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Journalist Probing Powerful Russians Die in Mysterious Fall; U.S. Official: Trump Administration Told Russians No New Sanctions. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 18, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Momma bear. Susan Page, I'm looking forward to the book. Thank you so much. That's it for "THE LEAD." I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Russian relief. The White House telling Moscow's embassy here in Washington, there won't be any new sanctions, even as President Trump's ambassador to the United Nations was on national television vowing the opposite. What caused the disconnect?

Face-to-face, President Trump gives new details of his secretary of state nominee's secret meeting with Kim Jong-un, saying Mike Pompeo got along, quote, "really well" with the North Korean dictator in Pyongyang. Is Kim on a charm offensive ahead of his meeting with President Trump?

Con job. President Trump dismisses a sketch of a man Stormy -- Stormy Daniels says threatened her after her alleged affair with Mr. Trump more than a decade ago, saying the man doesn't exist, and the news media is being played. I'll talk about the president's Twitter attack and Stormy Daniels's case with her attorney. He's standing by to join us live later this hour.

And mysterious death. Another critic of Russian critic Vladimir Putin meets a premature demise, allegedly falling from his fifth-floor apartment. We're learning new details today of the controversial stories he was covering. Did they wind up costing him his life?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. President Trump voicing confidence that his pick to lead the State Department will be confirmed and giving new details of Mike Pompeo's extraordinary secret meeting with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Also breaking, a senior administration official confirms to CNN that the Trump administration told the Russian embassy here in Washington that no new sanctions were in the works after the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, said the opposite on national television.

We'll talk about that and more with Senator Ben Cardin of the Foreign Relations Committee. He's just announced he's voting against Mike Pompeo's nomination. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by. But let's begin with our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's covering the president down in Florida.

Jim, the president is meeting with the Japanese prime minister, and we expect to hear from him later tonight.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And a senior administration official, as you just said, confirmed to CNN that the Trump administration informed the Russian embassy on Sunday that there would not be an additional round of sanctions aimed at Moscow.

Part of the reason for that call, we're told, is some of the confusion that was created by the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, on Sunday when she said another round of sanctions against Russia were on the way.

That confusion comes as the White House is trying to make preparations for a high-level meeting between the president and Kim Jong-un. All of that likely to be subjects for this press conference with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in about an hour from now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Doing some golf course diplomacy and hoping to score a foreign policy hole in one, the president is talking up his administration's efforts to land a face-to-face meeting between Mr. Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have had talks at the highest level. And it's going very well. But we'll see what happens.

ACOSTA: A big part of those talks, the president confirmed his pick for secretary of state, CIA director Mike Pompeo, secretly flew to North Korea to meet with the dictator over Easter weekend.

TRUMP: He just left North Korea, had a great meeting with Kim Jong- un, and got along with him really well. Really great. And he's that kind of a guy. He's very smart, but he gets along with people.

ACOSTA: The president took time out of his schedule to continue hammering away at former FBI director James Comey. He was on the talk show circuit promoting his new book.

Mr. Trump tweeted, "Slippery James Comey, the worst FBI director in history, was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation, where by the way, there was no collusion except by the Dems."

But that can't possibly be true, as the president told NBC last year he, in fact, did fire Comey over the Russia probe.

TRUMP: And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, "You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story." ACOSTA: Appearing on "The View," Comey wasn't buying it.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I actually think that illustrates part of the problem that I'm trying to bring up. That it matters that the president is not committed to the truth as a central American value, but so I don't know what to make of it.

ACOSTA: Despite the president's comments, Republican leaders don't sound ready to pass legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I don't think he should fire Mueller, and I don't think he's going to. So this is a piece of legislation that's not necessary, in my judgment.

ACOSTA: The president is also busy feeding some political red meat to his base, slamming the state of California over its policy of allowing undocumented immigrants to find refuge in so-called sanctuary cities that don't share information with federal authorities, tweeting, "There is a revolution going on in California. So many sanctuary areas want out of this ridiculous crime-infested and breeding concept."

