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TSA Considers Eliminating Screenings at Some Airports; Eight Dead in Wildfires, 17,000 Homes Threatened. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 1, 2018 - 17:00   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. Obstruction versus opinion. Shock waves are spreading after President Trump calls for the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to stop the Mueller investigation right now. The White House says it's just an opinion. But could it be obstruction of justice?

[17:00:15] Lavish lifestyle? A jury hears about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's fancy suits and expensive cars, bought with money stashed off shore. But as his financial crimes trial races forward, why are prosecutors now saying they may not call their star witness?

Shutting down security? A CNN exclusive: the TSA is considering allowing passengers to board commercial airplanes at some airports without being screened. Would this cost-reducing move raise the risk of terrorism?

And returning to devastation. Families try to get back to homes that no longer exist, even as thousands more homes are threatened by California deadly wildfires. Why is the governor calling this the new normal?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, the White House is scrambling to diffuse the impact of a stunning Twitter rant from President Trump that today called on the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to stop the Russia investigation, quote, "right now."

The White House claims the president was stating an opinion, not issuing an order to halt Robert Mueller's probe. But the tweet is raising disturbing, very serious new questions about whether President Trump is openly trying to obstruct justice.

I'll speak with Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by with full coverage.

First, let's get right to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, a truly remarkable and very disturbing attack by the president on the Russia probe. What's the latest? JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And the White House is flat declining to really say more about this, besides what Sarah Sanders said during the briefing earlier today. The president has not talked more about this after putting this tweet out.

Earlier today the White House was saying the president was not trying to obstruct justice. He was just offering his opinion on the Mueller investigation. But judge for yourself. Let's put the tweet up on screen. This is what the president put out earlier today. "This is a terrible situation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted." The president going on there to say that this is a disgrace to the United States of America.

Sarah Sanders was pressed on this by multiple reporters during the briefing earlier today. Here's what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's not an order. It's the president's opinion. And it's ridiculous that all of the corruption and dishonesty that's gone on with the launching of the witch hunt.

The president is not obstructing. He's fighting back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, of course, it's obviously not a witch hunt. It's a legitimate investigation, Wolf, that has resulted in numerous prosecutions and even some guilty pleas. And Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman, is on trial right now over his business dealings.

Of course, there are concerns inside Trump world that, with the prosecutors squeezing Paul Manafort, that he might flip against the president. All of that may be motivating this behavior on behalf of Mr. Trump.

But Rudy Giuliani, the president's outside lawyer, he was asked about this earlier this afternoon. The president, he said, was just exercising his right to defend himself. And here's what Giuliani lad ho had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: He is a person with a First Amendment right to defend himself, First Amendment right to express his opinion. And as a president, it's even more important that he expresses opinion, because these kind of allegations can do damage to the country. Not just to the particular president. And if he believes he's innocent -- and he is innocent -- he should speak out.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ACOSTA: Now, of course, Wolf, we should point out in all of this, Jeff Sessions the attorney general has recused himself in the Russia investigation. But obviously, this is not the first time that the president of the United States has put the full weight of the presidency into trying to push Jeff Sessions into doing something in all of this.

Of course, the million-dollar question in all of this, Wolf, is whether or not the president, if he takes some kind of action against the Mueller investigation, tries to shut it down by putting pressure on the attorney general, whether or not that would trigger some kind of action on behalf of Republicans who control Congress. Of course, that is something we just don't know. It would have to happen for the entire nation and the world to watch to see whether Republicans who are in control of Congress would do next, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know what, Jim, what -- what did Sarah Sanders say at the briefing today about the treatment of the press, the news media at public rallies?

ACOSTA: Well, Wolf, as you know, this was all unfolding live on your show last night at around 5 o'clock yesterday. We started to feel the heat from the crowd at the Trump rally down in Tampa, Florida.

A number of the president's supporters were hurling insults at us. They were really verbally abusing us for most of the night, chanting "fake news and "CNN sucks" and so on, acting in somewhat of a threatening way from time to time.

[17:05:13] Sarah Sanders was asked about this during the briefing. And she essentially gave the green light to these supporters to continue this behavior at these rallies. And keep in mind, there's a rally that the president is holding in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, tomorrow night.

But here's what Sanders had to say about all of this, when she was pressed on this during the briefing earlier today, Wolf.

