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White House Communications Director Resigning; Trump Backs Obama Gun-Control Ideas; Attorney General Pushes Back at Trump After New Insult. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 28, 2018 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Hope-less. White House communications director Hope Hicks is stepping down one day after being grilled by lawmakers in the Russia probe, stonewalling when questioning about her time in the White House but acknowledging she sometimes told, quote, "white lies" while serving the president.

[17:00:27] Reversal on guns. President Trump meets with bipartisan lawmakers on gun violence, telling them not to be petrified by the NRA and calling for steps contrary to long-held cherished positions of his own party. Is he siding with Democrats?

Fighting back. President Trump once again publicly shames his attorney general, calling his handling of an investigation "disgraceful." But this time, Jeff Sessions is biting back, saying he'll act with integrity and honor; and his department will be fair and impartial.

And examining Trump's past. As former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleads "not guilty" and gets a trial date, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is digging deeper into the president's own past, including his business dealings in Russia before launching his campaign.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, White House communications director Hope Hicks is resigning. The announcement coming just a day after she refused to answer some questions in the House Intelligence Committee's Russia probe while conceding she at some times told white lies in her White House job.

As the special counsel closes in on the Trump inner circle, CNN learns Robert Mueller is looking at the president's business dealings in Russia before his 2016 campaign. And a source says presidential advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner feels everyone is out to get him after being stripped of his top-secret security clearance.

The president is again turning on his attorney general, calling his performance at the Justice Department "disgraceful." But Jeff Sessions is pushing back, saying he'll do his job according to the law and the Constitution. I'll speak with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of the Judiciary

Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they are all standing by with full coverage.

First, let's go straight to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, for the breaking news. Jim, is Hope Hicks' departure a major surprise?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a huge surprise, and this is definitely one of the biggest departures for this administration thus far.

Hope Hicks, the communications director for the president but also a close confidante and aide of Donald Trump even before he was president of the United States, announcing today that she is stepping down, the White House putting out multiple statements: from the president, from Hope Hicks, from the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.

We can put up a statement from the president up on screen and then explain more on this. This is a statement from the president on Hope Hicks leaving. He says, "Hope is outstanding and has done great work for the last three years. She is as smart and thoughtful as they come, a truly great person." And the statement goes on to say, "I will miss having her by my side, but when she approached me about pursuing other opportunities, I totally understood. I am sure" -- and this statement goes on -- "we'll work together in the future."

That perhaps may be an indication, Wolf, that perhaps she may have some role in his upcoming 2020 campaign. We don't have any word on that, but it is interesting that the president would say that at the end of that statement.

Wolf, I just spoke with a White House official in the last several minutes who cautioned that had there is, quote, "nothing nefarious" about Hope Hicks leaving the White House. This official went on to say it is not about Rob Porter, that relationship she had with the person -- the staff secretary here at the White House who stepped down amid allegations of domestic abuse.

This official went on to say it was not about yesterday's hearing up on Capitol Hill. Hope Hicks testifying in front of the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors and telling lawmakers during that session that she had to, from time to time, tell little white lies, as she put it, on behalf of President Trump. This White House official I spoke to said this was not about that, as well.

In terms of a replacement for Hope Hicks, this official said they are not there yet. Although Mercedes Schlapp, who is also in the communications shop here at the White House, she has been filling that role from time to time as Hicks has been dealing with so many different issues, testifying up on Capitol Hill, dealing with the Rob Porter scandal, even talking with the special counsel's office.

And this official went on to say that Hicks will be here for a period of weeks. She's not leaving in the near future, certainly sometime soon. But not, certainly, by the end of the week. That she'll be here for a period of weeks and that during that period, they'll be working on a replacement for Hope Hicks.

Wolf, it goes without saying that Hope Hicks is perhaps the closest White House aide who is not part of the president's family. She is often at the president's side talking to him about various issues. Not just issues of the day here at the White House but his dealings with the news media and so on. We've had many dealings with Hope Hicks behind the scenes over here at the White House.

[17:05:25] And so he counts her as a very close and trusted confidante. And I don't think you can overstate how big of a departure this is for the president. This is like losing a member of the family over here at the White House for the president, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a huge, huge deal.

Stand by, Jim. I want to get back to you in a moment. But I want to get some more now on the stunning development over at the White House. Our White House reporter, Kaitlan Collins, has been working the story for us, as well. What else are you learning, Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's certainly stunning. It's actually surprised a lot of people inside the White House, because Hope Hicks, I'm told, only told a very small group of people that she was actually going to depart.

