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Russian Woman Charged with Conspiracy In Plot to Interfere with Midterms; Feds Allege Effort To Inflame Passions, Manipulate Voters; Dems Seek Info On Trump Personal Enrichment By Saudis. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 19, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That all happens live right here on CNN at 8 p.m. Eastern. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

[17:00:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Russian charged. A Russian woman is charged with conspiracy to interfere in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Federal authorities say it's part of a broader plot to sow discord and manipulate voters by spreading disinformation online on a variety of hot-button issues.

Ongoing interference. Top U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials are now warning there's an ongoing effort by Russia and others to interfere in U.S. elections and undermine democratic institutions. So what is the U.S. doing about it?

In a wheelchair. President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, shows up in court in a prison jumpsuit and in a wheelchair and learns he'll be sentenced in February. Manafort's lawyer says he has a medical condition related to his confinement.

And Cohen's midterm message. President Trump's former lawyer and ultimate loyalist urges Americans to vote against the president and the GOP, Michael Cohen warning that otherwise there would be two or six more years of what he calls craziness.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. A Russian woman has been charged with conspiracy in an alleged plot to manipulate U.S. voters, including interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

Federal prosecutors say the goal was to sow discord and undermine faith in democratic institutions here in the United States using thousands of fake social media and e-mail accounts. The plotters allegedly sought to inflame passions online, focusing in on issues like immigration, race relations and gun control.

I'll speak with Congressman Eric Swalwell of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and former CIA director Michael Hayden. And our correspondent and specialists are also standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with the breaking news. Let's go to our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett. She's here along with CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez.

Laura, this is a criminal complaint. It shows Moscow's election interference is still happening, heading into next month's midterm elections. So what are the details of this alleged Russian operation?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this remarkable complaint just shows the depths of the Russian efforts to sow discord and to exploit divisions in America less than two weeks away from the midterm elections.

In this particular case, we have Elena Khusyaynova, who is charged with managing the financial operation of this Project Lakhta. And it was actually funded by Concord Management, that was indicted earlier this year for sowing discord in the 2016 election by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Now, this was brought out of the Eastern District of Virginia, and what it shows is just the depths of the hot-button issues that the Russians are trying to target. Everything from immigration to the NFL national anthem. I want to show some of the ads that they were posting on social media up there. Some of the graphics. They show everything from focusing on the child deportations, family separations, how the media, at least according to these these memes, were not following different cases closely enough. Trying to say Robert Mueller was a puppet master. So everything possible that you can see to sow discord on social media, Wolf.

BLITZER: And if you read this 38-page conspiracy complaint, it's pretty damning. And it shows that Mueller and his team, they were also targeted.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. This really shows you that -- you know, as Laura said, less than two weeks or actually just over two weeks from the midterm elections, that this is what the Russians are up to. This is not 2016. This is happening now.

And it's also targeting Robert Mueller. There is part of the instructions that -- that this operation gave to these Russian trolls says, in part, about Mueller, says, "Special prosecutor Mueller is a puppet of the establishment. List scandals that place -- took place when Mueller headed the FBI and summarize with a statement that Mueller is very dependent and highly politicized figure. Therefore, there will be no honest and open results from this investigation."

Clearly, trying to stoke some of the suspicions that people already have about Robert Mueller and this ongoing investigation that is still -- that is still yet to wrap up.

BLITZER: Because the Russians -- the trolls were given specific instructions on how to operate, how best to target Americans, if you read this complaint over here. These were -- these were very, very detailed marching orders.

JARRETT: Yes. And the complaint is chock-full of so much color and how they wanted to use stereotypes, actually, to target and exploit the divisions, including this, Wolf. "If you write posts in a liberal group, you must not use Breitbart titles. If you write posts in a conservative group, do not use 'Washington Post' or BuzzFeed titles. Brand Senator -- former senator John McCain is an old geezer. Brand Congressman Paul Ryan a complete and absolute nobody, incapable of any decisiveness. Special counsel Robert Mueller, a puppet," as Evan already mentioned. Accusing even CNN of yet another lie and exposing Senator Marco Rubio as a fake conservative.

So just a remarkable level of planning, I think, is what you're seeing here.

BLITZER: And at the same time, in a separate document, the -- the director of national intelligence released a joint statement on behalf of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Justice, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, noting that they were very aggressive right now, Russia and others, in going after the U.S. elections.

