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White House: Only GOP Congress Members Will See Classified Info from Russia Probe; Cohen's Business Partner to Cooperate with Investigators. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired May 22, 2018 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: -- the way the magma moves around. Fissures that were once closed are now opening up again and spewing more lava. Just another threat that the people here are living with -- Jake.
[17:00:09] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Stephanie Elam in Hawaii. Thanks so much.
That's it for "THE LEAD." I turn you to over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Confidence question. As President Trump suggests the FBI planted spies in his campaign, he won't say if he has confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supervises the Russia probe. Now the Justice Department will brief on highly classified information with no Democrats invited.
Defending a dictator. The president casts new doubt on his planned summit with Kim Jong-un but says if the talks take place and Kim cuts a deal, he'll make sure the North Korean dictator is safe and happy.
Doubting intelligence. In an extraordinary exchange with CNN, the homeland security secretary says she was not aware of the U.S. intelligence finding that Russia meddled in the election with the goal of helping Donald Trump.
And rivers of lava. The volcano on Hawaii's big island erupts again. Live pictures as it spews out toxic gas and rivers of red-hot lava, posing a serious new threat to a power plant.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news. While President Trump hammers away with his unproven claim that the FBI placed spies in his campaign, the White House says justice and intelligence officials will brief key Republican lawmakers on Thursday. No Democrats are invited.
And the president says plans for a June summit with Kim Jong-un may not work out. But he also says if North Korea agrees to a deal, he'll guarantee Kim's safety, adding the dictator, will be, quote, "extremely happy." I'll speak with Congressman Jim Himes on the Intelligence Committee.
And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage.
Let's get straight to the breaking news. Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us.
Jeff, what's the latest over at the White House?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know that meeting we talked about yesterday after the president met with the deputy attorney general here and the FBI director. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said today that on Thursday, they would meet again to talk about that highly-sensitive classified information.
But Sarah Sanders said that the White House officials, including chief of staff John Kelly, would not be present for that meeting. There would be -- Republican intelligence officials from the Intelligence Committee as well as the FBI director looking over all of that data. T
Wolf, this is happening on a day when this is competing with the news of the North Korean summit.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign.
ZELENY (voice-over): No one is saying it louder tonight than President Trump, citing no evidence, but suggesting an FBI source infiltrated his presidential campaign.
TRUMP: If they had spies in my campaign, that would be a disgrace to this country. That would be one of the biggest insults that anyone has ever seen, and it would be very illegal, aside from everything else.
ZELENY: The president repeatedly using the word "spy," an assertion U.S. officials have disputed to CNN.
At issue is a confidential intelligence source, an American who talked to Trump campaign staffers, but after the FBI's Russia probe was already underway.
The president expressing satisfaction today in his fight with the Justice Department and his call for an investigation of the Russia investigation. Critics say it amounts to unprecedented meddling by the president and a blatant attempt to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe.
TRUMP: General Kelly is going to be setting up a meeting between Congress and the various representatives. And they'll be able to open up documents, take a look and find out what happened. But if they had spies in my campaign, during my campaign for political purposes, that would be unprecedented in the history of our country.
ZELENY: But as South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the White House today, new hurdles over landmark nuclear talks with North Korea taking center stage. Mr. Trump conceding next month's Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un is in doubt.
TRUMP: There's a very substantial chance that it won't work out, and that's OK. That doesn't mean it won't work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12.
ZELENY: Yet the president expressed long-term optimism for the talks, saying he was not in favor of regime change in North Korea and vowed to protect Kim if he gave up his nuclear arsenal.
TRUMP: I will guarantee his safety. Yes, we will guarantee his safety. And we've talked that about that from the beginning. He will be safe. He will be happy. His country will be rich. His country will be hard-working and very prosperous.
ZELENY: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders would not say how or why the U.S. would guarantee the safety of a dictator who abuses human rights and is responsible for last year's death of American college student Otto Warmbier.
SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Again, the goal and the purpose of these conversations would be to have complete and total denuclearization of the peninsula, and the president been upfront about that part of the conversation.
[17:05:12 ZELENY: A month after the two Korean leaders had their own historic meeting at the DMZ, President Moon has been trying to keep talk alive between the U.S. and North Korea.
The South Korean national security adviser telling reporters, "We believe there is a 99.9 percent chance the North Korea-U.S. summit will be held as scheduled, but we're just preparing for many different possibilities."
Mr. Trump giving the summit far lower odds today, telling reporters he believes prospects for the talks were only 50/50.
TRUMP: If it doesn't happen, maybe it will happen later. Maybe it will happen at a different time. But we will see. But we are talking.
