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Interview With Maryland Senator Ben Cardin; Paul Manafort Trial Continues; U.S. Officials Sound Alarm on Russian Election Interference; Northern California Wildfire Grows to 125,000+ Acres. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 2, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The director of national intelligence admits he still doesn't have details about what President Trump discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki. Why is the top U.S. intelligence official being kept in the dark?
Mueller's key witness. CNN has learned that special counsel Robert Mueller wants to interview a Russian pop star. He's featured -- he featured a Trump look-alike character in one of his videos and helped arrange that meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower. Could he have critical information for Mueller?
And lavish laundering. Prosecutors highlight extravagant spending by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in his tax evasion and money laundering trial, including a $15,000 ostrich jacket and a $10,000 karaoke machine. Why did Manafort suddenly, though, go broke?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, top national security and intelligence officials are warning of pervasive and continuing Russian interference in the U.S. political system.
Speaking over at the White House, they gave dire assessments of efforts to sow confusion and division among voters, at odds with President Trump's continued questioning of Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election.
We will talk about that and more with Senator Ben Cardin of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim the White House wants to show the administration takes election interference very seriously, despite doubt the president continues to cast. Update our viewers.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
The White House tried to show the world today that it's serious about stopping Russian interference in U.S. elections. But the top administration officials who were on display today insisting they are on the case had to grapple with one very key question, whether the president himself takes the threat to American democracy seriously.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has made it clear.
ACOSTA (voice-over): It was a show of force, as the White House sent out top administration officials, from the director of national intelligence to the national security adviser to the FBI director, to assure the American people they are determined to combat Russian interference in U.S. elections.
DAN COATS, U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.
ACOSTA: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats insisted the order is coming from the top.
COATS: The president has specifically directed us to make the matter of the election meddling and securing our election process a top priority.
ACOSTA: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen described a grave threat.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs. Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries, who seek, as the DNI just said, to sow discord and undermine our way of life.
ACOSTA: But all of the tough talk stood in stark contrast with the president's own past statements, most notably his summit with Vladimir Putin in Finland, where Mr. Trump declined to confront the Russian president over Moscow's meddling.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I hold both countries responsible, and I think we're all to blame.
ACOSTA: The president has often diminished the Russian threat, repeatedly saying other unnamed countries could be interfering as well.
TRUMP: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also.
ACOSTA: The officials gathered in the Briefing Room were asked about the disconnect.
COATS: I'm not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki.
ACOSTA: Then there are the president's tweets accusing top FBI officials of being part of a witch-hunt, a charge echoed by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: He's certainly expressing the frustration that he has with the level of corruption that we have seen from people like Jim Comey, Peter Strzok, Andrew McCabe. There's a reason that the president's angry.
ACOSTA: Asked about that, FBI Director Chris Wray pushed back with Sanders in the room.
CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: I can assure the American people that the men and women of the FBI, starting from the director all the way on down, are going to follow our oaths and do our job.
ACOSTA: The White House was also asked about its continued attacks on the press after the president's daughter Ivanka Trump told Axios members of the media are not the enemy of the people, as her father often says.
IVANKA TRUMP, ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I have certainly received my fair share of reporting on me personally that I know not to be fully accurate. But, no, I do not feel that the media is the enemy of people.
ACOSTA: Given multiple opportunities to back Ivanka and not President Trump, Sanders refused to say the press is not the enemy.
(on camera): His own daughter acknowledges that. And all I'm asking you to do, Sarah, is to acknowledge that right now and right here.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: I appreciate your passion. I share it. I have addressed this question. I have addressed my personal feelings. I'm here to speak on behalf of the president. He's made his comments clear.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Now, each of the top officials at the White House today laid out various task forces and initiatives that have been launched to defend against Russian attacks in the upcoming midterm elections.
The big question, of course, is whether any of those efforts will be ultimately successful. That answer may not come until well after the November elections are over.
Wolf, they like to say over here at the White House that they're not responsible for 2016 because they weren't around, they weren't in power when 2016 happened. They can't say that about this fall -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good point.
Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.
Let's get some more on the breaking news.
Joining us right now, our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.
