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THE SITUATION ROOM

Do Russians Hold Leverage Over Trump?; Interview With Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz; Trump-Russia Probe Deepens; Source: Trump in "Dangerous Place," Angry and Withdrawing; U.S. Successfully Tests Anti-Missile System as North Korea Threat Grows. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 30, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the White House is clamming up about the Kushner connection.

Refusing to testify. The Russia probe widens to include the president's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen now telling CNN why he won't cooperate with congressional investigators.

Russian intercepts. Exclusive new CNN reporting reveals Kremlin officials discussed having potentially derogatory information about Mr. Trump and his team. Was it real? And did it give them any influence over the new administration?

And in a dangerous place. A source tells CNN that the president is angry, lonely and withdrawn, as Russia dominates the headlines and crisis rips through the White House. Is Twitter his refuge as his mood grows more sour?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: The White House is refusing to confirm or deny reports that Jared Kushner tried to establish a secret line of communication with the Russians during the transition.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer briefing reporters for the first time in two weeks since we learned that president's son-in-law and senior adviser is under FBI scrutiny. Among other things, the FBI is looking into Kushner's meeting with a Russian banker who has ties to Vladimir Putin.

Tonight, CNN confirms investigators are interested in the different explanations given by the bank and Kushner camp about the purpose of the meeting, this as more people are ensnared in the Russia probe. The president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, tells CNN he has been asked to testify and provide information to Congress.

Cohen says he won't cooperate because he thinks it is a fishing expedition. And we just learned that the House Intelligence Committee has sent a request for information from former Trump White House press official Boris Epstein.

Also, exclusive new CNN reporting. Sources say Russia officials discussed having potentially derogatory information about Mr. Trump and some of his top aides in 2016, information described as financial in nature. We are told the intercepted communications suggested that the Russians thought they could use the information to influence the incoming administration.

This hour, I will speak with Democratic Senator Brian Schatz.

Our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN's Jessica Schneider with all the breaking news on the Russia investigation.

What's the latest, Jessica?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know that Russian officials, they claimed to have that derogatory information about then candidate Donald Trump all in the midst of the 2016 election.

That's all according to two former intelligence officials and a congressional source. Now, one source tells CNN the potential derogatory details were in fact financial in nature.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The conversations were picked up by U.S. intelligence and showed that the Russians believed they had the ability to influence the administration through the derogatory information. But the sources warn the Russian claims could have been exaggerated or even made up as part of the disinformation campaign they carried out throughout the election.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says intelligence agencies were monitoring many conversations between Russian officials.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: I would just say that there were a series of communications and dialogues that we grew -- I say we, members of the intelligence community that were aware of this -- were very concerned about.

SCHNEIDER: This has the White House fends off questions about reports that Jared Kushner pursued a secret communication channel with Russian officials. The FBI is now scrutinizing the meetings between Kushner and Russians, according to a U.S. official.

On December 1, Kushner met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower. In mid-December, Kislyak told Kushner to meet with the chairman of the U.S.-sanctioned VEB Bank, Sergey Gorkov, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

When the meeting was disclosed in March, VEB said the meeting was part of a -- quote -- "business road show." The White House instead insisted it was part of Kushner's role during the transition. Now sources defending Kushner say his meetings with Ambassador Kislyak were to discuss military strategy in Syria and the talks involved former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You're asking if he approves of an action that is not a confirmed action. That being said, I think Secretary Kelly and General McMaster have both discussed that in general terms back channels are an appropriate part of diplomacy.

SCHNEIDER: It is still unclear whether President Trump knew Kushner was establishing that secret channel.

SPICER: I'm not going to get into what the president did or did not discuss.

SCHNEIDER: Senator John McCain says, Either way, the secret communications weren't appropriate.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: My view of it is, I don't like it. I just don't. I know that some administration officials are saying, well, that's standard procedure. I don't think it is standard procedure prior to the inauguration of a president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position.

[18:05:18]

SCHNEIDER: Reuters reports that Kushner had two previously undisclosed phone calls with Russian Ambassador Kislyak in April and November 2016. Reuters got information about the calls from seven current and former U.S. officials.

But Kushner's attorney, Jamie Gorelick, countered in a statement: "Mr. Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time period. He has no recollection of the calls as described. We have asked Reuters for the dates of such alleged calls so we may look into it and respond, but we have not received such information."

