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THE SITUATION ROOM

Syria Attack; Michael Cohen Tapes and to Appear in Court on Monday; Comey's New Book Released. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 14, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER: Happening now. Breaking news. Locked and loaded. The U.S. warns it's ready to launch new strikes on Syria if Bashar al- Assad uses chemical weapons again. After targeted strikes overnight, is the Trump Administration being clear about it's next red line? One time shot. That's how Defense Secretary James Mattis described the U.S. led action in Syria. President Trump is calling it a sustained response. Is the Commander-in-Chief on the same page as the Pentagon brass?

Greater threat. Trump allies are anxious right now as the President's lawyer's under criminal investigation and facing a new court order. Is Michael Cohen's case putting Mr. Trump in more legal jeopardy than the Special council's Russia probe? And awaiting a bombshell. The Trump team is bracing for the first full TV interview with fired FBI Director James Comey about his tell all book. Stand by for a brand new clip from Comey. Will it enrage the White House? We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the Situation Room.

We're following breaking news on the air strikes in Syria and what happens next. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. is warning in stark terms that American forces are quote "locked and loaded" to strike again if Syria crosses President Trump's red line on using chemical weapons. Mr. Trump using some colorful and questionable language of his own declaring quote, "Mission accomplished". The President taking something of a victory lap even as he's fuming over the criminal investigation of his lawyer Michael Cohen and the release of James Comey's new book.

This hour, I'll talk with the Republican Congressman Will Hurd. He's a member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees. And our correspondents and analysts are all standing by. First, let's go to our Chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, what's the message from the Trump White House tonight?

JIM ACOSTA: Wolf, we heard this earlier today. The White House is putting the Syrian government on notice that there could be more air strikes if chemical weapons are once again used against innocent civilians in Syria. That's despite the fact that President Trump tweeted this morning that it was mission accomplished in Syria. A phrase that harkens back to the Bush Administration when Former President George W. Bush in Iraq used that phrase mission accomplished and that was before that war in Iraq dragged on for years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JIM ACOSTA: It was a sobering message delivered to Syria. Backed by U.S. military might.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops it's use of prohibited chemical agents.

ACOSTA: While the Pentagon insists U.S. forces along with Britain and France achieved their objectives in striking Syrian chemical weapons targets. It's one of President Trump's tweets that may have misfired. Celebrating the operation the President tweeted, "A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine military. Could not have had a better result. Mission accomplished!"

That phrase, mission accomplished, was a flashback to 2003 when then President Bush landed on an air craft carrier and declared victory in Iraq. A war that continued for eight more years. Over Bush's shoulder was a banner reading, "Mission Accomplished."

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

ACOSTA: Even Mr. Trump's supporters are cringing. Former Bush Secretary Ari Fleischer weighed in on Mr. Trump's tweets saying, "I would have recommended ending this tweet with not those two words." Asked about the President's confidence the Pentagon didn't disagree with the Commander-in-Chief.

DANA WHITE: Last night operations were very successful. We met our objectives. We hit the sites. The heart of the chem weapons program. So it - - it was mission accomplished.

ACOSTA: Still on a conference call with reporters, a Senior Administration Official conceded the air strikes may not have neutralized the chemical weapons threat in Syria. Saying, "If this does not succeed we will be prepared to act again." Which means the age old questions that come with every U.S. intervention have returned. How does the U.S. define success and how long will that take? Two weeks after Mr. Trump raised the prospect of removing U.S. troops from Syria - -

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.

ACOSTA: Democrats are raising questions.

REPRESENTATIVE BRENDAN BOYLE: I cannot tell you what this Administration's policy is towards Syria. One week ago he was talking about entirely pulling out. That ended up giving - - appeared to give a green light to Assad and you saw how Assad took that green light and ran with it in terms of gassing innocence including women and children.

ACOSTA: The other looming question is how to handle Syria's two biggest backers, Russia and Iran. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To Iran and to Russia I ask, what kind of a

nation wants to associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children.

ACOSTA: Vice-President Pence continued that tough talk at the Summit of the Americas in Peru.

