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Two Separate Major Newspaper Reports Call Into Serious Question How President Donald Trump Is Conducting Himself With Regard To Russia; Country's Most Undeniable Experts On Border Security Believe Building A Physical Barrier Is A Waste Of Money. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 14, 2019 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[18:00:31] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Thanks for being here.
President Trump spending the weekend inside the White House while two separate major newspaper reports call into serious question how he is conducting himself with regard to Russia.
One of those reports in the "Washington Post" shows the extremes President Trump has allegedly gone to to high details of his conversations with President Vladimir Putin, swearing interpreters to secrecy and making sure there is no written record of at least one private meeting with Putin according to U.S. officials.
Another report from the "New York Times" that claims the FBI was so concerned after President Trump fired FBI director James Comey that they launched a counterintelligence investigation into the President himself. They were working to find out if Trump was actually knowingly unbelievably working to benefit the Russian government. And this extraordinary moment last night on Trump friendly FOX News, a show host asking the President point-blank, this yes or no question, and listen to his answer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's the most insulting thing I have ever been asked. I think it's the most insulting article I have ever had written. And if you read the article, you would say that they found absolutely nothing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: We could play the entire answer. But after nearly two minutes you still won't hear him flatly deny that he is or is not working actively to help the Russians. He doesn't even say it.
CNN's Boris Sanchez is at the White House right now, a very wintry White House, I should add.
Boris, the President is sequestering himself in the White House behind you. Maybe because of the weather in part. He has been tweeting that he is in there. And that he is quote "waiting." What other reactions are you hearing to those explosive reports about the President and Russia?
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Ana.
Yes. President Trump has yet to specifically weigh in on any of the details in either of these reports in the "New York Times" or "the Washington Post." Though, he did weigh in calling James Comey all sorts of names on twitter and going after him reigniting deep state conspiracies that we have heard the President peddle before about the Russia investigation.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders did send out two statements about both reports this weekend. Both of them very similar and she says essentially in both of them that she believes President Trump has been tougher on Russia than former President Obama, something that is provable by video tape.
We have seen President Obama talk about how he confronted and pressed Vladimir Putin on the issue of Russian election meddling. Something that we have not seen President Trump do publicly. We don't know if he has done that privately, though. And that's the gist of that "Washington Post" report about the interactions between these two leaders and President Trump's attempts to keep them under wraps.
Now some have defended the President. Senator Ron Johnson was on "STATE OF THE UNION" this morning suggesting that previous encounters between President Trump and other world leaders leaked embarrassing the administration. Perhaps that's why the President wants to keep it private.
Others have been more critical. The White House again has not responded to what any lawmaker has said about these reports. The President has been tweeting, though. He actually tweeted just a few moments ago about the United States' troops presence in Syria. He is also been tweeting about the shutdown. At one point, as you noted, writing that he's in the White House waiting for Democrats to return to Washington, saying they are having fun and not even talking.
There is no indication that either side has been talking over the weekend as we have enter the fourth week of this government shutdown. But the President is apparently enjoying the snow. Look at this tweet he sent out a short time ago, writing quote "wish I could share with everyone the beauty and majesty of being in the White House and looking outside at the snow-filled lawns and Rose Garden." Really is something. Special country, special place." Clearly, the President enjoying this snow and winter weather more than some of us -- Ana.
CABRERA: All right. Boris Sanchez reporting at the White House. It's amazing that you don't have a bit of snow on your black jacket there, Boris.
CABRERA: TV magic going on. Thank you.
SANCHEZ: Thanks, Ana. CABRERA: Let's bring in CNN contributor Garrett Graff, author of "the
Threat Matrix inside Mueller's FBI and the war on global terror." And also with us, former assistant U.S. attorney and CNN legal analyst Elie Honig.
So let me start with you, Eli, these two reports back to back, they seem to reinforce each other. Do they not?
[18:05:00] ELIE HONIG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR IN THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Yes, they do. And the common theme, Ana, with these reports is obstruction, right. Efforts to keep the truth from coming to light.
"The New York Times" tells us about the efforts to - you know, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation because they believed in fear that Trump fired Comey to prevent him from digging into the Russia case.
