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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Senator Richard Blumenthal; Did Trump Submit Inaccurate Financial Disclosure Form?; Senate Report: Russia Wanted to Help Trump in 2016 Election; Trump Jr. Testimony: Couldn't Remember Call to Blocked Number; Trump: "We'll See" If Kim Jong Un's Summit Threat is a Bluff; Giuliani: Mueller's Team Has Told Trump's Lawyers They Cannot Indict the President; Trump Declares Cohen Payment in Financial Disclosure. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired May 16, 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 HOST: 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: Breaking news tonight, a new financial disclosure by President Trump confirming that he repaid his lawyer Michael Cohen, who paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep silent about the affair she claims she had with Mr. Trump.
We will talk about that and much more with Senator Richard Blumenthal of the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees, and Bill Browder, a Putin critic whose name appears in Paul Manafort's notes from a Trump Tower meeting with Russians. And our correspondents and analysts, they are all standing by.
First, let's to go our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.
He has the very latest -- Jeff.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's another chapter in this ongoing saga over Stormy Daniels, and did the president know about that hush money payment.
Of course, for months, the White House insisted they did not. The president himself insisted he did not just a couple months ago when he was flying on Air Force One. Then his new lawyer said he did. Well, today, it became official on page 42 of a 95-page report the president did indeed reimburse Michael Cohen for that payment.
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump not answering questions tonight.
ZELENY: But conceding for the first time in a financial disclosure report he repaid more than $100,000 to his personal lawyer Michael Cohen for expenses incurred during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The financial disclosure form released today from the Office of Government Ethics revealed the payment to Cohen, who is now the subject of his own criminal investigation. The form did not explicitly say what the payment was for. But Cohen has acknowledged paying $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public about her alleged affair with Trump.
It appears to contradict what the president said last month.
QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No.
ZELENY: The president did not disclose the payment last year in his financial report. The disclosure this year drew attention of the ethics office, which passed it along to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is supervising the Russia investigation.
In a letter today, the acting director of the ethics office says, "You may find the disclosure relevant to any inquiry you may be pursuing regarding the president's prior report."
WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: His letter to Rod Rosenstein is tantamount to a criminal referral. And that's because it would be a crime to knowingly and willfully omit any required information from a report.
RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: I never thought $130,000 was a real payment. It's a nuisance payment.
ZELENY: The president and his new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have struggled to give consistent answers to questions about the payment.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: You said he -- this is a regular arrangement he had with Michael Cohen. So, did Michael Cohen make payments to other women for the president?
GIULIANI: I have no knowledge of that. But I would think, if it were necessary, yes. He made payments for the president, or he conducted business for the president, which means he had legal fees. Money is laid out and expenditures, which I have on my bills to my clients.
ZELENY: Daniels' attorney says the new documents show a disturbing pattern.
MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: This disclosure today proves the following. Michael Cohen has been lying to the American people for months. David Schwartz, the individual who came on national television repeatedly on many networks and stated the president never reimbursed -- reimbursed the payment and knew nothing about it, was lying to the American people.
(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY: Now, there's been so many answers to the simple question of did the president know about the hush money, did he pay for it, over the last several months, Wolf, it's hard to keep track of them all.
But today, in writing, the president saying he did pay for that in his financial disclosure report that was required by all federal officials to be filed this week.
Now, the Trump Organization and lawyers said we didn't have to file that. They simply did it sort of to be transparent. The Ethics Department said they indeed did have to file it.
One point is clear here, Wolf. There's been a question about if this today would be a campaign finance violation if Michael Cohen would have made that payment on his own. This makes clear the president reimbursed him for that, but perhaps not all the questions about this have been answered, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny over at White House, thank you.
More breaking news. President Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani now says the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has told the Trump team he will follow Justice Department guidance, which says that a sitting president of the United States cannot be indicted.
Our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, has more.
Dana, you just got off the phone. You just spoke with Giuliani.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
Look, it's been an open question whether or not the Mueller team, if they find that there's evidence, enough so that they really think that the president did something criminally wrong, whether they would challenge those Justice Department guidelines and challenge something that's never really been tested in the courts, which is, can you indict a sitting president?
But, as you said, Rudy Giuliani told me that the Mueller team has informed the Trump legal team that they have concluded that they will not do that in any way, shape or form, that they are going to follow Justice Department guidelines.
This is something that has been in place. It's been the tradition basically since the Nixon time, the first time the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department stated flatly that a president is just too busy. There's too many issues of national security to have to face a criminal indictment.
It was reaffirmed during the Clinton years after the impeachment crisis there. And so this is something that Robert Mueller and his team are going to have to deal with if they do have something that they really think is criminal through the impeachment process. This does not mean that the president is off the hook. Mueller and
his team, they are expected to issue what we assume after all this time is going to be a lengthy report. And in that, we will see if they refer anything at all to the House of Representatives, because that is where, if there is anything that the president is alleged to have done wrong, that's where it will have to play out.
