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Trump Silent on Russian Sanctions, Stormy Daniels Lawsuit; Poll: View of Mueller Investigation Split on Partisan Lines. Aired 5- 6p ET

Aired March 27, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Be sure to follow the show on Facebook and Twitter and on @TheLeadCNN. That is it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer. He is, as you'd expect to find him, in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[16:59:46] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Remaining silent. President Trump is rarely silent about anything. So why is he keeping quiet about Stormy Daniels? As the White House again denies allegations of an affair, I'll talk to Stormy Daniels's lawyer live this hour.

Paying for it. Looking for ways to keep his campaign promise, the president is asking about using the United States military budget to fund a border wall. Why should the Pentagon pay for it when he pledged that Mexico would foot the Bill?

And secret trip? A high-security mystery train with bullet-proof carriages leaves Beijing as quietly as it arrived. Was North Korea's Kim Jong-un on board for his first foreign trip? We have new information.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, after joining allies and cracking down on Russia, President Trump is hunkering down, staying out of sight, staying quiet. He's not even tapping out tweets. Ignoring call for him to challenge Vladimir Putin.

And the White House is dodging questions for the president in the Stormy Daniels controversy, refusing to say why his lawyer paid the porn star $130,000 while repeating that the president denies her allegations of an affair.

I'll speak with Stormy Daniels's attorney, Michael Avenatti. He's standing by live. And our correspondents and specialists, they are also standing by with full coverage.

First, let's go straight to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, why is President Trump so suddenly silent?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, perhaps it's the calm before the tweet storm, but President Trump has been uncharacteristically silent, as you said, over the last couple of days. The White House continued to make the case today that the president is getting tough on Russia over the poisoning of an ex- Russian spy on British soil.

But aides to the president are also struggling to explain why the president is not speaking out more on Moscow's bad behavior or allegations of his own.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): This week President Trump has been the commander in brief, steering clear of any major comments on two issues nagging his administration: Russia and Stormy Daniels. Pulling his punches, instead of delivering them.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has still been incredibly engaged. He gives us messages to come out and deliver on his behalf on the regular basis, but he's also put out a number of tweets over the last week. He also has a country to run, and he's doing a great job with that. Sometimes he chooses to specifically engage and punch back, and sometimes he doesn't.

ACOSTA: Once again, the president left it up to his press office to insist that his administration is doing enough to punish Russia, touting this week's announcement that 60 Russian diplomats are being kicked out of the U.S.

SANDERS: We're certainly applying pressure on Russia. We're certainly encouraging and working with our allies and partners also to do so.

ACOSTA: The critics are wondering why Mr. Trump isn't sounding off on Vladimir Putin, who's suspected of being behind the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Britain, a subject the president did not raise in their phone call last week.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a call with president Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory.

ACOSTA: The White House has also exaggerated its actions on Russia, with one spokesman claiming that the U.S. had sanctioned oligarchs tied to Putin.

(on camera): Would this president consider sanctioning Vladimir Putin or its cronies?

RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSES DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: The United States has issued sanctions on key Russian oligarchs in response to the meddling in the 2016 election.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Only to have another spokesperson clarify that hasn't happened yet.

MICHAEL ANTON, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESMAN: These actions take a while to develop. We can't just sanction people spontaneously.

ACOSTA: Even Republicans wish the president would say more.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: I think the president needs to be speaking more forcefully and treating Russia as the -- as the foe that it is. It's a bad actor. It's becoming a bit of a pariah state, frankly, and I -- I think we should be doing more on the cyber side.

ACOSTA: The president also appears to be leery of addressing the saga of Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says she was paid off to cover up her affair with Mr. Trump.

Daniels's lawyer sounded Trump-like, boasting about his client's ratings on "60 Minutes," tweeting, "Since this is what really matters, LOL, the ratings for my client Stormy Daniels's appearance on '60 Minutes' crushed by millions any "Apprentice" show in the last ten years, as well as Mr. Trump's November 2016 appearance."

An attorney for the president's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who allegedly made the porn star payment, is firing back.

DAVID SCHWARTZ, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL COHEN: Stormy Daniels was shopping the best deal she could possibly shop. So people call it hush money. I call it legal extortion.

