Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Melania Trump Calls for Ouster of Deputy National Security Advisor; CNN Files Lawsuit to Seek Restoral of Press Pass; Trump Meeting with Lawyers to Provide Written Responses to Mueller's Questions. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 13, 2018 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Firing squad. In a truly stunning rebuke, the first lady demands the firing of the White House deputy national security adviser, while the president is said to be ready to oust his homeland security secretary and other top officials. Is the White House at war with itself?

[17:00:29] Collusion questions. The president and his legal team go over written questions from the special counsel, focusing in on possible collusion with Russia. Will the president also answer questions on obstruction? And will he meet Robert Mueller face-to- face?

Demanding the pass. CNN sues President Trump and asks a federal judge to force the White House to restore correspondent Jim Acosta's press pass. Has the Trump administration violated his First Amendment rights and rights to due process?

And firestorm. As one massive fire leaves dozens dead in Northern California, more than 20 million people are under red-flag warnings right now in Southern California, where explosive blazes may be fueled by hurricane-force winds.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. President Trump and his lawyers are reviewing questions from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about possible collusion with Russia.

That comes amid upheaval over at the White House. Officials say the president may ask for the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen this week. Also at risk, the chief of staff over at the White House, John Kelly. And in a stunning move, the first lady personally and publicly calls for the ouster of the deputy national security adviser to the president.

All that as CNN goes to federal court, demanding that the White House return the credentials of the network's chief White House correspondent.

I'll speak with Senator Joe Manchin of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage. CNN's Brian Stelter is standing by with more on the lawsuit.

But let's begin all the breaking news on the White House upheaval. Our CNN senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown, is working her sources.

Pamela, what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a stunning string of events here at the White House tonight, surrounding the deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel. She was seen at a ceremony with President Trump less than an hour before the first lady sent out an extraordinary statement, saying she no longer deserves to serve the White House.

Now tonight a White House official is saying the president has made the decision to fire her.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States has --

BROWN (voice-over): Late today, Mira Ricardel was seen with the president at his only public event at the White House. Tonight, she was ousted from the West Wing, fired from her role as deputy national security adviser after drawing the ire not of the president but of the first lady.

In a rare rebuke tonight, the first lady demanded Ricardel, John Bolton's deputy, be fired, saying in a statement, "She no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House."

Ricardel recently feuded with the first lady over her trip to Africa, arguing over seating on the plane and National Security Council resources, one source tells CNN.

Sources say the president is also considering replacements for other senior positions, both inside the cabinet and the White House.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're looking at a lot of different things, including cabinet.

BROWN: The potential shakeup could include chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, officials tell CNN. At the White House today, the president ignored questions about staffing changes.

TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, do you plan to replace Secretary Nielsen?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you firing Secretary Nielsen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you planning to make a staff change at that level? BROWN: The president is said to be unhappy with Secretary Nielsen's handling of immigration and border security and could ask for her resignation in the coming days, multiple officials familiar with the matter tell CNN.

The president angst today was not just reserved for his own team, Trump trolling one-time close ally French President Emmanuel Macron, launching a barrage of incendiary tweets, saying that the French, quote, "were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!"

And incorrectly charging the U.S. pays higher tariffs for French wine. Quote, "France makes it very hard for the U.S. to sell its wines into France and charges big tariffs, whereas the U.S. makes it easy for French wines and charges very small tariffs. Not fair. Must change."

Mr. Trump's frustration with friends and allies comes as he continues to be dogged by the special counsel's Russia probe. CNN has learned the president met with his legal team over the Veterans Day holiday to go over a series of written questions from Mueller's team.

[17:05:04] The questions focused on colluding with Russia, but not obstruction of justice. Part of an agreement reached with Mueller's team to, quote, "move forward with the president's participation," according to a source.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And a source I spoke to close to the president says he is also going over those questions with his legal team once again today. The source says that they anticipate giving the answers to those questions back to Mueller's team within the coming days.

Now, as for Ricardel, we should note that CNN has reached out to her for comment. We have not heard back.