ZELENY: But only hours later, the U.S. seemingly trying to drive home the point that they were still interested in talks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who's met face-to-face with Kim twice in recent weeks, said the U.S. would be prepared.
MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Kim asked for this meeting. President Trump agreed to undertake it. We worked to find the date
and location. We got those set. We're working toward June 12.
ZELENY: So the secretary of state there saying they are working toward June 12.
It was interesting, Wolf, that the secretary of state was making his first appearance in the briefing room across town at the State Department. A bit of a surprise appearance.
It came, really, only a couple hours after the president was, you know, expressing some skepticism of that meeting. He said there's a substantial chance it wouldn't happen. The secretary of state did not ever talk about it in those terms. He said they are still working toward the idea of that summit happening.
And of course, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, the new secretary of state, the only U.S. official who has held face-to-face meetings with Kim Jong-un. Of course, he has been over there a couple times in the last several weeks alone. So clearly, the U.S. government trying to send a message that they are still open for those talks.
But, Wolf, Mike Pompeo said he's not a betting man. He would not put any odds on the chance of the summit happening next month -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll find out soon enough. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.
A scheduled briefing for key Republican lawmakers over at the White House is already clouded by controversy.
Let's go to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. Evan, have they actually worked out all the details of this deal yet, who gets access on Thursday at the White House and what will they access?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there is -- there is a deal worked out, and we'll see whether or not that satisfies the members of the House who have been demanding to get this information.
They've been demanding documents. And here's who's going to be at this meeting on Thursday. Devin Nunes, obviously, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; Trey Gowdy, who's also been leading the effort to get access to this information and a member of the House; Chris Wray, of course, the director of the FBI; Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. Rod Rosenstein is not planning to be there. He's sending a representative, Ed O'Callaghan, who is a deputy under his office.
The question, though, remains what exactly are they going to get access to? What exactly are they going to be able to see? Are they going to be able to see documents? That's what the members of the House believe that they're going to go see on Thursday.
It's not entirely clear the Justice Department has decided whether they're going to get an oral briefing, which is what they've gotten before. They're going to get their questions answered by the director of the FBI, another officials in the room. Or whether they're actually going to get to see documents. I think we're going to see when those members come out on Thursday, whether or not this satisfies their demands, Wolf.
BLITZER: What about the concerns among some that the Department of Justice is not offering lawmakers enough? And there are other concerns that the Department of Justice has offered them too much.
PEREZ: Right, exactly. And we've heard some complaints from Democrats that they believe they should be able to see some of these documents. The interesting thing is they have not actually officially requested it from the Justice Department, so they haven't been offered the same type of briefing. If they did, I'm sure that that could be worked out.
The -- on the other side, though, you hear Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, making complaints about whether or not the Justice Department has been intruded upon by the president. Take a listen to what he has to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I think little by little, and sometimes not so little, we are seeing an erosion of the independence of the Justice Department that is gravely concerning.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PEREZ: The bottom line, though, Wolf, is that this is under the power of the president. The president has the power to be able to order for documents to be produced or for information to be turned over to members of Congress. This is well within his right. There's nothing illegal about what the president has done so far.
Obviously, there's some political differences about whether or not this crosses a line for someone who's under investigation.
BLITZER: As you know, Evan, conservatives say the FBI should be investigated for how it investigated the Trump campaign. They're not happy with the special -- they're not happy with the inspector general doing the investigation. They want a special counsel.
PEREZ: Right. Exactly. I think for most Republicans who we've talked to, they are satisfied that the inspector general is the right place for this investigation to happen.
[17:10:00] But you do have some of the president's most -- more vocal critics [SIC], some of the conservative -- more conservative members who are now saying that they want another special counsel to investigate the investigation. That's sort of a bizarre situation.
But it is weird for you to demand another investigation when right now as the -- the attorney general -- the acting attorney general for this purpose, Rod Rosenstein, has already said that the inspector general is the person who's going to look into this and come back, whether or not there's something improper that happened, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Evan, thank you. Evan Perez reporting.
Joining us now, key member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. And very quickly, do you
trust your Republican colleagues to keep the information they're going to be receiving, highly-classified information on Thursday at this briefing over at the White House confidential?
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: No. Of course I don't. I mean, there's no track record of that happening.
And let's be very clear about why this is happening. You know, I'm listening to it as I speak. This is all part of the effort to cast doubt on the FBI. They're saying, "Look, Jim Comey was fired." Well, yes, he was fired by a president improperly. That's evidence, right?
