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THE SITUATION ROOM
Robert Mueller Appointed as Special Counsel in Trump-Russia Probe; Interview With Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; Interview With California Congresswoman Jackie Speier; Interview with Congressman John Garamendi. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired May 17, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We have major breaking news right now. The U.S. Justice Department has just named a special counsel in the Russia investigation.
Let's go right to our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown.
This is huge, Pamela.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This is significant step.
We are learning that the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, has appointed former FBI Director Bob Mueller to now oversee the Russia probe and look at the possible connections between Trump campaign associates and Russia, this announcement coming on the heels of the news that President Trump asked Director Comey back in February if he would stop the Flynn probe, according to our sources.
In this statement that was just released from the Department of Justice, Rod Rosenstein says: "Considering the unique circumstances of this matter, I am determined that a special counsel necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome. Our nation is grounded on the rule of law and the public must be assured that government officials administer the law fairly. Special counsel Mueller will have the resources to conduct and a thorough and complete investigation. And I'm confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law, and reach a just result."
And he adds that Mueller has actually resigned from his position at his law firm, so now this will be his full-time job overseeing the Russia probe.
We have previously reported, Wolf, that Rod Rosenstein didn't feel the need to appoint a special counsel shortly after the firing of James Comey last Tuesday. After that, there were revelations that President Trump asked James Comey over dinner at the White House if he was under investigation.
Then we found out this latest news about the memo, James Comey's memos where he documented the president asking him to end the Flynn probe. That appears to be a tipping point, so now this news coming out of the Department of Justice that special counsel will now be taking over the probe and Department of Justice will now be removed.
Also worth mentioning, we have learned through our sources that Bob Mueller was actually at the Department of Justice last week. He was there meeting with Rod Rosenstein just a day after Comey's firing.
But, again, at that point, our sources were telling us Rod Rosenstein was not prepared to appoint special counsel. Clearly, that has changed with all of the developments here, Wolf.
BLITZER: And it's significant that it was the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who made this decision. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has recused himself, so it was left up to him.
BROWN: It was left up to him because of that.
And we want to just point out what it means to have outside special counsel. It doesn't happen all the time. It has happened, but this happens when the Department of Justice feels that there is a possible conflict of interest or there are extraordinary circumstances, and it is in the best interest of public to appoint outside special counsel.
And so it appears, given the news coming out of the Department of Justice just now, that the department feels that way and that therefore it is important to appoint this former FBI director, Bob Mueller. He was appointed by President Bush in July of 2001 just before 9/11, and now he will be overseeing this Russia probe.
BLITZER: A major development.
I want to quickly go to Evan Perez, our justice correspondent. He is working the story as well.
This comes as a surprise, but it is a very, very significant.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's very significant, Wolf.
And as Pamela just mentioned, Mueller has been at the Justice Department, has been visiting with them for the past week. And apparently this has been under the discussion, we're told. I just talked to somebody who is familiar with the decision-making here. And I was told that this has been essentially in the works.
They were trying to figure out exactly how to do this. And Mueller is the first special counsel, first special prosecutor being brought in, in a Justice Department case since 2003, when James Comey was then the deputy attorney general. And he brought in Patrick Fitzgerald to handle the Valerie Plame case. You might remember that case, Wolf.
And there was a lot of criticism about that case. And there is always a lot of criticism about these appointments, because, as simply put, the criticism is that the Justice Department would have a better handle on being able to do these cases, that special prosecutors often feel pressure to be able to bring charges.
And in this document that Rod Rosenstein signed today appointing Bob Mueller, he said that this special prosecutor is going to be looking at any links that shows coordination between the Russian government and individuals connected to the Trump campaign.
It says that any matters that may be directly resulting from this investigation, he will have the power the bring criminal charges, if he so chooses. He will be working with FBI investigators who already have been doing this case, Wolf.
And so Bob Mueller, who has a very strong reputation, obviously, he served as FBI director for 12 years, the last couple of years, he has been at WilmerHale, the law firm here in Washington. He has been doing special investigations, including one into the NFL and one into Takata air bags.
So, he has been doing a lot of these similar type of work, but for the private sector.
BLITZER: Very quickly, Evan, in the press release that the Department of Justice put out, they say that this special counsel, Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, he will be involved in the investigation of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters.
Did they define related matters?
PEREZ: No. That's one of the special powers of this appointment is that essentially he will go wherever he decides this case will go.
And so anything that comes up, any new discoveries that are made, he is able to pursue that. And he makes that decision alone without any input from the deputy attorney general. That's one of the dangers people see with these types of appointments. And that is why there is so much resistance inside the Justice Department to make this move.
Clearly, this is not something that Rosenstein or the department leadership really wanted to do, but I think we can tell that they felt they really needed to do this to sort of help quell some of the concerns about interference in light of the recent news coming from the White House.
BLITZER: So the FBI investigation, which James Comey, the former FBI director, testified, actually started last July, what happens to that formal FBI investigation?
Well, that investigation now simply reports to Robert Mueller. He is now in charge of that investigation. The leadership of the Justice Department has now been removed completely from handling any parts of this. They are not going to be able to know what is going on. And Mueller will be able to appoint people under him to help manage the investigation. And, again, this is one of the dangers that people see with these types of appointments, because they don't know where this will go.
BLITZER: Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the new special counsel, investigating.
Let me read another sentence from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who made this announcement -- quote -- "I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter. My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. Based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command."
I want to our justice reporter Laura Jarrett. She's over at the Justice Department.
Laura, you were there inside this briefing. Give us some more explanation on why this extraordinary decision was made.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we were gathered very swiftly, about 20 minutes, a briefing here at the Department of Justice with department staff.
