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Interview With Congressman Ruben Gallego; President Trump Pushing More Conspiracy Theories; ABC Cancels 'Roseanne' Follow Racist Tweets; Fast Moving Lava Shuts Down Key Hawaii Highway; Study: Puerto Rico Hurricane Death Toll Near 5,000. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 29, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: How far will both sides to go to make the summit happen?

And lava to the sea. The red hot flow from Hawaii's exploding volcano is oozing into the ocean, creating a new level of danger. We're getting a new perspective tonight on the spreading disaster.

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 on the cancellation of Roseanne Barr's highly rated TV series and the political and cultural implications in the era of Trump.

The ABC network taking a clear stand against the star's racist tweets. As Barr pays a price, the president's false and offensive rants on Twitter are going unpunished. He's heading to a rally in Nashville, Tennessee, tonight, as he's been busy peddling a new conspiracy theory about the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

This hour, I will talk with Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN's Tom Foreman with more on the Roseanne drama.

Tom, ABC calls her tweets "abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values."

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this story absolutely exploded on this network in simply a matter of hours, and in less than a day, one of their top shows is in shambles one of their big stars on the ropes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN (voice-over): "Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes had a baby=vj."

That is the tweet that sank a TV empire. Roseanne's racist slam of former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett came in the wee hours, and Twitter erupted.

Roseanne quickly took it down and tweeted: "I apologize to Valerie Jarrett and to all Americans. I am truly sorry for making a bad joke about her politics and her looks."

But the damage was done. Co-star Sara Gilbert said the comments were: "abhorrent and do not reflect the beliefs of our cast and crew. This is incredibly sad and difficult."

Producer and comedian Wanda Sykes: "I will not be returning to @Roseanne on ABC."

Other Obama staffers and some viewers called for a boycott and ABC called it quits, saying the tweet was "abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values."

LAURIE METCALF, ACTRESS: You can't just stand on the front porch staring at your Muslim neighbors.

(LAUGHTER)

FOREMAN: Since its return earlier this year, Roseanne's hit show has engaged explosive topics, immigration, terrorism, religious and racial intolerance, with her character romping as a rabid conservative and supporter of President Trump.

He loved it.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look at Roseanne. I called her yesterday. Look at her ratings. Look at her ratings. Over 18 million people. And it was about us.

FOREMAN: But Roseanne's support for the far right went beyond the studio, with attacks on gun control advocates, a particularly nasty comment about former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and a stab at former President Clinton's daughter, calling her Chelsea Soros Clinton, suggesting she is married to the son of noted liberal billionaire George Soros.

When Chelsea Clinton corrected her while still complimenting Soros, Roseanne apologized, but then repeated a false claim that Soros was a Nazi. "Were you aware of that? But we all make mistakes, right, Chelsea?"

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Roseanne Barr's tweets are frequently controversial, but this time it really became a wildfire because of just how racist and bizarre the comments were.

FOREMAN: So, the network pulled the plug. The chief executive of Disney, which owns ABC, tweeting: "There was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing."

(END VIDEOTAPE) FOREMAN: But dealing with the fallout of all this may not be so simple, not just because there are millions of viewers and millions of dollars at stake, but also because many conservatives in this country consider this to be one of the few shows in network television that reflected some of their more basic views about the country, about society, about politics.

And with that gone, no doubt they're going to turn to ABC and say, all right, if she's been fired, what else do you have, Wolf?

BLITZER: Tom Foreman reporting for us, thanks, Tom.

We're going to have much more on Roseanne's rant and her show's cancellation later this hour.

But, right now, I want to get to President Trump. We're standing by for his rally tonight in Tennessee and the possibility that he might say something about Roseanne.

He has been stirring up as well another controversy with his -- of his own, with a new conspiracy rant, claiming that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, will meddle in this year's midterm elections.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's over at the rally site in Nashville.

Jim, first of all, what are you hearing from the White House about the Roseanne show being axed?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf.

Will, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said aides to the president will not be commenting on the cancellation of Roseanne Barr's TV shows, saying Mr. Trump has more important work to do, like a possible summit with North Korea.

[18:05:08]

But, of course, President Trump has spent less time on the issues and more time on his personal grudges lately, misleading the public over and over with tweets that seem to say more about the president than anything else.