PEREZ: Right. According to these court papers, this is a $35 million operation, and it spans from 2016 to the present day. And it includes activity not only in the United States, but also in the European Union and Ukraine.

And I'll show you part of what the director of national intelligence says: "We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies. These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections."

It's important to note, Wolf, that the director of national intelligence and the other parts of the government say that they have detected no effort or no ability to actually affect the actual hardware, the --

JARRETT: Infrastructure.

PEREZ: -- the infrastructure, right, the infrastructure for voting in the 2018 elections. So people can still have confidence that when they cast their ballots, it's going to be the way they cast it.

BLITZER: In this joint statement, Evan, what jumped out at me also was that the -- they said -- as far as foreign influence, they specifically mentioned ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran. Do they cite specifics about Iran and China and other foreign actors? They cite a lot of specifics about Russia.

PEREZ: Right. Now, this is focused on this Russian operation, and keep in mind, as Laura said, there was another case that the Mueller investigators brought here in Washington. This appears to give the Justice Department just another way to get at this operation, this Russian operation. And perhaps we're going to see some of what the government has learned about what China is up to and what the Iranians are up to.

BLITZER: We'll see what they are up to. The president keeps talking about not just Russia. He also throws in immediately China --

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: -- and others are doing this, as well, to the United States.

Everybody stand by. I quickly want to go to the White House. The president insists his administration has done a lot to protect the upcoming election. He's just commented on several related issues.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, what's the latest?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president's initial response to this was a lot different than those statements that Evan just read from several of his own agency leaders. Instead, the president's first response was not a warning to voters about potential election interference but a denial.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nothing to do with my campaign. If they're hackers, a lot of them probably like Hillary Clinton better than me. Now they do. Now they do.

But, you know, they go after some hacker in Russia, they say, oh, it had nothing to do with my campaign.

President Obama was contacted by the FBI in September, long before the election in November. And they told him there may be meddling by the Russians. And he did nothing about it, because he thought Hillary Clinton would win. He did nothing. He didn't do -- he didn't lift a finger. He didn't spend a dime.

We've done a lot to protect the elections coming up.


COLLINS: Now, Wolf -- Wolf, what he said there about Hillary Clinton, the hackers favoring her, actually, we heard from Russian President Vladimir Putin over the summer during that summit in Helsinki when he said he wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 election. And then he goes on to criticize former President Barack Obama for not doing enough.

Two of Obama's officials did issue a statement in October 2016, talking about how Russians had directed people to compromise e-mail accounts. But instead that was overshadowed, because that was the same day that "Access Hollywood" tape, where Trump was making lewd comments, came out. But there you heard no hint of concern from the president about upcoming interference in the upcoming elections, Wolf.

BLITZER: The national security adviser to the president, Kaitlan, John Bolton, he's beginning a trip tomorrow that includes a stop in Moscow. Is he expected to bring up Russian election interference in these meetings that he has scheduled with top Russian officials? COLLINS: Well, Wolf, that's the big question. And you have to wonder

if that played a role in them unsealing this case today, because maybe now this provides him the opportunity to bring it up.

We know he's going to be in Moscow for several days. He's going to be meeting with Russian officials, though it is still an open question whether or not he's going to meet with Vladimir Putin while he is there. They have not commented on that.

[17:10:08] But this does give him an opportunity to bring this up and confront them about it. The question now, Wolf, is if he will do that.

BLITZER: All right, Kaitlan, thanks very much. Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California. He's a member of both the intelligence and Judiciary Committees. Thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: Let's talk about this complaint against this Russian woman who has organized, apparently, if you believe all these charges, an enormous campaign to sow dissent here in the United States, undermine U.S. democratic values. Prosecutors say that -- and they showed in this complaint a whole range of media images. Take a look at this, because they were shared on social media.

What does it tell you about the extent and the intent of this alleged conspiracy?

SWALWELL: Wolf, it tells me two things. One, the Russians are as determined today to attack and undermine our democracy as they were back in 2015 when they started in the presidential election.

But two, it also shows that the president's approach is not working. He has said over and over, despite the criticism lodged against him, that he's got this; he's addressing it; his team is working on it. Whatever they're doing, if they're doing anything at all, is not working, because the Russians continue to do it.

BLITZER: And these are all complaints, charges, that this woman and her team were working to undermine the 2018 midterm elections. But there are parallels to what happened in 2016.

SWALWELL: That's right. And the budget here looks to be bigger than the budget they had in 2016. This is a $35 million budget that this woman was working with.

