Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Doubles Down on Threat to Shut Down Government over Border Wall Funding; Details of Plea Agreement for Russian Spy Surfacing; January Hearing Set on Manafort's Alleged Lies to Special Counsel. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 11, 2018 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Shutdown proud. President Trump is not backing down from a threat to shut down the government unless gets the billions he wants for his border wall. The president's new comments tonight coming after an extraordinary and very heated argument on live TV with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

[17:00:28] "This poor girl." Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks out about the case of accused Russian spy Maria Butina, offering sympathy, but denying knowledge of her. We're learning brand-new details of her plea deal with U.S. prosecutors, including her attempts to secretly win influence with prominent politicians close to the president.

Manafort's misdeed. The judge in the case of former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is demanding more details of his alleged lies to the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Tonight, why she wants to meet again in January, and why Manafort's lawyers may not want to talk.

And pleading for mercy. We're standing by for a sentencing memo from former national security adviser Michael Flynn's attorneys, the first time we'll hear Flynn's side of the story about lying to the FBI and his cooperation with the Mueller team.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. President Trump doubling down on a government shutdown, saying a few moments ago -- and I'm quoting the president now -- "I don't mind owning that."

That came a short time after a jaw-dropping meeting between the president and top two Democrats in Congress clashing in the Oval Office on live television over funding for his border wall.

I'll talk about the breaking news this hour with Senator Richard Blumenthal of the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go directly to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, this was truly a remarkable spectacle today in the Oval Office,

with the president saying he would be proud to shut down the federal government over border security.


The president said that more than once, that he would be happy to shut down the government, proud to shut down the government. But it was the first time that he met with the Democratic leaders in more than a year.

But since that time, so much has changed, of course. Nancy Pelosi will be leading Democrats as they assume the majority in the House. But Wolf, the president received something he has rarely ever experienced in the Oval Office. That was being confronted on the facts and his positions. This is what he said about the border wall.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have to have a wall as part of border security. And I don't think we really disagree so much. I also know that, you know, Nancy is in a situation where it's not easy for her to talk right now. And I understand that. And I fully understand that. We're going to have a good discussion, and we're going to see what happens.


TRUMP: But we have to have border security.

PELOSI: Mr. President, please don't characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Elections have consequences, Mr. President.

PELOSI: Let me just say --

TRUMP: That's right. And that's why the country is doing so well.

SCHUMER: One thing I think we can agree on, is we shouldn't shut down the government over a dispute. And you want to shut it down. You keep talking about it.

TRUMP: The last time, Chuck, you shut it down.

SCHUMER: No, no, no.

TRUMP: And then you opened it up very quickly.

SCHUMER: Twenty times. Twenty times.

TRUMP: And I don't want to do what you did.

SCHUMER: Twenty times, you have called for, "I will shut down the government if I don't get my wall." None of us have said --

TRUMP: You want to know something?

SCHUMER: You said it.

TRUMP: All right, you want to put that on my -- I'll take it, OK?


TRUMP: You know what I'll say? Yes. If we don't get what we want, one way or the other, whether it's through you, through a military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government.

SCHUMER: OK. Fair enough. We disagree.

TRUMP: And I am proud. And I'll tell you what.

I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. Because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country.

So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn't work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.


PELOSI: that is not --

TRUMP: And I'm going to shut it down for border security.

SCHUMER: But we believe you shouldn't shut it down.

The body language there is saying so much. Senator Schumer not even looking at -- at the president there as they were sparring back and forth.

It seems like it felt more like a New York street fight. Of course, keep in mind: those two have known each other for a very long time. Donald Trump, back when he was a Democrat, of course, contributed to Senator Schumer's campaign.

But Wolf, it went on from there, including Senator Schumer challenging President Trump on the facts.


SCHUMER: We have a lot of disagreements here. "The Washington Post" today gave you a whole lot of Pinocchios, because they say you constantly misstate how much the wall is -- how much of the wall is built and how much is there. But that's not the point here. We have a disagreement about the wall.

TRUMP : "The Washington Post" --

SCHUMER: Whether it's effective -- not on border security, but on the wall.