VICE-PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Our message to Russia is you're on the wrong side of history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now President Trump will face more of these questions about Syria next week when he meets with Japanese Prime Minister down in Mar-A-Lago. We do expect the President to take questions from reporters at that time. But the President will be splitting his time discussing the fate of another rogue regime with weapons of mass destruction and that of course is North Korea, another foreign policy crisis with no easy answers. But Wolf, of course getting back to that conversation about the President's use of the phrase mission accomplished is obviously not mission accomplished as Syria once again uses chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Yes. Good point. Jim Acosta, thank you. Tonight, U.S. military leaders are assessing the impact of the overnight air strikes and planning for the possibility of any future attacks. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Star. Barbara, the Defense Secretary James Mattis isn't using words like locked and loaded or mission accomplished.

BARBARA STAR: He is not and that's for very good reason. He is a very cautious man. He knows that Syria still has a considerable chemical weapons potential capability. This was a limited strike and nobody's predicting it's the end of Bashar al-Assad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA STAR: A message from Donald Trump to Bashar al-Assad and his Russian masters. Firing more than 100 missiles into the heart of Syria's chemical weapons program.

U.N. AMBASSADOR NIKKI HALEY: I spoke to the President this morning and he said if the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded.

STAR: Defense Secretary James Mattis in the late night Pentagon briefing not shutting the door to future military action. But also not saying what would lead to more air strikes.

DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: Right now this is a one time shot and I believe that it sent a very strong message to dissuade him, to deter him from doing this again.

STAR: It was shortly after these horrific videos emerged of an April 7th chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that the Pentagon began planning for military strikes. The target list, a chemical research center in Damascus and two chemical weapons and equipment storage facilities located west of Homs. After first light as the damage emerged, the Pentagon said there were no reports of civilian casualties and all the military objectives for this strike were achieved.

LT. GENERAL KENNETH MCKENZIE: I believe that we took the heart of it out with the attacks that we accomplished last night. I'm not going to say that they're - - they're going to be unable to continue to conduct a chemical attack in the future. I suspect however they'll think long and hard about it after based on the activities of last night.

STAR: The strike on Syria began at 4 a.m. with a barrage of 105 missiles launched by the U.S., French and British militaries. It was carried out by three U.S. warships and a U.S. submarine. The French also launched missiles from a frigate ship, in the air two B-1 bombers launched strikes along with French and British fighter jets. One sight the Barzah Chemical Research and Development Facility is located in Damascus. Missiles made it past heavy air defenses without being shot down.

MCKENZIE: As you can see it does not exist anymore. And we believe they've lost a lot of equipment. They've lost a lot of material and it's going to have a significant effect on them. So I think the words cripple and degrade are good accurate words.

STAR: But as Bashar al-Assad calmly walked into work today. It's unclear if he is hearing those words.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STAR: Now behind the scenes the big worry at the Pentagon has been reaction from the Russians worried about Russian military escalation. So far, that has not happened. Officials say they see no reaction from Moscow other than a lot of angry words. Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Barbara Star at the Pentagon. Thank you. Also tonight, the U.S. Security Council has rejected a Russian resolution condemning the U.S. led strikes on Syria. We're joined by our Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott. Elise, do these strikes change the situation on the ground?

ELISE LABOTT: I really don't think they do Wolf. I mean, listen, the - - as Vice-President Pence had said today and Nikki Haley. Perhaps the Syrian chemical weapons program has been degraded. It's not crippled as they say because as we just heard Barbara talk about Syria still has a serious chemical weapons arsenal or capability. And at the same time, if you think about the Syrian civil war that's been going on for several years.

Bashar al-Assad has killed nearly 500,000, half a million Syrians and most of them have not been from chemical weapons. So even if Bashar al-Assad thinks the calculus is that, you know the use of chemical weapons is too hot right now. He still has these brutal barrel bombs and other means of attacking and killing his people.

BLITZER: How does Russia fit into all of this?

LABOTT: Well not only is Russia Syria's biggest backer on the ground but also has a sway over not only Bashar al-Assad but Iran and Turkey right now. And, you know, you hear about all the diplomats want to make this concerted effort at a political solution because as everyone said there's no military solution to end the civil war there.

It's really going to be Russia who has to put the pressure on Assad and Iran to, you know, find a political solution. And that's where the U.S. maybe when President Trump talks about this sustained diplomatic and economic campaign, maybe the pressure is not so much on Syria. Because they're already is a lot of sanctions and pressure on Syria. Maybe it's on Russia.

