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Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Attorney: Stormy Daniels Physically Threatened To Be Silent, Six More Women Coming Forward with Claims; Chaos in the White House. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Stormy's new front. A lawyer for the porn star who says she had an affair with Donald Trump alleges she was physically threatened to stay silent. And, tonight, he tells CNN that some unspecified incidents had happened during the Trump presidency. What is he referring to?

The president's fixer. Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen, known for doing whatever he has to do on behalf of his client, including, he says, paying $130,000 of his own money in a failed attempt to shield the president from the Stormy Daniels scandal, is there anything he can help Mr. Trump with right now?

And Putin to blame. Britain's top diplomat points a finger directly to the Russian president in the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter. Did Putin himself order them attacked with a Soviet-era nerve agent?

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: We are following multiple breaking stories tonight, including pervasive fear among White House staffers that more heads are about to roll following a week of high-profile firings.

The tension in the West Wing is so high that Chief of Staff John Kelly has had to reassure senior staff that there are -- quote -- "no immediate personnel changes at this time."

Also, the lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, who has leveled multiple accusations against President Trump, tells CNN that some alleged incidents took place during the Trump presidency. That followed a claim that Daniels had been physically threatened to stay silent about the affair she says she had with Mr. Trump more than a decade ago.

We will talk about the breaking news with "Slate" editor in chief Jacob Weisberg, who has covered the Daniels story extensively. And we have former CIA Director and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta standing by, along with our experts and analysts.

First, let's go to the White House.

Ryan Nobles is standing by.

Lots of tension tonight, Ryan.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

It's just after 6:00 now and Donald Trump is still at work in the Oval Office. And despite all these rumors of a big staff shakeup in the offing, his aides went to great pains today to convince us that nothing is going to happen, at least not yet.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES (voice-over): Tonight, White House staffers are being told to ignore the rampant rumors of a personnel overhaul. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly specifically telling his team no changes are imminent.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, we aren't making any -- as I just said, we don't have any personnel changes at this time, but the president shouldn't be bound because Democrats in the Senate can't do their job.

NOBLES: But the chaotic uncertainty at the White House lingers, with multiple Cabinet secretaries and prominent officials possibly on the chopping block.

At least four Cabinet secretaries are under fire for using excessive use of taxpayer funds, Veteran Secretary David Shulkin for charging his wife's travel to Europe to the agency, Scott Pruitt for hefty travel costs, HUD Secretary Ben Carson for running up expensive furnishings for his office, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for pricey private flights on the taxpayers' dime.

And it's not just his Cabinet. The president is also mulling a major change to the West Wing. High on the change list, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who has clashed with the president over key foreign policy issues like Iran and North Korea.

But the White House has gone to great lengths to show McMaster is safe. Thursday night, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted out -- quote -- "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."

Today, McMaster met with the president and briefly made an appearance in front of cameras on the White House North Lawn. Despite the assurances that he's going nowhere, Sanders said that she, not the president, informed McMaster about his status in the West Wing.

SANDERS: I spoke directly to the president last night. He asked me to pass that message along the General McMaster. NOBLES: Even Kelly himself may be on the way out, but the president

has told advisers that Kelly is 100 percent safe.

And Mr. Trump himself said reports of major staff changes are not accurate.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That was a very false story. It was very -- a very exaggerated and false story.

NOBLES: But the speculation persists, as staffers continue to await the next turn in the Trump show.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And it certainly seems that the White House is setting the stage for something dramatic as it relates to these staff shakeups.

And if that adds to the tension here at the White House, the president seems to revel in it. Many people close to the president say that he enjoys all the attention this story is getting, in part because he is the only person who knows how this story ends -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fair point. Ryan, thank you, Ryan Nobles at the White House.

The other breaking story we're following tonight, Stormy Daniels' lawyer telling CNN that some of the accusations the porn is making against President Donald Trump have happened since he has been in office.

[18:05:08]

Let's go to our national correspondent, Sara Sidner, who is working this part of the story for us.

