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Trump Calls Out Mueller; Gowdy Criticizes Trump; Trump Rages Against Mueller and Probe; McCabe Fired Days Before Retirement; Legislation to Protect Mueller. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 12:00 noon in Austin, Texas, 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Unleashed. The president of the United States escalating direct attacks on the special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation, raising new concerns the U.S. may be getting closer to a constitutional crisis.

Facebook under fire. The social media giant suspending a firm linked to the Trump campaign, after the accounts of some 50 million users were compromised.

The question is, who's policing Facebook if Facebook can't police itself?

And Texas on alert right now after another explosion in Austin, this one potentially triggered with a tripwire. New warnings about a serial bomber on the loose.

All that coming up. Up first, President Trump's outrage over the Russia investigation reaching a boiling point.

The president capped off a weekend barrage of Twitter attacks against the special counsel, Robert Mueller, with this tweet this morning. Quote, "A total witch hunt with massive conflicts of interest." Closed quote.

In his weekend tweet storm, the president also targeted Andrew McCabe, the newly fired deputy director of the FBI. He also took aim at the fired FBI director James Comey, the FBI itself, the Justice Department and the State Department.

And he escalated his attacks on the special counsel, Robert Mueller, calling him out by name.

Let's go to our Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, do we know what might have sparked the president's latest Twitter tirade?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, Wolf, everything that is happening here in Washington with that investigation, frankly everything we're seeing in the newspapers, on television, the president, of course, watching as well.

He, of course, knows more that's going on than we do. So, there is no question that he was set off over the weekend with a whole flurry of events. The developments that have been happening here with the Russia investigation.

But, certainly, escalated the confrontation with Bob Mueller, the special counsel. But stopped short, of course, of saying what he would do about it.

Now, the president, just a short time ago, left the White House flying to New Hampshire to do an event there this afternoon.

Wolf, we asked the president several times if he still has confidence in his special counsel, if he plans to get rid of the special counsel. The president very quiet about that today, simply smiling and walking with the first lady on the south lawn of the White House, Wolf.

But he certainly was not quiet over the weekend. And it is giving many advisers here at the White House, other Republicans across Washington, they're certainly wondering what his next steps are going to be.

But, finally last evening, after all of this, a White House lawyer put out a statement, trying to put some of this to a rest.

He said this, Wolf. He said, the White House is, once again, confirming the president is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller. That's the official line there.

But, Wolf, there, in fact, are conversations privately about that very thing. So, as we start here on a Monday, Wolf, who knows what this week might bring.

BLITZER: Yes, who knows, indeed.

All right, thanks very much. Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.

ZELENY: Sure.

BLITZER: Joining us now to discuss all of this, CNN Legal Analyst Michael Zeldin. He was Robert Mueller's former special assistant over at the Department of Justice. Jennifer Taub is with us. She is a Professor of Law at the Vermont Law School. And CNN Senior Political Reporter Nia-Malika Henderson.

Nia, you know, anyone can guess but there must have been a tipping point, why, all of a sudden, the president is, specially by name, going after Mueller.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, and if you remember, in December, the president flatly said that he thought that Robert Mueller could be fair.

There was a, kind of, nonaggression pact, in terms of him not going after him publicly. But we do know, privately, that he had other things to say about Mueller.

But something has changed. What we know, in the terms of the context of where these tweets on attacks on Robert Mueller by name are coming from, is that he has subpoenaed documents from the Trump Foundation related to Russia and other things. Right?

We don't know what those other things are. Can you imagine, if you're President Trump, you're talking to your lawyers. You're talking to your lawyers about what Mueller is after, in the scope of this investigation.

You're also likely hearing from your lawyers what Bob Mueller wants to ask you in any, sort of, sit-down interview. Of course, his lawyers are saying they don't necessarily want him to sit down with Robert Mueller.

So, I think that is where all of this is coming from. There is a, sort of, cumulative effect, where this investigation not only is not going to wrap up soon, which, again, is different from what the president believed initially. And it seems to be inching closer and closer to the president.

BLITZER: But you saw "The New York Times" reporting, Michael, that the special counsel's team have provided Trump lawyers with certain topics they want to discuss for a sit-down Q and A with the president of the United States.

And it seems that if they had only done that in recent days, that might have been something that caused the president to get really, really angry.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Sure.

I think Nia has got it right. You have, first, Ty Cobb and the other lawyers telling the president, it's going to end in November. It's going to end in December. It's going to end in January.