People had known for a few weeks that she had been considering it. She first seriously started considering it, I'm told, after the fallout from that Rob Porter scandal. The person, the staff secretary that she was romantically involved in. And that was one of the few times that we saw President Trump grow frustrated with Hope, because he felt during that period that she let her relationship with Porter cloud her judgment and therefore put her own priorities ahead of the president's there.

So certainly, the first time we saw them but, as Jim said, that is certainly not the only reason that Hope Hicks is now departing. But she has been in the spotlight much more recently. Her personal life, her role in this White House has really been in the spotlight. Certainly very much so.

But what this -- what's significant about this is not what it means for Hope Hicks but what it means for President Trump. She is one of the very few people left in his actual inner circle that was still here in the West Wing. And her presence in the West Wing is something very significant.

Other staffers know that, though she was technically the communications director, she actually wore a lot of hats in this White House. And she didn't often even leave the White House to go to lunch or meet people, because the president often would just yell for her from the Oval Office, "Hope, get in here."

We'd talk to her. She was present for a lot of interviews that the president had. He would go back and forth with her about how significant his campaign was. So certainly, a very big person to the president in this White House.

And now what we have, Keith Schiller has left. Hope Hicks is leaving. His two children, Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, their status in the West Wing is highly questionable, and people don't believe they'll be there for the long term. And Dan Scavino is really the only person who is in the president's inner circle that has been around the president for several years that is left in the West Wing with Hope Hicks' departure.

BLITZER: She was also involved in the drafting of that statement following the controversial Trump Tower meeting in New York that the president's son and others, Paul Manafort, had with Russians, and that statement that was released by the White House was misleading.

COLLINS: Right. That's why there were so many questions surrounding her appearance in front of the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, because Hope Hicks knows so much. She has been there for the president. She helps him draft statements and all of those things. And she certainly has played a large role in the campaign and in this White House.

So it's incredibly significant that she's leaving, but it's also incredibly significant that she did not answer those questions surrounding the drafting of that statement, which initially said that meeting was about adoption, not about getting dirt on Hillary Clinton.

But she certainly has been there from day one with everyone in this White House.

BLITZER: The timing of this announcement is amazing, coming the day after she spent nine hours behind closed doors, answering questions, refusing to answer some questions about her time in the White House before members of the House Intelligence Committee. The timing is awkward, to put it mildly.

COLLINS: Certainly. And this is very surprising to a lot of people in the White House. I can't overstate just how surprising this is. Very few people knew. But clearly, the White House was ready to go with their statement from her, from Hope Hicks; from the president; from several officials, ready to go once "The New York Times" did break this story. But this is certainly stunning to a lot of people in the West Wing.

BLITZER: And her acknowledgment that she told some white lies in the course of her job as director of communications and earlier in the campaign on behalf of the president. We don't know what those white lies are. But everybody, all the serious journalists in Washington are looking to find out what those, quote, "white lies" were.

COLLINS: Certainly.

BLITZER: Kaitlan stand by. I want to quickly go back to the White House.

The president focusing in on gun control today as the Russia investigation continues to take a heavy toll on his White House. I want to bring back our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, to bring us up to date.

What's the latest, Jim?

ACOSTA: Well, we thought this was going to be the most remarkable thing to happen at the White House today, Wolf. And that was this frank exchange the president had with lawmakers of both parties inside the White House about the issue of gun control.

At one point, the Republican told a Republican lawmaker, "You're afraid of the NRA."

But the lawmakers were also dishing back at the president, insisting to him that, unless he stands up to the NRA, nothing will get done.



ACOSTA (voice-over): This time, President Trump promised new gun- control measure are on the way. But first, he professed his love to his lawmakers from both parties gathered at the White House.

TRUMP: I see some folks that don't say nice things about me. And that's OK. Because if you turn that into this energy, I'll love you. I don't care.

ACOSTA: The president then vowed action is coming. First on the use of bump stocks, attachments that effectively turn semiautomatic rifles into machine guns.

TRUMP: I'm going to write it out, and we'll have that done pretty quickly.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump then reaffirmed his interest in raising the age limit to 21 for purchasing some firearms after some waffling from the White House on the issue.

TRUMP: I think it's something you have to think about. So I'll tell you what: I'm going to give it a lot of consideration.

