Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Washington Post: Ivanka Trump Sent Hundreds of Emails Using a Personal Account, Violating Federal Rules; Trump to Allow U.S. Troops to Protect Border Patrol; Camp Fire Death Toll Climbs to 77, About 1,000 People Unaccounted For; Interview With Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes; Trump Once Again Questions U.S. Intelligence Conclusions; Trump Blasts Admiral Who Ordered Bin Laden Raid; Senate Democrats Sue to Block Trump Attorney General Appointment. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 19, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Refusing to release the public financial disclosures of acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. And, tonight, three senators are suing, calling the appointment unconstitutional.

And death and despair. The loss of lives and homes growing right now in California's worst fire disaster on record, and the flames are forecast to burn for 11 more days.

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.

The White House now backing down from a new threat to bar CNN's chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. In response, CNN has dropped its lawsuit against the administration. The White House's sudden reversal followed CNN's request for another emergency hearing in federal court.

And the president is changing his stance on a sit-down interview with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. He is now saying he probably won't do it and he is launching new verbal attacks on a top U.S. military commander, as well as top members of his own team.

I will talk about that and more with Congressman Jim Himes of the House Intelligence Committee, and the former Director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub.

Our correspondents, analysts, and specialists are also standing by.

But, first, two reports tonight.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is standing by with the president's latest comments on the special counsel investigation. But let's begin the breaking news on CNN's dropping its lawsuit

against the White House after the Trump administration publicly backed down.

Let's go to our chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter.

Brian, update our viewers on the very latest.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: This is a victory for CNN, Wolf, but more importantly a victor for the free press.

Less than two weeks after that post-midterms news conference when Trump was desperate to change the subject and he kicked Jim Acosta out of the White House, the press pass has been restored, not just temporarily like it was on Friday, but now permanently restored by the White House.

This is clearly a capitulation in that lawsuit that CNN filed about a week ago. And here is the statement from the network about this decision by the White House.

Quote: "Today, the White House fully restored Jim Acosta's press pass. As a result, our lawsuit is no longer necessary. We look forward to continuing to cover the White House."

In the past few minutes, Wolf, CNN and Acosta's lawyers formally filed the paperwork that is necessary to end the lawsuit. That means it is dismissed, that means this is over. Unless Trump tries to kick another reporter out, this strange period in White House press corps history has ended.

BLITZER: Why did the White House back down, Brian?

STELTER: I think it is very possible that the Department of Justice advised the White House to give in, in this case because, frankly, the government did not have a strong case. That's what many outside lawyers believed heading into this lawsuit last week.

Many of them said to me that CNN was very likely to prevail and, of course, the judge did side with CNN in the very first hearing. There were going to be other hearings in the weeks to come. CNN was going back to court asking for more earlier today. It seems the White House looked around, knew it had a weak case and decided to give in.

BLITZER: At the same time, the White House is releasing what they're describing as some new guidelines for behavior by White House correspondents. Tell us about that.

STELTER: Yes.

And that's the open question here. We don't know what these -- quote, unquote -- "rules" will actually mean. They have been described in a letter to Jim Acosta. The new rules, according to the White House, is that you can only ask one question at a press conference and you can only ask a follow-up if the president lets you. You have to hand over the mic as soon as you're told to do that.

That's what is described in the letter, but, Wolf, the White House press corps has not agreed to these rules. Nobody has agreed to the rules. It is unclear if these are actually going to be real and enforced or if this is just a fig leaf, some kind of cover by the White House because they know they lost in court.

More broadly, of course, the president's attacks against the media continue, and that is the much bigger problem here. The president presents himself as the only arbiter of truth. He says you can't believe any real news, you can only believe what he says on Twitter and at press conferences and in speeches.

That is disturbing. That is poisonous, and that's a problem the press has to continue to reckon with, even though this was a very clear victory for CNN today.

BLITZER: CNN's Brian Stelter reporting for us, thanks very much.

Now let's go to the White House. Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is there for us.

Jim, the president, he is lashing out. He says his team has wasted enough time on the Robert Mueller investigation. Update our viewers.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

President Trump is setting the stage for some bruising fights this week and beyond, sending the message that he won't be sitting down with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, in the Russia investigation, and he is starting a war of words over, of all things, something that most Americans have cheered, the killing of Osama bin Laden.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Welcoming the National Christmas Tree to the White House, the president is warning special counsel Robert Mueller there is one gift he shouldn't count on, a sit-down interview with Mr. Trump in the Russia investigation.

[18:05:05]

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we have wasted enough time on this witch-hunt, and the answer is probably. We're finished.