BLITZER: And that report, whether it's referred to the House, that's a decision, final decision, made by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
Does this now make it more comfortable, perhaps, the decision not to indict a sitting president conveyed to the Trump legal team, does it make it more comfortable for the president to sit down with that Mueller team and answer questions?
BASH: Not necessarily, because the fact of the matter is that when the president, when anybody sits down to answer questions under oath, you put yourself in criminal jeopardy because you put yourself in the position to perjure yourself.
And that's been the big worry about -- among everybody who has worked for the president, who knows the president, because he certainly is somebody who can kind of expound on things and can get himself into trouble. You don't want to do that legally.
And I should just tell you on this notion of an interview, Giuliani say that they still don't have the specifics from the special counsel's office on exactly what they want to interview him about, how they want to do the interview.
And although they want to wait until after the North Korean summit, assuming it happens in mid-June, to actually do an interview if it happens, at least for now, the Trump team is saying that they at least want to get on with the negotiations over what an interview would be, even if one would exist, which, again, most people think that the president should not do that.
BLITZER: Yes. Good reporting, Dana. Thank you very, very much.
BASH: Thank you.
BLITZER: Also breaking this hour, a strong defense by the FBI director, Christopher Wray, of both his agency and the Russia investigation.
Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is joining us from Capitol Hill.
Manu, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, he was testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
And he got a lot of questions about the criticism that President Trump has leveled against the bureau, as well as whether or not the Russia investigation is a witch-hunt, as the president has said time and again.
And Christopher Wray made clear, defending his bureau and also defending the Russia investigation, making clear that he does not believe it's a witch-hunt.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: The agents I have worked with since being on the job have inspired me every day in terms of their professionalism, their integrity, their courage and their commitment to doing the right thing in the right way, which I think is key.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Well, you said at your confirmation hearing that the Russia investigation was not a witch-hunt. You have been there now 10 months. You're fear more immersed of the details of the FBI. Is that still your opinion?
WRAY: Yes, sir.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Now, Wolf, he also seemed to defend the bureau over these criticisms that he's been getting from the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, who had come after trying to get information about someone who was described as an intelligence source, something that the Justice Department has resisted giving that committee information about.
He said -- Wray said the day that we can't protect human sources is the day the American people start becoming less safe. So, some defense from this bureau that has come under enormous criticism from the president and his allies on Capitol Hill -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. The FBI director clearly disagrees with the president, who repeatedly says all of this Russia probe is a witch-hunt.
Also up on the Hill today, Manu, some pointed language from the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Tell us about that.
RAJU: Yes. This all has to do with that 2017 intelligence community assessment that concluded that Vladimir Putin orchestrated a cyber- campaign to help Donald Trump win the presidency.
The House Intelligence Committee Republicans essentially disputed that view, saying the underlying intelligence, there was some problems with the analytics, and they could not support the notion that Putin actually tried to help Trump win. That was the view of the House Republicans.
The Senate Republicans have a different view. The Senate Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee saying today that they essentially believe the intelligence community's assessment is accurate.
And when I talked to another Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is very involved in these issues, he made it very clear that he also agrees to the intelligence community and that the Republicans should also adopt that view.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: What I would tell Republicans, they could come after us in 2018, and they probably will.
So I have got no reason to doubt the intelligence community's finding. I think the Senate Intel Committee's report makes sense to me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Now, the House Republicans are still standing by their report.
I talked to a number of them on that committee, including Mike Conaway, the Republican running the Russia investigation on the House side.
He said that guy he's 100 percent confident in their assertions. And another Republican, Chris Stewart, who sits on that committee, said there's only one person who can determine whether or not Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to win. And that's Vladimir Putin.
So, some distinct differences between House and Senate Republicans, but House Republicans increasingly isolated in their view, with the Senate Republicans siding with the intelligence community's 2017 assessment -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. Manu Raju, up on the Hill, thank you very much.
We're also tonight getting a first look at transcripts of Donald Trump Jr's interview without Senate Russia investigators. They're shedding new light on his meeting with a group of Russians over at Trump Tower in New York City during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working this part of the story for us.
Jim, first of all, what we know about these transcripts? What do they reveal?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you could be forgiven for losing track of Donald Trump Jr.'s, the president's, other Trump allies' various explanations for that 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
But what these transcripts make very clear is that, from the very beginning, the run-up to this meeting, to the moment they were in the room, to the end of the meeting, members of the Trump campaign, senior members of the Trump campaign, both expected to and were eager to receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russians who were offering it.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Senate Judiciary Committee transcripts make clear that at the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. was expecting the Russians to supply dirt on Hillary Clinton.
