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Sacrificing Sessions?; Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Trump-Bannon Feud Erupts; "Bomb Cyclone" Slams Northeast with Blizzard Conditions. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 4, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[18:00:17] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news -- blocking the book.
As new bombshells emerge from a White House tell-all, President Trump sic' his lawyers on the publisher, the author and his former strategist Steve Bannon. Will he actually sue and does he have a case?
"I don't talk to him." Mr. Trump insists he's not taking Steve Bannon's phone calls anymore and not talking with him. The White House going to new lengths tonight in its war against the man who helped, certainly helped seal the Trump victory.
Sacrificing Sessions? Some conservative Republicans say the attorney general of the United States has lost control and it's time for him to go. As GOP lawmakers look for ways to end the Russia investigation, will Democrats be Jeff Sessions' savior?
And snow bomb. Millions of Americans are at risk tonight from blinding blizzard conditions, hurricane-force wind gusts and bitter cold temperature. We're tracking the winter weather emergency socking the northeast.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the president's efforts to dispute and discredit a new tell-all book that portrays him as unfit for office and his White House as dysfunctional.
Tonight, the publisher is defying a cease and desist letter from the president's personal lawyers. Instead of pulling the book, the release date is now being moved up to tomorrow morning.
The president's legal team also targeting his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, threatening to sue him for his disparaging remarks to the author about the president and his family. The president who trashed Bannon in a statement is continuing his efforts to distance himself from his one-time close adviser. He's insisting that he no longer speaks to Bannon and he's eager to note that Bannon called him a great man in an interview overnight. CNN sources suggest the president is raging and reeling from the one-
two punch of this embarrassing book and the ongoing Russia investigation.
Also tonight, CNN has confirmed that a dozen lawmakers, including at least one Republican, consults a Yale University psychiatrist last month because they were worried about Mr. Trump's state of mind and the potential danger to the nation.
The White House says it's disgraceful and laughable to suggest Mr. Trump might be unfit to lead.
This hour, I will speak with Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, former CIA director. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, the president is at war with Steve Bannon right now and now he's dragged his lawyers into this war as well.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The war goes on.
Wolf, President Trump is coming down hard on Steve Bannon, threatening legal action against him and a new book that is apparently filled with harsh comments from the former White House chief strategist. The question for the White House is whether this is just another empty threat from the president.
The publisher, by the way, doesn't seem very nervous about all this. It just moved up the release of the book to tomorrow.
ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump sounds like a man who couldn't careless about Steve Bannon.
QUESTION: Did Steve Bannon betray you, Mr. President? Any words about Steve Bannon?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know. He called me a great man last night, so he obviously changed his tune pretty quick.
ACOSTA: But the president's lawyers are sending a very different message to Bannon, threatening to sue the former White House chief strategist over his comments in Michael Wolff's book "Fire and Fury," saying in a statement legal action is imminent.
Add that to the cease and desist letter sent to Wolff's publisher demanding that the book be shut down. "The publication of the false, baseless statements about Mr. Trump gives rise to, among other claims, defamation by libel."
QUESTION: Should the letter from the President's lawyers aimed at Steve Bannon and aimed at the publisher be interpreted as a threat from the United States government, from this administration to not publish this book?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's not from the United States government; it's from the president's personal attorney. And I think it is very clear what its purpose is. And there's nothing to add beyond that.
ACOSTA: Only hours after excerpts of the book were made public quoting Bannon as saying Donald Trump Jr. may have engaged in "treasonous actions" by meeting with Russians during the campaign, the firebrand conservative was praising the president.
STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: The president of the United States is a great man. You know I support him day in and day out.
ACOSTA: Sitting with GOP senators, the president claimed that he doesn't speak with Bannon.
TRUMP: I don't talk to him. I don't talk to him. I don't talk to him. That's just a misnomer.
ACOSTA: But that's not quite true. The White House has said the two men have been speaking since Bannon was fired last summer and as recently as last month.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm not aware that they were ever particularly close. I would certainly say that they've spoken a few times since he left the White House, but it's not like there were regularly scheduled calls and certainly no meetings between the two of them.
ACOSTA: The other question is whether the president would actually follow through with his threat to sue, something he didn't do after the campaign.
TRUMP: All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.
ACOSTA: The White House frustration with Wolff's book comes despite the extraordinary access granted to the author.
