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THE SITUATION ROOM
New Revelations Emerge on Expelled Russians; Interview With Maryland Senator Ben Cardin; White House Stands Behind Controversial VA Nominee; Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Tells Court He Will Plead the Fifth in Stormy Daniels Case; Comey to Take Questions at CNN Town Hall Tonight. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 25, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following major breaking major, including very serious new allegations about the president's nominee for veterans affair secretary.
Democrats releasing a document detailing claims about Dr. Ronny Jackson's conduct as the White House physician, including an alleged incident where we wrecked a government car after getting drunk at a going-away party. Jackson is denying that and refusing to withdraw his nomination tonight.
Also breaking, our exclusive new reporting on Russians, spies and potentially deadly intrigue. CNN has learned that Russian diplomats expelled from the United States were suspected covert agents on a mission to track defectors from the Kremlin.
I will get reaction from a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, and from the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper.
And our correspondents and analysts, they are all standing by.
First, let's go to CNN's justice correspondent, Evan Perez, and our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.
Evan, what more can you tell us about those Russian diplomats?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, among the 60 Russian diplomats that the Trump administration kicked out of the country in recent weeks were a group of suspected Russian spies that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials believed were responsible for tracking Russian defectors and their families here in the United States.
In at least one instance, Wolf, the FBI and intelligence officials were aware of a group of Russians who were believed to be trying to case someone who had been resettled inside the United States as part of a CIA program.
This is a CIA program that provides new identities to protect people who have resettled inside the United States, people who have helped the CIA, provided information to the CIA in the past.
This raised concerns among FBI counterintelligence officials, who thought that perhaps the Russians were preparing to target at least some of these people. We reached out to the Russian Embassy here in Washington. They did not respond to our request for comment. The CIA and the White House and the FBI all declined to comment for this story, Wolf.
BLITZER: Shimon, how long have U.S. officials been concerned that Russians, the Russian espionage agents might be tracking Russian emigres who have resettled here in the United States?
SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's probably fair to say that this concern has been around for some time.
But everything changed after the attack in the U.K. in March, where it was the British spy, Russian intelligence officer who was, as we all know, there was an attempt to kill him, a nerve agent that was used to try and kill him.
So, everything, changed after that. When the FBI and U.S. officials starting seeing what some of the Russians here were doing, it certainly changed everything. They grew very concerned that, in fact, perhaps they were collecting intelligence on the whereabouts of some of these people, and so it became a matter of national security for them.
Look, there's no secret here that the Russians would try to pull off something like this here. There's great concern among law enforcement officials and certainly people at the FBI that something like what happened in the U.K. could happen here.
BLITZER: Congress, Evan, has been concerned about this for a while.
PEREZ: That's right, Wolf.
I think it's no secret there's a long list of suspicious deaths that have happened in the United Kingdom and in Europe. And the concern among officials over there and here in the United States is that the same thing could happen as a result. It appears that the Russians have become emboldened that they can get away with this stuff.
The Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put together a report earlier this year.
And I will read you just a little piece of the report. It says: "The trail of mysterious deaths, all of which happened to people who possessed information that the Kremlin did not want made public, should not be ignored by Western countries, on the assumption that they are safe from these extreme measures."
Wolf, the concern here obviously is that the Russians seem to believe they can pull these things off and get away with it and everything -- the calculations about how to protect these people have changed as a result.
BLITZER: Yes, back in 2006, as you guys report, in July 2006, a law was passed in Russia that permits the assassination of "enemies of the Russian regime." That was back in 2006.
What is U.S. law enforcement doing about this potential threat? Do they believe, for example, any Russian emigres who have defected to the United States have actually been killed on U.S. soil?
PROKUPECZ: I don't think there's any concern that people have been killed here, in terms of from the FBI side.
And the FBI would ultimately be the folks who would be tracking this and following the Russians. Look, there's a very robust counterintelligence unit at the FBI that does this kind of work that follows some of these spies, does surveillance, does their own spying on the spies.