ACOSTA: And the president is far from finished with fights he is picking on a number of fronts. He is still battling with retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

TRUMP: He's a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer, and, frankly...

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": He was a Navy SEAL 37 years.

TRUMP: Wouldn't it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that? Wouldn't it have been nice?

ACOSTA: McRaven, who has been sharply critical of the president's rhetoric, fired back with a statement of his own, saying -- quote -- "I stand by my comment that the president's attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime."

The president's criticism of the bin Laden raid runs counter to statements he made at the time of the mission, when he told Politico: "I want to personally congratulate President Obama and the men and women of the armed forces for a job well done."

The president isn't holding back when it comes to his own team, openly criticizing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

TRUMP: I want her to get much tougher and we'll see what happens there. But I want to be extremely tough.

ACOSTA: And White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

TRUMP: Look, we get along well. There are certain things I love what he does. And there are certain things that I don't like that he does.

ACOSTA: The president reserved his nastiest attack for House Democrat Adam Schiff, whose name he intentionally misspelled.

Contrast that with the president's softer touch with Saudi Arabia. In response to report that the administration has the audio of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a murder the CIA says was ordered by crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Mr. Trump says he doesn't want to hear the tape.

TRUMP: It's a suffering tape. It's a terrible tape. I have been fully briefed on it. There's no reason for me to hear it.

So we're going to spend the money that is necessary.

ACOSTA: Perhaps the strangest battle Mr. Trump has chosen to wage has been over the cause of the wildfires in California. Mr. Trump said the president of Finland told him his country rakes its forests.

TRUMP: I was with the president of Finland, and he said: We have a much different -- we're a forest nation. He called it a forest nation. And they spend a lot of breaking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem.

ACOSTA: But the Finnish president told a news outlet in Finland he could not recall any conversation with Mr. Trump about raking forests.

The president won't give up the raking idea.

TRUMP: That should have been all raked out. Wouldn't have the fires.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, the president is holding out the idea that he could still sit-down with Mueller, but it appears for now the president's legal team will instead release these written answers to the special counsel's office in the coming days.

The question after that, of course, is whether Mueller's team will keep pushing for that in-person interview. Wolf, it is possible that this is just the beginning or part of the negotiation when the president and his legal team turn over those written answers.

And whether or not the special counsel's office accepts those answers, that remains to be seen, Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta reporting tonight from the White House North Lawn, Jim, thank you very much.

Let's get some more in the president's changing position on a face-to- face interview with the Mueller team.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is joining us right now.

Sara, the president indicated he wouldn't do a sit-down interview with the special counsel. The president has previously said he would like to do a formal sit-down Q&A with the special counsel. So what changed his mind?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He always said, I would love to sit down with the special counsel, but it's my lawyers. I have to wait to see what my lawyers say.

So maybe it's that his lawyers prevailed. They certainly did not want him to sit down face to face with Mueller, because they couldn't really rely on him to tell the truth, to tell Mueller the same story that maybe other witnesses have heard.

I mean, the other thing that's possible is that maybe the president was playing us this whole time. Maybe he never really wanted to sit down with the special counsel, and now that he's got to this place where a person he trusts is leading the Justice Department, he feels emboldened to be able to say, you know what, this isn't going to happen.

BLITZER: If Mueller and his team decide they need more than the written answers that the president says they will submit in the next few days, would he go forward, Mueller, and actually subpoena the president and would the president have to comply with that subpoena?

MURRAY: Well, it's hard to say what would happen in that case. The special counsel could certainly try to subpoena the president.

The question, of course, is whether Matt Whitaker, who is now the acting attorney general, would allow the special counsel to do that, would approve such a subpoena. And if for some reason Whitaker did agree to sign off on that subpoena, you can bet there is going to be a legal fight.

We saw Rudy Giuliani, one of the president's lawyers, talk about this in the past, that he hopes it doesn't come to that and, if it did, they would fight it. So I think there are a number of steps before it would be possible for the special counsel to actually successfully move forward with a subpoena.

BLITZER: As you know, CNN has learned that Mueller's team is now seeking -- wants more questions to be posed to a longtime associate of Roger Stone, Roger Stone being one of the president's longtime friends and allies.

How significant is it that this individual, Randy Credico, will be interviewed once again by the special counsel?

[18:10:05]

MURRAY: Just the latest in the twists and turns of the associates of Roger Stone saga.

They decided, Mueller's team, they want to talk to Randy Credico again. He's already talked to them extensively after there were these text messages between he and Roger Stone that Roger recently made public because he wanted to show, look, this guy really was my back channel to WikiLeaks.

