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Wildfires Burn 116,000 Acres, Destroy Dozens of Homes; Undisclosed E-mails Show Follow-up after Donald Jr. Meeting with Russians; Franken Announces Resignation from Senate; FBI Director Defends Agency after Trump Attacks. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 7, 2017 - 17:00   ET


LAH: Kyung Lah, CNN, Loveland, Colorado.

[17:00:05] TAPPER: Our thanks to Kyung Lah. That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you to over Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks so much for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Surging fires. Wind-whipped infernos blast their way across Southern California, with one burning all the way to the sea. The flames destroying dozens of homes, shutting down highways and rail lines. Can fire crews stop the disaster from spreading?

Undisclosed e-mails. Newly-revealed communications raise new questions on what was discussed during Donald Trump Jr.'s controversial meeting with a group of Russians at Trump Tower and the follow-up with the Trump campaign. It's a CNN exclusive.

On speaking terms. Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi meet with President Trump and their Republican counterparts a week after cancelling over one of the president's tweets. Just moments ago, the House passed a bill to avoid a government shutdown for two weeks. What about after that?

And Franken's final shot. Senator Al Franken bows to overwhelming pressure from fellow Democrats and announces he's stepping down amid allegations of sexual harassment. What were his scathing remarks about President Trump and Roy Moore?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news, including the multiple wild fires burning out of control in Southern California. They're now -- they've now charred more than 116,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes and other buildings. The largest fire shut down a major highway and rail line in Ventura County. And now we're getting word of a new fire that's just broken out northern -- in northern San Diego County.

Also, a CNN exclusive, the first indication of follow-up to Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting over at Trump Tower in New York City last summer with a group of Russians including a lawyer with ties to the Kremlin. Sources are telling CNN that the British publicist who arranged the meeting later sent multiple e-mails to one of -- to one Russian participant and a member of President Trump's inner circle, shedding new light on what was discussed.

And shortly after President Trump has finished a White House meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders, the House passed a stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown for two weeks.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including congressman Jim Himes of the House Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with a fire disaster unfolding at Southern California right now. CNN's Paul Vercammen is working the story for us.

Paul, the largest blaze, the so-called Thomas Fire, is now threatening communities close to where you are in Santa Barbara.

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I'm right on the Ventura/Santa Barbara County line. Look over my left shoulder. This is the leading and northwest advance of the fire. You can see the flames on the hillside, but the firefighters had been able to corral this right here and make a stand. They were able to get in with some helicopters earlier and make water drops that was impossible earlier when the winds were just so savage and vicious. Those Santa Anas that blow from inland and toward the coast.

As you articulated, Wolf, this fire has burned all the way to the Pacific Ocean. This is part of that.

And if you look on a remote hill over here. You can see a group of prisoners who are helping fight this fire. They are cutting what's called fire line. A bulldozer went in there earlier. They're making a stand right here.

This is a monster of a fire. It has burned 96,000 acres. That's twice the size of Washington, D.C. It has burned down 151 structures. They expect that number to go up, because they have not been able to do damage assessment.

Also, they're going to get the military involved. There is a nearby air wing that is made up of National Guard troops. They flew eight times yesterday and dropped 18,000 gallons of fire retardant. This is a tough story for them. Some of those members of the National Guard have lost their homes. Others have been evacuated, and yet they fight on.

We hope to see these C-130 tankers that have been retrofitted to fight fires fly today. They can use all the help they can get. And if those can get. And if those can get up and drop retardant, that will make for even a rosier picture.

As gloomy as this looks, Will, and I know people have been questioning if somebody is doctored pictures with tried to change any of this. This is actually rosy as I said because they're making progress and making a stand right here on the Santa Barbara County/Ventura County line. BLITZER: Paul Vercammen on the scene, thanks, Paul, let's go down the

coast of it to the other side of the fire. CNN's Sarah Sidner is in Ventura County for us.

