Return to Transcripts main page

WOLF

Lawyers Refuse to Join Trump Legal Team; Clarification on Russian Sanctions; Trump Silent on Stormy; Kushner's Potential Conflict; Kim Jong-Un Secretary in China; Census Question Added; Trump and Biden Threats. Aired 1:00-1:30p ET

Aired March 27, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


[13:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: From around the world. Thanks very much for joining us.

It's the team the president of the United States can't seem to fill. Why more and more star lawyers are saying no to the president to represent him in the Russia investigation.

Also, he's called himself a counterpuncher, but so far silence from the president on the accusations against him as Stormy Daniels may be getting closer to getting him inside a courtroom.

And he hasn't left North Korea since becoming its leader, but just weeks before his planned meeting with President Trump, did Kim Jong-un ride a mystery train into China?

All that coming up.

But let's start with the legal drama surrounding the president. Specifically the issue of finding a new attorney, or two, to help in the president's defense during the Russia investigation. Here are six high-profile attorneys who have said no thanks recently, turning down requests to take on the president as a client. This uncertainty comes in the wake of last week's resignation of one of the president's trusted attorneys, John Dowd.

Let's go straight to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, do we know why the president is having so much trouble filling his legal team?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this point, Wolf, the attorneys who are saying thanks but no thanks to joining the president's legal team are saying that conflicts, business conflicts, are preventing them from joining the president's Russia legal team, and that includes these two recent attorneys who turned down an offer to join the president's team. They were from a Chicago-based legal firm. And they essentially said, because of these conflicts, these business conflicts that they have, they can't join the president's legal team. That's also the explanation coming from Joe diGenova, who we reported was initially thought to be coming on to the president's legal team but decided not to do that. And all of this, of course, follows, as you said, the departure of John Dowd, the president's outside legal attorney. Now, Jay Sekulow and others in the president's legal team insists that

they're doing just fine without bringing these additional people on. But, obviously, Wolf, they wouldn't be reaching out to try to find other people to come in if there wasn't a need there.

BLITZER: On another sensitive issue, Jim, this morning the White House clarified a point on which Russians have been sanctions. Tell our viewers what they said.

ACOSTA: Right. It's an important point because yesterday, as you know, Wolf, the Trump administration announced the expulsions of these 60 Russian diplomats accused of essentially being spies in this country. And during the briefing yesterday here at the White House, I asked the principle deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, about this notion. And you hear this from critics of the Trump White House that they're just not doing enough to punish Russia, that they really should hit Russia where it hurts, hit them in the pocketbook, sanction not only Putin but his cronies, those key oligarchs in Russia.

And yesterday, listen to this exchange, Wolf. Raj Shah said that key oligarchs in Russia had been sanctioned by the U.S. government. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Would this president consider sanctioning Vladimir Putin or his cronies to punish him and the Russian government for what happened in the U.K. and also for meddling in the 2016 election?

RAJ SHAH, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, the United States has issued sanctions to the key Russian oligarchs in response to the -- to the meddling in the 2016 election.

ACOSTA: What about Putin himself?

SHAH: So I wouldn't close any doors or I wouldn't preclude any potential action. But the president doesn't telegraph his moves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, we should point out, Wolf, and we noticed this late yesterday evening going back and looking through the transcript and matching this with the sanctions announcement from the Trump administration on March 15th, they, in fact, did not sanction key Russian oligarchs. There was one oligarch mentioned in those sanctions, but those sanctions essentially mirrored the indictments that came down from the Mueller team looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And then earlier this morning, Michael Anton (ph), who is the NSC spokesman over here at the White House, told our Brianna Keilar that, in fact, yes, they have not sanctioned those key Russian oligarchs, as Raj Shah said yesterday. Here's what Michael Anton had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL ANTON, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESMAN: He was referring to one of the provisions of congressional law that requires us to submit a -- two reports, really, one unclassified report and then a classified annex to Capitol Hill that outlines the activities of Russian oligarchs and Russian -- both government and private sector figures suspected of or known to interfere in western --

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: But that was just a list of oligarchs the Treasury put out. I mean those weren't sanctions.

