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Interview With Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey; Flynn Cooperating in Russia Probe: Pleads Guilty to Lying; Senate Working Toward Final Vote on GOP Tax Bill. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 1, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: guilt and cooperation.

Fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn enters a plea bargain in the Russia investigation. He admits he lied to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador and now he's cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. What information will he reveal?

Kushner's call. CNN has learned that Jared Kushner directed Flynn to contact the Russian ambassador and that intelligence intercepts picked up Kushner's conversations with foreign diplomats. Is President Trump's son-in-law the investigation's next target?

Start of the deal. The special counsel now has secured two plea deals in his Russia probe, and he's moving closer to President Trump's inner circle. Will even more senior officials inside the White House face charges and will they cooperate?

And verge of a vote. Senate Republicans say they have the votes to pass their tax plan after sweetening the pot for GOP holdouts during marathon negotiations. A vote is expected tonight after the final bill is written and debated. What last-minute changes are being made?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KEILAR: And we're following now breaking news on the Michael Flynn plea deal and the potential legal risk for the president as well as his son-in-law and others in Mr. Trump's orbit. Flynn acknowledges he's now cooperating with investigators after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts.

The former national security adviser is the first person who actually served inside the Trump administration to be charged by the special counsel, and tonight sources tell CNN that Jared Kushner is the person identified in court documents as a very senior member of the Trump transition team who directed some of Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador last December. Prosecutors say that individual wanted Flynn to try to sway Russia's

vote on a U.N. resolution aimed at stopping Israeli settlements. The plea deal is offering the clearest picture yet of coordination between Flynn and other Trump advisers and their contacts with Russian officials aimed at influencing international policy before the president took office.

Tonight, a senior White House official says the president has been briefed on all of this and he has -- quote -- "no anxiety" about what Flynn might be telling the special counsel and his team.

But it is clear that Robert Mueller's investigation is intensifying, and it could have some serious implications for Mr. Trump and those who were closest to him.

This hour, I will be talking to Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ed Markey, as we cover this major breaking story. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by for us.

I do first want to go to CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

And, Pamela, it's really hard to overstate the significance of this plea agreement.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brianna. We can't overstate it.

Today's charge against President Trump's former national security adviser brings the Russia investigation right into the White House. And the charge reveals Flynn wasn't acting alone in his talks with Russians, but he was acting in coordination with now senior officials in the Trump administration, according to prosecutors.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): President Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn arriving at a federal courthouse in Washington today before pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, making him the first person who worked inside the White House to be charged in the Russia probe and the fourth campaign official to face charges so far.

The charge and plea agreement center around conversations he had with then-Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in December of last year. Court documents show that others on the Trump team knew of Flynn's efforts.

On December 29, Flynn called former Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland, along with other transition officials at Mar-a-Lago, where they discussed what to say to Kislyak about the new sanctions being imposed on Russia by the Obama administration.

According to Flynn, the transition officials did not want Russia to escalate the situation. Flynn immediately called Kislyak asking Russia not to overreact to those sanctions. Shortly after that call, Flynn briefed McFarland that he did, indeed, discussions sanctions with the ambassador, according to two people familiar with the matter. But in January, then-vice president-elect Mike Pence told the nation

that Flynn assured him he did not talk about sanctions with Kislyak.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose a censure against Russia.

BROWN: Then, on December 31, three days after their conversation about sanctions, Kislyak confirmed to Flynn that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to Flynn's request.

[18:05:00]

Also today, court documents revealed another interaction Flynn had with Kislyak, calling him at the direction of a -- quote -- "very senior member of the transition" about a coming U.N. Security Council vote on Israeli settlements. Sources tell CNN that person was Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

According to the filing, Flynn and Kislyak spoke about the incoming administration's opposition to the resolution and asked Russia to delay or vote against it.

CNN can also now report that there were intelligence intercepts that picked up Kushner conversations with foreign intelligence targets, talking about efforts to stop the resolution, according to an official briefed on the matter. Flynn didn't respond to shouted questions when leaving the courthouse today, and afterward visited his son, Michael Flynn Jr., who is also a potential target of the Russia investigation.

