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Interview With California Congressman Eric Swalwell; North Korea Missile Engine Test; No Evidence for Trump's Wiretapping Claim; Comey Confirms FBI Investigating Trump-Russia Links; New Test Shows "Meaningful Progress" on North Korea Missiles. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 20, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: James Comey declares there is no evidence that Mr. Trump was wiretapped by President Obama during the campaign. This hour, I will talk to a Democrat on the House committee that heard all the bombshell testimony.

No apology. The White House insists the dramatic intel hearing hasn't changed anything, as the president unleashes a new tweetstorm and ignores Democrats' demands that he apologize for his baseless wiretap claim.

And rocket science. North Korea tests a new missile engine and appears to make new progress toward its goal of being able to attack the United States. How will the Trump administration respond?

2We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the most powerful evidence yet that President Trump's wiretap claim was blatantly false, as the FBI director testifies before Congress and reveals a criminal investigation of the Trump camp's possible links to Russia, a probe that began back in July.

James Comey joining with the National Security Agency director to flatly declare that is no information to support Mr. Trump's claim that he was wiretapped by President Obama or by British intelligence.

Comey also publicly confirming for the first time that the feds are investigating Russia's election meddling, including the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign.

Also tonight, the White House is refusing to back off from the wiretap claim or offer any apology, claiming today's hearing didn't change anything.

Mr. Trump's official Twitter account going into overdrive, commenting about the hearing in real time. The president and many Republicans are downplaying testimony that could be damaging for the administration, focusing instead on who leaked information about the Russian investigation and whether laws were broken.

I will talk about all of that about with a Democrat who took part in the hearing, House Intelligence Committee member Eric Swalwell. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by, as we cover this breaking story from every angle.

First, let's go to CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, this was a very important hearing and unprecedented in many ways.


Today in a bombshell comment, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged for the first time the FBI investigation into the possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia during the election. And he put himself at odds with the White House by knocking down President Trump's wiretap allegations.


BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, FBI Director James Comey for the first time publicly confirming that the FBI is investigating alleged links between Russia and associates of the Trump campaign, an investigation that began last July.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence commission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

BROWN: In a rebuke to the president, Comey said there is no evidence to support the president's claim that former President Obama had -- quote -- wires tapped inside Trump Tower."

COMEY: I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components.

BROWN: The head of the NSA, Admiral Mike Rogers, also denying a report repeated by the White House that the Obama administration asked British intelligence to spy on the Trump campaign.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Did you ever request that your counterparts in GCHQ should wiretap Mr. Trump on behalf of President Obama?

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR: No, sir, nor would I. That would be expressly against the construct of the 5 I's agreement that has been in place for decades.

BROWN: Republicans avoided asking about Trump's wiretapping claims, instead focusing on whether laws were broken in reporting about ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's conversations with the Russia ambassador that were caught on surveillance.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Do you know whether director Clapper knew the name of the U.S. citizen that appeared in "The New York Times" and "Washington Post"?

COMEY: I can't say in this forum.

GOWDY: Would Director Brennan have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen's name?

COMEY: In some circumstances, yes.

BROWN: Congressman Trey Gowdy providing no evidence to back up his claims. Republicans wanting to deflect details regarding the investigation into potential collusion between Trump associates and Russia, insisting there was a real crime in the leaks to the press.

GOWDY: Some of that may rise to the level of a crime. Some of it does not rise to the level of a crime. One thing you and I agree on is the felonious dissemination of classified material most definitely is a crime.


BROWN: Democrats zeroed in on the Russia investigation, from the beginning laying out a circumstantial argument about what they believe may have transpired.

SCHIFF: It wasn't simply that the Russians had a negative preference against Secretary Clinton. They also had a positive preference for Donald Trump. Isn't that correct?

COMEY: Correct.

SCHIFF: Would they have a preference for an candidate who expressed open admiration for Putin?

COMEY: Mr. Putin would like people who like him.

BROWN: Comey repeatedly tried to avoid going any further on what the investigation has uncovered.

COMEY: I'm not going to talk about any particular person here today. I can't answer that.

