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Jordan on Abuse Allegations; Trump's Patience with EPA Chief; Trump to Finalize Supreme Court Pick; Trump Asked about Invading Venezuela; Senate Panel on Russian Interference. Aired 1:00-1:30p ET

Aired July 4, 2018 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:15] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to a special holiday edition of WOLF. I'm Jim Sciutto, filling in for Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks so much for spending our Fourth of July with us.

Fire Jeff Sessions, hire me. That's what the embattled EPA chief pitched to President Trump despite being at the center of more than a dozen investigations. And now we're learning that the president's patience with him is at a tipping point.

Russia attacked the U.S., so says a bipartisan group of Senate investigators, along with just about everyone else. Everyone except for the United States president and, of course, Vladimir Putin. So what is being done to prevent another election attack?

And, two people falling ill in the U.K. just miles from where a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned. Could this be another attack?

And we start with new denials of Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan. Just moments ago we heard him respond on camera for the first time to accusations that he turned a blind eye to sexual abuse while he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State University. Those allegations are coming from a former wrestler who contacted Jordan's office several times by e-mail. But a source inside Jordan's office tells CNN that the congressman never responded because he felt like he was being bullied.

Here's what Congressman Jordan said about those allegations just moments ago.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: We knew of no abuse. Never heard of abuse. If we had, we'd have reported it.

And if, in fact, there -- you know, if, in fact, there's problems, we want justice for the people who were victims, obviously. And, as I said, we're happy to talk with the folks who are doing the investigation. But nothing -- I mean things they said about me just were flat-out not true. Not even -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) comment to us yesterday speaking about the conditions in the training facility, open showers, things of that nature. Can you comment on any of that?

JORDAN: It was the fact. Yes, it was the fact.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you remember Dr. Strauss? I mean does any of this -- these accusations being made against him, not just by DiSabato, but by anybody, making -- have any credence at all?

JORDAN: I did know Dr. Strauss. He was -- you know, he was there when we got to Ohio State. And was continuing to work at Ohio State once I left. So, yes, you know, knew the doctor.

But there's no truth to the fact that I knew of any abuse. I've talked to other coaches. They didn't know of any abuse. It just -- there's just -- that's just not accurate to say those things that we knew of it and didn't report it. It's just not true.


SCIUTTO: Well, here with me now to talk more about this, CNN political commentator Alice Stewart, Lauren Burke, she's a writer for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, and CNN political director David Chalian.

So, David, I mean this really comes down to who do you believe here because you have a former wrestler who says that everybody knew in effect about this doctor who I understand has now passed away, but his abuse. And Jim saying, Jim Jordan there, a congressman, saying, listen, you know, it's just -- it's just flat out untrue. I didn't know anything about it.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I think you have more than one former wrestler. I think the original NBC story had three wrestlers in there talking. That would be hard not to imagine that everyone working there would have some knowledge.

This clearly isn't over yet. And you can -- you can hear the other thing that Congressman Jordan was saying there is that this wrestler, who was speaking out was contacting them in a way that he felt was in a bullying way and that he might involve the Capitol Police now.

So there -- you're going to have sort of a Capitol Hill investigation, the Ohio -- the investigation of what went on at Ohio State will go on. And so Jim Jordan's going to be a part of that investigation and more is going to come out.

So, yes, it's a who do you believe, but I -- I don't think it ends there. I think more facts are going to be learned.

SCIUTTO: No question. Alice, I mean, what David mentioned there, this idea that now Jim Jordan's office is acknowledging that these wrestlers, or at least one of them reached out to him multiple times by e-mail before. So he can't say that he didn't know about the allegation, right? ALICE STEWART, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Right.

SCIUTTO: In other words, he didn't first learn of it from the NBC story because this guy was contacting him.

STEWART: Here's the -- I think one quick step back. We can all agree that there's no tolerance for sexual harassment. And our heart go out to anyone who may have been involved in that and fully support any investigation into these allegations.

That being said, Jim Jordan, we have two sides to this story. We have these athletes who say they told him and that he knew about this, and then we have the congressman who is vehemently saying at the time he didn't see or hear or know or have any reports of this activity going on.

