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CNN: Trump Told in January that Flynn Misled FBI; Trump's Lawyer: President Can't Be Guilty of Obstruction of Justice; Prosecutors Want Manafort Bail Deal Pulled after Contact with Russian. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired December 4, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Breaking news. What Trump knew. CNN is learning that the president had already been informed that national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled the FBI and Mr. Trump asked Director James Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Was that obstruction of justice?
[17:00:18] Obstruction impossible? The president's personal lawyer goes on the offensive, saying it's impossible for the commander in chief to obstruct justice, because he's the nation's top law enforcement official. But two previous presidents faced obstruction charges. Could President Trump pardon himself?
Moore endorsement. President Trump tweets his full backing of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations of pursuing teenage girls and sexually abusing one. The president now at odds with fellow Republicans disavowing Moore. How will Mr. Trump's backing impact the race?
And failure to land. Experts now believe North Korea's test of its most powerful missile ever ended with the ICBM breaking apart as it fell to earth. Did the Kim Jong-un regime deliberately destroy it to keep the U.S. from recovering critical information?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news. A source is now telling CNN that the top White House lawyer told President Trump in January he believed then national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled the FBI and had lied to the vice president, Mike Pence, about his contacts with Russia. That revelation, which the president appeared to confirm in a tweet, is raising serious questions right now about whether Mr. Trump attempted to obstruct justice when he later asked that FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn.
But the Trump team is pushing back, with the president's personal lawyer now claiming the president can't be guilty of obstructing justice. John Dowd says in an interview that as chief law enforcement officer of the United States under the Constitution, the president has the right to express his view of any case. Dowd also says he's the one who drafted a tweet sent by Mr. Trump that some say amounts to an admission of obstruction. And there's more breaking news. The U.S. Supreme Court has just
granted a government request to allow the third version of President Trump's travel ban to go fully into effect, pending appeal. It's the first time the high court has allowed any version of the controversial ban to go forward in its entirety.
We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Chris Coons of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's get straight to the breaking news. Our justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is working the story for us.
Jessica, if the president knew Flynn misled the FBI when he asked then-Director Comey to drop his FBI investigation, it raises serious questions about obstruction of justice.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It does, Wolf. It's the timeline here that is once again bringing those obstruction questions to the forefront.
A source says the president was told in late January that Michael Flynn likely lied to the FBI. Well, two weeks later, right after Flynn was fired, then-FBI Director James Comey says the president asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, a source tells CNN that President Trump was told in January by the White House counsel that he believed national security adviser Michael Flynn misled not just the vice president but also the FBI about conversations Flynn had with Russia's ambassador and recommended to the president that he fire Michael Flynn.
White House counsel Don McGahn did not say Flynn had broken the law or that he was under investigation. McGahn made the recommendation after a meeting with then-acting attorney general Sally Yates. Yates came to the White House on January 26 and warned McGahn that Flynn may be subject to blackmail by the Russians who knew that Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: The first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself. Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn't true.
SCHNEIDER: Yates told McGahn that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI just two days earlier, but according to the source, did not get specific about what Flynn had said.
YATES: I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn't our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action.
SCHNEIDER: The source tells CNN that McGahn concluded from his conversation with Yates that Flynn had not told the truth to the FBI or to Pence, who had already repeated Flynn's version of events on television.
MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But -- but that still leaves open the possibility that there might have been other conversations about the sanctions.
PENCE: I don't believe there were more conversations. But...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.
SCHNEIDER: But despite McGahn's warning to the president, he did not fire Flynn until about two weeks later on February 13, when "The Washington Post" reported for the first time that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. It was just one day after that that President Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, according to Comey's testimony.
JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I understood him to be saying that what he wanted me to do was drop any investigation connected to Flynn's account of his conversations with the Russians.
SCHNEIDER: The new timeline of events raising new questions about whether the president tried to obstruct justice, something Mueller's team is looking into.
The debate reignited this weekend after the president seemed to admit on Twitter that he knew Flynn lied to the FBI while working in the White House. The president tweeting, "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI."
Trump's personal attorney, John Dowd, later said he wrote the tweet.