In a statement, Flynn acknowledged wrongdoing, saying: "My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the special counsel's office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country."

Last month, Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, were indicted for conspiracy to launder money, among other charges. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

And Trump campaign former policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian nationals. The White House tried to downplay the significance of the Flynn revelations today, with one source close to the president telling CNN that everyone lies in Washington.

President Trump has long maintained there was no collusion with his campaign and Russia.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The entire thing has been a witch-hunt, and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself and the Russians. Zero.

BROWN: But as the investigation intensifies, so does the scrutiny on the president and his inner circle.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And a person familiar with the transition effort said that the U.N. effort that Kushner was a part of was well known in the collaborative effort by various transition officials, including Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.

This person says none of them ordered or directed Flynn. Meantime, Flynn could face up to five years in jail. But today the judge said he could impose a harsher or lighter sentence -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Pamela Brown, thank you for that report very much. We do appreciate it.

Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to just a single count of lying to the FBI four times. One of the key questions tonight, why did he lie in the first place?

I want to bring in CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez.

So, Evan, you have Flynn, who is this top figure early on in the Trump White House, in the campaign, in the transition. So this deal that he cut, what really stands out to you about it?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's an incredible deal.

I mean, first of all, if you read the court documents, they're at least alleging that he made four false statements and they're only charging it as one. I mean, this is something that usually you can charge him with four different counts of lying. If you count the forms that he filed for lobbying registration, that's an additional three, so seven counts they could have gone.

This is an incredible deal he got here. The other thing that stands out, Brianna, is the fact that what we're hearing, as you heard from Pamela, there are some people close to the White House who are floating a version of events, perhaps what Kushner, himself, and others have testified to or in their interviews with the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

And that differs significantly from the facts that Robert Mueller has filed in court. Clearly, these are the facts that Robert Mueller believes are true, based on not only what Flynn has said, but also based on additional evidence that they have gathered.

So, it tells us that there's going to be a clash here of stories and we don't know where that goes. Is it Kushner that could be in trouble, because he testified to something differently from what they believe to be true? We don't know. But there's certainly, I think, additional investigation here, which will tell us a lot more.

KEILAR: Some might look at Michael Flynn lying to the FBI, and they say, well, that could have been to conceal the fact he had violated the Logan Act. He was part of the transition. He wasn't yet part of an administration. He was meddling in foreign affairs by having these phone calls.

But that's a really kind of antiquated law. It's never been...

PEREZ: It's never been charged.

KEILAR: It's never been used.

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: So what do you think of that argument?

PEREZ: Well, look, I think you don't necessarily need to charge anybody with this, with violating this law. It might not even be a constitutional -- might not even be a constitutional law. It might not hold up.

KEILAR: Yes.

PEREZ: But you can certainly use it as leverage. It's something you can use as part of the investigation. And it clearly shows, these documents show that were filed in court today show that the special counsel is willing to use the Logan Act at least as a leverage point, as a pressure point in order to get something else.

And it appears to be what they're doing here is, they're trying to pursue a larger case here, perhaps a conspiracy case. And, again, there's a lot more we don't know about what they have in the evidence they have gathered so far.

KEILAR: There's so much more.

Evan Perez, thank you so much for that.

And I want to talk more about this breaking story now with Senator Ed Markey. He's a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

[18:10:01]

Senator, thank you so much for being with us.

SEN. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: You're welcome.

KEILAR: So, when you see this plea deal, what does that say to you?

MARKEY: Well, what it says to me is that Bob Mueller is continuing to proceed very methodically. He now has a guilty plea by Flynn and Papadopoulos. He's indicted Manafort and Gates.

So, it's clear that he is moving step by step.

But, in Flynn, he just may have the master key that unlocks the doors to the campaign that Donald Trump was running, to the transition period of Donald Trump, and to the time that he was national security adviser during the Trump first month in office.

This is one man who, on all of these issues that potentially go to the collusion that existed between the Russian government and its entities and the Trump campaign, that could provide the road map to that final door, which is the Oval Office.