Look, and what we know of Jim Jordan, and you guys have covered him, he is not a man to shy away from a fight. He had no reason to defend this doctor. And if he knew of any wrongdoing back then, I have every reason to believe he would have stood out, he would have been one of the first people to be banging on the doors to put a stop to this.

[13:05:07] So I think we need to let this play out a little bit further. And as he said in this interview earlier, the timing of this is, in my view, it's suspect. And that he is rising in the ranks in D.C. He is up for a potential speaker position. And this person that's accusing him, DiSabato, he has a history of lawsuits with Ohio State. So I think, not to attack anyone's credibility here, but I say let's let all of this play out and, in my view, I trust the congressman. If he says he didn't know at the time, I believe him.

SCIUTTO: Lauren -- and to be clear, Alice makes a point, and the congressman's denials have been consistent since yesterday. Fulsome. And at the same time saying, listen, if anything went wrong here, I'm going to cooperate with the investigators.

We should acknowledge that. That's the first time we've heard from him on camera. But they repeatedly said the same thing in written statements.

We do know that Jim Jordan is a congressman who has often chased down allegations against others in other parties --


SCIUTTO: Without perhaps giving them --

BURKE: Right.

SCIUTTO: The time to wait and give their version of the story.

BURKE: That's exactly right.

SCIUTTO: I mean, listen, you know, in any investigation, that's what you should do. BURKE: That's right.

SCIUTTO: But he has not always followed those rules himself.

BURKE: He has been a particularly strident congressman to say the least. Obviously a member of the Freedom Caucus when it comes to investigating typically members of the Democratic Party.

But I do agree with Alice, we do have to be very careful with these situations to wait to hear everything before we make a judgment. Obviously, we might meet that critical mass when you have three and four people coming out. We only really have one that's out, you know, at least on the air in the public saying that he knew about this in real-time contemporaneously. But, with these types of stories, I think it is important to not only remember that, but that he is, in fact, not the -- he would be someone who would be accused of facilitating, but obviously not the accused.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. And that's something we said on the air repeatedly yesterday when we first reported the story. Let's be clear, this is about a sin of omission.

BURKE: Right.

SCIUTTO: No one should mistake at home that he's accused of any abuse.

BURKE: Right. Absolutely. Right. Absolutely.

SCIUTTO: Alice, sorry.

STEWART: And we've had today, and since this story first came out and was first reported, we have had several people that have known Jim Jordan for many, many years who have come out and said he would not have turned a blind eye to this, and I trust his credibility, and he is a man of honor and integrity. And those kind of stories, my understanding from his office, will continue to come out, standing up for him. And it will be interesting to see how this plays out. But so far we've really just heard a lot from one side and now he is having the opportunity (INAUDIBLE).

CHALIAN: But two things.

BURKE: Politically -- politically this is a lot like the Elizabeth Etsy story, where you have -- she's not the perpetrator, but the accusation that you allowed bad behavior to happen, and that's --

SCIUTTO: Right, which is -- which -- if you go back to the case of Joe Paterno, et cetera, I mean that --

CHALIAN: Or Harvey Weinstein or --

SCIUTTO: That is not --

BURKE: Right. Right.

CHALIAN: I mean -- but, Alice, two things. As a communications professional, I'm just curious --


CHALIAN: His handling of this so far, he's known about this, as Jim was pointing out, for months. I'm -- I guess I'm a little surprised for such a pro on Capitol Hill, didn't get out ahead of this in some way and is now responding this way. Would you have advised -- if only a matter -- I --

STEWART: I think -- my understanding talking with his office yesterday, as well as this morning, they provided a lot more information to the original news outlet that put this story out that was not included in the story. So I think we have to take that into consideration.

Since this has come out, they have done a good job, in my view, of pushing back and getting other stories and sources out there with information. I think it was good with the congressman being in his district, speaking to the press. Didn't hold anything back and let them ask questions until they were done. I think that's important. But at this stage of the game, yes, full disclosure, answer any and all questions. I think it's important. But, you know, getting out ahead of it --

SCIUTTO: Right. For --

BURKE: But, too, it's a little dangerous because it outs you -- I mean it gets you involved in a story that could become a scandal. So that's always a risky strategy.

SCIUTTO: Well, one incentive might be that you don't want the story to come out.

BURKE: Yes, true.

SCIUTTO: But, listen, it's early in this investigation. What we're going to do as a network certainly is follow up but we can't make any conclusions.

