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GOP Releases Memo Alleging FBI Abuses; Trump On If He's Likely To Fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein After Memo;s Release; Pentagon Warns Of Nuclear Threat; GOP Releases Memo Alleging FBI Abuses. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 2, 2018 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: Fly Eagles fly. Also Sunday, be sure to tune into CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." My guests will be Senator Dick Durbin, Congressman Jim Himes, and Congressman Brad Wenstrup. It all starts Sunday morning at 9 a.m. and 12 Eastern. That's it for "THE LEAD." Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. See you Sunday morning.

[17:00:20] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Controversial memo out. House Republicans release their memo alleging FBI surveillance abuses after President Trump gives the go-ahead, ignoring objections from both the FBI and the Justice Department and critics who call the memo misleading.

"Figure that one out." The president won't say if he'll fire the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, saving, quote, "You figure that one out." Such a move could clear the way to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Top Democrats warn that would spark a constitutional crisis.

Doing Putin's job. Ailing Republican Senator John McCain says Mueller's investigation must proceed unhindered, adding, quote, "If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin's job for him."

And market drop. The Dow Jones Index drops 666 points, its steepest point decline since the 2008 financial crisis. A strong job report is fueling fears of inflation and higher interest rates. Analysts say the political turmoil doesn't help.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, a partisan Republican memo alleging FBI surveillance abuses is now public, setting off a political firestorm and warnings of a constitutional crisis.

President Trump authorized the release over the objections of his hand-picked FBI director and his own Justice Department. The memo, by the House Intelligence Committee's GOP chairman, claims that a warrant for surveillance of a Trump campaign aide with Russia ties relied on research funded by Democrats. The president calls that a disgrace, but Democrats call the memo a political stunt aimed at undermining Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

And after the president ominously suggested he has no confidence in Mueller's boss, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, Democratic congressional leaders are warning the president of a constitutional crisis if he moves to fire either man.

I'll speak with the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff. And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He has the very latest -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Trump continued his assault on the Justice Department and the FBI today, capping the day by authorizing a partisan Republican memo that accuses federal investigators of politicizing the Russia investigation.


ACOSTA (voice-over): As all of Washington expected, the president greenlighted the release of a disputed House Republican memo that portrays Mr. Trump as the real victim of the Russia investigation. The president poured it on from the Oval Office.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's terrible. If you want to know the truth, I think it's a disgrace what's going on in this country. I think it's a disgrace.

The memo was sent to Congress. It was declassified. Congress will do whatever they're going to do. But I think it's a disgrace, what's happening in our country. And when you look at that, and you see that and so many other things, what's going on, a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that.

ACOSTA: The memo, drafted by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, accuses federal investigators of using what Republicans characterize as a politically-compromised dossier, drawn up by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele to obtain authorization to spy on former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page's interactions with the Russians.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think people are conflating a lot of details and sort of jumping to conclusions.

ACOSTA: The White House authorized the release of the memo, stating there was significant public interest in the document. The memo insists the Steele dossier was an essential part of the federal case for the surveillance warrant, alleging Steele was desperate that Mr. Trump not be elected.

For the memo's release, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned it doesn't tell the whole story, releasing a statement expressing grave concerns about material omissions of fact. The president's decision to release the memo was all too clear early

in the morning, when he lashed out at his own GOP-led Justice Department team. "The top leadership and investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans, something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank and file are great people."

The memo's release raises questions about whether Mr. Trump would fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a move that could pave the way to removing Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Asked about the fate of Rosenstein, the president was abrupt.

TRUMP: You figure that one out.

[17:05:00] ACOSTA: Just hours earlier, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was praising Rosenstein, as well as another Justice Department colleague.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Rod and Rachel are Harvard graduates. They are experienced lawyers. They've -- Rod's had 27 years in the department. Rachel has had a number of years in the department previously. And so they both represent the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department.

ACOSTA: Critics blasted the president's handling of the memo from all sides. Senator John McCain said in a statement, "The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests: no party's, no president's, only Putin's."

Former FBI Director Jim Comey, who was fired by the president, tweeted, "That's it?" describing the memo as dishonest and misleading.

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, disputed the memo's finding, saying, "This ignores the inconvenient fact that the investigation did not begin with or arise from Christopher Steele or the dossier."

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE (via phone): The investigation would have begun and continued even if Christopher Steele had never come along.

ACOSTA: Democrats have their own memo that disputes the Republicans' findings.

(ON CAMERA): Mr. President, will you release the Democratic memo?

