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"Black Box" Found in Limo Crash That Killed 20; Trump: Concerned About Reports of Saudi Journalist Missing in Turkey; Trump Calls Kavanaugh Accusations Hoax; Interview With California Congressman Ted Lieu. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 8, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The president says sexual misconduct allegations against now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh were made up by Democrats and -- quote -- "evil people."

Deadly crash. New details just revealed about the limousine and the driver who was among 20 people killed in the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in almost a decade.

And Pompeo in Pyongyang. The secretary of state claims progress after meeting with Kim Jong-un, but the dictator still hasn't said he will get rid of his nuclear weapons, and critics say his new inspection offer is worthless.

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 are following breaking news.

President Trump just returning to the White House following a trip to Florida with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, whose future appears less uncertain tonight. Rosenstein himself expected to be fired after reports emerged that he discussed wearing a wire and having the president declared unfit, but Mr. Trump describes their conversation aboard Air Force One today as really good and very nice.

And the president says, and I'm quoting him now, "I'm not making any changes."

I will talk about that and more with Congressman Ted Lieu. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists, they are also standing by.

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

Jim, the deputy attorney general stays for now and the president is celebrating his Supreme Court victory.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Trump just spoke to reporters after arriving back here at

the White House after a speech he gave in Florida earlier today. The president essentially saying that everything is fine with Rod Rosenstein, his deputy attorney general.

Now, as for the new Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, he will be making an appearance with the president in about an hour from now here at the White House. And even though his Supreme Court pick has been confirmed by the Senate and sworn in, President Trump is still waging a war of words over Brett Kavanaugh.

Today, he labeled Democrats and other unnamed forces who opposed Kavanaugh's nomination as -- quote -- "evil."


ACOSTA (voice-over): With his nominee Brett Kavanaugh heading to the high court, President Trump is still delivering some low blows.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: False charges, false accusations, horrible statements that were totally untrue that he knew nothing about. It was a disgraceful situation brought about by people that are evil, and he toughed it out.

ACOSTA: At a speech to law enforcement officials in Orlando, Mr. Trump did not make it clear whether he considered Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, as being evil as well. But before he left for Florida, the president signaled he could see the battle in political terms, predicting that many Democrats are suddenly going to abandon their hopes for a blue wave in the upcoming midterms.

TRUMP: A man that was caught up in a hoax that was set up by the Democrats, using the Democrats' lawyers, and now they want to impeach him. I think a lot of Democrats are going to vote Republican because I have many friends that are Democrats. The main base of the Democrats have shifted so far left that we will end up being Venezuela.

ACOSTA: The president's Kavanaugh playbook was on display at a rally over the weekend in Kansas, where President Trump accused Democrats of using mob tactics, pointing to the protesters shouting at senators up on Capitol Hill.

TRUMP: It is unthinkable.


TRUMP: In their quest for power, the radical Democrats have turned into an angry mob.

ACOSTA: The president may be forgetting he too has repeatedly encouraged unruly behavior as a candidate.

TRUMP: I would like to punch him in the face. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They would be carried out on a stretcher, folks. I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any votes, OK?

ACOSTA: Still, the anger flowing through both parties after the Supreme circus is palpable, from GOP Senator Lindsey Graham's emotional defense of Kavanaugh.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I have never been more pissed in my life. I voted for Sotomayor and Kagan. I would never done this to them. This is character assassination. This is wanting power too much.

ACOSTA: To the Democratic outrage directed at Republican Senator Susan Collins, who now says she does not believe Kavanaugh assaulted Ford.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I do believe she was assaulted. I don't know by whom and I'm not certain when, but I do not believe that he was the assailant.

ACOSTA: Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got testy over the weekend when he left open the possibility he could support filling a Supreme Court vacancy during the next presidential election, something he would not do when Barack Obama selected Merrick Garland in 2016.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": If you can't answer my direct question, are you saying that President Trump...


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Well, the answer to your question is, we will see whether there's a vacancy in 2020.


ACOSTA: The president wasn't completely focused on Kavanaugh as he invited Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to ride on Air Force One. Rosenstein no longer appears to be on thin ice after he once talked of secretly recording the president and even having him removed from office using the 25th Amendment.

TRUMP: We had a very good talk, I will say. That became a very big story, actually, folks. We had a good talk.


ACOSTA: Now, as for that meeting the president had with Rod Rosenstein, the White House told reporters the two men discussed -- quote -- "general Justice Department business," but there weren't many other details.

