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Reports: National Enquirer Boss and Longtime Trump Pal David Pecker Granted Immunity in Hush Money Probe; Pompeo Returning to North Korea Next Week for Nuke Talks; New Evidence ISIS Leader Still Alive; Interview With Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline; Interview With Stormy Daniels Attorney Michael Avenatti; American Media President Reportedly Granted Immunity in Cohen Investigation; Jeff Sessions Hits Back at President Trump. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 23, 2018 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Sessions vowing he won't like the Justice Department be improperly influenced by politics, responding to some of the harshest attacks by Mr. Trump yet, this as a key Republican signals Mr. Trump might fire Sessions right after the midterm elections, which could pave the way for firing the special counsel, Robert Mueller

Also breaking, reports that "The National Enquirer"'s publisher was granted immunity in exchange for information about Michael Cohen, the president, and hush money payments to women.

This hour, I will talk to Stormy Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, and House Judiciary Committee member David Cicilline. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, today we heard Mr. Trump slam Sessions and assault the truth.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And that was not the only big development of the day on this front. It seems the White House was caught in another false statement after Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters there hadn't been any discussions about pardoning former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Now "The Washington Post" is reporting, yes, the president did bring it up with his legal team in recent weeks, and he was advised to wait until after the conclusion of the Russia investigation to consider something like that.

On top of that, Wolf, I can tell you I have been told the president has been advised against pardons in the Russia investigation for months, including for Paul Manafort. But the most surprising moment of the day came when the president found one Republican in Washington willing to push back, his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): In this latest round of President Trump and his favorite Cabinet punching bag, Attorney General Jeff Sessions punched back.

It all started after the president attacked Sessions once again for recusing himself in the Russia investigation.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Jeff Sessions recused himself, which he shouldn't have done, or he should have told me. He took the job and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this? And, by the way, he was on the campaign, the only reason I gave him the job, because I felt loyalty.

ACOSTA: But hours later, this time, Sessions surprisingly jabbed back, saying in a statement: "While I'm attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. No nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States."

TRUMP: This a little bit of a celebration meeting.

ACOSTA: Earlier in the day, the president tried to turn away from the Russia probe to celebrate his record, that is, until he could hear the questions about the criminal records of his former advisers.

The president didn't say whether he would pardon his now convicted former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Instead. Mr. Trump focused his fury on his former attorney Michael Cohen. The president tried to say Cohen's crimes weren't actually crimes.

TRUMP: He pled to two counts that aren't a crime, which nobody understands. I watched a number of shows. Sometimes, you get some pretty good information by watching shows. Those two counts aren't even a crime. They weren't campaign finance.

ACOSTA: But here's the reality. In Cohen's plea deal, he admitted to making an excessive campaign contribution when he paid off a porn star alleging an affair with Mr. Trump.

The president told more whoppers, insisting he wasn't really that close to Cohen, his longtime personal fixer.

TRUMP: He's been a lawyer for me. Didn't do big deals. Did small deals. Not somebody that was with me that much.

ACOSTA: In perhaps the most surreal moment of the interview, Mr. Trump condemned the fixer for flipping.

TRUMP: This whole thing about flipping, they call it, I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I have been watching flippers.

Everything's wonderful, and then they get 10 years in jail, and they -- they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed.

ACOSTA: Up late into the wee hours and tweeting about the Russia investigation, the president appears to be fixated on his fate as well, issuing dire warnings about impeachment.

TRUMP: I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job. I'll tell you what. If I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor.

because without this thinking, you would see -- you would see numbers that you wouldn't believe in reverse.

ACOSTA: As his outside attorney Rudy Giuliani talked about rebellion.

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You could only impeach him for political reasons, and the American people would revolt against that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for the White House saying a Manafort has not been under discussion, take a look at this statement from the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, just came in, in the last hour. We can put it up on screen.

It says: "This pardon is not being -- is not something being discussed in the White House and the president has not made a decision on pardoning Paul Manafort or anyone else."

Wolf, you can just look at how carefully worded that statement is, that the this discussion is not taking place inside the White House. It doesn't apply, obviously, if the discussion is happening up at Bedminster or other places involving the president and his legal advisers.

