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Watchdog: Porn Star Alleged Hush Money Could Have Broken Laws; Melania Trump Will Not Attend Davos with President; Sessions Interviewed by Mueller Team in Russia Probe; FBI Director Replaces Chief of Staff Who Served Under Comey; Trump Makes 1st Public Appearance Since Shutdown. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired January 23, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT -- that they can contribute to a federal election candidate, according to the Federal Election Commission. So obviously, if that was $130,000 to benefit Trump's campaign from an individual, that would have obviously exceeded that amount. Now, a candidate -- any candidate who gets a $200 contribution from an individual, if it's over $200, that individual has to be named. The question again is, if, again, this was made as a possible campaign benefit contribution and didn't report who gave it to him or who gave the money to Stormy Daniels, that could be a violation. Also contributions from corporations to a federal candidate are prohibited under Federal Election Commission law. So if it was the Trump corporation giving this money to Stormy Daniels for the purposes of benefiting the Trump campaign in 2016, that could have been a violation.

But again, Michael Cohen says all of this is baseless as far as the complaint from common cause. The question is, who did the money come from, what was it intended as? Trump's lawyers, according to some legal experts, could argue that regardless of who it came from, the money was simply intended not to benefit his 2016 campaign but simply to provide hush money, which is not illegal, so that he wouldn't embarrass himself personally and for the sake of his marriage, and that it had nothing to do with the campaign. That's what some legal experts are saying that his lawyers could argue. And if they do that successfully, there probably wouldn't be many legal grounds to bring this before the Federal Election Commission -- Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting for us.

Let's discuss this more with Larry Noble. He's a former general counsel of the FEC, a general counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

Larry, thanks so much for joining us.

LARRY NOBLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: That last argument may be made by Trump, it really isn't anything to do with the election. It happened a month before the election, sort of a week after that "Access Hollywood" video came out and was reportedly to stop embarrassment for him. NOBLE: That very well may be their argument. That argument was made

by former attorney, John Edwards, when he was indicted for a similar activity. The problem with that is this is not money being paid over a year. It was a history a somebody paying. The allegations of her having an affair with him had been known for ten years. All of a sudden, before the election, he allegedly decides to pay to get a nondisclosure agreement. That made it looks like it was specifically for the election, not for another purpose.

BLITZER: How important is it to determine where the $130,000 came from? We know Michael Cohen, the attorney, set up this LLC in in Delaware with fictitious names to avoid disclosing where the money came from, according to the "Wall Street Journal." But how important is it to find out for the campaign finance laws where that money came from?

NOBLE: It's very important. What you would have is a reporting violation. If it came from Donald Trump himself, then it should be reported as an in-kind contribution from the campaign and an expenditure should be reported. If it came from an individual, then you have a contribution. If it's important to know if it's from an individual. If it's from his corporation, including one of his corporations, it's a prohibitive contribution. If it's a foreign national, it's a foreign national contribution, which is illegal. It's important to know where this money came from.

BLITZER: The watchdog group, Common Cause, do they have to case in asking the Justice Department and the FEC to investigate?

NOBLE: They definitely have a case, and this should be investigated. We're not going to know if it's illegal until it is investigated, and we don't know where the money came from and what is the history behind this. The most telling thing is this happens right before the election to keep her quiet. And he makes it look like it was related to the election and for the purposes of influencing the election.

BLITZER: Do you think they'll go ahead and investigate the FEC -- and you used to work there -- and the Department of Justice? Do you think they'll open a case?

NOBLE: I think it's an uphill battle, because the FEC has become basically dysfunctionally. They tend to split on even less controversial things. They're not known for doing quick investigations or known for doing investigations at all. The Department of Justice is another question, but we'll have to see what the Department of Justice says. I think there is enough to go forward with an investigation. I'm not sure the FEC will. But Common Cause has some remedies. They can sue the FEC if it doesn't go forward with an investigation.

BLITZER: I assume they will if it doesn't happen.


BLITZER: Larry Noble, thanks so much for joining us.

NOBLE: My pleasure.

[13:35:37] BLITZER: As these reports surface, by the way, the first lady of the United States suddenly cancelling her trip with the president to Davos, Switzerland, this week. What's behind that? New questions. Stay with us.


BLITZER: President Trump is heading to Switzerland this week for the World Economic Forum in Davos. But the first lady, Melania Trump, will not be at his side. That's a sudden change of plans.

Joining us to discuss, our CNN contributor and author of "First Women," Kate Andersen Brower, and CNN White House reporter, Kate Bennett.

Kate, you've been doing some reporting on this. The White House says she is not going because of scheduling and logistical issues. What does that mean?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: A week ago or so, she was going, and then they did some research into how expensive it would be to travel in Davos and resources it required. The White House says it's because of those reasons that she's not going to go. She'll stay home instead. Miss the president's speech there and not so solo events. But the timing has raised eyebrows.