That racially-comment about unauthorized immigrants, quote, "breeding," harkens back to Mr. Trump's repeated unfounded claims that millions of undocumented people are voting illegally.

TRUMP: In many places like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that. They always like to say, "Oh, that's a conspiracy theory." Not a conspiracy theory, folks.

ACOSTA: And the white White House is still cleaning up after the dispute between U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and chief economist Larry Kudlow. Kudlow apologized to Haley for saying she was confused over Russia sanctions over the weekend.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Absolutely. So you will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down. Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn't already.

ACOSTA: Haley fired back, saying, "With all due respect, I don't get confused." A source close to Haley tells CNN she is willing to stand up to Mr. Trump, saying, quote, "She respects the presidency more than the current president."

Haley insists her relationship with the president is just fine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ambassador Haley, how is your relationship with President Trump?

HALEY: It's perfect.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And as for the potential for that meeting between President Trump and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, senior administration officials, White House officials, they're all pointing to this trip that Mike Pompeo made to North Korea to sit down with Kim Jong-un as evidence to Democrats as to why his nomination should be approved in the Senate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And you're in the grand ballroom already at Mar-a-Lago, the president's resort in Palm Beach, Florida. That's where he'll be holding this joint news conference with the visiting Japanese prime minister.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. And I suspect that this news that we're reporting now, that the Trump administration informed the Russian embassy on Sunday that there would not be an additional round of sanctions on Moscow, is very likely to come up, Wolf. That is just breaking at this hour.

We're told that the president apparently changed his mind over the weekend on this subject. I talked to a senior administration official earlier today who simply sounded puzzled as to why the president changed his mind on this. So it sounds like, for a period there, this White House president appeared to be, at one point, supportive of new sanctions on Russia. But that is not the decision that was made, and that was communicated to the Russians on Sunday, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very intriguing indeed. All right. Jim Acosta will have live coverage of the news conference. Stand by.

Let's get some more on the breaking news. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is with us; and our CNN global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, is with us, as well.

So what happened? Because Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was saying exactly the opposite of what U.S. officials were telling Russian diplomats here in Washington.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The Trump administration delivered a clearer message to Russian diplomats than they did to their own secretary -- U.N. secretary. Ambassador rather. That seems to be the clear message here.

And, you know, that's not just a communication failure, right? Because this is the latest of a number of indications of what appears to be a real division, not just within the Republican Party but within the administration itself on approach to Russia policy.

You have folks -- many, it seems outnumbering the president, who want a harder stance, sanctions --

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Nikki Haley included.

SCIUTTO: Nikki Haley included, who want tougher sanctions, stiffer military response. And the president almost alone, it seemed -- I mean, his new national security adviser, John Bolton, is a Russia hawk. The president almost alone on the other side, encouraging and not just this weekend but for many months a softer take on Russia. And that is a -- that is a division that has to be resolved but it's also one that has serious dysfunctional issues for the functioning of this White House.

BLITZER: Because you would think that before the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. goes on talk shows and makes statements like this, she would have been well-briefed on what exactly the U.S. policy was.

LABOTT: Well, I mean, look, Nikki Haley got screwed and she left this meeting at the White House last week thinking sanctions were in train, everybody was in agreement. I don't know that Monday was a set day to roll out. She might have went a little bit too far on -- she should have -- she definitely is going to have a note to self, never predict a date when it comes to this president. Even if she felt that it was a date, maybe she should have hedged it a little bit, because this president is always changing his mind.

But the -- President Trump, you know, over the weekend kind of ruminate on it, changed his mind. Nobody told Nikki Haley. And then they called the Russians after she went out and said this and kind of said, "Listen, you know, there are no new sanctions for now."

I don't think, you know, the way the Russians are putting it out is exactly true. I don't think the Russians are off the hook entirely. But there are not going to be any new sanctions for now. You know, they're still going to deliberate.

