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U.S. Warplanes Intercept Russian Jets Over Syria; CNN Exposes Urgent Humanitarian Crisis in War-Ravaged Yemen. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 14, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're learning more about Paul Ryan's thinking and the president's concerns that he might call it quits.

And Russian jets intercepted. U.S. fighter jets send a warning to Moscow's warplanes in a new confrontation over a war zone. We have new details this hour.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Breaking tonight, growing doubts about whether the president and the Republicans have the votes to pass the newest version of their tax reform bill. GOP Senator Marco Rubio revealing that he'll vote against the bill unless the child tax credit is expanded further.

Republicans can't afford to lose more than two votes in the Senate. Adding to the uncertainty concerns that Senator John McCain may not be well enough to cast a vote. He was hospitalized this week as he battles brain cancer and Senate sources describe him as increasingly frail.

Tonight, President Trump says he's still optimistic that the tax bill will be passed before Christmas, adding that he believes Senator Rubio will come around in the end.

We're also following new drama in the House as sources say Speaker Paul Ryan is doing some soul searching about his political future. Some people close to Ryan tell CNN they believe he might leave Congress after the 2018 midterm election. The White House says President Trump called Ryan to tell him he'd be unhappy if the reports were true.

And breaking tonight, CNN has learned that President Trump spoke with Russian president Vladimir Putin on the phone just a little while ago to discuss North Korea and other matters. This comes a day after a very tense new encounter between U.S. and Russian warplanes. Two American stealth fighters intercepting a pair of Russian jets over Syria, firing multiple warning flares.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests including the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by. First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, what are you learning about this new phone call between Presidents Trump and Putin.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have learned from an administration official just a short time ago confirming that President Trump and President Putin did have a phone call earlier today talking about the threat of a North Korea and other matters.

Now this is coming on the same day as President Putin held his annual end-of-the-year marathon news conference, talking specifically about those Russian allegations. He called them espionage mania. He credited President Trump for the stock market and other areas of successes here so I'm told that there is going to be a readout in more detail of that phone call coming up here in the coming hours.

But all of this is coming on a day when the White House is trying to push for tax reform. The president also working behind the scenes on the phone urging Republicans to not let their questions about this bill get in the way of a victory.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One, two, three.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump grabbed a pair of golden scissors today at a White House photo opportunity on cutting regulations. But beyond the smiles tonight, deep questions remain over the prospects of the signature Republican tax plan.

TRUMP: So I think we will get there. It will be in a very short period of time. It will be the greatest Christmas present that lot of people have ever received. It will be something special.

ZELENY: The $1.5 trillion tax plan is in its final stages, but still not over the finish line as the White House and Republican leaders scramble to ease last-minute skepticism. At the Capitol, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida made a bombshell announcement, saying he will vote no on the GOP's tax plan unless it expands the child tax credit. He is the second Republican senator to voice his opposition.

The president downplayed the concerns.

TRUMP: I think he'll get there. He's really been a great guy and very supportive. I think that Senator Rubio will be there.

ZELENY: But that confidence from the president was not reflected in the raw map of the Senate. Two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, are both ill. They have been away from the Capitol all week, making other Republican votes even more critical.

With the razor thin margin in the Senate, Vice President Pence said today he would delay a trip to the Middle East until next week so he will be on hand to break a tie if needed.

(On camera): Will the president ask the House and Senate to stay here in Washington and finish this bill even if it means leading into the Christmas holiday?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're pretty confident that we're going to get there before then but this is something that I think both the House, the Senate and the president are all committed to seeing it happen. And we're very hopeful that it will take place the first of next week.

ZELENY (voice over): The White House is making tentative plans for the president to sign the bill into law before leaving for his holiday break at Mar-a-Lago. He's told aides he wants to sign what would be his biggest legislative achievement in the East Room, which is festooned in Christmas decorations.

[18:05:05] But the plan still needs another vote in the House and Senate. The latest version set to be announced Friday is expected to lower the corporate tax rate to 21 percent, lower the top individual rate to 37 percent, and repeal the individual mandate in Obamacare.

But concerns still hang over the bill, particularly whether it has more benefits for the rich or middle class Americans. A key sticking point, when the tax cut for individual would expire, 2025 or even earlier.

All this amid new questions over Speaker Paul Ryan's future. Some of his close friends tell CNN he's had soul searching conversations about how long he may serve as the leader of the House Republicans. At the White House, those reports caused alarm. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president reached out to Ryan, one of his closest partners on Capitol Hill.

SANDERS: Made sure that the speaker knew very clearly and in no uncertain terms that if that news was true he was very unhappy with it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now that certainly is a sign of how closely the president watches all of these developments here. When that first news report of Speaker Ryan's potential interest in leaving happened, the president reached out to him directly.