And as for Sessions, we should point out, officials tell us the attorney general was here at the White House for a meeting on prison reform. And sources tell us the attorney general's job status did not come up at that meeting and that for now Jeff Sessions still has a job -- Wolf.

[18:05:00]

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Let's talk more about the attorney general's pushback against the president.

Our justice reporter Laura Jarrett is with us right now.

Laura, let's listen, first of all, to what the president said about Jeff Sessions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: The Dems are very strong in the Justice Department.

I put an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions. I wanted to stay uninvolved. But when everybody sees what's going on in the Justice Department, I always put justice now with quotes.

It's a very, very sad day. Jeff Sessions recused himself, which he shouldn't have done, or he should have told me. Even my enemies say that Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself, and then you wouldn't have put him in.

He took the job and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this? And, by the way, he was on the campaign, the only reason I gave him the job, because I felt loyalty.

He was an original supporter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Pretty amazing. "What kind of man is this? The only reason he has the job is because of loyalty."

Finally, though, Jeff Sessions responded.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, enough was enough.

Just hours after that FOX interview, Sessions put out the statement firing back, saying in part this: "I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in. While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."

Now, I'm told the reason he finally fired back today, of all days, after all the tweets, isn't because the president is putting justice in air quotes. Is isn't because of all the name-calling. It's because he said he didn't have any control. He's undermining him as the chief law enforcement officer.

He's making it seems like the Dems are run amuck in the Justice Department. And so Jeff Sessions is saying, no, Mr. President, I am here to say I'm in the driver's seat. I am in control.

But as you can see, the relationship is dysfunctional, as Jim Acosta and Jeremy Diamond have been reporting. The two were at a meeting today at the White House and no one brings up this statement, no one has any face-to-face confrontation.

They just left it as is.

BLITZER: Yes, it's really a sick, sick relationship.

How close is Sessions, Laura, from actually losing his job, and what would the consequences of that be?

JARRETT: Well, I think the fallout from that really depends on the timing here.

We saw a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill rushing to his defense today, people like Senator John Cornyn and Orrin Hatch defending him, saying it wouldn't be good for the country if he was ousted.

But then Senator Lindsey Graham, who has the president's ear, comes out and says, well, wait a minute. Listen to this, Wolf.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of president.

After the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: Now, again, the timing here really matters, because if Sessions is ousted while Mueller is still working away, well, then Rod Rosenstein wouldn't necessarily still be the person in control of the Russia investigation, because, of course, the only reason he's overseeing Mueller is because Sessions is recused.

And so if the president was able to find a way to put a new attorney general in there who did not have a conflict and actually get that person confirmed, then that person could work to undermine Mueller.

BLITZER: Yes, and that could take a long time. And Rosenstein would be acting attorney general in the interim.

Good reporting, Laura. Thank you very, very much.

Joining us now, David -- Congressman David Cicilline. He's a Democrat. He serves on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, let me get your response right away to the president's attacks. The attorney general says he will protect the Justice Department from improper political influence. How do you interpret that?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Well, I think it was a very welcome statement from the attorney general.

Although I disagree with him on so many policies, it's good to hear him finally speak up to defend the professionals at the Department of Justice, the men and women who are, as he said, the best investigators in the world and the best prosecutors, who are doing their job, and his commitment to protect the department from political interference.

It's a complete rejection by a Republican attorney general, close ally of the president, to the president's claim that the department is run amuck, run by Democrats out to get him in a witch-hunt. So it was long overdue, an important statement from the attorney general. I hope he will continue to raise his voice to defend the integrity of the investigation and the department.

BLITZER: If the president were to fire Jeff Sessions, how concerned would you be, Congressman, that he would try to install a replacement who would effectively shut down the Russia investigation or try to bury Mueller's report?

CICILLINE: Well, I don't think there's any question that's the president's intention. He's tried in every way that he possibly could to undermine this investigation, to undermine the professionals who are engaged in the investigation, to in fact say the whole thing is a hoax and a witch-hunt and make-believe and all these sorts of things.

[18:10:02]

So I think he also continues to say Jeff Sessions should have never become the attorney general, if he didn't -- wasn't loyal to the president, wouldn't oversee this.

Seems to misunderstand the role of the attorney general is not to protect the president of the United States, but to -- he owes a loyalty to the Constitution and to the American people. And that's what Mr. Sessions job is.

