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Mueller's Questions for Trump Leak; Trump Officials Raided Doctor's Office?; Interview With Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes; Source: Tabloid Story Could be a Warning from Trump to Cohen; White House Facing More Chaos Over Veterans Affairs Pick; Pompeo Promises to Restore State Department's "Swagger". Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 1, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Trump's medical records were stolen from his office by key White House and Trump Organization officials. His claims are raising new concerns tonight.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news in the Russia investigation. The special counsel's office asking the court tonight to wait two more months before going forward with sentencing for the president's fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

This as the president and the White House are clamming up about a detailed list of dozens of questions that Robert Mueller's team is expected to ask Mr. Trump. The silence comes from a presidential tweet falsely claiming that none of the questions reported by "The New York Times" address possible collusion with Russia.

I will get reaction from the House Intelligence Committee member Congressman Jim Himes. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Pamela, tell us more about this late-breaking request from the special counsel's office.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf.

We are just learning today that special counsel Mueller and his team of prosecutors are asking for two more months before the court sentences Michael Flynn. He has been cooperating, as we know, with the government for the past five months ever since he pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors and Flynn's lawyers told the court today that due to the status of the special counsel's investigation, the parties are just not ready yet to set a date for sentencing. So far, out of the five defendants who have pleaded guilty, Wolf, as you know, in Mueller's investigation, only one of them, the European lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, has been sentenced. George Papadopoulos, who worked on the campaign with Flynn who also pleaded to lying to investigators, recently had his sentencing pushed back as well.

BLITZER: So what could these delays in sentencing suggest about the Mueller probe right now, where it stands?

BROWN: Well, it suggests a few things here, Wolf, that basically the Mueller investigation still has a ways to go, that Mueller is still very much plowing full steam ahead. It does not appear that this probe will be wrapping up any time soon.

It also tells us that Flynn is still helping prosecutors, that he still has information that Mueller is finding useful. It's not surprising in this case that they would hold off on his sentencing until they feel like they have all the information they need from him.

And we know that Flynn can help on several fronts, particularly when it comes to any communications with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign and the transition, Wolf.

BLITZER: Significant development, indeed. All right, thanks very much, Pamela, for that report.

Now to the White House and its tight-lipped response to new reporting about the questions the special counsel, Robert Mueller, wants to ask the president of the United States.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president has been tweeting about this, but he isn't talking about this subject, is he?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

I tried to ask the president about this in the Oval Office earlier today. Other reporters tried to ask the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, this in the Briefing Room. They're just not commenting.

Nothing. Silence is the commentary over here at the White House, like the Russia investigation. But you're right, Wolf, the president did go after the leak of these questions, some four dozen questions to "The New York Times," questions that we're told Robert Mueller would like to ask of the president in the context of the Russia investigation.

We could put the tweet from the president up on screen. There's one particular item in the tweet we can point out. We don't have to read the whole tweet, but right there in the middle it says no questions on collusion.

That is just a falsehood, Wolf. That is definitely not the case. If you go through the list of questions that were leaked to "The New York Times," they -- many of them go to this allegation of collusion, specifically one question, when did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?

Of course, Wolf, that refers to that June 2016 meeting that included the president's son Donald Trump Jr., the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort.

And while the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, did not want to weigh in on these questions earlier today, referring reporters to the president's outside legal team, I will tell you, Wolf, I did talk to one White House official about the leak of these questions.

And that White House official said to me -- quote -- "Surely, the publication of the questions is a real complication for the process," Wolf.

The implication there from that official is that the leaking of these questions might make it difficult, might make them think twice over here about putting the president forward for an interview with the special counsel in this case.

BLITZER: Good point.

Jim, the president's longtime personal physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, tells CNN that he was robbed by a White House aide and a Trump Organization lawyer who took the president's medical records from his office. What is the White House saying about this incident?

ACOSTA: Well, the White House is saying essentially nothing to see here. No surprise there. They're not saying there was anything out of the ordinary there.

[18:05:02]

We do know from our correspondent Alex Marquardt in New York and his producer, they ran into Dr. Harold Bornstein up in New York City earlier today.

One comment that Dr. Bornstein said to CNN, if we can put it up on screen, that would be great. If not, I can just read it to you.

He said, "How would you feel if you cared for someone for 35 years and they came and robbed your office?"

