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THE SITUATION ROOM
White House Denies Trying to Prevent Yates Testimony; House Intel Chair Won't Step Aside from Russia Probe; Interview with Rep. Eric Swalwell; Trump Signs Order Rolling Back Climate Regulations; House Intel Chairman Invites FBI Director to Testify Again; Father Foils His Daughter's School Massacre Plot. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired March 28, 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. Testimony acrimony. The White House denies that it tried to block testimony by the former acting attorney general in the investigation of ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials. Why were congressional hearings suddenly canceled?
[17:00:04] Recusal refusal. Amid claims that he's secretly working with the White House the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee rejects calls that he step aside. Is he actually obstructing the investigation?
Climate changes. Saying he wants to put coal miners back to work, President Trump moves to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at curbing carbon emissions and global warming. Does he still believe climate change is a hoax?
And thwarted attack. Police say they foiled a potential massacre planned by a student who allegedly gathered weapons to target her high school 90 minutes north of Washington, D.C. New details on her father's excruciating decision.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news, the White House is flatly denying that it acted to block key testimony in the investigation of ties between Trump aides and Russia. The White House says there was no move to prevent an appearance by former acting attorney general Sally Yates before the House Intelligence Committee.
Yates, who was fired by the president in January for refusing to enforce his travel ban, had investigated former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his contacts with Russian officials. Yates was supposed to testify publicly today, but that hearing and others were cancelled by the panel's Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, who's rejecting calls by Democrats to step aside from the entire Russia investigation.
Critics say Nunes is too close to the White House to lead that probe after he made a secret visit to the White House complex, then publicly declared he found evidence of potential surveillance of Trump campaign officials, briefing the president before his own committee.
And vowing to put coal miners back to work, President Trump today swung a sledgehammer at Obama-era regulations aimed at limiting climate change. His latest executive order seeks to undo those rules which he says limit economic growth and energy independence.
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, won't say whether the president still believes climate change is a hoax.
I'll talk to Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and guests are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
Let's get right over to the breaking news, the White House denying that it's been interfering in the investigation of contacts between Russia and Trump campaign officials. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.
What's the latest on this, Jeff?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House is trying to change the subject on this, even talking about trying to revive health care; but that has done little to brush aside this Russia investigation, which tonight is hanging over this White House like a storm cloud.
ZELENY (voice-over): The White House going to new lengths to downplay a growing Russia cloud hanging over the administration.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection.
ZELENY: And questions over Russia are intensifying from the White House to Capitol Hill, where the House Intelligence Committee investigation has erupted in a partisan fury.
The administration refusing again today to say who invited the committee's chairman, Devin Nunes, to the White House grounds last week to review classified information. The White House also denying suggestions today that it tried to keep former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying before the committee investigating any ties between Russia agents and Trump campaign advisers.
SPICER: I hope she testifies. I look forward to it.
ZELENY: White House press secretary Sean Spicer called a "Washington Post" report 100 percent false that said the administration tried to block Yates from testifying or for playing a role in cancelling the hearing originally set for today.
SPICER: We have no problem with her testifying, plain and simple.
ZELENY: She could be a critical witness. President Trump fired Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, ten days after taking office for refusing to enforce the Trump administration's travel ban. She was expected to testify about conversations between the Russian ambassador and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser fired by Trump.
The White House desperately trying to move beyond Russia, trying to characterize the investigation today as a closed case.
SPICER: I know this will be a shock, but, again, part of it is, is that I think we've been very clear that, when you actually get to the bottom of the facts, every single person who's been briefed on this as I've said ad nauseum from this podium, that they have been very clear that there's no connection between the president or the staff here and anyone doing anything with Russia.
ZELENY: But the investigation is very much alive on Capitol Hill and at the FBI, which Director James Comey testified last week in this stunning revelation.
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: 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. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.
[17:05:23] ZELENY: The Russia story is now riveting Washington, whether the White House likes it or not.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Following the House investigation is like following a mystery novel. You never know what's going to happen next.
