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Trump Taunts Russia; Trump Blasts Mueller; Russia Hits Back at Trump; Trump Considers Firing Rosenstein; Trump Unhappy over Raid; Ryan not Seeking Re-election. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired April 11, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 6:00 p.m. in London, 8:00 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Get ready, Russia, the missiles are coming. That taunting message from the president of the United States as he teases a military strike for the alleged chemical attack in Syria. Now Russia is responding.

Plus, as CNN reports, the president may fire his deputy attorney general, the one in charge of Robert Mueller's investigation. President Trump going off on the special counsel and calling the probe, quote, "fake and corrupt."

And the Republican speaker of the House announces he's done. Why Paul Ryan will not seek re-election and what happens to the president and his party from here?

All that coming up.

But let's start with President Donald Trump lashing out bitterly over Russia, the investigation, and the country. On one hand, the president has seemed to hit the tipping point with the Justice Department and the Russia investigation and could be on the cusp of firing any or all of the following, the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and his Deputy Rod Rosenstein. But on the other hand, the president is launching threats directly at Russia over Syria, saying the missiles are coming. His tweet, quote, get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new, and smart."

Let's go to our White House reporter Kaitlan Collins. She's joining us from the North Lawn.

Kaitlan, the president taking these swipes at the Russia investigation, the Democrats, Russia on Twitter today, all of this unfolding. What are you hearing today, right now, about the president? What is he thinking?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, despite the president saying in the past that he wasn't going to telegraph any moves he was going to make with the military, he seems to be doing just that on Twitter with that explicit statement saying, get ready, Russia, that missiles are coming for Syria. And that's remarkable because this was a president who mocked and criticized his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for showing his hand too much and telegraphing what moves he was going to make, particularly ones in the Middle East.

But it's not just that, Wolf. The president is also intertwining this with the Russia investigation because later on, on Twitter, he then blamed the bad relations with -- between the U.S. and Russia on the special counsel, Robert Mueller. So the president has really been all over the place on Twitter this morning.

But as far as these strikes go, the defense secretary, James Mattis, was asked about that. He said they're still assessing intelligence and that they stand ready to provide military options to the president. And I am told by a source inside the White House that Defense Secretary James Mattis will be meeting here at the White House today. It's unclear if that's exactly with the president or just in general with other military commanders here at the White House. But the president seems to be very clear on what his next move with Syria here is right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: What about, Kaitlan, the new attacks on the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is looking into the whole Russia probe?

COLLINS: Yes, the president has been very vocal this week about Robert Mueller, calling him out by name specifically on Twitter this morning. That comes in light of that dinner that the president had with those senior military leaders the other night where he was supposed to be focusing on what they are going to do with Syria, but instead, when the cameras came in the room, the president really unloaded on the special counsel, saying it was a disgrace and an attack on the country. So we're really seeing the president's criticism become quite public. Something that has not -- we have not seen in the past. But what, overall, this is showing is just how much the Russia investigation is consuming the president at a time when he is making a very critical decision on Syria here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins over at the White House. Thanks. Lots going on.

Russia, meanwhile, responded within minutes of the president's tweets. Quote, smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not the legal government that has been fighting international terrorism for several years on its territory. That's the Russian statement from the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman.

Let's go to the only western journalist in Damascus right now, our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, who's joining us live.

Fred, how has Syria responded to all this heightened rhetoric and all these threats?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, they certainly seem to have gotten the message, Wolf. Some of the things that we're hearing from monitoring groups that apparently the Syrian military is moving around some of its assets, including planes being moved away from airfields. Obviously in anticipation of possible U.S. strikes on those airfields.

We ourselves, of course, have also seen military convoys here in the Damascus area, seemingly more than usual, although it's unclear whether or not that's exactly related to the president's threats. But it certainly seems as though the Syrian government has heard those.

They have also responded, Wolf, calling the president's rhetoric reckless and saying that it's something that's a threat to international peace and stability, as they put it. And, of course, Wolf, as you noted, the Russians have reacted, as well. On the one hand, of course, issuing those counter threats. Also saying that they will not engage in what they call Twitter diplomacy.

[13:05:01] But, Wolf, the Russians have not only said that they would shoot down missiles that were shot at Syria, they also said they would target any bases that those missiles were fired from. Of course, that's a pretty big threat to possible U.S. ships in the Mediterranean and even U.S. planes, as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, a year ago when the U.S. launched those tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian target, they were launched from the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, went over there and did its -- did the damage that it did do.