That from Dr. Harold Bornstein to CNN, so obviously he feels very hurt by the fact that the president's then bodyguard and body man, Keith Schiller, and another attorney came by Dr. Bornstein's office, as we have been reporting and others have been reporting, in February of 2017. That story first reported by NBC.

But here's what Sarah Sanders said during the briefing when she was asked whether any of this was appropriate. Here's what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As is standard operating procedure for a new president, the White House Medical Unit took possession of the president's medical records.

QUESTION: It was characterized as a raid. Is that your understanding of what happened? The doctor seemed to be pretty upset about it.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: No, that is not my understanding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: But of course, Wolf, Dr. Bornstein disagrees with that passionately, describing this as a robbery and a raid, even making the comment to NBC in an interview with that network describing this as something akin to Watergate.

Obviously, another question about the behavior of people close to the president and just what they were going after when they came in and seized those records, Wolf.

BLITZER: Really a bizarre development, another one. Jim Acosta over at the White House, thanks very much.

ACOSTA: You bet.

BLITZER: Let's dig deeper right now into Robert Mueller's reported questions for the president and what they tell us about the special counsel's investigation.

We're joined by our political correspondent, Sara Murray, who has been reporting on this.

So, Sara, what's the big picture here?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think that what we're learning is that special counsel Robert Mueller has questions as they relate to collusion, regardless of what the president may say.

He has questions as they relate to obstruction of justice, and there's not just a few of them. There are dozens.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Tonight, a new glimpse into some of the areas special counsel Robert Mueller wants to cover in an interview with the president, according to a list of questions obtained by "The New York Times."

Among them, why did President Trump decide to fire FBI Director James Comey? What did candidate Trump know about Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign? And when did Trump learn about that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son, top campaign aides and a Russian lawyer?

Trump lashing out today, tweeting, "You have made up phony crime, collusion, that never existed," and: "It would seem very hard to obstruct justice for a crime that never happened. Witch-hunt."

Legal experts say that argument doesn't hold up.

MIMI ROCAH, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: You absolutely can obstruct a crime that never occurred.

MURRAY: Sources tell CNN Trump's legal team outlined nearly 50 questions based on conversations with Mueller, spanning issues from collusion, to obstruction of justice, to Trump's business dealings in Moscow. While Trump is adamant his campaign never colluded with the Russians...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look at how these politicians have fallen for this junk. Russian collusion. Give me a break.

(BOOING)

MURRAY: ... Mueller still wants to know whether Trump knew about any outreach to Russia by his campaign or his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

As Mueller probes whether the president tried to obstruct justice, he wants to know what Trump meant when he said this about his decision to fire Comey:

TRUMP: In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

MURRAY: Plus, what did the president mean when he invited Russian diplomats to the Oval Office in May 2017 and told them he faced great pressure because of Russia, but that was taken off after he fired Comey?

And what is it the president wanted from the attorney general he now publicly criticizes?

TRUMP: The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this and when he recused himself.

MURRAY: Did he expect Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia probe, to protect him? Did President Trump refer to previous attorneys general protecting the presidents they served?

The special counsel's wish list probes a wide range of the president's contacts with top administration officials, campaign aides and advisers, including Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, personal attorney Michael Cohen, and longtime adviser Roger Stone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, it still remains to be seen whether the fact that these questions have been leaked will have any impact on whether President Trump will sit down for this interview, at least willingly, with Robert Mueller.

We obviously know that he has been stewing on Twitter, but the reality is, he's been souring on the notion of a sit-down with Mueller ever since his longtime lawyer's office, hotel room and home were raided. That's, of course, Michael Cohen in New York.

[18:10:01]

BLITZER: Yes, that's important information indeed. Sara, thank you very, very much.

Joining us now, Congressman Jim Himes. He's a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

As you know, the president says there were, in his words, no questions on collusion in those list of 49 questions leaked to "The New York Times."

When you read these questions, though, what do you gather about where the Mueller investigation right now is heading?

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, it's heading in at least a couple of directions. Obviously, lots of questions that point to the possibility of obstruction of justice in the firing of James Comey. What did you know, when did you know it?

Questions about the president's business practices and real estate deals in Russia. That's a whole other line of inquiry. And despite what the president said, you know, some real questions about the possibility of collusion.

You know, again, what did you know and when did you know it? So, clearly, this leak -- and it's interesting. I can't think of a leak that has occurred out of Mueller's team. That has been a hermetically sealed operation. So, it's intriguing to consider that the probability is that the leak actually came out of the White House.