Meanwhile, Donald Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is refusing to cooperate with the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, which called on him to hand over information and appear. Cohen called the request poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered.

Cohen is the second Trump associate to deny a request from congressional investigators. Michael Flynn refused to reply with a Senate subpoena and House request last week through his lawyer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And Senate investigators are waiting on that response from Michael Flynn in a second round of subpoenas they issued. Those subpoenas targeted the records from his two businesses.

And we have learned that the House Intelligence Committee has also requested information from former White House press official Boris Epstein. His attorney is saying it is a broad request for information and that he has reached out to the committee for clarification to see if Mr. Epstein is able to provide that requested information -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica, thank you, Jessica Schneider reporting for us.

Now to the White House and the growing turmoil, the growing frustration within the Trump administration, one senior adviser calling it quits today.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, Sean Spicer, he was back in the Briefing Room today as questions persist about potentially an even broader shakeup.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, those questions do persist here at the White House.

And the mood I'm told inside the West Wing is fraught with tension, particularly over that Russian investigation, which has some staffers wondering if they will be in legal trouble of their own.

One top White House official told me today everyone is trying to work hard to support the president, but that's getting harder and harder to do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): The White House on the defensive tonight, struggling to contain a crisis over the deepening Russia investigation.

SPICER: What I'm telling you is, is that the reason the president is frustrated is because there is a perpetuation of false narratives, a use of unnamed sources over and over again about things that are happening that don't ultimate happening, and I think that's troubling.

ZELENY: At his first White House briefing in more than two weeks, Press Secretary Sean Spicer airing Oval Office grievances, but providing few answers to mounting questions about the investigation and how it's consuming the West Wing.

One senior adviser to the president, communications director Mike Dubke, announced his resignation today. Other aides unsure of their standing as the administration's agenda is overshadowed by multiple investigations into whether any Trump campaign officials colluded with Russian operatives.

Spicer dismissed talk of a wider shakeup, insisting the president is happy with his team.

SPICER: I think he is very pleased with the work of his staff. I think that he is frustrated, like I am and like so many others, to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong, to see -- quote, unquote -- "fake news." ZELENY: But it's the real investigation by the feds that's at the root of the president's frustration. CNN has learned the president met Monday with former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie to discuss possible new roles on crisis management.

One top White House official telling CNN, "There will be more changes, but I don't know how fast they are going to come."

The president not seen in public today. Son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the closest person to the president, who the FBI wants to speak with, also hunkering down behind the scenes. Spicer not saying whether the president was meeting with the new outside lawyer he has brought on to handle the Russia investigation or whether Kushner will give into Democratic calls to relinquish his security clearance.

SPICER: I'm not going to dignify partisan accusations of anonymous sources and alleged, unsubstantiated attacks. I'm not even going to even...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

SPICER: The president has a lot of meetings. If the president has a decision on anything, we will be sure to let you know.

ZELENY: Tonight, the president's long time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is a new focus of the congressional investigation. He told CNN he would decline to testify, calling the probe a rush to judgment.

One way for the White House to change the subject is for the president to make policy or personnel decisions. He interviewed two more finalists to replace FBI Director Michael Comey, but Spicer would not say whether they are finalists.

SPICER: The president is the ultimate decision-maker. And when he makes a decision as to who he believes is the best to lead the FBI, he will let us know.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: But, Wolf, tonight, a lot of those decisions are stacking up, quite frankly.

[18:10:00]

The FBI director, of course, is one. The decision whether to stay in the -- stay or go in the Paris climate accord is another, as well as the decision whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. All of those are stacking up on this president's desk, as well as his legislative agenda.

But, Wolf, this White House and the president himself consumed by these grievances, his allegations of fake news, but the Russia investigation, they acknowledge is very, very real -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, Jeff Zeleny reporting for us from the White House, thanks.

Let's get some more on al this.

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii is joining us. He is a member of the Ethics Committee.

Thanks so much for joining us, Senator.

SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ (D), HAWAII: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's begin with our new reporting.

Russian officials claiming that during the campaign they had derogatory information about then candidate Donald Trump and some of his top aides, what's your reaction to that?

SCHATZ: Well, everyday, there's a new alarming development in this story.

