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Interview With Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego; Trump Immigration Plan Angers Both Sides; Source: Trump Tried to Fire Robert Mueller; Lawmakers Seek to Protect Special Counsel After Learning Trump Tried to Fire Him. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:04] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: 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 has CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking tonight, stern new warnings for President Trump about the danger of the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, as we're learning that's exactly what he tried to do last June.

Members of Congress now discussing ways to protect Mueller and demanding that Mr. Trump let the Russia probe play out or face grave consequences.

This hour, I will talk with Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego and former U.S. attorney general Preet Bharara, who knows what it's like to be fired by the president. Our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, this is raising even more questions about possible obstruction of justice.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

The president's push to fire the special counsel, it only adds to the list of actions and comments from the president that Mueller's team may be evaluating art as part of that obstruction of justice portion of the probe.

And, tonight, new details about the tension inside the White House over the summer when the White House counsel forcefully pushed back on the president's call to remove Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): After months of denying the president was considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller...

QUESTION: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, not at all.

SCHNEIDER: ... tonight, the White House and the president's lawyers are refusing to comment on reports that the president tried to do just that.

CNN has learned President Trump order White House ordered Don McGahn to fire Mueller last June. But McGahn balked and threatened to resign if the president went forward, a source tells CNN.

In statement, Trump's attorney would only say: "We decline to comment out of respect for the office of the special counsel and its process."

Trump has repeatedly and publicly disparaged the inquiry into Russian meddling in the election.

TRUMP: The entire thing has been a witch-hunt.

SCHNEIDER: But the stunning revelation that Trump tried to oust the man leading the probe is perhaps one more point in a pattern of behavior some say could be considered obstruction of justice, the criminal act of interfering with a law enforcement investigation.

In addition to trying to fire Mueller, the president asked former FBI Director James Comey for his loyalty in January. Then, in February, Trump asked Comey to drop any investigation into fire National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He fired Comey officially in May, saying it was because of the FBI director's handling of the Clinton e- mail investigation, but later told NBC's Lester Holt something different.

TRUMP: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse.

SCHNEIDER: The president also pressures Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe, which Sessions ultimately did in March.

And Trump asked his directors of national intelligence, NSA and CIA to push back on reported connections between the Trump campaign and Russians. Sessions was also publicly urged by the president to fire then acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.

And "The New York Times" reports Trump also considered dismissing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been overseeing the Russia investigation, since the Sessions recusal.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: In this case, you can add all of the activities together. Then you can take the attempted fire and use that as a window into the president's intentions and, from that, build an obstruction case.

SCHNEIDER: Since the president's reported push to fire Mueller in June, he has repeatedly denied Mueller's firing was ever a consideration.

TRUMP: No, I'm not. No. What else?

I haven't given it any thought. I have been reading about it from you people. You say, oh, I'm going to dismiss them. No, I'm not dismissing anybody. I mean, I want them to get on with the task, but I also want the Senate and the House to come out with their findings.

SCHNEIDER: As the special counsel weighs whether all of this amounts to obstruction of justice and prepares to meet with Trump, it could be the president's perception that first takes a hit.

ZELDIN: The president said repeatedly that he was not intending to fire Mueller, whereas this story seems to say not only was he intending to, but he attempted to. And so that puts him in a very difficult position in terms of people believing him. His credibility I think was greatly damaged by this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And since June, when the presidential reportedly called for the firing of the special counsel, his team has denied on nine separate occasions that Mueller's job was ever in danger -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, very important. Thanks very much, Jessica Schneider, for that report.

Now to Capitol Hill and reaction we're getting in from lawmakers of both parties who have repeatedly warned that the firing of Robert Mueller would cross a clear red line.

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

[18:05:01]

Manu, what are you hearing up there?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, told me earlier today that he is open to moving legislation that would protect the special counsel from interference from the White House.

He says that -- Chuck Grassley told me earlier today that he would be open to moving it if two separate bills, competing bills, can be reconciled to get rid of their differences, their slight differences on how each of these measures could deal with firing and possibly firing of a special counsel.

Now, one of the members who's pushing this legislation is Cory Booker. He's a New Jersey Democrat. He's been trying, he said in the wake of these reports about the attempted firing of Robert Mueller, he said he's been on the phone, been trying to give new momentum behind this push.