Wolf, it is a sign that the president needs Speaker Ryan for his agenda. Most urgently, the tax reform bill. They are still eyeing the hope of a vote early next week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest so the president can indeed sign it but many hurdles need to be crossed before that happens -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, indeed. All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you. Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Let's get some more now on Senator Rubio's concerns about the tax bill and whether Republicans will have enough votes to get it passed. We're joined by our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly.

Phil, what are you hearing about the prospects for this bill in the Senate?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell often refers to the tax reform policy as being a bit of Rubik's Cube, trying to put everything together not always so easy. He's now dealing with the same type of issue with his conference. His conference, most notably, Senator Marco Rubio, to some degree Senator Bob Corker, Senator Susan Collins, Senator Jeff Flake, all have different asks. All have different needs that they need to have addressed.

Now specifically on Senator Rubio, it's important to note, this is not a new issue for him. It's about the refundability of the child tax credit. Now the Republican plan doubles the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 but the refundability is essentially the amount people would make -- would be able to get from that tax credit beyond their income tax liability. That's what he wants increased right now.

Wolf, I was just told a short while ago from several GOP sources that GOP leaders are working to address the concerns. They are working to give more money to the refundability aspect of this. It won't be everything the senator wants. They hope it will be enough to get him on board. They recognize they need his vote.

It's the same type of deal with Susan Collins, similar with Jeff Flake and also it's worth noting, Senator Bob Corker was a no on the first iteration of this plan, I'm told don't write him off yet. His concerns are very real and there haven't been a lot of changes to address the deficit. But there is a thought that perhaps he could come around.

Overall, Senate Republican leaders feel like they can get there. House Republican leaders feel like they can get there but they recognize there's still work to be done and, Wolf, Jeff mentioned the illness of two senators, Senator Thad Cochran and Senator John McCain. Senator Thad Cochran's spokesman said this morning they expect back next week to vote on this bill. He is in Washington. The bigger issue right now is Senator John McCain.

He's still in Walter Reed Medical Center and sources in the Senate have said over the course of the last couple of week he's been showing to be increasingly frail, a combination of obviously the cancer that he's dealing with but also the treatment as well. Senator McCain's office put out a statement yesterday saying they expect him back as soon as possible. He is still recovering from that treatment. Normal effects of things but there's no question about it, his illness is serious.

They are trying to figure out when he's going to be back and at this moment, Wolf, they don't have any answer to that. And with all of that put together, it just shows that there is still some uncertainty despite how fast Republicans have moved and as Jeff noted, the very quick timeline in which they want to complete this by early next week. BLITZER: Yes. Senator McCain is at the Walter Reed Medical Center,

Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington. We wish him obviously only the best.

Thanks very much, Phil Mattingly, up on Capitol Hill.

Let's turn to the Russia investigation right now. Democrats in Congress are expressing a growing frustration and outright fear that Republicans may try to shut down the Russia probe one way or another.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju. What are you learning -- Manu.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Partisan tension is growing on this committee. Democrats on this panel are raising concerns that there's an effort by the Republicans to stack up these witnesses and move through these witnesses rather quickly and actually go ahead and try to shut down this investigation rather soon, before they are able to really chase down a number of leads that have emerged from this witness testimony and saying, also, that some of these witnesses have come forward before they've gotten some of the adequate documents and been able to prepare for these witnesses who have come forward.

Now next one development that's prompted some concern is a decision by the committee next week to hold off-site interviews with two witnesses who are tied to President Trump. One, Felix Sater, who's a Russian- American businessman who was behind an unsuccessful project to build a Trump Tower Moscow project. That's going to happen in New York City, New York, next week.

[18:10:07] And also Rhona Graff, a long-time personal assistant in the Trump Organization, to President Trump, also be will interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee staff next week in New York. Democrats say this is part of an effort to try to rush this investigation through rather than waiting for a time when members themselves could interview these witnesses.

Now, Wolf, Republicans are pushing back. They're saying this investigation has been going on for the better part of a year. They have gone -- done a very deep and thorough dive and the Democrats are upset it's because they've not found the evidence they want yet to tie the Trump campaign to Russia, a sign of some of the growing frustration on both sides of the aisle as the House Intelligence Committee looks to possibly wrap up its investigation in the coming weeks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Manu Raju reporting for us. Manu, thanks very much.

Let's talk about all of this and more with the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff is joining us right now here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Congressman, thanks for coming in.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: My pleasure.

BLITZER: So you just heard Manu Raju's report. Do you fear Republicans are laying the groundwork to end the Russia investigation?

SCHIFF: I do. And I think you could see, Wolf, during the hearing yesterday with Rod Rosenstein as so many Republicans in unison were attacking the integrity of Bob Mueller, attacking the impartiality of this investigation and calling for an end to it. And rather the appointment of the special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton.

