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Trump: Mueller "Witch Hunt" "Attack on Our Country"; FBI Raids Against Michael Cohen; Grassley Reacts to Possibility of Trump Firing Mueller; As Trump Mulls Response to Syria Chemical Attack, Lawmakers at Odds on Response, Authorization; Interview with Sen. Bob Menendez; Interview with Rep. John Ratcliffe. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired April 10, 2018 - 13:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:32:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: President Trump certainly has long seen the overall Russia investigation as a personal attack on him, but now he's expressing the opinion that it's much more than just about him. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now. And actually, much more than that. You could say it was right after I won the nomination, it started. And it's a disgrace. It's, frankly, a real disgrace. It's an attack on our country in a true sense. It's an attack on what we all stand for. So when I saw this and when I heard it -- and I heard it like you did -- I said, that is really now in a whole new level of unfairness.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

Richard, what was your reaction when you heard about the raids on Michael Cohen's apartment, his home, his office, his hotel room, and then you just heard the president's blistering response.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's a response that seems more appropriate to the king of France, who said, (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANUAGE, "The state is me." This is not an attack on the United States. This is the legal process. Yes, it was an aggressive act. And I suspect that when the dust settles, the justification for the search warrant will become more clear. But this is nothing like how the president has described it. This is our legal system working.

BLITZER: He says it's a "witch hunt," "it's a disgrace," "it's an attack on the United States." Why do you think Mueller would refer at least part of the investigation to Michael Cohen, the president's lawyer, to the office of the U.S. attorney in New York?

BEN-VENISTE: You know, all this Stormy stuff started with a suspicious transaction report by the bank. After all, this was a shell company that Cohen used to make this payment --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The $130,000.

BEN-VENISTE: Very suspicious looking. So he would have had to give some explanation for it. And if that explanation was misleading or false, then he's got a separate criminal potential for an additional crime beyond all the others that have been described.

BLITZER: And they're also looking into what, if any, connection he may have had to the $150,000 payment from American Media, the parent company of the "National Enquirer," to Karen McDougall, the former playmate?

BEN-VENISTE: Yes. And Ms. McDougall said, and her lawyers have said, there was collusion between her lawyer and Mr. Cohen to arrange for that payoff, and that she wasn't really getting the true representation from her lawyer. That's a serious charge in and of itself. And so if all of this was to disguise a favor to Mr. Trump by his friend, David Pecker, then there's another potential for fraud. So the Southern District of New York is notoriously -- it's my alma mater, so I can take some pride in this. And I was head of the Official Corruption Section before I went down to Washington to work on the Watergate case.

[13:35:40] BLITZER: Let me get your quick reaction to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, reacting today when he was asked about the possibility the president could fire Robert Mueller. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY, (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I think it would be suicide for the president to fire him. I think the less the president says about this whole thing, the better off he will be. And I think that Mueller is a person of stature and respected, and I respect him. Just let the thing go forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEN-VENISTE: That is hugely important.

BLITZER: Why? Tell us why you believe that's important.

BEN-VENISTE: I testified before Senator Grassley's committee back in June, and the import of my testimony was that the Judiciary Committee needed to protect Robert Mueller against the potential for firing, just what's been discussed. And what has been reported to have been the case back in June, when the president supposedly asked his counsel, Don McGahn, to orchestrate the firing of Robert Mueller. So this is the very, very powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee speaking, saying that this would be suicide. That's a huge statement, warning the president not to do it. And, indeed, I think that is the only thing on the table that might warrant a resolution of impeachment, that is, the firing of Rosenstein and Mueller, or at least a hobbling of Mueller through various moves that the president might make.

BLITZER: Richard Ben-Veniste, thank you for coming in.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Is the president of the United States considering firing deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein? I'll speak to a Senate Democrat who, along with his colleagues, are preparing right now for that possible scenario.

Plus, we're only moments away from two major live events in Washington. The White House set to respond to the raids on Michael Cohen's office, his home, his hotel room.

And Facebook CEO Mike Zuckerberg set to be grilled by lawmakers on the massive data scandal up on Capitol Hill. We'll have live coverage.

We'll be right back.