Sarah, we now have, what, almost 110,000 acres of burned land out there, and dozens of homes destroyed.

[17:05:10] SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Two hundred thousand people evacuated from their homes, as well.

We are at one of the homes in the evacuation zone. And we are watching as the blaze is burning closer and closer, coming down that hill. We're also watching the incredible work of the fire crews. And they are continuing, every couple of minutes, sending two helicopters back and forth, picking up water and dumping them right there on those blazes. Every time they get one part of the blaze out, another one pops up.

I should also mention that in the Ojai Valley, there are five assisted living facilities that had to be evacuated. At one point the Ojai Hospital was told to shelter in place. This is still an extremely dangerous fire.

We are also getting just rained on by ash that's coming down from the mountains there. And this is an area here where we are on a farm, there is a lot of farmland around here. A lot of avocado trees that stand in the way between the fire, where it is going. And it is heading, the big fear, towards Santa Barbara, that's what firefighters are telling us throughout the day, that their biggest worry is to trying to get in front of it so they can stop it from getting to more populated areas.

But this is an extremely dangerous fire hazard. The good news is that in this area for right now, the winds have not picked up as high right at this hour as they were supposed to. We're talking 80 mile an hour gusts, but they are starting to pick up again, and there is a lot of fear here. Everyone here says, look, we realize we are not out of the woods yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly not yet. Let's hope they will be soon, though. Sara, thank you very much.

There's other breaking news we're following, including new details emerging right now about what happened after Donald Trump Jr.'s very controversial meeting with a group of Russians at Trump Tower in New York City during the presidential campaign.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working the story for us. So Jim, you're getting some exclusive new information from your sources.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Along with my colleagues Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb.

Since this Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 was revealed, Trump world has had essentially two positions about it. One, that the meeting was a one off. There was no follow-up. And two, that the discussion in that meeting was purely or largely about Russian adoptions, U.S. adoptions of Russian children.

These newly-disclosed e-mails, which we're learning about for the first time, and congressional investigators now have raise questions about both of those positions. One, clearly these e-mails show that there was some follow-up to that meeting by some of the participants of that meeting.

I'm going to give you an example of one. On June 14, 2016 -- this is five days after that meeting in Trump Tower between senior members of the Trump campaign and Russians who were promising to advance that meeting damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Five days after that meeting, the person who helped broker that meeting, Rob Goldstone, a British publicist, e-mailed a Russian who was inside that meeting, another Russian who helped arrange it, on the day that news broke that Russia had hacked the DNC, DNC e-mails, e-mailed them and said, "Isn't this eerily weird" in the words of this e-mail, "isn't this eerily weird in light of what we talked about in that meeting then."

Now Wolf, it's possible there's an innocent explanation of that. In fact, we've spoken to people involved who said that they were saying, this e-mail was saying it's eerily weird because we had not discussed the DNC or Russia hacking the DNC. But at least, one, shows that there was follow-up and, two, raises questions of what exactly was raised during those discussions in that Trump Tower meeting.

BLITZER: Jim, you -- you've also learned of a different e-mail, suggesting that -- that Donald Trump was perhaps going to open up a social media account on some Russian media site.

SCIUTTO: That's right. Rob Goldstone. Again, he's the British publicist who set up this meeting between Don Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and these Russians who, again, were, when they were coming into this meeting, promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

Well, following this meeting, Rob Goldstone e-mailed Dan Scavino, who was at the time with the Trump campaign and is now the social media director for the Trump administration. E-mailed him, pressing him, suggesting that Donald Trump Sr., the candidate, open up a page on VK. That's basically the Russian equivalent of Facebook. Very popular millions of Russians use it. And he repeatedly presented this idea and suggested this idea to the Trump campaign.

We have been told that that idea was first discussed as they were coming out of this meeting in Trump Tower on June 2016.

So again, it raises the question, what more was discussed when you had these senior members of the Trump campaign sitting down with Russians who were promising this damaging information on Hillary Clinton?