BROWN: Perhaps anticipating outcry from the Democrats, Comey sought to explain the difference between today's testimony and when he spoke about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private sever.

COMEY: Some folks may want to make comparisons to past instances where the Department of Justice and the FBI have spoken about the details of some investigations.

But please keep in mind that those involved the details of completed investigations. Our ability to share details with the Congress and the American people is limited when those investigations are still open, which I hope makes sense.


BROWN: And Director Comey says he doesn't know when the FBI's counterintel investigation will wrap up.

In fact, one official I spoke with said counterintel investigations can take a while, even years in some cases because the intelligence is rarely black and white. And it's rarely conclusive. This could be casting a shadow over the Trump White House for some time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly could be. Pamela, thank you very much, Pamela Brown reporting.

We're standing by to hear from President Trump at a rally in Kentucky that is billed as a campaign event. We will see if he talks about the Intelligence Committee hearing. His presidential Twitter account has been very active today, offering comments during the FBI director's testimony in real time.

Let's go to CNN's Ryan Nobles. He's covering the president's event in Louisville. Big crowd already gathering over there, Ryan.

James Comey had an opportunity to respond to one of the presidential tweets. Tell us what happened.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. This is really an interesting wrinkle to what happened today here in the hearing.

As you mentioned, someone at the White House was tweeting from the official POTUS during the hearing offering commentary throughout the day. One of the tweets was a video with this caption that read, "The NSA and the FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process."

The video was of the Intel chairman, Devin Nunes, asking Mike Rogers, the National Security Agency director, if there was any evidence that Russia had directly been able to interfere with the actual casting of ballots during the election.

Rogers said there was no evidence. That wasn't necessarily new information. It's something that had been recorded in the past, but it doesn't quite meet the standard of influence, which is what the White House tweeted. That led to FBI Director James Comey being forced to clarify that tweet later on in the hearing. This is what Comey had to say.


COMEY: Well, it's hard for me to react. Let me just tell you what we understand the state of what we have said is. We have offered no opinion, have no view, have no information on potential impact, because it's never something that we looked at.


NOBLES: So we have heard from the POTUS Twitter account, we have heard from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer about this hearing. But we haven't heard from the president himself.

Perhaps we will hear what he thinks about what happened here today later on at this big event in Louisville, Kentucky -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will be watching. Ryan Nobles reporting to us in Louisville, thank you.

We now also know that the FBI's investigation of Russia's election meddling actually begin back in July, but FBI Director James Comey waited until today to confirm that publicly.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Evan Perez.

He actually waited until only a few weeks ago to inform the Intelligence Committees about this as well. Why now?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, I think part of the calculation from the FBI is that they have been getting a lot of pressure.

There's been a lot of pressure to try to explain what exactly has been going on here. There is obviously a lot of reporting since President Trump took office 60 days ago. And I think the FBI has been under pressure both from Democrats on the Hill and also from the public to try to explain exactly what they're looking at, how real it is and to sort of put a timeline on exactly how long this might take.

And I think today he tried to do a little bit of that. As you mentioned, he had gone up to the Hill to explain to the Gang of Eight, to the leaders of the Congress that there was this investigation, the specifics of what it was.

Today, though, they were surprised how far he went publicly in this hearing. We talked to a couple of members who said they were surprised that he publicly said as much as he did.

BLITZER: Yes, I was surprised as well.

But you cover the FBI. You cover the Justice Department. Were you surprised?

PEREZ: I was, because I thought for sure he was going to bat down the wiretapping claim. And we thought for sure that he would acknowledge that there was an investigation.


I was surprised that he went as far as to claim this was an investigation that could end up in criminal charges, Wolf. You know why? This is a counterintelligence. Often, these things never end up in criminal charges. They go on for years often. I think that is perhaps building some expectation that I don't know that the FBI will be able to deliver on.

BLITZER: Yes, I was surprised he went as far as to say they're checking to see whether any crimes were committed, confirming a criminal investigation is now under way and has been since July.

Evan, good reporting. Thanks very much.

Let's get more on all of these late-breaking information.

Congressman Eric Swalwell is joining us. He's a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He took part in today's hearing.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Were you satisfied with Director Comey's testimony?