The investigation into possible obstruction extends to the firing of the FBI director, James Comey. Soon after Comey was fired for what the White House initially said was over the handling of the Clinton e- mail probe the previous year, the president said on television he had the Russia investigation on his mind when he fired Comey.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNTIED STATES: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, "You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."
SCHNEIDER: And the president reportedly privately bragged to top Russian officials in the Oval Office, "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
And even though the president pushed back against any obstruction implications in June...
TRUMP: In the meantime, no collusion, no obstruction.
SCHNEIDER: ... the president's lawyers are now asserting a new defense: "The president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under the Constitution's Article II and has every right to express his views of any case."
SCHNEIDER: This pushback by the president's lawyer that a president cannot obstruct justice, well, it's still an open question. There is a Constitutional dispute over whether a sitting president can be indicted, but as we know from history and the proceedings against President Bill Clinton, a president can be impeached on charges of obstruction of justice -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, indeed. All right. Jessica Schneider, thank you.
President Trump is making his feelings about all of this very clear via Twitter. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He has more on the president's reaction.
Jim, the president left town earlier today with a lot of controversy in tow.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He sure did, Wolf. President Trump is showing a lot of sympathy for his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to federal investigators.
The Russia investigation seems very much on the president's mind as he officially offered his endorsement to accused child molester Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, but it's the president's legal team that may warrant the most attention tonight for putting forward an argument that, essentially, the president is above the law.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Just as the president is sharing his personal feelings for his former national security adviser Michael Flynn...
TRUMP: Well, I feel badly for General Flynn. I feel very badly. He's led a very strong life, and I feel very badly, John. I will say this. Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI. Nothing happened to her. Flynn lied, and they've destroyed his life. I think it's a shame.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump's legal team is offering a preview of a potential defense in the event the special counsel's office makes its way to the Oval Office. "The president cannot obstruct justice because he's the chief law enforcement officer," the president's outside attorney told Axios, "and has every right to express his view of any case," a case echoed by Professor Alan Dershowitz on FOX News.
ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR: You cannot charge a president with obstruction of justice for exercising his constitutional power to fire Comey and his constitutional authority to tell the Justice Department who to investigate, who not to investigate.
ACOSTA: That claim ignores the fact that one of the articles of impeachment brought against former presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon was obstruction of justice.
RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I'm not a crook.
ACOSTA: President Trump is also lashing out at federal investigators, tweeting that "the FBI's reputation is in tatters, worst in history, but fear not. We will bring it back to greatness."
As for the president's claim Hillary Clinton lied to investigators, former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Mr. Trump, said that didn't happen at a hearing last year.
COMEY: We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI.
ACOSTA: With the Russia investigation apparently expanding, the president is out to preserve his party's majority in the Senate, tweeting his endorsement for Republican Roy Moore in the Senate race in Alabama. According to the GOP's candidate's campaign, the president talked to Moore over the phone and cheered, "Go get em, Roy."
The president no longer seems to be waiting on whether allegations of sexual abuse against Moore are even proven true, as the White House once indicated.
[17:10:06] SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, the president said in his statement earlier this week that, if the allegations are true, then that Roy Moore should step aside. He still firmly believes that.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump all but said he believed Mr. Moore's denials later last month.
TRUMP: He totally denies it. He says it didn't happen.
ACOSTA: The president is facing new accounts of his own misconduct. Billy Bush, the "Access Hollywood" host who was with Mr. Trump when he made lewd comments about women caught on tape...
TRUMP: Grab them by the (EXPLETIVE DELETED).
ACOSTA: ... pushed back on reports that the president is somehow claiming he never made the offensive remarks. "Of course he said it," Bush writes in "The New York Times," "and we laughed along without a single doubt that this was hypothetical hot air from America's highest rated bloviator."
Back in October, the president defended the comments.
TRUMP: That's locker room. ACOSTA: With so many controversies swirling, the president is trying
to stay in the holiday spirit, announcing at a rollback of national monuments in Utah, that he's looking to Republicans in Congress to pass tax cuts.
TRUMP: We're now one huge step closer to delivering to the American people the historic tax relief as a giant present for Christmas. Remember I said we're bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back.