ACOSTA: As for the president's legal team, the White House brushed off questions about why so many high-profile attorneys are turning down a chance to defend Mr. Trump.

SANDERS: Look, the president has a highly-qualified team with several individuals that have been part of this process: Ty Cobb, Jay Sekulow.

ACOSTA: The president is also scrambling to find a way to pay for the wall on the border, floating the idea of taking the money from the just-approved budget for the Pentagon. The White House wouldn't confirm that.

SANDERS: I can't get into the specifics of that at this point, but I can tell you that the continuation of building the wall is ongoing. And we're going to continue moving forward in that process.

ACOSTA: Perhaps because that would be a sign of a key campaign promise that's tumbling down.

TRUMP: And who's going to pay for the wall?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mexico!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mexico!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mexico!

TRUMP: 100 percent.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA: Not so much. The president suggested the idea of having the Pentagon pay for the wall to House Speaker Paul Ryan last week. Part of problem with that idea, though, is that the administration simply cannot just take the money from the military. That would require another vote from Congress.

But clearly, Wolf, the president's proposal to have Mexico pay for the wall has appeared to have gone out the window -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. That's what it appears to be. All right. Jim Acosta at the White House. Thanks.

As the president keeps quiet, the White House is playing defense on the Stormy Daniels allegations as a legal fight takes shape.

Let's go to our national correspondent, Athena Jones. Athena, what is the latest?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

What's so interesting about all of this is that both Stormy Daniels and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, are avid Twitter users, something they share in common with the president. Both Daniels and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, are avid Twitter users, something they share in common with the president. Both Daniels and Avenatti are using the platform to make their case to the American public.

And for Daniels in particular to defend herself. This is something we're used to seeing the president do. But Mr. Trump is staying publicly silent on the matter and hasn't even mentioned Daniels by name.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): Tonight a new round of denials from the White House on Donald Trump's alleged relationship with Stormy Daniels. Press secretary Sarah Sanders denying claims that Trump had an affair with the adult film actress in 2006 after Daniels spoke about her encounters with him in a "60 Minutes" interview.

SANDERS: Look, I can tell you the president has denied the allegations.

JONES: Meanwhile, the legal battle between Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is heating up. Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, this morning tweeting key sections of the amended complaint he filed Monday accusing Cohen of defamation.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: He made some statements earlier this year whereby he basically said that the affair never happened in not so many words and made my client out to be a liar. So we're going to test the veracity of his statements against those of my client.

JONES: Avenatti argues Cohen's February statement explaining the payment of $130,000 he facilitated for Daniels not to tell her story, was meant to imply or insinuate that Daniels was lying about her affair with Trump, because it included the phrase, "Just because something isn't true doesn't mean that it can't cause you harm or damage."

Cohen's friend and lawyer in another matter said that charge would not hold up in court.

SCHWARTZ: A judge on defamation, a judge will look at that statement. It doesn't even pass the smell test.

JONES: Avenatti's tweets also spelling out a series of legal and ethical violations he says Cohen made when he paid the money to Daniels just days before the presidential election. A payment the White House says Trump did not know about and for which Cohen says Trump did not provide any reimbursement.

Avenatti tweeting the complaint argues the deal was void from the start, based on illegality, because it was entered for the purpose of covering up adulterous conduct. And Avenatti now says his team has several leads on who was responsible for threating Daniels in a Las Vegas parking lot in 2011, an unsettling moment she spoke about Sunday night.

STORMY DANIELS, ALLEGES AFFAIR WITH DONALD TRUMP: I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. Taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the back seat, the diaper bag, you know, getting all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, "Leave Trump alone. Forget the story." And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, "A beautiful little girl. It would be a shame if something happened to your mom." And then he was gone.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You took it as a direct threat?

DANIELS: Absolutely. I was rattled.

JONES: While Avenatti has made it clear that neither Cohen nor Trump's body guard, Keith Schiller, were in that parking lot, he and his client believe the threat came from a Trump associate.