ACOSTA: But Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted Monday to block its release.

The president would not answer whether he would release that memo, though the White House issued a statement hinting it could, saying, "The administration stands ready to work with Congress to accommodate oversight requests."


ACOSTA: Now, the White House has avoided question about the memo all week long, holding just one on-camera briefing with reporters on Monday. But in the absence of that briefing, we can always look back to what White House press secretary Sarah Sanders once said herself during the campaign: "When you're attacking FBI agents because you're under a criminal investigation, you're losing."

And Wolf, in just the last several minutes, we should point out a White House official has told CNN, as for the fate of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, that there is no consideration of or conversation about firing Rosenstein. But you have to ask the question, has anybody told the president -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Good question, indeed. All right. Thanks very much. Jim Acosta at the White House.

Let's bring in our legal experts right now, Evan Perez and Pamela Brown.

Evan, we're just learning that there was a message recently or just delivered by the FBI director, Christopher Wray, to the team, the entire FBI?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. That's right. Shimon Prokupecz, our colleague, reports that Christopher Wray addressed FBI employees in internal video, and he said he knows that they're going through a tough time. He knows that, especially in the last -- unsettling last few days, he said he was inspired by the FBI and the work that the employees do. He also said, quote, "The American people read the newspapers and watch TV, but your work is all that matters. Actions speak louder than words."

You know, Chris Wray, I think, is in this tough spot, Wolf. He is -- obviously, he was appointed by this president, and yet he's being continuously undermined, and his advice is being ignored and repudiated by the president and by the Republicans on -- in the House Intelligence Committee. And they're almost making him to be some kind of Democratic partisan, and he is trying to, obviously, walk a fine line. He's protecting his people, protecting the institution and also trying to protect this investigation, which is still ongoing.

BLITZER: How do the allegations, Evan, in this three-and-a-half, almost four-Page document, the allegations in the memo comport with what we know about the surveillance of this former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page?

PEREZ: Well, I think the most important thing that you take away from this is the three and a half pages. And there's a lot that is not in here. We know that Carter Page was on the radar of the FBI, going back to 2013, 2014 when they interviewed him and told him that they believed the Russian intelligence agencies were trying to cultivate him as a possible spy.

So you look at that information, going back, again, three or four years ago, and last -- in 2016, during the time of the campaign, he goes to Moscow. Again, something that catches the attention of the FBI. So there's a lot that is not in here that we know went into the FBI's work and would have been told to the FISA court before they were able to get approval to get this warrant.

We also know, Wolf, that in addition to the dossier, and I think the document actually kind of hints at that, but it doesn't say it fully. But we know that there is additional intelligence that the FBI had for this application.

BLITZER: Yes. Not just the so-called dossier.

PEREZ: So-called dossier.

BLITZER: That's right. Pamela, previously, as a lot of us remember, Trump campaign officials, Trump White House officials, they constantly sought to play down who this Carter Page is. They were suggesting he's a nobody. He had a little minor volunteer role in the campaign. But now he's emerged at the center of this new effort by Trump supporters to discredit the entire Russia investigation.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. How things change. Right? Because you know, we've been reporting for quite some time that Carter Page was under investigation as part of the Russia probe. And all this time, the president and those around him have said that he really wasn't part of the campaign. He was a nobody. That the president himself wouldn't be able to pick him out of a room. He had no idea who this Carter Page was, although he did mention him to "The Washington Post" editorial board.

[17:10:11] And now it appears that the White House and Republicans are using this FISA warrant on Carter Page as an example that the FBI was targeting...

PEREZ: The campaign.

BROWN: ... the Trump campaign, which doesn't really square if he...

PEREZ: If he was a nobody.

BROWN: ... before this, he wasn't part of the campaign. And this, according to the memo, the FISA warrant, the application was submitted in October just before the election. And James Comey, as we know, never spoke about this. Not until well after the election.

PEREZ: And it was renewed three more times.

BROWN: And it was renewed three more times. And every 90 days you have to go to the judge and say, "This surveillance is helping with -- show us this information to prove that this person we believe is an agent of a foreign power."

BLITZER: Yes, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Jeffrey Toobin, step back a little bit. What do you make of this memo? You've now read it, I'm sure, more than once.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: It's an absolute disgrace. It is an embarrassment to the United States Congress. It is part of an effort to discredit the investigation of the president of the United States. That is its only purpose; and it doesn't even work on those terms, because it's so shoddy in -- in what it claims to be.

The whole idea of this memo is that somehow this Democratic operative, Christopher Steele, is the person behind the investigation. It's just not true.

