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THE SITUATION ROOM
White House: No Decision on Blocking Comey's Testimony; White House Mum on Trump's Views of Climate Change; White House: No Decision Yet On Blocking Comey Testimony; Source: Senate Panel Believes Trump Can't Block Comey Testimony; White House Again Refers Russia Questions To Trump's Lawyer; White House Won't Say If Trump Believes Climate Change Is Real; Putin Weighs In On Trump-Clinton Race. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired June 2, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Invoking his privilege? President Trump is weighing whether to block potentially damaging testimony by the FBI -- the former FBI director, but the president himself may have already weakened the case for executive privilege. Is he willing to fight for it in court?
[17:00:20] Repeated punting. The White House secretary is refusing to answer questions about the Russia investigation and referring reporters to the president's outside counsel. Why is his personal lawyer now the point person for the controversy swirling around the White House?
Choking on hoax. The president's top aides can't or won't say whether he still believes climate change is a hoax as he once tweeted, and his EPA administrator dismisses what he calls climate exaggerators. Is the administration denying science?
And Putin unplugged. The Russian president goes off script with lengthy remarks about President Trump, Hillary Clinton and what he calls hysteria fueling the Russia investigation. Is Putin trying to prevent any probe from reaching him?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news. President Trump is said by top aides to be weighing whether to take the extraordinary step of invoking executive privilege to block testimony by former FBI director James Comey. He's scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, and he's expected to testify that the president urged him to drop the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Meanwhile, the White House is refusing to answer any questions about the Russia investigation. The press secretary, Sean Spicer, once again referring reporters to the president's outside counsel, saying he cannot and will not comment on the probe from now on. Spicer and other top administration officials are also refusing to say whether President Trump believes whether climate change is real. Following his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. Mr. Trump once tweeted that climate change is a hoax created by China to harm U.S. manufacturing.
And new tonight, some off-the-cuff and eyebrow raising remarks by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, speaking bluntly about President Trump, Hillary Clinton and the U.S. election and comparing concern over Russian meddling to anti-Semitism.
We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Congressman Hakim Jeffries of the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
Let's begin with the Russia investigation. Our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, has all the latest developments for us.
Michelle, all eyes are on the White House right now.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf, right. In a matter of days now, the world expects to hear from the fired FBI director, James Comey, testifying publicly about conversations he had with President Trump.
But there is a question: can or will the president exert his executive privilege to try to prevent Comey from talking?
KOSINSKI (voice-over): The White House today not ruling out that President Trump could invoke executive privilege and try to stop James Comey, the FBI director he fired, from telling his side of the story.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: The president will make that decision.
KOSINSKI: Comey, now scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday morning, is expected to talk about one-on-one conversations he had with President Trump while Comey's office was investigating Trump associates' contacts with Russia.
Conversations that Comey kept notes on and in which, sources tell CNN, Trump asked him for his loyalty and may have tried to persuade him to drop the investigation against national security adviser Michael Flynn, all of which the White House has denied, but a claim executive privilege could be undermined by the president's own words.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said, "If it's possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?" And he said, "You are not under investigation."
KOSINSKI: Those public comments could be enough to tank any claim that the contents of the talks should be kept private. Today a source close to Comey tells CNN he was disturbed by what the president said to him and felt Trump didn't understand it was inappropriate. Put all together with Trump's firing of Comey, many believe it could amount to obstruction of justice.
TRUMP: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, "You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."
KOSINSKI: Questions remain, too, over why Trump adviser and son-in- law Jared Kushner secretly met with a Russian banker and former spy at an undisclosed location, allegedly to establish a secret channel of communication with the Kremlin before the inauguration.
The bank maintains Sergey Gorkov was meeting with Kushner as a businessman. The White House says it was part of Kushner's work on the Trump transition.
It has since emerged that Kushner also had multiple undisclosed contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The White House initially said one meeting was just a courtesy visit, but sources now explain they were discussing possible collaboration between the U.S. and Russia in Syria.
A former State Department official Dan Fried tells CNN he and former colleagues were worried when the Trump administration, post- inauguration, started working on a plan to potentially lift sanctions against Russia that were imposed for taking over Crimea as well as hacking in the U.S. election which disturbed him enough to reach out to lawmakers to try and stop it.