KEILAR: So, Senator, some people will look at this and they will say, well, look at what he pled guilty to, this wasn't necessarily about collusion, you know, the question of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government in a way to give them somehow the upper hand when it came to the election.

What do you what do you say to that? I'm assuming you see some dots that can be connected.

MARKEY: Yes. I think that's what's happening here.

What Mueller clearly allowed Flynn to do was to plea bargain, to have the lowest possible sentence to just one count. But it was in return for full cooperation on everything that Mueller wants to obtain in terms of information about the collusion that may have existed between the Russians and the Trump campaign.

One person who clearly had very close contact with the Russians throughout this entire process was Michael Flynn. So, he is most likely the key person who was in the meetings that has the information that can now help Mueller to provide the next few steps that are going to be necessary to finally put all the information out in public for the American people to understand what happened to our presidential election last year.

KEILAR: Before President Trump fired the FBI Director Jim Comey, he had asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. With this news today that Michael Flynn has pled guilty, that he has a plea deal with the Mueller probe, what do you think about that ask of Comey?

MARKEY: Well, I think that, clearly, the president wanted Comey to just end the Flynn investigation.

And, ultimately, I think that's the key to Comey's firing. And Mueller's appointment was clearly something that Trump never anticipated. He never saw that coming. And so that's why we have to be very careful now, because Flynn is clearly the key person that Donald Trump was most concerned about, and now for the American people, Bob Mueller is the key person we have to be concerned about to make sure that he stays on the job, able, unfettered, to be able to conduct a full investigation, no matter where these facts may take him.

KEILAR: It's now clear that a number of the Trump transition team members -- and this is what's clear in the charging document that seems to be a warning to those folks from Mueller -- that when Flynn did talk with a senior official of the transition, that that senior member was -- quote -- "with other senior members of the transition team at the Mar-a-Lago resort."

That's Mueller putting these folks on notice, saying, I'm not buying this narrative before that Flynn was just going rogue and doing this on his own. He's saying here that there were a number of people who were knowledgeable of this.

What do you think about that, especially as you consider President Trump saying repeatedly, zero, I had nothing to do with Russia?

MARKEY: Yes. As every day and week and month goes by, we're learning that the earlier denials by Jared Kushner, by Donald Trump Jr., by so many of these people about their knowledge of any relationship with the Russians, is just false.

And so what Flynn is going to be able to do is to provide the additional information, clearly, to Mueller that helps this investigation to get right to the bottom of what this Trump operation knew and when they knew it and potentially what the president knew and when he knew it.

[18:15:17]

KEILAR: All right. Senator, stand by for us.

CNN actually has some new reporting in this charging document. Flynn spoke to a very senior member of the Trump transition team. Turns out that was Jared Kushner. We're going to get your reaction to that in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:20:07]

KEILAR: And we're back now with Senator Ed Markey, following what is arguably the biggest breaking news yet in the Russia investigation.

That would be the guilty plea by fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the deal that he struck to cooperate with the special counsel.

So, Senator, new reporting by CNN, Jared Kushner is that very senior member of the Trump transition team who directed Flynn to contact foreign governments, including Russia, on the U.N. resolution about Israeli settlements. What does this mean for Jared Kushner?

MARKEY: Well, what it means, if CNN's reporting is accurate, that Jared Kushner should no longer have a security clearance.

We need to have a full investigation of this issue as well. We know, obviously, that Jared Kushner now had information, was talking to the Russians. And we need now to further probe this.

We have now pierced into the inner circle of Donald Trump's adviser, including his son-in-law. It doesn't get any closer than that to the president. It's time now for Bob Mueller and congressional committees to ask the questions that the American people want the answer to.

KEILAR: Your Republican colleague Lindsey Graham has sort of warned President Trump about pardoning Michael Flynn. So, he's put that out there.

I wonder if you think that's a real possibility. Clearly, that's something that was on Lindsey Graham's mind. Do you think the president would pardon Flynn? MARKEY: Well, I never thought that the president would fire Bob

Comey, but he did -- Jim Comey.

