- the stakes are really high. Did a U.S. president compromise national security interests to get assistance from Russian foreign agent to become president?

And my second question, if that was -- is true, what will he be willing to do to stay president? And so, this is where I think we have to hook at Congress and really start asking Republican if there is any attempt to impede this investigation, will they resist that. And, if there is an intent to repeat (ph) that investigation, would that in itself be grounds for impeachment? I don't expect to get answers to these questions yet, but these are questions that I have and I'm thinking about looking forward to the spring when the Manafort trial begins.

TAPPER: And Paul Begala, that is a question the people are asking, what might President Trump do? We already know he has thought about firing the Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation. He's also mad at the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for recommending Mueller, etc. It is possible that given this Mueller news, which I'm sure the president doesn't like and given the fact that he blames a lot of it on Jeff Sessions for recusing himself and does not -- having a tighter control on what's going on that he might that it out --

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: -- or even on Mr. Mueller. He have to jump through some hoops, he have to get a bunch of people to Justice Department fired, probably before they would be willing in return to fire Mr. Flynn. But he is the president. And he can order the Justice Department to fire Mueller. He has -- vast opportunity still to obstruct this investigation. It is not in his interest politically or legally to do so. I think the reason he has a special counsel because he fired Mr. Comey, the FBI director.

But he -- and the president does have this fixation, on the Russia issue generally and on General Flynn in particular.

I mean, think about the timeline. We now know that on January 24th, General Flynn, four days into his job as national security adviser, lied to the FBI about contacts with Russia. Two days later, just two days, Sally Yates, then the number two at Justice Department, tells the White House, hey, Flynn is compromised here by the Russians. And the White House doesn't do anything at first, but what they do, if the next day the president has a private dinner with James Comey, the head of the FBI, right after Comey's men or women have interviewed General Flynn. He reaches out to the FBI, now why? And after that dinner according to Comey he says, I want your loyalty. The fixation -- later on, February 14th he tells the head of the FBI, Mr. Comey, I hope you'll go easy on Flynn. I hope you can -- he's a good guy. I hope you can let --

TAPPER: This is all according to Comey.

BEGALA: -- sworn testimony by Mr. Comey. So, -- he keeps coming back to it each time, each time. And we're going to find out why now because -- now General Flynn is cooperating. And he's not cooperating for nothing, right? He's gotten a sweet plea deal if you ask me, given the alleged crimes he may have committed. He's going to have to roll big time.

TAPPER: So, Michael, let me just ask you the question that I started the show with, which is -- is why would Flynn lie? What is worth lying to the FBI about to conceal? Because if these conversations were no big deal, as I heard some people speculate, they're not, because no one has ever use the Logan Act, this obscure law that says that people should interfere with the foreign policy of the sitting president which theoretically this might be, that that's not a seriously prosecutable charge, why would he lie about it?

CAPUTO: I don't know. Let me tell you straight off the bat, I'm extremely disappointed in General Flynn. I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he's a flag officer who has earned valor in battle. But when the man says he's guilty, I got to believe the guy is guilty. And if he lied about (INAUDIBLE) normal actions that happen in transition to have -- from transitions -- from president to party to president to party for many, many years, it just doesn't make any sense to me.

Now he's put, you know, ostensibly, at least in the (INAUDIBLE) vision of the president in harms way. I'm very disappointed with General Flynn. I'm glad he's going to get what he's going to get. And I got to believe right now that the president is concerned, but not because he's implicated for anything. I think he's concern because Michael Flynn is his friend and he doesn't want to see this happen to him.

TAPPER: So, Amanda, let me ask you. The president was asked back in February about the conversations of Michael Flynn had with the Russian ambassador after "The Washington Post" had reported upon it on it. Take a listen to his response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you direct Mike Lynn to discuss the sanctions with the Russian Ambassador?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I didn't. No, I didn't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So , for anybody who had trouble hearing that, did you discussed sanction -- did you tell Michael Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador and the president said no, I didn't. No, I didn't.

[21:10:01] So, it's still possible no, he didn't. But Jared Kushner or K.T. McFarland, people on the national security team did tell him to -- or at least did know about.