The president is not likely to let up at this rally here in Nashville, where he may go right back to ranting about the Russian investigation and immigration, as he did all weekend long.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Heading back on the road for more campaigning, President Trump was in no mood to take questions from reporters.

But the president's had plenty to say on Twitter. Since the end of last week, he's posted more than three dozen tweets, many venting his frustrations about the Russian investigation and spreading unproven conspiracy theories that offer a window into the mind of an angry president.

One of the more baffling tweets alleges that special counsel Robert Mueller's team will be -- quote -- "meddling with the midterm elections, especially now that Republicans are taking the lead in the polls."

But there's no proof of that. The president appears to be making it all up. But he's peddled this kind of paranoia before, like when he said the 2016 election that he ended up winning would be rigged.

TRUMP: And I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest. Folks, the system is rigged. It's rigged, OK? And remember this. It's a rigged election.

ACOSTA: The president's top aides insist it's his adversaries who have an unhealthy fixation the Russia probe.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: So much is happening that has nothing to do with this phony-baloney talking about the 2016 election. And may I say one thing? Every time people talk about this phony Russia collusion, the word collusion doesn't even have legal significance.

ACOSTA: Democrats complain it's the White House that's hampering the investigation and that the only solution is for voters to take action in the upcoming midterms.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: You need to throw the bums out. As long as there's a majority in Congress that is willing to do this president's will and as long as we have a deeply unethical president, there's only one remedy.

ACOSTA: In another tweet, the president even managed to make a Memorial Day statement about himself, saying those who died for our great country would be very happy and proud of his record on the economy and his handling of the military, ending the message by saying, "Nice."

The president also tried to get away with spreading misleading information the issue of immigration, blaming Democrats for separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents once they cross the border into the U.S.

But that's not true. Both parties have shaped immigration policies for decades. And it's his administration's decision to divide up immigrant families. The president has said as much himself.

TRUMP: We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law. It's a horrible thing. We have to break up families.

ACOSTA: Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained earlier this month the separations will deter more migrant families from crossing the border.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child may be separated from you. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, just short a while ago, the White House press secretary also tried to clean up the president's tweet that "The New York Times" was using phony sources when the paper was just quoting an official that the White House put on a conference call with reporters.

Sarah Sanders said the president was going after "The Times" for misrepresenting that official's comments. But if you go back to the original tweet, he was clearly accusing "The Times" of making up sources.

So, this is just another example of the White House attempting to ask the American people to trust the president, and not what they can see with their own eyes.

And, Wolf, of course, the question here tonight is whether the president will mention the controversy swirling around comedian Roseanne Barr. As the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said earlier this afternoon, he has more important things to do.

But, of course, this would not be the first time he has undercut one of his aides if he decides to go ahead and talk about Roseanne later on tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see if he does.

All right, thanks very much, Jim Acosta, on the scene for us.

Joining us now, congressman Ruben Gallego. He's a Democrat. He serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: My pleasure.

BLITZER: The president says the special counsel's investigation is meddling in the midterm elections, which are coming up in November.

Democracy doesn't work, as you know, if voters don't have confidence in the legitimacy of their votes. How damaging are these comments by the president?

GALLEGO: They could be potentially very damaging, but it also shows you that the president again cares more about him, him and his career, vs. the country and democracy in general.

I also think it's quite interesting that he happens to avoid the fact that there was Russian meddling in the election of 2016, but somehow is now coming up with conspiracy theories for the elections of 2018.

Again, this is the president of not acting like a president, not acting responsible, and just coming up with straight-up lies out to confuse people and to basically rile up his base.

BLITZER: Should Robert Mueller, Congressman, consider the timing of the midterm elections, once again in November, as he prepares to release his final report, or should be released whatever he finds whenever he finds it?

[18:10:00]

GALLEGO: I think in terms of executing a proper report, that he should do whatever it takes to make sure that he's coming out with a report.

And if that's after the elections, then that's fine. If it's before the election, that's fine. If it's tomorrow, that's fine, provided that he has done the job properly, made sure that he represented the United States well, that he investigated thoroughly what he could.

But for us, as politicians, to try to put pressure on Robert Mueller or any prosecutor, for that matter, for them to release any type of finding, especially when it involves politics, I think is very dangerous and it's a slippery slope that we don't want to go down.

