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Manafort's Lawyers Reveal He Gave Trump Polling Data to Kremlin Operative; Trump to Push for Border Wall in Primetime Address; Shutdown Impacting Security Operations; Mother of U.S. Navy Veteran Detained in Iran Speaks Out; Interview With Washington Congressman Denny Heck. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 8, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:03]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Are their new clues about the secret identity of what's being called Country A?

Indicted Russian lawyer. The attorney who was at the infamous Trump Tower meeting in 2016 has been indicted by federal prosecutors in New York, the charges driving home her close ties to the Putin regime.

And prime-time crisis. President Trump is preparing to speak from the Oval Office tonight, hoping to gin up urgency and even fear to promote his border wall. Will Americans buy his pitch, as the administration insists on embracing misleading information?

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, a stunning new window into Robert Mueller's investigation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and possible collusion with Russia.

In a new court filing, Manafort's lawyers inadvertently revealed that their client shared sensitive polling data within an alleged Kremlin operative during the 2016 campaign, this as we're awaiting the president's Oval Office speech on border security.

We're told he's not likely to declare a national emergency tonight to secure funds for his wall. But that could still happen. We also know Mr. Trump will make the case that a crisis is unfolding, a crisis Democrats say he's manufactured to try to force their hands in the midst of the government shutdown.

This hour, I will talk with Congressman Denny Heck. He's a Democrat who serves on the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our political correspondent Sara Murray. Sara, there are now multiple developments of the Russian

investigation, including this remarkable new court filing from Paul Manafort's lawyers. Update our views.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

We're learning a lot more about Paul Manafort's contacts with a Russian associate, all courtesy of Paul Manafort's legal team in a filing with many redacted parts that they accidentally made public.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): As Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort shared campaign-related polling and discussed a Ukrainian peace plan with a Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, they stayed in touch after Donald Trump was elected, meeting in Madrid in 2017.

Those revelations are the closest public assertion yet of coordination between a Trump campaign official and Russians, in this case, Kilimnik, a man prosecutors say has ties to Russian intelligence, which investigators say is responsible for hacking the Democratic Party and leaking stolen e-mails during the 2016 campaign.

Manafort's legal team inadvertently revealed the details about his contact with Kilimnik in a new court filing. That filing meant to explain that Manafort never intentionally lied to federal investigators when he was supposed to be cooperating in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe.

The filing was submitted under seal, then made public with redactions, but a formatting error allowed those reactions to be made public. In another failed redaction, Manafort's team takes issue with prosecutors' claims that Manafort lied about his contacts with the Trump administration.

Manafort's team says someone asked to use Manafort's name if they met the president. "This does not constitute outreach by Mr. Manafort to the president," Manafort's team wrote in their filing.

The Manafort revelations come as another Russian he encountered during the campaign, Natalia Veselnitskaya, faces an obstruction of justice charge brought by the Southern District of New York. Veselnitskaya was the Russian lawyer that Trump campaign officials hoped would deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton in the now infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

That meeting now a focus of Mueller's investigation, but the new indictment is related to a money laundering case against Prevezon Holdings, a Russian-owned investment from. The indictment highlights Veselnitskaya's close ties to the Russian government, saying she submitted an intentionally misleading declaration to the court, which she allegedly drafted in secret cooperation with a senior Russian prosecutor

Veselnitskaya has previously denied any ties to the Kremlin. NATALIA VESELNITSKAYA, DEFENDANT (through translator): No. I'm

certainly flattered by being marked and called as a government attorney, but I have never worked for the government in the first place.

MURRAY: In written testimony to the Senate Judiciary in 2017, she claims she had no relationship with Russia's prosecutor general -- quote -- "other than those related to my professional functions of a lawyer."

In April 2018, she revised her story again, calling herself an informant. Today , Veselnitskaya declined to comment on the indictment, but vowed to "defend my professional honor."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Veselnitskaya is not in the U.S., and she's unlikely to ever see a U.S. courtroom unless she decides to leave Russia, but, still, Wolf, a very interesting indictment there from the Southern District of New York.

[18:05:00]

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed.

Jim Sciutto is joining us as well. We're going to get to him in a moment, Sara.

But there's also news on another Mueller case that we're following, this one involving that rather mysterious foreign company owned by a foreign government, the U.S. Supreme Court all of a sudden weighing in today.