I'm sorry. We should point out she did not -- we do not have that video right now. But when she was asked about this earlier today, Wolf, she said that, while the press has the right to freedom of the press, the people at these rallies have freedom of speech rights, as well.

Of course, Wolf, they do have freedom of speech. Nobody is denying that. But at the same time, there is this question of decency and civility across the country and whether or not the press should be subjected to this sort of thing, which of course, they shouldn't, Wolf.

BLITZER: And whether or not the president of the United States should be encouraging it. He retweeted a tweet from his son that seemed to be encouraging it, right?

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. Last night, after the rally was over, the president -- his son Eric Trump tweeted out a video, showing some of these folks yelling at us last night as we were attempting to do our live shots. And Eric Trump put a hashtag "#truth" on this.

The president, on his way back to Washington from this rally, retweeted that. Wolf, there is just no other way to explain this other than that is an official endorsement from the president of the United States of this kind of behavior that goes on at his rallies.

And as we know, Wolf, this goes all the way back to the campaign when the president referred to us as the "disgusting news media," "the dishonest news media," "liars, scum and thieves," and so on. He rolled that war on the media right into his administration by calling us "fake news" and "the enemy of the people" and so on.

And Wolf, my experience talking to these folks at the rally last night is that much of what they think about what we do is shaped by what they see in the primetime hours of FOX News and by some conservative outlets who are really just out to get us on a daily basis. That seems to shape and distort much of what a lot of the folks at these rallies think about all of us.

And as I try to explain to them, I try to calmly talk to many of them throughout the night. I told them, "Listen, we're not here to do the -- to do the news just for the Republicans. We're here to do the news for all Americans. And we're not going to be intimidated and shouted out at a rally like that. We're going to continue to do our job," Wolf.

BLITZER: We don't even want to put that retweet by the president up on the screen. We don't want to dignify it at any -- at any length at all.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta. Excellent work. Thank you very, very much.

Let's bring in our crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz. Shimon, what are you hearing, first of all, from your sources at the Justice Department reacting to that president -- presidential stunning statement this morning on Twitter?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's certainly stunning. And I think it just goes along the lines of what the special counsel has been looking at.

Look, the Justice Department is not talking about this. The special counsel is not talking about this. This is one of the hot issues now for the special counsel and the concerns for the president, this obstruction investigation.

And when you think about what the president did today, it's fine. His lawyers can say that he's allowed to have his opinion. And they quickly responded to that tweet by saying this was an opinion.

But it's different, because the president touts himself as a chief law enforcement officer. He can make whatever decisions he wants. But in this kind of a tweet in this investigation, which goes to the obstruction, it's about what's in the president's state of mind? What is he thinking about when he says things like this? That is the center of what the Mueller investigation is.

And after that tweet, it made me think about some of what he has told Comey, the former FBI director, in meetings about him, in private meetings with him about the Flynn investigation, which set off, really, this whole chain of events and Robert Mueller being appointed after Comey was fired.

And if you recall, what he told the former FBI director, very similar in some ways in what he has said today. And that is that "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go." And that was a significant part, certainly, for the former FBI director when he basically wrote those memos; and his interpretation of those comments made him believe that the president was trying to obstruct justice, that he was telling him in an indirect way to end the investigation.

BLITZER: What do we know? There seems to be a little -- tiny, little bit of movement today on whether or not the president will or will not sit down for an interview with Robert Mueller and his team.

PROKUPECZ: Right. So Giuliani spoke just a short time ago, and he said that they finally did get a letter from the special counsel team, from Mueller's team. Remember, he was on CNN just days ago saying how they had not heard from the special counsel. And he said they did get a letter with some update. And here's what more he said on that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why should we believe that, though? Because everything that he says indicates the opposite? That he doesn't want to speak to Mueller.

GIULIANI: Really? I haven't heard him say that. I've heard him say "I want to be interviewed if my lawyers can reach an agreement on what the ground rules will be."

We've had a hard time doing that, but we're still -- I'm not going to give you a lot of hope it's going to happen. But we're still negotiating. We haven't stopped negotiating with them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PROKUPECZ: And it's clear that there are still negotiations that are ongoing. This source that we have talked to says that they did receive a letter from the Mueller team in the last day, saying that there had been small steps.

But the point is, and the significant thing in this letter, Mueller still wants a sit-down interview. And it seems, by all of our reporting, that obstruction is still at the center of what Mueller wants to ask about.

