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CNN Sources: Trump Prepares To Replace McMaster; Attorney: Stormy Daniels Physically Threatened To Be Silent; Mueller Subpoenas Trump Organization In Russia Probe; Alarming New Accusations About Russian Cyber Attacks on the U.S. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 11:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of news. That's it for us. "AT THIS HOUR" picks up right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. This morning, the Trump administration is awash in reports of a cabinet shake-up and high-level officials being shown the door. In the words of one source close to the White House, everyone loves a season finale.

The latest insider facing the prospect of an apprentice-like firing is National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and he is not alone. A source close to the White House says the president is considering other moves as well. Keeping in mind the week began with the president firing his secretary of state with a tweet.

CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House for us. Tell us what you're hearing about H.R. McMaster -- Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brianna. There is no question that President Trump is ready to make some changes in his inner circle and H.R. McMaster is someone who has been rumored to be on his way out for several weeks now, in part because he and the president have never really fully gelled in this position.

And sources tell CNN that the president has decided that he wants to move forward with moving McMaster out and moving someone into that role. The question is when might that decision happen.

Now, McMaster -- with McMaster there are several decisions that need to be made. The first of which is who replaces him, who will come in, one of the top candidates we're told is John Bolton, someone who has been pretty simpatico with President Trump on policy.

He's a former U.N. ambassador and a television contributor, but also, McMaster has to find an exit strategy. There's a possibility of him returning to military service, or perhaps going back into the private sector.

The sense here is that some of these decisions have not been fully made yet and President Trump is the only person who knows when he's ready to move forward fully with it. At the same time, we have heard from Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, who overnight in the wake of all of these stories denied in one fashion that McMaster had already been fired.

She says, "Just spoke to POTUS and General H.R. McMaster, contrary to reports, they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC." That is correct. There are no changes at the NSC currently.

But there is a clear sense among people in the White House and outside of the White House that the president wants this change to be made and the decision that is left here is whether it is going to happen sooner rather than later -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you. I want to discuss this further now with our senior political reporter, Nia- Malika Henderson with us. Sources are telling CNN that Trump is ready to replace the national security adviser.

But it makes you think of, for instance, Rex Tillerson, whose ouster had been rumored for some time and then it seemed like maybe he was safe, and it seemed like perhaps he was safe because the president wanted to prove the media wrong as they surmised he was going. Could that be happening here?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: It could be because we know that the president likes to spend a lot of time watching folks on cable news, how the reviews are, what people are saying and also sort of prove them wrong, right.

With the Tillerson thing, for instance, there are all these reports that he was on his way out. He came out and said, no, this isn't true, and of course, we knew that he was on his way out and officially got pushed out.

So, we'll see what the president thinks in this matter. One thing you have, though, is folks in these positions who had no idea what their fate is, right? I mean, I talked to people who are close to cabinet members, who are actually asking reporters what they're hearing about their own fate.

KEILAR: That's exactly right. I mean, Jeff Zeleny is reporting that aides as you said are relying on news reports, and the bottom line, you heard Abby talk about this, it really comes down to whatever the president is going to decide. What does it do for folks whether they're in the White House or they're working for cabinet secretaries who are glued to news reports wondering is their boss going to get fired.

HENDERSON: And glued to Twitter, right. I mean, because that's the way that Tillerson found out that he was no longer welcome in this White House, in this administration. So, that's something that they're also doing, trying to figure out what -- you can imagine destabilizing effect of all of this.

The president might like this conflict. He might like this whole idea of a cliffhanger, a conflict cliffhanger in a season finale for folks on the front lines in trying to do the country's business, they're trying to figure out what their fate is going to be.

KEILAR: Let's look towards where the president -- where the president is going to be meeting with Kim Jong-un and let's just recap sort of where we are, right. You have Tillerson out. Secretary of State is out.

Then you have Pompeo and Haspel who nominated now for secretary of state and for CIA director, tough confirmation fights, unclear if they're complete by the time you have this meeting and then the fate of H.R. McMaster hanging in the balance.

What does that mean for this administration as they look towards what could be the most important foreign policy meeting the president has?

HENDERSON: Well, what was interesting is that the president said one of the reasons why he wanted to remove Tillerson and bring Pompeo in was to get ready for the North Korea meeting that is supposed to happen sometime perhaps in May.

[11:05:13] And now you have a situation where the team isn't in place. But I also think this is a president in preparation for this meeting, we know how he is in terms of he's the decider, he's very impromptu, very impulsive, you can imagine a lot of what happens in that meeting is going to be up to him when he sits down face to face with KJU.