DANIEL FRIED, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR EUROPE: Lifting sanctions without the Russians doing anything as a free gift, struck me, strikes me now as a bad, bad idea. My colleagues were concerned about this, and so was I at the time.
KOSINSKI: Today Putin himself denied there were any secret agreements with the Trump team.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): No. There were no agreements. They didn't even get near it. They didn't even manage to start any kind of talks.
KOSINSKI: So two things. On the sanctions, a White House official did tell Yahoo! News, which originally reported on some of this, that at the time the administration was looking at all sanction schemes, not just against Russia; and that any lifting would have to mean that Russia took significant action in a direction that the White House wanted and that that didn't happen.
And on executive privilege, tonight a Senate source tells CNN that, if the White House tried that route, they don't think it would be successful. Here you have a former official. It's somebody who wants to talk. The president, as we've said, has already spoken about those conversations publicly. And even if the White House wanted to try to go through federal court to stop Comey, which it hasn't indicated it would even be willing to do, this source doesn't think that that would work -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's interesting, though. The White House not flatly ruling out that possibility. Michelle Kosinski, thanks so much for that report.
The White House is facing a barrage of questions about whether the president believes climate change is real in the wake of his controversial decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.
Our CNN White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us with the very latest. Jim, you pressed the White House for answers.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
More than 24 hours after the president announced he is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, the White House cannot answer a critical question and that is whether President Trump believes climate change is real. Of course, there are other pressing questions facing this White House, as Michelle said, whether the president will invoke executive privilege and try to block the former FBI director, James Comey, from testifying on Capitol Hill next week. These are all questions the White House aides simply aren't answering.
TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody, thank you.
ACOSTA (voice-over): The climate was warming at the White House as officials from the president to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does the president believe today that climate change is a hoax?
ACOSTA: ... dodged the question.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does the president believe that climate change is real and a threat to the United States?
SCOTT PRUITT EPA ADMINISTRATOR: You know what's interesting about all the discussions we had through the last several weeks have been focused on one singular issue: is Paris good or not for this country?
ACOSTA: Pruitt echoed President Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement as a choice in favor of American workers.
TRUMP: They don't put America first. I do, and I always will.
ACOSTA: But the head of the EPA also took some jabs at what he described as climate exaggerators, the kind of language used by global warming skeptics.
(on camera): You were up there throwing out information that says, "Well, maybe, this is being exaggerated and so forth," and you're talking about climate exaggerators. It just seems to a lot of people around the world that you and the president are just denying the reality, and the reality of the situation is that climate change is happening, and it is a significant threat to the planet.
PRUITT: Let me say this, and I've said it in the confirmation process, and I said it yesterday...
ACOSTA: Arctic ice and the sea levels. And...
PRUITT: There -- we have done a tremendous amount as a country to achieve reductions in CO2, and we have done that through technology and innovation. We will continue to do that. We will continue to stay engaged.
ACOSTA: Are they a little worried that you're putting your head in the sand?
PRUITT: There's no evidence of that.
ACOSTA (voice-over): White House pretty secretary Sean Spicer told reporters earlier this week that he would check on whether the president still believed climate change is a hoax, as he stated in the past. Did Spicer have a chance to clear that up with the president?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I have not had an opportunity to have that discussion.
ACOSTA: Spicer and Pruitt joined a growing list of top administration officials dancing around the climate question.
BLITZER: Does President Trump still believe climate change is a hoax.
GARY COHN, SENIOR ECONOMIC ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: Look, President Trump believes he was elected to grow the U.S. economy and provide great job opportunities.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Does the president still believe global warming is a hoax?
CONWAY: The president believes in a clean environment, clean air, clean water.
[17:10:04] ACOSTA: Overseas there were some notable reactions to the president's decision from French President Emmanuel Macron, who invited American scientists to move to France.
EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT: Because wherever we live, wherever we are, we all share the same responsibility. Make our planet great again.
ACOSTA: To Russia's Vladimir Putin, who appeared to defend Mr. Trump's choice.
PUTIN (through translator): We should not create a big noise on this issue.
ACOSTA: On the subject of Russia, there are other pressing questions facing the White House, such as whether the president will invoke executive privilege to block former FBI director James Comey from testifying on Capitol Hill next week. Spicer said that's up in the air.
