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Trump on Iran's Nuke Program; Trump Threatens to Pull Credentials; Haspel's Confirmation Hearing; Russian Paid Cohen; North Korea Frees Americans. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired May 9, 2018 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:07] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in New York, 8:00 p.m. in Riyadh, 9:00 a.m. Thursday in Pyongyang. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Up first, President Trump strikes a hopeful tone on North Korea and issues a warning to Iran. The president addressing his two most pressing foreign policy challenges at the cabinet meeting over at the White House just a little while ago. He applauded the release of three Americans held by North Korea. He also says the location of his summit with Kim Jong-un will be announced within the next three days and he also says it will not, repeat not, be in the demilitarized zone. Whatever the location, the president says he's optimistic about the meeting.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of things can happen. A lot of good things can happen. A lot of bad things can happen. I believe that we have -- both sides want to negotiate a deal. I think it's going to be a very successful deal. I think we have a really good shot at making it successful, but lots of things can happen.


BLITZER: The president was also asked what happens if Iran restarts its nuclear program now that the U.S. has pulled out of the agreement with Tehran. Here's what the president said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran will find out. They're going to find out. I don't think they should do that. I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program. I would advise them very strongly. If they do, there will be very severe consequence.


BLITZER: Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us now from the White House. Jim, strong words, once again, from the president.


BLITZER: But does he have a plan b when it comes to Iran after withdrawing from the nuclear deal?

ACOSTA: It doesn't sound like it, Wolf. And we've heard from our senior diplomatic sources overseas that they're concerned that the president, that the White House does not have a plan b when it comes to dealing with Iran and what would happen, for example, if Tehran were to restart its nuclear program. You heard the president there saying at that cabinet meeting that they would be met with some severe consequences.

Of course, the president also talked about fire and fury in the context of the North Korean nuclear program last year. And now the president is heading towards it appears an upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un and these prisoners that were being held by North Korea, these American detainees, on their way back to the U.S. The president tweeting this morning that he's going to be out there at Joint Base Andrews in the middle of the night tomorrow to greet them.

So he is obviously delivering some mixed messages in all of this. But this is what a lot of critics were talking about as the president was unraveling this Iran nuclear agreement, which is that while at the same time he's trying to enter into discussions with Kim Jong-un, he is scrapping the Iran nuclear deal. The critics, Chuck Schumer being the -- one of the first among them, the Senate minority leader, saying that this may weaken the president's hand going into North Korea if the North Koreans can't count on these commitments from the U.S. lasting from one administration to the next.

BLITZER: On another subject today, Jim, the president admitted that his idea of so-called fake news is any news that doesn't reflect positively on him. He tweeted this, and let me read it.

ACOSTA: Right.

BLITZER: The fake news is working overtime. Just reported that despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy and all things else, 91 percent of the network news about me is negative, fake. Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt -- it is corrupt. Take away credentials? That's a quote from the president.

So to him, fake news means negative news. What's been the reaction?

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. And we've known that all along that he conflates fake news with stories that he doesn't like. And, by the way, Wolf, I still have my credentials with me. I just swiped them coming into the White House a few moments ago. They worked just fine.

Some of these are empty threats, Wolf. We've heard these not only from the president, but from the Trump campaign manager in recent weeks.

We can tell you, Wolf, that the White House Correspondents Association president, Margaret Talev, who is also one of our contributors, she just put out a statement a few moments ago saying that a president preventing a free and independent press from covering the workings of our republic would be an unconscionable assault on our First Amendment. So the White House Correspondents Association with a pretty robust statement there.

But, Wolf, keep in mind, and you and I both know this from covering the White House for years now, when the president takes the oath of office on Inauguration Day, he is taking an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment is in the Constitution of the United States. So when the president threatens to go after the news media and revoke their credentials and calling us all sorts of names, he really is sort of undermining an oath he took in front of the American people.


BLITZER: Yes, an excellent point indeed.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much. Glad you still have your credentials over there.

ACOSTA: They work.

BLITZER: A public interrogation today for the woman picked by President Trump to lead the CIA. Gina Haspel grilled today about her thoughts on torture and on the CIA's past use of advanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

[13:05:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINA HASPEL, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: I think we did extraordinary work. To me the tragedy is that the controversy surrounding the interrogation program, which I've -- as I already indicated to Senator Warner, I fully understand that. But it has cast a shadow over what has been a major contribution to protecting this country.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Should the CIA even be in the business of interrogating detainees?

