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Lawmakers Seek to Protect Mueller after Trump Tried to Fire Him; Grassley 'Open' to Legislation to Protect Mueller; Attorney General Jeff Sessions, We Will Defend Investigators And Prosecutors Form Unfair Critism; Poltical Tensions Add To Pressure On North Korean Skaters. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:27] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: firestorm. Members of Congress are raising a storm after word that President Trump tried to fire the Russia probe special counsel. They're issuing warnings and making a new push for legislation to protect Robert Mueller.

Growing evidence. Experts say the attempt to fire Mueller, following the firing of FBI chief James Comey is growing evidence for a case of obstruction of justice. What's Mueller's next move?

Dead on arrival? The new White House immigration framework would offer a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million immigrants, but it comes with a price tag: $25 billion to build a border wall with Mexico. With Democrats and conservatives opposed, is it dead on arrival?

And on the move. Melania Trump skipped out on her husband's trip to Davos and flew to Florida instead. Tonight, her U.S. Air Force jet is on the tarmac in West Palm Beach as her office pushes back on what it calls salacious reporting.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, furious lawmakers are warning of red lines and seeking to protect the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as a source confirms that President Trump tried to have him fired last June. The move stalled when a top White House official objected.

This latest shocker comes after the president said he was prepared to face Mueller under oath, and it may fuel Mueller's focus on obstruction of justice.

I'll speak with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with our CNN political correspondent, Sara Murray. Sara, what's the latest? SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've long

known the president is irritated by the Russia probes and particularly the appointment of a special counsel. Now we're getting a better sense of the lengths the president reportedly went to have Robert Mueller removed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump today using one of his favorite phrases to deny the bombshell report from the "New York Times," that he called for Special Counsel Robert Mueller's firing last June.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, did you seek to fire Robert Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP (r), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Fake news, folks. Fake news.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's your message today?

TRUMP: Typical "New York Times" fake stories.

MURRAY: But a source confirms to CNN that Trump did call for Mueller's firing and that White House counsel Don McGahn refused because he disagreed with his reasoning. Trump's effort to remove Mueller came just a month after he created a firestorm by firing FBI Director James Comey.

Two people told "The Times" the president expressed concern over what he saw as three possible conflicts of interest, with Mueller serving as special counsel.

One involving a dispute Mueller had at Trump National Golf Club, causing him to resign his membership. Another that Mueller's law had previously represented his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And, finally, that Trump had just interviewed Mueller for Comey's replacement for FBI director.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb telling CNN, "We decline to comment out of respect for the office of the special counsel and its process.

Back in June Trump was also openly airing his frustrations over the Russia probe on Twitter, in one tweet saying, "You are witnessing the single greatest witch hunt in American political history, led by some very bad and conflicted people."

Two months after the reported attempt to fire Mueller, he was asked if he'd ever considered it.

TRUMP: I haven't given it any thought. I mean, I've been reading about it from you people. You say, oh, I'm going to dismiss him. No, I'm not dismissing anybody.

MURRAY: Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he was looking forward to a potential interview with Mueller's office.

TRUMP: I would love to do it. You know, again, I have to say, subject to my lawyers and all of that, but I would love to do it.

MURRAY: And while Mueller's team tries to zero in on whether Trump obstructed some legal experts say if the president did attempt to fire Mueller last June, it's part of a pattern.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There's this theory in obstruction of justice, you know, which essentially is a mosaic. Can you take a lot of little pieces which, in and of themselves don't amount to obstruction, and build an obstruction case by -- by that? And I think the theory is a valid one.

MURRAY: Former FBI Director Comey testified that Trump asked him for loyalty over a private dinner at the White House. Comey says the president later asked him to drop the FBI investigation into his national security adviser Michael Flynn before firing Comey in May.

TRUMP: Jeff Sessions has been a federal--

MURRAY: The president was also fuming when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. He later publicly pressured Sessions, tweeting his suggestion to fire Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.

[17:05:00] Trump also asked his intelligence chief to say there was no evidence of cooperation between his campaign and Russia. But on Wednesday, Trump said that's not obstruction. He's just fighting back.

