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Mueller Investigates Whether Russian Oligarchs Contributed to Trump's Campaign; Sources: Trump is a Subject of Mueller Probe; Trump Ally Boasted of Dirt on Clinton to Be Published on WikiLeaks. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 4, 2018 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Probing Russian money. In a CNN exclusive, we're learning at least two wealthy Russians have been stopped on trips to the United States as the special counsel tries to find out if they funneled cash to the campaign. We're also learning the president's lawyers believe he is the subject of the Russia probe.

[17:00:25] What Roger knew. CNN has uncovered a 2016 campaign boast by Trump confidant Roger Stone about material that would be, quote, "devastating" to the Clinton campaign. That happened on the same day he claimed to have met with the founder of WikiLeaks. What did Roger Stone know?

Border guard. President Trump is sending National Guard troops to the Mexican border, and his homeland security secretary says some could be deployed immediately. But why are there still no details on how many will be sent and for how long?

And angering China. President Trump insists he isn't -- he hasn't entered into a trade war with China, but after China matches his earlier threats with some of its own, Wall Street goes on a roller coaster ride.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. In a CNN exclusive, CNN has learned the special counsel's team has been questioning wealthy Russians, asking if they illegally channeled money into Donald Trump's presidential campaign. At least two of those Russian oligarchs have been stopped and questioned here in the United States, one after landing at a U.S. airport.

Also breaking, President Trump takes the first step to deploy National Guard troops on the Mexican border, and the homeland security secretary says they could be headed there as soon as tonight.

I'll speak with Congressman John Garamendi of the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they are all standing by with full coverage.

First, let's go straight to the breaking news. CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz and CNN's Kara Scannell, they are standing by. Shimon, first of all, what are you learning?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We've learned that Mueller and his team have really intensified their focus into the potential flow of money from Russia into the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Now, we know that investigators have recently targeted at least three oligarchs. And sources tell us that the FBI stopped one of them as he landed in his private jet at an airport in New York. They questioned him and even used search warrants to search his electronic devices.

And then investigators, we've also learned, stopped a second Russian oligarch who also recently was traveling here to the U.S. and questioned him, as well.

And Mueller has also asked a third Russian oligarch to voluntarily hand over some documents. And Wolf, some of these people who have voluntarily handed over documents, we're told, have basically had no choice in that, because some of them are doing business here in the U.S. They have been forced to cooperate with the special counsel.

BLITZER: Very interesting.

Kara, we know it's illegal for foreign nationals to give money to U.S. political campaigns. So how, potentially, could some of these Russian oligarchs get around that?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So one area under scrutiny that sources tell us Mueller's team is focusing on, is that they're looking at any investments that these oligarchs made in U.S. companies, or in think tanks that have these political action committees that then donated to the Trump campaign and to the inauguration fund.

Another area of scrutiny that we understand Mueller's team is asking questions that, are whether Russians used straw donors, or Americans who can legally donate into campaigns, to avoid there issue that prohibits Russians from donating directly into the U.S. campaign.

BLITZER: So these fraud donors, the money would be funneled to them first, and then they would make the political contributions, which would be legal from them, although the question is how did they get money?

Mueller's approach in wanting to question these Russian oligarchs, what does that say to you about his investigation right now? And this is all recent.

SCANNELL: Right. A lot of these approaches occurred in the last month, we understand. And what our sources are telling us, is that they believe that this could be sort of the wish list. Mueller's team has already reviewed documents that they have easy access to here in the U.S. because they have jurisdiction over it. But that they might be trying to get information from the Russians in the hopes that they will provide it voluntarily. Now, we also know know that a lot of these stops, at least the ones at

the airport, are relatively aggressive. And experts we've talked to say prosecutors are doing that for the element of surprise to try to catch these oligarchs off-guard, hoping they'll be more honest and truthful and also gaining access to their phones before they can wipe them clean of any potential evidence.

BLITZER: Very interesting indeed. Do we know, Shimon, if Mueller is interested in these oligarchs, potentially, as witnesses or could they down the road be charged with an actual crime?

PROKUPECZ: Certainly right now, based on Kara and my reporting, there is every belief that they are being sought for as witnesses. They want to know how some of this money was moving around. There seems to be some indication, at least towards the special counsel, as part of their investigation, that they have raised concern, whether money was being handed to U.S. citizens to donate into the campaign. Maybe the inauguration, as well.