CARPENTER: Yes, and that seems to be the thread that propelled the conversations that started at the very least with the Trump Tower meeting with this -- boldly (ph) talked about adoption, as we all know is code for sanctions. The Russians do not like these sanctions. They did not like it when Obama imposed further sanctions and retaliation for the cyber warfare they conducted against the campaign.

Here's the smoking gun for me. Donald Trump still does not accept the findings from the Intelligence Community that the Russians meddled in the election. Why not? Why has there been no action taken to prevent further meddling in 2018? The fact that this happen and he doesn't accept it again and again and again, that to me is damning in itself.

TAPPER: So, in court today, Paul, prosecutors detailed calls made by Flynn in late December 2016 to the senior Trump transition team at Mar-a-Lago to discuss conversations with the Russian Ambassador Kislyak. We know that the transition members at Mar-a-Lago that day were Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Steven Miller, Kellyanne Conway, and K.T. McFarland. CNN has learned that McFarland met with Mueller investigators recently to answer questions about Michael Flynn according to sources. What does that tell you?

BEGALA: What it tells you is Mueller's going to know everything. This is the problem. I have been in the White House that was under investigation. And here's the big thing. A, symmetrical information, the investigative team knows a lot more than you do. And even the guy like Mike Flynn, a three star general, who would run the Defense Intelligence Agency. He doesn't know what Mueller has. He does now because he is cooperating.

So each one of these people is going to be called, and I've said this before and I'll say it again, don't lie. Don't lie. Don't lie. Mueller is going to have -- think about General Flynn, this is what goes to my mind. He ran the DIA. He knew that when he was on the phone with Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador, but also reported to be a Soviet spy, that are -- the good guys were taping that, we follow the bad guys, that's the job of like the DIA and the NSA and CIA, right? He knows that.

TAPPER: So why did he lied about the content?

BEGALA: So why lie about it?

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: That they always lie about Russia. That's where all the roads go.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We're going to keep the conversation going.

Coming up next, the Russia investigations on Capitol Hill. President Trump reportedly asking several Republican senators to bring an end to one of those investigations, is that obstruction? We'll ask a key senator, next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:15:55] TAPPER: We're back with a double shot of breaking news for you right now. Any minute now, the Senate you see the floor right there live on the right side of your screen. The Senate could vote on the plan for historic change to this nation's tax code.

Tonight, Republicans in the Senate say that they do have the votes. They say this will mean more money in the pockets of people in the middle class. Democrats are calling it a corporate sellout.

Joining me now to discuss this is Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Senator, thanks for joining us. We'll talk about taxes in a second, but I do want to get your reactions to today's news about Michael Flynn and his plea agreement of pleading guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D) JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thanks, Jake for the chance to be on this evening. It's been a very long day as we have fought against this tax bill in the Senate. But this morning's development was really striking that General Mike Flynn, the Former National Security Adviser to President Trump has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is fully cooperating with Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation.

It was just a few days ago that many in Trump world were saying this investigation ought to be wrapping up soon. I'll remind you just a few weeks ago, Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for President Trump was indicted on a dozen counts and campaign aide of Mr. Papadopoulos plead guilty as well.

My hunch is that this is just the latest signal that Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation is picking up steam and getting closer to the White House. My concern today more than ever is that we need to work in a bipartisan way in the Senate to make sure that the Special Counsel is protected and is able to carry this investigation through to its conclusion no matter what conclusion he reaches.

TAPPER: What happened to the legislation that was being offered by, I believe, you and the Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina to have some measure of protection for the Special Counsel just in case President Trump tries to fire him or tries to fire the attorney general to put somebody else in there that would try to wield more control over the Special Counsel.

COONS: Jake, well, we had a hearing on the Judiciary Committee now over month ago on the bill that I have and the competing bill that's only slightly different than another Republican and Democrat. I have Senator Graham and Senator Booker. We've met to resolve the slight differences. We will be working on that in the coming days. And it's my hope that we will get a markup in the Judiciary Committee.

We're going to be pressing for that with Chairman Grassley this coming week. I think it's more important than ever that we move forward on these bills.

