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THE SITUATION ROOM
Trump Admin Slaps New Sanctions on Russia as Trump, Putin Head to Paris; Interview With California Congresswoman Jackie Speier; Questions Emerge About New Acting Attorney General; California Mass Shooting. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired November 8, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The shooter has been identified as a Marine veteran whose behavior raised lots of red flags and left his mother living in fear. Could this slaughtered have been prevented?
In hot water? We're learning more about the new acting attorney general of the United States, including his work promoting hot tubs for a company accused of scamming. It's only adding to already deep concerns that Matthew Whitaker can't be trusted to oversee the Russia investigation.
And protecting the probe. As demonstrators march in defense of Robert Mueller, newly empowered House Democrats fear for the future of the Russia investigation after the president's decision to fire Jeff Sessions. Tonight, we're learning more about how the special counsel is trying to stay on track.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on this, the second horrific mass shooting in less -- in this country in less than two weeks.
In California tonight, the FBI has been searching the gunman's home and car, trying to determine why he opened fire on young people line dancing at a bar on college night; 12 people were killed, including a veteran now sheriff's officer who rushed in minutes after the first gunshots were reported.
Police say the shooter was a U.S. Marine veteran who had previous run- ins with the law. He apparently killed himself at the scene of the massacre.
This hour, I will talk to California Congresswoman Jackie Speier. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our senior national correspondent, Kyung Lah, outside the shooter's house. Kyung, we just got some new video from inside the bar during the
shooting. I want to play it for our viewers for the first time, but I want to caution them, this is potentially disturbing.
Watch this. Horrific, truly horrifying look inside the massacre.
So, Kyung, you're there. You're on the scene. What are you learning tonight?
KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the FBI is trying to figure out exactly why this man would do this.
This is someone who multiple friends have told CNN that they simply don't understand, a normal guy, a guy who went to serve his country. So the FBI has been at his home, the home that he shared with his mother throughout the day, trying to piece together the picture of a disturbed mind.
LAH (voice-over): We're now learning more about the gunman who turned this California bar into a gruesome crime scene. Investigators identify him as Ian David Long, a 28-year-old war veteran.
He entered the bar just before 11:38 p.m. carrying a .45-Caliber Glock and an extended magazine. Friends say the divorced former Marine had frequented the bar often, but Wednesday night he came to kill.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have got multiple people down. We need a lot of ambulances.
LAH (voice-over): Initial 911 dispatches from the scene only hint at the horror unfolding inside.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have one victim. He was shot and is bleeding at the entrance.
LAH: College country night at Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks, California, outside of Los Angeles, had drawn a crowd of more than 100 young patrons.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw him point to the back of the cash register, and he just started -- kept -- he just kept firing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He shot the front door man, bouncer, just a young man, and he shot the cashier.
LAH: First-responders rushed to the scene as survivors scrambled to escape.
GEOFF DEAN, VENTURA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, SHERIFF: So they, unfortunately, our young people, our people at nightclubs have learned that this may happen, and they think about that.
LAH: And then he broke through bar windows while others ran to hide in bathrooms and attics. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Friends got the barstools, and they started
slamming them against the windows, so we could get out.
LAH: Victims were carried out one by one and desperate lifesaving efforts took place in the parking lot. Still, many remained inside.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're still missing two people. We can't find them.
LAH: Parents now just beginning to learn which of their children will never return.
JASON COFFMAN, FATHER OF VICTIM: Oh, son, I love you so much. Oh, heavenly father, just please.
LAH: The gunman was found dead inside the bar's front office, an apparent suicide, according to police.
CNN has learned Long was a former infantry machine gunner who had served in Afghanistan. He was also known to police. Last April, law enforcement responded to a domestic disturbance at this Newbury Park home where he lived with his mother.
DEAN: The mental health experts out there cleared him that day. The deputies went out to the call with the crisis team that felt he might be suffering from PTSD.
LAH: Richard Berge, who lives a block-and-a-half away, tells us Long's mother feared for his future.
RICHARD BERGE, NEIGHBOR: She might have been afraid of him herself. I don't know. She never said that, but she was living in hell.
LAH: Now, CNN did speak with several of the childhood friends of this gunman. One vaguely remembers this gunman mentioning that he had trouble sleeping, he had some nightmares, anxiety.
But another friend who didn't hear anything like this, Wolf, says -- quote -- "I don't know what the hell happened" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Awful story. Kyung, thank you very much, Kyung Lah on the scene for us out in California.