First of all, he's not a Democratic operative. He was paid initially by Republicans. In addition, he is someone who has supplied relevant information in counterterror -- in counterintelligence investigations to the FBI in the past. So it is perfectly appropriate for the FBI to consider evidence that he provided.

Most importantly, it doesn't include the other evidence that led the judge to grant the surveillance of Carter Page. There's other evidence that's completely nonexistent in this memo.

It simply doesn't even -- it doesn't pass the laugh test as a -- for what it claims to be, and it's really, I think, chilling to think that the president of the United States is attacking the most important law enforcement arm of the federal government based on this.

PEREZ: Wolf, I think I would go beyond what Jeffrey just said, and I think -- I mean, it's pretty much a dud. Sean Hannity on FOX News has been sort of flogging this idea that this document was going to be bigger than Watergate. I think he said this is more Watergate than a parking ticket. Right? 2 And I think the opposite is true. I mean, if you read this thing -- and frankly, both the Republicans and the Democrats have been sort of making this, hyping this thing as some huge document. And it really doesn't stand up as what they said.

And one thing I want to correct or clarify, what Jeffrey said. Fusion GPS, the company that fired -- that hired Steele, was initially paid by a Republican client. By the time they hire Christopher Steele, they're being paid by the Democrats. Just to clarify that.

BROWN: Right. And, you know, as you pointed out, there was other information that this memo, if you read it closely, alludes to being part of the FISA application, including George Papadopoulos...

PEREZ: Right.

BROWN: ... who was -- who pleaded guilty to the FBI for lying in the Russia probe.

And it says here in the memo on the last Page that he was the reason that this investigation started in the first place. Now Republicans will say that, look, Andrew McCabe said during the testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, that they wouldn't have been able -- the FBI wouldn't have been able to get this FISA warrant without the dossier.

And it does raise questions about why some of the other information about the dossier wasn't included in the initial FISA application, that it was really a political document. It's hard to make a judgment without more information.

PEREZ: Right.

BROWN: But also that, you know, Republicans say, "Look at the time line. You used the dossier to get the FISA application. You briefed the president on this dossier. And then Comey, in his June testimony of last year, says that the dossier was completely salacious and unverified..."

PEREZ: Right.

BROWN: "... in his testimony on the Hill."

PEREZ: But it's important, and I think Jeffrey would know a lot more about this, too. And you have to remember that, when they made the application to the secret court that approves this, Wolf, they would have had to put the footnotes of what information they're using. And again, there was no dossier at the time that they did this. It was a bunch of memos that had been submitted by Christopher Steele. And they simply submitted paragraphs and said where it came from.

And what they -- what you see in this document, it shows that Christopher Steele has previously provided credible information to the FBI on other investigations, and that would have been a lot more important to the judge who approved this warrant.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, the ranking member, Adam Schiff of California, is joining us right now.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

[17:15:00] SCHIFF: You bet. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: All right. So the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, he's now called for the release of the Democratic memo, the minority memo your -- the Democrats on your committee have put together. Is that going to happen?

SCHIFF: Well, I assume it's going to happen, although I wish the speaker had spoken out a week ago when we asked him to. But nonetheless, this was really the game plan for the GOP. They know they couldn't hold off on release of our memo indefinitely, but they wanted to allow theirs to sit out there for a week and see if they could solidify the narrative.

But look, the memo starts out by saying that they're going to tell the reader about a systemic series of abuses at the FBI that really call into question the whole FISA court process. And what it ends up delivering is criticism of a single FISA application involving Carter Page and its renewals that cherry-picks information, that doesn't tell the reader the whole of the application. And as - - as the DOJ And FBI have said, deeply misleading and factually inaccurate. You can cherry-pick any search-warrant application or FISA-court application and do the same thing.

If the committee, Wolf, was seriously interested in oversight here, they would have done what we usually do, which is they would have said, "Let's bring in the FBI. Let's hear what they have to say." If they think something should have been included in the application, you ask the FBI why they didn't include it.

But here they refused to allow the FBI to come in and testify. And that tells you what the real goal was. And that was to put out this memo and use it to try impeach the credibility of our own FBI.

BLITZER: You've outlined some of the disputes with the memo, saying, as you said again, it cherry picks from Andy McCabe's testimony back in Democrat [SIC], the former deputy director of the FBI. Can you give us more specifics, Congressman, about what the Democrats, what your memo contains? What was omitted from this Republican memo?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I can say, because we know from public sources that there's a lot that the FBI knew about Carter Page that had nothing to do with Christopher Steele's reporting.