But everything that we know right now, certainly, points to that they will be asked to come in as witnesses. But down the line, who knows what could happen if one of them lies?

The other thing that people have asked us is, while they're not U.S. citizens, the oligarchs, they don't live here, why would they have to cooperate? Why would they voluntarily come in? Or in some cases, why are they being forced to come in?

And basically, what we've been told is that a lot of them are doing business here. They have -- some of them have apartments here while they're not full-time residents, but they are doing businesses here. They're doing business in other countries. And therefore, this. If they don't cooperate with the special counsel, and potentially face charges for not cooperating, they have it would interrupt their business.

And there's no connection to the, what, 13 other Russians who have already been indicted by Mueller and his team?

PROKUPECZ: Well, there's no indication that there's any connection. But we don't know that, right? We know that Russians have been indicted. We certainly do expect that there probably will be more Russians down -- indicted down line for the DNC hack.

But in terms of these individuals that we know about, there's no indication that they're in any way linked to any of the Russians.

BLITZER: And those 13 Russians who have been indicted, they're not in the United States. They're overseas, mostly in Russia.

PROKUPECZ: And they probably will never see, you know, will never be arrested and will never see, go before a judge here in the U.S.

BLITZER: They're not about to be extradited to the United States by Putin.

All right, guys. Thanks. Excellent reporting, as usual.

On this, a day when the former Trump campaign chairman returned to court and a former Trump business associate -- associate testifies up on Capitol Hill, we're getting a better idea of what sort of jeopardy President Trump could face in the special counsel's Russia investigation.

Let's to go our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, with the very latest. What are you learning, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today the White House would not make any commitments about whether President Trump would be willing to meet behind closed doors and talk under oath to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team. This despite the president repeatedly saying in the past he'd be willing to do so.

And it comes as Trump, at this point, may not be the target of this investigation, but he's now being told he's the subject of one.


RAJU (voice-over): Tonight CNN has learned that, during negotiations last month between Robert Mueller's team and President Trump's lawyers, the special counsel said Trump is not a target of the investigation, at least for now. But the message was clear: the president is more than just a witness, as they seek to question Trump as part of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

Mueller's team also raised the prospect of drafting a report on any findings in the obstruction of justice part of the investigation. The president has denied any collusion or obstruction.

Trump also has not settled on whether or not to talk to the special counsel. The White House won't say if Trump is still committed to speak under oath to Mueller.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is working in conjunction with his legal team and making a determination. I'd refer you to them.

RAJU: Fearing a trap, Trump confidants have urged the president not to sit down for an interview. But even some Republicans say he should talk to Mueller if he has nothing to hide.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If you did not rob the bank, there's no reason for you not to sit down and talk to the FBI about the bank robbery. If you have nothing to hide, sit down. Assuming a fair prosecutor, a fair prosecutor, and I think Mueller is, sit down and tell him what you know.

RAJU: All this comes as Roger Stone, a longtime confidante of the president, is facing new scrutiny, a CNN report raising new questions about Stone's communications with WikiLeaks, which released hacked Clinton campaign e-mails during the 2016 election season.

Stone has denied having any direct talks with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but newly-uncovered audio of Stone appearing on the Info Wars radio show raises more questions that Stone's contradictory claims.

When he appeared on the radio program on August 4, 2016, Stone warned of, quote, "devastating information" from WikiLeaks about the Clinton Foundation that would soon be released. He also said he had spoken to Trump a day before.

ROGER STONE, TRUMP ASSOCIATE: The Clinton campaign narrative, that the Russians favored Donald Trump and the Russians are leaking this information, this is inoculation. Because as you said earlier, they know what is coming, and it is devastating.

Let's remember that their defense, all of the Clinton Foundation scandals has been, not "We didn't do it," has been "You have no proof. Yes, but you have no proof." Well, I think Julian Assange has that proof, and I think he's going to furnish it to the American people. RAJU: On the same day as that radio interview, Stone, according to a

source familiar with the matter, sent an e-mail to former Trump advisor Sam Nunberg, saying he had dined with Assange and mentioned it in a phone call. Stone now says that was all just in jest.