You've reported, Fred, from Syria a number of times over the years. You've traveled with Russian troops. Tell us about the Russian presence right now in Syria. How -- and how President Trump's tweets could have potentially very deadly consequences.

PLEITGEN: Well, they certainly could. I mean Russia is now, of course, very much aware of what the president apparently plans to do. Him talking about missiles. But especially talking about missiles that are smart. Of course, possibly telegraphing what kind of weapons the U.S. might use.

But, Wolf, also the Russians -- and you're right, I've been here on the ground with them several times. They have a lot more military hardware and personnel in this country and around this country than many people know. They obviously have their big airfield in Latakia (ph), around Latakia. It has about 50 planes on it. But you also have the port in Tartuse (ph).

But I was also on a Russian destroyer in the Mediterranean just a couple of months ago and then all of a sudden several Russian submarines turned up and started fired cruise missiles back then at ISIS positions.

We also know that in the past couple of months, the Russians deployed at least two of their new fifth generation stealth fighter jets to the (INAUDIBLE) air base here in Syria. It's unclear whether that's for battlefield testing or whether those jets are combat ready just yet.

And, of course, Wolf, we also have to keep in mind that the Russians, of course, have their newest air defense systems here in country as well. It's interesting, the Russians have a lot more hardware on the ground, and they usually also put their newest gear on the ground here in Syria, as well.


BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen doing terrific reporting for us from inside Syria.

Fred, thanks very much.

Let's remember that it was almost exactly one year ago that President Trump ordered the launch of those tomahawk cruise missiles in Syria as a response to a reported chemical attack on civilians in Syria. It was 59 tomahawk cruise missiles to be precise.

Here with us right now is William Cohen, the former secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton.

Thanks so much, Mr. Secretary, for joining us.

What do you think of these warnings, these direct threats this morning on Twitter from President Trump?

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I have a problem with both the medium and the message. The medium being Twitter. This is no way to conduct either diplomacy or certainly exercising military strategy. To alert the Russians and the Syrians that you're coming, it was good enough the other day when he said, we'll respond. And we'll do that at a time -- he didn't say of our choosing, but the implication was we'll respond.

There should be a military component to the response. This shouldn't be only military. And, by the way, it shouldn't be just the United States. This is the danger now by having this Twitter exchange that it looks like it's the United States against Russia. It's not the U.S. against Russia, it's the world community against Syria, supported by Russia. So we don't want to make it just a U.S. standoff against the Russians.

BLITZER: And it's not just Russia inside Syria. A potential (INAUDIBLE) -- Iran has a significant presence there. Hezbollah forces from Lebanon, backed by Iran, they have a significant presence there. You shoot a lot of missiles at various targets, military targets in Syria, you could wind up killing a lot of various groups.

COHEN: Indeed. As a matter of fact, we'll probably have to shoot more missiles than were done the last time, 59 as you pointed out, because the president, if he's just trying to take out an airfield, we saw that was symbolic but not really serious. So if he's talking about a serious response, it's going to be much more expansive than the -- than last year.

BLITZER: He said get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and smart.

But, you know, in the past, he has said, it's a blunder, it's a mistake to telegraph what the U.S. is going to do militarily. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, one of the things I think you've noticed about me is, militarily, I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing.

I'm not saying I'm doing anything one way or the other.

I don't want to telegraph what I'm doing or what I'm thinking. I'm not like other administrations where they say, we're going to do this in four weeks. And that -- it doesn't work that way.

I don't want to be one of these guys that say, yes, here's what we're going to do. I don't have to do that.


BLITZER: And he tweeted back in 2013 when a similar crisis was facing then President Obama. He tweeted this about President Obama supposedly telegraphing action. Why do we keep broadcasting when we are going to attack Syria? Why can't we just be quiet and if we attack at all catch them by surprise.

Another tweet, who are our generals that are allowing this fiasco to happen right before our very eyes? Call it the plenty of notice war.

So why do you think there's this dramatic 180 degree change now when he's doing precisely what he condemned generals and President Obama for doing back in 2013?

[13:10:08] COHEN: I think we have to assume that Secretary Mattis had no warning of this tweet that was released by the president. And I think had he known it was going to take place, he would have tried to dissuade him from doing it.

