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Interview With Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Trump and Sessions Pressuring FBI Director?; Robert Mueller Seeking to Interview President Trump; CIA Chief: North Korea Just "Months" Away From Ability to Nuke U.S. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: What more can the Trump team do to protect and defend Americans?

And firestorm. The White House facing questions about a porn star's alleged affair with Mr. Trump and whether the hush money she reportedly was paid was illegal, this as some prominent Christian conservatives are ignoring the scandal.

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 multiple breaking stories in the Russia investigation.

Tonight, "The Washington Post" reports that special counsel Robert Mueller is seeking to question President Trump in the coming weeks about his decisions to oust National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.

This as CNN confirms that Mueller's team has interviewed Comey, as well as the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

There's a lot to cover this hour. I will talk with former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, who was fired by Mr. Trump, and Senate Judiciary Committee member Sheldon Whitehouse. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN's chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, Mueller's next big interview could be with the president.


And if you look at the people who have been interviewed now or who will soon be interviewed, these names, Sessions, Comey, the president, if he agrees, it makes it very clear that the focus, a focus of the special counsel's investigation very much on obstruction of justice. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): The president is on special counsel Robert Mueller's list for questioning, with Mueller planning to interview Mr. Trump in the coming weeks about his decision to fire National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey, according to "The Washington Post."

CNN has learned that Mueller's team already interviewed Comey at the end of last year, according to a source familiar with the matter. Comey was asked about memos that he wrote on his interactions with the president before being fired, this according to "The New York Times," which first reported on the interview.

CNN has also learned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last Wednesday, the first Trump Cabinet secretary to be interviewed in the Mueller probe and the 15th current or former Trump administration official.

Today, the president said he's not worried about Sessions' meeting with Mueller's team.


SCIUTTO: Topics of Sessions' questioning likely included Russian meddling in the election and, crucially, what Sessions know about the president's decision to fire Comey, a matter that Mueller is investigating for obstruction of justice, according to a source close to Sessions.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I have made a list of about eight things that I think, if I were Mueller, I would want to speak to Sessions about. And an obstruction surely is one of them, and perhaps foremost among them. How did it come to pass that Comey was asked for loyalty? How did it come to pass that Comey was fired?

SCIUTTO: New questions are also being raised about the Trump administration's interference with law enforcement. FBI Director Christopher Wray was pressured by the attorney general to make staff changes at the FBI senior level, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: It's one more example of this administration, the president and through his agent the attorney general trying to interfere in the FBI's ability to follow the law and help with the investigation into the Russia interference in our elections and the possible collusion of the Trump administration or Trump campaign.

SCIUTTO: Sessions mentioned the bureau's deputy director, Andrew McCabe, and its lawyer, James Baker, though it's not clear Sessions explicitly told Wray to fire or reassign them.

Baker was reassigned last year. Wray threatened to quit if McCabe was fired or reassigned from his post, appearing to follow through on a promise that he made at his confirmation hearing.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: If the president asks you to do something unlawful or unethical, what do you say?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: First, I would try to talk him out of it. And if that failed, I would resign.

SCIUTTO: Still, President Trump told reporters in the Oval Office today that Wray did not threaten to resign.

TRUMP: He didn't at all. He didn't. He did not even a little bit, no.

SCIUTTO: The president has repeatedly blasted the FBI, tweeting in December: "After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation and more running the FBI, its reputation is in tatters, worst in history. But fear not. We will bring it back to greatness."

Some Republican lawmakers are focusing new criticism on the FBI for apparently losing a series of text messages between top FBI officials who have come under fire for criticizing then candidate Donald Trump. Hundreds have already been made public.


However, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee dismissed the criticism.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: It may be a technical glitch at the bureau. The fact that they have provided the rest of them certainly doesn't show an attempt to try to withhold anything.


SCIUTTO: News that the special counsel wants to ask the president not just about the firing of James Comey, but also about the firing of Michael Flynn, that's important for a couple of reasons.

One, Flynn ostensibly was fired for lying about his contacts with Russians. Wolf, that of course brings the investigation back to the question of Russia, not just a question of things that happened after Russia's meddling in the election.

But another key point as well, Flynn pled guilty to a federal crime. He's cooperating with the special counsel. What did Flynn tell the special counsel about his own dismissal, what the president said to him and will the president's under-oath testimony match up with that?

BLITZER: And they're looking very closely to see how much he cooperates, what kind of information he has. He hasn't been sentenced and all of that is very, very relevant. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, reporting for us.

Now over to the White House. White House attempting to downplay and dismiss some of the fast-breaking new developments in the Russia probe. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Pamela, what are you hearing from the Trump administration tonight?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the press secretary, Sara Sidner, has repeatedly said there was no collusion, that the president didn't engage in collusion with the Russians.