The other significant thing in this letter is that Mueller has agreed to take some written questions. But the bottom line is, they are still asking for the president to come and meet with them and to sit and talk to them.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what the White House and the president decide on that front. All right. Thanks very much, Shimon, for that report.

President Trump's Twitter rant is raising some very serious concerns among Republican lawmakers, as well. Let's go live to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.

What are you hearing, Phil?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's a mix of unease and exasperation. You had senators like Shelley Moore- Capito of West Virginia saying it concerned her. She knows the investigation needs to move forward.

Senator Susan Collins called it highly inappropriate and intemperate.

And then you've had other senators that just said either for the good of the administration or, frankly, on technicalities, the president should not keep tweeting these things. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Mueller is going to finish his investigation. The truth is all going to come out. That's the best thing that could happen for the president and for the country.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I think that's out of Jeff Sessions's hands. He's recused himself from the Russian investigation because he participated in the campaign, as we all know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: And Wolf, perhaps the most emblematic interaction I had today was running into a Republican senator, asking him what he thought about things and him saying, "I have no idea. If you have an answer, tell me." I'd ask if he'd then talk on the record about that. And he said, "No thanks, I'm OK."

The point there being Republicans are uncomfortable with this. They are clearly frustrated with it on Capitol Hill. But the kind of rationale of doing anything, or the urge to do something, it isn't there, both for political reasons and I will tell you that behind the scenes, I'm told repeatedly the White House has assured senior Republicans on the Capitol Hill that the president will not do anything.

I think the big question now, when you have tweets like this and if this escalates any further, does that change? As you know well, Wolf, there is legislation on Capitol Hill designed to protect the special counsel to give Congress a say whether anything is actually done. That hasn't moved anywhere significant in either chamber recently, and it likely won't based on how leadership feels about it.

But these are the types of tweets that, without question, make Republicans uncomfortable, even if it doesn't draw them to action, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. As certainly -- these tweets certainly should make them feel uncomfortable. Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. He's a member of both the Intelligence and the Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. If you worked for the president of the United States, would you interpret that tweet as a directive?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Absolutely. I think he's made his intentions pretty clear that he wants to shut down the Mueller investigation and he's used multiple tactics to try to accomplish that: badgering and bullying Jeff Sessions, firing James Comey because of the Russian investigation, berating Rod Rosenstein. So he's done so many things now, and this is one more.

And I think he's feeling the heat now because, No. 1, his former lawyer, his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, may have flipped on the president and may be cooperating with the government. But also because the Paul Manafort trial just started, and that was his campaign manager.

So the trail of evidence is very much leading closer to the president and people important to him, and I think he's lashing out because of it.

BLITZER: So when the president tweets or says in this tweet, "This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch hunt right now before it continues to stain your country any further," do you believe that was obstruction of justice?

CASTRO: Yes. I think it's obstruction of justice. I think it's an instruction as much as possible to Jeff Sessions on what Jeff Sessions should do, that he should get rid of Bob Mueller. It's one more example of how the president has obstructed justice in this whole matter.

BLITZER: But the White House, the press secretary, the president's attorneys Rudy Giuliani, Jay Sekulow, they say this was just an opinion the president was expressing, not an order or directive. Do you buy that defense?

CASTRO: I strongly disagree with that. And the reason is, it would be an opinion if it was somebody who had absolutely no control over the people involved. No control over the fate of Jeff Sessions or Robert Mueller.

So if it was, you know, somebody in Texas or in California or in Iowa just giving their opinion about this whole thing, that's one thing for them to go up on Twitter and make the statement.

When you're the president of the United States, and the White House has said that their Twitter statements are official statements of the president of the United States, when you're the president, you have control. When you do that, it's not an opinion; it's a directive.

[17:15:07] BLITZER: You just heard some of the backlash to this latest tweet from the president, the backlash coming in from lawmakers, including some Republicans. Do you believe, Congressman, that Republicans in Congress, your colleagues are doing enough to speak out against this kind of rhetoric coming from the president?

CASTRO: Unfortunately, I don't. I don't hear enough people speaking up.

Wolf, I know that many of them were very reticent or reluctant to speak up when they were still having to run in their primaries, because President Trump, quite honestly, is very popular in the Republican primary; and many of these folks feared his wrath on Twitter or some other statement that could affect their re-elections.