And he believes perhaps some minds can be changed in the light of these new reports. Now, when I spoke to Booker earlier today, he raised some serious concerns of what he sees as -- quote -- "authoritarian tactics" and he also raised the specter of impeachment. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

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

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

BOOKER: 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's smoke around the substance that would support impeachment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now Wolf, to get this bipartisan bill moving, he's going to need support from the Republican leadership, particularly in the Senate.

So far, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has not shown much interest in taking this up, but if there are more efforts or suggestions by the president to get rid of Bob Mueller, presumably the dynamic on Capitol Hill could change.

And Chuck Grassley for his part did issue a bit of a warning to the president, said that he should let Bob Mueller continue to do his work, let the special counsel continue to investigate. When I asked Grassley whether he would be OK with the firing of Bob Mueller, he said -- quote -- "Heavens no."

A sign, Wolf, of the pushback undoubtedly the president would receive if he got rid of Bob Mueller. While there's some conservatives who want Mueller to go, a lot of Republican senators want him to stay and finish the job, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thanks very much, Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

President Trump, by the way, he's due back here in the United States this hour after the news of his attempt to fire Robert Mueller overshadowed his trip to Davos, Switzerland.

Let's go to our chief Washington correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's in Davos for us.

Jim, the president's trying to brush aside the story, but it certainly was front and center at the economic summit there.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Here in Davos, President Trump ripped into the reports that he's trying to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, that he tried to do last year, as fake news. That, of course, is not a flat-out denial.

When we tried to catch up with three top Cabinet officials about the story, they could not get away from our cameras fast enough.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump departed Switzerland strutting his stuff after hobnobbing with the global elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, but he returns to Washington under a cloud with questions swirling over reports that he tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical "New York Times" fake stories.

ACOSTA: The president brushed off the story in Davos, as did top members of the president's Cabinet who blew past our cameras faster than the Swiss ski team.

(on camera): And are you concerned that the president tried to fire Robert Mueller?

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I know nothing about that.

ACOSTA: And how do you think the Mueller news is going to affect this trip, sir?

WILBUR ROSS, U.S. COMMERCE SECRETARY: Oh, you will see. Nothing is going to change. The president is in very good spirits.

ACOSTA: Are you concerned about how the Mueller news is going to affect this conference here, sir?

STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: Not concerned.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president continued his attacks on the press in Davos, grumbling that he no longer receives the favorable coverage he enjoyed as a celebrity.

TRUMP: As a businessman, I was always treated really well by the press. The numbers speak and things happen. But I always really had very good press. And it wasn't until I became a politician that I realized how nasty, how mean, how vicious and how fake the press can be -- as the cameras start going off in the back.

ACOSTA: Despite that cry of fake news, the president remarked without any evidence that there would have been a stock market crash had Hillary Clinton been elected. TRUMP: Had the opposing party to me won, some of whom you backed,

some of the people in the room, instead of being up almost 50 percent, the stock market is up since my election almost 50 percent, rather than that, I believe the stock market from that level, the initial level, the initial level, would have been down close to 50 percent.

[18:10:11]

ACOSTA: The president came to Davos to take credit for the booming American economy, calling on companies across the world to move to the U.S.

TRUMP: America is the place to do business. So come to America, where you can innovate, create and build.

ACOSTA: But that welcoming tone came with a vow to start controlling the number of immigrants entering the U.S. based on new criteria.

TRUMP: We must replace our current system of extended family chain migration with a merit-based system of admissions that selects new arrivals based on their ability to contribute to our economy, to support themselves financially and to strengthen our country.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: DREAM Act now! DREAM Act now!

ACOSTA: The president also warned Democrats to accept a White House deal to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children known as the dreamers from deportation. Mr. Trump tweeted: "Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took such a beating over the government shutdown that he's unable to act on immigration."

But there were reminders in Davos that the president's own behavior has also had an impact. Sitting with the president of Rwanda, Mr. Trump was asked about his comments that immigrants from Africa come from shithole countries. And he was pressed on his retweeting of inflammatory anti-Muslim videos from a far-right group in Britain.