But, Wolf, there is still confusion about whether the message has been relayed to her that the decision has been made by the president to fire her, according to a source. As we know, often the president has people below him relaying that kind of message.

Also open questions tonight about what this means for the national security adviser, John Bolton, considering he was the one that brought Ricardel on board in the first place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All good questions indeed. Let's see what happens in the coming minutes and in the next hour or two. I assume a lot will. Pamela, thank you very much.

CNN has asked a federal judge to force the White House to restore the press credentials of the chief White House correspondent for CNN, Jim Acosta, immediately. The move is part of a lawsuit CNN filed today, arguing that last week's revocation of Acosta's press pass violated his First Amendment rights and his rights to due process.

The Trump administration is digging in its heels. Let's go to our chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter. So Brian,

what exactly is the latest? I know you're getting new information.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The judge in this case, Judge Timothy J. Kelly, he's a Trump appointee, who was assigned to the case in U.S. District court in D.C. just a few hours ago.

The judge has just said that he will hold a hearing in this case Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. This will be an initial hearing to hear CNN's request for a temporary restraining order.

Earlier on Wednesday, 11 a.m. Eastern Time, that's when all the defendants in the case are going to have to turn in any of their statements, any of their responses to CNN's lawsuit.

President Trump has been sued by CNN and Acosta, and so have several of Trump's top aides, including press secretary Sarah Sanders and chief of staff John Kelly.

As you mentioned, the two claims here are violations of First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights. The judge will hold a hearing at 3:30 p.m. and consider CNN's request for this temporary restraining order which would ensure that Acosta's press pass would be returned right away.

But CNN doesn't just want a short-term solution. The network also wants a long-term solution. It's asking the judge to declare that the administration's actions last week were unconstitutional. By having that kind of declaration, it would give some protection to other reporters to ensure that the Trump administration won't try to take away press passes from other reporters in the future.

BLITZER: Brian, how is the White House preparing to fight this lawsuit?

STELTER: Well, vigorous is the word from Sarah Sanders. She says the White House will vigorously defend itself. Essentially, in her statement today, she accuses Acosta of being unprofessional, of being a show boat. And she says CNN is grandstanding by filing this lawsuit.

Here's a portion of her statement, Wolf, which came out earlier today. Sanders said, "The White House cannot run an orderly and fair press conference when a reporter acts this way, trying to hog the mic." She says it was "neither appropriate nor professional." And she went on to say, "If there is no check on this type of behavior, it impedes the ability of the president, the White House staff and members of the media to conduct business."

So basically, what the White House is doing here is they're complaining about Acosta's style. They're complaining that he was trying to ask too many follow-up questions at last week's press conference.

But, of course, reporters oftentimes ask follow-up questions. Nothing unusual about that.

So she's focusing on the style. But the substance of the lawsuit is pretty clear. The substance of the lawsuit dates back to the '70s when there was this muckraking reporter named Robert Sherrill who tried to get a press pass but was rejected.

After a long court battle, the district court in D.C. concluded the Secret Service had to have really clear, specific guidelines. And in practice, those guidelines mean that everybody gets a press pass unless you're a direct threat to the president.

Obviously, Acosta is not a direct threat to the president. So many media law experts, ones I've spoken with today who don't have any affiliation with CNN, say the network has a very strong case here. And even an analyst on FOX News today said this isn't going to last very long. It should be resolved pretty quickly, because CNN is on very solid legal ground.

BLITZER: Yes, they took away his hard pass, which is a pass that allows you to come into the White House any day, any time, really. That's what the Secret Service grants full-time White House correspondents.

How unprecedented, Brian, is this lawsuit?

STELTER: there's never been a case quite like this. I asked the head lawyer at "The New York Times," for example. He said the only two cases he can recall where a major news organization sued the president or sued the government like this, you've got to go back to 1971, the Pentagon papers case.

Or 1981, that's when CNN sued to become a part of the White House press pool. The major networks were trying to keep CNN out. So there was a lawsuit in that case. But that's about it, Wolf. This is really a remarkable step by CNN.