Wolff wrote in "The Hollywood Reporter" that he was given the access after the president approved of another story he had written about Mr. Trump. "His non-disapproval became a kind of passport for me to hang around," Wolff wrote, "checking in each week at the Hay-Adams Hotel, making appointments with various senior staffers who put my name in the system and then wandering across the street to the White House and plunking myself down day after day on a West Wing couch."
QUESTION: Didn't this White House give Michael Wolff all the access that he wanted?
HUCKABEE SANDERS: Absolutely not. In fact, there are probably more than 30 requests for access to information from Michael Wolff that were repeatedly denied, including, within that, at least two dozen requests of him asking to have an interview with the president, which he never did. He never discussed this book with the president.
ACOSTA: The White House also fired back at questions raised in the book about the president's mental fitness.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: It's disgraceful and laughable. If we was unfit, he probably wouldn't be sitting there and wouldn't have defeated the most qualified group of candidates the Republican Party has ever seen.
ACOSTA: The president is trying to change the subject, promising action on immigration.
Mr. Trump is defending his decision that shut down a commission that failed to prove his claim that millions of undocumented people voted in the election, tweeting: "Many, mostly Democrat, states refused to hand over data from the 2016 election to the commission on voter fraud."
But that's misleading. Dozens of states, Republican and Democrat, refused to cooperate.
Watching from the sidelines are the countless young undocumented immigrants, known as the dreamers, who now face deportation. The president wants a wall in exchange for sparing them.
TRUMP: Any legislation on DACA must secure the border with a wall.
ACOSTA: Now, getting back to the Wolff book, the publisher says it will not halt the release of that book, saying in a statement to CNN, we can put this up on screen, "Henry Holt confirms that we received a cease and desist letter from an attorney for President Trump. We see 'Fire and Fury' as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse and are proceeding with the publication of the book."
One thing we should point out, Wolf, the White House can control is its staff. So, officials are cracking down on employee use of personal cell phones here, with plans to ban them inside the West Wing.
A source close to the West Wing told CNN this is really about stopping the kind of leaks that are making the president furious in that book, but the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, told me earlier this evening, Wolf, there are no plans to extend those restrictions to the media at this time -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.
While the White House tries to brush off concern about the president's mental fitness, some members of Congress are taking it very seriously, so seriously, in fact, that they met with a psychiatrist.
CNN's Ryan Nobles is joining with more on that.
Ryan, what are you learning about this pretty extraordinary meeting?
RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Wolf.
It took place about a month ago, over two days, December 5 and 6 of last year.
That's when Dr. Bandy Lee met with a group of about a dozen lawmakers, most Democrats. There was one Republican senator in the room. There was a mix of both senators and representatives.
And this meeting came about after a former U.S. attorney who we don't know connected Dr. Lee with these members of Congress after reading the book that she edited which outlines the issues that she sees with the president's mental health.
We're told that the members that attended this meeting were very receptive to her findings. They said that they were very concerned about the dangers that the president's mental instability poses to the country.
Wolf, they had a lot of questions for Dr. Lee and those questions continue.
BLITZER: I know you had a chance to speak with Dr. Lee. What did she tell you?
NOBLES: I did. I talked to her pretty extensively this afternoon.
She said, first of all, this is not a diagnosis. She doesn't want it to come across that way. In fact, if it were a diagnosis, that would run contrary to the standards of many medical professionals, including the American Medical Psychiatric Association.
Instead, she said it was just her view from afar of the president's conduct and concerns that she has about it, and that it's her duty as a psychiatrist to come forward. She said that she's worried the president is unraveling and that could lead to impulsive decisions.
She said what needs to happen now is what she's calling a neuropsychiatric exam that would actually determine whether or not the president has the capacity to fulfill his duties as president of the United States, which is, of course, an important and stressful job.
Of course, Wolf, as you know, the White House pushing back on this report. They won't even entertain questions about Dr. Lee's book or the meetings with members of Congress. But they say any questions about the president's mental fitness is disgraceful.
BLITZER: It's pretty extraordinary, this whole notion.
Thanks very much for that, Ryan Nobles reporting.
Now to the Russia investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman has struck a new deal with the Justice Department over documents and witnesses he's requested. Happened shortly after a very unusual meeting up on Capitol Hill involving the FBI director, deputy attorney general and the speaker of the House.