Stand by, everyone. There's a lot of other news.

The Fourth of July fireworks in Washington could potentially include a firing at the White House. A senior administration official tells CNN that EPA Chief Scott Pruitt is, quote, inching forward to the tipping point. Pruitt is facing, right now, more than a dozen federal probes, if you can believe it, into his actions, and it was revealed this week that his staff kept a secret schedule to hide meetings from the public that might potentially embarrass Pruitt.

CNN's senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny at the White House today.

Jeff, the president, to this point, has expressed a lot of confidence in Pruitt, but now you're learning that he may be running out of patience. JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, it

certainly seems at this point the voices from all sides, from conservatives, from Republicans on The Hill, even from some former supporters of Scott Pruitt is that time is up. That he is a big distraction for this White House. We have seen the president fire cabinet secretary after cabinet secretary, other aides and advisers dismissing them. Scott Pruitt, for some reason, has had, you know, repeated opportunities to stay on board, despite all these investigations.

But we are learning interesting information that it was Scott Pruitt himself who, in the spring, tried to go to the president to offer an exit strategy, if you will, to be the acting attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions temporarily. The president didn't take him up on that.

[13:10:15] But we are also learning that a senior administration official says they believe this is at a tipping point with the president. He knows that, you know, all of these investigations are swirling around.

Jim, the one reason -- the question we've all had is, how has Scott Pruitt survived this long? The answer to that question comes because oil and gas donors and other major contributors and friends of this administration have been happy with the policies of the EPA. They've urged the president to not fire him up until this point. But we do get a sense that the president likely losing his patience.

But, of course, many people thought that months ago, Jim. So we'll have to wait and see when the president makes this decision himself. But, no question, Scott Pruitt at the EPA has been the biggest black eye on the president's cabinet.


SCIUTTO: It has been. As you say, it's given the president a lot of what he's wanted. Certainly industry. You have a, in effect, a champion of the energy industry who's running the agency that's supposed to kind of keep them in check.

Other news, the president, of course, upcoming announcement on potential Supreme Court nominees. You've learned more about the White House strategy on the pick.

ZELENY: We have, indeed. I mean the president is out at his golf course, not far from the White House here in Virginia. Possibly a sign that he is, you know, essentially done with this decision phase of the Supreme Court pick. We know he's had seven possible contenders in for interviews.

And we do know, I am told by people familiar with the process, he's likely to make up his mind either tomorrow or Friday. And that is to give people who are working in this newly minted war room here at the White House time to -- sort of get ready for the onslaught and a bruising summer confirmation fight. Now, the president, I'm told, is going to keep this decision, you

know, essentially under wraps, with the exception of telling a couple of people. But there are going to be two or three possible people also on the list who this team is going to get ready for that announcement on Monday. So they hope it will not leak out because there will essentially be a list of either two or three finalists.

But, Jim, no question at all that there is a -- an ongoing lobbying effort, an 11th hour lobbying push. We have senators who are calling the president, other conservative activists calling the president, trying to make their choice. Essentially it boils down to religious conservatives and social conservatives who, you know, really have that as their top issue, versus legal conservatives who believe that it's better to appoint a justice, you know, who believes in the rule of law and principle of law and does not, you know, want extensive government regulation. So these two sort of defining pillars of the Republican Party now at odds here as the president makes his choice. But we do think he's only hours away from doing that. Of course, he'll announce it on Monday night.


SCIUTTO: And with real issues hanging in the balance, Roe v. Wade among them.

Jeff Zeleny, at the White House, thanks very much.

The panel's back with me now.

So, David, you know, Scott Pruitt has done what the president, what certainly the energy lobby wants, you know, maybe even above and beyond the call of duty here. But presumably the president could get another loyalist who could carry that out. I mean why does the president stick with Scott Pruitt through whatever embarrassing scandals in a midterm election year?

CHALIAN: He hasn't revealed that to us. We don't -- we don't know the answer to the question as to why. But I think we know enough about President Trump's sort of outlook on these kinds of moments to have insight into what might be going on here.

I think the president has a ton of respect for taking all that incoming and standing strong and surviving it. I think he sees a little bit of himself in that. So I think that has some appeal to not give in and cave to your critics.