We do not want to shut down the government. You have called 20 times to shut down the government. You say, "I want to shut down the government."

We don't. We have a proposal that Democrats and Republicans will support to do a CR that will not shut down the government. We urge you to take it.

TRUMP: And it's not good border security, I won't take it.

SCHUMER: It is very good border security.

TRUMP: And if it's not good border security, I won't take it.

PELOSI: Let's call a halt to this. We've come in here as the first branch of government. Article I, the legislative branch. We're coming in, in good faith, to negotiate with you about how we can keep the government --


TRUMP: We're going to keep it open if we have border security. If we don't have border security, we aren't going to keep it open.

PELOSI: I'm with you. I'm with you. We are going to have border security.

SCHUMER: And it's the same border. You're bragging about what has been done.

TRUMP: By us.

SCHUMER: We want to do the same thing we did last year this year. That's our proposal. If it's good then, it's good now. And it won't shut down the government.

TRUMP: Chuck, we can build a much bigger section with more money.

SCHUMER: Let's debate -- let's debate in private, OK? Let's debate in private.

PELOSI: You're taking this conversation to a place that is devoid, frankly, of fact. And we -- we can settle that.

TRUMP: We need border security. I think we all agree, we need border security.

SCHUMER: Yes, we do. We do.

TRUMP: Good. See? We get along.


ZELENY: So that bickering back and forth was much more about framing their respective positions than it was looking for a solution to what is the issue here: funding the government.

Now, this looks very much like they could be headed toward a government shutdown, which, of course, would be happening over the holidays. Far too soon to know if either side will blink.

But just a couple hours after their meeting, the president was signing a bill in the Oval Office. He didn't back down one bit from his plan to own the government shutdown. Let's listen.


TRUMP: I don't mind having the issue of border security on my side. If we have to close down the country over border security, I actually like that.


ZELENY: So the president believes the politics of that would be good for shutting down the government, all in the names of border security.

Wolf, very uncertain, unclear, if that is true or not. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill do not have the appetite for this at all.

Of course, this is all over the funding for the border wall. The president has been pushing for this for the last two years when Republicans controlled the House and Senate. He could never get his full funding for the border wall.

But Wolf, after all of that, we end the evening here in Washington, where the president, we're told, called Nancy Pelosi after that early meeting. They talked for about a minute or so, and the dialogue clearly is continuing. But, Wolf, what an interesting first look at what divided government will be like here in Washington.

BLITZER: Yes, it was very, very extraordinary. Let's see what happens. They only have a few days left to figure this out.

ZELENY: Indeed.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny at the White House. Thanks very much.

There's also breaking news right now in the case of the accused Russian spy, Maria Butina. Her plea hearing has been pushed back a day to Thursday now, and CNN has learned details of her agreement with federal prosecutors.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is working this story for us.

Sara, I understand you have obtained the draft court filing on her on this case.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And the draft of the document shows, you know, that she was working with another American, Paul Erickson, who was her boyfriend, in this sort of plot that she was carrying on; and she was doing it at the direction of a Russian official. That's Aleksandr Torshin, a man who was an official at the Russian Central Bank but who has recently stepped down amid all these reports.

And they were all working together to try to infiltrate U.S. political groups like the National Rifle Association. I want to read you one of the lines from this draft filing.

It says, "Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. Politics. Butina sought to use those unofficial lines of communication for the benefit of the Russian federation."

And Wolf, we've talked a lot about what she has been up to in her time here in the United States. She was an American University student. But she also went to all these NRA national meetings. She took pains to try to meet politicians and take pictures with them.

She even went to a 2015 political event where she asked Donald Trump a question about his views on Russia, which is one of the earliest times we saw Trump on the campaign trail talking about how he expected to be friendly to Putin, that he didn't think sanctions were necessary in Russia.

BLITZER: I've been told, Sara, that federal prosecutors are really looking at this notion of follow the money. Where was she getting money to do what she was doing here in the United States? And was any money transferred directly or indirectly from Russian oligarchs or rich Russians close to Putin to various Republican conservative organizations here in the United States, including the National Rifle Association?