Rod Rosenstein was not here, I should mention, but they put out this briefing, but they also tried to walk us through the history here, explaining that exceptional circumstances, unique circumstances, were highlighted frequently. Also highlighted was the fact that this is not a finding of any crime, but rather something that the deputy attorney general has the power to under the attorney general regulations on special counsel when a conflict may be present.
I just want to read a little bit to you from the deputy attorney general's statement.
He says: "Our nation is grounded on the rule of law. And the public must be assured that the government officials administer the law fairly. "
He goes on to state: "Special counsel Mueller will have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation and I am confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law and reach a just result."
It was also highlighted for us, Wolf, that deputy -- now Deputy Attorney Mueller will have the power to add staff and his own budget. He also has the power, if he wishes, to continue using the staff that have already been working on the Russia investigation for continuity, Wolf.
BLITZER: The new special counsel investigating the Russia involvement in the U.S. presidential election and related matters, Robert Mueller, who spent 12 years as FBI director.
I want to get White House reaction.
Jim Acosta is our senior White House correspondent.
What are they saying over there to this latest development?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Nothing yet, Wolf.
We should report that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is not even in his office right now. It is possible that the top officials are huddling behind closed doors to sort of craft a response to this news that Bob Mueller, the former FBI director, is going to be a special prosecutor in this case.
But we can tell what you they have been doing all afternoon here, Wolf, is really tone down the rhetoric, tone down the optics that we have been seeing coming out of this White House over the last week. Instead of tweets coming from the president and statements coming from the Briefing Room from Sean Spicer, what we have been seeing all afternoon is this White House sort of parading candidates for the position of FBI director in front of the cameras.
They've been going in and out of the door to the West Wing to meet with the president throughout this process. I can tell you right now, Wolf, we are waiting for former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the vice presidential candidate in 2000 on the Democratic ticket.
We're waiting for him to emerge from the West Wing any minute. He has been meeting with the president this afternoon about that job for FBI director, as well as Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director, Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma.
And so we are now waiting to see that process wrap up over here at the White House. And it seems to be, Wolf, sort of a juxtaposition that this White House wants to put forward, that this is about law and order over here, that they are committed to this process and seeing that this investigation is handled properly, but as of this moment, no direct response from the White House from any spokesperson when it comes to this appointment, Bob Mueller as the special prosecutor in this very sensitive case that very much could determine the future of this presidency, Wolf.
BLITZER: It certainly could.
And, Jim Acosta, in the press release that the Justice Department put out, they said the special counsel, the new special counsel, Bob Mueller, will oversee the previously confirmed FBI investigation of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters.
Here is the question, Jim Acosta. The president repeatedly has said this whole issue is a hoax, it's a charade, it simply designed to give the Democrats an excuse why they lost the election. Presumably, the president is not going to be very happy that there is now a special counsel who is going to take charge of this investigation.
ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.
And if past is prologue, the one thing we are going to have to be watching for is whether the president can show any restraint. Does he go after Bob Mueller if there is a day in the news that he doesn't like?
Recall that it was just in the last couple of weeks that he went after former the FBI director that he fired, James Comey, when he made that comment that the White House still hasn't really commented on this much, that much at this point, that there may be tapes of these conversations that have occurred over here at the White House.
The question becomes, and I think it is a very important one, if there is a day in the news when it comes to this investigation now that Bob Mueller is going to be handling it, outside of the Justice Department, does the president show restraint and not comment on it?
We should mention, speaking of tweets, Jason Carroll, who is the chair of the House Oversight Committee, who has announced his retirement, it has been noticed that he has been a lot more flexible in his comments on all of this. He tweeted just about four minutes ago: "Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.'
So, there is going to be some bipartisan welcoming of this news of Bob Mueller named special counsel in all of this. But the question becomes at this hour, Wolf, how does the White House respond to all of this? And my sense is that with the press secretary, Sean Spicer, not in his office, they are busy crafting a response as we speak, although I should mention, Wolf, it is a little surprising, given that it wasn't exactly a state secret that this announcement was going to be made, that the White House wasn't ready with a statement ready to go.
That is a bit surprising, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, stand by.
I want to go to Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst, to get your reaction. Jeffrey Toobin is with us.
What is your reaction, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: This is an absolutely brilliant choice.
There is no more respected figure in American law enforcement than Bob Mueller, FBI director, U.S. attorney in both Massachusetts and San Francisco, head of the Criminal Division in the Justice Department, someone who has been appointed to positions mostly by Republicans, but also by Bill Clinton, when he was U.S. attorney in San Francisco, someone of unquestioned integrity, extreme competence, and just someone who has been respected his entire career.
Just recently, Judge Chuck Breyer in San Francisco named Bob Mueller to supervise the settlements in the Volkswagen scandal. This is someone who is respected in all quarters. And I can't imagine any criticism of this appointment from Democrats or from Republicans or from anyone.
When he was nominated to run the FBI by President George W. Bush in 2001, he was confirmed 98-0, which I think gives you some sense of the kind of esteem he has been held in throughout his long career.
BLITZER: Yes. Normally, an FBI director stays for 10 years. He stayed for 12 years because President Obama wanted him to spend another couple years there.
The former U.S. attorney in New York who was let go by President Trump, Preet Bharara, he tweeted just this right now, and hopefully we can put it up on the screen. There it is: "Having known him for years, I believe special counsel Mueller is a very good thing. He's one of the best, independent and no-nonsense."
That is his reputation. Here is a question, Jeffrey, I don't know if you know the answer, but the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who made this decision, who made this announcement, would he normally consult with the White House in advance, or does this come as a surprise to the president and officials at the White House?
TOOBIN: I -- there is no law on this. But I would be very surprised if Rod Rosenstein consulted with the White House on this.
I suspect he informed the White House. He probably gave them a heads- up. There is a long and complicated history about outside counsel supervising investigations. Archibald Cox was the special prosecutor in the Watergate case. He was fired, of course, famously by Richard Nixon, in Richard Nixon's Justice Department in the Saturday Night Massacre.