TRUMP: If you're telling me that horrible, racist people, I would certainly apologize, if you would like me to do that. I know nothing about that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, the president should not have much downtime once he gets back to Washington within the hour. He has a State of the Union speech to work on, an immigration policy to roll out that's taking heat from both sides, not to mention the prospect of another government shutdown within the next couple of weeks.

And, of course, there's a story that always seems to come back at the wrong time, the Russia investigation. Wolf, the president might have wished he had stayed in Switzerland longer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta in Davos, Switzerland, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Congressman Ruben Gallego. He's a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: How strong is the case for obstruction of justice?

GALLEGO: At this point, if everything we're hearing is true, and if special prosecutor Mueller comes out with a report that finds that, I think that is obstruction of justice.

And I think that that is grounds for impeachment. Obviously, that is something that we have to take up as Congress, but everything is pointing in that direction. More importantly, though, I think what we really need in the meantime is our leadership, as in Speaker Ryan and Mitch McConnell, to show some spine -- I know this is very difficult for them to do that -- and tell the president that is not acceptable.

It is not acceptable for him to try to obstruct this type of investigation and try to stop or fire Mueller.

BLITZER: What does it tell you, Congressman, that so many in the White House publicly deny that President Trump ever considered the firing of Robert Mueller?

GALLEGO: Well, what it tells me is that there are people within the White House more importantly that have heard him discuss this or he is thinking of doing this, and they are trying to make sure that he doesn't actually take that step.

And I know there are some people who will say, well, just attempting to do it does not actually equal a crime. That's not true. If you attempt to rob a bank, you're still going to get charged with robbing a bank.

And I think what a lot of people that -- smart people that are in the White House are trying to do is trying to pen in the president so he doesn't cross a line that he cannot cross.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Congressman, that this will all push Republicans, I know a lot of Democrats are on board, but push Republicans to support legislation protecting the special counsel?

GALLEGO: No, I think the only thing that's going to actually push these Republicans to protect the special counsel is going to be, you know, voters, citizens, calling their offices and encourage them to do it, because, right now, you don't see any leadership from Speaker Ryan.

As a matter of fact, Speaker Ryan is only backing up attempts by members of Congress to not just obstruct the investigation, but to also just make it look like it is a partisan investigation. You have Congressman Nunes in the Intel Committee that is leaking memos that are only spreading conspiracies and actually diminishing the importance of this investigation, all on purpose. So I haven't seen anything that makes me hopeful. It would be hopeful

if Speaker Ryan acted like a true leader and stood up for the rule of law, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

BLITZER: Is Mueller safe, in your opinion?

GALLEGO: I don't believe Mueller is safe as long as Speaker Ryan is not taking responsibility and actually showing leadership.

We, as the Democratic Caucus, want to see this investigation go all the way through. And we want to get to the bottom of what happened and how to prevent it in the future and to punish those that were responsible for this, but I'm not sure that Speaker Ryan wants to do that.

[18:15:00]

He hasn't shown the wherewithal to do it. He has not shown the leadership to actually rein in the Intel Committee. And I'm hoping now that he actually sees that it's important to do that, because really it's his reputation on the line.

Many years from now when he finally steps down and takes whatever job he ends up taking, his legacy is going to be either the one that stood up for the rule of law and stopped this foreign attack on our elections by the Russians, including with collusion with the presidency, or he's going to be complicit in what occurred.

BLITZER: Do you believe Rod Rosenstein, the number two at the Justice Department, the deputy attorney general, is safe in his role?

GALLEGO: Again, I don't think anyone is safe in their role, because, right now, Congress is not doing its duties in terms of being the check on an overbearing and overreaching executive.

Until Mitch McConnell and Speaker Ryan show leadership, show at least some level of willingness to stand up to the president, almost all of them are in danger of having -- either being fired or the investigation being so diluted that it ends up being useless and not actually getting to the bottom of the truth.

BLITZER: Do you have faith in the White House counsel, Don McGahn?

GALLEGO: No, I don't.