ANTON: Well, it's -- it is a list that is a precursor to further action. These actions take a while to develop. We can't just sanction people spontaneously.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: So important to note, Wolf, there you have the NSC spokesperson, Michael Anton, essentially clarifying what the spokesman, Raj Shah, said yesterday at the briefing, that they have not, in fact, sanctioned these oligarchs in Russia. That, in fact, they just essentially named them as people who were on the U.S. watch list, so to speak, when it comes to identifying the potential for future sanctions against Russia.

[13:05:03] And, Wolf, we should also mention that Raj Shah made this statement to us during the same briefing in which he said that they, at the White House, strive every day to provide reliable and accurate information to the press. That is not what happened yesterday with respect to sanctions, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what they -- how they follow up. I know there's going to be a briefing coming up in the next hour.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: We'll see what they have to say today.

Jim Acosta reporting for us, thanks very much.

CNN legal analyst, former Watergate special prosecutor, Richard Ben- Veniste, is with us right now.

Let's get back to this other issue, Richard, about the trouble the president seems to be having in finding strong lawyers here in Washington to represent him in this Russia investigation. Why is it getting so hard to find strong, powerful attorneys? He needs the best.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, he does, and perhaps the tawdriness of the recent revelations of the two women who claim to have had extramarital affairs with the president is leading to this. This seems to be the new low in tawdriness. And, you know, it's not the same as simply representing the leader of the free world when the people are referring to him here in Washington behind his back by a new nickname. He's famous for giving nicknames. He's now known as "spanky," and that's not a good thing.

BLITZER: Yes. He tweeted last Sunday that many top lawyers and firms were standing in line wanting to represent him. You're smiling. You've been a lawyer here in Washington for a long time. Do you know of a lot of lawyers who are standing in line who are anxious to represent him?

BEN-VENISTE: No, I think the reverse has been the case. And people have said no, thank you, and I think the statement about the diGenova and Toensing having a conflict, it didn't bother them when they were named. And it seems there was a u-turn once they met with the president in person. According to "Politico," he didn't like their looks. He thought they were too low rent, and said never mind. And so they're back to Ty Cobb having lost John Dowd, I think, as a result of announcing that diGenova-Toensing (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Ty Cobb is one of the White House counsels.

BEN-VENISTE: Right.

BLITZER: Jay Sekulow is a private attorney representing the president.

BEN-VENISTE: Correct.

BLITZER: I guess he needs some more private attorneys to help Jay Sekulow. That's what he was looking for.

BEN-VENISTE: And, most importantly, he needs a captain of the ship, and he needs somebody, first of all, to come out front and explain why the president will not, after all of the promises that he would give sworn testimony to Mr. Mueller, why he will back out of that deal, which I think he will.

BLITZER: You think his lawyers -- he says he's anxious to go ahead and answer questions, although I suspect you believe most of his lawyers, qualified lawyers, will urge him not to do so.

BEN-VENISTE: Those who are not in line to be committed for malpractice given his --

BLITZER: It's that serious, really?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, given his disregard for truth in so many documented cases, how can they let him, with equanimity, give testimony under oath? I think he's backed himself into a corner. It smacks of desperation that he's trying to find counsel and has not been able to find the captain of the ship.

BLITZER: Richard Ben-Veniste, thanks for coming in.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BLITZER: The potential legal trouble for the White House doesn't stop there. The porn star, Stormy Daniels, is putting more pressure on the president by adding his attorney, Michael Cohen, to her current defamation lawsuit, all while President Trump remains uncharacteristically silent on this matter. But lawyers for Daniels and Cohen are not holding back. They had a heated exchange here on CNN last night and things got pretty personal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS' ATTORNEY: Why hasn't Michael Cohen sat down -- forget two hours, I'll take 20 minutes, how about 10 minutes -- and answered the questions? Instead, he sends you. You're not even involved in the case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Cohen just wants you to keep running your mouth, and your client running, because every time you do that, it's going to cost your client another million dollars.