MURRAY: Well, I mean, I certainly think that that's one of the things that investigators are going to look at. Because as part of a plea deal, she needs to go in and she needs to admit if she committed any crime. So that would include playing any kind of part in that.

Now, the NRA has denied that they took, you know, any amounts of Russian money, but part of her plea deal also says she needs to submit to a full accounting of her financial assets. So they will have her financial records.

They are doing, you know, a number of interviews with her and, you know, maybe she will have something to provide. As of right now, we have no indication that she's offering up the goods on the NRA. But, of course, we'll wait and see what happens.

[17:10:08] BLITZER: We'll see the extent of her cooperation as part of this guilty plea agreement. Sara, good reporting. Thank you very much.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is speaking out about Maria Butina's case, voicing sympathy and calling her alleged crimes made up. Let's go to Moscow. Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, on the scene for us.

Fred, what did Putin have to say about her cooperation with U.S. authorities?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. Really digging in his heels on this issue. Not only saying that she was not an agent of the Russian federation, but that he's even checked with his own security services about this matter.

Putin spoke about this earlier tonight at an event here in Moscow. Let's listen in to what he had to say.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): This poor girl, our Butina. She faces 15 years in prison. For what?

When I heard that something was happening to her -- we were at a public event, but I have nothing to hide -- I went and asked all the heads of our special services, who is this? No one knows anything about her at all. The only thing that anyone knows about her is that she worked at the Federation Council for one of the deputies. That's it. And she is facing 15 years in prison for this? I don't know what they are making up there and how they will cook up 15 years for her.


PLEITGEN: And Wolf, the Federation Council is the Russian version of the Senate.

Also not really clear where Vladimir Putin got that number of possible 15 years in prison from.

But all of this, Wolf, has already turned into a giant spat, at least from the Russian side, especially the Russian foreign minister has really -- foreign ministry, has really made this a major campaign. They've even changed the picture on their Twitter feed to a picture of Maria Butina.

And there are some really strong words coming out of the Russian foreign ministry tonight. I was just in touch with the spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova. Here's what she had to say. I'm going to quote her. She says, quote, "Any decision she, Maria Butina, makes toward freedom, we will support. She is a political prisoner, so she has to get out of there any possible way."

And Wolf, this is very much in line with some of the things that we have been hearing, specifically out of the Russian foreign ministry. They are saying that these charges against Maria Butina, from their perspective, are very much trumped up. They say that she's innocent, and now apparently, if we read that quote from Maria Zakharova, also trying to imply that possibly, Maria Butina was pressured into making this plea agreement, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow for us with Russian reaction. Thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of these developments. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is joining us. He's a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: So have you ever seen an alleged Russian spy here in the United States accept a guilty plea agreement and then cooperate with U.S. authorities?

BLUMENTHAL: There may have been some. We may not know about them. But certainly, it would be very, very rare, if not exceptional, and she would have a hard time returning to Russia. That's for sure. No matter what Putin says about her.

BLITZER: Well, if she starts to cooperate, as part of a guilty plea agreement to get a reduced sentence, she's going to tell all, everything she knows: where she was getting money, for example; was she involved in funneling money from Russians through various operations to various political organizations here in the United States. That's what U.S. authorities are looking at.

BLUMENTHAL: And that would be really dynamite evidence, especially relating to Aleksandr Torshin, who allegedly was directing her. Possibly, she has knowledge about money funneled through the NRA to the Trump campaign. She certainly was involved in seeking to arrange meetings at the highest level of the Trump campaign between Russian operatives and them. And so she could be a key figure.

But we'll know very little of it for a while, because obviously, she has been prosecuted by a separate office, the National Security Office, prosecutors in the District of Columbia, who are separate and distinct from the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation.

BLITZER: The U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., is prosecuting her and not Robert Mueller, the special counsel.

Bottom line on her case, how big of a deal is it?

BLITZER: It could be a very big deal. We have yet to know all of the details. She is herself probably relatively low-level as a potential agent. But she may have a lot of knowledge.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. All of a sudden, they've delayed until next month, until January, providing more information about the alleged lies he committed in terms of his cooperation with Robert Mueller. What's your reaction?