SCIUTTO: You know what's another point worth making? Remember, a question for the special counsel is another instance where it is -- there is some evidence that the Trump administration delivered a message to Russia that there would not be additional sanctions or penalties.

[17:10:13] That goes back to the transition, December 2016, when Michael Flynn had conversations on the same day that the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russia for election interference. The question being, did he deliver a message to the Russians saying, "Listen, hold off." And if you'll remember then, Russia did not impose its own retaliatory measures to those expulsions of diplomats.

LABOTT: This is about Syria, though.

ACOSTA: So again, it's part of a pattern. I know it's about Syria. But the point is --

LABOTT: It's about Syria. And what kind of message does it send to the Syrians?

ACOSTA: But the same thing, same recipient of the message on the other side, Russia.

BLITZER: What do we know about Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state nominee's extraordinary visit to Pyongyang in North Korea where he actually sat down and met with Kim Jong-un?

LABOTT: Well, historic meeting. Obviously, it's the first cabinet official to go there in years. And they -- the U.S. wanted these assurances from Kim Jong-un himself that certain things were going to be on the table. We understand that he was well-received. This is -- that denuclearization, really key for the United States, is on the table.

I think where they're hung up now is what the venue is going to be. The North Koreans want to have it in Pyongyang. There are a handful of other venues being discussed in Europe and Asia. President Trump even said today they're limiting it to five locations.

I don't think they want Kim Jong-un to travel very far, the North Koreans, because he doesn't leave the country very much. But I think this meeting with Kim Jong-un has given the U.S. more confidence that these talks are serious.

BLITZER: Yes. He's only left the country, we think, once since becoming the leader of North Korea, when he took that train ride to China.

SCIUTTO: Well, he's worried about getting killed. I mean, that's the thing. This is his ultimate -- that's -- it's a security issue and that's -- that's the reason. That's also what drives his nuclear program. He's worried about an existential strike that would end his regime.

And that's the way he views the U.S. And that's the issue that the U.S. is going to have to address if they want to make a deal. And of course, denuclearization is -- the reason he has nuclear weapons is to protect himself. Giving that up would be an enormous concession.

BLITZER: Mike Pompeo -- think about this -- as far as we know, only the second American to meet with Kim Jong-un. Dennis Rodman, the NBA all-star, the first American to meet with Kim Jong-un. We have a lot more on this coming up.

In the meantime, let's bring in Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, it's good to be with you. Thank you.

BLITZER: What does this sanctions reversal by the administration say about the Trump administration's policy towards Russia as far as Syria is concerned?

CARDIN: It is extremely troubling. You have the president concerned about what President Assad did in Syria and the use of chemical weapons. That was facilitated by Mr. Putin and Russia.

You had the poisoning in the U.K. You had the own activities here in our own country. There's got to be a clear message to Mr. Putin that that conduct is unacceptable. And Ambassador Haley made that clear on Sunday, that additional sanctions would be imposed. And now she's been undermined by the president when he reversed that decision. I mean, it's -- it's a signal to Mr. Putin that he can continue to do the activities he's doing now. BLITZER: Does this undercut Ambassador Nikki Haley's ability to

represent the United States effectively on the world stage?

CARDIN: I think it undercuts America's leadership to stand up to the practices of Russia and the attack of Democrat institutions not only here but around the world. And the support of human rights violators such as President Assad.

BLITZER: What's your reaction to hearing that Mike Pompeo, the outgoing CIA director, the nominee to become the next secretary of state, secretly went to Pyongyang in North Korea and actually sat down and met with Kim Jong-un?

CARDIN: Wolf, I am hoping that we can get diplomatic action started to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and this crisis. I think the conversations that have taken place between North Korea and South Korea have been positive. I think a meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Trump could be positive if it's properly prepared.

Having a high-level cabinet official meet with Kim Jong-un in advance of that meeting has a very positive impact on trying to make diplomacy to work. So it's controversial because he's also a nominee for secretary of state. And normally, we don't expect a nominee to act as if he has a confirmed position. But in Mr. Pompeo's case, he is a confirmed cabinet official in the Trump administration.

