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Interview With Delaware Senator Chris Coons; White House Chief of Staff Search Continues; Legal Problems Closing in on Trump?; Source: Accused Russian Spy Maria Butina Has Begun Cooperating With Feds After Agreeing to Plea Deal. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 10, 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: 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. Will Maria Butina cooperate with prosecutors in the Russia investigation?

Russian interaction. We're tracking the growing list of key figures from Trump world whose contacts with the Russians have been revealed. Tonight, the number is 16 and counting, as Mueller prepares to drop more bombshells.

Felonies and lies. Federal prosecutors now have implicated the president in two crimes, and they're digging deeper tonight, focusing in on Mr. Trump's business and his family. What will they uncover?

And not it. A top contender to replace John Kelly as White House chief of staff just says no. And now Mr. Trump is said to be furious about how this is all playing out. We're going to tell you what we're learning and who he is blaming.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on President Trump's search for a new chief of staff. Multiple sources now telling CNN that Mr. Trump is angry and feels humiliated after he was turned down by the vice president's chief of staff, Nick Ayers.

This as an apparent plea deal by an accused Russian spy may also be raising Mr. Trump's blood pressure. It is possible, but not yet clear if Maria Butina has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors or if she could advance the Russia investigation, but there's no doubt that the legal pressure on the president and his inner circle is ratcheting higher, as the gravity of Robert Mueller's newest revelation sinks in.

By CNN's count, contacts between Russia and at least 16 close Trump associates now have been exposed.

This hour, I will talk about that and more with Senate Judiciary member Chris Coons. And our correspondents and analysts are standing by.

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

Jim, the president's plan to replace John Kelly, his chief of staff, they have now blown up in his face.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They have blown up and he is furious about it, Wolf.

President Trump stayed 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 in on a replacement.

A source close to the president says he is -- quote -- "super pissed" that one contender for the job, the vice president's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, suddenly pulled himself out of the running without the president having a plan B.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): 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 Mitt Romney.

The president misspelled the work smoking and tweeted: "Democrats can't 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 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, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On the Mueller situation, we're very happy with what we're 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 will be announcing who will be taking John's place. It might be on an interim basis. I will 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 topic 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 consideration.

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

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[18:05:06]

ACOSTA: Now, earlier today, the president tried to compare himself to former President Barack Obama when it comes to these allegations about campaign finance improprieties.

Let's put this up on screen. We can show you this tweet from earlier today. The president saying earlier today that his case is just like Obama's.

One thing we should point out, Wolf, the president trying to compare as payment to the porn star Stormy Daniels to this fine that former President Obama had to pay after the 2008 campaign. But that is hardly an appropriate comparison, as Obama was fined by the Federal Election Commission for not reporting some of his donors.

Wolf, as we know, in President Trump's case, his former attorney Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty of a crime, saying that the president ordered him to do this, that he acted at Mr. Trump's direction. So those are two very different things, two completely different things.

And getting back to the chief of staff hunt over here at the White House, one name that we're hearing brought up is the former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. We're not exactly sure whether or not Christie is interested in that job. He is one of the names being mentioned at this point.

But the president, as we were reporting at the top of all of this, is very angry, very upset he has to start this process all over again, after Nick Ayers pulled himself out of the running. It now appears to be a wide open selection process for a very important job here in Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure the president isn't happy about that. Very frustrated, indeed.

Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you very much.

Now to the Russia investigation and the growing list of key figures in Trump world who have had contacts with the Russians. By CNN's count, at least 16 Trump associates, including his son, daughter and son-in- law, had interactions with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign or during the transition.

Our senior national correspondent, Alex Marquardt, is here. He's working the story for us.

Alex, after the stunning filings by federal prosecutors on Monday, investigators are keeping a very sharp focus, I take it, on the president, his associates, including his family?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this long and growing list includes some of the most important people around the president.