BLUMENTHAL: My reaction is that this development could be profoundly significant, because Paul Manafort is alleged to have talked to people in the White House while he was supposedly cooperating with the special counsel.

[17:15:05] The question then is, with whom did he talk? And his lawyers, presumably, also may have talked to lawyers in the White House. So what may be happening here is that Paul Manafort's lawyers here is

that Paul Manafort's lawyers are grappling with new potential evidence of obstruction of justice, and potential claims against the lawyers involved, as well as people in the White House who may have been working with Paul Manafort, trying to shape his story.

BLITZER: Explain why it would be wrong, maybe even illegal, for Manafort's lawyers to be talking to the president's lawyers while he is supposedly cooperating?

BLUMENTHAL: The reason for them to talk to each other at an earlier point was they had a joint defense agreement. That's very common. That joint defense agreement evaporated when Paul Manafort agreed to cooperate with the government. You can't play both sides as a government witness. You can't be talking to potential defendants at the same time as you're cooperating with the prosecutor.

And as a prosecutor, I can tell you, one of the worst sins for a cooperating witness is to be turning coat, in a sense, to be subverting the prosecution by illicitly cooperating with the other side.

So this could provoke deep ire on the part of the special prosecutor, rightly so. And if it involved lawyers who should have known better, it could involve them, too. And there is no privilege -- no counsel privilege, as to those discussions. So they may have opened a very significant door here.

BLITZER: What did you think today, and you saw the -- it was really an extraordinary moment in the Oval Office of the White House, when the Democratic leaders and the House and the Senate had, on live TV, this really, really tough argument with the president of the United States over a government shutdown and funding. The president says unless he gets his $5 billion to build a border wall with Mexico, he doesn't care if the government shuts down.

BLUMENTHAL: You called it jaw-dropping. I'd call it mind-blowing, surreal. Even at a time when a lot of firsts are happening in the Oval Office, this was certainly a very odd moment.

And Donald Trump really blew up negotiations that were proceeding in good faith over a vanity project, which, by the way, the Mexicans were supposed to pay for, in case anyone has forgotten. And the idea that the government would be shut down over such a wasteful, unnecessary project is going to be an anathema to the American people, and yet, Donald Trump is trying to distort it in a way he thinks is politically advantageous.

BLITZER: Do you think the government will shut down at the end of next week?

BLUMENTHAL: I very much hope and I expect that the wiser heads will prevail on both sides of the aisle. Republican leadership in the United States Senate and Democratic leadership. Because the adult and really rational view here is that the government should proceed with its business and that a $25 billion line in the sand, "my way or the highway," should not be the way we do business in Washington. We ought to come together.

BLITZER: He says $5 billion. He wants $5 billion right now as part of this deal to keep the government open.

BLUMENTHAL: And that is itself an unnecessary and irrational view. They have yet to spend the money they've been allocated already. And there are better ways to do border surveillance.

There is common ground here. Border security is common ground. The wall is unnecessary. As we established this very day in hearings before the Judiciary Committee, the top officials of the Custom and Border Patrol really have no desire for a wall from sea to shining sea.

BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks as usual for coming in.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. Did Paul Manafort lie to the special counsel, Robert Mueller's team, and breach his plea deal? Right now, his lawyers can't say, and the judge has ordered a new hearing.

And former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, about to tell his side of the story for the first time. We're standing by for a key court ruling.


[17:23:37] BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. A hearing just set for next month about lies former Trump campaign chairman allegedly told the special counsel, Robert Mueller's team, in violation of his plea agreement. Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.

CNN senior justice correspondent Evan Perez is with us. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working the story for us, as well.

Evan, Manafort's attorneys can't say whether he lied or not. How significant is that?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the significance of this, Wolf, is that we may have to wait until January to find out exactly what these lies -- the alleged lies that prosecutors say that Paul Manafort told even during the time that he was supposed to be cooperating in this investigation.

