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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Congressman John Garamendi; Trump's Trade War; Chaos Inside the White House; 80 Million In Path of "Bomb Cyclone" Slamming East Coast; Source: McMaster Could Leave White House by the End of Month; Justice Review Expected to Criticism McCabe for Leaks; Special Counsel Mueller Keeps Personal Info Close to the Vest. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 2, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:24]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: refusing to resign. As new turmoil rocks the White House, Chief of Staff John Kelly is on the defensive, admitting mistakes, but still stirring the pot with a questionable new account of a major scandal. Is he more of an asset or a liability for his boss?

At war with everyone. The president is enraging allies overseas and in his own Republican Party as he seems determined to launch a trade war. Tonight, he's even more isolated as he battles over tariffs, guns and even the actor Alec Baldwin.

Departure lounge. We're following new leads on multiple administration officials who may be ready to call it quits, including the president's top national security and economic advisers.

Is the president also preparing for the biggest exit yet, by his daughter and son-in-law?

And wicked winds. A bomb cyclone batters the East Coast, putting 80 million people at risk in a life-and-death whether emergency. We will have a life report on the dangerous conditions tonight

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 tonight, the man hired to bring order to the White House is admitting to mistakes on his watch, but rejecting any suggestion that it should cost him his job.

Chief of Staff John Kelly attempting damage control at the close of a crisis-filled week that saw his boss go rogue on the issue of gun control and trade tariffs. But Kelly's remarks may have only added to the concerns and the confusion about what's going on inside the administration.

This hour, I will talk with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi, and our correspondents and analysts, they are all standing by. First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, there may be trade war issues brewing right now, but that's not what John Kelly wanted to talk about today.

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

It's been a week of staff wars and possible trade wars. Chief of Staff John Kelly left White House staffers puzzled today when he tried to relitigate the mistakes that were made here at the White House in the Rob Porter scandal. One official told us the timing was -- quote -- "odd" for Kelly to resurrect the controversy.

And there's more chaos on the policy side here at the White House, as President Trump is doubling down on his call for new tariffs, inviting a trade war that even administration officials are acknowledging will cost Americans more money to buy the products they need.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): When President Trump stepped away from the White House, he left behind an administration that's by many accounts in utter turmoil. His embattled Chief of Staff John Kelly reignited the firestorm over former Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who was ousted last month in response to allegations of domestic abuse.

While Kelly said he is not quitting over the controversy, telling reporters -- quote -- "I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over," he admitted to reporters that growing statements from the White House praising Porter just as the staff secretary was stepping down were a mistake.

Kelly said -- quote -- "We didn't cover ourselves in glory in terms of how we handled that on Wednesday morning. It was confusing."

Kelly also tried to clean up the timeline of the staff saga, insisting he only learned of red flags in Porter's background February 6. But sources tell CNN a different story, that Kelly and other White House officials were becoming aware of the allegations last November.

Kelly attempted to explain that, saying -- quote -- "The first accusation had to do with a messy divorce, but no mention of physical abuse."

Porter's second wife blasted Kelly's explanation in a statement, saying: "That is insulting to anyone suffering in an abusive situation now. Emotional and psychological abuse is abuse, not to mention punching in windows and dragging someone out of a shower is physical."

The president is also facing growing criticism over his sudden announcement of new tariffs on steel and aluminum coming into the U.S., moves that are almost certain to spark a trade war. Mr. Trump's response: "Trade wars are good and easy to win. We win big. It's easy."

"The Wall Street Journal" is not buying it, warning, "Donald Trump made the biggest policy blunder of his presidency."

When asked about predictions from economists that consumer costs will go up, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pulled out a can of soup.

WILBUR ROSS, U.S. COMMERCE SECRETARY: Let's put it in perspective. I just bought a can of Campbell's Soup today at the 7/Eleven. It was $1.99 for the can. There's about three cents worth of tinplate steel in this can. So, if it goes up 25 percent, that's a tiny fraction of one penny.

[18:05:02]

ACOSTA: But the president's view on tariffs have been known for decades, like his colorful warning to China on trade in 2011.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Listen, you mother (EXPLETIVE DELETED). We're going to tax you at 25 percent.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ACOSTA: Democrats say this is exactly the kind of chaotic presidency both parties warned about.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: I have served under six administrations. I have never seen such chaos. Who knows what he will do on trade tomorrow morning?