But, in any event, that leak indicates that this is a very broad- ranging investigation with a lot of topics on the table.

BLITZER: Yes, out of the White House or out of the president's personal attorney staff or somewhere along those lines, not necessarily, as you point out, the Robert Mueller team.

Do you think Mueller knows the answers to most if not all of these questions already?

HIMES: Well, my guess is, it's a mix.

And, of course, the scary thing for any individual being interviewed in such an investigation, and certainly for the president, who is temperamentally incapable of sort of going first to the truth, the scary thing is that you just don't know which questions the investigators do know the answer to. And, again, it must just be fascinating to be Trump's -- President

Trump's attorneys right now, because, you know, on the one hand, you see the president tell lies that are obviously strategic, and then it's almost as though he does it partly out of instinct, to describe a world that he would like to be in, rather than the world he is actually in.

So, I have got to tell you, it's going to create a huge problem for the country, because, traditionally, presidents in these situations, like President Bill Clinton, have sat with the investigators and done these interviews. But in this case, boy, those lawyers are going to be very nervous people.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure they are.

The president is arguing, as you know, you can't obstruct justice for a crime that never happened. How do you see it?

HIMES: Well, that's just not true.

You know, you can obstruct an investigation, and that's the point. If there's an investigation under way, and you look to get in the way of that investigation by lying, by stopping somebody from doing something, regardless of what that investigation is about, you could be obstructing.

And, by the way, you don't even need to be the subject of that investigation, the target of that investigation. You can obstruct an investigation that is of a third party. So, anyway, I don't know where the president is getting that idea.

Obviously, it's important for him to repeat the mantra that he believes that there was no collusion.

BLITZER: If Mueller doesn't find any underlying crime, do you think the American people would really want to go ahead with impeachment?

HIMES: Well, it's an interesting question. Without a crime, there is no impeachment.

So the Constitution is pretty clear that a president is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. We are a long way from that point, Wolf. The president has obviously behaved in ways that has caused a great deal of consternation for a lot of us, but it is really important, particularly as we go into election season, to remember that we cannot let impeachment go the way, for example, of the appointment of Supreme Court justices.

And what I mean by that is becoming just another arena for the partisan battle. You know, the last thing this country needs -- and, look, I will be the first to say I have been pretty critical of this president on any number of a dozen counts, but the last thing this country needs is impeachment proceedings that move forward as a matter of course because we don't like the president.

To answer your question, unless there is a very clear crime, impeachment is not something that is appropriate for us to talk about.

BLITZER: Some members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have reportedly drafted articles of impeachment against the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who's overseeing the Mueller investigation.

Rosenstein responded today by saying the Justice Department won't be extorted. He used that word.

Does Rosenstein have your support to continue in his role?

HIMES: Well, of course he does.

Look, poor Rosenstein and his boss, the attorney general, have suffered, you know, near weekly attacks from their boss, from the president of the United States. You know, and this is something new in our history. The president is not supposed to regard the Department of Justice the way President Trump regards -- quote, unquote -- "his Department of Justice."

[18:15:02]

It's not his. And so he has attacked the attorney general. He's attacked Rosenstein, by the way, Rosenstein being his appointment as deputy attorney general.

And, look, the Freedom Caucus, I would like to read those articles of impeachment, because I know more about, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, Rosenstein's activity than most, and he has done absolutely nothing to warrant impeachment.

And from a political angle, I mean, again, this takes us back to the Clinton impeachment. If a bunch of House members move toward with impeaching the deputy attorney general, when he's running this investigation, I got to tell you, there's at least 50 or 60 Republican members of the House who would look the Freedom Caucus in the eye and say, you know, this is how I am going to lose my seat.

So my guess is that it doesn't gain a lot of traction.

BLITZER: Congressman Mark Meadows, the leader of the Freedom Caucus, he responded only a few moments ago on Twitter.

He said this. And I will read it to you. "If he," Rosenstein, "believes being asked to do his job is extortion, then Rod Rosenstein should step aside and allow us to find a new deputy attorney general, preferably one who is interested in transparency."

Your reaction.

HIMES: Well, my reaction is -- and I like Mark Meadows. He's a friend. In this instance, he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

Rod Rosenstein has done nothing untoward. And, secondly, the use of the word transparency there, this takes us back to Jim Comey talking about the Clinton investigation. Investigations are supposed to happen in an environment of actual secrecy, right?

