Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; U.S. Marine Plane Crashes; Bombshell E-Mail Drops in Trump-Russia Probe; Special Counsel Plans to Examine Trump Jr. Emails and Meeting; 16 Dead After Military Plane Crashes, Cause Unknown. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired July 11, 2017 - 18:00 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. On Russia's behalf. E-mails reveal that Donald Trump Jr. went into a meeting with a Russian lawyer clearly told she was working for the Kremlin and that she had damaging information on Hillary Clinton that was part of Moscow's efforts to help his father. Is this the smoking gun in the Russia investigation?
Deeply disturbing. Top Democrats are demanding answers from the president's son about the Russia meeting, possible collusion and why the Trump camp didn't report the brazen overtures by Moscow.
Father and son. The president offers a brief and subdued statement of support for his eldest child, as the White House refuses to answer questions about the new e-mail evidence. What did Donald Trump Jr. tell his father and when?
And Marine plane crash. A U.S. military aircraft vanishes from radar and then goes down in Mississippi, killing 16 U.S. troops. Tonight, the investigation is intensifying, and the cause is still unknown.
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: We are following the breaking news on the most explosive evidence yet in the Russia investigation released by the president's own son. E-mails leading up to Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer last year reveal he was explicitly offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was -- quote -- "part of Russia and its government's support for Donald Trump."
Trump Jr. responding to the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton by writing -- quote -- "I love it."
It appears to be a stunning confirmation that the Trump team was aware of the Kremlin's efforts to help their campaign as early as June of 2016 and that Donald Trump Jr. went into that meeting along with Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner expecting to get potentially valuable information from a foreign power. Also tonight, top Democrats are calling for Trump Jr. to publicly
testify in the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump camp and Moscow. Clinton's former running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, is suggesting the probe may even extend to consider whether the president's son or others committed treason.
In a terse statement, the president is calling his son a high-quality person and applauding his transparency. The White House is again denying any collusion, while referring questions about the e-mails to lawyers.
Trump Jr. says nothing came out of the meeting with that Russian lawyer. He denies any wrongdoing. He released the e-mails as "The New York Times," by the way, was about to publish them.
We're going to get new reaction this hour from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they are also standing by.
First, let's go to our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.
Jessica, we are told the special counsel, Robert Mueller, now plans to examine those e-mails released by Donald Trump Jr.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's exact through right, Wolf.
Mueller's investigators will be looking into both the meeting with the Russian lawyer as well as those e-mail exchanges released by Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter today. It turns out investigators weren't fully aware of the back and forth about Trump Jr.'s meeting and the meeting itself until recently.
That's what several U.S. officials are telling CNN. Now, this is all part of that broader Russian meddling investigation that today delivered a bombshell courtesy of Donald Trump Jr. himself.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The year-old e-mails released on Twitter by the president's son appear to provide more damning evidence that the Russian government was trying to interfere with the election by offering to provide what one person said was damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was -- quote -- "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
The e-mail exchange with Donald Trump Jr. was initiated by a British music promoter named Rob Goldstone. Goldstone said the information came from his client, a Russian pop singer named Emin Agalarov and that man's father, Aras Agalarov. The men, both of whom have connections to the Kremlin, had worked with the Trumps to bring the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow in 2013 and were friendly with the Trump family.
"The crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning," Goldstone wrote to Trump Jr., "and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information, but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Goldstone ended the e-mail saying, "I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive."
Less than 20 minutes later, Donald Trump Jr. responded, expressing interest in the information, writing, "If it's what you say, I love it."
CNN has learned the bombshell e-mails were released by Trump Jr. Tuesday morning after he was told by "The New York Times" that the paper was about to quote from them. The e-mails along with the statement represent the third time the president's son has tried to explain what happened during a meeting last June with this woman, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer,and Trump Jr., his brother-in- law, Jared Kushner, who is now a senior adviser to the president, and Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time.
Trump Jr. first said on Saturday that the meeting was about American adoptions of Russian babies. But after "The New York Times" was set to report the meeting was about getting dirt on Clinton, Trump Jr. released a second explanation Sunday, saying that Veselnitskaya "stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. It quickly became that she had no meaningful information. My father knew nothing of the meetings or these events."
Today, Trump said he was releasing the e-mails to be -- quote -- "totally transparent," writing, "The woman, as she has said publicly, was not a government official."
Today, in an interview with NBC News, Veselnitskaya denied any connection to the Kremlin.
QUESTION: Have you ever worked for the Russian government? Do you have connections to the Russian government?