BLITZER: According to a recent CNN poll, only 17 percent, 17 percent of Republicans approve of Mueller's handling of the Russia investigation.

And this I among Republicans. Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, admitted that he wants to undermine the entire investigation because it will ultimately come down to whether or not you guys in the House of Representatives decide to pursue impeachment.

Has the president, for all practical political reasons, already succeeded?

GALLEGO: Well, to begin with, I think it's very interesting that Giuliani is acting like a mob lawyer at this point, just trying to sway the -- quote, unquote -- "jury."

Number two, the assumption that we're going to go to impeachment, I think, is a very big assumption. We haven't seen the report. For all we know, Mueller is going to come out with a bunch of indictments of people that are involved, and not necessarily indict the president or mention the president.

But the fact that they're jumping to this kind of shows you that there's a lot of guilt being presented by both the president and the people around him. And, yes, I do think the president's having an effect on at least the Republican base about what's going on with this investigation.

He's purposely doing it. He's purposely throwing misleading and just outright lies about what is going on this investigation. And he's being aided by people like Giuliani, who are just basically making up bold-face assumptions about what's going with his investigation. And they're just being repeated in the press, unfortunately.

BLITZER: Let's turn to another important story we're reporting on today. ABC, as you know, has canceled Roseanne Barr's highly rated television show after a series of racist and anti-Semitic tweets. What are your thoughts on that decision?

GALLEGO: Well, number one, it's the right decision.

They should have fired her a long time ago. She did tweet out in -- or sent pictures of that were clearly anti-Semitic. She has made fun of several African-American women politicians before.

I'm glad that this done. But this also a problem that is happening right now because of the Trump administration, or I should say Donald Trump, not necessarily the Trump administration.

We have seen increasing amount of racist rhetoric being thrown out, whether it's the lawyer in New York, whether it's other people claiming -- or using racist vile.

I guarantee you, after I'm done with this show, I'm going to get called some very horrible Latino slurs because I'm talking about the president.

But this president has brought it out of people to make it acceptable to me openly racist. It shouldn't surprise anybody. This is the man that basically created a conspiracy theory about the first black president not being born here and being born in Kenya. And that has basically given some signals to some of these closet racists that they believe they could come out and not face any repercussions.

But this is what we need to do. We need to be punishing these types of racist acts to make sure that people understand this is not acceptable in society.

BLITZER: Congressman Ruben Gallego, thanks so much for joining us.

GALLEGO: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Just ahead: Will the cancellation of "Roseanne" have any lasting impact on the conversation about racism and the political rhetoric in this country?

And our analysts will break down the president's bogus new claim about election meddling by Robert Mueller.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:18:13]

BLITZER: More now on the breaking news this hour.

President Trump getting ready to hold a rally up tonight, as he ramps up his effort to undermine the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his Russia investigation.

Let's get some more with our specialists and our analysts. And, Jeffrey Toobin, let me start with the president's tweet today -- quote -- "The 13 angry Democrats, plus people who worked eight years for Obama, working on the rigged Russia witch-hunt, will be MEDDLING" -- all caps -- "MEDDLING with the midterm elections, especially now that the Republicans -- stay tough -- are taking the lead in polls. There was no collusion, except by the Democrats."

He's clearly trying to undermine this entire Russia investigation and take the battle to his Republican base.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, also, I don't want to get too much into psychobabble, but the concept of projection.

Here you have a man who was elected president because the FBI, James Comey, intervened in his election on the eve of the election and in many respects probably won the election for him.

Here, he is projecting that if he loses it will be -- if his party loses, it will be because of law enforcement intervention. There's no evidence for it. But I think it's an interesting clue to how his mind works.

BLITZER: Susan Hennessey, you're our legal analyst. How do you see it?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Right.

So, I think it definitely about public opinion. And it's also about trying to prevent the truth from coming out, right? The president offers these insane conspiracy theories in order to undermine public confidence, so that he can undermine political accountability.

And some of the theories that he offers, you have to ask yourself, what is scarier, that the president of the United States actually believes this stuff, or that he doesn't and he's just brazenly lying to the American public?

BLITZER: Or he's suggesting that Mueller and his team, Gloria, are meddling in the election, because if the Republicans lose the House, let's say, or the Senate, or both, he will say, well, we have an excuse?

