Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Expelled Russian Diplomats Included Spies Who Tracked Russian Defectors; Documents Allege V.A. Nominee Wrecked Government Car While Drunk; Giuliani Restarting Talks with Special Counsel on Trump Interview. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 25, 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: I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer right next door in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Enemy targets. CNN has learned that U.S. intelligence officials believe spies were among dozens of Russian diplomats expelled last month and is suspected of tracking Russian defectors who have re- settled right here in the United States. It's a CNN exclusive.

Pretty thorough. The White House insists there's been extensive vetting of the Veterans Affairs secretary nominee, even as more troubling allegations against Dr. Ronny Jackson emerge. New documents allege drunken behavior that could have put lives at risk. Can Jackson's nomination survive?

Under siege. Attorney General Jeff Sessions praises the Justice Department and its employees as a top senator voices concern about what he calls President Trump's relentless attacks. Why won't Sessions say if he'll recuse himself from the criminal probe of President Trump's personal lawyer?

And Kremlin kompromat. As the Trump administration holds back on new sanctions against Russia, new questions about what sort of compromising information, or kompromat, Vladimir Putin may have on President Trump. What would it take for the Russian president to use it against his American counterpart?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news, including exclusive new information about dozens of Russian diplomats expelled from the U.S. last month. Sources now tell CNN that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials believe there were spies among that group tracking Russian defectors and their families who had re-settled right here in the United States.

Also breaking, troubling new allegations against President Trump's embattled pick for Veterans Affairs secretary. A document compiled by Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee alleges Dr. Ronny Jackson wrecked a government vehicle while intoxicated and, on at least one occasion, could not be reached when needed, because he was allegedly passed-out drunk in his hotel room.

We'll talk about all the breaking news and much more with Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committee. And Senator Rand Paul of the Foreign Relations and Homeland Security Committees.

And our correspondents and reporters and experts, they're all standing by.

But let's begin with a CNN exclusive. Very disturbing new details of alleged espionage in the United States by some of the dozens of Russian diplomats recently expelled by the Trump administration. Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, and our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, they're working the story for us.

Evan, first to you. Tell us what we've learned.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've learned that among the 60 Russian diplomats that the Trump administration expelled recently from the United States were a group of spies that U.S. intelligence officials and law enforcement officials believed were responsible for tracking Russians who might have been -- who re- settled inside the United States and their families here in the United States.

In at least one instance that the FBI counterintelligence officials were aware of, they were casing -- believed to be casing people here in the United States who were part of a CIA program who were given new identities in order to re-settle inside the United States. These are defectors, people who Vladimir Putin believes are enemies of the Russian government, Wolf.

We know that this raised concerns, certainly among the FBI that the Kremlin was perhaps looking to target these people, perhaps even their families inside the United States. And that's why some of those people ended up being on the list of the 60 or so diplomats who were kicked out of the country in recent weeks.

We reached out to the Russian embassy. They did not respond to our request for comment. The CIA, the FBI and the White House all declined to comment, Wolf.

BLITZER: This is really a major moment, Shimon. How long have U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials been concerned that these Russian, quote, "diplomats" were tracking Russian defectors here in the United States?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This concern has been around for some time, Wolf. But everything changed after what happened in the U.K. in march when Russians -- when it's believed that Russians attacked the former British spy and Russian intelligence officer. Everything changed after that.

And then when the FBI started seeing what some of the Russians were doing here in this country, including what Evan just said, I mean, the idea that they may have even found some of the people who defected here, some of the people we have allowed to settle here, supposedly safely. We've given them new identities in some cases. The fact that the Russians in some cases were able to find some of these people, perhaps through their own surveillance on some of them, really raised a lot of concern. Especially after the March attack in the U.K., because the concern on a lot of law enforcement is, well, what were the Russians here doing? What was the purpose of collecting this information?

[17:05:08] BLITZER: Because the concern, Evan -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is this could fit into a larger pattern of Russians going after defectors or others around the world for assassination.

PEREZ: Right. Exactly. Look, there's been a trail of suspicious deaths among Russians, people who are enemies and critics of Vladimir Putin's government in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. And so that's the reason why you see this concern.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Democrats on that committee, produced a report just a couple months ago, Wolf, in which they raised a concern about a couple dozen deaths of people who are critics of Vladimir Putin.