BLITZER: The CIA director. Should he have disclosed this secret trip to your committee or other committees in the Senate?

CARDIN: I think that information should have been made available to the leadership of our committee so that at least they could evaluate it -- and in this case I don't think that was done.

You've already said you're going to vote against Mike Pompeo's confirmation to become secretary of state. What is your biggest concern?

[17:15:06] CARDIN: My biggest concern is that our chief diplomat needs to work with our allies. And Mr. Pompeo supports the United States withdrawing from the climate talks, being the only nation in the world not sitting at the table. And he supports President Trump's policy in regards to Iran, when we need to work with our European allies and strengthen the transatlantic partnership.

So I want our chief diplomat to be a person who is committed with working with allies around the world, and I have concerns about Mr. Pompeo.

BLITZER: But his positions are very much in line with the president of the United States. Shouldn't the secretary of state and the president be on the same page?

CARDIN: The president will make the ultimate decisions. I want to have an independent voice in the White House. Diplomacy is a critical part of our national security. So I want our secretary of state to be in that room, always advancing how we can advance America's national security interests through diplomacy.

BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks for joining us.

CARDIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news. Lawmakers reacting to Mike Pompeo's secret meeting with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea. Will it help or hurt his fight to be confirmed as secretary of state?

Plus, the president tweets about Stormy Daniels and the search for the man she said threatened her to stay silent about Donald Trump. Daniels's lawyer is standing by live. We'll discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:03] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. A growing battle among top congressional Republicans over whether or not to protect the special counsel, Robert Mueller from being fired through legislation.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is working the story. He's up on Capitol Hill. Manu, what are you picking up over there?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the fallout came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made very clear yesterday that he would not move forward on a bill -- a bipartisan bill to protect the special counsel from firing, giving the special counsel an opportunity to appeal any firing that would have to only occur from good cause within a ten-day judicial review.

That bipartisan bill set for action in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but McConnell saying he will not take that up, even if it were going to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats, in particular, are incensed about this, but some Republicans, too, say that the committee still plans to move forward, including the very powerful chairman, Chuck Grassley.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: He said it this way. He says (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for the United States Senate, and -- and that's the way it is. But we're moving ahead anyway.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: So this bill is on the calendar for tomorrow in the Senate Judiciary Committee but expected to be delayed until next week. At that point, there's a very good chance it will get approved in this committee, given the bipartisan consensus among members on that committee.

But given the opposition from Republican leaders who say they do not believe that President Trump will fire the special counsel, there's no -- virtually no chance at the moment that this bill will pass as Republicans seek to avoid what could be a very messy fight with the president if they did move this bill on the floor, which is one reason why they're side-stepping this by, hoping that the president doesn't fire the special counsel because of this Republican leadership does not want to move forward on this bill, even as some members in his party certainly do.

BLITZER: OK, Manu, thanks very much. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Coming up, Stormy Daniels's attorney joins us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We want to talk about President Trump's Twitter attack on her case earlier today. Is the porn star playing the media, as President Trump alleges?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:27:45] BLITZER: Breaking news. The White House has told the Russian embassy here in Washington that additional sanctions against Russia are not in the works, despite earlier promises from U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, that the Treasury Department was preparing a new round of punishing sanctions targeting Russian businesses.

Let's get some more from our reporters and experts, Sara Murray. Why the sudden change?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it sounds like, based on the reporting by our colleagues, Jim Acosta and Elise Labott, that the president is the one who changed his mind in this. And that, you know, apparently, they did not feel the need to loop in the U.N. ambassador about this sudden change in policy that they were essentially coming up with on the fly.

We know that Nikki Haley has been -- been very careful about her public image, and she's not the kind of person in this administration, which is known for plenty of people freelancing, to go out there and say something like that to make a prediction like that without having been briefed on that, but it seems like the president did, you know, a classic Trump move and changed his mind.