AVENATTI: Your friend is a thug.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well -- well, thank you. That's a million dollars.

AVENATTI: He's a thug.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A million dollars.

AVENATTI: Wait, no, that's (INAUDIBLE) --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A million dollars.

AVENATTI: Thug! Thug! Thug! Thug! Thug!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know what, you're a thug. Anyone who would come on here --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: A lively discussion and a smile from Anderson Cooper as a result.

Let's bring in CNN legal analyst Laura Coates, who's joining us right now.

What are the chances we could see the president of the United States testify, Laura, under oath?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: In this case, it's extremely unlikely at this stage of the game. Remember, we have to still deal with the issue of whether the contract is valid, whether it will be through arbitration or through federal court. Once that's decided and you miss -- get over that first hurdle, then we'll talk more about what's happening in Summer Zervos' case where she is much more in line to have the president of the United States deposed more readily than you would in the Daniels case.

[13:10:04] BLITZER: There's another legal issue that's come up. The White House Council Office taking a look into possible ethical -- an ethical conflict involving the president's son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and his family business. Kushner's attorney, Abbe Lowell, denies any wrongdoing whatsoever, insists he's been cleared. How, though, could this play out?

COATES: Well, remember, he already had his security clearance downgraded because of potential venerability based on external funding, or foreign nations, et cetera, et cetera. And so you have yet again conflicts of interest or the hint of impropriety that's continued to plague him. You have the timing of it, both at Apollo Global and Citigroup where after his meeting with Jared Kushner, suddenly he gets these loans, at least one of which is an exponentially greater number than they normally give out. And so all of that combined to be a bit of a self-inflicted wound here. And the idea that he has these ethical violations or ethical -- handing over his head makes it all the worse for him. It continues to plague him and will continue to do so. You have a very, very odd scenario with the president's son-in-law, anti-nepotism laws are implicated here, as well as ethical violations. But, ultimately the buck will stop with the White House to actually enforce it. And that's going to be the key.

BLITZER: But he says, you know, he's severed his business relationships with the family business since coming to the White House.

COATES: He does say that, but, of course, it's timing. And, of course, both Apollo and Citigroup say that he had nothing to do with the decision to have the loans. But the timing of it is what raises the scrutiny here. That combined with the other things that Mueller's looking into as well about Kushner's affairs, about Qatar, about other things, it's all about the impression that perhaps this person is vulnerable to manipulation and that's the reason he doesn't have the security clearance.

BLITZER: Laura Coates, thanks very much.

COATES: Yes.

BLITZER: An explosive suggestion from a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice. Why Justice Stevens now says it's time for the United States to repeal the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Plus, the mystery deepens. Did Kim Jong-un secretly visit China by riding on an historic train? We have new details.

And one day after President Trump orders dozens of Russian diplomats to leave the United States, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, berating Russia and her colleagues at the United Nations at the same time. You're going to hear why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:16:19] BLITZER: The question being asked around the world today, did the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, secretly visit China? The appearance of a mysterious train in Beijing, surrounding by heavy security, has led to lots of speculation that Kim Jong-un was in Beijing for secret talks with Chinese leaders. The timing of the apparent visit comes out of a planned summit with President Trump, as well as a key meeting with the South Korean President Moon.

CNN's Matt Rivers is joining us right now.

Matt, you've been covering this story for a long time. If he were there, tell our viewers why this would be so important. MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we should point

out, Wolf, we're not sure that he's there. It could be his sister. There's a lot of circumstantial evidence, though, that says it is Kim Jong-un himself.