This new revelation comes as former Trump confidants continue to face scrutiny from investigators.

A former business associated Felix Sater, who was involved with the proposed Trump Tower Moscow project during the 2016 campaign, questioned today by staff on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

And Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, back in court today on his own lawsuit, saying the federal charges he now faces exceed the scope of Mueller's purview, since they allegedly occurred before the campaign. The judge has yet to rule on the Manafort lawsuit.


RAJU: Now, at the same time today, Wolf, the data firm hired by the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, has come under increased criticism over how it accessed the private data of Facebook users during the campaign season. Today the social media platform said Cambridge may have had access to the private data of 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge, and that was up from the 50 million estimated just last month. And all of this comes, Wolf, as lawmakers prepare to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he testifies before a House panel next week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, all very, very disturbing. Manu, thanks very much for that report.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, what evidence do you think the special counsel might have that would warrant the questioning of these foreign nationals as they arrive here in the United States? REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Money. It's all about the

money. It's always been, follow the money. That's where it was in Watergate. That's where it is here. That's what we're going to find out, that a lot of money was changing hands, probably coming from foreign sources. All of that is what's under investigation, and we'll see where it all leads.

Clearly, it's closing around the White House. And now the president is the subject of an investigation. Not a target. Maybe there's some difference between the two. But we used to say, "Well, it's getting close to the Oval Office." No. It's in the Oval Office now.

BLITZER: If Russians did illegally funnel money into the Trump campaign, would Americans have known about it? Could this raise the question once again of collusion?

GARAMENDI: Most definitely. If there was Russian money illegally going to the campaign through various secret accounts, or through a PAC of one sort or another, is that collusion? Absolutely that's collusion.

Your reporters very clearly laid out that the top echelon of the Trump campaign was in communication with the Russians. There's no doubt about that: the Trump Tower meeting and many other meetings took place, even in some islands off in the Indian Ocean.

So there's no doubt that there was at least communication. Does that mean collusion? Well, if money is moving from Russia into the campaign, through one mechanism, legal or illegal, yes, then that gets to be the word "collusion."

BLITZER: Does Mueller's team's informing the Trump legal team, their word that the president is not a criminal target, increase the odds that the president will eventually sit down with Mueller for questioning?

GARAMENDI: At some point, should this continue and more information bring in the president closer to this collusion, closer to knowledge about the money, at that point, the president, I believe, will have no choice. He can voluntarily sit down with Mueller and his team, or he can get a subpoena from the federal grand jury, which cannot be avoided.

BLITZER: Let's get to another sensitive issue that I know you're working on. The president, he's clearly moving forward with his plan to send National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico. What's your reaction?

GARAMENDI: Well, my reaction is been there, done that. It seems every time there's a midterm election, the president -- George W. Bush, 2006, Barack Obama, 2010, and guess what? Now Donald Trump, 2018. Midterm elections, one and all. Send the National Guard. Save us from some horrible disaster on the border. Here we go once again.

The question is, is it necessary, given the fact that Congress has substantially, over the last several years, including just two weeks ago, significantly increased the ICE program, Border Patrol, everything from drones in the sky to various technologies, as well as improving the fences, the border walls, all of that. Do we now need to have the National Guard?

Well, certainly, for political purposes, it appears that that's necessary. It was in 2006, 2010. Guess what? Another mid-term election. Apparently, necessary once again.

[17:15:10] BLITZER: Those National Guard troops, according to the homeland security secretary, could be arriving, to begin with, later tonight, as early as tonight.

Let me also get to you watch what the outgoing national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, had to say about Russia. Listen to this.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, OUTGOING NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Russia has used old and new forms of aggression to undermine our open societies and the foundations of international peace and stability.

Russia brazenly and implausibly denies its actions, and we have failed to impose sufficient costs.


BLITZER: All right. So what does it tell that you this outgoing member of the Trump White House, the national security adviser to the president, is making this admission that the U.S. has failed?

GARAMENDI: This is not news. It's news that he said it. It's been said by others. It's been perfectly clear that this president is failing in his fundamental duty of protecting the United States from the Russian aggression.

The Homeland Security Department, when commenting on -- when providing information on Russian hacking into the grids, into the power grid, into critical infrastructure, called it an act of war. Well, that's what the president is there for, to protect this nation.