BLITZER: Just over two weeks ago, President Trump said he wants U.S. troops out of Syria and his words very soon. Can that still be achieved?

LABOTT: Well, I mean, the two goals that President Trump has said, stop the Syrians from using chemical weapons and at the same time get the U.S. out is a little bit inconsistent. I think if he wants to make sure that there's no more use of chemical weapons. He also wants to thwart Iran's growing influence in the region as a lot of his advisors do.

I think you might see President Trump - - his policy evolving. I don't know that U.S. troops will stay there indefinitely as we thought that they would. But I think part of the problem is that the U.S. does not have a sustained strategy. You heard Senator Lindsey Graham say today come out with a very tough statement that he is afraid that there is a strategy and that's to get out. And he's saying that the U.S. needs a long term and sustained engagement in Syria to make sure that this never happens again.

BLITZER: Elise, thanks very much for that analysis. Joining us now Congressman Will Hurd. He's a Republican member of both the Intelligence and the Homeland Security Committees, also a former CIA clandestine officer. Congressman, thanks as usual for joining us. So let me get your - - your sense right away. Do you agree with President Trump that this is quote "mission accomplished"?

REPRESENTATIVE WILL HURD: Well I think the attacks last night a 100 and plus mission - - a 100 and plus missiles were successful in hitting their targets and doing the damage. But, we still have a civil war going on in Syria. You still have Bashar al-Assad in power. Being able to kill many of his own countrymen. So that part of - - of - - that - - that is not a success. And I think until Bashar al-Assad leaves I would say the - - the broader goals in the region have not been accomplished.

BLITZER: Are these strikes, the strikes overnight are going to really change Bashar al-Assad's behavior? Do you see any indication at all?

HURD: Well - - well here what some of - - some of the positives from - - from the strikes. One, it was multi-lateral. The fact that we did this side by side with our - - our - - our British friends, with our French friends is very important. The fact that the Germans were supportive of this effort. The fact that the Turks were supportive of this effort as well and their foreign ministry came out with a show of support on this. Turkey has been a tricky partner. They're - - they're a NATO ally. They've been tricky. They've had recent conversation with the Iranians and the Russians.

The fact that the Turks getting our - - our side. The fact that the - - the Syrian missile defense did not work is a pretty significant change in our understanding of the battle space. A lot of that technology has come from - - came from the Russia. The fact that one of the strikes was inside Damascus and their - - their missile defense shot after our attacks were over. Not only are the Syrians scratching their head about maybe we aren't as protected as we think we are, but the Russians are doing that as well. So I think that alone changes the - - the calculation.

Now did we degrade the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal? Yes. Did we get rid of all of it? No. And I think Assad knows that if he uses chemical weapons, he can see an escalation of what we saw last night. Since it was a significant escalation from a year ago when we had - - when - - when Assad used - - used chemical weapons back then. So these are some of the - - the - - the issues that Assad and his allies need to be thinking about. I think the - - the Russians and the Iranians need to be doing everything to push Assad to participate in the Geneva process. This is already a U.N. established process, to solve this civil war diplomatically. And I believe Assad must go.

BLITZER: Well, so - - so that's the point I was going to ask you. Do you believe the U.S. strategy should be regime change, getting rid of Bashar al-Assad?

HURD: Well I think when people say regime change, there's a - - there is a - - a - - a connotation that there's going to be troops go in and you're going to be knocking down doors. You can have regime change happen diplomatically. The Geneva process has already established that, you know, once there is an agreement, there should be elections 18 months after that agreement.

There is - - there is no specific talk about what should happen with - - with Assad. But in my opinion, he has to go. He's killed as the previous commentator said more than half a million of his own countrymen, a lot of those brutally. But I think you can see a change in the political dynamic there in Syria with a process that supported by the - - by the U.N.

BLITZER: Because I asked the question Congressman because Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie is the Director of the Joint Staff of the Pentagon. He had a briefing at the Pentagon earlier today. He repeatedly said that the U.S. goal in Syria was to destroy ISIS. He repeatedly said the U.S. goal in Syria was not regime change.

HURD: Well that is the stated goal of - - of this Administration. They - - and - - and - - and the ISIS - - the defeat ISIS project is - - is important and number one. That's why Americans should care. The fact that ISIS is on the run and we've taken away a lot of significant amount of their territory. We cannot let Syria be a place for any kind of terrorist like - - like ISIS to train, equip and plan attacks on our homeland, to use it as a base of operation to inspire attacks in - - in our homeland.