The issue really is not whether or not we think he may, or may not. We have to on a bipartisan basis provide protection for Bob Mueller. We have to ensure that he has the insulated position to do this investigation to ensure that the American people find out exactly what happened during our presidential election last year.

So it's good that Lindsey is saying this, because it has to be bipartisan. The president has to understand the consequences if he seeks to pardon Michael Flynn, because there will be an explosion, not just in the House and the Senate, but all across this country, because it will be clear that now the president is trying to engage in an obstruction of justice to prevent this investigation from closing in on the Oval Office.

KEILAR: Legislation to insulate Bob Mueller has been introduced, as you know. It has a long way to go, though. Do you think that that is something that is going to move forward in Congress? Do you think that the special counsel is safe?

MARKEY: I think that it's very important that it's Lindsey Graham.

I think it's very important that other Republicans are saying that it is imperative for the president not to in any way interfere with this investigation, to not fire Bob Mueller. And I think that if he attempts to do so, that you're going to see legislation move if there's any hint at all that Bob Mueller's job is in jeopardy.

KEILAR: All right, Senator Ed Markey, thank you, sir. We do appreciate your time on this very busy Friday.

And just ahead, there's some more breaking news on the Michael Flynn plea deal, the possible legal risks for the president.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:20]

KEILAR: Breaking tonight, we're getting new information about Michael Flynn's plea deal and what this reveals about the Trump team's contacts with Russia.

CNN sources have identified Jared Kushner as the very senior Trump transition team member who directed one of Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador last year.

And we're told that Flynn's deputy at the time, K.T. McFarland, is the other unnamed official cited in court documents who spoke with Flynn about a separate communication with the Russian ambassador.

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

So, Jim, the White House claims that the president just is not worried about any of this, but I'm sure that there's some anxiety over there at 1600 Pennsylvania.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Plenty of it, Brianna. That's right.

The White House is trying to put some distance between President Trump and Michael Flynn's guilty plea. But it's clear today the Russia investigation is creeping closer to the president. A senior White House official insisted there's no anxiety here at the White House about what Flynn might tell investigators, but we're also told there are worries inside the White House as to where this investigation might go next.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUESTION: Can you comment on Michael Flynn being indicted, sir? Can you comment on Michael Flynn being indicted?

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump was silent when asked about his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators about the retired general's contacts with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

But inside the White House, the president's lawyers were once again busy shielding Mr. Trump from the investigation. In a statement, White House attorney Ty Cobb described Flynn as "a former national security adviser at the White House for 25 days during the Trump administration and a former Obama administration official."

The statement adds: "Flynn's false statements mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn."

[18:30:07] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We discussed a lot of different situations, some wonderful and some difficulties.

ACOSTA: But the White House statement ignores the fact that Obama warned the incoming president to stay away from Flynn in the Oval Office two days after the election. Nine days before he was sworn into office, Mr. Trump refused CNN's attempts to ask whether his campaign had contacts with the Russians before the election.

(on camera): Mr. President-elect...

TRUMP: Go ahead. She's asking a question. Don't be rude.

ACOSTA: Mr. President-elect, can you give us a...

TRUMP: Don't be rude.

ACOSTA: Tell us categorically...

TRUMP: You are fake news.

ACOSTA: Sir. (voice-over): The next month, the president defended Flynn's contacts with the Russians.

TRUMP: Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts, so it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn't doing it. I didn't direct him, but I would have directed him, because that's his job.

ACOSTA: The president went on to suggest there were no contacts during the campaign.

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

GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.), FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Lock her up!

ACOSTA: Flynn, who repeatedly led chants about "Lock her up" about Hillary Clinton...

FLYNN: We -- we do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law. Lock her up. That's right.

ACOSTA: ... spoke with Ambassador Kislyak during the transition, but transition officials never mentioned that Flynn spoke to the ambassador about new Obama administration sanctions against Russia.