Also, we don't really know if this meeting is going to happen, right. He keeps insisting it is going to happen. There have been moves from North Korea over the next couple of past couple of days that might put that in doubt. So, we'll see again another sort of cliffhanger. Everybody loves a season finale.

KEILAR: He's his own foreign policy adviser is what you're getting at. Nia, thank you so much for that.

Now the explosive new twist in the Stormy Daniels drama, of course, we know that the porn star-turned plaintiff is suing President Trump, so she can talk about her alleged affair with him. But listen to the bombshell that her attorney dropped on CNN this morning.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: And the fact is that my client was physically threatened to stay silent about what she knew about Donald Trump. The details surrounding that she's going to discuss, I'm sure, on "The 60 Minutes" interview on March 25.


KEILAR: That is an explosive allegation.

M.J. Lee, you've been following all of this and you have more details.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, Brianna, this certainly is a very serious allegation. You know, up until this moment we knew because Michael Avenatti said that Stormy Daniels received a lot of threats going back to the 2016 campaign but also continuing to this day.

And we certainly knew about legal threats including a temporary restraining order that was taken out against Stormy Daniels just last month. But this morning was the first time that we have learned that Stormy Daniels says through her lawyer that she has received physical threats in relation to her relationship and alleged affair with Donald Trump.

Now, obviously, Avenatti is not saying who made these threats. He is not saying what kind of threats were made, but he is saying that in this "60 Minutes" interview with Anderson Cooper, all of these details will come to light. Take a look at a little bit more of what he had to say about that interview.


AVENATTI: I think that when people tune into this interview, they're going to learn the details, the circumstances under which she signed the original agreement as well as what happened thereafter relating to the threats and coercive tactics that were used to shut my client up.


LEE: Again, that interview, Brianna, is now set to air on March 25th according to Stormy's lawyer. But I have a feeling between now and the next ten days when that interview is going to air, there is going to be more news because as you know there is so much about this that we still don't know.

KEILAR: That's right. And Avenatti also -- he already told CNN as well about six other women who have approached him with what he's calling similar stories?

LEE: That's right. He's basically saying that there could be other Stormys out there. He says that six other women have approached him with a similar story, as Stormy Daniels, and at least two of them have NDAs.

But again, here, too, he's being very careful and very up front in saying that he hasn't fully vetted these stories and has not fully vetted these NDAs. The big question, of course, is going to be, are these NDAs, if they do exist, going to be similar to the NDA that Michael Cohen signed with Stormy Daniels. And the one thing that Michael Avenatti was very explicit about, he said that all six women have stories that involve the president of the United States -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, M.J. Lee, thank you.

I want to break this down a little more with CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan. That's a stunning revelation from Stormy Daniels' attorney that she was physically threatened to stay quiet about her relationship with Donald Trump and his implication that this physical threat may have actually been used to pressure Daniels to stay quiet. How does that change things? PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it is a major issue and a major story. Now, but it all depends on where that threat emanated from. Obviously, if this is just some random nut who is unconnected to the president or Michael Cohen or the Trump organization, that's one thing.

On the other hand, if this is a threat that was directed at her from Trump's counsel or from the Trump Organization or emanated from the White House, it is a major story because then it becomes an obstruction of justice, it becomes aiding and abetting in a threat to a witness which would be -- could be federal criminal conduct, and could be criminal conduct in California or New York or wherever the threat emanated from. So, it would be a major issue.

KEILAR: Because right now, this is looking like more of a potential campaign finance violation, right? And that would take it to a criminal matter.

CALLAN: Yes. And -- but we should also be clear that even the campaign violation can be a criminal matter.

[11:10:07] The FEC regulations say that if you make an in-kind contribution, which the $130,000 that was paid to her might be viewed as, to help a political candidate, it has to be reported. Now, that can be prosecuted as a civil case or a criminal case.

It depends on how the Department of Justice wants to handle it. So, the possibility of criminal charges regarding the Stormy Daniels story is always out there.

KEILAR: So, if this nondisclosure agreement was signed under duress, why would we just be learning about this now?

CALLAN: Well, I'm not sure that he's saying it was -- the agreement itself was signed under duress. I'm not -- he didn't reveal enough details from me to really make it --

KEILAR: You had questions about what is the timing of when he says that she was threatened. So, he was pretty careful not to say exactly who threatened Daniels to stay quiet about Trump. That is obviously going to be a key piece of information.