And I'll read you a piece of the report that says -- it says, "The trail of mysterious deaths, all of which happened to people who possessed information that the Kremlin did not want to make public, should not be ignored by western countries and the assumption that they are safe from these extreme measures."

I've talked to people -- European diplomats, European officials and American officials on this issue, Wolf. And they all say that the Kremlin appears to be emboldened to be able to do this, because they think they can get away with it.

BLITZER: And also Shimon, I'm just reading some of the background in your reporting. You guys reporting the Russian security service is clearly -- they're suspected of these kinds of deaths. But the report -- the U.S. report noted that a Russia law passed in July of 2006 permits the assassination of, quote, "enemies of the Russian regime who live abroad."

PROKUPECZ: Yes. And that's the concern here for the FBI and for other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. And that if the Russians are table to track some of these people who have re-settled here, who like I said, have been given new identities in some cases, how are they able to find them? And their craft here is probably pretty good. The Russians are very good at this.

The concern, no doubt, after the March attack in the U.K., everyone's suspicion was raised. Certainly, people were concerned that this could happen here.

The mere fact, you know, in talking to former -- and even some current U.S. officials -- the fact that the Russians would be brazen enough to do this, to find some of these people, to track some of these people, was a concern in and of itself. And then you take what happened in the U.K. That changed everything. BLITZER: So just to button it up, you know, Evan, the news isn't so

much that, of the 60 Russian diplomats who were expelled, some of them were spies. Most of them may have been spies. We knew that. The news is that some of those 60 were actually working and tracking Russian emigres, Russians here in the United States who were receiving protection from U.S. authorities.

PEREZ: Right, exactly. And the FBI does a pretty good job of tracking some of the people. They follow a lot of them.

Wolf, they know exactly how many of these people were spies. And so what -- the concern here that was raised, simply, again, in light of what happened in the United Kingdom, recently was simply that, by casing these people, they would be -- at any time they could essentially try to kill them or their family members. And that's something the U.S. could not allow.

BLITZER: All right. Evan and Shimon, good reporting. Thanks very much. We're going to stay on top of this story, not go away from it.

But there's other news we're following. Let's go to the White House and the increasingly troubled nomination of the White House physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, to head the V.A.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, what is the very latest on this very fast-moving story?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, the White House was back on the defensive today over the nomination of Dr. Ronny Jackson to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. Press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to claim earlier today that the president never suggested that Jackson lacked the experience to head the V.A. when, in fact, the president did just that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): The White House tried to move the nomination of Dr. Ronny Jackson out of critical condition, insisting President Trump's pick to run the Department of Veterans Affairs was fully vetted.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Dr. Jackson's record as a White House physician has been impeccable. In fact, because Dr. Jackson has worked within arm's reach of three presidents, he has received more vetting than most nominees.

ACOSTA: Press secretary Sarah Sanders then tried to pull a fast one, claiming the president did not suggest Jackson lacked the experience to run the V.A.

(on camera): Yesterday the president suggested that Dr. Jackson does not have the experience to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. Is that a fair assessment? That he lacks that experience?

SANDERS: That's not what the president said. I think you're taking some of his words out of context. ACOSTA: He said experience is an issue.

SANDERS: And based on your -- I know you don't appreciate when people take your words out of context, so I'd appreciate if you not do that to the president. If he didn't think he had the experience, he wouldn't have nominated him. He said that that had been one of the questions that people had posed about him.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Unfortunately for Sanders, the president did, in fact, question Jackson's level of experience.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know there's an experience problem, because lack of experience. But there's an experience problem --

ACOSTA: Lawmakers from both parties have other concerns.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: That's not -- not my call. But it seems to be a difficult road ahead.

[17:10:04] ACOSTA: Democratic Senator Jon Tester says Jackson needs to answer allegations that have surfaced about the doctor's background, accusations of drinking on the job, and overprescribing some medications.

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: We need to get to the bottom of these accusations to find out if they're true. And so they're very serious accusations, whether it's prescription drugs, handing out like it was candy, or whether it's intoxication or whether it's toxic work environment.

ACOSTA: Jackson once told reporters he occasionally offers sleep medication to travelers on presidential trips.