Investigations don't always lead to charges. Sometimes, they go down rabbit holes that if they were exposed would cause innocent people to have their reputations questioned. So, again, in this instance, Mark Meadows is wrong.

It reminds me of something that Devin Nunes, who has since changed his tune pretty dramatically, but Devin Nunes -- and this is his words, not mine, not words I would use, but Devin Nunes characterized the Freedom Caucus as lemmings with suicide vests on.

And if you're a moderate Republican in a district where you're struggling to get reelected, the Freedom Caucus moving ahead with impeachment of Rod Rosenstein would be a pretty good way to assure the defeat of a lot of moderate Republicans in the House.

BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes, thanks for joining us.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues next.

What's Robert Mueller's strategy in asking for a two-month delay in sentencing the president's fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn? We will talk about that and more with the former U.S. attorney, our CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara. He's standing by live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:04]

BLITZER: In the Russia investigation tonight, the special counsel is asking for two more months before sentencing a key figure and potential star witness, the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He pled guilty to lying to investigators and is now cooperating with those investigators.

We're joined by the former U.S. attorney, our senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara.

Preet, thanks for joining us.

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure.

BLITZER: What does it say to you that Mueller is now putting off the sentencing of Michael Flynn for at least two months?

BHARARA: Well, it's not conclusive, but what typically happens with people who are cooperating with the government is, you don't want to have sentenced and have to deal finally with what their exposure is going to be until they're done cooperating fully.

And so sometimes sentences get delayed for months at a time, sometimes for even years at a time, although that is unusual, so that the cooperation can be completed. And that either means sometimes further debriefings with the government. It can be testifying at trial to make sure that that's been complete or otherwise to make sure that all the information that that person has is given to the government.

So, the fact that the sentencing has been put off by two months indicates that some other activity is going on. And I know that the language in the submission to the court is fairly oblique. And that's intentional and is another sign that there's some cooperation activity that is still going on.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point.

Let me ask you about those list of 49 questions leaked to "The New York Times" that Robert Mueller would like to ask the president. Does this signal to you, Preet, that the Mueller investigation is now coming to an end?

BHARARA: No, it doesn't signal that at all.

It may mean that it's coming somewhat closer to an end with respect to some parts of it that deal with the president, but you have pending cases. You just -- as you pointed out a second ago, you have a postponement of the sentencing of Michael Flynn. You have a pending case against Paul Manafort.

There are all sorts of other threads of this that we probably don't even know about yet. So, I don't think it's close to an end. And we have been hearing for a long time, including from the president's lawyers starting with last year, going back to 2017, that this could be wrapped up in a few weeks.

Rudy Giuliani came aboard, I think a couple of weeks ago or three weeks ago, and said this would be wrapped up in a couple of weeks. So all these suggestions that every sign that there's some activity taking place means the end of the investigation, I don't think they really add up.

BLITZER: When you read these questions, and I know you have, do you get the sense that Mueller still has some information that's not out in the public yet? He knows the answers to a lot of these questions, but he would love to get the president to respond?

BHARARA: Yes, I hope it's the case that Bob Mueller has a lot of information that's not out in the public yet. I think he's been very tight-lipped. I think his team has been very tight-lipped.

And a lot of these questions are things that you or I, if you're following the news, could have been asking about. So, I think there are some things that they know the answer to.

I think a lot of these questions go to what was in President Trump's mind when he took particular actions, like when he had the interview with Lester Holt, when he fired Jim Comey, when he tweeted various things.

And so they may have their own surmise about what Donald Trump was thinking, but sometimes the purpose of an interview is to give that person, the target, an opportunity to explain and to disabuse the prosecution of whatever views it may have.

[18:25:05]

So a lot of this just goes to what was in the president's head when he did and said certain things.

BLITZER: Some of the questions are very specific. Some are more open-ended.

How important would the follow-up questions to the special counsel's team be? And I assume these would not simply be 49 questions and answers. They would have an opportunity to follow up with specific questions.

BHARARA: Yes.

Look, it's very unusual for questions like this to be submitted to a potential interviewee in advance. I know that the president is different and this is a unique case, perhaps the most unusual and unprecedented case we have had in a long time.