TRUMP: There's no collusion. Now they're saying, "Oh, well, did he fight back?" If you fight back, you say -- you fight back, John, you fight back. "Oh, it's obstruction."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now the president may have dismissed this development today as fake news, but a source tells CNN that Don McGahn isn't expected as of right now to come out publicly and deny this report. Another source points out, Wolf, that that could create some awkward dynamics in the White House.

BLITZER: It certainly could. All right, Sara. Thank you very much.

Angry Democrats are trying to revive bipartisan bills that would protect the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and a top Republican senator says he's actually open to the idea.

Let's go live to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.

Manu, what are you learning?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that top Republican senator is Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and earlier today, he told me very clearly that he is, quote, "Surely open" to considering bipartisan legislation now sitting in the Senate that would protect Robert Mueller from being fired or face political interference from this White House. Now, there are two competing bills that Grassley says that he wants to see reconciled first to get those differences out of the way so there's actually one bill for his committee to consider. And he wants to make sure it does not raise any constitutional concerns before he takes that additional step.

Now one of the members was pushing that bipartisan bill is Cory Booker. He's a Democrat from New Jersey. And I spoke to him earlier today about how he's handling this now. He said he's on the phone. He said he's calling members, and he hoped for renewed momentum, and also, Wolf, he warned of what, quote, "authoritarian tactics" in this White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, I think that there was a very pragmatic reason to put forward legislation to try to check the president's power, authoritarian -- potentially authoritarian tendencies to order the removal of the special counsel.

But what went from a pragmatic important idea now, I believe, is a moral imperative. We have a president that time and time again is showing his inclination towards authoritarian tendencies.

RAJU: Do you think it's too early to be talking about impeachment, for the Democrats?

BOOKER: Well, again, talking about impeachment is one thing, but finding the facts that support impeachment is something that is happening right now. A search for facts and evidence by the special prosecutor. If you look at what is going on in terms of just the objective fact pattern, whether it's the firing of Mueller, whether it's the people in and around his senior circle that have met with Russians, Russian agents who have been indicted for various behaviors, clearly, there is smoke around the substance that would support impeachment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Wolf, Chuck Grassley also earlier today did tell me -- talk to me about this report from CNN and also confirming that "The New York Times" report about the firing -- attempted firing of Bob Mueller. And he said that, quote -- he said that Mueller should, quote, "work its course," the investigation work its course; the president should not take steps to fire Robert Mueller.

I said, "Well, is there any way you would support the firing of Robert Mueller?"

He said, quote, "Heavens no." And this is from a powerful Republican chairman of a key committee. Expect that same reaction from many members from the president's own party on Capitol Hill. If the president did take that extraordinary step of trying to get rid of Robert Mueller, he could get, undoubtedly, a lot of pushback from many of his own members of his own party.

BLITZER: Yes, that's absolutely right. Good point. Manu, thank you very much.

Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. He's a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: So the special counsel, Robert Mueller, he knew about President Trump's attempt to fire him last June. How strong is the case, do you believe, for obstruction of justice?

JEFFRIES: Well, I believe it's growing stronger by the day. Let's take a step back and examine the facts that have led us to this moment.

You know, Donald Trump, from almost the moment that he became president of the United States, has consistently fired individuals who he feels has gotten too close to his administration and the possibility of uncovering wrongdoing.

In January of 2017, it was Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, who went to the White House and expressed her concern that -- that Michael Flynn could be a mole who was subject to blackmail from Russia. Next thing you know, Sally Yates was fired.

And then Preet Bharara, who was the U.S. attorney of -- U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, it was publicly exposed that he was investigating close allies of the Trump campaign.

Next thing you know, Donald Trump fires Preet Bharara. And then of course, he fires James Comey, the FBI director, who was leading the criminal investigation into the Trump campaign. So it should come as no surprise that he had apparently given the order to fire the special prosecutor.

BLITZER: Are you concerned by how many people around President Trump actually lied about this attempt, this attempt we've now confirmed back in June? But how many of his aides publicly lied about it, or maybe they didn't know, but they were insisting there was never any discussion of firing -- of firing the special counsel?

[17:10:18] JEFFRIES: Well, needless to say, this administration has been less than truthful in the manner in which it's communicated with the American people. We've seen instance after instance of selective amnesia from many people who are close to Donald Trump, who apparently couldn't remember instances in which they communicated with people who were close to Vladimir Putin at the same time that Russia was interfering with our election. And then facts were revealed where they had to correct the record, correct the testimony and explain themselves.