Sara, Daniels' attorney wouldn't give any details of these alleged incidents, but he did say earlier that Daniels had been physically threatened.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, our anchors and reporters pressing him for more information, but the new information tonight, he says Daniels was physically threatened or at least threatened with physical violence, as she is going through the process of her ordeal with the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUESTION: Well, I say it's an allegation. You say it's a fact.

SIDNER (voice-over): The newest allegations from Stormy Daniels' attorney go beyond the suggestion of a mutual financial agreement between the porn star and the president's lawyer to pay for her silence, veering into allegations of physical threats and coercion to shut her up during a series of interviews today.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: The fact is that my client was physically threatened to stay silent about what she knew about Donald Trump.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: If she felt physically threatened, did she go to the police?

AVENATTI: Well, I didn't say that she felt physically threatened. What I said was, she was physically threatened. And she was.

TAPPER: OK. Did she go to the police?

AVENATTI: I'm not going to comment on whether she went to the police or not.

SIDNER: Tonight, the White House is not confirming or denying the allegations of physical threats.

SANDERS: Obviously, we take the safety and security of any person seriously.

SIDNER: Saying only that it has no knowledge of Daniels' situation. But Avenatti is suggesting the White House should know to CNN's Jake Tapper.

TAPPER: Is there anything in the litany of accusations, you would call them facts, that surround this case that happened while Donald Trump was president?

AVENATTI: Yes.

SIDNER: We asked, but Avenatti would not provide any evidence to back up his assertions about physical threats.

He has become ubiquitous on cable news over the last two weeks, playing cat-and-mouse with reporters, dripping out new details of Daniels' story of the alleged sexual affair with Donald Trump in 2006 and the cover-up that he says followed in 2016, just days before the presidential election.

What he has not done is tell her entire story, pushing ahead to an interview with "60 Minutes" that will reportedly air March 25.

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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIDNER: Now, CBS has not said officially when that interview might air.

Avenatti also talked about other potential women, saying there are six separate women who have come forward with claims similar to his client's, referring to Stormy Daniels, and he said two of those women also had nondisclosure agreements.

Also, we reached out to Michael Cohen -- that is Donald Trump's personal attorney -- for comment, and he gave none -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sarah, thanks very much, Sara Sidner reporting.

Let's get more on all of this.

Jacob Weisberg is joining us. He is the chairman and editor-in-chief of "Slate," who has covered the Stormy Daniels story extensively, including talking about her story before she signed that nondisclosure agreement.

Jacob, thanks so much for joining us.

JACOB WEISBERG, EDITOR, SLATE.COM: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: What do you make of this statement that Stormy Daniels faced physical threats? When you spoke to her, did she have fears about her safety?

WEISBERG: Well, when I spoke to her, which was before she signed the NDA, she did mention that she was concerned about her safety. Now, she wasn't referring to any specific threat, and it might have been before whatever threat Michael Avenatti has been referring to.

But, sure, if you come out with this kind of story, there are threat -- threats of physical violence are almost par for the course, and I think she was probably right to be worried about threats. But whether they came from Michael Cohen or the president or the president's camp, she did not imply that.

BLITZER: Was there any indication at all, Jacob, she might have been under duress when she signed that hush agreement that resulted in her getting $130,000?

WEISBERG: Well, no, I don't know. She was speaking to me as a possible alternative the to signing the NDA. She didn't think Donald Trump was going to come through with the payment, and she was looking at the alternative of trying to sell her story to the press, which, of course, "Slate" magazine couldn't do.

CNN, I'm sure, wouldn't do it either. But she thought her story had value and she wanted to be compensated for it.

BLITZER: Did Stormy Daniels mention other evidence that would prove this alleged affair or bolster her personal account when you guys spoke with her?

WEISBERG: She led me to believe that what she was telling me -- she was holding back the kind of crown jewels, that she had details and specifics that would make the story more salacious and more interesting.

[18:10:05]

She did share evidence. She said, well, I have the personal phone cell phone number of Keith Schiller, Trump's bodyguard. This was how I was supposed to get in touch with him. She had a lot of corroborating details. She wasn't holding back on

that.

BLITZER: But was there any indication she had video or audiotape recordings or pictures, anything like that?