That's all they can really do. They certainly ratcheted up some of those efforts and they have put more intelligence together to try and figure out and to really make sure that nothing that happens, anything similar that happened in the U.K. happens here.
But the mere fact that the Russians were able to locate some of these people and their brazen attempts at following them, doing surveillance on them, learning more about some of these people who resettled here certainly has concerned U.S. officials, Wolf.
BLITZER: Very often, I'm told that some of these Russians who have come to the United States and are working with U.S. law enforcement and the CIA, they still have relatives back in Russia. That's one way the Russians can find...
PEREZ: They can have leverage on them.
And also a lot of them still do business and so on. Obviously that's something that the FBI and the intelligence agencies keep an eye on, because the belief is that some of these people sometimes are informing on others. There are some healthy large Russian family enclaves in the United States, in New York and in other states.
It's something the FBI is constantly worried about.
BLITZER: It certainly is.
All right, good reporting, guys. Thanks very much.
Now to Capitol Hill for breaking news on Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson and serious new allegations revealed tonight.
Let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.
Manu, you have gotten ahold of a Democratic document about Dr. Jackson. What can you tell us?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
This is a document compiled by staff of Senator Jon Tester, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. This comes after the staff had interviewed 23 people who had either worked with Dr. Ronny Jackson or who are currently working with Ronny Jackson.
They lay out explosive details and allegations about his past, past misconduct. And again these are allegations that have not been fully substantiated and that this committee is investigating, but enough to delay a confirmation hearing that had been scheduled for today as this committee investigates.
These allegations fall under three different categories. One involved is how he prescribed drugs in the past in a loose manner, according to this document. Another one dealing with how he administered an office that had abusive behavior towards his colleagues, particularly people who worked underneath him allegedly.
And, number three, about drunkenness, drunk being -- drinking on the job and particular on trips overseas. And in one particularly damaging allegation, it says at a Secret Service going-away party, Jackson got drunk and wrecked a government vehicle.
It also says on at least one occasion, Jackson could not be reached when he was needed because he was passed out drunk and one time it talks about him reaching for holding a medical bag and he was intoxicated at the time while he was holding this medical bag.
But other allegations as well causing some alarm on Capitol Hill, particularly when it comes to prescribing medication, saying he gave large supply of Percocet, the pain medication, to a White House military officer, and he had private stocks of controlled substances.
Also, he would not track how he handed out the sleeping medication Ambien, as well as Provigil, which is a drug used to wake people up. Those controlled substances require tracking which allegedly he did not do.
People would come to him to get these medications because other physicians would not, according to these allegations. Now, Wolf, this was compiled again by the Democrats. But the Republicans themselves viewers these as very serious. They want to investigate this further, including the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Johnny Isakson, who told me earlier today they want to get to the bottom of all of these allegations and that's one reason why they delayed today's confirmation hearing.
And another Republican on that committee, Mike Rounds, who sits on that committee, Wolf, told me these are coming from credible individuals who are bringing forward these allegations, even as the White House said he has been fully vetted, his past background checks in the past and Jackson himself has denied crashing a car, something he said just moments ago.
There's still enough concern on Capitol Hill that his nomination in serious doubt of ultimately getting this job, Wolf.
BLITZER: Very serious doubt, indeed.
Manu, thank you very much.
Dr. Ronny Jackson spoke out just a little while ago about the new allegations against him, as the White House is ramping up its defense of him, calling his record "impeccable" and his vetting thorough.
Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, Dr. Jackson is defying any pressure to step aside, at least for now, right?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
Dr. Ronny Jackson is not backing down. He spoke to reporters a few moments ago outside of Sarah Sanders' office, the White House press secretary telling reporters he's not wrecked a car. At one point he was asked about the allegation that he drove drunk and wrecked a car.
He said, "No, I have not wrecked car before. I can tell you that."
He was also asked about this allegation that he's not prescribing correctly opioid and other prescription drugs. And at one point, Dr. Jackson in response to that question, "I can't tell you where that's coming from."