[17:10:09] And the network says this is not just about Acosta. It's not just about this network. It's about other White House reporters who could see their press passes revoked in the future, as well. CNN's lawyers are trying to set a new clear case here that says it's unconstitutional to take press passes away, just because you don't like the way a reporter might act at a press conference.

BLITZER: Yes, we're going to be speaking with Ted Boutrous, a constitutional lawyer representing CNN. That's coming up shortly. We'll get all the CNN legal perspective on what's going on.

Brian Stelter, thanks very much for that report.

Let's get back to the Mueller investigation right now. I want to bring in our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez.

Evan, the president's responses, in writing, to Mueller could be submitted in the coming days. Let's say he does submit the written answers to the written questions. What comes next? A face-to-face meeting with Mueller and his team? EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think some of the

president's lawyers, I think, would lie across train tracks to try to stop that, Wolf. I don't think they certainly would like to see that.

The president, of course, keeps saying that he would like to do that.

I feel like a broken record sort of covering this part of the take- home test that the president has had in his hands now and his legal team have had now for weeks. And you wonder what's taking so long in answering these simple questions from the Mueller team.

And I think, look, they're very confident in knowing what other witnesses have told Mueller. They feel confident about what the documents show, that they've turned over to Mueller.

What they're not confident about, Wolf, is any information that Mueller might have gotten from intelligence agencies, overseas, for instance. Things they do not know that may complicate some of the answers that they're providing.

BLITZER: Now yesterday we were speculating that Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, and fixer, he was seen here in Washington for several hours with his criminal defense attorney. There you see some video of him over at Union Station here in Washington.

We also know -- we were reporting yesterday that at least eight or nine of Robert Mueller's lawyers were seen working at the Justice Department yesterday, even though it was a federal holiday.

We now know that they actually met, that Michael Cohen appeared and met with those -- the Mueller team.

PEREZ: Right. He met with the Mueller team for several hours before making his way back to Union Station. Under his deal, under the terms of his guilty plea, Washington is one of the places he's allowed to travel to. And so he made that trip yesterday.

We don't know what was discussed. We do know that he has had several sessions with the Mueller team, with the team from the Southern District of New York, as well as the attorney generals in New York. And we know that he is a very willing participant. He wants to provide information.

We don't know how useful this information is. We don't know whether this is something that the Trump team certainly should worry about. They say that they have nothing to worry about, Wolf, with Michael Cohen, because they believe that he is not a credible witness, especially after he's changed his story. So we shall see what Mueller brings forth, whether any of this becomes part of either the report or any indictments.

BLITZER: Evan, thank you very much. As soon as you learn about that, let us know.

PEREZ: Yes.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us and congratulations on your recent win in West Virginia. We know the president went to West Virginia several times to try to defeat you.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Many times.

BLITZER: He failed in that effort. You've been re-elected.

MANCHIN: Yes.

BLITZER: But let's talk about your full-time job as a member of the Intelligence Committee as a United States senator. Just this afternoon, the president -- he's been working on those written answers to Mueller's questions related to collusion. What does that tell you?

MANCHIN: Well, I think it's imperative that we have this full investigation done. I think that we protect Mueller to make sure it's done in a way that the American people have confidence, that it's not going to be thwarted because of politics.

I think that's good for the president; it's good for the administration. Good for Congress, and it's good for the American people. We'll do whatever we can to protect that. And I think that we both have Democrats and Republicans, we'll work together to make sure that we can get a conclusion on this.

So I think that if he's answering it, I think they're coming to the end of it. I think it will be wrapping up, hopefully, shortly.

BLITZER; How significant is it, Senator, that Michael Cohen, the president's former fixer, met for hours with the special counsel's team yesterday?

MANCHIN: Well, you know, I mean, that's pretty significant, from the standpoint of him being on the inside for so many years. We just don't know what they're talking about, and we don't know if they have already checked everything out and just seeing if he's corroborating what they've said. So that will all come to fruition.

But I think it needs to move on. We need to get it over with, but it needs to be done in a manner that Mueller is still in control and in charge. And the confidence that we in Congress have and the Senate, and I know the Senate Intelligence Committee has in Mr. Mueller is beyond reproach.