AVENATTI: We know it's not my client that sent the goon. We know it's not the magazine that sent the goon. There's only one logical place left as to who would have sent the goon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now Daniels has said the president knows she's telling truth.

When she was asked to share any texts, photos or other evidence to back up her claims, she said her lawyer had advised her not to do so for now. Michael Avenatti has said it would be foolish to share it now and that the "60 Minutes" interview is not the end. It's the beginning. Last night he said the picture he released of Daniels taking a polygraph test is not the only picture they have, warning Trump and Cohen allies to buckle up for more. He and his client making it clear over and over again that they are not going away -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena Jones reporting. Thanks, Athena, for that report.

Joining us now, Stormy Daniels's attorney, Michael Avenatti.

Michael, thanks for joining us.

AVENATTI: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. So lots of questions. Let's start with your reaction to the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, today. Earlier in the afternoon, she said there's no truth to your client's allegations. What's your response?

AVENATTI: Well, I didn't hear her say that. I think, you know, any time the White House has spoken on this, Wolf, we have to parse words, unfortunately. Because they refuse to make a clear and unequivocal statement.

Why we haven't heard from the president as to these allegations is really beyond me. I do not understand. This man can tweet about a whole host of the most mundane things in the world on a consistent basis. And yet he cannot come out and state unequivocally that she was not in his hotel room. They did not have an affair. That he knew nothing of the agreement, knew nothing of the payment, et cetera. And I think the reason why he refuses to do that is clear. And that is because my client is telling the truth, and he knows it.

[17:10:27] BLITZER: Well, as you know, yesterday, Raj Shah, the deputy White House press secretary, said nothing your client states can be believed because of the inconsistencies, her inconsistencies on these matter. They say don't believe anything she says.

They cite her January 10 statement of this year when she said, "I recently became aware that certain news outlets are alleging that I had a sexual or romantic affair with Donald Trump many, many years ago. I am stating with complete clarity that this is absolutely false. My involvement with Donald Trump was limited to a few public appearances and nothing more".

And then a few days later, January 30, she said among other things, "I am not denying the affair because I was paid hush money, as has been reported in overseas-owned tabloids. I am am denying this because it never happened.

So they're saying, "You can't believe a word she says."

AVENATTI: Well, Wolf, you know, what's interesting about this is, is that my client sat for a nearly two-hour interview with Anderson Cooper, one of the best in the business, in the world. Answered tough questions.

I've come on your show and others. I've answered tough questions. And yet from the White House and from Mr. Cohen, what do we get? We get Mr. Schwartz, basically a talking head who's not even involved in the case. Why can't the president and Mr. Cohen hold a press to answer the tough questions.

We've invited Mr. Cohen and so far he's declined. Hopefully at some point he will come out. His lawyer, though, Mr. Schwartz, he did say last night here on CNN that $130,000 payment was not hush money. It was legal extortion. His words, "legal extortion." Your reaction?

BLITZER: Well, Wolf, I mean, this $130,000 payment story, it continues to evolve. It makes no sense. If -- if you buy into their story, and you buy into the White House explanation to the extent that they provided one, you have to believe the following.

In the two weeks prior to the campaign, Michael Cohen gets a call from my client or one of her representatives. They conclude that she has no basis in reality. There's no truth to the statement. There never was an affair. Et cetera, et cetera. How do they respond? They promptly pay her $130,000. It doesn't make any sense, Wolf. It doesn't add up.

The American people are smarter than this. The American people know that neither Michael Cohen nor Donald Trump would pay somebody that just came out of the woodwork $130,000 unless there was some validity to what she said.

BLITZER: Why did she deny that there was an affair in those signed statements?

AVENATTI: Well, Wolf, I think she explained this in detail on the "60 Minutes" piece. She was intimidated. She was concerned for her safety. She had a number of concerns relating to the conduct of Michael Cohen.

You know, what's interesting, I saw the lead-up piece relating to who was going to pay for the wall, and I figured it out while I was sitting here. I think Michael Cohen is going to pay for the wall.

BLITZER: I don't know if he has $15 or $20 billion.

Let's talk about some of the issues coming up. A lot of experts believe the defamation suit against Michael Cohen that you filed is simply a tactic to move this case out of arbitration, into court where the president of the United States potentially could be deposed. Is that true?