But it appears here that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is zeroing in on obstruction of justice as it pertains to the president, not necessarily collusion. According to "The Washington Post," Mueller has reached out to Trump's lawyers, asking to question him on two specific topics, as Jim just reported on, the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Investigators want to know his state of mind, his intent. Why did he fire them? Was it to obstruct the Russia probe? As you will recall, James Comey wrote in his memos that the president asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. So Mueller's team will presumably want to find out why that is.

But, again, Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, is downplaying all of this, saying the White House is fully cooperative, that this should wrap up soon. Here's what she said today during the press briefing:


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As we have said probably just about every day this year since we have been here, that we're going to be fully cooperative with the special counsel, and we're going to continue to do that throughout the process. But we're also not going to comment on who may or may not or could be interviewed at any point, but we're going to continue to be fully cooperative with the process.


BROWN: While the White House wants the Russia probe to wrap up soon, it's far from clear if that will happen. As we just learned, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, was recently interviewed by special counsel Mueller's team.

So clearly these interviews are ongoing. What form the interview will take with the president and Mueller's team is still unclear. Sources say there could be a hybrid situation where he's interviewed in person, as well as in written questioning.

But certainly, if and when this happens, Wolf, it will be a significant development.

BLITZER: Certainly will be. Pamela Brown over at the White House for us, thank you.

Joining us Now, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee. Thank you so much for joining us.


BLITZER: All right, so "The Washington Post" now reporting that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, plans to interview President Trump in the coming weeks, particularly about his firings of his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the FBI Director James Comey.

Is he building a case potentially for obstruction of justice?

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, and probably has been for a long time now.

BLITZER: You speak as a former attorney general of Rhode Island. Tell us why you believe that.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, because there has just been such an abundance of evidence pointing towards that, whether it's the firing of Comey, the statements that were made beforehand seeking loyalty, the statements that were made afterwards to the Russians, saying that he got rid of Comey for the investigation.

And then this big cloud of Twitter and media attacks on various potential witnesses in the grand jury like Jim Comey, and on the credibility of the FBI, if all of that is viewed as being intended to influence the grand jury, then that's a form of obstruction of justice.

So it would be appalling if the Mueller team were not looking at all that evidence and trying to get to the bottom of how and whether obstruction of justice occurred.

BLITZER: Senator, do you believe the president will cooperate? How much can his legal team, for example, influence the nature of this interview with Mueller and his team, the format?

WHITEHOUSE: I don't think Bob Mueller and his team are going to be easy to intimidate. I think they're going to get what they want.

Obviously, he's the president of the United States and certain courtesies as to where you take the interview and as to what questions can be answered in writing, as opposed to the ones that prosecutors really want to see live, is within Bob's discretion to let him have that flexibility.


And I'm sure he will be courteous in that respect. But none of that is going to inhibit Bob Mueller's ability to get the information that he needs.

BLITZER: Last Wednesday...

WHITEHOUSE: And, by the way, when he's doing this, when he's doing this, now his witnesses, whether it's Sessions or Trump himself, are under pains and penalties of perjury. They're within the ambit of the 18-USC-1001, the false statements law.

And there is no executive privilege. So even the phony non-assertion assertions of executive privilege have to be swept aside. And if you're deliberately not remembering stuff, that also can create legal peril.

So it's going to be harder for Sessions or for Trump to have fits of amnesia.

BLITZER: We have now learned that, last Wednesday, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his investigators, they spent hours interviewing the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. How significant is that?

WHITEHOUSE: Very significant. Again, it puts Sessions both the equivalent of under oath. It strips him of executive privilege and it requires him to answer questions fully and truthfully.

Second, there's just so much to go into about the obstruction of justice, about the firing of Comey, about what was going on with the meetings with the Russians back at the convention, which may well be related to the Trump efforts to strip on behalf of Russia the tough Ukraine provisions out of the Republican platform.

Sessions was around long enough to know about that stuff, if there was anything going on there. So there's a broad, broad, broad array of things that the attorney general could have been talking about, and it could be that they will get a second bite at him, too.

Nothing says that these officials only get to be interviewed once.

BLITZER: As you know, Robert Mueller is also investigating possible collusion. Could the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, possibly answer whether others in the Trump campaign, and he was in the Trump campaign, Sessions, knew about this Russian offer of dirt, for example, on Hillary Clinton, an offer that was made to George Papadopoulos, who, as you know, has already pled guilty, a former Trump campaign staffer?

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, absolutely.

That and other things as well, given all the meetings that Sessions had with Russians, and given his ability, just from an investigative point of view, to point them in new directions and figure out who else they need to interview based on conversations or information that Sessions can report to them.

So there's a good chance actually that this initial interview with Sessions was related just to obstruction of justice, and collusion may be a later interview. We just don't know what the topic was. But nothing says that everything had to be discussed in just one interview.

BLITZER: The attorney general is also, if this were not enough, drawing scrutiny right now for reportedly pressuring the FBI director, Christopher Wray, to clean house over at the FBI. What was the motivation behind that?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, it's hard to tell.