Jim, how serious is this Russian hacking threat leading up to the midterm elections?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen to the senior most intelligence officials from all the agencies responsible for protecting elections today, and it's hard to imagine a starker warning from them, from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, from the nation's senior most intelligence official, that is the director of national intelligence, as well as the head of the NSA, which is responsible for responding to cyber-attacks.
They use language, Wolf, like Russia continues to have the willingness and capability to attack. They say the threat is real, it is continuing.
And it's key to listen to what Dan Coats said, because he says Russia is attacking the election, not just in the social media sphere that we often tend to talk about, divisive rhetoric, et cetera, but targeting particular candidates, stealing their information, as they did with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COATS: In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging -- messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.
We also know the Russians try to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: That's, of course, what Russians did with Hillary Clinton and other Democrats during the 2016 campaign.
What we have not seen yet, they say, Wolf, are specific attacks on election systems, such as voter registration, certainly not vote counting yet. We do know, in 2016, while there was no Russian attack on vote counting, there were probing attacks that probed registration systems, looked for vulnerabilities, et cetera.
They haven't seen that yet on these midterm elections. But they also made clear today that could change at the drop of a hat. He said, by a click of a computer mouse, we could change our assessment on that, but at least to date, they haven't seen that kind of interference
BLITZER: Did it sound to you, Jim, like the FBI is currently pursuing specific investigations?
SCIUTTO: That was, frankly, the biggest news from this press conference, because the FBI director, Christopher Wray, he revealed something he hasn't revealed before. And that is that they are our current investigations involving all of the FBI's more than 50 field offices around the country.
It doesn't mean you have investigations in each of those districts, but that the field offices are involved looking at what they call foreign influence nexus. That could include individuals trying to influence the campaign, like we see with a Maria Butina, who has now been arrested and charged.
But they're also seeing illegal campaign financing. So the funneling of foreign money into the campaign, which, of course, is not only illegal, but also raises hard questions about governments such as Russia trying to influence this campaign.
BLITZER: All right, Jim Sciutto reporting for us, thank you.
Also tonight, CNN has learned that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has been trying to arrange an interview with Russian pop star Emin Agalarov. He encouraged the Trump Tower meeting involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
CNN's Kara Scannell is working the story for us.
Kara, why would Mueller want to talk to him?
KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Agalarovs are sort of ground zero for this Trump Tower meeting.
It really occurred because Emin Agalarov, the son of Aras Agalarov, the Russian real estate developer, had reached out to his publicist, Rob Goldstone, and asked him to set up a meeting with Donald Trump Jr.
Now, we have a copy of the e-mail that Rob Goldstone had sent to Don Jr. in which he asked to set up the meeting. And in it, he says that: "Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting. The crown prosecutor of Russia that with his father, Aras, this morning, and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."
So the Agalarovs are at really the beginning of this meeting. They're the ones that suggested that it occur, this meeting with a Russian lawyer.
Now, the Agalarovs didn't attend the meeting, but Mueller might want to talk to them for two reasons. Now, Don Jr. when he was asked on Capitol Hill testimony whether he had spoken with the Agalarovs and specifically before this meeting, he said he didn't recall.
Now, Emin Agalarov has been on a bit of a publicity tour. He has some new music out. And he's given some interviews in which he said that he did speak with Donald Trump Jr. before the meeting.
Mueller's team might want to know why and what they discussed. Now, another area of inquiry may be whether they have any knowledge if President Trump knew about this meeting before it occurred.
Now, last week, we reported that sources said that Michael Cohen suggesting he has some information he could offer up that would show that Donald Trump knew about the meeting in advance.
Now, I asked the Agalarovs' attorney today whether they have any information about that. He said they had no reason to believe that Donald Trump the candidate knew about the meeting in advance, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's interesting because besides the Trump Tower meeting, Kara, as you know, the Agalarovs also had business ties to Donald Trump. Is that right?
SCANNELL: That's right, Wolf.
The Agalarovs go way back to the Trumps. About five or six years. They worked with them on establishing -- as you see in that video there, they met with them in Las Vegas, where they were discussing where they -- how they would put on the Miss Universe Pageant in 2013 in Moscow. They did that.