It means that we may yet find out what the nature of these lies are, and we may yet find out what exactly -- perhaps some more clues of what Robert Mueller has found in this investigation.

Keep in mind, Paul Manafort is facing ten years in this federal court here, and the -- his legal team is trying to decide whether or not admitting those lies really makes a difference in that sentence. And, of course, Wolf, the big elephant in the room is whether or not

Paul Manafort still gets a pardon from the president. As you remember, the president mentioned that is still on the table.

BLITZER: Jim, what does it tell you that Manafort's legal team may not even want the special counsel to further detail what they believe Manafort lied about?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's interesting, Wolf. Because they reference a meeting they had with Mueller's team, spelling out some of the evidence he has of these lies and that, following that meeting, they said they needed more time to make a decision here. You know, knowing what the consequences are of those lies, what, as Evan mentioned, it might add to his sentence. But also the details of those lies. So they learned something new that led them to take a different position here.

Now, we know this, that from what little popcorn trail the special counsel has put out, we do know that these lies fall into two major categories of this investigation.

They say that Paul Manafort lied about his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, someone who U.S. intelligence believed has ties to Russian military intelligence, the GRU, which happens to be the same unit that interfered with the U.S. election. So he lied about his contacts with them. That's material to the investigation.

Also, crucially, he lied -- or at least the special counsel says it has electronic evidence that he lied about his continued contacts with the White House while he was under investigation, while he was being tried.

That gets to this question, "New York Times" and others have reported that his legal team was sharing information with the White House while Manafort was providing information answering questions to the special counsel. What did he tell them? Did he tell them, for instance, that he would not or had not implicated the president?

But we know this. The special counsel said Paul Manafort lied about what communications he had through the White House, including the possibility of doing so through an intermediary, and that Paul Manafort has evidence of that, electronic evidence of that.

So, listen, we don't know where this will lead in terms of charges, et cetera. But they at least keep questions open in the two major lines of inquiry here. One, obstruction. Was he providing information to the White House that prejudiced this investigation to some degree? But also on the question of Russian interference. Why was he lying about his contacts with someone that U.S. intelligence believe is tied to the same intelligence agency that was interfering in the election? Those are still two key questions.

BLITZER: Yes, and I suspect we'll start getting answers fairly soon. Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez, guys, thanks very much.

Coming up, we're learning new details all of a sudden about a potential cooperation agreement between the accused Russian spy, Maria Butina and federal prosecutors.

Plus, a federal judge is demanding more information from the special counsel about lies allegedly told by the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following breaking news in the case of the accused Russian spy, Maria Butina.

[17:32:17] CNN has obtained a draft of Butina's cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors. The document offers tantalizing details about her alleged attempts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party.

Our experts are standing by with the latest analysis. And Bianna, what are prosecutors hoping to learn from her cooperation?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think you just hit it, Wolf, when you talked about any information that she can relay regarding her association with the NRA, vis-a-vis Russian officials.

We know this goes back many years, obviously. prior to her coming to the United States, as well, working with Aleksandr Torshin, who was in the Russian government at the time and her liaison back in Russia. So far the NRA has not been addressing this issue. So hearing what, if any, information she may relay there would be of interest.

Also what may be of interest is the role that her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, played in any of this and acting as a potential agent of a foreign government. He, in fact, if he would be charged, would be the first American who will be charged as an agent of a foreign government.

So still a lot of questions to be answered. But it looks like we'll be getting a lot more details in the coming days. It also looks like something prosecutors may just want to put to rest, as well, if, in fact, she will be sent back to Russia if an agreement is made.

BLITZER: Yes, we do know that federal prosecutors always try to follow the money. They want to see where she was getting money to operate here in the United States, where that money was coming from, and whether any money was funneled through her in various from Russians to various Republican conservative groups, including the NRA here in the United States.

Jamie, have you ever seen -- and you've done a lot of reporting on this over the years -- an accused Russian spy here in the United States flip?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Nothing quite like this. Look, we see double agents, we see triple agents, we see people going back and forth.