This is despite President Trump, his son and others repeatedly claiming otherwise.
A Russian lobbyist present for the meeting told senators that Donald Trump Jr. -- quote -- "was definitely in charge" and after some small talk, began by saying something to the effect of, "So you have some information for us."
In his own testimony, Donald Trump Jr. admitted that he was -- quote -- "interested in listening to information about Hillary Clinton," adding -- quote -- "I had no way of assessing where it came from, but I was willing to listen."
This is a direct contradiction of the blatantly misleading story put out by the White House and Donald Trump Jr. claiming the meeting was about adoptions. Those interviewed say, however, that the Russians did not deliver the promised dirt and instead focused on interest in removing U.S. sanctions on some Russians.
Rob Goldstone, a British publicist who was in the room and helped arrange the meeting, says the focus of the discussion began to -- quote -- "infuriate" Jared Kushner. After a few minutes of this labored presentation, Goldstone said, "Jared Kushner, who was sitting next to me, appeared somewhat agitated by this and said, 'I really have no idea what you're talking about.'"
Don Jr. testified the meeting lasted 20 to 30 minutes and at the conclusion Goldstone apologized to him -- quote -- "for what he believed was wasting our time." Donald Jr. said he believed there to be a -- quote -- "pretty substantial delta" between the meeting's original purpose and what actually took place.
Asked if he informed his father about the meeting and the Russians' offer to supply dirt on Clinton, Don Jr. repeatedly said he did not, explaining that he -- quote -- "wouldn't bring him anything that is unsubstantiated, especially from a guy like Rob, before I knew what it was actually about myself."
However, shortly after arranging the meeting, Don Jr. made an 11- minute phone call to a blocked number. Asked if he remembers who that call was with, Trump Jr. said, "I don't."
Democrats note, however, that former Trump campaign aide Corey Lewandowski testified that candidate Trump's primary residence has a blocked number. A full year later, after "The New York Times" first broke the existence of the meeting, the White House initially claimed the meeting was primarily about adoptions, an explanation disproved when e-mail surfaced showing that Don Jr. accepted the meeting on the premise the Russians were bringing the expected dirt on Clinton.
In his testimony, Don Jr. said he did not know that his father was involved in drafting the initial misleading statement. "I never spoke to any father about it," he said, but the White House acknowledged that the president himself took part in crafting the misleading response.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president weighed in, as any father would.
SCIUTTO: In the transcripts, we learn about another meeting between Trump allies and Russians, this one taking place during the transition.
Donald Trump Jr. saying that he, by accident, having left the gym, walked into a meeting in Trump Tower after the election in December during the transition between Jared Kushner and ambassador -- the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
He had not previously disclosed any knowledge of that meeting -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jim, thank you, Jim Sciutto reporting.
Let's get some more on all the breaking news.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is joining us. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
Let's talk about what Rudy Giuliani just told our Dana Bash, that the special counsel has told the president's legal team they can't indict a sitting president, won't indict a sitting president. Those are the ground rules. Giuliani says, "All they get to do is write a report."
That's a quote from Giuliani.
What does that tell you?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: I, first of all, have a high degree of doubt that the special counsel is going to announce this view on this very consequential and complicated legal issue.
BLITZER: So, are you saying you don't believe Giuliani, what he told Dana Bash, that he was told personally by Mueller that you can't indict a sitting president?
BLUMENTHAL: I'm dubious.
I want to know what the basis is for that statement by Rudy Giuliani, and whether it was just an offhand view by one of the attorneys with the special counsel, or whether it was a pronouncement by the special counsel himself.
It is an enormously and profoundly important conclusion of law.
BLITZER: Well, do you believe that under current law the special counsel or the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, can recommend charges to indict a sitting president?
BLUMENTHAL: My personal belief, based on the review of the law that I have done, is that the president could be indicted.
Whether he could be tried during the time he's president is another issue. But, for example, to prevent a statute of limitations from running on a crime committed by a president, I think the indictment could be returned by a grand jury, and it could be held in abeyance until the conclusion of his term as president of the United States.
BLITZER: So you don't accept the standing Justice Department opinion that has been around for decades now that you can't indict a sitting president?
BLUMENTHAL: I think that there's a good argument for that view.
But I would contest whether it is a sound interpretation of the law. I believe that the president is not above the law. No one is in this country. And just because he's president doesn't mean he can't be indicted.
Maybe the trial should be postponed, because he has foreign policy to conduct. He has weighty matters of the nation to do. And so the trial would be postponed, assuming that it could be done without undue prejudice.
BLITZER: But if there's a report, a concluding report that Mueller has and Rosenstein signs off on it, they can submit it to the House of Representatives, where they can consider impeachment.
BLUMENTHAL: That is an alternative course and a different remedy.
And it involves the House of Representatives proceeding with impeachment and then a conviction in the United States Senate. It is as much or maybe even more a political process as much as a legal one.