Carter Page had come to the attention of the FBI, indeed, years before he joined the Trump campaign, in connection with a Russian intelligence network operating in New York in which Carter Page was very much a target. So those -- those circumstances of Carter Page's already existing, the information about him that existed already about his cross-section, or intersection with the Russians was something that would be very pertinent in a case like this.

But I'm really cabined (ph) in what I can say at the moment. But let me say this. Let me point to a couple things that I can talk about.

You see in this memo, they say there's no evidence that Page and Papadopoulos were conspiring together. So the suggestion is it was inappropriate to include this information about Papadopoulos or it doesn't strengthen the application.

But the fact is, Papadopoulos was approached by the Russians and told that the Russians had stolen Hillary Clinton's e-mails, dirt on Hillary Clinton. And -- and this took place in April of the election year. So they were making an approach to one of the Trump foreign policy advisers. What was Page? He was another of the Trump foreign policy advisers, and the Russians were making an approach to him, too.

And -- and the part of the Steele dossier and the impression is that it was all in there, salacious video and all, which is not correct. But the part they referred to is quite analogous to the situation with Papadopoulos. So it's very relevant and very pertinent. But if you read the memo, it's very misleading, and that's the whole nature of this document.

BLITZER: Why couldn't the Republican majority have waited until your memo, the minority memo, was approved and it was scrubbed to make sure there was no classified information, sources or methods, anything along those lines, and release the two memos simultaneously, which has always been the practice of the House Intelligence Committee, going back decades?

SCHIFF: Well, of course they could have, Wolf, if that was the goal. And indeed, you've got to remember, the memo, when they ordered it released, had not been scrubbed by the FBI or the Department of Justice. Indeed, the FBI was saying, "This is misleading and inaccurate." The Justice Department was saying it would be extraordinarily reckless, but they still voted it out.

So could they have voted ours out at the same time, since ours was equally ready? Yes. But that wasn't the goal. That's not the goal here. The goal was simply to get a misleading piece of information before the public, help support the president, help discredit the Mueller investigation and the FBI, help do the bidding of the White House. And that's all that's going on here.

But of course, the damage they're doing is going to be very long lasting. Why should the FBI and the intelligence community trust our community or Congress with sensitive and classified information if they think we're, on a party line basis, going to vote to cherry pick and disclose parts of it? It's really a completely reckless abuse of the classification process.

[17:20:10] And one other thing I'll say, Wolf. This House rule that they used has never been used before. And it contemplates, because it gives the president five days to review and veto this. It contemplates having a chief executive, a president of the United States, who's a responsible actor, who doesn't have a stake in this. But of course, that's not at all what we have with Donald Trump, who has a very deep personal stake in it.

And when you read the transmittal letter from the White House counsel, saying this is the product of consultation with the Department of Justice, that, too, is misleading. If it were accurate, it would say, "We're doing this notwithstanding the consultation and the opinion of the Department of Justice."

BLITZER: Did the then-deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe, tell your committee there would not be a FISA warrant without the dossier?

SCHIFF: Well, the language that's used in the memo was not his language. And unfortunately, I can't give you precisely what he said, both because I can't do it from memory, but more than that he talked about the -- the fact -- I can say in very general terms, that a FISA application is viewed in its totality. And each part of an application is important to the application.

And so we'll have to wait, I guess, until his testimony is fully disclosed. We do make reference to it in our responsive memoranda. But similar to the FISA court application, they are cherry-picking things that Andrew McCabe said that they think lend credence to their argument and selectively quoting from the transcript of Andy McCabe, as well.

BLITZER: If the goal here, and you suggested it is the goal, is to discredit the entire Russia probe, Robert Mueller, the special counsel; to discredit the FBI, the Justice Department, the top leadership -- and we saw the president's tweet on that this morning -- some have suggested that gets pretty close to obstruction of justice. Do you believe that?

SCHIFF: Well, I -- I certainly do believe what the Intelligence Committee did under the urging of Devin Nunes was obviously not designed to find out anything about the Russian interference in our election; not designed to find out anything about the Trump campaign's many secret contacts with the Russians and what they were up to.

