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President Trump Ready to Replace H.R. McMaster; Stormy Daniels Was Physically Threatened to Stay Silent; : At Least Six Killed In Miami Bridge Collapse; Mueller Subpoenas Trump Organization In Russia Probe. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:25] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

Breaking news. Moments ago right here on CNN, a lawyer for adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, said she has been physically threatened to stay silent about what she knows about President Trump. Now she alleges they had an affair and was paid hush money to stay silent. This alleged physical threat is a significant new piece of information. We will have much more on that shortly.

But first, let's call it pending breaking news at the White House. Reports that the president has decided to fire the National Security adviser General H.R. McMaster. This really seems to be a question of when now. There is no question about the extraordinary level of turmoil at the White House. Remember, the president began the week by firing the secretary of State on Twitter, and his personal assistant was marched out of the White House for gambling.

This was a statement overnight from Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. She says, "Just spoke to the president and General H.R. McMaster. Contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the National Security."

Note the present tense. "Are" at 10:00 p.m. last night.

Let's go to the White House, CNN's Abby Phillip is there. It is 11 hours from "are." Are we 11 hours closer to McMaster being gone?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John. The winds of change are certainly blowing here at the White House. And it's still unclear about this timing. There are a lot of open-ended questions here about McMaster and several other officials in the president's inner circle and in his Cabinet and their future here in this administration.

As for McMaster, sources tell CNN that the president has decided to remove him from his post, but there are still questions about where he would go if he were to leave the White House and who would replace him here at the White House. A top contender could be John Bolton, who is a former U.N. ambassador and a FOX News contributor. Someone who the president we know is fond of. But at the same time, McMaster would have to decide whether he returns

to the military service or retires and goes elsewhere. It seems very much that the timing of that move, that potential move is still uncertain as of today.

There's also been some chatter about John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, and his future in this building, and several other Cabinet members who are believed to be on thin ice with President Trump including the VA secretary, David Shulkin, who's been embroiled in a lot of controversy over at that agency and several others who have been dealing with controversies and scandals within their agency.

Right now this is all about President Trump. When will he decide to make these moves? And if he decides to make these moves, will it be today? There is so much uncertainty here in this White House. A lot of aides here still don't know where this is all going.

And at the same time there is still one additional change that we are looking at right now, and that's the future of the former deputy attorney general Andrew McCabe who was set to retire in just a few days formally, even though he resigned several weeks ago. But it could be that the Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a decision to actually fire him today, causing him to lose his pension and retirement benefits.

All of these decisions pending here this morning at the White House. We'll be keeping you updated with every development -- John.

BERMAN: Yes. And as CNN has reported, you know, it's the president who decides on the timing here and really everyone else inside that building just watching and wondering when it will all happen.

Abby Phillip, thank you very, very much.

Also new this morning, you just heard it moments ago. A very serious claim by the attorney for adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels. The lawyer says that Daniels has been physically threatened to stay silent after her alleged affair with Donald Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: OK. There. You heard it right there.

MJ Lee is with me now. We've been following this story. Again, that's a serious claim and it's also not the only new development that the lawyer just had with Chris right there.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: That's right. These really are bombshell accusations. You know, John, up until this point, we knew, because Michael Avenatti has been saying all along that Stormy Daniels was consistently threatened going back to the 2016 campaign and also continuing until today. But we didn't have a reason to think until this morning that these threats were physical, but now Michael Avenatti explicitly saying that Stormy Daniels was physically threatened.

[09:05:02] Now to be clear, he doesn't say who made the threat, he doesn't say what kind of physical threats they were. He just says that on the "60 Minutes" interview with Anderson Cooper that he now says will air on March 25th that she will be able to provide very specific details as about what happened.

Now as to the other point that you mentioned, Michael Avenatti, Story Daniels' lawyer, also saying on CNN that other women with similar stories have come to him about potentially taking legal action. Take a look at what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AVENATTI: We have been approached by six separate women who claim to have similar stories to those or to that of my client. Two of those women, at least two, have NDAs. We are in the very early stages of vetting those stories.

CH.R.IS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Do these women, though, in terms of what their allegations are at this point, before you vet them, do they all involve the president of the United States?

