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GOP Source: White House 'Paralyzed' by E-mail Bombshell; FBI Pick: Would Resign Over Unethical or Illegal Order; Video Shows Trump with Russians Tied to E-mail Controversy. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired July 12, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:08] That's it for "THE LEAD" today. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Jim Acosta, who's taking over for Wolf in THE SITUATION ROOM.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Pledge of independence. President Trump's pick to replace fired FBI Director James Comey tells senators he'll be independent and loyal only to the Constitution and the rule of law. Could his support for the special counsel set up a clash with the president?
Bunker mentality. Shaken by a series of revelations on Russia's election meddling and ties to the Trump campaign, the White House is described by one top Republican as paralyzed. President Trump is still trying to change the subject back to Hillary Clinton.
Russian partners. CNN has exclusive video of Trump meeting with a Russian billionaire father and pop star son who were linked to Don Jr.'s meeting with the Russian lawyer. What's the relationship between the two wealthy families?
And Moscow's insider out. Russia's jovial ambassador, also seen by the U.S. as a spy, is on his way home. His replacement is seen as a hardliner who importantly played a key role in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. What does that mean for U.S.-Russian ties?
Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Jim Acosta. You're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."
With the Trump administration rocked by a series of bombshells on Russia's election meddling, a top Republican describes the White House as paralyzed. Various administration figures paint a picture of chaos now reaching the president's inner circle after son Donald Jr. released e-mail showing he embraced a proposal of Russian government help in attacking Hillary Clinton.
The president tweeted today that the White House is functioning perfectly, and he's trying to defuse claims that Russia acted to help get him elected. In an interview with televangelist Pat Robertson, he suggested that Vladimir Putin would have preferred Hillary Clinton in the White House, because he's boosting U.S. military and U.S. energy exports.
The president may be hoping to get away from it all as he flies to Paris tonight to meet with the new president there, Emanuel Macron. And President Trump's pick to replace fired FBI Director James Comey
told senators today he's committed to the rule of law and would follow the facts wherever they may lead. Christopher Wray, a former federal prosecutor with bipartisan support, vowed he'd resign if asked to do something illegal or immoral. Wray said the president did not ask for a loyalty pledge, something Comey says Trump repeatedly requested before firing him. Wray said he does not believe Special Counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt, a term the president used yet again today to describe the Russia investigation.
I'll talk with Congressman Jim Himes of the Intelligence Committee; and our correspondents, specialists and guests are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
We begin with the White House rocked by a series of stunning developments on Russian meddling and ties to the Trump campaign. CNN's Jessica Schneider is there. Jessica, what's the mood tonight?
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, the president himself is presenting a forceful and defiant front via Twitter, but inside the White House, a top Republican source in tune with the West Wing does say that there is that sense of paralysis.
Another source lamented that this is yet another week lost when it comes to advancing the president's agenda. All of this as the president prepares to take off for Paris tonight.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, the White House is all-consumed by the Russia investigation, grapping with the latest investigation found in Donald Trump Jr.'s e-mails, which detail how he eagerly accepted a meeting with someone he was told was a Russian government lawyer, promising to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton, an effort the e-mails described as part of the Russian government's support for Mr. Trump.
When Trump Jr. released the e-mails via Twitter Tuesday, sources tell CNN the president spent most of the day watching television and huddling with top advisors, his president's mood ranging from frustrated to furious.
But today, the president disputed reports that he was keeping tabs on the unfolding coverage, tweeting this morning, "The White House is functioning perfectly, focused on health care, tax cuts, reform and many other things. I have very little time for watching TV."
But one Republican close to the West Wing tells CNN, "The White House is paralyzed as the administration finds its policy agenda, including health care and tax reform, imperiled by another Russia-related bombshell.
Many in the West Wing were rocked by Donald Jr.'s e-mail disclosures, but the president views it as another attempt to distract and damage his presidency by Democrats, according to sources. A person close to the president says he believes the media is trying to create a conspiracy that doesn't exist. DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: In retrospect, I probably
would have done things a little differently.
SCHNEIDER: Don Trump Jr. appeared with conservative host Sean Hannity to explain his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, saying his lack of political experience was the reason he didn't think it was wrong.
TRUMP JR.: This is the first time we've ever done any of this. You know, I'm still way in the learning curve on all of this, so it wasn't that urgent to me if I'm saying, hey, it can wait until the end of summer, but yes, I would say we want the information. That's what we do in business. If there's information out there, you want it.
[17:05:02] SCHNEIDER: Republicans close to the White House tell CNN they warned that the combination of power and naivete was sure to get Trump's family members into trouble, and some predict the problem could worsen in the future.
But sources say the president is still inclined to trust family members more than his own staff. The president tweeted earlier this morning: "My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest witch hunt in political history. Sad."