And now we had an opportunity just a few months ago in Congress to continue the funding for election security. So states across the country could harden the ballot box to make sure that, God forbid, they didn't get in there. Three-hundred and eighty million dollars that was last year. The Republican leadership, with support of the White House, zeroed that out. So I'm afraid that we're just as vulnerable here at home. Best anecdote against that is to just overwhelm the ballot box. Voters --

BLITZER: Based on all the details in this current 38-page complaint, does it look to be more sophisticated or less sophisticated than what the Russians did in 2016?

SWALWELL: Well, I think they're really turning up the volume on the social media weaponization. That they're really just trying to turn us against each other, because when we are chaotic and we've got discord, and we can't unite as a country, that brings us down a few notches as a democracy.

And when people in their country look at whether they want to be like the United States or not, they say, "Well, it's a mess over there in the United States. Maybe we'll just take the oligarch system that we have here." That's the ultimate goal of the Russians.

BLITZER: And one of the news articles even targeted the special counsel, Robert Mueller. It was titled "The Eight Dirtiest Scandals of Robert Mueller No One is Talking About." It calls him -- the Russians call him a puppet of the establishment. It sounds like the talking points you get from some of Mueller's critics.

SWALWELL: Well, it sounds like President Trump and some of the tweets that he has put out there, and that people on his team defend every day.

BLITZER: You think this current effort to undermine the 2018 elections, to sow discord here in the United States, to create as much division as possible, was personally ordered by Putin?

SWALWELL: Yes. If he didn't want this to proceed, it wouldn't proceed. Anything of this magnitude comes from the Kremlin.

BLITZER: One thing I did notice in this 38-page document, no U.S. citizens were named. Lots of Russians were named, including high- ranking officials, very close to Putin. But no U.S. officials.

SWALWELL: I think beneath the surface right now, Bob Mueller continues to look at U.S. persons who could have worked with the Russians, but we're just 18 days away from the election. I don't expect any indictments until after the election.

But just in the last few weeks, he's had Paul Manafort. He's had, under grand jury subpoena, people around Roger Stone. It looks like this is still a white-hot investigation, zeroing in on cooperation with U.S. persons and the Russians.

BLITZER: And as you point out, this Russian woman and her team had an operating budget of about $35 million. What does that say to you?

SWALWELL: Again, it shows the determination of the Russians, but also that they believe they still have a permissive operating environment in the United States, because Donald Trump is not really confronting them or taking any measures in the United States to counter them.

And this is all the more reason we must protect Bob Mueller's investigation, because I don't think this would have been caught or stopped by anything else that the president would have done. This is special counsel, you know, affirmatively taking measures.

BLITZER: You spent a lot of time working on this issue, Russian interference. How should the U.S. fight back?

SWALWELL: First, unite. See Republicans and Democrats say that "his could happen to either one of us. We're not going to tolerate it, and we're going to fund election security. We're going to have independent commission look at how we can prevent this from happening again. And we're going to support the criminal investigation into who did this, and we're not going to undermine that."

BLITZER: Separately, this joint statement that was released by the director of national intelligence with the Department of Justice, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, it says that there is foreign interference ongoing right now in the 2018 elections and looking ahead to the 2020 elections. But they cite, and this is specifically, they cite "ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran."

[17:15:09] Have you seen any significant undermining of the U.S. democracy by others, other than Russia? Have you seen China, Iran, other foreign actors engage the way the Russians are?

SWALWELL: So Wolf, I have to be just very careful here with what I've seen and what I can say.

What I can say is that the president is singling out Iran and China, and he will not declare Russia as a meddler. And that's a problem. Because I think that is really out of proportion as to who is really seeking to undermine our election. All of the evidence that the public suggests, that Russia is the one that should be most concerning.

BLITZER: Congressman Swalwell, thanks so much for joining us.

SWALWELL: My pleasure.

BLITZER: We've got a lot more coming up on the breaking news. We're going to have a separate interview coming up with general Hayden, former CIA director, former head of the national security agency. He's got a lot of thoughts on what's going on. We'll be right back.


[17:20:14] BLITZER: Our breaking news. A Russian national today was charged in an alleged conspiracy to sow discord among U.S. voters and to interfere in this year's midterm elections just a little bit more than two weeks away. The plotters allegedly sought to inflame passions online, using fake social media and e-mail accounts.