But the president is not above the law. And an indictment, if that's the course that Robert Mueller chooses to go, I believe would be upheld by the courts. It would go to the United States Supreme Court. It's an issue that has never been resolved in that way.
There is a Department of Justice opinion to the contrary. I happen to think that he could be indicted, even if the trial is postponed.
BLITZER: Let's talk about the payments to Michael Cohen, the president's longtime personal attorney, his fixer.
Do you believe that $100,000-plus, $100,000-plus, that the president offered or paid to Michael Cohen potentially represents -- and it's in the disclosure statement that was released by the White House today, the president's disclosure statement -- potentially represents a violation of the law?
BLUMENTHAL: Very definitely, it potentially constitutes a violation of law, because the ethics rules and statutes require that that kind of debt be reported on forms that everyone employed by the federal government, no matter who they are -- again, the president is not above that law -- has to report those kinds of loans.
And, clearly, here, he is either repaying a loan that could constitute a violation of the campaign finance laws by Cohen, if it is in excess of the amount permissible for a loan that has be reported --
BLITZER: So, what you're saying is, he should have reported this payment to Michael Cohen in last year's, the 2017, financial disclosure statement, and not wait until this year?
By not disclosing it last year, you think potentially that was a violation?
BLUMENTHAL: The failure to disclose is potentially a violation of law.
And the burden is on the president to explain it. Clearly, it was a debt that is required under the ethics form to be disclosed.
BLITZER: Well, we do know that the acting director of the United States Office of Government Ethics has written this letter to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, saying -- quote -- "I am providing both reports to you, last year's and this year's, because you may find the disclosure relevant to any inquiry you may be pursuing regarding the president's prior report that was signed on June 14 2017."
So, there's a letter of referral to the Justice Department, to Rosenstein, taking a close look at that.
What do you think Rosenstein is going to do with it?
BLUMENTHAL: I think he will, in turn, provide it to the special counsel. It may be relevant to issues of credibility, of pattern and practice, of ethics violations.
There are a lot of ways this information could be relevant, or it could be pursued independently, again, referred to, as apparently the special counsel did, on an independent matter involving Michael Cohen to the Southern District of New York, the prosecutor's office there.
BLITZER: Let's talk about your committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee today; 2,000 pages of transcripts were released by your committee.
The chairman released it, Chuck Grassley. The Democrats support the release of all these transcripts. Based on the testimony that you have seen now -- and you have gone through all of these transcripts -- what's your best guess when the president actually learned about that controversial Trump Tower meeting in New York City in June of 2016?
BLUMENTHAL: My best guess is that he learned about it from Donald Trump Jr. in a call that right now Donald Trump Jr. seems to have difficulty recalling.
It's the call to the blocked number. But one way the other, my best guess is that he learned about it before he orchestrated a completely false and misleading version of that meeting in the statement that he helped to concoct while he was on Air Force One, and Donald Trump Jr. was asked for a comment by "The New York Times."
And in that now infamous version of the meeting, he said it was just about the Magnitsky Act and about childhood adoptions, when in fact he must have known at the time from Donald Trump Jr. it was about the dirt that Trump Jr. and Manafort and his son-in-law, Kushner, tried to get from Veselnitskaya and other Russian agents.
And, remember, it's not only that he was eager, but he was frustrated when that dirt was not forthcoming. And he arranged the meeting with, again, the now infamous, "I love it," when he was told what the meeting was about.
BLITZER: That dirt. I want to get to that in a second.
But do you believe that Donald Trump Jr. informed the president, his dad, his father, of what happened during that Trump Tower meeting in that 11-minute blocked phone call? We don't know who that blocked phone call went to, but there is some suspicions it have gone to the president.
BLUMENTHAL: I think that is a viable theory that has to be --
BLITZER: But you don't know that for sure?
BLUMENTHAL: We don't know it.
And, Wolf, here is the main response to your question. We have no firm evidence about what happened in that phone call. Donald Trump Jr. has to be called back as a witness under oath and in public.
The whole point of that interview was to prepare for public hearings under oath by Donald Trump Jr. and the others who participated in that June 9 meeting, the extraordinarily significant meeting that the public has to -- has a right to know more about.
BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, as usual, thanks so much for coming in.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.
Now I want to bring in Bill Browder. He is a critic of Vladimir Putin. He was mentioned in the documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee today. He's joining us live from London.
Bill, thanks so much for joining us.
As you know, your name came up in this meeting. What's your reaction?
BILL BROWDER, CEO, HERMITAGE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT: Well, one of the main things that they were -- that the Russians were there to try to get from Donald Trump Jr. was to get Donald Trump Jr. to ask his father to repeal the Magnitsky Act, which is a piece of legislation named after my lawyer Sergei Magnitsky after he was killed in Russia which imposed sanctions on Russian officials.