BLITZER: Tell us about the timing. Why has it raised eyebrows?

[13:40:01] BENNETT: This is a first lady we don't know much about, how she's feeling, how she's doing. So we looked into these non- verbal cues, like not going on the trip, with the headline from Stormy Daniels, and things going on in that sense, it's curious timing. It leads people to reach their own narrative of what may be happening behind the scenes. We can take it at face value, but people are going to speculate.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Kate, that the first lady, the change in plans was announced yesterday, which happened to be the 13th wedding anniversary of the Trumps. How unusual -- and you've covered a lot of this -- is it for a first lady to cancel a visit with her husband, the president of the United States, to Davos at the last minute?

KATE ANDERSEN BROWER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR & AUTHOR: It's pretty unusual, but in modern history we haven't seen a couple like this. I'm thinking back to Hillary Clinton when she famously went with President Clinton to Martha's Vineyard at the height of the impeachment, the trial and controversy around it. It's a kind of power that a first lady can wield over her husband. We haven't had a relationship this kind of information fraught since the Clintons, even going back to Eleanor Roosevelt or Jackie Kennedy where there were rumors surrounding their relationship. Make it a very difficult job. It's already hard being the first lady. This is a really hard job for her.

BLITZER: Reporters have noted, who cover the first lady, in the first anniversary of her husband's inauguration, she posted a picture that didn't include a picture of her husband, and also said, "The past year has been filled with many wonderful moments," but did not mention the president by name.

BENNETT: It's unusual, and I think this goes back to a first lady we don't hear from a lot, but she is A-plus in subliminal messaging. Not a mention of her husband, of the thousands of pictures taken of the two of them this last year. Interesting that she would pick that picture and it doesn't mention the president.

BLITZER: What does it say to you?

ANDERSEN BROWER: It says she's struggling in this role. We really haven't seen a more reluctant first lady since someone like Beth Truman. She doesn't really seem to want to be first lady. I think she's married to a very divisive president and it makes her job even harder.

BLITZER: Tough situation.

Kate and Kate, thanks. Two Kates and Wolf. Thank you very much.

More on the breaking news coming up. Does the latest revelation that the Attorney General Jeff Sessions has spoken to Robert Mueller's team mark a new phase in the Russia investigation? I'll discuss that and more. My panel is standing by.


[13:46:52] BLITZER: More on our breaking news. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions being questioned by the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office as part of the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

Let's discuss with Shannon Pettypiece, White House reporter for "Bloomberg News," CNN political analyst, David Drucker, and CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

How serious of a development in the Russia investigation? It's pretty unusual to bring in the attorney general for questioning.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. But not unexpected, actually, because of course the attorney general was very involved in the firing of James Comey. When the president wanted to fire Comey, he asked Sessions and Rosenstein to come up with a memo and Sessions was involved in giving the sort of rationale for the firing of Comey about his behavior during the Hillary Clinton investigation. And don't forget that Sessions is also somebody who had to recuse himself in the Russia investigation because he met a couple of times with Ambassador Kislyak from Russia, did not tell Congress about it, and that became an issue. The president did not want him to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. It's caused Sessions a lot of problems with this White House, but he acted upon what the ethics office in the Justice Department thought it was best for him to do.

BLITZER: David, how do you see it? DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Mr. Sessions was a very

prominent member of the Trump campaign. He was one of the earliest members of the establishment, full, to provide backing to Mr. Trump. Mr. Sessions was a Senator from Alabama at the time. In fact, his staff, Mr. Sessions' staff and his Senate office, moved over to the campaign. That's where Stephen Miller came from and Senator Sessions, then-Senator Sessions' chief of staff also moved over and played a prominent role in the campaign. Because of that, it meant that he was probably always going to be a part of any Russia investigation that occurred given the role he played both as a foreign policy adviser and adviser on immigration and somebody who was just very much at the center of the campaign and one of the first really only Republican professionals who understood real politics and real campaigning that was there. In that regard it's not surprising at all.

BLITZER: It sort of sets the stage, though, because the next level would be the president of the United States going in for some questioning.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMGERG NEWS: It really shows -- I think Mueller is getting to the real deep end of his investigation. In an investigation like this you usually start with the lower-level peripheral people. You start out and work your way in. We're clearly getting toward that inner level. We're probably a few weeks away from an interview, at least the terms being negotiated with the president. The terms could be set in the next couple weeks. We've Steve Bannon still to come who had kept out of this. But with that Michael Wolff book, and the explosive things he said in there, he is expected to get an interview. And Sessions, too. I will add, there is a long list of the way Sessions was involved in this, but he was also the supervisor of George Papadopoulos. He was the head of that foreign policy team that Carter Page and George Papadopoulos were on. So there's many fact -- you know, many aspects to this investigation that I'm sure Mueller has talked to Sessions about.

