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Trump Stages Political Event after Disinviting Eagles from White House; Manafort Accused of Witness Tampering; Lindsey Graham: Sessions Was Right to Recuse Himself. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 5, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Patrick Oppmann in Guatemala, thank you so much.

[17:00:03] That is now it for "THE LEAD." I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Star- spangled stunt. The White House cancels the celebration of the Super Bowl championship, accusing the Philadelphia Eagles of a political stunt for refusing to show up. But did the president pull a political stunt by falsely accusing the team of being unpatriotic?

Stonewalling. The White House again refuses to comment on its false statement about the Trump Tower Russia meeting. Instead of coming clean, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders covers up, claiming her credibility is higher than the medias'.

Witness tampering. Already facing two trials as a result of the Russia probe, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is now accused of witness tampering. And the special counsel wants him to go directly to jail.

And regular caller. Vladimir -- Vladimir Putin of Russia says he's closer to Donald Trump than many might imagine, saying the two regularly talk by phone. So why haven't the two leaders had a one-on- one summit meeting?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump is caught up in a new controversy of his own making, scrubbing a celebration for the Super Bowl champions and falsely accusing the Philadelphia Eagles of being unpatriotic, even as he once again flails away at the Russia probe and his own attorney general.

I'll speak with Senator Ron Wyden of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they are standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with the breaking news. Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us. Jim, the president is targeting the Super Bowl champs and his own attorney general. So what's behind his attacks?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A lot of it is politics, Wolf. President Trump staged his celebration of America at the White House today after disinviting the Eagles from an event dedicated to their Super Bowl championship. For the president, it's a continuation of his cultural wars accusing pro athletes of not passing his own patriotism test. This time, the bright shiny object at the White House was the Lombardi trophy itself.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Somewhat singing along to "God Bless America," President Trump dubbed it a celebration of America, but it felt more like a celebration of -- you guessed it -- him.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's even bigger than we had anticipated.

ACOSTA: The White House held this tribute to the nation after pulling the plug on an event honoring the Philadelphia Eagles for winning the Super Bowl. Mr. Trump was furious once he learned of the number of Eagles players attending, and he tweeted about it. "Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event," the White House accusing the Eagles of attempting a stunt.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If this wasn't a political stunt by the Eagles franchise, then they wouldn't have planned to attend the event and then backed out at the last minute.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump also accused the Eagles of not being sufficiently patriotic, lumping the team in with other NFL players who have kneeled during the national anthem at games in protest of police brutality, an issue he's talked about at rallies.

TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!"

ACOSTA: But here's the problem. No Eagles players ever took a knee during the regular or post-season.

Philadelphia's mayor lashed back in a statement, "Disinviting them from the White House only proves that our president is not a true patriot but a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size and afraid of the embarrassment of throwing a party to which no one wants to attend."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: New tonight, the president announcing the Philadelphia Eagles will not be visiting the White House tomorrow.

ACOSTA: FOX News ran with the president's false assertions, showing photos of Eagles players kneeling. But these players were praying, not protesting, and FOX later apologized.

Back at the Celebration for America event, the president had to fly. He left roughly ten minutes after it began and refused to answer our questions.

(on camera): Mr. President, are you saying that the football players are not patriotic, sir?

(voice-over): The president has been busy on Twitter, once again beating up on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, tweeting, "The Russian witch hunt hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn't tell me he was going to recuse himself. I would have quickly picked someone else."

SANDERS: The president's made his position on this extremely clear, and I don't have anything to add beyond that.

ACOSTA: One fellow Republican told CNN's Manu Raju he thinks he knows what's going on.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: He definitely is trying to discredit it, and he's certainly pushing every edge to see, you know, where members of Congress will go, if they'll support him on this or not. I think it's important that we stand up and say there are limits.

ACOSTA: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was again pressed on her false statement to reporters last year that the president did not dictate a memo to "The New York Times" explaining why his son met with a Russian attorney for dirt on Hillary Clinton at Trump Tower during the campaign.