MURRAY: That's right.

So this is this mystery foreign-owned company. They have been fighting a subpoena that appears be related to a Mueller grand jury. They have now asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. They previously asked the Supreme Court if they could hit pause on some of the fines they were facing. The Supreme Court is not going to do that.

So as they wait to see if the Supreme Court is going to take up this case, they will be paying $50,000 a day in fines. That's what they're going to be racking up. And even though this is a foreign-owned company, they do have a U.S. office. So right now all of this stuff is under seal.

As you know, Wolf, it's pretty much unheard of for the Supreme Court to hear a full case under seal. So we will see if they decide to take up this matter.

BLITZER: We will see. Eventually, I'm sure we will learn the name of this foreign company and the name of the foreign government, all of that. Jim Sciutto, does the new information that Manafort's lawyers revealed today inadvertently, supposedly, suggest that the interactions point to collusion?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's just lay out what we learned.

The president's campaign chairman fed polling data to a Russian, which the U.S. believes has ties to Russian military intelligence, at a time when Russia, a hostile foreign power, was interfering in the U.S. election. That is a remarkable fact to be confirmed in these court filings.

It raises the simple question, why? Why was Trump's campaign chairman feeding this information in that direction? Even if he didn't know Russia was then interfering in the election, to what possible end would he feel the need to do that?

That's an important question. The other point I would raise, Wolf, is this. We also learned that he was talking multiple times again with Konstantin Kilimnik, this man who is tied to the Russian military intelligence, about a Ukrainian peace plan, multiple times about this.

Keep in mind that Paul Manafort for years worked for the benefit of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine. The peace plan that he was discussing, advocating for, was one favorable to Russian interests.

Why? Why was he discussing that during the campaign and after the campaign? We know it's something that was very important to Russia. It involves very punishing economic sanctions on Russia. Russia wants to keep Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. Why was President Trump's campaign chairman both before and after the election discussing that with them, when he had skin in the game, and was promoting a pro-Russian viewpoint on a Ukrainian peace plan?

Those are two very big questions.

BLITZER: And remind our viewers, Jim, he made a lot of money representing, working for this pro-Russian Ukrainian government.

SCIUTTO: Millions and millions of dollars, which we know -- actually tens of millions, I believe -- that we know that he hid from the U.S. tax man, which is one of the reasons he is sitting in a prison cell tonight, hid it -- hidden overseas in an overseas bank account.

And this is no small deal. That pro-Russian government in Ukraine, it shot protesters. One thing Paul Manafort pushed in Washington for that money was to justify the jailing of the pro-Russian president's political opponent in Ukraine.

I mean, these are remarkable positions for a U.S. citizen to take in a country like that. I should note, though, that it's not just Paul Manafort who took money to promote that. It's also John Podesta's brother, Tony Podesta, who did as well. But those are positions that he made a lot of money for, and those are positions that served Russia's interest. BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point.

Sara, the information that came out inadvertently today -- it was supposed to be secret, supposed to be redacted. That's what the Mueller team wanted. How much potential damage to the Mueller investigation could the release of this information now present?

MURRAY: Well, I don't know that it necessarily damages the Mueller investigation, because we don't know what's going on behind the scenes, some of these things that Jim was just laying out.

We don't know why Paul Manafort, just based on this filing, would have been having these conversations about Ukrainian peace with his Russian associate. We don't know why he felt compelled to share this polling data, if there was some reason his Russian friend wanted this information, if his Russian friend wanted to share it with someone else.

And I think that those are the things, those are the key questions that get to this idea of collusion in the Mueller investigation. Was this ultimately a funnel to get information from the Trump campaign to share it with Russian military intelligence, to use that to sort of direct their troll farm?

I mean, that would get right to the idea of collusion. But we don't see that laid out in these documents. That's a theory. And so the heart of this case is all of this stuff that Mueller knows that he hasn't made public yet.

BLITZER: Yes. And we don't know what, if anything, Donald Trump personally knew about Manafort's collaboration with this Russian, whether in Madrid or earlier during the campaign.

[18:10:00]

Jim, the campaign effort on the part of Manafort that he was pursuing during the campaign, we know about that, but also he was pursuing various initiatives during the presidential transition, after Donald Trump was elected, before he was sworn in, and even after, after the transition.

SCIUTTO: That's right.