ZELENY: One of the things happening next is going to be that Senate investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now they have tried to keep a distance from everything going on on the House side. And the top Republican and top Democrat, Wolf, tomorrow are holding their first press conference, giving an update into their own investigation.
Now, Wolf, this is something that is simply not coming to an end, despite what Sean Spicer says from the podium there. The Senate, the FBI investigating the House, still is, even though the investigation by the House is very much up in the air.
BLITZER: Yes. Looks like there's much better bipartisan cooperation in the Senate Intelligence Committee than in the House Intelligence Committee.
Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee says he'll continue to lead the Russia investigation, despite accusations that he's simply too close to the Trump administration.
Let's go to our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju.
Manu, what's the latest on the Hill?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, tonight real questions about whether or not the House Intelligence Committee will be able to produce a bipartisan report.
The top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, saying just moments ago that he wants to have a public hearing before this committee, something that was actually cancelled today by Chairman Devin Nunes, in which that hearing with Sally Yates was expected to testify. But right now no consensus and major questions about whether the investigation will move forward.
RAJU (voice-over): Tonight a meltdown in one of Capitol Hill's main investigations into Russian ties to the Trump campaign. The House Intelligence Committee locked in a partisan feud over Republican Chairman Devin Nunes, with Democrats saying he should step aside after cancelling a public hearing and privately briefing the president on surveillance information he obtained from a source on White House grounds.
But Nunes is defiant, refusing to step aside, insisting he did nothing wrong by briefing President Trump about communications picked up incidentally about the Trump transition.
(on camera): But are you going to stay as chairman and run this investigation?
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Well, why would I not? You guys need to go ask them why there -- you know, why these things are being said.
RAJU: But can this investigation continue with you as chairman?
NUNES: Why would it not? Aren't I briefing you guys continuously and keeping you up to speed?
RAJU: But they're saying that it cannot run as you should with...
NUNES: You've got to go talk to them. That sounds like their problem. I don't have -- you know, my colleagues are perfectly fine. I mean, there's -- they know we're doing an investigation, and that will continue.
RAJU (voice-over): House Speaker Paul Ryan was terse when asked if Nunes should recuse himself and if he knew who the congressman's source is.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: No one knows.
RAJU: Democrats sees a White House pulling the strings. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He seems to be working with the White House to
obstruct this investigation.
RAJU: With the House panel cancelling public and private meeting this week the Senate Intelligence Committee is quietly pressing ahead, with new plans to interview Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over contacts he had with the Russian ambassador and a top official at a Russian bank tied to the Kremlin.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says this panel can do the job, rejecting calls for an independent commission.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (D-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I have confidence in the Senate intelligence community to do this job. And I believe that they're in the process of doing it right now.
RAJU (on camera): Do you have confidence in the House Intelligence Committee?
MCCONNELL: I serve on the Senate. I don't have any -- any observations to make about the House efforts.
RAJU (voice-over): But even some Senate Republicans are raising questions about Nunez. Senator Lindsey Graham questions his ability to lead an investigation if the House intelligence chairman doesn't share information with committee Democrats.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The problem that he's created is he's gone off on a lark by himself, sort of an inspector Clouseau investigation here trying to find some unmasking information about Colex, incidental with the Trump campaign and some agent outside of Russia.
RAJU: Meanwhile, today's new investigation casts a shadow over the investigation? Did the White House seek to prevent former justice official, try to block Sally Yates from testifying before the panel because of her assertions that former Trump national security advisor, Michael Flynn, may have been vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian. The White House flatly denied seeking to block her testimony, but when pressed Nunes would not discuss the administration's role.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the Trump administration seek to have Sally Yates not testify before your committee?
NUNES: You guys are just speculating. I'm sorry. Whenever there's time, we'll do a presser.
RAJU (on camera): Well, did they ask you to cancel the hearing today?
NUNES: Come on, guys.
RAJU: Why is that not -- I mean, why did you cancel the hearing?