ACOSTA: Now, besides tax cuts, the White House and members of Congress are also working toward avoiding a government shutdown this month. Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer say they're coming back to the White House later this week after their recent meeting with the president was scrapped. That was when the president claimed that Democrats were not interested in a deal, of course -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And, Jim, a big win for the president tonight at the United States Supreme Court. A big win at least for now.
ACOSTA: That's right, for now. Wolf, that's right, the Supreme Court is allowing the latest version of the president's travel ban to take effect. That is pending appeal, of course, but it is a signal that perhaps some of the justices on the high court might be willing to rule in favor of that ban, which, of course, as we know is aimed at mostly Muslim countries -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is joining us. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf. Always good to be on with you.
BLITZER: So the president knew Michael Flynn misled the FBI and then implored -- implored then-FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn. In your view, Senator, does this amount to obstruction of justice?
COONS: Well, Wolf, that's a legal conclusion for others to reach, but it certainly strongly suggests that the president was aware that, in reaching out to Jim Comey, the former FBI director, and urging him to go easy on Flynn, that he was engaging in an inappropriate intervention in an ongoing investigation.
There are recent reports that over the summer, the president also reached out to a number of senior Republican senators, chair of the Intelligence Committee, majority leader and others, to urge them to wrap up this investigation quickly. It suggests an ongoing deeply troubling pattern of personal intervention in an ongoing investigation by the president.
And the suggestion today, Wolf, by the president's lawyers that he can't be charged with obstruction of justice, that he can't commit obstruction of justice because he oversees the Department of Justice and the federal law enforcement infrastructure, I think is a laughable proposition. It would mean that the president would be above the law. And one of our core foundational constitutional principles in this country is that no one is above the law.
BLITZER: You're referring to what the president's private personal attorney, John Dowd, said, that the president can't obstruct justice because, in John Dowd's words, he is the chief law enforcement officer under the Constitution and has every right to express his view of any case. You don't buy that defense?
COONS: I don't buy that one bit, Wolf. I think it's Nixonian to argue that somehow the president has carte blanche to do whatever he wants with regard to law enforcement and ongoing investigations. In particular, an investigation into his conduct. That would create a presidency that is completely above the law and unaccountable.
I do think there is a debatable proposition about whether impeachment is the only means of removal of a president, but I don't think it's debatable whether the president has impunity to interfere with whatever investigations he chooses.
BLITZER: Does the president have the power to pardon himself?
COONS: That's also something that's never been tested before. But I think, going back to "The Federalist Papers," to the very founding of our country, there has often been asserted the principle that you cannot be both judge and jury in a case. And if the president were to pardon himself, he would literally be acting as both judge and jury in a case against himself.
BLITZER: The president appeared to admit he knew about Flynn's misleading the FBI. He tweeted this, and I'll put it up on the screen: "I had to fire General Flynn, because he lied to the vice president and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame, because his actions during the transition were lawful. This -- there was nothing to hide."
[17:15:13] As you know, the White House later said the tweet was written by the president's personal lawyer, John Dowd. We just were speaking about him. Do you buy that explanation?
COONS: Well, first, I've been encouraging the president since his inauguration to stop tweeting so much. It is not good for him or for our country.
Second, if his lawyer crafted that tweet, he might want to reconsider his representation, because that certainly didn't serve the president's interests. I think Mr. Dowd has already conceded that it was certainly sloppy.
Third, it suggests that the president or his lawyer representing him knew that there was reason for the president, if he interviewed with Jim Comey to try and get him to lighten up on Flynn, to be doing so in a way that was obstructing justice.
It is a truly concerning tweet if this accurately reflects the president's knowledge and state of mind. And if it doesn't, I don't know why his lawyer representing him would have -- would have approved this tweet, put it in front of the president and had him sign off on it.
BLITZER: Over the summer, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, removed one of the FBI agents working on the Russia probe after an internal investigation discovered he had sent messages that could be interpreted as showing an anti-Trump bias. That same agent also worked on the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server and at one point changed crucial language in Comey's statement about Clinton's conduct.
Do you worry about these revelations harming the credibility of the current investigation?
COONS: Wolf, what I think strengthens the credibility of Robert Mueller individually and the investigation he's leading is that we know, in an instance where there was some suggestion of bias by a critical agent, it was investigated; it was dealt with; and he was dismissed.