Let's go to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. He's learning more about the meeting.
Evan, what can you tell us?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was a very unusual meeting and really this came about because Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had been threatening to hold the senior leaders of the Justice Department and FBI in contempt of Congress if they did not turn over certain documents.
He wanted documents related to the Trump/Russia dossier. And the FBI and Justice Department had been resisting turning over those documents. They said they were law enforcement-sensitive reasons for doing that. As you know, Wolf, some of that is playing into the Mueller investigation, into the Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
This meeting that occurred yesterday with Speaker Paul Ryan was sort of a last-ditch effort by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI. They wanted to see if they could persuade Paul Ryan to get Nunes to back down.
And it became clear during that meeting, Wolf, that Speaker Ryan was going to stand behind Nunes' demands and that if it got to the point where they would hold the senior leaders of the Justice Department and the FBI in contempt of Congress, it was going to get there.
So there was a deal reached and under that deal, as you mentioned, Nunes is going to secure access to some of these documents. These documents include 302s. They're known as 302s. These are interviews that the FBI conducted related to the dossier, but he won't get necessarily the documents themselves.
They will be able to go to a Justice Department facility and review the documents to see whether or not there's anything else that they need. They're also going to get interviews that they had previously agreed to, Wolf.
What this does, though, is it makes clear that the White House was not going to back the Justice Department, the FBI in their standoff with Nunes and the House Intelligence Committee. This was something that they were going to have to comply or else they were going to face a contempt of Congress vote.
BLITZER: Evan Perez reporting for us, thanks very much.
Let's talk more about the Russia investigation and the Trump presidency with Leon Panetta. He's the former defense secretary, former CIA director in the Obama administration.
Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.
LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Wolf, good to be with you.
BLITZER: Let's talk, first of all.
You heard Ryan Nobles's report on this extraordinary briefing that some members of Congress received on President Trump's mental state. Do you think, first of all, and you're a former White House chief of staff, do you think it was appropriate?
PANETTA: Well, members of Congress oftentimes do various meetings. And whether or not it's appropriate or not, obviously, they were seeking at least to have that discussion.
I do think that we ought to not read an awful lot into that. I think the psychiatrist herself said that this was not a diagnosis, but just her personal opinion. And so when it comes to personal opinions about the mental state of anyone, they can vary a great deal.
BLITZER: Have you seen behavior, though, Mr. Secretary, from President Trump that raises concerns in your view about his fitness?
PANETTA: Look, we know this president can be erratic.
We know he can be unpredictable. We know that he engages in this tweeting both with regards to international affairs as well as domestic affairs. So, there are a lot of questions about the behavior of this president.
Whether or not that relates to a psychiatrist problem, though, I think is a big question. And I would think that the bigger threat to this president doesn't lie with a psychiatrist. It lies more with the Mueller investigation.
BLITZER: We're going to get to that in a moment, but you heard Ryan Nobles tell us that this Yale University psychiatry professor who briefed the legislators has told CNN there is a need for what she called a neuropsychiatric evaluation that would demonstrate his capacity to serve. Do you agree?
PANETTA: I think the bigger issue would be when the president has his exam at Walter Reed, it would seem to me to make sense that he ought to go through obviously not only a physical examination, but a mental examination as well, and that those facts ought to then be presented to the American people.
BLITZER: What if he doesn't? Because I know other presidents, President Obama, they would release detailed reports on all sorts of aspects of a physical checkup at Walter Reed Medical Center outside of Washington, D.C.
What if he just releases a statement saying he's in good shape?
PANETTA: Well, having been there, I understand why presidents like to keep that short and sweet. But I do think when it comes to relevant information about the physical status of a president and the mental status of a president, that the American people should be informed if there's anything that is relevant to his ability to perform the office of the presidency.
BLITZER: A lot of these questions are being raised right now even as we speak, Mr. Secretary, in part because, as you point out, the president's tweets, also in part because of this new book by the author Michael Wolff.
When you have read the accounts from inside the White House contained in this new book, what is your reaction?
PANETTA: It's obvious, from what we're seeing from the excerpts about the book and obviously the book itself, that in many ways it seems to me that it confirms a lot of the conclusions that the press has come to over the last year.
The fact is, this president is someone who is not a deep thinker. He's not somebody who has a great deal of intellectual curiosity. He's not somebody who has a great deal of experience both in government and in international affairs. He tends to react emotionally to the issues that he's dealing with.