[18:20:05]

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

This is a president who doesn't take responsibility for anything. And you're always looking for someone to blame. And, as you pointed out before, in advance of potential losses in the midterm elections, he's kind of setting the stage.

And he's setting the stage for losses by saying, well, if we lose, don't blame me. It's up to Robert Mueller.

But let me add one thing here. The president's legal team has been negotiating with the special counsel and his team for months about whether the president will or will not testify. And we reported last week that actually there was a date set at one point, January 27, potentially, for presidential testimony.

That has not occurred. So this has been going back and forth and back and forth. So, if this is getting dangerously close to the election, maybe the president ought to look at his own negotiations and say, well, what's been going on with this? We could get this over with a lot faster if we figured out what we were going to do with my testimony.

BLITZER: And these tweets, David Swerdlick, that the president has been launching going after Robert Mueller, so-called criminal deep state that's out there to get him, it's also presumably intended to motivate that Republican base and get them out to the polls.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right, it is.

It's to stoke a sense of grievance. We're back to 2016, where the polls and many people thought Secretary Clinton would win the 2016 election, and then President Trump was already priming everyone for this idea that the system is rigged, the election is rigged, and, of course, we couldn't win. We couldn't go up against the entrenched establishment.

Now he is sort of doing a 2016-lite in 2018 to get his voters motivated. I will just note, though, that his voters do still seem motivated. And the onus is on Democrats to show that their voters are motivated -- 2010, 2014, and 2016, even though it was a presidential election year, were not good years for Democratic turn out.

The onus is on them to show that their voters are motivated.

BORGER: And this is motivational too.

This is partly to get out the base to vote, because you don't want Mueller -- and, remember, Mueller is not popular with the Republican base. The president has succeeded. He's got, what, a 17 percent approval rating, the special counsel

So this partly -- this tweet is let's get you guys out to vote, don't let him take his election away from us.

BLITZER: Even though Mueller's a Republican. Christopher Wray, the head of the FBI, is a Republican. Rod Rosenstein, who oversees all of this, is a Republican.

(CROSSTALK)

SWERDLICK: Appointed by Trump.

BLITZER: All Republicans.

Jeffrey, Conway, the counselor to the president, says the term collusion doesn't have, in her words, any legal significance. Do you believe Robert Mueller sees it that way?

TOOBIN: Well, one of the serious legal questions about the -- about the Mueller investigation is what laws might have been violated.

I mean, there are many laws that could have been violated if Russia and the Trump campaign were colluding. There are illegal campaign finance laws. There are hacking laws that could be violated. And there's a law called conspiracy to defraud the United States, which Mueller used in prosecuting the 13 Russians in the social media case.

So there are abundance of laws that could have been violated if there was in fact collusion. Collusion as a word is not mentioned, but it is certainly within Mueller's legal right to bring a case if -- bring a criminal case if there was in fact collusion between the Russians and the Trumps -- the campaign.

BLITZER: And in that letter, Susan, that Rod Rosenstein wrote to Mueller creating this entire Russia investigation, he said, Mueller's responsibility was to look into any links or coordination -- there you see it right there -- any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.

The word collusion is not mentioned there.

HENNESSEY: Right. So I think the president is sort of seizing on the language or the rhetoric where he feels the most comfortable.

What we have seen again and again is that Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller are squarely within the mandate. This is exactly what they were supposed to be investigating. There is clearly potential criminal activity embedded within this investigation.

That's why there's an investigation in the first place.

BLITZER: The president clearly and his allies are saying, well, maybe some low-level people were doing something, but it never reached the senior level and certainly never reached him.

BORGER: And this is what the president has been saying.

And every time we have seen, for example, someone like George Papadopoulos, well, he was the coffee boy, right? Or even someone like Paul Manafort, well, he only worked for the...

BLITZER: Who was the campaign chairman.

BORGER: Was the campaign chairman, but he only worked for us for three months, remember? So we didn't really have a lot to do with him.

[18:25:01]

Now, General Flynn is another -- is another issue, the person that the president apparently asked James Comey to sort of hold off on dealing with.

He did. He was the national security adviser. So they are trying to draw a line, obviously, between the president and what he knew and what else may have been going on in the campaign. And they make -- they may be right. We just don't know the answers to those questions yet.

But it doesn't mean that the Mueller investigation is a witch-hunt or a fraud.

BLITZER: Yes, the Mueller investigation has avoided any significant leaks from there as well.

