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China Throws Trump Curveball Ahead of Kim Meeting While Trump Makes Trade Deal with South Korea; Emoluments Case Against Trump Moves Forward; NYT: Trump's Lawyer Floated Idea of Pardon for Flynn, Manafort. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 28, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: "For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was not even a small possibility. Now there's a good chance that Kim Jong-Un will do what is right for his people and humanity. Look forward to our meeting."

So you think there is now a real possibility of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula?

ELIZABETH SHERWOOD-RANDALL, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE COORDINATOR FOR DEFENSE POLICY & WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCT & FORMER DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL ON EUROPE, NATO, EUROPEAN UNION: This is a very long game we're going to have to play. And there is maximum pressure right now on Pyongyang. So that creates a context for a possible negotiation. In addition, because the North Koreans continue to build an arsenal that now potentially threatens the United States' homeland, this is a moment for us to be interested in a conversation with the North Koreans. But there are many pitfalls. First of all, the North Koreans cheat on agreements, and we know it. Second, China, as I noted, isn't necessarily interested in America remaining in the region, and we have every reason to want to stay a major player in Asia. And third, we have little leadership that has remained in place at the Department of State, which is essential to advancing a substantive negotiation, which will be complex. And with the absence of many senior diplomats who have retired recently and a lack of a secretary of the state who's confirmed, there's reason to be concerned about a negotiation that will require great and rigorous attention to detail.

BLITZER: So that raises the question, is it a good idea for the president of the United States to be meeting in the next few weeks with the leader of North Korea?

SHERWOOD-RANDALL: Look, this is a bold move. And we're going to have to see how it plays out. What will be very important is there be care taken in what is agreed to on the spot. As I said, we know that the North Koreans have cheated before. There are two paths to a nuclear weapon. You can pursue plutonium reprocessing or uranium enrichment. In the Clinton administration, the North Koreans agreed to stop their nuclear program, stop their plutonium reprocessing, but in fact, they were secretly beginning to enrich uranium. So that's a very important thing to watch. In addition, it will be crucial for the president to avoid making any commitment to reduce the American troop presence in the republic of Korea, to stop our military exercises, or make any promises that would reduce our power and leverage in the region.

BLITZER: Well, they said they're not going to oppose the scheduled U.S./South Korean military exercises that are going on now. And they really haven't had a nuclear test or a ballistic missile test since last November. How much credit does all the tough talk from President Trump, how much credit do all the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and the earlier Obama administration, but the Trump administration specifically, how much credit do they deserve for what seems to be an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula?

SHERWOOD-RANDALL: I think that the North Koreans wanted very much to be treated with respect at the Olympics. And that happened. So that was a reason that I believe they withheld from testing ballistic missiles. Now we have a president whose said some things that are quite unusual for an American president, essentially threatening nuclear war in a way that has been not the precedent that is set by previous presidents. So he may have created so much anxiety in the region about the possibility of war that he has brought those who have previously not been willing to come to the table, to the table. But we'll have to see whether this actually bears out in a concrete agreement that advances America's and its al lies' national interests in the region.

BLITZER: We all remember the false hopes that occurred during the Clinton administration when the secretary of state, Madeline Albright, went to Pyongyang. There was great hope. Obviously, that hope disappeared relatively quickly.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, thanks for joining us.

SHERWOOD-RANDALL: Thanks so much for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Breaking news involving a lawsuit against the Trump administration alleging that foreign gifts made to the president might actually be illegal.

Let's go to the Justice Department. Our correspondent, Laura Jarrett, is standing by.

Laura, what do we know?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Wolf. A big victory for two Democratic state A.G.s, one in D.C., one in Maryland, with a federal judge now in Maryland saying this lawsuit can go through. The main issue here was a legal one. It was whether the challengers actually had standing to sue in this case. As many people have alleged that President Trump is accepting money from foreign governments, dignitaries who choose to stay at the Trump International Hotel here in Washington. The judge here today is not making a ruling on the merits, but he is saying that they've alleged enough for the suit to go through. As the Trump Organization and lawyers for Trump have said, those plaintiffs weren't harmed. The judge here disagrees.

Here's what he says in part, Wolf: "A large number of Maryland and district court residents are being affected and will continue to be affected when foreign and state governments choose to stay, host events, and dine at the hotel rather than at comparable Maryland and District of Columbia establishments."