But what looks really bad about this is that it aligns very closely with a lot of Republican talking points in the attack on the FBI that is being maintained, many of us believe falsely, as they scream to try to either deflect public attention from the Russia investigation or taint the reputation of the FBI in the Russia investigation with the public, or even to taint the image of the FBI with the grand jurors, to seek to influence the grand jury that way.

Again, way out of bounds to be seeking to influence grand juror in the performance of their duties that way.

BLITZER: The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, has drafted a memo accusing the FBI of abusing domestic surveillance tools, international surveillance tools. What would be the impact of that apparently four-page memo's release?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I suspect this is a bit of an amped-up version of the document that Republican senators released asking for a criminal investigation into Christopher Steele, the researcher who put together the famous Steele dossier.

It's a chance for political folks to take an issue that is buried and classified or investigative material and very selectively get portions of it out into the public domain without the public having a chance to understand the whole story.

On the Senate side, we saw that when Chairman Feinstein put the whole story out, and I think that helped settle that question. It's more complicated because there's more information behind the Devin Nunes report.


But the House members who have looked at it and have looked at the underlying material say that it simply does not align with the actual classified material that it purports to summarize.

BLITZER: Yes, Christopher Steele, not just a researcher, a former British spy who apparently was pretty highly regarded by the FBI, the U.S. law enforcement, and U.S. intelligence community as well.

WHITEHOUSE: Relied on frequently by the intelligence community and the law enforcement community for his expertise, way before the dossier appeared.

BLITZER: Yes, that's correct. Senator Whitehouse, thanks so much for joining us.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's bring in CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara, who was fired from his job as the United States attorney general in New York by President Trump. Preet, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: Let's get to that "Washington Post" report, the story that the special counsel Robert Mueller plans to interview the president in the coming weeks, and that Mueller specifically wants to question the president about the firings of firings of his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the former FBI Director James Comey.

What does that tell you about the focus of this investigation?

BHARARA: It tells you in part that the focus of the investigation is on the president of the United States.

And in the preview in your question, you pointed to the two issues that they want to focus on, if the report is to be believed. It also tells you, it's a big deal. It's been reported for a while that ultimately the president was going to -- that the special counsel's office was going to want to talk to the president, and these seem to be more concrete reports that that's going to happen.

Typically, the timing would indicate that at least with respect to the things they're concerned about that either implicate the president or about which the president may have information implicating others, they're possibly nearing the end.

Now, nothing about this investigation is typical when you have a special counsel who has been appointed to investigate the activities of the president and his closest advisers. That's not a garden variety case. But I'll tell you from my experience in the U.S. attorney's office as a U.S. attorney that when you have an overt investigation and people know what's going on, you save for the end, in the same way that the FBI did with the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, you save for the end sort of the top dog in the case.

And this would indicate, if it's true, by the way, and I caution people about necessarily believing the timetable as laid out in that article, because it's probably coming from the defense lawyers, people who are representing Donald trump.

But if it's to be believed that this interview might happen in the next few weeks, I think that's a considerable sign that we may be nearing some important inflection point in the investigation and in the case.

BLITZER: "The Washington Post" is also reporting, Preet, that the president's team wants the testimony to be a sort of hybrid, written statements and in-person interview.

How much influence will the president's legal team have in determining the format?

BHARARA: Yes. I don't know what that is, a hybrid. Generally speaking, prosecutors want, if they -- if they're demanding it, they want to speak face-to-face, sitting in a room across from the person they're trying to get information from.

And the defense lawyers and their associates can submit documents, they can submit affidavits, they can do presentations. But I would find it remarkable if it would be acceptable for the president's lawyers to say, with respect to some issues, we're going to give you a document and testimony in writing of some sort that's not sworn, and in some other cases, with respect to some other questions, we will make the president of the United States available for questioning and follow-up back and forth.

That doesn't seem to hold a lot of water as far as I'm concerned.

BLITZER: Would it take place, the questioning of the president of the United States, before a federal grand jury or in an office at the White House or an office at the Mueller's Justice Department?

BHARARA: It could be any one of those thing things.

I would say typically, from what I hear being reported from reports about the special counsel's conduct, if cases where you have a high- profile person who is very busy who has other duties, and there's no more high-profile person in the country or in the world than the president, you make accommodations, and often the first thing you ask for is a voluntary interview.

And that seems to have been the practice followed with respect to other potentially significant witnesses in the special counsel's investigation. So, again, this doesn't always work out this way, but typically the way we did it and the way I understand most people have done it is you make an offer to have a conversation that may be under oath, but, typically, because it's also a crime to lie to an FBI agent whether or not you're under oath, sometimes you forego the oath.

And people sometimes who testify in front of congressional testimonies also don't testify under oath when it's a voluntary type of situation. So I would imagine that, in the first instance, as a matter of deference and courtesy and to try to get the ball rolling, that the Mueller folks would be saying you make the president available at a time that is generally convenient for him for a period of hours, and we will come to you.


We went to the offices of significant politicians and high-profile people, too, just to get the meeting on the books and get it going.