All right, guys, stick around. There's more news we're following.

The message being sent with the cancellation of "Roseanne," how will Trump supporters who embraced the show react?

And as Trump lawyer Michael Cohen heads back to court, we're learning more about a plea deal struck with Cohen's former associate, the so- called Taxi King.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking tonight, the head of ABC's parent company Disney, is calling the cancellation of "Roseanne" the right thing to do.

[18:30:44] We're following all the reaction to the racist tweets by the show's star, Roseanne Barr and the decision to yank her hit show off the air.

We're joined by CNN senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter; "CNN TONIGHT" anchor Don Lemon; and CNN contributor Nischelle Turner. Guys, thanks to all of you for joining us.

And Brian, let me go to you first. Let's talk a little bit about ABC's decision to take this pretty drastic step, an important step. A very praiseworthy step. What led to it?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: This happened within a matter of hours after Roseanne Barr was posting a number of both racist and anti-Semitic and hateful tweets targeting African- Americans, Muslim and Jews.

Her comment about Valerie Jarrett is getting the most attention, but she also posted a made-up conspiracy theory about George Soros and linked Soros to Chelsea Clinton. All of it is strange. All of it -- I've worked trying to fact check, because so much of what she shares on Twitter is outlandish.

But ABC felt that today's tweets in particular crossed a line, because she was sharing racist beliefs after she had been repeatedly asked and basically begged to put the Twitter away. Put the phone way. Stop sharing on your Twitter account. Focus on your high-rated sit-com.

But it seems she couldn't do that. She kept going back to Twitter again and again over the past few months. And this time was different because it was so blatantly racist. That's why ABC decided to pull the plug. By the way, Wolf, the stars, the producers, ,they didn't know until

ABC announced it. They were as surprised as the rest of us earlier today.

BLITZER: Nischelle, as you know, this was a huge moneymaker for ABC --

NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.

BLITZER: -- this hit sit-com. Were you surprised by this decision?

TURNER: You know, maybe not surprised so much by the outcome, Wolf, but definitely surprised at how quick the decision came.

But you were talking about how much money this made for the network and how much of a risk this was. In the first season of "Roseanne," the ad revenue that it brought in was $45 million for ABC, which is a lot of money for nine episodes. And going into season two, they estimated that this show could have brought in $60 million and more to the network for advertising. So this is a big gamble for them, because now they have to replace that. And can they replace it with something to the level of "Roseanne"? Probably not. So they're scrambling right now and trying to replace it.

But you alluded to this earlier. What chairman and CEO Bob Iger said was that there's only one decision to make in this instance, and it was the right one. So they feel like they've made right decision. They feel like that what she did crossed the line, like we've heard Brian say many times.

And ABC has tried to really become the network of diversity and inclusivity. So when you have something going on like this, even though they wanted to include what some people thought of maybe a show that leaned to the right or shows that -- that go to another audience like middle America that they hasn't really gone after recently. When they try to include that and they get something like this, they couldn't really embrace it, especially when you build the back of your network on women like Shonda Rimes.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

You know, Don, Roseanne Barr, as all of us know, has a long history of racist tweets and conspiracy theories. Some of them I can't even mention on the air. This may have been the last straw, though, for ABC. But shouldn't they have known what they were getting into when they decided to reboot her show?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: And listen, I give them credit for what they did today. I think that was a good move. But they should have known before. I mean, Roseanne -- what are they saying? Keep your -- as long as you keep your racist -- your racism just hidden below the surface, it's OK?

Because Roseanne, it's out there what she's done, what she's said. How -- what she believes. It's not the first time she's done it. She's done it when it comes to Jews. She's done it the LGBT community. Why was she given this opportunity to have this show again in the first place when her reputation proceeds her.

So I think that -- you know, again, I commend ABC for doing it. I was actually -- Nischelle was not surprised -- I was pleasantly surprised that they actually did it, because I thought it was too much of a moneymaker. And I thought they may not even want to alienate some of the Trump voters who believe in what Roseanne believes in.

But here we go. And I think it's a good first step but need to address every day racism. She's a big star. Powerful, money. Roseanne is going to be OK. What about the other folks? The everyday average person who has to deal with this on a daily basis, with racism being normalized, especially by people like Roseanne and by the president of the United States, who also traffics in racism?