There was then Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which was responsible -- where it passed responsibility for appointing special prosecutors who were called independent counsel to a three-judge panel. That panel appointed Lawrence Walsh, who was the Iran-Contra independent counsel.
I was a member of Walsh's staff. I was a prosecutor on Walsh's staff. Later, that three-judge panel appointed Kenneth Starr to be the Watergate independent counsel. And that was certainly a lengthy and very complicated and controversial investigation.
That law has lapsed. There is no more Ethics in Government Act. This responsibility has now passed back to the Justice Department. The attorney general, Sessions, has recused himself, so the responsibility for who should appoint and whether to appoint a special counsel, as the position is now known, went to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
And, today, he exercised that by naming Robert Mueller.
BLITZER: Bob Mueller, the new special counsel. Very quickly, Jeffrey, when they say he would also investigate not
just the Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections, but related matters, I assume that also it would involve the behavior of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.
And would it also involve, would he also look into the president's supposed effort to try to influence the former FBI director to drop that investigation?
There is no question those would qualify as related matters. But the key fact to know is that the person who defines what is a related matter is Robert Mueller. He will decide how far his jurisdiction extends.
But, certainly, Michael Flynn, anything related to Michael Flynn, which certainly includes the now famous conversation between James Comey and President Trump about Michael Flynn, would certainly be within his jurisdiction.
And so he will be the person. He will perhaps, probably impanel a grand jury, where he will call, subpoena witnesses, obtain documents. He will undoubtedly obtain cooperation from the current prosecutors who have been supervising this investigation to date.
Rod Rosenstein will certainly make sure that there is a smooth transition there. But there should be no doubt the person deciding all these questions in the future will be Mueller, not anyone who is currently in the Justice Department.
BLITZER: And if he wants to get the president's tax returns, Robert Mueller, as the new special counsel, I assume he would be able to get them.
TOOBIN: Well, if he subpoenas them, absolutely, he will be able to get them.
He could attempt -- again, you want to go one step at a time. He will certainly, I think, want to interview the president of the United States, since he is a figure in this. Whether that interview is a sworn testimony, like Bill Clinton gave in the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky investigation, under Kenneth Starr, that's one approach.
It could be an office interview. it could be both. There are so many areas here that Mueller will have responsibility for. But, certainly, an interview of some kind, in some circumstances, of President Trump will be on the agenda eventually.
But, certainly, he will want to get all the other facts that he can possibly get before he takes the major step of interviewing President Trump.
But it's inconceivable to me, given what we know, that this investigation would conclude without some sort of interview, grand jury, office interview, of the president of the United States.
BLITZER: And once these investigations begin, you don't know how long they are going to last.
We are told by the Justice Department that Mueller has agreed to resign from his private law firm -- quote -- "in order to avoid any conflicts of interest with firm clients or attorneys."
This is going to be a full-time job for the new special counsel.
Stand by for a moment.
Phil Mudd is joining us.
Phil, I understand you know Robert Mueller. You have worked with him. What do you think?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, four-and-a-half years of sitting down the hall with him, I saw him one, two, three times a day, threat Meetings, personnel meetings, meetings with three attorneys general.
I can tell you, every American who thinks that this is a moment of turmoil, whether they like the president or not, should breath easy tonight. Robert Mueller is solid ground.
I saw presidents, kings, prime ministers, secretaries of state, CIA directors -- the former attorney general in New York said he is one of the best. He is not one of the best, Robert Mueller. He is the best I ever saw, leadership, judgment, decision-making. And I know him personally. He would hate me to say this. The man has a heart and a sense of humor.
There is nobody better at doggedly pursuing a target without being subjected to any pressures from Congress, the president, the media, anybody in the FBI, the attorney general, the deputy attorney general. There is nobody better, Wolf. I can't say it any clearer.
BLITZER: Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who made this decision, you applaud this decision, a brilliant move on the part of the deputy attorney general? Is that right?
MUDD: You have got to applaud the decision by who Robert Mueller is.
But let's play out a scenario for anybody who wants to argue against not only an appointment of Director Mueller, but against a special counsel. If the FBI and the Department of Justice had walked forward in three months, four months, six months and said we have decided that no charges are appropriate in this case, who would have believed them?
I didn't think they had an option, just because the scenarios you play out over time, particularly a scenario where no charges are brought, would not be credible in America.
BLITZER: Stand by.
Pamela Brown is with us, our justice correspondent, as well.
Pamela, you have been doing some extensive reporting. How big is this decision?
BROWN: It's a big deal and it's rare for the Justice Department to take itself out of the equation and to hand the reins to special counsel, to outside counsel.
In fact, the last time this happened was 2003 with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who disqualified himself over the investigation into the Bush administration and whether there were any leaks into the identities of CIA officers.
So, it doesn't happen that often. You see attorney generals -- attorneys general, I should say, recuse themselves, as we saw in this case Jeff Sessions did. The deputy attorney general then took over. But for then the deputy attorney general to say I'm also going to take myself out of the equation and I'm going to let someone else who is outside of DOJ oversee this probe, it is significant.
And what it means is the Department of Justice, and particularly Rod Rosenstein, felt like it was in the public's best interest and that these are extraordinary circumstances, given all the developments about the Russian probe and interactions between James Comey and President Trump.
So, it is significant. It is a big deal for the Justice Department to remove itself from the equation, especially on such a high-profile investigation like this.
BLITZER: So, Bob Mueller will take over the FBI investigation.
BLITZER: He can use anyone from the FBI investigation he wants, but he can bring in new people as well and have a new staff, if that is what he wants.
BROWN: That's right. He can bring in whoever he wants.