SANDERS: I am not going to get into a back and forth with you on that, and I'd refer you to the outside counsel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was it accurate or not? That's all we want to know.

SANDERS: I work day in, day out, and I believe, frankly, with the majority of you here in the room, I think you all know I'm an honest person who works extremely hard to provide you with accurate information at all times. I'm going to continue to do that, but I'm not going to engage on matters that deal with the outside counsel.

Frankly, I think my credibility is probably higher than the media's.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And I'm not sure that's the case, Wolf. But the White House press secretary, we should point out, she never answered that question.

And as for the president's claim that his patriotic event today was bigger than anticipated, we should note many of the people in attendance were administration officials. The president, by the way, we're told, wants to make the NFL and patriotism an issue throughout the midterm campaign. Wolf, we will be hearing about this issue over and over again, I'm afraid, Wolf.

BLITZER: I noticed today, she was a little bit more responsive to follow-up questions. Let me put up a tweet that you posted yesterday following the

briefing. "One way to address the briefing is for reporters to stick together. When the press secretary cuts somebody off, ideally, we could and should insist on answers if somebody is cut off. We don't do that as much as we should. Problem is there is so little time and so many pressing questions."

Today it sort of changed. There were some follow-up questions by other reporters, and following our conversation yesterday, she also began to take follow-up questions from reporters.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. It was a compressed timetable, because they were starting the briefing right up against the Celebration of America event. But you're right, during the briefing today, we saw exactly that: reporters following up on other reporters' questions.

But at the same time, we didn't really see Sarah Sanders admit that she told a false statement to reporters last year. We just could not get that out of her. At one point she said to reporters in the briefing room, Wolf, that she feels that we in the media are trying to tear her down. Wolf, that is not the case. We are just trying to get at the truth -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House. Thanks very much.

We're going to have much more on the controversy with the Philadelphia Eagles and the president, just a few moments.

But first, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort facing two trials right now as off-shoots of the special counsel's Russia probe, is suddenly in even deeper and deeper legal trouble, accused of trying to manipulate witnesses.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is joining us right now. Sara, what are you learning?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you pointed out, Paul Manafort was already in a heap of legal trouble, but these latest accusations from prosecutors could ramp up the pressure on Trump former campaign chairman even further, although Manafort insists he maintains his innocence, and he's marching ahead toward a trial.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Robert Mueller team says Paul Manafort should be awaiting trial in a jail cell. As prosecutors accuse the former Trump campaign chairman of witness tampering.

Manafort, who is already under House arrest, has pleaded not guilty to a series of charges related to his failure to disclose U.S. lobbying work for a foreign government and alleged financial crimes. While Manafort has maintained his innocence, his business partner, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty in February and struck a deal to cooperate with Mueller's team.

After that, prosecutors allege Manafort reached out to other potential witnesses in the case to get their story straight.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: This kind of a desperate action to try to violate the terms of your release and interfere with other witnesses, saYS to me that he is really concerned about his jeopardy, about going a way for a long time; willing to risk being caught witness tampering in a case where they're watching every move.

MURRAY: In a new court filing, prosecutors for Mueller's team say Manafort, quote, "repeatedly contacted two people who may be witnesses against him." Those people, who are not identified in the documents, previously helped Manafort with his pro-Ukrainian lobbying and public relations efforts in the U.S. and Europe.

Using encrypted messaging applications, Manafort and an associate asked the two potential witnesses to claim the lobbying work only took place in Europe, despite evidence to the contrary, according to prosecutors.

A spokesperson for Manafort said, "Mr. Manafort is innocent, and nothing about this latest allegation changes our defense. We will do our talking in court."

Shan Wu, who previously represented Rick Gates and is now a CNN contributor, says the latest move ramps up the pressure on Manafort to cooperate with investigators, and it sends a signal that Mueller is watching everyone closely.