[18:35:7] BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, because as we look at all of this, Nischelle, I want to get your -- your thoughts on what message ABC is now trying to send?

TURNER: You know, I think that -- that what they're trying to say by this decision, Wolf, today is that "We are choosing people over profit." And that "We are choosing decency over hate."

You know, in a business where the bottom line is the bottom line so many times, I think a lot of people are pleasantly surprised to see this. And a lot of people felt like Don felt, where they didn't really think that this was going to happen, because money, green is what talks a lot of times in Hollywood.

But I just think that it became too much. And we can't let it pass, get past us the fact that the president of ABC Entertainment, the person who makes this decision, is a woman of color, is a black woman. And I don't think that she was able to, you know, push this aside or really kind of rectify this situation and -- without really taking a look at herself. So I think it just became too much.

BLITZER: Truly important moment right now that we're watching unfold. Let's see what follows.

By the way, Don is going to have much more on all of this later tonight, 10 p.m. Eastern on his program, "CNN TONIGHT." We'll be watching, Don.

Guys, thanks very, very much.

There's more breaking news, including new details of the plea deal offered to Michael Cohen's taxi business partner.

Plus, dramatic new developments in the volcano eruption out on Hawaii. We're going live. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:23] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. Court documents show that New York prosecutors sweetened a plea deal for a tax taxi operator who partnered with President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, after federal authorities raided Cohen's home office and hotel room. CNN's Kara Scannell is joining us. She's been working her sources.

What are you learning, Kara?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's right. We've learned that, after Evgeny Freidman -- he pled guilty last week, but we learned that there was an offer that was made to him much earlier.

Evgeny Freidman was a business partner of Michael Cohen. He was working with him in the taxi medallion business. And after Michael Cohen's offices were raided by the FBI, there was a better offer.

So we can break it down pretty -- pretty quickly in a time line here. Last year Freidman was indicted on state tax fraud charges. He faced 25 years in prison and a $5 million fine. In March, the state prosecutors offered him a deal where he would serve between two and six years in prison and pay $1 million. He rejected that offer on April 4. And at the time, according to the court transcript we uncovered, the prosecutor said that they don't intend to make any offer and they were ready to go to trial.

So then five days later the FBI raids Michael Cohen's office, home, hotel room and safety deposit box. That raid was initiated, in part, by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team. They made a referral to the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.

Now those prosecutors have said that they're investigating Cohen's personal financial dealings. And sources have told CNN that involves payments that were made to women, potentially suppressing damaging information about Donald Trump before the -- before he became president, and also, Cohen's taxi medallion business.

Now, last week we saw that Freidman got this deal where he can avoid jail time and he won't -- he will cooperate with investigators as "The New York Times" first reported. Now, since that deal Cohen has sought to distance himself from Freidman saying that he was never a business partner of his, and Freidman through his attorney told me last month that Michael Cohen is a good friend and a wonderful client.

BLITZER: We're also learning, Kara, about some of the documents from the FBI raid of Michael Cohen. Over 200 marked privileged or highly personal by Cohen, Trump Organization and by the president. What does that tell you?

SCANNELL: Well, this is the first kind of big batch of documents that are being reviewed. And it tells us that that's not -- they haven't -- it doesn't sound like Michael Cohen or the Trump Organization or Donald Trump himself have said that a lot of these documents extend to privilege.

We've just seen a court filing tonight that shows that the government has already received 1.3 million records and items as part of this review. So 252 is not a big chunk of that.

But we also know that the special master is -- received new information, information from three computers, two cell phones and a video recorder that she has yet to review and that Cohen and Trump's lawyers and the Trump Organization have not yet made claims of privilege on.

So this feels like we might be at halfway mark, but there's still much more to go. And we'll hear more about this tomorrow at court hearing in Lower Manhattan.

BLITZER: We'll be watching that closely together with you, Kara. Thank you.

Let's get some more on the breaking news. Former U.S. attorney, CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara is joining us.

Preet, what does all this men, what we just heard, for the investigation of Michael Cohen?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, with respect to the reporting that this gentleman who is a business associate of Michael Cohen, that he was offered a plea deal, he rejected it, and then he got a more favorable plea deal. That kind of thing happens all the time.

It could mean that this person has a lot of information with which he can cooperate, and information that the prosecutors in the state really, really want. So they're giving him more of a sweetheart deal.