If they're willing to go to that length to discredit the FBI, the Justice Department, Bob Mueller, they certainly will have no compunction about shutting down the House investigation indeed. I think they view shutting us down as a prerequisite to shutting Bob Mueller down and we see some very disturbing signs that that's what they intend to do.

We are scheduled to have witness interviews out of state at a time next week when we will be voting to keep the government running, when we'll be voting to potentially on this tax bill for the wealthy. So we can't leave to do these interviews and nonetheless, even though these witnesses are very important and have been on our witness list for months and months and they haven't been willing to bring them in until now, they are pulling these kinds of tactics which say to me they are trying to bring this to an end.

BLITZER: Yesterday the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein was before the House Judiciary Committee and he had these kinds of questions from several Republicans. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE CHABOT (R), OHIO: How, with a straight face, can you say that this group of Democrat partisans are unbiased and will give President Trump a fair shake?

REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: What do you have to see in terms of the actions of people with demonstrated bias against the president of the United States before you will appoint a special counsel to investigate the clear bias that has infected this investigation?

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: This is unbelievable. And I'm here to tell you, Mr. Rosenstein, I think the public's trust in this whole thing is gone. So it seems to me you've got two things you can do. You're the guy in charge. You're the guy who picked Mueller. You're the guy who wrote the memo saying why he needed to fire Comey. You're the guy in charge. You could disband the Mueller special prosecutor and you can do what we've all called for, appoint a second special counsel to look into this.

REP. BOB GOODLATTE (R), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: We are now beginning to understand the magnitude of this insider bias on Mr. Mueller's team.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You get the point. What's your reaction? SCHIFF: Well, you know, really, I have to say horrified to have the

Republican Party on this committee attacking the integrity of Bob Mueller and basically attacking the whole institution of the Justice Department, the Office of the Special Counsel, the FBI itself, all in the service of the president, all to do his bidding, all to try to discredit what Bob Mueller finds.

Now we know that the president weighed in with Republican senators to urge them to bring an end to this. Well, his cries are being heeded in the House where we see them attacking these institutions so they are making common cause with the president who is tearing down our institutions. I think it's enormously destructive and I'll say this, Wolf, it's having an impact.

The Justice Department released these private text messages in the midst of a Department of Justice Inspector General investigation. You never do that. And, indeed, Rod Rosenstein was so critical of Comey in that memo that was used as a pretext to fire him, for Comey speaking out during the pendency of an investigation.

Well, here the Justice Department is now doing exactly that. And why? I think it's capitulating to this GOP pressure.

BLITZER: Do you see -- do you have any evidence that Speaker Paul Ryan is working behind the scenes together with these Republicans to try to end this Russia probe?

SCHIFF: Well, at the end of the day, the buck stops with the speaker. He can say I want you to follow the evidence, I want you to do a thorough job, or he can say, I'm getting too much pressure from the outside. You need to shut this down.

BLITZER: He would sign off on that, right?

SCHIFF: Well, he would unless he has advocated leaderships here. But at the end of the day, it's his responsibility and if they do shut this down, when there are dozens of witnesses yet to be interviewed, then he'll bear the responsibility.

[18:15:02] And you know what will happen, Wolf, the special counsel investigation will go on. They will reveal new evidence and then the speaker and the chairman of our committee are going to have to explain to the American people why they shut us down and didn't let us find the same things that Bob Mueller is finding.

BLITZER: You say the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation will continue but there are some, and I wonder if you're among them, who fear that President Trump may actually try to fire Mueller.

SCHIFF: I am worried about that. This president is obviously capable of anything. But I think what I'm more concerned about, frankly, is that they try to artificially circumscribe what Mueller can look at. They prevent Mueller from following the money. The issues that ought to concern Americans the most are those that can have the most leverage over the president to influence a U.S. policy. And from my point of view, if the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization, if the Russians were guaranteeing loans that the Trump Organization needed from banks like Deutsch Bank, that is the most powerful leverage they would have.

And I want Bob Mueller, because they are not allowing us to do this, I want to make sure that Bob Mueller is investigating every credible allegation that the Russians are holding something over this presidency.

BLITZER: Well, you mentioned bank records. Earlier I heard from Senator Wyden on the Senate Intelligence Committee the words follow the money. What are you driving at?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, that is -- I used to prosecute white-collar crimes. That is a very good rule of thumb. Follow the money. When you're looking for the motive, follow the money. And here you can explain the president's conduct, this inexplicable affinity for Putin and Putin's affinity for him in one of a couple of ways. It either flows from his fundamental insecurity about losing the popular vote and the legitimacy of his win or it flows from the fact that he is aware the Russians have something over him or that Bob Mueller will find things in terms of the many, many relationships between the Trump campaign and the Russians, much of which has already come to light.