And there's only really one way to clear this up. You have Jared Kushner, who is an incredibly powerful position in the White House, and yet most Americans have literally never heard his voice. He has to talk. He has to explain himself when it comes to trying to set up a covert communications channel with the Russians to try to evade our own government's knowledge of him communicating with the Russian government, with regard to CNN's breaking news.

All of this can either be clarified or not, but not without Jared Kushner explaining himself. It has been many, many days. You can sort of excuse them for a few hours or maybe even a half-a-day or a day, sort of getting their stories straight, and then explaining exactly what has happened.

But now we're at four or five days with no explanation, not just from the White House, but from the president or his senior adviser. That is why we have to push forward, not just with the special counsel, but with all the investigatory work that is happening in the legislative branch.

It's not a matter of whether we should have a special counsel or an investigation at the legislative level or depend on the media. Everybody's got to do everything until we get to the bottom of this.

BLITZER: Senator, as you know, Jared Kushner, he is under FBI scrutiny for a meeting he had with a sanctioned Russian banker with close ties to Putin. Kushner is also under fire for his attempt to set up supposedly a secret communication channel with the Kremlin.

Some Democrats, some of your colleagues, have suggested that he should lose his security clearance or least have it suspended. What do you think?

SCHATZ: Well, I think it's fair to say that, for most people, if they were not a senior adviser to the president, if there were this level of scrutiny, they would probably see a temporary suspension of their security clearances. In this instance, the authority resides with the president himself.

I'm quite confident he will not revoke Jared Kushner's security clearances. But there is one way to get to the bottom of this, and that is to hear -- if there is a charitable explanation of what's been happening and specifically what's been reported over the last 48 hours or so, it's only going to come from Jared Kushner, because you know, setting up a communications channel for the purpose of evading your own government's scrutiny is just strange in the extreme.

But maybe there is an explanation. And what it comes down to is, what is the content of that conversation? What would it be that you wanted to talk about that you didn't want the NSC, NSA, CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, the White House to hear about, but you are comfortable having the Russian government hearing about?

It is one thing to establish a diplomatic back channel for the purpose of avoiding a miscalculation or a war. It is an entirely different thing as an incoming administration without an official appointment to the White House to try to set up a secure communications channel and to evade your own government.

That is strange in the extreme. It is weird and it deserves an explanation.

BLITZER: His attorney, Jamie Gorelick, who was the deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, says he is ready to answer questions from members of Congress.

I don't know if you know about this, but the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, he speak about this entire Russia investigation during a private fund-raiser back on April 7. We just got the audio. I want you to listen to what he said.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: Several weeks ago. Why? Because Democrats don't want an investigation on Russia. They want an independent commission. Why do they want an independent commission? Because they want to continue the narrative that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are best friends, and that's the only reason why he won, because Hillary Clinton could never have lost on her own, so it had to be someone else's fault.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think of the chairman's suggestion that an independent commission would essentially become a political exercise?

SCHATZ: Well, I think Devin Nunes' sort of caper a couple of months ago diminished his credibility almost all the way to zero.

[18:15:04]

And here he is at a Republican fund-raiser sort of spouting talking points about how this is a partisan affair. Look, there is nothing more important to our democracy than to finding out what happened. We now have the possibility of a criminal investigation and a

counterterrorism investigation going on at the FBI. Those have to continue. That's important for American democracy.

And the second piece of this is what the legislative branch is doing, which is not just to determine from a law enforcement or a counterterrorism standpoint what happened, but how do we figure out how to prevent this from happening in the future?

There is no doubt that there were active measures in the most recent democratic elections in Europe. There is no indication that the Russian government is going to stop these active measures, because they worked for them.

And so, on a bipartisan basis, we have to pursue this wherever the fact may lead. There is the criminal and counterterrorism investigation. But from the standpoint of the legislative branch, we also need to make sure that the American people know what just happened, so that we can prevent it from happening to our democracy in 2018 and 2020.

BLITZER: Let's move quickly to another important subject, Senator.

The Senate is working on its version of an Obamacare repeal and replace bill. I don't know how far it's gone so far. But President Trump tweeted this earlier this morning. "The U.S. Senate should switch to 51 votes immediately and get health care and tax cuts approved fast and easy. Dems would do it, no doubt."

What do you think about that tweet?

SCHATZ: Well, it's factually wrong. There are a couple ways that it is factually wrong.