President Trump's attorney, Jay Sekulow, insists the president knew nothing about his eldest son's meetings or e-mails.
JAY SEKULOW, DONALD TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: Let's focus on what the president was aware of. Nothing. He was not aware of the meeting, did not attend the meeting and was only informed about the e-mails very recently by his counsel.
SCHNEIDER: The president sat for an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network this morning. The clip released by the program did not address his son's e-mails. Instead the president defended his two-hour face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think a lot of things came out of that meeting, but I do think it's important to have a dialogue, and if you don't have a dialogue, it's a lot of problems for our country and for their country.
SCHNEIDER: And the president has not had anything on his public schedule for the past four days. That's a rare stretch out of the public eye for a sitting president.
But deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today that the president has been having meetings. She said just because the president isn't standing behind a podium doesn't mean he is not communicating his message to the American public or pressing his agenda forward.
Of course the president will be in the public eye. He'll be in Paris tomorrow when he holds that press conference with the French president. It will be expected he will face questions about his eldest son's e-mails as well as that meeting with the Russian lawyer -- Jim.
ACOSTA: Jessica Schneider, thank you.
President Trump's pick to replace fired FBI Director James Comey is vowing independence. Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee today that his loyalty is to the Constitution and he'd resign if asked to do something illegal or immoral.
CNN's Diane Gallagher joins us. The Russia investigation clearly was the focus today, wasn't it, Diane?
DIANE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, overwhelmingly. And Christopher Wray clearly, though, wanted the committee to know that he's his own man, telling the senators that he would not be pulling any punches if he is confirmed as director of the FBI, expressing confidence in the intelligence community's assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 election as well as Special Counsel Robert Mueller's abilities, and breaking with the president, who has repeatedly called the investigation into possible Russian collusion with his campaign a witch hunt, even as recently as this morning in a tweet.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR NOMINEE: I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt. I will take a close look shortly upon being confirmed, if confirmed to, as I said, making sure that former Director Mueller, now Special Counsel Mueller, has all the appropriate resources that he ought to have.
And my expectation is that I would remain committed to that support regardless of any decisions by anybody else in the department. I would not tolerate any inappropriate influence on Special Counsel Mueller's investigation to the extent that I'm supporting it. At the end of the day, it's his investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GALLAGHER: Yes, so when it comes to those bombshell e-mails that were tweeted out by Donald Trump Jr. and throughout that meeting that he and Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort had with the Russian attorney, Wray admitted that he had been busy preparing for his own hearing, meeting the senators, and he hadn't read any of this.
So Republican Senator Lindsey Graham helping him out a little bit today, reading portions of those e-mails to him, and then hammering Wray on what Don Jr., or any campaign, really, should have done.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If a got a call from somebody saying the Russian government wants to help Lindsey Graham get reelected, they've got dirt on Lindsey Graham's opponent, should I take that meeting?
WRAY: Well, Senator, I would think you'd want to consult with some good legal advisers before you did that.
GRAHAM: So the answer is, should I call the FBI?
WRAY: I think it would be wise to let the FBI know...
GRAHAM: You're going to be director of the FBI, pal. So here's what I want you to tell every politician. If you get a call from somebody suggesting that a foreign government wants to help you by disparaging your opponent, tell us all to call the FBI.
WRAY: To the members of this committee, any threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation-state or any non-state actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know.
GRAHAM: All right. So I'll take it that we should call you, and that's a great answer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GALLAGHER: Now, Wray also said the president did not ask for, and he would not have taken a loyalty pledge before being nominated. Wray said that he feels like it would be a bit unusual to meet with the president alone about anything, other than some sort of pressing, serious national security situation.
And Jim, one more thing. Wray says that, if a president asked him to do anything illegal or immoral, he would first try and talk that president out of doing it, and if he couldn't, he would resign.
[17:10:07] Republicans and Democrats were both extremely complimentary today, Jim. They suggested they'd support his appointment as the head of the FBI.
ACOSTA: OK. Diane Gallagher, thank you very much. Appreciate that.
Joining me now, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut.
Congressman, the House Intelligence Committee has been looking into the possibility of collusion as part of the Russian probe. In your view now, is there a smoking gun?
REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, good afternoon, Jim. What a remarkable turn of events, you know. It had been established by our intelligence community that the attack on our election occurred. It had been established without question that it was done on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump. And the big question was, was there -- were there any links? Was there any collusion?
And of course, there was lots of back and forth on that, and that was something that was denied at every single step by the White House. By the vice president, by the president, consistent denials of that fact. And then it's not fake news. I mean, it's not CNN. It's not "The New York Times." It's not "The Washington Post," anybody else that the president has labeled fake news. It is his own son who said, "I was -- essentially, I was looking forward to a meeting with a Russian attorney who told me that they had incriminating information on my opponent."