And I said it before, and I'll say it again. If these facts bear out, if he refuses to hold Russia accountable, if he refuses to push back on Russia in a meaningful way, sufficient to make them stop doing these things, then he should be impeached for the simple reason of not protecting Americans from a real aggression.

The border is an issue. No doubt about it. But the real aggression here is what Russia can do to seriously harm this nation's infrastructure and, therefore, put American lives in jeopardy.

BLITZER: What is extraordinary, though, is to hear an official from the Trump acknowledge failure. This is something you would never hear from the president of the United States.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. GARAMENDI: Always, Wolf. I'll be here.

BLITZER: Up next, a longtime Trump ally boasted during the presidential campaign about material that would be devastating to Hillary Clinton's campaign on this, the same day he claimed to have dined with the WikiLeaks founder. What did Roger Stone know?

And new details emerging about Vladimir Putin's spy operations here in the United States. The U.S. expelled dozens of Russian operating under diplomatic cover. What were they up to? We're getting new information.


[17:22:17] BLITZER: Now for more on a story which broke right here first on CNN. It raises new questions about longtime Trump ally Roger Stone and his ties to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign.

It turns out that, on the same day that he sent an e-mail claiming he had dinner with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, Stone was on the Info Wars radio show, boasting that material was about to emerge that would be, quote, "devastating" to the Clinton campaign.

Let's bring in Andrew Kaczynski, the senior editor of CNN's "K File." Andrew, tell us what you've uncovered and why it's important.

ANDREW KACZYNSKI, SENIOR EDITOR, "K FILE": Right, so that's exactly what we found, Wolf. This is Roger Stone, a longtime Trump advisor, on "The Alex Jones Show." He's on there August 4, 2016. That happens to be the same day that he sent that e-mail in which he claimed to have dined with Julian Assange.

Now, in this appearance, Stone claimed that there would be devastating WikiLeaks coming up on Hillary Clinton, and he also claimed -- he also claimed that he had spoken with Donald Trump. Let's take a listen to what he said.


STONE: The Clinton campaign narrative, that the Russians favored Donald Trump, and the Russians are leaking this information, this is inoculation, because as you said earlier, they know what is coming, and it is devastating.

Let's remember that their defense, all of the Clinton Foundation scandals has been, not "We didn't do it," has been, "You have no proof. Yes, but you have no proof." Well, I think Julian Assange has that proof, and I think he's going to furnish it to the American people.


BLITZER: Andrew, what is Roger Stone saying about this?

KACZYNSKI: Well, Roger Stone is claiming that he was flying from L.A. to Miami. He actually says that in the Info Wars interview, so he couldn't have dined with Assange.

The one thing I will say that's very, very interesting about this clip, is that my team had previously reported that on August 10, that was the first time Stone had ever spoken about knowing about WikiLeaks. This pegs it a week earlier. And very coincidentally, comes right after that day in which he claimed to have dined with Assange.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Good reporting, as usual. Thank you very much. Andrew Kaczynski with the CNN "K File."

Coming up, breaking news, a CNN exclusive. At least two wealthy Russians have been stopped on recent trips to the United States as the special counsel tries to find out if they funneled cash to the Trump campaign.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


[17:29:38] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including CNN's exclusive reporting that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team has been questioning wealthy Russians here in the United States and asking if they funneled money to the Trump campaign.

Let's bring in our experts. And David Chalian, this is the first time we're learning about Mueller's interest in these Russian oligarchs, as they're called. How significant is this?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I think it's significant on two fronts. One, every time we learn something new of what Robert Mueller is looking into, it's an expansion of this overall probe. We're learning of a whole new avenue of pursuit, not a narrowing and not a coming to an end, perhaps. But we learned, oh, here's yet another avenue of pursuit. So I think that, in and of itself, is significant.

[17:30:16] But on the substance of what is being reported here, Wolf, you know foreign nationals are not allowed to donate to political campaigns. Nor, if you set up a straw donor kind of system where you're funneling money in, is that allowed to have with foreign nationals' involvement.