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[13:42:19] BLITZER: Moments from now, the White House press secretary will have a briefing. She will be bombarded with questions about the raids into the office, the home and hotel room of Michael Cohen, the president's long-time personal attorney in New York. We'll have live coverage of that, so stand by.

Amid all of this, there's other critical news we're following, including what's going on in Syria. The president promised a very tough response to that suspected chemical attack in Syria. Right now, President Trump is weighing what that response will be. He said a decision would come within the next 24 hours or so.

And as the president rallies U.S. allies, meeting with his military leadership, Syria is taking direct aim at both the United States and Israel. The government of Bashar al Assad in Damascus blaming Israel for striking a Syrian air base over the weekend. Syria also denies carrying out a chemical attack, despite the very graphic, horrific images of injured and dying children.

Some lawmakers are at odds over whether President Trump should take military action against Syria right now and whether he has the authority to carry out an attack.

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is in favor of strikes against Syria. Listen to what Republican Senator Bob Corker told our Manu Raju.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BOB CORKER, (R), TENNESSEE: I think we need to take some surgical military action in Syria, yes.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What does that mean?

CORKER: What I just said.

RAJU: Airstrikes? Is that what you're talking about, surgical?

RAJU: Something for a heavy price to actually be paid, not a rhetorical price, but a real price.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, is joining us right now. He's the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, joining us from Capitol Hill.

Senator, what's your reaction to what your colleague chairman, Bob Corker, just said calling for surgical military action against Syria?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, (D), NEW JERSEY: Wolf, the problem here is that a military action, in and of itself, is not strategy as it relates to Syria. It's a one-off. We saw the president take a strike when Assad used chemical weapons previously. It did not achieve the ultimate goal, which is the end of the use of chemical weapons against Assad's own people. So the issue here is the administration has failed to have a comprehensive strategy on Syria. If we want to defeat ISIS, if we want to end the civil war, if we want to end the humanitarian disaster, we need to have a full engagement. Which means we need to have our diplomacy working, which means that the freeze the president has on Syria in terms of our aid to help the Syrian people has to be rethought, the suggestion we're going to get out right away has to be rethought, and finally, we have to get a coalition of the willing to isolate Assad's enablers, which are Russia and Iran. And our gulf partners have to think seriously. If they want to stand up for the Syrian people, they will have to stand up to Russia and Iran. So you need a much more comprehensive strategy than a single strike that hasn't stopped Assad from using chemical weapons again.

[13:45:24] BLITZER: You heard the president say last week he wants about 2,000 troops out of Syria very soon, he said. And there has been a freeze on U.S. aid to Syrians. I think it was about $200 million that have been frozen in the State Department budget. But what do you say to colleagues that say the current Authorization for the Use of Military Force would cover Syria? They point out the authorization was approved right after 9/11. Do you believe the president has the authority to launch military action against Syria in a sustained way without a new resolution being passed by the U.S. Senate?

MENENDEZ: I believe the president needs to come to the Senate for a particular Authorization for the Use of Military Force if it's going to be a sustained action against Syria. And this is why there's a great debate going on in the Foreign Relations Committee about looking at the previous Authorizations for the Use of Military Force. No one could have foreseen that they've been so broadly used as they have been today in thinking about the specifics of any given action. I don't believe -- if it will be a sustained action, the president can do that without Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. BLITZER: Let's talk, while I have you, Senator, on the raid on the

office, the home, the hotel room, of the president's personal attorney in New York, Michael Cohen. We're told Democrats are huddling on Capitol Hill right now, a possible action if the president tries to fire deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for that matter, or Robert Mueller, the special counsel. What can you tell us about the huddling going on behind the scenes?

MENENDEZ: I think there's a serious concern among us that the president may be on the verge of creating a constitutional crisis, where we have a Saturday Night Massacre where he fires the attorney general, possibly the deputy attorney general, therefore, firing the special counsel, and at the same time, creating an essence of where he takes over what is an appropriate and legitimate investigation. And what's the response of Congress, particularly the Senate, if that were to happen? I hope it doesn't, but if it were to happen, that would be, in my mind, a constitutional crisis. So our hope is that we can engage our Republican colleagues to have a bipartisan message and a bipartisan action that is very clear. First, don't do this, Mr. President. Don't create the constitutional crisis. And secondly, if you do, there has to be serious consequences. And I hope that our colleagues, if this were to happen, were to join us as patriots and not partisans.