ACOSTA: Adding to the chaos, sources tell CNN that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster could leave the White House in the near future.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, General McMaster is not going anywhere. If this is chaos, I think the American people are glad for it. If they want to call it chaos, fine. But we call it success.

ACOSTA: Not to mention the president' ever-changing position on gun control. After indicating he would back several gun measures, the president met with the NRA and tweeted: "Good, great meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA," raising questions about whether the president still supports confiscating guns from the mentally ill without due process, as he said earlier in the week.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: He is looking for ways that we can improve the mental health system, so that we can take guns away from people that shouldn't have them.

ACOSTA: But the president still made time before 6:00 a.m. to take on actor Alec Baldwin, who recently said he was unhappy playing Mr. Trump on "Saturday Night Live."

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: And he has the nerve to call me a moron. Talk about the pot calling the kettle Mexican.

(LAUGHTER)

ACOSTA: "Alec Baldwin, whose dying, mediocre career was saved by his terrible impersonation of me on "SNL" now says playing me was agony. Alec, it was agony for those who were forced to watch."

There were, however, no tweets from the president on Vladimir Putin, who is boasting to NBC that he has new high-tech weapons ready for the battlefield.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): As a matter of fact, every single weapon system discussed today easily surpasses and avoids an anti-missile defense system.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for John Kelly, he did reveal to reporters that his eyes were opened, in his words, last September by the large number of staffers who were still working with interim security clearances here at the White House, like Rob Porter.

Kelly admitted that was more people than he was comfortable with. In another remarkable moment with reporters, Kelly conceded that the handling of classified material was not up to the standards that he had been used to when he came on board here at the White House last summer.

That is a stunning statement, Wolf, given the fact that Mr. Trump slammed Hillary Clinton over and over, over her handling of classified material during the campaign. There is one other admission from John Kelly, Wolf, that is worth mentioning. He also told reporters earlier today that he thought there were too many staffers here at the White House who had top-secret clearances.

He bumped them down to only secret security clearances, another stunning admission from the chief of staff earlier today, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, at the White House.

Let's talk a little bit about John Kelly's revised timeline on the Rob Porter scandal and how it clashes with other accounts.

We're joined now by our White House reporter, Kaitlan Collins, who has been doing a lot of reporting on this.

There are some significant discrepancies in his account, right?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Exactly.

I would say inaccuracies. As John Kelly went with reporters today, he sought to give a timeline of when he found out about these allegations and the way that he handled them.

And essentially what he said is that on February 6, that Tuesday that that first story came out, he said they had received a press inquiry about Rob Porter and about an emotional abuse allegation. John Kelly says he went to Rob Porter, confronted him about it, that Rob Porter denied the allegation.

And then John Kelly went to Capitol Hill for a meeting with lawmakers to discuss DACA. He says, when he returned from that meeting, there was a second allegation of physical abuse by one of Rob Porter's other wives, and then he went and met with Rob Porter again. That is when he secured Rob Porter's resignation, he says.

He is saying he handled the situation within two hours. That is John Kelly's account of what happened that Tuesday night.

But that next Wednesday, when those photos starting surfacing of the black eyes and more stories about these allegations about Rob Porter, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders came out of the briefing and said Rob Porter's resignation was not forced. It was something he decided to do.

And they actually put out a glowing statement on John Kelly's behalf praising Rob Porter, saying that he couldn't think of enough things to say about him.

So it raises the question of, if John Kelly was aware of these two very serious allegations against him, why is he issuing a glowing statement on his behalf the next day?

And his argument, the timeline that he offered of what happened that Tuesday night, actually conflicts with a lot of our reporting, which essentially is that John Kelly and other top White House staffers were aware of the allegations made against Porter last fall because they knew that he was having trouble getting a security clearance.

So we actually knew that. So not only did Rob Porter remain on the staff from last fall to this February, when he resigned, he was actually up for a promotion as well. So, not only was John Kelly aware of the -- I would say the parameters of these allegations, he was considering promoting Rob Porter, because he thought he was professional. He saw him as someone who was competent.

[18:10:01]

Those things do not add up from what John Kelly offered to us today.

BLITZER: What's your sense, Kaitlan, why Kelly is reigniting this controversy right now?

COLLINS: I think he has the desire to explain himself.