So this would be completely illegal for the Trump campaign to have operated in a way, if it is, to receive money from foreign nationals in any way, whatsoever, whether directly or indirectly.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, is this the type of activity the Mueller team is carrying out based on what's called open source information? Or do you think they've -- they've discovered very secretive, confidential information that, from their perspective, justifies this -- these types of questioning?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, prosecutors often start with open source material. And open source is just a fancy word for stuff in the media. I mean, the prosecutors learn from the work that we do, that there may be suspicious activity in this place or that place. But then they use the unique powers that they have. Subpoena powers to banks for financial records, for example, to see if there's proof.

But it is certainly common and appropriate to start with open source material. But I mean, the great thing about being a prosecutor, is then you have the ability to use the grand jury subpoena, whether it's for individuals or for documents, to find out whether those reports lead to any criminal -- criminal behavior.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, you're an expert on Russia. How do you think this news is being received over there? That wealthy Russian oligarchs come to the United States, they're stopped at the airport and they're questioned by law enforcement?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I'm curious to see who these oligarchs were and their names. But having said that, an oligarch is an oligarch, right? That means they have close ties with the Kremlin.

Look, this would be a setback for Vladimir Putin. That's what people have been saying from the get-go, that the best way to get him and get under Vladimir Putin's skin is to go after the oligarchs and their money.

Because remember: there is a deal that the Kremlin has with these oligarchs. They do the dirty work for the Kremlin. They get to keep their money and live a lavish lifestyle, like having businesses and spending money abroad.

Having said that, though, it's another reminder why the Trump administration and the president himself were so premature to tweet that, and state that they were in the clear and that there was no collusion when Robert Mueller reported the 13 indictments of the Russians back in February.

Because remember, it stated that there was no indication that those Russians had any involvement with Americans knowingly, that Americans were not complicit knowingly, including those in the Trump campaign. Many people said wait, that's a bit too soon to celebrate. Remember, this is just one part of the investigation going after cyber operations. This is a completely different avenue, going after money directly. So this is something that would upset Vladimir Putin.

Having said that, though, something would benefit Vladimir Putin, that would make him very happy, is news the president was thinking about, or would like to leave Syria, sooner rather than later. That is something Vladimir Putin desperately wants. That's why he's meeting with the Turks and why he was meeting with Iranians, as well. Because that is territory that he wants to control solely. And it looks like the president is willing to leave sooner than a lot of his generals are willing to do so.

BLITZER: That's absolutely true. He'd like to get out. But his generals are saying not so fast. But he says very soon. You know, Sabrina, let's talk a little bit about what's unfolding as we get this new information. We're also learning that Mueller's team has told White House -- the president's lawyers that he's more than just a witness. Not necessarily a target but a subject of this investigation. And what does that tell you?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, it could signal that the special counsel is going to follow Justice Department guidelines, under which a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. Some are interpreting it, potentially, as an effort by Robert Mueller to lure the president to sit down and testify under oath. It could be somewhere in between. We obviously are still learning more about the nature of the investigation.

But what they do know is the special counsel's increasing focus on obstruction of justice. And what they do want is to sit down with the president to learn more with the circumstances under which Michael Flynn and James Comey were fired, as well as about the White House crafting that very misleading statement about the Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016. And they have had a challenge in getting Trump to, of course, agree to the parameters of an interview. Of course, the preference of the special counsel is for it to be under oath. Trump's legal team is still arguing for perhaps more of a written format for that interview.

BLITZER: As you know, David, Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president can't be charged with a crime. So is this merely a technicality when they say he's not the target of a criminal investigation?

[17:35:05] CHALIAN: Well, it is a technicality but one with meaning behind it. But he's also not just a witness and a bystander in all of this. They still have him as some sort of subject of this inquiry that is of value to them.

But I -- I think anybody who's sort of thinking, this is somehow going to end with the sitting president of the United States being indicted, I think that would be the most unlikely and I will defer to Jeffrey but extreme ending to this entire scenario. I don't think that really was likely in the cards from the get-go here.

BLITZER: Usually, they issue a report, and they give it to the Congress, the House of Representatives, Jeffrey, and the House has to decide whether or not to go forward with impeachment, right?

TOOBIN: Right. And you know, one of the differences between Robert Mueller, who is a special counsel, and Ken Starr or Lawrence Walsh, who were independent counsels, is that a special counsel is an employee of the Department of Justice and bound by Justice Department policy in a more direct way than independent counsels. It is Justice Department policy that the president cannot be indicted.