BLITZER: But do you have any evidence of money laundering?

SCHIFF: Well, there certainly are very credible allegations of it and that has been the subject of questions we've asked witnesses about. I can't go into the specifics of it but the allegations are credible enough and the risks is great enough to the country that it needs to be investigated if we're going to do due diligence when it comes to the national security of the United States.

BLITZER: Have you had access to bank records?

SCHIFF: We have not. We have asked the majority. There's a very quick way to get to the answer of whether there was money laundering or the Russian guarantee of loans and that is to subpoena Deutsch Bank. They're not letting us to do it. I hope that Bob Mueller will do it as well within the scope of his investigation and it's the only way I think we'll get real answers.

BLITZER: Well, why aren't they letting you do that? What's their -- the Republican leadership, I assume you're referring to Mike Conaway who's the top Republican investigating.

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I think at the end of the day Devin Nunes was accurate when he said that --

BLITZER: He's the chairman of the committee. He was just cleared by the Ethics Committee. Potentially he could take charge if he wanted to.

SCHIFF: Well, what he said last week was I never stopped running the investigation and that's all too true. So at the end of the day, the subpoena decision, which this is, is his decision with the approval of the speaker, I would presume. BLITZER: To get this -- to subpoena the bank records. Well, you're

saying that Conaway, Devin Nunes and maybe the speaker, they're preventing that kind of subpoena from going forward?

SCHIFF: Well, I know the chairman is preventing it because it's ultimately --

BLITZER: When you say the chairman you mean Devin Nunes?

SCHIFF: Devin Nunes. We have requested it. We have not gotten approval for it and ultimately that's the chairman's decision under our rules. And we will not get the answers and I hope that Bob Mueller does because I think it would be negligent with our national security not to know whether that is a lever the Russians are using.

BLITZER: Is it just your gut instinct or your sense or do you have evidence that the Russians are -- that the Republicans right now, that the Republicans right now are trying to shut down this whole Russia probe?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I would say this. In the last three or four weeks, the majority without any consultation with us has been scheduling witnesses at a pace completely different than what we've had, with multiple witnesses coming in each day, often at the same time so members cannot be in two places at once. We're now scheduling witnesses while we're in session to be interviewed in other states.

We're doing a witness interview by video conference when that witness was more than willing to come in and be interviewed in person and when I asked the majority, you know, why are we doing this, this is not in the interest of the investigation, why are we bringing witnesses in before they give us the documents we've requested of them. That's no way to run an investigation. There is no answer except I think they're feeling the heat from Bannon and the White House that they need to bring this to an end.

Now bear in mind, our first hearing on this was in March and they already want to bring this to an end. They've spent 3 1/2 years investigating Benghazi, by comparison.

BLITZER: Let's get back to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who faced a lot of questions yesterday about these text messages, controversial text messages that were sent between two FBI officials.

[18:20:12] First of all, you raised this earlier but I want you to elaborate. What was the impact of the Justice Department releasing those text messages?

SCHIFF: Well, from my point of view, it violates the very injunction that Rod Rosenstein took such issue with, with James Comey. He is revealing internal Department of Justice materials during the pendency of investigation and providing them to the press. What is the explanation for that? There really is no good explanation for that except a self-serving one from the department.

And I also think that when you look at the context of the allegations that the DOJ inspector general is investigating, they were very selective in what they released. There were multiple reports last year that the FBI was heavily predisposed against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. If there are text messages that run in the other direction, why have they not also been released? Why only this selective release? That's the problem with doing it this way. And --

BLITZER: Because the ones that have been released that are very anti- Trump.

SCHIFF: The ones that they've released are all -- to the degree they bear it all, as far as I can tell, are anti-Trump. Does that mean they're not investigating the same allegation running in the opposite direction? Does that mean that they have been selective in what they're releasing to the public?

I think what this does mean, Wolf, is the deputy attorney general and the Justice Department are feeling the pressure and they cannot allow themselves to be bullied this way. They allow themselves to be bullied by lifting the gag rule on this witness at the White House urging, that was a mistake. That violated policy also.

This is the second demonstration of the Department of Justice, I think, violating their own best practices because of pressure. And it doesn't lend itself to a neat ending if they continue down this path.

BLITZER: Will Democrats be in New York for those interviews with Rhona Graff, Felix Sater, or some of these individuals that played some sort of role in all of this?

SCHIFF: Well, I can't comment on the specific names of witnesses, but I can tell you these witnesses are very significant and I can tell you we've been asking to have them come in for months. So I know that one of the GOP staffers gave an excuse, well, one of them had an injury.