I should note that CNN searched VK, our Moscow bureau. They did not find any evidence that Donald Trump set up a page as discussed here. Just at a minimum, it describes, though, another topic of conversation around the time of that Trump Tower meeting. [17:10:08] BLITZER: An intriguing development. You've also learned

about the reaction that when Donald Trump Jr. circulated, released those private e-mails he had received that a range that Trump, that meeting over at Trump Tower in New York. E-mails in which Donald Trump Jr. seems very eager to get what was described as dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians.

SCIUTTO: Well, you'll remember, after this meeting was revealed -- and again, the first story explaining what happened at this Trump Tower meeting has since been proven not to be entirely accurate.

After this meeting, Donald Trump Jr. released his -- a series of e- mails showing what was discussed in advance. And those e-mails showed that the Russians, when they came into this meeting were offering, at least, the possibility of damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

When Donald Trump Jr. released all those e-mails explaining what the real reason for the meeting was, at least in advance, one of the participants in that meeting, Ike Kaveladze, his son, e-mailed him with the phrasing, Wolf, in this e-mail, again an e-mail that congressional investigators have. E-mailed his father, saying, "Why would Donald Trump Jr. show himself to be colluding with the Russians?" He used that word "colluding."

Now, to be clear, it's not clear if, in this e-mail, the son of this Russian participant in the meeting was just joking about it. And again, it's just an observation between the two. But it shows you the number of communications that followed this meeting and referenced back to this key meeting in Trump Tower between many of the participants in those conversations.

BLITZER: I'm sure the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has all this information plus a whole lot more.

Thanks very much. Great reporting, Jim Sciutto and his team.

Also breaking right now, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to keep the government open for two more weeks. The Senate still needs to approve the bill. The House vote came moments ago after President Trump met with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders over at the White House looking for a long-term agreement.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's got the very latest for us. What are you learning, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that will come as a relief to the White House, Wolf, as the White House is continuing to dodge sexual harassment on the day that Senator Al Franken announced he is stepping down. The president and his aides evaded answering how the White House should lead on the subject.

As you said, Wolf, for now, though, the government at least has avoided a shutdown after passing a spending bill in the House in the last few minutes.


ACOSTA (voice-over): In response to growing calls for his resignation from his Democratic colleagues, embattled Minnesota Senator Al Franken acknowledged the allegations of groping leveled against him, and while he didn't apologize, he did say he is stepping down.

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Today, I am announcing that, in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate.

ACOSTA: But there was a parting shot at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Trump continues to face lingering accusations of sexual misconduct and still endorses alleged child molester Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race.

FRANKEN: I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.

But this decision is not about me. It's about the people of Minnesota.

ACOSTA: Asked about that, the president had almost no response.

(on camera): Mr. President, any comment on Senator Al Franken, who made some comments about you earlier today, sir?


ACOSTA (voice-over): While the White House pointed to the voters who elected Mr. Trump.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president addressed the comments back during the campaign. We feel strongly that the people of this country also addressed that when they elected Donald Trump to be president. And I've addressed it several times from here and don't have anything new to add.

ACOSTA: Press secretary Sarah Sanders all but said there's no issue in the Oval Office.

SANDERS: Certainly, as a woman myself, I've never felt anything but treated with the highest level of respect and been empowered to do my job. And I think that -- that's what I've seen the president do day in and day out since we've been here and during the campaign. And so I think that's a pretty good start and a pretty good example on that front.

ACOSTA: That overlooks Mr. Trump's comments caught on tape by "Access Hollywood."

TRUMP: I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. Don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it.

ACOSTA: Not to mention the candidate's response to women who had accused him of assault.

TRUMP: Take a look. You take a look. Look at her. Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don't think so.

ACOSTA: The president appeared to be more focused on avoiding a government shutdown that could happen this month.