So I think the only risk the president has is that -- is that Mueller gives information to the House of Representatives saying it might constitute an impeachable -- evidence of impeachable offenses. The odds that -- that the Mueller team seeks or obtains an indictment of Trump are overwhelming. I mean, it's just not going to happen.

GOLODRYGA: But think --

BLITZER: Go ahead.

GOLODRYGA: Think about how low the bar has gotten as to what would be constituted as good news for the president. Remember last year he fired Comey, because Comey couldn't guarantee that he wasn't under investigation.

We now know that the president of the United States is under investigation. He's not the target. He's a subject. But nonetheless. The reason why he fired his FBI director, one of the reasons was because he couldn't tell him that he was not under investigation. Now we know for sure that he is.

BLITZER: And very quickly, Jeffrey, you've got a new article in "The New Yorker" about the whole collusion angle. Tell us about that.

TOOBIN: You know, one of the great controversies about this investigation is, is collusion a crime? If the Trump campaign and the Russians work together to help the Trump campaign win the election, is that a crime? And the president himself, and many of his supporters have been very insistent that the answer is no.

Well, in a document that was just filed in the Manafort case, the -- Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, said the -- Mueller is authorized to investigate collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians in violation of U.S. law.

So in other words, the Justice Department is taking the position that collusion is a crime. It doesn't mean there is evidence that the Trump campaign did it. But I think as a legal matter, going forward, it's extremely significant that the Justice Department, which after all, is now a part of the Trump administration, is saying that collusion can be a crime if there's evidence.

BLITZER: I'll read quickly, read that one sentence. They're investigating allegations that Paul Manafort, quote, "committed a crime or crimes by colluding with the Russian government officials, with respect to the Russian governments, after -- to interfere in the 2016 election for president of the United States, in violation of United States law." That's what you're referring to, and that's potentially significant.

Everybody, stick around. There's much more news we're following right now, including more conflicting signals about whether U.S. troops will stay in Syria or pull out very soon. We're going live to Damascus.


[17:43:29] BLITZER: We're still seeing some conflicting signals on the future of U.S. troops in Syria. A senior Trump administration official tells CNN President Trump has told his national security team that, while he's willing to keep U.S. forces in Syria for a, quote, "short time", he still wants them out soon. This comes as the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran have been meeting

to discuss Syria's future.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen. He's joining us live from Damascus right now. So Fred, what's the reaction over there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think all this conflicting information that they're hearing from the United States from President Trump, saying he wants to pull out of Syria as fast as possible, whereas some others in the U.S. are saying something different, that does a lot, Wolf, to undermine America's credibility here on the ground in Syria.

You were talking about that summit between the Turks, the Russians, and the Iranians. Well, all those countries have shown a clear commitment to staying here in Syria.

And Wolf, one of the thing we have to keep in mind about all this is that as these countries are talking about the future in Syria, they're also creating a reality on the ground here. If you take the place that I am right now in Damascus, the Syrian government forces backed by the Russians have made significant gains here against rebel forces. And certainly, the U.S. has absolutely no say or influence as to what happens there.

Right now I would say, Wolf, that Russia is by far and away the most influential player here in Syria. Also, of courses, a very strong position for the Russians at those negotiations. The U.S. again not at the table there.

And then you look at the allies of the U.S. here in Syria. First and foremost, the Kurds, who are essentially America's ground forces fighting against ISIS. Well, they're getting squeezed by the Russians and the Turks right now, and a lot of them are quite angry at the U.S., because hearing from President Trump, they obviously know that he wants to get out of Syria and that they might have to make an arrangement with the Russians just to survive, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. A very disturbing development for the Kurds indeed.

Fred Pleitgen in Damascus for us. Thank you very much.

Coming up, as Vladimir Putin pushes back against the global expulsion of Russian diplomats, we're learning now a bit more about what the Russians just kicked out by the United States may actually have been doing.


[17:50:12] BLITZER: Today Russian President Vladimir Putin called for common sense to prevail and complained about what he calls the damage to international relations caused by the ongoing expulsions of Russian diplomats, provoked by last month's poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.

As part of the global response to the poisoning, the United States ordered 60 Russians to leave.