All of that has been covered by the press a great deal. The fact that there are insiders in the White House, however, who are commenting on these things obviously adds credibility to what the press has been saying a long time.
BLITZER: You served as the White House chief of staff, as a lot of us remember. What does it tell you about this White House that the author of this new book was allowed the kind of extraordinary access that he apparently received?
PANETTA: Well, as a former chief of staff, I can tell you that you usually shudder at the idea of having an author wandering around the West Wing trying to write about that presidency.
I understand the game here. And the game is that you hope that if you give the author access, that somehow that author will write a very complimentary book. That usually never happens.
And so I think it's a dangerous precedent to allow people like that to wander around the White House to able to gather whatever facts they want and then obviously write about it. So I think they made a mistake by giving him the access that they did.
BLITZER: Based on Steve Bannon's statements in this new book, the president's former chief strategist, do you believe his account is valuable to the Russia investigation, that he should be called right now to testify before Congress and maybe even before the special counsel, Robert Mueller?
PANETTA: I think that it would be important for Bob Mueller to be able to determine just exactly what Mr. Bannon knew about the various meetings that went on. You know, it is an interesting comment that he made regarding that
meeting with the Russians. And there's no question that the whole issue involved in this investigation is whether or not there was any kind of conspiracy that went on to work with the Russians to determine whether or not they would try to impact on the election in some way.
That's the whole issue that Bob Mueller is working with. So I would think that certainly sitting down with Mr. Bannon and obviously a number of other key people in the White House would be critical to the investigation by Bob Mueller.
BLITZER: Yes, Steve Bannon suggested that that meeting at the Trump Tower with the Russians was treasonous, unpatriotic. He said money laundering is at the center of all of this.
And those are pretty controversial statements that he's made. And as a result, the president reacted very, very bitterly against him yesterday.
Stand by, Mr. Secretary. We have much more to discuss. We will take a quick break. We will be right back.
BLITZER: We're back with the former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
We're following the breaking news. The Trump administration now suspending all security assistance to Pakistan until that country does more to clamp down on terror groups within its borders.
The State Department, as you know, just announced that freeze on security assistance to Pakistan, including military equipment. What's the impact on national security and on diplomacy, Mr. Secretary?
PANETTA: Well, you know, it raises some very serious questions, Wolf, because what Pakistan will do is very simply turn to China and turn to Russia, turn to our adversaries to try to get the security assistance they need.
It's going to push Pakistan further into the influence of our greatest adversaries. I think in this instance we ought to be very careful about how we deal with Pakistan, because the fact is that Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, those three countries are critical to stability in that region.
And I understand the difficulty in getting Pakistan to do what it should be doing in terms of trying to prevent terrorists from going across that border. I dealt with it and others have dealt with it.
But I think to simply cut off security assistance, without at least trying to sit down and get some commitments from the Pakistanis, just creates a dangerous precedent, because it's going to force Pakistan to move directly to our adversaries for help.
BLITZER: North Korea, another critically important issue right now, the president in that tweet earlier in the day is claiming credit for the recent start of talks between North and South Korea. How much credit do you think the president deserves for these late developments?
PANETTA: Well, there's no question that the sanctions have put increased pressure on the North Koreans.
And I do give credit to the South Koreans for trying to reach out. Look, the whole goal here is trying to move toward some kind of dialogue between South Korea, the United States, Japan, and North Korea. That's the whole goal.
And the fact that they are at least meeting with regard to the issue of the Olympics, I think, is an important step in the right direction. Whether or not it leads to a broader set of negotiations on the critical issues involved still remains to be seen.
BLITZER: And as a former defense secretary , you're OK with the U.S. and South Korea delaying scheduled military exercises until after the Winter Olympic Games next month? That's something clearly the North Koreans are pleased about.
PANETTA: Well, I understand that, but they shouldn't be too pleased, because it's merely a temporary delay at this point.
And it does make sense. You don't want to have those exercises going on just because of the logistical issues that Secretary Mattis raised. But in addition to that, you don't, frankly, want to engage in any kind of a provocative acts during a time when hopefully both North Korea and South Korea and the United States can provide a better atmosphere for the Olympics to take place.