BLITZER: Does it suggest to you, as it suggests to other people, that the Mueller investigation may be winding down if they're getting ready within the next few weeks to interview the president of the United States himself?

BHARARA: I was saying a couple of minutes ago, I think that that actually does indicate they may be true.

I keep using words like it may be true and lots of caveats, because we don't know what's happened behind closed doors. We just found out in another report that you haven't mentioned yet that Jeff Sessions apparently underwent an interview at the hands of the special counsel's office and we didn't hear about that for a week.

So we don't really know what is going on, we don't really know what the status is, other than the signals we get from occasional indictments, guilty pleas, and signaling of interviews that are taking place.

But, yes, the bottom line is, the good bet is, they're nearing the end of some stage of the investigation, if it is true that there's a plan to interview the president of the United States in the near future.

BLITZER: This notion that Robert Mueller and his team, they have been working obviously for months and months and months on this. They know a ton of information. They know a whole lot more than the public knows, that we know, and they basically know the answer to every question they're getting ready to ask the president and they want to make sure he tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Is that a fair assumption?

BHARARA: The first part of what you said is absolutely true, that the Mueller team knows a whole lot more than I know, than you know and the public knows. And that's as it should be.

I think it's also generally the case when you are interviewing someone at the conclusion of an investigation, and the reason you do this at the end, is you want to be able to make sure you don't need two bites at the apple. Right?

So you collect all the information you have, the recollections of all sorts of other witnesses who were involved either in the firing of Jim Comey or whatever the situation was with Michael Flynn or collusion with Russia, if that's proven or not, and having the benefit of all that information, you can ask more probing, pointed questions of who may be the ultimate target of the investigation.

And so you don't have to talk to that person. Then you find that information from other witness a week later and wished you would have asked a follow-up question of your main witness. It isn't always the case, though, just to go back to your question, that you know the answer to everything.

Sometimes it's the case that part of the reason you do these interviews is not necessarily always to nail the person you're interviewing, but also to see if that person has a more innocent or reasoned and reasonable explanation of what looks nefarious to the prosecutors.

People forget this about what the job entails. Sometimes, it entails giving people an opportunity to explain themselves. Sometimes, when people take the opportunity to explain themselves, they dig themselves into a digger hole.

But on occasion, people sometimes will give you a reasonable explanation as to why you did something that's more innocent than guilty. So it's a combination of those things, I think.

BLITZER: I want to pick up what you just raised a moment or so ago about the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. He was interviewed for hours by the special counsel last Wednesday. How important is his testimony to this overall investigation into possible obstruction of justice?

BHARARA: That depends on what he says and depends on what he knew.

I think it makes sense for the attorney general to have been interviewed, because part of the investigation is about the nature and circumstances and reasoning behind the firing of Jim Comey. By all reports, Jeff Sessions, even though he recused himself from the Russia investigation, was involved in the decision and the process of terminating Jim Comey. That's relevant.

The other thing it points out that I think is really interesting is everyone understands that Donald Trump has been very angry at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Now we know, if this report is to be believed about his being interviewed last week, that Jeff Sessions was, in fact, a witness in the case, and the idea that he could have overseen an investigation where he on the one hand is the overseer, and on the other hand actually has testimony that might be relevant to the investigation is completely untenable.

BLITZER: Sessions, as you know, during the campaign, he led the foreign policy team for Donald Trump. Could he possibly have answers to some questions, other questions, whether others in the campaign, for example, knew about the Russian offer to George Papadopoulos of dirt on Hillary Clinton?

BHARARA: You know, sure. I don't know. Yes, I think anything is possible. I think anybody who was involved, it's another reason why he had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Anyone who is a close associate of the president, who was involved in a number of meetings that know he was, whose recollection of the kinds of things that were said and who he met was has been at best sketchy, and at worst dodgy or outright false and misleading, is in a position to have information that could be damaging.

And I think Jeff Sessions understands, I presume, more than even other people, given his prior life as a United States attorney in Alabama, a member of the Senate, and now the attorney general of the United States, with oversight of the FBI, mind you, what a big deal it is to tell a falsehood in connection with an investigation.


BLITZER: Why do you think Attorney General Jeff Sessions pressured the FBI director, Christopher Wray, to clean house over at the FBI?

BHARARA: You know, I don't know. It could be innocent, and it could be because sometimes an institution needs a fresh start. He has access to information that we don't know.

On the other hand, given everything we know about how the FBI has been functioning, and partisan allegations that are being made from various corners, you worry a little bit about that.

And I think it's the case that Chris Wray should be commended for trying to run his agency in an independent way and not to be bullied around, even by somebody who on the organizational chart is ahead of him and above him.

I think the FBI will retain credibility over time, notwithstanding potshots that are being taken on particular things because people have a political interest on one side or the other, but it will retain credibility over time if the FBI director asserts himself as someone who is independent, knows what's best for the organization, and doesn't at the slightest hint of partisanship change his colors.