"The Washington Post" tells us about Trump's effort to seize the notes and to tell the interpreter to keep quiet. Again, to keep the truth from coming to light.
And on top of that we are about to begin the confirmation hearings for William Barr as attorney general which is the number one job in this country responsible for bringing truth to light. And the problem with William Barr is he sent this long memo to DOJ unsolicited six months ago where he attacks not Robert Mueller generally. He doesn't say everything Mueller doing is crazy but specifically the obstruction of justice investigation. He calls it fatally misconceived. And earlier Barr had said that the obstruction investigation is asinine. He said that to the Hill.
So our senators really need to dig into that and say is this how you view the obstruction investigation? Do you stand by your own words? And they really cannot accept mille-mouth (ph) dodgy coached up lawyered up answers.
CABRERA: Let me talk to you about Barr here more in just a second. But as you put it very nicely all in one package, it does show that obstruction is a big piece potentially of Mueller's investigation.
Garrett, you are sort of our Mueller expert. On the "Washington Post" reporting, do you think Trump's concealment of the records pertaining to his meetings with Putin are of interest to Robert Mueller?
GARRETT GRAFF, AUTHOR. THE THREAT MATRIX: Absolutely. But I think the bigger thing is Eli is saying here is the pattern, and again, you even look at the interview that the President did last night, you know. If I was being accused of being a Russian agent, I would be much more annoyed about being accused of being a Russian agent than I would be the investigation itself. That's not what we are seeing from the President, you know. It would be easy for him to come out and deny this.
What we have to, you know, almost assume at this point is that the President in his campaign were compromised by Russia in some meaningful way that is not yet clear. That's the evidence that we are seeing sort of pattern after pattern both from the staff and the President's own actions. You know, this is a President who in many ways has gone out of his way to continue to be soft on Russia and Vladimir Putin. To continue to be complimentary to Vladimir Putin, you know. Up to and including that astounding Helsinki summit which was the subject of part of the "Washington Post" report where the President met privately with Putin and then basically came out on the stage with Vladimir Putin and complimented Putin and questioned the American intelligence community.
CABRERA: Garrett, do you know, could Congress try to question that interpreter?
GRAFF: Well, I think that's not -- that's a very complicated answer. And there are some legitimate executive privilege concerns stemming from the idea that President's need to be able to have some private conversations with foreign leaders and that's not necessarily a precedent that we should want to set as a democracy and as a government.
But you do have to look at the pattern of behavior here which is, you know, this is a President who knows that these questions are being raised about his behavior with Russia vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin and is still going out of his way to have these incredibly odd one on one no staff conversations with the leader of Russia.
CABRERA: Eli, is that executive privilege going to end up being the President's best defense?
HONIG: It may be. I do think Congress is going to try to subpoena the interpreter. Adam Schiff has said it straight up. He said he tried to do it under last Congress but the Democrats were out-voted. They were the minority. Now they are the majority. He said we are going to want to talk to her.
The only really way to resist that is through a claim of executive privilege. And it's an interesting claim. On the one hand executive privilege is meant to protect and keep secret conversations between the President and his close advisors, his attorney general, his counsel, his chief of staff. It would be quite a stretch to say that should also include his conversations with foreign heads of state. They are not advisers. We really be stretching that.
On the other hand, I think Garrett has a good point. There is a legitimate interest in keeping confidential, high level diplomatic conversations, diplomatic conversation. And if you look at the Nixon decision from 1974 when the court said, yes, executive privilege exist. But no, it doesn't apply to this situation.
What they did say to Supreme Court back in 1974 is it is really intended to protect military secrets, national security secrets. So there may be an argument, a creative argument that Trump can make that we need to expand executive privilege to cover this kind of situation.
CABRERA: I want you, guys, to stay with me as we bring in also David Gergen who as many of you know at home has worked in four White Houses.
And so thank you, David. I'm so glad that you could be part of the conversation tonight with this extraordinary reporting.
Here, we are talking about what the "Washington Post" is reporting about the President's efforts to really conceal his interactions with the Russian President. In fact, even confiscating notes from one of his interpreters. Have you ever heard or experienced such a thing with other presidents?