And keep in mind this is Russia speaking to, maintaining contact with Paul Manafort to push things that it wanted. It wanted the lifting, for instance of sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in retaliation for Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

And we know already that there were discussions. Michael Flynn lied about discussions with the Russian ambassador involving those sanctions and the possibility of lifting them, which, listen, those things could be independent. Russia interfered in the campaign to benefit Trump. And after the election, President Trump and his advisers sought things or discussed things with Russia that Russia wanted. Doesn't mean it's a quid pro quo, that that was payback, payback in any way. But the confluence of those things are certainly things that the special counsel's office, Robert Mueller, would be interested in.

BLITZER: Yes, very significant developments today.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much. Sara Murray, thanks to you as well.

We're going to talk much more about all of this in a few moments.

But, right now, President Trump's Oval Office speech, it's less than three hours from now. We're learning more now about what he will and won't say about border security and that wall along the border with Mexico. His credibility on these issues will certainly be tested tonight, after a series of truth-twisting statements coming from him and his administration.

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

Jim, what do we expect to hear from the president tonight?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we do expect the president to challenge Democrats to reopen the government. We have heard that from some of our sources.

But President Trump is expected to deliver a short address to the nation from the Oval Office tonight. There's no final word on whether he will declare that state of emergency that we have been talking about in order to build his wall on the border.

At this point, we don't expect that to happen, at least not in the speech tonight. But the White House, as you said, Wolf, is continuing to hype the case for a border wall with misleading claims, setting the scene for an address that will test the fact-checkers later on tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): As President Trump prepares to address the nation to make his pitch for a border wall, the White House spin machine is in overdrive.

Vice President Pence is repeating the misleading suggestion that the wall is needed because of the thousands of possible terrorists trying to make their way into the country.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists were apprehended attempting to come in to the United States through various means in the last year.

ACOSTA: But, as CNN has learned, it's only a tiny fraction of that, just 12 between October 2017 to 2018. The vast majority on the government's terror watch list are stopped at airports, contrary to what Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was telling the public.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": They're not coming across the southern border, Sarah. They're coming and they're being stopped at airports.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They're coming a number of ways. They're certainly -- I'm not disagreeing with you that they're coming through airports.

ACOSTA: The White House conceded Sanders had her facts wrong.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: That was an unfortunate misstatement. And everybody makes mistakes, all of us. The fact is, it's corrected here.

ACOSTA: But pressed on whether the president will tell the truth in his address, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway sounded defensive.

(on camera): Can you promise that the president will tell the truth tonight? Will he tell the truth?

CONWAY: Yes, Jim. And can you promise that you will?

ACOSTA: Can you guarantee that the president's speech will pass a fact-check?

(CROSSTALK)

CONWAY: ... because you are such a smart-ass most of the time. And I know you want this go to viral. A lot of these people don't like you.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The White House also struggled to explain what the president meant when he said some of his predecessors also wanted a wall.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This should have been done by all of the presidents that preceded me, and they all know it. Some of them have told me that we should have done it.

ACOSTA: But that's not true. All of the living ex-presidents have denied that claim or released statements showing their opposition to a wall.

Pence tried to clean that one up too.

PENCE: I know the president has said that that was his impression from previous administrations, previous presidents.

TRUMP: Who is going to pay for the wall?

CROWD: Mexico!

ACOSTA: After once promising Mexico would pay for the wall, the president is expected to describe the situation at the border as a growing humanitarian and national security crisis, despite recent studies that show the number of undocumented immigrants has declined in recent years, and that native-born Americans actually commit more crimes than immigrants.

The president, who faces questions about his own credibility, once told CNN he supported the impeachment of former President George W. Bush for the case he made for the war in Iraq.

BLITZER: Impeaching him?

TRUMP: Absolutely, for the war, for the war.

BLITZER: Because of the conduct in the war?

TRUMP: Well, he lied. He got us into the war with lies. And, I mean, look at the trouble Bill Clinton got into with something that was totally unimportant. And they tried to impeach him, which was nonsense.

And yet Bush got us into this horrible war with lies, by lying, by saying they had weapons of mass destruction, by saying all sorts of things that turned out not to be true.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[18:15:06]

ACOSTA: And the White House is continuing to make its case for the wall.