Those details could be illuminating, Wolf, as you know, as Rosenstein is the Justice Department official who does supervise the Russia investigation. And one thing we should point out for this event that is going to be happening in the East Room at the White House coming up in about an hour from now, Wolf, the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh will appear with the president. We are told by the White House that incoming Justice Kavanaugh will be

making remarks to those gathered in the room. Wolf, that is going to be very interesting, fascinating to watch. We will be waiting to see whether or not Judge Kavanaugh or Justice Kavanaugh turns down the temperature in the room and in this city after what was a very contentious nomination battle -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly was brutal. All right. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

We have some breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now, "The New York Times" just published a story saying one-time Trump campaign official Rick Gates tried to get an Israeli intelligence firm to help defeat then-candidate Trump's Republican primary race opponents and Hillary Clinton.

Joining us on the phone right now is one of the authors of the article, "The Times"' Washington investigative correspondent, Mark Mazzetti.

Mark, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: All right, tell us more. Give us the headlines, the details of what you and your colleagues have discovered.

MAZZETTI: What we reported was that, in the spring of 2016, just as Donald Trump was emerging out of the primary fight, looking toward the convention and eventually the general election, Rick Gates, who at the time was a senior Trump campaign official, sought proposals from an Israeli firm staffed by former intelligence operatives to do digital manipulation, fake online identities, gather information about Hillary Clinton and her top aides.

Some of this is very familiar to people, because it is the same type of stuff that we now know the Russians ended up doing, creating online identities, pushing fake news, et cetera. So, our story says that Gates had communications about enlisting an Israeli firm to do this work.

BLITZER: And was there any collaboration, coordination with the Russians as far as this was concerned?

MAZZETTI: No, there's no evidence or we don't report any connection between the Israeli firm and the Russians.

But we do say that the -- even though the Trump campaign didn't follow through on these proposals, the Mueller investigation has the proposals and has interviewed several former employees of the Israeli firm. And so this became part of the Mueller probe and certainly this team has had some interest into -- in the proposals and the interest from the Trump campaign.

BLITZER: Now, were the proposals actually implemented by the Trump campaign? MAZZETTI: No, we say in the story that there's no evidence that the

Trump campaign followed through on the proposals.

Interestingly, the head of the company, a guy named Joel Zamel, is someone we have reported about in the past. And he actually ends up several months after these proposals were initiated in a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower, where he is again pitching the services of the company.

But as we say in the story, there's no evidence that the campaign hired, enlisted the company, paid money, et cetera, for these proposals.

BLITZER: Would this be of special interest to the special counsel, Robert Mueller? In other words, is there any suspicion of any illegal activity, dealing, working with foreigners, for example, as far as a U.S. presidential campaign is concerned?

MAZZETTI: We know that Mueller is interested. We know that Mueller has -- not only has the proposals that we were reporting on right now, but he's interviewed people affiliated with the company who were hired to put together the proposals.

And the question of legality is an interesting one. We say it is unclear whether any of these proposals might have violated the law. There are, of course, regulations and prohibitions about the extent of foreign involvement.

We say that the company did hire an American law firm, Covington & Burling, to do a legal review of the proposals. We don't know what the conclusions of the legal review were.

BLITZER: Now, was it just Rick Gates, who was obviously a top aide to Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman? Was it just Rick Gates or were others working with this Israeli firm as well?

MAZZETTI: We know that Gates was the one that initiated the contact. And this was, interestingly, in May -- I'm sorry -- March-April 2016, right after Gates was hired on to the campaign with Paul Manafort to -- for a specific task at that time.


Their job was to make sure the delegates, the Republican delegates, didn't have a mass defection during the convention for Ted Cruz, who at the time, you will recall, was sort of the preferred Republican establishment candidate.

Their concern was the delegates. And one of the proposals was specifically targeting the delegates to make sure that they didn't defect, to sort of push stories about Trump and sort of spread some possible disinformation about Ted Cruz.

BLITZER: And explain, because,in your lead, you say that the goal of this operation, in your words and your colleagues' words, to create fake online identities, to use social media manipulation, and to gather intelligence to help defeat primary opponents, and eventually Hillary Clinton.

Talk a little bit about that.

MAZZETTI: Yes. So it's -- what the firm was proposing was basically using 40 to 50 people to have -- create thousands of different identities, you know, fake personas on Twitter, Facebook, et cetera.

And these would then kind of target, they said, go and reach out to delegates, based on a sort of psychological profile that the company built about the delegates, find out what most interested them.

So you build a profile, and then you use these avatars, bots, et cetera, to then spread messages to try to influence their votes, to make sure that they stayed on the Trump side and didn't go towards Cruz.

On the Hillary Clinton proposal, this was more -- seemed like a more classic opposition research-type campaign, gathering information about not only Hillary Clinton, but they said her 10 top aides, that would then be used by the campaign or could have been used by the campaign during the general election.