And so this is all part of an effort to damage the FBI, to damage the Department of Justice. And that information that they're going to get is of no value to them unless they leak it. And of course, leaking it is going to put the cherry on the cake here of making sure that informants and possible intelligence sources around this world never believe, when an American CIA officer or an American FBI agent says, "Hey, work with us. We will keep your identity safe." And that's going to make this country a lot less safe because of the political partisan agenda of the Republicans in the House.
BLITZER: Do you believe that your chairman, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, is coordinating all of this with the White House?
HIMES: Wolf, I have no way of knowing that, and to some extent, it doesn't really matter. I mean, for the last year, ever since we were treated to the famous unmasking scandal, which turned out not to be a scandal; ever since we were treated to the idea that the Steele dossier was the origin of the investigation, which turned out not to be true, it really hasn't mattered.
Sadly, the chairman has given himself over entirely, along with several of my Republican colleagues, to the defense of the president. And they will destroy the Intelligence Committee, as they have done. They will step on precedent around the Department of Justice; and they will destroy the ability of the FBI and CIA to recruit sources and -- and informants in their quest to protect this president.
BLITZER: As of now, as you know, no Democratic lawmakers have been invited to the classified briefing at White House on Thursday. The White House says they haven't been invited because you didn't ask for such participation. Only the Republicans asked.
Should Democrats on your committee insist now and formally request that they be part of this briefing?
HIMES: Well, Wolf, we're in a little bit of a box here. Right? Because members of Congress, who are explicitly political partisan people. It's not a secret that we are -- Democrats and Republicans -- going in and demanding information on a live investigation is historically unprecedented in this country. It should never have happened.
You know, we never have been talking about FISA applications, things that are some of the most classified things we talk about.
So if we join this, and we say, "No, we want to see this information, too," you know, we become complicit in establishing the precedent that any time one of the two parties gets irritated, we get to attack the FBI. We get to go after the DOJ.
Pretty soon law enforcement in this country is very badly damaged. So we're in a little bit of a box here, because of course, we want to see what it is they're going to see, but you know, again, the very fact that anybody from Congress is demanding to see the work product of an investigation while that investigation is underway is completely unprecedented and completely wrong.
BLITZER: But as you know, you've been here in Washington for a while, Republicans could selectively leak that information, Democrats wouldn't be if a position to rebut them, because they're not privy to that kind of information. Doesn't that worry you?
HIMES: Well, of course it worries me. You know, from the moment that Devin Nunes decided to turn the committee into the committee for the defense of the president, the facts that have come out, whether it was the famous Devin Nunes memorandum, whether it was all of these allegations, each and every one of which have been proved to be false, the information has been slanted, selected information, released to give an impression of something that is very simply not true.
So of course, it's going to leak. By the way, that will be a felony. And it will be incomplete, and it will keep with the president's idea that this investigation never should have happened.
Now by the way, that raises another very big question, which is I don't know what the Republicans and the president think they achieve by prematurely ending an investigation, the very investigation that is the only way that this president will be cleared, as he says he will be. Why he would want to end the one mechanism to put these questions to rest, you know, people ought to scratch their heads and ask themselves why is that?
BLITZER: The deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein has gotten a lot of criticism for referring these latest allegations to the inspector general at the Justice Department. Some believe that Rod Rosenstein essentially caved to the president's demands. How do you see it?
[17:15:14] HIMES: Well, he's in a very tough position. And I'm going to refrain from criticizing him.
Look, the right answer for any Justice Department senior official, when he is asked for political purposes to provide information in an ongoing investigation, the right answer is, "Go pound sand. We're not doing it." And there was a brief moment when the deputy attorney general said, "We will not be extorted." Well, sadly, he was extorted.
And so, you know, this never should have happened. And you know, now that he's sort of opened the door a crack, you know, the camel's nose is under the tent. So I hope that the attorney general, that senior people at Justice will say, "This stops now, because what is at stake is our criminal justice system."
And by the way, we've got the inspector general answering the questions. Nobody has suggested -- they will, but nobody today has suggested the inspector general is slanted or biased. So he'll produce his report, and hopefully, I believe, that will -- that report will put all of these fantastical, spaghetti-against-the-wall charges to rest.
BLITZER: But there have been some Republicans out there who have criticized the inspector general, Michael Horowitz. They think he is biased, because he was named to that specific job by President Obama. And they don't think he's going to be doing a good job. They want a new special counsel to take over, a second special counsel. What's your reaction to that?
HIMES: Wolf, here's -- here's where the country has come to. I know the FBI very well. I know the CIA very well. I know the NSA very well. We can't be in a place where we say that the FBI, the Department of Justice and the CIA, all of those people, are fully driven by whatever their political opinions may be. All of those people associated with each of those entities have political opinions. Many of them will have given to one party or the other. Maybe to both parties.