What I found interesting about this, two words. Vladimir Putin. The fact that this is so publicly announced, and she may go back to Russia, the Russians are not going to be happy about this if she gives valuable information. If she has valuable information. So I'm curious to see if, in the end, she does go back to Russia or if she asks to stay here.

And let's not forget: Even if she stays here, if she has given away something or gives away something valuable, the Russians have a way of hunting down people who double cross them. Look at the Skripals, who were poisoned in the UK. So I think we should wait and see sort of what the next step is after this. How valuable is it?

[17:35:07] GOLODRYGA: And look, let's --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.

GOLODRYGA: And let's be clear. She may very well not have valuable information, going back through the years from the sake of a plausible deniability, at the very least. Vladimir Putin, I never want to say that I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he could very well have not known about her time here in the United States. Obviously, now she's become an international figure and sort of the poster child of the Russian foreign ministry. But she may not have valuable enough information.

But all of this, as Jamie said, I mean, is to be determined. We've seen this in the past with other Russians. Remember Anna Chapman back in 2010, and the sort of spy swap there. The difference is, it looks like prosecutors are much more focused on this than they were at the time and took it much more seriously. Another thing to point out, that this is not under Mueller's purview, which is interesting, as well.

BLITZER: You know, Mark Preston, presumably, they're trying to figure out if there were, in fact, links from Russia through her and others associated with her to funnel money to pro-Trump groups like the NRA.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Like the NRA. And I think the focus is going to be on Erickson right now. Was he a conduit for this money from Russia, through her, to Erickson, to conservative causes, trying to wash it through that way? But not only just him, but elsewhere, as well.

But I do agree with whatever everyone is saying so far about was she sent here as a spy? Basically, in the mold of what we've seen on "The Americans." And if she was, then she wasn't a very good spy in the sense that she was very public. She came out, and she asked questions of President Trump in public settings. That's not something you want to do if you're a good spy.

Having said that, though, she was very smart to go to the NRA and try to work her way through that.

BLITZER: The NRA, what they gave pro-Trump -- the NRA, about $30 million to help his campaign, something like that?

PRESTON: And not only that, but they are clearly on the sides of Republicans and conservatives; and it's good starting off point if you're trying to get plugged into that community.

BLITZER: Laura Coates, what stands out to you in this case?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, of all the cases that the U.S. Attorneys' Offices have prosecuted in Washington, D.C., I don't think Vladimir Putin has ever weighed in on any of them. This case he's now concerned with?

It's interesting that Mueller is not a part of this particularly probe at all. He may have farmed this out. He may have no interest in it. If he has no interest, it says to me that it's not under the mandate that he's already following about Russia collusion, which is interesting, given the fact that this is somebody who may be trying to influence, through unofficial channels, an election.

What stands out to me is the NRA. The NRA, who is very keen on being able to navigate successfully the campaign finance and disclosure laws to avoid letting you know who the lobbying arm is funded by or to what extent they have to disclose information.

You have somebody who essentially is -- although the NRA is not known for direct contributions, their outside spending certainly has impacted many an election.

And in this case, if she's trying to cozy up to somebody that has a voting bloc power, as opposed to direct spending power, well, you've chosen the right organization.

So it's a way of showing that this may be a more sophisticated model of somebody from an outside nation saying, "If I want to actually exact or influence an American political election, I don't go right to a candidate alone. I also go to the powers that be, and that's the powerful lobbying arm of the NRA." They're savvy.

BLITZER: And it looks like U.S.-Russian relations are deteriorating pretty rapidly right now. We're going to have a lot more on that, much more on the breaking news, right after this.


[17:42:34] BLITZER: We're back. You know, Jamie, what did you think of that extraordinary meeting in the Oval Office today, the confrontation between the Democratic leaders, as the president says, Chuck and Nancy, and the president over a looming government shutdown over the border wall with Mexico?

GANGEL: We've seen -- Donald Trump loves these shows. We're now used to it, where he lets the cameras stay in there.

But in the end, he did sort of have a meltdown or a temper tantrum. He looked very unhappy at the end, because Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, they went toe-to-toe to him.