Just before the president's speech tonight, Vice President Pence is up on Capitol Hill meeting with GOP House members, very aware of the fact that there are some Republicans who are ready to bail on this president.

That's why the president is expected to go up to Capitol Hill, meet with Senate Republicans tomorrow. And, Wolf, we understand that both Republican and Democratic leaders, including the new speaker, Nancy Pelosi, will be over here at the White House -- at least they are scheduled to be -- to once again hear the president's case before he goes down to the border to make the case again on Thursday.

He is trying to get this wall, one way or another. But, so far tonight, it seems, Wolf, he has a very steep wall to climb to make that case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Jim is over at the White House.

Let's go to Capitol Hill right now.

Our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is on the scene.

Phil, as the president gets ready for his speech, the administration is making a big push up on the Hill right now.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's no question about it.

Vice President Mike Pence, I'm told, just started speaking in that closed-door briefing with House Republicans. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen started first. Then Deputy OMB Director Russ Vought went through his presentation. What the point has been has been twofold. First and foremost, the

administration's position we have heard publicly, they're trying to express and get on board all House Republicans privately. That's that they believe it is a humanitarian crisis. And they believe the president having this fight, despite 25 percent of the government shut down, is worth it.

What is also important, particularly as Republican members get more skittish, as the pain of the shutdown starts to bite even more as the days and weeks go on, was the presentation from the OMB.

I'm told that the OMB director made clear that tax refunds would continue to go out, that food stamps would not be affected, which is a big question, given the contingency fund that might fall short in February. So the basic effort right now you're seeing from the administration is one that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, I'm told, made clear had to happen.

Republicans, particularly in the House, felt like there was a kind of vacuum in terms of information, in terms of what the strategy was, in terms of where the administration was going. And you're seeing the administration respond in a big way.

There's the briefing tonight. Jim alluded to tomorrow. President Trump and Vice President Pence will both come up to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans, some of whom have also voiced concerns about the strategy up to this point.

And then after that there will be the third in two weeks meeting at the White House between the top eight bipartisan congressional leaders.

Wolf, I think it's pretty clear, at this point in time, the bigger concern of the administration is not necessarily striking a deal with the Democrats. It's making sure Republicans are both in line and comfortable with the president's position, both before the speech and after the speech tomorrow.

They know Democrats so far have not shown any willingness to budge off their position. They have made clear the government has to be open before they're willing to negotiate on border security. The president's made clear that's not something he's willing to deal with, which means he needs his party to stay with him.

And that is exactly why they have been making the push that they made tonight and will continue to make over the next couple of days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting.

All right, Phil, thank you, Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, Congressman Denny Heck. He's a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. I want to get to the shutdown in just a moment. Let's begin, though,

what we have just learned about Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. If he gave sensitive internal Trump campaign polling data to this Russian, Konstantin Kilimnik, who has ties to Russia intelligence, does that -- do you believe, does that rise to the level of collusion?

REP. DENNY HECK (D), WASHINGTON: Absolutely, Wolf. I don't even know why we're still asking that question.

This is a little bit of coming on a crime scene with a dead body and a bullet hole in it, and standing over it is Paul Manafort with a gun in his hand, and smoke is coming out the barrel.

He colluded, he colluded, he colluded. I think, in fact, the only question left to be answered -- or the only questions left to be answered are, what did the president know and when did he know it, to channel Senator Howard Baker a little bit here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, what do you believe?

HECK: We don't know yet.

I'm looking forward to every bit as much as the rest of the folks for Director Mueller's final report.

But I will you what I have told you before. The walls are closing in. Every brick of evidence and information seems to reveal more and more and more that there was a tighter and substantially deep amount of communication between Trump operatives and Russian operatives, with an eye toward the election.

BLITZER: Did you know -- and you're a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. Did you know about this contact between Paul Manafort and Kilimnik, this Russian? Is this something the House Intelligence Committee learned during its investigation?

HECK: Well, of course, Wolf, if I did know it, I couldn't tell you.

BLITZER: Well, can you give us a hint?

(LAUGHTER)

HECK: No, I'm sorry, sir. I actually take my oath pretty seriously when it comes to nondisclosure.

BLITZER: But now that it's out there, now that it's been revealed, why is it still sensitive for you to share with us whether your committee knew about it?

HECK: Because I don't know what your next question is going to be.

But let me put it this way. I'm not at all surprised.