But we just can't possibly be in a world where the work of an organization like the Department of Justice or the FBI is rebuttable simply because, "Oh, look, this guy on that team 20 years ago gave money to a Republican or a Democrat." We just can't go there.
BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes, thanks for joining us.
HIMES: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Up next, the stunning comment from the homeland security secretary, saying she was, quote, "not aware" of the U.S. intelligence community's finding that Russia's President Putin meddled in the U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump.
And live pictures coming in now as another explosive eruption sends a huge cloud of ash over Hawaii's big island. There's a new danger right now as a torrent of red-hot lava threatens a power plant.
[17:22:01] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. "The New York Times" just now publishing a report saying that a business partner of President Trump's longtime personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, has reached a plea deal and will cooperate with federal investigators.
Our legal and political experts are standing by, but first I'm joined on the phone by one of the authors of "The New York Times" article. William Rashbaum is joining us right now.
So William, tell us -- tell us specifically what you've learned.
WILLIAM RASHBAUM, REPORTER, "NEW YORK TIMES" (via phone): Well, Gene Freidman, Evgeny Freidman, who was a business partner of Michael Cohen's for a number of years, pleaded guilty today in Albany County court in a case brought by the state attorney general's office regarding -- he was originally charged with tax fraud, but he pled guilty to tax evasion.
BLITZER: And this is a state charge, not a federal charge?
RASHBAUM: That's right. It's a case brought by the state attorney general's office and under the plea agreement, Mr. Freedman has agreed to cooperate with both state and federal authorities. We don't know specifically what the agreement said.
BLITZER: So -- so he'd agreed to cooperate with Robert Mueller special investigation, is that right?
RASHBAUM: Well, that's our understanding. We don't know what specifically the plea agreement said. But our understanding is that he's agreed to cooperate with state and federal investigators.
BLITZER: In exchange for his cooperation, what has he received?
RASHBAUM: Well, he had originally been charged with four counts of tax fraud and one count of grand larceny. He could have faced significant prison time for each of those, a maximum of up to 25 years, but it would have been likely substantially less than that.
BLITZER: Are you still there, William?
BLITZER: Yes, I just want to make sure I could hear you. And so he will avoid any jail time. He will also avoid getting any charges, is that what you're hearing?
RASHBAUM: Well, he's pled guilty to tax evasion, which is still a felony. It's a lesser felony than the other charges that he faced. And he'll still have to make substantial restitution. He was originally accused of failing to pay more than $5 million in taxes, which are really sort of fees that are levied on taxi companies. But he will be required to pay, at this point, about a million in restitution to the state.
BLITZER: And you say in your article in "The New York Times" in your lead that this is a development, in your words, that could be used as leverage to pressure Michael Cohen to work with the special counsel examining Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Talk about that relationship that Mr. Freidman has had over the years with Michael Cohen.
[17:25: 06] RASHBAUM: Well, they were in business for -- at least dating back to 2012. For a period of time Mr. Freidman managed Mr. Cohen's New York taxi medallions. I think there are 20 -- he has 22 or maybe -- I think at least 22 taxi medallions in New York. And they were pretty close business associates.
So you know, what information he might be able to provide to the authorities, I couldn't really say for sure. But obviously, if the government is willing to knock down the charges from five B felonies to one C felony and give him no jail time, that would suggest that they think he's got something to offer.
BLITZER: And does this put -- I assume puts a lot more pressure on Michael Cohen to cooperate, is that right?
RASHBAUM: Well, it could. I can't tell you exactly what Mr. Cohen's calculation, what his lawyer's calculations are. I think that there are a number -- a number of issues that Mr. Cohen is facing now, and some of those problems may loom a little larger than this. But it does add to the issues that he's facing.
BLITZER: Because in your story, in your article, you report that President Trump's lawyers have been resigned to the strong possibility that the investigation of Mr. Cohen's businesses could lead him to cooperate with federal prosecutors and that that likelihood could become greater with a business partner of Mr. Cohen's now cooperating with law enforcement.
So what you're suggesting here is that the president's attorneys are concerned?
RASHBAUM: I think that's been the case for some time. I think that, after the search warrant was executed on April 9, that a number of issues developed after that that made it clear to a number of people that, you know, Mr. Cohen had some serious legal problems. And I think it's been widely reported that there were concerns in the White House and elsewhere that he might cooperate.
BLITZER: As all of our viewers by now know, Michael Cohen's home, his office, his hotel room and is safe deposit box all were searched by FBI agents under court orders -- court warrants to go ahead. By all accounts he's now under criminal investigation. Tell us about that.