BLITZER: You would think they would tell her before she goes out on the Sunday talk shows. Why can't the administration, Nia, speak with one voice on sensitive issues like this?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is Donald Trump. He is the one here that seems to be unable to have a consistent take on Russia. There have been times when this administration has been tough on Russia.

You think about the ejection of the 60 Russians in the wake on that attack on British -- British soil, on the double agent. But he even seemed to be a little dissatisfied that so many Russians got expelled. He was looking at European nations and saying they only ejected a handful. Why was America so tough?

And so this all comes back to Donald Trump. I think the administration is on one place in this and much tougher, much more hawkish, much more Republican in terms of their tone and response and engagement with Russia, and Donald Trump is completely somewhere else. BLITZER: Phil Mudd, what kind of muddled message is now being sent to

the Russians?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, the same one we've had since day one. I mean, we had a president who I thought was a CEO who could manage a meeting in the West Wing and tell people what the heck the policy of the U.S. government is.

We can't figure out how to do that with the Intel Committee, because the president says one thing on Russia, and the intel guys say another thing. We couldn't figure out how to do that on North Korea, because the secretary of state now gone, Rex Tillerson, said we're going to talk. The president publicly says we're not going to talk. And then as soon as Rex leaves, says, "Actually I'm going to sit down for the first face-to-face with the North Korean leader.

We can't do that on Russia sanctions, because the former national security advisor, the former secretary of state and now Nikki Haley have been tough on Russia. And the president says, "I forgot as the great CEO to coordinate what my government does. I'm going to do exactly the opposite of what my U.N. diplomat said a couple of days ago."

This guy was supposed to be the CEO at the head of the table, and whether it's intel, diplomacy, anything, he can't figure out how to coordinate the government. It's not that hard, Wolf. Sit down in the situation room and tell people what the heck we're supposed to do. That's what the president does.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: That's what he's supposed to do. Jeffrey, you want to make a point.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, but -- but large -- in the big picture, this is yet another example of Donald Trump's solicitude for Vladimir Putin. Why does he always choose not to confront Putin? Why has there never been any real response for the fact that they interfered with our election?

This is the great question hovering over the Trump administration. This is why he's being investigated in significant part. And it continues even today. The fact that Donald Trump will not confront Vladimir Putin is the central fact of his presidency, and it was of his campaign; and we still don't know why.

BLITZER: Do you have any clue why?

TOOBIN: Well, that's certainly why Robert Mueller is investigating. I mean, you know, did -- did the Russians help him get elected president? Do the Russians have some sort of kompromat, some sort of incriminating information about Trump?

I mean, this is the question that has hovered over his presidency. And time after time he does nothing to get rid of these questions, only reinforce them.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's a lot more coming up, including the porn star, Stormy Daniels, she's released a sketch of a man she claims threatened her to stay quiet about an alleged 2006 affair with Donald Trump. Trump is calling the sketch "a total con job." Daniels's attorney, Michael Avenatti -- there you see him -- he's now here in Washington. He'll be on the set here in THE SITUATION ROOM with me momentarily. We'll get his response.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:36:56] BLITZER: New tonight, President Trump is tweeting about an alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels a day after Daniels and her attorney released a sketch of a man they say tried to silence Daniels with a threat. The president issued this response, quote, "A sketch years later about a nonexistent man, a total con job. Playing the fake news media for fools, but they know it." Closed quote.

We're joined now by Michael Avenatti. He's the attorney for Stormy Daniels.

Michael, thanks very much for coming in.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, LAWYER FOR STORMY DANIELS: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: What's your reaction to the president's tweet?

AVENATTI: Well, you know, Wolf, it's another gift from the heavens, quite frankly. I mean, the president has no business tweeting about me or my client while he's a party in litigation, especially when it comes to making misstatements about my client. He's effectively now told the American people that she's a liar, that she's a con, that she has made up this threat and this sketch. And I'm outraged by it, and there's going to be some serious, serious consequences for it.

BLITZER: Like what? What kind of consequences?