BLITZER: Do you expect more indictments coming from Mueller soon? Because yesterday Jerome Corsi, one of Roger Stone's associates, he said on YouTube, he fully -- Corsi -- expects to be indicted in the coming days.

[17:15:07] MANCHIN: Well, if a person tells you they fully expect to be indicted, that must mean they have a pretty good signal that it's going to happen. Just a matter -- matter of time, I guess.

But if there's people that were in there for their own gains, their own personal gains, and use the campaign for that, that should be rooted out.

And next of all, there's not any foreign entity, any foreign government should be allowed to be involved any way, shape or form in our process, in our election process. We've got to make sure that we stop that and do and use every means we can. And the punishment has to be harsh enough that basically stops any American from colluding if they have any way, shape or form.

So it's -- this is us. It's America. We've got to get our act back together, get a little civility and decorum and start acting like Americans.

BLITZER: Has your committee, the Intelligence Committee, actually spoken with Corsi and Roger Stone, for that matter?

MANCHIN: Well, Wolf, it's the Intelligence Committee. There's not a whole lot I can talk about.

BLITZER: You don't want to talk about that. All right, that's understandable.

Let's talk about something else that's going on over at the Justice Department. Source of an enormous amount of concern, not just for Democrats, but for some Republicans, as well. The concern over Matthew Whitaker being appointed the acting attorney general of the United States.

Do you think his appointment violates the U.S. Constitution, as the state of Maryland is now arguing in federal court?

MANCHIN: There's going to be those people that have the -- have the background as far as the judicial background is going to be arguing that up and down.

First of all, from a political standpoint, you can't put a political hack in charge of an agency that's looked upon as far as the leading agency that we have in federal government that's going to protect the people of the United States of America. And I understand political people get put in all these different agencies, and I understand that. But the people leading these agencies have to be beyond the politics, if you will. And he's a pretty hard-core politician.

So I don't think it fares well at all. He's not going to be able to get confirmed, even if he comes up for confirmation. I don't believe so.

And with that being said, as quick as they can move on to a permanent replacement, have someone in there that -- and Rosenstein should have been the person that we all thought would have been there if Jeff Sessions had been removed as he has. That didn't happen. And it looks like a political move, and it should not be. BLITZER: Yes. Clearly, the president doesn't have a whole lot of

confidence in Rod Rosenstein. That's why he bypassed the deputy attorney general and went to the chief of staff for the attorney general, who's got all of this so-called political baggage there.

And probably right, there will be plenty of Republicans who wouldn't vote to confirm him, in addition to presumably all of the senators.

MANCHIN: You know what, this is -- if this is all about politics, people, they have to remember Mueller and Rosenstein are Republicans. You know. But these people are beyond the politics. And can't we respect them for the quality of a person that they are, the quality of the job that they're doing, and let them do their job?

BLITZER: Senator Manchin, once again, thanks so much for joining us. Congratulations once again. Another six years in the U.S. Senate. We'll be speaking frequently, I hope.

MANCHIN: Thanks, Wolf. Sure will.

BLITZER: All right. Up next, there's more breaking news we're following. CNN and the White House to court tomorrow. Could a federal judge force the White House to restore the credentials of CNN's chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:22:38] BLITZER: Our breaking news. CNN and the Trump administration will be in federal court tomorrow as a federal judge grants CNN's request for an emergency hearing over the revocation of White House correspondent Jim Acosta's press credentials. CNN has asked the judge to force the White House to immediately restore the press pass, arguing that it has violated Jim Acosta's First Amendment rights and his rights to due process.

Joining us now, the Washington attorney Ted Boutrous. He's counsel to the CNN lawsuit.

Ted, thanks very much for joining us. I think you came in from L.A. to join CNN in this legal battle.

TED BOUTROUS, ATTORNEY REPRESENTING CNN IN LAWSUIT; I did indeed. We've had a busy day, and it's great to be here.

BLITZER: So this judge's decision to have a hearing as early as tomorrow, that sounds to me like they're moving quickly. They understand the urgency, and it's a big deal.