It could also sometimes mean that the case they thought they had against the defendant was not as strong as they first believed.

It could also sometimes mean that the case they thought they had against the defendant was not as strong as they first believed. It's probably the first, and not the second, given the reporting. But it's hard to know.

But I guess what it tells you specifically that this person, Mr. Freidman, has agreed in connection with his agreement to cooperate not only with state authorities, the New York attorney general's office, but also with federal authorities, because a few difference offices looking at the things swirling around Michael Cohen. You have special counsel, Bob Mueller's team, that made the referral the Southern District of New York, my old office. They are the ones who conducted the court authorized search of Michael Cohen's business and property and hotel and safety deposit box.

But then separately, you have this other person associated with Michael Cohen and it sometimes happened when I was the U.S. attorney also, there are different tributaries that lead sometimes to the same person, you coordinate with other folks to make sure that, you know, they're not getting in your way and that you're able to exploit the information, testimony and documents that some other office is putting together. And I suspect that's what's happening here, and again, I'll say, you know, in direct answer to your first question, it's probably not great news for Michael Cohen.

BLITZER: He will have day in court tomorrow in New York City as you just heard Kara report, the special master is reviewing documents in the Cohen case. Barbara Jones, I don't know if you know her, but she's the special master. She's come through more than 12,000 documents and marked 252 as privileged or highly privileged by Cohen and Trump organization, by Trump himself.

What does marking a document "highly personal" mean in case like this?

BHARARA: Well, first, I do know Barbara Jones very well. She was a judge in the Southern District of New York for a number of years. She also served as a prosecutor in that office. She also served in the Manhattan D.A.'s office.

She's well-respected by everyone who's ever appeared in front of her and I did many times. She's well-respected by the defense bar and also the prosecutors who know her and have had cases in front of her. She's very methodical. She's very meticulous.

You know, there's all this hullaballoo about the searches and whether or not it would implicate the attorney client privilege. And what we're seeing here in connection with the report that former Judge Jones filed today before current Judge Kimba Wood is it's a methodical process. There's a careful process, as Kara was outlining. There are a lot of documents still to come.

Prosecutors are going to receive many, many, many, many materials. I think what it tells you is we don't have to worry so much about the attorney-client privilege being breached because you have this outside third party, special master.

With respect to your question about highly personal information, that's not something you normally see. It sounded like from a prior proceeding that the prosecutors from my old office thought that the determination would be as between privileged or non-privileged. And here, Judge Jones in her report outlined four different categories of documents -- privileged, partially privileged, not privileged and highly personal.

I saw some reporting just as I was walking into the studio that suggested and I haven't looked at the transcript, but that suggested that the highly personal may relate to medical information about Michael Cohen or members of his family, I don't know in that's true or not. But I think the prosecutors are not going to get the highly personal information. They get some redacted information of partially privileged information and they're not going to get the privileged.

But the results based on what Kara already mentioned is that the vast majority of materials that are being exploited from the laptops and the cell phones and other documents from these searches is going to be in the hands of prosecutors. And the last point I'll make about that is, it's always been my suspicion from the outside, but having run that office, that when they made the decision to engage in these searches, it was probably the case that they had very powerful evidence of crimes being committed by Michael Cohen and that the likelihood of charges was fairly high.

One of the reasons you may not see charges yet is they want to see what the results of those searches will yield. And so, now, the prosecutors are finally starting to get some of the yield from those searches and over time they'll get more and more. I think the likelihood that Michael Cohen gets charged in the near future becomes higher because now they have the evidence.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Preet, what's your reaction to the president's latest tweet accusing Robert Mueller and his Russia team of investigators of getting ready to meddle in the midterm elections?

BHARARA: Yes. So, I stopped having the response of disbelief some time ago. I think the people who we should be concerned about meddling in the next election are the Russians. The intel community has been warning us about that for some period of time. I've not heard the president or frankly a lot of other people in the administration who are in a position to care about future meddling in the election, which we know happened in the last election, basically unanimously believed to be true by everyone in the intelligence community and law enforcement community.

So, again, this is another one of those distractions of a president who is acting I think in this regard fairly politically, to suggest that the people who are investigating him and his associates and people who are formerly his associates are in some way the political actors, not him. It's a form of projection that I think a lot of people have been mentioning as well.

