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Trump to Fire McMaster, Possibly Hire Bolton; Sessions Considers Firing McCabe Days Before Retirement; Mueller Subpoenas Trump Organization Business Documents; Russia Vows Retaliation, New Blacklist Over U.S. Sanctions; U.S. Accuses Russia of Cyberattacks on Power Grid, Utilities, Travel. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[13:30:43] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: CNN has confirmed that the president is ready to get rid of his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, as the staff and the cabinet shakeups are continuing. Once General McMaster is shown the door, he could be replaced potentially by former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. He's one of the candidates, apparently, under serious consideration right now.

Our national security analyst, Samantha Vinograd, is with us to take a closer look at Bolton and his records.

Samantha, walk us through his stance on some sensitive issues, Iran, North Korea, Russia, for example. Tell us where Bolton stands.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Definitely. I think H.R. McMaster at this point may be a lame duck in the West Wing. And if Bolton does come in and if the president listens to Bolton, we may have a very loud hawk as national security advisor if you just look at the issues. On North Korea, John Bolton has a strong preference for regime change and military action. He's talked about the need to convince China, for example, to swap out Kim Jong-Un.

And he's used diplomacy really as a gateway of getting rid of North Korea's nuclear program. He's talked about a binary choice between accepting North Korea as a nuclear state or taking military action to prevent them from becoming one. More recently, in light of this diplomatic breakthrough, he said the meeting between Kim and Trump would be an opportunity for Trump to make a credible military threat. So I don't think he would invest the National Security Council's time in really thinking through the diplomatic track.

BLITZER: What about some of the other sensitive issues?

VINOGRAD: Certainly. On Iran, he's really no different. John Bolton said he doesn't trust the Iranians. He doesn't want to renegotiate the Iran deal. He wants to scrap it completely. He's been very vocal, again, about a policy of supporting regime change. That could lead him to focus the National Security Council on military action or covert action programs that would swap out the regime and help out the opposition, and that would be a change from where our current policy of not supporting regime change. BLITZER: And Russia?

VINOGRAD: On Russia, there could be a silver lining here in that John Bolton has been tough on Russia public. So perhaps we could see maybe a National Security Council meeting on Russia for a change. He's called the Kremlin liars. He said the sanctions we've taken to date don't really count as real deterrents. And he said basically there's an open door for Russia to keep attacking us. So if he is national security adviser, we could see a tougher line on Russia.

BLITZER: One thing the president doesn't like is that Bolton was an early and very ardent supporter of the war in Iraq back in 2003, which the president has always said is a disaster, awful, wound up costing the U.S. trillions of dollars. On that issue, there's clearly a disagreement. We'll see if Bolton does get the job once McMaster moves on.

Thank you very much, Sam, for that report.

Robert Mueller issuing a subpoena for the Trump Organization. We're going to discuss what he may be looking for and the legal fallout.

Also, a disturbing claim. The lawyer for the porn star suing President Trump over their alleged affair says there's proof she was, quote, physically threatened to stay silent. And now, the lawyer says six more women have come forward.

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[13:38:08] BLITZER: Right now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is deciding whether to fire the former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, just days before he is scheduled to retire and receive full federal benefits. CNN has learned the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility has been a recommendation McCabe be fired, but the ultimate decision to fire him is up to Sessions himself.

We're joined now by former senior counsel to the deputy attorney general under President Obama, Eric Columbus, and former counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security, Carrie Cordero.

Guys, thanks very much.

Eric, let me ask you, he worked at the FBI for 22 years. He's scheduled to retire on Sunday. Between now and then, Sessions could potentially fire him, and he would lose his pension.

ERIC COLUMBUS, FORMER SENIOR COUNSEL TO DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yes. There are two questions here. One is whether McCabe did something wrong and, two, whether he should be fired for it. The first one, we don't really know the answer. We're just reading press reports that suggest that he was not forthcoming and misled the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility and possibly also the inspector general's office regarding contacts he had with the press for a 2016 news story.

Now, assuming that he was at fault in that, the question is, is proper to terminate him for that and to do it days before he is set to retire. And we would need to know more facts about this, because did the FBI follow their normal process. Did it go -- is this something that's been brewing for months or is it just a sudden rush to judgment to try to fire him because Donald Trump clearly hates the guy?