ACOSTA: Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein showed the president data that shows how the assault weapons ban passed in the '90s cut down on gun deaths.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: When it ended, you see it going up.

ACOSTA: Also on the table was the influence of the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby closely tied to the president.

TRUMP: I'm the biggest fan of the Second Amendment. Many of you are. I'm a big fan of the NRA. But I had lunch with them, with Wayne and Chris and David on Sunday, and said, "It's time. We've got to stop this nonsense. It's time."

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: The reason that nothing has gotten done here is because the gun lobby has had a veto power over any legislation that comes before Congress.

ACOSTA: On the proposal to expand background checks sponsored by senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, the president criticized the measures GOP sponsor Toomey as fearful of the NRA.

TRUMP: You know what? Because you're afraid of the NRA.

ACOSTA: The president also made the stunning comment that people with mental health issues should have their firearms confiscated.

TRUMP: A lot of times, by the time you go to court torsion get due process procedures. I like taking the guns early. Take the guns first, go through due process second.

ACOSTA: The president staged the gun discussion as the West Wing is still trying to get a handle on why so many of its top aides lack top- secret security clearances. Mr. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, recently had his clearance status downgraded from top-secret to secret. But CNN has learned other White House staffers have been notified their clearances were bumped down, as well. That's despite promises from the president during the campaign to properly handle classified material.

TRUMP: This was not just extreme carelessness with classified material, which is still totally disqualifying. This is calculated, deliberate, premeditated misconduct. If elected, Hillary Clinton would become first president of the United States who wouldn't be able to pass a background check.

ACOSTA: Another headaches for the president appears to be Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his handling of alleged abuses in the Russia investigation. The president tweeted: "Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate? Will take forever. Why not use Justice Department lawyers? Disgraceful."

Sessions announced he's letting the Justice Department's inspector general to look into it.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We believe the Department of Justice must adhere to the high standard in the FISA court. And yes, it will be investigated. And I think that's just the appropriate thing. The inspector general will take that as one of the matters he'll deal with.

ACOSTA: Today Sessions fired back at the president's tweet with a blunt statement: "As long as I'm the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner, according to the law and Constitution."


ACOSTA: Now getting back to the gun discussion over here at the White House, Wolf, we should also point out that the president at times during that meeting seemed to show that he did not have much of a command over the gun issue. At one point, he indicated he did not know what the Manchin-Toomey bill entailed, when of course, most people in Washington know it's about expanding background checks.

At one point the president went on to say that Barack Obama, the former president, did not do enough to advance that legislation. That is simply not the case. President Obama, as we know, after the Sandy Hook massacre up in Connecticut, advocated strongly for the passage of that bill. It did not garner enough votes in the Senate, including some red-state Democrats, who voted against that legislation.

At another point during the gun discussion over here at the White House, Wolf, the president seemed to say that, had there been an armed person inside the Pulse nightclub massacre down in Orlando a couple of years ago, that that was a result of -- that would have resulted in perhaps fewer lives being lost. If somebody inside that nightclub had been armed.

Wolf, you can go back and look at the details from that massacre. There was an armed police officer who was off-duty but there on the scene and certainly could have been somebody who made a difference. He tried to exchange gunfire with that gunman at that time. But it was not enough. So the president seemed to be a little bit off in terms of his information on that.

[17:15:00] And at the same time, Wolf, we should also point out, the president has had discussions like this with lawmakers before. Remember: it was in January, early January when the president had a discussion with lawmakers from both parties about the issue of DACA, the deferred action program for immigrants who came into this country as children. The president said during that meeting that he could take the heat, that he wanted to have lawmakers give him a bill.

The result of that meeting was essentially nothing. They had that discussion, but no legislation was passed, and the president ever since then has blamed Democrats for failing to take action on that issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta with the very latest at the White House. Thank you.

There's more breaking news we're following. President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded not guilty today to the latest charges from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, including money laundering, conspiracy and making false statements about his foreign lobbying. He faces a trial date in September.

Let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, we're also learning learning that Mueller may be looking more closely into Trump-Russia ties in the years leading up to his run for president.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Myself and my colleagues were told by a number of sources aware of questions asked of witnesses before the special counsel that he's now asking questions about Trump's activities, business activities, travel to Russia in 2013 and 2014 before he formally announced his run for president. And among the things they've been asking about there are specific

business deals, including the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, as well as unsuccessful discussions to brand a Trump Tower Moscow, extending the questions in the lines of inquiry, the special counsel, to prior to the campaign actually started. Keep in mind the special counsel's remit is not only to investigate Russian meddling in the election but also ties between Trump associates and Russians and, by that remit, anything that may also come up over the course of the investigation that's relevant, and that's where he's going now.