SEAN SPICER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY (via phone): The call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in, and they exchanged logistical information on how to initiate and schedule that call. That was it. Plain and simple.

ACOSTA: Former FBI director James Comey says the president pressed him to drop the case.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Understood him to be saying that what he wanted me to do was drop any investigation connected to Flynn's account of his conversations with the Russians.

ACOSTA: The president has also repeatedly tried to knock down new revelations in the Russia probe, tweeting in March, "Mike Flynn should ask for immunity" and that "This is a witch hunt, excuse for big election loss by media and Dems of historic proportion."

When former campaign manager Paul Manafort was indicted, along with a guilty plea from former national security official George Papadopoulos, the president tweeted, "The fake news is working overtime. As Paul Manafort's lawyer said, there was no collusion. And events mentioned took place long before he came to the campaign. Few people knew the young, low-level volunteer named George who was already proven to be a liar. Check the Dems."

The Democrats say they won't work with Flynn, who was a senior White House official.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: They can't distance themselves from President Trump's national security adviser, who has acknowledged a crime.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, senior White House officials said it was not just Kushner but multiple officials inside the transition who discussed Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador. This official also went on to claim that the Obama administration -- that's right, the Obama administration -- quote, "authorized Flynn's conversation with Kislyak."

A former Obama administration official with the national security office for the former president called that claim from the Trump White House, quote, "laughable," Brianna.

And as for the president, we are told he feels, quote, "sorry for Flynn" tonight -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House. Thank you for that report.

I want to bring in our team of correspondents and analysts to talk about all of this with us now.

And Susan Hennessey, you first. You were formerly an attorney with the NSA, the National Security Agency. When you look at this plea, what does it tell you? What's the takeaway to you?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So I think sort of the initial thing is considering the range of exposure Flynn had, right, we've seen, really, reports about a pretty astonishing range of potentially illegal conduct, from not filling out his forms properly, FARA violations, all the way over to the sort of alleged plot to kidnap a Turkish cleric. You know, this is a pretty good plea deal, right? This is about six months in jail, $10,000.

KEILAR: Pretty good for him.

HENNESSEY: It's a pretty good deal for him.

KEILAR: Which means it had to be pretty good for whoever he was agreeing to it with, right?

HENNESSEY: Exactly, exactly. So I think that what we can assume from this is just that he had a lot to give Mueller that Mueller thought was important if he's going to let Flynn off this easily.

KEILAR: Phil Mudd, you are nodding your head.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Absolutely. Let's look at the timeline here. The -- when you look at the document, the first line out of the document talks about conversations going back, we know, to December 29, and then Flynn lying to federal officers in January. Last I checked, we're now on December 1, which is when we get the guilty plea.

What do you think the Mueller people and before them -- before him, the Comey people, were doing in the interim? They're collecting information, including financial irregularities about what Michael Flynn was doing.

What happened in the past month or two? I suspect those amounted, as Susan was suggesting, to significant charges. They went in and said, "Either these are going to get laid on you, or you better lay yourself something on the table that's huge."

[18:35:03] And I'll tell you one more thing. I don't think it's been a week or two since Flynn was cooperating. I think it's been a while.

KEILAR: Really?

MUDD: And when the feds went in to talk to Jared Kushner, whatever it was, a week or two ago, I suspect they already knew the answers to every question they asked him. They wanted to see whether he was going to lie about Flynn.

KEILAR: So what does that tell you, Evan, about what all of this means for Jared Kushner, especially when we've learned, through CNN's reporting -- very good job to you and your team -- that Jared Kushner was the very senior administration official...

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

KEILAR: ... who instructed Flynn to get in touch with foreign officials, including the Russian ambassador, about a U.N. resolution?

PEREZ: Well, we know that Jared Kushner went in to speak to the special counsel in early November, and we now know the version of events that Bob Mueller believes to be true. This is the document that was filed in court today.

And what we know is, at least from talking to people who are close to the White House, is that there's a different set of events. There's a different version of events that they have arrived at, and that is probably the version that Jared Kushner testified to, or gave an interview to, when he met with the special counsel. So that could present some problems.