So in some ways, the question of whether there was a link now has been solved, much to the destruction of the White House's credibility. Now our job is to figure out what else is there? You know, was there further contact? Was there further working together? Does this rise to the level of a prosecutable crime?
ACOSTA: And congressman, speaking of more evidence, could there be more e-mails out there? Donald Trump Jr. only released, you know, four pages of e-mails. Could there be more e-mails out there? Do you want to look at a server?
HIMES: Well, of course there could be and quite likely are. Think of the seniority of the people who were in that room. Paul Manafort, then head of the campaign. Jared Kushner, who now seems to have five or six jobs in Washington, very important to the operation there. And the president's own son.
First of all, one question is, yes, what follow-up was there from that meeting? My guess is that there was probably some.
Secondly is the question of did the president -- now president, then- candidate -- did he know about that meeting, or did his campaign chief and others keep him in the dark? Particularly since a week after that meeting, the president went in a rally and said, "Boy, have we got some stuff coming out on Hillary Clinton."
So we're going to want to follow up on all of those questions.
ACOSTA: And as bad as these e-mails look, I guess there is a key question that's being asked by people in Trump world, and that is were any crimes committed by Donald Trump Jr.? Are you willing to say at this point that the president's eldest son committed a crime?
HIMES: No, I'm not going to say that, because of course, we don't say that about people who haven't been fairly tried.
I will say that there is certainly -- and I'm not, obviously, in any way, shape or form associated with -- with Director Mueller and his -- and his probe. That's his call to make.
But look, accepting help from a foreign entity in a campaign is a crime. Conspiring to defraud or to interfere in an election is a crime. You have suggestions that that may have occurred, and therefore it's very, very important that we take the next steps to determine whether they did.
And sadly, you know, as an American, forget about my political party, as an American it really distresses me that we're in a position where the president of the United States and the people around him now have exactly zero credibility. And of course, Donald J. Trump Jr. was denying the nature of this
meeting 48 hours before he released the e-mails that showed the nature of this meeting. So, you know, sadly, this is not going to clearly be an investigation that is going to be met with anything other than mendacity by the people who are being investigated; and that puts a burden on all of us to make sure we get to the bottom of it.
ACOSTA: And Congressman, the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was at this meeting. Jared Kushner, as you mentioned, the president's son-in-law. Paul Manafort volunteered to appear before your committee earlier this year. Do you think that Donald Trump Jr. should testify before Congress, that Jared Kushner should testify before Congress, that Paul Manafort should testify? Do you want to see all of them testifying before your committee?
HIMES: All of them should and will. Those three, of course, you'll recall the story that was reported about the alleged attempt by Jared Kushner to set up a direct line of communication, perhaps at a Russian diplomatic facility. Again, that was a news report. But boy, we want to know about that.
Of course, now the president's son, based on the e-mails that he released -- again, this wasn't fake news; this was the president's son saying, "Look what I did." We want to talk to him.
And Paul Manafort, you know, he was the guy at the top of the -- top of the ladder while all of this was happening. And so we're going to want to know what he knew, whether he encouraged that and, of course, whether he told now-president, then-candidate Donald Trump.
ACOSTA: And Congressman, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, said he's prepared to issue a subpoena if necessary.
What if the White House says "No, executive privilege"? The president's son can't come and testify. Jared Kushner is not coming to testify. Paul Manafort, I guess they can't really block Paul Manafort from testifying, and I suppose they can't really block the president's son. But are you prepared to push for subpoenas in all of this? Not that -- I suppose you may not have that power, but how do you see that playing out?
HIMES: Well, we do have that power. Congress, of course, has the power to subpoena anything and everybody...
ACOSTA: I mean, you as a Democrat may not have -- your Republican colleagues may decide this.
HIMES: That's a different issue. No, and I should say, you know, on the House side and I think on the Senate side, the Democrats and the Republicans are working very well together on this.
Mike Conaway, who is running the Republican -- running the House investigation, has been very, very fair-minded on this. And of course, if we need to, we will subpoena. And as far as I know, there is -- there cannot be a claim of executive
privilege for conversations that occurred before the executive was the executive. This was about activities that occurred during the campaign.
And so I think the claim of executive privilege -- I'm no lawyer, but I think that would be absurd on the face of it. Now to mention a political disaster.
Look, at great long last, the moment has arrived for everybody -- for Jeff Sessions, the attorney general; for the vice president; for the president; for all these people associated -- to finally, at great long last, start telling the truth and put it out there. I'll give the president's credit for yesterday finally -- the first time we've seen this in six months -- saying, "Here's what I've got." Now, you know, we'll see if that's all he's got.