SWALWELL: I was satisfied.

For a long time, we have been trying connecting dots between Donald Trump and his team and their personal, political and financial ties to Russia. And the lingering question has been, did those ties extend to working with Russia as they were attacking us?

And the director, as you reported, told us that under extraordinary circumstances, he was reading in the American people into an active investigation, which was quite stunning to hear, but I think important for the American to know that we are looking at whether his team was working with Russia as this historic and unprecedented interference campaign was being run by Russia.

BLITZER: Let me play an exchange, at least a clip of an exchange you had with the FBI director. Listen to this.


SWALWELL: Would it be safe to assume that if a prominent person was doing they shouldn't have been doing while they were in Russia, the Russians probably saw it?

COMEY: Yes, I would stick to what I said before about prominent people should assume.

SWALWELL: Mr. Director, was Donald Trump under investigation during the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer as before. I'm not going to answer that.

SWALWELL: Is he under investigation now?

COMEY: I'm not going to answer that. Please don't overinterpret what I have said. As the chair and ranking know, we have briefed them in great detail on the subjects of the investigation and what we're doing, but I'm not going to answer about anybody in this forum.


BLITZER: Congressman, do you believe Director Comey was forthcoming enough? Did he answer the questions you wanted answered?


He confirmed that an investigation is under way. I don't want him to disclose anything that would compromise an investigation. But I do want to ask the questions that my constituents at home are asking. And so hopefully the investigation proceeds, they follow the evidence.

And, Wolf, if this is merely 1,000 coincidences, then it's in the president's interest and our country's interest that he's cleared. But if this is a convergence of political, personal and financial ties with Russia's interference, then people need to be held accountable.

BLITZER: You have been connecting the dots, in your words, but what if the FBI director says those dots don't add up to collusion between President Trump's campaign, his campaign associates and the Russians? What if there is no hard evidence? Where do we go from there?

SWALWELL: Well, Wolf, he's our president.

And the question that Americans are asking is, was he or anyone on his team involved with Russia? This is not about what is proved in a court of law under a reasonable doubt standard. And sometimes as a former prosecutor, I know that what happened and what you can prove in court sometimes is different, meaning that if you have to drag Russian witnesses over to the United States to prove a fact, that may make it difficult to prove in court.

But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. And the American people should know if their president or anyone on his team was working with Russia as they were interfering in our elections.

BLITZER: But when you're talking, Congressman, about Russian witnesses being dragged over here to testify, who are you talking about? What are you talking about and who are you talking about?

SWALWELL: Well, sure.

We know that, for example, Carter Page one month after it was revealed that Russia was attacking us went over to Russia, as the senior policy adviser for the Trump campaign, with permission from the Trump campaign.

Now, if he met with someone over in Russia and that comes up in an investigation, it would probably be pretty hard to bring that Russian over to the United States. So, proving that they were working together under a reasonable doubt standard in a criminal prosecution may be difficult.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't know the evidence that exists to show that Carter Page was working with the Russians, if that is what was happening, for example.

BLITZER: Are you willing to subpoena the president to testify?

SWALWELL: I think we need to subpoena all relevant witnesses, from the president to his family to his security team, to Manafort, Page, Stone, Flynn.

The American people saw our democracy attacked. Right now, it's time for Republicans and Democrats to unite and say this democracy belongs to us and we're going to get to the bottom of why we were attacked, who was responsible, and tell the American people we are never going to let this happen again, because, Wolf, this is a mess.

BLITZER: If the Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal is to sow chaos within the United States...

SWALWELL: It's worked.

BLITZER: ... do you worry this kind of questioning so publicly actually accomplished that goal and what are the ramifications?

SWALWELL: Yes, sometimes, it gets worse before it gets better, Wolf.

And, certainly, Russia has achieved its goal in that sense. But the goal that I do not want to see Russia achieve is a dramatic change in U.S. policy towards Russia.


And so actually I'm asking the president -- and I think the American people do not want to see any policy changes toward Russia until this is resolved, because there are too many questions about prior relationships and whether there's any quid pro quo going on.

BLITZER: Congressman Schiff, I want you to stand by. We have more questions. We're getting more information.