BLITZER: And you say the goal was to create also what you call these bogus personas to target about 5,000 delegates who would be attending the Republican National Convention, and in the process not only praise Donald Trump, but smear and attack his chief rival at the time, Ted Cruz.


The focus at the time was on the convention. So they were worried, and the reason why Manafort and Gates were hired was because they were worried about everyone defecting towards Cruz, there being this revolt at the convention. So, that was the focus.

And so that's why Mr. Gates may have had a particular interest in this technology, because it was this new technology that might -- that might shape opinion, might shape what the delegates might think, not only about Cruz, but also Trump. And so that was, I think, possibly what might have seemed promising when Gates sought the proposals.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Mark.

Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent, is with us as well.

Jim, you have gone through this article. Give us some thoughts, and maybe you want to did Mark Mazzetti a question or two.


One, Rick Gates, of course, we know, is cooperating with the special counsel here. If special counsel investigators are indeed interested in this, you might imagine that they would ask him directly about his level of interest and whether anybody else in the campaign knew about this effort, which, as Mark noted, in the end, they did not follow through on, but they showed initial interest.

The other thing that is striking is that is seeking foreign help during the campaign, using a tool that we know Russia has used repeatedly and continues to, which is spreading disinformation, spreading fake news, actual fake news within the political process, but also the targets here are not just the general population, but Republicans and Republican delegates, folks who were going to have a decisive role in choosing who the Republican nominee was going to be for the president here.

All of those things interesting. You can understand why the special counsel would be interested in that.

BLITZER: Because it is illegal for presidential campaigns to get assistance from foreigners.

SCIUTTO: That's right. Well, the idea is that -- you know, that would be an in-kind contribution, as it were. You can't take money and you can't take help as well, which is one of the focuses of other Russian -- well, other foreign, that is, Russian interference in the campaign.

BLITZER: You know, Mark Mazzetti, I assume Rick Gates, an experienced political hand, and others in the Trump campaign know what the law is as far as getting in-kind campaign contributions from foreigners.

MAZZETTI: Well, right.

We have all been reporting on this for a long time now, and we have all been sometimes puzzled to the extent that the Trump campaign had all of these contacts with Russians and even offers of support, and no one seemed to have too much concern about the legality or illegality of it, right?

And nobody seemed to think, well, maybe we should call the FBI about this outreach from the Russians. So I'm sure there were some questions in the campaign about certainly the Russian effort. We don't know in this case whether there was concern in the campaign about using an Israeli firm.

We know that there was certainly interest. As we said, the firm itself hired an American law firm to test the legality of it, but it didn't seem to be, you know, first and foremost on the minds of the Trump campaign.

BLITZER: And do you know how much money was involved in hiring this Israeli firm and then this Israeli firm going with this American law firm?


MAZZETTI: So, they didn't -- they didn't actually hire them, but the proposal, the first proposal, the one that would have been influencing the Republican delegates, was for an offer of $3 million, an estimate of $3 million to execute the campaign.

BLITZER: And where would that money come from, the $3 million?

MAZZETTI: Well, if the Trump campaign would had gone along with it, it would have presumably just been coming -- would have come from campaign funds.

BLITZER: And that potentially could have been illegal.

And, Jim Sciutto, remind our viewers a little bit more about Rick Gates, his role in the campaign and what has happened.

SCIUTTO: Well, he was the deputy campaign chairman. He worked right under and worked for years closely with Paul Manafort, of course, the chairman, so a senior role in the campaign.

And some of his work continued with Trump -- Trumps continued after the election as well, the inauguration, et cetera, some involvement there. But perhaps, most importantly in all, here is someone who pleaded guilty to crimes, and in his guilty plea agreed to cooperate with special counsel investigators, so someone who -- and you wouldn't have gotten that cooperation agreement from Robert Mueller and his investigators unless Rick Gates in effect proved his value in what is called a proffer, showed that he was going to be able to provide information that was useful to special counsel investigators.

So his tie to this is certainly significant, and you have to imagine if special counsel investigators are interested in talking to the foreign partners and others involved, that they might want to ask him questions as well.

BLITZER: All right, Jim and Mark, I want both of you to stand by.

Jeffrey Toobin, our chief legal analyst, is with us as well.

You have gone through "The New York Times"' reporting, lengthy, lengthy article. Your thoughts?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it is yet another amazing story from "The New York Times," a piece of investigative reporting.

I do have -- I am puzzled by one thing and I wondered if Mark could just answer, you know, a simple question that I -- is -- was this illegal, what they were doing?

MAZZETTI: So, we say it is -- I mean, we first said they didn't execute the proposals.

TOOBIN: Right.

MAZZETTI: And the question of where the boundaries would be in terms of the laws governing elections, it is unclear.