And then we've seen other instances where they claimed that things have not happened or were not happening, and then subsequently, as is the case with the effort to fire Bob Mueller, it's publicly revealed that things that the administration said were not occurring actually were occurring. And it's very troubling. And, again, it strengthens the case that something unlawful may have occurred under the roof of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

BLITZER: What do you make of the response, or maybe the lack of response to this latest news? And it is a bombshell from your Republican colleagues.

JEFFRIES: Well, it's been deeply troubling, I think, from the moment that Donald Trump was sworn in, that several of my colleagues, particularly on the House side, haven't recognized their responsibility as members of a separate and co-equal branch of government. We don't work for Donald Trump. We work for the people of the United States of America, and it's our responsibility to serve as a constitutional check and balance.

And yet what we've seen from so many of my colleagues in the House is nothing but crickets. Every time there's disturbing evidence that emerges in the public sphere about things that either Donald Trump or his administration have done totally inconsistent with democratic values and yet no response from my colleagues on the other side. It's time for Speaker Ryan and the Republican conference in the House to step up.

BLITZER: Does this increase the need for legislation to protect the special counsel? You heard Manu Raju's report. Would you support such legislation. And even if you did, does it really have a chance of passing?

JEFFRIES: Well, absolutely support this legislation, and I think in terms of a pathway toward getting over the finish line, it will have to start in the Senate where we have seen some positive indications from Chairman Grassley of a willingness to move legislation forward. Lindsey Graham has also expressed his interest in being supportive of legislation to protect the special counsel.

If they can get it done in the Senate, then it will place the pressure on the House of Representatives to either stand in the way of accountability and our constitutional role as a separate and co-equal branch of government, or to be responsible and just make sure that this investigation can proceed in a comprehensive, fair way.

There's a cloud of illegitimacy hanging over the White House right now. The only way to clear it up is if Bob Mueller is able to conduct a full, fair and just criminal investigation.

BLITZER: Well, that legislation hasn't even yet been introduced, let alone passed in both houses, signed into law by the president. It seems like a long shot. So here's the question. Is Mueller safe in his -- in his role?

JEFFRIES: Well, it's not clear yet, but I've got to believe that the people around the president understand that there would be a constitutional crisis triggered by any effort to move on Bob Mueller at this point in time. I mean, let's realize, Wolf, that when Bob Mueller was first

appointed, someone who I believe has been a lifelong Republican, he was uniformly embraced by people on the left and on the right, conservatives and progressive Democrats and Republicans for being a top-notch law enforcement professional. He should be allowed simply to do his job.

BLITZER: Twelve years as the FBI director. Nominated by Republicans and, of course, the last two years by President Obama to continue in his service as the FBI director.

The No. 2 at the Justice Department, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and Mueller reports to him since Sessions has -- the attorney general, has recused himself. Is Rosenstein safe in his role?

JEFFRIES: You know, that's a good question. I mean, I think Rod Rosenstein has been a target of this president since he made the appointment of the special prosecutor, as has Jeff Sessions, who the president has called "the beleaguered attorney general."

This is an extraordinary thing. This is Donald Trump's Justice Department. It's not the Obama Justice Department. Yet he regularly goes after these high-ranking individuals and goes after the FBI.

[17:15:07] I thought that the Republicans cared about the rule of law. If they care about the rule of law, you can't run around attacking the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, the special counsel, the FBI simply because you've got a big problem with the criminal investigation that was brought about, apparently, by the conduct of people like Michael Flynn or Papadopoulos or Manafort or Gates, who were part of the Trump campaign and the Trump orbit.

BLITZER: The White House counsel, Don McGahn, he threatened to resign if President Trump with through with the plan last June to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Do you think Don McGahn -- he's still the White House counsel -- do you think he's doing a good job? Is he fit to continue serving in this important role?

JEFFRIES: I certainly know it's a tough job. It's not clear to me that he's doing a good job or not. There are many things that have happened from this Trump White House that I would disagree with. And so I'm not prepared to sort of grade him in that fashion. Perhaps, the best grade is "I" for "incomplete.