WEISBERG: Not that she had mentioned, Wolf, but I would say this. In the question of should we believe that what she's saying she is going to say is likely to be true, I think her credibility is very good.

And when I talked to her in the fall of 2016, when it turned out she'd spoken more than five years earlier to "In Touch" magazine, the details in that story were like a perfect match for what she told me, with, as I say, certain kinds of corroborating detail.

And I think she's been totally consistent since then. So if you have to ask, who should we believe probably, the porn star or the president, the porn star here has a lot of credibility. The president lies all the time. He admitted lying this week about something different, about trade with Canada.

But one of them has credibility, and it's not Donald Trump. And it's not Michael Cohen.

BLITZER: And, Jacob, you felt she was credible even at the time? Forget about what you have learned since then. Even then, you thought she was a credible person?

WEISBERG: There were parts of the story I couldn't confirm. And, in fact, what I really couldn't confirm was that this document, the NDA, was real.

But in terms of the affair with Donald Trump, she told me, here are people I talked to about it who knew about it at the time. I spoke to some of those people. They confirmed her story. I have not come across anything she said at any point that has been proven or shown or indicated not to be true.

BLITZER: What could her lawyer be referring to, do you believe, Jacob, when he says that some of the accusations she's leveled actually happened while President Trump has been in office?

WEISBERG: I don't know. He clearly learned the art of the striptease from a highly skilled practitioner.

He's dribbling out details to try to make people interested in this upcoming "60 Minutes" interview. I'm certainly interested. I think, though, you have to ask the question, is there anything about Michael Cohen that would make you doubt that there might have been some kind of threat? We don't have evidence yet.

On the other hand, there's been every other kind of bullying, threat, intimidation, hush money. Was a threat of violence part of the operating manual that they used and clearly in negotiating with others as well around confidentiality agreements? I will wait for the evidence. But I don't find it intrinsically implausible. BLITZER: Which raises the question, did any of your reporting give

you the sense that other women might have similar agreements, nondisclosure agreements with President Trump?

WEISBERG: Well, yes. We found out before the campaign about Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who was played hush money via "The National Enquirer."

But everything indicated this are going to -- and this was evident at the time -- indicated that this was not a novel practice, that Michael Caputo had been here more than one time. They knew how to do this very complicated agreement, with pseudonyms standing in for the real names and money being wired indirectly.

And that's why I referred to a playbook. It had the sense of something they'd done before many, many -- perhaps many times. And that, in a way, is what makes the story concerning and so relevant. We're looking at some other accusations around the Steele dossier having to do with whether Russia could be blackmailing or could have tried to blackmail Donald Trump.

Well, it seemed he had a lot of experience at paying blackmail and that his lawyer, Michael Cohen, was the conduit for that.

BLITZER: When you hear that the lawyer for Stormy Daniels say six other women have now approached him with similar stories and he says at least two of them alleged they also have a nondisclosure agreement with the president, you think that's credible?

WEISBERG: I think the running tally was something around 18 or 19 women accusing Donald Trump either of sexual harassment or something you can only describe as sexual assault.

And how many, perhaps overlapping with those numbers, perhaps not, was he -- did he negotiate for an NDA to buy their silence? Six sounds plausible to me, or six so far. I would like that see the evidence, but there's nothing about that that I find not credible.

BLITZER: By her account, this was a consensual relationship that happened more than a decade ago in 2006-2007. So why do you think this is such an important story that Americans should care about now?

WEISBERG: Well, this is something I misjudged, because when I failed to nail down the story enough to publish it at the end of 2016, I think because she had signed the NDA, I consoled myself partly by saying, nobody would have cared, because the Karen McDougal story did come out before the election in "The Wall Street Journal," the same reporter who broke the word about Michael Cohen's Delaware corporation and the $130,000.

[18:15:17]

And it didn't have much impact. I think it's fair to say nobody cared. But now there's some other issues that seem pretty relevant that have given the story legs. One is the question of whether there was a crime in the form of a

campaign finance violation. And the other, as I say, is this context of the Russia investigation, the Steele dossier, blackmail.

I think the story is potentially much more significant in ways that would have been hard to fully understand before the election.