SPICER: It's got to be reviewed.
ACOSTA: But he insisted the president is standing by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner amid questions about the White House adviser's dealings with the Russians.
ACOSTA: Now, the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, insisted to reporters that the White House is still open to some sort of new Paris climate deal. But leaders from around the world maintain that is simply not going to happen, Wolf.
But getting back this ultimate question of whether the president believes in climate change, people in the White House today are sounding less like spokespeople and more likes hoax people -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta reporting from the White House.
Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York is joining us. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Thanks for being here, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. I want to get your thoughts on the president's climate decision in just a few moments but first, let me get your reaction to news the White House is considering blocking testimony from the former FBI director James Comey by invoking what's called executive privilege. They would likely need a court order to do so.
Are you worried that the White House will try to prevent Comey from giving his account of what happened during his meetings with the president?
JEFFRIES: It would not surprise me if the White House attempted to invoke executive privilege. This is a White House that has specialized in obstruction, obfuscation, misdirection, and trying to keep information away from the American people. But I think there is no basis for executive privilege to be invoked and no threat of a court actually agreeing with the White House for one simple reason: that the executive privilege has been waived, to the extent that it ever existed, by the president of the United States, because in effect that he has, on -- in at least three different ways tried to publicly characterize his conversations with Jim Comey.
After firing the FBI director in a letter, that letter characterized conversations according to the president's version of events between himself and Comey, saying that Comey had publicly or had exonerated Trump personally in their communications.
He then goes, meaning the president, on national television and characterizes his conversations with James Comey again. And then on the president's preferred vehicle of communication, Twitter, on multiple occasions he has characterized his version of events, vis-a- vis conversations between Donald Trump and James Comey; and so he has clearly waived any executive privilege that might otherwise have existed.
BLITZER: Yes, a lot of lawyers agree with you. The question is, the White House today is leaving open that possibility. And sources, Congressman, are telling CNN that Comey was disturbed by some of his interactions with the president and, that while he didn't perceive any individual action to necessarily be obstruction, the overall pattern of behavior that emerged could be perceived differently. What do you think?
JEFFRIES: Well, this is why it's important for Jim Comey to testify and for us to get to the bottom of what happened, because if it appears, one, that there could be illegal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian spies as it relates to Russia's interference with our election, which 17 different intelligence agencies have concluded occurred because Russia decided that they wanted to intervene to help Donald Trump. So there's the collusion issue.
But there are also issues concerning possible obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential power and authority in terms of these conversations that he was having with Jim Comey, possibly asking Comey to publicly exonerate the president of the United States, to dismiss or watch over the investigation that was ongoing in terms of Michael Flynn, the possibility that the president may have actually asked Jim Comey for a loyalty pledge or some oath of fealty to the president of the United States.
These are all disturbing possibilities, and Jim Comey's testimony can help clear this up, not just for Congress but more importantly for the American people.
BLITZER: You tweeted this earlier today. I'll read it to our viewers: "Climate change is not a hoax, but 45's election" -- you're referring to President Trump -- "may have been, #Russianhacking #collusion and #followthefacts." We're going to get to climate change a bit later. But first explain what you meant by that. Do you have any definitive proof, Congressman, that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?
[17:15:12] JEFFRIES: Well, there's an ongoing criminal investigation as to that possibility. As I indicated, the intelligence community has uniformly concluded that Russia did interfere with the election. We do know that there were multiple contacts between close Trump allies, people like Carter Page, his foreign policy adviser; Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney; Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser; Jared Kushner, his senior policy adviser and son-in- law; Paul Manafort, his campaign chairman; Roger Stone, his longtime political confidant; Jeff Sessions, his attorney general. These are individuals who appear to have been in somewhat regular contact with Russian spies at the same exact time that Russia was hacking into our election, and we've got to figure out what exactly they were talking about. There's at least a possibility that there was collusion that was taking place. We also know that the president refuses to release his tax returns.
Is he hiding something from the American people? Why is that the case?
We also know that the president regularly criticizes our allies. He criticizes Great Britain or France or Australia, Mexico, Canada, the European Union, NATO. He just pulled out of this accord. He's not afraid to criticize others, but for some reason, Wolf, he's never been able to utter a negative word about Vladimir Putin or Russia.