TRUMP: We're all here as a very friendly, well-unified group.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump welcomed Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to the Oval Office after they passed on meeting with the president to keep the government running a week ago.

[17:15:04] SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: We hope we can come to an agreement.

ACOSTA: But Pelosi warned Democrats are willing to hold their ground if Congress fails to find a solution for the young undocumented known as the DREAMers.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: No. I stand by that statement. We will not leave here without a DACA fix.

ACOSTA: The White House did try to resolve one issue.

TRUMP: God bless the United States.

ACOSTA: Explaining the president was suffering from a case of dry mouth during a speech at the White House a day ago.

SANDERS: Frankly pretty ridiculous questions. The president's throat was 2dry. Nothing more than that.


ACOSTA: Now as for White House press secretary Sarah Sanders labeling questions about Mr. Trump's health as ridiculous, it should be noted inquiries about a president's health have come with the territory of serving in the Oval Office for decades. And don't forget: during the campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly questioned Hillary Clinton's stamina to serve as president.

On another front, Wolf, we should also point out the White House is responding to congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis who was skipping the opening of a civil rights museum in Mississippi this weekend. That is a snub to the president, and the White House says it is disappointed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House with all the late-breaking developments. Thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut is joining us. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to these late-breaking developments in the Russia probe. You heard Jim Sciutto's report. Do these new revelations raise new questions about Donald Trump Jr.'s earlier insistence that there was no follow up to that controversial 2016 Trump Tower meeting in New York City?

HIMES: Yes, Wolf, I want to be careful about this. That's not clear from what happened yesterday. And I do want to be a little careful about discussing the particulars of what happened behind closed-door depositions. But I can make a broader statement, which is we know publicly over time and I and fellow investigators know privately from material that we have seen, that there was an awful lot of outreach on the part of people that we know about, like Papadopoulos, like Donald Trump Jr., who showed interest in getting material. And then an awful lot about reach from people outside saying, "Hey, we may have something for you," including of course, Rob Goldstone.

So there's a lot more there. The big question, of course, Wolf, is whether anything was conveyed and used by the campaign. People have different definitions of collusion. But we're still working, and this is why this investigation must continue. Because there's a lot of leads to follow including the one that you referred to that will get to the question of whether damaging information was actually conveyed to the campaign. A question we don't yet know the answer to.

BLITZER: Rob Goldstone, the British P.R. guy, is set to meet with the Intelligence Committee, what, as early as next week. What questions will you have for him?

HIMES: Well, you know, he of course, was at the center of the Don Jr. meeting. He was the one who arranged it. And we will go into that meeting open-minded. I think he was accurately described as a colorful character. So it could be anything from just trying to raise his profile with the presidential campaign to actually having some real stuff.

But his name does pop up a lot, and so we have questions beyond the Don Jr. meeting for Mr. Goldstone to really get behind whether this was all just him showboating or whether, in fact, he was in contact with any Russians, and of course, there is a connection with Mr. Agalarov and whether that was part of a concerted effort to get to the Trump campaign and to provide them with -- with compromising information.

BLITZER: Was Donald Trump Jr. forthcoming during the, what, seven or eight hours of testimony yesterday before your committee?

HIMES: I would describe him as largely cooperative. You heard ranking member Adam Schiff yesterday raise one point that was troubling, which was that he did have a conversation that would appear to be on topic here with his father, the president, and claimed that, because he had his lawyer in the room and that the president, his father, had a lawyer in the room, he claimed attorney/client privilege for not answering questions about the nature of that conversation.

Now, I didn't go to law school, but I'm pretty sure, as are most people, that there is no attorney/client privilege for conversations that happened between two people so are not attorneys. So we are obviously very interested in following up with that because, you know, the fact that he doesn't to want talk about it. The fact that it happened very close, of course, to this whole issue around that meeting and how to respond to it is central to the investigation.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see if you get answers from him on that specific question down the road.

