Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; Paul Manafort Trial Begins; Russia Attacking Midterms?; Washington Post: New Signs North Korea Possibly Working on Missiles; 20 Missing as Deadly California Wildfire Tops 100,000+ Acres. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired July 31, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: money over the law. Prosecutors begin to make their criminal case against Paul Manafort, accusing the former Trump campaign chairman of hiding millions in secret income. CNN is in the courtroom as Manafort goes on trial and Robert Mueller's team is tested.
Moscow manipulation? Facebook warns the Russians appear to be at it again, as dozens of fake social media accounts are shut down. Is the Kremlin attempting to attack the midterm election right now?
Collusion diffusion. The president is spreading Rudy Giuliani's claim that colluding with Russia is not a crime. Is the Trump team tweaking its legal strategy? And, if so, why now?
And losing everything. Out-of-control wildfires cause epic destruction that's being compared to the scene of an atomic bomb blast. We're tracking the raging flames, the brutal heat and the growing danger in California.
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.
President Trump's former campaign chairman on trial right now. Prosecutors say all the criminal charges against Paul Manafort boil down to his trail of lies and a scheme to avoid paying taxes on millions of dollars of secret income from his lobbying in Ukraine.
We have heard opening statements and the lead-off witness in the first trial stemming from Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Tonight, Manafort's team is trying to turn the tables and shift the blame to his former deputy Rick Gates, who's billed as Mueller star witness.
I will get reaction from Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal, and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider. Jessica, Manafort's trial just wrapped up for the day. What's the
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It did, Wolf.
And so far, it's been a war of words in front of that 12-member jury. Each side gave a 30-minute opening statement, with the special counsel's team calling Paul Manafort a liar and saying he placed himself and his money above the law.
Meanwhile, his defense team strategy was focused on shifting the blame to not only the people Manafort worked with, but also the Russian oligarchs he worked for.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, prosecutors are off to a fiery restart in their case against Paul Manafort, calling him a shrewd liar who orchestrated a global scheme to avoid paying taxes on millions of dollars.
Lawyers for the special counsel told the jury Manafort earned millions in secret income from the -- quote -- "cash spigot" that came from working for the -- quote -- "golden goose in Ukraine," former pro- Putin President Viktor Yanukovych.
But Manafort's lawyers pushed back, blaming it on the Russian oligarchs who Manafort worked for, saying they required him to pay through secret bank accounts. As the defense team entered the courthouse earlier in the day, they remained resolute.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doing good.
QUESTION: Any chance that he may decide to flip and cooperate?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No chance.
SCHNEIDER: Paul Manafort faced the six-men and six-women jury who will decide whether he could spend the rest of his life in prison. The president's former campaign chairman appeared calm, wearing a dark suit as lawyers made their opening statements and the prosecution called its first witness.
Paul Manafort was the first indictment secured by the special counsel's team last October. His former co-defendant and deputy Rick Gates has already pleaded guilty and is cooperating. And in a bold move, Manafort's team told the jury his defense will revolve around discrediting Gates, who is expected to be called as one of the government's 35 witnesses.
Defense attorney Thomas Zehnle claimed it was Gates who stole money and lied and embezzled millions from Manafort. Zehnle said it was Gates who -- quote -- "had his hand in the cookie jar."
This trial is a key test for special counsel Robert Mueller. Judge T.S. Ellis has banned any mention of President Trump, Russia or collusion from the courtroom. But the case still looms over the White House since the charges against Manafort stem from the special counsel's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The White House now trying to downplay the trial and Manafort's role on the Trump campaign, even though Manafort was the campaign chairman for three months.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: This trial obviously centers on matters that had nothing to do with the campaign. I think that even Mr. Manafort, as I read it, had requested that there'd be no mention of his brief tenure at the Trump campaign several years ago. This has nothing to do with collusion, Russia, nothing to do with the Trump campaign.
SCHNEIDER: Manafort's Virginia case centers around his past lobbying work for the pro-Putin Ukrainian government, for which prosecutor say he received $60 million.
The government alleges Manafort hid millions and failed to pay taxes while still spending the money on real estate and luxury purchases, including homes in Manhattan, Virginia, and the Hamptons, expensive suits and baseball tickets. And prosecutors will present hundreds of e-mails, photos and financial records to prove it.
In opening statements, the government even promised evidence of a $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich. Prosecutors say Manafort also lied to banks about his income to secure more than $20 million in loans.
The president has repeatedly tried to downplay Manafort's ties to the campaign, even though he proved a key player as President Trump seized the nomination.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Manafort has nothing to do with our campaign. But I feel so -- I will tell you, I feel a little badly about it. They went back 12 years to get things that he did 12 years ago?