If he said that, for instance, that he didn't order this, but they have evidence that he did -- and they certainly believe that he did -- then that is -- that potentially creates problems for him as to whether or not he was telling the truth.

And, look, the other -- what we learned here, is that it wasn't just Flynn freelancing here.

KEILAR: Sure.

PEREZ: I mean, he was clearly talking to people inside at Mar-a-Lago, or inside the administration. They knew what he was doing, that he was having these conversations with Sergey Kislyak. It wasn't just an isolated thing.

KEILAR: Definitely. I want to revisit that point, but David Axelrod, I want to ask you about something that we learned in terms of the Obama administration. President Obama himself warning President Trump about Michael Flynn. And then you had Sally Yates, who was the holdover, who was fired by President Trump, who -- from the Justice Department, who goes to the Trump White House and warns them, warns them that Flynn had lied about his communications, that he was vulnerable to blackmail by Russians.

When you look back now on those facts, does it give you sort of a new insight, knowing now about this plea deal?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, you have to look at the sequence of events. You know, Sally Yates. First, Flynn lied to the FBI. The next day, the acting attorney general reports that to the White House. She's fired a few days later on another matter, and then the president has a private meeting with the FBI director and asks for his loyalty. And we know later, according to Jim Comey, after the firing of General Flynn, he asked that the FBI director drop the matter of Flynn.

Why? Why was the president going to these extraordinary lengths to protect Michael Flynn? And how could you possibly -- and this question was asked then. How could you possibly keep a national security advisor on staff after you've been told by the attorney general and the Justice Department that he had lied to the FBI?

I mean, these are questions that have to be resolved, but certainly, this plea today and the -- and the prospect of cooperation by General Flynn suggest that we may get some answers.

KEILAR: Kaitlan, you are our resident White House reporter here on the panel. You've covered every word that the president has said, including what he said back in February when he was asked about Flynn's conversations about sanctions with the Russians. Here's what the president said then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you direct Michael Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador?

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You fired him...

TRUMP: Excuse me. No, I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence. Very simple.

Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. So it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn't doing it. I didn't direct him. But I would have directed him, because that's his job. And it came out that way. And in all fairness, I watched Dr. Charles Krauthammer the other night say he was doing his job. And I agreed with him. And since then I've watched many other people say that. No, I didn't direct him. But I would have directed him if he didn't do it, OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So interesting to me, because he really seems to defend Mike Flynn so often. And you really -- we've seen this affinity -- affinity from the president for Mike Flynn in a way that we haven't seen when other people like Paul Manafort or George Papadopoulos, who he said was this low-level staffer.

But for Flynn, time and time again, we've seen him say that he should get immunity, or telling Comey that he's a good guy, he should shut down the investigation into him. And it really makes you question, is it because Flynn knows so much, or is it because he feels a sense of loyalty to him, or is it a little bit of both?

But it's an interesting dynamic, because we've seen him not distance himself from Flynn in the way that he's done with others, even though the White House has tried to do that by saying, you know, he was only there for 25 days and whatnot. But clearly...

[18:40:02] PEREZ: He was an Obama administration official.

COLLINS: Right, who Obama fired.

PEREZ: The most laughable one.

COLLINS: He clearly meant a lot. There were times where he was considered to be a running mate for the president. Yahoo! News reported that after all this had happened, after Flynn had been fired, that the president reached out to him and told Flynn to stay strong. So it's very interesting to see the dynamic between the president and Flynn here.

KEILAR: It certainly is. Evan, when the president said that there, you wonder why didn't -- why wouldn't that have been Michael Flynn's defense? Because the things that he's pleading guilty to do have to do with the Logan Act. The fact that he was very much involving himself in foreign policy before he was supposed to really be in a position to do that.

But now it makes you wonder, when you look at that. It's not necessarily about the Logan Act, which it seems would be difficult to bring charges. It's just not something that's really been done. And it seems harder to believe that this isn't about something much larger and involving more people, especially when you look at the words in the charging...