[18:50:01] I assume that Bob Mueller and his team are sensitive to the calendar, and if they're going to bring any -- further cases, that they're going to try to do them as quickly as possible. I think they've been moving with pretty great alacrity based on the experiences that I have and a lot of other people have. But the allegations that they're going to be meddling in the election seem silly to me.

BLITZER: Preet Bharara, thanks as usual for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news ahead. We're going live to Hawaii, where lava has now closed a key Hawaii on the big island.

Plus, we're getting details of a new study that says the death toll of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria may have been hundreds time higher than the official count.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:55:16] BLITZER: There's more breaking news tonight. Take a look at this. We're getting live pictures of lava fountains coming from around one of the fissures around the erupting Kilauea volcano. The key highway on the big island of Hawaii has been shutdown by fast- moving lava from the volcano.

CNN's Scott McLean is live in Hilo for us.

Scott, what's the latest?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf.

Look, today, we got a different vantage point. We actually went out on a boat to see lava entering the ocean.

Now, there are boat restrictions in that area as you can imagine. We had to stay about 100 yards from shore and for good reason. That's because when that lava actually mixes with the water, it creates this white plume, something called lava haze or laze. That is a potentially deadly mixture of gases.

And today, the wind was shifting around and at times that lava haze was actually headed back onto shore, really compounding an already poor situation when it comes to air quality for people who live in that area. Now, geologists say that the volume of lava that's actually entering the ocean has actually slowed down somewhat, but that does not mean that it's still not doing any damage.

In Leilani Estates, which is really ground zero for this entire Kilauea eruption, some older fissures that had gone quiet suddenly reawakened in the last day or two. One of them in fact was shooting some 200 feet in the air. And all of that lava, Wolf, it has to go somewhere. So, it is covering roads that have not been covered before. It is destroying homes in really anything in its path. More than 40 homes have already bee been destroyed in the three and a half weeks since the Kilauea started erupting.

Some of that lava is also headed toward the northeast. Why does this an issue? Well, it's because there's a geothermal power plant in there. Lava has already covered two of those geothermal wellheads, though officials say at this point that site is secure.

Perhaps a bigger concern, though, for people in that region, Wolf, is that the possibility that the lava could cut off a major highway in that area, a main artery for people who live to the east of where those fissures are erupting constantly, that would mean one less escape route for people if these were to get any worse.

BLITZER: Scott McLean on the scene for us, Scott, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, a new study out today estimates that the death toll on Puerto from Hurricane Maria, they estimate the death toll is close to 5,000, far from the official state in Puerto Rican of 64-storm related deaths.

Let's go to CNN's Leyla Santiago in San Juan for us right now.

Leyla, this is huge, huge discrepancy. What are they saying over there?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, when I asked the government today if they had any reason to question the validity of this study, they told me no. I actually talked to one of researchers that's working with Harvard here on the island, and here's what he said they did. They visited more than a hundred barrios. They spoke to more than 10,000 people.

And based on the trends that they found from those interviews and their own research, they believe that the death toll here related to hurricane Maria should stand closer to 4,600. Let me put that into perspective for you. That is 70 times from what the current government official death toll stands.

Right now, they say, the government says that the death toll for Hurricane Maria is at 64. And remember, we did our own investigation last year when we talked to funeral homes. We found at the time that the death toll could be nine times than what the government was at the time reporting.

One of the cases that we have followed is the case of Natalio Rodriguez Lebron. He died according to his family when he didn't have the power to run the machine he needed to breathe at night. Tonight, when I spoke with his family about the study, they said it's just a shame that it took an institution outside of Puerto Rico to shed light on what they've been saying all along.

And, you know, a case like Rodriguez is what the Harvard Study takes into account, but is not what is included in Puerto Rico's death toll.

Now, the government of Puerto Rico has commissioned its own report. They have asked George Washington University to help them in understanding this. There have been delays with that study, so it is not available. Their findings are not available yet.

But today, the governor did say he welcomes the study, he wants to use it. And the analysis and timing of all of this to really put into perspective, Wolf, is what I find most interesting. We are just days away from the next hurricane season here on the island. June 1st is when that begins here. And still, the government of Puerto Rico still does not officially, publicly, have a clear understanding of who died when and why -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Leyla, thank you. Leyla Santiago reporting.

That's it for me.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.