One of the key questions is, due to these business dealings and due to the fact -- due to the fact that they happen at the same time that the president was deciding, making a decision about running for president, it raises the question as to whether Russia was attempting to exert any influence over the president as he was making that decision.

BLITZER: Because, as you point out, some questions have touched on the possibility of what is described as compromising information that the Russians may have, or claimed to have, about President Trump.

SCIUTTO: That's right. I was told by a source that one of the witnesses was interviewed, asked questions about that Kompromat, as it is known in Russian, compromising information that Russia claims to have. That does not mean that that information is corroborated or confirmed but questions being -- being asked there.

And I should mention, of course, that the first we ahead about that compromising information, or the possibility that Russians may have it or threatened to have it, was in what's known as the Steele dossier, this collection of memos put together by a former -- a former British intelligence agent. And we should mention that the money behind that dossier was basically opposition research. And it was at the time paid for by the Democratic National Committee and others supporting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto with the very latest. Thanks very much.

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

Congressman, thanks for coming in.

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

BLITZER: Let me get back to the breaking news, the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, resigning. Do you believe the resignation is related to this overall Russia investigation?

JEFFRIES: Absolutely. You know, another day, another scandal, another resignation in the Trump White House. What else is new?

What we've seen from the very beginning of this administration is nothing but chaos, crisis and confusion. And of course, her resignation is related to the fact that, just yesterday, she was before the Intelligence Committee and acknowledged -- acknowledged telling lies on behalf of the Trump administration. BLITZER: She called them white lies.

JEFFRIES: She called them white lies, but they're still lies. To the American people. That, in and of itself, is disqualifying.

BLITZER: You think that in and of itself?

JEFFRIES: Well, I think largely, she was one of Donald Trump's closest associates throughout the campaign and into the administration. And the evidence continues to mount that there was an apparent conspiracy between some members of the Trump campaign and Russian spies to sell out our democracy and then engage in a possible cover-up.

And Hope Hicks appears to be connected to all of those particular elements. That ultimately may be the reason why she's out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

BLITZER: Apparently, according to the reports, she's been thinking about this for a while, but the curious thing is the announcement was made a day after nine hours of testimony by her behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee. We're continuing to dig on that.

Let's get through some other issues while I have you, Congressman. Is digging into President Trump's business dealings, prior business dealings before he became a candidate for president, is that fair game for the special counsel, Robert Mueller?

[17:20:04] JEFFRIES: Absolutely. What you have is three different elements of this criminal investigation. You have the money laundering that may have taken place prior to the campaign. You have the possible criminal conspiracy that took place during the campaign to undermine our democracy in partnership with Russian spies. And then you have the obstruction of justice that took place afterward.

In order to get to the criminal conspiracy, you have to understand motive and intent. And a possible motive and intent was a pre- existing relationship with people closely associated with Russia, possibly engaged in money laundering, which would be a criminal violation. If that, in fact, did occur, that may provide a link to the actual collusion that subsequently took place during the campaign.

BLITZER: Yes, he has said in that interview in the "New York Times" a few months ago, that any investigation by Mueller of his personal financial business dealings, long before he became a candidate, that would cross a red line to be inappropriate.

But I want to get to some other issues. You're on the Judiciary Committee. The president really went after the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions today. I'll read the tweet. We put it up there. This is an official presidential statement: "Why is the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, asking the inspector general at the Justice Department to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse?" The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuse -- "Will take forever. Has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey, et cetera. Isn't the I.G." -- inspector general -- "an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? Disgraceful."

What do you make of this public humiliation of his attorney general?

JEFFRIES: Well, first of all, Trump obviously understands -- misunderstands clearly the role of the attorney general. The attorney general is the people's attorney; the White House counsel is the president's attorney. And so Jeff Sessions is correct in following procedures in this instance as it relates to the investigation.

But this is all part of the dysfunction that we've seen in the Trump White House. Sessions is fighting with Trump. Trump is fighting with Bannon. Bannon is fighting with Kushner. Kushner is fighting with Kelly. Kelly's fighting with Scaramucci. And you know who loses at the end of the day, Wolf? The American people.