But it confused a lot of White House staffers, because these Rob Porter headlines stayed in the news for much longer than any other scandal that has rocked this White House. And they had finally died down. They finally were not in the news every single day.

And then John Kelly decides to relitigate this with reporters today, offering this timeline that conflicts with a lot of reporting on what happened.

But I think John Kelly has to desire to explain himself, because he's beared a lot of the brunt of this fallout from that Rob Porter situation and the way he handled it. And it really lowered the morale in the West Wing, but it certainly did not add up. It raised a lot of questions.

But we know that John Kelly is someone who sees himself as media- savvy. Maybe he thought it was to his advantage to bring these reporters into his office today, when the president was out of town, seek to explain himself, how he handled that situation. But, Wolf, it just simply doesn't add up.

BLITZER: It certainly doesn't.

Thanks very much. Good reporting, Kaitlan Collins, for us.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Congressman John Garamendi is joining us. He's a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: What impact, Congressman, does this level of chaos over at the White House have on the president's ability to govern?

GARAMENDI: It's extremely serious.

I have been saying for months and months the chaos, the uncertainty, the lies, the variation in policies is a major national security issue.

Our friends, our allies have no idea what to expect from this presidency or from the White House, and certainly our opponents are always looking for an opportunity to do a little something to us.

And we know, we know that Russia is doing more than a little something to us. They are seriously interfering with the upcoming election, and now we have this nuclear issue also.

BLITZER: What do you make of this "New York Times" report that President Trump has quietly behind the scenes actually asked his White House chief of staff, John Kelly, to oust Jared Kushner, his son-in- law and senior adviser, and Ivanka, his daughter and senior adviser, from the White House?

GARAMENDI: Well, perhaps reality television has not worked so well.

Didn't he used to say he liked to fire people? Well, he has a very serious problem. He has men and women in his administration who are using their power position for personal gain.

Now, a definition of corruption, at least as I understand it, is when you have the political power and you use it for your personal gain. There is a serious allegation about Kushner. There's also a serious allegation perhaps -- an allegation, for sure, about Ivanka, and who knows.

The president himself under the Emoluments Clause can receive nothing, as in nothing, from any foreign government or foreign power. And there's a lot of questions that have been raised about that. We have got a White House that has danced on the edge of corruption from the very first moment that he took his oath of office.

BLITZER: The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, now says that when he actually got to the White House, he's a retired four-star general, the handling, in his words, "The handling of classified material wasn't up to the standards that I had been used to."

Once again, that's a direct quote. He says he had his eyes opened in September when he asked -- and I'm quoting him right now -- "What's the percentage that they're still -- that are still on interim clearances, and the answer to that was a fair number. I mean, it was a lot."

Does that concern you? You're on the Armed Services Committee. That there are so many who didn't have full security clearances?

GARAMENDI: It's a major, major problem.

You have no idea who they're talking to, although that's part of the concern. You know that, in many of these cases, there is the possibility of people being leveraged by their past activities.

And I do know, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, we have classified hearings at various levels all of the time. And it is very, very important stuff. There's another element here. And that is most of -- some of these people have come from an element in which they are in the stock trading business, buying and selling stocks.

The information that's available in the president's daily briefing is extraordinarily valuable if you want to play in the stock market. You can be ahead of everyone or you can making decisions based upon information that you know is going to come down. You can pass that on to people.

It is a real serious problem. But, beyond all of that, beyond all the personal gain that appears to be part of what is going on here, there is the issue of the most important nation in the world, whose leadership is in absolute chaos.

[18:15:11]

It's not the wheels coming off. The thing is in full stages of absolute collapse here. And that is a very real problem for this nation and, frankly, for the rest of the world.

BLITZER: Congressman Garamendi, thanks for joining us.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we will talk about the implications of the chief of staff's admission that the White House hasn't met the highest standards for handling classified information.

And we will also take you into the path of a bomb cyclone that's put millions of Americans at risk with fierce winds, rain and flooding.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:20:18]

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, new word of White House turmoil at the end of a tumultuous week.

Let's bring in our analysts and our experts to discuss.

Gloria, this "New York Times" report that the president's actually behind the scenes asked his chief of staff, John Kelly, to help push Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump out of the White House, what are you hearing about that?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that the president has always been concerned that Jared and Ivanka get hit a lot because of him.