DR. RONNY JACKSON, NOMINEE TO HEAD V.A.: The president does take some Ambien on occasion, like we all do on overseas travel. So when we travel from one, you know, time zone to another time zone on the other side of the planet, you know, I recommend that everyone on the plane take a sleep aid at certain times.

ACOSTA: Jackson isn't the only cabinet concern for the White House. Sanders called on embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to address questions that have alarmed White House aides.

SANDERS: We're evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them.

ACOSTA: Perhaps the most surprising moment of the day came when French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to distance himself from President Trump. In a speech to Congress, Macron appeared to accuse the Trump administration of embracing isolationism and, at one point, laid out the actual dangers of fake news to democracies around the world.

EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT: And let me attribute (ph) for a copyright (ph) for the expression "fake news," especially here. Without reason, without truth, there is no real democracy. Because democracy is about true choices and rational decisions. The corruption of information is an attempt to corrode the very spirit of our democracies.

ACOSTA: That warning on the same day Sanders insisted the White House supports a free press.

(on camera): Are you trying to say that this administration is a champion of a free press?

SANDERS: We certainly think that -- as I stated a moment ago, we support a free press. But we also support a fair press. And I think that those things should go hand in hand, and there's a certain responsibility by the press to report accurate information.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now the issue of the free press came up in response to a study from the group Reporters Without Borders, which ranked the U.S. 45th in the world -- 45th -- when it comes to press freedoms. The group said the U.S. has dropped in its rankings due to some of the rhetoric coming from the president.

And, Wolf, getting back to Dr. Ronny Jackson, we should put out just in the last several minutes, he spoke to reporters back outside of the press secretary's office inside the West Wing and said he is continuing on with his nomination fight, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens on that front. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

We're getting brand-new allegations against Dr. Jackson. To our senior congressional constituent Manu Raju. He's working this part of the story for us.

Manu, what are you finding out?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee have just released a two-page document laying out stunning allegations against Ronny Jackson after interviewing 23 current and former colleagues of the Veterans Affairs secretary nominee. The allegations about his past behavior, allegations of misconduct that they acknowledge have not been fully substantiated yet and need to be fully investigated, but some rather explosive charges.

They fall into three categories. One about his handling of prescription drugs, loosely in the word -- in the view of these whistleblowers. Two, his administration of a office that was a hostile work environment. And No. 3, him being, in the words of these -- these sources, excessively drunk, including on the job.

Now in one rather stunning allegation here, it says that while he was at a Secret Service going away party, he got drunk and he wrecked a government vehicle. Now in addition to that, it says on at least one occasion, Jackson could not be reached when he was needed, because he was passed out drunk in his hotel room. It says on several occasions overseas, he did not -- on trips overseas, he was drinking on the job and would not be able to perform his job because of his drinking, allegedly.

Now in addition to that, it talks about his prescribing practices, something that he prescribed medications when other physicians would not, including Percocet, which is used for pain medication, saying that he would -- at one time he game to -- a large quantity to a White House military office -- officer. And it threw that office into a panic, because they couldn't figure out where those drugs were.

But (UNINTELLIGIBLE) had private stocks of controlled substances and also said that he handed out Ambien, which is a sleep medication and Provigil, which is medication to wake people you. And they would not track these drugs despite, giving these out.

In addition, Wolf, these damaging allegations talk about him having an abusive temper, explosive at times. People saying that they did not want to work with him. He had temper tantrums.

[17:15:08] But again, these are allegations at this point that this committee is investigating and serious enough that even the Republicans -- even though this is a Democrat document, Republicans on this committee view this very seriously and have to delay a Wednesday hearing, a hearing that was scheduled for today and to a time in the future when they're going to try to determine whether or not there's any merit to these.

But enough to really throw this nomination into doubt, particularly if any of these are true.

And one key point, Ronny Jackson, just speaking to reporters, denied crashing a government vehicle, did not address some of these other -- these other allegations. But members of Congress have a lot of questions. We'll see what he has to say when they question him about these specific details from these sources detailing these and these private meetings with Democratic staff on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

BLITZER: Yes, very serious allegations indeed. Manu, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas is joining us. He's a member of the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees. Do you believe these allegations are disqualifying, Congressman?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: If the allegations are true, yes, I think that his nomination should be withdrawn, and the president should nominate somebody else to head up this department.