BLITZER: Because he's fighting back right now, Sessions. He says the inspector general's investigation is an appropriate process and the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, he could come up with his conclusions and recommend prosecution if he feels that's appropriate. That's the normal way that things are done.

JEFFRIES: Well, you know what? At the end of the day, here's what is really disgraceful.

Donald Trump continues to refuse to release his taxes to the American people. That's disgraceful. He fired the FBI director in the middle of a criminal investigation into his campaign. That's disgraceful. He refuses to do anything about the continuing Russian attacks on our democracy in advance of the mid-term elections. That's disgraceful.

When Donald Trump tweets things like what he did this morning, it's all designed to be a distraction, and we're not going to fall into that trap.

BLITZER: But can the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, really do his job if he doesn't have the confidence of the president? The president really was angry at him when he recused himself as far as the Russia probe is concerned.

JEFFRIES: Well, it would be very difficult for him to be able to do his job. But at the end of the day, I think Senator Grassley, the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has previously gone on record to say that, if Sessions is forced out, there's a lot of things that we've got to do in Congress, and he has no intention of holding a hearing to confirm a new attorney general. So Donald Trump may be trapped.

BLITZER: I want to put up on the screen some of the criticisms that the president has lashed against Sessions. Look at this. You can see some of the words he's used: idiot, beleaguered, very weak, very disappointed with him, he did a terrible thing, and now "DISGRACEFUL!" -- all caps with an exclamation point.

Those are comments the president has made. Yet Sessions continues on the job. Some are suggesting the president has done that. He wants him out so he can name someone else who would be more supportive, shall we say?

JEFFRIES: Well, this actually may be part of a continuing pattern to obstruct justice and to shape the Mueller investigation in a matter that could inure to Trump's benefit. That would be problematic.

What I also find problematic, Wolf, is the fact that Donald Trump is attacking his own attorney general, one of his best friends, closest allies on the campaign trail, his earliest endorser from the United States Senate. He's attacked our allies in this country. Attacked Great Britain. Attacked Canada, attacked France, attacked Germany, attacked Mexico, attacked Australia. He can't say a single negative word about Vladimir Putin. That fundamentally is the problem. And this back and forth with Jeff Sessions illustrates the dramatic double standard that he has.

BLITZER: Yes. Hakeem Jeffries, thanks, as usual, for coming in. We appreciate it very much.

JEFFRIES: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's breaking news we're following. The White House communications director, Hope Hicks, is stepping down a day after being grilled by lawmakers in the Russia probe, stonewalling when questioned about her time in the White House.

[17:25:07] And President Trump stuns lawmakers by seeming to embrace some strict gun-control measures.


MURPHY: Mr. President, it's going to have to be you that brings the Republicans to the table on this, because right now the gun lobby would stop it in its tracks.

TRUMP: I like that responsibility, Chris. I really do. I think it's time; it's time that a president stepped up.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[17:29:40] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including the revelation within the past hour that President Trump's longtime top aide, White House communications director Hope Hicks, will be resigning in the coming weeks.

Let's bring in our political and legal experts.

And Kaitlan, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. It's truly a stunning announcement that took a lot of us by surprise.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's very stunning. It took a lot of people in the White House by surprise, as well. Hicks had contemplated leaving before, and she really seriously was

considering it amid the fallout from that Rob Porter scandal, something she was very involved in with the crafting. The White House standing by him. She really contributed to the chaos that was a result of that scandal.

But we are told that Hope Hicks did not tell President Trump of her final decision to leave the White House until today. They met this morning, I'm told, by sources inside the White House after President Trump returned from Capitol Hill from that ceremony for the funeral for the late Reverend Billy Graham, and that is when Hope -- Hope Hicks officially told the president, "I'm leaving the White House."

BLITZER: They immediately had formal announcements, including from the president, ready to go. Juana, it comes a day after she appeared for nine hours behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee and acknowledged that in the course of her work, she told, quote, "little white lies." So the announce -- the timing of this is very, very suspicious.

JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: It's incredibly interesting, Wolf. That statement raised the eyebrows of a lot of people. Of course, we know that here in Washington, people spin things. There are things that aren't exactly true that are maybe said.