Stand by, Congressman. There's more -- there are more developments unfolding right now. I need to take a quick break. We'll resume our conversation right after this.


[17:24:02] BLITZER: The head of the FBI is making his first public remarks since President Trump launched a very sharp Twitter attack on the bureau.

We're back with Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Christopher Wray, the new director, Congressman, he was testifying up on Capitol Hill. And he was asked to respond to the recent attacks to the FBI by President Trump, who described the agency in one tweet as being in tatters. Was Director Wray forceful enough in his defense of the agency?

HIMES: Well, I didn't see the whole testimony, Wolf, but what little I did see of it, I thought exactly the opposite.

You know, the president's statement about the FBI, these are highly- trained men and women who put their lives on the line very literally to keep us safe from terrorism, from crime, from all sorts of things. The president -- the president does a lot of irresponsible things. To call what they do and to call their organization in tatters was beyond outrageous. You know, adjectives fail when you talk about the responsibility of this president to people who, again, risk their lives for us.

So I was looking for a slightly more full-throated defense of the men and women of the FBI, but the director chose to do what he did.

BLITZER: Let me get your quick reaction to Senator Al Franken's announcement today that he plans to resign from his seat in the coming weeks amid more allegations of sexual harassment. This comes during the same week that Democratic Congressman John Conyers stepped out from his seat. Do you think this a sincere effort by Democrats to address sexual harassment, or is it just all so politically expedient?

HIMES: I'm glad you asked the question that way, because of course, I can't help but observe that Democrats have dealt and been very honest and open and tough with their own. You saw senators across the board on the Democratic side call for Al Franken's resignation yesterday. You saw that happen with John Conyers.

And the question, of course, for a lot of women out there ought to be why are we not hearing any real Republicans do the same with respect to their Senate candidate in Alabama, who is accused of things far worse than Al Franken is? And of course, with the president, why is nobody calling for him to be held accountable by Republicans for behavior that he admitted to?

So, I'm glad you framed the question.

But look, I would say this is an interesting moment here because a lot of us are very glad that this is finally coming to the surface to be dealt with. And we're very glad that women are beginning to feel comfortable coming forward and that men are being held accountable.

We're also conscious of the fact that we need to make sure, as we change for the better, as we are, that we also remember that we will have cases of false accusation, that we need to make sure that, in our enthusiasm to make sure that women's rights are observed and that men don't engaged in piggish behavior, that we also leave room for careful consideration for time to pass so that we can ultimately react to the truth, not to sensationalism.

BLITZER: The Democratic governor of Minnesota, you know, will appoint a Democrat to take Senator Franken's seat. Did you think Democrats would have forced Franken to resign as quickly as they did if the governor of Minnesota, let's say, were Republican and a Republican would fill that seat?

HIMES: I don't know. This is one of those moments where I'm actually kind of glad to be over here on the House side. I don't to want duck that question, but that obviously would have made the politics more complicated.

But let me say this. I've watched the way the Democratic Party and Democratic leaders have dealt with these issues, with Nancy Pelosi calling on two members of the House of Representatives to resign. On senators yesterday, men and women calling on Al Franken to resign.

Those are statements of principles. They are statements of agreement with where this country is finally going, and again, why have we heard nothing equivalent from Republicans in the Senate or in the House with respect to Roy Moore or with respect to the president of the United States?

BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes, thanks so much for joining us.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, a new mystery sparked by North Korea. They're called ghost ships, and they sometimes carry both living passengers and dead bodies. Are they a sign of increasingly dire conditions under Kim Jong-un?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:32:34] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following an exclusive breaking news. The first indication that was in the follow up after Donald Trump Jr.'s controversial meeting with Russians over at Trump Tower in New York City back in June of 2016. Multiple sources now telling CNN that British publicist, Rob Goldstone, who arranged that meeting sent multiple e-mails to a Russian participant, a member of Donald Trump's inner circle later that summer. Let's bring in our specialist to assess it. And Phil Mudd, what jumps out at you from this exclusive new CNN reporting.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: The complexity of the investigation, Wolf. It's almost like a sweater -- you pull a piece of yarn and it keeps pulling and pulling. We thought looking at the Donald Trump Jr. meeting last summer that initially was a meeting, according to Donald Trump Jr., about an immigration issue involving infants. Now, we realized later on when Donald Trump Jr. was confronted, it actually involved a conversation about trading dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Now, there's a suggestion based on this breaking news today that there might have been an ongoing relationship with this British intermediary. Here's where I'm cutting to the chase as we try to put together this more and more complicated story: Michael Flynn is cooperating. Did he hand over e-mails that also referenced this? Are there e-mails from other players including Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort that referenced this? Are there phone calls that of this individual at the same time that offer a context on one simple question? Was this an isolated meeting? Was it a continuing conversation that involved e-mails? Or was this more of a relationship that we can only find by getting a bunch of data from a bunch of people, and then seeing what they say in interviews, Wolf?

BLITZER: You know it's interesting -- Chris Cillizza is with us as well, what five days after this meeting, all of a sudden, Rob Goldstone sends an e-mail to two Russians calling the news of the just learned DNC hack eerily weird. Once again, just five days after the meeting. Your reaction to that?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what we know or what we've been told about the meeting is the hack, that that never came up, that the broad conversation as Phil referenced was about the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton. Once that was made clear that wasn't going to happen, the meeting ended abruptly and there was, that was it. The Trump forces had been very keen in portraying this as a one-off. This was a blip on the radar, it happened, there was nothing to it, and everyone moved on. The reporting today suggests, maybe it wasn't exactly a blip on the radar, and it may well be in Goldstone's words an eerie coincidence, but it is an eerie coincidence. And there's a lot of coincidences here. Now, they may just all be coincidences in relation to this investigation, but there are a lot of them.

[17:35:14] BLITZER: Because there was dirt in those DNC hack e-mail as we all know.

CILLIZZA: Well, certainly, certainly, a storyline that emerged then that kept going throughout the rest of the campaign -- which was the Podesta e-mails and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I mean, those e-mails led to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the then-Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, basically being removed from that post on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

BLITZER: And the initial statement was all that meeting had nothing to do with anything except Russia kids being adopted here in the United States.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN REPORTER: Well, and the story just keeps changing. And it's particularly with these congressional investigators, what they're being told on the front end, also covering these e-mails. And there's more to learn, and the fact that -- and Donald Jr., remember initially, put out the e-mails to try to say, oh, look, I'm being transparent. Well, he wasn't. And it keeps on becoming increasingly clear how not transparent he was. And the fact that -- whenever you have a drip, drip, drip situation, whether you're talking about Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Hillary Clinton, it doesn't get any better for them with all of this information just keeps leaking out. It just raises more suspicion.

CILLIZZA: And to Jackie's point, and Phil touched on this too, the issue here, at least one of the issues here, is that we keep getting expanded versions of the story. And that may mean that really when you get, you know, you're unpacking the dolls and at the end, there's nothing there, but, when you keep getting -- well, actually, this happened. Well, there was this follow-up. Well, this came up. Well, that person was there. Reasonable people see that and think, golly, just the whole story, do we have it or are we still looking kind of through a lens of just part of it, and why, if we don't have the whole story, why aren't they telling us?

KUCINICH: It's the opposite of crisis communication.

CILLIZZA: Right, and get it all out there.

KUCINICH: Get it all out there.

BLITZER: Get it out there yourself, but with somebody else.


BLITZER: That's the crisis. Now, everybody stand by. There are other developments unfolding right now. We'll resume our special coverage right after this.