The only faith that I have is that what our forefathers thought. And our forefathers thought that if we ever had a executive branch that was, you know, overstepping its boundaries, you know, doing things that were either illegal, such as obstruction of justice, that there would be a check on it through the legislative branch, that being the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Right now, again, we don't have that. The only faith I have is in the faith of the American people that I think would rise up and try to push back if they tried to get rid of Mueller or anybody involved with the Mueller investigation. But right now, really, the onus is on Speaker Ryan. Speaker Ryan

needs to show that he has some courage in him and actually stand up to the president for the first time I would say since the president got sworn in.

BLITZER: Congressman Gallego, thanks so much for joining us.

GALLEGO: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, if President Trump fired Robert Mueller, it would cross a red line, but would it be legal? I will ask CNN's senior legal analyst, the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:59]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

Lawmakers sounding the alarm, as sources confirm that President Trump tried to fire Robert Mueller last June, backing down only when the top White House lawyer refused to carry out his order.

Joining us now, our senior legal analyst Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Trump from his job as the U.S. attorney in New York.

Preet, thanks for joining us.

How strong is the case for obstruction of justice right now?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: We don't know all the facts, We don't know all the details. We don't know what all the witnesses have said.

But I will say based on the revelations over the last 24 to 36 hours, it hasn't gotten weaker, because the issues relating to what's in Donald Trump's mind and how much he cared about putting an end to the Russia investigation is answered a little bit more now that we know, if it's proven to be true, and it sounds like there's a consensus among people who are reporting on the issue, that President Trump wanted Robert Mueller to be gone.

There's really only one reason why he would want him to be gone, and that's to end the Russia investigation. On then top of having fired Jim Comey and on top of various other things that have been reported, it doesn't make the case any weaker.

BLITZER: Many of the people around President Trump actually lied about this, about whether or not the president wanted to fire Mueller. Why is this important?

BHARARA: Lying is always bad, generally speaking, but also in legal cases.

You know, when you're trying to prove something that is required to be proven by law, particularly in something like obstruction, you have to show what was in someone's mind. And to prove what's in someone's mind, since we don't have ways to figure out what's going on in someone's mind through science, you look at other indications.

One of those that indications that prosecutors use every day -- and we did it in my office when I was there -- was show whether or not they lied about it, whether or not they tried to cover it up.

There's two things going on here. One is, it seems like when the president of the United States decided he wanted to get rid of Bob Mueller, some people freaked out about it, to use a technical legal term.

One of those people was Don McGahn. That shows you that they thought it was probably both a politically bad idea, but also bad for him as far as legal exposure goes.

And then when he and others go about lying about it, I think earlier in your segment, CNN pointed to eight or nine different occasions where people said it had never been considered, it had never been discussed, the firing of Bob Mueller -- the question you have to ask yourself and that people who are triers of fact eventually might have to ask themselves is why lie about it, if it was appropriate and it was just sort of a policy difference?

Often, the reason people lie is because they knew that it not only looked bad, but was potentially coming up close to the line of something illegal.

BLITZER: Legally, though, the president does have the authority to fire Mueller, so explain why his removal would create such a potentially illegal firestorm.

BHARARA: I think there would be three kinds of firestorms.

I think the president would invite for himself a triple migraine, if you will. First, he'd have a legal problem, as we discussed. There would be evidence that what was in his mind was another example of trying to stop the Russia investigation, on top of firing Jim Comey and on top of saying all sorts of other things that he said.

[18:25:10]

Separate from that, you would have I think a congressional headache. It's already been reported on this program that Senator Grassley, who is a Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee, when asked if Robert Mueller should be let go, said heavens no.

There's a lot of talk both on the Democratic side and the Republican side that if Bob Mueller is fired for any reason at all, that they will react. They will retaliate in some way through legislation. They might pass a different statute. They might protect Bob Mueller. They could reinstate Bob Mueller, so you have that problem.

And then you also have the sort of separate generalized political problem where people might start to think who otherwise support the president that he's -- you know, it's a bridge too far. By the way, the second problem and the third problem are related to

each other, because ultimately -- I don't mean to jump the gun, but ultimately, if there's a shift in power in Congress and there's a move, I'm not saying it's going happen, but there is a move towards impeachment, the very same people in Congress who are having a negative reaction to this and who are saying there's a bright line or a red line as far as the firing of Bob Mueller goes, they're going to be the ones who are considering later on whether or not the president abused his power.