[17:10:05] NUNES: There's no -- nothing has been cancelled.
(END VIDEOTAPE) RAJU: Now, on the Senate side, Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the
committee, says he does want to hear from Sally Yates. And I asked that same question to Chairman Richard Burr, the Republican chairman. He said he did not want to discuss any possible witness, likely testifying under oath in a private setting and no death yet set for that very important private interview, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.
Joining us now, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE MEMBER: Good evening, Wolf.
BLITZER: So earlier today, referring to the behavior of your chairman, Devin Nunes, you said -- and I'm quoting you now -- "This is what a cover-up to a crime looks like." Those are your words. That's an extraordinary accusation. What alleged crimes specifically are you referring to?
SWALWELL: And Wolf, I'm referring to the White House's behavior, and I'm putting that into the context of Michael Flynn lying to the vice president about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Our attorney general misleading the Senate about his prior contacts with the Russian ambassador. Donald Trump making false wiretapping claims. Jared Kushner not being forthcoming about meeting with a sanctioned Russian bank. And now the White House opening up its facilities so that the chairman can exclusively receive classified information and then, in a stunt the next day, go and quote, unquote, "brief the president."
This is what a cover-up looks like. We're expected to do a job, and right now our committee has lost its independence, its credibility and the progress we made last week with our open hearing.
BLITZER: But Congressman, have you seen anything beyond circumstantial evidence to back up that claim?
SWALWELL: And again, Wolf, right now, it looks -- this is what a cover-up looks like. What I want to know is what did Devin Nunes receive at the White House? Why could he not share it with the Democratic committee members? And what does he plan to do so that our constituents can believe that we're getting to the bottom of how we were attacked, whether any U.S. persons were involved, and most importantly, how can we make sure we're never in a mess like this again?
BLITZER: He says he's going to make that information available to the committee members. Has he done that yet?
SWALWELL: He has not, and he said that last week. And I asked him today. I said I think it would serve us all well if we just sat down as a committee and just aired this out and got to the bottom of it. I hope he takes me up on that request. But Wolf, this is all the more reason to have an independent commission.
I wrote the legislation with Elijah Cummings to do this. Walter Jones, a Republican, has joined us. It was always the most comprehensive way to get to the bottom of what happened. Now it's an insurance policy against a compromised House investigation.
BLITZER: What did he say to you today when you asked him for that information?
SWALWELL: Well, I hope he considers it. I think you should ask him, Wolf, but I'm not too hopeful at this time.
But we need to all just take a step back and remember we have a responsibility to the American people to conduct this in an independent way and that we can only wear one uniform. And we're a separate branch of government, and we can't be working with the White House.
BLITZER: Do you believe that the chairman, Devin Nunes, was taking orders directly from the White House when he cancelled the hearing that was scheduled today, an open hearing including the former acting attorney general, Sally Yates, the former CIA director, the former director of national intelligence?
SWALWELL: I can only tell you, Wolf, that as much as I enjoy being in THE SITUATION ROOM, I'd rather be in that hearing right now, because it's a continuation of our duty to have a public hearing and to hear from Sally Yates, Director Brennan and Director Clapper. We're not doing that.
And so that's why I think it would serve the chairman well and our committee well to recuse himself from all things Russia.
We also have important business outside of Russia that we need to conduct as a committee, and I still believe we can work with this chairman on those issues, but right now his credibility is in jeopardy.
BLITZER: Why did he cancel that hearing? What was his explanation to you? It was supposed to be today.
SWALWELL: We were told that either the FBI director and Admiral Rogers from the NSA could brief us or that we could hear from this public group. We could have done both.
And I think, again, this is just an effort to delay and deflect from real questions that we have about the personal, financial and political ties between Donald Trump and his team that were converging at the time of Russia's interference.
BLITZER: Is there a separate hearing scheduled now with the FBI director, James Comey, and the director of national -- the National Security Agency, the NSA, Admiral Mike Rogers? Is there a separate hearing now scheduled?