Donald Trump had asked them to invite Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to that. Putin did not attend. He had a conflict. And also after that, the success of the Miss Universe Pageant there, Trump was in talks with the Agalarovs about establishing a Trump Tower in Moscow.
They have some initial conversations on that. It never got off the ground, but we do know that Mueller's team is looking at any contacts that Trump has had with Russians before that campaign, through the campaign and right up until the election, Wolf.
BLITZER: How would this interview with Agalarov and Mueller's team work out logistically? Agalarov is in Russia. Does Mueller have any leverage? Would U.S. investigators be able to go to Russia to conduct such an interview?
SCANNELL: Well, this is why they're having these negotiations that the Agalarovs' lawyer told me today have been going on for nearly a year, because Mueller does not have subpoena power or any authority to compel the Agalarovs us to sit for an interview.
Now, if they were to come to the U.S. -- now, if Emin Agalarov, he is -- he has this new music video out, in which he is sort of mocking the whole Russian investigation. He has actors who look like Donald Trump, who look like Michael Cohen. He has video of Michael Cohen. He has someone who looks like Ivanka Trump in there.
He is sort of being provocative and having a little fun with the investigation, which he is now a little bit of a piece of. So if he were to come to the U.S. to perform, they could stop him at the airport. They have stopped a couple of oligarchs we know of to question them as they have come into the U.S.
But other than that occurring, they really have to try to negotiate something and see if they could go to perhaps another country to have an interview. I don't know if they would have it in Russia. But they would have to negotiate something like that. And that's what we understand is still ongoing.
And their lawyer today told me that he's not sure they're ever going to get to a place where they agree to conduct -- to sit for an interview, Wolf.
BLITZER: Good point. All right, Kara, thank you very much, Kara Scannell reporting.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, is joining us.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
I want to get to the Russia investigation in a moment. But, first, can the United States effectively counter Russian aggression if President Trump isn't necessarily on the same page as his national security and intelligence officials are?
SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, the report I issued six months ago in regards to the Russian incursions in Europe and the United States spelled out what we need to do.
Some of that was listed today by the national security team at the briefing. But what it really requires is the president of the United States to make an unambiguous commitment to defend this country and to stand up against Russia. That's been missing.
We have not heard from the president. We have heard from his security team. And that was good today. What they said was important. But the president's been missing on this.
When he had an opportunity with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, he gave a free pass to Mr. Putin. So, no, we haven't heard from the president in the strong terms that we need, and that's absolutely essential to be fully defending against what Russia is doing.
BLITZER: The director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, was asked about that disconnect which we saw on display clearly in Helsinki, what, two-and-a-half, three weeks ago.
He said he's not in a position -- this is Coats -- not in a position to understand fully what happened at that Trump-Putin summit. How concerning is it to you, Senator, that the director of national intelligence is still in the dark on that very important meeting?
CARDIN: This is really shocking that the director of national intelligence does not know what happened in Helsinki in the meeting between the president and President Putin. That's -- that's absolutely amazing.
He needs to have that intelligence information in order to do his job. And yet he doesn't know what happened in that room. That's why, as an oversight function of the United States Senate, it's absolutely essential that we have the information about what happened in the meeting between Mr. Putin and President Trump.
We have not been briefed as to what happened in that room. When Secretary Pompeo was present on our committee, he did not enlighten us at all about what happened in that meeting.
BLITZER: It's interesting. What sort of offensive operations against Russia would you support as a threat to them, you better stop what you're doing, otherwise, you're going to pay a huge, huge price? The U.S., of course, has offensive cyber-capabilities, probably the best in the world.
CARDIN: Well, over a year ago, Congress passed mandatory sanctions against Russia, not just because of their attack against us in our elections, but also their incursions into Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the activities.
These are mandatory sanctions. The president hasn't even used all those mandatory sanctions. So, first and foremost, carry out the law, increase the sanctions against Russia. Your national security team told us today that Russia is still actively engaged in the United States. Let's increase the sanctions.