And that's sort of a political standard as much as it is a legal standard. So to do a thing like this, after people told you not to do it, in particular your own White House counsel, and after having lied about it, and then doing it anyway, in the face of all sorts of people saying in Congress on both sides don't do it, I think creates a big deal and a firestorm, which is the word that you used.

BLITZER: Yes, huge deal indeed.

Back in June, last June, when he wanted to fire Mueller, the president apparently wanted the point to three potential conflicts of interest to create the opportunity to fire the special counsel.

According to "The New York Times," those were a dispute over fees at a Trump golf club leading Robert Mueller then as a private citizen to resign his membership at that golf club in Virginia. Mueller, having worked for a law firm that actually represented Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law.

And the president's interview of Mueller for the role of FBI director the day before.

How strong of an argument are those three points?

BHARARA: Well, so, let me put it this way.

It has been a year of ironies. And this sort of tops them all in my book. The president is many things. What he is not is a legal expert on the issue of conflicts of interest.

I think a lot of people will tell you on both sides of the aisle that this president is himself personally the most conflicted with respect to his business holdings and everything else of any presidency in modern history.

The second point on that is, this is a president who himself, notwithstanding arguments that "The New York Times" reports he was making about conflicts of interest that Bob Mueller might have, on the other hand thought that his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was a part of his campaign, who was giving conflicting testimony about Russians with whom he was meeting, is not conflicted and should not have recused himself.

The bottom line is, the way these issues are worked out, the way they were worked out in my office and every U.S. attorney's office in the country is by career professional ethics experts, whose advise is given apolitically to people to keep them out of trouble and to make sure the public has confidence in the decisions that are being made.

When my ethics experts said you want to think about recusing yourself from something because of some conflict, I did so. That's the reason that Jeff Sessions recused himself. And it's my understanding based on reporting from back in May 23 of last year, that top most ethics expert at the Department of Justice, Scott Schools, who is a career professional at the department, made a determination that Robert Mueller was permitted to continue with the Russia investigation, notwithstanding some of the conflicts that the president has been raising.

So, to me, it's very odd that you have all these ethics experts in his own Department of Justice who are saying it was OK, and the president then on his own appears to be conjuring up conflicts that he think bar Mueller from continuing in his job, while, at the same time, ignoring much more serious conflicts of interest because he wanted somebody who he thought owed him something and wanted to keep his job, namely Jeff Sessions, to stay in charge of the Russia investigation.

It's all very peculiar to me.

BLITZER: Preet Bharara, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks.

BLITZER: Just ahead, it was a bombshell for most people, but special counsel Robert Mueller already knew about the president's effort to have him fired. Will that strengthen the case for obstruction of justice?

And Republican National Committee finance chair Steve Wynn faces now multiple sexual misconduct allegations. Should Republican candidates now return his donations?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the angry reaction up on Capitol Hill over the bombshell news that President Trump ordered the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, back in June and only backed down when the top White House lawyer pushed back.

[18:34:31] There's a lot of talk about -- there's a a lot to talk about with our correspondents and our analysts. And let's bring them in. Sabrini Siddiqui, we start with you.

The special counsel, he apparently knew all about this effort by the president back in June to fire him. The president backed down once his White House counsel, Don McGahn, said, "I'll quit if you do that." How strong is the case right now for obstruction of justice?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, I certainly think that this strengthens the case. It's part of a broader pattern of behavior. And obviously, the special counsel is going to have to prove intent, that the president was actually intending to obstruct justice.

But we also have, of course, when the president went to James Comey, asked him to drop the investigation to Michael Flynn. He then proceeded to fire James Comey. He then dispatched Don McGahn to go and urge Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself in the investigation.

So it's not just one incident in isolation. It's a broader pattern. I do think what this might do is strengthen calls for bipartisan legislation on Capitol Hill, which has been introduced by Democrats and Republicans, to reign in the president's authority, to remove the special counsel.

BLITZER: We'll see if that legislation gets off the ground. Got to pass the Senate, the House and then sign into law by the president. That's a pretty tough -- tough challenge.

Kaitlan, when it was reported, you know, last June that there was some consideration that the president was giving to firing Mueller, so many of his aides, the president himself, they all flatly denied it. So what do you make of that?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, and his aides may not have known about it. Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, there are several people who are on the record, denying that it was ever on the table, including one of the president's lawyers, that firing Bob Mueller was ever on the table for the president.