And I know that he's told more than one person, you know, Jared and Ivanka, they have to endure all of this. I don't understand why they just don't go back to New York.

I think now, because of all the scrutiny on Jared, the president doesn't like it. And he doesn't like anything that has to do with Russia that looks bad for him.

And I think, if it were up to the president, they would go back to New York. I don't know whether that's going to happen. And "The Times" is reporting that he would like Kelly to make it happen. Maybe this is one way of doing that, by making it public.

BLITZER: Yes, lots of intrigue going on over.

Phil, John Kelly, the chief of staff, he also said today that when he got to the White House -- and I'm quoting him -- "The handling of classified material wasn't up to the standards that I had been used to."

He's a retired four-star general.

He also says his eyes were opened back in September, when he asked the question, "What's the percentage that are still on interim clearances? And the answer to that was a fair number. I mean, it was a lot."

What does that say to you?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: So what happened?

I mean, he's a four-star general. He served America. He lost his son. I'm not going to question. But do I have a few questions for the administration. And let me make this real simple. On the record, the FBI has said they closed the file last summer. Did they or did they not last summer include information about domestic abuse by Rob Porter? That's a yes or a no. If they did, who knew? Did somebody in the

Security Office know? Yes or no? And if somebody in the Security Office knew, I have got to believe they told the person they report to. That would be somebody in the White House.

BORGER: White House counsel Don McGahn.

MUDD: Correct.

Let me cut to the chase, Wolf. I have got to believe the FBI uncovered this. This is not exactly classified information. Between the time they uncovered it, as early as last summer, and passed it along to the White House and the time he spoke now, who told who? He didn't answer the key question. Who knew what, when?

BLITZER: Laura, during the campaign, then candidate Donald Trump repeatedly, throughout 2016, went after Hillary Clinton's what he described as her mishandling of classified information. Now you have the chief of staff at the White House saying -- admitting they had major mistakes going on. What do you make of it?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the irony is so thick here and the hypocrisy even thicker, because if the notion here is the accusations against the Hillary camp because their mishandling might have been able to lead to somebody uncovering classified information, in the hands of somebody who was not authorized to do so, well, you have the FBI saying this person should not be authorized to actually see uncovered, unclassified material.

And yet they see it day in and day out. You see it with Rob Porter. You see it with Jared Kushner. You see it with everyone else who is part of that fair number that General Kelly talked about.

And so part of that is undermining the credibility they have going forward. It's easy to look backwards and attack people for mishandling of classified information. But it in a forward-thinking measure says that suddenly it is less of a problem to do it if you don't have surrounding with the president of the United States people who are competent enough to access that material.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, amid all this chaos, there's more turmoil going on, with the president once again doubling down on trade wars, saying trade wars, he tweeted today, are good and easy to win. He wants tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

"The Wall Street Journal" editorial page calls President Trump's tariff announcement -- quote -- "the biggest policy blunder of his presidency."

Coming from them, that's pretty damning.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, from a usual ally.

Look, I think this is revealing of how much of the president's economic agenda is really built on restoration, trying to restore the economic order of kind of the mid-20th century in the 21st century.

He's very similar to what he's tried to prop up the coal industry, in part by suppressing renewables.

Coal, steel, these are industries that have made important contributions to the country. They are important in regions of the country, but they are not the future of where jobs and growth are coming from.

I think we're down to about 150,000 people in steel and aluminum combined. And obviously many more Americans work in industries that could be hurt, manufacturing industries that could be hurt by the higher prices for aluminum and steel, not to mention all of the digital industries, which is where so much growth is, that can be hurt if we end up in a trade war that reduces our ability to export to other countries.

[18:25:14]

So, this is really about trying to protect and preserve one slice of the economy that has been shrinking, really at the expense of the components of the economy that are growing.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's a lot more we need to follow.

Will the president's national security adviser be the next to go through the revolving door over at the White House?

We will talk about that uncertainty and the message it's sending to U.S. allies.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Multiple sources now telling CNN that the White House national security advisor, General H.R. McMaster, is likely to leave his position in the very near future with one source saying his departure could come by the end of this month.

[18:30:32] Phil Mudd, what are the implications of his leaving?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Let's do a little bookend here. Underreported story. The Chinese say within the past week they're considering an option to allow the premier in China to stay on forever, basically. And they're implementing a global plan to say we want economic influence in Latin America, in Africa. We want to counter the Americans over decades.