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He's very much by the book. So if there's something that's improper, if there is what others might consider to be a minor violation, they're to go after it very aggressively.

MURRAY: Meanwhile, another player in the Russia investigation is angling for a presidential pardon. George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government. Now his wife is begging President Trump to intervene.

SIMONA MANGIANTE PAPADOPOULOS, WIFE OF GEORGE PAPADOPOULOS: So I trust and hope and ask President Trump to pardon him. I hope he will.

MURRAY: As the president's team struggles to explain their shifting explanations about the role President Trump played in crafting a misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.'s controversial 2016 meeting with Russians at Trump Tower.

[17:10:10] After repeatedly denying Trump dictated the statement, a January letter from Trump's legal team to Mueller published in "The New York Times" reveals otherwise. Two of Trump's lawyers admitted he did dictate the letter, leaving Trump's current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to argue that the previous denials were an innocent mistake.

RUDY GIULIANI, LAWYER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I have no idea how they got it wrong, but they got it wrong. I don't think either one of them is ever going to deliberately lie, and I -- and, you know, I know the president isn't. He didn't do anything wrong.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now back to the legal troubles of Paul Manafort. He is expected to give the court a fuller explanation or a fuller response to these allegations of witness tampering by Friday, Wolf. And there is a hearing set for June 15, so we could be getting some more interesting information on this case very soon.

BLITZER: And potentially, Mueller wants him in jail awaiting a full trial.

MURRAY: Absolutely. And so we should see, you know, how Manafort responds to these allegations and then, you know, potentially, what the judge decides on this in this hearing on June 15.

BLITZER: Yes. We'll know soon enough. Thank you very much for that, Sara Murray.

Joining us now, a key member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. Let's get right to this issue of Robert Mueller, the former Trump campaign chairman. What does it tell you about -- Manafort is the former Trump campaign. Robert Mueller is the chief prosecutor, the investigator.

What does it tell you about the Mueller's investigation, Senator, that he was able to obtain these communications between Paul Manafort and his associates?

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The fact that Mr. Manafort feels free to engage in witness tampering while he is being watched by federal authorities certainly raises questions about whether the president promised Mr. Manafort he would never face justice.

BLITZER: Well, these are allegations, as you know, so they haven't yet been proven, but how much additional leverage does this give the special counsel to try to convince Manafort to flip and be a cooperative witness?

WYDEN: Again, what we're looking at are dangerous times for democracy. Mr. Manafort and this administration have shown contempt for the special counsel, contempt for checks and balances, contempt for the rule of law, and it does raise questions in my mind, Wolf, about whether the president made promises to Mr. Manafort that he would not face justice.

BLITZER: Because we've seen other witnesses -- others in the Russia probe eventually flip, cooperate with Robert Mueller and his team, plead guilty. Manafort, on the other hand, he continues to maintain his innocence. Do you see any evidence he may change his mind?

WYDEN: At this point, it sure looks like Manafort is going to play hard ball. I mean, again, to have the prospect of witness tampering while you know federal authorities are watching you, that is just about as brazen as it gets.

BLITZER: Well, what does it say about Mueller's strategy right now that he's squeezing Paul Manafort as much as he is? Potentially Manafort within the coming days, he could lose his bail and wind up in jail.

WYDEN: Well as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Manafort was lucky to get out on bail. If he has done what he was alleged to have done, the judge would have every right to throw him in jail.

BLITZER: The wife of George Papadopoulos, another former Trump adviser who pleaded guilty, as you know, to lying about his contacts with Russia, he [SIC] was on FOX News last night to beg President Trump for a pardon. His wife was on FOX News, I should say. And she says her husband had nothing to do with Russia. How do you see it?

WYDEN: I certainly don't see that on the basis of what Mr. Mueller has talked about with respect to Mr. Papadopoulos. But I'm sure that, as part of a strategy, what you try to do is find a sympathetic spouse and take a shot.