BLITZER: So, looking back, Jacob, before the election, you wish you would have gone forward and actually published the story?

WEISBERG: I couldn't.

I didn't -- you're never sorry that you were careful. And I just didn't have the enough evidence that the NDA was real. Also, it was tricky because of the terms on which I was talking to her. She was trying to sell her story.

And even if she wasn't careful enough to tell me that what she was saying was off the record, I didn't feel it would be fair to publish what she wasn't willing to give without payment. We didn't come to terms about that.

So I didn't get there all the way. I was hoping the story would make a comeback at some point. It now has. And it turns out to be, I think, in many ways more relevant than I would have thought at the time.

BLITZER: Yes, and it's not going away by any means.

Jacob Weisberg, thanks so much for joining us.

WEISBERG: Thank you, Wolf. Pleasure to talk to you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And just ahead, how concerned should the White House be about these allegations of hush deals with other women who say they also had affairs with President Trump?

And what should the Trump administration do about alleged Russian hacking into U.S. nuclear power plants and critical water and electric systems? I will ask former Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:34]

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, fear and uncertainty gripping the White House, where Chief of Staff John Kelly has been trying to ease anxiety amid reports and rumors that more members of the Trump team are now on their way out.

Let's get some analysis, more reaction from former Defense Secretary, former CIA Director Leon Panetta. Among other things, he was White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the impact of all of this turnover and the threat of yet for more firings to come?

PANETTA: Well, there's no question it adds to the chaos in the White House.

The fact is, there are some very serious issues that the president should be dealing with, dealing with the summit in North Korea, dealing with the actions in -- the Russians, the Chinese, what's happening in the Middle East, dealing with the whole issue of a trade war, potential trade war.

All of those are serious issues. But you have a White House staff that's in turmoil. And for the life of me, I can't understand how a president can do the business of the country when the White House staff is in total turmoil.

BLITZER: What's your opinion of John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the Bush administration, who is said to be now in running to become the replacement to H.R. McMaster as national security adviser?

PANETTA: Well, I like H.R. McMaster.

I think he's done a good job as national security adviser. But I think it's important that the president not surround himself with yes- men. I think any president needs to have people that are willing to express different opinions and to inform him about the full range of issues that need to be developed.

So I know John Bolton and his history, but my question is, is he going to be just a yes-man, or is he going to be somebody that would, in fact, provide other opinions for the president of the United States.

If you're a national security adviser, you have got to say it the way it is. And I think it's important to have that kind of opinion presented to the president of the United States.

BLITZER: You have said some positive things about President Trump's nominee to become the next director of the CIA, Gina Haspel. You worked with her when you were CIA director.

Senator John McCain says she -- quote -- "needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA's interrogation program during the confirmation process."

Should her records be declassified so that Congress and the American people can get answers for themselves?

PANETTA: Well, look, I think it's important to ask those questions, because it's important to understand what took place then and look at her entire career.

She was an officer when I was director of the CIA. She was a good officer. She really did her job and did it well. And so my hope would be that in the nomination process that the senators look at her entire record, ask her the questions that they want to ask, but, in the end, I do believe that she really would be a great CIA director.

[18:25:05]

BLITZER: Strong words from Leon Panetta.

Let's turn to the issue of Russia right now. "The New York Times" reports that Russia has hacked into nuclear power plants here in the United States, in critical water and electric systems and how has the power to effectively, potentially shut those systems down or at least sabotage them at any point. How dangerous is this situation right now?

PANETTA: I think it's a dangerous situation, because look, cyber is the battlefield of the future.

And we know what the potential for cyber is when it comes to disrupting business, stealing intellectual property, hacking, doing the kind of actions that the Russians were involved in, in the last election.

But, more importantly, you can use cyber to destroy. You can develop a sophisticated virus that can cripple our electric grid system or transportation systems. You could virtually use cyber to create the kind of paralysis that would result from a Pearl Harbor type attack.

That's what Russia is looking at. That's what I'm sure China is looking at, what Iran is looking at. It's the effort to try to see if you can deploy these kinds of viruses into systems that virtually could paralyze the United States of America.

BLITZER: So what should the Trump administration be doing at this?