We rotate spokespersons, and in this case, national security advisers on average, in this case, every six and a half months. If you go into this position, my point is that up want to implement complicated policies. What do we do about North Korea? What's our nuclear capability? What's our military capability? What's the CIA doing?

And then you also have to say who's the secretary of state? Who's the secretary of defense? These are complicated issues with a lot of personalities. When you rotate people, how do you develop a strategic plan to counter people like the Russians and the Chinese? My answer is you can't. You can't do it.

BLITZER: You know, Ron, what do you think, that when foreign leaders are watching the turmoil going on right now over at the White House, what are they saying?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: They're saying it's chaos. They're saying the same thing that so many leaders in the U.S. are saying. Look, I mean, this has been an enormous experiment from day one. Donald Trump was as far outside the box -- I think I'm putting it mildly -- as any president we've ever elected in terms of his experiences, his temperament, his values, what he had accomplished.

And I think if you kind of look -- here we are, 14, 15 months later -- at the erosion of support that he is facing in the country, I think it is predominantly about the way he has conducted himself as president. It's less about the ideology and the agenda, although parts of that have been flash points. But it's really about all of these questions about his fitness for the job.

And, certainly, the constant churn in the White House is indicative of an environment in which what goes on behind the curtain look's like a more extreme verse of what we're seeing in front of the curtain, which is constant improvisation, constant change and a very mercurial and volatile chief executive.

BLITZER: You know, Laurie, you're our legal analyst. Explain what's going over on at the Justice Department with this expected Justice Department review of the -- criticizing the former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, for authorizing disclosures to the news media.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The inspector general is investigating whether or not the FBI handled the e-mail probe about Hillary Clinton's use of a private server as something that was done in a partisan way or a nefarious way or one that did not go to the center of the DOJ in their objectivity.

Remember McCabe stepped down -- think it was in January. Most people thought it was because he was sick of the ire of Donald Trump and the constant attacks on his credibility, the questions about who he voted for in the election. Turns out he didn't vote in the general election, but voted in the Republican primary nonetheless.

And so that's what people thought it was. But it turns out that perhaps this inspector general report is going to show that Christopher Wray was being prudent to say it's probably a good thing for you no longer to hold your current office, because you may the person responsible for authorizing others to give information, very specific and sensitive information, to reporters, namely "The Wall Street Journal."

And in doing so, I think you're seeing that McCabe was doing two things, No. 1, he was rather going against policy that says you keep it close to the vest. There's no need to try to be proactive about what the FBI is doing on an active case. And No. 2, that he was trying to try to protect the credibility of the FBI even before Trump tried to attack it.

Because what he was doing was saying two things. Look, I am going to leak a story -- and "leak" is probably a word that people take issue with, but that's what it is when you give it to the press. Leaking a story that shows that they were handling it in an appropriate way, a pro-Hillary -- anti-Hillary story.

BLITZER: Right.

JARRETT: And the anti-Hillary story makes all the difference, because the thought is that the FBI was partisan in her favor, which is odd given Comey's deal.

BLITZER: Let me pick up that point, Gloria, because when Hillary Clinton is looking at this, the disclosures were hurting her campaign --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Not the Trump campaign.

BORGER: Right. So she's probably looking at it and saying, "Oh, great. He did that."

But what about Donald Trump, who's been complaining about McCabe, and actually McCabe authorized the leaks of a story that was bad for Hillary Clinton. So what does Donald Trump do about that? That's not the narrative that he has already put out there, which is that McCabe was pro-Hillary. His wife's a Democrat. She got some money from Terry McAuliffe and all the rest. It doesn't kind of work for him anymore.

BLITZER: The --

BROWNSTEIN: You know --

BLITZER: Go ahead, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: I would say real quick. I mean, it relates to what you were just asking me about a moment ago. This unprecedented circumstance of a president attacking members of his own administration in public, repeatedly humiliating them. Attacking the independence of the law enforcement agencies, all of this, I think is why do we see so much unprecedented -- almost unprecedented levels of turnover? I mean, you really don't have to look very far behind the curtain.