It compromises the mission somewhat. Again, there's no specific when it's going to take place. But now it's mono to mono. Now it's going to be, are the Russians going to back down, or the U.S. going to back down? Rather than carrying out a message saying, we're going to take out some military action.

But it's broader. We're going to have economic sanctions against the Russians, against the Syrians, against the Iranians, to hurt them in their bank accounts as well as on the ground militarily. But I think the way it's being conducted now, you're really ratcheting it up to a point where it's going to be my button is bigger that your button, as we said -- as he said during the confrontation with the North Korean president. Now you're talking about a president who has the capacity to reach the United States at any time.

BLITZER: You're talking about President Putin?

COHEN: I'm talking about President Putin.

So this is a -- this is dangerous. And I think we have to somehow tamp it down but still carry out the mission, because the -- the Syrians have to be punished by this.

And the reason we're looking at military options, as opposed to diplomacy, is because the Russians have blocked every attempt to hold the Assad regime responsible for past chemical attacks.

BLITZER: Because they have veto power at the U.N. Security Council. The Russians and the Syrians, they're warning against what they call thoughtless escalation. What response would you anticipate from the Russians, specifically the Russians, if the U.S. were to launch smart missiles, as the president is now signaling, tomahawk cruise missiles, other sophisticated missiles, at various military targets associated with the Bashar al Assad regime?

COHEN: Well, there are two problems involved with this. Number one, can our missiles actually reach Syrian territory and evade the S-400 anti-missile system that the Russians have deployed, number one. But if we are successful, we have to anticipate what the Russians will respond, how they will respond. So I would suspect that Secretary Mattis is looking at all the contingents here. What happens if we do this? What are the responses? What is the escalation that's likely to take place? How do we tamp it down? That's all being discussed or should be discussed today and into the future.

BLITZER: Yes. As everyone knows, it's a lot easier to get involved in a military action than to get out of a military action. Everybody has learned that over the years.

Secretary Cohen, thanks very much for joining us.

COHEN: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Coming up, there are major developments in the Russia probe. Sources now tell CNN, the president might actually fire the deputy attorney general of the United States, Rod Rosenstein, as his way of eventually getting rid of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as well.

Plus, a power shift in the U.S. Congress. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, announcing just a little while ago he will not be running for re-election in November. So what's behind the decision?

And, later, speaking out. Former FBI Director James Comey reportedly comparing President Trump to a mob boss in a new interview. We have details.


[13:17:16] BLITZER: President Trump's effort to rein in the Russia investigation here in Washington may have reached a tipping point. Multiple sources are now saying the president is considering firing the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. The president is outraged over the raid on the office and home of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and is weighing his options.

CNN legal analyst Carrie Cordero is joining us right now.

So, Carrie, what happen if the president does fire Rosenstein? Walk us through what might happen next.


Well, I've come around to the view that firing Rod Rosenstein really -- he has really become sort of the linchpin holding together the integrity of the special counsel's investigation and insulating it from political process. If he fires him, really that raises the question of who then becomes the deputy attorney general? The most likely choice is that it would be someone who has already been confirmed by the Senate.

One possible choice is the acting -- the current solicitor general, Noel Francisco. There are other individuals. For example recently the assistant attorney general for national security was Senate confirmed, although he just arrived at the Justice Department. So I think the most likely choice is that there's somebody who has already been confirmed by the Senate, as opposed to an outside choice from outside the department.

But whoever takes on that role, because Attorney General Sessions is recused from overseeing the special counsel's investigation, would likely become the deputy attorney general and would take over supervision and oversight of the special counsel's investigation.

BLITZER: Very interesting.

The president very furious we're told over the raid that occurred on Michael Cohen, his personal attorney's office and home and hotel room in New York. What is the president's behavior suggest to prosecutors?

CORDERO: You know, his behavior after this particular raid, including his tweets, his public statements, really has been consistent regarding his dislike for this investigation throughout the course of the year and his desire for the investigation to end. So what that raises as far as the question for prosecutors is, why? Why does the president want this investigation to go away so badly? Granted, one can understand from a political perspective why it would be a distraction for policy objectives. But his singular focus and efforts to go after investigators in terms of his verbal attacks, go after investigators, go after leaders of the Justice Department really does call into question, I would think for prosecutors, what it is that he is so concerned about investigators finding.

BLITZER: And if the president were to fire the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees this whole Russia probe, what would that do, if anything, adding to concerns for prosecutors about presidential obstruction of justice?