And the contacts that they had with the Russians did come in different ways, face-to-face meetings, text messages, phone calls, e-mails. The people on this list, 16 of them, all deny any collusion with Russia. But now, thanks to recent court filings by Robert Mueller's team, we do have new details about what some of these key figures are said to have done and what Robert Mueller is zeroing in on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT (voice-over): They are among the biggest names in the Trump orbit, the children, the campaign chairman, the former attorney general, 16 people associated with Donald Trump who had contact with Russians during the campaign and in the White House.

Among the key contacts, Donald Jr. set up a meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn called the Russian ambassador to discuss sanctions, and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied about his contacts with a Russian connected to the intelligence services.

In the months after the election, Trump and senior officials repeatedly denied any contacts took place.

TRUMP: There was no collusion between us and Russia. I watched the news this morning.

MARQUARDT: But, tonight, there's renewed focus on the Trump team's dealings with Moscow, after the special counsel's office told a court that it sees significance in Michael Cohen negotiating to build a Trump Tower in Russia while the Kremlin was meddling in the U.S. election.

Mueller's team alleging the Trump Organization's project in Russia, worth hundreds of millions of dollars and continued as Trump ran for president, was a lucrative business opportunity that sought and likely required the assistance of the Russian government.

Meanwhile, ahead of Paul Manafort's sentencing, the special counsel's office revealed that Manafort continued to reach out to the Trump administration after he was indicted and struck a plea deal, and then lied about it. Why he tried to contact them is unclear.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: And Manafort claims he has told Mueller's team only the truth since striking that plea deal.

Today, we learned that he has waived his right to be there in person at a hearing in court tomorrow about the breach of that plea deal, whether he lied to the special counsel. He could face new charges for those alleged lies or be subject, Wolf, to a harsher sentence.

BLITZER: And potentially he's facing many years in prison. He's almost 70 years old right now.

MARQUARDT: Exactly.

BLITZER: All right, Alex, good report. Thank you very much.

Joining us now, Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat. He serves on both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's get right to a key question. Do you believe President Trump has committed impeachable offenses?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Wolf, I can't reach that conclusion yet, but certainly the most recent filings by Robert Mueller and other recent court filings strongly suggest that there were campaign finance violations committed by Michael Cohen, at President Trump's direction, and that those are violations that may well lead to criminal charges.

Whether or not that's an impeachable offense is something where I, as a member of the Senate, would ultimately be sitting as literally a member of the jury. So I think that's a question we don't need to reach yet.

[18:10:08]

But this certainly puts the president at much more focused legal jeopardy. And the recent filings by Mueller's team, both against Paul Manafort and against Michael Cohen, and some other things you teased at the top of the hour here about Maria Butina, strongly suggests that the legal risks for President Trump and his inner circle have escalated in recent days. BLITZER: The incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,

Jerry Nadler, says the political calculation on impeachment is a different question, as opposed to criminal charges.

How do you think Democrats should proceed, first of all, in the House of Representatives, which would have to take up impeachment first?

COONS: I think that the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in January ought to be focusing and dedicating their time to proposing legislation that would actually solve the problems facing average Americans, rising health care costs, an opioid crisis, a need for stronger skills and better jobs through an infrastructure package.

Take up and pass those bills, send them over to us in the Senate, and challenge President Trump and the Senate Republican majority to work across the aisle and to address the problems facing working families.

I do think, however, that, on the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Nadler and his members will have a fair amount of work to do to improve the transparency of this administration and to make sure that the issues that are being raised by the Mueller investigation are pursued all the way to their logical conclusion, and to protect that investigation from undue interference, either by President Trump directly or by the leadership of the Justice Department.

BLITZER: Do you agree with Congressman Adam Schiff, who's going to be the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that President Trump could be indicted and possibly face jail time after he leaves office?

COONS: Yes.

BLITZER: Talk a little bit about that. Why?

COONS: Well, the charges, the issues outlined against both Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, I think, continue to sharpen the ways in which it's clear that the Mueller investigation has produced a whole series of actions not previously exposed to the public.