And you have to ask yourself: Republicans in Congress, after initially showing kind of more independence from Trump, have essentially signaled that they are giving him a blank check on every front. And you kind of wonder if that will come back to bite them in the end, because I think the biggest threat they face in this midterm election is the sense that things are a little bit out of control, too volatile, too tempestuous, and they are not providing any check, restraint or oversight.

BLITZER: Phil, did the FBI -- and you once worked at the FBI -- violate its own protocol by publicly releasing information the Hillary Clinton investigation was reopened while keeping secret the Trump/Russia investigation?

MUDD: Yes, and boy, this hurts. Let me confess. I haven't seen him in a few years, Andy McCabe. He's a friend. He's a great guy. This is a mistake.

You cannot leak information about the investigation of a private citizen. I don't care if it's a presidential candidate or if it's you or me. You can't do that.

I would encourage you to think about two categories. Did he leak stuff that was embarrassing or sensitive, or did he leak stuff that was a threat to national security? This is a leak because it's embarrassing or sensitive. I don't think it's a threat to national security. It doesn't matter. You can't do this stuff.

BORGER: What if reporters have a story wrong, and you're trying to kind of give them a fuller picture? What's wrong with that?

MUDD: Well, on the inside, I didn't trust reporters, so I'm not going to talk to them.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's more news we're following, including the mystery surrounding the most private public figure in Washington, the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:39] BLITZER: As chaos grips the White House, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation is tightening around President Trump's inner circle and the president himself.

But even though Mueller makes headlines almost every day, there's still a lot we don't know about him. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, has a closer look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER (voice-over): Special Counsel Robert Mueller is a mystery man, perhaps the most private public figure in Washington. But as the leader of the Russia investigation, he's also a political ground zero.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: I think the public trust in this whole thing is gone.

BORGER: And in the sights of a president who wanted him fired.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Last June, the president ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He backed down after the White House counsel threatened to quit.

BORGER: Putting Mueller in the bizarre position of investigating whether the president tried to fire him. But you'll never hear about it from Mueller.

GARRETT GRAFF, AUTHOR, "THE THREAT MATRIX": I mean, this is someone who has turned down more press conferences and interviews than most people in Washington ever get the chance to give. He doesn't really like talking about himself. He doesn't really like speaking with the press.

BORGER: At the start, Mueller was a bipartisan favorite --

ROBERT RAY, INDEPENDENT COUNSEL DURING BILL CLINTON INVESTIGATION: He would have been on anybody's list of, let's say, the top five people in the country to have, you know, taken on this kind of a responsibility.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We all need to let Mr. Mueller do his job. I think he's the right guy at the right time.

BORGER: -- with a long resume. At 73, he's been involved for decades in some of the Justice Department's most celebrated cases: mobster John Gotti, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega --

ROBERT MUELLER, SPECIAL COUNSEL IN RUSSIA PROBE: Directed to Pan Am 103 --

BORGER: -- and the Pan Am 103 bombing in Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, a case that still remains personal.

MUELLER: I'll never forget the visit I made to Lockerbie, where I saw the small wooden warehouse in which were stored the various effects of your loved ones. A white sneaker, a Syracuse sweatshirt, Christmas presents and photographs.

GRAFF: He's been effectively the same Bob Mueller in every place he has worked, whether that was the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco in the 1970s, whether that was the George H.W. Bush administration in the 1980s, whether that was the D.C. homicide prosecutor's office in the 1990s or the FBI in the 2000s. He is hard driving. He's tenacious. He is incredibly thorough and has a very strong sense of right or wrong.

BORGER: Not Republican or Democrat.

MUDD: Four and a half years of whatever, 2,000 meetings, I didn't hear him say anything political.

BORGER (on camera): Really? In Washington?

MUDD: Yes. I know that sounds weird. He might have said, "That guy's a jerk." I didn't see it as a partisan issue.

BORGER: How would you describe his politics?

LISA MONACO, FORMER MUELLER CHIEF OF STAFF: Not.

BORGER: There are none? MONACO: He's apolitical. He's nonpartisan. He is a -- I think it's become quite clear, a pretty law and order guy. But he doesn't speak of things in political terms.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

BORGER (voice-over): Which is partly why President Bush picked him to run the FBI in 2001.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The FBI must remain independent of politics and uncompromising in its mission.