The question now is whether this means Credico could face some legal trouble, whether the special counsel team feels like he was inaccurate or wasn't forthcoming in previous interviews, or as Credico's lawyer puts it, he says it's just some more witness prep.

BLITZER: In a very separate development right now, but potentially all related, the alleged Russian spy, Maria Butina, may be getting ready potentially to cooperate with the with the feds right now. That would be pretty significant, if that happens.

MURRAY: It would be significant.

I mean, I think the thing we don't know is what exactly is happening behind the scenes. We know that the lawyers from Maria Butina and federal prosecutors have basically asked the judge for more time.

They say they're trying to reach a resolution. We know that a status hearing has been pushed back from early December closer to mid -- toward the end of December. And the question is, OK, is this a plea negotiation? Or is this potentially a prisoner swap?

Could they be negotiating behind the scenes to trade her? Remember, she's sitting in jail right now for someone that -- for an American that's being held in Russia, and we just don't know yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: Potentially very significant developments unfolding in the coming days and weeks.

Thanks very much, Sara Murray, for that report.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut is joining us. He is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

The president, as you heard, he says he didn't know anything about Matthew Whitaker's views on the Mueller investigation before he appointed him the acting attorney general. Is that really plausible?

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: No, it is not even close to plausible.

There is no question in my mind that the Whitaker thing, the timing, the individual, of course, the timing was after the elections, immediately after the elections, in such a way as to distract from what actually happened in the elections. It didn't affect the elections, which I think he probably got some advice on.

And, of course, no, Whitaker is probably the low watermark of who the president's people said the president could put in that position without getting laughed out of town.

BLITZER: You have said that at the very least Whitaker should recuse himself from any involvement in the Russia probe. What do you make of the lawsuit that today was filed by three Democratic senators to challenge the constitutionality of his appointment?

HIMES: Yes, well, I'm probably the wrong guy to ask, not even being a lawyer, but I will say that the Constitution is pretty clear that principal officers of the United States will be Senate-confirmed.

And, you know, so my guess is that they have got some merit to this suit. Look, my Republican friends should also remember, and I think that in the back of their mind they are beginning to remember that this president is setting some precedents that will be very uncomfortable the next time -- and it will happen -- there is a Democratic president, whether it is not releasing the tax returns or just appointing a buddy of yours who is going to be convenient to you to be attorney general or not, deciding that you don't want to testify to the special counsel.

All of these things are precedents that will come back to haunt a Senator Lindsey Graham or any Republican when they want to do oversight on a Democratic president.

BLITZER: The president defended Whitaker by tweeting -- and I'm going to put it on the screen, although I'm not going to read one of the words in that tweet.

"So funny to see little Adam" -- he is referring to Adam Schiff, the expected House Intelligence Committee chairman -- "talking about the fact that acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was not approved by the Senate, but not mentioning the fact that Bob Mueller, who is highly conflicted, was not approved by the Senate."

I want to get your reaction, but first specifically to the vulgar way he describes your colleague Adam Schiff.

HIMES: Well, Wolf, what is there to say? This is a president who has called a woman that used to work for him a

dog, that called another woman a horse face, and now he is using this terminology for my friend Adam Schiff.

You know, how are we to feel about a president who engages in behavior that we would punish in a 7-year-old boy? What more is there to say, other than, how did we get here and why do we put up with it?

But, look, apart from that, there's nothing in that tweet that is true. Whether that matters today or not is an interesting question. But, of course, a special counsel is not a Senate-confirmable position, and Bob Mueller is not conflicted.

There is zero evidence that Bob Mueller has a conflict. In fact, he is a Republican. He probably is on anybody's top three list of most respected individuals in Washington, with impeccable senses of integrity. So, quite apart from what he called Adam Schiff, here, he is besmirching the reputation, as he always does, of an individual who is a decorated Vietnam War combat hero and floating the notion he somehow was Senate-confirmable.

[18:15:07]

None of that is true. None of that is right. None of that is the kind of behavior we should expect from the guy down the street, much less the president of the United States.

BLITZER: Yes, we know it wasn't a misspelling either, it was deliberate, because that tweet is still posted, it hasn't been corrected, it hasn't been deleted. It is still there for everyone to see, and this is the president who wants decorum in the White House.

Another political issue, I want to get to your thoughts. As you know, 16 of your Democratic colleagues have signed on to a letter against Nancy Pelosi to become speaker of the House. There are others who haven't signed the letter who also say they won't support her.