Whether or not that remains a permanent delay is going to depend on whether the United States, North Korea, South Korea and others sit down and really begin the serious negotiations that have to begin here if we're going to deal with trying to restrain North Korea in the long run.
BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.
PANETTA: Nice to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, as lawmakers and others question the president's state of mind, what message does it send to America's allies and America's adversaries?
And in the path of the storm. We're tracking the danger for millions of Americans right now being hit by a very powerful winter bomb cyclone, as it's being called.
BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking news stories this hour, including growing concern among some lawmakers about President Trump's mental fitness.
[18:33:03] Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and specialists. And David Swerdlick, an extraordinary meeting some lawmakers had with the Yale University psychiatrist. New questions being raised about the president's fitness because of some of his tweets, on the nuclear size of the nuclear button, for example; questions being raised as a result of anecdotes in this new bombshell book that's just coming out. Is this unchartered territory right now?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is unchartered territory, and I suppose if you have members of Congress who are sincerely concerned that they might have to exercise their 25th Amendment responsibilities at some point, maybe this is a -- somewhere to start, but I'm skeptical about this for this reason.
Look, President Trump made racist statements during the campaign. He talked about the size of his proverbial button during the campaign. He made statements that were hostile and outlandish during the campaign. Sixty-three million people went out and voted for him, and most members of his party in Congress still support him. So this idea that they all of a sudden now, members of Congress, need to evaluate his mental state, I think is mostly a fig leaf for people not sort of accepting their own political roles in this process.
BLITZER: Matt Rosenberg, how do you see it?
MATT ROSENBERG, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": I'm with him on this one. You know, the American people, they voted for him. This is the guy who got up and said he loved WikiLeaks. Please go hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails till they chanted "Lock her up." I mean, his campaign violated norms up and down the political spectrum. And so to now say, well, look, he seems unhinged because he's doing the same thing in office, does seem like, you know, you're not willing to accept the political reality that you are living with, which is that he was elected by 63 million Americans.
BLITZER: And Sarah Sanders at the briefing today pointed out he beat, what, 16 or 17, you know, well-qualified Republican candidates at the nomination. Then he beat Hillary Clinton and won the Electoral College and, you're right, he is the president of the United States.
American adversaries and friends, Phil Mudd, they're watching all of this unfold. What message does it send to them, friends and adversaries alike, that all these questions about his mental fitness are now being asked?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think there's a simple question. There's politics and there's personality.
If you're writing -- and I did this once at the CIA -- you're writing an evaluation for your foreign leader from Europe or Asia to visit the United States, you're doing a couple of things. No. 1, what's his political position? What's his position in Congress? What are polls?
[18:35:20] Then you have a more interesting question: what's his personal position? In this case, if you look at the past 48 hours, you look at what Steve Bannon has said, you look at the president's psychological response, which is to lash out, initially to lash out and then say, "Wait, Steve said I'm a good guy, and maybe everything is OK."
The evaluation, in this case, from a foreign adversary or even a foreign ally is to say if you want to get to the president psychologically, if you want to look at his psychological makeup, simply play up to him and he'll respond positively. The same thing you've seen in the news cycle about Steve Bannon and his response.
BLITZER: It's very interesting, the White House reaction, Rebecca Berg, to this new book, "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff. The press secretary, Sarah Sanders, today, she slammed the book. Among other things, she said it was false, fraudulent, fake, tabloid gossip, trash and complete fantasy.
You've done a lot of reporting on what's going on in the White House behind the scenes. How much truth is there, based on what you know?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, certainly, they can pick apart some of the facts as reported in the book and say that they're not accurate. And I haven't seen the full manuscript for myself, so I certainly can't make a judgment on the book as a whole.
But if you look at some of the broad themes that are being laid out in the book -- the president's fitness for office, how his staff feel about dealing with him and how lawmakers feel about dealing with him, even lawmakers of his own party -- it presents a picture that is consistent not only with the reporting we've done here at CNN but also some public statements that lawmakers and Republicans have made.
You look at what Republican Senator Bob Corker said about the White House, that it was an adult daycare center and his staff, the president's staff felt like they were constantly having to deal with his antics. And you look at what Anthony Scaramucci said in July about the president, that he felt like many of the White House staff felt it was their job to protect America from the president of the United States.
And so this is kind of the picture that has been painted over the period of one year that Trump has been president, but certainly, some new details in this book that we hadn't heard before.