Joining us now, retired General Michael Hayden. He's a former director of the CIA and the NSA. He's a CNN national security analyst.

General, thanks so much for joining us.

This criminal complaint says this Russian woman and her team had a -- had a budget of $35 million. So how sophisticated does that seem to be to you?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I mean, the Russian effort is sophisticated. And you've already shown, Wolf, some of the instructions they were using to, in essence, draft off of American disputes that were already created.

And I think it's really important to point out here that we are making this easier for the Russians, because of the quality or lack of quality in our own political dialogue. I mean, these themes are already in an American vernacular. And all the Russians have to do, then, is to take that and transplant it and inflame it, reinforce and amplify it to increase the divisions that already exist.

BLITZER: How does what the Russians are doing now, looking ahead to the midterm elections, and the 2020 elections, for that matter, compare to what they did in 2016?

HAYDEN: I think there are really strong echoes. All right? You've got two baskets to look at. One is the actual manipulation of the voting process. And I think we've hardened that pretty well, and frankly, no evidence of any successful efforts on the part of the Russians.

The basket over here, though, Wolf, I think is the really important one. That's the one that continues, and if anything, they've upped their game, at least in terms of resources. And that's what I call irreverently, the "messing with our heads basket." The driving divisions, eroding confidence of us in one another. Eroding confidence in our institutions and our processes.

BLITZER: Do you believe they're becoming more sophisticated in their disinformation campaign?

HAYDEN: I think modestly so. They've certainly doubled down. They see the benefit of it. They're getting a return on investment here. But once again, Wolf, I've come back to my original theme. We make this easy by creating these divisions ourselves.

BLITZER: Would they be doing this without the specific authorization of Vladimir Putin?

HAYDEN: No. Absolutely not. You've got the personal relationship of Putin to the company that this woman is associated with. Relationship between the president of the company, Prigozhin, and Putin himself.

But just in terms of how the Russians do things, this is not anything that could be done without the approval, I would think, the enthusiastic support of Putin.

BLITZER: How should the U.S. fight back?

HAYDEN: So this is -- this is a tough problem. Because it's taking advantage of things that are native to the American political process. Our openness.

Wolf, I know the differences, all right? But bear with me just for a second.

There's a little bit of a 9/11 flavor here in the sense that this was an attack from an unexpected direction against a previously unappreciated weakness. And when that happened in 9/11, what did we do?

No. 1, we had a commission that took us over the coals to make us better. And we had a president who went what I call extraordinary. Now, some of the extraordinary was controversial. But you can't doubt we changed processes, laws, policies and organizations.

None of that has been done after the Russian assaults on the 2016 election, and none of it has been done, because we don't do that, Wolf, without the direction and personal involvement of the president. And we don't have that.

BLITZER: In the statement released by the director of national intelligence, a joint statement with Department of Justice, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, they say that what's going on right now is more interference in the upcoming U.S. elections. And they specifically cite adversaries of the U.S., Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran.

HAYDEN: Right.

BLITZER: Now, we've all seen all the details involving Russia. Have you seen specific similar details involving China, Iran and other foreign actors?

HAYDEN: I have not. I know the vice president made a pretty powerful speech attacking the Chinese for what he called interference. There, I think, what we're seeing is a bit more of just another nation state attempting to influence American policy through traditional tools.

I mean, you and I may not like their taking out a four-page ad in "The Des Moines Register," but that's above board. That's fair play. The Russians are doing something more extensive and more below the surface. They're good at it.

BLITZER: It's more covert.

HAYDEN: It is.

[17:25:03] BLITZER: If China puts in a supplement in a newspaper, it says, "from China."

HAYDEN: Right.

BLITZER: It's obvious.

HAYDEN: Right. And if the Iranians want to talk to a former American secretary of state, that's pretty obvious, too.

Now, all of that is trying to manipulate our thinking, but, again, above board and not above board.

BLITZER: General Hayden, thanks so much for joining us.

HAYDEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Appreciate it. Coming up, we're going to have much more on the breaking news. A new warning from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia and others are attempting to interfere in the midterm elections.

Also ahead, President Trump praises a Republican congressman who body- slammed an American reporter.