BLITZER: And Democratic staff. Will they be in New York? I don't know Democratic members won't be there because you've got a vote next week, you've got all sorts of stuff going on here in Washington, the tax bill, keeping the government running, got to pass legislation for that. But will Democratic staff members go to New York to participate in those interviews?

SCHIFF: Yes. We will absolutely have someone in the room but there's nothing like being there yourself in terms of the members who are running the investigation and the critical point here is none of this is necessary. These witnesses are willing to come in and testify in person in Washington, D.C., and we have done this for no other witnesses during the investigation. So what has changed?

The only thing I believe that has changed is they're operating on an injunction based on the pressure from outside the building, from the White House, from Bannon and from their base. Shut it down.

BLITZER: Stand by, Congressman. There's more we need to discuss, including late word that President Trump had a phone conversation today with President Vladimir Putin. And we'll get into that and a lot more right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:01] BLITZER: We're back with the top Democratic of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff. We're talking about the Russia investigation including his concerns that Republicans are trying to shut down the probe right now.

Very quickly on that very controversial June 9th, 2016, meeting that Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials had with Russians at Trump Tower in New York City, when did -- do you know when Donald Trump Jr. spoke to his father about that meeting?

SCHIFF: Well, I don't want to go into the specifics of what Donald Trump Jr. said to our committee. I have acknowledged that he made a claim, which we think is a fallacious claim of attorney-client privilege, and refused to tell us what he discussed with his father about that meeting. That -- the only thing I disclosed in terms of when that meeting discussion took place was after it became public.

So I think we have a right to know and a need to know about that conversation and, again, this is a question we have for the minority, which is, are you going to support us in compelling if necessary Donald Trump Jr. comes back to the committee and to tell us what took place in that conversation.

BLITZER: I want to get back to what Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee told me in the last hour that he has seen what he calls evidence of intent to collude with the Russians by the Trump campaign. What does that say to you?

SCHIFF: Well, look, there's clear evidence of an attempt to collude. The Russians offered the campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Then set up the meeting at Trump Tower.

SCHIFF: Then set up the meeting and the reaction from the campaign, the very highest levels was we would love to have that help. And so there's clearly an attempt to collude in terms of the receipt of dirt on Hillary Clinton essentially opposition research from the Russians but there's also evidence of collusion itself, or clear evidence beyond intent when it came to Mike Flynn colluding with the Russians to essentially nullify or undermine the sanctions that were imposed over the Russia meddling. And when you look at this chronology, Wolf, you have in April the Russians telling the campaign through one of their few foreign policy advisers, George Papadopoulos, "We've got dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of e-mails." So putting the campaign on notice they have dirt.

[18:30:18] You then have them approaching the highest levels of the campaign, saying, "We will come and bring you the dirt," and the campaign saying, "We would love to get it from you."

Then you have the campaign saying, "You know, we're really disappointed in the dirt you gave us. Can't you do better than that?" And only days later you have the Russians doing exactly that by publishing the stolen Clinton and DNC e-mails. And then when the Russians get caught. Well, first you have them

making full use of the stolen documents. But when the Russians get caught and they get punished with sanctions, then you have the transition team colluding with the Russians to nullify the effect of those.

BLITZER: You're a former prosecutor. And there are plenty of prosecutors, plenty of lawyers who say collusion, specifically collusion, is not necessarily a crime.

SCHIFF: Well, this is, I think, a strawman of an argument. We use "collusion" as a colloquialism for essentially conspiring with someone to do something illicit. The crime is conspiracy. If the campaign conspired with the Russians to violate U.S. election laws, that's a crime.

If they entered into a conspiracy where they said -- the Russians said, "Hey, we've have dirt on Hillary Clinton and we've hacked these computers. We've got her stolen e-mails. Do you want them? Do you want our help?" and the campaign said, "Yes, we want your help." And the Russians said, "OK, here's how we're going to help you. We're going to publish these. We're not going to give them directly. That will give you deniability and us deniability." And the campaign said, "That's great," that's a conspiracy.

BLITZER: So you're a former prosecutor, once again. Have you seen evidence of conspiracy that potentially could be a crime?

SCHIFF: Well, certainly, we have seen evidence of conspiracy. Now there's a separate question of is it proof beyond a reasonable doubt?

But in addition to the facts that I've just mentioned in terms of a willingness to conspire to get dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of these stolen e-mails, you have the repeated evidence of the campaign and its highest officials lying about exactly these contacts, pleading guilty to lying about these contacts, which is also powerful evidence of knowledge of wrongdoing and an intent to deceive.

So, yes, is there evidence? Yes. Is it proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Ultimately, Bob Mueller will have to make that determination.

BLITZER: You have confidence in Robert Mueller and his investigation team?

SCHIFF: I have great confidence in him.