But Mr. Mueller does things by the book. He's a Republican. He's worked in two administrations. And I think he's going to continue to act in that fashion.

BLITZER: The president, do you believe, is sending some clear messages, some clear signals with this option of holding out pardons to individuals, as we've seen in recent days?

WYDEN: There's no question about it. And not only is he holding out the prospect of a pardon, but they have made -- the president and his allies, a number of false statements with respect to president's power to block prosecutions.

President said he could power [SIC] himself. Mr. Giuliani said that the president could, in effect, shoot Comey. They've made preposterous statements. But it's, again, it's a part of a strategy where they stonewall and stonewall and stonewall; and then they try to see if they can find some kind of contradiction. And by the end of it, they see if can get away making a small concession.

BLITZER: While I have you, Senator, let me ask you a question on a different subject. Very sensitive issue unfolding as we speak.

The secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, told the Senate today that the School Safety Commission that she's chairing is not going to study -- that she's chairing -- won't be studying guns. That's not going to be an issue in terms of school safety. She said it's not part of the commission's charge, and I wonder how you respond?

WYDEN: I think it's very troubling what she has said. Once again, it's sort of anti-research, anti- any kind of objective effort to get a cross-section of opinions.

As you know, there was a federal ban on research overall. The late Jay Dickey, the author of it, said he was wrong. So I hope that Mrs. DeVos, as she talks to experts on this issue, will change her mind, as well, the way Jay Dickey did.

BLITZER: Senator Wyden, thanks so much for joining us.

WYDEN: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Up next, President Trump unleashes a new tirade against his own attorney general, slamming Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe.

And should the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, also recuse himself from the Mueller investigation? A key Republican lawmaker is standing by, weighing in on both of those issues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:14] BLITZER: President Trump today again slammed his own attorney general, suggesting that, if he had known Jeff Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russia probe, he would have had picked someone else who could have blocked the investigation.

But a key Republican senator and frequent ally differs sharply with the president on this.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, so what's Senator Lindsey Graham telling you?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he says that Jeff Sessions did exactly the right thing in recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Given that this was an investigation that's been ongoing by any Trump campaign contacts that occurred with Russia, any collusion that occurred.

And Jeff Sessions played a key role in the Trump campaign and, according to Lindsey Graham, any lawyer in America would agree with Jeff Sessions's decision to recuse himself. And other Republican senators, including Senator Mitch McConnell, who I talked to earlier today, also voiced support for Jeff Sessions, saying he's widely supported on Capitol Hill.

Now Jeff Sessions's No. 2, Rod Rosenstein, is in charge of the investigation, the special counsel's investigation. And Rod Rosenstein, according to Lindsey Graham is, quote, "conflicted" because Lindsey Graham is raising concerns that Rod Rosenstein actually may be a witness in this investigation, given the role that he played over James Comey's firing, that memo that he wrote, that President Trump initially used as his justification for firing James Comey.

Lindsey Graham is saying, "Well, how could you be a witness and also oversee this investigation?" He wrote a very sternly-worded letter to Rosenstein, asking him to respond to several questions and he's demanding some answers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Replacing Jeff Sessions would be chaos. But after Mueller does his job, then I think a different attorney general would be easier to do.

This is an incredibly complex matter. I think Rosenstein is conflicted. If you're looking at obstruction of justice, misconduct, post-presidency, the Comey firing as being a form of obstruction of justice, and Rosenstein is a key witness in that, when you can't be a witness and oversee the investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, this comes as a number of House Republicans have put pressure on Rosenstein, Wolf, asking for documents to be provided to their -- as part of their investigation into exactly how the Russia probe began. And some House Republicans are threatening to impeach or even hold Rosenstein in contempt.

So Lindsey Graham taking in a different manner. We'll see whether Republicans join forces and at least say, say what your role is here and whether or not you should be recused from the overseeing this investigation, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Manu, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, today canceled the Senate summer recess in August. So what impact will all that have?