NATALIA VESELNITSKAYA, ATTORNEY (through translator): No.
SCHNEIDER: But in one of the e-mails released today from two days before the meeting, Goldstone described Veselnitskaya differently.
"Emin asked that I schedule a meeting with you and the Russian government attorney who is flying over," he wrote.
QUESTION: They had the impression, it appears, that they were going to be told some information that you had about the DNC. How did they get that impression?
VESELNITSKAYA (through translator): It's quite possible that maybe they were looking for such information. They wanted it so badly. SCHNEIDER: Now with the release of the e-mails documenting in black
and white the Russian effort to assist Trump's campaign for president, lawmakers, including Republicans, say it raises the stakes of their investigations.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: On its face, this is very problematic. We cannot allow foreign governments to reach out to anybody's campaign and say, we'd like to help you. That is a nonstarter. I know Donald Trump Jr. is new to politics. I know that Jared Kushner is new to politics, but this is going to require a lot of questions to be asked.
SCHNEIDER: Hillary Clinton's former running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, is going even further.
SEN. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: We're now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what's being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements, and even into potentially treason.
SCHNEIDER: Donald Trump Jr. has hired New York City attorney Alan Futerfas.
And while Futerfas issued a statement last night calling this all much ado about nothing, Don Jr.'s lawyer is not commenting tonight. We do know the FBI has also scrutinized some of Donald Trump Jr.'s business dealings and meetings before this latest meeting with the Russian lawyer was disclosed -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jessica, thank you, Jessica Schneider reporting.
Also tonight, President Trump is conspicuously silent on Twitter, despite the firestorm surrounding his son and those newly revealed e- mails. The White House isn't saying much either.
Let's go to out senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, the White House briefing wasn't on camera once again today. You were there. How did the Trump administration respond to all of this?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House just did not offer a very forceful defense of Donald Trump Jr. today. The deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, read a brief statement from the president to reporters off-camera, as you said, to say that he believes his son is handling these e-mails and the controversy surrounding it transparently, despite the fact Trump Jr. has changed his story about his meeting with that Russian lawyer.
Here's what happened when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about this earlier today.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I have a quick statement that I will read from the president. "My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency."
And beyond that, I'm going to have to refer everything on this matter to Don Jr.'s counsel and outside counsel and won't have anything to add beyond that.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Now, Sanders responded to another question about whether Trump Jr. and members of the president's team could be brought up on charges of perjury and even treason. She said that that would be -- quote -- "ridiculous," Wolf.
BLITZER: Huckabee Sanders also gave some insight into the president's feelings about all of this. What does she say?
ACOSTA: That's right.
She repeatedly, Wolf, we should point out, deflected follow-up questions about Donald Trump Jr. to reporters by saying that they should reach out to his attorney. But she did at one point during the briefing today, Wolf, reveal that she had spoken to the president within the last 24 hours about all of this, and that he is "frustrated" with the coverage of the Russia story. Here's what she had to say.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that the president is, I would say, frustrated with the process of the fact that this continues to be an issue.
And he would love for us to be focused on things, like just as mentioned, the economy, on health care, on tax reform, on infrastructure. And that's the place that his mind is, and that's what he'd like to be discussing.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
ACOSTA: But, of course, the president on this day only has his son to blame for all of this.
Trump Jr. revealed these bombshell e-mails which essentially, Wolf, as you know, shattered all denials from Trump world over the last year that we have heard time and again that his campaign never had any contacts with the Russians.
That goes for the president, who has repeatedly called the Russia story fake news. And keep in mind last week he was using that term in Poland when he said that other countries might have been involved in the meddling of last year's election, Wolf, but it begs the question what the president thinks now in light of these e-mails revealed by his son which clearly show that Russia had an interest in meddling in last year's election. He might get asked that question. We will find out later on this
week. He's scheduled to hold a news conference with the French president over in Paris on Thursday, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
Let's talk about the possible legal implications of all this.
We're joined by our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.
Jeffrey, you're a lawyer, former prosecutor. You're reviewing exactly what happened here. Were laws potentially broke?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Potentially, yes. But I think it is important to take a big breath when these big news events come and we shouldn't convict or acquit anyone based on a few partial e-mails, partial evidence of what is undoubtedly a bigger picture.
The one question that's clearly raised is, was this a violation of the campaign finance laws, because it is illegal to solicit any thing of value, which is a term that's sometimes difficult to define, from a foreign government. Here, was something of value, opposition research, e-mails, hacking results, from a foreign government?