BLITZER: Let me ask you about this "Washington Post" report today, very detailed, lengthy "Washington Post" report, that the national security team over there at the White House is reluctant to even discuss Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election with the president, because it upsets the president and derails the briefing. He doesn't want to hear about it, and so they don't talk about it.

There's been no cabinet meetings, according to "The Washington Post," discussing any of this. The president a few times, grudgingly, has acknowledged this, but then he seems to regret having said that. Is all of this detrimental to national security?

SCHIFF: Unquestionably. I mean, it's almost unthinkable, but we have a situation where our commander in chief cannot be told the truth about what the Russians did.

BLITZER: Why?

SCHIFF: Because it would upset him.

BLITZER: But why would it upset him?

SCHIFF: Well, because he either fears it delegitimatizes himself, and he doesn't want to hear it, he can't stand to hear this. It's like that line from Tom Cruise, "You can't handle the truth." Apparently, the president can't handle the truth or the president is in such deep fear about what may come out, he doesn't want to hear anything about it.

BLITZER: So explain that. What may come out? Because the suggestion is that the Russians may have something.

SCHIFF: Well, you know, it certainly may be the case that what is motivating the president to behave in a way that is otherwise inexplicable. If it's not just a pro fund insecurity about his election, it's the fact that he's worried that something is going to come out about his relationship to the Russians or something the Russians have over him.

BLITZER: Have you heard that from any serious official, any intelligence official, that the president is worried that the Russians may have something that could come out?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, the intelligence officials I've briefed are not going to tell me "This is what the president fears."

But I can say this. The Russians are doing their own psychological profile of this president. They learn the president can't be told anything about them. It's the best possible world for the Russians. It's the worst possible world in terms of our own national security.

And more than that, what does Putin do? He plays to Trump's insecurities. "Why are they continuing in America," he says in his yearend address, "to question the legitimacy of Donald Trump's election? We had nothing to do with it. They're disrespecting his voters."

These are comments that could have been written by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But they play to what the Russians know is his weakness and his vanity, insecurity. And it's really effective, and that is deeply against our national interests.

[18:35:06] BLITZER: Yes, clearly during that 3-1/2-hour news conference today, Putin was trying to flatter President Trump repeatedly during that news conference.

They did have a phone conversation. We're learning more details. President Trump, President Putin, they spoke on the phone.

But a lot of people are concerned -- I assume you are, as well -- that the Russian sanctions which passed overwhelmingly in the House 419-3, overwhelmingly in the Senate on July 27, 98-2, which the president then reluctantly signed into law; he didn't want to see those sanctions against Russia. They still have not yet been implemented. How do you explain that?

SCHIFF: Well, I think the way to explain it is sort of consistent with this reporting in "The Washington Post." Do you want to be the guy in the administration to go to the president and say, "OK, we're ready to levy sanctions on Russia over their interference in our election on your behalf"? No one wants to make that announcement to the president, because they'll be shunned by him or they won't get a promotion to some other position later in the administration or they'll jeopardize their relationship with him.

I think the portrait that was painted in an article rings all too true. This is a president who cannot be given bad news and particularly that reflects negatively on him. And coming to him and saying, "Mr. President, Congress passed this. We've got to implement these sanctions," probably no one wants to be the bearer of that news.

BLITZER: What happens if he doesn't? Because the drop-dead deadline is the end of January. That's what the law stipulates.

SCHIFF: Well, Congress will need to figure out what steps it can take to enforce its will, to unsure that these sanctions go into effect; and there are ways that we can do that.

BLITZER: Adam Schiff, Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks so much for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll have more on the president's new phone call with Vladimir Putin just hours after the Russian leader publicly defended President Trump.

And can the president afford to lose on his signature tax bill? Talk about how much trouble the legislation is actually facing right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:46] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories this hour, including a new phone conversation today between President Trump and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

Let's bring in our analysts and specialists to discuss.

But Phil Mudd, let me talk to you first about what we just heard from the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff. He lays out his fears that, potentially, deep concern that President Trump might actually fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, or Republicans are aggressively trying now to shut down the entire Russia investigation. Do you believe those fears are justified? PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Let's separate this out.

Should he be saying things like that? Sure. He's concerned about the actions of the president.

Is that likely? If the president chooses to go down that path, we're not talking about the special counsel. We're also talking about the deputy attorney general who appointed him, Rod Rosenstein. That's a Republican Trump appointee. That's the attorney general, who's recused himself from this case. That is Republicans in Congress who then will be forced to say, "If we want to shut down this investigation, we can't now, because the president has just shown the American people that we can't trust what's going on at the Department of Justice."

It also includes the FBI director. That's a Trump appointee who would have to say what's going to happen with the investigation now that Mueller is gone.