RAJU: Well, the -- it's going to have a significant impact, potentially, on the mid-term elections. There are a number of Democratic senators in key states, particularly five from -- who are very vulnerable right now who will have to spend most of their time in Washington during a key campaign time of the year. And probably only one Republican senator -- vulnerable Republican senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, will be impacted. So this could presumably hurt Democrats more than Republicans, given the midterm dynamics and the map right now in the Senate. That's why you're hearing some Democrats pushing back on what happened just earlier today, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Manu, thank you. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Coming up, will Paul Manafort's deepening legal problems send him to jail in the coming days, even before he goes on trial?

And later, Vladimir Putin answers questions on everything from serious topics to why he keeps posing for photos without a shirt.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:29:35] BLITZER: We're following serious new legal problems for President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. The special counsel, Robert Mueller's, team has just accused him of trying to get a witness to lie in court. He denied wrongdoing through a spokesperson but will have to persuade a federal judge not to revoke his bail.

Let's bring in our political and legal experts. And Joey Jackson, you're our legal analyst. What does this latest filing from Robert Mueller about Paul Manafort allegedly trying to manipulate a witness tell you about the scope and strategy of this investigation?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Wolf, initially, you have to understand that prosecutors play through the whistle, and what I mean by that is that, even though the case has not yet gone to court, they're still investigating what you' re doing. They're not relying upon the evidence they collected.

Here is why it's a bad idea to witness tamper. No. 1, obviously, you can get your bail revoked as here. And you should understand that the revocation of bail is based upon a hearing of probable cause. Not you definitely did it. But there's probable cause to believe you committed some type of new violation, in this case witness tampering.

No. 2, it can lead to fresh charges. And more importantly, No. 3, it could be introduced in your case as consciousness of guilt. What are you tampering with witnesses for if you didn't do anything wrong?

And so it says that it's highly significant in terms of the strategy that they have, the case that they're pursuing. And apparently, it must be strong in the event that, you know, Mueller is monitoring what he's doing. And, of course, if Manafort is doing this, he's worried and otherwise concerned that witnesses are going to say something that implicates them. So it's heating up significantly.

BLITZER: You've seen the evidence that Mueller released yesterday in a court document. How strong is that evidence?

JACKSON: It's very powerful. I have it, and looking at it here, the fact is, is that they include not only a declaration from the agent who investigated the case, but of course, they include various exhibits which identify what those communications are.

And so, you know, I'd be anxious to see -- he has until Friday -- that is Manafort's team -- in order to respond. But again, the standard is, is there probable cause in front of that judge to believe that you committed witness tampering, a federal offense? And if there's probable cause, not you definitely did it, absolutely beyond a reasonable doubt, then you go in.

And so by Friday, Manafort's team will respond. Let's see what their response is. But on the face of this motion, it's very persuasive.

BLITZER: Susan Hennessey, what does it tell you that Manafort -- that Mueller and his team have this ability to go through Paul Manafort's encrypted communications?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So it appears from the filing that the individuals to whom he sent these messages were probably cooperating with law enforcement. They handed it over. And one of the indications of that is this filing doesn't just have the actual text of the messages themselves. It also said that the individuals who received them believed that they were being sent in order to suborn perjury or to get them to make a false statement. So a lot of people are sort of focusing on the encryption element here. But at the end of the day, even if you send someone a message using secure means, if they decide to share it with somebody else, sort of the technical security isn't -- isn't particularly helpful.

BLITZER: Bianna Golodryga, what message is Robert Mueller sending right now, not only to Paul Manafort and his legal team but to other potential witnesses and individuals at the same time?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That he's taking this investigation very seriously, Wolf. I mean, you look at all of these allegations, and you look at these now fresh charges, these are not the actions of an innocent person. And it's rather brazen that Paul Manafort would believe that these witnesses would somehow be more loyal to him or he could persuade them to be on his side rather than cooperate with investigators.