TAPPER: Where do you see the investigation going from here and for Mueller? And where do you see the Senate investigation going?

COONS: Well, I think it's critical now that the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee continue their important work to make sure that we're doing our job of oversight of the Department of Justice and continuing to look into obstruction of justice.

I also expect that investigation being led by Robert Mueller will continue to get closer to the core team on the Trump campaign. The documents that were released today, the plea agreement in which General Flynn pled guilty. He made a reference to a senior transition official having directed him to have contact with the Russians.

I think there's more details to be work out, more investigation to be done, and I think it's important that Robert Mueller be able to make that progress without interference.

TAPPER: That senior transition official we have reported, CNN has reported another have (ph) as well, is according to our sources, Jared Kushner.

In addition to all this, of course, "The New York Times" reporting today that President Trump has been for months lobbying various officials to either stop or wrap up their Russia probes or trying to announce that he and his team are clear.

And you get this list of people who the President has pressed to varying degrees on this. You have Senator Richard Burr, the head of Senate Intelligence Committee, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, Senator Roy Blunt who is on Intel. The director of National Intelligence, Dan Coates, the director of the NSA, Mike Rogers, the FBI Director, James Comey who obviously the president then fire. The CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, this is just a partial list.

Do you think the president doesn't know any better or is there something more sinister going on?

[21:20:04] COONS: Well, Jake, it certainly is part of a long pattern in which the president has engaged in really disturbing behavior, whether it was many months ago now calling the FBI director into his office to try and extract from him a pledge of personal loyalty, or it's by this recent actions reaching out to Republican senators like Richard Burr who I think by the way has able lead the Intelligence Committee's efforts in this regard, but to try and inappropriately pressure him to wrap up the investigation.

I think you might have been able to say months and months ago that the president new to this role, someone who hasn't served in the government ever might not understand the contrast of the job, but by now, many months later, after lots of public criticism and pushback for his inappropriate behavior, it's clear that he knows that he should not be trying to interfere in this investigation.

This is exactly why Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation can and should and must be looking at obstruction of justice, because this sort of ongoing behavior by the president to try and pressure folks to step back or to lighten up on this investigation is completely inappropriate. TAPPER: Senator, let's turn to tax reform now. It appears Republicans are going to be able to pass this bill, unlike the effort that killed Obamacare. How come Democrats were able to stop the previous effort, the health care effort to repeal Obamacare and you weren't able to do so this time? We didn't see a ground swell of opposition to this that we saw during the health care fight.

COONS: Well, Jake, I think that's for two simple reasons. One is that Republican leadership learned some lessons from why they were unsuccessful in repealing the Affordable Care Act. And they have rushed this bill through. We still don't have a final version of this bill. There were markups being made, revisions being made by hand just in the last couple of hours.

So the time from introduction to markup to final vote on the floor of the Senate here is very tight. So there wasn't a lot of opportunity to mobilize groups nationally. I'll also just suggest that taxes and tax policy are very complex. The language that we're using is all about JCT scores and CBO scores and pass-through and ex patriot or repatriation of profits.

It is harder for folks, I think, to grasp. In the health care conversation, it was about what Americans currently have that might be taken away from them. This is mostly discussion about, well, you might get a tax break and it might be too big for some other guy but maybe it's good for you.

In the end, the consequences of this enormous bill will almost certainly be adding a $1.5 trillion to America's debt and that will results an important things being taken away, particularly for middle- class Americans because they will end up being cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, if this plays out the way it's expected to.

TAPPER: All right.

COONS: There are temporary middle class tax cuts, but permanent and big corporate tax cuts. This isn't balance that I think we should have pursued.

TAPPER: Democratic Senator Chris Coons of the small wonder State of Delaware. Thank you so much. Appreciate your time.

COONS: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: A source close to the White House saying that the president expects to be exonerated very soon, but what about everyone around him? Who might be the next domino to fall? The CNN reporters who have those answers will join me after the break, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:27:41] TAPPER: Welcome back to the special edition of the "The Lead". Given his guilty plea today, the big question of course, will Michael Flynn help the Mueller investigation take others down with him as he cooperates with the Special Counsel?