I thought that more of them would start to speak up after most of the primaries were done before November, and that's happened to some extent but not in -- not at the level that I would have expected by now.

BLITZER: As you know, the trial of the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is under way. Day two now over. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, you had a chance, an early look at this investigation long before the rest of us.

Here's what you told me. This is in April of 2017, more than a year ago. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CASTRO: If somebody asked me my impression, I would, my impression is that people will probably be charged and I think people will probably go to jail.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That prediction held up pretty well. So far, Mueller has issued 191 total criminal charges against 35 defendants. He's extracted already five guilty pleas. One person has already been sentenced. Do you foresee more indictments in the future?

CASTRO: Yes. I think so. I think so. And I think that it will keep getting closer to the president. I can't tell you how close exactly, but I still think that there are more, based on everything I've seen.

BLITZER: How critical is the outcome of the trial, the current trial of Paul Manafort to Robert Mueller's investigation?

CASTRO: I think it's quite important for a few reasons. Because Paul Manafort decided to go to trial and didn't accept any kind of guilty plea or no contest plea, this will be, I think, an indicator to Bob Mueller and his team about how strong a case they can build against not only Paul Manafort but some of the other folks that they're prosecuting.

And so this is going to be a very important indicator for Bob Mueller and really, I think the country is going to take a lot from what happens in this trial.

BLITZER: Do you think it's appropriate for the White House press secretary for the president of the United States to be intervening as this federal trial against Paul Manafort goes on? Just beginning, really, the president and the White House press secretary saying that Paul Manafort has been treated very unfairly?

CASTRO: No. I think they should withhold their comments on that. You know, but Sarah Sanders and the White House have done this routinely and will often intervene in matters that they shouldn't.

BLITZER: Joaquin Castro, the congressman from Texas, thanks for joining us.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BLITZER: More breaking news coming up. The White House tries to walk back President Trump's stunning tweet calling on his attorney general to stop the Mueller investigation. Was the president voicing an opinion or was he committing obstruction of justice?

And the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort takes a surprising turn today as prosecutors say they may not call someone who had been considered their star witness, Manafort's long-time deputy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:23:12] BLITZER: More breaking news now, as federal prosecutors lay out their case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. There was a surprising twist on day two of his trial on tax and banking charges.

Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is over at the federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Evan, the prosecution said they may not -- they may not call Manafort's former deputy, Rick Gates, a key witness, to testify. How significant is that?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That was a big surprise, Wolf, when the prosecutors mentioned this in court. Certainly, the judge -- and a lot of journalists ran out of the room when the prosecutor mentioned that they haven't decided yet whether or not Rick Gates is going to testify.

So this came up as the judge was admonishing them for showing certain evidence, saying that when, you know, Rick Gates testifies, we're going to hear all of this.

And so we don't know whether or not this is a strategy by the prosecution to throw the defense off their game, because they have already indicated that Manafort -- the defense that is. They've already indicated that they want to attack Rick Gates. He was Paul -- Paul Manafort's top deputy, and he has pleaded guilty to lying to the government. So they've already indicated that they're going to use that against Rick Gates.

So we'll see whether or not Rick Gates turns up to testify, perhaps next week. We do still expect that, if he testifies, he's going to be the star witness in this trial, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, if the prosecution decides not to call him as a witness, presumably, they think they have plenty of other evidence to bring forward --

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: -- and they don't even need him to come forward.

What else did we learn from the other witnesses who were questioned today, Evan?

PEREZ: Well, a lot of this afternoon was taken up by witnesses by vendors who were people who furnished some of the lavish things that Paul Manafort was accused of spending, these millions of dollars that he got for -- from these Ukrainian clients, that he had millions of dollars that were hidden in Cypriot bank accounts.

[17:25:12] Wolf, there were people who helped furnish some of the house renovations, sold him some of the $100,000 Mercedes and some of the people who provided some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in custom-tailored clothing that Paul Manafort allegedly spent all of this money on.

We caught up with one of the witnesses after he testified. Take a listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PEREZ: Was he an important client to your business?

RONALD WALL, MANAFORT TRIAL WITNESS: As I stated, he was very professional. That's all I can do now. Thank you.

PEREZ: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And that was the manager, really, for the House of Bijan, which bills itself as the most expensive store in the world.