And it also shows that the window to any sort of deal that he may come up with -- prosecutors with to avoid jail time may be closing. I mean, this is a character that -- a target right now that his own character right now, time and time again, is being called into question. And it's, again, hard not to view this as a sign of a guilty person. Who else would act this way?

BLITZER: Yes, it also shows you you don't want to fool around with Robert Mueller and his team. These guys are playing major, major hard -- Major League hard ball right now.

Do you think this is potentially, Bianna, a key to get Manafort to flip and cooperate, plead guilty?

GOLODRYGA: Well, remember, these are charges that happened before he joined the president's campaign so these are issues separate, in many instances. And the president himself and those of his supporters around him and his attorneys say that Paul Manafort had nothing to do -- that the president had nothing do to do with Paul Manafort's actions before joining the campaign. In fact, they tried to dismiss his association with the campaign. Forget the fact that he was a campaign chairman.

So depending on how badly Paul -- Mueller wants him to cooperate, as opposed of just going to prison, is up to Mueller. At this point, there's not that big of a connection that you could -- that you could make with the president. The president himself seems to have distanced himself from Manafort.

BLITZER: You know, Jeff Zeleny, you cover the White House for us. Amidst all of this once again today, the president of the United States slamming the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, on Twitter.

Quote, "The Russian witch hunt hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn't tell me he was going to recuse himself. I would have quickly picked someone else. So much time and money wasted, so many lives ruined. And Sessions knew better than most that there was no collusion." [17:35:11] Why is this president so fixated on Jeff Sessions?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's the original sin that the president cannot get over. And he must like the punching bag, the daily punching bag -- sometimes daily but at least weekly punching bag of Jeff Sessions.

He has repeatedly gone after Jeff Sessions in every way possible. He's emasculated him. He's humiliated him. He's criticized him.

Jeff Sessions has made a conscious decision to stand up and just to keep doing his job. So we are told by people who are close to Jeff Sessions, this actually does not bother him as much anymore as it used to. And it's actually giving him, I think of it more of a badge of honor on the outside among some Republicans and conservatives who think that he is standing and, you know, has not resigned.

The question always is, is the president afraid to fire him? And it seems to me up, until this point, he's either afraid to or he thinks it's not a good idea to do so, because he's been warned repeatedly by Republican senators, including the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley from Iowa, to not fire Jeff Sessions.

So until then, I think the president will keep going after him. It's one way he can vent. And of course, by saying Jeff Sessions, he's also talking about Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of this investigation here. So it's sort of a one-two punch, if you will.

But he seems to repeatedly go after Jeff Sessions. I'm not sure there's anything we've heard -- or haven't heard him say about Jeff Sessions he could say.

BLITZER: You could put all of those words -- I don't think I've seen -- I don't think historians have ever seen a sitting president of the United States slamming a sitting attorney general of the United States. You could look at some of the words that he has used about Jeff Sessions over the past year.

Another issue, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, Bianna, she once again today refused to acknowledge she may have made a mistake. She may have been given bad information. She may have inadvertently lied or whatever. She's just refusing to discuss what clearly was not true when she said from the White House podium that the president did not dictate that message about that controversial Trump Tower meeting in 2016 in New York.

Why can't she just simply come out and say, "You know what? What Rudy Giuliani said last night, it was a mistake"?

GOLODRYGA: That's what we're all asking, right? You have her on tape. It was less than a year ago where she completely contradicted herself. And yet, instead of -- she doesn't have to come out and say, "I lied" or "I intentionally misled you." All she has to say is -- and to give herself an out is to say "That was the information I was provided with at the time. I can't corroborate that information right now." And instead she continues to use the excuse of, you know, you have to

talk to outside counsel, and "I'm not going to address this." And of course, it makes it more an issue than it already is.

And to once again question the journalists in the U.S. and the press and say that she somehow has more credibility then journalists do, is just a new low. It is. And a lot of people I know question what we get out of these press conferences now. And I think hearing headlines like that -- and it is great to hear reporters constantly ask that question today, because she couldn't avoid answering it, or at least addressing it.