And the president just does not seem to understand that everyone's function is not just to look out and protect him from his own behavior and his own wrongdoing, but instead to uphold the rule of law and to protect our Constitution.

BLITZER: The president also said something extraordinary today. He said that flipping almost ought to be illegal. He's referring to individuals who face potential convictions. They decide in the end to cooperate with law enforcement, hoping to get some sort of reduced sentence in the process.

What does that tell you, that the president said flipping almost always ought to be illegal?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, that's sort of the language you would expect from a mob boss, not from the president of the United States.

Our law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal level rely on cooperating witnesses to keep America safe, to solve crimes, to prevent some of the most serious terrorist attacks and other dangers to communities that they investigate every day.

The idea that they shouldn't keep the American people safe by benefiting from the willingness of individuals to share information as part of an ongoing investigation is lunacy.

It will endanger the lives of the American people if that policy were actually stopped. And the president should know that. But he's looking at it through the lens of his own predicament, his own legal situation, rather than understanding or caring about how important it is to law enforcement and how essential is to keeping communities safe. BLITZER: Yes, he should have that conversation with Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer, who, when he was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, got some of his biggest convictions as a result of individuals flipping and cooperating with his prosecutors.

Another story, a bombshell today, according to "The Wall Street Journal," Congressman, David Pecker, who publishes "The National Enquirer," has been granted immunity by prosecutors in exchange for his cooperation, testimony against the hush money payments that the president and his lawyer Michael Cohen made to women.

How significant is that?

CICILLINE: Well, I think this is very significant.

This corroborates the plea and the statements of Mr. Cohen about the efforts to silence these two stories, sort of catch and kill, as they call it. These are close allies of the president who played a role in keeping these secret. I'm sure the president is disappointed, but this is an example of people who understand it's important to tell the truth to avoid prosecution, and to be sure that they're doing their part in cooperating in this investigation.

And they were granted immunity, which means they can't be prosecuted, but they're sharing important facts that are -- will continue to support the ongoing investigation and the other prosecutions in this case.

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

CICILLINE: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Just ahead: The president tries to claim he barely knew the man who implicated him in the campaign finance crimes. More on Mr. Trump lashing out at Michael Cohen.

And what did "The National Enquirer"'s publisher tell prosecutors in exchange for immunity? Were additional hush money payments to women revealed? I will ask the journalist Ronan Farrow what he's learning.

And I will also speak to Stormy Daniels' attorney -- there you see him, Michael Avenatti. We will discuss the latest when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:18:05]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now, including another longtime Trump defender abandoning the president and cutting a deal with prosecutors.

Two days after Michael Cohen's bombshell plea deal, there's new reporting right now that the publisher of "The National Enquirer" has been granted immunity by the feds.

Let's go to CNN's Brynn Gingras. She's covering a story for us in New York.

Brynn, David Pecker had information about those hush money payments made to protect the president. What's the latest?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, if it's two against one now when it comes to the president saying that he knew nothing about payments to women to silence their stories.

But court documents show that David Pecker and Michael Cohen, who were friends of the president, formed an alliance as early as August 2015 to catch and kill stories.

And now it seems that Michael Cohen may be the only one taking the fall.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS (voice-over): Another Trump ally cooperating with investigators, and this one's gaining immunity for doing so.

"The Wall Street Journal" reporting David Pecker, who runs "The National Enquirer" and is a longtime friend of Trump's, worked with federal prosecutors in the Michael Cohen investigation and discussed the deals the two men brokered to quash bad press about the president prior to the 2016 election.

Details of Pecker's immunity deal coming out just hours after Trump complained to FOX News about people flipping.

TRUMP: Everything's wonderful, and then they get 10 years in jail, and they -- they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair.

If you say bad things about somebody, in other words, make up stories, if you don't know, make up stories. They just make up lies.

GINGRAS: Pecker was the subpoenaed by the feds in April, shortly after the raid of Michael Cohen's home office and hotel room, and like Cohen, Pecker reportedly told investigators the president knew about payments made to two women who alleged affairs with Trump.