As we saw in the statement from Rod Rosenstein, he will make sure that he has all the resources that he needs to be able to conduct this investigation properly. And so he is going to be looking at the key issues of, was there any coordination between Russians and people associated with the Trump campaign, and also other matters that may arise within the scope and any other matters that may directly arise from the investigation.
So, this is a wide swathe here, Wolf, that Bob Mueller is going to be looking at, not just the Russia probe, but also anything that may arise beyond that. So, he can use some of the resources in the FBI, the agents already working on that, and obviously the work that they've already done, but also hire more people to be part of this probe. BLITZER: All right, Pamela, stand by.
I want to get some reaction from Capitol Hill.
Joining us now, a key member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California.
Your reaction to this decision? There is now a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who had been the FBI director for a dozen years. He is taking charge of this entire investigation.
Congresswoman, your reaction?
REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: I got to say, Wolf, it's a daily surprise around here.
And I must say, as much as many of us have been despairing about the state of our democracy, the decision by Rod Rosenstein to actually identify a special counsel and name Robert Mueller is remarkable.
Lots of profiles in courage among some of the attorney generals, Sally Yates and now Rod Rosenstein. And I wasn't really keen about his memo that he drafted just last week, but it took a lot of guts for him to make this decision and to place someone with some -- such sterling credentials to take over this position.
Everyone in this country should breath a sigh of relief right now.
BLITZER: So, you are very encouraged by the choice, the specific choice of Robert Mueller?
SPEIER: I am, indeed.
And the necessity to have a special counsel has been something I have been harping on now for weeks. We really needed to have this role be identified.
And I think now we have got to make sure that whoever is selected as the new director of FBI is above politics, and is certainly not someone who has held a political position before.
BLITZER: So, when the press release from the Department of Justice, Congresswoman, says he will oversee -- and I'm reading now specifically -- the previously confirmed FBI investigation of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters, does it bother you at all that there is no specific reference in that statement to allegations of possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia?
Was that necessary?
SPEIER: I don't know that that was necessary. That statement is very broad. And if you read further in that description, it actually is much
broader and references a code section. So, I think that the special counsel can take this case wherever the facts lead him.
BLITZER: So we know that Robert Mueller will now be the special counsel, and take over that entire FBI criminal investigation that's been going on since July.
What happens to the separate investigations where you are up on Capitol Hill, the House Intelligence Committee, Senate Intelligence Committee, the Judiciary Committees? How does that impact those investigations?
SPEIER: Well, what is important to note here is that the special counsel has the power and authority to bring criminal action. We certainly don't in the Congress.
So our role is to dig deep, make our findings and conclusions and recommendations. But we are not in a position to bring anyone to justice. That's something within the A.G.'s operation, and in this case the special counsel.
BLITZER: What does this mean as far as Democrats are concerned? The pressure -- does it take pressure off Democrats in Congress to move full-speed ahead with their separate investigations?
SPEIER: Well, I think our interest is wanting to make sure that we have a comprehensive and independent investigation.
The extent to which the two Intelligence Committees can work in a coordinated fashion, I think, will take us down a road that will give us the confidence in knowing that we are doing the people's work.
The extent to which there is a divergence of where the two committees want to go, where the two sides of each committee, the Democrats and Republicans, but that's not anything that we know at this point in time.
BLITZER: Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California, thanks very much for giving us your reaction.
SPEIER: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Want to quickly go back to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez.
Evan, give us some context now on this decision, the breaking news, Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, now taking charge of this entire investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and, as the Justice Department says, related matters.
PEREZ: Well, Wolf, this is a signal from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who has been under a lot of criticism for the way the firing of James Comey was handled just over a week ago now. Bob Mueller, the person who he has now appointed to run this
investigation, played a big part in that incident in 2004, where Comey and other officials of the Justice Department, including Mueller, threatened to resign in a showdown with the Bush administration over a surveillance program.
If you remember, this incident went down at the bedside at a hospital, when John Ashcroft, the attorney general, was in the hospital there, and Mueller and Comey actually stood up to people from the White House, including Alberto Gonzales, who was then the White House counsel.
They were trying to get Ashcroft to sign off on this surveillance program. Mueller sided with Comey. And so the signal here you are seeing from Rosenstein is that this is a serious investigation, this is going to remain an independent, serious investigation, it's going to lead wherever it leads, because, obviously, there has been a lot of criticism and a lot of concern inside the FBI that what the -- what -- the recent events from the White House and firing of James Comey could affect the independence of this investigation, Wolf.
BLITZER: A major development, indeed, Robert Mueller now the special counsel investigating these allegations.
I want to get more reaction from Capitol Hill.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is joining us. He's on the Judiciary Committee.
So, Senator, react to the news about Robert Mueller's appointment of special counsel.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Wolf, a very solid and significant step.
Now there needs to be some more clarity on the details of his mandate. The scope of his mission here needs to be clarified, but also the resources and independence that he will have.
But Bob Mueller is someone with a history of expertise and experience, with the guts and backbone to stand up and speak out against any kind of political influence.
So, I think it is a very, very significant and serious step toward reaffirming the rule of law and the independence of this investigation. And there has to be clarity that he can follow that evidence wherever it leads. I think he will insist on it.
BLITZER: So -- so...
BLUMENTHAL: But, obviously, obstruction of justice is within the realm that he has to pursue.
BLITZER: So, I take it, Senator -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- this -- this gives you great confidence in the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. He was confirmed by the Senate, what, 94-6. Correct me if I'm wrong, you were one of the six who didn't vote in favor of this confirmation.
BLUMENTHAL: I was the only member of the Judiciary Committee who voted against his nomination. I was one of those six who voted against him on the floor of the Senate, because he would not commit to naming a special prosecutor.