They did a legal review. The firm hired Covington & Burling to do a legal review. We don't know. We called the firm. We did not get the answer of their review. But it is one of those questions of where the boundaries are specifically on using -- getting foreign help or getting help from outside -- people outside the United States to help your campaign.

We do know that the company, Psy-Group, was considering hiring Americans, American citizens to actually carry out the work as one way to possibly be in compliance with American law.

TOOBIN: And I do think it is worth pointing out to an audience that isn't familiar with Washington law firms and the business of law, if you hire Covington & Burling, that's a very respectable outfit.

I mean, if a company says, well, we're going to test what we're doing, the legality of it and we're going to hire Covington & Burling, that's a pretty good sign of good faith. Many people know Eric Holder used to work at Covington & Burling before he was attorney general, now works there again.

This is not a fly-by-night operation. And I think in fairness to the Trump campaign, by saying that they vetted this at Covington & Burling is a suggestion that they were at least trying to exercise some genuine due diligence here.

MAZZETTI: And that is a very good point.

The one -- the one clarification is we know that the firm itself reached out to Covington. We don't know whether the campaign asked them to or whether they just did it on their own.

BLITZER: Because, you know, guys, I just want to point out -- and, Jeffrey, you have pointed this out many times. A crime may have actually been committed, but what is called a conspiracy to commit a crime is something on the other hand, right?

TOOBIN: Well, that's right. And also it is a crime to attempt a crime.

You know, everybody is familiar with the crime of attempted murder, but it is also a crime in many white-collar areas to attempt a crime here. And, you know, I think what is -- you know, the Trump campaign was obviously very close to the line on the issue of foreign involvement in the campaign.

Everybody is familiar with the meeting at Trump Tower. That was a very explicit attempt to involve the Russian government, as Rob Goldstone's famous e-mail put it, the Russian government's attempts to help Donald Trump get elected president.

It is illegal, there is no question, for a Russian government -- for a foreign government, including that of Russia, to help elect a president. When you get to corporations which often have roots in more than one country, more than one country, operate in different areas, I think there you get into more gray areas.

[18:20:03] And I think the fact, as Mark's story very clearly points out, that this deal did not come to fruition, I think that argues against any claim that this might have been illegal.

BLITZER: And, Jim Sciutto, is it a crime to create fake online entities, online personas to try to manipulate an election?

SCIUTTO: I will leave that to the lawyers, but one thing that has struck me throughout is that the Trump campaign's defense, when you look at the Trump Tower meeting, has always been, nothing came out of it, right, you know, as if it would have been -- you know, they certainly -- confirming that they would have been interested had the Russian lawyer and others showed up in that meeting and given the goods that they had promised in the first place.

So it gets to that essential question. You know, if they had a willingness to accept this foreign help, is that something that the special counsel is ultimately interested in? Because Donald Trump Jr. has said repeatedly, listen, nothing came out of it, it was a nothing burger, et cetera. But does that mean they would have pursued it had the other side delivered what it promised?

And, remember, it was Steve Bannon himself who called accepting that meeting treasonous, right? He used that term. So, it is not just one side of the aisle that has looked at that, that willingness perhaps to cooperate with a foreign partner as something troubling.

And, Jeff, I mean, do you -- if they didn't show up with the goods, is that still a crime?

TOOBIN: That's a tough call.

I mean, I think, you know, you need to know about everybody's state of mind during the -- during the meeting. I mean, you know, the Trump Tower meeting remains a focus of great interest for everyone.

But I think in many respects the most important aspect of the Trump Tower meeting is that everyone involved, when hearing that the Russian government said they wanted to help, didn't go, what do you mean the Russian government wanted to help? That's illegal, that's crazy.

They had the meeting, which turned out to be a bust. It, of course, raises the question, were there other attempts by other foreign governments to get involved? Mark's story today in "The New York Times" is not a direct attempt by a foreign government. It is an Israeli company.

But the interaction with overseas companies is something that is really unusual in American politics. I think, you know, that is at a minimum. And the fact that Rick Gates would reach out to an Israeli company, whether it was illegal or not, very hard to say at this point, but just the mind-set that led to that leads prosecutors, I imagine, to considerable suspicion.

BLITZER: And, Jeffrey, just to be precise, it may not necessarily be illegal, but it is clearly wrong to hire an Israeli company to create fake social media personas and entities and individuals to go out and mislead the American public.

TOOBIN: Well, I think that might actually be illegal, not on the foreign side of things, but just on the hacking side of things.

To create false Internet entries, whether they are social media or e- mails, I mean, that is a crime under American law. Here I think, as Mark's story very clearly points out, it did not come to fruition, but the plan, it seems, was for activities that were without question illegal.

SCIUTTO: And just another note.