BLITZER: Bottom line, Preet, what is your sense about this investigation right now? Is it heading more toward obstruction of justice or Russian collusion or, as some have suggested, maybe money laundering?

BHARARA: Yes, I'm not going to predict, because people who predict get in trouble, because I understand this is being recorded and I don't want my words to come back to haunt me.

Look, I think of those three things, we don't know a lot. A lot is submerged, as we've been talking about in this interview. But there's been a lot of information that's come out to suggest that the focus on obstruction is a serious part of this.

We also don't know if it's going to lead to anything at all. Sometimes it's the case -- this will be disappointing to some people, and heartening to other people, depending on your political point of view. But sometimes you get to the end of an investigation and you have the final interview to check the box, even if you don't think there will be an ultimate charge that you bring.

That's how investigations are done. That's how investigations are supposed to be done. They're not supposed to be prejudged. There's not supposed be a preordained result. And it may be that this will lead to something very significant and earth-shattering and earth- shaking for the country. It also could be that is something they're just putting to dead.

BLITZER: Preet Bharara has got a lot of experience in these areas.

Thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's bring in our correspondents and analysts.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I agree with everything he said.


BLITZER: It looks like it's getting to a climax right now, if they're getting ready to talk to the president of the United States.

BORGER: As we have reported that the attorneys for the president and team Mueller of the special counsel's office have been communicating since around Christmastime, and then now into the new year about just how to do this.

It's kind of a dance, it was described to me, about how they can limit on the Trump side the liability, of course, for their client, and how Bob Mueller can get the information he wants.

As Preet was saying before, if it were up to team Trump, they would just have some written interrogatories, whether they're sworn of whatever, and respond in writing. And then perhaps if that led to a very limited kind of questioning, say, if they know the questions in advance, then maybe they would do that.

I don't know where team Mueller is on this. It would seem to me that at some point they would want to have a face-to-face interview with the president. Trump's team talks about Ronald Reagan and what happened during Iran-Contra, and Ronald Reagan gave written answers to questions during Iran-Contra.

So they clearly would like that to happen. I don't know if that would be enough for Mueller. I kind of doubt it.

BLITZER: Bill Clinton appeared via video link before a federal grand jury.

BORGER: That's what they would like to avoid. Can I just say that? Yes.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, "The Washington Post" is reporting that Mueller wants to question the president in the coming weeks, specifically about the firings of Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, and former FBI Director James Comey. What does that tell you?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that to me has always been the heart of the case. Even more than collusion. Collusion is not a crime.

The president's supporters have been pointing that out from day one. There are possibly crimes associated with involvement between the Trump campaign and Russia. But it is difficult to shoehorn that behavior, whatever it might be, into the criminal code.

However, obstruction of justice is a crime that has often been associated with presidential scandals, whether it's Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. And, you know, the firing of James Comey alone -- James Comey was investigating the people around the president and effectively the president himself.

The president then fired him, as he later admitted, because of that investigation. That alone is very substantial evidence of obstruction of justice. Whether he lied about other aspects of that is also possible evidence of obstruction of justice. So I mean, that remains, I think, the heart of this investigation, whether it turns out that Mueller and his team can prove it, either in an impeachment referral or in a criminal case, I don't know. But certainly, that's what they're investigating.

BLITZER: Yes, the president in that interview with Lester Holt of NBC News, he publicly said he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.

Jim Sciutto, as you know, Flynn, Michael Flynn, who was deeply involved in the campaign during the transition, and then for about a month or so, became the national security adviser to the president before he was fired. He's not cooperating withe the special counsel, Robert Mueller. He hasn't yet been sentenced. He's pled guilty. How risky is that for the president?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: You know, it bears repeating, emphasizing: This is the president's former national security adviser who's pled guilty to a federal crime, who was cooperating with the special counsel. He's not a -- he can't be dismissed as a coffee boy as some of the administration have with George Papadopoulos, who's also cooperating. He was central during the campaign, and in the transition, and in a very senior role.

And he is cooperating now, at great -- with tremendous incentive to cooperate, because he faces enormous -- he faces the possibility of enormous fines. He already has enormous legal bills and possibly time in prison. And his son, as well. And we know that was a driving factor in him cooperating here.

So he has all that incentive to, one, speak the truth. But again, they wouldn't have given him that deal unless, in his proffer, he had shown them some value to the prosecution.

That all spells potential trouble for the president and for senior people around him.

And the other point I would make is this: you know, if it is true that the president is being questioned not just about Comey's firing but also about Flynn's firing, that takes you back to the Russia investigation, right? Because Flynn was fired for lying about contacts with Russians. Obstruction of justice is clearly a focus here, and there's an obstruction piece to that, because we know that the president asked Comey about sort of letting Flynn go.

But Flynn is also direct line right back to where this started, which is Russia, contacts with Russians during the campaign, and what was said during the transition, et cetera. I don't think we should imagine that that line of the investigation is necessarily shut off.