So this isn't something that is hanging out there as an unresolved issue. It's something that Robert Mueller when he became aware of it is reported to have acted decisively to remove any potential interference or bias in his ongoing investigation, and I find that reassuring.
BLITZER: All right. We're getting more breaking news on the Mueller investigation, Senator. I need you to stand by. We'll take a quick break. We'll resume our coverage right after this.
[17:21:54] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: All right. Before we get back to the Senate Judiciary Committee member Chris Coons, we have some breaking news to report. Senator, stand by.
The Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators say former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort violated their trust, and they're asking a federal judge to reconsider the deal that actually allowed his release on bail.
Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, working the story for us. So the new papers, Jim, have just been filed.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Listen, this is one of many shake-your-head moments in this case so far. So here you have Paul Manafort, a little more than a month after he
was charged with multiple crimes relating to the work he did for the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine was found to be ghost-writing an editorial in violation of the terms of his bail and doing so with a Russian who has ties to the Russian intelligence service. And he was working on this editorial as recently as just this past Thursday, just a few days ago.
Now, I'm going to quote from the judge's statement during the plea agreement. He said that his lawyers and prosecutors have asked him to, quote, "refrain from making statements to the media or in public settings that pose a substantial likelihood of material prejudice to this case."
His lawyers, the special counsel's office, say that doing this editorial with this Russian known to U.S. intelligence is a violation of that. So he stands the possibility of losing some of the privileges he has from this deal, including being freed from house arrest, being freed from GPS monitoring. That, of course, Wolf, was in exchange for him putting up $11 million in property as a bail -- as bail because the prosecutors consider him a flight risk. That's why they made him do it.
So just in the midst of negotiating that, he gets those little pieces of freedom here. But then from the prosecutor's perspective has violated the terms of that agreement with really something that you would think would be an obvious thing not to do, right? An editorial, public statement...
BLITZER: I was going to say, he was on the verge of being allowed to travel from Virginia to Florida to New York to D.C. All of that in exchange for the $11 million that he was going to put up, collateral bail in order to do so. But all of that seems gone.
SCIUTTO: That's exactly right. That's why. He's been freed from house arrest, freed from that GPS monitoring. Giving him a little bit of freedom to travel to his homes, perhaps do some business.
But now he writes this public statement on issues of national security with a Russian known to U.S. intelligence and the prosecutors arguing that bail agreement should therefore be rescinded.
Sounds like it was a pretty dumb thing for him to do in a sensitive moment like this.
SCIUTTO: Shake your head, at least.
BLITZER: Yes. All right. Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto reporting.
Let's bring back Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.
Does it look to you, Senator, that -- like Paul Manafort was attempting to influence public opinion and to help his legal case in this particular aspect? What do you think he was doing by going ahead and accepting this offer? COONS: I mean, Wolf, this is simply stunning news. The idea that
Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, who's facing federal criminal charges and had reached a plea agreement -- excuse me, a bail agreement where he was free to move without an ankle bracelet to leave his home, but on the condition that he not engage in public statements. That he was literally drafting an editorial with a Russian known to American intelligence. That is just stunning. A word I know is now overused, but that is deeply foolish.
[17:25:26] Clearly, he's not listening to his lawyers, or he's more afraid of the Russians than he is of federal prosecution in the United States. I mean, I have a really hard time, Wolf, squaring that news with the idea that Paul Manafort is rational. That's an enormous risk for him to take.
COONS: And will almost certainly lead to the re-imposition of a different arrangement for his freedom in advance of his facing trial.
BLITZER: Because what's amazing is that, according to the court documents, Senator, he was working on this editorial as recently as last Thursday. Which is pretty amazing, especially at a time when he was hoping to get some freedom to move around.
COONS: Well, and Wolf, just for those who may have forgotten about Paul Manafort, he was the director, the manager, the chairman of the Trump presidential campaign and had received millions of dollars from Ukraine's former leader, Yanukovych, who is closely aligned with Vladimir Putin and with Russian interests.
The idea that he would reinsert himself into that maelstrom of issues that compete with American national security interests at such a sensitive time is really striking.