Let's bring in the team that's been digging into all angles of the story, CNN's Pamela Brown, Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez, and Gloria Borger.

Pamela, let me start with you. With the Flynn's guilty plea, what direction might Mueller's investigation be headed and next?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is the big question, because the court documents reveal today that Robert Mueller's team seemed to be using an obscure law, the Logan Act from 18th century as maybe a stepping stone to perhaps a broader investigating here. The law means you can't interfere with the setting president's foreign policy conduct.

And so it does raise the question of whether they may use that as part of the broader investigation. And what will happen to some of the other people that they're looking at in this investigation. We know there's the obstruction of justice probe that's ongoing and then we learn today that Jared Kushner was one of the people who talked to Flynn. And, according to the court documents, told him to call Russia and other countries about the Israeli settlement U.N. Security Council Resolution.

So it does raise questions on where this goes from here. We know the interviews were ongoing and that Michael Flynn is cooperating, that he is providing the information to special counsel.

TAPPER: Yes, and Jim, let me ask you because as Pam just referenced, Jared Kushner is our sources tell us and you that he was one of the sources -- one of the people -- one of the senior officials named as directing Mike Flynn what to say and who to call. K.T. McFarland, another senior official also having conversations with Flynn about reaching out to the Russians.

Now, the charge against Flynn today is lying to the FBI, not a charge of the Logan Act not a charge of interfering with President Obama's foreign policy.

Might K.T. McFarland and Jared Kushner find themselves in trouble or is the question only whether they tell the truth to the FBI?

SCIUTTO: Well, It's trouble for the administration, because the administration defense that we saw in a statement today, but we've also heard it before, is that Flynn was a liar, everybody knew he was a liar, he was acting on his own.

The information contained in the statement of defense belies (ph) that defense, because Flynn was not only keeping members of the Trump -- the very small Trump transition team aware of his conversations that K.T. McFarland, it's right there in the statement offense. He called them multiple times on the day that he was having conversations with the Russian ambassador.

[21:30:05] But also, he was being directed by a very senior member of that team which we reported earlier in the day was as you mentioned, Jared Kushner.

So, the idea that anyone was freelancing, sorry, it's right there in the statement of offense, in fact he was keeping them informed and he was following directions from them. So this undermines the argument that the White House or rather at that time, the transition had no knowledge of this, and that raises a very important question because we know, we've reported this, we talked about this many times. The Trump campaign team and his transition team was not very big. There weren't many layers in that team.

So if Jared Kushner knew and K.T. McFarland knew, and Michael Flynn, the president soon to be National Security Adviser knew, what are the chances that the president was kept entirely in the dark about these conversations?

TAPPER: And Gloria, let me ask you because publicly, the White House is putting on this face. This all has to do with Michael Flynn, people in Washington, D.C. Lie, this is not that new, saying Michael Flynn was an Obama administration official, admitting the part about Obama firing him. Privately, how rattled is President Trump's inner circle?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Rattled. I spoke with somebody today who was called by three people in the Trump inner circle, who said they were worried, and then were asking how worried should we be? Because of what they are all doing right now.

Since Flynn is now somebody who reports to Mueller for all intents and purposes, they're all wondering what did I say to Flynn, what -- you know, what's my liability here? What did we discuss, what did I do wrong, and what does he know? And I am sure, by the way, that the president is probably asking himself the same questions.

Now, when you talk to people who are talking about the president, they said -- I spoke with one today who said he's calm, he's not anxious. He went to his Christmas Party today for the media, et cetera, et cetera, and that his head was not exploding.

But, I guarantee you that over the weekend, as the president makes his phone calls and starts talking to all his friends and outside advisers that he's going to get much, much more anxious about Flynn. And so, you saw in their statement today, we wish Flynn well, we're concerned for him and his family, you know. They don't want to alienate Flynn. And the president, quite frankly, liked the guy very much and wanted to keep him.