That's a question investigators are going to ask. The other person who has something to worry about here is Jared Kushner, who is a high government official with security clearance who applied for a security clearance, and investigators will want to know, did he list this meeting among his contacts with foreigners? Because that's something you're required to do when you apply for a security clearance.
BLITZER: So, what does the special counsel, Robert Mueller, do with all this information? What happens next?
TOOBIN: The first thing he's got to do is get all the e-mails in connection with this with this meeting. And that would include the follow-up e-mails if there were any.
What was discussed at the meeting? Did they have any sort of follow- up with this woman? Were there other e-mails about Russia among the Trump campaign? Because, obviously, in light of the fact that all the previous denials of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign are now inoperative, the investigators are going to want to know, what were the nature of the contacts and was this one meeting the only one?
Given Don Jr.'s very casual tone in response to this solicitation, do you want to have a meeting, it certainly seems that he was aware that Russia was helping and you would want to know in any other ways Russia was helping.
BLITZER: Don't go too far away. We're going to need your expertise coming up.
I want to get some more reaction, though, right now from Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also a former prosecutor, former attorney general of Rhode Island. Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Good to be with you.
BLITZER: Your committee has been investigating potential collusion. You heard the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, call this black and white now, his words, black and white. Do you agree that this was a clear-cut case of the Trump campaign attempting to collude with Russia?
WHITEHOUSE: It clearly shows intent to collude.
Going in, they knew that this was Russian information, that a Russian attorney was flying over to deliver it, that it was intended for political purposes, that the campaign was going to be involved. They even talked about the timing of it, that it would be better to come out later in the summer, presumably closer to the election.
So, later on, it may not be that they actually got very useful information. That's yet to be determined. But this e-mail chain, and particularly connecting in both Manafort and Kushner, shows clearly an intent by the leadership of the Trump campaign to try to collude with Russians to get opposition research.
And because opposition research is valuable, because people pay for it, there is a good case to be made that it's actually a thing of value under the American campaign finance laws, which makes this a potential conspiracy to violate the campaign finance laws' prohibition on receiving a thing of value from a foreign government. So, it all gets interesting.
BLITZER: I was going to say it's clearly illegal to accept money from a foreign national or foreign government as part of a presidential campaign, but the law states -- and you are absolutely right...
WHITEHOUSE: Thing of value.
BLITZER: It says or other thing of value.
I have spoken with campaign managers who said they pay a lot of money in the campaign for what they call opposition research.
BLITZER: This was opposition research, for all practical purposes, right?
WHITEHOUSE: For all practical purposes, and the fact that it came in flying so many obvious Russian flags, even saying, unbelievably plainly, that this is a part of Russia's effort to support President Trump. BLITZER: In his response in one of those e-mails, the response was
very precise from Donald Trump Jr. to his associate in this particular case, Rob Goldstone.
He says this. He says: "Seems we have some time. And if it's what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer."
BLITZER: By focusing in on the words "later in the summer," because that's when a lot of those e-mails were leaked to WikiLeaks and as a result they caused some potential damage to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
I think if you're a prosecutor looking at this, you're trying to put together the elements of whatever offenses you might charge. And when you're looking at the element of intent, the e-mail chain here is very powerful evidence that senior leadership in the Trump campaign intended to collude with Russia to harm the candidacy of president -- of Secretary Clinton as part of Russia's effort, which they knew, Russia's disclosed effort to help Donald Trump defeat her.
BLITZER: Were you aware, Senator, of this e-mail exchange before "The New York Times" was reporting it Saturday, Sunday, Monday, the document and now this e-mail exchange released by Donald Trump Jr. only after he got word that "The New York Times" was about to publish it?
WHITEHOUSE: No, I was not aware of it. And it makes me thank and honor the -- call it the fake news. But they -- this is why Trump has to call institutions like "The New York Times" the fake news, is because they break real news stories like these that make a difference.
BLITZER: Do you believe there are more e-mails, more meetings of this nature still to be discovered?
WHITEHOUSE: I couldn't tell you that, but it just seems improbable that a campaign that doesn't blanche when it gets an e-mail saying, this contact is part of the Russian government's effort to support the Trump candidacy, you know, a lot of people would take that to the FBI.
The fact that they don't blink and they just go ahead about it shows they certainly had an appetite for a lot more. And that means that there is a good chance there is a lot more.
BLITZER: Senator, there is more that we need to discuss. I want to take a quick break, resume all of our special coverage right after this.
BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
We're talking about the bombshell e-mails released by Donald Trump Jr. showing that he was told the Russian government was behind an offer of damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Senator, we just got this new reaction from the president's son. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: These are going a million miles an hour again. And hey, wait a minute, I have heard about all these things, but maybe this is something. I should hear them out.
This was just basic information that was going to be possibly there. I didn't know these guys well enough to understand that if this talent manager from Miss Universe had this kind of thing. So, I wanted to hear them out and play it out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, what's your reaction to what he's explaining, that things were going so fast and he just was interested in getting some information, no real information, he later suggested, came from this meeting?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, no information had to come from this meeting for this e-mail chain to be evidence of the Trump campaign's intent to collude with Russia.
This e-mail chain is just stuffed with references to Russian government, crown prosecutor, official documents, Russian attorney, Russian government attorney, and the really amazing words, that this is part of the Russian government's strategy to support the Trump campaign.
So, it's not easy to just slough it off with that kind of commentary. In terms of showing intent, the Trump campaign is never going to be able to deny again that if there was, in fact, collusion, it didn't intend to do it, this is just a big misunderstanding.
And if there is a criminal offense behind the collusion, like a campaign finance violation, then you have got a key element of the conspiracy. You have got overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, if in fact you can lock down that this was a thing of value.
BLITZER: Senator Tim Kaine, your Democratic colleague, the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic side, raised the possibility, in his words, of potential treason. Would you go that far?
WHITEHOUSE: I would not go that far.
What I would say is that there is probably a good number of potential false statement and perjury angles to this. Nobody outside of the investigation knows what statements the FBI has already and from whom, but it might very well be that this e-mail blows up some of the statements that people have made to the FBI, in which case they are now in the crosshairs for an 18 United States Code Section 1001 false statement prosecution, which then turns and makes them flippable to give more evidence.
So, it's hard to know where the cascading effect of this e-mail ends, but it could have a lot of consequences in this investigation.
BLITZER: Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and his senior adviser, he was copied in on all of these e-mails, this long e-mail chain. He attended the meeting with the Russian lawyer. Should he lose his security clearance?
WHITEHOUSE: It should sure as heck be reviewed. I don't know what the conclusion should be at this point. I think it's highly questionable that, with all this going on, he should have a high-level security clearance, and somebody responsible ought to take a hard look at that and see if it's appropriate.
BLITZER: Did this meeting leave the Trump administration or at least some Trump officials potentially vulnerable to blackmail?
I think one of the things you worry about in these circumstances, and one of the reasons when you're approached by a foreign government in situations like that that your first instinct ought to be to turn it over to the FBI right away is so that you can protect yourself against charges of being -- subjecting yourself to blackmail and protect yourself against being a victim of it.
Until this was released, this is blackmail-worthy material for the Russians to hold over the head of President Trump and the rest of the administration. Now it's out, so the harm is not threatenable any longer, but they're living through it, and who knows what else is out there?
BLITZER: What if there's more, though?
WHITEHOUSE: There could easily be more, and that is part of why it's so important that we keep this firewall between American political campaigns and foreign influence.
And, in this case, the leadership of the Trump campaign -- I mean, think what it would have taken to get a meeting with the president's son, with Jared Kushner and with the president's campaign manager. This was not a nothing meeting. This was the big guns coming together. And, you know, I just don't see how you can walk away from that.
BLITZER: Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
WHITEHOUSE: Yes, my pleasure. BLITZER: Just ahead, we're going to go to Capitol Hill, as more
Democrats, even some Republicans, they are now speaking out about Donald Trump Jr., those e-mails and what happens next.
And another story we're following -- 16 U.S. service members are dead after a military plane mysteriously crashed. So, what went wrong? We will have an update. That's also coming up.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, Donald Trump Jr. is defending his meeting with a Russian lawyer and new comments about the stunning e-mails he released. They show that the president's son was explicitly told that the Russian government was behind an offer of damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
[18:32:21] Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse told me just a short while ago that the e-mails clearly show an intent to collude with the Russians.
Let's go to our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill. We also heard, Manu, from the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee just a little while ago. Tell us what he said.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he wants to talk to Donald Trump Jr., as well as Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, the Russian lawyer, as well, to learn about this meeting. He says that this is something the House Intelligence Committee must look into as part of its ongoing investigation into Russia and any collusion that might have occurred with Trump officials.
Now, he also said that this lawyer appears to have been directed by the Kremlin. This is someone -- this is what he said is emblematic of efforts by the Russian government to try to reach out to people in different campaigns, in different universes to exploit their influence, in this case to the Trump campaign.