[18:20:01]

Pecker and Cohen's alliance is laid out in great detail in documents from Tuesday's court proceedings. And Pecker's testimony to investigators is supported by documents and audio recordings seized from the raid, according to "The Journal."

Court papers show investigators found one conversation regarding the payout to porn star Stormy Daniels on an encrypted phone app. Pecker tells Cohen -- quote -- "We have to coordinate something on the matter attorney one is calling you about or it could look awfully bad for everyone."

President Trump has denied knowing of the hush money payments at the time, but Cohen alleges that Trump knew about them, a claim supported by secretly made audiotape provided to CNN by Cohen's attorney last month.

On the recording, you can hear the president and Cohen talking about how to handle an arrangement with David Pecker.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David, you know, so that -- I'm going to do that right away. I've actually come up and I've spoken...

TRUMP: Give it to me and...

COHEN: And, I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with...

TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?

COHEN: ... funding. Yes. And it's all the stuff.

TRUMP: Yes, I was thinking about that.

COHEN: All the stuff. Because -- here, you never know where that company -- you never know what he's...

TRUMP: Maybe he gets hit by a truck.

COHEN: Correct.

GINGRAS: For now, it seems the only one taking the fall is Michael Cohen.

Tonight "The Wall Street Journal" also reporting that a turning point came for Cohen when he spoke to his father, Maurice, a Holocaust survivor who reportedly said -- quote -- "He didn't survive the Holocaust to have his name sullied by Mr. Trump."

Another factor for Cohen, reportedly, a concern that his wife could be implicated. The two file taxes jointly.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS: Of course, Cohen is facing sentencing for his crimes in December.

We reached out to AMI for comment, and we haven't heard back. But who is speaking out is Karen McDougal's attorney. Remember, she filed a suit against AMI and has openly complained about the company's conduct. And in that tweet, her lawyer said, "I told you so" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brynn Gingras, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti.

Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

So, what do you say -- what does it say to you that the government was willing to grant immunity to David Pecker? MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: Well, it says that the

president is in a lot of trouble, Wolf.

The timing of this grant of immunity, I think, is very, very important. And let me tell you why. If the immunity was granted early on in the investigation, with an eye towards using the testimony to get to Michael Cohen, that's one thing. If the immunity was granted later in the investigation, when they already believed that they had Michael Cohen dead to rights, that's an entirely different thing.

Now, why do I say that? Because if they granted the immunity to Mr. Pecker, knowing that they already had Michael Cohen sewn up, if you will, as it relates to likely convictions, then that would tell me that the government is looking beyond Michael Cohen to another party to use Mr. Pecker's testimony against, and the only other party that I know of where that would make sense would be Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Do you believe that Pecker would know if any other women had been paid off, these hush money payments, or other potentially damaging information about the president?

AVENATTI: I absolutely do.

I think that between him and Michael Cohen, they likely have the waterfront covered, if you will, as it relates to all of the payments to all of the women.

BLITZER: Because -- I ask the question because at one point, you remember, you had said that you had been approached by other women who claim to have also had affairs with President Trump.

Were you ever able to confirm any of their stories?

AVENATTI: Well, as you know, Wolf, have been retained and have accepted the retention on behalf of three other women relating to other hush payments.

I made that known a number of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I don't have client approval yet to come forward with the details relating to their circumstances, their situation.

But I know for a fact that there's multiple women beyond Ms. McDougal and my client.

BLITZER: President Trump says that the crimes Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to, specifically those two crimes involving campaign finance violations, the president says weren't crimes.

What's your reaction to that?

AVENATTI: Well, this is a very curious existence that the president has carved out for himself.

I mean, this is absolute make-believe world, Wolf. Truth is not truth and crimes are not crimes. The president is living a fallacy. And sooner or later, this is going

to come crumbling down around him, this criminal enterprise that he's been at the center of.

[18:25:01]

There's little question in my mind that that's going to happen. But the president seems to believe that if he says something is true that it makes it true, when, in essence, just the opposite.

BLITZER: What about the president saying that flipping, flipping almost -- almost ought to be illegal, in his words? In other words, when an individual is facing a conviction, they go ahead and cooperate with law enforcement, hoping to get some sort of reduced sentence.

He says that almost always ought to be made illegal.