BLITZER: Because what's amazing is this apparent obsession with Russia. How significant is it, Senator, that he was allegedly writing this editorial with someone who apparently has ties, as you point out and as our own report points out, with Russian intelligence?
COONS: If accurate, that reporting is deeply troubling. It suggests that Manafort's ties to Russians connected to Russian intelligence services continues and continues unabated; and he continues to work with them and cooperate with them, even while he faces federal criminal charges.
That suggests a striking indifference to the legal situation he's in and an unwillingness to take responsibility for the ways in which he deflected or impacted the Republican platform during their convention on issues of Russia and Ukraine and impacted U.S. national security interests while he was the chairman of the Trump presidential campaign. This really is stunning breaking news, Wolf.
BLITZER: It certainly is. And the hope that he had to get out of house arrest, move around the country a bit, apparently that's going to go away very, very quickly. All right, Senator Coons, thanks for joining us.
COONS: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. We have more on the breaking news. New revelations about what President Trump knew, when he knew it before the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn and the FBI director, James Comey.
Plus, new details also emerging about what may have gone wrong during North Korea's most recent test of its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile.
BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories from the Russia election meddling investigation, including word just now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators say former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort violated their trust by working on an op-ed piece with a Russian who has ties to Russian intelligence, doing so as recently as last Thursday. Prosecutors now are asking a judge to reconsider the deal that would have allowed Manafort's release on bail.
[17:33:18] Let's bring in our specialists. And Phil Mudd, let me start with you. What's your reaction to this word that Manafort was working, ghost-writing an op-ed with Ukrainians and a Russian who has ties to Russian intelligence as recently as last week?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I mean, you've got to be kidding me. As Grandma Mudd used to say, that dude ain't dumb, but he is stupid.
How can you go into a bail hearing where you know the judge and the feds are so suspicious of you that they put incredibly restrictive measures in place so that you can't leave your house, you have to ask permission to go see one of your kids, and then you decide the feds aren't suspicious enough to ask a question about whether you're authoring a document with some contacts with a Russian who's known to U.S. intelligence? What the heck is this guy thinking?
The best part of this, Wolf, is going to be when he gets back in front of a judge and the judge looks at him and says, "Old man, unless you want to spend some time in federal prison with three free meals a day and a free cot, you better figure out how to pay attention to your bail."
I think he's in trouble with the judge. This is -- I thought I'd seen everything. You can't make this up, Wolf.
BLITZER: Well, let me go to Susan and get your thoughts. You're our national security and legal analyst, former NSA attorney. Under the agreement for him, in early November that he wouldn't go to jail right away pending the trial, prosecutors said he had to refrain from making statements to the media or in public settings that posed a substantial likelihood of material prejudice to this case. If he's working on an editorial with Russians and Ukrainians, that seems like he was making statements to the media. SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So
certainly this could be considered a violation of the gag order. We'll see what the judge decides.
You know, again and again we've seen in the sort of conduct of lots of individuals related to the Trump team is that they appear to really not comprehend the gravity of their situation. That they are facing substantial legal peril here.
[17:35:08] And so, you know, this is just another sort of piece of evidence that somehow, whether it's the tone from the top or just, you know, their own shared personal instincts, they really appear to not be getting how serious of a situation this is for them, how serious of a situation it is for them personally at this point.
BLITZER: How do you see it, Michael?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO ROBERT MUELLER: Pretty much the same. It defies explanation. When you are under arrest and you are trying to get out from home detention and they look like they have a deal. They've put up properties that will be forfeited if you flee, and you're sort of desperate to get out of the house. To do this just undermines any effort to do that, and Amy Berman Jackson, the judge is going to have to determine whether or not she's going to not only not allow that deal to go through but whether she's going to let him stay in his home or incarcerate him. It's a terribly stupid thing that he did.
BLITZER: He was on the verge of avoiding house arrest, putting up $11 million in his property as bail.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes, I'm no lawyer, but I think antagonizing a judge over the conditions of your bail is not a smart thing to do.
I'm with Susan. It just seems as though there's a "not getting it" aspect to all of this. I mean, that's literally like one of the dumbest things you could possibly do. Oh, OK, well you have these charges against you, "You know, I'm going to co-write an editorial with a known Russian" -- it just doesn't -- it doesn't make any logical sense. It certainly doesn't make any legal sense.