HASPEL: Having access, direct access to a terrorist is extremely valuable for intelligence collection, and we do that. But CIA does not today conduct interrogations. We never did historically. And we're not getting back in that business.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would you do if the president ordered you to get back in that business?

HASPEL: Senator, the president has selected me to give him advice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's he doesn't --

HASPEL: I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA, under any circumstances.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, Gina Haspel, she was also asked several times if she would refuse an order by the president based on moral grounds. What was the key focus of today's public hearing?

MANU RAJU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that was one of them, because, of course, as we know that President Trump has said that waterboarding works. He's expressed support for torture. This is something that she suggested that she would not necessarily go along with if the president were to make such a declaration now. However, her answer did not satisfy Democrats and the committee who wanted to hear whether or not she viewed the past waterboarding techniques that the CIA undertook post 9/11, whether those were immoral, and she would not get pinned down on that, other than saying that this is not -- she would follow the law as it stands now, that would outlaw waterboarding.

Now, Wolf, there was a big focus also on the 2005 controversy that occurred when she -- when there was a destruction by the CIA of interrogation tapes at that time that prompted a special prosecute to investigate the matter. She said that she was not the one who ordered this. She said it was ordered by her superior. The superior then sent a cable that she wrote to field officers to carry out the destruction of the tape without getting the signoff from the CIA director at the time, essentially washing her hands of that episode by saying it wasn't her decision, it was her superior's decision.

Now, Wolf, there is a classified report that was written by the special prosecutor at the time about that episode, about the destruction of tapes known as the Durham report. That report goes into more detail. There's a push to declassify that report and there's a push to give the Senate broader access to this.

Now, I asked Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat in the Senate Intelligence Committee, whether her comments were in line with what he has seen behind closed doors.


RAJU: Did she give an accurate assessment of her role in the destruction of the videotapes in 2005 based on what you have seen? Is it consistent with what you have seen?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VICE CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, that's one of the reasons why I got (ph) clarifying questions that I hope to get answered this afternoon. She has served our nation for 33 years. This is a very different role than someone who's been under cover for 30 of those years. But she has to make the case, not only to me, but I think to other members and, for that matter, to earn the public's trust, and more clarity would be helpful.


RAJU: Now, Warner would not say, Wolf, that he would support this nominee. But one Democratic senator on that committee, Joe Manchin, who's in a tough re-election race, told me that she had a great hearing, signaling that he could provide her a decisive vote, ultimately getting the votes on the floor. That's why Republicans right now feel confident that ultimately she will get confirmed as the next CIA director, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll if other Democrats do the same thing.

Thanks very much, Manu Raju, up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. He's a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Let me get right to Gina Haspel, the CIA director nominee. Faced lots of questions on interrogation techniques during the confirmation hearing today, as you just heard. She led what was described as a CIA black site in Thailand that used some of those techniques, like waterboarding. She says she was following the law at the time, and this is in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But doesn't think the CIA should be in that business any more.

Do you think she allayed any fears that may exist about her nomination? What was your reaction? And you served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: So I hope she allayed some fears. I thought it was a good answer. I mean the reality is, is right after 9/11 we were in a point where we didn't know what was coming next. The unthinkable had just happened. And we needed some information. And so we turned, at the time, to what we thought was the right thing in extreme circumstances, and that's enhanced interrogation techniques. So there's a lot of people that were not sinless, if you call that a sin. I still happen to believe it should be a tool in our arsenal in extreme circumstances.

But that said, she made it very clear to the senators that she doesn't believe the CIA should be in the business of interrogation. And so they either have to believe she was lying or they have to take her at her word. And if you take her at her word, and I do because I trust her and I think she's going to be really good, then hopefully those fears were allied today.

[13:10:14] BLITZER: Do you remember this? During the 2016 presidential campaign, then candidate Donald Trump said this about the use of torture. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Torture works, OK, folks? Torture -- you know, half these guys, torture doesn't work. Believe me, it works, OK? And waterboarding is your minor form. Some people say it's not actually torture. Let's assume it is. But they ask me the question, what do you think of waterboarding, absolutely fine. But we should go much stronger than waterboarding. That's the way I feel. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So Gina Haspel, she said today that she doesn't think torture really works. But you say it should be a tool, am I right about that?

KINZINGER: I think it should be -- I don't think it's something we need to use, but I think basically to have it in the arsenal in extreme circumstances.

Now, I agree with what the president later said, if you would play that soundbyte, with where he said he talked to General Mattis and General Mattis convinced him that actually in many cases it's a cigarette and a beer that does more to break people, and I've experienced that in my own training. That is sometimes the most effective tool of interrogation.