And I cited the experience in Elliot Richardson, who did commit to do it in 1973 and who did appoint Archibald Cox. I think Bob Mueller is of the same kind of grain and determination and independence of mind that Archibald Cox was. And I think it sends a resounding signal that the Department of Justice is going to be the Department of Justice and is going to pursue this investigation with grit and independence and determination, which it needs and deserves. And it sends a message to the American people, as well.
BLITZER: And so you now have, I take it, great confidence in Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general? You applaud his decision?
BLUMENTHAL: I welcome and I do applaud this decision. I think that Bob Mueller is the kind of prosecutor and investigator that we need here. He's not only a former director of the FBI. He is also an experienced prosecutor himself, as well as a distinguished veteran, a Marine, who has fought for our nation.
And I would make this final point. I've known him for many, many years, and I've talked to him privately as well as publicly in the Judiciary Committee. And I think he is about as good as we could have hoped to get. And I'm hoping that tomorrow we will have a conversation with Rod Rosenstein and that he will continue to demonstrate the kind of independence that the deputy attorney general must do.
BLITZER: Yes. A move that's being applauded by not just you but a lot of people, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general's decision to name Robert Mueller the special counsel.
While I have you, you're from Connecticut. Former senator from Connecticut, one of your predecessors Joe Lieberman, he's being interviewed by the president, potentially as the next FBI director, nominating him. What do you think? Would you support Joe Lieberman as FBI director?
BLUMENTHAL: I think the first step for supporting anyone as FBI director is to make sure that we have a special prosecutor, which I have urged for months and months, and make sure that that special prosecutors has the resources, independence and mandate.
And I have known Lieberman for many, many years. But I do think that the FBI director has to be above politics. And a political background is definitely a downside here.
Joe Lieberman has been an attorney general in the state of Connecticut, which I was for some 20 years, so he has that law enforcement experience. And he has an expertise and clearly a dedication to our nation.
But I want to make sure that the next FBI director is completely immune and above politics.
BLITZER: All right. Senator Blumenthal, as usual, thanks very much for your reaction.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
BLITZER: Let's go back to the White House. Jim Acosta, our senior White House correspondent, is getting more reaction. What are you learning, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We're finding out that the White House did not receive much of a notice from the Justice Department when it comes to this order naming Bob Mueller special counsel in the Russia probe.
I'm told by an administration official in just the last few minutes that the White House counsel's office, Don McGahn, was notified right when the order was signed by Rod Rosenstein naming Bob Mueller that special prosecutor and that the notice given to the White House was less than one hour. They were not given any more of a heads-up than that.
So it appears, as you were talking about this with others earlier, that the Department of Justice did this by the book, as far as we can tell in these very early moments after this news is breaking.
But this administration official telling me that no, not much of heads-up was given to the White House. That is likely the explanation, very likely the explanation why we have not received any kind of statement from the White House at this point.
And from what we understand from our colleagues who are huddled in the speaker's -- not in the speaker's office, I should say; in the White House press secretary's office, that there is not much activity at White House press secretary Sean Spicer's office, so it's very likely they're huddled behind closed doors crafting a statement.
Speaking of the speaker, I should point out, we did hear from a spokesperson in House Speaker Paul Ryan's office that the speaker did not receive any advanced notice, did not receive any heads-up that this order was coming down.
[18:35:05] And so it appears, Wolf, just talking to a couple of officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue at this point, that -- that the Justice Department did not give much heads -- not give much of a heads-up or advanced notice that this was coming, Wolf.
BLITZER: So -- so basically the president -- and I sort of repeat this -- president has repeatedly said this whole Russian investigation is a hoax, a charade, simply designed to give the Democrats an excuse for why they lost the presidential election. Now they have one of the most respected law enforcement officials in American history...
ACOSTA: That's right.
BLITZER: ... who's going to be taking charge of this investigation. I suspect the president is not very excited about this.
ACOSTA: This -- this can't be -- this cannot be good news to President Trump. And keep in mind, President Trump is somebody who likes to shoot from the hip. We saw it on the campaign trail. We have seen it at press conferences. We have seen it on Twitter. He is now going to be dealing with the drip, drip, drip coming out of a special prosecutor's office, something that this city has not seen in some time. And it is going to be led by somebody who is respected by people in both parties. Keep in mind, Bob Mueller was the FBI director under George W. Bush, and he was FBI director under a portion of Barack Obama's administration.
BLITZER: Hold on one second. Hold on one second. Joe Lieberman, the former U.S. senator from Connecticut, just leaving the White House, just walked out of the West Wing. He was meeting for a while, I take it, with the president, maybe other aides, as well. He's apparently on the short list to be nominated as the new FBI director.
But go ahead, Jim Acosta. Finish your thought.
ACOSTA: No, I was just saying that the president is -- I don't want to say he's up against Bob Mueller, because I think that might be overdramatizing things, but Bob Mueller is somebody whose reputation just appears to be without question, without any kind of second- guessing in this city.
And my suspicion, Wolf, is you're going to see -- and you know, we have said this before, only to be surprised -- I think you're going to see a very toned-down reaction from this White House, given the fact that it was essentially taken by surprise by this announcement, by this order signed by the -- by Rod Rosenstein, naming Bob Mueller to this position.
This would be a terrible time for the White House to go off half- cocked, as they did when that travel ban was tied up in the courts, and you saw the White House popping off statements that were later deemed very ill-advised and when you saw the president tweeting about "so-called justices" and judges at this point. That -- I think just about any -- any political operative in Washington who has any sense of institutional knowledge in this city would advise this White House to keep their powder dry at this moment, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, that explains why there's no official statement yet from the White House, because notification from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was very, very late. And clearly, no advanced consultations with the White House either. That's the way it was supposed to be done. Rod Rosenstein did it according to the book.
Stand by. I want to get some more reaction from Capitol Hill, Republican reaction this time. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma is joining us. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee.