So that is why this is a strategic concern and something that we have to commit resources to so that we can't let this be a place where people can attack us. I also believe the way you ensure that you don't have terrorist groups continue to grow is by having Assad no longer be in power. And the best way to do that is through a political process that has already been established through the - - the Geneva conversations.

BLITZER: But has the U.S. already sent a message to Bashar al-Assad that he and his regime could use other forms of military aggression including the barrel bombing of civilians? All sorts of conventional attacks killing thousands and thousands of men, women and children. Has the U.S. sent the message, you can do that within impunity as long as you don't use chemical weapons?

HURD: I - - I - - I don't think so at all. I don't think anybody, Republican or Democrat in any branch of government thinks that is - - is OK.

BLITZER: But - - but they've been doing that for seven years. They've killed 500,000 Syrians almost all of them Muslims, some Christians, almost all of them Arabs. They've killed so many people over these past seven years and almost all of them have been killed with conventional weapons.

HURD: Look, I - - I - - that's why I think Assad should go. That's where I think we should - - we should force and - - and use additional diplomatic processes, financial - - you know sanctions, in order to push the Iranians and the Russians to get the - - to get Assad to participate in a - - in a diplomatic conclusion to the - - the Syrian civil war. What's happening over there is atrocious, whether it's use of chemical weapons or - - or conventional weapons and I think last night is an example to say, hey, this kind of activity we're not going to accept it going into the future.

BLITZER: This slaughter started in March of 2011, seven years ago. It - - it's - - it's an awful, awful situation. What if anything are you and I'm not just talking about you, I'm talking about members of Congress doing to end this - - this slaughter?

HURD: Well I - - I think, you know, the - - the push that we have on sanctions on - - on - - on Russia, continuing to reevaluate the Iran deal or - - or the JCPOA and Iran's role in the world. We should be continuing to put more pressure on them. There have been recent sanctions that came from the House that was finally put on - - put into place. These are some of the activities that - - that should be continuing and that we've seen many members in - - in Congress advocate for.

I know many members of Congress are working with our - - our NATO allies in order to talk to them about increasing their defense spending to also make sure that they're focusing on the threat of Russia. And one of those issues being, not just Russia's activity in our elections would have to stop, not only their activities in Moldova and Georgia and Estonia, but their activities in Syria as well.

BLITZER: Congressman Will Hurd, these are tough, tough issues I know. And I know you're grappling like so many of your colleagues are grappling with them as well. We'll continue this conversation. Thanks for joining us.

HURD: Always a pleasure Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, CNN's exclusive reporting on the evidence seized in the raids of the President's personal lawyer Michael Cohen. What will tapes of phone conversations between Cohen and Stormy Daniels former lawyer reveal? And will the porn star be face to face with Cohen in a Federal court in New York City on Monday? We'll have the latest on the criminal investigation of Michael Cohen and how the Daniels hush payment figures into all of this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:27]

BLITZER: We're back with our special breaking news coverage of the U.S. led air strikes in Syria. Much more of that coming up. We're also learning new details about the criminal investigation of the President's long time personal lawyer as Michael Cohen is under orders by a Federal judge to appear in court in New York City on Monday. Our Crime and Justice Reporter Shimon Prokupecz is joining us once again.

Shimon, CNN has exclusive new reporting on the recordings seized in these FBI raids. What can you tell us?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ: I'll try (ph). These were recordings that we believe were on his phones, conversations that he was having with people. And you know, Wolf, specifically we learned from the government's filing yesterday that they were looking for two cell phones in the search warrants that they now have in their - - in their possession. Certainly whatever conversation is on there, they're hoping that they can have access to - - as part of whatever it is they're investigating.

So that this could be directly - - there could be direct information in his own words here that they could use against him in a - - in a potential grand jury proceeding which we know is now underway and eventually perhaps a criminal case. Significant in the sense that this could be a treasure trove of information for the FBI, for prosecutors here who are investigating his business deals.

BLITZER: And as you know, Cohen has been ordered to appear in this Federal courtroom on Monday in New York City. What are you learning about that?