But rather, it's an effort like you see among a defense lawyer with a guilty client, to try to put the government on trial. And sadly, I think the chairman views the president as his client, and his role is to protect his client. That's not the job of our committee. The job of our committee is to make sure that we have the intelligence we need to protect country and to be good stewards of that intelligence. I

Now, in terms of the president's decision to release this sight unseen, because of course, he told one of my House colleagues during the State of the Union 100 percent he was going to release it, not having read it and only knowing as much as he had heard publicly from the Department of Justice, which was it's extraordinarily reckless to do this. Is that evidence that goes to a willingness on his part to obstruct justice? Well, we'll have to look to Bob Mueller to factor in what that says about other conduct of the president.

But his statements today are very concerning about Rod Rosenstein. The fact that he's sort of dangling Rod Rosenstein's job. The firing of Rod Rosenstein, in my view, would be an act of obstruction of justice, just as firing Bob Mueller would be. It would be further evidence that what happened with James Comey was not an isolated act. So to me that would be a very definite part of a pattern of obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: Well, you saw the president's tweet this morning in which he really blasts the leadership. His word, leadership of both the FBI and the Department of Justice.

And so let me repeat the question: Is all of this, what happened today by the Republican majority in your committee, presumably working together with the White House, an act of obstruction of justice led by the president?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, Wolf, it could be. And I say "could be" because we don't know what interaction the Republican staff on the committee had with the White House. If this was something that was done in orchestration with the White House, something that was done with the knowledge of the president, in the sense that this was orchestrated by the White House, that could go to the issue of obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: You know, there's a lot of people asking a question about have you read the three-and-a-half-page memo. They're insisting that you know what? There's no big revelation here in the memo. So with all due respect, they want to know, why are the Democrats making such a big deal about fighting -- make such a big deal about fighting the release of this memo? Why did you fight it so hard? SCHIFF: Yes. Well, look, I understand the reaction that this is a

big dud. Because they billed this as the greatest evidence of abuse since Watergate or the history of the republic. And even in the memo itself, it hypes that this is evidence of systemic abuse.

[17:25:18] But no, we fought this because the precedent of selectively releasing misleading information, of cherry-picking intelligence, is a terrible line to cross. It really is a reckless thing to do.

And those of us that, you know, cherish the relationship the committee has with the intelligence community, in the sense of needing them to trust us when they provide intelligence to the committee, the whole idea of politicizing intelligence in this way, of misleading the country, yes, we consider that very serious business. Even though, when you look at what they put out, it's a dud. It -- it's certainly clear, even from their own memo, the investigation didn't begin with Christopher Steele. It doesn't end with Christopher Steele. It would be going on whether there was a dossier or there wasn't.

But we do take our job seriously, and this is a horrible abuse of our committee process and an abuse of classified information.

BLITZER: Are you concerned that the president will fire the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein?

SCHIFF: I'm very concerned about it. There's no telling what this president is capable of. And he may have concluded that he can't fire Bob Mueller. That would cause a real firestorm. But it might be better for him to fire Rod Rosenstein, Mueller's boss. And the reason it might be better to fire the boss is Rod Rosenstein helps set the scope of the investigation.

And if he can put his own person in that job, the president can find a "yes" man to do that job, and that "yes" man can tell Bob Mueller, "You can't look into money laundering, you can't look into this or that, that would be a serious way, and you can't look into this, and you can't look into that," that would be a serious way and a surreptitious way to limit this investigation.

And so yes, that deeply concerns me, and I would view that as just as much an act of obstruction of justice as the firing of Bob Mueller.

BLITZER: And we all saw the look on the president's face earlier in the day when he was in the Oval Office, and a reporter asked him if he has confidence in Rod Rosenstein. He said, "You figure that one out," and then he gave a very, very angry look. Clearly, no vote of confidence in the deputy attorney general.

SCHIFF: Well, he -- and he, Wolf, still feels that he is a character on a reality TV show. He wants to tease the next episode that you get live from the White House, so he wants to dangle Rod Rosenstein's job.

It is so dramatically irresponsible for a president of the United States, and it's quite a sign of the times that this isn't anything unusual. It's like any other day of the week. But for those of us that have been working in this area a long time,

who have great respect for the Department of Justice, where I served for almost six years and just have tremendous admiration for the work they do. And likewise, for the agents of the bureau that I have known and worked with for almost 30 years. I think it is, as the Department of Justice said so correctly, extraordinarily reckless.

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

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me get a quick reaction. Jeffrey Toobin, you listened closely to what the top Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee had to say. Your reaction?

TOOBIN: He's powerless. There's nothing he can do. He couldn't even get his response declassified so that there was just a measure of fairness about this. I mean, that's how this process was so skewed in favor of the administration and the Republican allies.