Paul Manafort worked for me for a very short period of time. He worked for many other Republicans. He worked for me, what, for 49 days or something, a very short period of time.
SCHNEIDER: And the prosecution wrapped up its first witness today. That was Democratic consultant Tad Devine. He worked with Manafort in Ukraine. They expect a call two other witnesses tomorrow, another consultant, as well as an FBI agent.
And, of course, this isn't the only trial Manafort faces. His D.C. trial is set to start in September. All the while, he is still in jail for allegations of witness tampering while he awaits these other trials -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Jessica, thank you, Jessica Schneider reporting.
Tonight. President Trump is on the campaign trail, as he embraces a new line of defense against the Mueller investigation. Mr. Trump now echoing Rudy Giuliani's argument that collusion is not a crime.
Of course, this is the same president who frequently denies there was any collusion with Russia in the first place.
Let's go live to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, you're in Tampa. The president is getting ready to speak at a rally there. Update our viewers on what you're hearing.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
President Trump is in Florida tonight to do some campaigning ahead of the midterm elections. You hear this crowd here is already raucous a couple of hours before he is set to take the stage.
But the president and his team are still busy trying to get their stories straight on the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump is now echoing his lawyers, as you said, who have gone from saying there was no collusion during the 2016 election to insisting that collusion is not a crime after all.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Racing past the cameras on his way to Florida, President Trump appears to have a new strategy for the Russia investigation, ignore questions from reporters, while spinning up a new defense where he is shielded from outside scrutiny, tweeting: "Collusion is not a crime."
It's a notable leap from the president, who has repeatedly claim there was no collusion with the Russians during the 2016 campaign.
TRUMP: There is no collusion. You know Why? Because I don't speak to Russians. There has been no collusion. There's been no crime. I can only say this. There was absolutely no collusion. Everybody knows it, every committee. There is no collusion. There is no collusion with Russia, other than by the Democrats.
ACOSTA: The president is now amplifying what his outside lawyer Rudy Giuliani said Monday.
RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: I don't even know if that's a crime, colluding about Russians.
ACOSTA: And another Trump attorney, Jay Sekulow, said today.
JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, that's not just technically correct me. That's actually the law. But there's no violation of law, statute, rule or regulation that we have seen after reviewing this case for a year. And I think Bob Mueller will come to the same conclusion. ACOSTA: Democrats aren't buying it.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: I can't keep up with Rudy Giuliani's theories of defense. And they change almost by the hour. Collusion at one point never happened. At the next point, if it happened, it's not serious.
ACOSTA: Weighed down by the Russia probe, the president is turning to issues popular with his base, threatening to shut down the government to make Congress pay for a border wall, insisting that's a very small price to pay and tweeting: "I don't care what the political ramifications are."
Even fellow Republicans are leery of a shutdown with the midterm elections fast approaching.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I kind of see it as posturing, to be honest with you. It's an irresponsible thing to do, I think.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump's border policy is coming under increasing scrutiny, with an administration official admitting to Congress that the president's practice of separating children from undocumented migrants amounts to child abuse.
JONATHAN WHITE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES DEPARTMENT: There's no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.
ACOSTA: One of the president's fellow hard-liners on immigration, Chief of Staff John Kelly, appears to be sticking around. Sources confirm the president has asked Kelly to remain at his post until 2020, though CNN has learned the chief of staff wanted the story leaked to tamp down on reports that he could be on his way out.
Mr. Trump arrives in Florida with the upcoming elections on his mind, throwing his support behind GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis.
REP. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: Build the wall.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He read stories.
DESANTIS: Then Mr. Trump said, you're fired. I love that part.
ACOSTA: DeSantis appears in a new ad teaching his children how to build their own wall, in a show of big league flattery.
DESANTIS: Big league. So good.
ACOSTA: The White House closed out the month of July without holding a briefing for reporters today.
That means the White House has held only three briefings for the press this month and eight total since the end of May. There is no other way to describe what the White House is doing right now, Wolf. The White House, from the president on down, they are hiding from the press.
And, Wolf, we should point out, over the last hour or so, this crowd has been very rowdy, coming after us, telling us to go home. But, Wolf, we're not going home. We're going to stay right here at this rally and do the news, report on this rally coming up tonight -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good for you. All right, thanks very much. That's exactly what you're supposed to be doing in a country that appreciates a free press, Jim Acosta on the scene for us in Tampa.
Joining us, Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat. He serves on both the Judiciary and Armed Services Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you, Wolf. Great to be with you.
BLITZER: So Paul Manafort, the trial has now started.
The administration insists this has nothing to do it all with the 2016 Trump campaign, even though he served for a few months as the Trump campaign chairman. What's your response to that?
BLUMENTHAL: The judge has said that neither Russia nor President Trump are on trial. True.
