Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump: Pardon 'Not Off the Table' for Manafort; Pompeo: No Direct Reporting Connecting Crown Prince to Murder; Bipartisan 63-37 Vote Defies Trump Administration Over U.S. Support for Saudi-Led War in Yemen. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 28, 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. Possible pardon? In an off-the-rails interview, President Trump says he's not taking a pardon for Paul Manafort after the table, as CNN learns about some of the answers the president himself provided to the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

[17:00:24] McCarthy era. A clearly rattled president compares the Mueller investigation to the McCarthy era and launches a furious series of attacks on the special counsel. Is he more worried that Mueller is closing in?

Refusing to protect. A bill to protect the special counsel dies on the Senate floor, even as backers say the president's angry tweets show it's more necessary than ever.

And bipartisan anger. Senators from both parties are furious that the White House declined to let the CIA director join a briefing on the murder of a U.S.-based journalist by a Saudi hit team. Is the Trump administration protecting the Saudi crown prince?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump drops a bombshell, saying a pardon for the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is, quote, "not off the table."

That comes as the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has called for the immediate sentencing of Manafort, saying he violated a plea deal by lying. And it comes as the president launches frantic new attacks, retweeting an image showing Mueller behind bars, along with others, including former presidents.

In a CNN exclusive, we're learning about key answers that the president provided to Mueller. Sources now saying he was informed -- he informed Mueller that he was not told about that 2016 Trump Tower meeting in New York, and that long-time ally, Roger Stone, did not tell him about WikiLeaks.

I'll speak about that and more with Senator Rand Paul. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by with full coverage. But let's begin with the president's very broad hint about a possible

pardon. Up first, our CNN White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, this is quite a bombshell. Take us through the president's thinking, what he said.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president is now refusing to rule out a pardon for Paul Manafort, saying, "Why should I takes it take it off the table?" during an interview with the "New York Post." And that comes after months of the president refusing to answer reporters' questions about whether or not he was considering pardoning his former campaign chairman.

And it also comes after months of the president distancing himself from Paul Manafort, saying that, despite the fact that he ran his campaign for several months, he only worked for him for a short period of time. And the president didn't know him that well.

Wolf, what's changed is now that the special counsel is saying that Paul Manafort lied repeatedly to him, after he agreed to a plea deal with them, and now they are saying he has breached that agreement. And the president is now willing to go on the record and say that he's not going to take a pardon for his former campaign chairman off the table. Telling "The New York Post," this in a quote, that "It was never discussed, but I wouldn't take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?"

Wolf, we do know that the president has discussed these pardons with his lawyers. Whether or not he brought it up or his lawyers brought it up is still unclear.

But it is something that has been discussed. And this does come one day after the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said that there was no discussion of any pardons related to the Russia investigation happening in the West Wing. That seems to have changed.

Another quote the president gave to "The New York Post," is he was talking about flipping, cooperating with the government, which over the summer he said he believed should be illegal when it was first reported that there could be several people flip on him and give information to the government.

And now he's telling "The New York Post," "You know, this flipping stuff is terrible. You flip and you lie, and you get -- the prosecutors will tell you 99 percent of the time they can get people to flip. It's rare that they can't.:

In this interview, Wolf, he praised Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi and Paul Manafort, saying that he believed they were brave people for not flipping and cooperating with the special counsel. Though it's still unclear what it is Paul Manafort told the special counsel and what he lied to them about, according to that court filing from earlier this week.

Now, Wolf, the president was also stewing in this interview, talking about the Mueller investigation, and also threatening to declassify documents that he believes will be devastating to Democrats. He gave this quote to the "New York Post" about that, saying that he believed, "If they want to play tough, I will do it." He said, quote, "They will see how devastating those pages are."

Now, that would be welcome news to some very conservative people on Capitol Hill, but this is something the president had refused to do earlier on in this fall. But now it seems to be that is back on the table, Wolf. And this all comes as the president is continuing to lash out at the special counsel this week.

[17:05:00] And this all comes as the president is continuing to lash out at the special counsel this week. The third day in a row that he has been blasting him on Twitter the first thing when he wakes up, saying that he's highly conflicted, going after the people on his team.

And then today he stunned people when he tweeted out this image. It was a retweet, an image of several of his political opponents, not including -- or not limited to but also including Barack Obama, John Podesta, Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, several other people in this figure. But Wolf, the two that stand out is the one at the top left, Robert Mueller, and the one to the right of Robert Mueller, and that is the president's hand-picked deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. He is implying, essentially, that he is behind bars.