This could go a lot faster and be a lot cleaner if people would cooperate rather than trying to obfuscate and misstate what actually occurred.
ACOSTA: OK, Congressman, stand by. We have some very interesting video coming up, exclusive video of President Trump with some of the Russian businessmen who now figure prominently in Donald Trump Jr.'s e-mails. We'll see more of that. We'll ask you about it in just a moment.
[17:20:01] ACOSTA: And we're talking with Congressman Jim Himes. But first tonight, investigators are looking at the ties between two wealthy families, the Trumps and Russians linked to Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer. We have exclusive video of that connection.
Let's turn to CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown. Pamela, this is some very interesting video. What have you learned?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It is. It's video that CNN has exclusively obtained from 2013 of Donald Trump meeting with the father and son who last year allegedly promised to help pass along damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government to Donald Trump Jr. through an intermediary.
And this video is a fresh look inside their relationship, apparently just as it was beginning.
BROWN (voice-over): The behind-the-scenes video obtained exclusively by CNN shows then-businessman Donald Trump in Las Vegas in 2013 at several events during the weekend of the Miss USA pageant, hanging out with the men now at the center of the newest development in the Russia controversy.
The men, Russian pop singer Emin Agalarov and his father, Aras, a real-estate developer in Russia, were helping Trump hold his Miss Universe pageant in Moscow later that year.
TRUMP: This is one of the most powerful men in all of Russia, the richest men in Russia.
BROWN: In the video Trump is seen having dinner with the Agalarovs, along with their publicist, Rob Goldstone, seen here leaning over to talk with Trump.
On Tuesday, Trump's son, Donald Jr., released e-mails from Goldstone, pitching a meeting between the president's son and a Russian lawyer, promising she would release damaging information about Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government.
According to the e-mails released by Trump Jr., Emin Agalarov, seen here between Trump and Goldstone, told Goldstone to set up the meeting. Quote, "Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting. This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information, but it's part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
The exclusive footage describes a closer look at the friendship between the two families and could help explain Donald Trump Jr.'s willingness to take the meeting arranged by Goldstone.
At dinner, Trump can be heard boasting to the men about his work on the Miss Universe pageant.
TRUMP: The women now are beautiful, I tell you. When you see Miss Universe, you won't even believe it.
BROWN: The next day in front of reporters, Trump spoke grandly about the promise of taking Miss Universe to Russia.
TRUMP: I think it's a great thing for both countries, and honestly, they really wanted it in Russia very badly, politically they wanted it.
BROWN: Trump predicting his pageant could even bring Russia and the U.S. closer.
TRUMP: It really is a great country; it's a very powerful country. It's a country that we have a relationship with, but I would say not a great relationship, and I think this could certainly help that relationship.
BROWN: Investigators plan to examine the Trump Tower meeting and the e-mails.
On FOX News Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr., who does not appear in the 2013 video, said he had limited knowledge of the Russian family.
TRUMP JR.: I'd met Emin once or twice and, you know, maintained a casual relationship there, talked about some potential deals; and that's about the extent of it. They really didn't go anywhere.
BROWN: But new video and others show the president's own connections. TRUMP: What's wrong with you?
BROWN: In 2013, Trump appeared in one of Emin's music videos...
TRUMP: You're just another pretty face. I'm really tired of you. You're fired.
BROWN: ... and wished him happy birthday in a video posted on Emin's Instagram.
TRUMP: Emin, I can't believe you're turning 35.
BROWN: On CNN's NEW DAY, their lawyer said the e-mails don't add up.
SCOTT BALBER, ATTORNEY FOR EMIN AND ARAS AGALAROV: It's just fantasy world, because the reality is, if there was something important that Mr. Agalarov wanted to communicate to the Trump campaign, I suspect he could have called Mr. Trump directly, as opposed to having his son's pop music publicist be the intermediary.
BROWN: And the father of the Russian pop star, Aras Agalarov, spoke out to a Russian radio station in the wake of the e-mail release and said he doesn't personally know Don Jr. And he said he doesn't really know Goldstone that well, either, saying it was a, quote, "tall tale" that Gladstone asked Trump Jr. to contact him about dirt on Hillary Clinton -- Jim.
[17:25:08] ACOSTA: Very interesting video. And they do seem rather close in the video that you're showing.
BROWN: The video. Certainly.
ACOSTA: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Pam.
We're back now with Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of the Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, what more do you want to know? You've listened to that piece. What more do you want to know about these men who apparently played a central role in organizing this meeting? You can see them in this video exclusively obtained by CNN. Rob Goldstone, Aras Agalarov, Emin Agalarov. What do you make of that? What more do you want to know?
HIMES: Yes, well, all advertising to the contrary, it looks like what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas. Congratulations on somehow securing that video.