[18:10:31] DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No. And I worked for President Nixon and we never had anything like this. I must say, Ana, that if you combine the story in the "Washington Post" that you just talked about along with the "New York Times" reporting about the fact that the FBI opened this counterterrorism investigation, if I were in the White House, I would be terribly worried.
I would be terribly worried not just about my President. I would be worried about the office to the presidency which I think is threatened in this situation. It's almost like a spy thriller that we are going through. It's just unbelievable we would be here.
But I would also be worried about the country because I think this could be very damaging to us as Americans that if this unravels and the patterns that seem to be developing, the patterns are very, very suspicious.
In the "Washington Post" I would also commend to people a new piece by Max Boot, who is a contributor to CNN on all the reasons why we should be suspicious, all the things that -- the alignments of President Trump and Vladimir Putin. Again and again and again, it's a really arresting piece.
CABRERA: David, what typically happens with the notes that are part of these meetings that document what has taken place?
GERGEN: Sure. Well, first and foremost, they are shared with the principles committee which are essentially the secretary of state, secretary of defense, CIA director, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, the head of the joint chief. All those people need to know what's going on. There has to be a transparency. Those are all the top people, the top circle around the President on national security. And they are typically shared with them for information purposes so they know, you know, what the other side is thinking, very importantly, but they also know what our President is saying in pledging.
And so it is -- I can go back the next day. Sometimes he held a meeting one on one with the Russians and would have only an interpreter there and indeed an American Vernon Walters served as an interpreter for both sides on some occasions. But since then the tradition has been one of sharing, of more transparency. Because we have such a complicated government with so many different kind of sprawling relationships that really makes a difference that people are brought up to speed. After all, these are the people we trust with the utmost secrets of the government.
So to trust them with that is no stretch at all. It is traditionally what is done. Stobe Talbott, for example, who became later became head of Brookings, very fine person worked with President Clinton on many, many occasions. He was the note taker. He went in because he and President Clinton were long-time colleagues, friends. And Strobe would take these notes in meeting after meeting after meeting that Clinton had with the Russians and those notes would then be religiously shared with others and then they would go into a master file for a variety of reasons. So you can have a comparative purposes.
Now, if you don't know what your President is saying or thinking, you have no sense of continuity about how relationships develop and you don't know how the Russians are trying to play him, you know. Because after all, that at the end of the day is what a lot of this is about. Have the Russians played him, have they turned him to what used to be in the cold war called a useful idiot.
CABRERA: And you wonder if now the Russians can spin the narrative that they want from what happened in the meetings without being able to prove something different happened.
David Gergen, Eli Honig, Garrett Graff, great to have all of your thoughts with us. Thank you.
GERGEN: Thank you very, very much, Ana.
CABRERA: As the government shutdown extends to a 23rd day with no end in sight, one border sheriff says he supports the President 100 percent, but when it comes to the wall, it's a different story.
Plus, a new report says the White House requested plans from the Pentagon to attack Iran.
And mounting allegations of abuse by R. Kelly are prompting investigations and now a movement to ban his music is gaining momentum. The latest live in the CNN NEWSROOM.
[18:18:47] CABRERA: The President may be willing to build his promised southern border wall at any cost. But many of the country's most undeniable experts on border security believe building a physical barrier there is not only a waste of money but one that won't work very well. These men and women patrol the border every day as border officers.
And CNN's Gray Tuchman road with a sheriff of a border county in Texas who supports President Trump 100 percent except when it comes to that wall.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Keith Hughes is a border county sheriff in a remote county in Texas where illegal immigration apprehensions have increased.
How big of a problem do you think illegal immigration is?
SHERIFF KEITH HUGHES, TERRELL COUNTY, TEXAS: I think it's going to devastate our country one of these days if we don't do something about it, if it hasn't already.
TUCHMAN: No county on America's southern border gave Donald Trump a bigger win on Election Day than Terrell County. Sheriff Hughes voted for him.
HUGHES: I support him 100 percent. I think he has done a great job, so.