But to hear Hope Hicks admit it, particularly under this investigation about Russia, was very stunning. And I think that it raised a lot of questions. She said, you know, she never lied about anything substantive. But then what are these white lies she lied about? She is supposed to be the White House's communications director, the person that reporters, like, all of us can trust to hear from the White House what their stance is, even though you don't hear from her publicly very much. And that right there cast a lot of doubt on the things that she said and what messages she's bringing out to the public and journalists.

BLITZER: What do you think Bianna?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Just think if Dan Pfeiffer or Nicole Wallace had come out and said, you know, "From time to time I will tell a white lie." It's something that was unheard of from them.

It speaks to the notion and the characterization that she may have been over her head from day one. This is somebody who had been very loyal, by all accounts, to the president. She'd also been involved in almost all of the sort of controversial dealings, whether it be meetings with Russia, whether it be drafting responses to inquiries.

And you just think back to even Steve Bannon as this Russia investigation was growing, reportedly saying to her, "Listen, you don't understand how severe this is. If you don't get a lawyer right now, I'm going to call your dad."

And you're reminded she's 29 years old, had no political experience prior to this. So this may now have been the time where she said, "You know what? Enough is enough. I'm going to cut the cord."

BLITZER: And there was controversy, as you remember, Laura, because she was involved in drafting that statement about that Trump Tower meeting that some Trump supporters, including the president's son, Paul Manafort among others, had with Russians in, what, June of 2016. And the statement that eventually came out was misleading.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's the key sticking point for her in terms of exposure for the president with the special counsel's investigation. To the extent that she can speak to his mindset about that, because that's what the whole ball will come down to on obstruction, is did he have a corrupt intent? And if she can speak to his mindset on Air Force one, I think that's -- that's where you could see a real divide here and where she could shed some light for Robert Mueller.

BLITZER: That would not be seen, from Mueller's perspective, as a little white lie.

JARRETT: I think that would be a big deal.

BLITZER: And she was questioned by Mueller at length long before she was questioned by members of the House Intelligence Committee yesterday.

COLLINS: And we have to remember, "The New York Times" reported that detail of -- talking about the drafting of that statement, that Mark Corallo, who used to be the spokesman for the legal team, said that during calls about what to say in that statement, Hope, he says, he claims and alleges, that Hope Hicks said that those e-mails relating to that Trump Tower meeting in the summer of 2016 would, quote, "never get out."

Now, Hicks has denied that she said that. But that's certainly something that the special counsel will talk to her about. I'm sure the House Intelligence Committee wanted to talk to her about it, as well.

But we have to look at what pressure Hope Hicks has really come under lately. She's really been in the spotlight, not just her role in the White House but, you know, what she played in the campaign, her role in the White House and also her personal life, because she was romantically involved with that staff secretary who was accused of domestic abuse. And she actually stood by him, even after the very detailed accounts from his ex-wives came out and the photos of the black eyes that they alleged that he gave them came out.

And she was a large part in the reason that the chief of staff, John Kelly, stood by him, as well. Because as we know, that was a very sore subject, a subject of controversy that he issued that statement, standing by him, more than 12 hours after the photos came out. But Hope Hicks helped drafted that statement. So that actually caused a lot of tension in the White House, not only just with our colleagues but also with the president himself. So a lot of that contributing to why she is finally leaving. BLITZER: Because one of the criticisms was got is because she was

romantically involved with Rob Porter, she should have recused herself from drafting any official White House statement.

[17:35:05] SUMMERS: Absolutely. You know, it's kind of Communications 101. And kind of the 101 rule of the Trump White House. She became a bigger story than the president himself. Her role not just in the situation with Rob Porter, the staff secretary, that Kaitlan mentioned, but also her role in the center of that meeting on Air Force One. Like, what did Hope Hicks know and when did she know it became a very big story and a big distraction from this White House that's led by a president who doesn't want anything to cast a bad light on him.

JARRETT: And a reminder, we don't know what she's told Bob Mueller, right?


JARRETT: We know she was tight-lipped yesterday, aside from the white lie, which was pretty damaging, but we don't know what she told Bob Mueller when they met earlier.

BLITZER: Bianna, take a look at this. We've got a graphic of some very high-profile White House departures, 13 months into this new administration. You can see all those -- those individuals, for one reason or another, they've left. It's highly unusual, I think, that many departures so early in a new administration.

GOLODRYGA: Everything about this administration, you could say, is unusual.