My take-away, I want to know what Mike Pence was thinking. He sat there very quietly and just like "Maybe -- if I don't say anything no one will notice I'm here." But that's -- get ready. Buckle your seatbelt for next year.

BLITZER: We'll see more of that. Bianna, what did you think?

GOLODRYGA: Well, look, my focus was on Nancy Pelosi, who is really walking a tight rope there. On the one hand, wanting to show Democrats in the House that she knows how to negotiate with this president, that they're familiar with one another. But on the other hand, she also had to prove that she wasn't going to be taking any of the mansplaining that seemed to be going on, as well.

And it looked like she was able to handle that. I mean, there were times when he seemed to be sympathetic with her. I don't know if that was out of condescension or he was genuine when he suggested that she's in a tight place right now, not sure if she will have enough votes, though most people think she will, to remain speaker.

She said, "Listen, don't worry about me. You don't have to account for me." That was a strong moment.

Then you heard her, you know, say, "Listen, Mr. President, let's not do this in front of the cameras." She came outside in front of reporters and said that she didn't want to embarrass the president by contradicting what she called his, you know, untruths with regards to some of the statistics and some of the statements that he was making.

So I think that she walked in there knowing that she had two audiences that she had to address. And she seemed to handle herself quite well.

BLITZER: And Chuck Schumer was tough, as well.

You know, originally there was no camera supposed to be in the Oval Office. It was supposed to be a very private meeting, talking about a government shutdown, how to come up with a compromise. But in the last minute, the president said bring the cameras, bring the reporters in. They spent 15, 20 minutes watching this extraordinary exchange unfold.

Was the president smart to do that? Let the cameras come in?

PRESTON: Well, he was smart to do that if he wanted to challenge Nancy Pelosi and just play to his base. But at this point, now that he's at 39 percent approval rating, he went through an election where he only did OK, marginally well, in the Senate. It was not a smart move.

You know, just watching him today, though, you have to ask yourself, what is going through his mind right now? What is he thinking as he's looking into the future?

What he saw from Nancy Pelosi today was a steel spine, and I think that he was not prepared for that.

You know, at one point, though, in kind of a moment of levity, I thought he was going to say Sid and Nancy at some point during all of this, talking about the famous Sex Pistols' frontman, Sid Vicious, and his girlfriend.

Because he kept on saying Nancy and Chuck, Nancy and Chuck, Nancy and Chuck. Showed no decorum at all, which I did find very -- I don't know. It was distasteful, I think, in many --


PRESTON: In many fronts.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: And let's not forget, this is a president who likes to tout a strong economy and the stock market. We've seen what the stock market has been doing as of late with regard to tariffs and international turmoil.

So having yet another obstacle of uncertainty -- if, in fact, we do face a government shutdown -- isn't something that would necessarily work to the President's favor. Or at least, he must consider going into the next couple of weeks of negotiations whether or not it would bode well for him to see the market continuing to decline.

BLITZER: Yes. I suspect he understands that. What do you think, Laura?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I thought that he was trying to regain a strong foothold. I mean, every time the President of the United States seems to be under attack by the walls closing in through the Mueller probe, he goes to his security blanket, at immigration.

And hopefully, the cameras, in his mind, was a way to show that he was still strong and could remain the victor. That did not work out for him well today.

BLITZER: It was really good live T.V., though.


BLITZER: As we all watched it, we were all reacting at the time.

Everybody, stick around. There's more news we're following. Vladimir Putin once again testing the Pentagon with rather provocative military maneuvers. This time, right on America's doorstep.


[17:50:36] BLITZER: Tonight, new details emerging on the escalating military tensions between the U.S. and Russia. As Pentagon officials game out a response to Russian aggression in Europe, Vladimir Putin is now making some serious moves in the Caribbean.

Our Brian Todd is all over the story for us. Give us the latest, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, Putin is on America's doorstep with nuclear-capable bombers that can fly at twice the speed of sound. It's a bold move right out of the Cold War as the Russian President tries to establish a military foothold near American shores.


TODD (voice-over): A Russian bomber with an impressive wingspan touches down at America's doorstep. The TU-160 has to deploy parachutes to slow down. Russian pilots, decked out in helmets and orange jumpsuits, climb out to a hero's welcome.