AVENATTI: No. That's not true, Wolf. And this case is never going to end up in arbitration anyway, because the agreement was never signed by Mr. Trump, and he had to sign it in order for there to be a binding deal.

We're highly confident this case is not going to end up in arbitration. And quite honestly, the attorneys for Michael Cohen and the president have made a fundamental blunder, which I think is going to become apparent here in the next couple days, relating to removing this case to federal court. And I look forward to when that blunder surfaces.

BLITZER: You tweeted earlier today that you're making progress on finding the man who allegedly threatened your client in that parking lot in 2011. How close are you to identifying that individual?

AVENATTI: Well, I'm not going to say that we're close, but I will stay that the last 24 to 36 hours have been very fruitful. We've gathered a lot of information. We're continuing to be provided information relating to possible leads, et cetera. And I'm hopeful that we're going to be able to identify that person. And not only identify them but more importantly, identify where they came from and who instructed them to carry out this threat.

BLITZER: Are you working law enforcement to conduct this investigation?

[17:15:00] AVENATTI: I'm not at liberty to discuss that.

BLITZER: Why not?

AVENATTI: Well, because I'm not at liberty to discuss it, and I don't think it would be appropriate.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people say why not work with police? Maybe they could could help narrow down a list of suspects?

AVENATTI: Well, I'm not saying that we are, and I'm not saying that we're not. What I'm saying is I'm not at liberty to discuss exactly what's transpiring right now.

BLITZER: And remind us why she didn't report the threat right after it occurred back -- back then.

AVENATTI: Well, she was -- she was terrified. And I don't think that's unusual. People are victimized all the time, and they don't report it to the police, because they're concerned for their safety or the safety of others. I don't think there's anything unusual about that.

BLITZER: Did she report that threat contemporaneously to any relatives, friends, associates?

AVENATTI: She did. She did mention it around that time to others, yes. I believe that's true.

BLITZER: And can you tell us who?

AVENATTI: I don't have the names at this time, Wolf.

BLITZER: If you can't find the individual who allegedly made these threats, how does your client prove that this incident actually took place?

AVENATTI: Well, I mean, she's answered the question, Wolf, under questioning by Anderson Cooper. I think the American people observed my client the other night. I mean, what you see is what you get. She's very, very credible. She's certainly more credible than Michael Cohen. It's not even close. There's no question about that. I think the American people will judge her appropriately, and again, we have faith in their ability to see through the nonsense. BLITZER: A couple of other loose ends that I want to try to tie up.

Your client and Karen McDougal, the Playmate, they shared a lawyer named Keith Davidson. Is it a coincidence that both women ended up using the same lawyer to negotiate their respective arrangements, their deals, which resulted in both of them giving up their right, in effect, to tell their stories?

AVENATTI: Wolf, as you know, I was not involved then, and I'm really not in a position to pass judgment as to that question. So I'm not going to answer it.

BLITZER: And -- and because he says he can't talk because of a lawyer-client confidentiality commitment. Are you willing to release him from that?

AVENATTI: Well, ultimately, that's my client's decision, and I have not communicated with her about it.

BLITZER: As you know, there -- you suggested earlier in the month that you had perhaps as many as six, maybe more women who have come to you with similar allegations against Donald Trump and that you were vetting their stories. Have you found them to be credible?

AVENATTI: We're still exploring their stories. We're going to be very careful and deliberate, Wolf, but I can announce that the number is not six. It's now eight.

BLITZER: And how credible are their -- their stories? And are they similar to what your client, what Karen McDougal have suggested?

AVENATTI: There are similarities. But again, we have not fully vetted them, and as you know, Wolf, when you have -- when you have something of this nature, people come out of the woodwork and say all kinds of things. And so we have an ethical responsibility to make sure that we cross our "T's" and dot our "I's" before we start trotting out allegations against Mr. Cohen or the president. We're going to do that.

BLITZER: A couple more -- a couple more questions. Do you know if any of these eight women who have come to you, come forward to you also signed confidentiality or hush agreements?