What will be interesting is to see how the president responds to Hope Hicks once she's left, if in fact, she does cooperate, let's say, with Bob Mueller, or if there are more details that she reveals that she hasn't thus yet. He's been very protective of her, but as we've seen, even some of his closest past aides, including Michael Flynn, as soon as they may turn, he turns against them, as well. So it will be curious to see what the president says if, in fact, she does say anything.

BLITZER: Laura, you've covered this Justice Department for us. This -- this hit, this attack that the president leveled against the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions today in that tweet, "Wy is Jeff -- Attorney General Sessions asking the attorney general to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse? Will take forever." Goes on and on. At the end, he says, "DISGRACEFUL!" All caps.

He keeps slamming his own attorney general.

JARRETT: Well, look, he's called him every name under the sun, publicly, on more than one occasion. But I think today was different. I think it was different because he went after the inspector general, and the whole purpose of having Michael Horowitz there is to be independent and to be sort of insulated from political attacks like this.

And you know, I spoke to a source familiar with Sessions's thinking on this. I think that he -- he was so in the weeds, the president was, on this one by bringing up the fact that other Justice Department lawyers were supposed to investigate this, almost dictating it to the attorney general, how to do his job. And I think that it was -- enough was enough.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's more breaking news we're following. CNN is learning that the Trump administration is weighing military action against North Korea if Kim Jong-un's regime develops a nuclear missile capable of reaching the U.S.

And President Trump stuns lawmakers by suggesting some tough gun- control measures, including taking weapons away from troubled individuals before -- before going to court.


[17:42:37] BLITZER: Our breaking news, the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, is stepping down one day after being grilled by lawmakers on the Russian probe, stonewalling when questioned about her time in the White House.

That comes as President Trump gets into a public spat again with his attorney general, calling Jeff Sessions "disgraceful" for his handling of an investigation into alleged FBI surveillance abuses, only to have Sessions push back today.

Joining us now, CNN law enforcement analyst and former FBI supervisory special agent, Josh Campbell.

Josh, help us understand the process a bit. Why does the Department of Justice use an inspector general to investigate potential wrongdoing, and why is it so important to keep that process independent?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, the role of the I.G. is sacrosanct. An independent body that can look over your shoulder and ensure that those who are enforcing the law are actually following the law. So you never want to meld the two. Every FBI agent knows as they're doing their job that you're going to have this independent body that's looking over your shoulder, because you don't want the Department of Justice policing itself.

Now, if we start interfering with that process and injecting politics, then I think we do a disservice to that process, which has, you know, for many, many years, has done its job in ensuring that malfeasance doesn't take place on the part of those in the department.

BLITZER: The attorney general is pushing back. He released a statement affirming that the inspector general investigation is -- is -- the appropriate process, "and the Department of Justice will continue, in his words, to do its work on a fair and impartial manner, according to the law and the Constitution."

So read between the lines, Josh: Is he calling the president's suggestion in that tweet unlawful?

CAMPBELL: Well, I think a lot of what you saw in that statement, it was just platitudes. But for me, the question isn't what was in the statement. It's when the statement was provided. And I heard from a number of my colleagues today who, you know, pointed out that it is interesting that you have an attorney general who was -- you know, remained quiet whenever the FBI and the department was the subject of political attacks on an ongoing basis, but yet chooses to speak out whenever he himself becomes the victim of those attacks.

BLITZER: Let's turn quickly to the controversy surrounding Jared Kushner, his recently downgraded security clearance. Can Kushner do his job effectively without access to top-secret information?

CAMPBELL: I don't think someone in his role can. I think having someone in there without that access, it does a disservice, not only to Mr. Kushner, because he's always going to be playing catch-up, he's always going to be in the dark, but I think it also does a disservice to the men and women of the intelligence community. Because if you're the director of an agency, and your job is to brief the president and his staff, you're constantly going to be wondering, what can I say? Do I have to parse words? Do I have to hold back? Do I have to hold back? What can I say, you know, in the presence here of this person whose security clearance isn't as -- at the level of others in the room?

Now, I'll just say, Wolf, you know, one of the things that was interesting is, if you read "The Washington Post" article that talked about some of the questions that surrounded Mr. Kushner, I want to focus on the naivety aspect and the fact that you would have foreign governments that are interested in someone who lacks that experience.

Now, I remember when I was in college, I wanted a peek at legislative process, so I went to work in a state legislature as an aide and quickly got promoted to legislative director. And I was in over my head.

I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, they came in and, you know, solved the problem. But it was interesting because all the lobbyists wanted to meet with me. My call sheet was full. It was a revolving door.