I think there's a -- there's a chance maybe that the president does this, but the law of unintended consequences here, the number of people who would have to disappear as a result of that event, is too significant, I think, for the White House to consider.

BLITZER: Kaitlan, you cover the White House for us. Would the White House really be willing to deal with the backlash of the president if he were to go ahead and fire Mueller?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I mean, it would provoke a political firestorm if he did that. And I think his lawyers are cautioning him against acting out in any way like that.

And also, as Phil was saying, the technicality of him actually doing it would also be a beast in and of itself, because he can't fire him himself. He'd have to get Rosenstein to do it, and Rosenstein is not likely to do that, since he's the one who appointed him and was just defending his work this week.

So then the president would have to work his way down the line at the DOJ, and that would certainly invoke the Saturday night massacre with President Nixon and all of that trouble in and of itself.

But the president does seem to be becoming increasingly concerned about it. And we know that he's been raging about it privately, worrying that it's coming in closer and closer to his own children. So it's certainly something, and this is a president who acts out without worry of, you know, retribution.

BLITZER: You heard Adam Schiff also suggests, Mark, that there are Republicans who just want to end all of this; and they're moving quickly in all sorts of, from his perspective, sordid ways to shut it all down.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And there are two reasons why they probably want to do it. One, because they don't like the fact that their president, their Republican president is coming under attack. And, two, they have their own electoral prospects to worry about going to 2018. This is not a good thing for Republicans to have to deal with going into a midterm election where the president right now has a 32 percent approval rating and has the Department of Justice doing an investigation of him. They're going to have to go back. They're going to constantly be asked by their constituents, by the voters, whether or not they're with the president. And as we've seen week after week, day after day, another shoe drops.

BLITZER: You know, you saw "the Washington Post" story today, a very lengthy, detailed story that the president actually, the few times very grudgingly acknowledged that the Russians interfered in the U.S. presidential election. He expressed regret for doing so.

[18:45:01] It's something that he hated doing and even as national security briefings, they don't want to get into talking about that because it's so irritates him and angers him to even hear those kinds of words.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: I mean, it seems pretty clear to me, Wolf, sitting here I follow the president's Twitter feed and we follow his public statement. He has called any hint of Russia interference a hoax, something that Democrats have invented for political purposes. This is the sort of rhetoric that we hear from the president when it comes to Russia and their interference in our election despite that there is agreement that this happened and you hear it on Capitol Hill fortunately Democrats and Republicans alike.

So, I think it's clear that he regrets it and if you're inside the White House you have to be more attuned to that sort of thing.

BLITZER: So, what's the danger of the intelligence community's national security advisers, not including any of this in his daily briefings, for example, no cabinet meeting on Russia involvement in the U.S. presidential election. What does that say to you as a former CIA officer?

PHILIP MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: Pretty simple. If you're making decisions, you can make whatever decisions you want but hopefully you make them based on the best facts that the U.S. government can bring to bear. For example, if you have political views on whether or not we should have a deal on the Iranian nuclear deal program, hopefully the intelligence community won't count your political views when they walk into the office and say the Iranians are or are not complying with sanctions. Hopefully, if you want to squeeze the North Koreans and somebody comes in and says the sanctions are or are not having an impact on what the North Koreans do, the briefers won't come in and judge what they're going to say based on what your reaction is.

The bottom line, Wolf, is the CIA can't walk into the briefing room afraid that the president is going to say I don't want to hear the news. You've got to hear the news if you're the president and then decide what you're going to do.

BLITZER: Yes, that's certainly the tradition. They're going to do that. Apparently, if you believe "The Washington Post," they are not doing that.

Everybody, stand by.

Just ahead, the U.S. and Russia clearly at odds over close encounters in the skies over Syria. So, what really happened in those confrontational moments?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:52:01] BLITZER: New tonight, another tense standoff in the sky between U.S. and Russian warplanes. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is following the story for us.

What's the latest?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting. Russia has just come out with a statement denying the U.S. account but not denying U.S. and Russian warplanes came very close to each other in the air over Syria.

What the U.S. says is that two F-22 fighters, two U.S. F-22 fighters, intercepted two Russian fighters who were flying east of the deconfliction line that U.S. and Russian military commanders have agreed with, precisely to keep U.S. and Russian airplanes from getting too close, particularly in a place where they're firing their weapons. So, the U.S. says that the Russians went over that line in effect and that they were then intercepted by these two F-22s and the U.S. then registered a complaint via the hotline that commanders on either side have.

Now, Russia is saying it's different. They're saying that the U.S. planes interfered with the Russian planes who were doing the right thing on the right side of that line and the Russians even implied that another Russian fighter chased these American jets away, calling the American account wishful thinking. What is not in dispute, Wolf, is that armed U.S. and Russian aircraft came very close to each other over a conflict zone.