But the stakes couldn't be higher for the president here and for the special prosecutor as well, because obviously this trial is a critical step, a milestone in the special prosecutor's pursuit of both possible conspiracy and collusion with the Russians by the Trump campaign, but also obstruction of justice by the president of the United States.
BLITZER: How important is Rick Gates' testimony? Rick Gates, he was Manafort's deputy for a long time. He stayed on working for the campaign even after Manafort left. He's pled guilty. He's cooperating. He will be supposedly one of the star witnesses.
BLUMENTHAL: He will be a star witness, and he has given both the Judiciary Committee and other committees in Congress critical information that indicates that he has very compelling evidence against Paul Manafort.
And the defense strategy is going to be to put him on trial, to try to make him the defendant. It's a classic strategy.
BLITZER: But does he have corroborating evidence to back him up?
BLUMENTHAL: And there are more than 400 documents that are going to corroborate his testimony.
And they can challenge him. They can put him on trial. But cross- examining a document is very difficult to do, particularly when it relates to financial crimes, tax fraud and money laundering and other kinds of fraud, where there is a huge amount of money. We're talking tens of millions of dollars.
BLITZER: The president is now echoing his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and saying collusion is not a crime. What does that say to you?
BLUMENTHAL: That says to me that they are once again playing semantics. They're trying to use word games.
Collusion, whether it's called that or any legal agreement, amounts to conspiracy when it involves an agreement to violate the law; 18 United States Code 371, if there is an illegal agreement, whether it is by the center or one of the spokes on the wheel, it's a classic jury instruction that no defendant has to know all the purposes of the conspiracy or all the actors in the conspiracy.
If the president was part of a conspiracy, he's violated the law.
BLITZER: Let's talk about Michael Cohen for a moment, the president's former fixer and a lawyer. He says Donald Trump Jr. actually told his father about that Trump Tower meeting in New York City with the Russians in advance.
But that's not what we hear what Donald Trump Jr. told your committee, the Judiciary Committee; is that right?
BLUMENTHAL: That is correct.
And there is mounting evidence that Donald Trump Jr. misled or even more likely perjured himself before our committee and possibly other committees, because he denied telling his father about that meeting before it happened.
Remember, this meeting was critical. It was the meeting in Trump Tower that was supposed to be the opportunity to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Natalia Veselnitskaya and other Russian agents. And if he is correct, Michael Cohen, and Donald Trump, the father, knew about this meeting beforehand, it certainly is very compelling evidence.
BLITZER: Because if you lie before a congressional committee, even if it's behind closed doors, that's a crime.
BLUMENTHAL: It is a crime. And Donald Trump Jr. is in increasing jeopardy of being prosecutable for that kind of crime.
BLITZER: Because it's interesting you say that.
Yesterday, I interviewed Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee. He's a member of the House Judiciary Committee. And he predicted that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, both of them will eventually be indicted by Manafort.
BLUMENTHAL: They have increasing exposure here. And the evidence is increasing, not only in the amount of evidence, but also the credibility, because, for Michael Cohen's contention that the president knew beforehand, there's other kinds of evidence as well to corroborate Michael Cohen, which further increases the jeopardy for Donald Trump Jr.
BLITZER: So you think Donald -- you agree with Congressman Cohen that both Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner potentially could be indicted?
BLUMENTHAL: They have serious exposure. And it could well happen.
BLITZER: Let's talk about Facebook for a moment. You heard today they have removed a bunch of pages because of allegations, suspicion that foreigners, Russians particularly, were involved in spreading disinformation to foment dissent here in the United States, to foment division in the United States similar to what Russia did during the 2016 presidential campaign.
How concerning is this to you right now?
BLUMENTHAL: It's deeply concerning, but unsurprising, Wolf, because the director of national intelligence told us a week or so ago that the warning lights are flashing red.
We know from the briefings we have received that the Russians have continued their attack on our democracy. It's not only in the social media. It's also in cyber. Today, I introduced two bills on a bipartisan basis with Senator Graham and Senator Whitehouse aimed at election integrity and also countering this cyber-attack, increasing the penalties for cyber-crime, enabling the Justice Department to stop botnet attacks.
And so we need an all-of-government response. What we're seeing from the administration is exactly the opposite. They are not yet even implementing all the sanctions that we passed almost unanimously in the Senate sometime ago. I am a co-sponsor of the DETER Act.
My colleague Chris Van Hollen of Maryland talked about it just a little while ago on your show, very important that we heighten sanctions. But also there are other measures that we can and should take.
BLITZER: On another really important issue, you heard testimony from representatives of the House -- of the administration's Homeland Security Department. They testified before the Homeland Security Committee up on Capitol Hill, and they gave various explanations why more than 700 children are still separated from their mothers and their fathers.