We will take a quick break. We will be right back.


BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news, the first public confirmation from the FBI director of a potentially criminal investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged links to Russia.

Let's talk with more with Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, held a pivotal hearing, as we all know, today.


Congressman, Roger Stone, who for years was closely connected to Donald Trump, not so much in the recent year-and-a-half or two years, responded to the hearing, saying this: "It's only fair that I have a chance to respond to any smears or half-truths about alleged collusion with Russians from today's intel hearing."

Here is the question. Would you respond to that? Are you going to call him to testify?

SWALWELL: Well, he actually wrote me in the middle of the night last night, Wolf, on Twitter, and called me some names that I can't repeat on CNN.

Roger Stone loved to go to the Twitter during the 2016 election, and he was previewing the attacks that were coming from the Russians, saying that John Podesta was going to have his day in the barrel long before the Russians were able to put out through Guccifer 2.0 the Podesta e-mails.

So, we certainly want to hear from Roger Stone as well.

BLITZER: Will your committee call back the FBI director for more questioning, you think?

SWALWELL: Yes, I think we should call him back if he has new information for us.

But we also hear from other relevant witnesses. No investigation would be complete if we didn't hear from other witnesses. And also, Wolf, I think more than ever we need to see the president's tax returns. There are too many financial interests that the president has.

And the FBI director himself said today that foreign adversaries use financial distress as a way to recruit and develop people that they want to try and influence.

BLITZER: How are you going to get those tax returns?

SWALWELL: We can subpoena them. And I hope that our Republican colleagues join us in that effort.

BLITZER: Well, your Republican colleagues during the hearing, including the chairman, Devin Nunes, they pressed FBI Director Comey on how Michael Flynn, the fired national security adviser at the White House, was unmasked, referring to now public calls that he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Do these Republicans have a legitimate concern?

SWALWELL: If their takeaway was that we need to focus more on leaks, rather than the Russia attacking us, then they have learned the wrong lesson from today's hearing.

BLITZER: But what about focusing on both, the Russian involvement, but also leaks, illegal leaks by individuals in the government?

SWALWELL: Yes, and that's the Department of Justice's job.

But as Director Comey even said today, we don't know where the leaks are coming from. They also could be coming from the White House. But this is an opportunity, Wolf, for Republicans and Democrats to now unite. Our country was attacked. Russia was responsible. We have a president whose campaign had deep ties with Russia. Going forward, we never want to be in this position again. So, I think having an independent commission, as well as the investigation we're doing on the Intelligence Committee, is the best way to make sure that happens.

BLITZER: But let me just be precise. You want a criminal investigation of the leaks, right?

SWALWELL: Yes, of course.

BLITZER: All right.

Let's talk about another issue that came up today unrelated. CNN has learned that large electronics have now been banned from airplane cabins on some Middle Eastern and African flights to the United States.

Is this based on a credible threat? What are you hearing?

SWALWELL: I can't confirm or deny one way or the other, Wolf.

What I can say about aviation safety is that we have long known that our adversaries, especially terrorist groups across the world, would love to bring down a U.S. airliner or an airliner of one of our allies. We have to do everything we can make sure passengers internationally and in the United States are safe.

BLITZER: Can you tell us what terror group may be behind this specific threat?

SWALWELL: I can't say anything about this threat, Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN has been told it will impact, what, about a dozen airlines flying nonstop into the United States. Do you know how long this could take place?

SWALWELL: I don't, Wolf.

BLITZER: But it's a serious issue that you have been briefed on it, but you can't reveal information because of the classified nature of that?

SWALWELL: I can't say yes or no to that either.

I can just say that al Qaeda has long put out a cookbook of how to make a bomb, how to bring that on a airplane. And so we're long concerned about different terrorist groups and their intentions to bring down U.S. airliners.

BLITZER: A significant new development.

All right, Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

SWALWELL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Eric Swalwell joining us, congressman from California.

Just ahead, the political fallout for President Trump, as the FBI director goes public with his investigation of Vladimir Putin's attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election.


COMEY: Putin hated Secretary Clinton so much, that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.




BLITZER: We're following all the breaking news out of the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia, including the FBI director's confirmation that a criminal investigation is now under way, has been since July, of the Trump campaign's possible links to Moscow.