Let's bring in our CNN law enforcement analyst, the former FBI special agent Josh Campbell. He's in Thousand Oaks for us tonight. Also with us, CNN counterterrorism analyst, former CIA official film Phil Mudd.
Josh, you're there. You're out there in Thousand Oaks. Agents are searching the shooter's home, his car. What are they looking for?
JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Wolf, the shooter is dead. So officers cannot interview him to try to get to the motive, to get to his rationale, what was going through his mind when he planned and then executed this deadly incident behind me.
That leaves the physical evidence, the digital evidence and other evidence that they're going to be looking for at the car, at the house and the like to go through in order to paint the picture of who this person was.
We heard from law enforcement officers just a short time ago at a press conference. The FBI Los Angeles field office has their evidence response team here. They are going through the scene behind me, the bar where this happened. They're also looking at the car.
They're looking at a residence, again, trying to go through and find out, is there any evidence here that might indicate why the shooter did what he did? Perhaps a letter, a manifesto, some type of digital trace, social media evidence and the like, again, a very lengthy, large-scale investigation that's under way right now.
But that is what is going to be required in order to try to figure out why the shooting happened here, Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil, I want to show our viewers once again the very disturbing video that we just received from what happened inside this bar in Thousand Oaks right outside of Los Angeles.
I want you to watch it as well. Let's discuss what we're about to see. So, Phil, what can authorities learn from this video? And I suspect there's probably going to be a lot more video they will be reviewing.
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Sure.
I mean, you have got to look at the forensics from that, for example, the shells that were shot in that environment, what weapon they picked up there. But there's a broader question I'd be asking, seeing that video, and it's something the FBI spoke about today with the sheriff's office. And that is motive.
Somebody walked in rapidly to a dark environment, looked like they shot indiscriminately, and they shot a lot of rounds quickly. If you're looking to the motivation of that individual, that tells me, obviously, the individual wasn't picking out targets. Why did they select a location, if we can presume they didn't select the individuals to hit?
I think -- I looked at that video and took away that this is somebody who wanted just go in and shoot as many -- as many people as he could without trying to determine who they were in the first place. The other thing I took away is just to spend a moment of silence saying thank God there's a law enforcement officer who went into a dark environment not annoying what he would find in there.
I mean, that obviously is not a well-lighted situation, and sacrificed life to go into a place that a lot of us, me included, I'm not sure I'd have the courage to do that. Incredible courage.
BLITZER: Yes, what a hero this sergeant was. Josh, what do you think when you look at that video?
CAMPBELL: Yes, Wolf, it also tells you how chaotic things were inside.
And as any of us go about our day, whether it's in the evening, whether it's unwinding at a bar at a nightclub, you don't expect that to happen. So all of these people were enjoying themselves. And then the night quickly turned tragic. It quickly turned to panic.
And, again, in these types of incidents, you don't know where the shooting is coming from. All you're doing -- you're hearing the sound, you're hearing the screams, you're hearing the people, but it is chaos.
We're told that folks were able to actually get out through the exits, various fire escapes and the like to get out. But obviously there were many that actually lost their lives here.
Wolf, to the point about the law enforcement officer that Phil mentioned rushing in, that is really a tale of heroism that we have been hearing today. We have been talking a lot about this officer who arrived here within minutes of the call to 911, and rushed into the scene, into the sound of the gunfire, and tragically lost his life while trying to save others.
We also learned, Wolf, that inside during this chaos, there were six off-duty law enforcement officers who weren't armed in the facility, but we're told that they were using their bodies as shields to help save innocent people, Wolf.
Just a tale of heroism all the way around here for members of the law enforcement community.
BLITZER: All right, Josh, thank you. Phil, thanks to you as well.
Let's continue our conversation.
Joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Congresswoman Jackie Speier. She's a California Democrat who serves on the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees.
Very painful, Congresswoman, to see that video and to hear the suffering. It comes, what, 10, 11 days after the massacre at that synagogue in Pittsburgh.
You yourself survived a shooting, as many of us remember. Fortunately, you're fine, you're OK. But what advice do you have for the families of those who were shot?
REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: It's a long process.
The grieving process is very, very hard and long. Make sure you get assistance and counsel. You can't go it alone. You can't do this alone. You have to reach out to people who can help you.
To hear that father cry about his son is just -- it just breaks my heart, as I'm sure it breaks everyone's heart.
But there's red flags here that we need to address. He was a Marine veteran. Did he suffer from PTSD? Did we know about that? It sounds like the law enforcement was called to the home. Oftentimes, family members have instincts about the mental stability of family members.