BLITZER: All right. Well, that's an answer. As you know, Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, was a

serious guy in the campaign. Is it plausible, from your perspective, Congressman, that President Trump would be unaware of this kind of conduct during the campaign, sharing sensitive polling information with this Russian?

[18:20:13]

HECK: Well, whether or not he was specifically aware of that particular exchange of information, it is becoming increasingly implausible that he was unaware of the depth and breadth of communication, remembering there were 16 Trump operatives that had contact with Russian operatives.

So, yes in the general, it's increasingly implausible that the president was unaware of it.

BLITZER: We also learned today, Congressman, that that Russian lawyer who met with Paul Manafort and other Trump campaign officials over at Trump Tower in June of 2016 during the campaign, this woman Natalia Veselnitskaya, is much more closely connected the Kremlin than we originally thought.

And now she's been indicted by the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York because she secretly worked with Russia to provide false information in a different case stemming back to 2013.

What does that tell you?

HECK: Another brick of evidence and what it is that we suggested earlier, this incredibly tangled and complex web of exchange of information and collusion.

Collusion has been proven at this point. It's a different legal term than conspiracy or coordination. But there's no question that collusion has been committed here. It was committed with the Trump Tower meeting. It was committed with the information that was shared in the way of pulling information. Go right on down the line.

There is no longer any question in any rational person's mind that collusion was committed, period.

BLITZER: So, if collusion was committed, does that suggest to you, you should go ahead, the House Judiciary Committee, with impeachment hearings?

HECK: Collusion, as has been stated often Wolf, is, in and of itself, not a federal crime.

Conspiracy and coordination for foreign interference in our election is. And that's what I am suggesting to you the walls are closing in on with respect to the Trump campaign operation.

BLITZER: Well, are you suggesting it's a conspiracy, but not collusion, or it is collusion and not a conspiracy?

HECK: I'm suggesting that collusion has been demonstrated or proven. Conspiracy has not yet been proven.

BLITZER: And, as you suggested earlier, it's -- we don't know yet if Donald Trump personally was aware of these contacts between Paul Manafort and this Russian.

HECK: Yes.

Wouldn't it be nice, for example, once again, if we could get our hands on the phone records of who it was that Donald Trump Jr. talked to immediately prior to the Trump Tower meeting in the summer of 2016 to see whether or not that was his father?

BLITZER: Well, you're going to be the majority -- you're now the majority in the House Intelligence Committee. Presumably, you will be able to subpoena that kind of information.

Have you spoken to the new chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Democrat Adam Schiff, on how you plan to pursue this information, other information? Will you call in, for example, Paul Manafort to testify?

HECK: We have had the most preliminary of conversations about how we will pursue this and what are the most egregious, outstanding unanswered questions associated with our prematurely truncated investigation last year, last spring.

But you can be completely assured that Chairman Schiff plans to follow up as is appropriate. He plans to follow up, I think, very much so with respect to subpoenaing records relating to some of the money. Follow the money, always.

He also is interested, I think many of us are, in sharing the transcripts with Director Mueller, so that he can determine whether or not, with what Director Mueller knows -- we don't know what Director Mueller knows -- has -- have there been members that came before the congressional committee, the HPSCI committee, and committed perjury?

BLITZER: Congressman Denny Heck, thanks so much for joining us.

HECK: Always. Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, we're going to more on the new revelations about Paul Manafort and the new information we have just learned about details that he shared with an alleged Kremlin operative. Is this evidence of collusion?

And we're standing by for President Trump's Oval Office speech. Will Americans find his claims about a border crisis convincing?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:47]

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, lawyers for Paul Manafort mistakenly revealing that the former Trump campaign chairman gave polling information, sensitive internal polling information from the campaign, to an alleged Kremlin operative.

It's the closest public assertion so far in the Mueller probe of coordination between a Trump campaign official and the Russian government.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts.

And, Pamela Brown, this is sensitive information that Manafort shared with this Russian who happens to have some ties to Russian intelligence. So explain the questions this raised.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a major acknowledgement, Wolf, that was inadvertently revealed in these redactions.

And it's the biggest window yet into what Robert Mueller is looking at in terms of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And, of course, this raises the question why. Why was the Trump campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, sharing this sensitive polling data with a man who has links to Russian intel?