BOUTROUS: We were very pleased that the judge set this hearing for tomorrow. That's what we had asked for, and it shows the judge taking it very seriously.

These are really important issues. Not just about CNN and Jim Acosta, but about the First Amendment and the people's right to have access to the White House, and to ask questions of the president.

BLITZER: So give us big picture. How unprecedented is this lawsuit right now?

BOUTROUS: Well, it's journalistic organizations often sue to get access to documents, to government property and the like. But the White Houses in modern times have been very willing to give access. And as your days as a White House correspondent, when you work at the White House as a White House correspondent, that's your workplace. There is a great degree of access. And the key principle is equal access and not discriminatory or arbitrary dealings with reporters like we saw here.

BLITZER: So even if someone asked tough questions and does follow-up questions and is arguably, according to the White House, rude, that's no excuse to ban that reporter from getting a hard pass, as they say, to be able to do his or her job.

BOUTROUS: That's exactly right. The Supreme Court in the famous "New York Times" versus Sullivan case talked about the fact that the First Amendment was there to encourage robust, vehement caustic attacks on government officials to hold them to account. And that's what Jim Acosta was doing. That's what all the reporters from different news organizations were doing in that press conference. And you can't have a situation where the White House can toss reporters out, take away their credentials for doing that.

BLITZER: Explain to some of the Trump supporters who were out there why this is so important to make sure that the U.S. Constitution is honored, including free press, due process.

BOUTROUS: It really is a position that goes beyond politics or anything else. We want to have all voices.

[17:25:00] So if today it's Jim Acosta and CNN, tomorrow it can be someone from some other news organization, one that you like better, you agree with their approach to the news. So this is about making sure there's a fair process and there's a due process principle.

The D.C. Court of Appeals here has held that before taking away someone's press credentials, there has to be notice and opportunity to be heard, because it's such an important right. It goes to the liberty of the reporter, but the court said it's the American people's right to get all the voices and all the information from all sides.

BLITZER: I notice -- and I read the lawsuit that CNN has filed. You mentioned in the lawsuit that the defendants in this case are President Donald J. Trump, White House chief of staff John Kelly, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine, Secret Service director Randolph D. Ellis and an unnamed Secret Service officer. They are now being represented by the Justice Department, by federal attorneys. But there's a next step that you guys could take if you want to.

BOUTROUS: Right now we've sued them in their official capacity and hit the requirements of the law for getting an injunction. There is a possibility of damages claims, under what's called a Bivens action for civil rights violations. We have not added that claim now. We want to get Jim Acosta's press credentials back, get him back doing his job. But that's something we could always think about down the road.

BLITZER: So if you sue them individually for damages, they have to, what, go out and hire their own attorneys?

BOUTROUS: Then they have -- then they have to get their individual attorneys and litigate like a litigant in a civil lawsuit where damages are at stake.

BLITZER: When you say damages, that means financial damages?

BOUTROUS: Exactly. Financial damages. And here we want to stand up for the First Amendment principle. We want to get Jim Acosta back doing his job. We want to stand up for that First Amendment principle that there needs to be fairness. That's down the road. Right now we just want to get those press credentials back and we're glad the judge has given us a fast hearing tomorrow.

BLITZER: The White House should immediately do the right thing and give those press credentials back to Jim Acosta and move on, let the business continue. You guys could then drop your lawsuit, right?

BOUTROUS: They could solve this very quickly, and they really should do it. It's the bigger principle here. Let's hear from everybody. The president is a tough guy. He can argue back and he does it all of the time. That's all this is about. That's what the First Amendment is about. It can be rough and tumble. That's what we want. And that's what means -- the First Amendment means.

BLITZER: And CNN is proud to have Jim Acosta as our chief White House correspondent. He's a very strong -- he's a tough guy himself. And CNN stands fully behind him.

BOUTROUS: We need to get him back in there.

BLITZER: Ted, good luck.

BOUTROUS: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Thanks so much for joining us.