So, look, we have a lot of things we have to do to protect our country. You know, the president or the CIA director, the potential CIA director said she would not institute any kind of interrogation in the CIA. That's great. I think people need to take her at her word and, frankly, give the president some deference in terms of who you're going to appoint, as I think we should always do.

BLITZER: You support the president's decision to get out of the Iran nuclear deal. But you also are calling on the Trump administration to deliver a comprehensive plan to replace it. Why wasn't that plan in place already when the president made his announcement yesterday?

KINZINGER: Well, I think there is. And, you know, if you look at the memo that came out from the State Department that the president signed, there's a plan on how to extract ourselves from this agreement that takes, you know, in some cases up to 180 days. We're going to work with our allies to make sure that they understand both corporations in the United States and out of the United States, what they have to do, what would violate these sanctions and this agreement.

And then I think the ultimate goal here is, and this is -- actually I'm convinced this is the ultimate goal, is we gave up a lot of tools just for a nuclear agreement. The problem is, those tools also need to be used to do -- do moderate the broader behavior of Iran around the world. There's a half a million dead Syrians right now that are partially in where they are in the ground because, frankly, they were enabled by the Russians and Iran. That's behavior we have to push back against. And I think basically bringing these tools back out and saying let's renegotiate but let's do it on your broader behavior is effectively and hopefully will work. And it's, you know, look, diplomacy is an art, it's not a science.

BLITZER: But you don't blame the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, for those deaths?

KINZINGER: Oh, of course I do. Yes, absolutely, I blame him, I blame the Russians and I blame the Iranians. They're all working together to kill half a million Syrians, destabilize an entire region. And Iran, by the way, we're getting indications that they're preparing to attack our ally, Israel. So there's no sinless in that kind of triad of terrible people and terrible regimes.

BLITZER: Congressman Kinzinger, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

KINZINGER: You bet. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: The special counsel investigating the Russia probe wants answers as to why Michael Cohen, the president's long-time personal lawyer, was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by a company linked to a Putin ally and how it all ties back to the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels. It's a CNN exclusive. We have new details. That's next.


[13:17:41] BLITZER: It's a CNN exclusive. The special counsel, Robert Mueller's team of investigators, they've questioned a Russian oligarch, a billionaire, who paid $500,000 to President Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen around the time of President Trump's inauguration. The payment to Cohen was revealed by the attorney representing Stormy Daniels. Daniels' attorney says the $500,000 went into the same account that was used to pay off his client. And this isn't all Daniels' attorney says. He also claims that at least three other companies have poured money into Cohen's account since the election, totaling more than $1 million.

Our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, helped break the story for us.

Shimon, explain the connection between this Russian businessman, this oligarch, and these payments to Cohen.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, that's right. First, Wolf, it's probably best to start with Viktor Vekselberg, who is a Russian oligarch, who was sanctioned by the U.S. government for election interference.

He has links to Renova Group, which is a New York company. It's an investment firm. That company, Columbus Nova, which is based in New York, gave money, some $500,000, in a deal with Michael Cohen for -- it was a business deal. They gave money to Michael Cohen. This was first revealed by Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' attorney, and has since been confirmed by Columbus Nova. They say that they had a business dealing with him, and that was the extent of it.

And now the next thing is, really to understand why this matters, Wolf, well that's because of Viktor Vekselberg. He's a Russian oligarch who has ties to Putin, has close ties to Putin. He's the chairman of an asset management group called Renova Group. And this is a group that has a link to this New York group, Columbus Nova, that wound up paying Michael Cohen.

Now, this, Viktor Vekselberg, was sanctioned in April for election interference. He also attended a 2015 Moscow dinner, when Michael Flynn and where Putin was, and he also attended Trump's inauguration. And now all of this obviously has been something that the special counsel, Robert Mueller and his team, have been looking at, Wolf. BLITZER: What are these three other companies that paid Cohen and what

do they say?

[13:20:03] PROKUPECZ: Right. So Korea Aerospace, we've talked about Columbus Nova. Now, Korea Aerospace, they responded. They said that they paid Michael Cohen $150,000. This is for legal work. AT&T said that they also paid Michael Cohen. This was for what they called policy. They said that it was basically -- it was to provide insights into understanding the new administration. This is what they paid him, the $200,000 for.

Now, Novartis, they issued a statement. As you can see there, they paid close to $400,000. They issued a statement saying that they had been contacted in November 2017 by lawyers from the special counsel's office regarding the company's agreement with Essential Consultants. They say they cooperated with the special counsel's office and provided all the information requested.