CORDERO: Sure. So we think, we don't know for fact, but we think that the special counsel is looking at obstruction as one piece of his overall investigation. And my view has been is that if there's an obstruction case to be made, it would be looking at a pattern of activity over the course of the last year, not necessarily one specific act. And part of that obstruction is, to paraphrase the statute, trying to influence or attempt to influence or obstruct an ongoing proceeding. And with some kind of intent or corrupt intent, corruptly is really the word in the statute. And so the question is, is, would firing Rod Rosenstein be interpreted by investigators to be another angle of trying to obstruct this overall investigation? If, in fact, that's his purpose in firing him, if he does it.

[13:20:47] BLITZER: Carrie, thanks very much for that excellent analysis. Appreciate it very much.

Coming up, giving his notice. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, says he's given the job everything he has and won't be seeking re-election. So what could that mean for the Republican Party going forward?

Plus, sounding the alarm. A top Republican says it would be suicide if the president were to fire Robert Mueller. But is the GOP doing enough to protect the special counsel? Our panel is standing by to weigh in.


[13:25:25] BLITZER: The House speaker, Paul Ryan, greeting reporters up on Capitol Hill with a rather large smile today as news breaks he will not, repeat not, seek re-election. Instead, he will retire in January.

Ryan is now one of 41 House Republicans to announce that they're leaving Washington. But he says the decision has nothing to do with President Trump or a predicted Democratic wave in November.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: This really was two things. I have accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids aren't getting any younger. And if I say, they're only going to know me as a weekend dad. And that's just something I consciously can't do. And that's really it right there.

QUESTION: To what extent was your decision influenced by the way President Trump has changed the character of Washington and the character of the Republican Party (ph)?

RYAN: None at all. Like I said, I'm grateful to the president for giving us this opportunity to do big things to get this country on the right track. So the fact that he gave us this ability to get all this stuff done makes me proud of the accomplishments that I've been a contributor to.


BLITZER: I want to bring in our CNN political director David Chalian.

David, you've been -- you and our team are taking a very close look at the races that are coming up in November and it looks like, at least some of the early projections, there could be a Democratic slew of wins.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. So we're always assessing the current landscape, Wolf. And with Paul Ryan's big news announcement this morning, we are making changes to ratings in about seven races, including Paul Ryan's district. By him retiring, Wisconsin's first congressional district becomes more competitive for the Democrats. In each of these cases, seven races we're now moving a step more competitive for the Democrats.

Take a look at the landscape here of the U.S. House. You see now we have 21 toss-up races. But take a look at the lean and likely Republican seats. These lean and/or likely Republican, but they've been moving from solid to that category as the Democratic enthusiasm continues to show itself.

The Democrats only have 11 seats that lean their way or likely their way. Much bigger, competitive universe in those red and pink seats than you see in the blue seats. So much of this House battle is fighting out on Republican turf. They are on defense. And Paul Ryan's retirement, along with another retirement that we got today in Florida, these are districts now that were likely Republican or solidly Republican. Now they lean Republican. They're getting more competitive for the Democrats.

BLITZER: And usually, after the first two years of a new administration, the party in opposition does really well in these midterm elections.

CHALIAN: They do. We have seen that throughout history. Take a look at what happened in 2010 when the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for Barack Obama's first year midterm election. Bill Clinton's first year midterms in '94, the same thing. His party lost control of the House of Representatives.

So Republicans already know they were facing a ton of headwind. That's why this is such a blow, right? The leader of the Republicans on Capitol Hill, at the time where it's really getting tough out there for Republicans, I would say it's probably the toughest electoral landscape that Republicans have faced in more than a decade in American politics. And now the leader of the Republicans on Capitol Hill says he's calling it quits.

BLITZER: And if the Democrats are the majority in the House of Representatives, that would have enormous implications for President Trump.

CHALIAN: Without a doubt.

BLITZER: David, thanks very much for that.

More news coming up.

The speaker, by the way, will be joining Jake Tapper later this afternoon on "The Lead" at 4:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

And this just coming into CNN, new video of the president's long-time attorney Michael Cohen heading into his apartment in New York, dodging reporters' questions, as we learn new details about an FBI raid on his hotel room and office. There you see the scrum around Michael Cohen.

And coming up, President Trump's next target, with the future of his deputy attorney general now in serious question, all eyes turn to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the president's next move. We'll have details.

And the fired FBI chief, Jim Comey, reportedly likening the president of the United States to a mob boss. We have details.