BLITZER: Let's not forget, David Swerdlick, it was, what, just two weeks ago that President Trump seemed to dramatically downplay the possibility of an interview with Mueller. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll see what happens. I mean, certainly, I'll see what happens. But when they have no collusion, and nobody's found any collusion, at any level, it seems unlikely that you'd even have an interview.


BLITZER: Seems, though, that Mueller is more interested in obstruction of justice than collusion.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, the president's been going along that line because you've had various members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, saying, "We haven't found anything yet on collusion." That's not the same as they haven't found anything. The investigation is not over.

But yes, it's less about collusion as Jeffrey was just saying a moment ago, which is not actually a crime in this context, and more about obstruction of justice, or just finding out what, if any crimes at all were committed.

I think when you talk about Flynn -- Jeffrey, yes? You wanted to...

TOOBIN: Well, Wolf, I mean, just, you know -- that brief clip from the president, I think is going to demonstrate how difficult it will be to interview Donald Trump, especially under any of these scenarios. There's not going to be a judge there to insist that he answer a question. So he's going to filibuster. He's going to say, as he did in a recent interview 16 times, "There was no collusion," regardless of what the questions are to him.

You know, I just think, you know, the president is in a stronger position here than many of us may be thinking about. Because he is in control. If he doesn't want to answer these questions, he's not going to answer them. And what's anybody going to do about it?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: But he's -- you know, he's really talking about no collusion in terms of himself. I mean, to Jim's point, and about Flynn's contacts with the Russians, that's not Donald -- you know, that's not Donald Trump's issue unless -- unless he was involved -- he knew...

SCIUTTO: He gave them instructions.

BORGER: ... what Flynn was doing or gave him instruction. So you know, there is -- there is that question. And I don't know what you would call it, whether you'd call it collusion or conspiracy.

But you know, Trump, when Trump -- when Donald Trump talks, he's talking about himself, not about anybody else.

SWERDLICK: Right. Which is why they want to at least get him in there and get him on the record about the timeline of what he knew and when he knew it.

If you look at the president's tweet from December, where he said, "I had to fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI and he lied to Vice President Pence," then that leads to a line of questioning that says, OK, "Well, when did you know, Mr. President, A, that General Flynn had talked to Ambassador Kislyak, and when did you know that Sally Yates had told Don McGahn that this had taken place? When did you decide to fire him? And then why all this time, a year ago, did you not say that the FBI was the reasoning?"

[18:35:23] SCIUTTO: And the firing didn't happen until it broke out in the news. Right?

BORGER: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: It was the interview took place -- I forget the number of days, two, three weeks before, but the decision was made only when it became public, not when, apparently, folks in the White House knew it happened.

SWERDLICK: Right. Wolf, can I say one more thing about Comey?


SWERDLICK: In the case of Comey, right, we don't just have the infamous Lester Holt interview. You also have the letter that the president sent to James Comey firing him. He said, "I greatly appreciate you informing me on three occasions that I'm not under investigation, but I nevertheless concur with the decision that it's time for you to go." I mean, that to me is -- you don't even have to guess at that. That's the first question, I think, for Special Counsel Mueller.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey Toobin, how significant is the fact that the attorney of the United States, Jeff Sessions, spent several hours last Wednesday answering questions from Robert Mueller and his team?

TOOBIN: Well, again, it is evidence that I think the Mueller team is tending towards the end of its investigation.

You know, as Preet said, you don't get many chances. You only usually get one chance to interview the very top people, like the attorney general, like the president. So they would not have brought Jeff Sessions in unless they had all the evidence that they wanted to question him about.

But he is a central figure. He is someone who has told inconsistent stories about his own involvement with the Russians during the campaign. In addition, he was intimately involved in the decision to fire James Comey. Both of those are big parts of Mueller's investigation, and you can see why there were hours of questions worth to ask him. Hours' worth of questions to ask him.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. That's much more we're following, including money in the Stormy Daniels saga. Was her alleged payoff by the president's lawyer illegal?


[18:41:40] BLITZER: Breaking tonight, "The Washington Post" reports that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is seeking to interview President Trump in the coming weeks. We're learning that Mueller's team already has interviewed two other very prominent figures in the Russia investigation: the fired FBI director, James Comey; and the sitting attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions.

Also tonight, there are new developments in the case of Stormy Daniels, the former porn star reportedly paid to stay silent about her alleged sexual relationship with Donald Trump before he became president. The watchdog group Common Cause is pushing for an investigation, raising concerns that laws were broken.

Brian Todd is following this story. Brian, what's the latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Common Cause is saying it believes the payment to Stormy Daniels was an illegal campaign contribution. Now, this puts more pressure on President Trump and his attorney tonight to prove that nothing more than a personal transaction was done here.


TODD (voice-over): As Stormy Daniels cashes in on her latest notoriety, landing bookings at strip clubs around the country, questions tonight over whether her involvement with President Trump could land him in legal trouble.

The left-leaning watchdog group Common Cause has lodged a complaint, alleging that the reported $130,000 payment to Daniels in 2016 to keep silent about an alleged sexual relationship with Donald Trump, was an illegal campaign contribution, arranged by Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen.