BLITZER: What do you think, David, about the cease and desist letters that the president's private attorneys are now sending to Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, he signed a confidentiality, apparently. Also, to the publisher of this new book, Henry Holt, to the writer of this new book, Michael Wolff.
Does it have any legal basis, based on what you're hearing?
SWERDLICK: So I think the reason for it is that legal action is sort of a threat to others who might come out and say different things.
In terms of the legal effect of it, Wolf, I think that maybe if, "A," the quotes hold up and, "B," that Steve Bannon's nondisclosure agreement is similar to ones we've seen from the Trump Organization, maybe he did violate it. But when you're talking about a sitting president and someone who was a senior advisor in the White House, both of whom are public figures, I think it will be a high bar for anything to go forward in court. I also sort of, you know, wonder here how this could have any effect on the publisher. The publisher has the -- as long as the quotes are accurate, they have it, and their book is ready to go.
BLITZER: They accelerated the release of the book...
BLITZER: ... tomorrow morning, instead of next week. The -- the president briefly addressed this issue. He was asked a question earlier in the day. Phil, listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did Steve Bannon betray you, Mr. President? Any words about Steve Bannon?
TRUMP: I don't know. He called me a great man last night. So you know, he obviously changed his tune pretty quick.
Thank you all very much.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
TRUMP: Thank you. I don't talk to him. I don't talk to him. I don't talk to him. That's just a misnomer. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So do you believe the president has moved on? You're smiling.
MUDD: I'm not smiling, Wolf, I'm laughing. We are still evaluating, based on the president's tweets, who won the last election. It's just this week that the president said, "Let me disband the group that had to determine how many people voted in the last election and whether there was a popular vote controversy about the last election." The president is still attacking who he calls, you know, Hillary Clinton, his opponent whom he won in the Electoral College.
There's not only a chance that this will end this week. This will not end this year, and it's not because it's a nonstory. It's the president -- the president will never let this die. It's not going to die.
BLITZER: Do you think banning cell phone use in the West Wing of the White House by staffers is going to stop some of those leaks?
ROSENBERG: I mean, I wish them luck. I cover intelligence for the Pentagon. Those people can't bring cell phones anywhere near their job, and we talk to them. We talk to people all over the place. There are ways to talk to people. If they want to talk, they're going to talk. Banning their cell phones in the office is not going to make a difference.
BLITZER: Yes, it's a fair point. Good point. I totally agree.
All right. Thanks very much. Don't go too far away. There's a lot more going on, including a very partisan role reversal involving the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. Why some Republicans now want him to resign while Democrats want him to stay. We'll be right back.
[18:44:07] BLITZER: New tonight, a partisan role reversal when it comes to attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Some Democrats who previously called for Sessions to step down now say he needs to stay while two leading House conservatives, Republicans, they're demanding he resign. And Rebecca, Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, leaders of the Freedom Caucus, as it's called, why do they want him to step down?
BERG: Well, the rationale is that he hasn't been doing enough to investigate deep state concerns, to use the president's words and the words of some other Republicans, to look into what went wrong with the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, another big Republican concern, and to look into leaks coming out of the Department of Justice.
And of course, they're also upset that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. So many of the same concerns that we've heard from the president, heard from some other Republicans. But not so many Republicans going so far to say that Sessions should step down at this point and, really, this is sort of a political consideration on the one hand. The base of Republicans are very upset with the way things are going with the Department of Justice, echoing the president's concerns.
But you could also argue that they are trying to provide some cover for the president and muddying the waters a little bit as he faces great scrutiny.
BLITZER: A bunch of Democrats don't want him to resign because he's recused himself from the Russia investigation and a new attorney general would be able to take charge to do presumably whatever he or she wanted.
In this article that they wrote, the two lawmakers, Meadows and Jordan, in "The Washington Examiner," they say this: It would appear he, Sessions, has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world.
What's your reaction?
PHILIP MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERORRISM OFFICIAL: Can you answer a simple question for me? What control is he supposed to have over the one issue that they're concerned about, the special counsel Robert Mueller? The last I checked, the reason we have a special counsel is that we have a sensitive issue and that we should separate that out for the day-to-day business of the Department of Justice. The attorney general has rightly recused himself from that
investigation and the deputy attorney general has said this issue is so important that I want to take it outside the general business and nominate the former 12-year veteran FBI Director Robert Mueller. There is a reason that the attorney general doesn't have the control and that's because we don't want him to.