Give us your reaction, Senator, to this news.
SEN. JAMES LANKFORD (D), OKLAHOMA: Yes, initially for me, it's positive. My concern all along has been when the conversations about a special investigator, that's typically an outside group. They have to -- they hire separately, bring in their own investigators. They've all got to get clearance. They've all got to set up. That dramatically slows down the investigation.
I've wanted the FBI and the career folks that are there, that are nonpartisan career professionals, to be able to continue on with their investigation until it's done.
This allows for Robert Mueller to be able to step in to be able to lead an investigation. They're using the assets of the FBI to be able to conduct that, and so the investigation can continue and actually try to get to a conclusion.
Everybody wants to get to an answer. If you go back to Iran-Contra, for instance, outside investigation was six years in the process. No one wants to be able to see it drag on like that. The Whitewater investigation with Ken Starr was three years in the process. If they can work through the existing system and structure, keep some of the existing staff and be able to move forward on it, they can continue to be able to move this in a methodical, professional way.
BLITZER: But he has an open-ended investigation now, the new special counsel. Because he's not only investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election here in the United States but related matters. And related matters, that's an open -- that's whatever he wants it to be. If he wants to investigate anything involving any of the Trump campaign associates, their connections with Russia, he can go on and on, right?
LANKFORD: But quite frankly, Wolf, that's where we already were. The lead of the FBI, they can actually go out and do the investigation to be able to look at any direction that they want to go. So that doesn't change the FBI investigation. They've already had an open window to be able to go and look at anything that smells wrong. And he'll be able to continue to be able to do that.
BLITZER: If he wants to investigate the president's conversation with the fired FBI director, James Comey, on whether or not the president was encouraging -- encouraging him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, the president's fired national security advisor, he could go into that area, as well.
[18:40:16] LANKFORD: He absolutely could. In fact, that's one of the areas that, on the Senate Intelligence Committee, we have already reached out to James Comey. We tried to meet with him yesterday, weren't able to do that. We've already reached out to him again today to say we want to be able to meet with you. We want to ask specifically about that and what occurred.
We've already reach out to Andrew McCabe and said we want to get all those documents that now the FBI has in their possession that are the notes from James Comey. We want to be able to see all those.
And so we're reaching out to those issues, as well, from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Entirely reasonable for whoever is a special counsel to be able to also look at all these things. We have to settle these issues one way or the other, and the American
people expect us to be able to look at all the issues and resolve it. Whichever direction the facts go, we should go.
BLITZER: And the special counsel, Robert Mueller, he'll be able to call the president of the United States to testify if he wants. He'll be able to subpoena any documents, including the president's tax returns if he wants. This could go on and on.
LANKFORD: Well, I hope it doesn't go on and on, but I hope they do chase every lead that's necessary to be able to help resolve it.
Again, you go back to previous special counsels, they've gone on six years, three years, two years. Some of them that should be very straightforward have stretched a long time. We want to actually be able to get to resolution, but you don't want to hurry through an investigation. You've got to meet with all the witnesses. You've got to look at all the documents. In the Senate Intelligence Committee, we're already worked through, literally, thousands of pages of documents, and we've already gone through multiple interviews and have quite a few to go.
BLITZER: The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, he said his decision -- and I'm quoting now -- is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. But why was it decided, a day after the reports surfaced that the FBI director, James Comey, wrote in a memo that President Trump asked him to end the investigation of the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn? Do you think that led to this very, very important decision by the deputy attorney general?
LANKFORD: I don't know that, but I doubt that. You don't actually pull together a special counsel, contact Mueller, pull everything all together in a 24-hour period. I would assume this is something that's been considered already. And after the firing of James Comey, I'm sure there are many folks that talked through the hard issues there.
Rosenstein was already in the mix on the release on James Comey. He is now the new director. You would you have a new director of the FBI. You've got Andrew McCabe. You've got Jeff Sessions. Everyone seems to be a part of the story or around the story. If you bring someone in separate from everyone, independent of it, that gives a greater credibility that the American people can take a deep breath and say, "Great. We've got someone from the outside who knows how to be able to lead this that's unaffiliated with the current story, and we can press forward."
At the end of the day, they know, we know that this has to be a credible investigation. You have to give good answers and to be able to resolve the issue.
BLITZER: One final question before I let you go. You're from Oklahoma. Your former governor, Governor Keating, among the finalists now to become the next FBI director. What do you think?
LANKFORD: I'm not surprised at that, actually. He's an excellent individual, was a tremendous leader as a governor, has great background with the Department of Justice. It's not a surprise at all to me that he would be on the short list and has proved himself to be a nonpartisan, very fair person but also tenacious about prosecutions.
We watched him as governor be able to walk through all that happened in the investigation on the -- on the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. We've seen all the issues, and we've seen him work across the aisle. So wouldn't be surprised if he's on the short list and glad he's in consideration.
BLITZER: One final question before I let you go. Do you think the announcement of a new special counsel might delay James Comey's testifying before Congress?
LANKFORD: I hope it does not. We'll see in the days ahead. Again, we tried to meet with him yesterday, actually, and that didn't come through. So we're trying to get with him as quickly as we possibly can. That should be unaffected by his own independent, because obviously, he's a private citizen at this point; should be disconnected to what's happening at the FBI.
BLITZER: Senator Lankford, thanks for joining us.
BLITZER: Pamela Brown is our justice correspondent.
Are you getting more information, Pamela? What are you learning?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. My colleague Evan Perez and I are learning through our sources that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, started considering the idea of appointing a special counsel shortly after the firing of James Comey last Tuesday. In fact, our sources tell us that Bob Mueller, I should say, came to visit him in his office the day after Comey's firing. And at that time, we were told that, we were wondering what could be the reason. Is he consulting with DOJ about the possible replacement for James Comey, or could it be for special counsel?