RASHBAUM: Well, I think that, as has been widely reported, Mr. Cohen's various business interests have come under scrutiny. There are -- the search warrant rider, the list of items that the government sought in the warrant, was quite long. They were seeking materials related to some of the business associates, an accountant, a number of business ventures, as well as monies that were paid to the porn actress Stormy Daniels.
So they're -- the government seemed to be casting a pretty wide net. And they -- the reaction by both Mr. Cohen's lawyers and Mr. Trump's lawyers in court with regard to their concerns about privilege would indicate that it was all being taken quite seriously.
BLITZER: And as you report in this "New York Times" article, William, Mr. Freidman was disbarred earlier this month. He had been accused -- and I'm just reading from the article -- of failing to pay more than $5 million in taxes. He faced four counts of criminal tax fraud, one of grand larceny, all B felonies. Each carries a maximum prison sentence of up to 25 years in prison.
Instead, in exchange for his cooperation, he appeared in this court in Albany today and pleaded guilty to a single count evading only $50,000 worth of taxes. Faces five years of probation if he fulfills the terms of his agreement. But no jail time.
That's a significant, significant reduction. So you're absolutely right. I assume because of that, they think he has a lot of information that could be useful to state and federal prosecutors.
RASHBAUM: That -- that certainly would be what one would infer from the -- the difference in what was charged and -- and what he pled to. But I think we'll have to wait and see exactly how that all shakes out.
[17:30;16] BLITZER: Yes. Well, an important article. William Rashbaum of "The New York Times" wrote it together with his colleagues. Thanks so much for joining us, William.
RASHBAUM: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's bring in our panel to assess. So Dana Bash, what's your reaction? This looks like a pretty significant development. The pressure on Michael Cohen all of a sudden clearly intensifies.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And the point that you just made at the end there is really a key one, Wolf. That there were some big charges with some big penalties for this man, Freidman, who was Michael Cohen's business partner, facing him. Up to 25 years in prison.
And now much of that is gone, and he's being -- he pleads to something much, much lesser. And as you mentioned, prosecutors don't do that because they're nice people. They do it because they feel like they've got a lot to gain in return.
And so the question is what does this guy have on Michael Cohen? Even if -- OK, but let's just play that out, Wolf. Even if he does have a lot on Michael Cohen, it still doesn't answer the question as to whether that points arrows to and fingers at the guy in the White House, at the president.
The president's lawyers still insist that, as far as they know, there is nothing that they are openly worried about, vis-a-vis the Michael Cohen case, but they also don't know what they don't know. And the question is whether or not this really does put the kind of pressure on Cohen and ultimately Donald Trump and that prosecutors might think they have.
BLITZER: Yes. Joey Jackson, you're our legal analyst. Instead of maybe getting 25 years in jail, he gets five years' probation and no jail.
JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Huge development. Now to be clear, this brings Michael Cohen one step closer to flipping on the president. So let's talk about a couple of things.
No. 1, we have to examine the person, his business partner -- that is Michael Cohen's business partner -- exactly what they know. Defense attorneys, to be clear and to be sure, will attack him. "It's fair to say, sir, that you cut a deal. Is that not right? And as part of that deal, you could have faced 25 years in jail? Correct?"
"But if you tell the prosecution everything they want to know, you're going to do five years' probation. Can we be clear about that?"
So defense attorneys, Wolf, will seize upon that to attack the veracity, to attack the truthfulness of this business partner.
However, there's something that I think we have to talk about, and that's the fact that the business partner will not just be giving information about their word. Presumably, the business partner has documents and records and e-mails and things -- right -- that you cannot escape.
Why is all this important? It's important, because we have to know that Michael Cohen may not only be the subject of a federal -- right -- investigation in charges, but he could also be prosecuted in the state. Right? State laws -- there are laws against tax evasion, et cetera.
So what that does to him is it really tightens and tightens the pressure and he's the subject or will be the subject -- I can almost guarantee it -- of what we call a reverse proffer, Wolf. And what that is, is the prosecution will call you in, and they will cite chapter and verse about what they know, what they have and what they could do to you unless you decide to join Team America. "Give us what we need and we will, like we saw in the state prosecution, 25 years to five years, with you let's talk about it, but you have to tell us what, if anything, you know, regarding a certain gentleman in the White House."
So this is a significant development. It puts significant pressure on Cohen to tell what he knows, when he knows, how he knows it in terms of the president's activities. So this is huge.
BLITZER: Yes, this could be very significant, Mark Preston. And the political fallout, if -- if in fact, the pressure continues on Michael Cohen and he does, as Joey just said, flips and cooperates and goes and tells all he knows, for example, about the president, that could be major.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it could be major. And let's just take a step back when we talk about the opposition to this independent counsel.