AVENATTI: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEE: Now obviously he's being very careful there, John. He says that he has not vetted these women yet. He has not vetted these stories or even the NDAs, though at least two of them he said does appear to have NDAs. But you heard him say right there, all six of the women he says have stories that are specifically related to the president.

BERMAN: All right. MJ Lee, thanks very much for this reporting.

Let's talk about this a little bit right now because these are some significant developments this morning. And we are expecting more developments over the next few hours. Joining me CNN political commentator Errol Louis, CNN political analyst Eliana Johnson, and White House reporter for "Bloomberg News," Toluse Olorunnipa.

But, Toluse, let me start with you on this. We've been watching the Stormy Daniels story, the drip, drip, drip for some time. And people have been asking all along, well, if this was a consensual relationship between the president and another person, what's the big deal here? Well, if there's a threat of violence now, if there is a physical threat involved here, that's serious.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Yes. That is very serious. And the White House so far has tried to avoid these questions. They've tried to refer reporters back to Michael Cohen, the president's personal lawyer. But I don't think that's a tenable strategy at this point when this is no longer just about whether or not the president had an affair while he was married before he started running for president. This is about hush money, potentially this is about potential threats of violence against a woman who wants to tell her story about her relationship with the president.

And as these allegations continue to come out day after day and lead newscasts, it's not going to be a very smart strategy for the White House to continue to remain silent and not deny these reports. Obviously there's going to be an interview in a couple of weeks where Stormy Daniels herself is going to be talking about her story and if the White House continues to pretend like this is a story that's going to go away, they're going to be in for a rude awakening.

BERMAN: And Eliana, it's interesting, and again, we have to be crystal clear here. The lawyer, Michael Avenatti, did not say at all who these physical threats came from. We do not know who was making these alleged threats. However, the only people we know in the efforts to keep Stormy Daniels silent are Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney. He was the one who, you know, set up the LLC, you know, paid the hush money he claims out of his own pocket way back before 2016 and then of course tried to file the restraining order.

And again, you know, it's people within the president's orbit that have been directly tied to this.

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. And I think we only know about a couple of people within the president's orbit who have been tied to this but it's more than enough to be -- have been already a damaging story for the president. There is a reason that Stormy Daniels or Stephanie Clifford wants to be released from her non-disclosure agreement. It's clearly because there's more to the story that she wants to tell.

At this point, I'm honestly somewhat puzzled why the president and his attorneys don't simply release her from this non-disclosure agreement. It's hard for me to imagine that whatever she has to say could be more damaging than the slow drip of this story which seems to me to be tremendously damaging to the president and to the White House.

BERMAN: A very slow, deliberate drip I might add. Michael Avenatti, the attorney here, clearly understands how to operate in the world of politics. And the way that he has brought this information out surgically over the last few weeks is of note.

And Errol Louis, it will conclude or culminate, if you will, on March 25th where we believe :"60 minutes"" will air this interview that Anderson did. That's going to be now a very interesting moment.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, sure. It was going to be an interesting interview anyway. As we know, Anderson Cooper is a great interviewer. I think, though, that we're reaching a point where the NDA that binds Stormy Daniels is getting chipped at from different angles. There is this whole BuzzFeed angle where as part of a defamation suit that Michael Cohen unwisely launched against BuzzFeed, they're thinking they're going to be able to depose her and sort of drag some information into that related case or unrelated case.

[09:10:02] I think we're going to have to expect the White House should probably be preparing its strategy for whatever it is that Stormy Daniels wants to say. She's going to probably figure out a way to say it.

BERMAN: All right.

LOUIS: We've already seen in one of these interviews that she's just bursting at the seams with what she says. It's explosive information.

BERMAN: Right. And this is just one thing hanging over the White House today.

Toluse, it's Friday which in this administration means a lot of different things. And this could be a very special Friday, with the reports overnight that the president has decided to fire H.R. McMaster. We don't know when but we believe it is coming sometime soon. And now, you know, there's reports this morning that General Kelly could be in his final days as well.

OLORUNNIPA: Yes. If you listen closely to some of the statements that the president has made over the last couple of days, he said that he's been in Washington for about a year, he's starting to get his bearings and he has met a lot of people. And that's sort of a signal that he's ready to make some changes, that he feels comfortable and confident as president to get in his own team and get in people that he likes and people who will agree with him.