We also heard today, Wolf, from the FBI agent who helped supervise some of the -- the searches of Paul Manafort's home last year. He testified that they knocked three times before they got in. They had a key to get in. When Paul Manafort and nobody answered the door, they -- he also took the jury through a list of invoices showing that Paul Manafort signed for some of the purchases he made. He -- showing some of the flow of money. Really, this is the road map that prosecutors are trying to show, the flow of money that came from some of these off-shore hidden bank accounts. This is the money that the government says Paul Manafort hid from the IRS and really was showing that he was, you know, intending to deceive the government, as well as, you know, the jury, really, as a part of this trial.

We expect that in the next couple of days, we're going to hear from some of his accountants. And we're going to see a lot more about this financial trail of evidence that the government says shows Paul Manafort was lying to everyone involved, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Evan. Thank you very much for that update.

Coming up, the breaking news. Shock waves, they are spreading as President Trump tweets that his attorney general should stop the Mueller investigation, quote, "right now." Was it just an opinion or was it obstruction of justice?

And a CNN exclusive: the TSA is considering eliminating passenger screening at some airports here in the United States. Could that open the door to terrorists?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Our breaking news: the Trump team this afternoon trying to explain the president's tweet saying the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, should stop Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Both White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, insists that's the president's opinion, not an order.

[17:32:27] Let's see what our legal and political experts think.

Susan Hennessey, you're one of our national security and legal analysts. Could this tweet from the president, very strong statement from the president, be yet more evidence in Mueller's obstruction probe?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it certainly speaks to the president's state of mind. Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Sanders attempted to defend this tweet by saying, "Well, it's just his opinion." Well, your motivation, the reason why you do something, your opinion actually has legal significance here.

We know that Robert Mueller is looking at the president's tweets for exactly this purpose.

Now Jeff Sessions is recused. And so he actually doesn't have the ability to end this probe. So whether or not you can incompetently obstruct justice is sort of an open question. But if the president were to now actually fire Jeff Sessions in order to appoint an attorney general to end the probe, this tweet could definitely become legally significant. BLITZER: Because last week Rudy Giuliani said if you're going to

obstruct justice, you do it quietly and secretly, not in public. From a legal standpoint, does it make any difference?

HENNESSEY: No. So the legal question is whether or not the individual knows about the existence of an investigation and whether or not they act with corrupt purpose in order to obstruct it. So there's no requirement that it be done in public or private.

You know, that said, what Trump is doing here is really about testing the political boundaries. He understands that Robert Mueller is exceedingly unlikely to indict a sitting president. And so what this really is about is testing the political tolerance. It's not only a question of can the president break the law in private or public? It's whether or not Congress is going to let him get away with it.

BLITZER: According to the White House, Gloria, the president's tweets are official statements from the president of the United States. Listen to the then-press secretary, Sean Spicer, last year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, the president is the president of the United States. So they're considered official statements by the president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So they're either official statements by the president of the United States or they're personal opinions by the president of the United States.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they can be both. You know, I mean, personal opinions can become official statements if they're tweeted. I mean, that's -- you know, that's what it is.

And we know, from Bob Mueller's questions that we learned about months ago, that he did ask the president about "What was your intent when you tweeted -- when you tweeted about Comey and 'You better hope there are no tapes'," for example. So we know that Mueller -- you know, we know that Mueller is looking at this.

And we also know today from the mouth of Rudy Giuliani, that there's been some more communication between the special counsel and Trump's lawyers, which continues to move at a glacial pace. And we know that part of the things they want to talk to the president about is obstruction; and the other part is collusion. And that perhaps obstruction might be in writing. But we don't know if, baby steps, they're still talking.

[17:35:12] But you know, this has been going on for months and months and months. I don't know how much closer we are to the president actually testifying, which I was told today, by the way, that he still wants to do, even though his lawyers are completely against it.

BLITZER: I'm sure they -- all of his lawyers don't think that's a smart thing to do.

In that tweet this morning, Mark Preston, the president was very specific. He said the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, "should stop this rigged witch hunt right now."

So if you're working for the president of the United States, and he tells you, you know, "You should do this," is that considered an order? Or is it just a recommendation? A personal opinion?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, I might choose to ignore it. Right? Because it's just his opinion. It's me. It's not a directive. The president can't have it both ways, right?

The president is acting like as he is a regular citizen where he can go out and say what he wants and say what he pleases, and it will have no ramifications. He is the president of the United States. I know I say this over and over again, but it stands repeating. The president of the United States, the leader of the free world, commander in chief of our armed forces right now. Everything you say, everything you do has consequence, and he doesn't seem to care.

