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Trump Sees Nunes Memo as Way to Discredit Russia Probe; Brennan Blasts Republicans Over Nunes Memo Release; NYT: Hicks Told Trump Don Jr's E-mails Won't Get Out. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 1, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Christopher Wray, Jim, the White House director, he's been in office for about six months. He tells the White House in a very strong statement -- you don't use these words easily -- that we have grave concerns about material omissions and deeply concerned about releasing this memo. If the president rejects the recommendation of Christopher Wray, the FBI director, if the president rejects Rod Rosenstein, the man in charge of this investigation, the deputy attorney general -- the Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself -- that's a slap in the face of two men the president himself appointed.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the two agencies whose job is to keep America safe. It really is an unprecedented public battle between the president and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies here. Keep in mind the point Wray made was that this is not just a security issue, you're revealing secrets here, which is a concern. I know, I've spoken to intelligence officials that expressed that. He made the point that the memo is misleading. It's missing information that's necessary to give the full picture here. This is coming from the FBI director that was appointed after he fired the previous one. We need to look at Republican versus Democrat, which is the constant in this town, more so than ever perhaps, that this is a president pitched against his intelligence agencies, the FBI, the Department of Justice, who has also said there is no basis to accusations of misuse of the FISA warrants, and the intelligence agencies who oppose this release for a number of reasons.

BLITZER: It's pretty extraordinary, Kim -- and you're a former assistant U.S. attorney -- for the president to ignore the strong words coming from his Justice Department, from the FBI, men that he named, who are both Republicans.

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Absolutely. I'm also a constitutional a law professor and I worked on Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation. And I would say this is really a constitutional abomination and potentially a scam on the American public in that we have a three-part system of government. The challenges here in the memo are to a judge's decision to issue a warrant. That's a judicial determination by an Article III judge and an Article II prosecutor making a determination to present that to the judge. And the memo itself, we know was actually created by a member of Congress. This is not some kind of factual piece of evidence that was in a file somewhere that actually demonstrates real-time information. This was a memo created by a partisan branch of the government. So the American people, regardless of which side they are on the aisle, have to understand this has severe consequences potentially to the integrity of our separation of powers. Paul Ryan said this is about accountability, and this is not how accountability works in our tri- part structure of government.

BLITZER: Molly, the president, he wants people to be loyal to him. And now we've been reporting that back in December he asked the deputy attorney general. The president asked, are you on my team? That sounds like he's seeking some sort of loyalty test.

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It wouldn't be the first time. That's what he did to Comey during the Comey allegation. He said, who did you vote for, along with McCabe. He wants people who he thinks work for him, serve him primarily. When something seems to be done loyalty what is the potential end game here? We know, based, and that would be a disaster. It would be a political problem for him. If this memo comes out and he manages to convince a large enough swath of the American public that the whole investigation is dirty, potentially that means perhaps that he believes he can then fire Mueller with a clean conscience.

BLITZER: Let me read to you and to our viewers, Jim, what the former CIA Director John Brennan is now saying. He's blasting Republicans for wanting to release this controversial memo. Quote, "I've had many fights with demes over the years on national security matters. But I never witnessed the type of political partisan behavior I'm seeing from Nunes and House Republicans."

Absence of moral and ethical leadership in washington is fueling this government crisis. Those are serious, serious words.

SCIUTTO: This is Trumpism, right? If you attack him, criticize him, he's going to hit back, no matter who you are, individual, Republican, Democrat, law enforcement officer, intelligence agents, agency. We've seen this from the beginning of his presidency going back to when he attacked the U.S. intelligence agencies as behaving like the Nazis. This is the way he acts. He does not have to convince everybody that the investigation is wrong, but he can convince his base, who probably already believes that, believes it more so. And then raise questions among others to say, well, is it really fair? That kind of thing. If he has done that, he's accomplished the fact. Now there could be -- there is reason to question and debate the question of U.S. surveillance. We saw that with the revelations about the NSA? These are legitimate questions. How far do you go? How are the warrants issued and so on? But this is about a president attacking other institutions currently investigating him and his administration. So there is a slight conflict of interest involved in there that seems to be his motivation rather than a broader constitutional debate and question about whether civil liberties are being violated.