And that's been a real worry for U.S. commanders. They say this has happened six to eight times over recent weeks where Russians have crossed that line. And U.S. commander said in plain words, the greatest concern is that we could shoot down a Russian aircraft because its actions are seen as a threat to our error ground forces.

BLITZER: We know Presidents Trump and Putin spoke today, but we have no idea that they spoke specifically about this incident.

SCIUTTO: We don't know. We don't know if it got to that level, but we know U.S. commanders took it up with their Russian counterparts.

BLITZER: As they should. A very tense situation. It could have been disaster.

Thanks so much for that, Jim Sciutto reporting.

Also tonight, the United States says it has evidence that Iran is supplying weapons to rebel fighters in Yemen, defying the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, standing in front of the weapons debris called on the international community to unite against what she described as a global threat from Iran. Iran says the accusations are baseless, but there's no disputing the devastation caused by the war in Yemen.

Our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, is joining us once again with more on her exclusive reporting.

Clarissa, there's an urgent, urgent humanitarian crisis in Yemen. You saw it firsthand. Update our viewers.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The U.N. is saying that 8.4 million people inside Yemen are now just a step away from famine, that this will be the worst famine that the world has seen in many decades. We traveled to the front lines of Yemen's hunger crisis and found that most of the victims are some of Yemen's youngest citizens.

I want to caution our viewers that some of this is hard to watch.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WARD (voice-over): This is how Ahmed Helmi (ph) spends his days, lying on the concrete floor, trying to swat away the flies with what little energy he has.

[18:55:09] Looking at his tiny body, ravaged by hunger, you would never guess that Ahmed is five years old. His brother died of malnutrition two months ago.

We're in a war, there's no food, no water, his mother Soumaya says. Only god knows our pain.

It's a pain shared by too many here in the same small village.

We meet Abdul Rahman (ph), an overwhelmed father of five. He's worried about his son Abdul Rahab (ph). There's no doctor nearby and no scale, but he can't weigh more than 5 pounds. The problem is that my wife doesn't have a lot of breast milk, he says, she's sick too.

And it's not hard to see why. There's almost no food in it.

(on camera): So they have some bread? Some onions. No meat.

(voice-over): Hunger has always been a problem in Yemen, but two and a half years of war has starved the country. Three million people are displaced. Many live in filthy camps, where disease and infection are rife and malnutrition difficult to combat.

(on camera): There is food in the markets, it's just that few people can actually afford it, and that's what's so tough to get your head around about this crisis. It's not caused by a bad harvest or a drought, it's caused by man.

(voice-over): A Saudi Arabia-led blockade has cut the amount of food and medicine getting into Yemen by more than half. What does come through is heavily taxed along the way. Rural clinics struggle to meet the scale of the need.

Ten-month-old Ali has gained seven ounces since his last visit, a welcome improvement, but he is still suffering from severe malnutrition.

You haven't done anything wrong, the nurse tells his mother, but he's still weak, so I really want you to focus on this problem.

For Ahmed, it may be too late. He's been sick for years now. He only speaks when the pain is too much. He tells me my tummy hurts, my head hurts, Soumaya says. He cries.

Hardship and hunger, this is Yemen's story. My whole life agony and I are like lovers, this Yemeni song goes. Why, world, do you only show us the terrible things?

But the world doesn't hear his lament. While the silence of starvation tightens its grip on a forgotten people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WARD: Now, Wolf, the U.S. has come under a lot of fire because it is continuing to support Saudi Arabia politically, also, of course, that huge weapons deal. We saw President Trump travel to the kingdom signing that deal for more than $100 billion worth of weapons. A lot of people very concerned that those weapons could end up in Yemen's conflict.

At the same time, we should note that the White House has in the past few weeks called on Saudi Arabia to lift that blockade. That is a blockade, by air, by land, by sea. As you saw, it is having a devastating effect. The White House also saying that the U.S. intends to give more than $100 million in aid.

But whether that will make a difference on the ground or not, Wolf, remains very much to be seen.

BLITZER: Clarissa, what does U.N. Nikki Haley's statements today mean for Yemen, statements accusing Iran of providing ballistic missiles, short-range ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen and those missiles at least, a couple of them went towards Saudi Arabia, including the international airport in Riyadh?

WARD: Well, to those of us following this conflict closely, I don't think there's a huge amount of surprise that Iran is likely arming Houthi rebels. But I think to some people, it was somewhat galling to hear the U.S. chastising Iran for this when, of course, the U.S. is the biggest supplier along with the U.K. and some other countries of heavy weaponry to Saudi Arabia.

When I was in the capital Sana'a back in 2015, Houthi rebels showed me bombs that were falling on the heads of people living in areas under their control. Those weapons were U.S. made, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa Ward, excellent reporting once again. Thank you so, so much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.