BLITZER: He's tweeted against him. White House officials have as well.

Let's talk a little about Robert Mueller's investigation, the decision, Carrie, to go forward and subpoena the Trump Organization for business documents, something the president earlier, some are suggesting, would be a red line, don't cross it. The decision to subpoena for those documents as opposed to simply asking for the documents is significant.

[13:40:15] CARRIE CORDERO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it is, and yet because it's the president's company. Right? I mean, that's why it's so significant because this is the Trump Organization and his private business, and this is his whole family's business. But a subpoena, generally, in a complex criminal investigation is a standard investigative technique.

So given the scope of this investigation, it's not surprising a subpoena would be issued. The difference between a subpoena and a voluntary request, meaning there is a requirement that the Trump Organization, when they receive this subpoena, they have to preserve everything, and so, that way, the special counsel's office doesn't have to negotiate what will be produced. They know what they want produced will be.

BLITZER: I raised the question, Eric, because, earlier, there was voluntary handing over of documents from the Trump Organization to Robert Mueller and his team, and they did cooperate, the promised to cooperate. And now, all of a sudden, the decide to issue, presumably, grand jury subpoena.

COLUMBUS: There may also be the possibility that the Trump Organization is doing this to protect themselves if there are documents that they are contractually obligated to keep confidential once a valid subpoena or search warrant is issued.

BLITZER: The whole notion, Eric, let me get your thoughts on this, whether or not Robert Mueller and his team already have Donald Trump's IRS tax returns over the years, or whether the subpoena is designed to get those tax returns.

COLUMBUS: I do think that they have his tax returns to the extent that they want them. I don't think his personal tax returns would be in the possession of the Trump Organization anyway.

BLITZER: But they could simply go ahead and ask the IRS returns for those tax returns and the IRS would have to comply?

CORDERO: They would have to work with the IRS to be able to obtain those. There's actually, you know, have to be a process in working with the IRS. And they very well may be doing that. Probably, given the heart of the investigation, which part of it in terms of whether or not there was any cooperation, has to do with what would have been the motivation for Donald Trump and his campaign to cooperate. Any financial information for the organization and whether there are major debts and foreign debt would play into that and be relevant.

BLITZER: It's a sensitive matter, given the president's refusal over all this time to release publicly those tax returns, even though other presidential candidates and presidents have always done so.

All right, guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Under attack. The U.S. government accuses Russia of targeting the U.S. power grid, putting America's nuclear and electric systems in peril. Congressman Eric Swalwell, of the House Intelligence Committee, he's standing by to join me live.

And we're also on stand-by for the White House press briefing. Looking at live pictures coming in. Sarah Sanders getting ready to answer reporters' questions. Stay with us for live coverage.

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[13:47:28] BLITZER: Russia is expected to retaliate literally at any moment against the United States by expanding their own blacklist of Americans. It's not known if Americans could be ordered out of Russia, American diplomats, as a response to the expanded U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Joining us, California Congressman Eric Swalwell. He's a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

What kind of retribution would you expect to see from Russia?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL, (D), CALIFORNIA: Certainly, an expulsion is probably likely of diplomats. I'm worried you'll see escalating interference in our upcoming elections and also in other infrastructure as we've seen.

BLITZER: You mean the midterm elections?

SWALWELL: Yes.

BLITZER: What can they do, realistically?

SWALWELL: They can continue to help their friend, Donald Trump, their preferred candidate from the last election, by helping his party in Congress. There are about 100 competitive seats this November, and that could possibly put a check on Donald Trump that would limit his ability to try and help the Russians. So I fear that our guard is down against the Russians right now, that they're throwing punches, we're on the ropes, and if we don't do anything, the interference in this election and in 2020 could be much worse.

BLITZER: Your fear is that their involvement in social media, not in actual ballot tampering or anything like that? SWALWELL: I don't think we've given any conclusion yet on whether

they've tampered with votes because we haven't looked at whether they tampered with votes. We learn more and more every day how deeply they penetrated state voter registration databases. I don't know that we can conclusively say that, but we should protect against the ballot box, we should protect against the hacking, we should protect against the trolling and the bot amplification that they've been doing. The closing of our House investigation, actually, I think, invites further interference rather than protecting against it.