You haven't made any commitments, I understand, either way. What do you think? Is the momentum there swinging against her, swinging in favor of her? Where do you stand?

HIMES: Well, you know, we're heading into a messy early January, because it would appear from that letter that this group has enough -- enough members to prevent Nancy Pelosi, who will get the majority of the caucus vote to be the speaker, from actually becoming the speaker on the floor.

And as I have urged some people that I know in that group to think about, then what? And, look, there's a whole conversation to be had about whether the Democratic leadership, you know, is changing fast enough. You know, there are obviously younger members who are interested in positions that are not those top three positions. That's a very fair conversation to have.

But I have been encouraging people I know on that letter to ask themselves, you know, then what is the plan? You know, no one has emerged to challenge Nancy Pelosi, which would be the right way to actually set up a leadership race. And do they imagine that if they prevent her, as maybe they can, from becoming speaker, whoever is behind Nancy Pelosi in that instance comes into a unified caucus?

So, anyway, we will see how this all plays out. There's a lot of time between now and the New Year's, when we're taking this vote. But it does seem to me that this is -- I guess the right analogy is, this is a pretty ugly game of chicken that is being set up in a way that could damage something that I think needs to be really -- really supported, which is Democratic unity.

BLITZER: Well, can I take what I just heard from you, Congressman, to assume you will vote in favor of her to be the next speaker?

HIMES: Well, Wolf, the reason I haven't made any commitments at any level whatsoever is, I'm chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, and the New Democrat Coalition is right in the middle of a process right now of talking to all of the candidates for leadership positions to see kind of what their visions are, what they will do and what commitments they will make to support and protect the most vulnerable members of our caucus, ones that perhaps we didn't imagine we would have in places like Kansas, and Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Until we're done with that process, I'm going to respect the integrity of that process and not make any public commitments.

BLITZER: You know this, that the next House speaker will decide if Congressman Adam Schiff should be the House Intelligence Committee chairman. Do you support him for that role?

HIMES: You know, Adam is a good friend and he has been absolutely superb as ranking member.

And, of course, if that's what the Democratic leader decides, I will be more than supportive of Adam Schiff. He has done a spectacular job. And, again, he is a very close friend and I know that he would be terrific in that role.

You know, some day, I would love to be considered for that role as well, but that is a secondary consideration, first of all, around who is the Democratic leader, because, remember, that's one of the few committee chairs that is actually appointed directly by that leader and what that individual may decide to do down the road.

BLITZER: The Democratic Party, as you know, is deeply divided about how aggressively to investigate President Trump over the next two years.

Congressman Maxine Waters, who will chair the House Financial Services Committee, she wants to follow what is called the money trail. You say the American people won't support what you call overtly political investigations. Tell our viewers what you mean by that.

HIMES: Yes, well, let me quarrel with the premise here a little bit, Wolf. The party is not deeply divided by how much we should investigate

Donald Trump. Look, we are all professionals. We all know that we have a constitutional duty to do oversight. We all know and the American people know that this president is just crying out for a congressional check and a balance, so of course we're going to do that.

But, look, as professionals, we also understand that if an investigation is perceived as having no merit and being done just to score partisan or political points against the president, that there is a line there, and that we should be careful about overstepping it.

The other point I would make is that I really believe we need to do two things. One, the Constitution and this president demands oversight and probably some investigation around some things like his hotel, like the Emoluments Clause. I can list others.

[18:20:09]

But, look, at the end of the day, I regard this majority that we have been given as a two-year audition. And at the end of the audition, we better have some evidence of having produced legislation and maybe some results that actually matter to people as they feel the anxiety around the kitchen table, around whether they will be able to retire, whether they have got the money to educate their kids, what their wages may look like five years down the road.

So, again, this is a balance. Of course we're going to do oversight. The Constitution demands it and this president certainly deserves it. But I think we all also realize that we better actually produce the results that make Americans feel like we're paying attention to the anxieties that they feel.

Finding that balance is going to be important for the caucus and certainly for the leaders of our caucus.

BLITZER: It certainly will be.

Congressman Himes, thanks so much for joining us.

HIMES: Thanks very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead: Three senators sue over the appointment of the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, calling it unconstitutional.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:25:38]

BLITZER: Three Democratic senators have filed a federal lawsuit challenging President Trump's appointment of the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker.

Our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, is joining us right now.

Laura, so, what are these senators arguing in their lawsuit?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today's lawsuit is just the latest in this escalating legal battle over the validity of Whitaker's appointment.