BLITZER: You know, Nia -- Nia-Malika Henderson, is with us, as well.

Rudy Giuliani also said the upcoming mid-term elections are going to be about impeachment or no impeachment. Is he right that this ultimately is a political issue?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL WRITER: Yes, in many ways, and Susan touched on this, that this idea that Mueller is unlikely to indict a sitting president, that's essentially DOJ guidelines and policy. So it will come down to what he says in whatever report or memo he comes up with in the next month or whenever he comes up with this memo and does he make recommendations to the House of Representatives?

And that's when you get into, who controls the House of Representatives? Is it going to be Democrats? Is there actually going to be a blue wave that sweeps the Republicans away and puts Democrats in office?

If you look at how Democratic voters feel, 65 percent, according to this latest Quinnipiac poll think that, if Democrats take over the House, that they should begin impeachment proceedings. As we know, no president has been removed from office through impeachment. Two have actually been impeached. And of course, Nixon was facing impeachment and decided to resign.

So yes, this is a big question, a political question, and Rudy Giuliani is trying to frame it as one so that it matters in the midterms and how people vote. In this way, he can gin up his side of the aisle, Republicans, who are very much wanting to rally around this president and prevent him from being impeached.

BORGER: But I have two questions about that. A, what is the president's lawyer doing talking about impeachment? Just saying.

PRESTON: Right.

BORGER: But B, you know, to Nia's point, maybe they're doing it because they know it's rally their base.

HENDERSON: Yes.

BORGER: Because they're going to say the Democrats want to take away our legitimately-elected president and do it through this means in Congress. And so they can use that.

BLITZER: Mark.

PRESTON: No question about it.

BLITZER: This takes a majority vote in the House of Representatives to impeach --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: -- a president and two-thirds --

BORGER: Two-thirds.

BLITZER: -- in the Senate to actually convict and force that person to leave office.

All right, Susan, let's talk a little bit about day two, now wrapped up, in the trial of the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. What's your question?

HENNESSEY: It's really clear that after today, Manafort's defense strategy is going to be to try and blame Rick Gates for everything. You know, that's an interesting strategy. In part, because this is not going to be Gates's word against Manafort. All indications is that there is overwhelming documentary evidence here: bank records, wire transfers, tax forms, all kinds of stuff.

So I think at the end of the day the thing that is just overwhelmingly bizarre is not what's happening in the courtroom but that this trial is taking place at all. Paul Manafort is up against overwhelming odds that he's going to be convicted here. And so why exactly he isn't trying to cooperate, trying to cut a plea deal, I think is the kind of big question mark hanging over all.

BORGER: He could do during the -- at any time, right?

HENNESSEY: He could even do it after he was convicted, so that might be the strategy. But it certainly is difficult to understand. It's a risky gamble.

BLITZER: And the president is weighing in on this trial, even as it unfolds. He tweeted this: "Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly-prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn't government tell me that he was under investigation? These old charges have nothing to do with collusion -- a hoax." Clearly, he's getting under the president's skin.

Everybody stand by. There's a lot more we're covering. We have more ahead on the president's latest attack on the Mueller probe and whether or not it could be obstruction of justice.

Also ahead, a CNN exclusive. The Trump administration is now considering eliminating security screenings at some airports here in the United States. Would the convenience and savings be worth the risk?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:44:28] BLITZER: Tonight in a CNN exclusive, we have new indications the Trump administration is considering a major change to airport security procedures, eliminating TSA screening at some small and medium airports here in the United States. This raises lots and lots of questions about convenience and safety.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, has been working her sources for us. Rene, what are you learning?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this would be an absolutely major change for people who travel by air, also just for how TSA uses its resources.

The question is, why now? It is unclear, but what is clear is for nearly two decades, TSA has trended towards more enhanced security measures. We do know, with this proposal, cost savings is certainly a component.

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[17:45:00] RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: The question is, why now? It is unclear.

But what is clear is, for nearly two decades, TSA has trended towards more enhanced security measures. We do know, with this proposal cost savings, it's certainly a component.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): TSA is considering allowing thousands of passengers to board commercial airplanes across the United States without being screened. That's according to internal documents obtained by CNN.

The documents from June and July outline an elimination of security screening at small and some medium-sized airports that operate commercial planes with 60 seats or fewer.