What would the campaign get out of that and what were the -- essentially, the Russians getting out of that? And so, really, this is the first public acknowledgment of possible coordination between a Trump campaign official and the Russian government.

And remember, this is happening during a time that Russian government operatives were allegedly hacking Democrats' computers to release information that would help Trump and launching a social media campaign to sway voters to Trump's side. So Robert Mueller, presumably, is looking into this whether this is all connected.

[18:30:22] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Gloria, this wasn't simply some low-level Trump campaign official that no one ever heard of or some medium-level -- this was the campaign chairman.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: The big guy. Well, both of these people were big guys. You know, you have the campaign chairman and a Russian intelligence operative of some repute. And -- and he was doing business with Paul Manafort during the campaign, who was feeding him inside information, which could then be fed, as Pamela was saying, to bots who were trying to hack into this election and to affect the election.

So the question is -- and it remains to be answered. Maybe Bob Mueller will answer it. Did Kilimnik get this inside information on internal polling from Paul Manafort and then use it to his advantage? We don't know the answer to that. But I think we'd sure like to find out.

BLITZER: It's very important information. So legally, Jeffrey Toobin, what does it mean for Paul Manafort and, potentially, what does it mean for the president?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I don't think it changes Paul Manafort's legal situation, which is desperate as it is. What's worth pointing out here is that not only did Manafort have

these interactions with this Russian operative, he lied about them. He lied about them even after he agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. So he certainly must have wanted to keep it secret pretty badly, which compounds how serious this development is.

I don't know if it has any significance for the president yet. We need to know so much more about this relationship. What did Kilimnik give to Manafort in return? We know from the intelligence committees that the Russian government was trying to get Donald Trump elected president of the United States.

We now know there was this one-on-one relationship between his campaign chairman and this Russian intelligence operative. What went on between them? How many times did they meet? Why did he go all the way to Madrid to meet with him? Which is not exactly a convenient place. I mean, it must have been a pretty serious meeting so that they went to Madrid.

I mean, it raises a tremendous number of questions. But the significance of it is very serious.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, what do you think?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I agree with Jeffrey in that we don't really know yet what the president knew and how that impacts him.

But let me just say this. If you were trying to collude with the Russians, conspire with the Russians, handing over polling data to a Russian intelligence apparatchik would be a good place to start.

And I think what's been interesting about watching this Mueller investigation has been to see the pieces of the puzzle fill in. This is one more piece of that puzzle.

As Gloria said, some of it may -- could have been used conceivably to focus some of these social media efforts of the Russians that we now know were intense and took place and were impactful. The -- you know, polling is a pretty blunt instrument to help focus that, and there's other data that could be more useful. But still, you could see, if there is a link there, the puzzle fills in further; and soon you have the picture of a real conspiracy.

BLITZER: You worked on the Obama presidential campaign. Can you imagine someone from the Obama presidential campaign sharing sensitive internal polling information with a Russian -- potential Russian operative?

AXELROD: I was the chief strategist, and I had a hard time getting data myself. So no, I can't imagine that. That was the most closely- guarded secret.

And look, we've said this many times before. If anybody had even an inkling that they were talking to an operative for another government, much less the Russians, that would have been reported to the appropriate authorities right away.

So you know, look, it is impossible -- you would have to be really, really willfully ignorant to look at all this information -- or intentionally ignorant to look at this information and say, "Well, this is all sort of irrelevant and coincidental." The more the puzzle fills in, the more suspicion there is.

BLITZER: Yes, David Swerdlick, the -- this seems to be the most substantive coordination between a high-ranking Trump campaign official and a Russian official so far.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Wolf. As Axe just said, this doesn't tell us what the president knew at the time. And it doesn't necessarily get you -- I think we're a long way from anyone being able to prove conspiracy or collusion, capital "C." Conspiracy to defraud the United States, a crime, which is being investigated, presumably, by the special counsel's investigation.

But the idea of small "C" collusion, that there are all these interface points now between Russians and members of President Trump's inner circle during the campaign time frame, are coming closer and closer together. And they all fly in the face, certainly politically, of the tweets and statements that the president has made over and over that "There's no collusion. No one that I know had anything to do with Russians." That just becomes more and more implausible with each passing day.

BLITZER: So when the president --

TOOBIN: Wolf, can I --

BLITZER: Go ahead. Go ahead.