TUCHMAN: But the President during his oval office speech said professionals want and need a wall. Do you want and need a wall in your county?
HUGHES: No, sir, I do not. Either one do not want one, do not need one.
[18:20:01] TUCHMAN: That's because he says they already have one, a natural one, the Rio Grande which separates the U.S. and Mexico.
This stop sign, there may be no other mandatory stop sign in the world because if you don't stop here, it's about a 300 foot drop to the Rio Grande. Which means it is 300 feet up.
The sheriffs and others here call these cliffs God's wall which lines the river throughout most of Terrell County. That's why the sheriff has always thought that the concept of a continuous border wall made little sense. Other parts of the county's border though are level as the Rio Grande once with heavy brush.
In a plat area like this where it's easier to cross the river, different than they were before?
TUCHMAN: And you have this money, would you use any of it for the wall? Would you take all the money and use it for more people and more technology?
HUGHES: I wouldn't use it for a wall. Use all the money for technology and people. That money would be better spent on those situations instead of the wall.
TUCHMAN: Sheriff Hughes says every dime received should be spent on law enforcement and technology.
Terrell County has a small population, but it's about 24 00 square miles. The sheriff only has four deputies and there are very few border patrol agents. Most of the time it's only cows observing migrants swimming across the Rio Grande.
HUGHES: The hell with the wall for right now. I mean, it's going to happen, it's going to happen. If it's not, it's not. But we need to quit dwelling on the wall and deal with right now.
TUCHMAN: Gary Tuchman, CNN, Terrell County, Texas.
CABRERA: Now here's a different perspective from a Texas border control agent in the Rio Grande valley. He told me a wall is necessary. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS CABRERA, BORDER PATROL AGENT: We do have hundreds and sometimes thousands a day of people coming in to request asylum or to get asylum through the catch and release system. What that does is it ties our hands and we are unable to patrol the other areas where people are out to avoid detection, and ultimately get into the United States. So the wall is necessary down here. There's communities out here that have benefitted greatly from the wall. It's not stopping everybody from coming in, but it is funneling them into areas where we can apprehend them.
And unfortunately, a lot of politicians down here will tell you one thing on camera, but behind closed doors, it's a different story just because the wall is such a touchy topic that a lot of local politicians don't want to take a stand against the status quo.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: I want to bring in someone else who knows the area well, Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar who has represented Texas' 28th district since 2005. His districts includes 290 miles of the southern border.
Congressman, good to have you with us. We just heard now from that Texas border patrol agent who says a wall is necessary. Gary Tuchman talked to the Texas sheriff who insist the wall is not necessary. Who is right?
REP. HENRY CUELLAR (D), TEXAS: Well, you know, the sheriff is right and border patrol was right in 2012. Let me explain that. If you look at the union patrol back in 2012 their position was that the wall was not necessary because that people could do a tunnel, dig a tunnel, climb over it, and it was useless waste of dollars. So the sheriff is right, and then the border patrol before 2012 were correct on that.
So again, I do support border patrol strongly. I want to see more of them hired. In fact, 2000 of them -- there are 2000 of them short. We need to make sure we hire more border patrol and make sure that if we want to stop drugs, look at where drugs come in. Most drugs will come from ports of entry, period. That's where they come from. So we need to modernize our ports and put technology and personnel and k-9s at the ports of entry. CABRERA: Let me just emphasize what you just said because we also saw
in a letter from the House speaker Nancy Pelosi outlining what kind of border security improvements Democrats support. She says more technology to scan cars and trucks at the ports of entry, new technology to detect unauthorized crossings, more agents, better port of entry, infrastructure. We have heard President Trump and Republicans express support for those things as well. So that's where everybody agrees.
The wall, though, is the big question right now. As someone who represents border communities, do you think Democrats should be willing to pay for a wall in some areas of the border?
CUELLAR: Look, there's already 654 miles of fencing across the United States. As the sheriff said a while ago in west Texas, what do you have? You have those large cliffs. I have been there. Those are huge cliffs. Then you have the rivers, the natural boundaries.
CABRERA: Right. You don't need a wall there, right?