But when I was U.S. attorney, we frequently investigated high-level officials, including elected officials, and we would give them some deference and some courtesy so that they wouldn't be sandbagged and so they'd have a general idea that we were not going to be veering off course and to be respectful of their time and their position.

And we would give sometimes general topics. And, of course, we never investigated someone like the president. But in a case like this, it's unusual. And it may be the case if it's true that these questions came directly from the Mueller team that they're trying to be as above-board and transparent as possible with the White House and the president's lawyers, so that they will not have the excuse that they're worried about being ambushed or being sandbagged.

This is not a set of gotcha questions. They are questions that the president should be anticipating and be expecting, that his lawyers should have been preparing for, for a long time.

BLITZER: Are there particular questions, Preet, that stood out to you?

BHARARA: Yes.

In connection with the president's tweet earlier today that there was no questions about collusion, you know, there's obviously many questions about collusion, as we understand it, even though the word collusion is not used, in the same way, that about half of the questions relate to obstruction, even though the word obstruction is not used.

And all the questions relate to President Trump, even though his name is not used. So the question that comes to mind that goes directly to this issue of whether or not there was some kind of collusion, again, that's not a criminal term, it's a broad term, but it can connote criminal activity, is, what knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

That's a direct question among many that is asking whether or not there was coordination and a connection between people on behalf of the Trump campaign and folks in Russia, and that's exactly what everyone is talking about when they're referring to collusion.

BLITZER: It's a good point.

The president tweeted this today and I will put it up on the scene. "It would seem very hard to obstruct justice for a crime that never happened. Witch-hunt."

What argument is he trying to make here?

BHARARA: Well, it sounds like he's making a political argument. He doesn't seem to either know or care too much about the law or the criminal law.

Obviously, obstruction is a separate crime. And the elements of that do not require you to be able to show that the underlying crime was committed or that you could prove the underlying crime.

And, actually, the most prototypical worst case of obstruction is one where you could prove that, because of the obstruction, because of the destruction of documents or the hushing up of a witness or the intimidation of someone not to come forward, for that reason that obstruction is the thing that causes you not to be able to charge the underlying serious crime.

And in that case, I think -- everyone I think would understand why an obstruction case would be important and would resonate with people, because it showed that there was a real thing that was obstructed, even though you couldn't bring the underlying crime, but for the obstruction maybe you could have.

And I think the president is making something more of a political argument to suggest that, even at the end of the day, if you can't show that the obstruction is the thing that caused the underlying crime not to be able to be charged, but at the end of the day, there was no underlying crime to begin with, and that may be so, he thinks he should be off the hook.

Now, politically, I leave it to others to decide whether or not that's a powerful argument. I think there are people on various political sides who would say that was a lot of time and energy expended to go after someone who hadn't committed the basic crime for which the special counsel was appointed.

But it's still true, as a legal matter -- and legal matters I hope are still important in this country -- that if you obstruct justice, if you lie to investigators, if you destroy documents, if you intimidate witnesses, if you do things that try to make an investigation go away, no matter how weak the underlying case may have been, that's a crime.

BLITZER: Legal matters are very, very important, as you correctly point out. Preet Bharara, thanks as usual for joining us.

BHARARA: Sure. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're getting more reaction to the breaking news. The special counsel's office asking a court tonight to wait two more months before sentencing the president's fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

And is Mr. Trump turning against his longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen? Tonight, sources are telling us the tabloid cover story about Cohen is a warning from the president.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight a new window into the Russia investigation as the special counsel asks for a two-month delay in sentencing the fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to investigators and now is cooperating with the Mueller team.

[18:34:40] Also breaking, the White House is refusing to comment on the list of questions that Mueller reportedly wants to ask President Trump, if and when they actually sit down for an interview. We're joined by our legal and political analysts.

And Jeffrey Toobin, what's the strategy, first of all, in delaying -- postponing the sentencing for Michael Flynn?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: When you as a prosecutor have a cooperating witness, someone who's flipped, you want leverage over them. And the best leverage you have is what sentence they're going to get and what recommendation you're going to make to the judge about that sentence.

[18:35:12] So you don't want a cooperator sentenced until you're done with them. Until they've done all their testimony, all their cooperation. So the fact that the prosecution here, the Mueller office, keeps extending the time for a -- the sentencing suggests that they have more they want to get out of Flynn, and they want to make sure they get everything they can before he's sentenced.