It's just becoming more and more of a conundrum as far as getting any -- any information out of this administration, especially when they berate us.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, you're getting some new information even as we're speaking right now.

ZELENY: We are, indeed, Wolf. Our White House team is reporting that the aide who made that controversial comment about Senator John McCain a couple weeks ago, Kelly Sadler, she is no longer working at the White House. This is just coming in. We've just confirmed through our resources and officials at the White House that Kelly Sadler, who was the young aide, the director of surrogates at the -- at the White House, who made that joke about John McCain's cancer treatment.

Of course, this was all in the context of the CIA director being confirmed for her position. John McCain was deeply opposed to Gina Haspel, who ultimately was confirmed. And she said it doesn't matter, his opposition, "because he is dying anyway." Of course, that was viewed as a deeply insensitive comment. The president stood by her. People inside the White House stood by her. But we are being told now she is out.

Our Pamela Brown is reporting that there were lawyers in her office this afternoon. And she has been taken off the White House grounds, as is usual for former employees of the White House.

So she is no longer working at the White House, which this is pretty unusual. Because the president has stood beside her, urged her not to apologize publicly for this, and really, that was an insensitive comment that blew up, you know, considerably. But she is no longer working at the White House.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll get some more on this.

GOLODRYGA: And --

BLITZER: Go ahead quickly, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: I was just going to say, it's interesting, because the president seemed to turn his energy towards and anger towards leaking and from the reports earlier.

ZELENY: Right. [17:40:08] GOLODRYGA: And Miss Sadler had accused others that she worked with of actually leaking this information. So you heard about more in-fighting within the communications team as a result of this.

BLITZER: We're going to get more on the breaking news. Everybody stick around.

Coming up also, it's the biggest primary day of the year, with California getting lots and lots of attention because of its odd so- called "jungle primary" that could shut out either Republicans or Democrats in key races this fall.

Plus, Vladimir Putin opens up about his relationship with President Trump. How often do they actually speak on the phone?

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BLITZER: This primary day, the biggest one of the year with voters turning out in eight states, both parties are paying very close attention to California right now where tonight's jungle primary results could be crucial to Democrats' hope of regaining control of Congress but could also work against them.

Let's go to our senior national correspondent Kyung Lah. She's joining us from Newport Beach out in California.

Kyung, what is this jungle primary system and why is California so important tonight?

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, very simply put, Wolf, the jungle primary means that the top two vote-getters go through regardless of party.

Now, how is that a potential speed bump for Democratic control of Congress? Because -- well, take a look at this particular district. This is California 48th.

And so the people who are checking in here and then who are heading over here to vote, they have a large number of names on the ballot. The incumbent, Dana Rohrabacher, who was seen as vulnerable by national Democrats, there are also so many Democrats on the ballot.

I spoke with one voter. He said he didn't know who to vote for because there were so many names.

There are two leading Democrats, Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead. They are both well -funded. It has been an ugly primary. National Democrats fear that they could split the Democrat vote and so then two Republicans, the incumbent and another Republican, would get through.

One national Democrat told me that that could be a nightmare scenario for Democrats because this is a district that they feel is a pickup opportunity. Hillary Clinton won this one, but the Republicans still maintain control in the House.

So there are seven districts like that, Wolf, and this is not the scenario just in this district but potentially a few others. Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll be watching very closely tonight as the results come in. Kyung Lah, thank you for that explanation.

Coming up, Vladimir Putin opens up about President Trump, whether he's a modern-day czar, and why he keeps allowing photos where he isn't wearing a shirt.

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[17:50:51] BLITZER: In a very rare and truly eye-opening interview, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, just opened up about his relationship with President Trump and a whole lot more. But how much of what he said is actually true and what's propaganda?

Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd.