And so under that thought, it is highly significant. First and foremost because it's the first time since he took power in 2012 in North Korea that he's actually left the country. But the fact that he's choosing to go to China with his first trip, if he in fact went, is really significant given the timing that you just mentioned.

Remember the relationship between China and North Korea. China is the only reason why the Kim Jong-un regime can survive economically. It's its only major trading ally. And China has been upset recently over North Korea's continued nuclear development, missile development. They're not happy. So they've been signing on to sanctions and enforcing sanctions that the Trump administration has been pushing against North Korea.

And officials we speak to all the time in Beijing say that they are having an effect in North Korea. So if Kim Jong-un went to Beijing, he's likely doing so because he knows he can't afford to marginalize China any more economically or even militarily, especially ahead of these potential negotiations with the United States and with the South Koreans.

And, furthermore, Wolf, think about the optics here. Xi Jinping, the president of China, has never met with Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un would choose to meet with the American president, his mortal enemy as he's put it in the past, before meeting with the president of his ally China? That would be a huge insult to Beijing.

So to put it all together, basically what you're seeing here, I think, from North Korea is the realization that they should probably get their relationship with their key ally, both economically and militarily, on more solid ground before entering these very high- stakes, potential negotiations with the South Koreans and the United States.

Wolf.

BLITZER: And fueling a lot of the speculation, Matt, as you know, is that Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, he used to take a train like this from Pyongyang to Beijing. He would meet with Chinese leaders. They wouldn't really confirm that there were these meeting until that train was back in North Korea. I assume the train has left or is leaving fairly soon, right?

RIVERS: Yes. The reporting we're getting is that the train has left, and we won't get anything from Chinese state media, as has been protocol in the past, to confirm whether Kim Jong-un was, in fact, there until after he is back safely across the North Korean border.

But it's interesting, Wolf, you mentioned his father, Kim Jong-il. Before the first inter-Korean summit back in 2000, Kim Jong-il went to Beijing, talked things over with the leader of China at that point. And so what we could be seeing is a similar playbook being followed by his son, Kim Jong-un. He's taken North Korea in a number of different directions really with that nuclear program, but we could be seeing him following a similar set of steps that his father took the last time there were substantive negotiations around North Korea's nuclear program.

BLITZER: Yes. We'll stand by for an announcement either from China or from North Korea or from both. And that presumably will be coming fairly soon.

Matt Rivers, thanks very much for that report.

I want to bring in Dean Cheng right now. He's a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute here in Washington.

So, Dean, you're an expert on North Korea and the Korean peninsula. What do you think? Do you think that Kim Jong-un actually was on this train to Beijing?

[13:20:05] DEAN CHENG, ASIAN STUDIES CENTER, HERITAGE FOUNDATION'S DAVIS INSTITUTE: I think it's possible. As Matt Rivers noted, we actually don't have confirmation yet. For Kim Jong-un to go to China, though, I think it's important to recognize that he's probably actually trying to go in a superior, not in a subsequent position. He refused to meet Chinese representatives back in November when Xi Jinping sent a personal representative from the communist party foreign office to meet with him. The Chinese officials got nowhere.

BLITZER: The interesting thing, though, is that things have changed dramatically in the past few weeks. There's going to be a meeting with President Moon of South Korea, presumably along the demilitarized zone. And now the president of the United States has accepted this notion of a direct meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. And as Matt Rivers accurately points out, presumably the North Koreans want to meet with their big benefactor, China, before those two other summits.

CHENG: Well, China has proven itself to be an untrustworthy benefactor, if you're looking at it from the North Korean perspective. So I suspect that Kim Jong-un isn't going there hat in hand to sort of get acceptance from Xi Jinping, but rather is going there to say, I have my own independent foreign policy. I can meet with the Americans if they're now willing to meet with me. What do you willing to do to make sure that I stay far away from the Americans? Are you, Xi Jinping, willing to lift the sanctions?