What was your takeaway from the hearing there?
BLUMENTHAL: I found that these explanations, the attempt to explain the continued separation of children absolutely outrageous and incredible.
The most moving and powerful part of that testimony today, in response to questions I asked, was one of the career officials told me and the committee that it was the result of a deliberative process that actually took account of the pain and trauma that would be inflicted on these children.
That career official, Jonathan White, testified that the highest levels knew about the concerns that he and other career officials raised about this policy. So the explanations have been totally unsatisfactory.
And from the day that I went to the border, which was now six weeks ago, there's been no plan, no system to reunite these children. It amounts to official kidnapping and child abuse.
BLITZER: And I should say these Homeland Security officials testified before you Judiciary Committee in the Senate today, and a lot of people emerge very, very disturbed by what they heard.
Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for joining us.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on Paul Manafort's trial and what it may reveal about Robert Mueller's strategy, as his Russia investigation moves forward.
And we will also have a full report on Facebook's discovery, dozens of fake accounts likely linked to Russians. Is it 2016 all over again?
BLITZER: We're following breaking news, as Paul Manafort's criminal trial begins to unfold. Testimony has wrapped up for the day after the first witness was called by Robert Mueller's prosecutors. Stand by for much more on that.
Also breaking, Facebook just shut down dozens of fake accounts believed to be run by Russians. It's escalating concerns that a repeat of Moscow's 2016 election interference here in the United States is already under way, as the midterm elections near.
Our senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin, is joining us right now.
Drew, these fake sites seem pretty familiar.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Almost identical, Wolf, to what Russian actors did during the run-up to the 2016 campaign, set up fake, inauthentic accounts, gather a bunch of followers, then spread disinformation, fake protests, all aimed at dividing Americans against each other.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Facebook calls it inauthentic behavior and though Facebook can't be sure, it sure looks like Russia again.
Thirty-two pages with names including Black Elevation, Resistors, Aztlan Warriors, being followed by 290,000 accounts. The fake accounts also setting up and promoting real events and protests aimed at further polarizing U.S. political discourse.
Many of the events did occur, including this one last year in New York City attended by actual Americans who likely had no idea that the Resistors Facebook page was probably run by Russians.
Another event by the same group was supposed to take place in a couple of weeks. Resistors set up a counterprotest against white supremacists at the White House August 10.
Five other real groups signed on to participate. As Facebook was announcing its crackdown on these potential Russian sites, the U.S. secretary of homeland security was that a cyber-security conference saying there's no doubt Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Everyone and everything is now a target.
GRIFFIN: And Russian actors may be at it again, comparing the upcoming midterm elections to a looming storm.
NIELSEN: Today, I believe the next major attack is more likely to reach us online than on an airplane. We are in a crisis mode. The Cat 5 hurricane has been forecast and now we must prepare.
GRIFFIN: Facebook says these current pages all shut down have the hallmarks of the activities the Russians did around the presidential election, though there are some differences. This time, the pages didn't lead back to Russian I.P. addresses.
And they used third-party services to buy ads to boost their posts and encourage people to follow the pages.
GRIFFIN: Wolf, in addition to taking these pages down, Facebook is reaching out to anybody who was in contact with them, telling them these inauthentic accounts are most likely Russians.
We have contacted some of them, Wolf, and they are just stunned to find out -- these are American citizens surprised to find out that these rallies they attended were most likely organized by possibly Russian hackers -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Hundreds of thousands of followers out there. Very, very worrisome indeed.
Drew Griffin, good reporting. Thank you.
Just ahead: Paul Manafort's defense. Can his legal team shift the blame to his former partner-turned-witness for Robert Mueller?
And we will go to the scene of the California wildfires, as the death still rises and the destruction reaches historic proportions.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The breaking news tonight, the trial of the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, now underway. In opening statements, prosecutors said Manafort had 30 foreign bank accounts that he hid from U.S. authorities. But Manafort's lawyer said the defense plans to blame his longtime business partner Rick Gates for the crimes of which Manafort is accused.
[18:32:04] Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and analysts, and Jeffrey Toobin, you're our legal analyst. Paul Manafort's defense attorney says these secret bank accounts, that's just the way the Russian oligarchs with whom he was doing business, they wanted to operate.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: That may be true, but you've still got to pay your taxes. And that's the problem that Paul Manafort has.
I don't really understand how they're going to make the argument that -- blaming the Russian oligarchs for his failure to pay taxes.
Blaming Rick Gates, certainly, is classic defense strategy, which is when you have two partners, one of whom pleads guilty and cooperates against the other, the remaining one on trial blames the person who cooperates. That's certainly what Manafort is going to do. It doesn't always work. In fact, it usually doesn't work. But it is a classic and very appropriate defense strategy.