Brian, what are the experts telling you?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they're telling us this is classic Vladimir Putin. The smirks, the spin, the denials, and brushoffs of anything even remotely critical. In this interview, the Russian President denies that he rules with a heavy hand and says he and President Trump have an ongoing dialogue.

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TODD (voice-over): In a new interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin is suggesting he is tighter with Donald Trump than many realize.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION (through translator): We regularly talk over the phone. Our foreign affairs departments and special services are working fairly well together.

TODD (voice-over): White House officials say there have been eight phone calls between Putin and Trump in the year and a half since Trump took office. All of them reported publically. About the same as President Obama had with Putin in his final two years in office.

Putin's new comments about Trump came during a wide-ranging sit-down with Austrian T.V. in which he blamed the ongoing Mueller investigation as the reason why he and the President have not had a one-on-one summit, saying Trump is, quote, coming under attack.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, NONRESIDENT SENIOR FELLOW, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: This is deeply ironic that President Putin, who oversaw and who likely commanded an operation that was designed to subvert our democratic institutions, would complain that somehow the United States is not willing to talk to Russia.

TODD (voice-over): Putin appeared to make light of the investigation, criticizing the indictment of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian restaurateur known as Putin's Chef.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller says Prigozhin was secretly running a troll factory for Putin, spreading false information on social media during the election. But Putin called the charge ridiculous saying, quote, do you really think that a person who was in the restaurant business could sway elections in the United States?

The Russian president, who has been criticized at home and abroad for running sham elections, also responded harshly when asked if he is a czar.

PUTIN (through translator): No, it is not true. It is false and completely detached from reality because Russia is a democracy, and we all live under the constitution.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, DIRECTOR OF THE KENNAN INSTITUTE, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: It's a little bit like asking a quack doctor, are you a quack doctor, right? You know he is a czar, yes, but he is a democratically elected president. So both things are true. It just depends on what you mean by democratic election.

TODD (voice-over): As for Putin's penchant for showing off, the 65- year-old seemed amused when asked why he takes so many pictures where he is, quote, half-naked.

PUTIN (through translator): You said half-naked? Not naked, thank God. When I am on vacation, I see no need to hide behind the bushes, and there is nothing wrong with that.

TODD (on camera): Why is it so important to him to project those images?

ROJANSKY: Well, you know, number one, he is demonstrating that he is strong and he is in control, both to a domestic audience and to an international audience. But also I think, you know, in American politics, we'd say one of his key demographics is middle-aged Russian women who vote in large numbers.

And this is very attractive to them. This is a guy who is, in some sense, is the dream husband. He is a good earner. He's got power. He is responsible. He doesn't drink. And he looks great.

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TODD: Putin was also asked if he plans to remain in power after his current term expires in six years. He said he'll abide by Russia's constitution which does not allow him to remain in power beyond that time.

But most analysts believe that Vladimir Putin will either find a way to change Russia's constitution, or he's going to find another way somehow to stay in power, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.

Coming up, breaking news. President Trump is mired in a new controversy of his own making, canceling a celebration for the Super Bowl champions and falsely accusing the Philadelphia Eagles of being unpatriotic, even as he, once again, rants at the Russia probe and his own Attorney General. [17:54:44] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Anthem standoff. President Trump plays to his base, trying to cloak apolitical football in patriotism. Did he disinvite the Super Bowl Champion Eagles over the taking the knee debate or because he felt personally snubbed?

In hot water. Paul Manafort now at risk of being thrown into jail as the Special Counsel accuses him of trying to get witnesses to lie in court. Tonight, new details on the encrypted messages allegedly sent by the former Trump campaign chairman.

I beg your pardon. Another key figure in the Russia probe is looking for a reprieve from the President, his wife appealing for help on T.V. Would Mr. Trump spare George Papadopoulos after he cooperated with Robert Mueller?

And deposing the President. A new green light tonight for a lawsuit against the President by a former "Apprentice" contestant. The President may now be forced to answer questions under oath.

[18:00:07] We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in the SITUATION ROOM.