PROKUPECZ: Yes. I was there yesterday all day for this hearing. And the judge in that - - in the case is just frustrated with Michael Cohen's attorneys. There's this whole argument that they're making. They're asking - - they filed an emergency relief asking that the government not have access to this information that they recovered at his home in all these search warrants, at his office. And they want to limit the government in the access that they get of - - of seeing this material because they're arguing that it's privileged.

Well the judge yesterday kept asking his attorneys, what is your arguments here? Why are you saying this information is privileged? And if it's privileged, who does the privilege apply to? I want to know who you're clients are. And really through the day, he was not able to provide any of that information. In fact at one point, she ordered him to go call Michael Cohen and find out. And then we have this video of him where he's hanging out with his friends. They're all smoking cigars. He claims he wasn't smoking. But certainly, you know, on the day where the judge was growing increasingly frustrated with his attorneys, with the lack of information, she got fed up. And at the end of the day she said, I want your client here on - - on Monday because we need some questions answered.

The government's position is that they're just stalling here. And that they're not able to look at this evidence that they've recovered now. They recovered it on Monday. We're now going a week into - - since they recovered this. They're saying it's slowing down their investigation and they think this is a stall tactic by Michael Cohen in trying to prevent the government from proceeding in their investigation.

BLITZER: And there's actually a chance that in this Federal courtroom on Monday, Stormy Daniels the porn star, she might be there as well.

PROKUPECZ: Yes. So a lot of theater here. There certainly was enough theater on Friday when Michael Avenatti showed up. That's Stormy Daniels' attorney. He said that there's a chance that he may bring her to court on Monday. As she - - generally be there as a spectator, but it would - - think about this Wolf. It would be the first time really that all three of them are there. Michael Cohen has been ordered by the judge to appear. You can Michael Avenatti and, you know, we've known all the things he has said about Michael Cohen and then Stormy Daniels all in the courtroom together.

I have to say this judge has been very open. This judge in Manhattan, Southern District, in allowing people to speak, of reporters, lawyers for the press there and trying to keep access open for us. There's a chance, who knows, that she may even allow Stormy Daniels to speak. I mean, Michael Avenatti who has no measure in this case, she allowed him to speak. So certainly Monday we are looking forward to that and it will be interesting.

BLITZER: I need you to stay with us. There's a lot more we're working on. I know you're also going to be in that courtroom yourself on Monday reporting for CNN. Just ahead, we'll have more on the impact of the air strikes in Syria. And how President Trump has handled the military situation. Also, will his mission accomplished declaration come back to haunt him? And we're also digging deeper into CNN's exclusive reporting on the evidence seized from the President's lawyer Michael Cohen. How vulnerable is Mr. Trump as Michael Cohen faces a potentially critical court appearance?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:33:28]

BLITZER: We're back following breaking news on the air strikes in Syria and the legal perils for President Trump from the criminal investigation of his long time lawyer and friend as well as the Russia probe. Let's bring in our legal, political and national security experts. David Swerdlick, let me read to you the President's tweet this morning. "A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power their fine military. Could not have had a better result. Mission accomplished." Your reaction.

DAVID SWERDLICK: So there is an internal logic to that. Last year in response to the chemical weapons attack, we launched a unilateral strike on one target. This time in response, us, Britain, France launched a strike on three targets. So you can see how there's a proportional escalation of response. But, did this strike solve the problems of the Syrian people or solve the problems of the Syrian civil war? Probably not. Did it get us out of Syria? No.

And then in terms of that phrase Wolf, mission accomplished, it's like the President is like between that and the Scooter Libby pardon. He's bringing back the greatest hits of the Bush era. It's like, heck of a job Trumpy. I'm not sure what he exactly thought he gained by bringing everybody's memory back to a war that we're still in 15 years later.

BLITZER: Sam, what message do these 100 plus missiles that were launched at various Syrian chemical sites send to Bashar al-Assad.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD: Well, just to David's point, I think that Trump did accomplish a mission which was to blow stuff up and to blow it up very publicly. But for Bashar al-Assad, I actually think he's more emboldened after the operation last night and the Pentagon briefing this morning. Because there was a message given that the Administration will probably if you listen to Nikki Haley and the President and not to General Mattis, act if chemical weapons are used. But they specifically said that would not act to intervene in the Syrian civil war or against any other instrument of terror that Bashar al-Assad may use. So he is carte blanched to use every other horrible tool in his tool kit. So I think he's more emboldened Wolf.