TSA's recent cost analysis estimates the move could save $115 million that could be used to bolster security at large airports.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: I think it's stunning that this is even being seriously considered.

MARSH (voice-over): The proposal does not list which airports could be impacted but says screening would be eliminated at more than 150. TSA currently screens passengers at 440 airports.

According to the proposal, passengers and luggage arriving from these smaller airports would be screened when they arrived at major ones.

Their operating theory is attached with small aircraft would not be as attractive a payoff to terrorists because the potential for loss of life would be less than what terrorists could achieve with larger planes.

National security experts disagree.

CRUICKSHANK: ISIS, their message is, attack in any way you can, big or small, against anybody that you can go after. And so the opportunity to go after a 50-person passenger jet or aircraft is going to be very attractive to the group in terms of its messaging.

MARSH (voice-over): In an e-mail to CNN, TSA said, quote, this is not a new issue. The regulations which established TSA does not require screening below a certain level. So every year is, quote, the year that TSA will reconsider screening.

CNN asked TSA to point us to that regulation. The agency has not responded.

Twenty TSA employees recently met to evaluate the cost-saving proposal that could mean less hassle for thousands of travelers. The group determined the plan could increase security vulnerabilities at airports, but, overall, the risk is low.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: The real question is, will the public accept this? Also, will Congress accept this?

The group also determined that the policy change would affect about 10,000 passengers daily.

TSA did say this is something that they consider every year, but two senior TSA officials tell us the level of activity around this particular proposal this year, the formation of a working group doing risk assessment and cost analysis, Wolf, they say it indicates this is something a little bit more than just an annual exercise.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. I still would be shocked if they go ahead and eliminate screenings at these small and mid-sized airports because the potential for danger is enormous. MARSH: And we would and we do expect lots of resistance, not only

from Congress but from the industry themselves. Pilots, flight attendants, they would not feel comfortable.

I've spoken to airline insiders who say they would not be comfortable in even flying those routes that wouldn't have screened passengers.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting, Rene. Thank you very much. Keep us up to speed on what they decide.

Coming up, an update on the devastating wildfires that have forced tens of thousands to flee their homes and a dire warning this could be, quote, the new normal.

[17:48:34] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, at least eight people are dead, 17,000 homes are threatened, and 32,000 people have been forced to flee the wildfires burning in California. And in a dire warning today, the state's governor predicted destructive wildfires will be, quote, the new normal.

CNN's Nick Watt is joining us from Redding where one of the worst fires in California history is burning. What's the latest, Nick?

NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here at the Carr fire, the fight right now is high up in the forest where the terrain is steep, where we're told the winds have been erratic, and where there's a lot of fresh vegetation to feed the flames.

Down here in Redding, the official toll now is 1,018 homes lost. We are told that all 20 people who were listed as missing have now been found, and local police have arrested a couple of looters.

Now, some of the evacuated people are now being allowed back in, but not all. I spoke to a lady, Preetha Reddy, just a short while ago. She has not yet been allowed home. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WATT: Do you know what condition your house is in?

PREETHA REDDY, LOST HOME IN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRE: There's nothing left. It looks more like a bomb hit it.

WATT: Do you think it will help to actually get back and see it?

REDDY: Yes. If they'd only let us in and, you know, have it sink in.

WATT: I'm sorry we've made you cry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

REDDY: It's been hard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WATT: Now, one Cal Fire representative today said this isn't a new normal, this is just the normal. Governor Jerry Brown said we haven't had heat like this in 10,000 years of human civilization. He said maybe some people don't want to hear that, but that's the line he's going with.

He says this is going to be the new normal, that we need to get creative as to how we battle these fires. It's going to be costly, lives are going to be lost, but this is the normal that we now have to deal with.

[17:55:05] And, Wolf, this fire, 35 percent is contained but 15 others burning across California. Wolf?

BLITZER: A heartbreaking situation. All right, Nick, thank you. Nick Watt reporting.

Coming up, breaking news. President Trump makes a truly stunning call, for the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to stop the Mueller investigation right now. The White House says it's just an opinion, but could it be obstruction of justice?

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[17:59:52] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Tweeting obstruction? President Trump sends a very clear message to the Attorney General, that he should stop the Russia probe right now. Will the Special Counsel buy the Trump team's defense that the President wasn't actually telling Jeff Sessions what to do?

Downward spiral.