I asked Mr. Schiff directly -- Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee -- does he have any evidence to show that this attorney was directed by the Kremlin? Here's our exchange.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: You mentioned that this seems to have been directed by the Russian government. Have you seen any evidence to say that this Russian lawyer was, in fact, directed by the Kremlin to meet with the Trump campaign? And secondly, have you seen any evidence of other meetings that may have occurred between Trump associates and Russians beyond this one?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I can't go beyond the four corners of what's already in the public domain, but I think that the e-mails themselves, which have now been verified by the Trump campaign itself, by the president's son himself, make very clear that government officials within the Russian government had information they thought was damaging to Secretary Clinton that they wanted to share with the campaign. And they made arrangements to provide a channel to do that, and this Russian advocate was that channel.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Now, Wolf, what was notable about that press conference was the person who was not there. That was Mike Conaway, the Republican who is leading the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation. He has not commented yet on these revelations.
But I did get a chance to speak to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who would not comment specifically on Donald Trump Jr., but I asked about the issue of collusion, if this shows any more evidence in his view. And he said that the issue has not yet been resolved, because, quote, "very early in the investigation."
Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell punted on this issue when asked by me and other reporters repeatedly about this, saying this is something that the Senate Intelligence Committee will investigate. But other Republicans, Wolf, raising some serious concerns, including Lindsey Graham, John McCain, said this is something that Don -- Donald Trump Jr. needs to explain more of. And one thing that they said you should not do is meet with a foreign adversary who's wanting to give information that could be hurtful to your opponent, Wolf.
BLITZER: Manu, this comes as the House Oversight Committee ranking member, Congressman Elijah Cummings, just requested information on this June 2016 meeting. What are you finding out about that?
RAJU: Yes, that's right. He's sending a letter to Jared Kushner, to Paul Manafort, as well as to Donald Trump Jr., asking for information by July 25.
Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, saying that he wants all documents related to this meeting that occurred last year, communications, to understand exactly what happened. He wants it by this deadline.
Now, one thing also notable about this, Wolf. The person who did not sign this letter was Trey Gowdy. He's the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, the Republican from South Carolina. And, of course, Cummings cannot subpoena for these records unless he has support from the Republican side of the aisle. Well, he's here if any Republicans decide to join this effort.
But clearly, Elijah Cummings adding his name to others on Capitol Hill who want more information or demanding more information. And it's clear that at least Donald Trump Jr. will have to answer some questions in a private setting before members, but some members want him in a public setting. We'll see if he agrees to do just that, Wolf.
BLITZER: We certainly will. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.
I want to bring in our analysts and specialists. And Susan Hennessey, let me start with you. You're our national security analyst, former National Security Agency attorney.
There are potential violations of the law, specifically the federal campaign finance laws. Let me read a portion of the relevant text: "A foreign national shall not directly or indirectly make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation in connection with any federal, state, or local election."
Do you believe this meeting, the exchange of the e-mails, what was said in those e-mails, violated potentially that law?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, the law here really turns on how we define a thing of value. Certainly, derogatory information or opposition research can be a thing of value. It isn't necessarily. You know, based on the public record, that's probably a difficult case to make right now.
But this isn't just a question about the line between legal and illegal. It's also about the line between right and wrong. And, so, even if based on what we've seen, everything sort of falls within the letter of campaign finance laws, it really doesn't excuse, frankly, pretty egregious conduct on behalf of the part of Donald Trump Jr.
BLITZER: Some lawyers have suggested that "thing of value," opposition research is a thing of value. Campaigns spend a lot of money to obtain opposition research. If they get it for -- from a foreign national, potentially, that could be a violation. Were any other laws potentially violated here?
HENNESSEY: Well, we certainly saw a willingness to have this -- to have this meeting, to have this form of collaboration. There isn't sort of evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the face of these e-mails.
That said, it does open up questions about future meetings, other efforts to cooperate or collaborate. And that could open up a much broader set of potential crimes: conspiracies, solicitation, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, if they had any knowledge about hacking that was going to occur in the future, or had occurred in the past. And so it does raise some very, very serious questions.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, you heard Senator Tim Kaine describe this interaction, in his words, as potential treason. Do you believe too far, or is that still an open question?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No, he's a reasonable senator, but he needs to take a chill pill here. Look, treason in my layman's definition, is pretty simple. That is purposely working with a hostile power to undermine the security of the United States.
What Donald Trump did, in my judgment, is sleazy and potentially illegal, but you find me a situation we've seen so far in the past months, Wolf, where we know he's accepted information and coordinated with a foreign power to undermine our security. I haven't seen it.