First of all, we were in a position to eliminate the legislative filibuster. Actually, every majority is theoretically in a position to do so. And everybody has decided that there is something unique about the United States Senate. To require 60 votes is to require bipartisanship.

And that's where the center can hold. That's where the country can hold together. Even during these fiercely partisan times, we are forced to work together, by virtue of there being a 60-vote threshold.

The other part of this is that, very simply put, there is no appetite on the majority side, on the Republican side, for eliminating the legislative filibuster. Again, I think this is sort of typical of President Trump's tendency to declare things to be true that he wishes were true, to try to short-circuit or shortcut the long, arduous process of trying to get something done in Washington.

He is not a person who is a student of American-style government. He's not a person who understands that we have three separate and co- equal branches of government. And that's why he's been so far unsuccessful in getting his agenda through is that he doesn't really respect the other two branches of government and he doesn't really understand why he can't just bully people into doing what he wants them to do.

And it turns out Republicans don't like to get bullied by this Republican president any more than Democrats do.

BLITZER: Senator Schatz, I want you to stand by. There's more development -- there are more developments unfolding right now. I want to get your reaction right after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:33]

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

We are talking about the breaking news in the Russia investigation, as the White House reflects questions about Jared Kushner, while touting the president's trip overseas trip as a huge success.

Senator, the president, as you know, wrapped up that first foreign trip. He caused some consternation when among American allies in Europe when he refused to directly commit to remaining in the Paris climate agreement.

You're a strong advocate for clean energy, a stronger stance on climate change. How would an America withdrawal from the Paris agreement affect the global fight against climate change?

SCHATZ: Well, there are three reasons we should stay in the climate accords.

First of all, this has to do with the United States keeping true to commitments. It was the last administration that assembled the biggest group of heads of state in the history of the world in Paris to come together on the biggest environmental agreement in history.

This was a first important step towards a solution in terms of moving towards a carbon-free economy. And so us withdrawing from it sends terrible geopolitical signals. It sends signals that we're not going to stay true to our word.

And so whether or not you care about climate, whether or not you're a clean energy advocate, I think there are some realists in the foreign policy space who are close to the president, and certainly lots of Republicans with whom I disagree on the climate question who are saying, look, we made this deal. We orchestrated this deal. It is important that the United States stay true to its word.

The second reason is, of course, that climate change really is the challenge of our generation. We are seeing the impacts of climate change across the planet as a threat multiplier in the defense space, as something that is causing diminished agricultural and fishery returns, as something that is causing increased natural disasters.

We had something called a king tide in the state of Hawaii over this weekend. And the canal that prevents the Waikiki area from flooding was six to 12 inches from overflowing. And there was no rain. There was no rain. And we almost had a flooding event just because of the tide.

Climate change is real. And it is our moral obligation, as what Secretary Madeleine Albright used to call the United States, as the indispensable nation to take care of our planet and to lead on these issues.

[18:25:00]

And, finally, I will just make one political point, which is that if the president vacates the climate agreement, he will have lost a whole generation, maybe several generations of voters for the Republican Party.

There are young conservatives out there who are trying to find a home in the Republican Party, but if they are going to be wrong on the Muslim ban, if they are going to be wrong on gay rights, if they are going to be wrong on reproductive rights, and they're going to be wrong on climate, there are going to be very, very few young people who remain loyal to the Republican Party.

And so, for those three reasons, I think it's essential that the president come to the right conclusion. Knowing his decision-making process, I'm not paying very much attention to the reporting. I think there are going to be rumors all the way up until the end, but I think, in the end, some of the more pragmatic voices in the foreign policy space hopefully will win out.

BLITZER: Well, he said last week would he have an announcement this week on this decision. We will see what he decides.

Senator Brian Schatz, thanks so much for joining us.

SCHATZ: Thanks a lot, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we're digging deeper on CNN's exclusive reporting about Russian claims of having potentially derogatory information on President Trump.

And the U.S. fires a warning shot by testing its missile defenses against North Korea just hours after Kim Jong-un launched a new provocation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight: President Trump's longtime personal attorney is declining a request from congressional investigators for information and testimony pertaining to the House -- the House and Senate Russia probes. Let's get some more from our specialists and analysts.