Coming up, a stunning, unprecedented move by the first lady of the United States, demanding the firing, in public, of the White House deputy national security adviser. What's behind Melania Trump's very angry rebuke? Is it personal?

And President Trump meets with lawyers tonight to go over written questions from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, focusing in on possible collusion with Russia.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following multiple breaking stories right now, including this afternoon's truly stunning statement from the first lady of the United States, public -- publicly demanding the firing of the president's deputy national security adviser.

[17:32:46] Let's bring in our political analysts, our correspondents, to talk about this drama.

And it is, Dana, a real drama, that's unfolding. All of a sudden today the first lady's press secretary issues a statement saying that the president's deputy national security adviser, the No. 2 official right after John Bolton, Mira Ricardel, no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House. Wow. What a dramatic development. How did that happen?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the first lady was looking for a public shaming. And that's pretty obvious. Because this is not only rare; it might even be unprecedented.

It's not unprecedented for first ladies to get involved in personnel, but it generally happens behind the scenes, either talking to the president or the chief of staff or other people. But to make this public statement is really remarkable.

And the answer to how and why it happened, according to Kate Bennett, who did this reporting, others at the White House --

BLITZER: Our White House reporter.

BASH: -- Jeff Zeleny, right. And I've talked to some people, as well. It's -- it's -- there was tension, obviously, between her, Mira Ricardel, and the first lady.

Their situation stemmed, I think, largely from the first lady's trip to Africa. But it's much more widespread than that.

She is somebody, Mira Ricardel, who is not very well-liked, and it's because of the fact that she tends to do things with a lot of drama, a lot of tension, and causes a lot of problems for very important people trying to get things done on the national security level. Important people from the defense secretary to the homeland security secretary to the secretary of state. Those are people who don't want to have log jams at the White House when they're trying to get to the president. And my interpretation, my impression from talking to sources familiar, is that happened a lot.

BLITZER: Yes, and she was recruited by John Bolton, the president's national security adviser.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: You and I, Jamie, we've covered White Houses over the years. And first ladies often express privately to their husbands, the president, what they think. But I don't remember a time when a public statement like this has ever been released.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Between the two of us, I think we go back enough to say it is unprecedented, Wolf.

[17:35:02] BLITZER: Nancy Reagan was not a shy lady. GANGEL: Right. Note to every White House staffer in every

administration: do not get a first lady angry. As Dana said, quietly, maybe sometimes not so quietly, they wield a lot of power.

Nancy Reagan famously was responsible for getting chief of staff Don Regan fired. What's different here is the public statement. That is what is unprecedented. And I think it's worth saying that this is very Trumpian.

This is a zoo without walls, as Reince Priebus said, and "Game of Thrones" and palace intrigue all combined together. And it is also a slap at John Bolton. This was his hand-picked deputy.

BLITZER: It certainly is. You know, Abby, you cover the White House for us. What does it say to you that only a few hours earlier, she was at an event at the White House with the president, and we spotted her, basically, right behind the president?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That might be the most --

BLITZER: There you see video right there.

PHILLIP: That might be the most typical thing about this whole incident. It is not unheard of for people to be fired after they've publicly been carrying out their duties just hours before, even simultaneously with their firing. So that part of it, in some ways, kind of fits the mold for -- remember when James Comey was out traveling and working when the president fired him. That fits the mold.

But what's interesting about this is first lady Melania Trump picked her moment very well. She picked a time when there is actually a lot of turmoil in the White House right now or expected in the coming days and weeks. She wanted to make it known publicly so that people couldn't discount her opinion behind the scenes. And forced her husband's hand. By saying that publicly, President Trump had to make a decision very quickly about what he wanted to do.

And that just goes to show that Melania Trump clearly doesn't take well to people disrespecting her in private. And it also speaks to a really remarkable thing. As Jamie pointed out, most staffers understand, don't get the first lady angry. Don't make power moves behind the scenes with the first lady's office, because that doesn't always end well for you. And I think Melania Trump really wanted to enforce that by making this --

BLITZER: And Nia, you know, Abby makes a good point. It comes at a time when there are possibly going to be some other major firings right now.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I mean, the focus right now is on John Kelly who, of course, is the chief of staff, and also Kirstjen Nielsen, who is the secretary of homeland security over at DHS. This has been part of the Trump presidency throughout his presidency,

sort of waiting to see who's going to get fired and when and in what manner. We saw that with Tillerson, for that. We saw that with McMaster. We just recently saw that with Sessions. You mentioned Comey. Ricardel.