[13:35:43] BLITZER: It was only a few days ago, Kim, and all of remember the president said he was looking forward to answering questions from Robert Mueller. He thought that would happen in the next two or three weeks. He said I'm really wants to do this, subject to my lawyer, subject to my attorneys. He then added that now we're learning that apparently the attorneys think that the threshold for a president of the United States to answer these kinds of questions has not been met and they don't want the president to do so. Can they force, can Mueller force the president to sit down and answer questions?

WEHLE: Sure. If the grand jury issues a subpoena, the president has to respond to it or plead the Fifth Amendment. And --


BLITZER: If he pleads the Fifth, he's not going to answer any questions.

WEHLE: Then there are political implications. It looks like he has something to hide. His attorneys are representing their client. If he sits down with some kind of agreement, there is no guarantee that what he says won't lead to incrimination for him. We saw this with President Clinton. He sat down with the attorney. The Supreme Court held that Bill Clinton could be held subject to a civil lawsuit. So the president is not above any kind of investigation, as a matter of legal principles.

SCIUTTO: It was a video link. Imagine a Trump deposition on camera. That would be --


BLITZER: He did it. It was video -- it was a live video with the grand jury. He was allowed to do it at the White House back in 1998. I remember that vividly, that videotape we all remember once it was released.

All right, guys. Everybody stand by.

There is more news we're following. I'm going to speak live with a Democratic Senator to respond to CNN's reporting on the president's motivation to release this very controversial memo.

Plus, there are more stunning developments in the Russia investigation. Hope Hicks' lawyer -- she's the communications director at the White House -- denying a report that she allegedly concealed e-mails about the infamous Trump Tower meeting. That, and a lot more coming up.


[13:41:52] BLITZER: More now on breaking news. CNN has learned new details on why President Trump now plans to release a secret Republican memo that's generating a political firestorm. According to multiple sources, the president is telling associates that the memo could help discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, alleges FBI abuse of its surveillance powers. The president is expected to release it in defiance of a very strong warning by the FBI and the Justice Department not to do so.

Let's bring in Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley who is joining us.

Senator, thank you very much for joining us.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY, (D), OREGON: You're very welcome. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Senator, we've learned, as you know, the president sees this memo as a way to discredit the entire Russia investigation that Robert Mueller has been leading. What's your reaction to that?

MERKLEY: This is a very bizarre twist in which the release of this memo seems to be part of an effort to obstruct an investigation into the obstruction of justice. But it also goes to the heart of manipulation of very sensitive national secrets, highly classified information that is given to the Intelligence Committee with the understanding that it will not be released in a fashion that endangers the United States or in a fashion that manipulates the information for political purposes. So that understanding goes to the heart of how the committee is able to get sensitive information in the first place, why the government is willing to share it with the committee. So this really threatens to blow up the whole contract between the branches of government over sensitive information.

BLITZER: So what you're suggesting is that the U.S. Intelligence Community, the Justice Department, the FBI may now be reluctant to share sensitive classified information with the House Intelligence Committee -- not necessarily the Senate Intelligence Committee where there seems to be greater bipartisan cooperation -- but the House Intelligence Committee? They're not going to do so down the road because of what's going on right now?

MERKLEY: It is certainly a fundamental problem because, for the FBI and the CIA, the intelligence operations to be able to share information, they have to know that it's going to be -- there's going to be good stewardship of that information.

It even goes further than this. That is, any individuals that might share information with the intelligence agencies or the Department of Justice or the FBI might be reluctant to do so if they thought it might then be released to the Congress, which would then poorly steward it and release it inappropriately. That's one piece of this picture.