Michael Cohen -- the evidence that's been presented in the Michael Cohen case, that the president directed him to engage in payments that were intended to influence the outcome of the election, really sharpens the president's legal risk here. And I agree with Congressman Schiff that that might well form the basis for an indictment after the president leaves office.

BLITZER: The Mueller filings that were revealed -- that were released on Friday also revealed that Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, was in direct touch with the Trump White House this year and lied about it.

What concerns does that raise your mind?

COONS: Well, I have got concerns about witness tampering and about interference in the ongoing Mueller investigation, both directly and indirectly, by the president and some of the folks in his senior leadership team.

And the Manafort filings lend some credence to those concerns.

BLITZER: William Barr, the president's nominee to be the next attorney general, he certainly, if confirmed, would be overseeing this entire Mueller investigation.

You have expressed some concern about his views on executive power and the Mueller investigation. What will you be looking for during his confirmation hearings?

COONS: Well, this is exactly why confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee are critical.

It gives us an opportunity to get the nominee on the record in terms of whether he will protect the Mueller investigation and whether he has views about executive power that are outside the mainstream.

As you know, Wolf, that's something I really focused on in now Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. And I think it's important that the American people understand the risk to our constitutional order posed by extreme views of executive power that would give this president and future presidents the ability to fire at will all sorts of significant administration figures.

BLITZER: You serve on the Judiciary Committee in the Senate.

Do you have any timeline for this confirmation process, when it will begin, when the hearings will begin before your committee?

COONS: Not yet. We haven't heard exactly when the president intends to submit the nomination to the committee and the Senate and when we would take it up, but I would hope as soon as possible.

Acting Attorney General Whitaker should not be in the position he's in. It didn't follow the succession statute. It didn't follow DOJ procedures. And I do think, now that there is a nominee, we should move as expeditiously as possible to take up the nomination of William Barr to serve as the next attorney general.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to have a lot more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:19:26]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We have a significant breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

An accused Russian spy, Maria Butina, reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, has been following the story for us.

Sara, what are you learning about this cooperation agreement?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they have reached a deal.

And, of course, it's not official until it's entered and agreed to in court and by the judge. But what we know is that she's already begun cooperating with federal investigators. That cooperation is likely to last. And we are expected to learn much more when she appears in court on Wednesday.

[18:20:00]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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.

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 to try 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, you can imagine, which she had as a gag.

MURRAY: But Butina became a regular at exclusive NRA events, snapped pics 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, DEFENDANT: I'm visiting from Russia. So, my question...

TRUMP: Ah. Putin.

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 would 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 that. 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, once again, we are now learning that Maria Butina is cooperating with prosecutors. This is part of her plea deal.

Again, she is going to be in court on Wednesday. We will learn more there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Federal court.

What do you think she has that is so enticing to federal prosecutors to give her some sort of deal? What kind of information?

MURRAY: Well, this is interesting, because, remember, this is separate from the special counsel's Russia investigation.

This was a case that was brought in D.C. And so there are a couple of things she could provide information on. One, of course, is her boyfriend, who we noted is facing these fraud charges in South Dakota. He's also under scrutiny by investigators here for his role in this sort of alleged plot.

But the other thing we could learn about are her contacts with her Russian handlers. We know that she was operating here in the U.S. at sort of the direction of this man Aleksandr Torshin. He's a Kremlin- linked banker who's currently been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury.

So she may be able to give prosecutors a little bit more insight about the circumstances in which she came to the U.S., how she kept in contact with her handlers here, and what they were interested and getting from her. And, again, we will look toward that hearing on Wednesday.

BLITZER: Yes, we will watch it closely.

Thanks very much, Sara. Good reporting.

We're going to continue to watch all the breaking news.

Right now, joining us, our senior legal analyst, the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

Preet, how significant is Maria Butina's cooperation?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's pretty significant.

The fact of it is significant. You don't usually get Russian spies who cooperate with authorities in the United States. When I was a U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, we brought a number of cases alleging that there were Russian spies in our midst.