We're joined by our political, legal and national security experts.

Mike Rogers, let me start with you.

He made a point of saying, Comey, the FBI director, that the Justice Department, the FBI, they rarely, if ever, talk about ongoing investigations, especially investigations involving classified material. But this is an exception.



COMEY: I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.


[1:30:26] BLITZER: You were once the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. How extraordinary is this?

MIKE ROGERS (R), FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: And an FBI agent. And I have to tell you that's extraordinary. Because when you talk about -- he added the U.S. citizens. The fact that there was an investigation by the FBI into what the Russians may have been doing, you would hope and expect that that would be happening. But by mentioning the people in the Trump campaign, these are United States citizens, which means this is a criminal investigation, and they just acknowledged it.

If you noticed, when he was asked about the leaks, knock me over by a feather if there isn't an investigation into the leaks of FISA information, which is a U.S. citizen's name to the public. Really, really damaging stuff. But he wouldn't confirm that.

He confirmed today that, yes, there was an investigation and, yes, it included U.S. citizens that may or may not have been part of the Trump campaign. That is a huge departure for the FBI and the Justice.

BLITZER: He seemed, Jeffrey, to go a lot further than I anticipated and much greater experts than I am anticipated.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, this area has been such a mine field for Comey. Remember, what we now know is that, as of June last year, there was -- or July, there were two criminal investigations going, of Hillary Clinton and her e-mails and of the Trump campaign. He only chose to announce one of them in the summer, which was incredibly damaging to Hillary Clinton.

But now he has decided to announce this one, and it's a very big deal for the White House to be under criminal investigation. And given the complexity, particularly all of the classified information here, there is no way this can be resolved in three months.

BLITZER: Yes, we know that.

TOOBIN: This is a long time.

BLITZER: The investigation into Russian hacking began in July. It's unclear when the investigation into Trump associates, the Trump campaign, and alleged collusion actually began, as well.

TOOBIN: Well, that -- my reading of what he said was that it was more or less simultaneous.

BLITZER: The whole time.

TOOBIN: But in any case, it's going on now.


TOOBIN: That much is clear.

BLITZER: And we know that only in the last few weeks has the FBI notified the Intelligence Committee that there was such an investigation, even though it's been going on since July.

TOOBIN: And it is going to take a while. Doesn't mean anyone's going to be charged, but it is not going to be resolved for quite some time.

BLITZER: Gloria, how damaging is Comey's testimony to the president?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think this was probably the worst day of Donald Trump's young presidency today. I think it's very perilous for them right now, because there's this big cloud hanging over the administration; and no administration likes to operate that way.

And we saw Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary, go out and say today nothing has changed. But, in fact, everything has changed, because the FBI director came out and said that Donald Trump's tweets about Barack Obama wiretapping him were wrong; and there has not been any acknowledgement of that from the White House at all. And then allowed publicly, which as Mike says, is unprecedented, that there is this investigation into associates of Donald Trump.

And I think it's something that they're going to have to be pushing back against, but it's very difficult when you don't know exactly what the investigation is.

BLITZER: Rebecca, let me get your reaction to the White House response to Comey's testimony and the testimony of the National Security Agency director, Admiral Mike Rogers.

During the hearing, the White House tweeted this on the POTUS -- @POTUS Twitter account: "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process." That's not exactly what the director of the NSA or the director of the FBI said. They confirmed there was no evidence of Russian involvement in actually changing votes; getting into election ballots, stuff like that. But clearly, they were trying to influence the election process.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, clearly. I mean, that was sloppy phrasing at best, or it was intentionally misleading. Either way, it's not a good look for the White House, especially because it suggests that they didn't really learn their lesson from the past few weeks.

A few weeks ago, the president floated this idea that the former President Obama had wiretapped him at Trump Tower during the campaign. Obviously, that has proven to be a baseless, false, as far as we know, accusation, as confirmed by Comey today. And so you would think that the White House would want, at this stage, to restore its credibility to be really careful about the facts and the messaging that it's putting out there. That sort of tweet suggests to me that they're not doing that at all.