SWALWELL: Right now we're stalled, Wolf. Everything is kind of suspended and, again, I think we could all do a better job if our chairman would just step aside and allow another Republican to lead this investigation on their side and start making progress.
Because last week the American people for the first time get a glimpse of what the evidence was against Russia. It was validated by the FBI director saying that investigation was underway. And now we're in darkness, and that's not a good place to be when there are these serious questions.
[17:15:02] BLITZER: As far as you know, Congressman, are all the Democrats on your committee unified right now in their opposition to Nunes, that he should at least recuse himself from this investigation, if not completely step down as chairman?
SWALWELL: Wolf, we like Chairman Nunes. We are unified in that we don't think he should be a part of this investigation.
BLITZER: Should he still be chairman?
SWALWELL: Yes, I still have faith that he can chair our committee if he steps down, but the problem is, if he loses credibility on this issue, I'm afraid what it will do is it will make it much harder for all of us to work together on the other important issues that we are called to work on every day together.
BLITZER: So just to be precise, you want him to recuse himself from this Russia investigation but not step down as chairman?
SWALWELL: Yes, Wolf, and even if he believes there's not a conflict of interest, the perception of a conflict of interest can be just as bad.
BLITZER: The Senate Intelligence Committee, as you know, is pushing ahead with its own investigation. They plan to talk to President Trump's senior adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, about meetings he had with the Russian ambassador, as well as some contacts with a top official at a major Russian bank. Would you be interested in hearing testimony from Kushner, as well?
SWALWELL: Yes. I'm interested in why any U.S. person would be talking to a sanctioned Russian bank, but especially interested when somebody on the Trump transition team, like Mr. Kushner, who has ties to Mr. Trump's businesses, would be talking to them.
And the stories are very different. Jared Kushner said he was meeting with them in his duties as a member of the transition team. However, the bank's statement released last evening, they said they were meeting with him as far has his duties as a businessman.
BLITZER: But your committee, the House Intelligence Committee, has not asked him to appear, right?
SWALWELL: We're still compiling our witness list. And so we've heard from U.S. government officials. We also want to hear from people like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page, Michael Flynn and other persons that may have been connected to Russia. BLITZER: And have they agreed, have any of them agreed to testify
before your committee? Because I know some of them have agreed to appear for at least interviews before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
SWALWELL: They have publicly said so, and the chairman said that Paul Manafort has. But I will insist that these be public hearings. There's no reasons that those witnesses should testify in secret. They will not convey classified information to us, and we will not convey classified information to them. So it should be, I think, something the public can see.
BLITZER: Any other names, any other individuals, you want to name any other names that you want to appear before your committee, as well, because the names you've mentioned are names that have obviously been publicly discussed?
SWALWELL: No, Wolf. I think, you know, our committee, we're coming up with the names right now. Of course, there are more names, but those are the individuals who have also, themselves, expressed their willingness to testify. And so I think we should start there. That's a good starting ground for us.
BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Congressman. There's much more to discuss. We're following all the breaking news. We've got to take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:22:23] BLITZER: We're talking with Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell, a key member of the Intelligence Committee. We'll get back to him shortly.
But right now, promising to put coal miners back to work, President Trump today took a sledgehammer to the Obama administration's climate regulations. He signed an executive order rolling back rules and policies meant to limit carbon emissions, saying they limit economic growth.
CNN congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty is with us. Sunlen, tell us what happened?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the White House really sees this as President Trump here making good on a campaign promise to bring back jobs to the hard-hit coal industry, but how many jobs and exactly at what cost to the environment, those remain something of an open question.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... through on that promise. My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.
SERFATY (voice-over): President Trump taking major steps to strip down Obama-era regulations to combat climate change. TRUMP: I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on
American energy, to reverse government intrusion and to cancel job- killing regulations.
SERFATY: Signing an executive order at the Environmental Protection Agency that undoes the Clean Power Plan. The initiative: to curb carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants. But that 2015 effort by the Obama administration has been tangled up in legal challenges and hasn't even gone into full effect yet.