There is a fundamental difference between sleaze and criminal acts and treason. I think we need to pump the brakes in Washington about this suggestion that Donald Trump Jr. is a traitor. I haven't seen it.
BLITZER: All right. Bianna Golodryga, the e-mail specifically referred to the Russian lawyer in this particular case, a woman by the name of Natalia Veselnitskaya, as a Russian government attorney. She denies any official connection to the Kremlin. She denies that she's a government attorney, but the Russian government sometimes, as you know, works through what experts call cutouts. Does that appear to be the case here?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Well, the Kremlin denies knowing her and working with her, as well, for whatever that's worth.
Listen, Russia is not going to be sending Sergey Lavrov or the head of the FSB or GRU to Trump Tower to meet with family members and campaign officials.
[18:40:05] The one connection there does seem to be between Veselnitskaya and Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, is that she appears to be a rather successful attorney; and some of her clients were under this Magnitsky Act targeted under this Magnitsky Act. The one connection that she and Vladimir Putin obviously have, given this Magnitsky Act, is that they both wanted to see it lifted.
She was successful in, I think, winning some 300 cases within Russia. She was actively campaigning against the Magnitsky Act throughout Europe, throughout the U.S., as well, and there you can see the clear connection between Veselnitskaya and the Kremlin in wanting to get these sanctions lifted.
BLITZER: You know, Jackie, the president released a very terse statement today. I'll read it: "My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency."
But Donald Trump Jr. only went public in releasing this e-mail chain after he was informed that "The New York Times" had it, was about to publish it, and as a result he released it. What do you think of the president's defense, that terse statement of his son?
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, it actually seems like the president is listening to his lawyers, because it wasn't as effusive. When you compare it to what he -- how he defended Ivanka Trump in the past, on Twitter, if you say anything about Ivanka, there is -- there is hell to pay online from the president.
With this, as you said, it's dispassionate; it's very reserved. And you haven't seen the Twitter traffic that you've seen with Ivanka and perhaps some other people the president might defend. So he's taking a step back here, and there has to be a reason for it. And maybe it's his lawyers; maybe it's something.
BLITZER: You know, a month after that meeting in June of last year, Rebecca Berg, in July, Jake Tapper asked Donald Trump Jr. about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee e-mail servers, allegations that Russia was behind it. Listen to how Donald Trump Jr. responded.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I asked him about the DNC leak, and he suggested that experts are saying that Russians were behind both the leak -- the hacking of the DNC e-mails and their release. He seemed to be suggesting that this is part of a plot to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Your response?
DONALD TRUMP JR., DONALD TRUMP'S SON: Well, it just goes to show you their exact moral compass. They'll say anything to be able to win this. I mean, this is time and time, lie after lie.
You notice he won't say, "Well, I say this." We hear "experts." You know, his house cat at home once said that this is what's happening with the Russians. It's disgusting. It's so phony.
I don't mind a fair fight, but these lies and the perpetuating of that kind of nonsense to try to, you know, gain some political capital is just outrageous, and he should be ashamed of himself. If a Republican did that...
TAPPER: President Obama...
TRUMP JR.: ... they'd be calling for people to bring out the electric chair.
BLITZER: That was a month after he had that e-mail exchange with his intermediary about meeting with this Russian attorney. He was aware of the Russian government's apparent readiness, anxiousness to go and help his campaign and hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign. But you heard what he said.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is astounding to watch that now, Wolf, knowing what we know, having seen those e-mails, seen the actual words that were exchanged.
Everything, almost everything that Donald Trump Jr. said in that interview about Hillary Clinton and her campaign could pretty much be applied to him. He would say anything to win. Doesn't necessarily care about a fair fight. It is really amazing now to go back and watch that interview.
But let's also consider, as so many lawmakers pointed out today, for example Senator Mark Warner, the co-chair of the Intelligence Committee, all of the times that Donald Trump and his campaign and his associates said that there was never a contact with the Russians, never any cooperation with the Russians. Over months and months all these statements you can go back. Now we know that they are plainly untrue, and it really begs the question moving forward, what else have Donald Trump, his campaign advisors, his children said that is no longer true?
BLITZER: I'm sure we'll be learning a lot more. You know, Susan Hennessey, you tweeted this last night: "I cannot say
this strongly or sincerely enough. If you work in the White House, you need to have a plan in place for retaining a lawyer."
So, what are you suggesting? Everybody who works for Donald Trump in the White House right now better get some legal assistance?