Two of these bombers, nicknamed Blackjacks, are in Venezuela tonight. Vladimir Putin has deployed these warplanes, along with two support aircraft, to conduct exercises over the Caribbean with Venezuelan forces.

A worrisome development for Washington considering the capability of the Russian bombers which can fly twice the speed of sound.

LT. COL. TONY SHAFFER (RET.), SENIOR FELLOW, LONDON CENTER FOR POLICY RESEARCH: This bomber was designed to do both high-altitude and low- altitude penetration of airspace with nuclear weapons, to deliver nuclear weapons on target. This aircraft was designed to be an offensive-capable weapon to get into our airspace during the Cold War.

TODD (voice-over): The deployment comes on the heels of Putin's recent military aggressions against Ukraine on land and sea and counter moves by U.S. forces. Analysts say Putin is sending an unmistakable signal to the United States tonight.

DEREK CHOLLET, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT FOR SECURITY AND DEFENSE POLICY, THE GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE UNITED STATES: He is clearly trying to send a message to the United States that he can play in our backyard and that Russia maintains significant military capabilities.

TODD (voice-over): Another concern tonight is the Cold War-style alliance of two strong men who are both antagonists of the U.S. -- Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who visited Moscow just last week.

Experts say U.S. military and intelligence officials are closely watching the Putin/Maduro partnership and how it may work against American interests close to American shores.

CHOLLET: They have a close military relationship. Russia does provide Venezuela with significant military support. Usually, with these close military relationships, a close intelligence relationship is part of that.

TODD (voice-over): The Russian deployment comes as Venezuela is deep in crisis triggered by plummeting oil prices, crippling economic mismanagement, and violent protests against Maduro.

U.S. officials, tonight, are skewering Putin and Maduro. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting, the Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is, two corrupt governments squandering public funds and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.


translator): It's probably not very appropriate to make such statements when you are a country with a military budget so big that half of it could feed the whole continent of Africa.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say none of this will stop Vladimir Putin from, once again, trying to gain a Russian foothold in America's hemisphere.

SHAFFER: Putin has made it very clear, through his actions and through his commentary, that he intends to re-establish Russia to the level of influence of the Soviet Union.


TODD: Now, just a short time ago, Venezuela's Foreign Minister leveled his own broadsides at the U.S., calling Mike Pompeo's tweet, quote, disrespectful and cynical. He pointed out that it was President Trump who publicly threatened military intervention against Venezuela.

Now, analysts say we can expect military cat-and-mouse games to continue while those Russian bombers are deployed in Venezuela. They say U.S. forces will, almost assuredly, send out surveillance planes, possibly vessels, to shadow the Russians and Venezuelans.

Pentagon officials will only tell CNN that they are monitoring these exercises, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Brian, that will potentially give the Venezuelans and the Russians some intelligence of their own, right?

TODD: Absolutely, Wolf. Experts say as U.S. planes and ships monitor these joint Russian/Venezuelan exercises and the Russians and Venezuelans, well, they're going to gather intelligence on the Americans on their spying and shadowing capabilities and try to figure out how to evade them.

This is the kind of cat-and-mouse that goes on, but it can turn dangerous in a blink.

BLITZER: It certainly could. All right, Brian, thank you very much for that report.

There's breaking news coming up. The President, he is digging in on a government shutdown unless Congress gives him billions of dollars for a border wall with Mexico.

[17:55:02] We're going to see a stunning clash over it with Democratic leaders. It played out in front of T.V. cameras in the Oval Office.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Shut it down. President Trump says he'd be proud to shut down the federal government over a funding for his border wall after being confronted by Democratic leaders in a truly remarkable Oval Office brawl. If a shutdown happens, will Mr. Trump really accept the blame?

[17:59:53] Spy games. As accused Russian operative Maria Butina prepares to finalize her plea deal, we are getting new details on her cooperation with federal prosecutors. How much did she learn about the GOP and the NRA? We're going to tell you -- and what did she tell the Kremlin?