Just last week, the Department of Justice, run by a Donald Trump appointee, just indicted Russian foreign nationals for continued, continued attempts to interfere in the U.S. political process. So this is a continuing effort by Russia and other foreign nations to interfere. China is cited as well. So not a small problem.


SCIUTTO: Certainly did not disappear in 2016.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very much. Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much.

And, Mark Mazzetti, thanks to you.

I wanted to give credit to your colleagues' bylines, Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman, David Kirkpatrick, and Maggie Haberman, for your strong reporting in "The New York Times."

Appreciate it very much.

Let's get some more on the breaking news right now.

Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu is joining us. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: What is your reaction to this new report from "The New York Times"?

LIEU: I have two initial reactions.

The first is that a senior Trump campaign official is now actively trying to mislead and trick voters, in this case Republican voters, and that may violate the law, but certainly it violates accepted norms of campaign behavior.

Second, what we have here is techniques, such as fake online identities, the manipulation of social media, that look very similar to what the Russians did. In "The New York Times" article, they say that Israeli plans were

never executed. But we know the Russian plans were. I think it is important to know who else knew about Rick Gates' attempt to solicit this kind of trickery and manipulation of social media.


And I think it is very important for the special counsel to get to the bottom of this.

BLITZER: You are a former prosecutor. What does it tell you, having read "The New York Times" report, hearing all of the analysis we just went through, what does it tell you that Robert Mueller may be looking at right now?

LIEU: Well, it is possibly a violation of the law.

Look, no campaign should be trying to use foreign influence to affect an American election, whether that comes from a country like Russia or an ally like Israel. We have American elections that should be decided by Americans without foreign influence.

BLITZER: Does it look to you, based on what you know right now, like a crime may have been committed?

LIEU: Well, because Israeli plans were not executed, at most, it could be a solicitation or a conspiracy to commit a crime.

The fact that they hired outside counsel to look at this proposal does suggest to me that it probably is not a crime.

BLITZER: Let's move on and talk about the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. Possibly, we thought a few, a couple of weeks ago he was on the verge of being fired.

Now the president touting what he describes as a very good relationship he has with Rosenstein, invited him to fly with him down to Orlando, Florida, today aboard Air Force One. What has changed?

LIEU: Well, thank you, Wolf. You are asking me to go into the mind of the president.

I actually have no idea what he's thinking. I do know that, as of right now, it appears that Rod Rosenstein's job is secure. That's a good thing. I have had the opportunity to question Mr. Rosenstein under oath on the Judiciary Committee. I believe he has done a good job preserving the independence of the special counsel investigation.

My hope is that he will stay on his job until at least the investigation concludes.

BLITZER: Let's turn to another important issue.

The president, he is doing a victory lap after the Senate voted to confirm his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. He is accusing Democrats of plotting to impeach Kavanaugh already. Do you believe Kavanaugh should be impeached?

LIEU: That question is premature, but I think at a minimum what should happen is, if the Democrats flip the House, for the House Judiciary Committee to interview the relevant witnesses that the FBI did not, to subpoena the relevant documents that the FBI did not, because really it was an investigation that was incomplete.

I have never seen, as a former prosecutor, a law enforcement or background investigation where the agency does not interview the main accuser or their accused. So I think we need to at least complete the investigation and see where the evidence takes us.

BLITZER: Congressman Ted Lieu, thanks so much for joining us.

LIEU: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead: President Trump says Democrats want to impeach Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Is than that an effective strategy to appeal to his base?

Plus, an apparent truce between President Trump and the Justice Department, how long will it last?


BLITZER: We're following breaking news. "The New York Times" reporting tonight that Trump campaign aide, including the deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates, requested plans for online manipulation from an Israeli intelligence company back in 2016.

[18:32:54] Let's get back to our reporters and our analysts. And Jeffrey Toobin, just to be precise, the plan included an effort to create fake online identities, according to "The New York Times," to use social media manipulation to gather intelligence to work against Republican candidates who were threatening Trump's nomination and eventually Hillary Clinton.

TOOBIN: OK. There are a couple of points to make about this story. First of all, it's important to point out this plan did not come to fruition. There was not this effort made by the Israeli company.

The two legal issues that jump out at you are: was this an effort to involve a foreign company, foreign nationals in an American campaign, which is unlawful?

In addition, the issue is: is the campaign, if going forward with this project, would it be condoning a crime, creating false e-mail accounts, false social media accounts? That, I think, is actually a bigger legal issue than the foreign nature of it. Was this an attempt to violate the laws relating to hacking and other sort of electronic crimes?