[18:35:05] BLITZER: You know, Mike Rogers -- and you speak with authority as a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent -- a lot of the Republicans in their questioning today, they didn't focus on the big picture of Russian hacking, of institutions, Democratic Party, the Democratic Party getting involved in the election, or alleged collusion between Trump associates, Trump campaign folks and Russia.

Instead, they focused in on the damaging leak to Michael Flynn, for example, the national security adviser, at least for a few weeks in the Trump White House. His name was surfaced as a result of unmasking, they call it, because there was surveillance of a Russian official in this particular case, the Russian ambassador to the United States. Are they missing the big picture, though?

ROGERS: Well, I was a little disappointed that the majority of their time was spent on the leak. I would say this is a FISA warrant. These are very, very, very sensitive and classified things, especially if you have a U.S. citizen's name attached. So they're right to be outraged. The Democrats should have been equally outraged.

BLITZER: And it's a criminal leak.

ROGERS: It is a felony.

And so I was little bit concerned by both parties, and I'll tell you why. The Democrats were going, trying to make the court of public opinion sway in their political direction.

And I thought here we had this opportunity for both parties to come together and lay out what the Russians have been doing, what they've been doing in the past, what they were doing during our election, how they were trying to influence us through what's called an information operation. And what a great way to lay out a case why we really need to be concerned about the Russians and what that would mean for policy moving forward on the Russians. That was completely lost today.

It was Republicans decided, "Hey, it's all about the leaks," which are bad, sure enough.

BLITZER: Yes, they are.

ROGERS: And the Democrats decided they were going to make their case, because Comey couldn't make the case publicly. And I thought, boy, I think we both swung and a miss here. The Intelligence Committee is the one place you can have that kind of...


BLITZER: As you know, Jeffrey, a lot of Democrats either want a 9/11- type independent commission to take over or a special prosecutor to take over. How do you get to either one of those?

TOOBIN: Well, you have to have Jeff Sessions appoint a special prosecutor, the attorney general.

BLITZER: He's recused himself.

TOOBIN: Or I'm sorry. You have to have the Justice Department. The -- presumably, it will be Rod Rosenstein, who will be the deputy attorney general when he's confirmed, although he has said he is going to supervise it.

But I think what everyone knows is that independent counsels, as special prosecutors are sometimes called, cannot be controlled. Ken Starr went from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky. The Iran-Contra investigation went on for six years. The party in power does not want to give that sort of free-floating power to an outsider, and it doesn't look like the Justice Department is going to do it.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. Just ahead, the timing of Comey's big reveal of an investigation that's been ongoing since July. What does it all mean for President Trump at this pivotal moment in his early presidency?


[18:42:35] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts. We're following the breaking news on the federal criminal investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged links to Russia. There's a lot more to talk about after that dramatic House Intelligence Committee hearing today.

And Mike -- Gloria, let me ask you. React to Director Comey. He was asked about the timing, the timing of this investigation, the release of all of this.


REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: This is still very early in our investigation. Is it fair to say that you're still relatively early your investigation?

COMEY: It's hard to say, because I don't know how much longer it will take, but we've been doing this -- this investigation began in late July. So for a counterintelligence investigation, that's a fairly short period of time.


BLITZER: And a lot of people are wondering, it began in late July. But only now have we learned that there's a formal criminal investigation underway.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: There was word released during the campaign that an FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton are going on. And people are already saying, "You know what? If they released the Hillary Clinton investigation information, why not the Trump campaign investigation?"

BORGER: Well, and that's -- that's the question that Democrats are clearly asking. And I think Comey only announced it today because he was up against the wall and because it's become such a -- such a matter of national discussion. Not that the e-mails weren't, by the way. They were.

But I think that -- that this is a question that's going to continue to dog him, which is that they've been investigating it for months and that, at the time at the Comey letter on the Clinton e-mails, they'd been investigating the Trump associates for three months.

BLITZER: Because you heard, Rebecca, a lot of Democrats saying there was a double standard.

BERG: A lot of Democrats hitting their heads on desks today, Wolf. I mean, this is immensely frustrating if you're someone who supported Hillary Clinton or who worked for Hillary Clinton in particular. But it's tough to say whether this is really double standard.