[18:45:03] BORGER (voice-over): Mueller arrived at the FBI just seven days before 9/11. He served most of his term under Bush. And when President Obama asked him to stay for two more years, it required an act of Congress. Senate approved 100 to zero. His M.O.? A by the books guy even after hours.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: People told me after the Christmas Party, I mean, well, we're going to the director's house, the guy who never really interacts with us. But at the end of the party, he would flick the lighting. So, it's going 7:00 to 9:00. At 9:30, he's like, well, on the invitation, it's 7:00 to 9:00. It's 9:03, lights on, it's kind of a signal.

BORGER: Married for 50 years to a former teacher, the father of daughters, there still wasn't small talk about family at work. A literally buttoned up and buttoned down boss.

MUDD: I remember telling him, Director, you were a white buttoned down shirt every day. Can you wear like tattered or something?

GARRETT GRAFF, MUELLER BIOGRAPHER: I asked him finally, years after he had been director, you know, what was the deal with the white shirts when you were at the FBI? He said, I understood I was leading the FBI through a wrenching period of change. I wanted to wear the white shirt because I wanted the other FBI agents to be able to know that this was still the agency that they had signed up to join.

BORGER: His dress code as unforgiving as his work ethic.

LISA MONACO, FORMER MUELLER CHIEF OF STAFF: He was in the office between 6:00 and 6:30 every morning. And he would always plop his briefcase down on the chair, opposite my desk, not sit down, and kibitz or shoot the breeze. Immediately, what's happening? What's going on?

BORGER (on camera): What if you're not a got briefer?

CARLOS FERNANDEZ, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Then you're done. You're done.

BORGER: Done?

FERNANDEZ: The boss likes a good briefer. People would wake up at 4:00 in the morning and study before briefing the boss. It was like the big test of the day.

MUDD: There's not a lot of back and forth. Very quickly, you're going to go through the details of the case.

BORGER: Would you assume that he is managing the special counsel investigation the same way?

MUDD: Oh, heck, yes. I wouldn't assume. That is his -- it's not the like a professional choice. That's his DNA. What's going on today? What do you got? What do you got? What do you got?

I don't want to hear a lot of noise. I want to hear what the facts are. Let's talk about it. What's your judgment? What do you think?

OK. Next, here's our decision, let's move on. Let's go. I never saw insecurity or nervousness ever.

BORGER: Ever? Never?

MUDD: Never.

BORGER (voice-over): The pressure on Mueller now as special counsel is intense, but he has seen worse.

FERNANDEZ: This is a man that in his early 20's fought in Vietnam. I don't think there's anything that's going to give him any type of fear he faced as a young man.

BORGER: Mueller grew up in the wealthy suburbs and attended an elite boarding school. A classmate of John Kerry. Then to Princeton. But the combat death of a classmate David Hackett (ph) in Vietnam inspired Mueller to join the marines.

GRAFF: He was wounded in combat, shot through the leg, received a Bronze Star with valor, Purple Heart and, you know, was right back in the fight a couple of weeks later.

ROBERT MUELLER, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I consider myself fortunate to have lived through the war and there were many men such as David Hackett who did not. In some sense, you feel like you've been given a second lease on life and you want to make the most of it to contribute in some way.

BORGER: After graduating University of Virginia Law School, Mueller soon found his way to the Department of Justice and remained there for most of the next four decades.

MUELLER: My colleagues here at the Department of Justice, past and present --

BORGER: With two short breaks to give private practice a try.

GRAFF: Bob Mueller has been notoriously unhappy every time he has tried to be in private practice. He just can't defend guilty people. He'll meet with a client, they'll explain his problem, and he'll say, well, sounds like you should go to jail then, you know, that -- BORGER (on camera): So he'll tell his client --

GRAFF: It sounds like you're guilty.

Bob Mueller is someone who sees the world in very black and white terms.

BORGER (voice-over): By 2004, Mueller was running the FBI when his phone rang. It was James Comey, then deputy attorney general. It was the first time Mueller and Comey would find themselves in a very controversial legal drama.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I was very upset. I was angry.

BORGER: Comey was worried the Bush administration was determined to keep a warrantless eavesdropping program that Mueller, Comey and their boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, thought was illegal. But Ashcroft was in the hospital recovering from surgery, leaving Comey in charge.

COMEY: I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that. Called Director Mueller with whom I've been discussing this particular matter, and who had been a great help to me over that week and told him what was happening.

[18:50:01] He said I'll meet at the hospital right now.