BLITZER: Do you think he should be able to at least defend himself in public confirmation hearings?

CASTRO: I think if the president wants to go forward with the nomination and Dr. Jackson wants to go forward, then sure, I think, they ought to hold the hearings. But he himself knows whether these things are true, and if they are true, then he should step aside now, rather than going through the public spectacle and delaying the -- you know, putting somebody up there at Veterans Affairs.

BLITZER: He was the White House physician during the Bush administration, during the Obama administration. Why are we only hearing about these allegations now?

CASTRO: That's a great question, Wolf. I think that's a question that needs to be answered by the administration and also, in the past, by prior administrations.

BLITZER: The White House clearly didn't do a very thorough job vetting Dr. Jackson before the president announced this nomination on Twitter a few weeks ago.

But Dr. Jackson has treated, as I point out, three presidents. He's been through four background checks, the White House said today, including FBI background checks, including early in this new Trump presidency. Shouldn't it have been a safe assumption that he would already have been vetted if he had been on the job for so long, such a sensitive position, treating the president of the United States.

CASTRO: Yes, if he was doing these kind of things, and he certainly should not have been in the White House physician. He should not have been in that role. But you know, you're vetted, usually before you get the job.

Once you're on the job, the scrutiny, it seems to me, may not be as harsh. And that's what we may be dealing with here as a case where he was vetted originally, but when he was -- when he got the job, he -- it evolved into somebody who really should not have been holding the position.

BLITZER: Let me ask you about CNN's breaking news on the activities of those Russian diplomats. And I'm putting the word "diplomats" in quotes, who were expelled from the U.S. a few weeks ago.

You heard the reporting right at the top of the hour that at least some of those Russian diplomats, 60 of them, at least some of them were spies, and they were actually trying to monitor the activities of Russian emigres here in the United States. Are Russians safe on American soil?

CASTRO: Well, if these folks, in fact, were monitoring Russians, who now live in the United States, then there -- it does raise the question whether, No. 1, whether they ever harmed anybody on American soil. And the reason that's important is because we've seen Vladimir Putin, basically, order this to be done, not only in Russia, but also he's tracked down political opponents in places like the U.K. And so, you know, the intelligence agencies are really going to have to figure out and report back to Congress what these guys were up to.

BLITZER: And there's another story I want to get your reaction to. "The Washington Post" just reporting that Rudy Giuliani, the president's new lawyer, has restarted talks with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to try to negotiate an interview with President Trump. What's your reaction?

CASTRO: Well, I think the president should speak to the special counsel. I think the American public is owed that. Considering all the information that's come out about everything from possible collusion to obstruction of justice, to money laundering issues. So the president should sit down with Bob Mueller and his team.

BLITZER: Let's see what, if anything, emerges from those talks between Rudy Giuliani and Robert Mueller.

As the Michael Cohen investigation clearly continues in New York, the president's long-time person attorney, do you think the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, needs to publicly, formally recuse himself from that investigation?

CASTRO: I think that he should be recused. Because all of this is related to the Trump campaign, or at least partially related to the Trump campaign, and so it should be a full recusal for Jeff Sessions. Not a partial recusal.

[06:20:08] BLITZER: Tell us how the Michael Cohen -- he's under criminal investigation in New York by the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York. Tell us how that's connected to the allegation of Russian collusion.

CASTRO: Well, basically, this was the -- the president's lawyer for many years. And so a lot of the interactions, including campaign interactions and interactions with Russian operatives and Russian developers, Michael Cohen was front and center on all of that.

And, you know, so I think that's very connected to the entire investigation, and I think Jeff Sessions should recuse himself.

BLITZER: Congressman Joaquin Castro, thanks so much for joining us.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news you're following. We're going to talk about the Jackson nomination, allegations of Russian spying. Much more, Senator Rand Paul -- there he is -- he's standing by live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:25:17] BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, our CNN exclusive reporting, sources telling CNN that U.S. intelligence officials believe spies were among the dozens of Russian diplomats expelled by the Trump administration last month. Those spies suspected of tracking Russian defectors who had re-settled here in the United States.

Let's get some more on this and other issues. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is joining us. He's a member of both the Homeland Security and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Do you believe those -- among those 60 Russian, quote, "diplomats" who were expelled, that at least some of them posed a major national security threat to the United States?