So the whole issue was they can't compete. The judge is now saying this can go through.

I should mention, this is still in the early stages. It was a motion to dismiss, which is a relatively low bar for the plaintiffs to try to get across, but a judge in New York had already dismissed a similar suit. So this is really a first of its kind -- Wolf?

[13:35:26] BLITZER: Well, it's a significant development. We'll stay on top of it.

Laura, thanks very much.

We're getting other breaking news right now, potentially, even more significant. "The New York Times" now reporting that the president's lawyer, Michael Dowd (sic), raised the idea of Trump pardoning Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort last year. Stand by for details.


[13:40:08] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. "The New York Times" is now reporting that former Trump attorney, John Dowd, talked about pardons last year for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. Dowd, as you know, the lead attorney for President Trump, resigned last week. Manafort is facing charges. Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to the president, has pleaded guilty.

Here with us, CNN legal analyst, Michael Zeldin, and chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Let me read a couple sentences from this "New York Times" story, then we'll discuss. We're also hoping to get in touch with Jo Becker, from "The New York Times," one of the reporters whose byline is in this article.

"A lawyer for President Trump approached the idea of Mr. Trump pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael T. Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers last year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. The discussions came as the special counsel was building cases against both men, and they raise questions about whether the lawyer, John Dowd, was offering pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation."

Gloria, potentially, a very significant development.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITIAL ANALYST: Well, it is. I think that the big question -- you know, the big question is whether this could be interpreted as some form of obstruction of justice, if in fact, you're trying to pardon people who may impact the president in a negative way. I think we should also point out that at a meeting, I believe last summer, with the president and his lawyers, I believe it was the president who raised the possibility of how broad his pardoning was, right, how much he could -- and they told him you have, you know, broad discretion to pardon people. But Ty Cobb has issued a statement on the record. John Dowd told "The New York Times" on the record that he never mentioned this pardoning to Manafort's attorneys. But "The New York Times" clearly has sources which say in fact that that subject was raised.

BLITZER: And one additional sentence, Michael, from the article, "The talks suggest that Mr. Trump's lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller, in exchange for leniency. Mr. Mueller's team could investigate the prospect that Mr. Dowd made pardon offers to thwart the inquiry although legal experts are divided about whether such offers might constitute obstruction of justice."

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's right. Well, two things. One, was Dowd trying to obstruct justice independently? Was Dowd as a spokesman for the president trying to say this is what the president's doing? That would be a second obstruction. I think it's the latter we're most interested in. If the president was using his constitutional authority to pardon in a way to interfere with the investigation of Robert Mueller or to influence the testimony of prospective witnesses, that would clearly fit into the obstruction of justice constitutes, the interference with a witness testifying statutes, and would raise the prospect of abuse of office.

BLITZER: If word got to Manafort and Flynn, for example, you know what, guys, don't cooperate with Mueller because the president is thinking of giving you a pardon in any case, that could be a very, very significant development.

ZELDIN: Absolutely. And many people still are of the mind when they look at the Manafort case and the testimony that Gates can offer, and we saw in the earlier segment when Gates is told now that -- it's revealed Gates is talking to Russian intelligence officers. That's another message potentially to Manafort. They're saying to Manafort, cooperate here, cooperate here. The president was saying stand down, don't cooperate, there's a pardon coming down the road for you, maybe that's what we're seeing playing out here.


ZELDIN: That could be very obstructive.

[13:44:09] BLITZER: We're going to be speaking with Jo Becker, one of the reporters who wrote this story for "The New York Times."

We'll take a quick break. Much more on the breaking news right after this.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news. "The New York Times" now reporting that former Trump attorney, John Dowd, talked about pardons last year for both Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. Dowd resigned last week. Manafort is facing charges. Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, has pled guilty.

Once again, our legal analyst, Michael Zeldin, is with us, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. But also joining us on the phone is Jo Becker, one of the reporters breaking the story for "The New York Times."

Give us the made headline from your perspective, Jo. What have you guys learned?

JO BECKER, INVESTIGATIVE UNIT REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES (via telephone): Well, we know that a lawyer, as you said, a lawyer for Mr. Trump talked about pardons, broached the idea of pardons both Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. This happened as the special counsel's investigation was really heating up. Especially as it relates to Mr. Flynn. These discussions took place over the summer at a time when the grand jury was hearing evidence against Mr. Flynn on a range of potential crimes. Of course, Mr. Flynn ended up cutting a deal with the prosecutor. So one question is, you know, would this prevent him from cutting a deal and telling the special it would be very, very unusual for Mr. Dowd to do something like this and freelance it. But we know that Mr. Trump himself, you know, raised the idea of pardons. So, you know, I think it's, you know, very significant development.