Most famously, in 2010, there was a case of the 10 Russian illegals who were living as ordinary Americans or pretending to live as ordinary Americans in various parts of the country. And what happened there was, at the end of the day, they ended up pleading guilty, and then immediately getting on a plane and being shipped to Europe, where, on a tarmac, in dramatic fashion, they were exchanged for spies that were in the custody of Russia.

So, usually, it's the case that spies do their dirty work, they leave, they go back to the home country, or, if they're charged, there's some other disposition. It is very unusual and significant for someone like this to cooperate and give us -- and by us, I mean, American law enforcement authorities -- their side of the story and discussions about contacts with handlers, as was mentioned on the report that preceded this.

So I think it's pretty significant.

BLITZER: Yes. She's an alleged Russian spy. And it's -- I think it's pretty extraordinary that an alleged Russian spy accused of, in effect, espionage here in the United States would in fact plead guilty, cooperate with federal -- this doesn't happen very often, does it?

[18:25:08]

BHARARA: No.

And I'm trying to think. The case I mentioned from eight years ago was the most significant one. We charged other spies, Russian and from other countries as well, over in China, over the course of my time as U.S. attorney.

Maybe I'm forgetting one, but I cannot remember a time when you had someone like this cooperating in the way that it's -- that the reporting suggests that she intends to.

BLITZER: How -- the fact that she's cooperating right now, how do you think U.S. prosecutors, the U.S. attorney here in Washington, D.C., convinced her and her lawyers to, you know what, you better cooperate?

BHARARA: I mean, the typical way you convince people is, you explain to them the costs and the benefits. And so if people think they're going to be in prison for a long time, it's usually a case of saving your own skin.

And maybe they put forward an opportunity for her to get out of jail at an earlier time. And maybe the prospect of a long prison sentence is not something that was interesting to somebody who's young and 30 years old and has a whole life ahead of her.

I think what's also interesting here is, this case, like the Michael Cohen case initially, was something that was looked at by the special prosecutor. And my understanding is, it was then parceled out to a particular U.S. attorney, in the Michael Cohen case to the Southern District, my old office, and, in the Maria Butina case, to the U.S. attorney in the district of Columbia, which might lead you to believe that maybe her cooperation is not so significant to the special counsel investigation, because, frankly, the case was given up.

But as we saw in the Michael Cohen case, once he decided to cooperate, he not only cooperated with or attempted to cooperate, not beautifully, as we saw from the papers last week, but attempted to cooperate with the Southern District folks. He also made arrangements to cooperate with, give information to special counsel Mueller, even though Mueller had given up that case to the Southern District.

So, here, it's not only interesting with respect to what the D.C. U.S. attorney's office might be interested in with respect to this spy, alleged spy, but also what she can come back to the special counsel and say about the election and all sorts of other things that are in the core of what the special counsel cares about.

BLITZER: It's interesting that just -- she was arrested just days before she was scheduled to leave the United States to head back to Russia.

Are you surprised the Russians let her stay here this long?

BHARARA: You know, Russians make mistakes.

One of the reasons why we have been able to charge spies in the past is they get a little bit arrogant and they think that their spycraft has not been detected. In the case of the Russian illegals case that I mentioned now a couple times from eight years ago, those folks were under surveillance for years before they understood that they were.

And so maybe a mistake was made and she should have been brought back earlier. That happens. And it's fortuitous for us when it does.

BLITZER: Well, clearly, the U.S., I suspect, had information she was getting ready to leave, so they decided to go ahead with the arrest before she got on a plane to head over to Moscow.

But the whole issue of collusion, very quickly, Preet, before I let you go, Russian intelligence, Maria Butina, NRA, Trump associates, is there evidence of collusion potentially here?

BHARARA: Yes, there could be. It depends on what she has to say.

And one of the reasons why you and I are having this discussion about how extraordinary it is to have someone like Maria Butina cooperate is that, usually, at least so far in the case that we have been talking about for a year-and-a-half up to date, is that you have information from the American side.