BLITZER: You know, Gloria, the president's team is trying to distance this entire Manafort trial from the campaign, but these Ukrainians with whom Manafort was working and collected, what, about $60 million, they were very pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin, pro-Russian folks in Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of Ukraine at that time, was a close ally of Putin's. Is that argument going to work?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, when he -- when he was out of power, the spigot dried up for Paul Manafort. He wasn't getting all that money anymore.
Look, the bottom line here, Wolf, is that, if Mueller's team is successful in this trial, then it will be very good for Bob Mueller and not very good for anyone who is calling this a witch hunt. Because what the White House cannot deny -- and again, this trial is not about Russia. It is about Paul Manafort and the way he allegedly laundered money and didn't pay taxes, et cetera, et cetera.
But it gives Mueller, if he were to succeed in this, or if Manafort at some point during the trial could decide to cut a deal, then it does give Mueller's investigation an awful lot of credibility.
And what you cannot erase is that, for five months, Paul Manafort was in charge of Donald Trump's campaign. It's not as if they didn't know each other. It's not as if -- I have been told they were never particularly close, by the way. I don't think Trump ever particularly liked him, but he did work for Trump. So you can't erase history like that. That is not what this trial is about.
BLITZER: And he worked very effectively in getting the delegates at the Republican convention --
BORGER: Yes, he did.
BLITZER: -- onboard so that Trump would get the Republican Party nomination.
David Swerdlick, how do you see all this, this trial unfolding?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, look. Manafort is innocent until proven guilty, but as I heard Joey Jackson say in your last hour, Wolf, federal prosecutors don't get to this stage without thinking they have a pretty good case. And at a minimum, perception wise, it looks very bad for the president to have had someone who was his campaign chairman, even if it was, as he says, for a short time, be this swampy, forget the criminal aspect of it for a second. Someone who made his name, Manafort, whipping votes at the Democratic convention for Gerald Ford winds up being a guy whose primary deal is working for Yanukovych, a pro-Russian oligarch in Ukraine.
[18:35:25] I think that this is going to, you know, not look good for President Trump.
TOOBIN: One more fact about this trial. Today alone, they did all jury selection, opening statements for the defense and the prosecution, and Tad Devine, the first witness. Tad Devine, a prominent Democratic, usually, political consultant. This is the rocket docket. This case will not take three weeks. It may not even take two.
BORGER: And don't forget: we also have the question of during the convention how the platform was changed to be more pro-Ukrainian, and the question of Manafort's influence over that. So that does affect Donald Trump and the campaign.
BLITZER: It's interesting, Kaitlan. As you know, the president has been saying for months and months and months, there was no collusion, no collusion. No collusion.
Now he's going one step further, echoing Rudy Giuliani and saying, "You know what? Collusion is not a crime."
What does that say to you?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It shows that they're shifting their defense and recalibrating once again. Because you can remember the old days back a year and a half ago, when they insisted that there were no contacts between anyone on their campaign and any Russian officials.
Well, then when we found out there was overwhelming evidence that there were -- that there were contacts, then they shifted to "There's no collusion." Now they're shifting to "Collusion is not a crime." So we have seen them time and time again shift their defense.
And as far as to the White House over the next few weeks and over the days of this trial playing out, they're going to try to downplay the role that Paul Manafort had with their campaign.
But the one crucial thing, the one crucial contact with the Russians that they had was that Trump Tower meeting that Paul Manafort attended. If he had this really lowly role and his only job was to count delegates, there were no delegates in the -- delegates in the room that day when they were meeting with the Russians officials. So it raises the question of why would he attend such a meeting if he really was just a lowly campaign official who had no power?
SWERDLICK: Can I just bring up one point? I don't know what you think of this, Jeffrey, but you know, if their argument all along had been that collusion is not a crime, then they would have a better argument now against an obstruction of justice charge.
But to have all along said nothing happened and then to possibly be investigated for obstruction of justice, it's like, well, if your argument is shifting to "collusion is not a crime," why were you all along saying there were no crimes?
TOOBIN: In fairness to the Trump team, they have said from the beginning that collusion is not a crime. They are just putting new emphasis on that argument now.
Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's lawyers, said months ago that collusion was not a crime. But to have Rudy Giuliani say it one day and Donald Trump tweet about it the next day certainly suggests that that argument is taking new salience for -- and the reason, one suspects, is because the evidence of collusion is out there, and they want to diminish its importance.
BORGER: And collusion by another name would be conspiracy to defraud the United States government.
BORGER: Which is sort of the mantra they've been using against the Russians who had been indicted. So collusion, conspiracy, whatever -- whatever you want to call it, conspiracy is the actual crime.