One other question, Wolf, if you're an American citizen with kids, I'd have questions about the opioid crisis, I'd have questions about gang violence in this country, I've had questions about the worst thing I ever saw at the FBI, child porn. How many of their concerns are focused on whether the FBI and Department of Justice is doing things on issues that are of concern to American families?
They are worried about Russia and they are rightly concerned that the attorney general doesn't have a role in the Russia investigation. That's right. That's correct.
BLITZER: How do you see it?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, look, they want political results out of a job that is, to a degree, apolitical. You know, the president and attorney general set broad policy but they are not supposed to be directing investigations. They're not supposed to reach out to the FBI and say, you should investigate our political opponents or you should stop this investigation of us. And to push that agenda right now, I think in any administration, Democratic or Republican, it's a very dangerous road.
BLITZER: You know, David, the Attorney General Sessions today reversed an Obama administration order from 2013 that the federal government would not step in all that much as far as states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Listen to what the president, then a candidate, said on October 29th, 2015.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The marijuana thing, it's such a big -- such a big thing. I think medical should happen, right? Don't we agree? I mean, I think so. And then I really believe you should leave it up to the states. It should be a state situation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Now, Sessions is not leaving it up to the states now. He wants the federal government involved.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. And I suspect that if this gets litigated and gets to the Supreme Court in a timely fashion, that he might prevail because you have a more right-leaning Supreme Court on this issue and they might rule that the federal government takes precedent over state law in this case.
As a matter of politics, though, this is hypocrisy. President Trump campaigned, just as the clip you showed, Wolf, that he would not prioritize this issue. Now, his Justice Department is, and Republicans have crowed for years about the 10th Amendment and states rights. This goes against it.
BLITZER: Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in California. Earlier in Colorado, Rebecca, listen to the reaction, this is Senator Cory Gardner, he's a Republican. Listen to the reaction to Sessions' announcement today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CORY GARDNER (R), COLORADO: Prior to his confirmation, then- Senator Sessions said that he didn't have any plans to -- he told me, there are no plans to reverse the coal memorandum, then-Senator Sessions told me that marijuana simply wasn't going to be on President Trump's agenda. That's why I will be putting today a hold on every single nomination from the Department of Justice until Attorney General Jeff Sessions lives up to the commitment that he made to me in my confirmation -- in my pre-confirmation meeting with him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He's a Republican from Colorado.
BERG: He is. And so, it's worth noting, of course, Colorado, marijuana is legal. So, for him, this is a local issue of importance but it's significant because Cory Gardner is on the Judiciary Committee. If other Republicans on the committee decide to join him in holding out nominations, this could come back to bite the administration in a big way.
BLITZER: A sensitive issue indeed.
All right, guys. Thanks very much.
Just ahead, the winter wallop hammering the Northeast and a freezing forecast for the weekend. Information you need to know.
[18:53:36] BLITZER: There's more breaking news tonight.
A major winter storm slamming the Northeast with hurricane-force winds, blinding snow and record tides. It's the result of a fast and furious drop in atmospheric pressure that meteorologists call a "bomb cyclone".
Let's go to our senior national correspondent Alex Marquardt. He's in Boston for us.
Alex, this is a major snow event there. Update our viewers.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this snow isn't so much coming down as it is swirling all around. This city is still very much under a snow emergency, a blizzard warning. The governor of Massachusetts has just announced there have been 24,000 power outages so far.
That is expected to rise not just because of the snow but let's talk about the snow for a second. It's been coming down all day, around two to three inches an hour. By day's end, they're expecting it to have come down to around 16 inches. You can see here, it's up to my knees.
So, around 12 inches, but it's not the snow that officials here are really afraid of. Bostonians, people from Massachusetts can deal with the snow. They're hearty folks. They're used to the cold and the snow.
It's really the wind and freezing cold that is going to follow this snowstorm. We're expecting temperatures in the coming hours overnight and in the coming days to drop down to below zero, possibly breaking records. That could result in power outages and people losing their heat and that's really the fear now for the people of Boston and Massachusetts -- Wolf.
[18:55:01] BLITZER: All right. Alex, get some hot chocolate. Thanks very much.
Let's bring in CNN national correspondent Brynn Gingras.