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) lawyer for the president.

ZELDIN: Exactly.

Now, we're in March, and it doesn't seem that we're anyplace near the end of it.

Then, as "The New York Times" reports and as you just indicate. They get a list of topics from Mueller, and those topics include the business dealings with the Trump Organization. Way broader than the president had hoped for.

I think he wanted a very narrow scope interview on obstruction, perhaps, and collusion, specially.

Now, they've got private dealings which is his so-called red line. And I think it's just too much for him, and he's exploded in this Twitter tirade. BLITZER: Because the president had said, last summer, that it would

be crossing a red line if Mueller decides to go after his business dealings as opposed to strictly what happened during the campaign; collusion, no collusion with Russia.

JENNIFER TAUB, PREFESSOR OF LAW, VERMONT LAW SCHOOL: Yes, I mean, the thing is, those business dealings could shed a lot of light on the president's, or his campaign's, motivations here.

We've seen several back channels being attempted to be set up with the Russians and you have to wonder why. And the only way to fully understand what's going on here is to look at the president's business and look at the debts he may owe to Russian nationals.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting that some pretty high-profile Republicans, they are warning the president. Don't even think about firing Robert Mueller, even though there are a whole bunch of other president supporters who say, yes, this guy is on a witch hunt. Just go after him and end this whole -- this whole situation.

HENDERSON: Yes, I mean, you have people like Lindsey Graham basically saying, if he moved to fire the special counsel it would be the end of his presidency. Jeff Flake, out of Arizona, also raising similar concerns. Pau Ryan basically saying that he has faith in Mueller's investigation.

But there isn't, by any means, any, sort of, chorus of Republicans in Congress raising concerns or red flags about the president's actions toward Bob Mueller. I mean, it is, essentially, the same people we've heard before, a very small group of people, Jeff Flake, for instance, isn't going to run for office again. Trey Gowdy also lodging some criticism at the president. He's not going to run for office any more.

So, yes, there's far from a ground swell, at this point, in terms of focusing on the president.

I do think you, perhaps, reach a tipping point, if the president finds somebody to fire Mueller. Because Rosenstein said he will not without good cause shown.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

Rachel Brand, the number three person, has already left the department or is leaving the Justice Department.

Now, you've got the solicitor general who may have a conflict and would recuse himself from the deliberation.

So, if he finds someone to fire Mueller, then you've got to appoint a new deputy attorney general and make the decision about who to appoint.

If he appoints somebody to replace Mueller, which he has to do under the regulations, that is seen as, sort of, a crony or a lackey, or someone who's not going to independently investigate the Russia collusion and coordination aspect of it, then I think you've reached the tipping point and these Congressional Republicans who have been quiet have to speak out.

BLITZER: Now, Jennifer, I want you to listen to Trey Gowdy, the Republican Congressman. He had some advice for the president and his lawyers, when it -- as far as Mueller is concerned.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Given the time, the resources, the independence to do his job.

And when you are innocent, if the allegations of collusion with the Russians, and there is no evidence of that, and you're innocent of that, act like it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, does he have a point?

TAUB: You know, Trey Gowdy has a great point, but he's also not running for reelection. And I think there are quite a few Republicans who think what he thinks but they're going to remain quiet.

And I would agree that he's at a tipping point, as Michael said. And I think if Bob Mueller is, in some way, fired, I think people will flood the streets and make the winners march look like it's -- you know, it's a block party.

And that, I think -- if and when that happens, I think then Republicans will get the political will and understand that there's great risk in November.

BLITZER: And when the president, Mike, was going after the Mueller team, he said this. He tweeted this over the weekend. Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats on big crooked Hillary supporters and zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added. Does anyone think this is fair? And yet there is no collusion.

ZELDIN: Right. It's factually incorrect. Of course, Robert Mueller is a registered Republican. Andy McCabe who was the second on the command in the FBI, is a registered Republican.

BLITZER: Rod Rosenstein?

ZELDIN: Rosenstein is a registered Republican or appointed by a Republican. Chris Wray, the present FBI director, is a Republican.

So, everybody in the senior team that is overseeing the Mueller investigation, Mueller has to go to get his mandate expanded or evaluated, are all Republicans.

So, I think that it's incorrect, factually. And, of course, these prosecutors who are registered Democrats, nine of the 17 are registered as Democrats, they are professional prosecutors. They are not going to let their party affiliation interfere with their fact- finding mission.