AVENATTI: We understand that two of them have.

BLITZER: And do you know if they were $130,000, $150,000, a broad range of how much money was involved?

AVENATTI: I'm not at liberty to discuss that at this point, Wolf. I'm sorry.

BLITZER: One final question. It seems your client is perhaps the only person out there right now who can get the president to stop tweeting about something. How do you explain the president's silence on this case?

AVENATTI: Well, I think the president is rightfully concerned that if he comes out and calls my client a liar, or suggests directly that she's not telling truth, there's going to be serious consequences. And at least this time around, he's exercised good judgment, because there will be serious consequences if he does that.

But Wolf, they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They're playing games with the White House briefing. They're playing games with word selection before the press corps. And quite honestly, it is so transparent. If the president actually claims that this did not happen, he come out under equivocally and state it. Just like Bill Clinton did as it related to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And of course. that turned out to be false. And just like others have done.

Where is the president? Where is Michael Cohen? I think their absence speaks volumes.

BLITZER: Michael Avenatti, thanks so much for joining us.

AVENATTI: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure this story is not going away, and we'll have you back to continue this conversation.

Up next, there's breaking news. Our new poll is just in, as America weigh in on President Trump, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

And President Trump is having trouble finding and keeping lawyers to defend him in the Russia probe. Why do top attorneys keep turning him down?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:24:19] BLITZER: There's more breaking news. A new CNN poll is just out with some striking indications about how the public views the Russia probe and a possible North Korea summit.

Our political director, David Chalian, has been going through all the numbers for us. David, where is the polling when it comes to the Mueller investigation?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: So we asked if people approve or not the way that Bob Mueller is handling the investigation. Take a look at Mueller's approval rating. It is at 48 percent, remarkably consistent over the last several months. That's been about where it is. That compares with Donald Trump's 32 percent approval rating on this very issue.

Of course, we also asked about whether people think this is mainly, in effect, to discredit the president or is there validity, is it a serious matter. Take a look how people voted here. Fifty-eight percent in the polls say it's a serious matter. Thirty-six percent say it's an effort to discredit Trump.

But Wolf, look at this by party. Where you sit is how you see this investigation. Nothing has changed on that front for months. Ninety- two percent of Democrats see it as a serious matter. That compares to 57 percent of independents and only 19 percent of Republicans.

Flip it over. "This is mainly an effort to discredit Trump." Seventy-three percent of Republicans say that's what it is, compared to 36 percent of independents and 5 percent of Democrats.

We of course, also wanted to know the red line. Can Mueller investigate Trump's finances? What do you think about that? Sixty- seven percent of Americans in this poll say that Mueller should be able to investigate Trump's finances. Only 28 percent say he should not, Wolf.

BLITZER: You also polled the American public on how the president is handling the situation with North Korea, Kim Jong-un. What did you find?

CHALIAN: What we find is movement and a lot of it. We asked the overall, sort of how does Donald Trump -- do you approve or disapprove of the way he's handling North Korea? Look at the changing here. Forty-three percent approve now, 49 percent disapprove. That 43 percent is a high-water mark on this issue for Donald Trump.

Look where it was just in November. It was 33 percent approval on this issue. Clearly, the outreach is having an impression.

How do I know? Take a look at the next question: "Do you approve or disapprove of President Trump's decision to meet with Kim Jong-un?" Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 62 percent, approve of Trump's decision to meet with Kim Jong-un.

BLITZER: And presumably, he's supposed to meet with him before the end of May. We'll see if that actually does happen.

Thanks so much, David, for all those numbers. Coming up, more top lawyers now declining offers to join President Trump's defense team and the Russia probe. Does he have enough legal help as the special counsel closes in?

And why would President Trump stay in touch with a former aide who was forced out after both of his ex-wives accused him of abuse?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Although the White House keeps insisting President Trump is satisfied with his legal team, two more lawyers have now turned down offers to join the president's defense in the Russia investigation, citing business conflicts. This makes the fifth major law firm that we know of to receive a recent invitation to help the president with the Russia probe.