And don't forget, you have had guilty pleas here. So it's not as if George Papadopoulos, who worked for the campaign, et cetera, et cetera, or for -- allegedly worked for the campaign because the campaign said he was a coffee boy, but you know --
TOOBIN: Michael Flynn.
BORGER: Michael Flynn, for example. Gates has flipped. So you know, you -- it's not as if they can say, "None of our people met, spoke with the Russians." The question of Roger Stone is still hanging out there.
So you know, it's -- it's not as if they haven't -- they haven't gone through a bunch of people and said, "Yes, you know what? You did talk to Russia. Yes."
BLITZER: You wanted to say something?
COLLINS: Well, we've also just seen how they're -- yes, that's right, how they changed their strategy, what they've said. Also just going back to the president himself, everything he has said about Paul Manafort. Just a few days ago or earlier this month, was saying Paul Manafort had a very small role, did not much in the campaign. They are taking that same strategy there in trying to apply it here.
But this also comes as there is fresh scrutiny about whether President Trump was aware of that meeting in Trump Tower or if he gave Donald Trump Jr. the clearance to go ahead with that meeting, which Michael Cohen is now alleging that President Trump was aware of it.
So that raises the question, if President Trump did give Donald Trump Jr. permission to go to that meeting with Russian officials, foreign agents and try to solicit information about Hillary Clinton, which Donald Trump Jr. has made clear was what he thought he was walking into that meeting to get, that is the question. And we know that is what the special counsel is looking into.
BLITZER: You know, let's get to some exclusive new reporting from CNN's Erica Orden. I just want to read a couple sentences of what she's just breaking right now. Potentially significant.
"The special counsel, Robert Mueller, has referred a collection of cases to New York federal prosecutors concerning whether several high- profile American lobbyists and operatives failed to register their work as foreign agents, according to people familiar with the matter."
[18:40:14] She writes, "The transfer of the inquiries marks an escalation of Mueller's referrals to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York in the period since he turned over a case involving President Trump's longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen."
And the names are significant. Listen to this. "Since the spring, Mueller has referred matters to the Southern District of New York involving longtime Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta and his work for his former firm, the Podesta Group, and former Minnesota Republican Representative Vin Weber and his work for Mercury Public Affairs, the sources said. One source said the former Obama White House counsel, Greg Craig, a former partner at the law firm Skadden (ph), is also part of the inquiry."
What does all this say to you?
TOOBIN: Well, the first thing is it's not clear that any crime was committed here and whether these people will be prosecuted for anything. This is not good news for them, to be sure.
And I think it's indicative of Robert Mueller trying to clean the decks a little bit.
BORGER: Right. TOOBIN: Not wanting to keep his office in business indefinitely the way some independent counsels did. That anything that is not directly related to their -- to his core assignment, he is trying to give to the Justice Department and have those people investigate.
But even though, as I said, it's not clear that there -- any crime was committed here, if I were any of those people, I would be extremely unhappy to hear that.
BLITZER: It's interesting, Kaitlan. Republicans and Democrats.
COLLINS: That's right, and the concern so far with allegations from the White House have been is that Robert Mueller is not this Republican, even though he is a Republican. The president has been very clear to allege that he only has Democrats working for him, that he's out to get him, that this is a witch hunt against the president and his supporters.
But clearly, here's Robert Mueller referring both of these cases, essentially trying to get it out of the way, and not increase his scope of his investigation, which also shows that he's operating on a straight path here --
COLLINS: -- and not trying to make it this giant investigation that's going to go on for years and years and years.
BORGER: Well, that's what Republicans are charging, which is that he's run amuck. But by -- by farming things out, including one could argue, Michael Cohen, for example, he is saying, "You know what? I'm going to stick to my knitting. This is -- I've got to investigate Russian hacking. I'm going to investigate potential collusion or conspiracy to defraud the government or obstruction of justice, whatever it is. But I can't do all of this."
And then -- and the Southern District of New York may decide, "You know what? We don't prosecute these cases of failing to register as a lobbyist. Maybe we'll fine these people."
TOOBIN: Not a criminal matter.
BLITZER: And as you point out, none of these individuals has been charged with anything.
BORGER: Right, exactly.
BLITZER: And it's unclear if they will be charged. Tony Podesta, by the way, the brother of John Podesta, who was the campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton.
Stand by, because there's more breaking news we're following right now. New details emerging of what the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been privately telling U.S. senators about the Russia investigation as he makes the rounds up on Capitol Hill.
Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, has been working the story for us.
Manu, what are you learning?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, how Brett Kavanaugh views the Mueller investigation has been a big question going forward as he's made the rounds on Capitol Hill, and of course, they have huge implications for the president and his associates.
Now, I have been told that Brett Kavanaugh has privately relayed to senators that he believes the Justice Department's appointment of a special counsel is appropriate.