I mean, you know, Adam -- Adam Schiff can use his First Amendment rights to complain about the results and the process here. But this is a complete Republican operation on every side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There's more breaking news we're following. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:33:30] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Some breaking news, the ongoing political firestorm provoked by the release of a memo prepared by the House Intelligence Committee's Republican Chairman, Devin Nunes. Republicans insist the memo reveals the FBI and Justice Department abuses of anti-terrorism surveillance law on a bias against President Trump. Democrats insist the memo leaves out very important facts and is an attempt to undermine the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Let's bring in our specialist. And Gloria, lot national security implications, political implications, resulting from the release of this memo. But the actual memo itself, the contents, how significant is it?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, Wolf, it's a political document. I think you have to look at it through that lens that it is political more than anything else. It's about a line of attack against the president and Republicans who say that the Russia investigation is the handy work of some senior justice department officials who were out to get the president. And I think the purpose it is to muddy the waters, to try to contaminate the Mueller investigation. And if they were trying to clarify that all of this is based on a dossier that is not true, and whose author is questionable and partisan, it didn't do that at all. Because, instead of clarifying that the dossier was the root of all evil, as they would put it. What they did instead was confirmed that the investigation really began with George Papadopoulos. And not, and not Michael Steele -- Christopher Steele's dossier. So, I think it muddied the waters in a funny way, in a different direction than the one that was intended. 2

[17:35:13] BLITZER: Yes, George Papadopoulos, the young National Security Volunteer, who worked for the campaign. David Axelrod, he's the one who actually one night in London apparently, told them, the Australian ambassador that he had heard that the Russians were collecting Hillary Clinton's e-mails. It was the Australian intelligence community who have then eventually notified the U.S. about this and that got the ball rolling. That was long before the dossier.

DAVID AXELROD, CHIEF STRATEGIST FOR BARACK OBAMA'S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS: Absolutely, and he's also someone who'd pled guilty as has General Flynn. There are two others under indictment. The notion that this is some sort of contrived case based on the dossier is belied by what's happened since. And we know that the special counsel has talked to at least 20 people in the White House alone. We have no idea how many witnesses he's talked to beyond that. We know that he has access to a wealth of documents and evidence.

So, my guess is that whatever case he is producing has very little or nothing to do with this dossier. It's as Gloria said, this was intended to muddy the waters, to make this appear to be a politically motivated probe. And the question is to what end? Is it to create a rationale for the president not to appear before the special counsel? Is it to sully whatever result is the investigation? Or is it as has been suggested today, and as the president hinted, to create a pretext for firing Rosenstein so that he can put someone in there who will severely limit and constrict this investigation?

BLITZER: You know, and Jeffrey Toobin, on that specific point that David just mentioned, potentially, the release of this memo today, if it's shown that the Republican majority in the House Intelligence Community, Devin Nunes, was working in coordination with the White House to release it, to damage Mueller, to damage the Russia investigation, that could be an element in the obstruction of justice.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, to be honest, Wolf, I think that's a little farfetched. You know, Devin Nunes and the House Republicans have every political motive in the world to help the president who is a member of their party. They're certainly allowed to do that. I don't think there's any serious claim that they are committing a crime by doing it. It is something that the voters can evaluate when they go to the polls and decide whether this is something they want their legislators to be doing. But I really do think it's a stretch to think that anything Devin Nunes or his colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee are doing represents an obstruction of justice itself. If the president or the people around were shown to have done something that fostered this, or in some way perhaps, that could be seen as some sort of evidence. But I don't think Nunes and company are in any jeopardy of being under investigation.

BLITZER: Because that was the point I was suggesting if the White House was really behind all of this, and sort of back channeled to get to the House Intelligence Committee to do all of this, would that be obstruction of justice?

TOOBIN: Well, it could be. I mean, it obviously depends on what it is. I mean, a certain amount of interaction between the White House and members of Congress is part of the typical duties of the president, and I don't think that in and of itself could be seen as evidence of a crime. But if the president, or people around him, are trying to use this to stop the investigation, and that's the main purpose of what they're doing, then, potentially, the people in the White House could be liable under the criminal laws.

BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, you worked not only with the CIA but the FBI, how is this playing, you believe, among the rank and file over there -- over at the FBI?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, you would think on the surface, Wolf, looking at this from the outside, that this would be demoralizing. I'm going to judge that it is not. You've got a group of people who don't join a company. What they join is -- and you sense this when you walked the halls of the Hoover building as I did. They joined a mission that says, I'm here to protect the American people, from everything, from gangs and organized crime to intelligence threats from Russia and China. The president and the White House think that by saying we support the mass at the FBI, but we oppose in its strong language, the president is talking about basically corruption at the FBI today, but we oppose the leadership.