TAPPER: Yes. And Evan, I mean, he was -- he's been very focused, the president, behind the scenes in trying to get people to drop the investigation into Flynn.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, and, look, repeatedly, not only with James Comey but also according to "The New York Times", talking to GOP members on the Hill. But look, looking at what Gloria was just talking about, the anxiety, one of the things that I think they should be anxious about is reading this document, these three pages, that it's clear, Robert Mueller has set forth a version of events that occurred in that period in December that he believes to be the truth. And based on what we've heard from the While House, of people around the White House, they also have presented their version of the truth which is that Jared Kushner did not direct Flynn. And so, the question is when Jared Kushner testified or gave an interview to the special counsel last month in November, did he say that he did not direct Flynn? Because if that's what he said, then that is in contradiction to what is in these papers, which we know is the version of the truth that they believe.

BROWN: Right. And at time, it makes a little more since -- we reported a couple days ago, that earlier this month, Mueller's team wanted to interview and sat down with Jared Kushner. And now, finding out what we know today that Jared Kushner was playing a role in the December 22 call, that Mueller's team also wanted to get Kushner's version of events before this information came out today.

PEREZ: They knew that when they brought him in.

BROWN: He wanted his story -- exactly. They knew this when they brought him in, and they wanted to see what he would say.

TAPPER: We should underline that this, their version of -- the special counsel/FBI version of what happened is also partially based on intercepts, on transcripts of the conversations.

SCIUTTO: The point I was going to make is Mueller, the special counsel, left a lot of years on the table here, right, one count of lying for four cases of lying, right? Up to five years, but he's brought that down based on Flynn's cooperation. There are other thing cited in this statement of offense, other misleading statements by Michael Flynn, including regarding his foreign agent filing, whatever.

You know, each lie to the FBI carries up to five years penalty, right? As it stands now, he's just charged with one count. Robert Mueller had the goods to give many more counts. We know for instance, that he also was not fully forthcoming on his SF-86, a security clearance form. There are other things that he could have had the goods to --

TAPPER: Registering as a foreign aide.

SCIUTTO: Exactly. And an indication speaking to Michael -- telling about just a short time ago, it shows you the value of the kind of cooperation that Flynn is offering here based on the number of years that Mueller is not thrown on him right from the start. And to take those years off the table, Flynn would have to be offering something significant.

[21:35:08] BORGER: So the question is what does Mueller know that he's not saying?

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BORGER: And that we don't know from these documents --

SCIUTTO: Right.

TAPPER: And what is Flynn giving up.

BORGER: What is Flynn giving up -- (CROSSTALK)

BORGER: And why was it worth it to Mueller to accept the --

PEREZ: Right. And the lawyers would've had to give a proper, an offer and tell him exactly what they're prepared for Flynn to say. And so, they already know all of these before they published these documents.

TAPPER: And to be -- and completely candid, I mean, what special counsels do is they look for the biggest pelt (ph) that they can get, the biggest trophy that they can mount on their wall. Flynn would theoretically be a huge one, right? But he's not --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Yes. But he's not taking it. He's not taking it.

BORGER: And so, the question that we all are asking, obviously, is, you know, the old (INAUDIBLE) question what the president know and when did he know it? And, you know, during Iran-contra, for example, they made the case. So, Ronald Reagan was, you know, disengaged, he's a disengaged president, didn't know of it. You cannot make that case with Donald Trump. Donald Trump, particularly during this period, knew a lot.

TAPPER: All right, Jim, Pamela, Gloria, and Evan, thanks one in all (ph). Appreciate the great reporting. This program note, join Pamela and Jim later for a CNN Special Report, "The Russia Investigation", that's coming up tonight at 11:00 p.m., Eastern. Stay with us.

Coming up next, inside on the investigation from someone who has worked with Robert Mueller, Mueller's former chief of staff when he was the FBI director, she'll join me next. Stay with me.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:40:40] TAPPER: And we're back with more breaking news coverage of Michael Flynn's plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Let's get right now to CNN National Security Analyst Lisa Monaco, she was Mueller's chief staff when he was the FBI director. She was also a former assistant to President Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

Lisa, thanks for being here. First of all let me start with one of the claims we're hearing from the White House today, specifically that the Obama White House authorized Michael Flynn to have these conversations with the Russian ambassador, that we now see were completely contrary to Obama foreign policy, principles and goals. Is that true?