AVENATTI: It's a disgrace, and it's an embarrassment to the United States. It's an embarrassment to the rule of law, to have the president of the United States go on national television and basically espouse a situation where individuals should not be encouraged to come forward and tell the truth about criminal co-conspirators.

It's an absolute disgrace, and it's disgusting. As an officer of the court, I'm especially disturbed by it.

BLITZER: The Associated Press, Michael, is now reporting that "The National Enquirer" kept a safe, a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its relationship with Donald Trump leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Were you aware of that?

AVENATTI: I'm not going to answer exactly what I was aware of or not aware of that I haven't made public, Wolf.

But here's what I am going to say. What's happening right now is not unusual in connection with a criminal investigation. You begin to pull on a string and, very soon thereafter, in many, many circumstances, the ball begins to unravel. And that's what we're witnessing.

And I predict that's what we're going to continue to witness. This is going to become more and more problematic for the president, and he is going to face some very, very difficult days ahead.

BLITZER: Do you believe that Michael Cohen potentially could be found guilty of other crimes, in addition to what he pleaded to in that federal court in New York City on Tuesday?

AVENATTI: I do. I think he could potentially face other federal and state crimes. And that's one of the reasons why he has begun cooperating and why he's going to continue to cooperate, because he knows that and his lawyers know that. And they also know that prosecutors have a lot of power relating to

the sentencing that's going to take place in connection with -- or in December. He is going to be keenly aware of that at all times. And, therefore, I believe that he's going to fully cooperate and tell them everything that he knows.

BLITZER: And do you believe President Trump could be implicated in other crimes?

AVENATTI: I think there's little question at this point, Wolf, that we have just begun to scratch the surface relating to the president's culpability and his involvement in this criminal enterprise.

And I'm looking forward to the truth being laid bare for the American people. I'm going to continue to work diligently to get these depositions under oath, so that we can make it known to everyone exactly what transpired here. And, ultimately, they are going to decide what happens to this president.

BLITZER: On that point, you predicted that you will be able to depose both President Trump and Michael Cohen in the Stormy Daniels lawsuit.

So what information exactly do you want from them?

AVENATTI: I want to know what the president knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it. I want to know the communications he had with Michael Cohen relating to the -- to the crime and the attempt to cover this up.

I want to know what documents exist. I want to know -- there's a bunch of questions that I have for both Michael Cohen and Donald Trump. And I'm very much looking forward to those answers under oath, Wolf.

It's one thing to lie to the press. It's a whole different ball game when you're talking about making a -- or giving testimony under oath.

BLITZER: Michael Avenatti, thanks so much for joining us.

AVENATTI: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on David Pecker's immunity deal. I'll speak to the journalist Ronan Farrow about his extensive reporting on "The National Enquirer" and its secret system to protect the president.

And, as Jeff Sessions punches back at Mr. Trump, are his days over at the Justice Department numbered?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following breaking news on two former Trump allies feeling threatened by the president and his legal troubles. One is fighting. The other may be flipping tonight.

[18:33:56] "National Enquirer" publisher David Pecker reportedly has been granted an immunity deal by federal prosecutors. And the embattled attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, is vowing the Justice Department won't be improperly influenced as Mr. Trump attacks him publicly once again.

Let's bring in our analysts. And Mark Preston, Sessions is now fighting back. He was publicly once again humiliated, berated by the president, but now he's at least fighting back.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He is at least fighting back. We saw this a little bit earlier at the beginning of the year. But your point, the amount of criticism that he has taken from his boss, very public criticism, I don't know how many people could actually take it.

I think what we saw happen today was two things. One is the president opened a door to allow Sessions to do so, because he attacked the Justice Department. This isn't just Jeff Sessions. It's everybody that is under Jeff Sessions's roof. So he was able to do that.

This is also someone who has to be looking towards his legacy, what his place is going to be in history. This is someone who was very accomplished before Donald Trump, whether you liked his politics or not, and I think we're seeing the pushback.

[18:35:00] Why he hasn't until this point? I'll just say very quickly, I'm under the theory and just started to think about this, that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are asking him, "Please stay standing. Please stay where you are. We need to get the Supreme Court judges through. You were once a senator. You understand how this works." And I wonder if that's why Jeff Sessions sticks around.

BLITZER: An important point.