And it sounds like maybe his mother was concerned for her safety, and yet whether or not that was taken into consideration, I don't know. But I certainly want to have the military look back at his records and see if there was undiagnosed PTSD or just not a veteran service that was made available to him.
BLITZER: Yes, I asked one of the police deputies earlier in the day if they'd missed some red flags. They did go there in April, went to the home, and they had some professionals check him out, and they concluded he was no threat to himself or to anyone else.
Clearly, it emerged he was a threat to a lot of other people as well, and that's a whole area that I'm sure the military and others are looking into right now.
But if they determine he wasn't a threat to himself or anyone else, what else could police do?
SPEIER: Well, of course, that's the $50,000 question.
Meanwhile, we have 12 people who are dead now. And I'm sure their families are asking the question, were there any signs? And we really need to dig into this to determine whether there were.
BLITZER: What about guns right now? Do Democrats -- you're a Democrat. You have the majority in the House of Representatives.
Do you guys, the Democrats, not just you, but your colleagues, have the stomach right now to take up the whole issue of guns, given what has been going on in our country, not just the last few weeks, but over the years?
SPEIER: So, the Parkland students have the guts to go to Tallahassee and demand that there be action taken.
And in three weeks, a state that rarely does anything around gun violence prevention passed legislation to ban guns being sold to kids under the age of 21, ban bump stocks, and require the three-day cooling-off period.
There are many things that we've been trying to do that really are just closing loopholes that we must do in terms of background checks. But we also have to look at this whole issue of, when people are in a mental incapacity -- being determined to be mentally deficient is a very high standard to reach.
And if someone is mentally incapacitated at a time, you take their gun away for a period of time, have them have some counseling, and then give their gun back to them. I think we have got to start looking at things like that.
BLITZER: Because after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, 17 people were killed, a lot of kids, the president at that point in the immediate aftermath, as you remember, expressed an openness to some gun control measures, but that didn't go anywhere.
He quickly moved into other directions. But do you think he might cross the aisle and work together with you now to deal with what is widely called commonsense gun control?
SPEIER: I certainly hope so.
The NRA has got to recognize there are things we can and must do to make Americans feel safer about having guns in our community. We have more guns in our communities now than we have people. We have had over 300 mass shootings in the United States this year; 12,000 people are dead because they been -- they have come into gun violence situations.
And there has to be a way that we can start to reduce the absolute carnage that took place. High-capacity magazines, which evidently were used in this case, another example, bump stocks, assault weapons, they're not needed to go out and go hunting.
BLITZER: Let's turn, while I have you -- you are on the Intelligence Committee -- to the president's decision to fire the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and name a new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker.
Before he became the chief of staff to the attorney general, he was a private citizen last year, did a lot of interviews, including here on CNN.
He has publicly said that he would like to limit the entire Mueller Russia investigation. Looking at my notes, he argued that President Trump didn't obstruct justice. He defended Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with the Russians over at Trump Tower during the campaign. He actually called for Hillary Clinton to be investigated once again.
And now he's the acting attorney general. And by all accounts, he has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. What's your reaction?
SPEIER: Well, he's also said that it was Mueller lynch mob.
I mean, this is not an independent, unbiased person who is supposed to be meting out justice here. This is someone that has a very strong position. And I don't know that he would pass the test in the Senate. I also...
BLITZER: You mean if he were standing for confirmation?
SPEIER: That's right.
I also think that we should ask the Office of Government Ethics to do an evaluation as to whether or not he is appropriate to hold that position. He should recuse himself. He's now saying he won't, but we should demand that that evaluation be done.
BLITZER: Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, former White House chief of staff, CIA director, he was talking to me in the last hour. He doesn't think it's constitutional because he hasn't been confirmed by the Senate during the Trump administration.
And in order to move up to a position like that, you at least have to have gone through some sort of Senate confirmation.
SPEIER: Well, we have looked at that, and it appears that the rules around having someone in that position during -- in a vacancy is not subject to the same kind of oversight by the Senate as you would expect normally.
So, it's something we should certainly look at. We may want to close that loophole that creates that opportunity for someone to be put in that position who clearly has a bias, who clearly is of the opinion that the Mueller investigation should be shut down, wants to limit their budget.
And I think that the American people have a right to expect that this is going to continue to be an independent evaluation and investigation by Mueller until he has completed his work.