President Trump's order also allows for new coal mines on federal lands by lifting the three-year moratorium and rescinds at least six Obama executive orders aimed at curbing climate change and regulating carbon emissions, including one that says climate change poses a growing threat to national security and another instructing the federal government to prepare for the impact of climate change.
MIKE BRUNE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SIERRA CLUB: The actions that President Trump has taken today represent the largest attack on climate action in our country's history.
SERFATY: And still TBD in all of this, the Paris Climate Change Accord, which doesn't touch, but these new changes will make it harder to meet the benchmarks of the agreement.
TRUMP: We're going to bring the coal industry back, folks.
SERFATY: The White House touting this as a campaign promise kept, with the goal of job creation, a move that the White House claims the mining industry is embracing.
SPICER: The miners and the owners are very, very bullish on this.
SERFATY: But some top coal executives warn jobs may not return, due to the rise in natural gas use and more automation in coal mines. The CEO of the largest U.S. private coal mine told CNN Money he suggested to Mr. Trump that he temper his expectations.
[17:25:05] Democrats and environmentalists see little benefit and a lot of harm.
BRUNE: The coal industry has been losing jobs for year after year after year. Coal jobs are not going to be coming back in any kind of large quantity whatsoever.
SERFATY: And in yet another sign of the difference between the Obama and Trump administrations on these issues, Trump did not say the word "climate" or "climate change" during his remarks today.
Meantime, former Vice President Al Gore, who met with Trump during the transition, he responded today, Wolf. He called those moves by the Trump administration discouraging and misguided.
BLITZER: I'm sure he believes that. All right. Thanks very much, Sunlen. Thanks very much.
We've back with Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California. Congressman, what's your reaction to President Trump's executive actions, rolling back President Obama's climb change legacy?
SWALWELL: These protections were not a war on coal, Wolf. They were a war on the lung cancer that the workers were suffering, because of the pollutants from coal. They were a war on the dirty air that the emissions were causing. But that's enough to say to the coal miner. What we need to do is to give them opportunity in this new economy, to invest in clean air, clean water projects, including wind, solar and alternative fuel cells. And that's what I think we're going to -- you're going to see coming from House Democrats in the coming weeks.
BLITZER: Well, what, if anything, can you do about the president's executive action today? Do Democrats have a realistic plan to fight back?
SWALWELL: Yes, so it's the policies that we can put in place. We can put our value statements, saying that those workers and every American deserve to breathe the air that is cleaner; and the workers deserve to have jobs that are representing the new economy.
And so I think whether it's retraining programs, it's making sure that the schools in those areas are preparing them for this new science and technology workforce, or making sure that businesses have incentives to go into these areas that have been left behind. We can do that, and those are policies you're going to see in the next few weeks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Congressman Swalwell, thanks very much for joining us.
SWALWELL: Yes, my pleasure.
BLITZER: Coming up, chilling new details about a foiled plot to attack a school. Police say a student had a shotgun, bomb-making materials and a detailed written plan.
BLITZER: Breaking now. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes says he's invited the FBI director, James Comey, to give more testimony in the investigation of Russia's meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Chairman Nunes also says he wasn't step aside, despite questions of his own -- involving his own impartiality.
[17:31:51] Let's get some insights from our experts.
And Phil Mudd, you're an expert in this area. You're worked in the CIA, the FBI. A lot of us were really looking forward to the open public hearing today involving the former CIA director, John Brennan; the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper; and Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, but the chairman cancelled that investigation. That testimony today.
I don't know if they have a good reason for that, but a lot of people are now questioning his impartiality. Are you?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, I am, and I think not only should he be out; I think the committee should be out. They've messed -- this has been a mockery from day one.
In the past week we've been discussing this issue of the chairman, Nunes, coming to the public, to the media about intelligence before he talked to his committee members. This cockamamy story about how he acquired that information from the White House, which nobody can figure out; and today the cancellation of hearings that I think would have helped us understand the foundational question.