Tonight CNN's Brian Todd has more about what they were doing here in the United States.

Brian, what have you learned?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight we've got new information on the activities of those Russian operatives. We've learned from U.S. officials and intelligence veterans that many of those Russians were aggressively spying on U.S. bases and high-tech firms. And we're told Putin still got operatives in the field here in America even after those expulsions.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight CNN has learned new details about Vladimir Putin's spy operations inside the U.S. U.S. officials speaking in sobering terms about Russian operatives who were kicked out of the U.S. in retaliation for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain.

LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: These Russian officers orchestrate Russia's sustained campaign of propaganda, disinformation and political subversion.

TODD: Other U.S. officials going even further, one telling reporters that the Russians expelled from the U.S. were, quote, "aggressive collection personnel, spies, cloaked as diplomats."

America's top spy, director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, says of the Russian consulate in Seattle just shut down by the Trump administration, there were, quote, "collection opportunities there," at places like McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma and the Boeing facilities in the area.

Another senior administration official says a key reason that Russian consulate in Seattle was closed was because of its proximity to a submarine base, likely the sensitive nuclear sub-base on the Kitsap peninsula in Washington state.

Putin is quickly ramping up his Navy's submarine fleet and intelligence veterans say that U.S. base and other facilities near Seattle are a gold mine.

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF RUSSIAN OPERATIVES: The goal is for those people who have access to collect information, to steal secrets, and then pass them back to the Russians, which the Russian government will then use, you know, to advance their interests and to the detriment of ours.

TODD: Experts say the Microsoft facility near Seattle would likely have been a target for Russian spies, for cyber attacks and surveillance.

Eric O'Neill is a former FBI counterintelligence officer who helped capture Russian mole Robert Hanson. O'Neill was played by Ryan Phillippe in the 2007 spy thriller "Breach." He says one of the key missions of Russian spies in Seattle would have been to recruit people who work at those bases and high tech firms to spy for the Russians.

(On camera): What are the methods they use to recruit spies?

ERIC O'NEILL, NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGIST, CARBON BLACK: So there are a number of methods to recruit spies in the traditional sense. That means actual face-to-face recruitment. I give you money, you give me secrets. I'll blackmail you, and you'll give me secrets. The oldest way to recruit spy, a honey trap, using a beautiful man or woman to entrap somebody in a blackmail scheme.


TODD: Now the Kremlin vehemently denies any involvement in the Sergei Skripal poisoning, which was the reason those -- the U.S. expelled those Russian diplomats. Russian officials saying tonight the West is trying to portray Russia as an enemy using disinformation.

As for Russia's spying activities here in the United States, one Russian official told us that Russia has only diplomats in Seattle, which U.S. intelligence veterans tell us is an absurd claim -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Brian, you're also getting warnings about the operatives the Russians still have here in the United States, right?

TODD: Right, Wolf. A senior administration official telling us that even with the expulsions of dozens of Russians, there are more Russian spies still inside the U.S. and there could be more actions taken against them.

Eric O'Neill says the Russians very likely have sent private Russian citizens to the U.S. to pose as business people and spy, people who wouldn't even operate out of their consulates or their embassy. Those people, pretty hard to keep track of.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thank you.

Coming up, there's breaking news. In a CNN exclusive, we're learning at least two wealthy Russians have been stopped on trips to the United States as the special counsel, Robert Mueller, tries to find out if they funneled cash to the Trump campaign.


[17:58:56] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Follow the rubles. CNN has learned that the special counsel's team is stopping wealthy Russians, asking them if they gave illegal cash to the Trump campaign. This as we're also learning what the president's lawyers know about the investigation of Mr. Trump as Robert Mueller closes in.

Previewing the hack. CNN has uncovered audio of Trump ally Roger Stone boasting anti-Clinton information would be revealed by WikiLeaks before it happened. More questions tonight about Stone's links to the founder of the group that published e-mails stolen by Russia. Troops to the border. The Trump administration says National Guard

forces will deploy near Mexico immediately without offering specifics or a price tag. What's behind the sudden urgency?

And Stormy's deal maker. The porn star's former lawyer is speaking out for the first time, talking to CNN exclusively about the hush agreement he brokered and his contacts with Mr. Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen. Why is Cohen urging him to spill his guts?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.