PANETTA: Well, I think it's extremely important that we develop not only good defenses against that kind of potential attack, but also good offenses as well.

I think it has to be clear to those countries that if they try to use cyber in a way that could damage our country or cripple our country that we have the potential to use cyber as well against those countries. So it's important for this administration to be on the cutting edge of cyber-technology, develop good defenses, so we can determine whether or not those dangerous viruses have, in fact, been deployed.

Understand this, Wolf, that when you deploy these viruses via these computers, you can actually develop a virus that can sit in a computer for years and be able to activate it in another three or four or five years.

We have got to be able to determine whether those viruses have, in fact, been deployed and make very clear to those countries that we will take similar action against them if we find that that is the case.

BLITZER: Yes, we used to call that, in a different nuclear context, mutually assured destruction and prevented nuclear wars with the Soviet Union and others over all those years.

Let's get to another issue involving Russia as well. The White House couldn't say yesterday if Russia is a friend or foe. Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, says that's up to Russia.

What do you make of that comment? Why is that a difficult question for them to answer?

PANETTA: It shouldn't be a difficult question to answer, because everybody knows that Russia is an adversary. Russia is a foe.

They are constantly trying to undermine our democracy. They are constantly trying to take steps to weaken our country. They are constantly trying to take actions that would hurt our national security. They are a foe. We ought to say that that is the case.

Doesn't mean you can't deal with Russia. We deal with our foes. Doesn't mean that you can't talk to our adversaries. We should do that. But we also ought to recognize who they are. And the reality is that Russia is intent on creating disruption within the United States.

We have seen that happen before. They're continuing to do that. We, the president of the United States, ought to identify them for who they are. That would tell the world that we understand who are our friends and who are our enemies.

BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.

PANETTA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, more breaking news.

Stormy Daniels' lawyer says his client was physically threatened to keep quiet about Donald Trump and says some of the porn star's accusations occurred after the president took office.

Plus, we will take a closer look at the president's longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. What is his role in the Stormy Daniels hush money scandal?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. New claims by the lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels, who's engaged in a legal battle with President Trump stemming from an alleged affair.

[18:34:33] Let's bring in our experts, our analysts, our correspondents. Pamela, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, tells CNN he's been contacted already by six other women with similar stories about Donald Trump, they say. And he says at least two of them claim to have these non-disclosure agreements similar to the one that she signed, Stormy Daniels.

How concerning is all of this for the White House?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it is -- it is concerning, especially because he's saying that some of the activity occurred while Trump was in the White House. That is what he told our own Jake Tapper.

And speaking to those close to the president, those in the White House, those outside the White House, there is a concern that this story just keeps getting worse and worse every single day and that this is a scandal that could pose more of a danger to Trump's presidency than other things such as the Russia investigation. Several people I've spoken with have conveyed that concern.

In fact, the president himself has been seeking counsel on this, on how to handle it. I think he realizes how concerning it is, and he's been told by advisers to keep quiet, which is a big reason why he hasn't been tweeting about this or speaking out about this. And while Sarah Sanders really hasn't been very outspoken, just basically referring everything to the lawyer for Stormy Daniels.

BLITZER: How much does it change the situation, Sabrina, if Stormy Daniels was, in fact, physically threatened, as her lawyer claims?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, REPORTER, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, you certainly could see this evolve into a criminal case. But it's important to note that her attorney wouldn't really offer any specifics on how she felt threatened, whether or not she went to the police for feeling a threat of violence. Certainly, the attorney did not link that threat to anyone close to the president.

I think what is more telling is we've learned in recent days that you have another top attorney from the Trump Organization, Jill Martin, who has also been involved in some of the legal matters pertaining to Stormy Daniels, specifically the request for arbitration, which was to prevent -- a restraining order to prevent Stormy from speaking about her alleged affair with the president. So that calls into question whether or not there were people acting in an official capacity from the Trump Organization with respect to legal matters pertaining to Daniels.

And also, this has largely exposed the way in this the president, because of his unusual past, is somewhat susceptible to blackmail. And that was something that was brought up in that Steele Dossier about the Trump associates and their links to Moscow. That there are, certainly, some foreign governments who believe that they have at least some material that could be used as a form of blackmail against the president.