Forget about talking to administration officials. What did Russians do to interfere with American elections and how do we protect ourselves going forward? Who better to speak about that than the CIA director and the director of national intelligence?
Here's the problem, Wolf, in a nutshell. Tell the committee to stop getting involved in political games and ask a question they haven't asked for a week at least. What did the Russians do, and how do we stop it from happening again? They're not talking about the real question.
BLITZER: That's the real question, because Nia, a lot of -- a lot of people are suspecting -- suspect that all of this talk that Devin Nunes and other administration supporters are pointing to, incidental collection, unmasking of individuals, all designed to really change the subject from the main part of the investigation: was there any collaboration, any collusion between Trump associates and the Russians in connection with the meddling?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And if you look at a lot of the public statements from Chairman Nunes over this last week or so, and even his opening statements in that hearing last week with the FBI director, Comey, they were all about this idea of incidental collection and now he's talking about unmasking. And that is part of why he had to go to the White House.
And some people see that as, again, Nunes sort of running interference for this White House in trying to give Donald Trump something of a fig leaf around his story about wiretapping claims and Obama which, of course, have been proven false.
So, again, this, I think, Phil Mudd hits it in terms of where the Democrats are on this, that this is about politicization. Nunes is basically running point for Donald Trump and avoiding a lot of the issues.
But here again, the Senate is obviously investigating this, too. That committee, I think people see it as much more bipartisan and credible. And obviously, the FBI is investigating all of these incidents, as well.
BLITZER: The White House press secretary, Rebecca, says -- Sean Spicer says he hopes that Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, will in fact, testify; looking forward to that testimony. Is that credible right now?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I guess we'll have to see what happens, if she actually does testify in public before this committee. We can take Sean at his word that he would be excited about that.
But really, this committee does have a problem right now, Wolf, with its credibility. Anything more that the committee does is going to be tainted by what's happened in the past week or two. It's sort of this indelible mark on the committee's work from this point forward.
[17:35:15] And so I think most people are going to be turning to the Senate committee, to the FBI investigation that is ongoing, for answers about this, because the House, frankly, is a bit politicized at this point.
BLITZER: You know, Phil, help us better understand something. Intercepted phone conversation, let's say, or an intercepted conversation between two foreign targets of the U.S. intelligence community.
Let's say they're discussing an American citizen. When is the identity of that American citizen unmasked, identified to others in the U.S. intelligence community, and when is it still concealed?
MUDD: Let's take a notional investigation. Let's say that the FBI is looking at foreign intelligence officials. Let's call them Russians.
Let's say those foreign intelligence officials have a conversation with a White House official that might involve, let's say, U.S. sanctions on Russia. At that point, FBI investigators might say, "We're trying to look at what these Russians are doing in America, who they're talking to and whether they're engaged in inappropriate activity, including collecting information inappropriately." At that point those investigators have a valid question.
And by the way, in contrast to what you've heard over the last week, this happens all the time. This is not unusual. Their question is who are those Russians talking to not just because they're concerned that America might have done something wrong but because they might want to question them.
Let me give you breaking news, Wolf. I've been questioned when my name was unmasked in collection and asked, "What was the content of your conversations with those foreign individuals we are investigation?" It happens every day in Washington.
BLITZER: But is it unmasked just to a select group?
BLITZER: Because the suspicion and the accusation you hear from some White House supporters is that, in the final weeks and months, if you will, of the Obama administration, a much greater network of individuals were privy to that sensitive information. MUDD: That's a fair question, and I think that is a subsidiary
question that the committee might want to look at. That is do we have indications that people who are involved in getting the information because they have to investigate the Russians are getting it properly, and is there an expanding audience of people who doesn't have what we -- what we call in government a need to know? I think that's a fair question.
That said, I will guarantee you over the next weeks that is entirely politicized by a suggestion that this whole effort was an effort to spy on Americans. Not true. Fair question, but I think it's going to become politicized.
BLITZER: But is it really part of the overall investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, or is it just a sort of sidebar to obfuscate?