PAUL: You know, I think it's unsurprising that people that are here, either on embassy missions or otherwise, might be spies. I think for decades we've realized that people in consulates, really on all sides of the Cold War were doing a little bit of surveillance and gathering of information.

What makes this troubling, though, is if someone would actually be targeting dissidents from that country, and so I think that is an alarming bit of news, and I think it needs to -- we need to figure out where the intelligence takes us. But that's very alarming and much more significant than the run-of-the-mill sort of espionage that many embassies, I think, are committing.

BLITZER: Yes. A lot more alarming, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of that former Russian spy in the U.K. weeks ago that caused so much -- so much diplomatic ramification, expulsions and all of that. So people are clearly very worried about all of this.

I want to move on and get your thoughts on another sensitive issue. You told me last week you were opposed to President Trump's nomination of Mike Pompeo, the outgoing CIA director, to become the next secretary of state. Let me play the clip from our interview, and then we'll discuss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is there any chance you're going to vote to confirm Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state?

PAUL: If he came out publicly and said he's telling him to declare victory and come home. But he just said last week he doesn't believe that. He thinks that we have a continued mission in Afghanistan, and I challenged him with the president's own words, saying the president said it was time to come home. And Pompeo doesn't agree with that.

And that's what I actually think is really bad about his nomination, is that he will be giving advice to the president that goes against the president's good instincts that the war has run its course.

BLITZER: So why did you change your mind?

PAUL: This has been my biggest complaint about Pompeo as a nominee from the very beginning, my concern that he did not share the president's understanding of the Middle East.

I think one of the most instructive things -- what should be one of the most instructive events of the last decade or two is that the Iraq War and the regime change actually made it more chaotic, emboldened Iran, and made the situation less stable in the Middle East. So I did want to get at that. The president called me last week and said would I meet with Pompeo personally to discuss this. I did, and I asked him the same question in private in public. And I think I got a little more complete answer when we discussed, and my question was very pointed, do you agree with the president that the Iraq War was a mistake?

And I think, as we went through our discussion, as I had more discussions with the president and then again with candidate or nominee Pompeo, I was assured. And he told me that not only privately does he believe this, that we'll be hearing from his publicly also that regime change and the unintended consequences of our foreign policy of the last years have led to chaos and instability in the Middle East and that we need to try a new direction.

Is he exactly where I am? No. And so I still wish that he was closer to where I am. But I can tell you, from talking to the president three times in the last week, that the president is very close to where I am. That we've been at war too long in too many places. He said it repeatedly about Afghanistan. He said it repeatedly about the Iraq War.

And so I think the president is sincere in his belief that concern for our soldiers should lead us to not expand these wars but to try to find answers to how we end these wars. And I do take the president's word at that. I hope President Pompeo will be giving information to the president and not dissuading him from ending the Afghan War.

And I came to believe over several discussions that, actually, candidate Pompeo will support the president in what the president decides is best for the country, and so I did make a decision. And it's always difficult to make a decision where you do change course. But I think, with new information, and I think -- in this case, I'm happy with where I wound up.

BLITZER: Did the president offer you anything in return for your support?

PAUL: No. And I think that's very important for people to know. It's not like, you know, the president said, "Hey, I'll build a bridge for you." There was nothing like that at all. He did promise, though, that he would consider the civil liberties of individuals. He would consider that the war has, you know, run its course to many minds, even candidate Pompeo said that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, which I think the follow-up question is, if there's no military solution, why are we sending one more soldier?

[17:30:17] That's why I am. I'm not ready to send one soldier. I'm ready to declare victory and come home. I don't think the president is exactly there or nor is Pompeo.

But there wasn't anything sort of specifically offered other than that the president said his foreign policy vision will prevail and that it is similar to my position. That did help me along the way.

The only other thing we discussed was I've been very concerned that members of the FBI can search Americans' records without a search warrant. I think that goes against the spirit and the rule of law of the Fourth Amendment. And I did discuss with the president whether or not he might intervene executively to change the rules, to say all FBI agents would have to get a warrant to search these foreign intelligence databases. I think that's good policy, and I am hopeful that there is no promise made. But I'm hopeful that those discussions will be ongoing.

BLITZER: You also told me, and you're on record as opposing the nomination of deputy CIA director Gina Haspel to become the new CIA director, replacing Mike Pompeo. Is there any chance the president will convince you, any chance you're going to change your mind? Did you discuss her nomination with the president?