Brynn, you're south of Boston. You're seeing some significant flooding. Update our viewers on that.
BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, there are pockets of this kind of flooding all along coastal towns, especially here in Scituate where we're about an hour south of Boston. Now, luckily, this water is receding, but earlier today, at the height of the storm, this caused a storm surge that really went into the streets and caused some major issues, especially for people living on these coastal areas.
At one point, National Guard members couldn't even get through. They're still here on the ground trying to help residents, and it's not over yet we're told. The biggest threat next is this arctic blast that we're about to experience overnight and into tomorrow. Officials here worry about any power outages and people not staying warm over the next few days -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brynn, how cold is it going to get there?
I think Brynn lost me, but it's going to be very, very cold. Brynn, thank you very much.
This is certainly one of the strongest storms of its kind in recent history. Our meteorologist, Tom Sater, is tracking it for us.
First of all, Tom, what's the latest forecast?
TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's moving rapidly, Wolf, and that's good news. That's one bright spot, that it's moving quickly.
The other bright spot today, it stayed roughly off the coastline between 250 and 275 miles. That helped out tremendously keeping hurricane-force winds off the shore. We only had one location that received a hurricane gust. Power outages right now at 24,000, they could increase because of the winds picking up, but for the most part we got a little bit lucky here.
Going back to the beginning of the satellite era, it's extremely rare to have a storm drop in pressure so rapidly as this one. The pressure is equivalent to a category 3 hurricane. You can actually see the cold air being pulled down behind this in the Great Lakes.
That's the biggest fear right now, because if you look at the wind chill value: minus eight in Chicago, minus six in Detroit, minus nine in Pittsburgh, it's going to get much worse in New England. By Saturday, a wind chill of minus 15, Boston minus 26, interior sections will have wind chills minus 35 to minus 40. So, those that lose power may be like that for a while.
All of that water that rushed into the harbor in Boston, one to three feet of it, all-time record high tide. The record was 15.13 feet from the historic blizzard of 1978. They surpassed that. But all of that water in the streets of Boston is now undergoing a flash freeze. So, all of the vehicles are going to be stranded for days.
Picking up a good 11 inches around Brooklyn, we're getting over a foot now in Boston. I know in Washington, you are on the back edge, not much, about an inch. Philadelphia fared well, about 4 inches. But we're starting to see it wind down just a little bit.
We're also starting to see the warnings get erased or discontinued, which is great news. Still a blizzard warning parts of New England up into Maine. The storm system is now at its closest distance to the shoreline, about 120 miles just to the east of Nantucket.
It's going to make landfall, but in the eastern Canada area. The Canadian Maritimes, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but more rainfall with them and not the heavy amount of snow until you get off to the west.
The big problem, though, Wolf, is going to be the cold temperatures that are wrapping back behind this, single-digit high temperatures and brutal wind chills.
BLITZER: Yes, amidst all those cold temperatures, the bitter cold, there are going to be power outages all over the place and that's a huge concern.
SATER: Yes, it is a big concern but we got really lucky with that storm staying farther off the coast. We could have seen a couple hundred thousand without power. The heavy snow, yes, it's a concern because picking up, you know, 12, even 15 inches in a few locations. But even anyone who loses power, this is going to be bad news.
Twenty-four thousand again without now in the greater Massachusetts area in Boston, could see more to the north. But as this snow starts to harden and gets really heavy, the winds still kicking up enough could down some branches and more power outages. The high temperature in Boston on Saturday, seven degrees, Wolf.
BLITZER: Tom Sater doing some excellent forecasting for us as usual. Thank you very much, our meteorologist.
And take a look at this. Take a look at this. The frigid temperatures, take a look and see what they have done to Niagara falls. Its famous mist, it's freezing, creating a wintry wonderland, for those willing to brave the brutally cold temperatures.
Niagara, look at Niagara Falls. Even those of us from western New York, we see these pictures, it does happen from time to time, I must say, but it's still amazing to see all that ice going over Niagara Falls. More ice, by the way, will form in the coming days as the mercury continues to plummet.
But the falls themselves, they will likely keep flowing, they always do. It's an amazing sight, as I say, even those of us who grew up in western New York.
Important note to all of our viewers: stay with us later tonight for a CNN special report on the Trump presidency, "One Year Later". That's coming up at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.
Thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.