And so I and Sergei Magnitsky were the ask of the Russians in that meeting. They wanted the act repealed and they wanted some type of prosecution organized against me.
And so I wasn't surprised to see my name there. I know how angry Putin is about this whole thing. And it all makes sense to me.
BLITZER: The participants of that meeting at Trump Tower in June of 2016, they downplay it by saying they mostly spoke about the issue of adoption.
Explain why people should be skeptical when they hear that.
BROWDER: Well, first of all, if you read -- if you read the transcripts, which I did this afternoon, it's all about Magnitsky. It doesn't -- it has almost nothing to do with adoptions.
The only connection to adoptions is that, when the Magnitsky Act was passed in Russia, Vladimir Putin then banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. But if you read all the documents, it's a complete -- it has nothing to do with adoptions. It has to do with sanctions. It has to do with something that Putin is very upset about, and he wants repeal those sanctions.
BLITZER: What else stood out to you from reading those transcripts?
BROWDER: Well, I guess the main thing that stood out for me is just how central I was and how central Magnitsky was to the whole conversation.
It looked to me like it was a bait and switch when I read it, that they promised something which they didn't deliver. It was interesting to me to see how it all played itself out from all different perspectives.
The one thing everybody agreed on in these transcripts was the discussion about the Magnitsky Act.
BLITZER: Rob Goldstone, the British publicist who helped set up that meeting guy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, he was also talking about the possibility of actually setting up a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin back in July of 2015. That's almost a year before the Trump Tower meeting. What does that tell you about Goldstone's role and the timeline of this Russian outreach?
BROWDER: Well, we know that for a long time Donald Trump wanted to meet Vladimir Putin when he was doing the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow.
And I think that all of the sudden they realized -- the Russians realized they were potentially onto a big asset, now that Donald Trump was at that point nominated as a Republican nominee. And they were coming back hard trying to make something like that happen.
It looked like the Russians, from my perspective, thought they were on to something, a good thing. And they thought that Donald Trump would be in their corner. And they wanted to do anything they could to cultivate him.
BLITZER: There seems to be a pattern of Donald Trump Jr., his phone calls with a blocked phone number around that controversial meeting. What do you make of that?
BROWDER: It is very hard for me to know what a blocked number was.
I would imagine that at some point Mueller's team will be able to decipher that. All I can read -- my expertise is really on what the Russians were up to. And I can say for sure that the Russians were up to no good there, trying any way they could to deal with this whole sanctions issue, which causes Putin no end of pain and agony.
I suspect Mueller's team fully already knows and probably has known for a long time who that blocked phone call went to. And, as Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, said, the president's private residence at Trump Tower, that was a blocked phone call.
So there's a lot of suspicions about that, as you probably know.
Based on the details, though, revealed today, when do you think the president actually learned about that Trump Tower meeting and the Russian offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton?
BROWDER: Well, it's entirely unclear.
As Senator Blumenthal said, it could have been right after that, if that was a blocked number, or it could have been for sure the moment when everybody was trying to decide how to respond to "The New York Times" when they called in to say, what was that meeting all about?
We know for sure that there was a lot of scrambling when they came up with the idea of, this was about adoptions. So, from my perspective, that's the one -- the moment we know for sure. Otherwise, it is all speculation.
BLITZER: Bill Browder, thanks so much for joining us. BROWDER: Thank you.
BLITZER: We will have more on the breaking news coming up.
How significant is President Trump's acknowledging that the payment he made to Michael Cohen apparently, apparently, was reimbursement for that hush money paid to Stormy Daniels?
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking tonight, Rudy Giuliani tells CNN that Robert Mueller's team has told Mr. Trump's lawyers that the special counsel cannot bring an indictment against a sitting president based on guidance from the Justice Department.
[18:33:12] Let's bring in our analysts and experts to assess. And Nia-Malika Henderson, what do you think? Giuliani says all they have -- all they can do is really, in his words -- this is what they told Dana Bash -- write a report, and if they want to, they can submit it to the House of Representatives. Sounds a little dismissive. But what do you think the reaction of this is going to be?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL WRITER: You know, we'll see. In many ways we knew this. We knew that he was unlikely to indict a sitting president. This has been DOJ rules going back to Nixon. So that's not surprising.
The question is what does that report say? Is there sort of a recommendation or anything in that report that could lead the House of Representatives to start an impeachment trial? I mean, that's always been the fear of this White House. And we'll see.
I imagine that, at this point, they're slightly breathing a sigh of relief, even though this is something that they knew. The question also is whether or not this makes the argument that Trump should sit down with the special counsel easier. Right? If he's not fearing indictment, if he's saying that he's essentially sort of in the clear, does this mean that he's more likely to sit down with the special counsel? Something that he says he would love to do. Something that some of his advisors and lawyers are saying probably wouldn't be so wise because of possibly perjuring himself in any sort of conversation that he has with investigators.