BLITZER: A very serious, serious development if that were to happen.

You know, Joey Jackson, you're our legal analyst. I want you to listen to this exchange that Jake Tapper had with the lawyer for Stormy Daniels. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Is there anything in the litany of accusations -- you would call them facts -- that surround this case that happened while Donald Trump was president?

MICHAEL AVENATTI, LAWYER FOR STORMY DANIELS: Yes.

TAPPER: Can you go further than that?

AVENATTI: No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Joey. What does that tell you?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It tells me that he's a very media- savvy lawyer and that he wants us all to watch the "60 Minutes" interview. Doesn't tell me much beyond that.

But let's understand that any case not only turns on credibility -- we can all look and assess and is she telling the truth, is she lying -- but it also turns on something called corroboration. That is, supporting proof.

In the event that she was threatened in any way, well, when did it happen, how did it happen, where did it happen, who else saw it, if anyone, was it by phone? Was it by text? You know, if no one else saw it, was -- were there any recent outcry witnesses? That is, did she go and say, "Oh, my goodness. I can't imagine. You can't imagine what happened to me"?

And so that's all information that we need to know.

Now on the legal side briefly, Wolf, if there is to be -- or if there were a complaint filed with the police, we don't know. The police with the district attorney's office are going to be looking at a number of things. The seriousness of the threat. How serious was it? What was the gravity of it? The specificness of the threat. How specific was it in terms of what he would do or what whoever would do or wouldn't do? How immediate was the threat? You know, when were they going to carry it out? And of course, was it persistent? Was there anything else beyond one isolated instance?

So it raises more questions than answers, and it, of course, gets us to focus on that interview and what she has to say.

BLITZER: Phil, what red flags do these new details raise to you?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Not too many. I think Joey just nailed this.

Let's make sure we differentiate between scandal -- that is the president of the United States in the Oval office paying off a porn star and others -- and what you would consider if you're looking at this -- at this from the FBI or from a legal perspective.

I've only got a couple of questions, Wolf. No. 1, the attorney didn't suggest anything was illegal. He said activities were ongoing while the president was in office. Did somebody make a payment that was illegal? For example, did a political donor make a payment, hush money, if you will, to get somebody to remain silent? Was there a threat made by somebody connected to the president against an individual with whom he had a sexual relationship?

The president can sleep with whomever he wants. That's not illegal. I want to know if the law was broken.

Second and final, Wolf, this is the poster child for why any lawyer would never want the president to be in front of an investigator. Can you imagine him telling the truth about how the money changed hands here and about what his relationship was with these individuals?

I think the risk here is going forward, if the president is ever asked to speak to an investigator about these events. I wouldn't ask him to tell the truth any more than he told the Canadian prime minister the truth.

[18:40:00] BLITZER: You think, Joey, the president is going to actually sit down with the Robert Mueller special counsel team and answer questions?

JACKSON: Not a chance. There's an amendment that -- we could talk about amendments all we want. I think there's the amendment, right, that requires or otherwise says that we can be quiet, the right to remain silent, and he needs to exercise that. I think it's a trap. I think if you go in and speak, there are so many, so many holes that he could go down.

And the president does take liberties with the truth and what we call that actually, in the event you do it under oath, is perjury, and that becomes very problematic.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Everybody stick around. There's more breaking news we're following. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:20] BLITZER: Back with our experts.

And, Joey, let me just wrap this up with you. What do you make of Stormy Daniels' legal strategy right now and her options for going forward? Because she does still have this hush deal, $130,000 she was paid to remain silent.

JACKSON: I think she's really doing a great job with her lawyer really forcing the action here. The fact is, is that her lawyer is challenging the nature of the agreement, the propriety of the agreement, I don't necessarily believe it's a valid argument because a signature isn't there. There was an offer, right, of $130,000, she accepted that money naturally, and as a result of that it seems as though there's a binding agreement but it's being challenged. The other issue, though, Wolf, remember though is she already is

talking. There are provisions in that contract for monetary damages, number one, for her to give back the money which she has offered to do but also of a million dollars per breach. So, I think there are a number of people who are standing by saying speak, I'll pay the million dollars.