[18:31:17] Gloria, on top of this, we're now getting word that Michael Flynn, the president's fired national security adviser, will hand over at least some documents subpoenaed by Congress from his business, his business connections. I guess that's a bit of a step forward.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. And remember, the first request, he -- his lawyer said was overly broad. And so they narrowed it. And you see that Michael Cohen today, you know, the president's personal lawyer for the Trump Organization, rejected their request to hand over documents.

I was communicating with him, and he was upset, not that he thought the request was broad, but he said to me, "I find it irresponsible and improper that the request sent to me was leaked by those working on the committee." Again, a refrain we've heard over and over again from the -- from the Trump folks.

BLITZER: He says the request was overly broad.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: He said the entire investigation is a rush to judgment. So at least for now, he's not going to cooperate.

BORGER: He won't. But let's see what happens if he gets subpoenaed, and let's see if they narrow the request.

BLITZER: John Kirby, as you know, Jared Kushner, he's come under some FBI scrutiny because of a meeting he had with a Russian banker, a sanctioned Russian banker, close ties to Putin. And he also has come under some scrutiny because of his meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

We didn't hear the White House at the press briefing today from Sean Spicer either confirm or deny these reports. What do -- you're a former spokesman at the Pentagon and the State Department. When they refuse to confirm or deny all this sensitive information, what does that say to you?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: It tells you that there's probably something there. I mean, look, if it's something you know you can deny flat-out, you do that. You want to use the podium as a chance to do that. But this tells me that there may be something to it.

And listen, I would want to know just a few things. Did the president ask you to have this meeting? Did you know the individual, the banker, was a guy under sanction? And if so, why -- maybe that will explain all the cloak and dagger stuff -- but why go ahead with it?

And then finally, were you -- what was the objective here? Were you trying to undermine the sitting president, President Obama's, foreign policy with Russia, because that's certainly where it looks like it's going.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, could I just add one point about Jared Kushner? It's like, why don't we ask Jared Kushner? What is the law that says Jared Kushner is the only official in the White House who never holds a press conference, who never gives an interview, whose never -- voice is heard anywhere on a tape recording? I mean, it's just astonishing that it's sort of taken for granted that, of course, well, Jared Kushner can't answer these questions. Well, sure, he could.

BLITZER: Well, his -- his lawyer -- his lawyer, Jeffrey, Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general for Bill Clinton, and she says he's willing to cooperate, to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee once he's called.

TOOBIN: Well, that's fine for the Senate Intelligence Committee. How about in the meantime? I mean, you know, it's not -- most -- most White House officials don't wait for subpoenas to actually speak to the public. They work for the public. And they answer questions.

I mean, there are legitimate questions about Jared Kushner. Perhaps there are legitimate answers that he could give. Why doesn't he just give them? I mean, you know, CNN would be happy to take them. I'm sure all the other networks would, as well. But the idea that he is somehow off-limits for all public scrutiny just seems incredible.

BLITZER: Yes. Now, we would welcome here in THE SITUATION ROOM whenever he wants it come on and talk about this. We'd love to have him.

TOOBIN: I'm sure we would.

BLITZER: Bianna, let's talk about this Russian banker, a sanctioned Russian banker with close ties to Putin. You know, this is a -- a very sensitive subject, because we're getting a conflicting statement from the banker. They wanted to talk about private real-estate deals. And a conflicting statement from the White House about there was some sort of private dialogue going on involving Russian involvement in Syria. What do you make of that?

[18:35:08] BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: So here's the scenario. Who do you believe? Do you believe the Russians or do you believe the U.S. government?

And it's unfortunate that we're in a position where we have to question this right now. I think that the White House, to say the least, has not been as forthcoming as they could have been. They could have been ahead of these stories, letting us know ahead of time about these meeting and these relationships, as opposed to these -- this information leaking. At the same time, the Russians are never to be trusted, which makes it even more baffling; and the White House didn't deny the story.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, though, Bianna, because there are two versions of what the White House said. Originally said nothing of substance was really discussed in that meeting. Later, they said, "Well, there was some substance: Russian involvement in Syria." That sounds like some significant substance.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, Russia involvement in Syria. Since when is Syria such a dire situation that they had to make a decision before the president was even sworn into office? The Syrian crisis has been going on for years. So that is really hard to buy. And why would a Russian banker be involved -- a sanctioned Russian banker, to say the least -- be involved with -- with Syria relations? BORGER: Well, look, we know from our reporting at CNN, according to

Jared Kushner, he was looking for some kind of, quote, "back channel." What makes little sense is that this back channel would be located in some secure location within the Russian embassy.