These are questions that will ultimately be resolved in terms of whether collusion took place, by the special prosecutor. We also need an independent commission so that the American people can get answers, as well.
BLITZER: All right. We're going to get more answers from you, but right after a quick break. There's a lot happening right now. We'll be right back.
[17:21:13] BLITZER: The breaking news this hour. Top officials in the Trump administration unable -- unable to say whether or not the president believes climate change is real in the wake of his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.
We're back with Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Congressman, a series of administration officials can't seem to answer a rather simple question: Does the president still believe what he tweeted only a few years ago? Let me read those two tweets, remind you what the president tweeted in 2012.
Quote, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." And then a year later he tweeted this: "Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee. I'm in Los Angeles, and it's freezing. Global warming is a total and very expensive hoax."
Yet, when repeatedly, in the last few days, have asked administration officials whether the president still believes that climate change is a hoax, they don't answer. Why not?
JEFFRIES: Well, Donald Trump throughout his life has peddled in conspiracy theories and, obviously, as president of the United States, unfortunately for us here in America and the rest of the civilized world, he continues to do so.
But apparently, they just don't want to acknowledge that he believes that climate change is a hoax, because he understands that most reasonable people throughout this country and the world would be aghast at that characterization, particularly from someone who's sitting as the president in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Climate change is a reality. It has adverse consequences in terms of crop failure, potential famine, drought, extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy that we experienced here in New York City and in the district that I represent, floods all over the country and in different parts of the world. We need to do something about it to make sure that we can leave behind a country and a planet that is in a good condition for our children and for our grandchildren.
It's also important that we do something about climate change for economic purposes, and that was one of the biggest lies that I would say the president put forth before the American people when he talked about him pulling out being good for jobs. No, he would actually undermine the economic capacity of the United States to be a leader in the green jobs economy.
BLITZER: So what can Congress do about this? The president says he's willing to work with Democrats to try to come up with a better deal, willing to work with other countries to come up with a better deal. What about you members of Congress? Can you guys do anything to work that out with him?
JEFFRIES: Well, it's not actually clear that the United States would have the capacity to renegotiate an agreement, but if the president is willing in good faith to come to members of Congress -- both sides of the aisle, Democrats and republicans -- to have a conversation about how we can reduce carbon emissions here in the United States and promote the solar power economy, the wind energy economy as well as natural gas extraction, which has taken place which is a cleaner form of fossil fuels -- all of which, by the way, Wolf, produce more jobs for the American people than coal -- then perhaps we can have a reasonable conversation and figure out how we can advance United States policy.
BLITZER: All right. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, thanks very much for joining us.
JEFFRIES: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, unusual and very high-profile public comments by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He's now weighing in on Trump versus Clinton. And why -- why is he telling an international audience in English -- get this -- "Don't worry, be happy"?
[17:29:10] BLITZER: We're awaiting word from the White House on whether President Trump will try to block the upcoming Senate testimony by his former FBI director, James Comey. He's scheduled to answer questions in public before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
When asked if the president will claim executive privilege to prevent Comey from telling his story, top aides to the president, including Sean Spicer, the press secretary, say a decision has not been made yet.
Let's bring our political and legal specialists in. Laura Jarrett, we're looking ahead to the former FBI director Comey's testimony, but as you just heard, the White House considering invoking what's called executive privilege to block him from testifying. Is that even possible, and how would it work?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, there's two big problems with trying to invoke executive privilege here.
No. 1 is James Comey is a private citizen. He does not work for the president anymore, and so the president would essentially have to send in a lawyer to court to get this done, to order Comey officially not to testify, a pretty big and unprecedented move, and courts have routinely found that if there's any sort of criminal or governmental misconduct, then the privilege doesn't apply. The second issue here is that there are real questions about whether the President even waived executive privilege by repeatedly talking about his conversations with Comey, effectively opening the door to an entire line inquiry here.
BLITZER: You know, Mark Preston, from a political perspective, what outcome would be worse for the President, Director Comey delivering some damaging testimony before Congress, or perpetuating the appearance of a cover-up by simply trying to block his testimony?