And the basic argument is this. The Constitution requires anyone who serves as a principal officer, meaning you report directly to the president, you can be fired by him, to be confirmed by the Senate. Just like the attorney general would be confirmed by the Senate, the acting attorney general needs to be confirmed by the Senate, according to these senators.

And that clearly has not happened in Whitaker's case. Now, of course, on the other end of the spectrum, the Justice Department argues that his appointment is completely consistent with the Constitution because he's only serving as acting attorney general on a temporary basis and the Federal Vacancies Act, a completely different statute, says if you have been here 90 days as a senior official, then you can serve for 210 days, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, the Justice Department is not releasing Whitaker's financial disclosure reports. Why are critics sounding the alarm on this?

JARRETT: Yes, so the issue here is that all political appointees when they come into the Justice Department or really any other federal agency, they're required under the ethics rules to submit their financial disclosures to try to hash out conflicts of interest within 30 days of coming to the department.

And then if somebody requests to see those forms, the agency is required to turn them over as well. Now, in this case with Whitaker, none of that has happened, yet Whitaker came on board here at the Justice Department in October of 2017.

And so these ethics officials are raising the question, well, why haven't we seen them yet?

We asked the Justice Department today for more information on this, including whether Whitaker ever submitted them in the first place, or whether they perhaps believe they have defense to why he doesn't need to do so. The department declined to comment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting. All right, Laura, thank you, Laura Jarrett at the Justice Department.

Let's get some more on all of this. The former director of the office of government ethics, our CNN contributor Walter Shaub is joining us right now.

Walter, what are the possible explanations for not releasing this?

WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, well, it is really incredible, because to keep in mind, the release process is, they hint print to PDF, and then e-mail it to you. There's no authority to redact or black out any of the information in it. So it's really kind of incomprehensible why they haven't simply released them immediately. One possibility, as Laura Jarrett raised, is that maybe he didn't ever file his financial disclosure reports, as he was required to do.

Another is that they have been hounding him for over a year to correct any errors or omissions, and he hasn't prioritized ethics enough. Yet another possibility is that, if he were under investigation, they may have suspended the review of his report pending that investigation.

And then I suppose the only other possibility is that the ethics office just isn't doing its job. But that last one, I don't find very likely, because they have very good ethics officials over at Justice.

BLITZER: We need an explanation quickly.

He was involved in this company that was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission for scamming customers of millions and millions of dollars. So what sort of red flags might that reveal?

SHAUB: Well, one question people might have is whether he had any financial interest in those companies that he's retained.

He also had a campaign. And there's a question as to whether or not he still owes it money or it owes him money. There's also possibilities that he has stocks or business relationships or former clients with people who he would have to recuse from during the -- during his service as acting attorney general.

BLITZER: So what are the next steps in getting these documents?

SHAUB: Well, we have contacted members of Congress' staff and asked them to weigh in. People have contacted the Office of Government Ethics.

And the director there has the legal authority, under the Ethics in Government Act, to intervene and negotiate a solution. So far, they haven't done that at OGE.

And I suppose the other is ultimately to sue, if there were not a resolution. Now, I'm optimistic that they will turn the reports over, but we would awfully much like to have an explanation as to, what is the cause of this mysterious delay?

BLITZER: Great. Let's get an explanation.

Walter, thank you very much for coming in.

SHAUB: Thanks.

BLITZER: Just ahead: President Trump says he will soon submit written answers to questions from the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

[18:30:03] But he makes it clear he doesn't plan to actually meet with Mueller and his team, declaring -- and I'm quoting the president right now -- "We're finished." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Trump is sending a signal to Robert Mueller, saying he probably won't do a sit-down interview with the special counsel's team after previously saying he would.

Let's get some more with our analysts and our commentators.

[18:35:06] Susan Hennessey, the president says enough time has been wasted on this investigation. That's why he's not going to sit down and do Q&A with the Mueller team. But listen to what he previously said about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you be willing to speak under oath to give your version of --

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One hundred percent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, would you still like to testify to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, sir?

TRUMP: Thank you. Sure, I would like to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to talk to Mueller?

TRUMP: I'm looking forward to it, actually.

I would love to speak. I would love to. Nobody wants to speak more than me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is it up to the president to decide if he's going to do a sit-down interview with Mueller?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Look, the president refuses to voluntarily sit down with Mueller, then the question becomes whether or not Robert Mueller is willing to subpoena him, whether or not he wants and needs the answers to these interview questions in an interview format badly enough that he's actually willing to litigate over it.