And now we are finding out with this revelation, this news today coming from the Justice Department, that he will now oversee the Russia probe and that it had to do with that.
And what's interesting here, though, is as of late Friday, Wolf, Rod Rosenstein was telling people close to him that he didn't see a need for -- for special counsel. As my colleague, Even Perez, had reported on Friday, he was telling people he didn't see a need unless the FBI investigation was imperiled. But clearly, he was thinking about it. And this, of course, is coming on the heels of the revelation yesterday about former Director Comey's memo, where he claims the president asked him to end the Flynn probe.
BLITZER: Do we know if Rod Rosenstein actually saw those memos, the deputy attorney general?
BROWN: We do not. BLITZER: The Comey memos?
BROWN: And the Justice Department is declining to comment. So, we don't know the answer to that.
BLITZER: You know, Gloria -- Gloria Borger is with us as well. Gloria, Bob Mueller is highly, highly respected.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Highly respected, a great choice, people on both sides of the aisle say. I think this takes a lot of heat off the Republicans now in Congress because they can say, well, we have a well respected special counsel who is now investigating this and they can kind of, you know, they can -- they can use as something they can go back to their constituents with. And I think it's very legitimate.
I also would have to say a couple of things. One is the fact that White House wasn't given much of a heads-up is actually a good sign, because it is a sign that this is a special counsel who is going to be independent and is not working in tandem with the White House with quite frankly, with the congressional committee. So, we are also not informed. But that's exactly the way as it should be, because this counsel has got to be independent.
The other thing I would say to what you were saying, Pamela, is that when this story came out that the president had actually asked Comey about laying off of Michael Flynn, if you will, I think that probably had to trigger something with Rosenstein, because what is the difference between Friday where he was telling people as you report that, no, he didn't think it was necessary, and this week. And the difference is that story and Comey memorializing his notes and knowing he had to testify before Congress, not only Comey but Rosenstein himself has to go before Congress.
And you look at this and say, gee, you know, this is a little bit of self sabotage by Donald Trump, which he has done time and time again, because just his actions are what has actually inspired all of this to occur.
BLITZER: Dana Bash, most of the Republicans, they didn't want a special counsel. Now there is special counsel that -- and they are getting a lot of praise from Democrats, but you heard Senator Lankford, a Republican, he praised this decision as well.
What are you hearing?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Republicans didn't want to be the ones to call for a special counsel. It's not necessarily that they didn't want a special counsel. That is born out to be true. And the real surprise that they are receiving this news with, there are not heads-up, not just a short one at the White House, but on Capitol Hill.
Having said, just my initial calls with top congressional Republicans, it is a sigh of relief, because especially given what happened yesterday with this news of the Comey memo and so forth. There was much, much more pressure on congressional Republicans to take their investigation further, either to appoint a 9/11 type commission, a select committee ala Watergate. And the feeling, at least in the short term is, they don't have to do that, because there is somebody not just a special prosecutor at the Justice Department, but somebody who Democrats even on this program are coming on one after another, who are telling our team in the hallways and Capitol Hill one after another how pleased they are with Bob Mueller.
That doesn't happen very much in this current Washington climate, and that there is consensus about the idea of the special prosecutor and more importantly Bob Mueller. As much as they are breathing a sigh of relief on Capitol Hill, there are gasps probably inside the White House. I just hung up with someone who is a Trump ally who said, uh- oh, this guy, Bob Mueller, is very thorough, which is good for the investigation, maybe not so much for President Trump.
BLITZER: Who as we point out has called in Russian meddling issue a hoax and charade. I'm sure he's not going to be very happy that Robert Mueller is now taking charge of this investigation.
Susan Hennessey, you're our national security and legal analyst. How broad the powers of this new special counsel, how broad are those powers?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So, he'll have the powers of the United States attorney. So, he'll be able to issue subpoenas, get access to all the documents, potentially interview the president himself.
BLITZER: He can depose the president if he wants.
HENNESSEY: Right. So, this is going to be -- he's going to be incredibly empowered. Bob Mueller, obviously, has a remarkable, impeccable reputation.
It's important to note that this is one piece of the puzzle. We need to see continuation of the congressional investigation. The existing ones and intelligence committees, in addition to now some kind of select committee or independent commission, congressional investigations are different than the executive branch investigations. They serve a different purpose. We shouldn't -- we shouldn't ignore those.
We also need to see the appointment after credible independence FBI director who is going to have the stature, integrity and experience to actually repair some of the really substantial significant breach that we've seen over the past week.
[18:50:12] BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey Toobin, I'm going to play a little clip. The White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier in the week made it clear they didn't want to see a special counsel. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that's -- there's frankly no need for a special prosecutor. We've discussed this before. You have two Senate committees that are looking into this, the FBI is conducting their own review. And I think if you even look at what Acting Director McCabe said last week, he made it very clear that they have the resources that they need and the work continues.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, go ahead, what do you suspect is the reaction inside the Oval Office right now to this announcement from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, that Bob Mueller who had spent a dozen years as FBI director is taking charge of this investigation?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Major gulps, I would say, is -- would be one reaction.
The one thing to keep in mind about these independent investigations, whether -- whatever you call them, special counsel, which is the term currently in use, special prosecutor, independent counsel. Historically, they have all taken long times. Not measure -- their tenure not measured in months but in years. Three years, four years, six years for the Iran Contra special prosecutor.
So, this is something that is going -- this investigation is going to be around, it would seem to me for at least a year. That's certainly bad news.
There's one piece of good news, I think, for the White House in this is that Bob Mueller is known as someone who does not leak. And this is not a congressional investigation where, you know, everything leaks. So whatever goes on in this discretion and whenever conclusions are being reached by Mueller and his investigators, I don't think we're going to be able to find that out until it's all over. And that could be well down the road.