Since it didn't take place, I think it would be a very difficult case to make, but it tells you perhaps something about the mindset of the Trump campaign that they would even consider such a wacky enterprise. BLITZER: Yes, Laura Jarrett, you're our Justice Department

correspondent. You went to law school. What does it tell you?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, what jumps out to me is that, at least in one case, as the reporting shows, is that the firm involved here actually reached out to a law firm, an outside law firm for an opinion about this.

Now, we don't know exactly what the law firm came back with, and we don't have any evidence that the Trump campaign actually reached out for a legal opinion. It would be interesting to see why not and what that said.

But in any event, we know that the special counsel is now getting to the bottom of this. And it -- you know, it raises the question whether we're seeing the fruits of the fact that not only Gates but his boss, Paul Manafort, are both cooperating with the special counsel, Bob Mueller.

BLITZER: Yes, and Rick Gates has been cooperating. I assume the Mueller team, the Robert Mueller team involved in the Russia investigation, they're investigating all of this very closely; but they have a pretty good collaborator right now in the cooperation of Rick Gates.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, to the degree that this involves Rick Gates, I think, like Laura said, you can count on the fact that the Mueller team is looking into this and looking into whether it ties into any other pattern of activity on the part of the Trump campaign.

Whether or not it was legal or illegal, they are trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle about how much the Trump campaign was willing to go to sort of play tricks on their opponents in the primary and in the general election and also how much they were willing to use foreign help. Whether or not they crossed the line into breaking the law is not determined yet.

BLITZER: You cover, Kaitlan, the White House for us. I don't know if there's been any official reaction to this "New York Times" story. I can only suspect it's going to be a source of getting under the president's skin pretty quickly.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, and we'll be able to tell, because we just saw the president get off Marine One there on the South Lawn, and he sounded pretty positive, speaking about Russia, talking about his Supreme Court nominee, about how he's at he's going to ceremoniously swear him in. He's real excited about that.

And it's interesting, because over the last two weeks, President Trump, though he has been really irritated by all the drama surrounding Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, he has remarked to several people that it has kept the Russia investigation out of the news. There hasn't been that in the news as much because of Brett Kavanaugh. He's made that point a few times. And now this drops about, of course, not Russia but Israeli forces

just moments before he's set to swear Brett Kavanaugh in. So it's likely going to irritate him.

But also, one other thing that brought my -- caught my attention in the story was Donald Trump Jr.'s role in this, that he had a -- he had a meeting with them. They said it wasn't clear he was briefed on specific proposals, but he was there for a meeting. So it's interesting, because he was also there at the Trump Tower 2016 meeting.

So it's interesting to see what it is his role in all of this is, because he's someone who's been outside of the White House, the Washington sphere for all of this, though he has been really present lately on the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections. But it will be interesting to see what the scrutiny on his role in these meetings is.

BLITZER: And Laura, I take it that between now and the midterms, four weeks away, Mueller and his team, they're going to sort of lie low right now, but you -- you cover them.

JARRETT: Well, I think we have to wait and see. I think it also depends on what it is. If it was somebody who was actually up for election in November, I don't think we're going to see that.

But if it's some, you know, auxiliary player who is not on the ballot, I don't think we can rule out that he may go dark. I think that's always been sort of the expectation. And I think that everyone who knows him kind of says this is not a person who wants to make waves. This is not someone who wants to do a repeat of former FBI director James Comey. But I'm not sure that we can rule out that he won't be --

BLITZER: Let me ask Jeffrey Toobin. What do you think?

TOOBIN: I'd say the odds are pretty good he's going to keep his mouth shut for the next month. I mean, as Laura points out, the Comey intervention in the 2016 election is such a vivid and important memory on so many people's parts.

Just for example, one issue that we've been expected to be resolved for months now is the issue of will there be an interview of the president by Mueller? And, you know, I did a story in "The New Yorker" about Rudy Giuliani about six weeks ago, and he said, "Oh, it will be any day. It will be this week. It will be next week." That resolution, I think, is now going to be after the election. I don't think that fight is going to want to be -- that Mueller is going to want to have that in public.

And, of course, the possibility that Mueller subpoenas the president to the grand jury, whether that happens will be resolved, I am certain -- and I don't have inside information on this -- but will be resolved after the November election.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect you're right. Kaitlan, I want you to listen and our viewers to listen, as well.

This is the president defending Brett Kavanaugh during his victory lap earlier today.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A man that was caught up in a hoax, that was set up by the Democrats, using the Democrats' lawyers, and now they want to impeach him.

False charges. False accusations. Horrible statements that were totally untrue, that he knew nothing about. Frankly, terms that he probably never heard in his life. He was this; he was that. He never even heard of these terms. It was a disgraceful situation brought about by people that are evil, and he touched it out.


BLITZER: A week ago, he said Professor Ford sounded credible.