PAUL RYAN, COMMON CAUSE: I think this payment to Stormy Daniels was for the purpose of influencing the election. That makes it a contribution to the campaign and an expenditure by the campaign, given the involvement of Michael Cohen and, presumably, President Trump himself.

TODD: Common Cause wants the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department to investigate. Common Cause says the timing of the alleged payment is crucial, that because Daniels was reportedly paid just weeks before the 2016 election, and then stopped talking to media outlets around that time, the payment benefited Trump's presidential campaign and, therefore, was a campaign contribution. A contribution that, if it existed, would have exceeded limits on donations and also may have violated the law, if it wasn't reported.

Some campaign finance experts say it will be tough to prove it was a campaign-related expense, because Trump might have paid Daniels even if he wasn't a candidate. Still, if the FEC ends up deposing key players in this drama, it could get messy.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: To determine what the source of funds were, they have to gather facts, and that could involve a conversation with Cohen. That could involve a conversation with Stormy Daniels. It could potentially involve a conversation with the president, all of which is not good. TODD: Daniels took no questions about the alleged affair when she

took the stage on Saturday at a strip club in South Carolina, but she denies getting hush money, and she and Michael Cohen have denied the affair.

Tonight, some influential leaders on the religious right are giving Trump a pass on the Daniels case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We kind of gave him, all right, you get a mulligan, a do-over here.

TODD: Tony Perkins, leader of the Christian group the Family Research Council, says Trump is providing the leadership his movement needs.


TODD: Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who said bill Clinton should resign over the Lewinsky affair, said the same thing on MSNBC.

GRAHAM: We certainly don't hold him up as the -- as the pastor of this country, and he's not. But I appreciate the fact that the president does have a concern for Christian values.

DAVID DRUCKER, THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Obviously when Democrats crossed ethical lines, it was easy for them to criticize Democrats. But they did make character an issue. That was one of the hallmarks of the evangelical Christian political movement. What they did with President Trump is decide to throw that all out the window.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now, Trump attorney Michael Cohen has never denied making a payment to Stormy Daniels but he tells CNN that Common Cause complaint is, quote, baseless, as is the allegation that President Trump filed a false report with the Federal Election Commission.

But if he did make a payment, we had other questions for Michael Cohen, specifically where did that reported money paid to Stormy Daniels come from? From the Trump Organization, Trump's personal funds, from the Trump campaign, possibly a donor or possibly from Michael Cohen himself? Cohen did not get back to us regarding those questions -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Brian, you've been talking to some campaign finance lawyers and other experts. Do they believe this case could really get to the Justice Department?

TODD: They say that's a real long shot, Wolf, and it might not even get to the Federal Election Commission.

One expert who knows a lot about this says it would take four votes on that commission just to find reason to believe there might have been a violation of campaign finance law. He says that's tough to get. And he says to go from that to a possible criminal case at the Justice Department, many of these experts just don't see that happening. BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you. Brian Todd reporting.

Let's get back to our correspondents and our analysts, as the president faces potential legal problems stemming from this alleged hush money paid to the former porn star.

Jeffrey Toobin, you know, potentially, this -- if you believe Common Cause, this could have enormous legal ramifications of illegal campaign fund-raising, campaign finance laws. It potentially could be a very big story.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it could be. But, you know, one thing the president has in his favor is that the Federal Election Commission is a paralyzed agency. It is not an agency that is aggressively investigating anything, because it's so polarized along political lines. To launch an investigation, as Brian said, would take a substantial majority of the members.

The Republican members seem unlikely to embrace this, and it is true that, you know, proving that this is a campaign contribution and this is like buying television advertising time is a difficult thing to do. You know, the president or candidates do all sorts of things that help them be more appealing candidates that are not campaign contributions. This is obviously a very weird and strange situation.

But, I mean, what's weird about it is that the president is paying a porn star $130,000. I think, you know, from a common sense perspective, that's what's weird about this. Whether it's actually a campaign contribution is a much more difficult legal issue.

BLITZER: You think ordinarily, Gloria, this would be a bigger story than it is?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it would be. I think it would be a bigger story. I think there's so much incoming right now, and people kind of just shrug. Oh, this is Donald Trump.

I mean, one thing that interested me, you ran Franklin Graham in Brian's piece. You know, this notion that the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, has said well, the president gets a mulligan on this one. It seems to me that, like the women's groups during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, they're kind of saying, look, he's going to do what we want him to do. He's in our corner --

BLITZER: You're talking about Bill Clinton?