PAUL: No, we didn't. I think it is very, very unlikely that I would change my mind, because I think it's a bad idea to have someone at the head of the CIA, who's been an advocate for torture and an advocate for something that defies the Geneva Convention. And so no, I think she's still a really bad choice to head the CIA and sends a terrible message to our enemies.

You know, I've got family members in the military, and I don't want them serving with the knowledge that other countries will say, "Well, I guess torture may be not so bad, because the U.S. has appointed someone to head their agency who engaged in extraordinary rendition, meaning they were secretly taken to a country that has a different view of human rights and allowed this to happen on their territory."

But specifically, these prisons were taken to another country, because it's illegal to torture people in the U.S. And so that's a pretty important thing. And I think that's not the kind of person we need to lead the CIA.

BLITZER: Well, the president keeps saying you've never let him down. So on this particular nomination, you might wind up letting him down. We'll see what happens when the vote comes up.

Let me quickly turn to Dr. Ronny Jackson, the president's physician over at the White House, the nominee to become the next secretary of veteran affairs and he's under a lot of fire, as you know, for allegations of misconduct during his time as a White House physician. But misconduct, allegations aside, President Trump acknowledged yesterday that Dr. Jackson lacks experience.

So the V.A. is one of the largest departments in the federal government. Shouldn't this position be filled by someone who has a lot more experience leading a huge organization like the Department of Veterans Affairs?

PAUL: You know, these are arguments we have a lot of times in politics, whether, you know, a governor makes a better president or a senator makes a better president because of executive experience.

I don't know that there is an easy black-and-white answer that someone is always better, because I think the policies make a difference, as well. I do think that we ought to be careful in Dr. Jackson's case not to immediately assume that everything that is alleged is true. We're talking about a man's character. These are very significant

allegations. And I would just caution that this is a man's life we're talking about who's an admiral, who has served honorably for many years. And before we completely trash his character, someone ought to at least give the gentleman a chance to defend himself.

BLITZER: You make a fair point. The only question, the serious question is if he does have the credentials, the experience to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. And you'll have an opportunity, presumably, if he continues this quest to question him during the process.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL: Thank you.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues. Up next, we're going to have more on the new allegations emerging this hour about dangerous drunken behavior by President Trump's pick for Veterans Affairs secretary, and does Vladimir Putin have compromising information about President Trump? And what would it take for him to release that information?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:38:47] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, brand-new allegations of misconduct are endangering the nomination of Dr. Ronny Jackson to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. The White House is struggling to defend its vetting process. Republican allies up on Capitol Hill, they are growing increasingly impatient.

Let's discuss with our experts and, Juana, you've got the latest reporting on these allegations, involving Dr. Jackson. You've done a lot of reporting. What are you learning?

JUANA SUMMERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Here's what we're talking about. This is a document prepared by Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and it's based on what they say, what they've heard from nearly two dozen people who either currently work or formerly worked with Ronny Jackson.

And the details really come into three baskets. They're talking about prescription drug misuse, a hostile work environment and drunkenness.

Now, it's important to note that a lot of these details haven't yet been corroborated by the committee. They're based on this testimony. Members of the committee still trying to work and figure out what's true and what's not true. And so far, the White House earlier today, they made this very robust defense of Ronny Jackson, saying that he's qualified for this job.

The president stands behind him. Sara Sanders signaling that. We've heard briefly from Ronny Jackson about one of these allegations. It's really serious. Saying that he was intoxicated, drove a government car and wrecked that car. He says he didn't do that. He's indicated he plans to press forward. [17:40:04] But I do think, now that this document is out there and we're reporting on it, people are beginning to see the level of detail on these allegations. I think they'll raise new questions for this nominee on whether or not he can be confirmed.

And let's keep in mind, this is a nominee who has faced questions from members on both sides of the aisle for some time now, even before these allegations, about whether or not he was qualified to lead the government's second largest bureaucracy.

BLITZER: Yes. That's the big issue. Whether or not he's qualified to run the Department of Veterans Affairs.

If the White House, Jeff, went ahead and vetted him as thoroughly as they claim they did, why are they and us, we're only learning about these allegations now?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's clear there was essentially no vetting here. We know that from our reporting in real time.