COLLINS: I thought Brett Kavanaugh has probably heard of those terms before. But we have seen President Trump go from one end of the spectrum to the other, from "She's compelling; she gave very painful testimony. We should hear her out," to questioning her credibility at a rally, to now saying they are made-up, manufactured claims that are -- the Democrats are behind. It's quite a 360 that we've seen from the president, and really what it is, is the result that Brett Kavanaugh is now the Supreme Court justice. And he is -- President Trump feels he won here.

He was the one who advised Brett Kavanaugh, through certain channels, to come out and be tough and be forceful in denying those allegations, not like he was during that first interview he gave, where he was really scripted and rehearsed. He told him to let loose, and he did, and President Trump feels good about that.

[18:40:06] SWERDLICK: No one has ever accused the president of being a deep policy thinker, but he knows how to press an advantage. Republicans like the narrative that they have now about, from their side, Kavanaugh was railroaded; and the president is piling onto that.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, go ahead.

TOOBIN: I was just going to say, you know, "these terms he probably never heard of," these terms come from his yearbook entry. I mean, you know, the idea -- now, we can debate, as they debate what they precisely mean, but the idea that they were sort of thrown at him -- thrown at him out of nowhere is so preposterous.

And you know, we have seen the president move closer and closer to, you know, his true character. You know, they obviously, browbeat him into saying respectful things about Dr. Ford in the immediate aftermath of the testimony, but he's now into full victim trashing, you know, full attack mode on her and all of the women who came forward; and we're going to find out what the political impact of that is. BLITZER: Well, do you think, Jeffrey, he's now effectively calling

Professor Christine Blasey Ford a liar? Because it was only the other day he said she was a credible witness.

TOOBIN: No, he's not effectively calling her a liar. He's actually calling her a liar. I mean, there's no other way to interpret what he's saying.

And look, you know, this is a part of his approach to all claims of sexual harassment, including those against him. He denies them always, whether it's Roger Ailes or Bill O'Reilly or Ray -- Roy Moore. He simply thinks women lie about this all the time, and that's the basis of his position with Brett Kavanaugh and -- and all the rest of them.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, because once again, "Saturday Night Live" gave its version of the treatment on Saturday night. Let's watch a little clip.




GARDNER: Do you feel like this is a win you can be proud of?

BENNETT: Oh, hell, yes, Dana. Republicans threatened to move the country, and we can tell the people really wanted Kavanaugh. Everyone fought, from white men over 60 to white men over 70.

CECILY STRONG, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": The last thing I wanted was to make this about me. That's why I told everyone to tune in at 3 p.m., so I could tell all my female supporters, "Psyche!"

GARDNER: And you don't think that Brett Kavanaugh did anything wrong?

STRONG: Listen, I think it's important to believe women until it's time to stop.



SWERDLICK: Yes, the last couple of "Saturday Night Live"s have been spot-on, and they highlight there that the polls show that, while Kavanaugh is not popular among Republicans, you saw that with that portrayal of McConnell.


JARRETT: The question is whether Democrats can maintain the anger. Can they take what Susan Collins did and turn that into a betrayal that actually translates to votes at the polls in November.

BLITZER: Excellent discussion. Everybody stick around.

There's more breaking news we're following. Critical evidence recovered from the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in almost a decade. What caused the limousine accident that killed 20 people?


[18:47:54] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, a key piece of evidence recovered in the limousine crash that left 20 people dead in Upstate New York.

Our national correspondent Miguel Marquez is on the scene for us.

Miguel, investigators just held a news conference. Update our viewers.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the investigation is ongoing, but I want to show you what is happening in front of us right now. This crash has just punched a hole through the heart of this community. Thousands of people here in Amsterdam, New York, gathered to pay their respects to those who died. Everyone in this town affected by it.

The key bit of evidence that they have found is the black box or those modules for the airbags of that car. The owner of the company has also been located. He is cooperating. The company is cooperating, but he is in Pakistan. But right now, this community is just reeling.


LAUREN LEMOS, VICTIM'S FAMILY: Just wonderful, kind, loving.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): Family, friends, an entire town reeling after 20 people died in a single-car accident. One of the couples killed leaves behind three children, all under five.

LEMOS: Just pray that they'll have lots of people to support them and remind them of how wonderful their parents were.

MARQUEZ: Seventeen of the victims all from the same small upstate New York town of Amsterdam, young couples, some recently married, all now dead after the modified Ford Excursion stretch limousine they rented sped through an intersection, hit a parked car and crashed into a ditch. The driver and two pedestrians also died.

The 17 friends initially rented a bus from Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service for a day-long surprise birthday party. The bus broke down and the company sent instead a 2001 Ford Excursion that had been modified into a stretch limousine. A relative says the victims were suspicious from the start.