I mean, certainly, we don't have any evidence that that was the FBI's intention, to try to throw this election in one direction or the other. That would be a very serious charge indeed. And it's really unusual that they would be talking about any investigation in the first place.

And furthermore, I mean, a lot of this information about Russia's influence in the election more broadly, to say nothing of the Trump campaign's involvement, was already out there. The intelligence community issued a joint statement at the beginning of October, confirming that Russia had meddled in the election, had been behind the hacking of the DNC, and by the end of October only 50 percent, 55 percent of Americans thought that Russia had meddled in the election, in spite of that confirmation publicly from the intelligence community.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: There is a big difference between some congressional report and the FBI director saying we are investigating Hillary Clinton and even though we didn't charge her, we think her behavior was reckless and terrible. To say nothing of the last-minute intervention when the Anthony Wiener computer came out and I mean, that threw the election for a complete loop. Many people feel like the polling data thinks that cost Hillary Clinton the election.

So, Comey was all over the election in a way --

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I remember, Gloria, Harry Reid, he was the Democratic leader, the minority leader in the Senate in October, he was asked for a word from the FBI about some sort of investigation, and he never got it.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: So, what Comey giveth, Comey can taketh away. And I think that's what you saw today. But, you know, you can understand the frustration --

TOOBIN: Yes, but it's one thing of doing it in March of 2017 versus October of 2016 --

BORGER: Right.

MIKE ROGERS (R), FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: Could I put my FBI hat on for a minute? If there is a counterintelligence investigation, it can be different than a criminal investigation. So, that -- the course of the investigation could -- I'm just talking about plausibility -- could have changed along the way, including after the election when they had more contact that would lead them back to associates of the Trump campaign. So, the criminal portion of that, making somebody in the campaign a subject, which was apparently he said, could have happened --

BLITZER: He said in the statement, "As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed."

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: That was Comey. Let me get your reaction, Mike, and we'll start off with the Comey

statement rebutting, rejecting President Trump's accusation in the four tweets 16 days ago that President Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower. Listen.


JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all of its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.


BLITZER: All right. So, we got a rejection from the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Department of Justice. But the White House today saying nothing has changed. How much credibility does the White House and the president lose by refusing to acknowledge this?

ROGERS: I worry that the longer this goes, it has other implications for them on the credibility factor. What if some major national security event happens? You know, you need to say that the president is acting in the best interest of the country, not saying that he wouldn't do that. But what's going to happen now is you'll have a partisan fight about, are you telling us everything, why are you making these decisions when it comes to something overseas, a national security event?

He should just say, listen, I misinterpreted it, what I heard, I'm sorry about that, we're going to move on, we have big issues.

But I've been saying that for three weeks now. He should just get this thing over with. He should stop talking about it. He should move on.

Think about what's happening in North Korea. Think about what's happening -- you know, China is rattling their cage a little bit in the South China Sea. These are major national security issues that demand all of attention --

BLITZER: And he really made it worse for himself by saying, you know what, the White House put out a statement today after those four tweets, let's have an investigation, let Congress investigate and we'll get to the bottom of this. And now, Congress has investigated, the FBI has investigated, the Department of Justice is investigating and we've gotten to the bottom of it.

TOOBIN: Donald Trump doesn't apologize and he doesn't back off. And that's what got him elected I guess, and he's not going to change. He's a 70-year-old man who's had a lot of success and this is just what his personality is.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, we just got a statement from Paul Manafort. He was the campaign chairman, and he dropped out in August after the convention started in April. Let me put out his statement because his name repeatedly came up today during this hearing.

"I had no role or involvement in the cyberattack on the DNC or the subsequent released of information gained from the attack and I have never spoken with any Russian government officials or anyone who claimed to have been involved in the attack. The suggestion that I had worked in concert with anyone to release hacked e-mails or sought to undermine the interests of the United States is false. Despite the constant scrutiny and innuendo, there are no facts or evidence supporting these allegations, nor will there be. I am disappointed that anybody would give credence to allegations made by individuals with clear political motives and a blatant attempt to discredit me and the legitimacy of the election of President Trump."