The workforce is going to look at this and say, this is an attack on our ability to conduct an investigation with integrity. There are hundreds of agents and analysts working on this investigation. It's not just Christopher Wray, the FBI Director. So, the FBI people -- I'm going to tell you are ticked, and they're going to be saying, I guarantee it, you think you could push us off this because you can try to intimidate the director, you'd better think again, Mr. President. You've been around for 13 months; we've been around since 1908. I know how this game is going to be played, and we're going to win.

[17:40:22] BLITZER: Yes. You know what, the FBI, that angry at you specifically. They've got information that they -- and do you know what, Sabrina? Let me read to you what the president, around 6:30 this morning, tweeted. "The top leadership and investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans." Something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago, rank and file are great people, but he's really blasting what he calls the top leadership and investigators -- not only the FBI but the Justice Department.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: And that's why the release of this memo has such profound implications. It is not only about the investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election and paving the way for the president to bolster his narrative that this some sort of witch hunt, but it also clears -- provides him with some rationale to potentially clear out the FBI, the potentially removed the special counsel to replace some of the senior leadership that both the Justice Department and the FBI with people who are "on his team". Because as we've seen time and again, that is what he is seeking from an institution that has long -- had a history for being independent and not prone to some of these partisan politics that you're seeing manifest if you're going to release this memo.

BLITZER: So, Gloria, I already been thinking a lot about this. Where do we go from here?

BORGER: I don't think we know. I think the obvious question is what does Chris Wray do from -- all about or reporting. I believe he stays. I think Rod Rosenstein is in some jeopardy, but I also think that you know, Rod Rosenstein is the person that the president would have to go to if he wanted to fire Bob Mueller. And I think that as a result, he may stay unless he gets fired. I think, though, if you take a step back here, I mean, this is a president who is playing a very dangerous game. Because, you know, he came into office running against old norms and old institutions, and that really worked for him in the election.

But here he is now running against institutions, pushing up against Congress, pushing up against the judiciary, pushing up against his own people at the Department of Justice and that's a dangerous game for him to play. And I think what he's going -- what he's trying to do is say, look, if Bob Mueller wants me to sit down with him? I have now proven that these people are corrupt and I can now say, in front of the American public, and they will agree with me, why should I? Because they've conducted a corrupt investigation, and he believes, I think that he can push back against this institution successfully.

BLITZER: So, David, do you think Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, survives all of this?

AXELROD: Loo, you look at the body language of the president answering that question today, and you'd have to say no. But, and you know, I think if you are getting advice from his lawyers, they would say do not do that. But, you know, my question is if the president really believes that this probe is going to a dark place for him and he has a sense of where that is, he may decide it's worth the risk to try and thwart this by purging Rosenstein and taking the political heat for that.

BLITZER: You know, John McCain, Phil, he has issued a statement. Let me read a sentence from the statement if we continue to undermine our own rule of law -- and he really went after the House Committee for releasing the document today: "We are doing Putin's job for him." As you remember a year ago back in January, the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded that the Russians interfered in the election, and one of the goals, the most important goal was to sow dissent here in the United States. They've clearly succeeded in that.

MUDD: Yes, and I would take it a step further just in the past 24 to 48 hours. How many conversations have we had about how the Oversight Committees on the Hill are going to protect the midterm elections? I would take it a step further. They are spending more time on these committees that pledge to investigate Russian interference identified by U.S. intelligence in the last election. Spending more time investigating those who prevent Russian interference, that's the FBI than they're speaking about what they're going to do to protect Americans from interference. I mean, you can't make this up, Wolf. If it'll be that, I think I'm going to be surprised.

TOOBIN: Wolf, and it's also worth asking, where are the other Republicans? You know, John McCain is, unfortunately, desperately ill and probably will not be facing the voters again. Jeff Flake is not facing the voters. The Senator from Tennessee is not facing the voters. Where is a single Republican who might actually run for re- election, who is saying, why are you attacking the FBI? Not a single one. That's astonishing.

[17:45:22] BORGER: Well, I think, I think -- I think you're right, Jeffrey. And I think, you know, the question we ask is, what's the tipping point? Is this the tipping point? Would fire Rod Rosenstein be the tipping point? Would that -- or would firing Bob Mueller be -- I mean, everybody keeps waiting for a tipping point here. And we never seem to reach it.