[17:32:03] Let's bring in our analysts and our experts. And Gloria Borger, why is the president having such a difficult time finding highly-qualified attorneys to help him?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: In Washington, D.C. I think that the obvious reason is that, No. 1, the president is running his own legal strategy. He is a terrible client. There are lots of law firms that feel that they're conflicted from joining his team, because they represent other people in this investigation that has really -- that has really spread.

And I -- you know, and I think that there are lots of lawyers with whom I've spoken and my colleagues have spoken who said, "He wouldn't take our advice." That's one of the reasons John Dowd quit. And if you have a client who's not going to take your advice, why would you -- why would you represent him?

Now I will tell you from my reporting inside the White House, what they are saying is that there's no rush to get another attorney. That Jay Sekulow is doing just fine in his negotiations with Bob Mueller over -- over whether the president will testify, and that eventually they may bring on another attorney or so. And my interpretation of that is, quite frankly, if the Democrats win back the House, I think they have to have an attorney who might have some experience with the question of impeachment.

BLITZER: Jay Sekulow is the private attorney, but his background is mostly constitutional law, not necessarily criminal defense. Ty Cobb is the White House -- in the White House counsel's office. But this is a really important investigation, a really important case. Shouldn't high-profile lawyers be standing in line getting ready to help the president?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And I think there's two main points here. Very important words we're using. High- profile, very experienced lawyers, willing to take the case. And we're not seeing that necessarily. He can get any lawyer -- any lawyer to come in and take this case just because, you know, they want the publicity behind it.

But this is a bigger problem for the narrative around Donald Trump. We've seen this now in the what, 14, 15 months of him being in office. He's not loyal. He will not listen to advice, as Gloria says, and you can't trust your own colleague or in this case, your own client. And that's why you're seeing the likes of Ted Olson and others around town who are saying, "You know what? This case isn't for me. I'm sorry. I'm conflicted. I wish you well."

BLITZER: Ted Olson, a very prominent Washington attorney, former solicitor gentle at the Justice Department.

You know, Rebecca, we see chaos amongst the legal team, but we also see plenty of chaos elsewhere in the Trump administration. Is the president stirring up a lot of controversy, a lot of commotion right now?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. This is all coming from the top, Wolf. When we see the chaos in this White House, it starts with the president. The president enjoys the chaos. He feeds off of it.

And so it is much bigger than just his legal team. This is a systemic problem in this White House, in this administration. And it absolutely starts with President Trump himself. But it's not, in his mind, a problem he needs to solve. It's a

feature, not a bug of this administration in his mind.

[17:35:04] BLITZER: Is it -- can we draw any conclusions, Sabrina, about whether or not all this commotion amongst the legal team suggests the president will testify or won't testify before Mueller's team?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, certainly, even though the president has said that he would like to talk to the special counsel, he and his legal team have been unable to agree on the parameters of an interview or even set a specific time and date for him to sit down.

I think that one of the concerns that John Dowd had prior to his resignation was that if the president did testify, he would expose himself to potentially more legal peril. Because we know that this is a president who has a problem with the truth, and so he could potentially risk perjury, committing perjury.

I also think, though, that as Gloria said, it doesn't really matter who comes and goes with respect to the president's legal team. Because the problem here is not the lawyer, or who's on the legal team. The problem is the client. And there's just no predictability when it comes to Trump. We've seen him continue to try and discredit the special counsel and its investigation. He does that frequently in tweets. And that's just not something that I think any high-profile lawyer, any lawyer, is willing to deal with what might happen tomorrow.

BLITZER: Does this depleted legal team, Gloria, make him more vulnerable right now, potentially, to Mueller?

BORGER: Well, I think, you know, inside the White House, they say absolutely not. It's proceeding as it should proceed. Jay Sekulow was in on all those conversations with the special counsel's team, along with John Dowd.

But of course, you know, they need some back-up here. They need, you know -- they need some more heft. This is not to say that Ty Cobb isn't doing his job or that Jay Sekulow isn't doing his job. But if in the end, they let the president testify, they need to -- they need to figure out how to -- how to brief him and how to get him narrowed down and how to get him not to just expound on everything when he answers questions.