Now, there is some reason to believe that that might be the case. Reportedly, these written questions only relate to the issue of Russian collusion. The issue of obstruction of justice is not addressed, reportedly, in these written questions. And so even if Robert Mueller is satisfied with those written answers, he might still have this other area to explore, the obstruction issues.

The legal questions there tend to relate to mental state, not what the president did but why he did it. Those are the kinds of information that prosecutors usually need to sit down and have an interview. And remember, this is not a case that's headed to a trial like an

ordinary prosecution. Either Mueller gets his answers from Trump directly or he doesn't get them at all.

BLITZER: Because the president seems to think, David, that with the submission of the written answers in the next few days, presumably, this will be basically the end of the Mueller probe. Is he right?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it depends on what the meaning of end is, right? If it means the end of his participation in the investigation, submitting the answers to the questions, the written questions and maybe refusing to testify and maybe, to your point, maybe if Mueller decides the better part of valor is to not subpoena the president, it is the end.

But it's not the end in the sense that it -- we can't predict when the special investigation will wrap up, because they've been so tight- lipped. And we know that, more broadly speaking, even if this does ends or even if Mueller submits a report to Acting Attorney General Whitaker and maybe Whitaker doesn't forward it on to Congress, Democrats control the House now, and the House Intelligence Committee can subpoena anyone they want, including Robert Mueller to answer further questions about it.

BLITZER: And the Judiciary Committee can do the same thing, if they want to do it.

SWERDLICK: Indeed.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, we know the president clearly is frustrated by his inability to control this entire Mueller investigation. If the special counsel decides that the written answers are insufficient, he wants more, including a sit-down interview with the president, how do you see that unfolding?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I don't think it would slow down the investigation that much, believe it or not. Let me give you a simple reason why.

We've had many dozens of indictments in this investigation. We've had guilty pleas. We've already had completed trials. Even within the past year, the Mueller team would have interviewed maybe people for thousands of hours. They've talked about looking at millions of documents.

If there are people on the campaign, affiliated with the campaign, affiliated with the White House who were involved in one of the three charges we've seen involved in connections with the Russians, involved in dirty money or involved in lying to federal -- federal agents during interviews, I don't see why an interview with the president would slow down further charges we might see this month or after Christmas.

BLITZER: You know, Ron, in the midst of all of this CNN has learned that Mueller's team is pursuing an interview with Roger Stone's associate Randy Credico. How significant do you think this development is?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, the question of Roger Stone's alleged involvement with WikiLeaks and the cast of characters around that feels to me like the point at which the Mueller's investigation, the Venn diagram overlaps with the bar scene in "Star Wars." I mean, we're talking about people on the fringe of the political world, you know, kind of being brought in centrally to this.

But underlying it is a genuine question, because certainly during the campaign, you know, Roger Stone signaled some of the releases that were coming. And so the fact that the Mueller team, and to Phil's point, is going back at this yet again is just an indication of just how, you know, thorough they are.

And also, the likelihood that they know things obviously that we don't, but also that they know things that the protagonists don't know. And that clearly is one of the things that I think is weighing very heavily on the president and his legal team as they craft their own answers. They're not sure what others have said about the incidents that they are describing themselves.

BLITZER: Yes. It's amazing how secretive everything has been in the Mueller investigation. We only know a tiny little bit, presumably, of what they know.

Susan, as you know, three Democratic senators, they've gone to federal court. They've filed a formal lawsuit today suggesting that Matthew Whitaker's appointment as acting attorney general is unconstitutional. Tell us about this case.

HENNESSEY: Right. So what these senators are alleging is that Whitaker's appointment is in violation of what's called the Appointments Clause. The Constitution says that the Senate gets to confirm these principal officers. Whitaker, of course, has not been confirmed.

[18:40:06] Now, this is not a legal technicality. It is a central part of the checks and balances of the Constitution. Ordinarily, we have an order of succession at DOJ. We have a deputy attorney general who's confirmed, an associate attorney general, all the way sort of down to heads of the divisions.

And what we have here is Trump not just going through sort of the ordinary process, but actually circumventing it altogether, going, reaching outside the order of succession and putting a person in who never has been confirmed. And so what these senators are saying is essentially, "You are denying us our Constitutional authority and ability to exercise, you know, our duty to provide advice and consent."

BLITZER; Everybody stand by. There's more news we're following, more breaking news. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:45:24] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. We have some more breaking news coming into the situation. "The Washington Post" just now reporting that Ivanka Trump sent hundreds, hundreds of e-mails last year to White House aides, cabinet officials and her assistants using a personal account, many of them in violation of federal records rules.