HENNESSEY: Right. So, look, the government does not cover the personal legal fees of White House staffers. This is a lesson that was learned the hard way by -- by staffers in the Clinton White House, staffers in the George W. Bush White House, some of whom were left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
The White House staffers are now in a position in which almost any one of them might be subject to a congressional subpoena, inquiries by federal prosecutors. These are conversations where lying is a felony, is a federal offense. They should take those interactions really seriously. They should have the assistance of counsel.
And so the wise course of action right now would be for them to make a plan for themselves regarding how they're going to have -- how they're going to retain that counsel, how they're going to pay for it. That's just -- that's the prudent course of action. And it does appear like some White House staffers are taking that advice seriously.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: You know, Phil Mudd, we know the e-mail exchange, it's been released now by Donald Trump, Jr. after "The New York Times" told him they were going to release them. We don't know what exactly happened during that half hour meeting involving those three Trump campaign officials and this Russian lawyer.
You used to work in the intelligence community. You used to work at the FBI. Do you think they know better what exactly happened? Because you're getting a lot of conflicting accounts.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Heck yes, they may not have what happened in the conversation obviously. I doubt they were covering that, the intelligence term for following the lady who was involved here. But think about the spider web they're going to build around this one meeting.
I want phone numbers, e-mails, texts and I want the scheduling for every individual who was in Trump Towers and around Donald Trump, Jr. I want to know how often that woman was e-mailed beforehand and afterwards. I want do know how often her phone number was pinged. I want to know the duration of those phone calls. And I want to know whether that changed after he walked out of that meeting and claims he said that was a waste of time.
For example, Wolf, if there are close and continuing contacts that continue through the fall, I'm going to come back and say, I don't know what happened to that meeting, but why the heck did people connected with her keep talking with her if you say she was a waste of time? You can build a lot without getting truth out of the individuals here. Donald Trump, Jr. hasn't been telling the truth, but they'll figure it out. BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: And, Wolf, look at
the bigger picture. Our intelligence community, our vice-president, our own president may not have known to give him the benefit of the doubt about this meeting. You now who did know probably? Vladimir Putin and the Russians who have been sitting on this information for a year now. You talk about leverage, you talk about kompromat that Russia could have had on the U.S., there you have it.
BLITZER: Well, would you believe, Bianna, you're an expert on Russia and their capabilities. But do you believe this lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was perhaps on the radar of the U.S. intelligence community or the FBI?
GOLODRYGA: There had been reports that her visa at one point or another had been denied to the U.S. because of her affiliation with the Magnitsky Act and her clients. I do believe, though, from reports that I have read that that visa was granted so that she could actually come to the U.S. to defend one of those clients under the Magnitsky Act being sanctioned.
BLITZER: We're getting, Jackie, wide reaction from Republicans to this latest bombshell. Senator John McCain called it a classic scandal. Others like Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah called the story overblown, not relevant to the administration.
What are you hearing?
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I've heard a lot of -- I haven't read those e-mails, because there is a lot of fatigue on the Hill from Republicans in this. It seems like every week, there is something having to do with Trump and Russia and it keeps getting closer and it keeps getting more serious.
They want to talk about other things and they're not being allowed to do so. And they should have to address this. This is the person that they, most of them went out and campaigned for, or pushed for in those final days. So, you know, even though they don't want to talk about it, it's going to keep happening and, you know, that's just the facts.
BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, I want to read to you the reaction from the vice-president, Mike Pence. He's clearly trying to distance himself from all of this. His press secretary gave a statement responding to the initial reports. Quote: The vice president was not aware of the meeting. He is not focused on stories about the campaign, particularly stories about the time before he joined the ticket.
He's clearly making it obvious that in June, this is before the Republican convention in July. He was not part of this ticket.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. You don't have to squint very hard to see the motive here, Wolf. I mean, Mike Pence is someone who, against the odds in many cases, has looked out for the administration or the campaign when he was a candidate, and has looked out for Trump. But in this case, Mike Pence is looking out for number one, himself,
and making sure that all of his bases are covered. Don't forget that he has hired his own legal counsel. He is a player in this investigation, and he needs to make sure that he is going to survive all of this.
I mean, he's young, relatively speaking. He probably thinks he has a political career ahead of him. Don't forget that he was in Iowa just a few weeks ago, the first state in the primary process. And he's someone who is very ambitious.
So, Mike Pence doing due diligence and trying to protect himself here.
BLITZER: He's been holding some fund-raisers as we know as well.
You know, Bianna, there have been some who have suggested that the Russians as part of this whole operation.