Now, this is significant, because he has expressed skepticism in the past about whether a president can be indicted. He continues behind closed doors to say that he believes the proper role is for Congress to impeach and remove a sitting president and then, after a president is removed from office, that is the time in which a former president then could be hit with criminal charges.
And he has expressed some concerns about an independent counsel's constitutionality and about the Supreme Court precedent upholding independent counsel.
Now, of course, Wolf, an independent counsel like Ken Starr, for whom Kavanaugh worked for four years, is much different than a special counsel like Robert Mueller. They operate under separate guidelines from the Justice Department, but there are some serious questions about whether or not Kavanaugh views the Mueller investigation just as skeptically as he views the independent counsel.
And now, what we're learning for the first time that he's telling these senators that he believes it is OK for the Justice Department to name a special counsel.
But Wolf, I am told that he has stopped short about saying that the Mueller investigation is constitutional, so that is still a question that members are going to have to ask him at his confirmation hearings.
But for the first time, Wolf, we're getting a glimpse into his view about something that could be very significant going forward if he's confirmed to the Supreme Court.
BLITZER: Yes, that's very significant. If he is confirmed to the Supreme Court, Manu, any indication about how he would deal with a subpoena compelling the president to testify before the Mueller probe?
RAJU: He has not broached that subject, Wolf. He's not -- that is one area that, of course, members still have a lot of questions. And, of course, his legal -- the president's legal team, Wolf, has said they may fight a subpoena if it were to come to that. So, another question that he could face on the high court, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Breaking news up on Capitol Hill. Manu, thank you very much. Just ahead, after President Trump touts progress with North Korea,
there are now some signs the country may be building more intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Plus, breaking news: 20 people now reported missing as the deadly wildfire grows in northern California.
[18:50:26] BLITZER: "The Washington Post" is reporting that there are signs North Korea is possibly building new missiles, even as President Trump claims the Kim Jong-un regime is moving toward denuclearization.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.
Barbara, what are you picking up?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the White House will neither confirm nor deny reports that North Korea is working on nuclear missiles. But the intelligence community has its suspicions.
STARR (voice-over): Tonight, North and South Korean military officials meeting for fresh talks at Panmunjom on reducing tensions, just as new commercial satellite imagery shows North Korea could be building new liquid fueled ballistic missiles according to "The Washington Post." This despite the Trump administration's hope that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons following the Singapore summit.
For intelligence analysts, the critical question is what has North Korea been up to in the weeks since then?
BRUCE KLINGNER, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIVISION CHIEF FOR KOREA: What we're seeing with the intelligence leak as well as the unclassified satellite imagery is a continuation of production as well as even the expansion of production facilities for fissile material for nuclear weapons.
STARR: There are no signs Kim Jong-un is headed to shutting everything down, despite these underground nuclear test tunnels being destroyed and some limited dismantlement at a satellite launch site.
The nation's top intelligence officer said days ago it's classic North Korean tactics.
DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I'm not surprised the North Koreans might be trying to hide some things to be deceptive.
STARR: And the top U.S. military officer in the region also warning recently North Korea may still be producing nuclear fuel for warheads.
GEN. VINCENT BROOKS, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES KOREA: We haven't seen a complete shutdown of production yet. And we have not seen the removal of fuel rods.
STARR: If there are new liquid fuel ballistic missiles, several U.S. officials say it's not all that concerning because liquid fuelling takes long enough that spy satellites can see it and offer early warning. The larger U.S. intelligence concern, advanced solid fuel missiles can be fired in surprise.
The way ahead now has slowed.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have no rush for speed. The relationships are very good. So, we'll see how that goes. We have no time limit.
KLINGNER: If we have abandoned timelines, if we abandoned the pressure, it seems to be that the Trump administration has embraced the Obama administration's policy of strategic patience. The longer the negotiations drag out, the less international resolve there is.
STARR: Now, the most important intelligence to gather may be communications intercepts and eavesdropping on Kim Jong-un and his top lieutenants so the U.S. can try to figure out exactly what they are up to -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara, what are you learning about the remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean war that were just sent back to the United States?
STARR: Well, those will be arriving in Hawaii. And it's about 55 sets of remains. The North Koreans say the U.S. is trying to determine exactly what is in those boxes that the North Koreans turned over.
What we do know today, there was only one dog tag from the Korean War as part of the remains. It's not at all clear yet, is it a U.S. dog tag? Is it from one of the allies that fought with the U.S. during the war? It's witness of the indicators that it may take years to identify everything that the North Koreans have turned over and try and bring closure to those families, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thank you. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
We are also following breaking news. Twenty people are now reported missing as that giant wildfire ravages parts of northern California.