BLITZER: Mark Preston, how does this fit into the possibility of the president actually sitting down with Mueller's team for an interview?
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think it's very unlikely he will do so anyway. He has put it out there, which I think, has helped with his supporters, because he appears to be very open to doing so.
But as Donald Trump is saying: one thing about being open to it, his advisors are going out there and saying quite another thing. Who what is interesting about this is it's another example of Rudy Giuliani and the Trump team trying to get out ahead of the news on something when it comes down to the fact that he will not participate in an interview. And I do think that is very, very interesting. Certainly at this point in the investigation.
[18:35:13] BLITZER: How significant is it, David Swerdlick, that the president is now acknowledging in this financial disclosure statement that the White House released today that he reimbursed, paid back his longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen more than $100,000, and that presumably was to reimburse him for the Stormy Daniels hush money.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's pretty significant. One, he's acknowledging something that we've been talking about for a couple of weeks. And also today, the Office of Government Ethics referred this to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for further review. So the president is not out of woods yet on this point.
Wolf, if I can just follow up on Nia and Mark on one point about indicting sitting presidents. Yes, the precedent is that presidents can't be indicted, but remember that Kenneth Starr, when he was investigating President Clinton, commissioned his own legal opinion which said that he could. He didn't indict Bill Clinton. But this has been in dispute within the Justice Department in the past.
BLITZER: You're a lawyer, Susan Hennessey. Talk about that.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So I think it is an open question. I think one of the questions here was whether or not Mueller was going to feel like he was bound by that DOJ guidance. So to the extent that Rudy Giuliani as a reliable narrator here, and in the past, he has gotten things wrong. So we should wait for further confirmation on that.
I think that this is an indication that what Mueller is saying is that he does feel that he is personally bound by that guidance. Again, just like Nia said, you know, very, very few people expected this actually to end in indictment. You know, the real question here is what Mueller is going to put in that report. Whether or not he's going to say there was criminal wrongdoing and then what Congress is going to do about it.
BLITZER: Another question is will Mueller indict others, not the president but other officials. He's already indicted a bunch, as we all know. And several of them have already pled guilty.
As far as the reimbursement to Michael Cohen that was included and outlined publicly today in the president's financial disclosure statement. What's your analysis of that?
HENNESSEY: Right. So now we know that he had on obligation to disclose and that he didn't disclose. The president did not --
BLITZER: A year ago?
HENNESSEY: Right. So the question of whether or not there's actually some kind of criminal conduct here, it goes to a willing -- a knowing and willing standard. He had to have done it on purpose. That's very difficult to prove. However, he is certainly on notice now. So to the extent that these
payments by Michael Cohen were part of a course of conduct so that they -- there were other payments like this the president has failed to disclose, that argument that he wasn't willing and knowful [SIC] because he didn't know about it, that is effectively gone. And so anything else that came forward from this point on could result in very, very serious legal trouble for the president.
BLITZER: And as Susan points out, Nia, this letter from the office -- the United States Office of Government Ethics, the acting director, writes in the last sentence, "I am providing both reports. Last year's, this year's financial disclosure statements to you. Because you may find the disclosure relevant to any inquiry you may be pursuing regarding the president's prior report that was signed on June 4, 2017."
HENDERSON: Right, and 2017 would have covered 2016. And this was a debt that was incurred in 2016.
It's significant because he's admitting this. Right? I mean, this is now in writing. It's a document, and it's more formal that he already admitted in a tweet, for instance. It does raise more questions, though.
If you remember, Rudy Giuliani essentially said there were about $450,000 in payments to Michael Cohen. This covers about 250,000 of that, up to 250,000 of that. Where is the rest of that money? Two hundred thousand or so seems to be unaccounted for.
As well as it doesn't necessarily clear up whether or not this was connected to the campaign. Right? Because that's been a question, and if so, it would have been a violation. Because if you're Michael Cohen, you have limits in terms of what you can donate or loan to a campaign. So that's something that we don't know yet.
I mean, there's still a lot of questions. And we'll see what we get from the president and from his lawyers in terms of clearing that up.
BLITZER: Yes. The White House has some explaining to do. Unfortunately, there was no White House press briefing today, so they couldn't explain much at that point.
PRESTON: You know, Wolf, I think it's worth going back to the very top of the show where the news was broke here from Dana Bash about the fact that Giuliani says that we're not going to see an indictment from Mueller.
Here's why that's important. We talk about the strategy from the Trump campaign. But let's look way beyond that. Let's look beyond the legalities of it all. Could you imagine a sitting president in an election year, two years before running for reelection, under indictment from the "deep state"? That would tear the fabric of this nation apart.