TOOBIN: -- just clarify one thing I said? I mentioned the Madrid meeting. And we've been informed that the Madrid meeting actually took place after the election, even in January or February. But that was the time that the Russians were trying to get the sanctions lifted. It was the time when there was lots of communication between, you know, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, all sorts of people connected to Trump, all of whom, it seems, forgot or told untruths about their dealings with Russia.

So the fact that they were still doing it after the election, you know, fits with the rest of the pattern in the campaign.

BORGER: Can I add to something David was saying? I think it requires, you know, what's called the willing suspension of disbelief to think that 16 people who were affiliated with what we are always told was a very small operation, the Trump campaign, had contacts with Russians. This was not a huge campaign. They're right. It was a small group. Well, out of that small group, you had 16 people with contacts with Russians. As David -- is that a coincidence?

We don't know anything about the president in all of this, I should say. We have no idea how far up the ladder these contacts went. We do know that Michael Cohen is cooperating with Mueller, and he may have something to say about that. But how do -- how do you say, pay no attention to it?

SWERDLICK: Oh, yes. No, it's a coincidence.

BLITZER: None of those contacts were reported to the FBI during the course of the campaign.

BORGER: Or even the campaign counsel.

BLITZER: Those are serious questions.

Everybody, stick around. We're going to have more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:51] BLITZER: All right. We're just over two hours away from President Trump's Oval Office address, making his case, more than $5 billion in funding for his border wall. He's got to be really careful, Pamela Brown, tonight. Because everybody is going to -- eight minutes he's going to speak, supposedly. But everybody will be listening and watching to make sure that every word is factually correct.

BROWN: That's right. Because we've heard the administration play fast and loose with the facts in order to make this case that there really is a national security crisis at the border.

And already, there have been administration officials, including Vice President Pence, who has said nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists were apprehended attempting to enter the U.S. in 2018.

Well, the fact is that this number, the bulk of it, is people who apply, who are applying for visas to come to the U.S. And the remaining number is mostly individuals who attempt to travel, and normally by air.

I'm told by a source familiar with this matter that only -- roughly a dozen individuals in fiscal year 2018 were actually encountered at the border. And roughly half of those were stopped at a legal port of entry.

So making this case nearly 4,000 suspected terrorists were apprehended trying to come into the U.S. in the context of the southern border is misleading.

Also, you keep hearing the administration talk about these special interest aliens, that 3,000 of them were apprehended attempting to enter the U.S. in 2018. What that means is these were people who were coming from countries of concern such as Yemen, Bangladesh, who were taking a circuitous route, an irregular route to get to the U.S. Those are considered special interest aliens that the U.S. says it engaged with last year. But that is a different category from suspected terrorists.

BLITZER: You know, the president, Gloria, has -- he's got to move away from relying on misleading numbers to try to make his point. BORGER: Well, you would -- you would think so. And it seems to me

that the White House -- and Pamela knows more about this than I do. The White House is scrambling to try and get their ducks in a row here. Because they know that there's been a lot of pushback on these numbers.

The question that I have about Donald Trump, is he going to stick to the script that's written for him in this little window that he's -- that he's asked for, or is he going to freelance? Because if he freelances, who knows what numbers he's going to use? Who know what he's going to say?

TOOBIN: Are you guys watching this --

BLITZER: Go ahead.

TOOBIN: Are you guys watching the same White House that I -- What makes you think they're going to correct their numbers?

BORGER: Well --

TOOBIN: I mean, why haven't they -- they've been telling false numbers for the entire two years of the presidency.

BORGER: Right. I can only tell you that -- that from reporting, that there is some internal scrambling going on, particularly after the vice president this morning on the morning shows also used the wrong number.

BROWN: The numbers are accurate.

BORGER: The way they explain them.

BROWN: They way they explain it in the context is wrong.

BLITZER: Completely wrong.

BORGER: No, I'm not --

BLITZER: David Axe, you've got some experience. An Oval Office address eight minutes speech that supposedly he's going to be giving tonight. How important, how effective can that really be in affecting attitude?

AXELROD: Listen, even people who are good at this find it very, very difficult. These things tend to work best when it's -- when there's an event that you're responding to.

[18:45:03] Ronald Reagan, the "Challenger" tragedy, when Obama spoke to the apprehension, the killing of Osama bin Laden.