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, no doubt if we see James Comey go to Capitol Hill next week, and is very clear, is very concise, and comes out and says that the President tried to get him to end the investigation, you know, that could be fatal. Maybe not legally, politically perhaps, you know, because it could cause a lot of Republicans who have been rallying around him to then back off slowly as they look at 2018. But, Wolf, if he does try to invoke executive privilege, all that's going to do is create more interest in the story and that, in itself, could be very bad for President Trump.
BLITZER: Yes, it's a huge interest already for that testimony on Thursday. It's going to be, as we've been saying, a lot of must-watch T.V. Thursday morning. David Axelrod, what do you believe? Would it be a mistake for the President to even try to block Director Comey from testifying?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISER: Huge. You know, you presented two options to Mark. The third is the worst which is you try and block him, the courts say you can't block him, and then you get the worst of both worlds. Look, this story is a blazing inferno because the White House and the President have laid log after log after log on the fire. This would be another huge log that would create suspicion. I had Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican who's on that Senate Intelligence Committee at the Institute of Politics at University of Chicago today, and I asked him, whether he thought the President should invoke in executive privilege and he said no. He said if you don't have anything to hide, the best thing for you is to get all the facts out as quickly as possible, and we'll see if the President files that. One last note on that. It was clear from Senator Cotton and others who I've spoken to that the Republicans are very much preparing for Comey's visit, and they're not going to greet him with rose petals, they're going to come with very tough questions about why he didn't go to the proper authorities when the President did what he alleges the President did, so I expect that he will have a tough time with some of the members of that committee, and that, the White House might want.
BLITZER: Yes, but you've heard, David, some of the explanations through his associates, his pals, his friends have been throwing out there, each individual encounter with the President, he didn't seem was enough to justify that kind of action, but when you put them all together, looking back, maybe it was. You've heard that that could be his explanation.
AXELROD: Absolutely, and I expect it will be, and, of course, there's the final chapter on that story, and that is that the President fired him, but I think the Republicans are goings to do what they can to try and impeach Comey in this hearing. I'm not suggesting they will, but, you know, we know a lot of what he's going to say. It'll be more interesting and engrossing to hear him say it himself, but those -- what we've heard from those memos suggest what he will say in that hearing. It will be interesting to hear his rebuttal to some of the attacks.
BLITZER: You mean they're trying to impeach his character, right?
AXELROD: Yes, yes, yes. I know, we shouldn't through the "I" word around randomly here. Yes, I'm talking about impeach his character, yes. He's a private citizen now.
BLITZER: Of course. All right. So, Laura, what do you think? How do you think he's going to handle that question when he's up there? He's got to explain why, assuming he didn't, why he didn't formally register a protest with the inspector general, let's say, of the Justice Department or go to Congress and say, "The President is doing something totally inappropriate. He's pressuring me to stop an investigation."
JARRET: Wolf, it's hard to know. But our colleague, Gloria Borger, came out with some reporting today from a source familiar with Comey's thinking on this, and what it seems to be is that he really thought that he could school the President on where the line should be drawn here, and while he was certainly uncomfortable with some of the requests, individually, he didn't see it as obstruction of justice or anything like that, and it's really more in the aggregate that it starts to look like a problem. But, you know, when it was happening, from what it sounds like from Gloria's reporting, is that Comey really thought that he could deal with it and that he could sort of train the President on how to approach this in a more responsible way.
[17:35:12] BLITZER: You know, Laura, the White House also is continuing to dodge questions on the Russia probe altogether, including questions on meetings between Russian officials and Trump team associates. Listen to this from the White House briefing today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you clarify the nature of the conversations that Jared Kushner had with Russian officials and a banker in December, and what was the date of the meeting with the banker?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I cannot. And as I've mentioned the other day, that we're focused on the President's agenda and going forward all questions on these matters will be referred to outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But how can you not answer questions when the President himself tweets about it?
SPICER: I just -- we're focused on his agenda and all -- going forward, all questions on this matter will be referred to outside counsel.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. So, Laura, you heard him say all questions on this whole Russia probe will be referred to his private outside legal counsel. From a legal perspective, what do you think of that strategy?