We are back with our analysts and our commentators.

And all of us are just going through this lengthy "Washington Post" article.

Rod Brownstein, I know you are as well, but when you hear this, it sounds sort of familiar to what happened in the past.

RONW BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Incredibly, right. You know, you can imagine quickly as you look through the article the defenders, the Republicans on the Hill will cite small differences, whether she used classified information, whether she had her own server. I am reminded of the words of the great political analyst of Don Henley of the Eagles who said the lawyers dwell on the small details.

The big point is after a campaign in which her father raised this issue relentlessly, and, you know, in fairness with the help of the news media that focused on it somewhat obsessively as well, the thought that you could in any way, whatever the narrow details, use in kind of system to conduct government business from the White House after that campaign is just stunning. I think it goes to the larger problem, one of the larger problems that the president has had, which is reflected in the election earlier this month, the idea he told that he was going to be a change in business as usual, he was going to drain the swamp. But whether it is the kind of people appointed to agencies or the lack of disclosure or the lack of disclosure of his tax returns, the swamp is looking pretty swampy two years into this president.

BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, spokesman for her attorney, Abbe Lowell, issued a statement that said in part, while transitioning into government after she was given an official account but until the White House provided her the same guidance that the had given others who started before she did, Ms. Trump sometimes used her personal account, almost always for logistics and scheduling concerning her family.

What is your reaction?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Show me the data, Wolf. I have two questions, and I get really irritated when high-level government officials, including the daughter of the president, get to do stuff that I could never do in government without being disciplined.

My two questions. One, we've raised already, that is does this violate federal ethics laws? The second question, particularly because Ms. Trump is married to somebody who has access to a lot of classified information, that's Jared Kushner, who, for example, is the focal point for the relationship with Saudi Arabia, do we trust Mr. Lowell, the attorney, for whether there's any information that could be considered classified in those e-mails?

Just because something doesn't say "secret" doesn't mean it is not classified. I want to see the data, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a good point. Susan, the spokesman for Abbe Lowell said this, Ms. Trump did not create a private server in her house or office, no classified information was ever included, the account was never transferred, Trump organization, no e-mails were ever deleted. They're trying to differentiate what happened during the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal to this.

BROWNSTEIN: Small details.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY ATTORNEY: Yes, I mean, look, they're trying to hide the overwhelming or distract from the overwhelming hypocrisy here. Look, we were told when Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner joined the administration, an absolute aberration for the president's family to work in the West Wing of the White House, that they would be treated like everybody else. What we have seen again and again and again is them been violating ethics rules, financial disclosure rules, now federal records laws.

And what we have also seen is they're not held to any kind of account. So I really do think that what we're seeing now is our worst fears coming true, which is that we have unaccountable, unconfirmed family members of the president of the United States with access to sensitive information, making important decisions in the West Wing.

BLITZER: It is all, David, very awkward for the president. All of us remember what he use -- still says about Hillary Clinton, lock her up, lock her up. He went after her because of her private e-mail, you know, her server and all of that for months and months and months, and now Ivanka Trump is reported to have used private e-mail while working at the White House.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. It is awkward, Wolf, not just because there are so many similarities between the controversy around Secretary Clinton's e-mails and this, even if some of the particulars are not exactly the same, even if some of the information isn't top secret or classified. It's also awkward because if you remember back to just a few days after election day 2016 when Ivanka Trump and other members of the family gave that interview to "60 Minutes" and her words to Lesley Stahl were, I'm just going to be a daughter, right, not going to be part of this.

So, when did that transition in her mind, in the president's mind take place where she was going to start sending these e-mails from a private e-mail to government officials?

[18:50:05] Was it before or after a decision was made about what her role in government was going to be?

BLITZER: And the story reports, "The Washington Post", Ron, I will read this line for you -- the discovery alarmed some advisers to President Trump who feared his daughter's practices bore similarities to the personal e-mail use of Hillary Clinton, an issue he made a focus of during the 2006 campaign when he kept calling her crooked Hillary.

BROWNSTEIN: As they should, as we said. I mean, whatever the small differentiation in the small details, I mean, the headline, the overwhelming similarity here is doing the same thing that you condemned for months and months. You know, I thought during the whole furor over Hillary Clinton's e-mails, the one document that was the most, I thought, alarming about her behavior was the one from the inspector general and the State Department who noted that people in both the security side and the record-keeping side of the State Department raised legitimate questions that were essentially brushed away by her inner circle.