And so, therefore, I believe that at the end of the day we'll see it, there's been talk of challenges to halt the interview, I don't see the president's team being successful in halting what she's going to say on "60 Minutes." I look forward to the interview. I think it's a brilliant strategy so far. Of issue to me is who else comes forward next.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens on that front.

The White House now, a lot of officials over there, Pamela, you cover the White House for us, on pins and needles as they're bracing for more turmoil, more shakeup, more changes. What's the latest that you're hearing?

BROWN: Well, the White House, Sarah Sanders, has said there will be no immediate personnel changes in the wake of the report, that the president has decided to replace H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, that the fate of John Kelly is up in the air, that he could be leaving soon.

In the wake of all of this, the White House is downplaying that, John Kelly holding a background briefing with reporters and the -- I mean, staff at the White House saying that everything is OK, no one is leaving immediately but I can tell you from talking to sources in the White House that there has been a belief based on what the president has said to others that he will be making some changes soon. Also, he said publicly that he plans on making changes to his cabinet.

And so, while Sarah Sanders may be saying that, it's ultimately up to the president. And he enjoys this. He sort of relishes and has seen all this play out and one source spoke to the day said, you know, the fact that they say one thing one day and the next day something changes, this makes the White House one of the scariest places to work because you never know what's gong to happen.

BLITZER: Sabrina, what are you hearing from your sources?

SIDDIQUI: Well, I think we are hearing the president is feeling increasingly constrained by the people around him and that he is now looking to surround himself with more people who will show that sense of loyalty that he has sought from the very beginning. I think that's part of what you saw with the departure of Gary Cohn who obviously disagreed with the president on the announcement of those steel tariffs. You also see it playing out potentially with H.R. McMaster who recently criticized the administration's response to Russian meddling in the election, you also saw a series of policy disagreements between Rex Tillerson and the president.

So, the concern this raises among some Republicans on Capitol Hill is one they could deal with confirmation hearings and there's not much appetite for dealing with what could be messy confirmation hearings and there are also concerns that he might surround himself by more and more yes men who are not willing to counter the president's approach to certain key policy issues such as how the U.S. responds to Russian meddling, how to -- the future of the Iran nuclear deal as well as diplomatic talks with North Korea.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, let me get Phil to weigh in on this. How does this impact the president's ability to prepare for this unprecedented historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?

MUDD: Wolf, I mean, I don't want facetious, you're suggesting or you're implying that he's actually going to prepare. And I know that sounds like I'm being flippant, it's not.

Remember, go back to Mar-a-Lago, he has one of the most significant conversations of his presidency with the Chinese premier and comes away saying, wow, in 10 minutes, he explained to me that North Korea is really complicated. He goes into a meeting with the Canadian prime minister, the most significant relationship with Canada is trade. If you talk to your national security adviser for three minutes, that conversation is going to include an exchange on trade and what we want the president to accomplish.

My point is, it's not clear when he goes into high end meetings that he's either reading the briefing book or talking to advisers about what he should say. I think he's going in and saying, I'm a smart guy, I do deals, I wrote "The Art of the Deal", I can work these people.

I fear he's going to go in with the North Koreans who have been working American presidents since at least on this issue, the nuclear issue in the 1990s.

[18:50:01] He's going to in and say, I don't need any of this. I can cut a deal.

I don't think he needs much prep in his eyes and I don't think the Stormy Daniels things is a diversion, because I don't think he'll spend much time preparing.

BLITZER: You don't think he pays attention when he gets these presidential daily briefs from Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, or Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, McMaster, the national security adviser. They spend time with him in the Oval Office, they're briefing him. Does that not mean anything?

MUDD: No, that's a different issue. Let me spend second telling you how this works, somebody who worked at the National Security Council.

When you are going into a meeting with a foreign leader, a few things will happen. Let's take the meeting with the Canadians. You're going to meet with Canadian embassy and say, what our guys are going to talk about? You're going to prepare a briefing book saying, we're going to talk about trade, we're going to talk about balance of trade, here's what we want you to do, Mr. President. Here are the biggest things on the table with the Canadians in years in past, it might have been fishing, believe it or not, it might have been timber.