Jeffery Toobin, the attorney general, he's been a frequent victim of the president's attacks, the criticism. Take a look at some of the things the president has said about him over the past year or so. He made a terrible mistake hiring him. He's an idiot. He's beleaguered. He's very weak. Very disappointed with him. He's disgraceful. "If we had a real attorney general" he said the other day. And today he said that Sessions never took control of the Justice Department.

That's just some of the examples of the humiliation he's received from the president of the United States.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's like nothing we've seen and, frankly, in American history, to have a president talk about a cabinet member that way.

And almost all of the criticism has been about Sessions's clearly correct decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

What's somewhat different about today was that it was sort of criticism of the department as a whole. But, I mean, the fact that -- that Sessions has taken all that in silence while being an incredibly obedient follower of Trump's agenda -- to limit voting rights for minorities; to limit affirmative action; you know, to crack down on immigration -- all of that has been very much following the president's orders. But it's just characteristic of the president that the stuff about him trumps everything else.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Sabrina Siddiqui, Republican senator Lindsey Graham, he said today that after the election -- I'm quoting him now -- "I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general."

This is an important statement, because it was not all that long ago last year when Senator Graham said there would be holy hell to pay if Sessions were fired.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": We've seen a fairly remarkable turnaround from a number of key Senate Republicans, including Lindsey Graham, as well as Chuck Grassley also telling reporters today that he would potentially have time to hold a hearing if the president felt he wanted to send another nomination forward.

And I think that a lot of that has to do with Republicans clearly seeing that the base is overwhelmingly behind the president and really putting their eggs in that basket and not wanting to pick a fight with him if he does ultimately take the step of removing Sessions from his post.

Having said that, there are still a number of Republicans who were very cautious when they were asked by reporters on Capitol Hill today. John Cornyn, who's the No. 2 Republican, saying he did not think it would be a good idea. And Susan Collins, a moderate Republican senator from Maine, also pushing back against firing Jeff Sessions.

So he still has some allies in Congress. But we have seen this theme where the president has been able to push the boundaries continuously to see what he can get away with. And so far, Republicans have really not been willing to take him on in any public fashion.

So the question is will that change if he does take the step of actually removing Jeff Sessions as his attorney general?

BLITZER: It's interesting, David Swerdlick. The president clearly can't stomach Jeff Sessions. So why doesn't he just fire him?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's because, one, he has the support of Republicans in the Senate, his former colleagues. I also think it's because he realizes, even though he doesn't want to realize it, probably, that the political firestorm that would result.

It may still come to that, Wolf, but I think the president can at least read the tea leaves and see how dramatic a moment that would be.

What matters in this situation is, is there someone he can replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions with who would either fire Mueller director or fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? If you put someone else in there who's going to keep an arm's length like Sessions has, whether or not they actually have to recuse themselves and let Rod Rosenstein run this investigation with Mueller. It doesn't actually matter to the president's interests here what they do.

BLITZER: You know, Jeff, you've done a lot of reporting on "The National Enquirer" over the years, so what does it say to you that David Pecker, the publisher of American Media, the parent company of "The National Enquirer," what does it say to you that he's now cooperating with federal prosecutors in exchange for being granted immunity?

TOOBIN: Well, when you're given immunity, you don't haves any choice but to cooperate. You can't decide not to answer questions.

The web of connections between David Pecker and Donald Trump, you know, goes back for decades. And, certainly, there is nothing improper about a magazine supporting a presidential candidate. That certainly goes on all the time, and it's part of what the First Amendment is all about.

What's important here is what if -- financial relationship there was. Were there other payments made on behalf of the Trump campaign by American Media, which is the parent company of "The National Enquirer." That has the potential to change the story even more dramatically, if we know that more money went for the benefit of the Trump campaign through American Media. And that -- the grant of immunity suggests that is at least a possible reason why the immunity was granted.

[18:40:19] BLITZER: And the political fallout could be enormous.

PRESTON: Oh, my gosh, I mean, could you imagine, Wolf? If Jeff Sessions were to be fired, right, if Robert Mueller were to be fired. The Republicans in Congress would have no choice but to begin impeachment proceedings. And I don't say that lightly. But it's clearly -- there's no reason to fire Jeff Sessions at this point.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's more news we're following as David Pecker reportedly has been granted immunity.