Part of that opposition was the fact that, once an independent counsel starts investigating, the investigation can go anywhere. It can go into all different sectors. It can go touch all different types of people. And this is a situation where we see Michael Cohen involved in what appears to be an illegal act with a partner that has nothing, we don't think, necessarily, has nothing to do with the Russia investigation; but yet, as Joey says, it could squeeze Michael Cohen to the point where he would have to flip on his pledge to never, ever, ever do anything to harm Donald Trump.
Because in the end, he does have a wife. He does have children. And as we heard from Mr. Freidman in court today, the judge said to him very pointedly, you know, "Do you know what your lawyer has been able to pull off for you?"
And Mr. Freidman said, "I do. I understand, and I appreciate it." So we saw Mr. Freidman get squeezed, and as Joey noted, you could see Michael Cohen, as well.
[17:35:07] BLITZER: Yes, he said, "I greatly understand that and appreciate it, as well," because there's a huge difference between potentially 25 years in jail; five years' probation, no jail time. That's a significant development.
Rebecca Berg, give us your analysis of what we're learning over these past few minutes.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the other folks on this panel have hit on some of the important points. But I would just add, Wolf, that what we've seen thus far really gives us a road map to what this might look like.
For example, Rick Gates was charged with a crime before he decided to plead guilty and then cooperate with the Mueller investigation. That could be what we see in this case. Potentially, if Michael Cohen's business partner has incriminating information on him, we could get to the point where Michael Cohen is charged with a crime unrelated to Trump, unrelated to Trump's businesses, and then the pressure really kicks in.
Does he want to go through that whole legal process, or does he want to cooperate with these investigators? And we saw already with Rick Gates, with Michael Flynn, how that pressure persuaded them to work with investigators, and that could also be the case with Michael Cohen.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's other news we're following in Washington, as well.
CNN and other news organizations attempted to cover a national summit meeting on harmful chemicals in our water. The summit featured a speech by the embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. But CNN's government regulation correspondent, Rene Marsh, and other reporters were not allowed into that meeting, even though it was open meeting, no classified information.
Rene is joining us now, along with our senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter. First of all, Rene, tell us what happened.
RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we should point out that we didn't even learn about the event from the EPA. We learned about it from a service that CNN subscribes to that essentially tells you a daily list of events throughout Washington, D.C. This was an event about harmful chemicals in the public water. So we
attended the event this morning. I can tell you, our CNN photographer showed up at about two hours early. When he arrived there, he was told that he was not invited, and he needed to leave.
As he was leaving, the A.P. reporter was on her way in. Our photographer briefed her on what the situation was. She entered the building, and just about five minutes later, our CNN photographer saying all he saw was an arm opening the door and shoving her out to the point that she was having trouble keeping up with her steps.
That reporter then told our crew that she informed them, she wanted to speak with the press office first, because she was there to cover this event, a very important topic. And at that point, she was shoved out of the door.
Myself and one of our producers here at CNN, we tried to enter through another door that was not designated for media. It was other attendees attending this conference. We, too, were told that we were not invited, and CNN was not allowed to enter. But we were not given a reason as to why we would not be allowed to enter right on the spot.
However, all of this started quite an uproar, as you would imagine, because this is an event that was billed as open press. There was no mention about a need to RSVP. So open press usually means when the president shows up, they can be allowed to cover the event.
After the backlash, the EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox did issue a statement, and this is what it said. It said, quote, "This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event." He goes on to say, "We were able to accommodate ten reporters, provided a live stream for those who could not be accommodated, and were unaware of the individual situation that was being reported."
So the EPA saying they didn't know about this reporter being shoved out of the door.
But I will say this. The group of reporters who cover the EPA, we all speak. We speak on a regular basis. And those who were in the room, they do not explain it as a capacity issue. In fact, there was room for other cameras, and there were actually empty seats.
So it really is unclear why certain media outlets were allowed and selected to attend this event with the administrator, the head of the agency speaking, while others were barred from the event, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, it's pretty outrageous indeed. And other reporter who were inside saying there were empty seats in that room.
Brian Stelter, first of all, how are the Associated Press and CNN responding?
BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: By saying this is unacceptable, especially because, as your banner on screen says, the EPA chief has been embattled. Everywhere you turn, it seems, there's another scandal involving the EPA. This is an agency that cries out for accountability coverage right now, and we need to know what the heck is going on in Pruitt's office and with his deputies and with his agency.
[17:40:14] And instead, what we're seeing is the door being closed, in some cases literally.