[17:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following breaking news. The U.S. Justice Department issuing a criminal complaint against a Russian woman accusing her of a major role in a conspiracy financed by a Russian oligarch known as Putin's chef. The conspiracy aim is to sow political discord here in the United States and influence the U.S. elections, including this year's midterms, two weeks-plus away. We have a lot to discuss with our analysts and our experts. And Susan Hennessey, walk us through your analysis of this criminal complaint, because it's got an enormous amount of detail.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So, I think the first significant thing is that it is a criminal complaint, as you mentioned, and not an indictment returned by a grand jury. Ordinarily, when we see this kind of information in a criminal complaint, it means that the prosecutors were in a hurry. There was some kind of precipitating event that they decided to unseal this particular document. So, there's early reporting that this individual might not be in U.S. custody.

So, maybe it's not an arrest, but it's possible to imagine something like somebody traveling to a country with an extradition agreement, some reason why they wanted to produce this paperwork really quickly. You know, it is -- the conduct described is linked to this 2018 -- this February 2018 indictment out of the special counsel's office related to this Russian troll farm. This actually isn't a special counsel's office indictment, this is being run out of the Eastern District of Virginia, so, again, another example of potentially Robert Mueller spinning off pieces of his investigation.

As we've seen in prior indictments here, this is a remarkably sophisticated operation. It goes back years. It's ongoing, right, so really clear this is aimed at the 2018 midterms that are coming up in just a few weeks.

BLITZER: Is that why they released it now, they wanted to get it out before the midterms?

HENNESSEY: I think it's possible, although it does sort of cut against the logic here that DOJ actually has a policy of not issuing things that might interfere with elections this close to the date. So, it is a little bit of a head-scratcher as to why they would choose to release this right now. And it is significant that the office of the director of National Intelligence release this other potentially unrelated or maybe coincidental statement earlier this afternoon, warning about general election year interference, as well.

BLITZER: Potentially, might be related to John Bolton, the president's National Security Adviser, is going to Russia in the coming days for meetings. Maybe they wanted to get this out now in advance.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I guess, but let me give you a different perspective on that. If you're running this in a standard presidential administration, John Bolton, the National Security Adviser, obviously, is sitting down with a table of people that includes the intel guys and the law enforcement people who would have put together this case. But if you want to issue it before the election, presumably there's a tail on that says everybody who's got a podium, the president, the vice president, the attorney general, the secretary of Homeland Security, is going to go out publicly and use stuff like this, telling the American people, when you get on Twitter and Facebook, you're going to get worked if you're not careful. My bottom line is, where's the communications plan if this is supposed to be part of one? I don't see it from the line out.

BLITZER: Lots of fascinating details, David Axelrod, in this document, if you go through the whole thing, including these instructions to Russian trolls on social media out there. I'll put up some of them on the screen. Mentioned things like Special Prosecutor Mueller is a puppet of the establishment. There will be no honest and open results from the investigation. Brand John McCain is an old geezer. Accused CNN of yet another lie. We exposed Marco Rubio as a fake conservative. Paul Ryan is a complete and absolute nobody and capable of any decisive -- if you go through -- and there's a ton more of these kinds of details, what they're instructing these trolls to do.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, absolutely. Look, some of those phrases I think are a bit stilted. But the basic themes are very, very familiar. There are themes that we've seen in the discourse, in the very coarse discourse that we've seen in our politics over the last campaign. So, they've studied those divisions. And, by the way, it's not just to inflame one side, it's also to inflame the other as the indictment suggests. The goal is to create maximum chaos. And that's what they've -- and that's what they've done. So, they are -- you know, it's a pretty cheap -- $35 million is a lot of money to pour into this effort. But when you think about it, for Vladimir Putin, it's a rather good investment. I mean, it's not a lot of money to create an awful lot of chaos.

BLITZER: And the instructions they had, a separate page of instructions to Russian trolls on LGBT people. They say this, "Colored LGBT are less sophisticated than white. The content must be simple to understand. Consisting of short text in large font and a colorful picture."

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Well, we're seeing tactics that are very similar to what the Russians were able to successfully do in the 2016 election. They are hitting upon the pressure points that are part of the public discourse, as David said. Some of the other issues that are touched upon are immigration, race relations, gun control. So, these are the very issues that have left the country very polarized.

[17:35:10] And I think what's striking is that you still have this challenge, where even as you have the U.S. Intelligence Community sounding the alarm that the Russians are very much still trying to sow discord, these efforts are very much ongoing, the president's immediate reaction is to actually go on the defensive and to try and downplay the nature of the threat, by really dismissing it as, you know, the trolls being more favorable toward Hillary Clinton and having nothing to do with his campaign.