AVENATTI: We're likely going to be amending our complaint. We're looking at doing that now to add a defamation claim directly against the president. There's going to be consequences that are going to flow from that if we decide to do it. It's going to make the fact of his deposition that much more likely.

You know, this is what happens, Wolf, when you have an undisciplined client like the president who just wakes up -- wakes up one morning and decides that he's going to tweet nonsense about my client.

BLITZER: So this defamation claim -- this lawsuit you're going to file, that's a new development.

AVENATTI: That is absolutely a new development. And we're likely to file it in the same case that we're already in, and we're going to add a claim.

BLITZER: And file it in California?

AVENATTI: Correct.

BLITZER: And the argument is that he's defaming your client by this one tweet?

AVENATTI: There's no question that he defamed my client. He's calling -- he's calling my client a liar and basically stating that she made this up and it's a con.

And Wolf, the only con that has taken place here is the con that the president and Michael Cohen is trying to pull on the American people by trying to tell the American people that he didn't know about the agreement, he knew nothing about the payment and the cover-up. The cover-up is really the con.

BLITZER: "A total con job." That's what the president tweeted. "Playing the fake news media for fools, but they know it." So when he says "a total con job," you're accusing the president of calling her a con?

AVENATTI: No, I'm not accusing the president of doing that. I'm stating that's exactly what he did. I mean, it's clear as day what he meant by that.

BLITZER: But you know the president. A lot of us have been surprised he's been so silent until now on the Stormy Daniels case. Finally, he is reacting right now. This is the first time in weeks, and you've been on the air plenty of time over these past several weeks. She's been on the air a couple of times, as well, including yesterday. All of a sudden, he has now decided to speak out via Twitter. Why do you think he did that?

AVENATTI: Well, I think he's in a panic mode, because I think he feels that the noose is tightening around his close friend and attorney, Michael Cohen. And he's very concerned about where that's going to lead, and he should be concerned. Because of those FBI raids and Michael Cohen and the situation that Michael Cohen finds himself in.

BLITZER: Give us an update on the man in that sketch. Allegedly, this individual a few years ago threatened Stormy Daniels in a parking lot or -- her child was in the car with her. Where does it stand right now? You've released the sketch yesterday.

[17:40:10] AVENATTI: We released the sketch yesterday. We've received over 1,500 leads as of a few hours ago. I would describe a couple hundred of those as credible.

We have an idea as to who it might be. We have a handful of individuals who are also running to ground the leads that we're receiving to see if we can tighten that I.D. up. It's going to take some time. We're going to be very diligent and careful before we go out and announce who it might be.

BLITZER: Are you working with law enforcement on this -- the identification of this individual?

AVENATTI: I'm not at liberty to state that.

BLITZER: Why can't you tell us that? AVENATTI: Well, because I'm not at liberty to state it. And I'm

going to -- we're going to respect the process, and we're going to be -- if somebody tells us to be careful or confidential about something, we're going to do it.

BLITZER: If they locate this individual and identify, is there a statute of limitations on a threat like this?

AVENATTI: There is a statute of limitations, but we think that the statute has not -- or is not applicable as it relates to criminal conspiracy and a couple of other crimes that could be alleged.

BLITZER: So in the dozens of names of individuals who have come to you thinking they could identify this man based on this sketch --

AVENATTI: Hundreds.

BLITZER: Hundreds of them, are they all different names, or are they all focusing on one or two or five individuals?

AVENATTI: Well, there's many different names. But there is some overlap.

And by the way, I want to make clear I announced on Don Lemon last night, that the reward is not 100,000, it's $131,000 now, as opposed to $100,000. And we think that's a pretty good number.

BLITZER: Because she was paid $130,000 as part of the nondisclosure agreement she worked out with Michael Cohen.

AVENATTI: That's correct. And we want to get to the bottom of this, and we want the truth known, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction. There's been a new development. We've now been told that the -- this is according to "The New York Times," that Karen McDougal, the former Playmate, has reached an agreement with American Media, the parent company of "The National Enquirer." They've released her from any agreement that they worked out with her. She got $150,000 as part of that agreement. She can now talk freely.