But the most striking thing is the comment from the president himself, who said he never considered it. He read that the media had reported he was considering it, but it had never been on the table.

It's very black and white here, Wolf. The president lied. He said he had not considered it, and clearly, he had considered firing him. It was on the table. So the president lied about what he was going to do with the special counsel. There's no "ifs," "ands" or "buts" about that here.

BLITZER: Yes, that's material for the special counsel to use, potentially, as well.

Ron, you know, the whole -- Ron Brownstein is with us, as well. According to "The New York Times," the president also considered firing the No. 2 at the Justice Department, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. Why would that raise flags?

ROD BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, because with the recusal of Jeff Sessions from the investigation, it is Rod Rosenstein who was overseeing the special counsel and would be the person who would be required to execute any order to dismiss him and, thus, moving him out of the way would clear the way to put in someone who presumably would be more amenable to such an order.

Wolf, I would just want to underscore that, in the end, this is much more likely to end as a political than a legal question about obstruction of justice. We have Justice Department memos from the Nixon administration and the Clinton administration each time. Now maybe this -- you know, obviously, there was some self-interest there, on the part of the Justice Department. But a sitting president cannot be indicted.

And it still seems -- obviously, Robert Mueller could challenge that in the courts, but it's more likely that, even if he concludes that the president has tried to obstruct justice, that he turns this over to Congress and asks them to act upon the information that he has developed and in many ways, I mean, that could become -- we could be heading toward a situation where a Republican Congress, by all indications, has been very, very reluctant to exert any kind of oversight on these issues and in fact, are moving to defend the president. Where if the special counsel reaches that conclusion, he could be setting that up as a central, if not the central issue in the 2018 congressional elections.

BLITZER: And we'll see what happens on that front, but you make an excellent point.

Samantha Vinograd is with us, as well. Sam, you think McGahn's threat to resign stopped the president from firing Mueller, has basically ended the possibility that Mueller will be gone?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I don't think we know. I think that we've seen a pattern of President Trump and members of the administration repeatedly attack the credibility of the investigation in an effort to, I think, distract from the FBI and the special counsel from being able to do their work.

And I do think, Wolf, we need to think about how this is playing globally. All these threads play right into Vladimir Putin's hands. The intelligence community has agreed that the Russians' goal is to undermine faith in our democracy. Our legal system is a key pillar of that democracy, and almost every day now, we have stories about the president or the administration trying to denigrate the FBI.

BLITZER: That was one of the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community and law enforcement community, Phil Mudd, that the Russian goal in interfering in the U.S. election. The first goal was to sow dissent here in the United States, to embarrass the United States, and to create division.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: And that is what we're seeing. This why I've faulted congressional committees for day one, including today, when they're talking about this story. The story they should be talking about is what do we do about the next election?

Instead, they continue to replicate Robert Mueller's investigation. Virtually every conversation we see has to do with some -- whether somebody in the White House is guilty, whether they testified, what the president did wrong.

Can you tell me how many conversations we've seen on CNN when a congressional individual is interviewed, when they talk about protecting the election? The boring stuff. What is the Department of Homeland Security doing with individual states to protect them? They all talk about doing Bob Mueller's job. I'm investigating an individual. And they don't have the capability to do that. BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence that the president of the United States has directed the law enforcement community, the intelligence community to tell the Russians to stop it and to take direct action?

[18:40:06] MUDD: I haven't and let's be clear on this. That is not just the individual agencies. The reason this is important, the president's role, is he's got to have the national security adviser coordinate with CIA, FBI, homeland security and the Pentagon.

VINOGRAD: Ongoing calls with...

MUDD: That's correct. You guys collectively are going after the Russians. When is the White House going to do that?

BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence, Sam, that that's happening?

VINOGRAD: I haven't seen evidence, but we have real policy issues via-a-vis Russia that we need to address. Now, there are more sanctions that were implemented today. There are more that are due to go into effect.

But Russia is filling in where the United States used to lead. I mean, Syria is a perfect example. Right? And to your point, H.R. McMaster should be coordinating with all of these intel agencies, reporting to the president, by the way, and offering advice on how to work with Russia on all of these threats and opportunities.