BLITZER: And so when the Pentagon says, the U.S. mission in Syria right now is to simply destroy ISIS and not regime change, involving Bashar al-Assad, you say?

VINOGRAD: I say that Bashar al-Assad just says let me keep on going. He has free range to continue terrorizing the Syrian people. Now fully knowing, not just the U.S., the U.S., U.K. and France will not intervene to change the course of the war.

BLITZER: He's probably saying to himself. I won't use anymore chemical weapons.

VINOGRAD: I'll use everything else.

BLITZER: I'll use a lot of other weapons that - - that they clearly have. You know amidst all of this Laura Jarrett, the President is making these tough decisions as the - - the pressure clearly is mounting in these - - the criminal investigation in to his long time personal attorney Michael Cohen. What are the biggest areas of vulnerability for the President as you see it?

LAURA JARRETT: Well the greatest risk in my mind Wolf, is that the President falls back on old habits. And those who are close to him are facing very serious criminal investigations. You know we heard just yesterday that the President called up his long time attorney and confidant Michael Cohen as attorneys were going into court yesterday in Cohen's criminal case. And you have to imagine the lawyers for both of those men must not have been thrilled as lawyers regularly advise clients not to talk in the midst of criminal investigations.

And of course the President could have easily just been calling to say, I want to support you. But it's a - - it's a tricky road to go down. But of course, the other area here is what effect does the FBI raid on Cohen have on the President's mindset going into a potential interview with Robert Mueller? We know that the lawyers for the President have been in ongoing negotiations. But everyone was shook up by this Cohen raid and so to the extent that talks break down, the risk of a subpoena goes up Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly does. You know, and Shimon, what stood out to you? As you went - - you were at that court hearing all day on Friday. And you read the U.S. attorney's affidavit that was submitted to the Federal judge.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ: When you think about it Wolf, a lot happened yesterday, certainly the court proceedings and then these documents that were released. But, in terms of in the courtroom and really the two issues here, one was when the President's attorney all of a sudden, these new attorneys that he hired were now intervening to try and prevent the government from - - from reading any of this information that they obtained. That certainly stood out to me because that was the first time we heard that the President's lawyers were going to get involved in this.

And their argument is that because Trump was Cohen's client, Trump is the only one who can waive privilege. So now we'll have a hearing on this Monday or Tuesday as to that issue. And the other thing really that stood out to me was how unprepared Michael Cohen's attorneys were when they appeared before this Federal judge in Manhattan. And the issue is that she wants to know who his clients are. And all day, several hours, all day they kept going back and forth. Her, the judge and Michael Cohen's attorneys, tell us who your clients are that you - - you claim need privilege protection from. And they have not been able to do so, so far.

The government is arguing that the only client that they know that Michael Cohen has is the President. Outside of that, based on whatever information they have, they've done other search warrants, covert search warrants. And they say they know based on everything that they've seen that really the only client that Michael Cohen has had was the President. And then the other thing, these documents Wolf, they really tell us a lot. It seems like the government is targeting specific areas of - - of this investigation. They say this has to do with personal business dealings of Michael Cohen.

And then the search warrants, they revealed what they were looking for, the areas. It was his residence, his hotel room and then they added for the first time we learned, that they also wanted access to his safety deposit box and two cell phones. Clearly they're looking for something specifically. They would have needed permission from a judge to go ahead to look into these things. So they must have information that suggests that there is information in everything that they're looking for.

BLITZER: Yesterday the Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah told me that the President still considers Cohen to be his lawyer. A lot of people sense though, and I'm anxious to get your thought David. Is this potentially a turning point what we're seeing right now?

SWERDLICK: Well it could be. Because now you've got the President and Michael Cohen looking at each other and wondering where - - how - - where does the loyalty end. Michael Cohen, he hasn't been indicted yet but charged with potentially bank fraud, wire fraud and some other charges. You have a situation where he might be pressed by the FBI, by Federal prosecutors to reveal evidence in a deal to - - so that they can further go after the President. The same time, the President knows that he's trying to keep an arm's length distance from this and at some point, you know, his loyalty to Michael Cohen may be tested.