I mean, back channels are one thing. And maybe you can make the case, as they do, that he met with Gorkov, who is close to Putin, et cetera, upon the recommendation of the ambassador, Kislyak, to try and establish more of a back channel on Syria and other issues.

The question is why do it out of the reach of American intelligence or the -- or the State Department?

KUCINICH: And the detail...

(CROSSTALK)

KIRBY: Or the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the State Department and the White House, which were regularly -- was set up to help provide exactly these kinds of communications.

KUCINICH: And the detail Gloria is talking about is the exact detail that the White House keeps leaving out when they are -- when they are defending back channels. They're not mentioning that Jared Kushner asked to use the Russians' equipment to do this.

So that -- there hasn't been an answer. There needs to be an answer. Perhaps Jared Kushner will answer that question to the Intelligence Committee, or hopefully, what Jeff said, to the American people.

BLITZER: But Bianna, it seems that one explanation -- and it's a simple explanation -- is that they really didn't want the Obama administration, the outgoing Obama administration officials, to know about this, quote, "back channel," the conversations they were having.

TOOBIN: So you use -- so you use the Russian embassy? For security? From the Obama administration?

BLITZER: That's one explanation. Let me ask Bianna. What did you think of that explanation?

GOLODRYGA: But why even have the middle man? Why even have Kislyak there? If you need a back channel, I mean, that is his job. His job is ambassador to the United States. He is the one who relays everything to Vladimir Putin. He is the one who relays any information that he hears back home. So why would you need to establish a back channel?

He's spent decades in the U.S. and, according to the reports, even he was stunned by this proposal. I think it raises a lot of other questions. "The New York Times reported also that apparently administration officials in the first week in office were considering lifting sanctions against Russia. So a lot more questions to be answered.

BLITZER: All right. Go ahead, Jeffrey. You wanted to weigh in? TOOBIN: Well, no, I mean, again, it just goes back to, well, what was

Jared Kushner thinking? Why was he talking to this person? Why was he talking to that person? Why don't we ask Jared Kushner? It just seems like a good idea.

BLITZER: Well, as I said, he's welcome to join us.

GOLODRYGA: Do you think it's a coincidence that we haven't heard from him?

BLITZER: But I'm curious, you know, John Kirby. You worked at the State Department, the Pentagon.

KIRBY: Yes.

BLITZER: Back channel -- diplomatic back channels have been going on forever. When -- when the Obama administration wanted to have a nuclear deal with Iran, there was a very secret back channel. Talks with Iranians, the world's No. 1 leading state sponsor of terrorism, that the Obama administration authorized through Oman. That's where they were having a diplomat -- that was top-secret. I don't even know if you knew. Did you know about that back channel?

KIRBY: I did not know about it. And that's fine with me.

But look, we're talking about the sitting administration. Yes, back channels have a purpose. And yes, it's been done before. By the sitting administration.

What's hard to understand is why would an incoming administration, with access to whatever information they wanted from the National Security Council, from the Pentagon, from the State Department, at a moment's notice, with all of the support that they need, why would they need a back channel? Unless they were trying to do something to undermine the Obama foreign policy.

BORGER: Unless this was about something else.

KIRBY: This gets -- well, maybe. But look, this gets to a fundamental core things, which is we have one president at a time.

BLITZER: Yes, and there's a difference between a back channel, Gloria, as you well know, and then establishing communications within, let's say, the embassy...

BORGER: From the Russian embassy.

BLITZER:. ... of a foreign country in order to prevent the U.S. intelligence community from knowing. I can guarantee you there were elements in the U.S. -- there were elements in the U.S. intelligence community that were fully aware of what was going on in these secret conversations between the Obama administration and Iran to set the stage for that nuclear deal.

[18:40:16] KIRBY: Probably. But to Jeffrey's point, if you are that nefarious, and you want to set up this secret back channel which can't be, you know, monitored, why in the heck would you want to do it in Russian facilities?

BLITZER: That's a fair question.

KUCINICH: And who told him to?

BORGER: Right.

KUCINICH: He wouldn't have done this on his own, just freelancing. I just -- I have hard time believing that.