For a president to be removed from office, really, the only way to do it is to do it through Congress. I mean, that really is the cleanest, safest way to do so. So whether Mueller was going to do it or not, I don't think he was going to do it, because the fact of the matter is -- that is with an indictment -- the fact of the matter is, it would tear a country apart that is really reeling right now.
BLITZER: If there is a report that's submitted by the deputy attorney general, David, to the House of Representatives for possible impeachment procedures, it makes a big difference if there's a Republican majority in the House, as opposed to a Democratic majority in the House.
[18:40:00] SWERDLICK: Right. It's unlikely that Republicans, if they maintain control of Congress, would move forward with impeachment in the House and then conviction in the Senate, even though Democrats have high hopes of taking back either one or both houses of Congress.
Right now, President Trump is in the low 40s in approval, which is barely below where he was on inauguration day. And, you know, recent polls have shown that the generic congressional ballot numbers are tightening up in favor of the Republicans. So it remains to be seen whether that --
BLITZER: Let's not forget, you need a simple majority in the House for impeachment, but you need a two-thirds majority in the Senate for conviction. Something that Bill Clinton remembers very, very vividly. He was impeached but he wasn't convicted.
All right, guys. Everybody, stick around. Much more coming up. The president's shocking new remarks about some illegal immigrants being rounded up and deported, suggesting they could be gang members. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in. We're stopping a lot of them. We're taking people out of the country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[18:45:42] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our experts.
New revelations about that 2016 Trump Tower meeting and testimony released today by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Susan, apparently, a lot of Americans, the Trump campaign leaders who were there, they very upset. They didn't get much dirt, if any dirt, on Hillary Clinton as had been promised. But let's say they had, would that have been illegal?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY ATTORNEY: Well, the first thing is many members of Trump team have repeatedly lied about the purpose of that meeting and they continue to lie until this day. Now, the precise legal question is going to revolve on whether or not this information was a thing of value under campaign finance law. That's very much an open question.
But this really is an issue where the technical legality is almost besides the point. You know, this is a betrayal of the U.S. electoral system. It really is a betrayal of the American people.
And we haven't seen the Trump campaign sort of give an account for why they thought this was appropriate or acceptable or frankly in keeping with our democratic process. And so, you know, on this issue, I think the implications even go, you know, beyond sort of the narrow questions of legality.
BLITZER: And, Nia, what do you make of those blocked phone calls that Donald Trump Jr. made around that meeting?
NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, the question is who was he talking to, right? There's been a big question of what the president knew. Did he know about this meeting in advance? Did know about the meeting after it happened?
Even though we know that at least according to Donald Trump Jr., in this testimony, that not much came out of meeting. It's in some ways hard to believe that Donald Trump didn't know about this meeting. I mean, if you listen to -- if you read this transcript, Donald Trump Jr. is so excited about this meeting. As soon as it starts, he's like, you know, give me what you have. And then they grow frustrated when nothing is really forthcoming.
So, the idea that Donald Trump didn't know, I mean, it would be a question you imagine that if Robert Mueller talked to Donald Trump, that would be one of his questions. Did he know about this meeting in advance?
HENNESSEY: And notably, you don't have to succeed in committing a crime in order to attempt it. And so, we do see lots of evidence that they were at least trying to solicit this information.
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Can they just acknowledge that? They say no collusion. No collusion. Can they at least just maybe modify it and say, we tried to collude? We tried to collude, we weren't just very successful at it, at least that's what we -- at least we're told now.
It's such a serious issue to have president's son really embarrassed in these transcripts. The leader of free world at a time when he's trying to denuclearize the nuclear peninsula, I understand why Rudy Giuliani wants to get this over with, but the fact of the matter is it seems like each time we find something new, three more things pop up.
BLITZER: Yes, what do you think?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, yes, no, I think that's right. Things keep popping up. The White House has been attached to this narrative, this idea that there's nothing to see here. Keep moving. Let's move on. But the investigation only goes one way. We keep finding out more
information about what's going on between members of Trump's circle and Russians. Not less information. Things don't get knocked down. They keep building up.
PRESTON: Some of the stuff that's coming out now, we couldn't sell this to Hollywood. We'd be laughed out of a movie studio if we had some kind of political thriller that follow this narrative. It would never get made.
BLITZER: I want to get your thoughts on comments the president made today during this roundtable discussion he was having over at the White House on illegal immigrants here in the United States. I want you to give us the context. But listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have people coming into the country or trying to come in. We're stopping a lot of them. But we're taking people out of country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PRESTON: It's my understanding right there that he's talking about MS-13 gang member who is engage in really bad criminal activity. That's situation where you have to be careful what you're talking about and the situation that you're about it. But I do think there's a unification that these MS-13 gang members need to go home.