And the special counsel's been looking for testimony from people on the American side, who would say, we had these contacts, here are the people that we talked to, here are the intercepts that maybe the intel agencies have.

Now you have someone who's on the Russian side, who can give a lot more information, and a lot more credibly, about the ways in which the Russians attempted to interfere with and influence the election, which is one thing, and then, separately, as you ask and point out, on the issue of collusion.

So, again, it depends on what she has to say, but it's looking more ominous with respect to that prong of the investigation, yes.

BLITZER: Yes, I have been told for weeks now, watch Maria Butina. Potentially, this could be a real bombshell.

We will see what happens on Wednesday and the days that follow.

Preet, thanks very much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf. Sure.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, Phil Mudd and Jeffrey Toobin, they're both standing by to weigh in on the accused Russian spy Maria Butina and her cooperation with investigators.

And since the new revelations from Robert Mueller have emerged, Democrats are using the I-word more and more. But could potential efforts to impeach the president actually backfire?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following breaking news. CNN has learned that the accused Russian spy Maria Butina has started cooperating with federal prosecutors after agreeing to a plea deal in recent days.

[18:34:22] This development unfolding right now as Robert Mueller's investigation zeros in on connections between Russians and the Trump team.

Let's bring in our analysts. And Jeffrey Toobin, according to this agreement -- we have part of it -- Maria Butina, quote, "has agreed and conspired with -- agreed and conspired with a Russian government official -- Russian official -- and at least one other person for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian official without prior notification to the attorney general."

How significant is this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Potentially very significant. Because it is yet another example of Russians trying to influence the American political system, and the question, of course, is who did she influence? How did she influence? Was there any connection to the Trump campaign?

We know that she asked a significant question at a Trump news conference. Was that set up in advance? Did the president -- did candidate Trump know to call on her? Why, out of all of the times he spoke in public, that was the first time he talked about his desire to ease off sanctions and get along well with Vladimir Putin? That could all be yet another coincidence, but it is certainly something prosecutors are going to want to look into.

BLITZER: Because there's been a long-time suspicion she was a plant. She came in there; they knew she was going to ask that. He was ready to offer that answer.

TOOBIN: Let's find that out. And as always, the important question will be does she have corroboration of the story she tells to prosecutors, e-mails, phone calls, the like?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, it just shows you how sophisticated the Russians were in all of this and -- and how they worked the system, inviting members from the NRA to Moscow on a couple of occasions, treating them really well.

You know, she may be a plant here. And who else were they doing this with?

We know that the NRA gave the Trump campaign, what, $30 million -- $30 million. They were really important backers of Donald Trump. And you know, it shows that not only were the Russians hacking in one way, but in other way they were -- they were influence peddling with organizations who were -- who wanted money from them, and we'll have to see what -- what --

TOOBIN: What she says.

BORGER: What she says, yes.

BLITZER: Phil, you used to work at the CIA. How rare is it for a Russian national, accused of being a Russian spy, to all of a sudden decide to plead guilty and cooperate with federal authorities?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I want to see what she's cooperating on. This isn't going to happen that often, but I want to see if she's coming clean or if she's going to pull a Paul Manafort: "I'm cooperating, but actually, I'm not cooperating at all."

If she is, give me a pepperoni pizza and some Diet Cokes, because this is what people like me live for. No. 1, I want to know trade craft: how did she operate? How was she, for example, interacting with other Russians here to determine whether we see that trade craft with others? Does she know of other Russians who are doing the same things?

Let me give you another couple: targets. Who was she only told to go up against and why? Was it only the NRA or was it others?

So when you look at these things, how they Russians operated, who was she targeting, whether she knows there are other people working for the Russians, I mean, if she wants to sit down and talk, that is a lot of pizzas, because she's going to have a lot of information.

TOOBIN: Damn, that sounds like a movie! Great!

BLITZER: It could be a movie. It's pretty dramatic, especially if she decides -- I don't know if she will -- to defect and stay in the United States and give up her whole Russian connection.