[18:50:01] They potentially have information that they could blackmail Trump administration officials, maybe even the president of the United States. You heard the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, suggests that there may be some compromise information out there.
What's your reaction to that?
GOLODRYGA: Well, look, it goes back to whether or not you want to believe that the Kremlin knew that this meeting had taken place. There is high probability that the Kremlin did know this meeting had taken place. And think about just the past few days, sequentially, you had the president having his one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin. Out of that came a he said versus he said scenario. And now, you have a similar scenario playing out with what Donald Trump Jr. said about this meeting that took place a year ago and what the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had said.
And I'm just reading an interview she just gave and was posted with the "FT", where she refutes Donald Trump Jr.'s statement and his version and what played out in that e-mail, specifically that she was sent as an agent of the Russian government. She said that Mr. Agalarov, the Russian billionaire, was a friend of a friend and set up the meeting to help Mr. Trump lobby against the act.
So, she is once again doubling down on her rational for coming to meet with the Trump campaign to lift this act, the sanctions that Vladimir Putin desperately wanted to see lifted.
MUDD: You heard, Phil Mudd, some of the president's critics say this is explains why the president has been so nice to Putin and the Russians over these many, many months, because he fears they have information that could compromise him or his associates.
MUDD: I don't think that's true. I think the story is much simpler, that is, that he wanted to improve relationships with Russia, that he wanted to do anything that was the opposite of what President Obama did, whether that's cut a deal or Syria or overturn the Iran nuclear deal, question our commitment to NATO.
But I think you should have basic questions about what he knew when and why he didn't know more. Let me ask you a simple question. I assume every viewer out there has e-mail. I have email.
You mean to tell me a year after this meeting, months after, the January inauguration the president of the United States, his son in the midst of this investigation couldn't even bother to see whether Russia was in the subject line of e-mails? You've got to be kidding me. It doesn't make sense.
BLITZER: Everybody, stick around, because I want everybody to stay with CNN for up to the minute coverage of this breaking story, including a special "WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS" with all the newest reporting. That will air later tonight live 11:00 p.m. Eastern, 8:00 Pacific. Jake Tapper will anchor. That's at 11:00 p.m. later tonight.
Just ahead, more breaking news as Donald Trump Jr. releases email showing he welcomed an offer of Russian government help in attacking Hillary Clinton.
And investigators are scrambling to learn what went wrong after a military plane crashes in Mississippi, killing 16 service members.
[18:57:40] BLITZER: Right now, investigators are trying to determine the cause of a mysterious plane crash that killed 16 U.S. service members.
CNN's Martin Savidge is in Mississippi, where the plane went down.
Martin, what's the latest?
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, investigators spent the day today, one, recovering the victims of the crash. Two, also recovering debris and parts of the plane set to be spread over five miles. And, lastly, they've been safe-guarding the weapons and ammunition the plane was transporting.
SAVIDGE (voice-over): Flames in a towering cloud of black smoke could be seen for miles in this rural part of Mississippi. Witnesses report hearing a loud boom and then looking up to see the transport plane spiraling out of the sky.
ANDY JONES, CRASH WITNESS: At first, it looked like an acrobatic plane, like a stunt plane, you know, blowing the smoke out the back. And then, all of a sudden, you realize that smoke is coming off one of the sides of the wing.
SAVIDGE: The aircraft, the Marine KC130 cargo plane, was flying from Cherry Point, North Carolina, headed to California, when something went suddenly and terribly wrong. Tonight, investigators are working to figure out just what that was.
Officials say the first sign of trouble came when air traffic controllers notified the marines the plane has disappeared from radar over Mississippi. Officials do not suspect foul play.
Andy Jones got to the crash scene after impact. But flames and something else kept him from getting closer.
JONES: It was definitely little mini explosions going on out there.
SAVIDGE: All 16 members of the military were killed, including seven members of a Marine special operations unit. The Marines spokesperson said the men were traveling with their weapons and ammunition, adding a new level of danger to the public on the ground.
MAJOR ANDREW ARANDA, U.S. MARINE CORPS FORCES RESERVE: Out of precaution, we just want to make sure that people do not approach, to get close just out of general safety.
SAVIDGE: Late this afternoon, these images show how little remains of the aircraft that has been a work horse in the military since the early 60s, scarring the Mississippi landscape and the minds of witnesses who watched it fall from the sky.
SAVIDGE: This is the largest U.S. military loss of life since President Trump took office. He tweeted this morning that it was heart-breaking as well as sending his condolences to all -- Wolf.
BLITZER: So sad.
Martin Savidge, thank you.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.