And then, secondly, work with us, Mr. President. We filed legislation yesterday, bipartisan legislation, with Senator Graham and Senator Menendez and Senator McCain and Senator Gardner and Senator Shaheen. I joined them in strengthening the sanctions against Russia, not just because of what they're doing on cyber-attacks on our election system and the propaganda, but what they have done in Ukraine and continue to do in Ukraine and for other activities that they're doing.
Join us in strengthening the tools that you have, so you can let Mr. Putin know that, unless he stops these activities, he's in for more sanctions, not less, from the United States.
BLITZER: All right, but beyond sanctions -- beyond sanctions, Senator, would you support offensive cyber-operations, retaliation against the Russians, hacking into their systems, for example, disclosing their sensitive e-mails, showing details about Putin's wealth, that kind of operation, something the Russians clearly don't want, but might listen to?
CARDIN: Six months ago, I called upon the United States to work with our European allies as to what these cyber-attacks mean under Article 5 with NATO.
Yes, I do think these are attacks against us, and we need to defend ourselves. And we defend ourselves with all the tools we have available. So I wouldn't take anything off the table. But I do think we should work with our NATO allies and recognize that cyber-attacks are attacks against our country and require us to defend ourselves and to take appropriate action.
BLITZER: Would you want the president of the United States to tell Putin specifically, you continue these hacking activities, you continue to interfere in the U.S. election process, you're going to pay a huge price yourself, you're not going to like it, because we're going to do exactly to you what you're doing to us?
Would you want the president to issue a direct warning to Putin along those lines?
CARDIN: I -- the answer is yes. I do want the president to issue a direct ultimatum to President Putin that he cannot continue to incur in our country and invade and interfere in our election, that that's illegal and we consider that a hostile act, and we will take appropriate steps.
Yes. I wouldn't announce what steps they would be. I wouldn't say how we would respond. , clearly, I would make it known to Mr. Putin that we will take aggressive action. And then I think we are -- we should take action today because of what has happened, far more than we have already done.
BLITZER: Let's get to another sensitive. CNN has learned, Senator, that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is offering to limit the questions he asks about possible obstruction of justice if there's a sit-down interview with the president.
And he's open to having President Trump answer some questions in written form. What does that tell you?
CARDIN: Well, first of all, I was disappointed. I saw from President Trump this week additional tweets that he sent out to try to compromise the Mueller investigation.
The president has certainly done everything he can to prevent this investigation to reach its proper conclusion. I want Mr. Mueller to have all of the tools he needs, all the access that he needs, including the president of the United States, in order to complete his investigation.
The president said early that he -- earlier that he would cooperate. Well, cooperate means what Mr. Mueller needs. Whether it's live interviews with the president, whether it can be handled through questions, that's a decision for Mr. Mueller to make. And I would hope the president would cooperate.
BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks so much for joining us. CARDIN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: There's more breaking news ahead.
A Russian spy unmasked after working inside the United States Embassy in Moscow for more than a decade.
Plus, bombshell testimony in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. We have details.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news.
A senior administration officials tells CNN that a Russian spy worked for the Secret Service inside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow before being fired last year.
Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, has details.
Elise, this Russian woman was employed at the embassy, what, for more than a decade?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, for more than a decade working for the Secret Service.
And, Wolf, of course, there's a concern when you have what they call foreign service nationals, citizens of another country, in this case Russia, working for the embassy. There's a concern that they're going to be talking to the Russian government as part of their job.
But here, Wolf, U.S. officials realized that there were unauthorized meetings, conversations and a lot more information being passed to the Russian government, particularly the FSB, the one of the primary Russian security agencies, than out of the normal course of this woman's job.
And after several months, the woman was reported to the embassy and then she was fired.
BLITZER: What kind of information specifically would she have access to it how much damage could she do?
LABOTT: Wolf, well, not surprisingly, the Secret Service is trying to downplay the woman's role. Officials have told me that she didn't have any access to national security information or classified information.
In a statement, the Secret Service said that this woman's "duties are limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison, and administrative support. At no time in any U.S. Secret Service office have foreign service nationals been provided or placed in a position to obtain national security information." But, Wolf, this woman had access to the Secret Service intranet system, which all employees are accessed to, such as the president's schedule, the vice president's schedule, the e-mail system.