BORGER: They had to literally race administration officials to Ashcroft's bedside.

COMEY: Director Mueller instructed the FBI agents present not to allow me to be removed from the room, under any circumstances.

BORGER: In the end, Ashcroft backed Comey and Mueller.

GRAFF: He enlisted Bob Mueller because he knew that Bob Mueller had this incredible nonpartisan reputation in Washington, while Comey might be able to be personally blamed for having political motives or thinking politics. No one was going attach that label to Bob Mueller.

BORGER: That was then. Now, Trump views their relationship with suspicion.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, he's very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome.

BORGER: Mueller loyalists deny it. But it's all part of the new landscape as he investigates the president.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R-SC), OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: In Congress, we just assume politics infects and invades everything.

BORGER: And it has. News of disparaging text messages about Trump led Mueller to remove a member of his team. GOWDY: I think they are devastating. They are beyond showing

political preferences. It very much impacts people's perception of fairness.

REPORTER: Mr. President --

BORGER: Then the president declassified a document challenging the FBI's professional behavior.

TRUMP: I think it's a disgrace. What's going on in this country, I think it's a disgrace.

BORGER: The intended message to Mueller was clear, your investigation is contaminated. Mueller remains silent, instead, letting his work speak for itself.

GOWDY: He is the best hope to produce a product that my fellow citizens can have confidence in. It will not come from Congress, let me assure you of that. It is not going to come from a bunch of politicians.

I hope it can come from a former marine, who was the head of the FBI and a U.S. attorney. But he's got to be mindful of the perception. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and I'm going to wait on the product that he produces.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Gloria is back with us.

Excellent piece, Gloria, very informative. Of all the people the president regularly tweets about and attacks, Bob Mueller is not one of them.

BORGER: That's right. I think his legal team made it very clear to the president, that this is one person you don't want to antagonize. And also, this is one person that lots of Republicans and Democrats agree has had a distinguished career in public service, is trying to do his job and seems to be no reason to reason to, you know, to get on his wrong side.

The president has clearly criticized the FBI. He's going after the FBI. Mueller is very devoted to the FBI. The president has also said at points, that he feels vindicated. His attorneys don't believe that helps him very much in the eyes of the special counsel.

But they have really, really said to him, just don't do it. And so far, at least, the president actually seems to be listening.

BLITZER: We'll see if that lasts.

Excellent, excellent piece, Gloria. Thank you very much for doing that.

BORGER: Thanks, Wolf. BLITZER: There's more breaking news coming up. Eighty million people in the path of a monster storm right now. We're going get a live update on what the National Weather Service is calling a matter of life and death.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:58:04] BLITZER: Breaking weather news tonight, a powerful and dangerous nor'easter called a bomb cyclone is threatening millions of Americans and causing travel havoc.

Our national correspondent Brynn Gingras is joining us on the Massachusetts coast just south of Boston.

Brynn, the National Weather Service is calling this a life and death situation. What are you seeing? And what are you hearing?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's pretty dangerous right now, Wolf, I can tell you that. Up until about an hour ago, we actually had power in this area in Scituate, Massachusetts. Now, you can see it's a blackout behind me. We have seen transformers blowing as power outages have been really going out. They are widespread all around the south shore of Massachusetts.

Now, over here, you can see this is the Scituate harbor. The water is actually at low tide. It's not only the power that is a major concern, it's the flooding that they are going to experience into the evening when high tide comes at about 11:00 tonight. It's supposed to be historic because of the full moon. And that is just going to add to flooding that we have seen all throughout the day here across again this area of Massachusetts.

So, certainly this storm is not over, yet. It's actually going to continue until tomorrow. And all the warnings don't end until Sunday, Wolf.

BLITZER: And what else -- how are people dealing with this?

GINGRAS: Well, there were mandatory evacuations in this particular area of the south shore and low lying coastal areas. And again, officials are worried they would not heed the warnings. Most people have evacuated, but, again, as the tides go in and out, residents should not go back to their homes. And that's a major concern for officials as now, of course, it's dark out. If anybody went to their homes, they could be in serious danger when that high tide comes back in tonight.

BLITZER: Yes, very, very dangerous situation, and absolutely right. The National Weather Service calling this a life and death situation. We'll stay on top of this.

Brynn Gingras, thanks very much for that report. Be careful over there.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.