And so, to say that because you are a registered Democratic or Republican, it's going to impact your view your evidence of the law, it just defines reality.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's a lot more happening, including this. First on CNN, lawmakers want answers now from Facebook, following allegations linked to the social media juggernaut.

Last week, Facebook kicked Cambridge Analytica off of the platform. That group is linked to Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign. And may have compromised the Facebook accounts of as many as 50 million people.

And joining us now from Atlanta, CNN Senior Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin.

Drew, some members of Congress now want to hear more from Cambridge Analytica and the data mining that occurred. You have news on those efforts. Tell our viewers what you're learning.

Wolf, the data scientist who gathered this information on millions of Americans for Cambridge Analytica says he's willing to testify before Congress and speak to the FBI about the work he did for the company that work for the Trump campaign.

His name is Alexander Kogan. And the information comes from his own e-mail obtained by CNN's Donie O'Sullivan and sent to his fellow colleagues at Cambridge University.

Kogan's company provided data on millions of Americans to Cambridge Analytica. It began in 2014.

The data gathered through a personality test Facebook application that he built. And when Facebook users took this test, they gave Kogan access to all their data and even some of their friend's.

In an e-mail obtained by CNN, Kogan said he provided predicted personality scores on 30 million Americans to Cambridge Analytica's parent company.

During the campaign, Donald Trump's election team used Facebook almost exclusively to target messages and voters presumably using this personal data of Facebook users.

Wolf, the news has Facebook trying to defend itself against accusations that violated the privacy now of millions, 10s of millions of its users by allowing this data harvesting.

BLITZER: As you know, Drew, Facebook has accused Kogan of lying about why he was collecting the data, saying it was supposed to be only for his academic research.

Has Kogan addressed any of that in this e-mail he sent trying to defend himself?

GRIFFIN: Yes, Wolf, in fact, he says Facebook knew what he was doing. Didn't challenge him on any of it. In the e-mail, he says, we never claimed, during the project, that it was for academic research.

In fact, he says, we did our absolute best not to have the project have any entanglements with Cambridge University.

Kogan writes that when he updated the app and its terms and conditions on Facebook, it clearly stated users were granting him the right to sell and license the data. Facebook, at no point, he says, raised any concerns at all about any of these changes.

On Friday, as you said, Facebook suspended both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica from its platform.

The news also has rekindled possible links to Russia, Wolf, with Kogan writing to colleagues. I've been asked quite seriously by reporters of "The New York Times" and "The Guardian" if I'm a Russian spy. I really tried to explain that one seems just silly. If I am a Russian spy, he says, I'm the world's dumbest spy.

Kogan was born in the former Soviet Union, moved to the states as a child. The British newspaper, "The Observer," reported this week that Kogan received funding from a university in St Petersburg, Russia for research that also involved social networks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All, all, all very intriguing and disturbing. Drew, good reporting. Thanks very much.

A Democratic senator and a Republican Congressman, they're both standing by to join us live on whether or they think the president is laying the groundwork to fire Robert Mueller.

Plus, some lawmakers offering Andrew McCabe a job to save his pension. Will the fired FBI deputy director accept?

And breaking news, an American city right now on high alert after yet another explosion in Austin, Texas. And we're told all four bombings have similarities. You're going to find out what police are pleading for the public to do.

[13:14:32]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:18:36] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A White House lawyer says President Trump is not considering or discussing the firing of the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The statement follows a stepped-up attack by the president directly against Mueller in a weekend Twitter tirade. The president said the Mueller probe should never have been started and he questioned the makeup of the team, suggested it is politically biased against him.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Good to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: And just this morning the president went one step further saying on Twitter, he said, a total witch hunt, witch hunt in all caps, with massive conflicts of interest.

What's your reaction to the president's direct attacks on the special counsel and his team right now?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, it's very alarming, Wolf, because earlier the president and his team had said that they wanted to allow the Mueller investigation to run its course, that they wanted them to get all the facts, and that, at the end of the day, you know, it would prove Trump innocent, according to Trump. Now you see this stepped-up attack.

And Congressman Trey Gowdy, you know, asked the question just yesterday in connection with Trump's lawyer, if you have an innocent client, act like it. That's what he was saying to Trump's lawyer. And the same should be said of the president, right? If you're innocent, if you've got nothing to hide, for goodness sakes, act like it, because President Trump is acting guilty as hell going after Mueller, trying to short-circuit this investigation, trying to discredit this investigation.