BLITZER: Yes, Lindsey Graham said, if he were to fire Robert Mueller if the president would've Robert Mueller, that would be the end of his presidency. That's Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina.

TOOBIN: I don't believe that.

BLITZER: All right. Standby, there's a lot more we're following, and we continue to see a new and strong reaction in today's release of this very controversial Republican memo alleging FBI abuses of surveillance laws. And there's more breaking news, a new warning for the Pentagon that North Korea may be only months away from having the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 2 [17:50:56] BLITZER: We'll have much more ahead on of the reactions today's release of the Republican memo, alleging surveillance law abuses by the FBI. Also breaking this afternoon, a new warning from the Pentagon that North Korea, maybe, only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, the president clearly is not letting up in this pressure against Kim Jong-un.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He is not letting up, Wolf. And today, the president did something that is likely to anger the North Korean dictator. President Trump gathered several North Korea defectors in the oval office. They told compelling stories of their escapes and gave the president some new ideas on how to deal with Pyongyang.



TODD: President Trump opens a new avenue to pressure Kim Jong-un. In the oval office today, the president welcomed North Korean defectors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I came from the most ridiculous country on Earth.

TODD: The defectors praised Trump for his unvarnished talk about North Korea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It will give courage to the North Korea elite.

TODD: Trump is not the first president to meet with North Korean defectors, but he's embracing the enemies of the Kim regime at a time of heightened tensions over missiles and nuclear weapons. Could Trump's meetings prompt from a response from the young dictator?

BRUCE KLINGNER, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: The North Korea maybe rankled that the president is meeting with the escapees. We may see some propaganda, official propaganda reaction to it that it's the wrong focus, that it's undermining the peace Olympics.

TODD: But while Trump's move could encourage other North Koreans to defects, like this death-defying escape by a soldier in November. One analyst says the meeting could also raise the question of whether the Trump administration is starting to push for regime change in Pyongyang. White House officials won't say what's behind today's move. The president was caging when asked if he wanted to send a message to the Kim regime with this meeting.

TRUMP: I don't accept. These are just great people that have suffered incredibly.

TODD: But Human Rights Activist, Greg Scarlatoiu, who helped arrange the White House event said, even if the regime isn't on the table, the meeting still search to expose the dictator's record.

GREG SCARLATOIU, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: This meeting clearly puts more pressure on Kim Jong-un. It's clear that the Kim Jong-un regime has been trying to white-wash its egregious human rights record.

TODD: Hyeon Seo-lee snuck across the border with China when she was 17. She asked President Trump to pressure China to stop repatriating North Korea defectors who make it there and told a heroine story of what happened to her in China.

HYEON SEO-LEE, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR: I was -- escaped from an arranged marriage when I was 19, and also, I escape a brothel and then I was arrested by the Chinese authority's policemen -- and I narrowly avoided being repatriated to North Korea.

TODD: Lee says, the president showed empathy but didn't say whether he'll pressure the Chinese or not even though Trump often claims to stand up to the Chinese. Lee says the lives of many North Korean defectors in China depends on American pressure.

HYEON: Even today, North Koreans, when they escape from North Korea, they are carrying poison with them in case they are caught in China.


TODD: Now, as compelling as this meeting was today, it could have made South Korean officials a bit nervous. The meeting came just a week before the Winter Olympics begin in South Korea. The South Koreans worked very hard to get North Korean athletes to participate in the games. And they could be concerned that Trump's meeting with defectors could upset that arrangement. We didn't get a response today from South Korean officials here Washington, Wolf, but the South Korean President Moon Jae-in did speak to President Trump on the phone just before this meeting started, so they no doubt talked about it.

[17:54:31] BLITZER: I'm sure they did. All right. Brian, thank you very much. Coming up, the release of that GOP memo alleging FBI abuses sparked an immediate and furious backlash. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, the secret memo revealed. President Trump ignores the FBI's grave concerns and declassifies a partisan document alleging surveillance abuses and bias in the Russia investigation. New warnings tonight about the crucial facts the memo leads out.

Confidence questions. The president is ratcheting up suspense about the faith of the Deputy Attorney General as Democrats fear he's poised to fire Rob Rosenstein and blame it on the memo. Top law enforcement officials chosen by the president himself are facing his fury tonight.

That's it? Fired FBI Director James Comey is dismissing the GOP memo as dishonest. We're following the backlash on all sides, including Republican Senator John McCain's warning that the memo was a gift to Vladimir Putin.

[18:00:06] And Dow down.