HENDERSON: Yes, I think that's right. And you have, I mean, this is what you're going to hear from the president, basically, in terms of immigration, illegal immigration, a real hawkish kind of rhetoric. And that's what we saw there.
And we've seen this from him before particularly talking about MS-13, which is a problem in many cities across the country including in the DMV area. This is not surprising. I think a lot of people heard it and wasn't demonizing all illegal immigrants, or people who come here.
[18:50:05] In this case, he was being very specific I think in terms of talking about MS-13.
BLITZER: Yes, remember, when he announced his presidency, he was talking and rapists, and others, and good people, too.
SWERDLICK: That's the problem where this administration. I think right, he is talking about gang member, he is talking about repeat felons, but because the president has forfeited sort of the moral credibility on this issue, because of so many statements he's made, people are left to think, oh, is he just talking about immigrants? Is he just ginning up his base with the sort of nativist message? People are inclined to get him the benefit of the doubt. BLITZER: And getting back to what Rudy Giuliani told Dana Bash, the sitting president of the United States, Susan, can't be indicted. Gloria Borger is getting some more information from a source familiar with the legal teams. The reason that the legal team put the question to Mueller in the first place about the sitting president being indicted is the question of a subpoena to the president, should he decide not to testify.
The reason it's important, I'm reading now from Gloria's note, according to this source, is that under their view of the law, the special counsel's team would have to show they need the president's testimony to investigate a crime of great significance. The president's team would then argue that if you can't indict the president for obstruction, then there's no crime to justify the subpoena.
HENNESSEY: I think that's possible. I mean, we have seen the Trump team try and argue you can't subpoena a sitting president, right? They really have tried to take these arguments to the sort of absolute extreme. While it is overwhelmingly likely that the president would probably win on the question of whether or not he can be indicted, it is overwhelmingly unlikely that he would win on the question he can't be subpoenaed. And so, what we're really seeing now I think is sort of a game of chicken and attempting to maneuver themselves, not because it's really a question about who's going to succeed on the merits, but how long this process is going to take and whether or not they actually are going to force it into an actual court in the first place.
BLITZER: Yes, and Gloria reports that the president's legal team believes in order to justify an interview with the president of the United States, it has to be his crime, not somebody else's crime, according to this source. So, if he can't be indicted, a sitting president, there's no need. But that's a subject that will certainly be debated.
Guys, thank you very, very much.
Just ahead, will Kim Jong-un make good on his threat to cancel his summit with President Trump? There's new insight into Kim's motives and whether a top Trump administration official may have made a major blunder.
[18:57:07] BLITZER: We're closely following the uncertainty right now surrounding President Trump's summit with Kim Jong-un and now that the North Korean dictator has threatened the cancel, the president says we'll see what happens, showing usual restraint in response to reporters' question. One thing is clear: the North Korea dictator did not appreciate provocative remarks by Mr. Trump's new national security adviser John Bolton.
Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.
Barbara, it seems Bolton made Kim Jong-un nervous. BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It appears that he did,
Wolf. And the president still hoping, of course, that the summit will happen, but leaving himself an out just in case.
JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think we're looking at the Libya model of 2003, 2004.
STARR (voice-over): That statement from National Security Adviser John Bolton sent alarm bells to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who the CIA has long thought is only worried about his own survival. Kim knowing full well the fate of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi who was killed by rebels after he gave up weapons of mass destruction for sanctions relief.
Pyongyang now quickly returning to the classic North Korean style of provocations and demand, threatening to walk away from the historic Trump-Kim summit.
A top North Korean official calls Bolton's comments an awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq.
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: We shouldn't have been surprised that this is not an uncommon tactic for North Korea. It's something that Kim Jong-un's father would do, in the run up to a major dialogue or an event, to all of a sudden, to throw roadblocks or obstacles or even just to try to renegotiate a better lot for himself at the table or at the event.
STARR: The administration is playing a wait-and-see strategy.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We haven't seen anything. We haven't heard anything. We will see what happens.
STARR: Some experts questioning if Kim trying to exert leverage over Trump may have overplayed his hand.
GORDON CHANG, COLUMNIST, DAILY BEAST: I was a little bit surprised by it occurring this time because it doesn't make sense from North Korea's point of view. You know, they have created this euphoria in the South, you know, this love of the North. And they turn around and I think they're going to lose a lot of support.
STARR: So the question is, is Kim bluffing or is it all for real? Has he taken a page out of Donald Trump's playbook trying to make a better deal? Wolf?
BLITZER: You got a sense over there of what they think is going to happen at the Pentagon, Barbara?
STARR: Well, they're watching very closely. From the military point of view, nothing has changed. They're continuing to do their exercises, their drills. Troops are still there. Satellites are overhead. Everyone in the U.S. military is still watching North Korea very carefully. If and when there is a deal and there are orders from President Trump, then they'll adjust, Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.