VALERIE VERTUCCI ABELING, CRASH VICTIM'S AUNT: My niece instinctively had thoughts that, geez, this is -- you know, this is not good, you know, what they sent us.

[18:50:06] I guess the first vehicle broke down. And they sent them another vehicle.

MARQUEZ: Investigators now looking into the driver, the company that rented the vehicle, road conditions and the intersection where the accident occurred. State route 30 and 38 is a T-bone intersection. Route 30 is a steep hill leading to the intersection, with only a stop sign. The driver may have been driving as fast as 60 miles an hour when he went through the intersection, finally coming to a stop in a ditch next to a restaurant.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D), NEW YORK: We don't yet know the cause of the accident, if there was a vehicle malfunction, if it was a driver malfunction. Driver error, that's part of the ongoing investigation.

MARQUEZ: Just last month, the vehicle's chasse, suspension, brakes and overall systems were tested. It failed that state inspection, and the driver should have had a CDL or commercial driver's license, he didn't.

CUOMO: I think the owner of this company has a lot of questions to answer. There's an ongoing investigation. But is there a possibility of liability? Civil and criminal? Certainly.


MARQUEZ: Now, New York state police say that crippled charges are possible in this case. They've issued a search warrant at the business. They've seized several of their vehicles and everyone from the National Transportation Safety Board to the FBI to several state agencies are looking into this.

This is as the grief in this small town of Upstate New York, Amsterdam, New York, is just starting to deal with the outcome of this crash -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Such a tragic, horrible, horrible story. Our deepest condolences to the families. Miguel, thank you very much. I hope they figure out what happened.

Stay with us. There's more breaking news just ahead.


[18:56:37] BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump says he's concerned about a prominent Saudi journalist who disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where some suspect he was killed.

Our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski is working the story for us.

Michelle, Jamal Khashoggi wrote columns for "The Washington Post". He was a legal U.S. resident here in the United States, and all of a sudden, this happens. MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right, I

mean, there's so little evidence, you have Turkey saying they believe he was killed soon after he entered that Saudi consulate in Istanbul. You have the Saudis absolutely denying it.

And so, now, Turkey is demanding evidence. They're saying to Saudi Arabia, this is on you. This is your consulate in our country.

So, if nothing happened to this man who hasn't been seen or heard from in six days now. Why don't you show the world some evidence? Show video of him leaving if you say he's leaving?

Let us search the building, and the Saudis have opened that consulate to let some journalists go inside and look around. Apparently, they opened cupboards and closets to show he's not there. But that doesn't really tell us anything.

I mean, this is somebody who's lived in the U.S. since last year, we don't know his exact immigration status, it's generally kept private. But we know that he had applied for permanent residency, someone who regularly wrote columns for "The Washington Post" and left Saudi Arabia because he feared for his safety.

And now, there's no evidence that he is alive. And there's no evidence that he is not alive.

BLITZER: And he was critical of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, of Saudi Arabia.

KOSINSKI: He was, and because of that, he had fallen out of favor, that he once have slightly with the royal family there. So, now, here in the U.S., we know that conversations are going on behind the scenes, between the U.S. and Saudi governments, as we would expect in a situation like this.

I mean, this is somebody who is a U.S. resident who felt protected here. And he goes to Turkey for the sole purpose of getting a document so he could marry his Turkish fiancee. And he disappears without a trace.

So, the State Department is saying they're following it closely. You hear the president saying he's concerned. But we're starting to hear members of Congress come out and forcefully call on the State Department to try to figure out what happened here, and Senator Bob Corker has raised this privately with the Saudi ambassador here, who also denied that anything happened to Khashoggi.

BLITZER: The Saudi ambassador is the crown prince's brother.

KOSINSKI: That's right.

BLITZER: And he's the ambassador here in the United States.

There's been a lot of concern that the U.S. hasn't been as vocal as it should be in demanding answers. KOSINSKI: Yes, we don't know what is going on, but what those

conversations are like behind the scenes. We would, of course, expect the U.S. to be demanding answers without making this too public in the hopes that if he is still alive, this could be worked out. If he has been killed this is one more incident where states, whether it's Saudi Arabia, or China, or Russia are able to commit acts like this, if that is what happened here, without real fear of the retribution that follows.

I mean, if something has happened to them, if he's dead, what happens then, sanctions? I mean, clearly, these incidents have not caused anything that's going to be a deterrent from this happening.

BLITZER: As you point out, there are a lot of closed circuit cameras around that consulate, that Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Get the tape, show him leaving if you have it, if you don't, that's a problem.

All right. Thanks very much, Michelle, for that report.

KOSINSKI: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.