BLITZER: In January, the new Congress, the Democrats will be in the majority. You're on the Intelligence Committee. I assume you will stay on the Intelligence Committee.
Adam Schiff might move up from ranking member to chairman of that committee. What are your priorities looking down the road? You're going to have all sorts of authority, subpoena power to do a lot.
SPEIER: So, we're going to have to go back to the incomplete and illegitimate report that was put out by Devin Nunes, because it was woefully inadequate.
Even the Senate has a bipartisan committee that is still continuing to investigate the Russian intervention. I do think that we have to subpoena documents that were never subpoenaed by the majority.
There are over 30 witnesses that we wanted called that were never called. We need to call back a number of witnesses who appeared to have perjured themselves in the interviews that were done, so a lot of work ahead of us.
BLITZER: So you're going to reopen what the current chairman, Devin Nunes, and his Republican majority closed?
SPEIER: That's correct.
BLITZER: Congresswoman Speier, thanks so much for coming in. SPEIER: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Just ahead, we have got a lot more news coming up.
We will take a closer look at some of the new information we're getting about Robert Mueller's investigation, as urgent concerns are being raised that the president and his allies may try to scuttle the entire probe after the firing of Jeff Sessions.
And look at this. You're getting live pictures right now from across the country, protesters who want to make sure Mueller's investigation is protected.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news, demonstrations in multiple cities, including New York, demanding that Robert Mueller's investigation be protected.
There are also new concerns tonight that the president may try to interfere with the Russia probe after he fired the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and tapped a critic of the special counsel to actually oversee the entire Russia investigation.
Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is standing by. She has new information on the work Mueller is doing right now.
But, first, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown.
Pamela, sources say the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, isn't likely to recuse himself from the Russia probe, despite concerns that he has some very serious conflicts. What are you hearing?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.
Despite the fact the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, has been publicly critical of the probe in the past, even calling it ridiculous before his time at the Justice Department, sources say it is unlikely he will recuse himself from the probe.
BROWN (voice-over): A day after Jeff Sessions was ousted as attorney general, questions surround the future of the Russia investigation.
CNN has learned that his replacement, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, has no intention of recusing himself from the Russia probe, according to a source familiar with his thinking, despite being openly critical of the investigation as a CNN commentator.
MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I can see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess disappointment, and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to an absolute -- almost a halt.
BROWN: And during a radio interview last August before his appointment to the Department of Justice.
WHITAKER: I think it smells a little fishy, but I just hope it doesn't turn into a fishing expedition, because I will be one of the ones jumping up and down.
QUESTION: Good for you, yes.
WHITAKER: Making sure that the limitations on this investigation continue, because that's the way it's supposed to be.
BROWN: "The Washington Post" reports Whitaker likely would reject a Mueller subpoena request to interview the president.
Today, President Trump spent the morning with Whitaker, where he gave off-camera remarks at a ceremony for new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, later returning to the White House.
Meanwhile, Trump himself openly threatening the fate of the probe, claiming he could get rid of everyone involved in the Mueller investigation.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I could fire everybody right now. But I don't want to stop it, because, politically, I don't like stopping it. It's a disgrace. It should have never been started because there was no crime.
BROWN: But critics say it's not just Whitaker's comments on Mueller. They point to his qualifications too.
Whitaker's resume includes a stint on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing, a company that had to pay a $26 million settlement earlier this year for scamming its customers.
The president is now looking for a permanent replacement for attorney general. Possible candidate, Senator Lindsey Graham, who accompanied Trump today. Graham was once critical of Trump's desire to fire Sessions.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.
BROWN: But he has since changed his tune.
Also on the list, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was spotted at the White House today for a prison reform roundtable, and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
If nominated, Christie, who was a prominent campaign surrogate for Trump, could face similar calls to recuse himself from the Mueller investigations, as Sessions did. But unlike Sessions, there is no indication he had contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign or transition.
BROWN: And in the wake of the firing of Jeff Sessions, key Democrats on Capitol Hill have already sent letters to top Trump administration officials asking them to preserve any documents, any evidence related to the Russia probe, as well as the firing of Jeff Sessions -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Pamela, thank you, Pamela Brown at the White House.
Now we have more breaking news involving the Mueller investigation.
Let's go to our political correspondent, Sara Murray.
Sara, what are you learning tonight about new questions Mueller is asking the president's lawyers?
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, one of the interesting requests the president's lawyers got that kind of took them by surprise was, as recently as a month ago, Mueller's team requested call and visitor logs to Trump Tower by Roger Stone.