[13:50:17] BORGER: It was at one of those meetings when Papadopoulos suggested that the president meet with Vladimir Putin. And Sessions apparently said, no.


BORGER: That's one thing he remembered from that meeting.


BLITZER: All of you stick around. There's a lot more we need to discuss.

The president, by the way, will be making his first public remarks since the government shutdown ended. We're standing by for the videotape. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Breaking news. We're learning the FBI Director Christopher Wray is bringing in a new chief of staff. It comes amid reports that Wray was on the brink of quitting after being pressured to change deputies by the Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Let's go to our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

You have the latest. What are you learning?

[13:55:06] SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. This appears to have been a decision made by now former chief of staff, James Rybicki, last month. He has decided he is going to leave the FBI. And what we're told is that he's heading into the private sector, into some other job.

Now this comes, as you say, after the FBI has taken some criticism, certainly from the president, from the attorney general, focused on some of the Comey holdovers. Rybicki was Comey's chief of staff during the Clinton investigation. He, himself, Rybicki, has had to go before the Hill and answer questions about that investigation. Now we're getting word that he, too, is going to be leaving the FBI.

Let me just quickly read to you a rare statement from the FBI director, Chris Wray, who basically issued a statement to CNN in response to our request. Here is what he said. He was notified last month. "Rybicki notified me last month he will be leaving the FBI to accept an opportunity in the private sector." And he goes on to say that, "This is an exciting move for Rybicki and his family, but he will be missed by the FBI, and by me personally."

By every indication that we've been given, he is not being forced out by the FBI. He is leaving on his own terms, a decision he made last month. And has helped the current FBI director through this transition. He will be one of many, perhaps, that we will start seeing will be leaving the FBI, some of the Comey holdovers, as Christopher Wray now brings in his own people.

BLITZER: Shimon Prokupecz, thank you.

Gloria, Rybicki did come under fire from Republicans because of his close association with James Comey.


BLITZER: Presumably, that's why he decided maybe it's a good time to leave.

BORGER: Anybody affiliated with James Comey comes under fire. That may be part of his reason. We don't know. This is something clearly planned. And the note from Wray to CNN makes it clear that Wray had a lot of confidence in him. The person hanging out there is the deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe, whom the president -- and Axios first report this had morning -- the president has told the attorney general you better -- I would like you to get rid of this guy. He has tweeted about it publicly, and that Wray pushed back to the brink, according to some, threatening to leave. And that he didn't like being told who to hire and who to fire. But it's very clear, if you look at Trump's tweet from last July, "Why didn't A.G. Sessions replace FBI director McCabe, a Comey friend, who was in charge of the Clinton investigation?" And on and on. This is something the president has in his head, that he wants to clean house of all these career people. McCabe, we're told, intends to retire when he gets his full pension. That could be sometime this spring. But it's clear that the president wants these people out.

DRUCKER: You know who we haven't heard from in a long time? James Comey. At some point, in his book or during his book tour, I'm wondering if he will start filling in a lot of the gaps for the information that came out since he last spoke to Congress, to that committee, and answering all of these charges, essentially, that have been coming from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: He did tweet today it's good to see some people -- I don't have it in front of me, but have the strength to do the right thing, along those lines, referring to the fact that Chris Wray resisted the pressure from Sessions, allegedly, reportedly, to go ahead and fire Andrew McCabe, the deputy FBI director.

How do you see it?

PETTYPIECE: It's still unprecedented to have a president getting involved at staffing decisions at the FBI level. We're seeing this was a direction coming from Sessions. But the president has made very clear, as you pointed out, his feelings about McCabe. He got involved in Sessions' decision to recuse himself. We reported he sent Don McGahn to try to tell Sessions not to recuse himself. The level of involvement continues to be unprecedented with this president and the DOJ on staffing levels, two major levels, like an ethical conflict about your attorney general and a recusal.

BORGER: What's also interesting is that, according to the reporting, the attorney general did go to Wray, on behalf of the president, and say this should happen, when, in fact, you know, the Justice Department should operate independently of the president, who should not be telling the attorney general whom he can hire and whom he can fire.

DRUCKER: The president has --


BLITZER: Hold on. Here is the president of the United States, only moments ago.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- spanning decades really. We're very proud of it. The stock market is reacting the way it is.

Thank you all very much. Very proud of this. Thank you.


TRUMP: No. Not at all. Not at all.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) TRUMP: No. I didn't. But I'm not at all concerned.

Thank you all very much.