And I am certain that as this goes forward, we're going to probably hear of similar questions being raised by the professionals in the White House and in the executive branch more generally. To Phil's point about whether, you know, whether we're seeing risk to classified information, but also just alluding and evading the basic record keeping responsibilities. And it, again, it goes to this larger question of the president promised a change in the way of doing business. He's certainly done that in the way he talks about other people in the government and around the world. But whether they've cleaned up the ethics of Washington, most things I think have moved toward murkiness and less public disclosure.

BLITZER: The headline in "The Washington Post" story, Ivanka Trump used a personal e-mail account to send hundreds of e-mails about government business last year.

Everybody, stick around. There's more news we're following.

Almost 1,000 people now listed as unaccounted for as the deadliest wildfire in California history continues to burn tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We have more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM now.

It looks like President Trump soon will be giving new authorities to the thousands of U.S. troops he's ordered to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, tells us what this means.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we do expect is the president will grant new authorities to military forces on the borders, so they can engage in activities to protect Customs and Border Control officials if they come under some sort of threat from migrants crossing the border.

[18:55:09] The key issue is, until now, if there was a situation where CBP officials felt threatened by migrants, U.S. troops do not have the authority, the legal authority, to step in, because they cannot engage in those kinds of activities inside the United States. This edges right to this notion of law enforcement which U.S. troops, of course, don't do inside the nation's borders. So, these new authorities, officials are emphasizing, will allow them for the first time to engage in protecting customs and border officials.

This is a particular concern, perhaps on the California border near Tijuana and San Isidro, where they have seen a significant number of migrants trying to cross that border. So, we're watching for that.

At the same time, the next thing everyone is watching for is very logical, when will some of these U.S. troops begin to return to their home bases. Because the construction of their facilities is finished and is going to be the case that some of these troops likely will be able to go home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

We also have an update on another breaking story. We're awaiting the news conference by the Chicago police about this afternoon's shooting at the Chicago's Mercy Hospital. The Chicago Fire Department reports at least four people were shot and are in critical condition, including a police officer. The suspect has been shot as well.

Other news, the deadliest fire in California history is expected to burn for 11 more days and each night the numbers are worse. Seventy- seven people are now confirmed dead in what's called the Camp Fire, and about 1,000 people are still unaccounted for.

CNN's Nick Watt is over at the FEMA center in nearby Chico, California.

Nick, this disaster continues to unfold.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Listen, Wolf, the figure that I cannot get away from, is 11,700 homes destroyed. Where we are in this FEMA center, which used to be an old abandoned department store. We have seen thousands of people coming through this morning. Some of them relatives of the still missing, providing DNA samples, hoping that will help in identifying human remains.

Other people applying for low interest loans, other people here, the Mexican console has a booth here, other getting their property deeds, their marriage licenses, their birth certificates that they lost in the fire, getting them reprinted. Wolf, the hurt and the need here is great.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WATT (voice-over): The list of those unaccounted for nearly 1,000 names long. The grim search goes on.

KORY HONEA, BUTTE COUNTY SHERIFF CORONER: The number weighs heavily upon me. I have chosen not to speculate as to how high that number might be.

WATT: One environmental group claiming a day of breathing this air is equivalent to smoking several cigarettes.

And heavy rain now forecast, fueling fears of mudslides like those we saw in Montecito, California, in January after a wildfire, then rain.

Amid the heartache, more heroes emerging. School bus driver Kevin McKay (ph) is one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We started getting fire on both sides of the bus.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were like fires left and right, everywhere you look.

WATT: McKay drove five hours through the flames, 22 kids and two teachers on board his smoke-filled bus.

ABBIE DAVIS, TEACHER: Kevin, without even thinking about it, took his shirt off and tore it into little pieces to make filters for these kids to breathe.

WATT: In southern California, the fire around Malibu and Calabasas that burned nearly 100,000 acres and took three lives is now 94 percent contained.

President Trump visited California's fire zone Saturday, pressing his much maligned belief that forest management, not climate change, is the primary problem here.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was with the president of Finland and he said we have a much different -- we're a forest nation. He called it a forest nation. And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don't have any problem.

WATT: Finland's president saying Sunday he can't ever recall mentioning raking to the president.

Online, Finns widely mocking Trump.

The Camp Fire has burned 11 days now. Officials now saying it's only halfway done. It will burn another 11 days before it's finally extinguished.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: Now, there are about 5,000 firefighters still out there, just really damping down spot fires. The real challenge now, Wolf, is trying to find somewhere for all these people to live -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story. All right. Thanks very much, Nick Watt, on the scene for us. Thanks very much.

And to our viewers. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.