That's his statement.

BORGER: Well, he's clearly saying nothing happened.

[18:50:02] Sean Spicer said today that Paul Manafort had a minimal role in the campaign. And, of course, he was the campaign manager is it, or the chairman of the campaign I believe and for a period of months. It wasn't for an incredibly long time.

Look, I think that what he is saying is the FBI is wrong here, if they're talking about me. We don't know that they're talking about him.

TOOBIN: Notice the statement said Russian government officials.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: It did not say Russian businessmen who often have very close ties to the government. So --

ROGERS: The only bit of caution, though, is I will say when Jim Clapper -- James Clapper, the former DNI, came out and said, "I saw no collusion evidence or information," he would be in a position to know that. That was a pretty strong statement.

So, the FBI's saying what they said today tells me there's probably a different direction here that we're not aware of, but this collusion part, that was a very definitive statement.

BLITZER: And he put out a subsequent statement, Clapper saying, that was of January 20th -- he doesn't know what has happened between January 20th and now.

ROGERS: If there was a counterintelligence investigation started in July through January 20th, he would have a very good idea if that in fact were accurate, unless there's some new angle to the investigation, meaning --

BLITZER: Are all these people going to be testified Manafort, Rogers and all these others?

ROGERS: You mean in front of Congress?


ROGERS: I would imagine they're going to try. It could be interesting to see if you are a subject of an FBI investigation or at least they believe you might be associated with an investigation, if they would even come to show up at Congress. Matter of fact, most lawyers will tell you, don't do it.

BLITZER: Or plead the Fifth.

ROGERS: Most lawyers will tell you, don't even show up if you could avoid it.


All right, guys. Stand by.

There's more coming up, including North Korea celebrating an ominous rocket engine missile test. It says it's not afraid of the United States and threatens to use what it calls its nuclear sword of justice.


[18:56:52] BLITZER: Tonight, new progress by North Korea as it works to develop a nuclear weapon that can strike the United States. We're learning more about a new missile engine test and the U.S. reaction.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what's the latest?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the promise of diplomacy, the threat of war -- neither option appears to be changing Kim Jong-un's mind.


STARR (voice-over): Tonight, an urgent race by U.S. intelligence to find these, North Korean mobile missile launchers moving around trying to escape the eyes of U.S. satellites overhead.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had meetings on North Korea. He's acting very, very badly. I will tell you, he's acting very badly.

STARR: The threat of North Korea is expected to launch more missiles. Some might be capable eventually of reaching U.S. soil. North Korea used launchers like this last month to deliver a very unwelcomed surprise, firing an advanced missile, landing just off Japan's coastline.

Japan now conducting its first ever evacuation drill for civilians in the face of the growing threat. Kim Jong-un the unpredictable leader, attending a new missile engine test. Kim celebrating with his military, the U.S. things this engine might eventually go on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

LEE JIN-WOO, SOUTH KOREAN DEFENSE MINISTRY'S DEPUTY SPOKESMAN (through translator): Through this test, it is assessed that North Korea has made meaningful progress in engine performance.

STARR: It's another potential component for Kim's march to be able to attack the U.S.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: The closer that the North Korean regime gets to being able to deliver a nuclear weapon, we're going to have to be in a position to take some type of preemptive strike.

STARR: The North Korean news agency warning, if attacked, even with a single shell, the regime will strike back with such power, quote, "no living thing can be found."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson making clear on his trip to Asia, the Trump administration would consider a military strike against North Korea. But with the Chinese, he is taking a more conciliatory tone towards Beijing's sensitivity.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think we share a common view in a sense that tensions on the peninsula are quite high right now and that things have reached a rather dangerous level. And we've committed ourselves to do everything we can to prevent any type of conflict from breaking out.


STARR: But tonight, Wolf, U.S. officials say North Korea's readiness levels are such that they could launch missiles or undertake an underground nuclear test on absolutely no notice. The U.S. might not know until it happens -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very disturbing development indeed.

All right. Barbara Starr reporting from the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Once again, the president getting ready to address this rally in Louisville. We're going to have coverage of that, stand by.

In the meantime, that's it for me. Thanks very for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.