BLITZER: You heard Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a Republican, of course, say that if the president were to fire Mueller, it would be an act of suicide, strongly urging him not to do so.

The president, though, is blasting the raids on the offices of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen. He called it, as you know, a "disgraceful situation." He says it's "an attack on our country." This morning, he says it's a "witch hunt" once again. You've had some experience with federal prosecutors, as you know. What are your thoughts about the president's very, very brutal response to what has happened?

MENENDEZ: Look, the president may not be happy with what's happening, but to say that it is an attack upon our country, when he can't invoke Russia and Putin having truly attacked our country in the cyberattack that sought to undermine our democracy and still does so today, is pretty outrageous. This is a process, whether you like it or not, in which, obviously, Mueller found information, referred it back to the deputy attorney general, who referred it to the Southern District of New York, who independently reviewed it, and then went before a federal judge and had to create a substantiated effort to try to get a subpoena and a search warrant, which they did. So that's the legal process. To say that that's an attack, that's the essence of the rule of law. If you happen to be a recipient, you may not like it, but it still has to be the essence of the rule of law. I find it outrageous that he says it's an attack upon our country, when he can't invoke the attack that Russia and Putin have created on our country in terms of the cyberattacks that have taken place, that were seeking to affect the last presidential election and that are trying to affect these elections, as we speak, moving into 2018.

[13:49:59] BLITZER: Senator Menendez, thank you so much for joining us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, I'll speak with a Republican lawmaker and ask if he joins his Republican colleagues who are now warning the president against moving against Robert Mueller.

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BLITZER: Since the new broke that the FBI raided the home, the office, the hotel room of President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in New York yesterday, members of the president's own party, they have spoken out. Several of them saying the president needs to be prudent in his next move.

Congressman John Ratcliffe is a Republican from Texas. He's a member of the Homeland Security Committee and also a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. JOHN RATCLIFFE, (R), TEXAS: You bet, Wolf. Glad to be here.

BLITZER: Several of your Republican colleagues are urging the president not to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. I'm anxious to get your thoughts. What would be your advice to the president right now at this very sensitive moment?

RATCLIFFE: The president hasn't asked for my advice, but if he did, I would not recommend firing Bob Mueller as special counsel at this point in time.

BLITZER: Tell us why. As you know, the president is deeply irritated by these moves against his long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

RATCLIFFE: It's understandable for him to be upset. If you look at it from his lens -- I'm a former prosecutor. I'm well verses at what happens at the Department of Justice. Michael Cohen is not my lawyer. The president has watched an investigation that's gone on for the better part of a year. Despite the fact that his personal lawyer has cooperated, you see this extraordinary measure taken against him. For the president to be upset, I understand that.

But notwithstanding that, I wouldn't recommend that he fire Bob Mueller as special counsel, even though I was not in favor of appointing a special counsel at that time. I think, right now, with the American people watching everything that's been happening here, Bob Mueller ought to be allowed to follow the mandate that he's been given. I wish it wasn't as broad as it is, but I think, at this point, the American people have enough confidence that Bob Mueller will deliver.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go. Do you think legislation, as some of your colleagues have suggested, is needed to protect Mueller? RATCLIFFE: I don't. The president has every right if he decides to

take action against Bob Mueller or against the attorney general or against the FBI director. Those are his constitutional rights and authorities, and every president has had that. I don't think we should institute special protections in the middle of something that's generated a lot of controversy just because it's generated a lot of controversy.

[13:55:12] BLITZER: Congressman Ratcliffe, thanks so much for joining us.

RATCLIFFE: You bet.

BLITZER: We're waiting for two big events in Washington on Capitol Hill. Mark Zuckerberg getting ready to be grilled by Senate lawmakers.

And we're also waiting for the White House press briefing. We'll get the latest reaction to the raids on President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, his apartment, his home, his office.

Much more of our live coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[13:59:56] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Jake Tapper. This is CNN special live coverage of one of the more consequential days of the Trump presidency.

We're soon going to see the first White House press briefing since the FBI executed a raid on the president's personal lawyer and long-time confidant, Michael Cohen. And there's breaking news on that front. CNN has learned that --