MUDD: Absolute sidebar. I think when you investigate complex issues like how the Americans are collecting against foreigners, you learn about things that the intelligence oversight committees have a right to ask about.
This is compared to the issue of Russian interference in the American election, which is tier one. This is about tier four. Worthy of some staffers looking into, giving senators and congressman a report on the oversight committees, but compared to the issue they should be talking about, this is chump change.
BLITZER: All right. Stand by, guys. There's a lot more to assess and discuss. We'll be right back.
[17:42:55] BLITZER: We're back with our experts. Let me quickly go back to Phil Mudd.
Phil, the president's senior adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, he's going to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee about his contacts with Russian officials, including the ambassador, as well as contacts with a top Russian official of a major Russian bank that actually has been sanctioned by the U.S. Do those meetings concern you?
MUDD: I wouldn't say concern. I do believe they mean that he should be questioned. I don't think he should be questioned by the committee, and let me explain why.
In terms of concern. Obviously, the FBI has said to us that they have an open investigation about what happened during the election, and we had the president's national security adviser, General Flynn, resign because he was embarrassed to tell his boss, the vice president, that he'd had an inappropriate conversation with the Russian ambassador about sanctions.
In that swirl, I think it's fair to ask what was going on with campaign officials, including the some of the president, and let's talk to him.
However, the FBI has the capability to investigate people, to investigate them over months. They are non-partisan, and they have the ability to walk across the street to Pennsylvania Avenue to the Department of Justice and say, "Here's our file. Do you want to prosecute?"
You tell me. Is the committee partisan? Yes. Do they have the capabilities of the FBI to investigate? No. Do they have the capability to walk across to Justice and prosecute? No.
This is going to become a political show. The FBI should be running these questionings, not the committees.
BLITZER: You know, Nia, the White House thinks the whole thing is a waste of time. You saw the president's tweet -- I guess it was last night: "Another hoax," this whole story about Russia meddling, not
necessarily even true. But that's been debunked by officials across the board.
Listen to the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: But is the White House going to be distracted because of this for at least a while to come?
HENDERSON: Yes, I mean, because this is an investigation that's ongoing. I mean, if only it were Russian salad dressing, they'd be lucky. Instead it's Paul Manafort; it's Roger Stone. Jared Kushner, of course, is now going to testify and has volunteered to talk about his conversations with this Russian banker and with the Russian ambassador.
[17:45:05] And it's just going to continue. We've got these three different investigations. They'll likely go on for a while. Phil probably knows more about this in terms of the length of an investigation like this than I do, but this will be months and months and months. And it's partly because the White House has been so reactive in terms of all of this.
They react, essentially, to what's in the headlines instead of being proactive in putting everything out in terms of these context, so they end up being sort of caught in these suspicious kind of -- I mean, in some ways cover-ups and having to explain why are we just now finding out that Jared Kushner had these meet when we should have known weeks ago?
BLITZER: Because usually, the damage control experts say, if there's bad information, you put it out, Rebecca. Don't wait for your critics, your enemies, to put it out.
BERG: Right. Well, there's one question, first of all, of whether they think these connections are bad in the first place because Donald Trump has spoken very positively about Russia, about Vladimir Putin, so they might not have known that what they were doing at the time was bad. They might not think it was a bad thing worth investigating. So there's that.
But this White House, I think, we've seen, is not a master of damage control, maybe because they're creating more damage than they could possibly control all at one time. But their communications is a little bit disorganized. And I think we're seeing now that reflected in the way they have handled this as well.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by because there's more news coming up, including this. Police say a teenager had weapons and bomb-making materials ready for an attack on her high school, but the plot was foiled when her father discovered her plans and turned her in to police.
[17:51:08] BLITZER: Near Camp David, Maryland, about 90 minutes outside Washington, D.C., police say a student's plot to attack her school was foiled because her father discovered what she was planning and then turned her in. CNN's Brian Todd is over at the school.