BLITZER: Let me get Ron, because I know he wants to weigh in. Go ahead, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I mean, from the outside, the president really has set the opposite tone, where he has conflated any effort to respond to the genuine national security threat that Phil highlights of Russian interference in future elections with -- he views that, in effect, as acknowledging Russian interference in 2016 and undermining the validity of his own election.

And too many -- and when it -- when we started off the presidency, you had Republicans in Congress taking a more independent tone and maybe acknowledging that threat more than they are today. Instead, you see more of the House Republicans, in particular, kind of rallying around the president by raising all of these very spurious accusations against the FBI, against the CIA, this deep state conspiracy and so forth.

And they, too, seem to seemingly have bought into this notion that preparing ourselves against this genuine national security threat is somehow casting doubts on the legitimacy of President Trump, who they increasingly have ties themselves, you know, lashed themselves to the mast of the ship.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's much more that we need to assess. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:46:41] BLITZER: The president of the United States just about a minute or so ago, seen here, you see the video, walking down the stairs. Air Force One has just landed in Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C. The president returning from Davos, Switzerland, spent a couple of days there. We watched him very closely.

Now, he's got a lot going on, getting ready for his State of the Union Address before joint session of Congress Tuesday night. We'll have special coverage starting right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You know, let me bring in Kaitlan, because, Kaitlan, you covered this president, covered him when he was a candidate. I want to play a series of clips from his top aides insisting that this whole notion of the president considering firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel, simply never happened.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: While the president has the right to. He has no intention to do so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bottom line, Kellyanne, is the president commit to not firing Robert Mueller?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: The president has not even discussed that.

REPORTER: Are you considering firing Robert Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No. Not at all.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, you know, I saw a couple of people talking about that this morning and the answer to that is no.

REPORTER: 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 --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is he setting the stage for firing Bob Mueller?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, there's no conversation --

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no conversation about that whatsoever in the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know, you covered this team. It's sort of awkward now that we know that back in June, the president went to his chief counsel over there at the White House and told him I'm going to go ahead and fire him.

COLLINS: That's right, Wolf. Not only did the president discuss this, he had made this decision, let's fire this guy and the only reason he backtracked off of it was because the White House counsel threatened to quit and it's this running story among the White House press corps that the president often contradicts his own spokesman, White House officials, those who aren't the face of the White House, but every White House official, the president consistently contradicts them. We see that time and time again.

But here, it's not just the president contradicting his own spokesman. He's contradicting himself. It's a lie. He's saying he never considered it. He never gave it any thought, but we know the president did give it thought.

So, a lot of the American people are like whey should I care that the president considered firing the special counsel? Here's a reason. The president is not only lying to reporters, he's lying to the American people when he says I wasn't considering firing him when in fact, he was.

BLITZER: Very important point indeed.

There's a "Wall Street Journal" report that's just been posted, you know, Ron, and I want to share it with you and with our viewers right now. I'll read the lead.

President Donald Trump's legal team has been studying a 1990s federal court ruling that could be the basis for delaying, limiting or avoiding an interview with the special counsel Robert Mueller. This according to people familiar with the matter. They're referring to a 1997 court case, federal appeals court rule that presidents and their closest advisers enjoy protections against having to disclose information about their decision making process or official actions.

[18:50:02] The court ruled the prosecutor is hoping to overcome arguments of executive and presidential privilege must show that such information contains, quote, important evidence that isn't available elsewhere.

But what's significant in this report is they are looking at this court ruling, even though the president a few days ago, just before leaving Washington said looking forward to answering questions from Robert Mueller in the next two or three weeks subject to attorneys letting him do so. BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, as I said before, I think ultimately the

questions of the president's role are more likely decided in the political arena than the legal unless the special counsel wants to challenge the previous determination that I determinations that a sitting president cannot be indicted, even Ken Starr chose not to do that against Bill Clinton. And I think it was through a political lens that a legal action like probably has to be understood.

I mean, after Bill Clinton sat for a deposition during the Ken Starr investigation, a decision by the White House not to talk to the special counsel I think would be enormously risky. Sixty percent of the public in polling roughly says that they believe the investigation is fair. And I think if the president chooses not to participate in an interview, it will reinforce the conclusion among many voters that he has something to hide.