MUDD: Sure. If she decides to do that, there's a whole load of other stuff I want to go after if I'm looking at her.

For example, I want your phone. I want your laptop. I want every password you ever have. Because if -- even if she doesn't know something substantial -- and I think that's doubtful -- she knows or at least she's got information on how she communicated back home.

Let me give you a real basic. How did she get paid? Who arranged for her travel back to Moscow? She's a gold mine of information about how the Russians operate in what we call out-of-embassy operations in the United States.

BORGER: Writing the screenplay.

BLITZER: David, how significant do you think is all going to be?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's significant, Wolf. I don't think it tells us as much today about what connections were made with the Trump campaign or Trump circle. It was reported several months ago she tried to set up a backchannel meeting with Donald Trump Jr. but that that wasn't successful.

It tells us more though, to Jeffrey's point I think, about what the Russians were trying to do to find soft spots in the American political system and see if they could influence it. Even if President Trump had no idea she was at that press availability in the summer of 2015, she was there, got called on, asked a question that prompted him to give that answer, which was very solicitous of President Trump and started him off talking about this idea that we should get along with Russia, and what's all of the fuss about.

BLITZER: You mentioned the clip. We have the clip, Jeffrey. This is July 2015, very early in the campaign.

TOOBIN: Very early.

BLITZER: All of a sudden, a young woman, a graduate student at American University here in Washington, asked a very significant question. For the first time Donald Trump is speaking about Putin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIA BUTINA, ACCUSED OF ESPIONAGE FOR RUSSIA: I'm visiting from Russia. So my question --

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ah. Good friend of Obama, Putin. He likes Obama a lot. Go ahead.

BUTINA: My question will be about foreign politics.

TRUMP: OK.

BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president, what will be your foreign politic especially in the relationships with my country, and do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging on both economy or you have any other ideas?

TRUMP: OK. Obama gets along with nobody. The whole world hates us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And then he goes on to say --

TOOBIN: Well, actually, I mean the question, then later he says he wants to ease up on sanctions.

BORGER: Sanctions, right.

BLITZER: And he wants to have good relations with Putin and thinks he will have good relations.

[18:40:03] TOOBIN: But remember what's going on at that point. He's trying to build Trump Tower Moscow. So, you know, was he trying to get along with Russia because he thought it was in the interests of American foreign policy? Or was he trying to get along with Russia because he was trying to make money building a tower? That's the key

question about all of his relationships.

BORGER: Well, because all of his answers, all of his answers were like, "Obama really likes Putin. Putin wouldn't like me, you know." And then he goes on to say that sanctions -- you know, that he would ease up on sanctions. I mean, he was all over the place on -- all over the place on this, because he knew he was lying. I mean, he had to know that he was telling the American public that he had nothing to do with Russia when, in fact, he had everything to do with Russia.

SWERDLICK: Just a quick point, Wolf. Since you played that part where the president said -- or the then-candidate said that Obama didn't get along with Putin, President Obama if he didn't get along with Putin at that point was because of the sanctions in 2014.

President Obama got the European heads of state, Canada, et cetera, to implement sanctions on Europe [SIC] because of their invasion of Crimea. It's not like he didn't get along with Putin just because they didn't like each other. BLITZER: You know, it's interesting. Usually, when a Russian spy,

alleged spy, is arrested in the United States, they go ahead in Russia does something similar. They arrest an American over there so they potentially could have a swap or trade. You're familiar with that?

MUDD: I am. And I suspect she's going to go home soon. I mean, if she gets charged and gets convicted, I don't think she's going to spend her life in jail in the United States.

By the way, one quick comment on that question. Let me take you inside my game. I feel like I'm about ready to salivate here.

I don't care about the question she asked of President Trump. I want to know, "Who told you to ask that question? How did you communicate with them? How did you communicate with them afterwards?" Let me go technical: "Who paid you for that? How was that method of payment managed?"