CUELLAR: Yes. That's like he said, that's God's wall. So, again, you know, we already added 654 miles of fencing on it. Now, I would say that back in 2008, this is an important point. Senator Cornyn and myself and a Democratic county judge came up with a compromise in the Bush administration when we did a levy wall.
So there are some sort of ways that we can provide flood control and security. The problem is that Washington wants to dictate the type of fencing that where they want to put it. If they would just let the local border patrol chiefs have some independence, and if they can work with the local communities, you would be surprised what they can work on.
[18:25:25] CABRERA: So just to make sure I'm clear, would you be willing to vote for any legislation that offers some money to walls or steel slats in some places? I know -- I talked to a fellow Democrat like a congressman Garamendi just yesterday who said yes, as long as you specify where the wall is needed and why.
CUELLAR: Well, again, like I said a few minutes ago, we have worked out on the past, levy walls. But the local community was involved, and that type of infrastructure if Washington would allow the local community input where they can work along with them, we can come up with some infrastructure. And that's the key. Washington doesn't dictate. It's the local community working with the local border patrol sheriffs and you'll be surprised what they can work on.
CABRERA: OK. Here's what the President tweeted this morning suggesting potential negotiations about the wall for DACA protections. He tweeted this.
Democrats are saying that DACA is not worth it and don't want to include in talks. Many Hispanics will be coming over to the Republican side. Watch.
Congressman, what's your response to that? CUELLAR: Well, again, the President is known to say or tweet so many
things that are just not correct. I would just leave it like that.
Look, we want to make sure that we have protected dreamers. We want to make sure we also have full immigration reform. We want to see immigration reform. The problem is that the Republicans and the President only wants to talk about certain extreme immigration reforms that they talked about. They don't want to sit down or look at what, you know, we have done in the past. There's a lot of things that have been already drafted that we could work on, but they just don't want -- they -- when they say negotiate, they say take our position and that's how you negotiate. And that's not negotiations.
CABRERA: But haven't Democrats in the past offered DACA protections and we will give you the money for the wall?
CUELLAR: Some people have. I have not been one of them. I think those are two different things. I think we need to do everything to protect our dreamers and I voted for the dreamers. But the wall is something else.
When you protect -- I mean, when you represent, you know, landowners that have had lands for so many years and a government is going to come in and build this fence and keep in mind when you have the river, many a times they have to go up one mile, one mile walk from the bank, you are giving up one mile of territory that becomes a no man's land and that's what we are saying is that, you know, we got to protect private property rights. And again, you will be surprised if we can get together, we can get rid of the (INAUDIBLE) which is this evasive type of brush that we have. We can build those roads so the border patrol can work there. We can hire, you know, more border patrol. There are 2000 border patrol.
As you know, the administration put out a $297 million contract to show them how to hire border patrol and with $14.8 million. You know how many border patrol they hired? Two. Two border patrol. I would rather use that $297 million give it as retention bonuses to our border patrol, to our CPP (ph) officers so we don't lose those men and women.
CABRERA: OK. Congressman Henry Cuellar, glad to have you with us. Thank you very much.
CUELLAR: Thank you so much.
CABRERA: We will be right back.
REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: -- could have been working with or at the behest of Russia. And this was considered and discussed by senior officials at the FBI.
[18:30:07] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You've heard, Phil Mudd, the criticism of the FBI from the president and his supporters, that they were all politically motivated to launch this kind of probe.
You, at one point in your career, worked at the FBI. When you hear that kind of talk, for example, by the president -- It's "a bunch of bad cops" who are responsible for this over at the FBI -- what's your reaction?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I'm afraid they might give him some ammo here. Look, I think the right question was raised here earlier by David. That is, we don't know exactly the intelligence they're looking at. So I've got to put a huge asterisk about -- by what I'm about to say.
But if you're going to investigate the president of the United States because some of his decision making and judgment is erratic -- well, first, that's Donald Trump for 72 years. He's taken U-turns on other foreign policy. North Korea and Iran would be two examples. Sort of China. I want to see evidence that tells me why something as profound as an investigation of the president of the United States for being an agent of a foreign power should take place.