And, of course, we know that this is coming at the same time that Mueller's team is trying to figure out whether Roger Stone had any real back channel to WikiLeaks, and whether he may have shared any information with members of the Trump campaign or, in 2016, then candidate Trump.
Now Roger Stone responded to this with a statement to CNN.
He said: "I never visited Trump Tower after August of 2015, until the president-elect asked me to visit him after the election."
Stone says that was late November or early December of 2016. And then in terms of phone calls, Stone says they were "occasional, and in all cases initiated by him," referring to Trump, "and we never discussed WikiLeaks" in terms of their communications in 2016, Wolf.
BLITZER: What are you learning, Sara, about how far along Mueller is in writing his final report?
MURRAY: Well, we know that he's begun writing his report. But, of course, there are some key pieces missing, like what is going to happen to Roger Stone, and also the president's responses to a number of questions that Mueller his team has for him.
We know that President Trump has been working with his lawyers on these written responses. And so, obviously, that would be something that Mueller would want to incorporate in his report as well, Wolf.
BLITZER: Could the shakeup at the Justice Department, the removal of the attorney general, impact whether Mueller can subpoena the president?
MURRAY: Well, look, it's certainly possible.
What one acting attorney general thinks is a reasonable thing to do, another one, for instance, Whitaker, may not think is reasonable. The one thing I will say, though, is based on Whitaker's public comments, he may not be the kind of person who's inclined to subpoena the president.
We don't necessarily know that Rod Rosenstein was inclined to do that either. And this back and forth where they're asking President Trump for written questions, that would indicate to you that, at least at this point, they were not looking to subpoena the president. They were looking for a more voluntary back and forth.
Obviously, we will see if anything changes or how that tone may change, now that Whitaker is overseeing this investigation.
BLITZER: All right, Sara, thank you very much, Sara Murray reporting.
Let's get some more perspective and all of this from the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. He's a CNN national security analyst.
General Clapper, thanks so much for coming in.
JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: We're just getting some quotes from the new acting attorney general of the United States, Matthew Whitaker, of what he told a radio station back in March of 2017.
He said it's clear, in his view, no crime has been committed, what Mueller is investigating, said the left is trying to promote this theory. But let me read a director quote from this interview: "So this is this theory that, essentially, Russians interfered with the U.S. election, which has been proven false. They did not have any impact on the election, and that has been very clear from the Obama administration. They're trying to suggest that, essentially, the Trump campaign had these deep ties into Russia, which is not true, and that is, you know, I guess what the -- you know, the fleet is that somehow Russia and the Trump campaign, you know, sort of conspired to influence the election. I mean, it's crazy."
[18:30:31] You investigated all of this when you were director of national intelligence. What do you think of what he suggested in March of 2017?
JAMES CLAPPER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I strongly disagree that, you know, the Russians had no impact on the outcome of the election. Now, it's true that in the intelligence community assessment that we rendered on the sixth of January 2017, briefed then the president-elect Trump at Trump Tower, we made no call about that, because the intelligence community doesn't have the authority or resources or capability to do that. But as a private citizen -- and I make this point in the book, to me
it stretches credulity and logic to think that the Russians didn't have profound impact on the outcome of the election, given the magnitude of the effort they mounted to try to influence it.
BLITZER: So the question is that, whether or not with these strong views that he has on the Mueller investigation, is he the right person to oversee what Robert Mueller and his team are doing, or should he recuse himself?
CLAPPER: Well, personally, I --0 and I'm saying this as a layman, not as an attorney, but as I understand the recusal rules at the Department of Justice, if there's even the appearance of potential conflict you're supposed to recuse yourself, which is what Jeff Sessions, first while attorney general did, and which I think was completely appropriate.
So -- and given what he has -- Mr. Whitaker has said and written about the Mueller investigation, I think there's clearly a conflict.
BLITZER: Do you believe the president decided to fire Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, and to not name the acting attorney general Rod Rosenstein as the attorney general because he's trying to obstruct the Russia investigation by putting someone in charge who agrees with him that it's basically a sham?
CLAPPER: Well, it may not be so blunt as to obstruct the investigation. What I think, my own theory here is what I think the reason for installing Mr. Whitaker as the acting attorney general, the legality of that aside, is to gain access to just what evidence Mueller actually has. Because I think that's one thing that really bothers the president is his -- what would appear to me, ignorance about what the evidence that Mueller may have against him.