And I do think, although we're talking about criminal charges as it relates to Donald Trump -- as it relates to Paul Manafort and not Donald Trump, Susan mentioned maybe it comes from the top.
I do think any lawyer worth his or her salt would say to Donald Trump, "You know what? Let's sort of cut out the tweeting about Flynn and about the investigation and Russia and the witch-hunt." And he doesn't obviously take that advice. I don't know whether that influences Manafort and the others to act, but it doesn't make any logical sense, because what lawyers always tell you when you face any kind of peril is, stop talking.
BLITZER: Shut up. Yes. HENNESSEY: One thing it is evidence of is that Paul Manafort is under significant financial strain. And so as the president's team starts to assess the potential loyalty of individuals, I do think that this is -- this is evidence of what has been widely reported, you know, and that's going to be a significant source of pressure moving forward, whether people like Manafort, like Gates decide to ultimately cooperate.
CILLIZZA: And he did have to put up, I mean, to make -- to make it even possible for his bail, he had to put up massive amounts of collateral. Homes. So to Susan's points, he is cross-purposed financially.
ZELDIN: But it does show you Mueller behaved as he did in the early stages of this investigation. People said why is he being so tough on the no-knock warrant? Why is he seizing this? Why is he frisking that person? Because he just doesn't trust this guy.
And here's a case in point of that breach of trust even after the fact of an indictment. His lawyer, if he knew about this, did a very bad job for his client, but I expect his lawyer, who's very good, didn't realize that Paul Manafort was doing this.
BLITZER: Talking about that pre-dawn raid on his house in Virginia. They showed up at 6 a.m. and started going through and taking out his documents and other information, as well, from Manafort.
ZELDIN: Right. And his passports, because they just don't trust him.
BLITZER: Yes, obviously.
Let me get back to the other news, and Phil Mudd, let me bring you back into this conversation. If the president knew about Michael Flynn, his then-national security adviser, misleading the FBI and then asked the then-FBI director, James Comey, to drop the investigation -- You served at the CIA and the FBI -- does that amount to obstruction of justice?
MUDD: Boy, I think that's tougher than we think from the outside, Wolf. It looks from a common perspective that the president obstructed the investigation, but let's compare this to what we've seen in the previous moves taken by Mueller.
Those were very clear instances of violations of the law. Lies by Flynn that you could catch by looking at the intercepts of the Russians. Financial irregularities by Manafort that were pretty -- should have been pretty straightforward to prove in court.
In this case, answer me a question before we go too far: exactly what information could the FBI not acquire because the president obstructed them? Did he prevent them from acquiring anything related to the case? What interviews did he stop? Was there any material change in the case as a result of what the president did?
I'm not a lawyer, but I look at this and say I think it's not as easy as yes/no. I think it's grayer. ZELDIN: Yes. To answer Phil's question, the obstruction of justice
statute does not require that you be successful. It's an endeavoring to obstruct statute. And so if you endeavor to obstruct justice, whether you succeed or not, you still violate the law. And that's what I think is going on here.
BLITZER: If he's having a conversation as the national security adviser, Susan, with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Kislyak, doesn't he know that U.S. intelligence is listening in and monitoring that kind of a conversation with the Russian ambassador to the United States?
[17:35:14] And if he's going to lie to the FBI or to Vice President Pence, there's a record that people are going to have, "Hey, you did speak about sanctions. It wasn't just a curtesy call."
HENNESSEY: Yes, so, look, I think people might be surprised the number of times that prosecutors are able to use jailhouse phone calls against defendants, where the call literally begins with "This call is being recorded." So I, you know, don't underestimate people's ability to sort of disregard being unnoticed about those issues.
I mean, I think it does -- it does speak to the fact that Flynn, you know, thought he was operating in his own impunity. That he thought he was, you know, either acting on the president's behalf or at the president's request or he somehow had the message that he wasn't going to be held accountable, including for making false statements to the FBI for actually committing a crime. And so that's just an indication of the fact that he didn't think he was going to get in trouble.