BLITZER: The only thing we know so far, he's under criminal investigation, has been for months. But he hasn't been charged with any crimes, at least not yet. Everybody stick around. There's a lot more we're watching. Including James Comey speaking out on camera about why he handled the Clinton email investigation the way he did. Stand by, you're going to hear directly from the fired FBI Director's latest comments and we'll get the reaction.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:45:14]

BLITZER: We're back with our analysts and our experts and new comments from the fired FBI Director James Comey. The roll out of his tell all book has unleashed an all out Republican campaign to discredit him. But Comey isn't talking only about his dealings with President Trump and possible obstruction of justice. He's also shedding light on this handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in an interview on ABC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Hillary Clinton's convinced that letter defeated her. What do you say to her?

JAMES COMEY: I hope not. I - - I don't know. I honestly don't know. I sure hope not. But the honest answer is, it wouldn't change the way I think about it. I mean, my hope, I didn't right the book for this reason but talking about leadership. It was important to tell the email story because it's me trying to figure out how to lead well. That people will read that story and try to put themselves in my shoes. Try to realize that I'm not trying to help a candidate or hurt a candidate, I'm trying to do the right thing. And you can come up with different conclusions, reasonable people would have chosen a different door for reasonable reasons, but it's just not fair to say we were doing it for some illegitimate reason.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But at - - but at some level wasn't the decision to reveal, influenced by your assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win and your concern that she wins. This comes out several weeks later and then that's taken by her opponents the sign that she's an illegitimate president.

COMEY: It must have been. I don't remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been. Because I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. And so I'm sure that it - - that it was a factor. Like I said I don't remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That, if she's going to be elected president and if I hide this from the American people, she'll be illegitimate the moment she's elected. The moment this comes out.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If you knew that letter would elect Donald Trump, you'd still send it?

COMEY: I would. I would. In fact that was a question asked by one of my best people, a deputy general counsel in the FBI who's a very thoughtful and quiet person who didn't speak a lot. And that - - that morning we were making that decision she asked, should you consider that what you're about to do may help elect Donald Trump president. And I paused and then I said, thank you for asking that question. That's a great question. But the answer is not for a moment because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If I ever start considering who's political fortunes will be effected by a decision, we're done. We're no longer that group in America that is apart from the partisans and that can be trusted. We're just another player in the - - in the tribal battle.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There's - - there's no precedent for putting out information like this at the end of a campaign.

COMEY: Oh, I never heard of it before. I - - I - - as I say in the book, I - - I think I did it the way that it should have been done. I'm - - I'm not certain of that. Other people might have had a different view.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: David Swerdlick, what do you make of that?

SWERDLICK: So the way that Director Comey answered that question is kind of dicey Wolf. Because it gives an opportunity for Democrats to come back and say, oh see he did play a little politics there at the end of the campaign. And gives Republicans and President Trump a chance now to say, look, he's not dealing squarely. He was not just a lawman. He was putting his thumb on the scales. Why don't you think he'll do it again? But Wolf, I will just remind people that Director Comey didn't break the law two weeks before the election by bringing that information forth. He simply went against departmental guidelines. He was in a tough

position, knowing information as he just said, might come out. And he made a decision to get it out there rather than suppress it and then have it come out after the fact. I will also say, you know, it's - - you take the good but you take the bad with Comey. If you're a Republican, you say why didn't he charge Secretary Clinton in the summer of 2016. If you're a Democrat, you say why did he come out and brief Congress two weeks before the election. It goes both ways.

BLITZER: And he was talking about the Hillary Clinton email investigation publicly including 11 days before the actual election Sam. But they started an investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, allegations of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians. He never spoke about that investigation in July, August, September, October leading up to the election.

VINOGRAD: Indeed and that's why I just have a basic question here. What was the law enforcement reason that Director Comey decided to publicize this information when he did? The FBI is the primary law enforcement agency in the United States and Director Comey made this decision based upon, I think a perception of how Secretary Clinton would look if elected president. I have yet to hear any explanation what the law enforcement basis was for making this decision. You're right it wasn't illegal, but to me it was an inappropriate use of the office.

SWERDLICK: Two - - two things. One - - I - - I - - I know exactly what you're saying Sam, but two things. One, when he testified in the summer of 2016, he told Congress that he would update them if any new information came to light. The other thing is that the law enforcement reason I think in his mind, whether it's legit or not I'm not sure, was he was protecting the FBI's reputation.