Let's be honest, Wolf, you and I both know there's always a push and a pull between the news media and the government. That's the way it is. But government agencies have been pushing harder lately, much more aggressively, closing the door sometimes literally, especially in response to reporters who are pursuing accountability stories, trying to hold the government accountable.
So here's part of what CNN said today in a statement. Quote, "While several news organizations were permitted to attend, the EPA selectively excluded CNN and other media outlets. We understand the importance of an open and free press, and we hope the EPA does, too."
Now as Rene mentioned, one of the A.P. reporters seemed to be grabbed by security and shoved out of the building. Here's what the A.P.'s executive editor, Sally Buzbee said in a statement. She said, "It would be -- it is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It is pretty outrageous. When we say forcibly removed, she was physically shoved out, right?
STELTER: That's right. That's the account, both from the reporter and from others who were there.
Wolf, you and I are in New York because we're going to a dinner, freedom of the press dinner tonight here in New York, one of these annual events to acknowledge the push and pull between the government and the press. Certainly, we are seeing government agencies, in many cases, become more restrictive when it comes to access to information, whether it comes to attendance at events. I don't want to paint with too broad a brush, because, certainly, some agencies are better than others.
But this incident today at the EPA is very disturbing, and it's why there's been more activity recently by press freedom groups to ensure the doors are not shut, that access is not cut off by the Trump administration.
BLITZER: You know, Rene, it seems to me this is part of a larger pattern. When we say embattled EPA, they've been going through a lot because of all the controversy surrounding Scott Pruitt.
MARSH: Yes, I will say, I mean, I've been covering the EPA now for a bit -- over a year, and it certainly does fit into the pattern of what we see on a daily basis.
I mean, the agency, Wolf, does not release Scott Pruitt's schedule on a daily basis. So it really is anyone's guess where he is. We oftentimes find out through social media, sightings, things of that sort. But they do not put out a list of his schedule.
And we actually have to FOIA the EPA administrator's schedule to know who he's been meeting with, where he is and where he's been traveling. We've done a lot of stories on travel.
So transparency has been an issue. I will tell you, just wrapping up here, Senator Udall on Capitol Hill just sent this letter to the EPA, asking about these incidents and asking -- asking about the issue of transparently -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. It is pretty outrageous to think about it, somebody who's been reporting on these kinds of issues for a long time. That this is happening right now is awful. And we'll stay on top of this story, certainly, for our viewers.
Guys, thanks very much.
We're also following breaking news in Hawaii, where fountains of lava from an erupting volcano are shooting from cracks that have opened up at multiple points. The resulting lava flows have forced several hundred people into Red Cross shelters.
CNN's Stephanie Elam is joining us now. She's live on the scene for us.
So Stephanie, what are you seeing right now?
STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's almost like a never- ending disaster for the people affected by this eruption here, Wolf.
What we do know is that 3:45 this morning, local time, there was another ash explosion from the summit of Kilauea. They believe the plume getting up as high as 8,000 feet into the sky. Luckily, it was in the middle of the night, so less people were out and about, bit it can cause difficult driving; it can case breathing problems. So that's one concern that the have here.
The other issue that people are watching is the flow of the lava from fissures like the one behind me right now. That lava coursing downhill toward the Pacific Ocean, where it has entered the water now. And while you have concerns about that air quality around it with that hydrochloric acid and those glass particles that are created when that lava hits the water, their other concern is that part of this lava stream has now crossed over the property of the Puna Geothermal Venture.
That plant there is -- people are concerned that it could be -- cause a problem if the lava were to hit those tanks. But authorities there saying that they have shut down ten of the 11 tanks there. They're watching where these two lava flows have crossed along the property, and they're saying right now no one is in danger but they're keeping their eyes on it.
Obviously, there is no way to stop the lava, Wolf. If it's coming down and if it's going to hit something, it will take it out, like it has taken out some 40 structures so far -- Wolf. BLITZER: Yes. We're going to stay on top of this story, as well.
We're going to get back to you, Stephanie. Thank you very much. We can see the flow right behind you. Be careful over there.
Coming up, more on the breaking news. A former business partner of President Trump's long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has now made a plea deal.
And even though President Trump says the U.S. will guarantee Kim Jong- un's safety if he makes a deal, we have a closer look at why the North Koreans may be worrying about something else the president and his team have said repeatedly.
BLITZER: More now on the breaking news from the White House. While meeting with South Korea's leader today, President Trump said he'd guarantee the safety of North Korea's Kim Jong-un if Kim makes a deal at their upcoming summit.
[17:50:03] But the North Korean leader may be worrying about something else the President and his team keep on saying.