I mean, in some ways, maybe we should look for statements from the first lady at this point in terms of who might be out the door next.

But the problem, if you look at these particular people, John Kelly and the secretary of homeland security, the president hasn't liked the way things have gone at the border and the way she has talked to him about the border, trying to explain in nuance why it's so hard to stem the tide of people coming from the southern border. The thought -- the thinking about John Kelly is that he's not political enough for this White House.

So we'll have to wait and see. Maybe we should keep an eye on the president's Twitter account. He certainly seems to like to announce personnel shifts that way. But in terms of the timing of it, you know, part of this is we just have to wait and see. And see when the president finally decides to make this move.

BLITZER: Yes, he fired Sessions -- seems like a long, long time ago. Wasn't even a week ago. Hard to believe. We're going to have much more on all of the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:43:37] BLITZER: We're back with our political experts, and Dana, CNN has been reporting that the president will sit down with his lawyers at the White House tonight to go over their written answers for him to the special counsel in connection with allegations of collusion.

So let's say they submit these written answers to their written questions. What comes next? An actual sit-down meeting between the president and Mueller and his team?

BASH: If all goes well with these written Q&A, no. The way that CNN has reported before, myself and other colleagues, is that the plan was to agree to these written questions just in and around the question of collusion, meaning only before Donald Trump was President Trump. And then, if Robert Mueller wants to have more questions answered, then they will come back and talk about a potential sit-down.

But at that point, the president's legal team is making very clear they think that they have a good argument in -- if and when it goes to the Supreme Court against that because of executive power and executive privilege.

So right now, if Robert Mueller, and it is a big if, is satisfied with the questions and answers that he gets to the written questions once he gets them, then they could be on their way to at least wrapping up the collusion part of the investigation, which was the initial investigation to begin with. BLITZER: We'll see what goes from there. Because they're also

investigating obstruction, but that's after the president became --

BASH: Precisely.

BLITZER: -- and also money laundering and other allegations, as well.

Let's talk a little bit about Michael Cohen, the president's former fixer. We've now confirmed he spent hours yesterday with Mueller and his team. How worried is the White House about this?

PHILLIP: Well, the White House understands that Michael Cohen now has a really big grudge against President Trump.

It's something that could go in a lot of different directions, either as it relates to the Mueller probe or the existing litigation as it relates to these hush money payments or even potential litigation that hasn't even come into existence at the state level.

But at the same time, I mean, we are kind of in sort of the witching hour for the Mueller probe. It is the post-midterm season. President Trump has already fired Sessions. He's installed someone who is openly critical of the Mueller probe. I think everybody understands that the clock is now ticking for whatever that final report is going to show.

So in other words, if Michael Cohen is going in and meeting with Mueller right now, that is just yet another avenue of potential problems for this administration. But maybe, it also signals that this probe could be coming closer and closer to its final conclusion.

BLITZER: And another dramatic development, Nia, today that the state of Maryland has decided to file a lawsuit in federal court saying that the appointment of this Acting Attorney General is unconstitutional.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. And this goes back to the Affordable Care Act and Maryland actually suing Jeff Sessions because the Department of Justice under Sessions decided that they weren't going to defend certain parts of the Affordable Care Act because they think it's unconstitutional.

So at this point, Maryland is essentially saying that Whitaker, because they feel like he was unconstitutionally appointed, can't respond to this lawsuit. I think this underscores a lot of the displeasure around Whitaker, even from some Republicans.

You have former attorney generals essentially saying this probably wasn't a good look. You had Joe Manchin who is a pretty mild-mannered moderate Democrat essentially saying that Whitaker is a political hack.

And then you have some Republicans saying, listen, he probably won't be in that role very long, hint, hint. He probably shouldn't really be in that role right now.