And then the national security adviser is going to walk in and say, biggest thing in your inbox, Mr. President, when you meet with President Trudeau is on trade. The president has told us he didn't know what the trade situation was with the Canadians. So, that means all that work done by the National Security Council, any pre-brief by the national security adviser and every briefing book, which would have had on page one, briefings on the trade relationship, he didn't know. That's as simple as I can make it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, well, let's see what happens. Lots at stake right now. There are a lots of national security issues, critically important. We are watching all of it.

Just ahead, how President Trump's personal lawyer earned the nickname, The Fixer.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:28] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, Stormy Daniels lawyer claiming that she was physically threatened, and that some of her accusations against President Trump have happened since he's been in office. At the same time, the president's long-term personal lawyer suddenly finding himself at the center of the Stormy Daniels controversy.

Our Brian Todd has details of Michael Cohen's rule on a hush money scandal and how he came to be one of the president's most trusted confidents.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL COHEN, DONALD TRUMP'S PERSONAL ATTORNEY: The next president of the United States of --

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Michael Cohen says he will always protect his client Donald Trump.

COHEN: He's a good man. He's a man who cares deeply about this country.

TODD: For 12 years, Cohen has been Trump's personal attorney, or as many call him, Trump's fixer. One former Trump campaign official says Cohen is a less cool version of Ray Donovan, Showtime's fictional Hollywood fixer.

But if Cohen is less cool than Donovan, observers say, he is every bit as tenacious.

MARC FISHER, CO-AUTHOR, "TRUMP REVEALED": Michael Cohen is not averse to threatening people. He is a guy who carries a pistol and an ankle holster. He makes it clear to people that he's a tough guy.

TODD: From sometimes ruthlessly maneuvering against people who have damaging information on Trump, to trying to facilitate business deals for his boss, observers say Michael Cohen consistently displays the one characteristic Donald Trump values most.

FISHER: There's very little in the world that's more important to Donald Trump than loyalty. And Michael Cohen has shown for more than a decade that he will hold confidences and that he will fight for Trump in the way Trump likes, and that is to hit hard. To always hit back harder than you've been hit.

TODD: But Michael Cohen now faces criticism for his handling of the Stormy Daniels case. Daniels attorney says the agreement Michael Cohen drew up for Daniels to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump was, quote, sloppy.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' LAWYER: The way this was handled and the documentation, quite honestly, this was amateur hour.

TODD: Cohen recently said he used his own personal funds to, quote, facilitate payment to the porn star shortly before the 2016 election without Trump's knowledge or reimbursement, something legal experts say is almost unheard of.

MARK GERAGOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is extraordinary and I would tell you that probably, 99.9 percent of the lawyers in America would never even contemplate doing this.

TODD: In response, Cohen tells CNN legal arguments and documents in the Daniels case are air tight. And that he believes it's Daniels who's now liable for millions in damages based on her conduct. But Cohen is also being criticized from pure public relations standpoint.

MICHAEL RUBIN, CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST: I think the entire thing was either reckless, naive, or completely incompetent.

TODD: Crisis communications specialist Michael Rubin says it was a bad idea to believe paying Daniels off would make her go away.

What should Cohen have told Trump?

RUBIN: Tell him this isn't going to work. That's what he really should have done. There was nothing they could have done to make this go away. So, dealing with it honestly is pretty much the only choice they have.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thanks to Brian Todd for that report.

Pamela, this story is not going away, is it?

BROWN: No. It's not going away. And, you know, the irony is he's viewed as Donald Trump's protector, but in many ways he's the one -- the reason why the story is out there in the first place, you know? So, really the opposite of what he's been trying to accomplish as his protector.

BLITZER: Well, Donald Trump is the real reason it's out there. Go ahead. BROWN: That's true.

SIDDIQUI: But I think there is something striking about the sloppiness here both the nature in the NDA was crafted that it may stand to be nullified, that Michael Cohen uses Trump organization email. But certainly, it's not a story that's going away in part because of those missteps.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of it. Guys, thanks very, very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT starts right now.