And, Wolf, this is the first company that we have received a statement from, that confirms that the special counsel has been looking at some of these payments.

BLITZER: Any reaction from Cohen?

PROKUPECZ: No, there's been no reaction from Michael Cohen to this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see what he says. Shimon, thanks very much.

I want to bring in two experts in this area, former federal prosecutor Daniel Goldman and CNN reporter Kara Scannell, who helped break this very significant story.

So, Kara, talk a little bit more about these companies, why they were giving Cohen all this money.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, it's interesting. So remember Michael Cohen was, you know, a New York lawyer. He made his money in the tax medallion business and by investing in real estate. And then otherwise was an attorney for the Trump Organization for decades. And after the election and inauguration, he didn't have a position in the administration, so he was looking for other work and was looking to do consulting deals. We've seen in some of the court filings of this issue in New York that he had seven clients. So this information that we've learned now sheds some light on who some of those clients were.

But what we don't know is what kind of work he was doing for them. We've done a scan of the lobbying database. We haven't seen that Cohen was registered as a lobbyist. So the question is, why was he hired and what kind of work was he doing, what kind of advice was he providing these companies? And we just don't know the answer to that.

BLITZER: And if he was working for Korea Aerospace, for example, was he registered as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice?

SCANNELL: Right, we haven't seen any indication that he was registered. He may have been, you know, doing some other kind of advice that didn't intersect with the government or didn't interface with the government. But -- so maybe he wasn't required to disclose that. But, you know, these are all questions that now that we know who some of these clients are, we're beginning to look into.

BLITZER: Does it look, Daniel, like there's anything illegal here?

DANIEL GOLDMAN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: There are a number of things -- we don't know enough yet to make that determination. But there are a number of things that are highly suspicious.

What is Columbus Nova, a significant investment firm, doing by giving -- making payments to Michael Cohen for $500,000? They are -- they are far over and above and more sophisticated than any experience Michael Cohen appears to have. So prosecutors will be asking those questions.

Why is Novartis looking at Michael Cohen for information or expertise on U.S. Health care policy, which they also said in their statement? There are a lot of open questions, and they're exacerbated by the connections between Columbus Nova and Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch, and obviously someone who has been on the United States radar and has been sanctioned himself through his affiliations with Renova and others.

BLITZER: Yes, Viktor Vekselberg, he was questioned by FBI agents working with Mueller when he arrived in the United States on a private jet not that long ago. He's now been sanctioned by the Treasury Department, as you -- why is all of this such high interest to Mueller and his team?

GOLDMAN: Well, as Novartis said, Mueller approached them in November of last year, six months ago. So they have been cued into Michael Cohen's role through essential consultants, and perhaps otherwise for quite some time. There were -- there was allegations in the Steele dossier that Michael Cohen went to Prague and met with European hackers. Michael Cohen has been Trump's fixer, as we know, for a long time. So what Mueller is doing is digging deep and he's many months ahead of where we are right now, as all of this is coming to the fore. But he's digging very deep into what the connections are between Michael Cohen and Russia. And as we're seeing, it's starting to percolate that there's more and more.

BLITZER: And I can assure you and our viewers that Mueller and his team, they know a lot -- a lot more than we know. We know a little bit about all of this. A lot more is probably going to be coming out.

Guys, thanks very, very much.

GOLDMAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: President Trump is celebrating a win overseas today as three Americans detained in North Korea are heading home. Up next, what this signals for diplomatic relations with that rogue nation ahead of the very high stakes meeting between the president and Kim Jong-un.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:29:11] BLITZER: President Trump plans to be on hand to greet three Americans released from North Korea. They're expected to arrive in the middle of the night, about 12 hours or so from now at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C. North Korea freed the men during a visit to Pyongyang by the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is clearly trying to lay the groundwork for the summit between President Trump and the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un.

CNN global affairs analyst Max Boot is joining us right now.

It's pretty impressive how quickly this relationship between the United States and North Korea is unfolding.

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Yes, we've gone from fire and fury to open and honorable. But, you know, I would say curb your enthusiasm because while it's great that we're talking instead of making threats, Kim Jong-un still has not made any kind of irreversible concessions to the United States. And it's great, for example, that he's releasing these three hostages. But, remember, he took the hostages in order to be able to release them later on and to get rewarded for it. So this is not a huge breakthrough.

[13:30:10] BLITZER: So do you think something substantive, dramatic, important will emerge from this summit meeting?