I do know that it's critical for the people around Donald Trump to make it clear to the president that we don't live in a dictatorship. We live in a constitutional form of democracy and there are certain norms that are consistent with the Founding Fathers as to how our republic should proceed.

He doesn't just get to go around and dictate how things are going to unfold in this country in terms of policy. He certainly doesn't get to dictate how things are going to unfold with a criminal investigation. And hopefully, the White House counsel will make that clear to him as we move forward so this investigation can unfold without any interference from the president.

BLITZER: Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, hanks so much for joining us.

JEFFRIES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, the president heads back to Washington and a new firestorm of controversy, following word that he tried to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:17] BLITZER: Our breaking news: angry lawmakers are warning of red lines after a source confirms that President Trump confirmed last June the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a move thwarted by the White House counsel, Don McGahn.

The president is now heading back to Washington from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Let's turn to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's in Davos for us. Jim, it's shocking to hear that the president moved to fire Mueller, even more so after months of very public White House denials.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And earlier today the president here in Davos referred to these stories as fake news. But one thing we've learned from the president: just because he says something is fake news does not mean he's saying it is wrong.

Also keep in mind, Wolf, we have reached out to White House and legal sources with the president's team all day long. No flat-out denials from the White House, no flat-out denials from the president's legal team. Contrast that from what we've heard over the last year: official after official inside the White House from the president on down, denying that he ever tried to fire Robert Mueller. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANDERS: While the president has the right to, he has no intention to do so.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Bottom line, Kellyanne--

CONWAY: Yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: -- does the president commit to not firing Robert Mueller?

CONWAY: The president has not even discussed that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No, not at all.

BLITZER: Is there any chance at all that the president will try to fire Robert Mueller?

SEKULOW: No. You know, I saw a couple people talking about that this morning, and the answer to that is no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: No, I'm not.

SANDERS: We have no intentions of firing Bob Mueller. We're continuing to work closely and cooperate with him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the president going to continue to cooperate or is he -- is he setting the stage for firing Bob Mueller?

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR: No, there's no conversation--

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no way? There's no way he's going to fire him?

SHORT: There's no conversation -- there's no conversation about that whatsoever in the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, that highlight reel goes to why the president's legal team and why people inside the White House are so skittish about the idea about the president sitting down and saying what he knows under oath to the special counsel's office.

Wolf, it's one thing for the president to come out in front of the cameras here in Davos and call the story fake news. It's quite another to do that in front of the special counsel's office. Under oath, he could certainly open himself up to charges of perjury, if he gives false statements to federal prosecutors with the special counsel's office, Wolf.

That is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why his legal team is so worried about him actually going through with his words that he expressed the other day and saying that he would sit down with the special counsel's office, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, an important point indeed. All right. Jim Acosta in Davos for us, thank you very much.

Coming up, we'll have much more on the reaction on the blockbuster news that the president tried to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

And later, could a pair of figure skaters help ratchet down the tension between Kim Jong-un and the rest of the world?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:28:55] BLITZER: Breaking news, members of Congress are issuing warnings and talking about legislation to protect the special counsel, Robert Mueller. A source confirms President Trump ordered Mueller's firing last June but was talked out of doing so when White House General Counsel Don McGahn refused to follow through, because he disagreed with the president's reasoning.

Let's bring in our specialists. And Jeffrey Toobin, walk us through obstruction of justice, how strong a case, potentially, this could be. You just wrote an article that's just been posted on -- at NewYorker.com on obstruction of justice.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Right. I mean, the key issue in obstruction of justice is the intent of the person involved. It is clear that the president had the right to fire James Comey, but the obstruction of justice statute says you can't interfere corruptly with the administration of justice, or try to do so.

So the question is was there some sort of corrupt intent on the part of Trump. And what makes this story about Don McGahn so important is that the White House counsel, the president's own lawyer, thought that the president's reasons for wanting to fire Robert Mueller were such a pretext, were so false, were so outrageously wrong that he threatened to resign over them.

[17:30:00] And so, the fact that the president came up with -- what his own lawyer thought was a fake explanation for why he was wanted to fire the special counsel, that is yet another piece of evidence that the president had improper motives in what he was doing in connection with the Russia investigation. It's not conclusive but it is another piece of evidence.