JARRETT: Wolf, putting the tweets aside for a moment, which I think is a really hard issue for any lawyer to deal with, I think everyone agrees that punting to outside counsel is a smart thing to do. It protects the President, especially because the special counsel, Bob Mueller's investigation, is just getting off the ground. We have no idea how far it's going to go and for how long it's going to go, and by saying we're going to refer everything to outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, it protects the President and it leaves Sean Spicer some wiggle room to say talk to him. Let's get this out of the White House.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more we need to assess, more we're going to be discussing. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:41:20] BLITZER: We're back with our specialists. David Axelrod, we've heard now multiple administration officials simply refuse to answer a very simple question, "Does President Trump still believes climate change is a hoax?" That's what he said in tweets over these past few years. At today's White House briefing, for example, Sean Spicer dodged the entire question by simply saying he still hasn't had a chance to get the President's thoughts on this. You're laughing. Do you buy that excuse?
AXELROD: No, I don't think anybody buys that excuse. Plainly, the White House doesn't want to answer that question because either way they go, they buy themselves some trouble. If the president walks away from his past statements, calling climate change a hoax, and, you know, general skepticism about the issue, he antagonizes his base. If he - if he reiterates that position, then he brings another firestorm down on himself, so they've chosen this very awkward netherworld, and they send the human pincushion Sean Spicer out there to say after getting two days of questions about this, that, gee, I hadn't gotten a chance to ask the President that question on the day that he absence the United States from the most significant climate change agreement in global history. I mean, it's crazy, but I think, they -- you know, it's another one of these bad situations where they think it's better to look ridiculous and make Spicer look ridiculous than answer the question.
BLITZER: Well, it's not just Spicer, you know, Mark Preston. Several of the top administration officials have been on television over the past 24 hours in the aftermath of the President announcing the U.S. was pulling out of the Paris climate accord, and they've all refused to answer what is a really simple question. Does he believe it's a hoax?
PRESTON: Well, Wolf, because they don't want to -- as David was saying, was to contradict what the President might say in five seconds, five minutes, five days from now, and we've seen that time and time again. The bottom line for Donald Trump is that -- and we've said this over and over is that he puts his people, his top staff, in very difficult positions because he expects them to go out and defend the indefensible or not ask questions. We've seen that with Gary Cohn, with you, with seen that with Sean Spicer day in and day out. If you noticed, Sean Spicer today was very carefully how he was answering not only this question but every other question. He kept looking down at the podium and reading a basically pre-written statement out loud, and the reason why you do that is because you know that President Trump is right behind that door behind him watching every word he says. So, again, I'm one of the few, Wolf, that is in the category of sympathy for Sean Spicer because I do feel like he has arguably the toughest job in the world, but it's also Donald Trump who really should be the one that we're focusing on because he's the one who is making all of the decisions.
BLITZER: But, David Axelrod, the Press Secretary of the President has to have credibility with the news media as well, right?
AXELROD: Right, right. First of all, I agree with Mark, and I have sympathy as well, but this is the job that Sean signed up for. He didn't sign up for it unaware of the idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump. What Donald Trump doesn't understand is that he is burning all of the people around him. None of them will have any credibility left and that's a very bad place for the White House to be when none of the people, many of whom came in with credibility exit with credibility.
PRESTON: But Wolf, let me just add to that, as David is saying, that is absolutely true, and the President himself is losing credibility, not only here at home and those on Capitol Hill but world leaders with some of the conversations he's had with our allies. I mean, it really is perplexing about what kind of strategy he's following.
[17:45:06] BLITZER: But at some point, David Axelrod, the President is going to have a news conference or do an interview with someone and is going to be asked the simple question, "Do you believe climate change is a hoax?" What does he say then?
AXELROD: Well, it's a -- it's a good question. God knows what he's going to say which goes to Mark's point because he could say something entirely different than others have said in his behalf which is why they don't want to venture any opinion. What you've been hearing lately is, well, it doesn't really matter what I think, you know? What matters is the economy of the United States, the interest of the United States. This is just a semantic game. And you know, most Republicans, even those who are climate change deniers will say, "Well, yes, there's climate change but there's been climate change for thousands of years." Now, Senator Cotton today said there's no doubt that that's accelerated dramatically in the last 200 years, and you have to assume that man has something to do with it. But, look, the President has never landed in a good place on this issue. He's clearly not comfortable with it, so I'm not -- I've gone broke trying to predict what Donald Trump will say or do and I can't do it now.
BLITZER: Let me go back to Laura Jarrett. Laura, you have some new reporting, an important ruling by the Department of Justice which potentially could affect a lot of Congressional investigations. Tell us more.