BORGER: Well, right. I mean, maybe -- we don't...

KUCINICH: We don't know.

BORGER: We don't know the answer to that question, but why would you want to go around your own government? I mean, that's the -- that's the hard part to figure out.

GOLODRYGA: And only -- and only with Russian officials. You can't say that that there's a pattern of Jared or anybody else in the president's orbit doing this with other diplomats from different countries. This always comes back to Russia.

BLITZER: Yes.

TOOBIN: And maybe one of the reasons is that Jared Kushner was 36 years old, knew nothing about foreign policy...

BORGER: Could be.

TOOBIN: ... knew something about anything involved in -- in intelligence matters and was sole qualification was he was the president-elect's son-in-law. Maybe that's why you get people who know what they're doing to be involved.

BLITZER: One problem with that, though, Jeffrey. He had General Flynn...

BORGER: General Flynn.

BLITZER: ... a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, spent years working in U.S. intelligence, who was there every step of the way with him during those meetings with Kislyak. He knew fully well the ramifications of what they were doing.

KIRBY: Not to mention...

TOOBIN: I don't think he was there during the bank -- in the bank meetings.

BLITZER: Maybe not during the bank meetings. I'm not sure about -- I don't know about that meeting. But he was there when Kislyak...

GOLODRYGA: I'd be surprised if he didn't know.

BLITZER: He was there with Kislyak. KIRBY: Not to mention, he had access -- Kushner had access to a

wealth of national security experts that the campaign was using in the transition team. It's not like General Flynn was the only one that he could have consulted on this.

GOLODRYGA: And don't forget, this wasn't just some business meeting. Don't forget who these CEOs, who these oligarchs are in Russia. They are all connected to Vladimir Putin. This one, in particular, was trained as an FSB agent.

So in other countries, people go to business school for their degree to become a CEO of a company. In Russia, one of the prerequisites, I guess, is to go to FSB school. So this guy was trained as a spy, which raises the stakes even that much higher.

BLITZER: And what was especially disturbing was he wasn't just a Russian banker. He was a sanctioned Russian banker. The U.S. is not supposed to have any dealings with a sanctioned Russian banker.

BORGER: So Wolf, all they had to do was Google Gorkov's name, as I did. And when you Google his name, you understand that he works for this sanctioned bank and that he is effectively a cutout for Vladimir Putin.

And when I put that question to somebody working with Jared Kushner, the answer was, "Well, it was kind of rushed, and nobody thought to do that; and the transition was a mess." That is not a good enough explanation.

KUCINICH: And the WiFi was sketchy, and...

GOLODRYGA: If there's one thing this transition knew how to do, it's how to make a good photo op. Remember all the countless hours and days during the transition when we saw everyone paraded in front of the cameras, going up through the elevators. Whoever they wanted us to see, we saw. For some reason, they didn't want us to see these two Russians, in particular.

BLITZER: Gorkov and Kislyak.

TOOBIN: And who has -- and who has time to Google, after all?

BLITZER: Gloria is very high-tech. She knows how to Google.

BORGER: I can Google.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we've got some exclusive new details about what life has been like for President Trump since getting back from his first foreign trip.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:14] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back right now.

You know, Gloria, you've written a terrific column on CNN.com --

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank you.

BLITZER: -- about what life is like for President Trump inside the White House --

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: -- right now.

BORGER: I spoke with a bunch of his friends, people who speak with him with some regularity, and they were saying to me, you know, he was kind of glum before he left for his foreign trip but he's not any better now that he's come back. I had one friend say to me, he now lives within himself, which is a dangerous place for Donald Trump to be. He said he sees him emotionally withdrawing and that he doesn't really have anybody there whom he trusts.

And this is not a new development for Donald Trump. He very often doesn't trust anybody other than his family. But there is a sense among his friends, that -- who talk to him, they're not big fans of the White House staff. They probably feed that within him.

I had one friend say to me these guys don't play chess at the White House. They play checkers.

And so, he's hearing all of this from his friends and he's trying to figure out what to do and doesn't feel like he can confide in much of anybody.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting.