I want to know how they are operating in the United States. People in the political realm want to know what her goal is in that question. I want to know the action. How are you getting paid, how are you communicating? Fascinating for people like me.

BLITZER: Those are great. Fascinating not just for people like you, for all of us.

TOOBIN: People like me, too.

BORGER: You're writing the screen play?

MUDD: I'm ready.

BLITZER: Yes. Jeffrey, you're a formal federal prosecutor. She is being prosecuted not by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and his team, but by the U.S. attorney here in Washington, D.C.

TOOBIN: Well, that does suggest that -- that she doesn't have information that is relevant to the Mueller investigation. But as we've learned from the whole Michael Cohen situation, just because you plead guilty in one office, as Cohen did in the Southern District, doesn't mean you don't have dealings with Mueller, as well.

So if she has anything to say about the president and about his connections, you can be sure that that information will get to Mueller.

BLITZER: It certainly will. Everybody stick around. Much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:47:27] BLITZER: The breaking news, CNN has learned the accused Russian spy Maria Butina will plead guilty in federal court and has already begun cooperating with federal prosecutors.

We're tracking significant developments at the same time the special counsel's Russia probe. Our experts are back with us.

Phil, Maria Butina pleading guilty and cooperating. It comes now as we've now learned that at least 16, at least 16 Trump associates have been -- were in contact at one point or another with Russians during the campaign and during the transition.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: So, look, let's put two pieces together. Regardless of whether she knows anything about the Trump campaign and the contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russians, she can offer a perspective on how the Russians work. We call that O.D.

What's the operational directive to the Russian intelligence service here? How do you want to interact with the Trump team and with people in political circles? So, she will go in and say, this is how they told me to approach them, these are the people that they wanted me to approach. She can offer some color commentary to the Mueller team even if she doesn't know the specifics about what was going on among people involved in the Mueller investigation.

BLITZER: Of those 16 individuals, Trump associates who were in contact with Russians, apparently none of them ever alerted the FBI that the Russians were talking to them about various aspects.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: And it's a hell of a coincidence that they were all trying to influence the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign was extremely receptive. The Trump campaign was very solicitous of Vladimir Putin, of Russian interest, of the invasion of Ukraine. That is circumstantial evidence that there was a relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia, a collusion, conspiracy. Has it been proven 100 percent? Absolutely not. But when you have 16 people reaching out and making contact, it's just a hell of coincidence.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYS: Right, it can't be. It's too many. It can't be a coincidence.

BLITZER: That number could grow, by the way.

BORGER: And by the way, you know, as you said, nobody reported it, which is kind of astonishing. And people lied about, they knew it was wrong, they shouldn't have done it, they didn't go to the counsel or the campaign and say, wait, should I have this meeting? Which is what someone would normally do. And the general counsel of a campaign would say, no, don't go near it.

TOOBIN: Remember, I'm not used to quoting that noted legal authority, Steve Bannon, but remember what he said about the Trump Tower meeting in June. It was illegal, why didn't they call the FBI?

BORGER: Yes.

TOOBIN: I mean, if he knew, someone else should have known.

[18:50:03] BORGER: Right, it doesn't mean Trump knew. I mean, this was going on all around him. TOOBIN: It doesn't mean he didn't.

BORGER: It doesn't mean he didn't. Exactly.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, just to underscore your point, Gloria, both ways. It doesn't prove that the president knew what was going on, but it's not like 16 people were contacted and four of them reported it to the FBI. So far we heard of none that reported this and pushed back in a significant way. We might find out later, but so far, that hasn't --

BLITZER: You think the president should be concerned that Maria Butina is now going to cooperate?

MUDD: I don't think he should. I think he should be concerned. If I were ranking the Mueller situation, versus what she was doing. Mueller gets about a 98, she gets about the two. I mean, if I'm looking at the Mueller investigation, I'm saying he hasn't said anything about key players, including Roger Stone, my son in law, and my son. Every time, he speaks he says knew about Russia that maybe the president didn't know about.