PROKUPECZ: I will also say well if there was a concern among the FBI, that I remember because of covering this that this was going to get out. This was going to leak out. And there was some very unhappy FBI agents also in how Comey went ahead and handled this. And there was some concern that it was going to leak out. And the other thing is that, as you said and he made this guarantee to Congress that he would - - he would come back to them if anything new happened. However Wolf, there's always also been this criticism that had he just waited a few days, a week or so, when they had finished reviewing - - this was all about the Weiner laptop. Had he given it a little time, maybe waited and seen what was on that laptop maybe none of this would have happened.

BLITZER: And Laura, you've been doing some serious reporting on the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who has come under enormous criticism from the critics out there. What are you learning?

JARRETT: Well Wolf, we got something of a puzzle piece that we have been trying to nail down for a while. You know, the question had always been if Robert Mueller is looking into the firing of James Comey as part of a potential obstruction of justice issue, than how can Rosenstein who wrote the memo outlining all the reasons that James Comey needs to be fired. How can he still oversee the probe? And Rosenstein all along has said, if I need to recuse, I will, but he never went farther than that. But I learned this week that he has actually been in consultation with the Senior Career Ethics Advisor at the Justice Department on this very issue. And I'm told that he has followed that person's advice.

So it's not as if he's just saying, trust me I'm looking into it. He actually has followed through on this. Now obviously that hasn't stopped the attacks from President Trump's allies and supporters who want to undermine Rosenstein's credibility. But at the same time, you now see people reaching across the aisle, even Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates tweeting out tonight that if he's fired it's consider an unconscionable attack on the rule of law Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting Laura. Thanks very much. Everybody stick around. There's more news we're following including in Syria. A day after the U.S. and it's allies launched missiles at Syrian chemical sites. We'll take you live to Northern Syria for the very latest on the ground.

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BLITZER: The breaking news tonight. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warning Syria that the United States is quote "locked and loaded" for more strikes if the Bashar al-Assad regime uses poison gas again. Let's go to our Senior International Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. He's in Northern Syria for us tonight. So Nick, what's the latest you're picking up over there?

NICK PATON WALSH: Well at this point I think there's an element that Syria is kind of getting up and dusting itself off and realizing it wasn't quite as bad as they had thought. We've seen images on Syrian state TV of the Barzah Research Facility in Damascus. The rubble there that clearly shows they want people to realize they were hit last night. But they also claim that the Homs facility in fact was spared (inaudible) by anti-aircraft missiles. Now we've seen scenes of Syrians out in the streets, kind of trying show that life is perfectly normal. Bashar al-Assad walking - - sauntering into work through a nice shiny marble reception room on his way to a normal day in the office it appears.

I should point out just in the last sort of hours or so, some Syrian observers - - monitors have suggested there has been a substantial unexplained explosion near Aleppo at a base or facility often used it seems by Iranian militia. Unclear quite what that is, as we're still talking about a live battlefield here. But more broadly, I think the Syrian regime will be looking back at this thinking it could have been so much worse potentially had the hawkish side of Donald Trump and perhaps John Bolton got their way over the Pentagon here. And clearly there is a message that chemical weapons should not be used yet the penalty for that, not that severe Wolf.

BLITZER: Is there any indication when the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says the U.S. military is locked and loaded that more strikes could be on the way? WALSH: No, at this point. And I think it's been interesting to observe exactly how clear the perimeters both in Donald Trump's speech and that of Secretary Mattis and Joe Dunford really has been. This is about one singular 17 minute long window in which minimal frankly damage was done. The Pentagon say, you know, we've really set them back years in terms of chemical weapons development. Well I have to be honest. You know, since they supposedly gave up their chemical weapons in 2013.

Syria's supposed to have been on a thread bare chemical weapons program. So there probably wasn't an awful lot to destroy. In fact, back in April of last year, 20 percent of their air force were taken out according to Jim Mattis by 59 Tomahawk missiles. So there's not much frankly around to blow up. But certainly last night's destruction does appear to have been about one particular series of buildings near Damascus and two facilities near Homs that were mostly unoccupied at that stage. So you then have to wonder well was it the night shift. Had they been taken out because of the advance warning on Twitter from Donald Trump? Or were they not much in use anyway? Interesting questions Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick, be careful over there. We will stay in touch with you. Thanks so much. That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. A special Anderson Cooper 360 starts right now.

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