BLITZER: So what you're suggesting is that Whitaker now oversees the Mueller probe. He's going to have access to everything Mueller and his team have collected, and we assume he's collected a lot of information. He's going to take that information, drive over to the White House and brief the president.
CLAPPER: Well, that's my speculation. That's certainly -- that's certainly a possibility.
BLITZER: Is that appropriate?
CLAPPER: I would offer that as a more likely immediate course rather than directly ending the investigation, firing Mueller and all that.
BLITZER: But is that appropriate for the acting attorney general of the United States to tell the president, presumably the president's lawyers and his aides over there, here's what Mueller has, get ready?
CLAPPER: Well, I don't think so. No, that's not appropriate. I don't think the investigation should be kept separate and independent like the Department of Justice is supposed to be separate and independent. BLITZER: The Democratic senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal,
he's a member of the Judiciary Committee, he says quote, "Our democracy is under attack," and he describes all that's going on the past couple of days as a slow-motion Saturday Night massacre. Do you agree with that assessment?
CLAPPER: Wolf, I've been concerned with the assault on our institution from the beginning, from the beginning of this administration. Whether it's the Department of Justice, certainly the firing of Jim Comey could be seen as part of a very slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre. And depending on what Mr. Whitaker actually does in relation to the Mueller investigation, yes, it could be the continuation of such an event.
BLITZER: General Clapper, thanks so much for coming on.
CLAPPER: Thanks for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. General Clapper, the former director of national intelligence. The breaking news continues here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have new reporting on what President Trump is saying privately about whether he'll fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
[18:34:26] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Sources now telling CNN that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker has given no indication he believes me needs to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
We're also getting some new audio where he suggests that the premise over the entire Russia investigation is crazy. Let's bring in our reporters, commentators, and analysts.
And Susan Hennessey, I want to play for you a clip. He did a radio interview in March of last year. This is the acting attorney general of the United States speaking about Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL (via phone): So this -- this theory that essentially, Russians interfered with the U.S. Election, which has been proven false. They did not have any impact in the election, and that has been very clear from the Obama administration.
They're trying to suggest that essentially the Trump campaign had these deep ties in Russia, which is not true. And that is, you know, I guess what they're trying to conflate is that somehow Russia and the Trump campaign, you know, sort of inspired to influence the election. I mean it -- it's crazy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So he says this notion of trying to conflate Russia and the Trump campaign is crazy, and he's the one now that's going to be overseeing all of these allegations that are being investigated by Mueller and his team.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, so setting aside the fact he's actually just sort flat-out wrong on the facts, recusal rules and conflict rules are about the perception of fairness. They're about appearance here. And I think anyone who listening to that would have a reasonable question.
BLITZER: You know, Gloria, this was the conclusion on January 15, 2017, just before Obama administration left office from the U.S. intelligence community: "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the USA presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President- elect Trump."
So clearly what Whitaker was saying in March of last year, that the Obama administration didn't conclude that, is obviously wrong.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, completely wrong. And also, if you look at all of the indictments that Bob Mueller has brought, and I think it's more than two dozen Russians and three Russian companies, which he -- and we all read those indictments chapter and verse, very, very detailed. It doesn't sound crazy to me. It sounds very serious to me.
And I think maybe he was speaking theoretically as somebody who was clearly pro-Trump. But, you know, you have 17 intelligence agencies. You now have these indictments coming down from Mueller. It seems to me there's a little bit more there than crazy.
BLITZER: It sounds like David Swerdlick, that Whitaker, when he was a private citizen before he joined the Justice Department, he was sounding very much the way President Trump sounds ability about this whole thing being a witch hunt or a hoax.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, and of course and as a private citizen and even now, he has the right to have his own opinions and he should have his own opinions.
The question, though, as I think everyone has discussed, is whether or not he is the right person not just legally, not just constitutionally but also in terms of fundamental fairness, in terms of actually getting to the bottom of what happened in 2016. The right person to lead the justice department to now be essentially Rod Rosenstein's boss and Mueller's boss in this investigation.
BLITZER: Yes, but Rebecca, if he says he doesn't believe in what the Mueller investigation is up to, doesn't believe it's a good ideas, how does he oversee it right now? Because Mueller is going to have to go to the acting attorney general who has not recused himself, get authorization for subpoena, indictments, stuff like that. REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is
clearly someone on the same page as President Trump when it comes to the Mueller investigation, and that's why President Trump elected him to be the acting attorney general over Rod Rosenstein, which would have been the normal succession here.