But the other piece is this deliberate effort by Nunes and the committee to basically interfere and discredit an investigation that is so important in our constitutional system, that no one is above the law, that if there was collaboration with the Russians, we're going to get to the bottom of it. They're trying to prevent that from happening by manipulating information. We've heard from very responsible party, from the Department of Justice itself, from the FBI itself, the information that is going to be released is manipulated, incomplete and misleading.

[13:45:04] BLITZER: It's interesting because we just heard from the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, your colleague, John Thune. He's issuing a very stern warning to the House of Representatives, the Intelligence Committee there. Listen to this.

Well, we don't have the sound. But he's warning them that releasing this memo could really hurt. What's your reaction when you hear these kinds of recommendations coming in from the number-three Republican, number-three Republican in the Senate, to the House?

MERKLEY: It's so important that we have members of Congress who are willing to put their responsibilities to their office and to our government above pure partisan politics. Also the thought that Mark Warner weighed in very clearly on this as well, saying he had reviewed the information, that this memo is highly misleading. Mark Warner has been an extraordinarily competent steward of the Senate side investigation, and we should really listen to what he's having to say.

BLITZER: Because if the FBI director, Christopher Wray, in that extraordinary statement yesterday that was released, he says, "We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy."

If the FBI director feels that strongly, don't release this memo, there are grave concerns -- and the use of the word "grave" is very pointed. There's been suggestions already. How can he continue on his job if the president of the United States slaps him down and says, I'm releasing the memo, anyhow?

MERKLEY: We have to view this as a five-alarm fire. These types of warnings coming from the FBI, coming from the Justice Department to the House Intelligence Committee, to Nunes, this is not an ordinary set of affairs. This is extremely dangerous manipulation of information in order to discredit an investigation into the president. We know the president has thought his best operation has been to try to manipulate the investigation. Of course, he's weighed in on that factor with three different FBI directors, with Rosenstein. He's done that. And the sum of this has been just to increase the recognition that there is information that the president doesn't ever want released, and to discredit this investigation would be a tremendous salt on justice in the United States. We really, really have to resist what's going on right now.

BLITZER: There are serious, serious concerns. Remember, the Justice Department, in that letter to the committee the other days, not only warned that releasing this kind of information could undermine the way the U.S. Intelligence Committee collects information, where they talk about sources and methods, very classified information, but also the impact it could have in terms of foreign intelligence services, friendly intelligence services sharing information with the United States, our ability to share and receive sensitive information from friendly foreign governments, the letter from Stephen Boyd, the assistant attorney general, suggests could be in danger. So there is a lot going on right now.


BLITZER: And if the president decides to release this memo, I wonder if these individuals are going to stay on the job or will they protest with resignations of their own? So this is an extremely sensitive moment.

I'll give you the last word, Senator.

MERKLEY: Well, this appears to be a setup to enable the president to fire Mueller and grind everything to a halt. This would be the equivalent of a Saturday Night Massacre, setting the stage for it. Everyone needs to pay attention. It's 100 percent unacceptable for the president's team and the House Intelligence Committee to interfere in this fashion.

BLITZER: Senator Merkley, thank you so much for joining us.

MERKLEY: Thank you.

[13:49:06] BLITZER: Another potential bombshell in the Russia investigation. Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, her lawyers denying a report that she allegedly concealed e-mails involving that infamous Trump Tower meeting. We're going to discuss if she's in legal hot water right now, and the president's role in all of this, when we come back.


BLITZER: Big question for the president in the Russia investigation. "The New York Times" now reporting that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller is zeroing in on that Trump Tower meeting in New York City between Donald Trump Jr and the Russians and the involvement of the White House communications director, Hope Hicks.

Let's go to our White House reporter, Jeremy Diamond, joining us from the White House right now.