Look, the video itself just establishes that then Donald Trump knew the people concerned at the very center of this, and it puts some question and doubt on his repeated statements that he, you know, didn't know Russian oligarchs; he doesn't know Russia; he doesn't do business with Russia. Clearly, there were some relationships there, and clearly, you know,
even at that time, 2013, who knows whether he had in mind to run for president in 2016. You know, he had this sort of fascination with and support for Russia.
So I think it creates some context around the meeting that his son had with some of these same players that -- that further lead to the question of, OK, if Donald Trump himself knows these people, what is the probability that this meeting happened without somebody in that room going back to Donald Trump and saying, "Here's the deal; here's what they have to offer"?
Now, that's speculation on my part, but knowing that there's a relationship there, you would think that that might have occurred.
BLITZER: And is there any evidence to suggest, or are you looking into this, digging into this, that these men were so-called cutouts, in other words acting in an unofficial capacity on behalf of the Kremlin? Obviously, the Kremlin is not going to send in somebody wearing, you know, a uniform with the government or with the Russian military into one of these meetings with Donald Trump Jr. They're not -- they're not going to do that. They're more clever than that.
What about these two men? Any chance that these are what they call cutouts?
HIMES: Well, I mean, they're not a lot more clever than that, right? I mean, the e-mails that Donald Jr. released made it very clear that he knew that this lawyer that he was going to meet with was bringing information that came from the Russian government, that there was a reference to the Russian crowned prosecutor. So no, it wasn't particularly well-hidden.
But to answer your question, this is classic Russian statecraft. And it's a little unfamiliar to people who know how we operate, where we have diplomats and intelligence officers and military people in foreign countries that act on behalf of the United States.
The Russians, more often than not, will employ people -- business people, oligarchs, friends, friends of friends -- to do these things, sort of missions, if you will, on behalf of the government but in a way that gives them some plausible deniability. We tend not to do that, by and large, but that is absolutely standard operating procedure for Russia, and of course the Russia that is led by Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, who of course, would be expert in this particular kind of tradecraft.
BLITZER: And Congressman, getting back to Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, senior adviser, he was also in attendance at this meeting with the Russian lawyer. Should his security clearance be revoked or at least reviewed? That's a question that's come up at the White House press briefings, off-camera, in the last several days. And they sort of dance around that question and have not really been willing to answer that question. What do you make of that?
HIMES: There is no question in my mind that, if Jared Kushner, instead of being the son-in-law of the president, were a military officer or a civil servant, a foreign service officer, an intelligence officer, and if the evidence had mounted that the original forms that were filed for his security clearance were inadequate, that he did not disclose contacts with Russians, that he did not affirmatively disclose this particular meeting -- remember, we've been talking about possible links in collusion with Russia for the last six months. And here you have Jared Kushner in the White House who knew and was actually at that meeting and chose not to raise his hand and say, "Hey, everybody should know about this. Here's what happened."
On that basis alone, if this weren't the president's son-in-law, there is no doubt in my mind that that security clearance would be -- would be revoked.
ACOSTA: And do you believe that this meeting and any potential meetings yet to be disclosed left the administration vulnerable to blackmail? I mean, that was sort of the concern that was relayed to the president-elect during the transition by the intelligence community heads, that this compromise coming from the Russian government. Do you think this has left this administration vulnerable to blackmail?
HIMES: Well, just imagine. You know, even 48 hours ago, before the nature of this meeting was known, just a sort of thought experiment here. Just imagine that the Russians wanted Jared Kushner or the president's son to do something. And one of those two gets a phone call from somebody in Russia saying, "Hey, the entire American media, three investigations are looking into the question of whether you had any contact with Russians, and we want you to do X-Y-Z or we're going to release e-mails and a transcription of the meeting that occurred." That's the very definition of blackmail.
[17:30:14] So of course there's a vulnerability there, and that makes it that much more important that we really get to the bottom of this and understand what else is there. Because if there is more there, that of course, gives the Russians a very powerful source of leverage on people like Jared Kushner, the president's son, and who knows who else?
BLITZER: And let's get back to Christopher Wray, the president's nominee for FBI director. He had his hearing on Capitol Hill today. He insisted he would never take a loyalty pledge to the president. He also said he would resign if ever asked to do anything illegal.
Were you encouraged by his testimony today? I know that you're not in the Senate, of course, but you may have been observing or listening in. What did you make of his performance today?
HIMES: Well, I can't -- I can't judge it. Look, by all accounts, this is a decent and competent individual, and, you know, the problems that we have had with people who have not been honest about meetings with the Russians have almost all or have all been people that were associated with the Trump campaign, from the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to Jared Kushner, to people that were -- to Paul Manafort. All of these people were associated with the campaign. So, you know, look, we'll see, but I don't have any reason to believe
that this is not a, you know, perfectly capable individual who is untainted with the activities that may have occurred within the Trump campaign.