And the way she was caught, Wolf, is that officials caught her red- handed. They kind of did a sting operation, passed information to her that reach the FSB, and she was caught, Wolf.
BLITZER: Elise Labott, working the story for us, thank you very, very much.
There's also breaking news in the trial of the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. As prosecutors highlighted his lavish spending, his longtime bookkeeper testified today was actually broke by 2016
Our justice corresponding, Jessica Schneider, is joining us for the latest.
Jessica, jurors heard a lot today about Manafort's sort of expensive tastes.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's been the crux of prosecutors' arguments.
They have been focusing on his lavish spending. But on the flip side, his bookkeeper today was on the stand thing that, despite the millions he made, he was flat broke by 2016. That was right around the time he offered to work for the Trump campaign for free, and also allegedly when he got a bank executive whose bank eventually gave him alone a position on the Trump campaign.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Paul Manafort's dire financial situation outlined for the jury, the prosecution dropping the bombshell that Manafort was essentially broke by 2016, after spending millions of dollars maintaining his luxurious lifestyle.
Attorney Greg Andres says that, after Manafort's Ukraine consulting money dried up, he turned to bank fraud, lying to banks to secure loans for his cash flow. Manafort's business and personal estate bookkeeper, Heather Washkuhn, spent hours on the stand, detailing how Manafort's lobbying firm was financially strapped after his clients in Ukraine were driven out of office.
The retailers and other vendors who are taking the stand say they often didn't recognize the company names Manafort used to make payments for the services to their companies, but the amounts matched the invoices they sent.
Prosecutors are presenting these wire transfers from offshore bank accounts to prove their claims of tax and bank fraud. Paul Manafort has seemed calm and has stayed silent through the three days of testimony, but the question lingers, will he testify? Defense attorneys didn't offer any clues when judged T.S. Ellis raised the issue, stressing, "He will not be penalized for the right to remain silent."
But Judge Ellis added, if Manafort does testify, it will be more likely the judge will allow evidence that the IRS never audited Manafort, something his attorneys want to use to bolster his defense.
One person we now know will take the stand, Rick Gates. After some question Wednesday, prosecutors conceded they will call Gates, who some are calling their star witness. And it could be as soon as tomorrow or Monday dates. Gates was Manafort's deputy during the campaign and was his longtime associate.
He has pleaded guilty to two counts in D.C. and is cooperating with the special counsel. The defense said it intends to pin the blame on Gates, saying he embezzled millions from Manafort. But the prosecution is going to great lengths to show Manafort alone was the one spending the millions.
They have submitted reams of receipts documenting the hundreds of thousands of dollars he spent on high-end suits and clothing. In April 2012, Manafort paid $18,500 for a python jacket. Just a few months earlier, it was $9,500 on an ostrich vest to apparently complement the ostrich jacket he later paid $15,000 for.
There are also photos of the jackets and suits he paid a pretty penny for from the store that bills itself the most expensive in the world, Bijan. One blue jacket from Bijan, $32,800.
[18:30:22] Manafort also kept his seven homes in pristine condition. His landscaper testified that Manafort spent about $450,000 over five years for his Hamptons home, commissioning him to care for the hundreds of flowers, plus one of the biggest personal ponds in the Hamptons.
And Manafort kept it high-tech. He paid more than $2.2 million in electronics, including $10,000 on a karaoke system in 2010.
And prosecutors have also prevented these vendors with fake invoices that Paul Manafort may have created to look like it came from them to cover for the money he moved out of his of overseas bank accounts.
SCHNEIDER: And prosecutors will continue questioning Paul Manafort's accountant when court resumes tomorrow morning. That accountant has already told the jury he never knew about Manafort's foreign bank accounts.
And of course, Wolf, prosecutors are operating at a break-neck pace here. They've already called a large portion of their witness list. And they told the judge yesterday they could even wrap their case by next week.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, this train is moving very, very quickly. Thanks very much, Jessica Schneider, for that report.
The breaking news continues. Top Trump administration officials now warning of Russia's ongoing threat to America's democracy. Does President Trump believe them?