BLITZER: Chris, hold your thought for a second. Because Phil Mudd, does it raise -- why would he lie about that? He's a former head of DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency. He knows how the U.S. intelligence community works. Did someone instruct him to lie to the FBI, Phil?
MUDD: No way. I mean, as Susan was saying, any intelligence officer worth their salt, and he was by all accounts a very good intelligence officer, knows Intelligence 101. What does NSA do? They listen to terrorists, and they listen to foreign adversaries, including people like the Russians.
I can't imagine going into a meeting with the FBI and lying about that, unless you're so overwhelmed by arrogance that you say, "I'm the smart guy. They're the dumb guys. They will never figure this out."
What I'm seeing in both cases, the Manafort case and the Flynn case, is that arrogance breeds contempt. In this case, contempt for federal prosecutors who turn out to be pretty darn good, Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, and Chris, the White House says the president -- the president's private attorney now, John Dowd, says the president can't obstruct justice, because he is the chief law enforcement officer under the Constitution and has every right to express his view of any case. We just heard Senator Chris Coons say that's Nixonian, that analysis. CILLIZZA: Yes, anyone who's followed politics at all over the last
30, 40 years would say the exact same thing. It's not illegal if the president does it. I'll leave the legal wrangling over that to lawyers.
What I will say is, politically speaking that argument is a dead on arrival, stone cold loser. Remember, impeachment -- we're certainly not there yet, but impeachment, the removal of a president is a political process that runs through Congress, right? This is not a legal process. So you can debate the legalities here and the terminology. Politically speaking, I think if it came out, if Bob Mueller concludes at the end of this that Donald Trump obstructed justice. As I said, not there yet, but let's say he does that. Politically speaking, whether or not -- the argument of, "Well, the president can't obstruct justice." I don't think -- and I'll say "think" -- that that is a convincing argument for senators and members of Congress.
ZELDIN: So the debate of whether or not you can be indicted as a president for obstructing justice when you do something that you have a constitutional right to do is to be debated, and I expect that Michael Dreeben, who is on Bob Mueller's staff, who is the solicitor general, who is the most expert person in the world on this, is exactly researching these points.
I think, though, in the balance, when you do these acts with corrupt intent, you undermine the notion that the president is free to do anything he wants.
And Chris is correct, that even if they win that argument that he can't be indicted while sitting as president, and he cannot be charged with obstruction of justice because of his constitutional right to do it. If he lies about it in the grand jury, then he is quite indictable for that lie. There's nothing that says that a president can't be indicted for lying. And there's nothing that prevents him from being charged in an article of impeachment for abuse of office.
CILLIZZA: There's no -- there's no legal standard that needs to be met.
BLITZER: We're just getting word, Susan...
ZELDIN: I'm sorry. We see that -- we see that in Clinton and Nixon. That's exactly the articles of impeachment for both of them.
BLITZER: We're just getting word that the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, says he does that agree with this theory that the president of the United States cannot be indicted for obstruction of justice. So, you know, he's from North Carolina, but he's the chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee.
HENNESSEY: Right. So, look, there are two constituent parts to the question. You know, one is whether or not the president can violate the statute. That's sort of -- John Dowd is essentially arguing he cannot violate the law.
The separate question is whether or not he can be held criminally accountable for violating the statute. Those are two separate questions. But I think Dowd sort of -- on almost any read, Dowd is sort of vastly overstating the president's case here. And statements like that from Richard Burr is an indication that, you know, if they overplay their hand or they feel like the special prosecutor isn't able to hold the president criminally accountable when they believe that there has been criminal conduct, that Congress is...
BLITZER: Well, let me get Phil.
HENNESSEY: -- prepared to submit.
BLITZER: Phil, it does -- does it look to you like Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel, is building an obstruction case against the President?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I would say be careful about this for one simple reason. I think he's looking into it, and I would say there is virtually no question about that.
But my judgment, in this case, would be he doesn't want to walk in front of a microphone and lay charges against somebody unless those charges are way over the bar. He doesn't want to charge somebody with doing 57 in a 55 zone.
So regardless of whether he's looking at this, my question would be, is the information he had so clear that when he lays it out, it is, to use a word that is probably inappropriate, unimpeachable evidence? And I'm not sure we're there yet.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news we're following.