BLITZER: But do we know that McGahn was concerned about the legal obstruction of justice, potential fallout or the political fallout?

TOOBIN: Well, it almost doesn't matter because it shows that he thought the president was putting out a story that was not accurate. You know, that in and of itself is not a crime, but it is further evidence that the president's behavior was not what it appeared to be. That he was acting in a way that was corrupt, with a bad intent. And, you know, again, in and of itself, but when you combine it with all the other evidence, firing Comey, it starts to present a pretty damning picture.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, we heard many of the president's advisers, spokespeople, actually lie about this over these many months. There's never been any discussion, not even under consideration, forget about it. Could that pull them into this investigation as well?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it depends on how informed they were or uninformed they were. I mean, we know right now that there is number of the president's advisors who have been interviewed by the special counsel, and we don't know what their testimony is. I mean, what we have reported -- and we reported last June and we're reporting again today -- is that there was constant conversation during that month about what to do about Bob Mueller. There were questions not only raised by Donald Trump but by some of his attorneys about whether there were potential conflicts for Mueller. And in the end, they decided, you know, Mueller's a pretty good guy,

we want to keep him, and they calmed the president down. You know, the president who did want to fire Mueller, and there were people close to the president who said he never gave that order to Don McGahn, that is obviously not our reporting. And he, you know, they made a decision at a certain point that they were going to sit on the president and you saw that the president as of about July stopped tweeting about Bob Mueller, and they said, OK, we're going to cooperate. So, Ty Cobb comes in, John Dowd comes in, and there was a whole enough tact with Bob Mueller, which is he is our friend, he's not our enemy. So, that changed.

BLITZER: You know, the fact that Shawn Turner is with us as well, our National Security Analyst, former Director of Communications for U.S. National Intelligence, the fact that Mueller knew about this attempt last June to actually -- by the president to fire him, he didn't go through with it because of a threatened resignation by his counsel, it gives me the sense, and I suppose it gives you the sense, there's so much going on, it's only come out now, that we really don't know the thrust of Mueller's investigation.

SHAWN TURNER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS FOR U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Yes, Wolf. I think the one thing is for sure is that the only person who knows how far this investigation will extend is Bob Mueller. You know, I talked to people in the FBI who have suggested that, that, you know, we're kind of moving on to this question of obstruction of justice but Mueller and his team aren't done with some of the other issues that we've talked about in the past, such as business dealings, certainly, you know, the Paul Manafort -- that had absolutely nothing to do for all (INAUDIBLE) with President Trump and the campaign.

One of the things that we've kind of stopped talking about that the president keeps saying never happened is this issue of collusion. I talked to an FBI official who said one of the challenges that Mueller's team has right now is this idea that if there were individuals who were part of the Trump campaign, who were aware that the Russians were going to take certain actions at certain time that might benefit the Trump campaign, but did absolutely nothing to influence or impact those actions. There's this question of whether or not simply having the knowledge rises to the level of collusion. And if it doesn't, then for Mueller, the question will be: how do you equate knowledge to --

BLITZER: In other words, if there were individuals in the campaign who were aware of what the Russians were up to, didn't try to stop it but never reported it, let's say to the FBI, that could be a crime?

TURNER: Well, I defer to Jeffrey on that, but there is this question of whether or not that rises to the level of collusion.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: I don't think that's a crime. Knowing about collusion is not a crime. Collusion itself is not a crime. I mean, that's at a point that, you know, the president's defenders have made over and over again, and they're right that the act of coordinating with the Russians, if it even took place, that in and of itself is not a crime. Now, it could be a crime to aid and abet hacking. You know, that could be a crime but simply knowing that the Russians were helping the campaign or encouraging them to help the campaign, that's not a crime and that's a big advantage that Trump has in this investigation.

[17:35:30] BLITZER: What are you hearing, Sarah, that since last June when this effort by the president to fire Mueller didn't go forward because Don McGahn threatened to resign, is it over as far as getting rid of Mueller right now? What's the latest thinking you're hearing?