[13:50:30] BLITZER: It is a significant development.

We're getting statements, and in "The New York Times" article you quote John Dowd as saying, "There were no discussions, as far as I know." No discussions. You quote Jay Sekulow, one of the president's private attorneys, saying, "Never have I had any pardons of any individual involved in this inquiry." And White House chief counsel, Ty Cobb, one of the White House counsel's, Ty Cobb, has given us the same statement he has given the "Times," saying, "I've only been asked about pardons by the press and have routinely responded that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at White House."

Do you see those as denials to your reporting?

BECKER: We're very, very confident in our reporting. I also think if you look at the statements that were given to us, and just given to you as well, our story doesn't say that Mr. Sekulow made those calls or Mr. Dowd made those calls -- sorry, that Mr. Cobb made those calls. It's a denial that we don't raise in the story. Mr. Dowd does deny discussing pardons but we're very, very comfortable with our reporting.

BLITZER: Jo, stand by.

Gloria, there is a flat denial from John Dowd, there were no discussions, from John Dowd, "as far as I know, no discussions."

BORGER: Right. Listening to Jo, it seems to me she has sources who understand very well that there were. The big question here is, if this it did occur, why, if it was before Flynn flipped?

(CROSSTALK) ZELDIN: Pled guilty and started to cooperate.

BORGER: Pled guilty and started to cooperate. It seems to me, to raise the question we talked about before, that the legitimate question that gets raised now is were -- was the president's lawyer -- and did he do it on his own, even though he says he didn't do it, did he do it on his own and was he trying to avoid a situation in which Flynn was cooperating? Because that would not be good for his own client.

BLITZER: I'm anxious to get your thoughts. When John Dowd says there were no discussions, period, "The New York Times" says, we have plenty of sources saying there were discussions, so something is going on.

ZELDIN: Something is going on. Of course, the thing that is important to remember is that even if this were true and pardons were offered and accepted, Mueller could still make these people testify. They could still be forced to testify and give evidence in front of grand jury and not be charged with a crime except lying. Then, the secondary pardon of lying, which seems untenable. I think it's a failing idea but that doesn't mean it wasn't contemplated. We saw the Sheriff Arpaio pardon, that was unacceptable in many people's eyes. Maybe the thought was if I do this, what are the consequences? It could be just that, there were feelers were put out to see how would this play out.

BLITZER: Gloria, remind us, there were reports the president had thought about pardons. We don't know if he actually did anything about it.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: But it was under consideration.

BORGER: Right. And this is also reported in the "Times" piece today. There was a meeting at which the president was asking about pardons and the extent to which he could pardon people. And I was told at the time that it was kind of an informational session, that there were a list of options open to the president vis-a-vis what he could do, and that pardoning was something on the list. You hear Ty Cobb say again today this was nothing that was seriously discussed other than in a Q&A discussion with the president where his options were being laid out. This story, however, puts that in an entirely different light.

By the way, we don't know, as Jo Becker was pointing out, if there was freelancing go ping on here or the president knew about it or didn't know about it.

BLITZER: There's nothing wrong with the president asking his legal team, let's talk about pardons.



BLITZER: The president has every right to do that. BORGER: Sure.

ZELDIN: That's exactly what he should be doing, asking his legal counsel, what are the parameters of my issuing a pardon. I think there's nothing wrong with that. If, however, his contemplation was so that I can interfere with, that's where it becomes problematic. We don't have evidence of that. That's what would be --


[13:55:19] BLITZER: Presumably, Mueller and his team are looking into that, right?

ZELDIN: That would change it from an appropriate conversation with your advisers to an inappropriate attempt to interfere with a federal investigation.

BLITZER: It's a complicated situation but a very significant development right now.

ZELDIN: No question.

BLITZER: Much more on this coming up.

Guys, thanks very much.

We'll continue to follow, of course, the breaking news, a topic that's likely to dominate today's White House press briefing, set to begin, we're told, fairly soon. Supposed to begin right at the top of the hour. We'll see if it does.

Much more of our special coverage right after this.