And, also, I think, Wolf, sort of re-center what I believe is going to be the central question in the 2018 election, which is whether voters feel that the Republican Congress is providing a sufficient amount of check and oversight on President Trump. And all the choices that the president makes whether this one or not sitting for an interview turn back to that question of whether the Congress is doing anything to hold him accountable and ensure the kind of democratic and legal processes are being defended.

BLITZER: You know, Phil, what do you think of this "Wall Street Journal" report that the lawyers for the president are potentially looking for an excuse to avoid his appearing before this special counsel?

MUDD: Heck, yes, I would do the same thing. This is a binary choice. You put him in front of the special counsel, or you'd take the political risk of saying, well, despite what he said a week ago, he's not going in front of him. I'll take the second choice. One simple reason why, we're talking about obstruction today with Mueller, Mueller's interviewed McGahn. He's presumably interviewed the staff. Maybe the staff heard something from McGahn after that June conversations and McGahn said, yes, the president told me that.

They go into a conversation with the president and said, I never said. Legal jeopardy.

BLITZER: We got much more to discuss. Let's take a quick break.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:21] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts and new attempts to beat back rumors surrounding the president. You know, Sabrina, I want to remind our viewers, Michael Wolff, the author of this bestseller, "Fire and Fury", he has said in television interview he believes the president is currently having an affair, and he sort of hinted, if you read closely the last few pages of the book who it might be. And now, the suggestion is it may be the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. She was so angry. Listen to her reaction.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: It is absolutely not true. It is highly offensive and it's disgusting.

At every point in my life, I've noticed that if you speak your mind and you're strong about it and you say what you believe, there is a small percentage of people that resent that, and the way they deal with it is to try and throw arrows, lies or not, to diminish you.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: Obviously, she is understandably very angry.

SIDDIQUI: And she has every reason to be. All too often we see women in powerful positions or who are accomplished have to beat back the notion they slept their way to the top of that, there was some sort of salacious back story. This is something that Nikki Haley also dealt with as a candidate, having to beat back and whisper campaign back, then.

And it just underscores that even in this watershed moment around Me Too and treatment of women, there are so many built in double standards in the way we treat men and women who are in prominent positions.

BLITZER: I want you to weigh in as well, Samantha.

VINOGRAD: I wish that -- this is a ridiculous story. I wish it wasn't getting airtime. And I wish instead, we were focusing on the actual policy issues that Ambassador Haley is dealing with at the U.N., like Syria and like Russia. That's a more important topic of conversation. This is groundless.

BLITZER: Yes, this based on such a flimsy account, you know, Kaitlan, you know, you've covered as I say the White House. There is nothing there, but all of a sudden, the United States ambassador to the United Nations has to make -- we only played a little portion of this extensive series of very angry comments that she delivered.

COLLINS: Yes, that's exactly right. Nikki Haley actually drew a lot of attention to this allegation when she denied it. But I thought it was important for her to deny it. And also did not see Michael Wolff had enough evidence of this allegation to include it outright in his book. Instead he alluded to it in the book and then alluded to it on air but wouldn't say it outright.

But clearly, this is stunning accusation to make to the ambassador to the United Nations having a romantic affair with the president of the United States. And he clearly didn't have the evidence to back it up. And then later on in his book, he insinuates something about the communications director Hope Hicks as well, which is just a strange thing, a strange phenomenon for Michael Wolff to assume that the two most powerful women in this administration have somehow slept their way to the top.

BLITZER: Ron, go ahead.

BROWNSTEIN: I was going to say, it's reminder to be cautious with the source of the information, that, you know, where all of this started. And I would say about Nikki Haley, in particular, I thought her response was firm, but controlled. And it's reminder of why she could be a very formidable political figure going forward as she -- in the way she has dealt with this and everything else.

She has been of the Trump administration and no hint of disloyalty yet not fully seen as part of it, I think, or viewed as sort of going in that direction by the forces in the Republican Party that are much less sympathetic to Trump. She is someone who could have a very important future for the GOP in the post-Trump future.

BLITZER: Yes, former South Carolina governor, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, her stock has gone up, up, up.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.