ACOSTA: OK, Congressman Jim Himes, thanks for joining us today. We appreciate it. Good seeing you, sir.
HIMES: Thanks, Jim.
ACOSTA: Coming up, more on the mood inside the White House as President Trump prepares to leave it behind and head overseas for the second time this month.
And later a prominent figure in Russia's election meddling says his goodbyes as Vladimir Putin sends a new ambassador to the U.S.
[17:36:15] ACOSTA: Just hours from now, President Trump heads to France, leaving behind what a top Republican close to the West Wing calls a paralyzed White House. The president is described as furious and frustrated by the release of e-mails about last year's meeting involving a Russian lawyer and members of his family and presidential campaign.
Let's get more from our correspondents and specialists. Dana Bash, you're hearing more about all this, the president's mood, what's happening inside the White House. They don't sound too happy right now.
BASH: No. You're hearing the same thing.
ACOSTA: Not as many cries of fake news.
BASH: No. Exactly. It's hard to call fake news something that the president's son actually puts out via Twitter.
But look, the president's tweet this morning, suggesting that everything is on track and he's not watching TV. I mean, talk -- it's like the ultimate example of protesting too much. We know that that's not the case, every single thing in that e-mail from the TV to everything being on track.
And at the end of the day, that's really what matters if you are a Trump voter. It's what is his agenda? Where is it right now? Is it going to get done? Am I going to get a job? Am I still going to have health care? Am I going to have affordable health care that I don't have now? And those are the things that have been, you know, sidetracked.
Now, it is still happening. Congress is still working. They're trying very hard, but it is really, really hard for these Republicans to keep pushing on when they have all of this noise that is impossible to ignore. ACOSTA: Right. Every time we ask a question up on Capitol Hill, it's
typically about the Russia investigation, and certainly, those GOP lawmakers do not like that.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: But can I just ask?
TOOBIN: You said -- I wonder if that's what the Trump presidency is all about, you know, the legislative...
BASH: No, no, no. What I said, the Trump voters want to know.
TOOBIN: But is it what they want to know? I mean, maybe what they really want is to have him tweeting about what jerks we are. I mean, I think that pleases a lot of them.
BASH: Well, they're not mutually exclusive.
TOOBIN: Yes. I mean, I just -- sometimes I think, oh, you know, he's not making progress in the Capitol, which he's not.
TOOBIN: But maybe the fact that he's picking fights with us is something that makes them happy and that's...
BASH: Well, look...
ACOSTA: We -- are we the bright, shiny object to...
BASH: Trump voters are not monolithic, OK? And nobody is -- and even one person doesn't have just one single desire in their elected officials. So I think that, certainly, there's no question we met a lot of these people on the campaign trail who are still ardent Trump supporters. They were thrilled when he would go after the media.
But we met a lot of people who really wanted him to shake things up and get things done.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
BASH: That's why they put him in office, to disrupt things...
ACOSTA: Well, he certainly has...
BASH: ... to get things passed and done.
ACOSTA: He certainly has shaken things up. I'm not sure you could argue he's gotten a lot of things done...
ACOSTA: ... Nia-Malika Henderson.
HENDERSON: Right. ACOSTA: Nia, what do you -- I mean, what do you make of these -- this talk of warring factions inside the White House? What I'm hearing is that they're rather defiant inside the White House. They don't see this as an "Access Hollywood" type of scandal, or that it rises to that level.
HENDERSON: Yes. And that's essentially been their strategy all along, this idea of the embattled White House, Trump as an embattled president. And it makes him, again, kind of cultivate this image as the outsider who everybody is against. And I think he very much connects with his supporters in that way, too, as the fighter.
One of the things, I think, that makes this kind of recent story in this overarching Russia story is the family piece of it, right? The Don Jr. piece of it, the Jared Kushner piece of it, as well. He was obviously in that meeting. And that has made things, I think, from the people I talk to who are close to this White House, very difficult for people inside it, inside the White House, because there are people who work in this White House who can't be fired, right?
[18:40:00] HENDERSON: And we know that there are different factions in all sorts of White Houses, whether it's the Obama White House, the Bush White House, the Reagan White House. But the fact that there are top-level folks there who are related to Donald Trump and in his family and are, essentially, a protected status, untouchable, that makes things much more difficult and different for this White House.
ACOSTA: And Bianna, you followed this story as closely as the rest of us. Did you ever think in a million years that it would all just come out in a tweet from the president's son? What do you make of all this?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Well -- well, isn't it ironic that it has to deal with the Russian billionaire who's known as the Donald Trump of Russia; who's also a real-estate magnate in Russia, as well? And also has a son, who aside from being a pop star, also works with his father at the Crocus Group.