CNN's Nick Watt is in Redding for us.
Nick, the fire has now burned an area larger than the city of Denver, and the loss is clearly tremendous. Update our viewers.
NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Listen, Wolf, across the state of California right now, we have 17,000 homes under threat from flames, more than a dozen wildfires burning in the state. Now here in Shasta County, the Carr Fire, this is now the worst fire this county has seen since records began way back in 1923. A hundred seventy thousand square miles have burned here.
And as you mentioned, 20 people currently listed as missing. Six people confirmed dead.
[18:55:02] WATT (voice-over): This apocalyptic blaze is eating through thousands of acres of forest, so large it's visible from space. The flames have destroyed more than 800 homes and counting. Those statistics are stunning. But the personal stories hit hardest.
(on camera): You could see the flames in your rearview mirror as you were driving away?
STACEY KELLY, LOST HOME IN FIRE: Yes, that was the terrifying part. It was like a wall of fire. It was like a train. It had a noise. It was awful. I thought I was in a sci-fi movie.
WATT: Driving away from a home you may never see again.
KELLY: That's what happened. Lots and lots and lots of memories, they are gone. I mean, everything is gone.
WATT: What did you manage to save?
KELLY: I have two rubber maid tubs that I threw some stuff in. Some scrubs for work.
WATT (voice-over): A nurse. She's back at work already.
KELLY: I actually felt better yesterday than I had in a long time because I was at work and I felt like I had a purpose.
WATT (on camera): Right.
(voice-over): This was her home before the fire.
(on camera): And this is all that's left of Stacey Kelly's house, rubble and a few charred trees. In fact, her entire little cul-de- sac, six houses, all completely destroyed. But then if you look just across the street, the random nature of wildfires, another house, still standing.
KELLY: I just feel empty. I don't know. I don't know. I don't think I will rebuild that house. I don't think so.
WATT (voice-over): The fire swept through the west side of Redding, population more than 90,000, and through rural communities to the north and west.
JANET LANDLES, LOST HOME IN FIRE: A country girl. I grew up in the woods. My dad is a logger. WATT: Like many who attended a town meeting here in Redding, Janet
Landles from French Gulch, population 492, lost everything.
LANDLES: It's when you hit -- your head hits the pillow and you remember your home. And you remember my great grandmother's rocking chair, and the things your children made you, you know, when they were little.
WATT: The town hall was largely residents thanking first responders for saving lives, but so many worldly possessions lost to the flames.
LANDLES: My husband's dead. And all of his artwork is gone.
And, you know, you just remember all the stuff you -- not -- I don't care that the George Foreman melted. I don't care that I need a need a new refrigerator. But I do care that I lost my grandmother's thimble, you know? Those are the things that I care about.
WATT: Now, this fire is currently just 27 percent contained. Firefighters are concentrating their efforts up in the northwest of the fire, down a single lane track.
It's hot. It's dusty. The air quality is bad. Flames can fly.
And if we can just switch to another camera shot that shows the devastation back here in Redding, this was a neighborhood of this northern California town.
And, Wolf, one other very sobering statistic: of the end ten biggest wildfires in California history, four of them have happened in the past year alone -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Awful situation. Totally awful. Nick, thank you for that report.
I want to bring in our meteorologist Jennifer Gray.
Weather clearly a major factor in this fire disaster, right?
JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's the biggest factor, really. And really, nothing is going to change until the weather pattern changes. And we don't think that's going to happen until sometime next week.
We have this ridge of high pressure that's creating this heat dome over the west. You have incredible daytime heating. You have very low humidity. So, you have the hot air, the dry air, and a lot of wind. And it is just fuelling these flames.
Here's the forecast for Redding over the next couple of days. You see temperatures in the triple digits. No chances of rain. We are going to have the sun out.
And we are going to have the flames still working their way across the west. Temperatures are going to be in the triple digits for Tuesday and Wednesday for a lot of areas in the west.
And you look at the wind. We really don't have this huge area of strong wind. But what you have to remember is that the winds inside of these fires can be much, much stronger than the wind outside.
And so, it creates almost like its own weather system where we have these huge pyrocumulus clouds. We have winds of 60 and 70 miles per hour. They can shift on a dime making it very, very dangerous for the firefighters. And you cannot outrun the fires when you get stuck in areas with wind that strong. It is very dangerous.
We have 98 large active fires in the west right now. And as mentioned before, Carr Fire is number seven right now, most destructive California fire. And this goes back as far as records have been held for nearly 100 years.
And so, as we mentioned as well, four of those have happened in the last two years. So, Wolf, this is far from over. We are going to be dealing with this for the next couple of days, hopefully though by next week, a pattern change.
BLITZER: All right. Jennifer, thanks for that.
That's -- thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.