[17:41:49] BLITZER: We're back with our specialists. And Phil Mudd used to work for the FBI and the CIA, but I want to get your reaction. Do you remember -- it wasn't that long ago -- about a week or so ago, the president tweeted this about the FBI: "After years of Comey with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation and more, running the FBI, its reputation is in tatters, worst in history. But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness." So., new FBI Director Chris Wray was asked to respond to that during his congressional testimony today. Here's what he said.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women who are working as hard as they can to keep people that they will never know safe from harm. The agents, analysts, and staff of the FBI are big boys and girls. We understand that we will take criticism from all corners and we're accustomed to that.


BLITZER: So, Phil, what did you make of his defense of the FBI?

MUDD: Mild, Wolf, but he did the right thing. Look, everybody's who's out there is saying he should've been more direct and confronting the president is making a mistake. If you fight in the mud, you're going to get dirty. If he sticks his head up, this is a ten-year term for the FBI director, this man has less than one year in office. If he sticks his head up in this Washington, D.C., and directly confronts the president of the United States, what's going to happen? What if he stood out there today?

That is the FBI Director Christopher Wray and said the president's dead wrong, doesn't know what he's talking about. How can you as the FBI director think that that serves the interest of the FBI to get involved in a fight with the president? I know people are going to critique him for being subtle. I think there are a lot of people within the FBI who are going to say, he politely defended us. He talked about an honor for an organization that's been around since the beginnings of 1908, and we've recognized he can't get out too frontally and do what people like the secretary of state have done. Otherwise, he's going to get in a fight that doesn't help the bureau.

BLITZER: You know, Chris, but he's only been the FBI director for four months.

CILLIZZA: Yes. Phil Mudd is right, he's playing the long game here. We know that Donald Trump pays attention to these sorts of things and Donald Trump doesn't like when you say bad things about Donald Trump. I do think it's important to pause for a minute. And Chris Wray tried to down play it, and say look, we're going to take swings from all over the place, which true, but one of the places you would not assume if you were the director of the FBI, you would take slings and arrows from is the president of the United States, who by the way, picked you. I think it's important to pause and say this is abnormal. I mean, imagine, it's hard, but go back to the Obama-era, and imagine Barack Obama tweeting out or saying while the FBI is in tatters, George W. Bush -- I mean, this was never done. This sort of norm- breaking by Donald Trump because it happens all the time, we have no choice but to be somewhat innered to it. But this is --

KUCINICH: True. But this is somebody who knew what he was getting into.

CILLIZZA: Absolutely. And he shouldn't be surprised. KUCINICH: He wasn't walking into a normal environment.

CILLIZZA: No. That is true.

BLITZER: But remember, he did something similar with the intelligence community earlier. And let me get Phil to respond to that if you remember what he said about the CIA.

MUDD: Boy, the reaction to that was more visceral. I remember that a day or two after the inauguration, he went out at CIA headquarters, and we talked about this, Wolf, and talked about the size of his inauguration crowd, and the front of stars and men and women from the CIA have lost their lives. Many of my friends at the agency were friends and people who are now stars on that wall. This one, this issue of the FBI being in tatters, I think people of the bureau would say, yes, whatever that's the president, he's a little goofy. What the president did to the CIA will not be forgotten, and because he was making those references in front of people who should be honored.

[17:45:23] BLITZER: Everybody stands by. There's more news we're following right now, including, get this, a brand-new mystery originating in North Korea. Are small ghost ships, as they're called, washing ashore in Japan an indication of some dire conditions Kim Jong-un is trying to hide?


[17:50:35] BLITZER: Tonight, we're looking into the mysterious appearance of dozens of small ships that apparently come from North Korea. Most carry passengers when they wash up on the Japanese shores but are those passenger refugees fleeing Kim Jong-un or are their intentions more devious? CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into this, raising lots of concern about the so-called "ghost ships". So, Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're learning these are terrified ill-equipped fishermen doing to the bidding of a desperate regime. It's been reported that just this morning, two more boats washed ashore on Japanese beaches with two dead bodies found near them. This has happened several dozen times this year and we have new information on how Kim Jong-un's regime is pressuring these men, to sell fish on the black market for cash.