You want to talk about connections, Aras Agalarov is very close with the Russian government, with the Kremlin, with Vladimir Putin. He has awarded the Order of Honor in Russia. He has developed some of the biggest shopping centers in Moscow. He's been given a lot of government contracts as a reward.
A lot of hypocrisy, given the corruption surrounding these Russian billionaires. He's also been awarded a contract for a stadium for the World Cup in 2018.
So people are trying to figure out what the connection is between this man and Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, where you have a direct line between Agalarov and the Russian president.
ACOSTA: And Bianna, right now we're watching this exclusive video that CNN has obtained that shows then-Donald Trump, not even candidate Trump at that time, citizen Trump, businessman Trump at -- in Las Vegas with the Agalarovs and Rob Goldstone.
Dana Bash, it seems as though there is no shortage of drips in this story. Just when you think you've seen it all, another shoe drops.
BASH: No question. The thing about this video is that it connects the names on an e-mail from a year ago to pictures. And more importantly, to the president of the United States. It makes it at least appear much more clear why Donald Trump Jr. was so responsive to Goldstone.
Look, I mean, he was hanging out with his father. He clearly...
ACOSTA: I see Michael Cohen in the video here.
BASH: Right, Michael Cohen. And this is before -- my understanding is before it actually went, his pageant, Miss Universe, was taken to Moscow. So he was really working with these guys to help bring it -- bring it to Russia.
So the relationship, the sort of preexisting relationship with these very important Russians, as Bianna was just talking about, is there, and that is the context through which we now will see the e-mails that went back and forth with Don Jr. and that man right there, next to the president, Ron Goldstone, about this alleged information that they had.
ACOSTA: And Jeffrey Toobin, do you see anything legally here that the president's team should be worried about when they see this video?
TOOBIN: I don't -- it's part of the mosaic of the relationships that, you know, could be used to establish that people -- that people knew each other. Certainly, there's nothing criminal or inappropriate with what's going on in the video.
But just in terms of the atmosphere in the White House, all of these people are under criminal investigation. There is a prosecutor with some of the finest lawyers in the country, the entire resources of the FBI at their disposal, investigating whether all of these top people committed crimes or an impeachable offense. That wears on you. That is a very draining, difficult, emotionally rigorous experience to go through, and that matters.
GOLODRYGA: Just to...
ACOSTA: Go ahead, Bianna.
GOLODRYGA: I was just going to say another casualty of this video is it's becoming harder and harder to comprehend or to believe that the president had no knowledge of the meeting between Don Trump Jr. and this lawyer because of the connection, because of the connection to this billionaire and his son. They've had a past with each other, so it would make sense that Don Jr. would at least inform his father, if he informed the campaign chairman and Jared Kushner, that, "Hey, I just received this e-mail about potentially explosive information."
So when the president says he had no idea about this meeting or he'd never been told about it, it becomes harder and harder to accept that answer.
ACOSTA: And Nia, getting back to Dana's point earlier, what if there are Trump supporters out there who say, "I don't care. I don't care that he met with the Russians. I don't care that he's doing this here. I still like that he sticks it to the news media, sticks it to Washington"?
Does it rise to the level of outrage in Trump country?
HENDERSON: You know, I think they will stand by him for many, many, many months. I mean, we saw -- and not to draw parallels between Nixon, but it was the same thing with Nixon. I mean, Republicans stayed with Nixon deep into the Watergate scandal, both in terms of rank-and-file voters as well as lawmakers. And I don't think that's going to change here.
TOOBIN: You know, I was just reading Woodward and Bernstein's fantastic book, "The Final Days," and of the points that they make is that, you know, the Republicans stood by Nixon basically to the end.
TOOBIN: And the day he resigned, he was at about 30 percent in the polls. You know, it wasn't zero.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: Right.
HENDERSON: Right, right.
TOOBIN: And so, you know, it's -- none of our -- unfortunately, we live in a society where people never agree on everything, you know, and that's OK.
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Also, I think America's views on Russia have changed over the years. I mean, for -- obviously, from a government standpoint, Russia remains an adversary, particularly this government in Russia, but Americans have seen the relationship evolve and thaw over the years.
So, for example, the relationship with the Soviet Union, our archenemy, when I moved to this country and the sort of feelings that people had towards Russians and the Soviets back then have changed over the years. So I think your question is valid. If many Americans say, so what if there's a video between the President -- showing the President of the United States with Russian oligarchs?
ACOSTA: Yes. That was the lesson burned in my brain after this election cycle, certainly. The views out there in Trump country are very different from those in Washington, D.C.
ACOSTA: All right. Thank you so very much, everybody.
Still ahead, the man picked to replace James Comey assures senators of his independence and promises to resign rather than carry out an unethical or illegal order.