Should President Trump and Michael Cohen, for that matter, be worried about this, because she's already spoken to our own Anderson Cooper, as you know.

AVENATTI: You know, I don't know. Because I don't know enough details about that particular situation. But I think that more and more information and documents that come to light, Wolf, Michael Cohen and the president should be absolutely worried, especially when we get into the documents seized by the FBI.

BLITZER: The CNN -- we reported that the president is described as apoplectic over the entire Michael Cohen investigation that's now unfolded in the southern district of New York by the U.S. attorney's office there. He's fixated, supposedly, on this above everything else, including national security issues. What does that tell you? AVENATTI: Well, if he's upset now, he ought to wait a week or two.

BLITZER: Why?

AVENATTI: Because it's only going to get worse, Wolf. This isn't going to get better for an extended period of time. More information is going to come out. We're going to continue to be aggressive. We're going to press forward as it relates to Michael Cohen's deposition and the president's deposition. Wolf, the chickens are coming home to roost.

BLITZER: Have you seen actual evidence, documents that suggest to you that within the next week or two, the president's fixation of this is even going to get worse?

AVENATTI: I'm not going to answer that, but I'm going to stand behind my statements, and I think my track record of prediction over the last five weeks is pretty good.

BLITZER: The government says it will start producing documents to Michael Cohen and his attorneys by the end of next week. President Trump's attorneys will see some of these documents, as well, as part of this criminal investigation that's underway in New York.

How do you think the president will react when his attorneys brief him on the documents that the FBI has collected in those raids on Michael Cohen's house, his office, his hotel room, his safe deposit box?

AVENATTI: Well, if they already have access to the vast majority of these documents, because other than ten boxes of hard-copy documents that were removed, the electronic media were imaged on-site at the office and the home, and then the media was left behind.

So the phones, the laptops, et cetera. That's the representation of the U.S. attorney and what he stated. So they have access to a lot of these documents right now, and they should be pouring through them and providing an update to the president.

BLITZER: Do you have access to those documents?

AVENATTI: I don't have access to them yet, but we'll get it.

BLITZER: Why do you say that?

AVENATTI: Well, because I'm highly confident that, in the discovery process in our case, we're going to be able to subpoena those records or otherwise get them from the government.

BLITZER: Michael Avenatti, thanks for coming in.

AVENATTI: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: Welcome to Washington.

AVENATTI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're standing by for a news conference with President Trump and the visiting Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

But first, a Russian journalist and a frequent critic of Vladimir Putin is dead after an apparent fall from his fifth-floor apartment. Was he killed for investigating powerful oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin?

[17:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: New tonight, a journalist investigating powerful Russians with ties to Vladimir Putin is dead after a fall at his home. He is the latest critic of the Kremlin to meet an untimely death, part of a disturbing pattern that stretches back decades.

Brian Todd is gathering details on the case. Brian, tell us what you're learning.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Russian officials are saying tonight they don't believe any crime has been committed. The friends and colleagues of this reporter say that's a typical attempt to cover up.

We have learned this journalist had exposed some information embarrassing to Vladimir Putin and his friends.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[17:50:00] TODD (voice-over): Maxim Borodin thought he was in danger. The Russian journalist contacted a friend last week, said his apartment building was surrounded by armed Russian security personnel wearing camouflage and face masks. The friend says Borodin then called him and said it was a false alarm.

Tonight, Borodin is dead, having fallen from his fifth-floor apartment. Russian officials say they don't suspect foul play, that there are no indications of a crime. But friends and colleagues don't believe it was a suicide, and human rights observers don't believe it was accidental.

SARAH MENDELSON, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL: Yet again, a Russian journalist who is covering topics the Kremlin doesn't want covered has died.

TODD (voice-over): Maxim Borodin had been investigating powerful, wealthy, and dubious Russians with close ties to Vladimir Putin.