Now, was that because I was some, you know, masterful, you know, brilliant scholar who had mastered the art of the legislative process? No. It was because I was naive and I was malleable.

Now, I think that's what we see here in this situation. If you're a foreign government and you're wanting to shape U.S. foreign policy, you don't want a Richard Haass. You don't want a Richard Holbrooke. You want a Jared Kushner.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Josh Campbell, thanks very much for joining us.

CAMPBELL: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, the startling revelation about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Why did he once have Brazilian passport?


[17:50:57] BLITZER: Tonight, we're looking into an intriguing new mystery involving the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Let's go quickly to Brian Todd.

Brian, the North Korean leader once had, what, a Brazilian passport?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He did, Wolf. And the likely reasons why he had that fake passport only add to the intrigue.

You know, there are times we say that Hollywood screenwriters couldn't think of some of the plots and plans the North Koreans have come up with. This is one of those times.


TODD (voice-over): The name is Pwag, Josef Pwag. The name Kim Jong- un went by on this fake Brazilian passport when he was in his early teens.

That's according to a report by Reuters which has seen and published photocopies of what it says are passports fraudulently obtained in 1996.

KEN GAUSE, DIRECTOR OF THE INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS GROUP, CNA: We know that Kim Jong-un has had fake passports in the past. He traveled to Japan, we believe, in the early 1990s on a fake Brazilian passport. So it's not unheard of.

TODD (voice-over): Reuters, citing western European security sources, reports Kim's late father, Kim Jong-il, also got a fake Brazilian passport at the same time in 1996 under the name Ijong Tchoi. It would have been about two years after Kim Jong-il became Supreme Leader in North Korea.

Why would a hardline communist dictator and his teenage son need fake passports?

GREG SCARLATOIU, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: These fake passports were meant for an underground escape. They're meant to enable the Kims to escape danger in case the regime is on the brink of collapse.

They're meant to enable the Kims to escape accountability and responsibility for the egregious human rights violations and crimes against humanity this regime has been committing.

TODD (voice-over): Kim's family has a colorful history with fake passports. His older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was caught in 2001 entering Japan under a fake Dominican passport. He was trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Analysts say the episode was a huge embarrassment to his father.

SCARLATOIU: He was absolutely furious, he banished his son to Macau. TODD (voice-over): Kim Jong-nam was murdered last year at Kuala

Lumpur's airport when two women attacked him with V.X. nerve agent, a hit which Malaysian authorities say Kim Jong-un ordered but which Kim denies.

Experts say Kim Jong-un himself not only visited Tokyo Disneyland in the early '90s under a fake passport, but he also lived under a fake name and passport while he was studying at a private school in Switzerland, pretending to be the son of a North Korean embassy employee.

GAUSE: Primarily for security reasons. They did not want him to be a known person in Switzerland where allied intelligence agencies could potentially get at him or at least identify him and start building a file on him.


TODD: Some outstanding questions remain for Brazilian officials. Just how did the North Koreans reportedly obtain these fake passports? Possibly through bribery? And were these passports ever used?

A Brazilian official tells us his country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is investigating every aspect of these reported passports, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Brian, could Kim Jong-un and his sister, Kim Yo- jong, have fake passports now?

TODD: Analysts say they very well could, Wolf, and they could use them if the regime collapses and they need to get out of there in a hurry.

Even though Kim Jong-un and his sister are so widely recognizable, experts say Kim has a lot of body doubles, and the North Koreans are very good at disguise and deception. They could get Kim Jong-un out and use a fake passport to do so if they had to in an emergency.

BLITZER: Pretty amazing stuff indeed. Brian Todd, good report. Thanks very much.

Coming up, the breaking news. The White House communications director, Hope Hicks, is stepping down one day after being grilled by lawmakers in the Russia probe, stonewalling when questioned about her time in the White House.

And President Trump stuns lawmakers by suggesting some tough gun control measures, including taking weapons away from troubled individuals before going to court.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures. I like taking the guns earlier.



BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Losing hope. A bombshell exit from the White House. Hope Hicks is stepping down as one of the President's closest and longest-serving advisers. Is there any connection to her admission that she's told white lies on Mr. Trump's behalf?

[18:00:03] Stunning shift. The President accuses a fellow Republican of being afraid of the NRA as he meets with lawmakers on gun violence and seems to side with Democrats on some key issues.