We're also learning more about "The National Enquirer's" history of protecting the president. Ronan Farrow of "The New Yorker" magazine, he's standing by live. There you see him. He's done groundbreaking reporting on the relationships between the tabloid and Mr. Trump.

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[18:45:36] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We have more on the breaking news. New reporting that the publisher of "The National Enquirer" has been granted immunity to tell prosecutors what he knows about the president, Michael Cohen and secret payments made to silence women.

Joining us now is Ronan Farrow of "The New Yorker" magazine. He was behind an explosive story about the tabloid's efforts to hide Mr. Trump's alleged affair with the former "Playboy" model.

Ronan, thanks so much for joining us. You have done a lot of extensive reporting on how David Pecker operates.

What sort of information do you think Pecker would give the federal prosecutors that warranted him of being granted immunity?

RONAN FARROW, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Well, it's clear, Wolf, from reporting that I and a number of other reporters have done over recent months. And, of course, from this charging document in the Cohen case that there was a very close relationship between Cohen, Pecker and Donald Trump. And indeed the charging document makes it clear that there was an active agreement that they would find on unflattering stories and killed them.

The reporting that I did over the last few months involved a string of cases of that type. We know that Pecker was aware of the Stormy Daniels' case. I documented two cases in which AMI, the "National Enquirer's" parent company, directly paid people to kill stories. One in the case of Karen McDougal's affair with Trump and one in the case of a doorman at the Trump Organization who claimed to know about an affair and a love child related to Trump. In both of those cases, this was a company paying money to silence stories.

And, Wolf, from the beginning, we've know that this is a pattern of behavior that could potentially get this company in legal trouble. We talk to election law experts who said that is dicey territory to be in so close to an election and with such an apparently close relationship.

BLITZER: Are you surprise that Pecker would turn on the president considering their long standing personal relationship?

FARROW: Well, because we knew from the beginning that this was potentially risky behavior from a legal standpoint. We had legal analysts saying, hey, this looks like an attempt to influence elections that could run into legal problems. It was apparent from the beginning that any law enforcement officials looking at this case might have a lot on Pecker.

This is also a company where, you know, multiple, multiple employees of the company allege various kinds of criminal activities. I would imagine that that conversation really back David Pecker into a corner.

BLITZER: Now, "The Associated Press" is reporting that the "National Enquirer" actually kept a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories, it kills as part of the relationship of Donald Trump leading up to 2016 presidential election. What can you tell us o f the safe and other stories that have not been yet made public if you can?

FARROW: Certainly, that safe was something that was well-known to a large number of "National Enquirer" employees. It was an old fashion physical safe in a person's office, and some of the documents that were basis for our story for instance that agreement with that doorman resided in that safe for a time.

In terms of stories other than the ones that I've reported, I'm going to stay away from that. We carefully investigate those and I'll talk about the ones that we've actually made public.

BLITZER: Which is fair enough. How might this influence the ongoing lawsuits with Stormy Daniels and

Karen McDougal? Do you think Pecker or the president for that matter will be deposed?

FARROW: You know, I'm not going to guess as to how civil proceedings might play out, Wolf, but I will say it is clear in those suits, from the beginning, and the complaints from those women, that a major theme was this question as to whether the suppression of their stories influencing the elections with this set of charging documents about Cohen. We now have abundant evidence that there was a relationship designed to do just that.

BLITZER: I want to move onto another stunning development, you and your colleague Adam Entous at "The New Yorker", you just published a story, it's a pretty story in "The New Yorker" about a the memo that was circulating in the White House early during the Trump administration. The memo warning about a group of former Obama officials dubbed the "echo chamber". The memo says they were behind coordinated attacks against the new president and his advisers.

Tell us about your reporting.

FARROW: Wolf, this was circulated at very high levels of the White House. It's a document that seems to buy into a conservative conspiracy theory aired on sites like Breitbart that opine that there was a war room of Obama officials engaging in a secret, coordinated attack on the administration. And the memo is really written in the style of a military analysis memo. It treats these former Obama aides almost as enemy combatants.