And as you mentioned, yes, other people could, indeed, implement and execute on the policy agenda. But Scott Pruitt is doing it quite effectively, to the president's pleasure, and members of the cabinet serve at the pleasure. Now, as you know, the White House has said that perhaps they've reached a tipping point. The president himself has said the past that he doesn't love all these headlines and stories. So I don't know that we are -- we've come to the final moment of Pruitt's fate in the Trump administration.

SCIUTTO: And to be clear, they're not just lies and stories, remember, they are clear breaches of ethics rules and yet --

CHALIAN: Although I think the president's probably more concerned about the headlines than the stories, but --

SCIUTTO: No, I couldn't -- I couldn't imagine that.

CHALIAN: Because he -- he's very consumed by news coverage (INAUDIBLE).

STEWART: I think both of you are right in that you don't have to go far in GOP circles, in this town or anywhere, to find someone who would be just as loyal to the president, who would be just as effective at the job, but without all these ethics violations.

I was a big supporter of him at the beginning with regard to how strong he was enforcing the federal government regulations policies and environmental and the Paris Accord. But one after the other of these issues coming out is quite a distraction. He's gotten to be the Walter Mitty (ph) of the White House. He's got a job that's not quite so jazzy, but then he has this secret life of secret calendars and luxury travel and sound-proof rooms.

[13:15:02] And at some point, from a communications standpoint and a policy standpoint, I think this White House needs to say, all right, enough is enough. We've reached a tipping point. We can't continue to say, we're reviewing that, we're looking into it. At some point they're going to have to do something.

SCIUTTO: So another man in the news, Michael Cohen. We took notice today, just about an hour ago, that Michael Cohen, you might have changed his profile on Twitter to take out the phrase personal attorney to President Donald J. Trump. That's how it appeared before on the left. This is how it appears now.

Lauren, what's he trying to say there? We broke up -- we broke up via social media?

BURKE: I think what he's trying to say -- yes, it looks like he's inching closer and closer to being the guy that might flip. Obviously the Stephanopoulos interview and now this and the pronouncement of loyalty to family over everything else may indicate that we're seeing the closer -- you know, he's in huge trouble, obviously, legally. He's going to have to save himself at some point. Whether that means flipping on Trump, we don't know. But, of course, Trump is sending every signal that he would probably throw a pardon. So there's all that.

SCIUTTO: Right. And there is -- I've spoken to a lot of lawyers who represented folks in dire legal circumstances who see Michael Cohen throwing his trial balloon up for a pardon as well.

Thanks very much, Lauren, Alice and David.

Just in, a senior administration official is telling CNN that the president asked about the possibility -- wait for this -- of invading Venezuela during a meeting about sanctions against that country. We're going to have details on that story, next.

Plus, a bipartisan group of Senate investigators backing the intelligence community that Russia attacked the U.S. and wanted the president to win. So will President Trump finally acknowledge that assessment?


[13:20:02] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

Breaking news. CNN can now confirm that President Trump asked a number of his top foreign policy advisers last summer about the possibility of invading Venezuela. Trump aides vigorously pushed back against the idea, as did fellow Latin American leaders, who allegedly told Trump they did not want to see a U.S. invasion.

CNN White House reporter Jeremy Diamond joins us now with more on this.

I remember this moment last summer when the president, in public, said that military options were on the table and that was enough to -- for some people to be taken aback saying, what, military options for Venezuela? But here you have -- I mean, even, this is quite a military option.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. No, absolutely. He -- so that was in Bedminster back in August. He was standing alongside U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, openly talking about the possibility of a military option and not taking it off the table as he was considering these additional sanctions.

But the day before, the president was in a meeting with several of his top foreign policy advisers, including then National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and he asked them about the possibility of invading Venezuela. He asked them whether that might be an option to consider.

Now, let's be clear, the senior administration official who confirmed this to me emphasized that there were no imminent plans for any kind of a military strike on Venezuela and characterized this really as the president thinking out loud. But he didn't just do it one time. He was doing it with his advisers, talking about the possibility of a military invasion of Venezuela. And then he also probed several Latin American leaders about it in the subsequent month, both the Colombian president and Latin American leaders at the U.N.

SCIUTTO: That's more than -- that's more than thinking out loud. If you then take that idea to Latin American leaders, that sounds like the president was seriously considering this.