And the assumption would be that he might try to stifle this investigation, might try to throw a wrench in something that Mueller wants to do. And so it falls now potentially to Congress to try to act if they believe this is not something appropriate for the president or if Whitaker takes action, potentially, there could be a legal challenge, as well, from the outside.
BLITZER: And Susan, you know, the whole premise of the Mueller investigation is that was there was some sort of, quote, "collusion or obstruction," all the stuff that we've been hearing about over these many, many months.
If the new acting attorney general doesn't believe in any of that, we know that the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself because of his meetings with Russians. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was overseeing it. Clearly, the president wasn't happy with him. That's why he brought in someone else to oversee it and didn't name Rod Rosenstein the acting attorney general. It all smells, I suspect, to you at least, rather fishy.
HENNESSEY: Yes, I think there's a really important process here, and that's that it's ultimately not Whitaker's call whether or not a recusal is required here. What we should be seeing is that he should be reaching out to career DOJ ethics officials, just like Sessions did, in order to ask whether or not there's a conflict or not. And then we should see whether or not he adheres to that guidance.
Now, he's not bound by that guidance, but I do think that it would be a really, really serious red flag if Whitaker didn't seek out that advice in the first place or if he in any way deviated from that recommendation.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: What do you think about that, Gloria?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I agree with that, and I'd just been communicating with Laura Jarrett, who covers justice for us. And, you know, I don't believe that he's met with -- gotten an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel on this.
And, you know, you would assume that that would be the first thing you would do or as Susan says, talk to ethics lawyers about it. You're not bound by it, but you sure might want their opinion.
BLITZER: Let me ask Susan this question. Could the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Judiciary Committee or Intelligence Committee, once they take office as the majority in January, could they subpoena the Justice Department and get a lot of these answers about what Whitaker is up to right now with the kind of information is he getting, is he getting sensitive information from the Mueller team and then going over to the White House and sharing that information with the president and his legal team?
HENNESSEY: So, certainly, they would be able subpoena documents, for example, if ethics officials did prepare an advisory opinion to the acting attorney general. Congress would likely be able to get those documents. You know, they could also call Whitaker himself to Congress to testify.
One of the big open questions here is whether or not Whitaker and the president have actually had conversations about this. There is some reporting that Trump is very confident that Whitaker does not intend to recuse. It will be a really, really serious thing if they had a conversation before Trump actually selected him in which Whitaker made representations or made promises. So, those are the kind of questions we should expect Congress to really want to get to the bottom of.
BLITZER: Elaborate on that. Why would it be inappropriate for the president to ask the -- well, he had been the chief of staff to the attorney general, now he's acting attorney general, why would it have been inappropriate for the president to say what do you think about this or that or this or that?
HENNESSEY: Right, because the attorney general is not the president's hired gun. He works for the American people. And so, whenever he is -- whatever Jeff Sessions, for example, recused himself, that made Trump really angry, because of what he views as the job of the attorney general is to protect his friends and prosecute his enemies, you know?
And so, whenever see what we want see in an attorney general is somebody who's going to abide by the rules, somebody who's going to abide by the process and not someone who's just going to act as sort of the president's personal henchman. And that's why I do think that ultimately whenever we see confirmation hearings for an eventual replacement for the AG, this question of sufficient independence, sufficient understanding that the duty of this role is that obligation of the Constitution and not to the president personally, I really do think that's going to emerge as a central question.
BLITZER: I can only imagine what the president's reaction would be if Whitaker is forced to recuse himself like Sessions.
Gloria, what are you learning about the Mueller investigation right now, because it seems he's getting ready to potentially write a final report.
BORGER: Yes, I think -- I think he's probably in the process of writing a final report. I've been doing some reporting with people familiar with the legal strategy, but also somebody who speaks with the president. And what I'm learning is that the president, I'm told, has no intention of firing Mueller at this point, that he understands that it would not be a good thing for him to do so. And then in fact it's quite sanguine about the way this investigation is going.
And his thought process is why interfere when there's nothing there, and so in his own mind I was told, he's not worried about obstruction. And this source says the president is actually relaxed about it. Now, you might not know that from watching his press conference
yesterday. But it seems to me that now he's putting Whitaker in there, he's gotten rid of Sessions and maybe he feels a little more comfortable because he believes that he won't recuse himself and that he's on team Trump. Maybe he is more relaxed and sees no need to fire Mueller after what he's done.