And the investigation has a long way to go, for example, I'm comparing what other people have said that the president of the United States said himself has written on a piece of paper in the last couple of weeks. If I'm here, I'm saying, she's interesting, Mueller's potentially devastating.

BORGER: If you're the NRA, though, you have to have some questions about how you were played or whether you were willingly played when you were invited to Moscow, and how much money you got from the Russians. And, you know, they're not commenting, obviously, they haven't commented during this entire story. But that's obviously going to be a big part of what's investigated.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the new filing by Robert Mueller spotlights a shadowy Russian figure linked to Paul Manafort and allegedly to Russian intelligence. Tonight, CNN is asking questions about Konstantin Kilimnik. What the Kremlin is clamming on?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:23] BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news.

Accused Russian spy Maria Butina now cooperating with federal investigators after reaching a plea agreement. It's a major twist on the heels of Robert Mueller's new revelations in the Russia investigation, among other things, the special counsel says Paul Manafort lied to prosecutors about his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik who allegedly has ties to the Russian military intelligence unit, accused of U.S. election interference.

Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us from Moscow, right now.

Fred, the Kremlin doesn't want to talk about Kilimnik, do they? FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they

don't want to talk about him at all. In fact, we asked a spokesman for Vladimir Putin, Wolf, earlier today about this matter, and he said the Kremlin quite frankly is tired of talking about allegations like this, and quite frankly doesn't know as they say, who this pertinent person is.

But he certainly was an important figure for Paul Manafort, someone who Manafort couldn't have done business with at all in Eastern Europe, and, of course, someone who is also very interesting to the Mueller investigation, especially when it comes to possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

Here's what we learned in Moscow today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Tonight, the Mueller team keen to speak to this man, Konstantin Kilimnik, a close associate of Paul Manafort with alleged ties to Moscow's intelligence agencies.

Mueller says Manafort lied about meeting Kilimnik. In a heavily redacted filing, the special counsel writes: The evidence of the above includes electronic communications, including detailed descriptions, draft and travel records. After being told of such evidence, Manafort conceded that he and Kilimnik discussed or may have discussed at each meeting.

Konstantin Kilimnik is a shadowy figure. This picture that Manafort is also in, one of the few known photos showing him. But Kilimnik was Manafort's right hand man for years as they did business with the pro- Russian government in Ukraine, which was overthrown in 2014, and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, said to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Manafort denies including with Russians, but questions continue to swirl around his interactions with Kilimnik. The Mueller team saying Kilimnik was in contact with Russian intelligence services, which were meddling in the 2016 election. For his part, Kilimnik has denied working for Russian intelligence.

When asked by CNN today, Putin spokesman with a vehement denial.

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESPERSON (through translator): We are quite tired of following these jaw-dropping investigations. We don't know these persons mentioned in the investigation, these new names.

PLEITGEN: In the past, Vladimir Putin has defended President Trump, hoping for better U.S. Russian relations. But with the Mueller probe heating up, and Trump snubbing Putin at the recent G20 Summit, further signs Moscow is losing faith.

KONSTANTIN KOSACHEV, RUSSIAN SENATOR: I believe that our relations -- our relations are somehow kept hostage of certain internal, political interests -- of certain political forces inside of the United States of America. I'm afraid that we will be trapped in this position until the next presidential election.

PLEITGEN: Konstantin Kilimnik has been indicted by the special counsel by remains free, apparently residing around Moscow safely out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And apparently, Wolf, Kilimnik is quite important to Paul Manafort because even after Manafort was arrested, the Mueller investigation believes he was trying to tamper with witnesses to get them to stop saying things against Paul Manafort. So, certainly, someone who is of extreme interest to the Mueller investigation, and we also have to know, we've been trying to get in touch with Kilimnik ourselves, so far to no avail.

Again, we believe he's somewhere around the Moscow region, but really unclear where exactly that is, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll stay in close touch with you, Fred. Thank you very much.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.