And, of course, the quote reads, "Now that Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials begin?"

Wolf, the president seems to be accusing his own deputy attorney general, who is currently serving in his administration, recently flew with him on Air Force One, and is often behind tease doors in the West Wing, of committing treason.

BLITZER: Yes. Just want to be precise. That quote that the president retweeted with that image of those 11 people, "Now that the Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?" The word "treason" is included in that retweet by the president.

All right, Kaitlan, thank you very, very much.

Let's bring in our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez; and our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash.

Evan, the president's suggestion that a pardon is now -- not necessarily off the table, that raises all sorts of questions.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. And look, this is something that the president's legal team has repeatedly told him and counseled him to avoid talking about, simply because you don't want to provide additional ammunition to Robert Mueller and his investigators who already are looking into whether or not the president committed any obstruction of justice.

And so this is the kind of thing that, you know, if you're in the Mueller team, you're simply printing out these tweets. You're printing out these media interviews that the president has given, and you're adding it to your obstruction file.

Now, the president has unequal pardon power. He -- his power is without, you know -- anybody can check it, right? And so what we don't know, Wolf, is whether or not these comments and these statements really add up to obstruction or whether this is something that the Mueller team can say shows his state of mind as he's, you know -- as he's reacting to this investigation.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And Evan is talking about it from the perspective of Mueller and the legal perspective. There's also, of course, the political perspective, which could turn into a legal issue, which is the United States Congress.

PEREZ: Right.

BASH: You already have top senators like Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee tweeting out that this is absolutely, you know, absurd. I'm paraphrasing now.

Not to mention the fact that you have an incoming House in January where Democrats are going to be in control. And these are potential real issues.

Of course, the president can pardon --

PEREZ: Right.

BASH: -- whomever he wants. That's -- that's the Constitution. But as part of this investigation, to do it at this time, it's hard to imagine, even to talk about.

PEREZ: Right.

BASH: It's hard to imagine that the House Democrats, who now --

PEREZ: It's completely unnecessary.

BASH: -- right, now have the gavel and subpoena power won't look into that.

BLITZER: And what the president has done by retweeting this image of these 11 former officials, including two former presidents with the words, and I'll read it one more time, "Now that Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?" He's got these 11 individuals, including his former -- including his own deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and Mueller behind bars. Two former presidents.

That's so shocking to see a president of the United States go after political rivals, but others including former CIA directors, two former attorneys general and two former presidents behind bars.

PEREZ: Look, I think going to the politics of this, I think the president is -- there's an angle here. And that is to undermine whatever this investigation is going to come out. The president is concerned about whatever Mueller is going to come out

with, with his report. And I think what he wants to make sure is he can soften some of the public. He knows he's got his base behind him. But he wants people who are maybe more in the middle to know that whatever Mueller tells you is not going to be the truth.

And so this is part of a political strategy that has been going on simply, you know, for the better part of the year. We see it from Rudy Giuliani; we see it from the president. And we don't know whether it will work or not. But it is a strategy.

BLITZER: And he's also, in this remarkable interview in the "New York Post," he's threatening Democrats, who are about to be the majority in the House of Representatives, warning them, "If you go after me, if you investigate me," he's saying, "I will declassify documents that will be devastating to the Democrats. If they want to go and harass the president of the administration, I think that would be the best thing that could happen to me, because I'm a counter puncher, and I will hit them so hard, they've never been hit like that."

That's what the president of the United States is threatening the new Democratic incoming majority in the House of Representatives.

BASH: Right. And it's in keeping with other sort of kinds of threats that we have heard from the president. To use levers of the United States government that are not supposed to be used for political retribution to do exactly that.

And this all speaks to his mindset. What he tweeted in that, what he said in the interview, what he's been doing all week long. He is upset; he's angry. And he -- that's why he, frankly, probably answered the question the way he did on the pardon issue, even though as Evan has heard and as I have, as well, his lawyers have been begging him not to do that for the reasons we've been discussing.

BLITZER: And all this comes, Dana, as you and others at CNN have now for the first time learned of some of the answers, the formal answers he provided to Robert Mueller the other day.

BASH: That's right. We are part of the team getting the first insight, really, Wolf, into how the president responded to Robert Mueller's written questions. Until now, it's really been a big unknown, but sources familiar with the matter tell us two things.

No. 1, that the president told the special counsel that Roger Stone did not tell him him about WikiLeaks. And No. 2, the president was also not told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son, campaign officials, and a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Now, the president's answers were described to us without providing any direct quotes. And said that the president made clear in answering that he was doing so to the best of his recollection.

But Wolf, these two key points: WikiLeaks, the Trump Tower meeting. They're really central to what was at the core of Robert Mueller's mission at the beginning, which was, was there collusion between anybody in Trump world from the candidate, now president, on down and the Russians?

BLITZER: And now that he's put it in writing, and submitted the written answers to the written questions from Robert Mueller, it adds a new layer of potential concern.

BASH: It sure does. Look, we are told, I should say, that the president -- what he told in writing to the Mueller team matches, at least on these two issues, what he has said in public.

But there is a big difference. And that is the significance to the answers in writing are monumental, because they would be subject to criminal charges if proven false.

That's why it's our understanding, Wolf, that the lawyers, which is pretty typical in this case, put, you know, some caveats to "my recollection as far as I recall" in here in case his recollections should be challenged.

BLITZER: Very legalese.

All right, guys, excellent reporting to both of you. Thanks so much for that.

BASH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's bring in Republican Senator Rand Paul right now of Kentucky. He's a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for your patience. Thanks very much for joining us. Lots of news, as you can see, unfolding right now.

Let me get your reaction to the breaking news. The president now says he's not taking the prospect of a pardon for Paul Manafort off the table. What's your reaction to that?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: You know, I don't have any particular insight into the president, whether he'll offer pardons or not offer pardons to people.

I do think in general, though, that the idea of special prosecutors is a bad one. And the reason I say this is that, typically, in our justice system, someone commits a crime and we go after a crime and we find out who committed a crime. What a special prosecutor does is go after a person and look for a crime. And we let the prosecutor troll back through a person's entire life history.

And I think it's too much power. It gives the government too much power to prosecute people. And I think we could prosecute tens of thousands of people if we appointed special prosecutors. So I'm really not a fan of this, and I think it's a distortion of justice. So I'm for the Mueller investigation to end as soon as possible. And if there's something out there, let's hear about it, but I think they've gone on long enough. BLITZER: But you don't believe there should have been any

investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election?

PAUL: I think there should be, and there has been. But I don't think that doing it through a special prosecutor is the way to do it. We have ways to investigate crime in our country. We have ways to investigate things even when they have to be done secretly in court. But I think that doing it with the special prosecutor gives too much power to one person to go astray.

For example, Manafort will be prosecuted for something really that had nothing to do with any kind of Russian collusion. Nothing to do with Trump or the campaign.

So the mandate seems to have been investigate things that happened between -- you know, during the Trump campaign; and yet he'll be investigated and prosecuted and has been on something totally unrelated.

So I think you give too much power to prosecutors. They can look back through a lot of people's history, and grab up and say, "Well, you didn't file this paperwork correctly. You didn't file to be a foreign lobbyist. You did this and that."

And I'm not excusing his behavior, but I'm just saying that that's not really the way our justice system is supposed to work. Our justice system is supposed to say, this crime happened. Who committed it? And not say, "Hey, let's go look at this person and see if we can find a crime."

BLITZER: Do you think Mueller would view a Manafort pardon by the president as obstruction of justice?

[17:15:06] PAUL: I don't even know how to answer that. Because I think the president has the ability to pardon whoever he wants to. I just have no particular insight into whether he will or won't or what process he'll go through in determining that.

BLITZER: The president also says that the special counsel's team is forcing witnesses to lie. He really seems to be rattled by the ongoing investigation. And as you saw, he retweeted this awful picture showing two former presidents; the current deputy attorney general; the special counsel, Robert Mueller; among others. And he says, "When do the trials for treason begin?"

Is that appropriate for a president of the United States?

PAUL: I really haven't seen a lot of that today, because I've been busy trying to stop the war in Yemen. And so I think we've had a big day in the Senate, you know, having an, I think, historic vote on whether or not we should still be at war in Yemen and whether or not Congress should have a say so before the president does.

I just really haven't had time to, you know, go through all of the things the president says every day about the Mueller investigation. I know that you all get so involved in it. But really, the rest of life goes on in the Capitol of trying to discuss war and peace and whether we should be at war in Yemen I think is -- dwarfs any of the sort of other things we might want to talk about.

BLITZER: We're going to talk about Yemen. We're going to talk about Saudi Arabia in a moment.

But quickly, on the president telling the "New York Post" he's prepared to declassify what he calls devastating documents in order to hurt Democrats if they go ahead and engage in investigation of him when they're the majority in the House of Representatives. Do you believe that would be an abuse of his power, to declassify?

PAUL: You know, the whole classification thing is so screwed up. We classify everything up here. I don't think it should be done for vindictive purposes. But I do believe that way overclassify things, and a lot of things should be declassified. And I'll give an example.

The newspapers have reported that the CIA concluded that the crown prince, MBS, was involved and directed the killing of Khashoggi, the dissident. That's somehow been classified and was leaked to a newspaper and now is out there in the open.

I don't think that should be classified. I don't think it should be kept to a select group of people. Because the rest of us, the rest of the representative democracy, we should debate whether or not, if that is the CIA's conclusion -- see, no one has told me that. I haven't been told that. I've read about it in the newspaper. But no one else is really denying it.

But really, all of Congress should know about that, and really, the American people should know. If the CIA concluded that the crown prince was involved and directed the killing of this dissident, this American, this person who's living in America, I think, by golly, we ought to all know about that, because that would inform our debate. But that's classified.

So I think we classify things, too many things. And I think the more sunlight the better, all around.

BLITZER: The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, says there's no direct reporting that the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing of Khashoggi. The defense secretary, General Mattis, says there's no smoking gun.

You said the evidence of the crown prince's involvement is, in your word, overwhelming. Why don't the president and these other top officials necessarily agree with you?

PAUL: I think what's been going on for a long time in American foreign policy, is that we're so used to supporting the lesser of two evils that we look the other way when evil happens.

I think the evil that occurred to Mr. Khashoggi was so barbaric that people are having trouble looking away. And this administration is doing what every administration has done for the last decade after decade. They look away when it's their guy. How many times throughout the Cold War did we choose one evil dictator

over another one if they were pro-America versus pro-Soviet? This is just another example of it.

So this is not something abrupt with the Trump administration. This is actually a continuation of the norm in Washington, and that is to excuse bad behavior.

But I will tell you, today the Senate woke up, and the Senate says, "Hey, we're not going to keep blindly supporting Saudi Arabia, and we're not going to keep blindly supporting the war in Yemen." Today was a big day.

BLITZER: I want to get to that vote in a moment. But Gina Haspel, the CIA director, she wasn't up on Capitol Hill meeting with senators today as Mattis was -- and Pompeo was. Was that a mistake? Why didn't they let her go up and there and brief you guys?

PAUL: I think it was a mistake. And I think it's interesting in that the one thing that's out there in the media is that the CIA concluded, with high probability, that the crown prince was involved. And so that conclusion is being completely sloughed over, and people are turning a blind eye to that. And yet she's the one that could confirm or deny that that CIA report exists. And yet the only way we're hearing about this is through the media, because our government is not letting us know the truth.

And this is something I've argued for a long time. Intelligence information like this is restricted to eight people in Congress. The elite eight get to hear about this. A rank and file senator -- I represent an entire state. They will not tell me, or they haven't told us, you know, whether the CIA has issued this report.

And so the thing is, is that we shouldn't have to read about this in the media. And the only way it came forward and may or may not have been discussed since further since then is because we heard about it in the media.

[17:20:08] BLITZER: You and your fellow senators have just voted, in a very impressive vote, to advance a resolution, Senator, to end the U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. The vote 63-37, bipartisan support.

Did today's briefing -- the overall handling by the administration of the Khashoggi murder, did that influence that successful vote today?

PAUL: I think so. Because we've had several votes in the past, and they've failed. And now we gained about 10 or 15 new votes today.

But the reason why this is historic is that our Founding Fathers wanted Congress to declare war, not the president. Very specifically, they said Congress, not the president, shall declare war.

So this vote today is the Senate, part of Congress, taking back that power from the presidency and saying, "You do not get to unilaterally decide whether or not we will support Saudi Arabia and a war in Yemen. That is a vote of Congress."

So this is a huge day for constitutional separation of powers and for Congress being a check and a balance on the administration. And I've been fair on this. I've been very ecumenical. When it was President Obama, I voted the same way to say he shouldn't have gone and bombed in Libya without our permission, as well. So this is a big day for checks and balances and what -- Madison would be proud of us today.

BLITZER: You've been generous with your time. One final question before I let you go. Senator, the White House hasn't ruled out the possibility of an informal interaction, a meeting between President Trump and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aries Friday or Saturday. Do you think the two -- these two leaders should meet?

PAUL: I think it's a mistake, and I think the message we should send to them is that we want to deal with someone who's not ordering the murder of dissidents. We want to meet with someone who's not ordering a blockade of a fellow Middle Eastern country, Qatar. We want to meet with someone who isn't exacerbating a war on civilians in Yemen.

And I think the only way they get that message is if we quit selling them arms. So meeting with them sends the wrong message.

There are also other dissidents. There's a young man by the name of Barik al-Nimr (ph). He was 17 when he was picked up at a protest rally. His uncle has already been executed. He's on death row. He will be crucified and beheaded in Saudi Arabia. If we say it's OK to kill Khashoggi, they're going to say, "Hey, Americans don't care much if we kill our dissidents. Then we're going to kill this young man also."

So this young man's life hangs in the balance. If we look away on Khashoggi's killing, there will be more death in Saudi Arabia. More dissidents will be killed.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks, by the way, also for supporting a free press, something very close to all of our hearts. Appreciate it very much.

PAUL: Very good.

BLITZER: Up next, are the president's increasingly frantic attacks on the special counsel a sign that Robert Mueller is getting closer and closer to making a case for collusion?

And a bill to protect the special counsel fails in the U.S. Senate, even as its reporters say the president's angry outbursts make it more necessary than ever.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:22:15] BLITZER: We are following multiple breaking stores right now, including a stunning new interview with President Trump. He tells "The New York Post" that a pardon for his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is quote, "not off the table." Let's bring in our political and legal experts. We'll talk about all

of this, including the president's most recent attacks on the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Why is the president going public and suggesting that a pardon is possible?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, you describe this interview as stunning. And it is quite stunning. The idea that he is going public with possibly pardoning Paul Manafort.

If you flash back just to yesterday, "The Washington Post" asked him the same question. He wasn't willing to go on the record publicly to talk about this. And now we have him going on the record publicly.

In some ways, it's not surprising. Because we have heard the president in the past speak pretty, you know, favorably about Paul Manafort, even as he tried to separate himself from him. He called him a brave man. At some point he suggested he was being unfairly targeted, that he was being treated worse than Al Capone.

So I think the question now is why is he doing this, and essentially breaking from the advice of his team around him that wanted him not to really talk about pardons publicly, because they fear that Mueller might see this as interfering in an ongoing -- ongoing investigation. So why he is doing this at this point, just as Paul Manafort is facing, probably, more time than he was facing a week ago, because of the breakdown of his plea deal.

BLITZER: Yes, he was convicted of various crimes, and now he's broken off. The special counsel says he's been lying, so they've ripped up that plea agreement. He potentially could be sentenced to life in prison for all practical purposes. He's almost 70 years old.

Is the president sending a message directly to Paul Manafort that a pardon is possible and just shut up?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Right. So I think there are only two real plausible explanations for Manafort's behavior.

Either he is incredibly stupid and sort of pathological in lying after -- to investigators after striking a plea deal, or this is some kind of bid for a pardon. For some reason, he believes that entering into this cooperation agreement and then funneling information to the president's legal team is going to set him up to be in a better position and ultimately get a better deal than he had under the plea terms.

Manafort's problem is that he still has exposure on other uncharged federal crimes, including that single count that the jury deadlocked on. Federal prosecutors could retry -- could retry him on that.

He also has exposure on various state crimes. And so, of course, the president's pardon power doesn't extend to state crimes. And so this really is a dramatic gamble, and I do think Paul Manafort right now is at risk of spending the rest of his life in prison. BLITZER: Certainly. David Axelrod, the president also tells the "New

York Post" in this interview that Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi are very brave, his words, "very brave" for refusing to flip and lie. So what message is he sending to these men?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it's about as subtle as a screen door on a submarine. I think he's telling them to hang tough and that he will -- he will take care of them at the end.

He's been sending these messages consistently, Wolf. When Manafort was convicted, the day he was convicted of tax fraud and bank fraud, the president praised him as brave for not breaking.

And Susan's point is an interesting one. You wonder now whether the whole entry into a plea bargain with the special counsel was -- was a game that he was running to try and get information from the special counsel about where they were going, that was then transmitted from his lawyers back to the president.

But there's no doubt that the president is sending a very strong machine to all of these guys: Do not cooperate and with the intimation that there will be some relief at the end of this -- at the end of this saga.

BLITZER: He was convicted, Samantha, of crimes, Manafort was, involving his political work, lobbying work for a pro-Russian Ukrainian regime. Why would the president consider a pardon for someone who was convicted of crimes long before he became the Trump campaign chairman?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, throughout this saga, we know that President Trump has not missed any opportunity to show who's boss and to show who's in control. So this could be just as simple as the president really trying to message to everyone that he's calling the shots here, that this is his choose-your-own- adventure game. And that, no matter what happens, to a certain extent, he can decide what happens to people like Paul Manafort.

And as you pointed out, Wolf, these charges stem from work that Paul Manafort did in direct support of Russians. Viktor Yanukovych, who was one of his clients, was a Ukrainian who was serving Russian interests. He was ferried out of Ukraine because Vladimir Putin wanted to protect him.

So while these charges are related to work that Manafort did in Ukraine, they link directly back to Russia.

BLITZER: You know, Nia, the political fallout from the president's words to "The New York Post" is going to be intense.

HENDERSON: I think that's right. And we'll have to see how this lands on -- on Congress. We have seen Republicans basically fall in line behind this president and defend him pretty vehemently.

But obviously, we know in January, there's going to be the new sheriff in town in the form of House Democrats now, with Nancy Pelosi likely the head of the caucus. So we'll have to wait and see.

There's so much that we don't know. I mean, we're finding out about Mueller and the testimony and what he is sort of -- his investigative powers and knowledge is. And we'll find out more at some point when this report is released.

But certainly, I mean, this new development with the president so openly floating this idea of a pardon, I don't imagine sits well with Mueller.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, what do you think of the president's other statement, a threat to Democrats who are about to be in the majority of the House of Representatives. He says he's prepared to declassify documents, in his words, that would be devastating to the Democrats if they do follow up and engage in any investigation of his activities. That's a pretty bold threat to the incoming Democratic majority in the House.

AXELROD: Without question. And I don't think they're going to respond very well to that threat.

Look, the whole -- the big story here is the undermining of the rule of law in the sense that all of -- all rules, all laws, all institutions, are sort of fungible and that he is willing to do what is necessary to protect himself. And this is part of that.

But, you know, on the issue of pardons, Wolf, if he were to pardon these people, then I think you get into a whole other dimension in terms of the relationship with the Congress, as Nia was suggesting. And, you know, the congressional leadership has been holding back on this discussion of impeachment, despite some in the Democratic base who are very rabid about it. But you get to the point where, if he pardons people and it looks like it's a part of a -- of a massive coverup, then you're getting into very, very deep waters.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. We have a lot more on the breaking news. Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:38:54] BLITZER: We're back with our political and legal experts. And Nia, CNN has some exclusive reporting tonight that the president has written answers to Robert Mueller, included the president saying he was not told about two key topics: the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between some of his top aides and Russians in New York, or any connections with WikiLeaks, anything along those lines.

What do you make of this?

HENDERSON: And this matches what his public statements have been about this. He's answered these questions publicly. Of course, now it's different, because he's in this situation where he's answering prosecutors, investigators.

So apparently, he said to the best of his recollection, he doesn't remember any conversations about WikiLeaks. He doesn't remember being informed about this Trump Tower meeting. But we do know that these are the questions that are central to the Mueller investigation.

And so -- and we also know that he is -- he is also in line with what Roger Stone has said publicly, too. So, you know, I mean, they are matching in terms of what their descriptions of these meetings and recollections of their meetings are. But listen, I mean, it's a different thing when you tell this to prosecutors versus saying to the press.

BLITZER: Susan, listen to how the president and the secretary of state, the former CIA director, Mike Pompeo, have spoken about WikiLeaks in the past. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks.

This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable. It tells you the inner heart. You've got to read it.

They want to distract us from WikiLeaks. It's been amazing, what's coming out on WikiLeaks.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you make of that?

HENNESSEY: I think it's pretty remarkable. And I do think that replaying those tapes in light of what we know now about potential communications between Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi and Julian Assange, really does sort of illustrate, potentially, how serious this situation might be with the president.

Donald Trump openly saying, "I love WikiLeaks," openly calling for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails. You know, this is not information that was not known at the time.

Maybe you hadn't had a CIA director come out and use those particular words, but the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. government have been warning about WikiLeaks, about the role they were playing, about Julian Assange's connections to the Russian government and Russian intelligence for years. And so it's not as though these statements were made from some sort of naive point of view in which nobody knew what WikiLeaks really was.

All of the available information to Donald Trump and, frankly, to Mike Pompeo, whenever he made supportive statements to WikiLeaks during the campaign, were available at that time. And either it's -- it was just incredibly irresponsible and sort of coincidental or it really does signal something pretty nefarious.

BLITZER: You know, David, I want to put up on the screen once again what the president retweeted earlier today, this image of these 11 Obama officials, two former presidents, including President Bill Clinton and President Obama, with the words, "Now that Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?"

You've seen that, and our viewers have now seen it. What's your reaction to when the president is accusing, by retweeting this image, these high-ranking former officials of treason?

AXELROD: Yes. Well, look, you know, it gets exhausting being outraged. And all I would say is that the Russian -- this is Russian emulation, is what it is. Welcome to Russia. This is how totalitarian states work, where political opponents of the president of the United States are, you know, threatened or depicted as outlaws.

And, you know, it's complete -- completely consistent with the modus operandi of the president. He has no respect for institutions, laws, rules, norms. He pursues his self-interests wherever it leads him, and part of it is to run this ongoing propaganda campaign through -- through Twitter, through his public comments. And this is just an extreme example of it.

BLITZER: In this jail cell, Samantha, the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper; two former attorneys general; James Comey. The president's own deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. He's behind bars in this image involving treason, as well. What kind of message internationally does that send as far as U.S. national security is concerned?

VINOGRAD: Wolf, there are a lot of my former mentors in there and a lot of my friends in that picture. And a lot of those people were targeted with pipe bombs just a few weeks ago.

So what the president is doing is not only trying, ostensibly, to direct law enforcement investigations, which he's done multiple times. He is knowingly retweeting content that, in the past, has led to an attempted political assassination campaign.

This kind of conspiracy theory, this call for imprisoning former Obama officials as well as Rod Rosenstein, in this case, is an active security risk to everybody in that picture. And a president should want to protect all Americans, regardless of what position they may have held in a previous administration.

BLITZER: Susan, you used to work in the National Security Agency. When you see this image, including former top U.S. intelligence officials, behind bars with the word "treason," what goes through your mind?

HENNESSEY: I agree with everything Sam had to say. You know, I think it goes to this notion of what is a pre-political commitment? You know, we're supposed to agree to a certain set of values, a certain set of shared beliefs that come before party.

If you listen to what Barack Obama said about George W. Bush, an individual with whom he disagreed intensely, he said, "First of all, George Bush, George W. Bush is a really good man." And so the notion that we are -- we are, first and foremost, Americans

and then, second, Republicans and Democrats, that is the piece that Donald Trump just can't appear to sort of get through his head. And that is the piece in which he is -- he is fundamentally out of step. Not just with sort of members of his own party, not just with Democrats, but really with the American people.

BLITZER: It comes the day after he was tweeting all these awful things about the U.S. Justice Department.

HENDERSON: That's right. And it comes as he is not trusting the CIA on their assessment of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It also comes as he's also saying that the assessments of his own administration and scientists about climate change. I mean, this idea that all of these institutions, if they don't agree with Donald Trump, if they don't match what his gut tells him, then they should not be paid attention to and in this case, should be jailed.

It also comes just a few days after a story that says he actually tried to actively see if the Justice Department could go after Hillary Clinton, could go after James Comey.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: But does he really believe this, or is it simply about discrediting the Mueller investigation? He's apparently very, very worried that Mueller is going to come out with some damning information.

HENDERSON: Well, I mean, the thing is, he has been consistent about this, right? I mean, at his rallies, there has been this consistent chant about "lock her up," meaning Hillary Clinton, so -- and he obviously tried to see if they could actually go after Hillary Clinton.

So the idea that this is just, you know, sort of a Twitter fantasy, it seems like he wanted to put the force of his administration behind making some of this stuff happen.

BLITZER: You say Twitter, but these are presidential statements --

HENDERSON: Yes.

BLITZER: -- that he is making on Twitter, and it's going out to his, what, 50 or 60 million followers.

Everybody, stick around. There is more breaking news coming up, including President Trump's angry new broadside comparing Robert Mueller's Special Counsel probe to McCarthyism.

Also coming up, new developments in the case involving a woman accused of being an agent for the Russians and who was in contact with top Republicans and officials of the National Rifle Association.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:56] BLITZER: Tonight, new developments in the case of a woman accused of acting as an unregistered agent for the Russians. Maria Butina was in contact with top Republicans and officials of the

National Rifle Association before her arrest last summer, days before she intended to leave the country.

CNN's Brian Todd has been working his sources for us. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, according to court papers filed just moments ago, Maria Butina's lawyers and federal prosecutors say they have not yet reached a plea deal, but they are optimistic about reaching one.

Now, this comes as Butina's lawyer is frantically trying to get her out of solitary confinement.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARIA BUTINA, FOUNDER, RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS: -- problems with our gun laws.

TODD (voice-over): She tried, prosecutors say, to infiltrate American conservative groups including the NRA, allegedly working at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government.

She appeared to use her looks and charm to get so close to a Republican operative. They even sang karaoke together.

BUTINA: True as it can be.

TODD (voice-over): But, tonight, Maria Butina's lawyers say she is languishing in solitary confinement, living in a steel door cage the size of a parking space for two months.

Her life behind bars in a prison jumpsuit is a far cry from when she posed for glamorous pictures in Russian "G.Q.," touting gun rights. A topic she even asked then-candidate Donald Trump about at an event in 2015.

BUTINA: I am visiting from Russia, so my question --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ah, Putin.

TODD (voice-over): But, tonight, in a new court filing, Butina's lawyer says his client is suffering in solitary confinement and will need mental health treatment if she's not released into the general prison population soon.

Her lawyer claims that officials at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia moved Butina into solitary simply because she gave another inmate her lawyer's phone number.

But former prosecutors say housing Butina alone could be an attempt to pressure her into talking.

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's possible that the prosecution has looked for an excuse to isolate her so that she feels more vulnerable, wants to get out of the situation more quickly.

TODD (voice-over): According to court documents, Butina's lawyers are negotiating a, quote, potential resolution of her case with prosecutors. In other words, a plea deal.

Butina was arrested this summer. Charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent, she pleaded not guilty.

Sources have told CNN Butina leveraged her connections with the NRA and other conservative groups and worked with a banker linked to the Kremlin, offering to set up backchannel communications between the Russians and the Trump campaign in 2016. Those efforts appear to have been rebuffed by the Trump campaign.

The charges against Butina are separate from Robert Mueller's investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. But analysts who are following both cases say they could be linked.

GARRETT GRAFF, AUTHOR, "THE THREAT MATRIX: INSIDE ROBERT MUELLER'S FBI AND THE WAR ON GLOBAL TERROR": If a big part of Robert Mueller's investigation ends up being how Russian money moved through the 2016 presidential campaign, one possible link there would be Maria Butina and her ties to the NRA and other conservative gun rights groups in the United States.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say if Butina reaches a plea deal that requires her cooperation, she could become a key witness and a game changer for Mueller's investigation because prosecutors will want her to tell them everything about her efforts to set up that alleged backchannel with the Trump campaign through a Russian handler.

WU: If they reached out to the campaign, even though it did not come to fruition, what the prosecutors are going to want to know is, what was the substance of that communication? What was offered, what was the reaction? Did anything else happen?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: CNN has reached out several times but no one on the Trump team has commented on Maria Butina's case. Neither has the NRA. Robert Mueller's office has not commented on whether it's involved in the Butina case or even interested in it, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see what happens. It could be very, very significant. Brian Todd, reporting for us. Thank you.

Just ahead, breaking news. President Trump, in a new interview, says he's not taking a pardon for Paul Manafort off the table.

[17:54:56] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Not off the table. President Trump says a pardon is still possible for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort as his plea bargain with Special Counsel Robert Mueller is collapsing.

And, tonight, CNN has learned exclusively what the President told Mueller in his written responses to the Special Counsel's questions.

[17:59:54] This flipping stuff. The President rails against the Russia investigation calling it a new McCarthy era and accusing Mueller of tricking people and forcing them to lie.