Obviously there have been some areas where General Kelly and General McMaster have had some disagreements with the president, have tried to push back against some of his more controversial impulses. And the president doesn't like that and it's clear that he's ready to make some changes.

Now it's not yet clear whether he wants to make those changes right away. We saw in "The Washington Post," an article that said they want to have a soft landing spot for General McMaster because they don't want the impression go out there that whoever goes in to work for the president leaves with their reputation badly tarnished.

So the president is taking his time to try to make sure that the people who leave his administration have a nice landing spot and he can bring in new people so it doesn't look like complete turmoil within the West Wing.

BERMAN: You know, it's interesting, our friend Maggie Haberman who has broken part of this story, also notes that the president liked to be contrarian. And if he hears the press reporting something, he won't do it just to -- you know, to stick a finger in the eye. So maybe all the reporting on McMaster leaving will delay the ultimate departure of H.R. McMaster.

One other thing that Maggie wrote in her piece overnight that I think is really interesting is that contrary to the notion that Mr. Trump is surrounded by sycophants, the president has aides who are willing to say no but he has increasingly grown frustrated when they do.

And Eliana, I mean, that tells us something if the president is sick of having people who say no around him.

JOHNSON: Look, I think John Kelly, the new chief of staff who replaced Reince Priebus in -- last July was somebody who was willing to tell the president no and that was something the president initially respected. But he -- his social circle was increasingly cut off and his ability to, you know, control his work environment was increasingly constricted, and he has become frustrated with that.

That being said, I think there are other people who tell the president no. I would point to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who the president hasn't gotten as frustrated with. And so with the president it's an interesting case I think of who the no's are coming from and how frequently he gets them. But it's very difficult to predict when and how the president will become frustrated with people contradicting him and cutting off his access to his social circle.

BERMAN: You know, Errol, the big question here, that is what does this all mean? What will the impact of this be? There are some people who look at Tillerson being gone and now McMaster on the way out, maybe Kelly. And they'll say these were forces for restraint on the president.

You know, do you believe anyone has actually restrained President Trump up until this time, and will there be a perceivable impact going forward?

LOUIS: Well, one hopes that we don't get the kind of change that can actually put the nation in danger. Let's keep in mind that the National Security adviser is not just one more administrator. This is somebody who is working at the head of our national security apparatus, gathering, you know, the work of hundreds of people, some of whom have put their lives in danger, to get all kinds of information, pull it together and remain ever vigilant and give them a briefing every single day about where things lie.

BERMAN: Right.

LOUIS: When you start to let different things go by, you know, you go back to the history of how 9/11 unfolded, signals can be missed, important information can be missed. Then in all of the turmoil of this palace intrigue, we really have to hope that we don't miss something really, really important that can put the nation in danger.

BERMAN: Let me read you something that just crossed the trans here, our Jim Acosta, our chief White House reporter has a source telling him amidst all the speculation the source tells Jim, quote, "Everyone loves a season finale." As you let that sink in, the source also says the president is contemplating moves that include Chief of Staff John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

Tulose, I'll give you the last word here. Everyone loves a season finale. Talking about the White House here. OLORUNNIPA: Yes. This reminds me a couple of months ago where the

president invited the reporters into the Cabinet room and said welcome to the studio. He obviously sees his presidency as an extension of his reality TV style approach to politics.

[09:15:00]

And that's something we're seeing play out with the way he dismissed Rex Tillerson via tweet, the way he got rid of his former chief of staff via tweet while the cameras were rolling.

This is obviously a president who sees this as a grand production. He's likely to make some changes and he's going to do so with a lot of fan fair and likes to keep everyone on their toes and guessing. That's why these reports are flying out about who is going to be the next to go.

BERMAN: They are also probably flying out left and right because someone is going to be going and probably pretty soon. All right. Toluse Olorunnipa, Errol Louis, Eliana Johnson, thanks so much for being with us. I do appreciate it.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the next subpoena target is the Trump Organization. Is this over the president's so-called red line.

Plus, this morning, Britain says it's overwhelmingly likely that Vladimir Putin gave the order to use the nerve agent to attack a former spy. We'll get the latest from London.