BLITZER: And for all practical purposes, David, he's also gotten rid of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, overseeing the Mueller probe.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, Wolf. I just want to go back to something Gloria said for a second. Part of the problem for not having a confirmation process for Whitaker is that if you go back two years, the confirmation process of Senator Sessions becoming attorney general was contemporaneous with him recusing himself. Part of the reason he recused was to assure members of the Senate that he was going to keep an arms length for many potential investigation. Whitaker is not going through any such process.
BLITZER: You agree.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Absolutely. And that's by design. And there's questions about how constitutional is it for the president to name someone to this position who hasn't been through the Senate confirmation process.
In fact, George Conway, Kellyanne Conway's husband, co-authored a "New York Times" opinion piece today saying it is unconstitutional.
[18:50:07] And so, as I said earlier, we might see some legal challenges to this.
BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Guys, stick around. There's more news we're following.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are on path to cross paths this weekend in Paris, but will they talk?
[18:55:01] BLITZER: We're getting you live pictures right now. There's a protest under way in New York City, a large number of people have gathered there in Times Square. Folks are going to be moving over to Union Square in New York.
These are demonstrations not only in New York but across the country, people tonight calling for the special counsel, Robert Mueller's Russia probe, to be protected.
Clearly, these folks are deeply, deeply concerned that the new acting attorney general of the United States, Matthew Whitaker, may take steps to effectively shut down the Mueller probe.
We're watching the demonstrations, getting reaction. Much more on this coming up. Also tonight, the Trump administration announcing additional sanctions
against Russia for its occupation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine. That comes as President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to leave for Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I this weekend.
Our international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson is already in Paris for us.
So, Nic, what kind of reception should President Trump expect from the allies in Paris?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, Wolf, it's already Friday here, so it will be later today that President Trump touches down, and I think the best indication we have so far that we've heard from the German foreign minister saying that President Trump shouldn't be or the international community shouldn't expect President Trump to do some kind of course correction based on these midterm results. He also indicates that Germany will have to do some sort of course correction, saying that the United States is the most important trading partner for Germany outside of Europe, and therefore Germany must realign and re-measure its relationship with the United States.
So, the indication here is that the United States allies see President Trump as taking these results and continuing on the same track that he's been on, at the same time recognizing that he's going to be tied up more with domestic issues and have less time for international issues. One interesting detail that President Trump will find when he gets here, I don't know if our viewers may remember last summer when President Trump visited Britain, but there was a huge blimp of a baby President Trump wearing diapers flown over protests there.
Well, in a bit of cross channel unity here, those British protesters are lending that baby Trump blimp to French protesters who plan to fly that during some of President Trump's events here this weekend, Wolf.
BLITZER: As you know, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will also be there in Paris. President Trump said the other day he doesn't plan to meet with Putin on this trip. They'll probably have a deeper, more significant meeting later in the month at the G20 in Buenos Aires.
What's the latest you're hearing about a possible meeting in Paris?
ROBERTSON: Wolf, it doesn't seem to be that there is going to be a big meeting and the indications that we're getting from the Kremlin as well, although they have previously said that there would be a meeting, you know, what we've heard from President Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, speaking about the midterm results, he seems to indicate that this is not going to bring -- these results are not going to bring about any greater alignment of President Trump and President Putin, and Russia and the United States.
Indeed, one Russian lawmaker says this is going to make an unstable United States. So I think from a Russian perspective, there is not a lot to be gained from talking with President Trump. They, like so many others, see more domestic political issues that are going to be issues that are going to be stacked against Russia's interests as well, Wolf.
BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Paris for us, he'll be covering this meeting this weekend, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. We'll see what happens and of course there will be the G20 at the end of the month in Buenos Aires. We'll watch that as well.
Finally tonight, we're learning the names of some of the 12 victims of that mass murder, that shooting at a southern California bar that was holding a college night.
Among those victims, Cody Coffman. He had just turned 22. He was process of talking to U.S. Army recruiters, according to his father. He was also head umpire for a local baseball league.
Alaina Housley was a student at Pepperdine University. Friends called her an incredible young woman with so much life ahead of her.
Sergeant Ron Helus was a 29-year veteran of the Ventura County sheriff's office and was hoping to retire in the next year or so. He loved spending time with his son, fishing in the Sierras.
Justin Meek was a 22-year-old, a recent graduate of California Lutheran University. The school's president says Meek heroically saved lives in the incident.
And a local church has just identified a fifth victim as Noel Sparks, described by a friend as a genuinely caring person, someone who loved serving people.
We send our heartfelt condolences to their families and their friends and to all of those who lost loved ones in this horrible, horrible shooting.
Thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.