Brian, this was more than just wishful thinking.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It seemed to be more than that, Wolf. Tonight, students, faculty members, and law enforcement officials are still processing what might have happened here. We're getting jarring new details of this 18-year-old's alleged plot to carry out a Columbine style massacre inside this high school.
TODD (voice-over): Police say Nichole Cevario was on a mission to massacre fellow students at her high school in the shadow of Camp David and that she was prepared to die as part of her attack. Tonight, police say she'll face multiple charges, accused of amassing an arsenal, including a Remington 870 pump shotgun, fireworks, and nails, which police believe would be used to make pipe bombs.
SHERIFF CHARLES JENKINS, FREDERICK COUNTY, MARYLAND: Certainly, she had the intent, the material, the means, and we believe it was going to happen.
TODD (voice-over): In a twist that has left the small tightly knit community reeling, police say the 18-year-old's plans were thwarted by her own father who discovered her plot and turned her in to police before she could carry it out next week.
JENKINS: The father saw some behavioral changes over a period of time. For whatever reason, he looked into her journal or diary. He reported that to the school authorities and my deputies, basically at the same time.
TODD (voice-over): Police discovered the weapons in the family's home. The Sheriff here says the plans seem advanced. He says Cevario mentioned the Columbine and Sandy Hook school massacres in her diary and that she had recorded details of the school's emergency procedures. Investigators believe Cevario had also been studying the movements of a female sheriff's deputy assigned to the school.
JENKINS: We believe that she was probably watching her pattern of coming and going, probably watching or looking at the type of weapon she was carrying on her person.
TODD (voice-over): Officials say Cevario was also enrolled in a criminal justice program at the school district's career center nearby. Back at her high school, just 90 minutes north of Washington, there's a sense of disbelief.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was always a really funny, sweet person. You would never think that -- you would never think that it would be her to do something like this.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Like, I knew something was up with her, but I would have never imagined that it was this bad.
TODD (voice-over): County school spokesman Michael Doerrer says there was nothing unusual in Cevario's disciplinary record.
TODD (on camera): Were there any signs of bullying, emotional issues, relationship issues with the students?
MICHAEL DOERRER, SPOKESPERSON, FREDERICK COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS: We had no indication whatsoever that there were any issues with this student.
TODD (voice-over): But the Sheriff says her diary tells a different story.
JENKINS: You know, you could read the frustration, emotional issues, the emotional problems she was having, talking about how she could conduct this shooting, the fact that she may have been the first female active school shooter in the country.
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, there is sincere gratitude toward a father who had to make an excruciating decision to turn in his own daughter in order to save other people's children.
DOERRER: It had to be a very agonizing decision. It's a decision I'm sure no parent would ever want to make but, ultimately, it was the right thing to do for his daughter. You know, very difficult but the right thing to do.
TODD: Tonight, Nichole Cevario is in a nearby hospital undergoing mental health evaluations. When she gets out, she's going to be taken into custody on explosives charges. She could face up to 50 years in prison.
Her father has not spoken out publicly about this case. We reached out to him. He told us he did not want it comment, Wolf.
BLITZER: Is there any indication, Brian, anyone else was involved in this alleged plot?
TODD: No, Wolf. The Sheriff tells us there is no indication they've gotten that anybody else was involved in this. This, according to the Sheriff, was all Nichole Cevario's plotting down to the detail. And, he says, she bought all of the weaponry. The shotgun, the ammunition, all the components for possible pipe bombs, she bought those legally, he says.
BLITZER: Very scary indeed. All right. Brian Todd up in Catoctin, Maryland. Brian, thanks very much.
[17:55:04] Coming up, our breaking news. The White House denies they tried to interfere in a congressional investigation of ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If the President puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Free to testify. The White House denies trying to block the fired acting Attorney General from facing questions about the Trump camp's Russia contacts. This as the President's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, prepares for his own testimony, likely under oath.
[18:00:03] Intelligence uproar, Chairman Devin Nunes rejects calls for him to step aside from his Committee's Russia investigation amid growing controversy and partisan rancor.