DIAMOND: Yes, it seems like he was at least doing some kind of a focus group session with these Latin American leaders about invading Venezuela which would obviously be a serious escalation of the U.S. response. We know this administration has been tough on Venezuela, imposing numerous sanctions. But this, of course, would be taking it to a whole new level.

SCIUTTO: Jeremy Diamond, thanks very much.

For more context on this, let's bring in CNN intelligence and security analyst, he's also a former CIA operative, Bob Baer.

Bob, so the president -- the White House is saying he was just thinking out loud here, but the president apparently took it seriously enough to go to other Latin American leaders and raise the idea of a U.S. invasion of Venezuela. You've been around government awhile. How unusual is it for a president to raise that in this context?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Very unusual. It's very sensitive in South America, of course, Jim. U.S. troops operating there overthrowing a government is, you know, beyond the pale.

Then again, Venezuela is a mess. Its oil production has fallen off a cliff. It's chaos. People aren't being fed. The countries around Venezuela are -- they're scared. Let's put it this way. A lot of refugees coming across the border.

And I do know that this has been in the air for a while, a couple of years, about a possible coup d'etat against Maduro, the head of the government in Venezuela. You know, so the president's got wind of this. I understand that McMaster pushed back on this early on, stay out of Venezuela, it's a mess. It looks like this has come back around. And the situation is ripe for a change there. So, let's see where it goes.

Of course, McMaster is gone now. And we've seen a history of this president saying good-bye to advisers who challenge him, right, on some issues. Looking at this, you mentioned that this might have come from inside the country? You say, what was the idea of this proposed to the U.S. perhaps by factions inside Venezuela?

BAER: Well, the way it usually works is exiles living outside of Venezuela will get wind of this or claim to the generals want to move against Maduro. They'll try to transmit those messages to the president and the National Security Council. Whether, in fact, there's a movement underway to get rid of Maduro in Venezuela, nobody knows for sure, but there's certainly not a lot of noise about it. But it's public as well. But a lot of people would like to get to this president. So you've got to do something about Venezuela. It's only going to get worse. It's going to destabilize the countries around it. And, you know, he's listening, clearly.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, you talk about exiles encouraging invasion. Think Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq. It's worked before.

BAER: (INAUDIBLE). Yes, great.

SCIUTTO: Bob Baer, thanks very much.

BAER: Thanks. Happy Fourth.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, breaking with the president. A Republican-led panel sides with the intelligence community's confident assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. I'll get reaction from Republican Congressman Tom Reid. That's just next.

And, later, trapped for another night. New video from inside a flooded cave where a youth soccer team waits to be rescued. Is learning to scuba dive going to be their only hope of getting out?


[13:28:27] SCIUTTO: Today, a Senate committee led by a Republican and with a majority of Republican members is breaking with the president, saying not only did Russia meddle in the 2016 election, but that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, specifically wanted Donald Trump to win and to hurt Hillary Clinton. The new bipartisan findings from the Senate Intelligence Committees are in stark contrast to findings from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee siding with the president and said that Putin did not try to help Trump win.

Following all of this for us has been CNN political correspondent Sara Murray.

So, Sara, walk us through these findings, which were really, you know, quite strongly worded. There was not a lot of -- there was no wishy washy in this. It was very direct.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. And, remember, Jim, the intelligence community wasn't very wishy washy on this when they put out their report in January of 2017. And what we see from this Senate report is they're concurring. They're saying that, yes, Russia did meddle in the 2016 election and their preference was Donald Trump. They did it to try to benefit Trump.

But the Senate committee also concludes they did this to try to hurt Hillary Clinton as well. And this was not something that was a one-off effort. This was something that was done under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now, as the Senate was looking at how the intelligence community came to this assessment in January 2017, they decided that the intelligence community reached these conclusions in a professional and transparent manner. They said there didn't seem to be any political pressure for them to reach these conclusions. That when they disagreed about an issue, there was a debate about it and it was transparent. So essentially they're saying, all these conclusions we saw from the intelligence community in 2017 that the president has doubted, they were sound.

[13:30:05] SCIUTTO: So Senate Intel investigation, of course, one of many intelligence agencies that made their own confident assessments. And, in fact, over time have said that Russia's interference has been even greater than they initially realized.