The White House had a vacancy at the V.A. It actually broke here on THE SITUATION ROOM when David Shulkin was fired, and the president immediately hired his personal White House physician here.

So there was no vetting. The president liked him. He was comfortable with him. So he put him in that position. He thought he would look well in that position.

But the reality is they didn't do the due diligence. And then even after that, Republicans on Capitol Hill, I'm told, were sort of looking for information, trying to defend him and simply were not getting that information.

So what I'm learning tonight is that he is still going to stay and fight. But the question is, is he fighting to clear his name or fighting for the nomination? And it is increasingly hard to see that he could fight for the nomination, because there were questions about his experience.

And I was talking to six former Obama officials that knew him well. They declined to speak on the record about this, because they do not believe he's qualified. But they are surprised by all this, and they like him a great deal and thought he did a good service there.

So someone clearly is out to get him in some respects. There's some speculation it's a veterans' group and others who believe he's not up to the task of this position here. But it's hard to imagine how he would -- if not ride this out, be confirmed at the end of the day.

BLITZER: Yes. The Department -- the Democrats on the committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee say they had 23 people who came, anonymously, and offered these kinds of details. The Republicans on the Hill, Sabrina, they're in a pretty awkward position right now.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Yes, I think the Republicans are essentially in a wait-and-see mode, where they aren't going to go out of their way to defend Dr. Ronny Jackson.

But they also are wanting to hear his side of the story that you heard Senator Rand Paul tell you, that they take these allegations very seriously. But he should have the opportunity to defend himself.

I think there that there is also some frustration among Republicans that they were not consulted prior to the president making this nomination. I echoed -- the feedback I've heard is that they didn't feel that he was qualified for the role to begin with, and now these mounting allegations make the confirmation process even more difficult for him. But for now, I think they're going to keep their powder dry. They're not going to go against the president's wishes, and they're certainly not going to call on him at this point to withdraw the nomination.

BLITZER: It's one thing to run the medical unit over at the White House. It's another thing to run the Department of Veterans Affairs with more than 300,000 people involved there. So that's the question: experience, is he up to the task?

Let me turn to another story we're following, Phil Mudd, our exclusive reporting on at least some of these 60 Russian, quote, "diplomats" who were expelled by the U.S. in recent weeks. You heard our breaking news coverage that at least some of them are believed by U.S. law enforcement intelligence community officials that they were actually tracking Russian defectors here in the United States who were being protected by the CIA, the FBI. They were monitoring their activities. This raises all sorts of concerns, but I'm anxious to get your thoughts.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: It raises concerns to me not about espionage but about murder. We keep talking about what the Russians tried to do in poisoning those two individuals, the father and daughter in the U.K. recently. Remember, they murdered somebody in the U.K. 12 years ago, and U.K. authorities have talked about that. That was Alexander Litvinenko, murdered in cold blood.

So the question I have when I see the surveillance, if it's just espionage, you might say, how are the Americans bringing these people in? How can we pressure these people, that is the defectors' families back home?

I'm concerned looking at this and looking at the 12 years of Russian experience in Europe and the U.K., particularly, murdering people and attempting to murder people, that this was a murderous enterprise and that one reason they're expelled was to present -- prevent the same kind of disaster in the United States that you saw in the U.K.

If you think that's unreasonable, then look at what happened in terms of poisoning people with plutonium. That's how Alexander Litvinenko died in 2006. Unbelievable. And I don't see why that couldn't have happened here. I think that's what this ring might have been up to, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It's a very, very serious concern, indeed. Everybody stick around. There's more news we're following. Does the

Russian government have compromising information on President Trump? And how would Vladimir Putin use it to get what he wants?

[17:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Collecting compromising information on political opponents has long been a favorite tactic employed by Russian intelligence agencies. And new comments from the fired FBI Director, James Comey, are stoking theories that the Kremlin could have something on President Trump.

Brian Todd is here with more on this story.

Brian, how would the Russian government obtain that material and how would they potentially use it?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, former spies tell us the Russian government obtains that material, that damaging information, by surveilling every notable foreign figure who comes to Russia, even in their hotel rooms. They use the information by blackmailing those people to do their bidding.