Plus, Robert Mueller's quest to interview a Russian pop star who spoofed President Trump in a music video. What does he know about Mr. Trump and the Trump Tower meeting with a lawyer tied to the Kremlin?
[18:36:28] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The White House putting forward the director of national intelligence, the homeland security secretary, and the FBI director, among others, all of them warning that Russia is targeting the United States' political system right now, despite President Trump's continued questioning of Moscow's attacks on the 2016 presidential election.
Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and analysts.
And Phil Mudd, I want you to listen to what the director of national intelligence said earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive message -- messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.
Russia has used numerous ways in which they want to influence through media, social media, through bots, through actors that they hire, through proxies, all of the above and potentially more. I can't go into any deep details other than what is classified. But it's pervasive. It is ongoing with the intent to achieve their intent, and that is drive a wedge and undermine our democratic values.
It goes beyond the elections. It goes to Russia's intent to undermine our democratic values, drive a wedge between our allies and do a number of other nefarious things.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: But does President Trump believe that?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Heck no, he doesn't believe this. Did you see him saying anything about this?
The reason that they're out there talking about this is there's four walls in the room around the president, and those walls are closing in.
No. 1, members of his own party, as we go into the midterm elections, are out there saying, "We've got to be careful." No. 2, the indictments from the special counsel -- and I believe we're
going to see more of them -- are pretty damning. Not only about people like Paul Manafort. But the indictments about Russian involvement is -- are very detailed.
No. 3, if you look at what's happened just in the past week about social media, Facebook is out with, again, detailed reports saying, "This is how the Russians are continuing to attack us."
And the most significant piece, I think the reason why we saw this in the press briefing today, you've got people on Capitol Hill, including the secretary of homeland security, presumably close to the president, saying, "I don't really care what the president says. I've got to get out saying we continue to see, like Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence said, we continue to see interference."
What's the White House supposed to say? Everybody's coming in saying it's still happening.
BLITZER: You know, Sabrina Siddiqui, as you know, Dan Coats said what the Russians are trying to do is drive a wedge between Americans. They're trying to spread, in his words, disinformation, alienate America from its allies, including NATO allies.
But as you know, the president's critics say President Trump is trying to do the same thing.
SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, if you look at the recent weeks alone, you could make that case.
He walked into the NATO summit and wouldn't commit to America coming to the defense of some of its most longstanding allies. He has continued to escalate the risk of a global trade war affecting key U.S. partners in Mexico and Canada and in Europe.
Here at home he has intensified his attacks once again on the media, trying to discredit any coverage he doesn't like as fake news, calling journalists unpatriotic.
But throughout all of this, what he hasn't shown a great deal of concern for is what his intelligence chiefs were talking about today, which is an ongoing effort by the Russians to interfere in the U.S. elections.
And it's striking that, on the one hand, Republicans have tried to distance themselves from the president's comments, and they're said they take this issue very seriously. But yesterday Republicans in the Senate, of course, blocked $250 million in election security funding.
I think ultimately what the president has done with the support of at least some Republicans is made the job of his intelligence chiefs a lot more difficult, because he is not providing them with the tools that they need to prevent another attack on U.S. democracy.
[18:40:11] BLITZER: Susan Hennessey, I want you to listen to another revealing moment from the news conference earlier today. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you explain the disconnect between what you are saying, his advisors, and what the president has said about this issue?
COATS: I'm not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened at Helsinki.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That's pretty shocking. Two and a half, almost three weeks after the Helsinki summit, the director of national intelligence says he's not in a position to understand fully or talk about what happened.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It is remarkable. He's not just saying, "I'm not in a position to talk about it." He's essentially saying, "I don't know what happened."
So it has been two weeks. We, the American people, and Trump's own administration don't know what was discussed, what representations may have been made, what deals the president might have been made. And the little bit of information that has trickled out about that meeting has been pretty worrying, right? The president being open to the possibility of Russian authorities interviewing the former -- the former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
I do think this touches on a larger theme of the Trump administration, which is that President Trump insists there is nothing untoward about his policy towards Russia. Yet at every turn, he seeks to either hide or outright lie about what that policy might be. And he's not just hiding it from the American people, he's hiding it from the very individuals within his administration who are tasked with providing him that crucial context and information so he's making good decisions on behalf of the United States.