Or if they decide to make the constitutional case, which I think is very likely, and take this all the way to the Supreme Court, they're going to need some additional help. And I would argue that's where someone like Ted Olson would have -- would have really come in handy to help them with all these constitutional issues. He's such an expert.

BLITZER: Amidst all of this, two senators, Thom Tillis, a Republican, of North Carolina, Chris Coons of Delaware, they have co-authored what they call the Special Council Integrity Act, which would prevent the removal of the special counsel. What does that tell you? PRESTON: It says a lot about Congress' trust in the commander in chief and the president of the United States that they proactively, protectively have to pass legislation to try to prevent him from doing something that he may or may not do. And the fact that you have Republicans signing on not only to the legislation that you're talking about today with Senator Coons and Senator Tillis. But you also have Cory Booker and Lindsey Graham, another Republican and Democrat, who are working together on legislation the same ways.

Here's the reason why it's hard for Republicans to pass it. That means you are then acknowledging, Wolf, that you can't trust Donald Trump and that he may go forward. That is a bad thing for Republicans to acknowledge.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around. There's a lot more we're watching. Going to ask you about the reports that the president still is reaching out to Rob Porter, the one-time top aide at the White House who resigned after both of his ex-wives publicly accused him of assault and abuse.

And later, was North Korea's Kim Jong-un aboard a mysterious train that just paid a visit to China?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:43:10] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts and our experts. And Gloria, sources are now telling CNN the president is floating the idea of actually having the Pentagon pay for the border wall with Mexico. Is that going to fly?

BORGER: I don't think so. It's very inventive. I'll give him credit for that. Because now he had to sign this huge spending bill, which he wasn't happy about signing. And as he pointed out and Mattis -- General Mattis pointed out, the greatest -- it's now the largest budget for the Pentagon in history. And so the president is saying, "Well, can you just use some of the money in there?" And it has to be reprogrammed, which means that it would have to be voted on by Congress, which means it's not going anywhere.

BLITZER: Yes. It's very unlikely it's going to go anywhere using the military. Certainly, the president would like Mexico to pay for the wall,, but that's not happening.

BORGER: Second choice.

PRESTON: Yes. And certainly not going to happen. And just to explain how this all works quickly for our viewers, basically, the president comes out with his priorities, with his idea and his budget number. Congress goes through, allocates where their priorities are, and earmarks where the money is going to.

That's why when Gloria is talking about reprogramming it Congress has to approve every dime that's spent. That's why, while inventive, not going to fly.

BLITZER: Not happening. You know, Rebecca, the other story we're looking at is the president apparently has been in touch with Rob Porter, his former aide who was -- who left the White House amid these allegations from his ex-wives.

BERG: That's right. So clearly, the president not too concerned by the allegations against Rob Porter to stop talking to him. And it really reinforces something we know about the president, which is that even when his associates leave the White House and are not physically working for him any longer, officially working for him, he continues many of those relationships. He lunches now with Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff. He keeps in touch with Rob Porter now and some other former staffers, as well. So no one is ever truly gone.

BLITZER: And Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, said today there are no plans for Porter to return. Quote, "no plans."

SIDDIQUI: Well, no one can really speak for the president and what he might choose to do. But it reopens the entire security clearance issue. Jared Kushner's security clearance was downgraded in part because the Porter controversy exposed that there were a number of high-level staff who worked on interim clearances.

It also suggests the President is willing to tolerate violence against women and it's coming at a time when his treatment of women in the past is, once again, a part of the day-to-day news cycle.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm waiting for Steve Bannon to come back to the White House. He's going to want to (ph).

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Everyone has a second half.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: All right. Not happening now.

BORGER: Never say never.

BLITZER: But you never know what's going to happen down the road.

Coming up, new questions about the fallout from Stormy Daniels' interview and the surprising silence from the White House.

And next, who was on that mysterious train that pulled into Beijing? Did the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, travel to China this week?

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[17:50:26] BLITZER: Among the stories breaking this afternoon over at the White House, the Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refusing to confirm or deny whether the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has been in China.