One is Oleg Deripaska, just sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. A billionaire who once had close ties to Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign manager who was indicted as part of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Part of the intrigue surrounding Deripaska involves Anastasia Vashukevich, a self-proclaimed Russian seductress. She claims to have had an affair with Deripaska, which he denies, and claims to have information on Trump-Russia connections.

Today, Vashukevich spoke out from jail in Thailand where she is being held for prostitution.

ANASTASIA VASHUKEVICH, JAILED RUSSIAN SEX GURU: Hi to Deripaska. I'm waiting for him to come rescue me.

TODD (voice-over): But Maxim Borodin had also broken a story about Russian mercenaries in Syria, men from a group called Vagner linked to an oligarch who supports Putin.

The CIA Director talked about a recent confrontation between Vagner mercenaries and U.S. forces in Syria.

MIKE POMPEO, DIRECTOR, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: A handful of weeks ago, the Russians met their match and a couple hundred Russians were killed.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say Borodin's exposure of those mercenaries may have gotten him killed.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, SENIOR DIRECTOR, PENN BIDEN CENTER FOR DIPLOMACY AND GLOBAL ENGAGEMENT: The Kremlin doesn't like for its own citizens or for others around the world to know how it uses proxies to prosecute its aims. It doesn't want this to be exposed because it reveals the extent of Russia's military involvement in both Ukraine and Syria.

TODD (voice-over): Putin has always denied targeting journalists, but advocates say there's a long line of reporters who have been killed while digging on his government's alleged abuses. People like Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down after she exposed human rights violations in Chechnya.

MENDELSON: Anybody who is investigating corruption is taking their life into their own hands on some level, right? Anybody who is investigating military casualties, corruption in the military, hazing. I mean, there's a long legacy of people who have investigated these, and it didn't end well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: The Committee to Protect Journalists says 38 reporters in Russia have been targeted for murder since 1992. The group, Reporters Without Borders, is calling for a full investigation into Maxim Borodin's death.

But human rights advocates say, if Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin don't want such an investigation, it won't happen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, this young journalist who just died, he been attacked, what, just a few months ago as well?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. In October, Maxim Borodin had given an interview on a controversial Russian movie about a tsar called "Matilda." He claimed that after that interview, an unidentified assailant hit him on the head with a metal pipe.

One local civil rights activist said of Borodin, quote, his work was very dangerous. He was one of the best.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.

There's breaking news next. We're standing by to hear from President Trump. He and Japan's Prime Minister are about to speak with reporters, answer reporters' questions, at the President's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. We're going there live.

[17:53:41] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

You're looking at a live picture from Mar-a-Lago down in Palm Beach, Florida where President Trump is about to take reporters' questions along with the visiting Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

Their talks coming at a very critical time for the President as he works toward a historic summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong- un. The President declaring that the outgoing CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, had a, quote, great meeting with Kim Jong-un during his secret trip to North Korea about two weeks ago.

Mr. Trump may also get some questions about Russia during this upcoming news conference.

Tonight, a U.S. official says the Trump administration called the Russian embassy here in Washington to reassure Moscow that it would not be slapped with new sanctions after Mr. Trump's U.N. Ambassador publicly declared that new sanctions were, in fact, coming.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. He's in Florida. He's in the grand ballroom down in Mar-a-Lago, awaiting this news conference.

Jim, tell our viewers what we can expect.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we expect this press conference to start shortly. Some aides here at the Mar-a-Lago resort have told us in the last several minutes that this should start right around on time.

We're starting to see some top-level White House officials making their way into the room. The President's chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, just walked past us a few moments ago. And so -- and we have not seen all of the delegations come in at this point, so they may be a couple of minutes behind schedule.

But, Wolf, as you mentioned, some of the breaking news coming in this afternoon as the President gets ready to have this joint press conference with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, not really on the situation in North Korea, but really having more to do with Russia, specifically whether there would be sanctions against Russia.