And next, you've him in the Oval Office. And his meetings with past and current members of the President's team, that's created controversy and questions. Now, Russia's Ambassador of the U.S. is saying his goodbyes.
[17:51:19] ACOSTA: We're watching multiple new developments in the Russia election meddling investigation. One man who figures prominently in many of those stories is leaving.
CNN's Brian Todd has been watching as Russia's Ambassador to the United States says his goodbyes. Tell us more about that. Interesting guy, interesting character.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He certainly is, Jim. You know, we haven't been able to report on the Russia investigations without mentioning Sergey Kislyak. He's been everywhere in this scandal. And seemingly, every Trump confidant Kislyak has interacted with has found trouble as a result.
TODD (voice-over): He lumbered into Washington's posh St. Regis Hotel for a party given in his honor, only stayed about an hour and a half then left. Sergey Kislyak, the burly backslapping Russian Ambassador to the U.S. for almost a decade is leaving Washington later this month, returning to Moscow, leaving a string of controversies in his wake.
REID WILSON, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE HILL: It is clear that Ambassador Kislyak has played a substantial role in this investigation that is now consuming the Trump administration.
TODD (voice-over): For years, Kislyak, who was already a seasoned diplomat before arriving in the U.S., has been known as an operator in Washington, affable and social.
STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, GEORGE F. KENNAN SENIOR FELLOW FOR RUSSIAN AND EURASIAN STUDIES, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: You can hardly imagine a more cuddly or jovial Russian diplomat than Sergey Kislyak.
TODD (voice-over): But behind the scenes, U.S. government officials consider Kislyak a spy recruiter, something the Kremlin strongly denies. And while he has not been accused of involvement in Russia's meddling in the U.S. election last year, at every turn, Kislyak seems to be a central character in the story.
The topics Michael Flynn spoke about in phone calls with Kislyak during the transition got Flynn fired after he misled the White House about whether sanctions were discussed. Jared Kushner remains under scrutiny for allegedly discussing with Kislyak in December a secret back channel to the Kremlin. The White House wouldn't comment on that. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions' meetings with Kislyak during the campaign eventually led to his recusal from his department's investigation into Russian interference.
WILSON: He met with Attorney General Sessions while Sessions was a U.S. senator and a top surrogate for the Trump campaign. That led to the questions in Sessions' confirmation hearing that Sessions wasn't fully forthright about, and then it eventually led to his recusal and Robert Mueller's appointment as a Special Counsel.
TODD (voice-over): During President Trump's Oval Office meeting with Kislyak, one day after the President's controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey, the President reportedly told the Russian Ambassador Comey was a nut job and that the firing had relieved pressure from the investigation.
Kislyak's replacement steps into a Washington firestorm where Russia is radioactive, and he may not bring much more comfort to U.S. officials. Anatoly Antonov is seen as a hard liner, less chummy than Kislyak. He held a top position in Putin's Defense Ministry and was reportedly a key figure in Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Antonov was sanctioned by the E.U. for that but not by the U.S.
SESTANOVICH: If relations are going to be bad, it turns out he probably is well suited to a kind of period of chilly interactions.
TODD: Now, the State Department did not respond when we asked why Anatoly Antonov has not been sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, as for Sergey Kislyak, Russian officials are not saying where he is going next.
Former State Department official Stephen Sestanovich, who we spoke to in this piece, says Kislyak may be in for a letdown, that he'll be hard-pressed to find a job with as much buzz and influence as the one he's leaving right now -- Jim.
ACOSTA: Brian, he's like a character out of a novel. Spy novel, absolutely. Are you getting a sense that Sergey Kislyak was being directed by the Kremlin to stir things up here to provoke the Trump team into getting into some trouble? Is there any evidence of that?
TODD: Well, Jim, we are getting kind of different takes on that from veteran diplomats and analysts here in Washington.
[17:55:03] Some of them believe Kislyak was simply doing what Russian ambassadors have to do. That when Trump became a front-runner, he simply had to get more information on them, and he had to meet with Trump's people. But others believe everything Putin and his cronies have done in this situation has been designed to create chaos, division, confusion, and to distract the new administration. And guess what's happening right now.
ACOSTA: And my guess is plenty of people here in Washington are happy to see him head back to Russia.
TODD: I think so, absolutely, Jim.
ACOSTA: All right. Brian Todd, thank you.
Coming up, President Trump's pick to replace the fired FBI Director James Comey says he will be independent and loyal only to the constitution and rule of law. Could his support to the Special Counsel set up a clash with the President?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I'm asking you as the future FBI Director, do you consider this endeavor a witch hunt?
CHRISTOPHER WRAY, NOMINEE FOR DIRECTOR OF THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt.
GRAHAM: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)