CALLAN: Yes. What this -- what Avenatti is doing is he's dropping little morsels of information that he knows will be headline grabbers and doesn't give the details. Now, the key detail is, is this the threat of -- that emanated from the Trump Organization or the president in some way through his personal attorneys.

We have to know that to know if it is related. We also have to know obviously exactly when was the threat made and whether this was duress in the formation of the agreement itself. You see, he's trying to get out from under her agreement to take $130,000 in trade for her silence, which is a classic confidentiality agreement that by the way is normally quite legal. But if it emanates from a threat, then that's a different matter. So, we have to hear the details. KEILAR: It sounded still like he's more relying on that argument that Donald Trump didn't actually sign the NDA, therefore is a party to it, it is -- without his signature it is void. It does sound like he's relying more on that argument still rather than a duress argument. Even as he makes what is certainly headline grabbing, what is certainly going to gravitate people toward watching this interview with Stormy Daniels on the 25th of March.

CALLAN: Absolutely. But he is turning this into a major event for "60 Minutes," that's for sure.

KEILAR: He sure is.

CALLAN: When that airs. If it airs, by the way. Remember, there are still court proceedings possible to stop it from airing. So, we'll see how it plays out.

KEILAR: We will see. We'll see if we hear something about some actions perhaps by Michael Cohen or another lawyer associated with the Trump Organization. Paul Callan, thank you so much.

CALLAN: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: Coming up, is Special Counsel bob Mueller now on a collision course with President Trump's red line. According to a CNN source, Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for business documents. We'll have details ahead.

Plus, the United States now accusing Russian hackers of targeting U.S. government networks and critical U.S. infrastructure. We're talking about the power grid and nuclear facilities. Stay with us for that.



KEILAR: It is a new sign that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is picking up steam and may be getting closer to President Trump's red line. A source tells CNN that Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization and some of the documents that Mueller wants are related to Russia. This is according to the "New York Times."

Joining me now is CNN justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, with more on this. So, this -- what does this signify, the subpoena of the Trump Org?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, certainly it does signify that something has happened. There is something that has occurred in the investigation where Mueller feels he needs to subpoena this information. We know based on what the Trump Organization has been telling us is that they have been cooperating in the investigation.

But perhaps somewhere along the way, as the special counsel has been reviewing documents, talking to witness, they may have noticed that something was missing and as a result, maybe there is concern that the organization is not being as cooperative as they say.

We have seen this in other cases where Mueller has done this, or it could just be they want to -- as one Trump official told us that they're just cleaning up. Hard to believe that's the case. But certainly, those are the kinds of words that Trump -- people close to the president have used with us.

KEILAR: Because the Trump Organization as far as we knew had been cooperating, right? Obviously, there were discussions with the Trump Organization when it came to committees on Capitol Hill, so this signifies something -- is it necessarily that they have not been cooperative? Is it that Mueller is sending a message or do you think it is probably more the former?

PROKUPECZ: So, I think what probably has occurred here and just based on our read of information and talking to some people is that something probably did come up and so they want to make sure that they have everything. Certainly, they have been talking to many, many witnesses.

Look, we saw this with Sam Nunberg, right? After he appeared on all of these television appearances, made the television appearances, where he said he was volunteering, giving information, appearing before the special counsel and then they came with a subpoena and that sort of set him off.

So, something may have happened here. They may be close to finalizing some aspects of the Trump Organization investigation. This is a concern for people close to the president because it ties to all of his business dealings before he became president and as we know, he's talked about this red line where if Mueller was looking into his personal finances, he would take issue with it.

We'll see what he does. And this comes when the president and his lawyers are trying to negotiate the sit-down interview with Mueller.

KEILAR: Is it going to happen is the outstanding question.

PROKUPECZ: Exactly right.

KEILAR: Shimon, thank you so much.

Former associate White House counsel under President George W. Bush, Jamil Jaffer, joining us now to talk more about this. Jamil, this is the first time that Mueller had demanded records, right, subpoenaed records directly related to Trump's businesses. What does that tell you about where the investigation is headed now?

[11:20:05] JAMIL JAFFER, FORMER ASSOCIATE COUNSEL, GEORGE W. BUSH WHITE HOUSE: Well, it is a great question, Brianna. I think Shimon is right that there may be an issue here where they have identified something in other records they have gotten, they haven't gotten from the Trump Organization, which has been cooperative. And they're saying, if you're not going to give us everything, we're going to need to subpoena you. So, that may be part of what is going on here. We're not sure, but that could be part of it. KEILAR: So, what do you make of him using this subpoena and not just asking because we have seen at other times he's indicating a not messing around sort of vibe with something like a subpoena or it is indicative of maybe that the special counsel does not trust who they are subpoenaing and that's the vein you think this is in?