It's a very bad format to try and win a political argument. You only have eight minutes. You are reading off a prompter.

And this president isn't very good at doing that. He likes to freelance, as Gloria suggests. He likes to ad lib. You really can't do that in an Oval Office speech. There's no crowd to jack up or to get you jack up.

So, this is not his event. And they may end up really regretting choosing this as the format through which they try and deliver a message.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: David, reading prompters is not necessarily all that easy.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, it's not. The president is an effective commuter. But he is better, as everyone else has said, in unscripted moments. Scripted moments are not his friend. He likes the crowd. He likes to freelance.

And this tonight is going to be a test of his capabilities.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And you also have the response, though, from Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. I don't know whether they'll be reading prompter. Will they fact check him in real time? We don't know how they're going to do.

BLITZER: They have a limited window, too. Let's see how they do.

BORGER: Yes, exactly.

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

We're getting some new information right now about the impact of the partial government shutdown on some airport security operations across the country. It's a CNN exclusive. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:51:05] BLITZER: Now, a CNN exclusive. An email obtained by CNN reveals for the first time that the government shutdown is impacting some airport security operations.

Our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh broke the story for us.

So, Rene, the problem of hundreds of sickouts by TSA officers across the country since the partial government shutdown began. These officers are not being paid during the shutdown.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And we're learning tonight that excessive calls by TSA officers have hurt security operations at a Southern California airport. That at least is the assessment of a high ranking Transportation Security Administration official.

It's all laid out in an internal e-mail dated Monday. The TSA official is in charge of security operations at Palm Springs International Airport and he wrote in this internal email, and I'm quoting, due to excessive unscheduled absences recently experienced at PSP, that is Palm Springs International, that has adversely impacted security operations, if you have an unscheduled absence, you will not be placed in intermittent furlough status. Plainly speaking, concerns about the number of callouts at this airport have reached the point that TSA management warning employees in that e-mail that there may be disciplinary action if employees call out.

Now, this e-mail was directed to all TSA personnel at the airport, and it is significant because it exposes for the very first time an acknowledgment that the partial government shutdown now stretching into the third week is impacting some aviation security at, at least, one airport and we just received, Wolf, a statement from the TSA and it says in part that Palm Springs Airport is a small airport that requires a full team effort.

The deputy FSD, which is federal security director, who is referenced in the e-mail obtained by CNN was simply expressing that all screening employees must report to work during the current lapse in appropriations as required by federal rules. So, you know, TSA is saying that they're monitoring the situation at this airport, but that they have not seen any indication that operations have been hampered at all there. But keep in mind, this all comes after safety warnings and concerns have been raised by pilots unions, flight attendants unions, as well as TSA employee unions.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting. Thank you, Rene, very much.

Much more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:58:17] BLITZER: We're learning new information tonight about an American Navy veteran now being detained in Iran.

Our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski is working the story for us.

Michelle, his name is Michael White. What are you learning about her detention?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right. Also, he's a counselor. He works at a job training center in California. What we know about this is what we've been told by his mother.

So, she told CNN that for years, he has had this girlfriend in Iran that he met online. So, he's known her for five or six years. He's been to Iran multiple times to visit her. He generally stays two weeks at a time. So, he's known her for a long time.

But this time, when he went over there in early July, around mid-July he disappeared. He wasn't returning any messages from home. The mother filed a missing persons report. She spoke to the Department of Homeland Security but she says it was only three weeks ago that she found out from the State Department, they got in touch with her, that all of this time, it's been nearly six months now he has been in an Iranian prison.

Unclear what exactly he's been charged with, what he's accused of, why they picked him up, how they picked him up. But she says that the State Department told her they're trying to gain access to him through Switzerland which handles the U.S.'s diplomacy with Iran. Of course, the relationship is at a low point. And Michael White now is one of at least four Americans that we know

of who are currently detained in Iran. The one who's been held the longest has been there for more than three years. There's Robert Levinson who disappeared in Iran more than a decade ago.

BLITZER: These are serious, serious situations and we have to get these Americans out of Iran and clearly, we didn't even know that he was being detained until now. All of a sudden, he's been detained for months.

KOSINSKI: Right. And the State Department isn't even confirming it. What we know is what we're hearing from his family.

BLITZER: Let's hope for the best. Thanks very much. Michelle Kosinski reporting.

KOSINSKI: Sure.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.