Surprising new details about North Korea's latest missile test. It may not have been as much of a success as Kim Jong-un's regime, and we'll tell you why.
[17:50:31] BLITZER: Tonight, surprising new details indicate North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test may not have been successful as the Kim Jong-un regime claims.
Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've got new information that that powerful long-range missile the North Koreans launched likely broke up while it was re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. But there's a question tonight over whether the disintegration was inadvertent or if the North Koreans may have purposely destroyed their own missile.
This comes as military tensions on the Peninsula are at their highest levels in months, with U.S. and South Korean fighter jets practicing to take out North Korean missile sites. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
TODD (voice-over): American fighter jets catapult into the skies over the Korean Peninsula, part of a massive show of force tonight. Two hundred thirty U.S. and South Korean aircrafts conducting aerial combat exercises.
A senior South Korean Air Force official tells CNN these drills will include attacks against a mock North Korean missile launch site and facilities with simulated North Korean radar.
Experts say in any allied strike against Kim Jong-un's regime, whether it's a preemptive or reactive strike, hitting the launch sites would be just the beginning.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It would go after every known target and suspected target that North Korea has in their arsenal to launch their artillery, their missiles, their rockets, to exercise command and control of ground forces, and to go after the leadership targets as well.
TODD (voice-over): The North Koreans would respond, experts say, by pulling out artillery hidden in caves and bombarding South Korea, potentially hundreds of thousands of casualties in the balance.
The latest drills sparking the North Koreans to accuse the U.S. and South Korea of pushing the region, quote, to the brink of nuclear war.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warning that preemptive war is now more likely and advising American troops and their families in South Korea to be ready.
SEN. LINDSAY GRAHAM (R-SC), MAJORITY MEMBER, SENATE COMMITTEE ON ARMED SERVICES: It's crazy to send spouses and children to South Korea, given the provocation of North Korea. So I want them to stop sending dependents, and I think it's now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea.
TODD (voice-over): An entire region clearly on edge since North Korea's latest test of a long-range missile. It went higher than any North Korean missile ever has, and officials say it has the range to strike the entire U.S. mainland.
CNN has learned that missile, fired last Wednesday, likely broke up when it attempted to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Experts say that may show the North Koreans still haven't perfected missile re- entry technology, but it could also mean Kim's regime doesn't want the Americans and South Koreans to learn more about the missile.
THOMAS KARAKO, DIRECTOR OF THE MISSILE DEFENSE PROJECT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Obviously, the North Koreans don't have the means to go and recover this. They furthermore know that the South Koreans and Japanese and the United States are going to do our very darndest to recover whatever it is that comes back down.
It's conceivable that North Koreans might even have detonated something to obliterate the material and prevent it from being recovered.
TODD: Experts say another reason why the North Koreans don't want the U.S. and its allies to recover their missile parts is because those recoveries often tell the allies just who is helping the North Koreans with their missile program.
They say, in the past, North Korean missile parts have been recovered with Russian, Chinese, and Iranian markings on them, Wolf.
BLITZER: Very intriguing indeed. And there's new information tonight, Brian, that a civilian aircraft came close enough to that North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile last week to actually see it.
TODD: Extraordinary, Wolf. Yes, officials at the Hong Kong-based airline, Cathay Pacific, tell CNN the crew of one of their passenger planes actually spotted the attempted re-entry of that North Korean long-range missile last week.
Airline officials say the flight was far away from the location of the re-entry, and the flight continued on its normal course.
But if that missile broke up on re-entry and there was debris flying around, that flight could have conceivably been in danger, not to mention it must have looked like for that crew to see the re-entry and the possible explosion there.
BLITZER: Yes. Pretty awful indeed. All right, Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd, reporting for us.
There's breaking news we're following. President Trump faces questions about possible obstruction of justice. His lawyer says that's impossible. Critics say that claim is Nixonian. Is it all setting the stage for a constitutional crisis?
[17:54:56] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Trump was told.
CNN has learned that the President new that Michael Flynn misled the FBI when James Comey says he was pressured by Mr. Trump to stop investigating Flynn. What will this mean for the Special Counsel's obstruction of justice probe?