I think that this is going to be -- if it was Kim Jong-un, I think that this could be a significant interesting new phase in China-North Korea relations.

BLITZER: Because it could improve the relationship, is that what you're suggesting?

CHENG: It could improve the relations. We're at --

BLITZER: At the expense of North Korea-South Korean relations, which have been improving, and the possibility of an improvement with the United States?

CHENG: That's one possibility. But the other possibility is that Kim Jong-un went over to China basically to start demanding from the Chinese side or else he will basically forge a new path with South Korea and the United States. Given the unpredictability of the outcomes of both of those summits, North Korea in some ways is actually in the controlling seat relative to China and --

BLITZER: And, very quickly, how do you feel about President Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un?

CHENG: I think that this is a very, very dangerous, high-stakes game. I certainly hope that the president is going to be listening to his key advisers on what not to offer, as well as what to offer.

BLITZER: Dean Cheng, thanks very much for coming in.

CHENG: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Lots going on.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration getting some backlash for adding a question about citizenship to census questionnaires. Why this hurts Democrats potentially politically.

Also, brand new CNN reporting about what the president's controversial CIA nominee is doing behind the scenes to answer for her role in waterboarding.

And why Mark Zuckerberg has suddenly decided, we have some new information, he will go ahead and testify before Congress over the scandal surrounding FaceBook.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:27:11] BLITZER: There's now a showdown looming over the census here in the United States. As many as 19 state attorneys general now say they are ready to fight the Trump administration over the inclusion of a single question on the upcoming census. That question, are you a U.S. citizen.

Joining us from New York is Jennifer Palmieri. She's the former White House communications director under President Obama, also presidential campaign communications director for Hillary Clinton, and now author of a brand new book "Dear Madam President."

Jennifer, congratulations on the new book. We'll get to that in a moment.

JENNIFER PALMIERI, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN: OK.

BLITZER: But a couple of other newsy questions for you first.

The census decision. What do you think is behind that, and what effect could it potentially have? PALMIERI: It's really -- it's very distressing because the census is

one of the most important tools that the government has for not just ensuring that people are represented in -- appropriately represented for in Congress, but it's also the manner in which things like welfare, food stamps, a lot of people that have these needs, a lot of the ways that services are distributed throughout the country. So if you're starting to tinker with it in this manner, which I think is to politicize it by asking if someone is a citizen, you're going to chill the impact of the census, because the census is meant to capture everyone that is living in America, whether they are citizens or not.

And it's the only way that you get an accurate count. And it's something I've been worried about. The census is something we should be paying more attention to. So it's really distressing to hear that they may be considering this.

BLITZER: The other side of the argument is, what's wrong with the American people knowing how many U.S. citizens are living in the United States, how many people are here potentially legally with green cards, with work permits and other areas. What's wrong with having that kind of specific information?

PALMIERI: Well, it's not what the census was designed to do, but I think that there's two things. One is that we know what -- we know, because of what the Trump administration's priorities have been on immigration, we know that they have a motivation to try to -- they are -- they are trying to and have successfully deported more people that I -- you know, that I would like to see to be able to, you know, preferably though comprehensive immigration reform be able to stay here legally. But also that's not what the census was designed to do. It was supposed to get an accurate count. And it's just a fact that you know if you start asking people whether or not they are citizens, you're not going to get an accurate count of who actually is here in the country. So to mess with it in that way I think is going to do -- have a damaging impact.

BLITZER: Yes, this is certainly emerging as a huge fight that is about to take place here in the United States.

PALMIERI: Yes, it's a big deal.

BLITZER: Let's get to a couple other sensitive issues. The former vice president, as you know, Joe Biden, he had some tough talk on President Trump. He repeated a line from speeches he said before that if they were both teenagers, he'd take President Trump behind the school and beat him up. The president took the bait, fired right back, that he'd be the winner in that fight.

[13:30:10] What's behind this, specifically? Is it all about 2020?