SARAH MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I certainly don't think the president has suddenly gotten over this. We know he remains extremely upset that there is a special counsel, that this Russian investigation continues, and he wants a swift conclusion. I think he sort of saw the fallout that happens when he tried to fire James Comey. He saw the pushback he got from members of his own team when he was making a serious effort to fire Robert Mueller. And so, I think that that's the kind of thing he that he certainly keeps in mind. But, you know, this is an unpredictable president, and I think that there are -- day to day -- still people who are around him, who are concerned that if he gets very frustrated, these thoughts could come at the top of his mind again, or he could try to make a move like that.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, standby. We're getting more information. We need to assess. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:40:59] BLITZER: All right, we're following the breaking news. I want to get back to our specialist right now. And Shawn Turner, I want you to listen carefully; everyone, listen carefully, to what the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We expect -- no, we demand the highest level of integrity, ethics, and professionalism from every person in the Department of Justice. If anyone falls short of these standards, we will not hesitate to take appropriate action, and we will do so in accordance with the rules and procedures of the Department of Justice. And while we're open to fair criticism, and we, of course, will defend investigators and prosecutors from unfair criticism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Shawn, how do you interpret those words?

TURNER: Well, I think that what he -- the last part of what he said is what's critically important. I think it's -- I interpret that as a rare shot across the bow at the president and the administration in light of this article in the New York Times that suggested the president wanted to fire Mueller. I think that in the past couple of months that Sessions has been emboldened as a result of some of the comments that the president has made about him. And I think that this was his way of sending a clear message that if the president or his team are looking to do something, to perhaps harm this investigation, that they're going to step in and they're going to prevent that.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, how do you see it?

TOOBIN: Well, I'm not sure I agree. I think -- you know, Sessions is appealing to the Fox News crowd that has been on this lunatic crusade against Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent, you know, imagining all these secret conspiracies that they think there's a secret society at the FBI, you know, what happened to the missing e-mails, all of these ridiculous stories have been, you know, have been discredited and the FBI has not been proven to have done anything improper. And I thought, yes, at the end, he said he will defend the FBI but mostly that that clip was about how, you know, they are going to hold themselves to high standards, which is I think appealing to the president's defenders more than anyone else.

BLITZER: There have been a lot of attacks, unfounded attacks, Gloria, against law enforcement, including, of course, the FBI.

BORGER: Right, coming from this administration. I mean, just take a step back and think of where we are. You have an administration attacking its own law enforcement, and challenging it. Not only challenging the FBI -- and this has been the problem for the new FBI Director, Chris Wray, but you have a president, you know, wanting to fire a special counsel, attacking the Justice Department, and the attorney general himself. So, you know, this is a situation where if you're working in that part of the government, and you're scratching your head and saying why are are we eating our own here? Why are we trying to do that?

BLITZER: It's not just law enforcement, either. Sarah, as you well know, the intelligence community, when the president disagrees with an assessment from the intelligence community about Russian interference, for example in the U.S. presidential election, the motives for the Russians doing so, he goes after that.

MURRAY: Yes. That's absolutely right. And you know, I think one of the things the president said was that when he chose his own people to lead these various arms of government, and he all of a sudden had confidence in it. But I think the FBI is a great example -- I mean, choosing Christopher Wray to lead the FBI certainly hasn't stopped the president from taking to Twitter to be critical of the FBI, to be critical of Jeff Sessions, to generally be critical of the way the whole Department of Justice is still being run. So, it seems that even if when he has his own people in place, he still isn't pacified.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Shawn, you served in the intelligence community, you spent 21 years in the marine corps. When you and your friends hear these words, what's the reaction?

TURNER: You know, I think for a long time, we've been wondering what is it that the Russians have on this president that keeps him in check? When we see the way the president attacks the intelligence community, the way he attacks law enforcement, the way that he wants this investigation to go away, it kind of leaves us all scratching our head and wondering why the president is, kind of, turning on the people who are there to help him do his job.

[17:45:16] BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around. Don't go too far away. There's more breaking news we're following. Lawmakers rushing to protect the Special Counsel Robert Mueller after a source confirms President Trump tried to fire him last June.

Also, the drawing anticipation and pressure focused on a pair of North Korean figure skaters. Could their performance ease the political tensions with Kim Jong-un's regime?