PEREZ: Right. Exactly. And I think that's exactly where I go when I look at the document here. I mean, this is not about the Logan Act. They're not going to stop there. And that's not really what the end game is here.

It's clear that they believe that that's a leverage point, that's a pressure point that they can use to get to something bigger. And the view here that you can see beginning is that -- is that they believe that there's a larger conspiracy. And so this is only, you know, a sort of a step to get to that. Which is to get Flynn to point fingers and tell us exactly who directed him to make these phone calls, who knew about it and who directed, you know, sort of the false stories that were out there.

KEILAR: David Axelrod, final word to you, when you look especially as a former top adviser to a president, you look at where we are here, you look at Michael Flynn being in some hot water, although he could be in hotter water, and now you see fingers pointed and clear warnings being made from the Mueller investigation toward other people in President Trump's inner circle, where do you see this going from here?

AXELROD: Look, I think if I were sitting in the White House, for all of their bravado, if I were sitting in the White House tonight, I would be deeply, deeply disturbed. Because everything about this document suggests that this investigation is headed up. And now they've got a guy who was deeply embedded in both the campaign and the White -- and you know, the transition, certainly, and was very close to the operation and very close to these matters, you know, to Russia and these matters that are under -- under review. I'd be very concerned about them.

But Brianna, let me just say real quickly, I think we all ought to step back. I did. When I watched Michael Flynn walk into that courtroom, walk into that building today. I said, you know, to myself, this is -- this is a sobering but awesome event. This is a guy who 11 months ago was one of the most powerful people in the world, and he walked into this courthouse and he pled guilty to a crime.

And what it says is we are a nation of laws, and there is no one who is immune. And that's something that should -- that should sober the White House tonight, as well.

KEILAR: A point that Michael Flynn made that people are not above the law. He made that himself.

David Axelrod, thank you so much. Phil, Susan, Evan and Kaitlan, I really appreciate it.

Coming up, we are going to stay with our breaking story. We're digging into the Flynn plea deal and the former Trump advisor's contacts with Russia and Vladimir Putin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:28] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: This hour, there is no telling what Michael Flynn may be revealing to the special counsel's team now that his plea deal has been signed and unsealed. We're going to have more of our breaking news coverage of this huge development in the Russia investigation. Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd.

So, what more are you learning about Flynn's Russia contacts?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, these court papers today reveal interesting information, Brianna, they reveal some information that we did not know before today, that Russia's ambassador to the U.S. told Michael Flynn that Russia would not retaliate immediately to U.S. sanctions leveled last year. And the ambassador said that specifically as a result of a request Flynn made to him.

We've been digging on the deals Flynn made with the Russians during those critical days and we have new information on the motives for these deals -- Flynn's motives and the Russians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): On Russian state-sponsored TV in recent days, Sergey Kislyak, Russia's former ambassador to Washington, the man at the center of Michael Flynn's legal troubles, had some great laughs with his hosts as they mocked the Mueller investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): If it's not difficult, can you list those whom you met with and spoke on the phone so we know who will be going to jail or at least be summoned for questioning, Flynn, Sessions, who else?

SERGEY KISLYAK, FORMER RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S. (through translator): There are two problems here. First, I will never do this. Second, the list will be so long that I won't be able to tell you in 20 minutes.

TODD: It carries a sting tonight, as we get new information from court filings about Flynn's urgent back-channel calls with Kislyak last December.

[18:50:03] President Obama had just ordered sanctions to retaliate for Russia's meddling in the elections, after Flynn consulted with a top Trump aide at Mar-a-Lago, he called Kislyak and asked for Russia not to escalate the situation. A source told CNN Flynn told Kislyak the Trump administration would revisit U.S. sanctions and look favorably on Russia if it didn't retaliate.

Key question tonight: what were the Trump team's and Flynn's motives for reaching out to Kislyak?

SARAH MENDELSON, FORMER SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The larger Trump team wants a better relationship with Russia. I think that for Flynn, his motivation had to do with what he saw as the main threat against the United States, which was not Russians interfering in our election and trying to undermine our democracy, but a world view that sees Islam as the real threat. And I think that Flynn thought he could make some kind of bargain or arrangement with the Russians on this.