Then the final question was put to him, are you still moving forward with your nomination? He said yes. At this point, he's still moving forward. At this point, it seems Dr. Ronny Jackson is trying to hang in there, despite all of this pressure coming from Capitol Hill to step aside, including one House Democrat on the Veterans Committee over in the House saying he should do just that and step aside.
Meanwhile, as you were saying earlier, Wolf, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, she came to the podium in the briefing earlier today defending Ronny Jackson, saying that he had been vetted by multiple administrations, had received praise from former President Obama and so on.
But I asked Sarah Sanders about the fact that the president yesterday at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron over here at the White House suggested that Dr. Ronny Jackson lacks the necessary experience to run the VA. She claims the president didn't say that. Here's how the exchange went down earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Yesterday, the president suggested that Dr. Jackson does not have the experience to run the department of Veterans Affairs. Is that a fair assessment?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That's not what the president said. I think you're taking some of his words out of context.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: And based on your speech today, I know you don't appreciate when people take your words out of context. I would appreciate it if you not do that to the president. If he didn't think he had the experience, he wouldn't have nominated. He said that that had been one of the questions that people had posed about him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Now, in fact, we have the quote right here from the president yesterday, Wolf.
He said: "I know there is an experience problem because of lack of experience, but there is an experience problem."
Contrary to what Sarah Sanders tried to tell us in the Briefing Room earlier today, she tried to pull a fast one and spin herself out of that question. Unfortunately, though, she was not sticking to the facts. The president did suggest yesterday at this news conference that Dr. Ronny Jackson lacks the experience to run the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And that obviously is going to be one of the primary questions facing Dr. Jackson if and when he gets another hearing date. We're hearing from White House officials, including Sarah Sanders, saying that at this point they do want to try to reschedule that hearing, that confirmation hearing for Dr. Jackson.
At this point, no date has been scheduled. But obviously the White House would like to see that get back on the schedule. And Dr. Jackson is vowing to fight on at this hour.
Of course, the nature of these allegations are such that we will have to see how this plays out moving forward, Wolf, but make no question about it, they're in a defiant mode over here at the White House when it comes to Dr. Jackson.
BLITZER: Very fast-moving story, I got to say. Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.
Let's talk about all the breaking news with Senator Ben Cardin. He's the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
Let me quickly get your reaction to CNN's reporting that at least some of those expelled Russians were possibly targeting other Russians living here in the United States who the Kremlin viewed as enemies of Russia.
You have issued a report on Kremlin efforts like this. Are Russians who have come to the United States and are working with U.S. law enforcement, working with the CIA safe here in the United States?
SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Well, Wolf, first, it's good to be with you.
And the report that we did author shows that this is part of the tools that Mr. Putin uses in Europe and the United States, targeting people that disagree with his regime.
Yes, he tracks these people to other countries, including the United States. I don't have specific information about threats against any of the Russians here in the United States. But that's exactly what Mr. Putin does. He tracks these people. He finds out information about them, and as we know what happened in U.K. he's not beyond trying to poison or get rid of people who disagree with him.
BLITZER: How likely is it, Senator, that Russia could carry out a poisoning like the one we saw recently in Britain on that former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter? How likely is that?
CARDIN: Well, I think it would be wrong for us to assume that Mr. Putin wouldn't do that.
Clearly, we saw him do that in the U.K. That would be outrageous, but interfering in our election was something we thought he would not do. But he did that also. So, we have got to be prepared.
Clearly, that's something that would have to go challenged by our country. We can't let the sovereignty of America be abridged by another country. There's no evidence right now that Mr. Putin has in fact done anything. But he clearly is trying to get information about people in our country from Russia that disagreed with Mr. Putin.
BLITZER: You probably saw the story. "The Washington Post" reported, Senator, that President Trump was livid that the U.S. expelled so many Russian diplomats in the aftermath of that assassination attempt in the U.K.
The U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats. We're looking at the numbers. France expelled four. Germany expelled four. The U.K. expelled 23.
What do you make of this, that the president was so angry, the U.S. expelled so many Russian diplomats, in light of these new details?
CARDIN: Well, clearly, what action we took was rather mild compared to what Mr. Putin has done here in America.