JAFFER: I think it is more likely what they have done is they have identified something where there is a gap, as Shimon laid out, right? There is a gap here. They got something from somebody else and they're now saying we haven't got the documents from you, how come, why not? Let's see them, right.

Mueller used this technique with other folks before, where he identified information, then brought somebody in for questioning, don't tell the whole truth and he puts pressure on them to give more information about other stuff they know about. That's really a sort of classic prosecutorial tactic and I think that's what may be going on here with Bob Mueller.

KEILAR: Obviously, this is close to that red line that the president laid out. Let's listen to that. This is what he told the "New York Times" back in July.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Mueller is looking at your finances, your family's finances unrelated to Russia. Is that a red line?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?



KEILAR: He clearly views this as outside of Mueller's mandate. Is it really?

JAFFER: Well, look, I mean, it is hard to know because at the end of the day, it is all about sort of this whole investigation is what are the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and could there have been improper foreign influence, right?

Now again, we have seen no clear evidence that that's what's going on here, but the questions about finances plays into it. That back and forth you saw with the president, the president was a little baited into the red line answer.

And so, you know, he hasn't said it again, but it is clear he does not like the direction of this investigation, doesn't like when it gets close to people in his family or businesses and he's been very aggressive on Twitter about that.

So, we'll see what happens over the next few days, you know, early morning tweets, our best indication of what is the president's thinking.

KEILAR: Indeed. All right. Jamil Jaffer, thank you so much.

Coming up, the Department of Homeland Security is accusing Russian hackers of actively targeting U.S. infrastructure power grids, nuclear facilities. We'll have details ahead.



KEILAR: Alarming new accusations about Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security says Russians targeted America's power grid, factories, water supply, even air travel. That's in addition to the alleged election meddling that the intelligence community is so sure happened. All of this prompting the Trump administration to slap Russia with long awaited sanctions.

I'm joined now by Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.


KEILAR: It is an understatement to say you've been critical of the president's handling of Russia. So, I wonder if you are pleased to hear this news about the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy accusing Russia and really taking action to combat this threat.

CICILLINE: Well, I think what is important here is to recognize that this effort by Putin's Russia is both, you know, they're engaged in military activities, cyber activities, disinformation activities, really to undermine the west and western democracies.

We need to understand the seriousness of this threat and the comprehensive nature of it. What we really need is American leadership to really work with our allies and develop a real strategy, a comprehensive and effective strategy to respond to Russian aggression and it is important to react to particular events.

But more than that, we need American leadership working with our allies to develop a real plan because this is not going to stop Putin sees the west and western democracies as an ex-citizen she existential threat.

This is going to continue until we see strong American leadership to develop a strategy, fully comprehensive and effective strategy to respond to this.

KEILAR: How serious is this threat to the electrical grid, the water supply, and the basic infrastructure of the U.S.?

CICILLINE: I mean, I think this is a very serious threat. We have known for a long time about the cyber capabilities of our enemies and we have developed our own capabilities, of course, but what is very important is an adversary like Putin's Russia understand the consequences of ever doing that.

To be sure that they understand that that will be met with tremendous response that we take this threat seriously, that we understand it, and so that's why I've been so disappointed in the president's general response to Russian aggression and Russian interference in our campaign.

The presidential election and other Russia (INAUDIBLE) because the first thing we need is some -- a strong national statement from our president saying this will not be tolerated and then a willingness to work with our allies and our partners to develop a really comprehensive strategy to combat it.

So, I hope this is the beginning of the president taking this threat seriously, understanding that Putin and Russia are not friends of the United States, they are adversaries. They see Western democracies as a direct threat to the dictatorship that he leads, and we need to understand that threat and respond appropriately.

KEILAR: I want you to listen to what the press secretary said yesterday, asked a direct question about Russia and here's how she responded.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In simple terms, is Putin a friend or a foe of the United States?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that's something that Russia has to make that determination. They're going to have to decide whether or not they want to be a good actor or bad actor. I think you can see from the actions that we have taken up until this point, we're going to be tough on Russia until they decide to change their behavior.


KEILAR: Do you think she should have to that differently, Congressman?

CICILLINE: Absolutely.