(LAUGHTER) HENDERSON: So, you know, this is -- again, this is kind of drama around this White House, drama around who stays in what position. But, listen, I think it's only the beginning. We'll hear more from Republicans and Democrats (ph).

BLITZER: We'll see if Whitaker survives and that's a -- as the Acting Attorney General.

HENDERSON: Right.

BLITZER: You're also getting information about the White House Chief of Staff. If he survives, John Kelly, who might replace him?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So we have seen John Kelly fired how many times before?

(LAUGHTER)

PHILLIP: Right.

GANGEL: I mean, this is -- eventually, he will leave. The question is, is it now?

Let's not forget that as he -- in the Bob Woodward book, John Kelly called -- was quoted as saying that the President was erratic and unhinged, that this was crazy town. The only thing he denies saying is that he said the President was an idiot.

These two men have had a fraying relationship. What we are hearing now is that the President has spoken to Nick Ayers. For those who don't know Nick Ayers, he is Vice President Mike Pence's Chief of Staff.

And they have formed a relationship going back to when Nick Ayers invited the President to the Georgia-Alabama game. And there's a lot of talk he could be the next Chief of Staff.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see what happens on that front. Everybody, standby. There's more news we're following. We're going live to California where the latest outbreak of wildfires now ranks as the deadliest and most destructive in the state history.

[17:48:23] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, at least 44 people are confirmed dead in California's wildfires. Treacherous conditions, including winds gusting at or near hurricane force, are predicted in parts of the state.

CNN's Bill Weir is northwest of Los Angeles in Malibu. What's the situation, Bill, over there?

BILL WEIR, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we got a front row seat today to understand exactly why this season of flame will go down as the deadliest and most expensive in California history.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WEIR (voice-over): Some of the canyons above Malibu look like the surface of the moon with almost nothing left to burn, but all it takes is one hot ember riding one gust of wind to create a whole new front in this war on nature.

WEIR (on camera): Imagine living down in that valley and realizing the only thing between your entire life and that wall of flame are these incredible pilots. Not just helicopter pilots but big tanker jet pilots who are bouncing around in these 40, 50 mile-an-hour gusts, trying to precisely hit those spots.

WEIR (voice-over): In the space of two hours, we watched a full aerial assault above Hidden Valley with a swarm of helicopters sucking hundreds of thousands of gallons of lake water to drop on the flare- ups.

The fixed-wing tankers bombed the flames with a jelly-like retardant, each run costing California thousands of dollars.

Seawater is cheaper. And the day brought the surreal sight of surfers and Super Scoopers sharing the line-up at Malibu Beach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Aerials (ph), you're going to be picking up some undercurrent (ph).

WEIR (voice-over): With crews from Orange County to Idaho spotting from the ground, the wind shifts, residential areas are spared, and they win this skirmish. But no one can relax until the Santa Ana winds show mercy.

WEIR (on camera): I'm Bill Weir from CNN.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE). Afternoon, sir.

WEIR (on camera): Thank you for your service, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what we're here for.

WEIR (on camera): You guys getting any sleep or?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Intermittently.

[17:54:59] WEIR (voice-over): Meanwhile, as northern California winds calm down, the morning begins.

The Camp fire is now the deadliest in California history with 42 souls lost and almost the entire town of Paradise turned to ash.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEIR: The red flag warnings, the evacuation orders for Malibu remain tonight. And, Wolf, who knows how many smoldering hot spots are left, adding all the more angst to the mourning going on in California tonight.

BLITZER: Horrible situation. Bill Weir on the scene for us. Thank you.

Coming up, the breaking news. A truly extraordinary rebuke in public from the first lady, demanding the firing of the President's deputy national security adviser, and the President tonight working with his lawyers on questions from Robert Mueller's prosecutors.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Responding to Mueller. President Trump meets with his lawyers to go over written questions from the Special Counsel as his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, meets with Mueller's team. So what does Mueller want to know from the President?

[17:59:58] On the outs. Mr. Trump is weighing a White House shakeup, possibly replacing multiple senior officials.