[13:20:08] So it's an alarming development, but we need to make sure that Congress, on a bipartisan basis, stands with an independent investigation and makes it clear that getting rid of Mueller would generate a constitutional crisis.

BLITZER: Several high profile lawmakers, including some Republicans, they're warning the president clearly not to fire Mueller, but they also are pushing efforts in Congress right now to -- in a legislative way to protect him. But those efforts seem to have stalled. Would you support legislation to keep the president from firing Mueller?

VAN HOLLEN: Oh, I do strongly support that legislation. You know, back in January, when Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about that legislation, he said, ah, there's really no need to do that at this point in time and he cited the White House statements, which at the time said, you know, we're going to keep hands off this investigation. Well, things have changed with the president's tweets. And so I think Republican Leader McConnell now needs to step up and work with us to have a vote on that legislation. If Republicans agree that that would be unacceptable, they should join us in passing that bill in the United States Senate.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the firing of the Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, less than two days before he was set to retire and receive his full benefits. What did you think of the way this was handled?

VAN HOLLEN: You know, Wolf, it was a very troubling development in this democracy of ours because you had the president of the United States, for weeks and months, targeting Andrew McCabe, going after him personally, and then calling for his firing. And then you have the attorney general, who the president also threatened to fire, then firing McCabe just 48 hours short of his planned retirement.

We just saw the not surprising re-election of Putin in Russia yesterday. This kind of thing that we saw with respect to Andrew McCabe is the kind of thing you would expect Putin to do. You would not expect a president of the United States to be doing this kind of thing in this way.

BLITZER: But the inspector general over at the Department of Justice, the Office of Personnel Responsibility -- Professional Responsibility, they recommended that he be -- and we haven't seen the full reports, but according to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, they made the recommendation that he should be fired.

VAN HOLLEN: I recognize that, Wolf. And I look forward to reading the report. But that report was developed in a context, in an environment where the president of the United States was essentially going after McCabe every day and calling for his firing. So let's look at that report. But if that report was not in any way tainted by the president's remarks, well, the president then made it worse for himself by getting -- jumping on this politically. If it was a totally independent effort, then the president should have left it that way instead of himself jumping on again in a very personal, nasty way.

The president of the United States going after a citizen of the United States personally, someone who served the FBI for 20 years, that is just not acceptable conduct here. We should look at the report and find out exactly what those findings were. But, again, the president should never have jumped in, in the way he did.

BLITZER: But if McCabe was involved in unauthorized leaks to the news media and if he lied about it under oath, those are serious -- those are serious allegations.

VAN HOLLEN: Those are serious allegations. And it's important to get to the bottom of it. And I think, as my Republican colleagues have said, let's take a look at that report and let's make sure that it's based on fact and not based on any kind of political pressure that came from the White House in the form of this constant barrage from Trump against McCabe.

Look, if there was wrongdoing, then there needs to be accountability. But, you know, this is supposed to be an independent effort, an independent investigation. And by having the White House interfere and the president interfere directly, it clearly raises doubts about the integrity of that process.

BLITZER: And getting back to proposed legislation to protect Robert Mueller and his special counsel investigation of the whole Russia matter, is it realistic at all to think you could attach some sort of rider to the spending bill that has to come up by the end of this week in order to attach it to that legislation, to keep the government funding but also at the same time to protect Mueller. You've heard of those proposals.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, Wolf, and those are the kinds of provisions that we could attach to the budget, to the omnibus appropriations, if there's bipartisan consensus. If there's not bipartisan consensus, that would result in a shutting down of the government. But if Republicans will agree that it's important to protect the integrity of the Mueller investigation, that is the kind of thing that we could do. But, again, you're going to need bipartisan support.

[13:25:07] I've heard some Republican voices supporting that legislation, but what really matters at the end of the day is going to be whether or not Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, the Republican leaders, are willing to stand up to protect the rule of law, protect the independent investigation.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Van Hollen, thanks very much for joining us.

VAN HOLLEN: It's good to be with you, Wolf. Thanks.

BLITZER: Coming up, police in Austin, Texas, say they have a serial bomber right now on the loose after the fourth explosion rocks the city. What police are now telling residents to do.

Plus, just in, we're getting word that President Trump may be on the verge of hiring a lawyer who's been pushing the conspiracy theory that the Justice Department and the FBI framed -- framed the president of the United States. Stay -- stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:30:03] BLITZER: The city of Austin is on edge right now. For the fourth time this month, an explosion has rocked the capital of Texas.