[18:50:03] BLITZER: Well, talk a little bit about that, because your report that the language in the memo, it was -- it mirrors documents produced by Black Cube. That's considered an Israeli private intelligence firm. You report that they were allegedly tasked with smearing people involved in crafting the Iran nuclear deal. Do you think there is a connection there?

FARROW: So I had previously reported that there was this undercover operation to undermine proponents of the Iran deal, including former Obama aides. And they used some pretty extreme tactics, Wolf, in undertaking that goal. They were using front companies, false identities, going after people's spouses.

What we've now learned is that that operation was underpinned by documents that used very similar language, talking about this same conspiracy theory. We do not report that the client in that operation, which that private intelligence firm, Black Cube, has kept secret, is related to the Trump administration, but certainly this shows a commonality of interest and it shows just how deeply these kind of conspiracy theories have penetrated politics and business.

BLITZER: This is the same firm, I take it, that Harvey Weinstein used to go after his accusers. That according to your previous reporting, right?

FARROW: That's exactly right. BLITZER: And to be clear, I just want to make -- issue the statement

that Black Cube gave you guys. And I'll read it to our viewers right now. This is the statement from Black Cube.

Black Cube does not get involved in politics. It has no relation whatsoever to the Trump administration, to Trump aides, to anyone close to the administration, or to the Iran nuclear deal. Black Cube is not aware of the documents mentioned in this article, neither their contents.

What's your reaction to that?

FARROW: We're very careful to include that statement and to include what we do and don't know. We don't know the identity of Black Cube's client at this point. What we do know is that they were running an operation with very significant political ramifications. Going after former Obama aides and apparently trying to discredit them specifically in the context of their work on the Iran deal.

And you mentioned the Harvey Weinstein parallel, this firm was using many of the same tactics, including sexual blackmail, using false identities. This is a striking turn of events that former public servants are now being subjected to that.

BLITZER: But do you think there is a connection?

FARROW: I think there's a thematic connection. There's no doubt about it.

BLITZER: What does the memo tell you about President Trump and how the current White House functions?

FARROW: I think it reveals just how deeply involved in these conspiracy theories this administration is. We talk a little in the story about the kind of factionalism of this White House and how these stories about a secret war room of Obama officials has driven apart some of those factions.

This was something that ran like wildfire in the NSC, and right now there are a lot of people reacting to this article saying, hey, this isn't what the National Security Council should be spending its time on. They shouldn't be treating former officials as enemy combatants.

BLITZER: Very strong reporting, Ronan. Thank you very much for joining us.

FARROW: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces he'll be heading back to North Korea soon. Can he persuade Kim Jong- un to live up to his nuclear weapons agreement with President Trump?

Plus, he apparently isn't dead after all. We're having new information, new details emerging about a newly released audio from the ISIS leader.

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[18:57:56] BLITZER: Tonight, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he's heading back to North Korea next week to resume talks on denuclearization. There's new evidence suggesting Kim Jong-un isn't living up to the promises he made to President Trump.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.

Tonight, no promise that Mike Pompeo is going to get a meeting with Kim Jong-un when he arrives in Pyongyang. There are signs, however, that North Korea is still not denuclearizing and maybe moving in the other direction. New commercial satellite imagery shows the dismantlement activity at a satellite launch site has been stopped, no longer dismantling. The imagery showing that all of that dismantlement activity has come to a full stop.

This comes, Wolf, as the very respected international U.N. nuclear watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, says it has grave concern, their words, about North Korea's nuclear activity. They are seeing evidence of continuing nuclear activity at North Korea's experimental reactors, at its nuclear fuel sites. They are watching all of this very carefully, Wolf.

BLITZER: As they should.

And now, in the midst of all of this, for the first time in months, ISIS all of a sudden has released a new audio message attributed to its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. What do we know about this?

STARR: Well, here's the interesting thing. This audio, not officially verified by the United States, but late last night, the U.S. Central Command that oversees operations in the Middle East said that they now believe that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is alive. That's some of the most definitive assessment that we have seen in months. The U.S. military believing that he is alive.

And this comes adds a new military assessment continues to show that ISIS may be able to command up to 30,000 fighters adherent stronger than al Qaeda was back in Iraq in 2006 and '07, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very disturbing indeed.

All right. Barbara, good reporting. Thank you.

And thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.