BLITZER: That news conference today at the White House, how much of it was optics, trying to take away from some of the other stories out there right now?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, it was clearly optics. But I don't think it's as much about trying to push other stories aside, though the White House likes to do that all the time, because they don't want to see the ongoing Manafort trial and the Russia investigation.
But I think it's about the optics about what's to come in November, what we're going to look back on when, indeed, there is some interference, if it is as pervasive and persistent as described.
I watched that today and I said, "We're going to play sound from this press conference, we're going to play sound bites from it in November and December when we see what the interference impact really was."
And I think it was quite clear that this White House understands they have a vulnerability on this issue, because the president is not at all interested, hasn't seemed to be, in putting it front and center. So the administration is coming around the president to make sure they're out there saying, "Hey, we're on top of this," even though it's clearly not priority No. 1 for him.
BLITZER: Good point.
Everybody stand by. There's more news we're following. The special counsel, Robert Mueller, wants to question the Russian oligarch and his pop star son who encouraged that notorious campaign meeting in Trump Tower. What could Mueller hope to learn?
And prosecutors reveal former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort spend millions on luxuries, ending up actually broke. Why did he offer to work for the Trump campaign for free?
[18:47:38] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our correspondents and analysts.
And, Susan Hennessey, we're now told that Mueller still wants a sit- down interview with the president of the United States, but he's willing to limit the questions supposedly as far as obstruction of justice is concerned. He's also willing to let the president answer some other questions in written form. What does that say to you?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: So, it's not especially surprising that Mueller is willing to compromise. Actually, both sides are incentivized to compromise here. Mueller by agreeing to limit some of the questions and Donald Trump by agreeing to answer some of those questions.
You know, what it shows is that Mueller is still intensely focused on having this interview, on getting Trump on the record particularly as it relates to obstruction of justice. We've seen how terrified the Trump legal team is of actually having that meeting, the risk that the president might ultimately perjure himself. So, it does raise the possibility that the next major litigation we'll see here is not going to be new indictments out of the special counsel's office, but instead litigation over a subpoena of the president.
BLITZER: The subpoena, that could drag on months and months and months as it goes through the courts.
Do these developments, though, this latest offer from Mueller to the president's legal team, does it suggest to you, David Chalian, that an actual interview is more or less likely?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, the first thing it suggests as Susan was saying, Mueller's interest remains in wanting to get in front of the president, and the president's interest remains in looking like he wants to be cooperative. So, this eight-month long negotiations right now, both sides see value in allowing that negotiation to continue. Nobody sees value in cutting it off just yet. Whether or not the interview takes place, I still think a full-on, in-
person interview on every subject that Mueller would like to talk to him about is not likely to happen. I think that the Trump legal team will probably be able to win some internal battles with the president to keep that free and broad kind of conversation from happening.
BLITZER: You saw, Phil Mudd, "The New York Times" report today that the president actually thinks if he does have a sit-down interview with Mueller's team, he believes that he could convince them that the whole Russia investigation is a witch hunt.
How do you think that will go?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I get to laugh on this situation. Let me get this straight. So we've got dozens of indictments including both Americans and Russians against the most storied prosecutor, that is Robert Mueller, of the past generation at least. I would say the FBI's been around since 1908. Robert Mueller is the most famous FBI director in the 110-year history of the FBI.
[18:50:02] And the president thinks after he failed with Kim Jong-un, after he failed to persuade Putin to not interfere with elections, after he failed to persuade the Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare, that he's going to sit down with Robert Mueller say all these indictments were kind of a joke, this is a witch hunt. Then he's going to go on and tell the pope to become a pagan.
It's not going to work, Wolf. It's not going to work. Mueller is going to sit there and say, keep talking, keep talking. And when you're done talking, we'll see if anything you said is true and anything you said is a lie. It's not going to happen.
BLITZER: If he refuses to sit down and have this meeting and there is a subpoena from Mueller, Sabrina, that could drag on for a long, long time. The White House wants this to be over with already.