LISA MONACO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: No. And it makes really no sense as you said. And it goes against the long-standing principle of having one president at a time. So you don't have an incoming transition official trying to undermine the existing and sitting president's foreign policy.

So it really -- it defies logic to think that the Obama administration would authorize Flynn to undermine the types of punitive actions that at the time the Obama administration was trying to levee against the Russian government.

TAPPER: Well, let me ask you about that because specifically these documents from the special counsel say that Flynn was reaching out to the Russian ambassador to tell him don't overreact to the Obama administration sanctions against your country for, which refer, interfering in the 2016 election. Don't overreact because we're coming in.

And then also reaching out as directed by Jared Kushner, we're told, to the Russian ambassador to try to get him to either delay or vote against a U.N Security Council Resolution that the Obama administration, quite controversially, abstained from having to do with punishing or penalizing or condemning Israel for its settlements.

These are clear actions against what's the White House wanted at the time as somebody who was helping to formulate that policy whether or not you agree with the individual policies, does that bother you?

MONACO: Look, it is contrary, as I said, to long-standing principles that you have one president at a time. There's good reason for that. One is there's a law on the books that says private citizens, which transition officials would still be. Don't undertake negotiations as private citizen with foreign governments.

TAPPER: The Logan Act?

MONACO: Exactly right. And the other is it makes total sense here is you don't want to send mixed signals to other government particularly adversarial and hostile governments, that's Russia, of course is in this instant because you don't want top give them leverage and send mixed signals and give them leverage to somehow get the better of U.S policy.

TAPPER: Let me turn to your previous job working with Robert Mueller when he was FBI director, working with Andrew Weissman who's one of the prosecutors on Mueller's team was also at the FBI when you were there, when you were chief of staff for Mueller.

Give us some insight because people look at a big fish like Michael Flynn. And they think it's only one charge for lying to the FBI, that's not really that big deal. What's your insight to that? You obviously don't have an insight or knowledge but what might this be?

MONACO: That's right. And, you know, I'm going off the public documents that were filed today. And what's going on here is you've got an individual who's near or almost to the top of the type of pyramid that prosecutor's work their way up when they're looking at a complex investigation like this one is.

And prosecutors also have a phrase which is, you don't cooperate people down, you only go up. And here you've got Flynn who is clearly cooperating with the special counsel. And the other thing that the prosecutors do is they will only take this type of plea and make this type of cooperation deal if they are very confident that this individual, the defendant, can actually offer something quite substantial up the chain.

TAPPER: Because if not, they would just throw the book at him?

MONACO: That's exactly right. And here you've got insight from somebody who is a critical figure in the campaign, in the transition, and in the beginning days of the White House, of the Trump administration. So he can provide insight to a whole host of discussions and events going from the campaign to the early days of the White House, and he can be that tutor and that guide for the prosecutors as they're working their way up that pyramid.

[21:45:02] TAPPER: I want to ask you, I talked to a Republican former prosecutor earlier today. And this person told me that he thinks this plea deal means in exchange for Flynn's son not being charged, Michael Flynn Jr., and for him not being charged with more serious crimes, Flynn is expected to help Mueller with even bigger fish as you said. And he said, "If I were Kushner or Bannon, I wouldn't be able to sleep tonight."

MONACO: Well, I think it's a fair statement. I mean, the papers filed today are quite narrow and they're quite limited, but they give us a few clues to what Mueller and his team were looking at. There's references as you mentioned earlier to senior transition officials and very senior transition officials that Flynn had discussions with, that he was conducting these calls with Ambassador Kislyak. And that is going to help the prosecutors formulate their next series of moves.

And this leverage point that your source talked to you about is one that prosecutors use all the time. They've got -- this is seriously strong hand that Mueller clearly is playing.

TAPPER: Lisa Monaco, thank you so much.

The Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will join me next. He says the rule of law does not prevails in this -- this is the rule of law prevails in this country right now. He's reassured by what happened today. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:50:43] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news. The president's Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleading guilty today to lying to the FBI, saying he's cooperating with the Russian investigation.

Today, the Trump White House responded to this by saying "Thanks, Obama." If you can believe it the Trump White House claim Michael Flynn had the Obama administration's blessing to speak to the Russian ambassador.