TODD: Soon, Vladimir Putin's surprise response to Flynn's overture, no retaliation, at least for now.

Trump tweets his appreciation. Great move on delay by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart.

What was Putin's motive for making that deal?

MENDELSON: One is he wants to see whether or not there is a possibility of having a better relationship. Two, sanctions are hurting Russia. They're biting and they're biting an entourage that's around Putin and three, Putin hates the Magnitsky Act and for sure that that is a piece of it and trying to figure out if there's a strategy to roll back.

TOIDD: The Magnitsky is an American law which sanctions individual Russians close to Putin. Putin is furious over it. In these deals, Michael Flynn was the perfect messenger for both sides. U.S. intelligence intercepts found Russian intelligence bragging that they had cultivated a strong relationship with Flynn and believed they could use him to influence Trump.

BEN JUDAH, AUTHOR, "FRAGILE EMPIRE": We know that Flynn was present at a gala dinner sitting next to Vladimir Putin and was certainly friendly enough with him to be seen joking and laughing with him in that context.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: So, did Vladimir Putin get what he wanted from those early dealings with the Trump team? Well, in some ways, he has not. Sanctions against Russia still in effect and another round is about to kick in, that Magnitsky Act still in place.

But on the other hand, Putin has not been punished by President Trump as much he might have been by Hillary Clinton. And analysts say since Trump took office, America's image abroad has been tarnished, its leadership in Europe and beyond thrown into question. All of those developments they say they say are victories for Vladimir Putin -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And there are concerns tonight about where Putin goes from here, right, and his efforts to influence Trump and the U.S. political process?

TODD: Sure are, Brianna. Analysts tell us Putin is likely going to try to pull more strings with President Trump and manipulate him and they say keep an eye on the 2018 midterm elections. There are huge concerns tonight that Putin is going to meddle in those.

KEILAR: Brian Todd, thank you so much for that report.

And for more breaking news coverage of Michael Flynn's guilty plea and his deal with the special counsel, we're also going to get a live update from the Senate as Republicans push toward a vote on the GOP tax bill. Will there be any last minute issues? Find out ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:58:11] KEILAR: Tonight as the Trump White House faces the reality of Michael Flynn's new plea deal, Republicans are hoping to finally ram through a vote on their must pass tax bill.

And CNN congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly is on the hill tonight following the action.

Where are we, Phil?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a rather remarkable moment. They have the votes. Republican leaders have the votes, they just don't have a bill. And, Brianna, they're expected to vote on this within hours.

The whole process has been postponed as Republican leaders have tried to put the deals they made to get those votes into place into legislative text. And that could lead to hasty issues, maybe some potential drafting errors and certainly some Democratic attacks.

Democratic senators taking to Twitter right now, posting separate pages of a draft amendment that's circulating now that shows writing in the margins of the bill text as Republican leaders are trying to put all of this together.

Look, it underscores two things. First and foremost, this process came together very quickly. It was less than 24 hours ago that Republican leaders had stalled out on the bill, over deficit issues. No longer. They have 51 votes in the affirmative for this bill, but underscore something else. The political imperative Republicans feel to actually get this done.

This is something that hasn't been done in 31 years. There is no real expectation they could get this done in just a matter of weeks and yet, here they are, just a few hours away from completing a historic vote on the Senate tax reform bill. It would have to be reconciled with the House. They are clearly on track right now but they need the final text first before they can have a vote.

KEILAR: Real quick, Phil. So, do Republicans -- will they know what they're voting yes on?

MATTINGLY: Yes, look, they know what the deal is. It's just a matter of had they read it in full. This is 400, 500 pages of legislation.

KEILAR: Yes.

MATTINGLY: I don't think any Republican senator can tell you they've read every single page of that bill, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Phil Mattingly, on Capitol Hill tonight. Thank you so much.

I'm Brianna Keilar and thank you for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.