CNN's Brian Todd is joining us.
Brian, why are the North Koreans bothered by references to Libya?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they're bothered by it because the North Koreans, for years, in fact, have looked at what happened to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and pointed to his overthrow and his assassination as the reason they feel they need to have nuclear weapons.
Still, the President and his team have kept piling on the references to Libya in recent days, threatening that Kim could wind up like Gadhafi if he doesn't come to the table.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TODD (voice-over): It seems like a tag team rotation of threats aimed at Kim Jong-un. The latest member of the Trump team into the ring? Vice President Mike Pence.
MICHAEL PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn't make a deal.
MARTHA MACCALLUM, FOX NEWS HOST: Some people saw that as a threat.
PENCE: Well, I think it's more of a fact.
TODD (voice-over): That's three times in about three weeks the President's team has threatened that Kim Jong-un could meet the same fate as the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who was overthrown and killed in the streets by his own people.
President Trump himself invoked the threat last week. DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Gaddafi, that was a
total decimation. We went in there to beat him. Now that would take place if we don't make a deal most likely.
TODD (voice-over): And earlier there was national security advisor John Bolton when asked if Kim Jong-un had to agree to give away all his nuclear weapons before the U.S. would give him anything.
JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think that's right. I think we're looking at the Libyan model of 2003, 2004.
TODD (voice-over): In 2003, the U.S. brokered a deal with Gaddafi to completely give up his nuclear weapons program. Eight years later, after NATO forces bombed Libya, a move which allowed rebels to advance and drive him from the capital, Gaddafi was gunned down in a ditch.
Some analysts believe that when John Bolton referred to the Libya model, he might have only been talking about North Korea giving up all of its nuclear weapons, not overthrowing Kim.
Still, Trump and Pence did make the threats specific to Gaddafi. And the North Koreans have long said that Libya was a, quote, lesson to them, that they needed nuclear weapons to safeguard Kim's regime from Gaddafi's fate.
MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think the thinking in Pyongyang is that if Gaddafi did have nuclear weapons, there was no way the United States was going to bomb his country in 2011 because, in fact, the United States has never attacked a nuclear-armed state.
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, as President Trump promises to, quote, guarantee Kim's safety if he makes a deal, experts are concerned about other possibilities.
TODD (on camera): How might Kim Jong-un respond to the Gaddafi threat?
MICHAEL GREEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR ASIA AND JAPAN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The rhetoric matters. And we know the North Koreans are very sensitive and very insecure about any narrative about assassination.
So the movie "The Interview" a few years ago, which featured a comic assassination of the leader, Kim Jong-un, in North Korea sent them ballistic. They hacked Sony Films and shut them down.
TODD: Tonight, analysts warn that the Gaddafi threat could backfire on President Trump in other ways. It could make Trump look like a paper tiger if he doesn't follow through, and it could drive America's allies away from the United States.
Crucial allies like South Korea and Japan, who President Trump is going to need to keep North Korea contained in the future, Wolf. BLITZER: Brian, speaking of South Korea, there's enormous pressure on
South Korea's President tonight, right?
TODD: Certainly is, Wolf. Moon Jae-in was at the White House today to try to reassure President Trump that the summit can still be held. Moon is trying to get the Trump team and the North Koreans to back off their inflammatory comments about each other.
But also President Moon is under considerable pressure himself because some U.S. officials believe that he oversold North Korea's promises when Moon's government relayed Kim's invitation for Trump for talks. President moon is under enormous pressure right now.
BLITZER: He certainly is. Brian Todd reporting. Thank you.
Coming up, as President Trump suggests the FBI planted spies in his presidential campaign, the Justice Department moves to let key Republicans view highly classified information with no Democrats invited.
But the President may have a new cause for concern as the business partner of his long-time lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, reaches a plea deal and reportedly agrees to cooperate with investigators.
[17:54:21] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're following two major breaking stories this hour on the Russia investigation and the criminal probe of the President's lawyer, Michael Cohen.
First, we're learning about the Trump legal team's new offer to the Special Counsel on the terms of an interview with the President. Let's go right to our chief political analyst Gloria Borger. She's been doing reporting on this.
So, Gloria, what are you and our colleagues learning?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, my colleagues, Evan Perez, Dana Bash, and I have learned that the President's legal team is really trying to narrow the scope of any potential interview with the Special Counsel. They're trying to narrow it to Russia related matters that occurred before Trump's election.
Now, our sources are telling us that in trying to avoid any kind of a standoff, one possibility they're thinking about is this limited Trump interview plus written answers to questions regarding the issue of obstruction, which we all know is an issue the Special Counsel is clearly very interested in.