Earlier today, I spoke to the former Director of National Intelligence under President Obama, James Clapper. This was his response. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES CLAPPER, FRMR. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: That is actually absurd. There was great concern at the time, not just with this particular contact, but with the violation of the principle that's normally been followed of one president, one administration at a time. And that was -- what gave rise, because of all these contacts, that Mike was having and others in the transition with the Russians and other foreign enemies.

As, you know, what was this all about? So, to say that we blessed it or acquiesced in it is a stretch.

TAPPER: What is your reaction to today's news that Flynn has pleaded guilty, and specifically to lying to the FBI about conversations he was having with the Russian ambassador?

CLAPPER: Well, it's dramatic, but not surprising. It was kind of my take. And it is, in a sense with respect kind of a tragedy in a way given the service, long and distinguished service that he rendered in the army, over 30 years. Lots and lots of deployed time in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to acknowledge that.

I think the overall arching implication for me, the first thing that came to mind is that, at least right now the rule of law does prevail in this country. And that to me is very important.

And I do think the larger interest here is served is to try to understand exactly what was going on with the transition campaign and the Russians. And we need to get to the bottom of what today remains still a mystery to me is this singular indifference to the threat posed by Russia.

TAPPER: Does today's news make you more suspicious of collusion? What do you think?

CLAPPER: Well, it does, again, circumstantially, but again, we haven't seen any smoking gun evidence of that. Now, if anyone would know about that, it would be Mike Flynn.

So hopefully, given the terms of his plea bargain, his agreement that, that, you know, truth on this will come out. Because to me, what's even more important and whether or not there was collusion, which is hugely important, is the threat posed by the Russians, and the administration's singular indifference to that threat. And that to me is what is -- in terms of long-term concern for the country is that.

TAPPER: General James Clapper, thank you so much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Coming up next, we'll take a look at how deep Flynn's ties to Russia might run. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [21:57:22] TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news in the Russia investigation. We know Lieutenant General Michael Flynn has flipped and is giving up what he knows to the Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

But well before Flynn's firing by President Trump in February, there were questions about how close Flynn was with Russian officials.

Let's bring in CNN's Tom Foreman. Now, Tom help untangle how deep these connections go.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know how much he is tied to President Trump. Their relationship goes back almost two years now, their official working relationship. But this is the part the White House is concerned about here. And here is some of the things we know.

We know that Michael Flynn spoke to an airline group in Russia at one point. He was paid more than $11,000 for that, something that he didn't explain early on in the process when he should have.

We also know that he got another payment of more than $11,000 for an engagement with this Russian cyber security firm, an American subsidiary of that.

We know that he met with Serge Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. And that he was in regular communication with him during the communication, even on the very day that Barack Obama was putting sanctions against Russia.

And we also know that he attended a gala dinner for R.T, that Russian television network, which -- at which he was paid more than $30,000 for participating. And by the way, he actually sat at the very same table with Vladimir Putin, Jake.

TAPPER: And Tom, to what extent could Flynn claim that these are indeed contacts with the Russians but not necessarily meaningful ones with the Russian government in terms of the probe?

FOREMAN: That gets trickier, because Kislyak, look, he works directly for the ministry of foreign affair, which is tied directly to the Kremlin. R.T flows out of the ministry of telecom and mass communication. Both of those were, of course, intimately linked to Vladimir Putin himself. The airline up here, we know did business with the Russian government over the years, and even though this cyber security lab says it has nothing to do with the government, there are intelligence agents who told the Senate they would not be comfortable with software from this company on their computers, Jake.

So, you could see with all this out here it becomes harder to explain a way the idea they had nothing to do with the Russian government just some Russians.

TAPPER: Tom Foreman, thank you so much.

Join me this Sunday for more -- guilty plea and what this means for the Trump administration. Also, coverage of the tax bill that the Republicans are voting on, my guest will be Senator Mark Warner, he's the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also, Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, big proponent of the tax bill, at Sunday at 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern.

That's it for this special edition of "The Lead." I'm Jake Taper. "CNN Tonight " with Don Lemon" is next. Thanks for watching.