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[17:50:19] BLITZER: Today, the United States and South Korea confirmed the joint military exercise will resume immediately after next month's Olympic games. The annual war games have been put off to decrease tensions with Kim Jong-un's regime during these winter games which are being held in South Korea. In a diplomatic breakthrough, North Korea is sending athletes to compete including two skaters who are sure to be in the spotlight. Our Brian Todd has a closer look. Brian, this is about more than their abilities or likely performance.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this North Korean figure skating pair is not as accomplished as teams from China and Russia. Its odds of winning a medal in Pyeongchang are considered slim. Still, there is huge anticipation building for their performance. It's going to be highly charged, emotional, and it's going to play out against the backdrop of all the military tension on the Korean Peninsula.

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TODD: Their coach says, neither of them have a driver's license or credit card. When Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik take the ice at the Winter Olympics, all they'll be countered on to do is skate their hearts out and help diffuse nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: That's going to be a very deal. I promise you, I will be covering all of figure skating. That's not a time when you want to go out and get popcorn.

TODD: After they march out into the opening ceremonies under one flag with their South Korea counterparts, Ryom and Kim, a pair of figure skating team, will likely command intense scrutiny from a worldwide T.V. audience and from their government.

BILL MALON, OLYMPIC HISTORIAN: For every athlete that's there, I suspect there will be two handlers with every athlete that's sort of protecting the athlete, making sure they don't say anything they shouldn't say to the press. And also, you know, keeping them from defecting in case any of them have that idea.

TODD: Ryom and Kim finished in 15th place at the world figure skating championships last year and their coach tells us even he doesn't expect them to win a medal at the Olympics. But all the tension leading up to the games combined with the skating style of this teenager and her 25-year-old partner, make them a must-watch.

BRUNO MARCOTTE, COACH OF NORTH KOREAN SKATERS: They skate with passion. They skate with, you know, with their heart, and that's why usually when people watch them and compete, they become instantly crowd favorites.

TODD: In past competitions, Ryom and Kim have skated to music from the Beatles and The Nutcracker. North Korea has a surprisingly good Olympic record. They've won dozens of medals at the summer and winter games since 1964, including seven at the Rio games in 2016. Their best performances have been in weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, boxing, and judo. How have those athletes along with Ryom and Kim been able to train inside a secretive regime cut off from the world?

MALON: It's very much a state-supported regiment. They're trained by the state. Fed by the state. Unlike many of the other North Koreans where there's a lot of famine and hunger, they're fed well. They're taken care of.

TODD: Their coach says, Ryom and Kim's support team will do its best to eliminate distractions in Pyeongchang and keep them focused. It'll be a tough job.

BRENNAN: They are not one of the best teams in the world, and yet they are going to be watched as if they are. They're going to be watched as if they're one of the greatest pairs teams to ever skate just because of the magnitude of the moment and the sense that by being there, they make those games safer.

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TODD: Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik are not the only North Korean athletes competing in Pyeongchang. The International Olympic Committee has just announced that more than 20 North Korean athletes will compete there, including short track speed skaters, cross country, and alpine skiers, and there's a plan to integrate the South Korean women's hockey team with a few players from North Korea. According to Reuters, the South Korean players and their coach aren't too happy about that. Concerned that it might disrupt team chemistry. Wolf.

[17:24:25] BLITZER: Brian, good report. Thank you. Coming up, breaking news, members of Congress are furious over word that President Trump tried to fire the Russia probe special counsel. They're issuing warnings and making a new push for legislation to protect Robert Mueller.

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BLITZER: Happening now. Breaking news. Redline. Lawmakers say President Trump crossed into ominous territory as sources reveal he tried to fire the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Tonight, new efforts to protect Mueller and new threats to punish Mr. Trump if he tries to fire him again.

The case for obstruction? As the president flies home from Switzerland, he's dismissing reports about his move against Mueller, but investigators may see it as important evidence as they explore possible attempts to end the Russia probe.

Plan panned. With the fate of over a million young immigrants on the line, the president's new framework for immigration reform is getting hammered from the left and right. Is the proposal that includes a pathway to citizenship dead on arrival?

And scheduling conflicts. More questions are being raised about Melania Trump's travels after she skipped a trip with her husband and flew to Florida. We're going to tell you what the first lady's office is saying tonight as Mrs. Trump's plane is on the move right now.

[18:00:07] We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.