This is no longer about the 2016 campaign. This is about now. This is about the upcoming midterm election. And the question is, what this administration is doing to try and deter the Russians from being able to interfere once more in the U.S. -- American Democratic process.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, does it sound to you like these Russian trolls have a good understanding of the American political landscape?

AXELROD: Without question. Without question. But I just want to echo what was just said. This is an assault on our democracy. This is an assault on the fundamental basics of our system. And the president, as the commander-in-chief, has a responsibility to stand up, as he would if we were the victim of a physical attack. And yet, you know, he continues, you know, up to this moment to downplay the Russian role, to say, well, it's the Russia, but it was others. We're not sure. We are sure, and these indictments are very precise in their language. And so, the question is, what is it with the president that he's unwilling to fully confront the Russians on what is an attack on our country?

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. We're going to have a lot more on the breaking news right after this.


[17:41:22] BLITZER: We're back with our experts right now. Lots to discuss. Sabrina, I want to talk about what the president said at that campaign rally in Montana last night, he's testing out a new slogan: "Jobs, not mobs." But he also -- and this was amazing -- he really praised a Republican congressman there in Montana, Greg Gianforte, for body-slamming your colleague, Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian last year. It was awful, but it's not the first time the president has seemingly endorsed violence. Watch this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Democrats produce mobs. Republicans produce jobs. Any guy that could do a body-slam, he's my kind of. Don't hit their head and they've just killed somebody, don't hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK? 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'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks. I would like to punch him in the face, I'll tell you. Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously. Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do, I'll defend you in court. Don't worry about it.


BLITZER: And just a little while ago, the president defended his statement, saying he has no regrets for what he said about Congressman Gianforte's body-slamming of your colleague.

SIDDIQUI: Last year, my colleague, Ben Jacobs, is covering the Montana special election, and he approached then-Candidate Greg Gianforte with a question about health care. There was no provocation on Ben's part, nor any sign of aggression. And in turn, he was physically attacked by Gianforte, essentially for doing his job. Gianforte lied about it; his campaign tried to smear Ben. It was only after Gianforte won the special election that he acknowledged he was wrong and he then went on to plead guilty to charges of misdemeanor assault.

So, for the president to, from the highest office in the land, make light of this incident, and frankly, praise Gianforte's conduct, it's effectively an endorsement of what was an attack on a journalist, an attack on the freedom of the press, and it's coming at a time when we're also talking about the disappearance of a Saudi journalist. So, it sets a tone that could have a trickle-down effect for how reporters are able to do their jobs and the very real threats that they face, both here at home and around the world.

BLITZER: What do you think?

MUDD: The president set a tone that won. And that tone was, I'm going to defend you like the cowboy coming into Washington and I'm going to take out the people in Washington, regardless of what it takes. There is one theme here. If you look at overseas in the Philippines, Duterte, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kim Jong-un, they have something in common. Each one of those people has murdered a citizen. And the president is aligned with them, I think, because he likes to say, I'm the tough guy who can handle people like Putin, instead of saying Putin murders people.

You come back domestically, the president does the same thing here. I'm the tough guy, I've got 100 secret service agents around me, I can be tough, because they'll protect me. You go attack a journalist. And that's lying Ted, that's crooked Hillary. Everything he does, I'm the tough guy and I'll protect you.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, the whole world listens to the president of the United States when he makes comments like this.

AXELROD: Absolutely. And it sends a terrible signal. But you know what, Wolf, I don't think he cares about that. He's got one thing in mind between now and November 6th, and that's to try and inflame and arouse his base. And you heard the reaction in that room last night in Montana. He got a very good reaction, because as Phil said, this is part and parcel of his schtick, the whole strong man thing is all about.

So, you know, the fact that what he said dismays all of us, as it should, the fact that the world is confounded by it, and that it gives a green light to tyrants around the world, I don't think he cares about that. What he cares about is trying to get his people out on November 6th, and everything else is subjugated to that.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Susan.

HENNESSEY: I mean, this isn't an accident. It isn't tone deaf. It's absolutely part of the show. It's part of the president's strategy to communicate to the American people that a free press, a press that dares to criticize him, is not to be trusted, is not to be believed. And should be -- it's acceptable to subject them to physical violence. It's incredibly irresponsible to see the president using this kind of rhetoric.

[17:45:28] BLITZER: The timing was very, very bad. The substance was awful. The timing was awful, as well. Everybody standby. Much more coming up on the breaking news. The U.S. charges another Russian accusing her of helping run an operation aimed at sowing political discord in the United States and influencing this year's midterm elections.