BLITZER: Before he tells a judge what they recommend, what kind of sentence he should get. Gloria, you're doing a lot of reporting. You're speaking to a lot of legal sources. The extensive list of questions that Mueller would like to ask the president of the United States, what does it tell you about the investigation?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that it's very broad and that it's very deep and a lot of the questions are not surprising. I think his attorneys would rather have had a smaller list that was -- that was less broad, but it does talk about coordination on the Russia issue. It talks about the firing of Flynn. It talks about the firing of Comey. It talks about Don Jr.'s meeting in Trump Tower. And, you know, the president's attorneys are saying, "Why do you need Trump on this? You have all the contemporaneous notes of everybody else who was involved in this. And Trump doesn't take notes, and he doesn't keep a diary and he doesn't do any e-mail. So you have all the information that you need.

And of course as Preet was saying before, what they don't have is what was in the president's mind when he did the interview with Lester Holt, when he met with James Comey privately and told Jeff Sessions and everyone else to go away. They don't know what was in his mind.

The president's attorneys say, "Well, what is he supposed to say to you? 'Oh, yes, I meant to obstruct justice. That's what was in my mind'?" So they're a little perturbed, as you know.

TOOBIN: But what's in his mind is the critical issue in the whole case.

BORGER: Of course, of obstruction.

TOOBIN: Obstruction of justice is an intent crime. It's not a crime to fire the FBI director in and of itself. It's only a crime to fire the FBI director if you have a corrupt intent, and that's what you have to know, in part, at least, interviewing Donald Trump.

BORGER: So some say it's a perjury trap, obviously. And, you know, others are -- you know, others are saying, OK, there's the president's lawyers saying, "They're obviously out to get -- they're obviously out to get this president and trying to trip him up." And it's clear that they're -- you know, they're never going to let him sit down for an interview.

TOOBIN: I've never understood the phrase "perjury trap." Just tell the truth, and you're not trapped.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but that truth.

BORGER: Easy for some but maybe not for this client.

BLITZER: The last time we heard the president speak about this was Saturday night at that rally he was doing out in Michigan, and he weighed in on the admission now from this Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, that she indeed had deep connections to the Kremlin. I want you to listen to what the president said Saturday night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Have you heard about the lawyer? For a year a woman lawyer, she was like, "Oh, I know nothing." Now all of a sudden, she supposedly is involved with government. You know why? If she did that, because Putin and the group said, "You know, this Trump is killing us. Why don't you say that you're involved with government so that we can go and make their life in the United States even more chaotic?" Look at what's happened. Look at how these politicians have fallen

for this junk. Russian collusion. Give me a break.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Does the president have a point, though, that the Russians are now seeking to create more chaos here in the United States?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's quite the theory that he has, that now they've changed her story so they could affect what's going on here.

But it's also interesting that the president is being critical of someone who changed their story about that meeting. Because you know who else changed their story? Donald Trump Jr., his son, who originally said that that meeting was about Russian adoption and that was all. That was why he took it. It was a very limited meeting.

Of course, we now know what it was really about. He thought he was going to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, alongside Paul Manafort and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. So it's funny that the president is being so critical about someone who changed their story about what really went on in that meeting.

BLITZER: It was intriguing that Natalia Veselnitskaya originally said, "I'm just a private lawyer. I have nothing to do with the Kremlin. Nothing to do with the government. Nothing to do with Putin." And now all of a sudden, she's now saying, "Well, yes, I'm very well-connected."

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and I think we need to know a little more about her, and I agree with Kaitlan. I do think, though, that what's missing from the president's explanation there in that clip that you played, Wolf, is that if he's right, then the question becomes, "Well, then why were you meeting with someone like that in the first place?"

In other words, we all have been saying for months, you shouldn't have met as a campaign with someone who may or may not have had ties to the Russian government. This is exactly why. We didn't know, for example, that she would turn around and make these statements, but you don't run that risk. That's what all the intelligence people have been saying. And that's why --

[18:40:14] TOOBIN: But the e-mails, the e-mails said --

BORGER: Yes.

TOOBIN: -- that setting up the meeting said she was --

BLITZER: Saying that there would be dirt on Hillary. You'd get dirt on Hillary Clinton.

BORGER: Right.

SWERDLICK: They may not have thought she was a spy, but it's not worth running that risk.