Final thing I'd say, quickly, is I was just re-reading what the inspector general at the FBI said about Mr. Comey's judgment during the Hillary Clinton investigation, and it is scathing. So I think you look at a parallel and say there will be equal questions about his judgment during this process.
BLITZER: But the scathing criticism was the way Comey behaved towards Hillary Clinton, not necessarily towards Donald Trump.
MUDD: No, what I'm saying is the judgment he exercised during that investigation --
BLITZER: Of Hillary Clinton, yes.
MUDD: -- of Hillary Clinton including violating department norms. So now you have another politically-charged investigation, and I think there might be equal questions about the judgment he exercised during this investigation.
BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, listen to this exchange that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had during the campaign at one of their presidential debates in 2016.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Eighteen hundred nuclear warheads, and she's playing chicken. Look, Putin, from everything see, has no respect for this person.
HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.
CLINTON: And it's pretty clear --
TRUMP: You're the puppet.
(END VIDEO CLIP) JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: You know, they don't give
silver medals in elections, but that was -- that was pretty prescient what she was saying there.
I mean, that's why this is so significant, because it's not just one thing that led the FBI to open this investigation. Every single piece of evidence that came out during the campaign and, certainly, a great deal after the campaign, is this incredible solicitude for Donald Trump towards Vladimir Putin and Russia.
Why was he doing all of this stuff? Why -- was it because he had financial interests there? Was it because they had some sort of incriminating information?
His behavior towards Russia going into the presidency, including these extraordinary comments in Helsinki, all point toward some sort of bizarre relationship with Russia. Was it an actual illicit relationship, as this investigation suggests? I don't know at this point, but Hillary Clinton was onto something.
BLITZER: "The Washington Post," newspaper you work for, David, reports that the interpreter who was there during the Trump meeting with Putin in Hamburg at the G-20 back in 2017, that the president took that interpreter's notes, because he didn't want it to be known what was actually going on during that meeting. It's a pretty extreme step.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is an extreme step. We've had several people over the weekend come out who know, who've been in these types of meetings, saying essentially, this is not normal. This is not how foreign policy is conducted. I think this is, again, a case where we still need to know more reporting.
But at a minimum, you know, the White House has this narrative they've put out in the last day or so where they're saying, essentially, "Look, this is because we were trying to protect against leaks," but that explanation, again, flies in the face of some of the other behavior we've seen from the White House. And also, it doesn't make sense why the president wouldn't share some of this information, as has been reported, with top aides who he picked to help him do foreign policy.
TOOBIN: And -- and the whole point of heads of state talking to each other is they make commitments to each other about their policy. But if no one else knows the commitments that Donald Trump makes, why have the meeting at all, unless there is something he doesn't want anyone else to know, which is a pretty extraordinary thought.
BLITZER: Or that he doesn't trust his own advisers.
BLITZER: On Russia. His national security advisers, all of whom have top-secret security clearances. The Russians know everything that happened in that meeting, but U.S. officials are kept in the dark. That's pretty extraordinary. Much more right after this.
[18:39:21] BLITZER: On the eve of his confirmation hearing, the attorney general nominee, William Barr, is now revealing that he sent or discussed with Trump lawyers a controversial memo concluding that part of special counsel, Bob Mueller's case could be, quote, "fatally misconceived." It was a 19-page memo.
David Swerdlick, what do you think? Is it appropriate that months ago he was circulating this letter and actually discussing it with the president's lawyers?
SWERDLICK: Well, it was probably appropriate at the time. No one was considering Mr. Barr for -- to become the attorney general again. Now that he's being considered again as attorney general, I do think it's fair game for senators to ask him when he comes before them.
"Look, you are essentially providing legal advice to the president's team, but the attorney general's not the president's lawyer. He's the lawyer for the United States. How do you respond to that?"
BLITZER: What do you think, Rebecca?
BUCK: Well, this is -- this and the Mueller investigation are obviously going to be one of the main focus for these senators as they're questioning Barr. Everyone is going to want to know will he protect the Mueller investigation? And what happens when a report is issued? Could he potentially go after the president for obstruction of justice? And so this is going to be at the center of their attention.