Also coming up, a close look at the very troubling questions raised by President Trump's possible financial ties to Saudi Arabia. Tonight, Democratic lawmakers, they are demanding answers.


[17:50:36] BLITZER: Tonight, despite President Trump's recent denials he has any financial tries to Saudi Arabia, both experts and Democratic lawmakers, they are raising some troubling questions. Prominent Democrats on both the House and the Senate Judiciary Committees, they're demanding information about what they call the president personal enrichment by Saudis. Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, a lot of the questions have to do with what the president himself has claimed over the years.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president has in the past, really, crowed over how much money he's made from the Saudis. Now, with the Khashoggi case, it's coming back to bite him, leading to questions whether his judgment in that case has been clouded by financial ties to the Saudi royal family.


TODD: On the campaign trail, Donald Trump bragged openly about how much money he made from the Saudis.

TRUMP: They buy apartments from me, they spend 40 million, 50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.

TODD: these days the president is on the defensive over his financial ties to the kingdom, tweeting: "For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia." While it's true Trump does not own hotels or other businesses in Saudi Arabia, critics say he has in the past and continues to profit from Saudi money.

ROBERT WEISSMAN, PRESIDENT, PUBLIC CITIZEN: It's a president who cares about the president himself and his narrow business interests, and the national interest is a secondary concern, if that.

TODD: Two groups are suing President Trump for violating the part of the constitution that forbids a president from making money off a foreign government.

JOHN MIKHAIL, PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: The law was adopted and added to the constitution to prevent conflicts of interest, undue foreign influence, corruption and the appearance of corruption.

TODD: Since Trump took office, his hotels have benefitted from Saudi business. The Trump International Hotel in Washington was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for food and accommodations by a Saudi lobbying firm. The Washington Post reports Trump's hotel on Central Park West made a lot of money this year from a booking by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's entourage. The Post says, Trump's hotel in Chicago also made money off visitors from the kingdom.

WEISSMAN: They're choosing to do these things to curry favor with the president, and there's every reason to believe it's successful.

TODD: When he became president, Trump pledged to remove himself from day-to-day operations of his properties, turning them over to his sons, but experts say that may not cut it.

MIKHAIL: It's not enough under the constitution to simply step back from day-to-day control or operation of the business. The critical question is whether he's receiving payments, benefits, advantages directly or indirectly from foreign governments without the consent of Congress.

TODD: And Trump did not get Congress's consent to do that. His reluctance, so far, to really punish the Saudis for the disappearance and apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has led to more scrutiny of his company's profits from the kingdom now and in the past.

TRUMP: I like the Saudis, they're very nice. I make a lot of money with them. They buy all sorts of my stuff.

TODD: Saudi Arabia bought the 45th floor of this Manhattan Skyscraper for $4.5 million in 2001. When Trump was hard up for cash in the '90s, he sold off this yacht to a Saudi prince for a reported $20 million, and that same Saudi prince chipped in for a $300 million bailout of another Trump investment -- the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan in 1995.

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, AUTHOR: So, this is a man who has always looked to the Saudis for money, so who has leverage over whom here? We have to really ask a serious question about whether a foreign entity has leverage over the United States president in a way that we have never seen before. (END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: The Trump organization has promised to donate the profits from foreign entity spending at those properties and says it will no longer pursue major business deals in Saudi Arabia. But analysts say a worst-case scenario for President Trump here would be if the courts actually force him to divest himself of some of those properties, and they say the issue of foreign spending at these hotels could be raised at any possible impeachment proceedings against the president. Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Brian, there's also a concern here about the possible behavior of future presidents in these kinds of cases, right?

TODD: Sure is, Wolf. Experts say, if President Trump actually wins these lawsuits against him for violating the constitution, then future presidents might try to profit from the presidency, and that could really undermine the constitution, put the country in a very bad place internationally.

[17:55:04] BLITZER: Interesting. All right, Brian, thank you. Brian Todd reporting. Coming up, the breaking news, a Russian woman is charged with conspiracy to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections. Federal authorities now say it's part of a broader plot to sew discord and manipulate voters in the United States by spreading disinformation on several hot button issues.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have breaking news just coming in. A statement just read on Saudi state television. Saudi Arabia confirms that the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead. Quickly, we want to go to CNN's Clarissa Ward, she's in Ankara, Turkey for us.