[17:50:04] And tonight, many are asking whether Vladimir Putin has so- called kompromat on President Trump. And if he does, how he would use it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, James Comey is continuing his media rounds. The fired FBI Director keeping afloat the possibility that Vladimir Putin has so-called kompromat on President Trump, the Russian phrase for compromising information.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER DIRECTOR, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the current President of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.

TODD (voice-over): Just after that interview aired, the Trump administration held back on sanctioning Russia. Its Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, first stating that sanctions would be leveled.

NIKKI HALEY, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down.

TODD (voice-over): Then the next day, the White House said no new sanctions. The Trump team said sanctions might come later, but the moves still lead to some head scratching.

JAMES GOLDGEIER, VISITING SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: We're trying to understand, why does Trump treat Putin so gently? He's got all these derogatory nicknames for everybody else, but why is he so gentle on Putin? And this is one of the things we've come up with, Vladimir Putin must have something on him. TODD (voice-over): Both Trump and Putin deny that there's any Russian

kompromat on Trump. A key question tonight, if he has damaging information, what would push Vladimir Putin to use it against the President?

GEORGE BEEBE, DIRECTOR FOR INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY, CENTER FOR THE NATIONAL INTEREST: If Putin were to come to the conclusion that we are intent on actually overthrowing his government, his regime, destabilizing Russia. In other words, if he is in an extreme position and is going to employ all means necessary to fight back, that might be a situation where he were to do that.

TODD (voice-over): Kompromat has long been used by the KGB. In the 1950s, the Soviet spy agency had pictures of a British diplomat in Moscow, John Vassall, engaging in homosexual activity at a time when that was illegal in Britain. The KGB used those pictures to get Vassall to spy for them.

GOLDGEIER: If they have something on you and you don't want it out there in the public, then they can try to get you to do things for them that you might not otherwise do. And, of course, Putin is a former KGB agent.

TODD (voice-over): But intelligence veterans say it would also be advantageous for Putin not to use his kompromat on Trump, to leave it hanging over the President's head.

BEEBE: Information like that is most effective when it's not actually divulged, when you don't actually employ it. The threat of using it is the leverage that you have over the individual that you're trying to blackmail.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: It's also possible that Trump could have kompromat on Putin. Analysts say the U.S. government might have sensitive information on how Putin has accumulated so much of his questionable wealth and where he has stashed some of it, information that could be damaging to Putin if it was revealed publicly, especially in Russia.

And they say Putin might have that hanging over his head -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's an interesting point as well. Have the Russians, Brian, ever used this so-called kompromat on the leader of another country -- the leader of another country?

TODD: Right. A good question, Wolf. We've been asking former spies and diplomats about that. We don't know of any instance where the Russians have successfully blackmailed a head of state.

They usually target diplomats and even their own officials inside Russia. In 2009, the Russians said they had tape of an American diplomat in Moscow having sex with a prostitute. The Americans claimed that that tape was fabricated.

If they have any kompromat on Donald Trump and use it, that would be the first time that a president was actually targeted.

BLITZER: Very interesting stuff. Brian Todd, appreciate it very much.

And an important note to our viewers, be sure to stay with CNN later tonight for former FBI Director James Comey's only live town hall. Anderson Cooper will moderate as Comey takes questions about his explosive new book on his experiences with President Trump. That's coming up at 8:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

There's more breaking news we're following. Russian spies posing as diplomats here in the United States, believed to be monitoring Russian defectors here in the United States. We have new information. It's a CNN exclusive.

[17:54:17] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Russian assassins? We have exclusive new reporting on a suspected spy operation involving diplomats booted from the United States and ordered back to Moscow. Were they targeting Russian defectors aiding Americans here in the United States and labeled enemies of the Kremlin?

Wrecked. New allegations tonight that the President's pick to lead the Veterans Affairs department wrecked a government car while drunk. It's one of the stunning claims about Dr. Ronny Jackson surfacing this hour even as the White House defends his record as impeccable.

Sessions silent. The Attorney General won't reveal whether he'd resign if the President fires his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. Jeff Sessions is also facing lawmakers' questions about his role in the investigation in Mr. Trump's longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

And thank you, Kanye. The President tweets his gratitude to the rapper and self-proclaimed genius who has been sharing his feelings about Mr. Trump online. We're tracking the President's Kanye West connection.

[17:59:59] 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.