There are intriguing questions about who may have been aboard a special train that was seen this week in Beijing. CNN's Brian Todd has been working his sources.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we're told U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are monitoring the train's movements, this secretive visit to Beijing, very closely. It's got crucial ramifications for Kim Jong-un's possible summit with President Trump, with the South Korean president, and for his relationship with China.

As a U.S. intelligence official tells us tonight, North Korea's ties with its closest ally are at the lowest point they've been in recent history.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): An imposing motorcade darts back to the rail station in Beijing. And just as mysteriously as it arrived, a high- security train with bulletproof carriages departs the Chinese capital.

Tonight, CNN is told it's highly likely that Kim Jong-un was on board the train. That's according to a South Korean lawmaker with ties to that country's intelligence services.

Analysts say if Kim did visit China to possibly meet with President Xi Jinping, it would be extraordinary.

MICHAEL MADDEN, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR, NORTH KOREA LEADERSHIP WATCH: This would be the first time that Kim Jong-un has left North Korea since taking power.

TODD (voice-over): And the first time Kim would have met with a foreign head of state.

Analysts say the Chinese leader may have wanted to signal to Kim that China didn't want to be left out in the cold. That he wanted to be briefed on Kim's upcoming summit with South Korea's president and his possible meeting with President Trump.

But there also could have been a stern warning to the young North Korean dictator whose regime China has propped up for 70 years.

MARCUS NOLAND, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT AND DIRECTOR OF STUDIES, PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: My assumption is that the Chinese has basically told him -- you're antics are creating big tensions with the United States. It's not in our interest.

We know you're under some pressure and we're willing to help you out, but you need to tone it down. And now that the Americans are showing some willingness to meet with you, you need to start playing ball.

TODD (voice-over): The Chinese are believed to have been furious with Kim Jong-un for his ramped up nuclear and missile tests and for executing his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, considered China's man in Pyongyang.

Tonight, the train itself is the focus of intrigue. It's hugely symbolic. Kim's father and grandfather used the train when they traveled to China and Russia.

A Russian diplomat said, in those days, live lobsters and expensive wine were delivered to stops along the way. And the train was staffed by, quote, beautiful lady conductors.

MADDEN: They have good-looking young women that work for the Supreme Leader in his offices. And so those women do perform the same tasks on the train when Kim Jong-un uses it.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say when the train moves around inside North Korea, it's got one train ahead of it and one behind it. Other security measures they say are remarkable.

MADDEN: It is armored. It has the ability -- on the roof of the train, there's the ability to land a helicopter while the train is moving. There are air escorts with the train. There are North Korean Air Force jets that will fly over while the train processes through North Korea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And experts say that by taking the train and not a plane, Kim Jong-un can have many more of his top aides and officials, along with military and security personnel, with him and can keep his hands more tightly gripped on the levers of power, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is it possible, Brian, that Kim Jong-un's sister could have been on that train?

TODD: Absolutely, Wolf. Analysts say if Kim Jong-un was not on that train, his sister, Kim Yo-jong likely would have been. She is now Kim's most trusted aide. She is the second most powerful person in North Korea.

And she is seen as the catalyst for so much of these recent diplomatic breakthroughs given her visit to the Winter Olympics and her meetings with South Korea President Moon Jae-in.

BLITZER: We should find out sooner rather than later who was on that train. Brian, thanks very much for that report.

Coming up, President Trump is rarely silent about anything, so why is he keeping quiet about Stormy Daniels? And he's taking action against Russia but why isn't he talking about it?

The White House tries to come up with answers.

[17:54:36] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, silent on Stormy. The White House struggles to explain why the President isn't punching back as the porn star speaks out about their alleged affair and escalates her lawsuit against Mr. Trump's lawyer. New questions this hour about his sudden show of restraint.

Shrinking team. The President is trying and failing to hire more lawyers to defend him against Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Why do superstar attorneys keep telling him no?

And Nassar's boss charged. The former dean who oversaw the Olympic doctor and serial molester is now accused of sex crimes himself. Stunning new details this hour about the allegations of assault, harassment, and pornography.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:59:59] Breaking tonight, the White House that's often forced to defend the Presidents over the top tweets is now in the rather unusual position of downplaying his silence, insisting he is incredibly engaged.