And, Bianna, the White House, as you heard today at the press briefing with Sean Spicer downplaying reports of any serious rift with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, but it was pretty stunning for those who have covered her over the years to hear her say Germany could no longer completely rely on the -- on partners like the United States. That doesn't sound like a very, very positive nature of this relationship.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Yes, you hear sort of a three-minute superlative diatribe. It was a written statement from Sean Spicer that focused primarily on the first leg of the trip in the Middle East, barely a mention of his visit in Europe. And we all know why.

[18:50:00] I mean, look, the bar was very low for this trip for the president to meet with his European counterparts. And all he had to do basically was say that I do support Article 5 for NATO. A lot of these leaders had already met with the president in the U.S. after he won the election, so they knew that maybe this wasn't going to be the same kind of relationship they had with Barack Obama, but when he couldn't even invoke support of Article 5, it sort of fed into the narrative that there is something going on here to where he's more aligned with Vladimir Putin's foreign policy vision than the vision that the U.S. has had for decades on end.

And you see internally even within Germany, Angela Merkel is facing an election next year and her opponent came out in her defense over the weekend. Now, usually you would see this as an opportunity for the opponent to say, you know, I wouldn't have handled it that way or I would have had better relations with the U.S. president. Instead, he came to her defense. I think it says a lot. And it says a lot that the Germans also said today that they don't need America's help with regards to any sort of cyber security issues they may have for the election too.

BLITZER: I want you to listen, Jackie, to what the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said on CNN this morning about Russian meddling in the presidential election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Never, ever has there been a case of the aggressiveness and the direct actions that the Russians took in their conduct of a multi-faceted campaign to interfere with our election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president calls it a hoax. He says it's ridiculous, it's a witch hunt.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: We talked about this before. The president hasn't -- he's pitting himself again against all the intelligence agencies that have said that the Russians were behind this. But not only that, he looks at it and you saw it in his tweet, it was either today or yesterday, having to do with -- he brings it to his legitimacy, to his election. It has everything to do with him. It doesn't have anything to do with the country as a whole, which is what it actually is what Congress is looking into. He sees it as an attack on his presidency.

And you see it throughout the White House as well. They are starting to see it like that, particularly as Jared Kushner has become involved.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Jeffrey Toobin, a legal question. Michael Cohen, the president's long-time attorney, asked to testify to provide some answers to congressional investigators. Can he claim attorney/client privilege?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure, he can, because he was in a private firm, or he was in private practice representing Trump's business. Certain of his communications with Donald Trump were certainly privileged. Not everything. And it is often difficult to identify what's privileged in a corporate setting, but the attorney/client privilege does exist. And his response to the subpoena that he received is, I think, indicative of how complicated this investigation could become, because I think Michael Cohen is probably within his rights, at least in some areas, to say I'm not going to talk about that. I have no obligation to talk about that.

But other things he will have to talk about. It's quite possible that this will wind up in court and a judge will have to determine what's off limits and what's permissible to ask about. Whatever ruling comes out of that could be appealed. This is why these independent investigations, whether congressional or special counsel, the Robert Mueller investigations can take so long because these sorts of questions, what's off limits, are hard to resolve.

BLITZER: The certainly are.

Everybody, stick around.

We've got more breaking news coming up: a critical test for a U.S. missile defense system. Will it protect potential U.S. targets from a North Korean attack?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:58:17] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: the Pentagon testing a new anti-missile defense system against an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working the story for us.

Barbara, the test comes amid the growing missile threat from North Korea.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The Pentagon needed a win on this today and they do believe they got it.

Here's what happened -- a so-called interceptor missile took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, flew high over the Pacific Ocean and met an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile that took off from a remote island in the Pacific that the U.S. launched.

The whole idea was to simulate what would happen if North Korea launched an ICBM or Iran, for that matter, against the United States. It's a hit-to-kill system so the interceptor hit and killed off the incoming missile. That's what worked.

But let's make no mistake here. It was a preplanned test planned for some time. Everybody knew the flight route, everybody knew the timing. They knew where those two missiles would be in the sky programmed to hit each other in the real world.

In the event of a North Korean attack, the U.S. would have to really step up the effort. Several missiles would be launched. They would make an all-out effort to bring down any North Korean threat and that is what the focus of this multibillion dollar program is all about. They are going to continue to test it throughout the coming months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bottom line: they got a lot of work to do in this area, but it's a good start at least on this day.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon -- thanks very much for that report.

And thanks to all of our viewers for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.