I think we have to be even stronger in our message to Mr. Putin that we won't tolerate this type of behavior, whether it is interfering in our elections or interfering in our own sovereignty or what they did in U.K. in regards to trying to poison an individual. So, Russia is the actor. It's Mr. Putin. He's the bad actor. We
need to take action against him.
BLITZER: Let me switch gears and talk about another sensitive issue., the president's nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Are these new allegations against Dr. Ronny Jackson's behavior disqualifying?
CARDIN: Wolf, understand that these accusations are being made by members of the military that worked for him.
And they are extremely troubling. But I do believe we're entitled to a confirmation hearing to find out the facts. Let us go through the proper vetting here in the United States Senate. It's clear to me that President Trump did not do that.
But I must tell you, just hearing these allegations, knowing the source, knowing that there's multiple sources, it's extremely troubling.
BLITZER: Let me get another issue. I want to get your reaction. Sources now telling CNN's Gloria Borger that Rudy Giuliani, the president's new lawyer on his personal legal team, met this week with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to discuss the potential for an interview between Mueller and the president.
What's your reaction?
CARDIN: Well, as you complete an investigation, it would be natural for Mr. Mueller to want to interview President Trump. That would be a normal flow from this investigation.
I hope that Mr. Giuliani's visit was to facilitate that cooperation, which the president said all along he intends to cooperate with Mr. Mueller. Part of that cooperation would be if Mr. Mueller desires an interview, that the president would make himself available.
BLITZER: Let me ask you about the secretary of state nominee, Mike Pompeo.
You write about this in "The Washington Post."
And let me read a quote from your article: "The secretary of state should be the loudest holdout voice for international diplomacy, dialogue and negotiations in the Oval Office."
Are you concerned, Senator, that Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the president's new national security adviser, have the president's ear?
CARDIN: Well, absolutely I'm concerned that our chief diplomat, if he's concerned, will he be an advocate for diplomacy, or he will be one who suggests let's use the military?
When he was a congressman, he certainly proposed using a military strike, rather than negotiations with Iran. In regards to negotiating with the international community on Paris climate, he wants to withdraw. We heard President Macron today talk about how critically important it is for U.S. leadership on global issues, that we need to be in the lead.
We need a top diplomat that is going to make -- be America's voice in the international community advancing our universal values.
BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks for joining us.
CARDIN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, shocking new allegations surface. Can Dr. Ronny Jackson survive as the president's VA nominee?
And I will talk with former Director of National Intelligence Committee James Clapper about CNN's exclusive new reporting on expelled Russian diplomats and the chilling spy mission they are suspected of carrying out right here in the U.S.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, our exclusive new reporting on a suspected spy operation run on U.S. soil by Russian diplomats who have since been expelled from the country.
Officials telling CNN that the suspected spies tracked Russian defectors here in the United States, including at least one person who was part of a CIA program to provide new identities to resettled Russians.
Joining us now, the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. He's a CNN national security analyst.
You were just in the U.K., General Clapper, where this former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned. How great is the risk that that could also happen here on U.S. soil?
JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it's certainly a risk.
I guess I would characterize it as lesser, simply because the United States is so much larger than the U.K. and we have so many more people than the U.K. There are more places to stash people, if you will, than there are in the U.K. But it's still a possibility.
And clearly this, I think, is a standing task of Russian intelligence operatives during the Soviet yet and that carries over now with Russia, where they're always on the search for defectors or others who have aided the United States.
BLITZER: Could Russians get that kind of nerve agent that they used in the U.K. here in the United States? What needs to happen to make sure they can't?
CLAPPER: Well, I think, yes, it's quite possible for them. If they got such an agent in the U.K., they could, I'm sure by hook or crook, get it in the United States.
I think one of the most important things we do as a deterrent is to do what we did, which was expel a lot of Russian operatives. That's probably one of the most important things we could do.
BLITZER: Because of the 60 diplomats that the U.S. expelled, at least some of them were monitoring Russian emigres, Russians who had come to the United States. This was a source of deep concern. You used to run national intelligence for the U.S. I assume you're familiar with all of these concerns.
CLAPPER: Of course. Can't go into specifics about it, but that's always a concern. As I say, I think this is SOP for all Russian operatives.
And I would use the term diplomats with air quotes, by the way.
BLITZER: Do you think all of them were espionage, all of them were spies under diplomatic cover?
CLAPPER: Virtually all of them, I'm sure, were.
BLITZER: All of them.
Because, of the 60, most, if not all of them, were spies. That's not necessarily news. We thought that, but that at least some of them were monitoring Russians living in the United States and potentially U.S. officials fearing they could be targeted for assassination. That's the news.
CLAPPER: I think, yes. I think the notion of reaching out and targeting people who they consider enemies of the state, particularly in a place like the U.K., certainly that's within the realm of possibilities here.
BLITZER: How good is Russian intelligence? If let's say there's a Russian spy who comes to the United States, defects, and the CIA and FBI give that individual and family members, let's say, a new identity. They move that person to Arizona or New Mexico or someplace like that.
But the Russians can still find that person. How good are they in this kind of intelligence?
CLAPPER: They're quite good and quite aggressive.
But I think our program -- again, without going into specifics -- is pretty sophisticated. And we go to great lengths to try to protect these people who have assisted the United States.
BLITZER: Do you tell them we, you know what, we know you have family members still in Russia, you can never talk to them, you can never write to them, they can't know anything about you, because that's one way, I have told at least, the Russians can pick up the scent and find these individuals?
That's a vulnerability that are explained to people that we bring here to resettle. And sometimes that gets to be a daunting challenge, because the Russians understand that. And if they have any relatives that they are aware of back in Russia, they will leverage that for sure.
General Clapper, thanks so much for joining us.
CLAPPER: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, there's breaking news. Michael Cohen has formally asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the ongoing civil dispute with the porn star Stormy Daniels. We have details.
And we're also learning that the newest member of the Trump legal team, Rudy Giuliani, has met with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. We have new details on that as well.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We have breaking news on the president's longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his fight to delay the lawsuit by the porn star Stormy Daniels.
[18:33:03] Let's go right to our national correspondent, Sara Sidner, monitoring the developments in Los Angeles. Sara, what's the latest?
SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is big movement in the case of Stormy Daniels trying to get out of her nondisclosure agreement. But it's also a big move, and it tells you about something that is happening with President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
I want to read to you the declaration that he has just filed in district court. He's talking about his Fifth Amendment rights. You'll remember that he is now under criminal investigation after his home, his hotel, and his offices were raided.
And this case here in California is a civil court case. His attorney has been arguing that, because he is under criminal investigation, he should not have to testify or appear in this civil case, because some of the things he says, if he is deposed, for example, may hurt him in the criminal case against him.
Here's what Michael Cohen has put in a declaration to the judge, James Otero. He says, "Based upon the advice of counsel, I will assert my Fifth Amendment right in connection with all proceedings in the case, due to the ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI and U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York."
Those are his words. That is something the judge had asked for, said that he would need to consider, whether or not this civil case should go forward because of the criminal case.
You're seeing video there of Michael Cohen on a daily basis. We're getting new video of him either going to and from his daily work or going to and from the courts, but it should be very clear that there's very big movement in this case that also says something about that case against him in New York.
Remember what the Fifth Amendment is all about. It's about being able to assert your right not to say something that would hurt you, not to be a witness, for example, that would hurt you. It's to keep you from saying something that could get you in trouble when it comes to your rights to self-criminalization.
[18:35:07] So this is a very big deal when you consider what is happening in this case. Remembering that this is a civil case, the Stormy Daniels case where she's trying to get out of an NDA, and he is also facing the criminal investigation there in New York.
BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Sara. Joey Jackson, our CNN legal analyst is joining us right now. Your reaction. Michael Cohen, the president's long-time personal lawyer, he's under criminal investigation by -- by the feds in New York. Now asserting his Fifth Amendment rights to avoid saying anything.
JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's a very significant development to be clear. Now let's understand this. Certainly, you can assert your Fifth Amendment right. Right? That is that "I'm not saying a thing," because a person does have the ability not to incriminate themselves.
Now, let's make the distinction very clear. The civil case in California obviously relates to matters that are non-criminal. Right?
However, we do know, Wolf, that there's a Southern District investigation and as an element to the fraud that the Southern District -- that is the feds are accusing him of -- right? -- or he's under investigation for is the whole issue of potential campaign finance violations.
We know the Stormy Daniels payoff was made about 11 days prior to the campaign. At issue was going to be what was the intent. Was it a campaign contribution of any kind? If so, did it violate laws? And to that extent, he has the right not to say a thing.
From a legal perspective, it's anticipated. You never want your client, Wolf, who's under an investigation, to say anything that might potentially embroil them even further into it. And so I'm not surprised that this lawyer's move that they would file a declaration saying, "I'm pleading the Fifth. I'm not saying a thing."
What I would anticipate, then, is that nothing will happen along the lines of the civil case in terms of any deposition or anything related to his testimony. That will be stayed pending the criminal case. And I would also think that in the criminal case he would have not a word to say. And that is that the federal government will have to construct a case without his participation.
Now, I should also say this. There could be some point going down the line that he could be brought into the Southern District for what's called a reverse proffer. What does that mean in English? It means that the federal government does have occasion where, if they have the goods against you, will bring you into their office, and they will explain to you exactly what they have. And then it will be up to you, and they will read you chapter and verse. This is the information we have. These are the documents we have. He doesn't have to say a thing. He just listens with his lawyer.
And if it's compelling enough, then you may or may not want to cut a deal. We're far away from that, but I'm just looking into the future in terms of what if Southern District can do. But just reminding the viewers civil case, California, not related to the Southern District case, which is in New York.
But they are related inasmuch as the one element of the campaign finance violation and whether or not he did, indeed, violate those laws with the payoff of Stormy Daniels 11 days before the election. A huge, significant development in this case.
BLITZER: Yes, very significant. And Gloria Borger, you've been monitoring this very closely, as well. In this declaration to the U.S. district court, Michael Cohen, in addition to saying he's going to assert his Fifth Amendment right and not say anything. He does offer this explanation why he's doing it based on the FBI raids. During the corresponding raids, he says, "the FBI seized various electronic devices and documents in my possession which contain information relating to the $130,000 payment to plaintiff Stephanie Clifford" -- Stormy Daniels -- "at the center of this case. And my communications with counsel Brent Blakely relating to this action."
So he is making a connection why he's going to assert his Fifth Amendment right.
BORGER: Right. I mean, look, if there are potential federal election law violations, et cetera, he doesn't want to incriminate himself. You know, I think this is a huge development. I think it's something that would probably be welcomed at the White House, quite honestly. Because if he did violate federal election law, if he were to testify about who knew what when, did the president know, did the president not know, I think it's very wise of his attorneys to not -- to not have him do it. And if I were Donald Trump, I'd be very happy about that.
BLITZER: You know, it's interesting. The president's longtime lawyer for more than a decade, Michael Cohen, now formally telling a federal district court he's asserting his Fifth Amendment right.
Listen to what President Trump, then candidate Trump, said about those who assert their Fifth Amendment rights. This is September 28, 2016.
Ron, listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So there are five people taking the Fifth Amendment like you see on the mob. Right? You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. What's your reaction, Ron?
[18:40:08] RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, legally, they may welcome him taking the Fifth. Politically, the name of the president's longtime personal lawyer or, alternately, fixer and the word "Fifth Amendment" in the same headline, you know, is not a good political juxtaposition.
And I think it is, you know, only -- I'm not the lawyer here, but I think it is only the first act in what will be a -- you know, a drama with many acts. Because ultimately, whatever -- whether he takes the Fifth or not, the investigation will go on. And if the federal government has a strong case against him on the grounds of Stormy Daniels or otherwise. The question of whether he takes a deal at that point could look different than it does today.
And I think that if you look down the future, you know, if you look at how this may play out over the next several weeks and months. I mean, one thing to keep in mind. From everything we have learned about Donald Trump over the last two years, I think people should be very sanguine about the -- about the likelihood that he is going to stand back, respect the usual boundaries of a president, and allow his personal attorney to face this kind of legal jeopardy that could ultimately reverberate into jeopardy for him.
And I think everyone in the political system, he just keeps coming back to this. If Congress ultimately has to be thinking about what they will do to defend the rule of law if it comes under greater threat from the decisions that could flow from this important step today.
BLITZER: Yes. It is pretty extraordinary, Kate, when you cover the White House for us. And you covered President Trump for quite a while. It is pretty extraordinary that the president's long-time personal lawyer and friend and so-called fixer is asserting his Fifth Amendment right. Any reaction you're getting yet?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's very extraordinary. We have not heard from the White House since this just happened a short while ago. But I would like to know that in that letter that his lawyer sent to the court today, his lawyers were representing him in the --
BLITZER: The president's lawyers?
COLLINS: Yes. The president's lawyers are representing him here in the Michael Cohen case. This letter -- this letter indicating, really, how they're going to handle the information that was seized during those FBI raids. Those raids that we know infuriated the president.
And one detail that they had in there is that, as they're going over the information to see what's privileged, what's not. They said that President Trump is going to help them look at it. They did say, quote, our client will make himself available, as needed, to aid in our privileged review on his behalf, which just shows just how close this has gotten to the president.
We went from a part where the White House was really trying to keep their distance from President Trump from this case, trying to, like, protect him, essentially. We've seen just how close this has gotten with this letter, saying that he's willing to help out.
And even yesterday, when he was welcoming the French president in the Oval Office and a reporter asked, "If it comes to this, would you pardon Michael Cohen?" Are you considering that?
Certainly, a legitimate question that we've all been wondering, and he snapped at the reporter who asked that and said that it was a stupid question. He was very angry about it. So we're really seeing just how consumed the president is. He isn't keeping that private. We're seeing it right out in the public.
BORGER: You know, Wolf, he hasn't claimed privilege. And, you know, there have been, what, more than 37 witnesses that have been -- that have been interviewed by the -- by the special counsel in and around Donald Trump. And they haven't claimed privilege in those interviews.
The notion, as Kaitlan points out, that the president now will personally be looking at what was scooped up in Michael Cohen's office to see whether privilege should be claimed really gives you an indication of how personally involved he is in what is sitting in Michael Cohen's office. And it's -- it's a difference. It's a real difference between this and the Mueller investigation.
COLLINS: And we should also note that at that press conference in Palm Beach with the Japanese prime minister, the president brought up that he has not had anyone use privilege or he hasn't used privilege. He did bring that up during that press conference when he was being asked by the special counsel if he has any plans to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, or the deputy attorney general.
COLLINS: He did bring that up himself, unprompted by the reporters.
BLITZER: Yes. And we're talking about the criminal investigation in New York, where the president has -- says he has some privilege to go through documents, as opposed to the civil case out in Los Angeles.
Everybody stick around. We have a lot more on the breaking news. Significant breaking news right after this.
[18:49:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following breaking news. Michael Cohen, the president's long time personal lawyer, telling a federal court in Los Angeles that he will assert his Fifth Amendment right and not say anything in regards to the Stormy Daniels lawsuit that is underway right now.
You know, David Swerdlick, we went back and it's obviously very awkward and embarrassing for the president of the United States to see his lawyer Michael Cohen take the Fifth Amendment right based on what the president over the years has said. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Have you seen what's going on in front of Congress? Fifth Amendment. Fifth Amendment. Fifth Amendment. Horrible. Horrible.
The mob takes the Fifth. If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?
When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth so they're not prosecuted. I think it's disgraceful.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. What do you think?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, the president says if you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment? Look, it bears repeating that Michael Cohen has not yet been indicted.
[18:50:03] He has the constitutional right to take the Fifth Amendment as Joey pointed out. But politically, as Ron said, this is a problem because it suggests, one, that his lawyers think he could say something in the civil case that might aid prosecutors in his criminal case. They are not just waving away the criminal case, they're taking it seriously and that I think is something that the White House is now going to have to answer repeatedly, especially based on the clip you just played.
BLITZER: Yes. And, Joey -- Joey Jackson, our legal analyst, amidst all of this, there's a letter that's just been released in a separate federal case. The criminal investigation of Michael Cohen in New York in which the president's lawyer, including the lead lawyer, Joanna Hendon, write that they want to be able to go through all the documents seized to see if there's privilege there. Finally, they say, our client, meaning the president of the United States, will make himself available as needed to aide in his privileged review on his behalf.
What do you make of that?
JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, just think about the implications of that, Wolf. Think about the implications of the president of the United States getting involved himself. So, if he's that involved, what information may be out there which so imperils him such that this requires his personal time?
We have major issues going on throughout the country and internationally that require the president's attention. So, for a letter like that to be submitted talking about privilege tells you there's major concern here.
Now, two quick things. Number one on the issue of issue of politics, of course, it looks politically terrible. You have the president talking about the mob, right? And only they assert, you know, Fifth Amendment right, and now, you have your own, your personal guide, who's doing the same thing.
From a legal perspective, though, it's the only way to fly, because at the end of the day, prosecutors will bring Cohen in and they will go over chapter and verse, Wolf, it's called a reverse proper. What if any information is out there?
And we could talk pardon day and night, but let's not forget that there are state charges that could be viable that have nothing to do with the federal charges that they imperil him. So, I'm looking to know how closely the federal prosecutors will be working with state prosecutors in order to ensure accountability here.
BLITZER: And, Gloria, you've got new reporting on Rudy Giuliani, the president's new lawyer. What is he up to?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, my colleague Evan Perez and I are reporting, as did "The Washington Post", that Rudy Giuliani had his first meeting with special counsel Bob Mueller yesterday. And they were discussing this question of a potential interview with the president which as you know, Wolf, these discussions have been going on for months.
But Giuliani was brought in to try and streamline these conversations and bring them to a conclusion. And the negotiations are going to continue and one of -- one source told us that the president's mind on testifying has changed dramatically since the Cohen raid, as long as we're talking about Michael Cohen. One source described it as a seismic shift, that the president was willing to testify before, but then when he saw the raid on Michael Cohen's office, he completely changed his mind.
So, now, you have a president saying you know what, if you want me, you're going to have to come and get me.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around. There's more breaking news we're following.
The fired FBI Director James Comey facing Americans tonight, answering questions about President Trump and the Russia investigation in a whole new way.
Stay with us.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:58:15] BLITZER: James Comey's new book just debuted on "The New York Times" bestseller list in the number one spot. This as the fired FBI director is about to take part in his only live town hall event answering questions from every day Americans about his ouster by President Trump and much more.
Comey takes the stage with CNN's Anderson Cooper a little over an hour from now.
CNN's Ryan Nobles is at the event site in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Ryan, as we stand by to hear from Comey directly, we also know that a prominent addition to his legal team has emerged.
RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Patrick Fitzgerald is a long time friend and colleague of James Comey. He is part of Comey's legal team and we're learning that Fitzgerald took this job last May, shortly after Comey lost his job as FBI director. And what's interesting about this addition to the Comey legal team is that Fitzgerald was the special counsel in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. He was appointed to that position by James Comey and it was, of course, that investigation that led to the conviction of former White House official Scooter Libby and then just last week, President Trump pardoned Scooter Libby.
So, expect that to come up here tonight at the College of William & Mary. Certainly, James Comey has answered a lot of questions about his time as FBI director and his conflict with President Trump since his book came out. But nothing like this setting we're going to see here tonight, some 600 people will be in the crowd.
And instead of answering questions from journalists, he's going to be answering questions from every day Americans, as you said, Wolf, including many of the students here at William and Mary. This is, of course, James Comey's alma mater and we expect many of those questions to be tough. Everything takes place here in just about an hour -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Looking forward to it. Ryan Nobles, thanks very much.
And be sure to tune in to the CNN town hall tonight with James Comey tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.