Jeremy, what do they say is the reason the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is now looking at Hope Hicks' role in all of this?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. We know for a long time the special counsel has been fascinated and really homing in on this alleged Trump Tower meeting that happened back in 2016, but he's also very interested in the statement that was crafted by the president and his aids aboard Air Force One, returning from his first foreign trip. That was a response to that meeting, the initial report about that meeting in the "The New York Times" that Donald Trump Jr had met with this Russian lawyer who was alleging to provide incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. And so now "The New York Times" is reporting that Mark Corallo, who was a spokesman for the president's personal legal team, is expected to testify before Robert Mueller that during a conference call that he had with the president and with Hope Hicks, the communications director, that Hicks said that she believed the e-mails will, quote, "never get out." And according to "The New York Times," it's unclear whether she was suggesting that she would prevent them from getting out or whether she was simply being naive in believing that those e- mails would never see the light of day, as they eventually did, of course, Wolf

Hope Hicks' attorney is firmly, firmly denying these allegations. He said in a statement to CNN, "She never said that and the idea that Hope Hicks ever suggested that e-mails or other documents would be concealed or destroyed is completely false."

All of this, of course, raises questions again about this pattern we're seeing of questions about potential obstruction of justice and it's something that Robert Mueller is going to be zeroing in on with this interview with Mark Corallo -- Wolf?

[13:55:33] BLITZER: He certainly will be.

Jeremy Diamond, thanks very much.

I want to bring in our CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, Laura Coates.

Is this Mark Corallo's word against Hope Hicks' word? How do they figure this out?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Remember when Comey was going to give information about his now infamous meeting about loyalty pledges, you have corroboration through memos, he may have had conversations with other people about what he just learned and heard. It's very conceivable that he may have that corroborating information to avoid that he said/she said scenario and that's what Mueller is going to look for. Whether the person is credible, whether there is corroboration, and whether there's actual substance to the claim.

BLITZER: Lying to the news media is bad, politically. It's always stupid, too, but it's not necessarily a crime.

COATES: Absolutely not. Unfortunately, the idea you're going to hang all your hat on what the media has been receiving the information. However, think about this. If part of the intended audience was not simply the news but also for Robert Mueller and his investigative team, were they trying to steer them away from some scent trail? Were they trying to create a false narrative that would mislead the investigation? Very different scenario.

BLITZER: What key moments do you believe Robert Mueller's looking at right now and potentially developing an obstruction of justice case?

COATES: We're talking about the firing of Comey, talking about any pressure that may have been imposed on Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself, any potential to fire or let go of Andy McCabe, and this now infamous meeting in Trump Tower. What was the role of the president of the United States in crafting either a media strategy or an actual response either to Mueller's team or the media the "The New York Times" to respond to this? All these are going to come into play to give the contextual clues as to intent.

BLITZER: Does it look like Mueller is getting closer and closer to wrapping things up? Remember, the president the other day said he thought he would be happy to answer his questions in the next two or three weeks. Usually, a prosecutor along these lines, they want to wait to get the biggest fish at the very end. COATES: Absolutely. It's hard to gauge the timeline of Robert

Mueller. Where we are is smack dab in the middle of an investigation. What prolongs it are continuous reports from the inside, people who are targets of the investigation who give additional information that the investigation needs to continue. If there's information about Hope Hicks' role, if there's information about other key players who had a hand in trying to either obstruct, impede or do away with the investigation, it will continue to be prolonged. It's pretty much, Wolf, as long as this investigation will go on for as long as people continue to impede it.

BLITZER: What do you think of these reports the president's lawyers don't think there's a threshold, a case has already been built that would justify the president asking Mueller's questions?

COATES: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. It's not their prerogative to say what they can ask about and what they can't. The prerogative of Mueller's team is to ask any question under the scope of their directive. That includes anyone trying to obstruct justice or undermine their investigation in any way. This is all fair game, and it's not the say of Trump's attorney.

BLITZER: We'll see how the release of this controversial memo that the Republicans --


BLITZER: -- in the House put forward, we'll see how that plays out and over this entire investigation.

Laura, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

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