BORGER: And if Russia meddling is such a big issue, why is this the first time we've heard about that as a huge issue from the president of the United States, who should have been saying it was a huge issue from day one when he met with James Comey. And Comey in his book says, of course, he was shocked that nobody was asking about how we can -- how we can stop this.

SWERDLICK: He's acknowledging that he put his -- people or his staff put themselves in a compromising position.

BORGER: I think it's a tangled web he's weaving, to quote someone.

BLITZER: Very tangled. All right. Everybody stick around. Is President Trump sending a message to his own long-time personal lawyer, his fixer, Michael Cohen, through "the National Enquirer"? The cover story that seems to have Cohen right now on edge.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:50] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Tonight, a tabloid accused of covering up for President Trump and maybe helping him send a direct message tonight. That would be "The National Enquirer." We're told that a cover story about the lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his, quote, secrets and lies may be a sign that Mr. Trump is actually turning on his long-time fixer who now is under criminal investigation.

CNN's Brynn Gingras is joining us from New York.

Brynn, a lot of people are reading between the lines of this "National Enquirer" story.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. What we know -- a big question has been, will Cohen turn on Trump if he's federally indicted? But it seems Trump may be turning on Cohen if you read into a tabloid headline the way it seems Cohen himself did.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS (voice-over): Tonight, new indications the relationship between President Trump and his long-time friend and lawyer, Michael Cohen, may have soured. This week's "National Enquirer" cover story reads: Trump fixer's secrets and lies.

Until now, Cohen, who's also known as Trump's fixer, has been one of Trump's staunchest defenders.

MICHAEL COHEN, TRUMP'S PERSONAL ATTORNEY: One thing Donald Trump is, he's a compassionate man. He's a man of great intellect, great intuition and great abilities. Mr. Trump's memory is fantastic and I've never come across a situation where Mr. Trump has said something that's not accurate.

GINGRAS: But when asked if he thought the story's publication was meant to send a message to him, Cohen told CNN: what do you think? A source close to Trump tells CNN a story like that wouldn't be

published by the tabloid without the president's blessing. "National Enquirer" head David Pecker is a long-time ally of Trump's.

In a three-page spread, the tabloid also writes the president is in the hot seat because of his lawyer, possibly another signal Trump is not happy with Cohen. Right now, Cohen's attorneys are sifting through evidence seized from his home, hotel room and office by federal investigators last month as they try to block the courts from using it in a mounting criminal probe against him for his business practices. There's been wide speculation if Cohen is charged, he will turn on the president.

Last week, the president called into FOX News and distanced himself from Cohen and the investigation.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Michael is a businessman. He's got a business. He also practices law. I would say probably the big thing is his business and they're looking into something having to do with his business. I have nothing to do with his business.

GINGRAS: But the Trump campaign is paying some of Cohen's legal fees with the president's re-election campaign funds. According to the Federal Election Commission, nearly $228,000 has been paid to Cohen's defense attorney's firm.

Two campaign officials say the money is for legal fees associated with the Russia investigation and not the current criminal investigation that partly looks into payments Cohen made to Stormy Daniels, a woman who alleges an affair with the president, which Trump denies.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS: AMI, the company that owns "The National Enquirer", denies the claims the president was consulted on that story saying this, Donald Trump has never been consulted on editorial decisions, has never requested a story be written on a certain subject or angled in a certain way and never requested a story be killed. Period -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brynn Gingras, thanks for that report.

Let's get back to our analysts.

And, Gloria, how significant is this "National Enquirer" story?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think if you're Michael Cohen, you don't feel very good after seeing that. Look, Cohen has had a relationship with "The National Enquirer." We know that he and Pecker have done business together. We know about the sort of catch-and-kill stories.

And so, when this publication turns on Cohen, maybe they're trying to say, look, we're independent. We're completely independent from Donald Trump and we're completely independent from Michael Cohen. I, however, believe that it's more likely that they are -- that they are sending a signal to Cohen and that it would make him feel incredibly uncomfortable, since these are people he has been dealing with for years.

Their statement was Donald Trump has never told us to kill a story, but other people have.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, you've done reporting on "The National Enquirer" and AMI, its parent company.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: And they don't need to be told by Donald Trump --

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: -- which side to take.

[18:50:00] They know which way the wind is blowing, and that cover story is a sign that it's blowing against Michael Cohen and he's in a lot of trouble.

BLITZER: What do you think, David?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think President Trump is his own Roy Cohn. He's as good as anyone he could get at manipulating the pieces on the chess board.