Now, it is also true that these congressional investigations will also continue and they will leak like sieves to be sure. So, it's not like the story is going to go away. But at least the Justice Department investigation, as run by Mueller, I am sure, despite the best efforts of me and everyone else, we're not going to learn much about what they find out.
BLITZER: He's a solid, solid professional.
Everybody, stand by. I want to get some more reaction from Capitol Hill right now.
Democratic Congressman John Garamendi is joining us.
So, what do you think, Congressman? React to the news that the former FBI Director Robert Mueller will now be the special counsel in charge of this entire investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and related matters?
REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D-CA), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: It's very, very good news, but frankly, it's not the end of the news. There's a whole additional piece of this puzzle that has to be brought in to play. The American election for president was meddled by the Russians. They actively engaged. They actively hacked.
We need to understand, because we're less than a year away from the next primary elections that are going to affect the nature of American democracy going forward, how can we protected our democracy? That's a different thing.
This is a criminal investigation under way by the special prosecutor. That's good. But we also have to understand how we protect our democracy, how we protect our elections. And that requires a different investigation.
I have little confidence in the House of Representatives process through the intelligence committee. Not only does it leak like a sieve, but it has been highly political. We need an independent investigatory body outside. We're trying to move a bill through the Congress right now to do just that. Twelve people, three appointed by each of the leaders of the House and the Senate, so that we can then fully explore, not the criminal activity but fully explore how we protect our democracy from the kind of meddling we found Russia doing.
BLITZER: But you don't think that did oversight committees, the intelligence committees, the judiciary committees on the Senate side and the House side can do their responsibility, work in a bipartisan way and tell the American public what has happened and learn some lessons from this?
GARAMENDI: No, I do not believe they can. We're a political body. If you take a look at the last Senate hearing, the Republicans are talking about it's all about leaks. The Democrats were talking, oh, it's all about Russia. So that's a bipartisan divide and so very, very obvious.
I don't need to comment on the House except to say it has been totally dysfunctional, highly political.
[18:55:00] Will it get better? We don't know. But the American public has to understand what happened. The American public needs to have all of this out in the public and open.
Now, we understand the criminal investigation is going to be secret, as it should be. And that may go on for some months or even maybe for some years.
And the American public's going to be in the dark. I don't want that to happen. I want us to know as much as we possibly can how can we protect our democracy. We know that it was seriously jeopardized in this last year's election.
Going forward, we know that the Russians continue to do this and quite possibly others. Hacking into the actual voter counting systems, how do we protect ourselves in that area? What is going on with this entire array of issues? It's critical. It is our democracy. It is indeed the very future of how we govern our nation.
So, that's aside, that needs to be done, needs to be done in anticipation of the next year's elections and, of course, the presidential election coming up in just about three years from now, or less than that. They're going to be campaigning in two years.
So, we need to really get at the understanding, not just the criminal, but also all of this political issues that have gone on and have so seriously compromised our democracy.
BLITZER: I just want to be precise, Congressman. You have high confidence in Robert Mueller that he will do the job. And I assume you're praising the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for this appointment.
GARAMENDI: Thanks for putting those words into my mouth. That's absolutely true. Mueller is highly competent, highly capable. Rosenstein made the right decision. He made it the right time.
Now, they're going to move on. That's going to be moving on with the criminal investigation. They're going to have a good team. They've got a great leader, and it's going to be independent. That's good. That's exactly what should have happened and it did. And now, we have to look at the rest of the story which is how do we protect our democracy from influence by Russia or anybody else.
BLITZER: When the president says this whole Russia investigation is a hoax or a charade simply designed to help the Democrats to have an excuse why they lost the election, he can't be very happy about Mueller now taking charge.
GARAMENDI: Well, he certainly can't be happy and he can't blame the press. His speech at the Coast Guard graduation was a pretty good example of oh, woe is me. I'm so picked on.
Wait, hey, man. You are picked on because you totally screwed up. That's what's happening here. He has made some terrible, terrible mistake and terrible decisions. Not the least of which, we can say there's smoke. No, there's actually a fire going on here.
And that's why we have a special prosecutor, a very competent person looking at the issues of criminal justice. Good. We also have the issue of how do we protect American democracy and that's in a different venue. Much of the information will be the same, but it's not a criminal investigation.
It's an investigation about how we protect our democracy from influence by other nations, by other people that want to do us harm.
BLITZER: Congressman Garamendi, thanks very much for joining us.
GARAMENDI: Thank you.
BLITZER: Let's get some final thoughts.
Dana Bash, this is as huge moment.
BASH: It absolutely is. We should reiterate what our fantastic reporters were saying as they broke the story, that this has not happened in more than a decade, this meaning the Justice Department appoints a special counsel, a special prosecutor. And the fact that this Justice Department felt the need to do it for whatever reason, whether it was the optics, whether it was the way the probe was going or the combination of both, likely, is incredibly significant and just on that -- on the investigation.
Again, on the politics of it, more and more Republicans I'm communicating with are very glad that this is happening, because they feel it takes pressure off of them and they are more and more concerned about special elections coming and holding the House in two years.
BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, where is this heading?
TOOBIN: I think we're going to see justice. I think if crimes were committed, we're going to find that out. If no crimes were committed, we're going to find out about that, too. That's all you can ask of the criminal system.
BLITZER: How long is this going to take?
TOOBIN: Well into 2018 at a bare minimum and likely well past that.
BLITZER: This is a moment in American history. We've seen these moments unfold over the past few days on an almost daily basis.
TOOBIN: I'm kind of exhausted, aren't you?
TOOBIN: No. I mean, it's been an amazing news period. And that's just -- you know, you're right, it's been a daily series of astonishments.
BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin will be with us every step of the way.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Our breaking coverage continues right now with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT".