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Chris Christie Considered 'Strong Option' for White House Chief of Staff; 16 Trump Associates Had Contacts with Russians During Campaign, Transition; Plea Hearing Scheduled for Accused Russian Spy. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:03] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Tom Foreman, thank you so much. Appreciate it. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter, @JakeTapper. You can tweet the show, @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Spy pleas. A Russian woman accused of infiltrating Republican organizations to advance Moscow's interests appears to have reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors. What might she reveal about the attack on the 2016 election?

Holy "smock." In a rambling, misspelled tweet, President Trump seems to say Democrats can't find a smoking gun to show collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But CNN has now counted at least 16 Trump associates who had contacts with Russians.

Not enough chiefs. The president scrambles to find a new chief of staff after his first pick to replace John Kelly declines the job, and sources tell CNN other top administration officials aren't interested.

And pushing back on Putin. American forces get more aggressive in response to provocative Russian military moves. How will Vladimir Putin respond?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news: as President Trump is looking for a new chief of staff tonight, CNN has learned one strong option -- and that's a quote -- for the job is the former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.

That comes as the president, who has stayed behind closed doors all day, is lashing out on Twitter about the Russia investigation, denying any collusion between his 2016 campaign and Moscow.

But CNN has counted at least -- at least -- 16 Trump associates who had contacts with Russians during the campaign or during the transition, and sources say that list may grow larger.

I'll talk about that and more with Congressman Adam Kinzinger of the Foreign Affairs Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, as the Russia investigation reaches a critical new stage, the president is also apparently struggling to fill a very critical position in the West Wing. But some new names, I take it, are clearly emerging.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Oh, that's right, Wolf. The former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, is one of those names emerging at this hour. It's not clear whether Chris Christie would take that job, but his name is under consideration at the moment. One of many names now that this is a wide-open selection process for the job of chief of staff over here at the White House.

And President Trump, as you've been saying, Wolf, has been staying behind closed doors for much of the day, venting his frustrations about the Russia investigation and scrambling to find a new chief of staff after announcing John Kelly will be leaving that post before he even settled on a replacement.

A source close to the White House and the president says he is, quote -- and this is a quote here about the president -- "super pissed" that one contender for the job, the vice president's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, suddenly pulled himself out of the running.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump is trying to President Trump is trying to convince the world where there is smoke there is no fire. The president is downplaying the latest revelations in the Russia investigation, mocking any notion of collusion with Moscow, while declaring his innocence in the payments made by his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to women alleging affairs with Mr. Trump.

The president misspelled the word "smoking" and tweeted, Democrats can't find a smocking gun. No smocking gun. No collusion.

That's because there was no collusion, so now the Dems go to a simple, private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution. Which it was not. Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced."

Democrats insist those payments may well be campaign finance crimes and potential grounds for impeachment.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Well, they would be impeachable offenses, whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question. But certainly, they would be impeachable offenses.

ACOSTA: If not impeachment, other Democrats say perhaps possible prosecution.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: My takeaway is there's a very real prospect that, on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him. That he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time. ACOSTA: The president is sticking to his talking points.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On the Mueller situation, we're very happy with what we are reading, because there was no collusion whatsoever. There never has been. The last thing I want is help from Russia on a campaign.

ACOSTA: As he denies collusion, the president is trying to clear up the confusion inside the West Wing. After announcing the departure of his chief of staff, John Kelly, while teasing he was on the verge of tapping a replacement.

TRUMP: We'll be announcing who will be taking John's place. It might be on an interim basis. I'll be announcing that over the next day or two, but John will be leaving at the end of the year.

ACOSTA: The problem: the young, ambitious staffer initially eyed for the job, the vice president's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said no thanks and revealed he's leaving the White House, forcing the president to start scrambling.

But sources tell CNN other top administration officials aren't interested in the post, as in budget director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. GOP Congressman Mark Meadows has indicated he might take the job and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer is also under discussion.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: I'm also worried about General Kelly leaving the White House. I imagine that he was one of the people that was attempting to convince the president not to fire Mueller.


ACOSTA: Now as for that other wild card in the mix, a source close to the White House saying that the former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, is under consideration for the chief of staff job. That source said Christie could potentially clean House over here at the White House, although the former governor, we should point out, does not get along well with the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. As we know, Wolf, Christie once put Kushner's father in prisoner -- in prison, I should say.

The president might like the idea of having a former prosecutor in the West Wing to go toe-to-toe with the special counsel's office and with Democrats who are itching to investigate up on Capitol Hill.

And Wolf, getting back to what we were reporting at the top of this broadcast, the president, heading into this evening, is very upset that he has to begin this chief of staff process all over again. He thought he was going to have a new chief of staff over the weekend, and Nick Ayers, and a source close to the president, close to the White House, is saying the president is, quote, "super pissed" that he has to start that all over again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, you would have thought they -- they would have had all of this in the works, given the fact that --

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: -- Kelly was about to go.

All right. Thanks very much. Jim Acosta reporting from the White House.

Let's get some more on the Trump associates who had contact with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign and during the transition. Our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is here for us. Our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, is joining us, as well.

Evan, CNN has now identified at least 16 people associated with the president who had contact with Russian officials while in the White House. But how big is Mueller's picture right now? Do you expect the list to stop there or to grow?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It is quite possible that it is going to grow, Wolf. There's a number of references in these court documents that we've already seen. There's unnamed people that are associated with the campaign who have not yet been identified.

And so by the time this is all said and done, I fully expect that we might see a longer list than that list that we've been showing on the screen there, which has 16 people, which ranges, by the way, from Paul Manafort, the chairman of the campaign, and his deputy, Rick Gates, who were in business with Russians for many, many years, to his members of his family. Don Jr., obviously, who set up that now infamous June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower where he was supposed to be getting dirt on Hillary Clinton.

And keep in mind, some of these meetings happened. Some of them were face-to-face, some of them over text messages, phone, e-mail. And Robert Mueller has every single thing, every one of those communications. You have to imagine that by now Mueller and the investigators already have their hands on.

BLITZER: According to the federal prosecutors, Manafort lied about his contacts with at least one Russian and also lied about his contacts with the Trump administration. How significant is that?

PEREZ: I think both of those are very significant. One of those, we believe, is Konstantin Kilimnik, a spy, a Russian spy who was in business with Paul Manafort, and who was having these communications well into even the time when he was already facing charges here in the United States.

The second aspect of this is his contacts with people inside the administration, even, again, while we knew he was in trouble, Wolf. Some of those contacts happened into February of 2018, which is around the time when everybody was worried that Rick Gates was about to flip. Rick Gates was Paul Manafort's deputy. So what the content of those conversations, which by now we know,

Mueller has, is going to tell us everything about what -- you know, the importance of this -- of these lies. Because you have to wonder, why was he lying about these contacts?

BLITZER: You know, Shimon, President Trump's personal lawyer for a decade-plus, Michael Cohen, was also in touch with Russian officials on a deal to build that Trump Tower in Moscow, which never got off the ground. Now Mueller is zeroing in on that deal, though, as part of his Russia investigation. Tell us why.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so first of all, I think it's -- what's important to note here is that many people have been lying all around this investigation.

And one of the things that Michael Cohen had lied about was this project to congressional investigators. Mueller had known that, and when Cohen came before Mueller, he admitted that he essentially lied about it. And it was to protect the president.

This was going to be a pretty lucrative deal. A lot of people were going to make a lot of money off of this. This was going to be a big project. They were going to probably make, you know, millions, if not billions of dollars, had this project went through.

And so one of the other things that was going on was that the president and people attached to the campaign at the time were denying that they were having any contacts with Russians, certainly about any kind of business dealings.

[17:10:14] So, of course, that raised the suspicion from investigators: Why were people lying about this?

And then the other thing the concern with the Moscow project was, was the Russians using this as a way to perhaps manipulate the campaign? Manipulate Donald Trump and have something, to hold something over his head? So that when he became president, they could use it as an advantage against him.

And that has always concerned people, certainly, within the FBI and the intelligent -- within the counterintelligence bureau. The idea also here, Wolf, remember, was that Michael Cohen was in communication with people in the Kremlin. They had initially denied that they were talking to people in Russia about this project. He denied that the president was briefed on any of this. And then later on admitted that, "Yes, I lied about that. I was briefing the president about this project."

So all of that really concerned investigators at the time. And now we know the truth. And we know why that is.

BLITZER: Shimon and Evan, guys, thanks very much. Good reporting, as usual.

Let's get some more on all of this. Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois is joining us. He's a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: Good to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you know, these filings show that federal prosecutors are accusing President Trump directly of directing his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to commit felonies in order to influence the 2016 presidential election. Do you believe, if proven, that would be an impeachable offense?

KINZINGER: No. I mean, that's a political decision that will have to be made, evidently, by the incoming majority. Do I think that an FEC violation rises to the level of impeachment? Probably not. We have to see all the details of that.

All I'm getting is what you guys are getting, and you're reporting, which is some of the scraps of what's been filed in court. I think there's going to be a massive, more download at some point so that we know all the details.

When you look at issues of impeachment and what's taken for impeachment, I think it's got to be something massive, and that's going to be, again, it's a political decision that's made by the House of Representatives at that point. But I'm not sure if saying, you know, an FEC violation, for instance, rises to that level.

It's a decision that the Democrats are going to have to make, and it's one that they're going to have to live with politically and also, you know, does this reach that level of the Constitution -- what the Constitution call for.

BLITZER: But if the president, then the candidate, personally directed his lawyer, knowing -- fully knowing it was a violation of campaign finance laws to offer that hush money to those two women and doing it fully aware that it was a campaign finance violation, would that be a serious crime?

KINZINGER: Well, I think it would be a serious issue. You know, you're trying to ask me to say crime or impeachment. There's a lot of information I still don't know.

Is paying somebody to be quiet, in and of itself, a violation of the law? I don't think so. The question is, is that done and can they make that connection to say that was a -- basically an illegal in-kind contribution to benefit a presidential campaign? And that's going to be -- have to be something that the prosecutors will litigate in court and will be presented at some point before the House of Representatives, potentially, where they make that decision.

But is, you know, a in essence, illegal in-kind contribution, does that rise to that level? I don't see it right now, but there's still a lot of information to come out.

BLITZER: Yes. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York on that lengthy document that they filed on Friday, they did say it was a felony, and that the president of the United States, then the candidate actually, actually directed Michael Cohen to go ahead and commit that felony. So they're accusing the president of committing a felony.

KINZINGER: Yes, OK. Well, I mean, like I said, I've seen those. I've heard the gist of them. I haven't read all the documents. My guess is there's much more forthcoming.

But the question of whether that's a crime is not necessarily in the payoff, if that's what it was. But it's in whether that constitutes an illegal, in-kind contribution. And I'll tell you, there's campaigns fined all of the time by the FEC for violation, whether it's in-kind contributions, et cetera, that don't necessarily lead to impeachment of somebody in office or jail time.

BLITZER: These findings also revealed, Congressman, additional contacts between Russians and people in the president's orbit. At now, by our count, at least 16 Trump associates -- and you can see them up on the screen -- had at least some sort of contact with Russians. How do you explain that?

KINZINGER: No, I can't explain it. I don't like it. You know, I've always had some kind of creepy feelings about Paul Manafort. Even before the president was sworn in. He was very clearly sympathetic to Russian interests. To pro-Russian Ukrainian interests.

I was very upset when they changed the Republican national platform to include -- or to take away support for Ukraine against their fight against Russia.

And so there's a lot of information I looked at and, you know, two years ago was wondering what Paul Manafort's role in some of this is.

[17:15:10] We have to understand how Russian spy craft works, where they try to, in essence, climb a ladder to influence, to do things like that. And as a functioning democracy, we have to protect ourselves against that.

I think it's a leap right now to say that automatically goes up to the president, versus some of the people around him. We don't know that. What we do know is there are people that are being prosecuted by Manafort [SIC], cutting deals or not cutting deals, that had Russian associations.

Is it illegal to talk to the Russians? Probably not. But the question is, what were the Russians trying to do and what were they doing on behalf of the Russians? That's information I think we're fully going to get whenever the Mueller report comes out, which I hope is sooner than later.

BLITZER: Here's what's concerning. I'll get you a quick response. Several of those individuals of the 16, they lied about their contacts with the Russians; and not one of them actually reported to the FBI or federal authorities that Russians were getting involved with them for the purpose of aiding in the campaign. That's a serious problem. KINZINGER: I know, it is a serious problem. I mean, nobody, whether

you affiliate with Republicans or Democrats or independents or anywhere else in between, should ever be working on behalf of a foreign government, much less the Russians. Nobody should ever be, you know -- because of their political stripes, not subject to the law, whether Democrat or Republican.

And so what we're seeing is pieces of this puzzle, whatever the final puzzle looks like. And that's what Robert Mueller, whenever he completes his report, will put before us and we have to analyze.

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

KINZINGER: You bet, Wolf. See you.

BLITZER: All right. Up next, could the new revelations in the Russia investigation spell legal trouble for President Trump's children?

Plus, an accused Russian spy reaches a plea deal with federal prosecutors. How valuable is the information she might provide?


[17:21:09] BLITZER: There's an unexpected twist tonight in the case of an accused Russian spy. Federal prosecutors say Maria Butina infiltrated conservative organizations like the NRA to try to interfere in U.S. politics.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is working this story for us. Sara, update our viewers with the very latest on this case.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it appears that Maria Butina has reached a plea deal with the U.S. government. Now, we don't yet know what she is going to plead guilty to or whether she has information to offer investigators about other investigations. But we're sure to learn more about all of that in court on Wednesday.


MURRAY (voice-over): Prosecutors once accused Maria Butina of being a Russian spy who cozied up to the National Rifle Association. Now they appear ready to strike a plea deal.

Today, Butina's attorneys and prosecutors requested a change of plea hearing in D.C. federal court, noting that the parties have resolved this matter.

The filing indicates Butina is likely to plead guilty to at least one of the charges she's facing: conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. It's unclear whether Butina will agree to cooperate with other federal investigations as part of a deal, including the South Dakota fraud investigation into her boyfriend, GOP political operative, Paul Erickson.

Until now, 30-year-old Butina has maintained her innocence. Prosecutors accused Butina of ingratiating herself with American political entities who tried to advance Russian interests. But her lawyer insisted she was a bright American University graduate student who simply embraced her roots, even sporting a Vladimir Putin phone case.

ROBERT DRISCOLL, ATTORNEY FOR MARIA BUTINA: It's a picture of Vladimir Putin shirtless on the horse. So you can imagine, you know, she had it as a gag.

MURRAY: But Butina became a regular at exclusive NRA events, snapped picks with GOP presidential hopefuls as 2016 heated up, and posed a question to then candidate Donald Trump about Russian sanctions at a political event.

MARIA BUTINA, ACCUSED OF ESPIONAGE: I'm visiting from Russia --

TRUMP: Ah! Putin.

BUTINA: -- so my question --

MURRAY: She earned a telling response.

TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin. OK? And I mean, where we have the strength. I don't think you'd need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well.

MURRAY: The Justice Department charged Butina back in July amid a flurry of U.S./Russia news. She was arrested days after the Justice Department indicted Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic Party, and her case became public the day President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and declined to admit Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

TRUMP: I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

MURRAY: Butina's case created its own furor, in part because of prosecutors' salacious allegations that she tried to trade sex for access. Prosecutors later admitted that was an error, and they misunderstood text messages they were relying on as evidence of her sexual overture.

But the honeypot stereotype inspired her attorney to release a video of Butina and her boyfriend, Erickson, performing a Disney love song.

BUTINA (singing): There is always time.


MURRAY: Now Maria Butina's father actually talked to some Russian media, and he insists that his daughter did nothing wrong but said she might admit in court that she should have registered as a foreign agent.

As for her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, he's still not facing any charges and, in fact, he continues to visit her in jail. Wolf, though, if she does plead guilty, she's likely to be sent back to Russia. BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Obviously, very significant

development. Thanks very much, Sara, for that.

Coming up, President Trump tweets about hush-money payments. Are they impeachable offenses?

Plus, the growing list of Trump associates now known to have had contacts with Russians. How many are there?


[17:29:33] BLITZER: Tonight, as Democrats consider pursuing impeachment, President Trump is lashing out with a typo-filled tweet, the president says Democrats haven't found a, quote, "smocking gun" tying his campaign to Russia.

But new analysis from CNN finds at least 16 Trump associates who had contact with Russians.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and analysts. He said that, "smocking gun," twice, not once, in those tweets. It's very interesting, Susan. You were here with us, Friday. We were going through these documents. They were coming in right when we went on the air. We were trying to figure out what was going on. You've now had a chance all weekend to review, to study these three respective documents. What's your major take-away?

[17:30:13] SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Something that's going to take a lot more than a weekend for us to comprehend sort of the full impact and scope of this. I think it's going to reverberate for a really long time.

You know, at the end of the day, I do think one of the most significant things is that SDNY filing in which federal prosecutors asserted in their own voice that the president had directed the commission of multiple federal crimes. They would not have been allowed to include that in a filing unless they believed it was true.

And I do think that we can say without exaggeration, if president -- if Donald Trump was not currently president of the United States, he would be under indictment, or he would be imminently under indictment. I mean, that -- it is that level of sort of severity and seriousness.

And look, you know, these aren't small, technical violations. These are violations that go to the core of the reason why we have campaign finance laws. This is hiding information from the American people and defrauding them, you know, before they make their ultimate democratic choice.

And I do think, ultimately, the question here is, if this is what prosecutors are saying if these very restrained technical court filings, what is going to be in the Mueller report? And I think we're starting to get a little taste of why the president is so terrified.

BLITZER: yes. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District in New York specifically said that Michael Cohen, quote, "acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual 1, and Individual 1" -- Individual 1, as the document says, is the president of the United States -- "with the intent of influencing the election." Not to prevent any embarrassment to his family or his business. But influencing the election.

HENNESSEY: Right. And that is the core element of the crime. It's not just that they made the payments, but they made it for the purpose of influencing the election. That's prosecutors saying, "we have almost all of the elements and we're prepared to prove them in court."

BLITZER: And now we're getting a lot more information, Dana, on the extent of the context between Trump associates and Russians. At least 16. That number is expected to go higher.

As far as we can tell, none of those contacts, we're told -- nobody told anything to the FBI about Russians trying to get in touch with them, and several of those individuals up on the screen right now, they lied about those contacts with the Russians.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. And that's the key. Lying about -- lying about it, never mind the very questionable behavior during the campaign of not raising their hands and saying to the FBI, "This just happened. I got a call from Russian X, Russian Y."

And, look, a lot of those characters in the Trump world that you just put up have different stories with regard to their contacts with the Russians.

Some, it's because they have had genuine business relationships. Michael Flynn is probably the most prominent of that. Maybe Paul Manafort, as well, and those who work for Paul Manafort, like -- like Rick Gates.

But in other situations, the most infamous, I guess you would say, is the Trump Tower meeting in 2016. It's because the Russians were so aggressive and so blatant about trying to get into and trying to influence the campaign against Hillary Clinton. And they had at least willing listeners.

And, again, we've been talking about this for over two years. Is that a crime? You know, probably not. But the question is what happens after that, and just protocol. This is the reason why protocol is such that, when you are working on a campaign and you get a call from any foreign operative, you hang up the phone. You pick up the phone again, and you call the FBI.

BLITZER: Yes. And it clearly -- neither Paul Manafort nor the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., or the president's son-in-law.

BASH: Nobody did.

BLITZER: They were all at that Trump Tower meeting with the Russians and none of them notified the FBI.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Not only did none of them notify the FBI, but when I believe "The New York Times" was the first to report about that meeting: "Whoa, this is about adoption. This is a nothing burger." Come to find out, not only was it not just about that, in fact, the impetus of the reason the meeting happened was the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton by Natalie Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer.

But also, that Donald Trump Jr. didn't give the statement to "The New York Times" from him. That was Donald Trump who dictated it. This is -- I think you just keep coming back and back to this.

You asked Susan sort of big take-away. Mine was, there's just a lot of people talking to the Russians and lying about -- to Dana, lying about the nature of their context. And not just lying to us, lying when there are real consequences. And you have to ask, why?

BLITZER: Sabrina, how much did these filings on Friday change things for the president of the United States?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, the president is clearly rattled. And that was evidenced in the tweetstorm where he tried to downplay the contents of these filings, stating that there was no smoking gun when there were, in fact, substantial revelations that he should be concerned about. In particular, that the Mueller filings stated Michael Cohen provided the special counsel with information on Russian-related matters that is at the core of its investigation.

[17:35:05] Also, the revelation that the contacts between the Russians and Trump's inner circle dated back to the fall of 2015 and not the spring of 2016, as was initially reported.

And the other, of course, big question is around this Trump Tower project in Moscow, where Cohen's legal team said that, when Michael Cohen provided a false statement to Congress about the time line for that project, he was in regular and close contact with the White House and the president's legal team.

So that also calls into question what -- in what ways was, perhaps, the White House trying to obstruct justice, or at least to dictate the narrative around those contacts that, of course, now fell apart on Friday, based on the information that was in those court filings.

BLITZER: We have more to discuss. We're getting more information. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:40:30] BLITZER: We're back with our correspondents and our analysts.

And Chris Cillizza, Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, he's almost certainly going to be the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee with subpoena power. He says that what the president is now accused of doing are, from his perspective, impeachable offenses.

But it's, in his words, a different question as to the political calculations -- CILLIZZA: Yes.

BLITZER: -- for impeachment. What are you hearing?

CILLIZZA: Look, I actually think in its way, what we learned on Friday and last week with Flynn, as well, puts Democrats, particularly Nancy Pelosi, assuming she's going to be the speaker, in a sort of tight spot, in that there are now, to Susan's point and to the Southern District of New York, they clearly believe that Donald Trump actively sought to evade campaign finance laws with these hush-money payments to keep his chances at winning as high as possible.

That's different than the allegations that we had, whether it was from Cohen or whether it was from, you know, anything else we had out there. So it will be tougher for her and Nadler to navigate that.

Pelosi has been on the record saying, "Look, I don't think we should do impeachment now." Now, the question is, she's holding off until the Mueller report comes out, which is the smart thing to do. Maybe at that point, it will be definitive one way or another.

The dangerous thing is if it feels like it's in some gray area, because I will tell you, the Democratic base wants him impeached yesterday.

BASH: I think that's such an important point. Because it's a very different situation. But if you go back to when the Democrats took over in 2006, one of the first things the base wanted Nancy Pelosi to do when she became speaker was impeachment proceedings for President Bush for the Iraq war. Again, very different situation. At the time, she beat it back and said, "No, we're not doing that."

This is, you know, a totally -- has so much more energy in the base. This notion of picking up any little thing that they can from things like the filings on Friday, and who knows what we're going to see from future filings or the big report from Robert Mueller. It is going to be harder for her to do that. And depending on what surfaces, she might not want to do that. She might want to go forward.

And it does present a lot of peril, just look back to the White House that you covered, Wolf. The Clinton White House. Impeachment went forward, and the person who politically benefited when impeachment failed was Bill Clinton.

BLITZER: He was impeached. But he wasn't convicted in the Senate.

CILLIZZA: And by the way, the same situation there in terms of raw numbers, House and Senate holds here. He could be impeached in the House. It would go to a Republican majority 53-seat Senate for a conviction in the removal.

BLITZER: You need two-thirds.

CILLIZZA: There's -- that's going to be a very -- a lot of Democrats are wary of going -- walking out that plank and then having it sawed off behind them and having nothing to show for it. BLITZER: You know, Susan, Congressman Adam Schiff, who's almost

certainly going to be the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, he raised the prospect, very curious, that the president could be indicted after -- after -- he leaves office, and he could even face jail time after he leaves office. What do you think?

HENNESSEY: Yes, so I don't know how realistic it is that they actually would bring charges. But they certainly could. This is within the statute of limitations. And it's for conduct that occurred before Trump was even president.

Now, there is an open question about whether or not a sitting president can be indicted. But from there is no question that somebody can be indicted after they leave office.

Now, the statute of limitations wouldn't cover Trumps second term in office. But I don't even know that winning reelection would necessarily, you know, immunize him from this, because there is a very strong argument that the statute of limitation is told or paused for the period in which you actually can't prosecute someone. So even if Trump won re-election, he might still, at least in theory, face charges on this.

BLITZER: Sabrina, you heard Sara Murray's report on Maria Butina, the alleged Russian spy. She's now expected as early as Wednesday to enter into some sort of guilty plea agreement with -- with federal prosecutors. What do you think? How significant, potentially, could this be?

SIDDIQUI: Well, Maria Butina spent years ingratiating herself with conservative activists, Republican Party operatives and, according to prosecutors, she was able to infiltrate the highest levels of the NRA, which is, of course, one of the most powerful groups, not just in Washington, but frankly, the country.

And one of the things that's significant about Butina is she had, of course, initially pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and acting as an agent of a foreign government. What the terms are of her plea agreement, we don't -- do not yet know.

But she also was someone who posed a question to then-candidate Trump at a conference in 2015, getting him on the record for the first time about U.S. sanctions against Russia and his desire to improve ties between Washington and Moscow.


There's going to be an open-ended question as to whether or not she was able to have any contacts within the Trump campaign. But also, I think her cooperation could shed light on just how widespread the Russian involvement was in the democratic process prior to our presidential election and, of course, the tactics that they were able to use to reach the most powerful players in Washington.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Especially since she was the one who was hiding in plain sight. I mean, she's the one we know about and there's so many -- I mean, obviously, we have the Mueller indictments of the people who tried, successfully so, to use bots and so forth in the election.

But she is -- I mean, frankly, it's almost like a character in "The Americans." I mean, it's hard to believe that she was so flagrant about what she did. And, you know, successful at least in getting something, to us, might seem minor but I'm sure in Russia was huge -- asking a question of the future President of the United States in public.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And the federal --



BASH: About Russia.

CILLIZZA: Yes. I mean --

BLITZER: And federal prosecutors accused her of being a representative, an agent of Russian intelligence.

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: And that she worked with the NRA and others to try to get her position across.

All right, everybody, stick around. There's a lot more we're following. After a series of Russian military provocations, top Pentagon officials are now sending a message to Vladimir Putin. We're going to bring you the latest.


[17:51:12] BLITZER: Tonight, we have new details about how the Pentagon is responding to a series of military provocations by Russia's Vladimir Putin.

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

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the U.S. military is almost suddenly turning very aggressive toward Vladimir Putin, deploying planes and warships to send signals to the Russian President and his forces that a red line could be getting drawn.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, the U.S. military is signaling it's fed up with Vladimir Putin's aggression.

His warships rammed a Ukrainian vessel. His fighter jets buzzed American ships and planes. And he sent a spy ship from Havana to roam America's East Coast. Gathering intelligence, all in recent months. MAJ. GEN. JAMES MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: He is clearly

sending a message to our president that, I have freedom of movement and I can do what I want.

And now we're sending the message, look, we've had enough. We thought we might be able to communicate with you, talk you down from the ledge. That apparently is not working. Now, we're going to take action.

TODD (voice-over): American sea and air forces pushing back on Putin with three actions.

An American-guided missile destroyer has sailed near a Russian- controlled area in the Sea of Japan where Russia and Japan are disputing a group of islands. A Navy official telling CNN it's the first time a U.S. warship has done a strategic maneuver against the Russians in that area since the Cold War.

Also, a U.S. Air Force surveillance plane has conducted an overflight of Ukraine.

MARKS: We're looking at Russian forces that are already in the Ukraine. We're collecting intelligence.

TODD (voice-over): And another American Navy ship is about to steam into the Black Sea off Ukraine.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, NONRESIDENT SENIOR FELLOW FOR THE EURASIA CENTER, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: The U.S. is sailing in the Black Sea to demonstrate that this is not Putin's lake, that he does not own the waters of the Black Sea.

TODD (voice-over): The American Black Sea maneuver and the overflight of Ukraine are at least partially in response to the Russian ship's confrontation with Ukrainian boats in the Kerch Strait off Crimea in late November. An area that Putin invaded and annexed and which analysts say could now be one errant bullet away from a major conflict.

MARKS: This region is now the latest page in a new chapter in the Cold War.

TODD (voice-over): Experts say America's recent diplomatic finger- wagging over Putin's military moves doesn't work with the former KGB colonel. And it's likely that U.S. officials felt they had to hit him with language he understands.

CARPENTER: Putin only responds when there are consequences to his actions -- military consequences, economic consequences, diplomatic consequences. When things flow from his actions, then he takes notice.

TODD (voice-over): But some analysts don't expect these American military moves to stop Putin from being aggressive. They say he could respond by taking it out, as he often does, on Ukraine, possibly harassing Ukrainian commercial shipping. CARPENTER: I think Putin's next move is to take full control of the

Kerch Strait and to exert dominance in the Sea of Azov. He wants to effectively blockade or economically starve Ukraine.


TODD: One of the dangers ahead in this high-stakes game of military maneuvers? Analysts worry about miscommunication between U.S. and Russian forces on land, sea, or air. Then a possible miscalculation. Ships or planes maybe coming too close to each other, someone firing, and then you've got a full-scale escalation.

Wolf, that's what everyone is watching tonight.

BLITZER: That's a good point, Brian. You also have some new signs Russia is building up its military in occupied Crimea.

TODD: New and disturbing signs, Wolf. New satellite photos showing Russia has, in recent weeks, installed what they call an S-400 missile battery in occupied Crimea. This is according to the Israeli satellite intelligence firm, ImageSat International.

You can see their launch positions here. These are some of Russia's most advanced missiles for shooting down planes with a range of over 200 miles.

[17:55:01] Also, a photo from Saturday shows three giant cargo planes. You see one of them enlarged there. They have arrived in occupied Crimea for the first time.

This intelligence firm says those planes are used for transporting heavy equipment such as armor. So this buildup is something the U.S. military is keeping a very, very close eye on.

BLITZER: Very interesting. All right, Brian, thank you very much.

Coming up, at least 16 Trump associates now known to have had contact with Russians during the campaign. Are there more?

Plus, an accused Russian spy apparently poised to enter a plea deal with federal prosecutors.


[18:00:00] BLITZER: Happening now, courting a spy. An accused Russian operative charged with infiltrating the GOP and the NRA now appears set to strike a plea deal.