JARRETT: That's right, Wolf. This is an opinion issued from the office of legal counsel which essentially functions as the main law firm for the federal government and the President, and what this directive does is it says to federal agencies all across the Trump administration that they don't have to respond to inquiries from individual members of Congress. Oversight Committees, subpoenas, that's a different ball game, but when it comes to individual inquiries or requests, even from ranking minority members, they are under no legal obligation to respond to those.
Now, of course, you can imagine that Democrats on Capitol Hill did not take kindly to this at all. The top ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, said to me in a statement, "This is not what Democracy looks like," and says, "Look, how are we supposed to do our oversight job? How are we supposed to report back to our constituents if we can't even get basic information?" So really causing a lot of backlash here in D.C., Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. And that Department of Justice decision affects all of the executive branch. All right. Everybody stand by. There's much more coming up, including Vladimir Putin now opening up about President Trump, Hillary Clinton and more up next. Why he's telling people, quote, and speaking in English even, "Don't worry, be happy."
[17:52:10] BLITZER: Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is keeping a noticeably higher profile these days, publicly weighing in President Trump, the U.S. election, and a whole lot more. Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, tell us more about what the Russian leader now has to say.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Vladimir Putin tore into Hillary Clinton and her 2016 campaign with some very controversial remarks. He gave an impromptu analysis of President Trump's win in November, and he even referenced the 1980s pop hit in English. Wait until you hear that. This indeed was Vladimir Putin unplugged but, of course, with a dose of calculation.
TODD: It was trademark Vladimir Putin, appearing on stage in marathon interview forum today. The Russian leader surprised the audience in English.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: Don't worry, be happy.
TODD: Invoking the 80s singer, Bobby McFerrin, sarcastically describing the anger around President Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement. But in his native tongue, the former Soviet spy turned politician was far less sunny, continuing to deny Russian interference in the U.S. President Election, while attacking former candidate, Hillary Clinton, saying her campaign just can't admit its own mistakes caused her loss.
PUTIN (through translator): They decided to say it's not our fault, it's the Russians' fault. It's like anti-Semitism, to blame the Jews for everything. We all know what this can lead to, nothing good.
TODD: At the same time, Putin spoke admiringly of Donald Trump's successful campaign.
PUTIN (through translator): The Trump team was more effective during the election campaign. He found an approach to the electorate that worked for him.
TODD: But he wasn't done there. On the heels of his comment on Thursday that Russian "patriots", not the Russian government, might have hacked the U.S. election, Putin gave another denial, referring to U.S. intelligence reports on the hacking.
PUTIN (through translator): I read these reports. There is nothing specific in these reports, just assumptions, and conclusions.
TODD: And he denied any discussions about sanctions between his government and the incoming Trump administration. Tonight, analysts say Putin is looking for deniability, trying to prevent investigators from tracing any alleged interference in the election directly to him. But at the same time, they say, it appears he is loving the attention and the strife inside the U.S. political system.
WILL POMERANZ, THE WOODROW WILSON CENTER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE KENNAN INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED RUSSIAN STUDIES: He now has a president who wants to have better relations with Russia, he has a scandal that has weakened the U.S. President, and he has a U.S. President who is busy lecturing his best allies about climate and about NATO. So, there's lots of things that Putin is enjoying about the current crisis.
TODD: Vladimir Putin also came to the defense of the man who works for him here in Washington, Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, who's at the center of investigations into Trump's aides contacts with the Russians. Putin said, "Our ambassador met with someone. What's the ambassador supposed to do? He must do that." He said, "Reports of secret deals before the inauguration are plane hysteria" and "How should we stop that? Take a pill or something?"
[17:55:08] We also reached out to Hillary Clinton's representatives for response to his comments about her campaign, they declined to comment. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, Brian Todd reporting. Thanks very much. There's breaking news ahead. President Trump weighing whether to invoke executive privilege to stop potentially very damaging testimony by the FBI Director he fired. I have President Trump's own remarks, though, he made his case heard?
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. No privilege. A Senate insider tells CNN that President Trump will likely fail if he tries to block James Comey's upcoming testimony by invoking executive privilege. The possibility of a dramatic showdown to silence the former FBI Chief -