SABRINA SIDDIQUI, THE GUARDIAN: And there is no evidence that it will be over anytime soon. I don't see how Robert Mueller is going to conclude this investigation without sitting down with the president. And I think that the president has repeatedly said he wants to sit down with the special counsel and tried to project this confidence.
But you see if you look at his fixation with the Russia investigation the number of times he tweets about it. He is clearly very concerned about the effect that it has had on his presidency, about some of the indictments around key figures both within his campaign, as well as the early days of the administration and his own attorneys do not want him to sit down with Mueller because I think as Susan pointed out, there is a very real concern that the president might perjure himself. How this all plays out, of course, we'll learn more about it in the coming weeks.
BLITZER: Susan, a quick thought. We learned today that a Russian national, a Russian woman who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow for more than a decade, worked for the U.S. Secret Service there, was kicked out because she was a spy for the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB.
How much damage potentially over those ten years could she have done to the United States?
HENNESSEY: Look, the most important thing is what information she had access to. There are policies to prevent foreign nationals from getting access to national security information, as long as they were adhered to. It's designed specifically to prevent damage in this kind of situation.
BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens on that front. We're staying on that top story.
Guys, thank you very much.
The breaking news continues here in THE SITUATION ROOM. The giant wildfire burning in northern California is growing tonight. We're going out there for a live update.
[18:56:51] BLITZER: We are following breaking news of the deadly wildfires scorching parts of northern California right now. It's now grown to more than 125,000 acres.
Let's go to CNN's Scott McLean. He's on the scene for us.
Scott, fires damaged or destroyed more than 1,500 homes and other buildings. What's the latest?
SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. So, it has been a week now since fire tore through this neighborhood in Redding. But it was only today that people were actually allowed to come back, to see what was left of their homes. As you might imagine, it was a pretty emotional experience for people to see their homes looking like this.
And what might make things more painful or hard to understand is for them to walk down the block or even next door and see other homes looking like this one, completely untouched. The man who lives in this house, well, he actually ignored evacuation orders and managed to save his home with just a garden hose.
MCLEAN (voice-over): Tonight as some 20 wildfires rage across California, a survivor describes how he made it through. The Carr Fire tore through Thor Johnson's upscale subdivision on the western edge of Redding a week ago, torching the woods behind his house and the homes across the street.
He shot this video on his phone as he watched.
Johnson ignored evacuation orders defending his home with only a garden hose as flames lit up his fence, deck and raced through the trees.
THOR JOHNSON, DEFENDED HIS HOME FROM FIRE: So, I was freaking out trying to get that to stay where it was. I couldn't stop it. I kept spraying the trees and stuff just trying to keep it at bay.
MCLEAN: The evacuation order was finally lifted today as people came back to see what was lost. For many, it was everything.
TERRI KUTRIS, LOST HIOME IN FIRE: It is devastating to lose everything. It is unreal. You know? You just can't prepare for something like this.
MCLEAN: The Carr Fire has already destroyed more than 1,000 homes, making it one of the most destructive fires in California history.
In Mariposa County, the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park has forced a large portion of the popular tourist attraction to shut down.
CAPT. JOE AMADOR, FERGUSON FIRE SPOKESMAN: We are trying to do a tactical firing around the Merced Grove area to protect the giant sequoias.
MCLEAN: Meanwhile, the Carr Fire is moving into more remote areas, but the danger is not over. On its northern edge, crews are trying to stop the flames from crossing over a paved road. If they can't, flames can easily race down the extremely inaccessible canyon on the other side.
Plan B is a fire break bulldozed a few miles away. But even that may not stop the fire thanks to the extremely hot and dry conditions.
(on camera): So, if I took 100 embers and threw them on the other side of the road, how many of them are going to catch fire?
BRICE BENNETT, CAL FIRE SPOKESMAN: Ninety-eight embers will start new fires out of 100.
MCLEAN: And it's just because --
BENNETT: The low humidities and the very, very dry fuels are coupled with high temperatures.
MCLEAN: And the wind is expected to pick up once again tonight meaning those flames will once again be fanned, Wolf.
BLITZER: Awful situation. Scott McLean on the scene, thank you very much.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.