TODD: A mysterious wooden boat washes up on a desolate Japanese beach. Inside, a grizzly discovered: eight skeletons. Japanese officials strongly suspect they were North Koreans.

CHRISTIAN WHITON, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SENIOR ADVISER ON ASIA: They don't have great navigation capabilities and equipment, and lost their way.

TODD: This boat, with lights rigged up, reportedly to attract squid, was found recently with several desperate North Koreans survivors on board. On some vessels, the Japanese coast guard has found survivors alive but emaciated lying among the dead. Tonight, a spike in the number of so-called "ghost ships" washing ashore in Japan, dozens just in the past month, has analyst concerned about increasingly dire conditions under Kim Jong-un.


TODD: U.N. sanctions over Kim's nuclear and missile programs are pinching North Korea's economy. They prohibit the government from selling seafood to other countries, so experts say the regime pressures, fishermen, to sell their catch on the black market.

NOLAND: They're having to rendezvous with foreign vessels in the international water, and essentially sell their catches on the high- seas so it can be relabeled as Japanese or Chinese or Singaporean fish.

TODD: That means going further and further out to sea on poorly equipped boats, manned by some people who analyst say are likely not even fisherman by trade.

ROBERT KING, FORMER U.S. SPECIAL ENVOY FOR NORTH KOREA HUMAN RIGHTS: They are probably inexperienced people who are going out, and the result is they're having difficulty when they get out there.

TODD: In recent days, Japanese authorities have discovered that one boat has come ashore on a Japanese island that was uninhabited, deserted except for a small shelter, which officials say, desperate North Koreans ransacked.

SHUSAKU YOSHIDA, CARETAKER OF ISLAND SHELTER (through translator): Almost everything that was worth any money was gone from doorknobs to door hinges, anything worth anything. And appliances have disappeared.

TODD: The North Korea fishermen are more than willing to risk starvation and death, experts say, because of the almost unattainable quotas they're given by Kim Jong-un. How much pressure were these fishermen have been under to produce more and more and more?

KING: Oh, the pressure is incredible in terms of that. They're sent out. If they are not if they don't catch what they're supposed to, if they're behind, if they lose control of the boat, they will be punished.


TODD: Japanese officials say at least some of the surviving North Korean fishermen were slated to be returned back to North Korea at their own request. Why? Analyst says, some of them probably feel that because they don't speak the language they would struggle living in Japan, but others may fear retaliation against their families by the regime if they applied for asylum and defect. Wolf?

BLITZER: Probably a good fear. Some Japanese citizens have, Brian, as you know, they've suggested they're worried that some of these North Korea fishermen are really spies, could that be the case?

TODD: It's certainly possible, Wolf. You know the North Korea have a well-documented history of infiltrating spies into Japan to kidnap Japanese citizens. But one expert says it's unlikely that these fishermen are infiltrators. He says, if North Korea really wants to plant spies in Japan, they would use much better boats, they would use submersibles, special operations teams to insert them, not these rickety boats where the chances of survival are slim.

BLITZER: Good point. All right. Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.

[17:54:29] There's breaking news coming up of the wildfire disaster in Southern California is spreading tonight, more than 100,000 acres have burned. And now, a new fire has just broken out, we're going live to the fire lines.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, extreme fire warning. New evacuations tonight as a monster blaze threatens a popular tourist retreat. High winds and dry weather creating a combustible mix and unprecedented danger.

Evidence of follow-up. Stand by for a CNN exclusive on previously undisclosed communications involving a member of the Trump team and a Russian after that infamous 2016 meeting over at Trump Tower. Does it contradict Donald Trump Jr.'s claim that the meeting went nowhere?

Defending the FBI. The bureau's director publicly responds to the president's claim that the FBI is in tatters. Tonight, powerful push back against Mr. Trump from his handpicked choice to replace James Comey.