BLITZER: You're getting some new information, some reporting on a potential new secretary of Veterans Affairs. The White House is looking for someone now that Dr. Ronny Jackson is out -- is out of the picture.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: And that process is not going smoothly, to no surprise, of course. We saw this coming because before they picked Dr. Jackson to be the V.A. secretary nominee before he withdrew, they struggled to find someone to replace David Shulkin. And now, they're right back where they started since Dr. Jackson is out of the picture now, and they're really struggling to find who they're going to nominate next.

Of course, this is a critical agency that is very important to not only the president but lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well. And so far, we are told by an administration official they have five people they are considering at the moment. One of those is the former Florida congressman, Jeff Miller, who's scheduled to meet with the president this week to go over that.

We know that the White House staff was meeting today to decide how to go forward in this process. They're trying to really do a better job this time, since when the president nominated the White House physician, they really had very few people handling -- serving as a liaison between him and Capitol Hill. Now, they've got this whole mess where there's no clear front-runner, even though they are interviewing several people this week for the job.

And they seem less -- there's less of a sense of urgency to get someone nominated. They're attempting to take their time. But right now, it still seems really chaotic. It doesn't seem as if there is a plan B.

And White House officials are hesitant to say who is the front-runner because, of course, this is a very capricious president who could make a last minute choice and surprise everyone and contradict his own people as we've seen him do before.

BORGER: Well, they haven't done any vetting. I mean, this is a president who wanted to put people he's comfortable with in his cabinet. Now that he's decided he knows how to be president and can do this all by himself, and so, Dr. Jackson was somebody he liked a lot, felt comfortable with, saw every day, and started moving the chess pieces around without doing the proper vetting.

I would argue that this is a problem this administration has had since day one when they fired Chris Christie as head of the transition and then decided to do it differently. And so, they had no real plans in place and vetting as always been an issue for them.

BLITZER: Given what's happened to many of the others who were brought in. Chris Christie might be looking back and saying, you know what, they did me a favor because a lot of people have come into this administration and left very quickly, diminished, shall we say.

All right, guys, stick around. There's more breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:26] BLITZER: Tonight, the president's new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is making a promise to his staff as he prepares to formally be sworn in by the president tomorrow.

Let's bring in our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski.

Michelle, Pompeo suggesting he'll bring something to the State Department that his predecessors, Rex Tillerson, didn't bring. Tell us about that.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Right, the word is swagger.

This is Pompeo coming in and getting a big welcome from the hundreds of State Department employees that were gathered here -- coming in with an upbeat energy, making the self-deprecating jokes, and as you would expect, saying all the right things. Basically, you know, that he's humbled to be here, that America can't achieve its goals without all of you, that I have a lot to learn from you, I'm not going to lock myself away in the executive suite on the seventh floor, that he's going to turn things around here.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: I talked about getting back our swagger, and I'll fill in what I mean by that, but it's important. The United States Diplomatic Corps needs to be in every corner, every stretch of the world, executing missions on behalf of this country, and it is my humble, noble undertaking to help you achieve that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOSINSKI: Keep in mind, though, it wasn't much more than a year ago that Rex Tillerson also came in and said a lot of the right things on day one, who wouldn't? But Pompeo inherits a State Department with abysmally low morale, with gaping holes in staffing and important positions and ambassadorships with all of these incredibly complicated foreign policy issues looming.

So, there are plenty of people in this building who now feel relieved, like here's a forward-leaning person who wants to be a very visible, dynamic secretary of state, who wants to let the press in, who knows how to play the political game, and who has said, you know, it's time for us to build up the State Department.

We know behind the scenes he's doing a lot of the right things and saying the right things too. For example, he wanted to have a lot of individual meetings with the heads of regional bureaus, instead of filtering all of the information through one person or a very tight inner circle, which is what Rex Tillerson did.

However, there are many people here too who have concerns that here's a very political appointee with no foreign policy experience. They worry how much he's going to be just a yes man for the president's policies as well as surprising things that Pompeo has said in the past about Muslims and gay people, and those were things he did not back away from in his confirmation hearings.

But apparently in an effort to show just how much the White House has his back, the president is coming here tomorrow for a special ceremony for Pompeo, and that's something he did not do for Tillerson, Wolf.

BLITZER: First time at the State Department for the president.

Michelle, thank you for that report.

That's it for me.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.