But I agree with you, David, this was done in a completely different context. This memo was sent in a completely different context, and he'll have a chance to explain that context to these senators. It will be interesting, though, to see how he does.
TOOBIN: People who are attorneys general are public figures who have views on lots of different issues. There's nothing -- John Ashcroft was attorney general. He was a United States senator. He had views on all sorts of things. So the fact that he had this view, I don't think, is disqualifying at all.
What it tells you is that this is someone who has at least some skepticism of the Mueller investigation, and the senators will certainly want assurance that, as he has said before his hearing, that he will allow Mueller to proceed and, even more importantly, at this point, allow his report to be made public. But the fact that he expressed this opinion, I don't think, is a problem in --
BLITZER: He previously was attorney general, and he emerged with a pretty good reputation as a result of his earlier term as attorney general. He worked closely with Mueller then. He worked closely with Pat Cipollone, one of the president's lawyers right now. He's pretty well-known.
MUDD: And I think that's an advantage here. In a city of turbulence where you have a celebration of partisanship on the Hill, where you have sort of a lack of judgment and I think a lack of character at the White House. You have three guys -- that is the incoming attorney general, the White House counsel, and the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who A, know each other; and I think that's a good thing. There's got to be a level of trust there.
And B, regardless of what you think of their politics, if you look at their credibility and their -- and their histories, are really respected in this town. This is going to be a tough year, and I think that combination of skills and the fact they know each other is a real positive.
BLITZER: He's been very friendly with Mueller over the years. Their wives are good friends. That's presumably going to help him in the confirmation process.
TOOBIN: Perhaps. You know, remember B, Donald Trump thought Jeff Sessions did a terrible job as attorney general because he did the right thing in recusing himself from the Russia investigation. So Donald Trump has no understanding that the attorney general is supposed to work for the people, not as his personal lawyer.
Barr's understanding of that distinction -- he's done it before -- and his insistence that he will preserve that distinction, I think, is critical to this process.
BLITZER: These hearings tomorrow, they start tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary Committee. What do you anticipate?
SWERDLICK: Well, I think this is going to be a focal point of these hearings. Because I defer to Jeffrey. You worked as a lawyer for the Department of Justice. But I do think, if I were someone on that committee asking the question, my first thing would be, "Why did you want to provide legal advice to the president's team? Even if it was narrow, perfectly reasonable, legal advice?"
I'd also want to know why someone who's already been attorney general wants this job right now.
BLITZER: Because the argument -- and you've heard it from some of the critics -- is he was auditioning for the job, knowing Sessions' tenure was very, very weak.
BUCK: That's right. And so we'll have, perhaps, as a result of this memo, a higher bar to clear, especially with the Democrats on this committee.
And don't forget, Wolf, there are multiple Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who we expect to run for president in 2020. So this will be a moment for them to try and grab the spotlight with their questioning of Barr. And that could make this a little more fiery than what we would ordinarily expect.
TOOBIN: He was auditioning? He was showing ambition in Washington, D.C.? I don't know -- it's like I'm so shocked to hear that.
MUDD: This is interesting, though, and I'm going to go down in THE SITUATION ROOM bet book in just a moment. The president, remember, has called this a hoax. And to prepare for this -- this hearing, his incoming attorney general, presumably -- I presume he'll get confirmed -- is already saying, "It's not a hoax, I'll let it continue." I'll say within 12 months, the president is trashing him on Twitter.
BLITZER: Yes. The president may not have been fully aware of all of his record on these sensitive issues.
Guys, stick around. There's more news we're following. Republican Congressman Steve King under growing fire for racist remarks. What GOP leaders are now saying about this congressman.
[18:49:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. Just into CNN, sharp new condemnation of racist remarks by Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa.
Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty is joining us from Capitol Hill.
Sunlen, King met just a little while with the House Republican leader. What are you learning?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, and this is a critical moment for Congressman Steve King in his political future. He did just meet with a top Republican in the House, Leader Kevin McCarthy. The two met for about an hour, privately, and leaving that meeting, Congressman Steve King was stone faced, as he left. He was peppered with questions from reporters and he did not answer any of them, at all.