BLITZER: But there are still other investigations, on the Senate side, for example, going on. So even though the Republican majority in the House Intelligence Committee has said, no evidence of collusion, time to move on, it's enough, and you guys are in the minority, so there's not really much you can do about that. But there are other investigations. And most significantly, Robert Mueller and his team, they're still pursuing their independent investigation.

SWALWELL: We should do all we can to protect Bob Mueller's investigation. We could actually pass legislation. There is bipartisan legislation to cement his role, to prevent him from being fired unless there's cause and a third party that looks at it. I also think, Wolf, it's time to pass my legislation with Elijah Cummings for an independent commission. That's the only comprehensive way to tell the America people what happened. That's not something Bob Mueller will do. We will only prosecute criminal violations. We still need to tell the American people what happened, who was responsible --

[13:50:02] BLITZER: But that's not going to happen unless you get a whole lot of Republicans onboard. It doesn't look like they are.

SWALWELL: We either have to change 22 more minds -- we have two Republicans onboard. We need 22 more. Or change 24 seats this November --

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BLITZER: How serious is this threat? The Department of Homeland Security now warning that the Russians potentially could get involved in hacking the power grid, the electric power grid, here in the United States. How serious is that?

SWALWELL: Very serious, Wolf. This is our livelihood that's at stake. Our heating, our cooling, our electricity, our economy is at stake. Again, the Russians, they're taking advantage of a very, very weak America that has not been willing to see its commander-in-chief stand up to the Russians. We need a strategy against Russia. Not one-off sanctions. We need sanctions, direct attribution, confronting Putin, hardening our electricity and election systems, not just one offs as this president has done with Russia and other national security threats.

BLITZER: As you know, the Republican majority in your committee, at least most of the members of the Republican side, they've said they've seen no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on your committee, says he has seen evidence of collusion, public evidence as well as private, secret evidence. Where do you stand on whether or not there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians?

SWALWELL: In our investigation, we saw strong evidence of collusion. The Republicans now are choosing to bury it. I don't know what you call it when the Russians make multiple approaches to members of the Trump family, the Trump Organization, the Trump campaign to offer and preview dirt on Hillary Clinton, where the candidate stands in front of a public crowd and says, Russia, you'll be rewarded if you hack her deleted e-mails.

And once Russia does it, the campaign doesn't report to law enforcement its prior contacts with Russia. They actually amplify through social media, the candidate's own words, what Russia hacked. I think that's clear collusion. But there's also evidence that the public has not seen that we think, if we release our transcripts, they would also find as well.

BLITZER: Are you going to release that secret evidence so far, the private evidence?

SWALWELL: The Republicans, during the investigation, said the transcripts would be released. They are now backing away from that. I think that's because they don't want to the public to see that they can't defend their claim there's no collusion. It would also show what little interest they showed in this investigation. And I think the best thing we could do is release the transcripts, let the American people decide for themselves.

BLITZER: What do you think of all the turmoil going on in the West Wing in the White House right now, people being fired and anticipating even more, maybe General McMaster. I don't know about today, but fairly soon, he could be out?

SWALWELL: The American people, I think, would prefer to just worry about their own jobs, providing for their own family, than having to watch on TV every day the president not being able to do his. That affects our economy and our national security. I think the president needs to get his team in order, do his job, and just end the chaos and the childish behavior that I think is causing anxiety among the American people and threatens our everyday lives.

BLITZER: Congressman Swalwell, thanks very much for coming in.

SWALWELL: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Eric Swalwell, of California.

As more layoffs hangover the West Wing, and Stormy Daniels' lawyer says she was physically threatened to remain silent, the White House getting ready to hold their briefing moments from now. There you see live pictures coming in. Stay with us. We'll, of course, have live coverage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:58:37] BLITZER: All right, we end with breaking news. A major development, a very significant story, a story full of drama, suspense and glory.

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(CHEERING)

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BLITZER: That was the sound of the number-13 seed, University at Buffalo Bulls, my alma mater, advancing to the next round of the NCAA tournament after absolutely demolishing the number-four seed, Arizona Wildcats. Final score, look at this, 89-68, U.B. wins. The Bulls send a clear and very decisive message to Kentucky: Get ready, you're next.

Our breaking news continues with the White House press briefing set to begin any minute now.

Thanks very much for watching.