BORGER: Bill Clinton. You know, women's groups felt that way about Bill Clinton. They didn't challenge him on the Lewinsky stuff, and now, there's remorse on that. Family Research Council, evangelicals, they're saying, look, he's in our corner on a lot of issues, so we're not going to challenge him on this kind of stuff. And I think, you know, they're going to have some problems with that with their membership, because at what cost? At what cost?


don't know what reality we're living in, that it's such a small story relative to all the stuff that's going on right now. I mean, listen, it's -- for a portion of his base, it's never going to be -- it's never going to be an issue no matter what he does, and the president has said as much. But perhaps even beyond the base, it may just be that the reality is, with Trump, the standard is lower, right, for this kind of personal character stuff in the public eye. And that even the folks who don't like Trump so much may not be so surprised by it. And it's not what they're focusing on right now.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Wolf, I would just add to what Jim is saying, is that, with the base, also there's a part of the base that I think would see an FEC investigation or a trial as an attack on the president by the deep state or by establishment over something that's long ago been litigated, over something that his lawyer denies, that he denies in a way that would sort of make this politically almost advantageous to Trump, at least with his base.

[18:50:06] Even if more widely, like Gloria is saying, this is unusual --

BLITZER: Jeffrey, go ahead.

TOOBIN: But just think about the parallel universe we are in. Let's change some names. You know, President Barack Obama's personal lawyer paid $130,000 to the porn star in return for her silence? How likely is that?

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: How big a story would that be? Or George W. Bush's lawyer, you know, paid $130,000 to a porn star. I mean, it would be an earthquake.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: This is like, well, whatever, you know? I mean, it's just unbelievable.

BORGER: Well, it's because people shrug because they go, well, it's Donald Trump, what do you expect?

Another thing I would -- I would add is that you haven't heard anything from the first lady on this. You haven't heard anything from Melania. I mean, she is not going to Davos. Who knows if this is related? They didn't publicly wish each other happy anniversary --

BLITZER: Yesterday.

BORGER: -- yesterday. But, OK, so what?

You know, the point is that Melania has kept very silent about this. And so people kind of shrug. And unless -- you know, the Family Research Council, a conservative evangelical group, is giving him a mulligan. Well, if they're giving him a mulligan, why shouldn't everybody else, right? I mean, these are value-based interest group here.

SWERDLICK: I think Gloria is right. I mean, it's similar in the sense that he's playing too tight when the president says something racist, Wolf, no one say -- some people say, oh, I don't think he said that. But no one says, oh, that doesn't sound anything like Donald Trump. They are like, well, maybe he said it, and I think that's the same thing here.

People expect this kind of scandal with President Trump that, oh, maybe a woman came out of the pass to make X accusations and that follows him around.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There's more news we're following. Very important news.

North Korea now warning the United States not to push it into a confrontation, as CIA director warns Kim Jong-un is just months away from being able to attack the United States with nuclear missiles.


[18:56:47] BLITZER: New tonight North Korea is warning that new U.S. military deployments in the region will be dangerous, very dangerous act that could drive Kim Jong-un to an extreme confrontation, their words. Kim's regime defending its nuclear program at a conference on disarmament as the Trump administration is driving home the danger to Americans.

Let's bring our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, we are hearing directly from the CIA director about this increasingly urgent threat.


2018 rapidly appears to be shaping up as a year both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un may be making decisions that could change the world forever.


STARR (voice-over): Tonight from the CIA, a blunt and unsettling public assessment for Americans about the ongoing capability of North Korea to launch a missile attack on the U.S.

MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: North Korea is ever closer to being able to hold America at risk.

STARR: Kim Jong-un and the U.S. each have a goal.

POMPEO: He is trying to put in our mind the reality that he can deliver that pain to the United States of America. And our mission is to make the day that he can do that as far off as possible.

STARR: The CIA is watching crucial moves by Kim. POMPEO: Their testing capacity is improved and frequency that they

have tests which are materially successful has also improved. Putting them ever closer to a place where Americans can be held at risk.

STARR: For now, economic and diplomatic pressure still leads the way and a claim by CIA of an effort to make that all work.

POMPEO: We have officers working all around the work working diligently to make sure we do everything we can to support the U.S. pressure campaign and to tighten the sanction.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We all agreed that we will not accept a nuclear armed North Korea.

POMPEO: But A diplomatic clash in Switzerland. Pyeongchang making it clear it's not giving up its weapons.

HAN TAE SONG, NORTH KOREAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The DPRK nuclear force is capable of frustrating and countering any nuclear threats from U.S. and its constitutes, a powerful detriment that prevent the U.S. from starting an adventurous war.

STARR: The Pentagon is considering new weapons to deter North Korea, including low yield smaller nuclear weapons with less lethally, perhaps making the decision to use them easier, and new missiles with multiple warheads aimed at shooting down an incoming swarm of North Korean missiles.

But it may not be enough. The CIA believes Kim could attack from more than just his own self-preservation.

POMPEO: Call it what you will. Call it coercive is perhaps the best way to think about Kim Jong-un is prepared to potentially use these weapons.


STARR: And Director Pompeo also made it clear the CIA is very focused right now on trying to figure out what is going on inside North Korea with Kim and his leadership. But the CIA director would not say how the agency is going about that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point.

All right. Thanks very much, Barbara Starr, reporting for us.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.