And also, the latest on the deadly bridge collapse. Number of victims still buried in that rubble. We'll have the latest from Florida.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:20:14]

BERMAN: All right. We do have breaking news out of Miami. The bridge collapse at Florida International University has killed at least six people. We've learned this morning that five of those bodies are still under the rubble. Our Rosa Flores on the scene this morning. Rosa, what's the latest?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, according to local officials, the death toll is at six and it includes one female student from this university. Now it's painstaking to say this, but as you look at the scene behind me, there are five people who are pinned underneath this rubble.

This is according to local authorities. Now, initially they believed that there were eight vehicles that were pinned under the rubble. Today, they're telling us, they won't know the exact number of cars that are under there until they remove the 950 tons of concrete that have fallen over them.

And they also say that they won't know the total number of victims until then. Here is what's happening right now. Homicide detectives are working alongside engineers, members of the FBI, OSHA, NTSB, trying to figure out what happened, investigating this very thoroughly to make sure that this doesn't happen again.

This campus is on spring break this week. Classes resume on Monday, and the president of the university saying that counseling will be available for the students of this campus -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Rosa Flores for us in Miami. Again, those are live pictures from Florida International University where police are on the scene. The rescue crews still there with the bodies trapped under the rubble. Rosa, thank you very much.

So, Robert Mueller, the special counsel going right where President Trump does not want him to go, issuing subpoenas for records from the Trump Organization. We have new details. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:26:30]

BERMAN: All right. There's a major development also to report this morning on the Russia investigation. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued subpoenas to the Trump Organization for documents including some related to Russia. Now, this move, we're not quite sure what it signals, but is an interesting development to say the least.

Our Shimon Prokupecz live in Washington with the details -- Shimon.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, John. It's not exactly clear why this escalation by Robert Mueller. You know, the issuing of subpoena is a big deal. We know many subpoenas have been issued in this investigation, certainly this subpoena to the Trump Organization brings the investigation closer to the president's business dealings.

"The New York Times" is reporting that Mueller's team is asking for Russia-related documents and the Trump Organization says that they've been cooperating with Mueller's team, voluntarily providing information.

One person close to the president downplaying the entire thing, saying that it's sort of a cleanup subpoena that this perhaps could indicate some things are coming to an end, and this comes at a time, John, when the president's lawyers are negotiating a sit-down interview with Mueller's team.

And as you recall, the president has said the investigation of his personal finances would be a red line, sort of violation and something he would have issues with.

BERMAN: All right. Shimon Prokupecz in Washington for us helping us understand what exactly has happened. Thanks very much. The question now is what does it mean?

Joining me now is CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, Laura Coates. Laura, let's start at the tail end big picture with something Shimon just said, some people close to the president suggesting this could be a cleanup subpoena, indicating maybe they're close to being done.

Common sense and also legal experience might tell you the opposite, the Trump Organization won't be getting a subpoena for documents potentially related to Russia if this thing were any close to being over.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's correct. You know, talking about it as a cleanup, if you mean that they want to make sure that what they have received from the Trump Organization voluntarily is comprehensive. I guess in that respect it's a cleanup document.

But it does not indicate that it accelerates the end of the actual probe because it would seem very prudent that you would try to look into the finances of the overall umbrella organization because remember the clock didn't start when he went down the escalator back in 2015.

It started when there was an opportunity for undue influence. We've got to go back in time and see all those things. So, it's expected he would actually have this subpoena because this subpoena makes it so that they can't destroy documents. They're on notice to preserve them as well.

BERMAN: OK. That brings up my next question here. What is the significance that there is a subpoena here and not just a nicely written letter that says, hey, do you mind giving us these documents. They could just ask nicely. A subpoena is beyond that.

COATES: They could ask nicely. Of course, it's not a gentleman's agreement where everyone says in a federal grand jury, you say, I'm going to ask you a question and whatever answer you give me, I'm going to take you at your word and probe no further. That's not how it works.

The healthy skepticism is required for an actually great investigation. So, the subpoena is actually trying to say, well, it's very assertive, very aggressive. There may be a level of distrust between the Mueller investigative team and the people that provided the documents.

Also remember, the biggest power that Mueller has in the criminal investigation is the federal grand jury subpoena power. Without that grand jury to get those subpoenas out there, he doesn't have as much power as he would like to have.

He has to capitalize on that now, to be clear that it lays out exactly what they want and when they want it. If they fail to provide it, you could have more avenues for obstruction.