And of course, this meeting follows McCarthy over the weekend, vowing that action will be taken to reprimand him and we await word whether that reprimand will be in the form of potentially a resolution of disapproval, potentially stripping him of his committee assignments, or as some Democrats have proposed, to censure him on the House floor.
[18:50:06] A significant statement, though, coming tonight from the leader over here in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. He stopped just short of calling for him to resign. He says in a statement, in part, quote: Rep. King's statements are unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position. If he doesn't understand why white supremacy is offensive, he should find another line of work.
And also, much stronger comments coming from new senator, Mitch McConnell -- excuse me, Mitt Romney, who tonight told my colleague, Manu Raju, thinks that it's time for Steve King to go.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH: I think there's room for Steve King's comments in polite company or in the Republican Party, or if that matter, in Congress. I think he ought to step aside, and I think Congress ought to make it very clear, he has no place there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SERFATY: And the last time we have officially heard from Steve King was on Friday, when he took to the house floor, and he says that his comments were taken out of context. He's regretful for the heartburn that this has all caused Congress, but, Wolf, he has not apologized for his statements.
BLITZER: Sunlen Serfaty, up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.
There's much more news right after this.
[18:55:51] BLITZER: President Trump spoke by phone today with Turkish President Erdogan about the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. There's deep concern that once American troops are gone, Turkey will attack Syrian Kurds, who fought alongside the United States against ISIS, but who Turkey considers to be terrorists. Mr. Trump has threatened to, quote, devastate Turkey's economy if that country attacks the Kurds.
Our chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, is joining us. She's on the ground in northern Syria for us tonight.
Clarissa, the Kurds there apparently feel almost totally abandoned by their American allies.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are certainly very deep concerns here, Wolf, about what comes next for the Syrian Kurds. They have been some of the U.S.'s most steadfast allies on the ground, in the fight against ISIS.
And while they were certainly reassured to see President Trump's tweets, talking about dealing a real economic blow to Turkey, if they impinge on Kurdish security here, they still have a lot of questions about what the future will look like for them after America is gone.
WARD (voice-over): In Kobani, the graves of Kurdish fighters are still fresh. Twenty-seven-year-old Mahmoud Rasual (ph) was killed less than two weeks ago in an ISIS ambush near the town of Deir-Ezzor.
Get up, get up, my son, I beg you, his mother Najma weeps.
These are the people left behind to mourn. Now, they are bracing for the moment they will be left behind again, as the U.S. begins to withdraw its forces from Syria.
They got what they wanted. They used the Kurds to get rid of ISIS, and now they're leaving us, Najma says. America was supposed to have our back.
(on camera): Almost every family in this town has lost someone in this war. And the very real fear here now is that when the Americans leave, there will be war here once again.
(voice-over): Just across the border is Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurds as terrorists. To the west is the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian and Iranian backers.
Kurdish military commander Sharfan Darwish tells us the Americans provided the Kurds with a buffer. In return, the Kurds took the fight to ISIS.
After all of those years that we fought terrorism together, he says, it's their minimum duty to help guarantee our security. He takes us to the town of Irima, where the intricate patchwork of different powers can be seen close up.
(on camera): So, the regime and the Russians are just over there. And the Turks are over there. The Americans?
(voice-over): We drive closer to the joint Russian regime base. It's too dangerous to stop. Less than five minutes away, the Americans are still flying their flag, but it won't be there for long. U.S. military hardware is already beginning to move out.
No one knows what comes next for the Kurds. On the road back to Kobani, we happen on a funeral. Two Kurdish security officers killed by a roadside bomb, a reminder of the daily dangers faced here.
After an exhausting battle against ISIS, the Kurds may now have to defend themselves against more powerful enemies alone.
WARD: People here are now waiting to see exactly what President Trump meant by something else he wrote in his tweet. He talked about a 20- mile safe zone, some kind of buffer zone along the border. They want to know who would implement it, who would patrol it -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Clarissa Ward doing amazing reporting for us in northern Syria, thanks very much.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.