Return to Transcripts main page


Mueller to Question Bannon on Flynn, Comey Firings; Senate Intelligence Committee Denied Access to House Memo on Surveillance; Questions About Whether Alleged Payment to Porn Star Could Become Part of Mueller's Russia Probe. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 24, 2018 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: Tweet the show, @TheLeadCNN. That's it for "THE LEAD." Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer, right next door in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Talking to Mueller. The CNN learns that CIA Director Mike Pompeo talked to the special counsel's team in the Russia probe. And Robert Mueller will soon interview the former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Is President Trump next?

Loyalty test? The White House isn't denying reports that the president tried to ask a top FBI official who he voted for. Was it a loyalty test or a get acquainted session?

Working together. The top Senate Democrat says negotiations are starting all over again on immigration, and the White House promised this is the new framework as senators cross the aisle to work together. Can they reach a deal?

And growing storm. Could the special counsel look into the reported hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels following her alleged sexual relationship with Donald Trump?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team has interviewed the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, and will soon interview former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon about the firings of national security advisor Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey as the Russia investigation closes in on the Oval Office.

I'll speak with Congressman David Cicilline, on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents and specialists, they're standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Jim, what's the latest?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, my colleague, Pamela Brown, and I confirming today that the CIA director, Pompeo, also interviewed by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. This took place last year. The focus of the questions, we're told by one source, is on the president's conversations with him to make a public statement that the president was not under investigation for collusion.

We're also learning that, when other witnesses were interviewed, that again and again the subject comes up about the firings of James Comey and Michael Flynn, clear evidence that the special counsel is looking into the possibility, at least, of obstruction of justice by the president.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight CNN has learned that the special counsel wants to question the president's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, about the firings of national security adviser Michael Flynn...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe you betrayed your country?

SCIUTTO: ... and FBI Director Jim Comey.

Bannon's interview is expected by the end of the month, according to two people familiar with the investigation. Bannon's questioning is the latest in a string of high-profile interviews expected to focus on the president's potential interference in the Russia probe, further evidence that Mueller is investigating possible obstruction of justice.

Bannon is also expected to be asked about any pressure the president exerted on Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the election.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's great to be here.

SCIUTTO: Sessions, who was involved in Comey's firing, was likely questioned last week about the president's role, according to a source close to Sessions. Comey was interviewed at the end of last year.

Now Mueller and the president's lawyers are discussing Mr. Trump's own testimony, which according to "The Post," will include questions on the Comey and Flynn firings.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: What did you think when you were going to fire Comey? What did you think when you were asking for loyalty? What did you think when you called him into the first responders' meeting over? Was all of this an effort to buy loyalty, intimidate, and when you didn't get your outcome, fire him?

SCIUTTO: New questions about the president's interference with law enforcement have been raised by a "Washington Post" report that Mr. Trump asked then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election and criticized McCabe's wife's affiliation with the Democratic Party. McCabe reportedly responded that he did not vote.

The head of the Republican National Committee dismissed the question as part of simply getting to know one another.

RONNA MCDANIELS, RNC CHAIRWOMAN: He's certainly not going around to every single FBI agent and saying, "Did you vote for me?" It's a conversation. He had someone in his office. He -- he kept people on who I know, I'll sure he thinks didn't support him. I mean, this is a president who's just getting to know people, and that's part of those conversations.

SCIUTTO: But Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein sees a much bigger issue.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: The whole misconception that the president has of the FBI, and that is that it is his agency. And that the director, or I guess the No. 2, should serve him. A director of an FBI is not the president's director.

SCIUTTO: Now, new information of another potential cooperating witness for the special counsel. CNN has learned that former Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates has quietly added a prominent white-collar attorney, Tom Green, to his defense team, signaling that Gates approached to his "not guilty" plea could be changing behind the scenes.

[17:05:11] Green, a well-known Washington defense lawyer, was seen at Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office twice last week.


SCIUTTO: Today White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was pressed on what the president means exactly when he denies there was any collusion with Russia during the election.

And it's interesting, Wolf, that she defined it very narrowly. She said, "I think he's stating for himself and anything that he would be part of or know about or have sanctioned." Notably there, draws it only to what he would have known about, what he might have done, what he might have ordered, Wolf. Doesn't make any statement there about what his campaign aides, advisers, other members of the campaign might have done. Very interestingly narrow definition of the president's "no collusion" denial there.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Jim. There's also some important news about those missing FBI text messages that Republicans, even the president, have seized on to suggest some sort of wrongdoing. What are you learning?

SCIUTTO: That's right. Part of this overall assault, so to speak, on the FBI coming from the president and his allies in -- just in the last 24 hours. The president again tweeting, "What happened to those 50,000 text messages?" implying there was some conspiracy to hide them.

In fact, the FBI said today that thousands of FBI cell phones are missing text messages from that period of time, about one in ten FBI phones. And that this was a technical glitch involving specifically Samsung phones. You might say somewhat undermining the president's insinuation here that there was some kind of plot or conspiracy specifically to hide those messages between two filibuster employees that have drawn so much attention.

BLITZER: You're right. The president had tweeted, "Where are the 50,000 important text messages. Between FBI lovers Lisa Page and Strzok. Blaming Samsung." Well, there's an answer right now to the president's question.

Jim Sciutto, thank you very much.

Let's dig deeper on what the special counsel may hope to gain from the questioning of Steve Bannon. Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us.

Sara, what does the special counsel, first of all, hope to learn from Steve Bannon?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's interesting because we are expecting, our sources tell, Robert Mueller to focus in on Steve Bannon's time in the White House and, particularly, how the events unfolded around the president's decision to fire Michael Flynn, who was the former national security adviser, who remember, was fired after it became clear he spoke to the Russian ambassador about sanctions and then lied to a number of officials about that, including the vice president.

But Mueller is also going to be interested in how the president decided he wanted to fire James Comey, the former FBI director, and the events surrounding that. But part of the reason it's so interesting is because these are not events that Bannon would talk about when he went in front of the House Intelligence Committee. He said executive privilege prevented him. The White House at that point prevented him from talking about anything that went on during the transition, anything that went on during his tenure in the White House.

But obviously, they're preparing for sort of a different tactic when they go in to meet with Mueller.

BLITZER: Could Steve Bannon's on-the-record interviews for that controversial book, "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff, be factored into all of the questioning that's about to unfold?

MURRAY: Well, legal experts say absolutely. And that's partly because the comments that he made were, of course, bombastic. It caught the eye of not just Mueller's team but also investigators on Capitol Hill, who trotted him out there for a closed-door hearing.

Now, they're not going to care, necessarily, Mueller's team, about what Steve Bannon's opinions are about some comments he made in the book that he has acknowledged are hyperbole, at least in that hearing, according to sources. But they are going to care whether he has facts to back up some of those more stunning or alarming assertions and whether he has any knowledge of the president's mindset, the president's thinking when he was making some key decisions, like for instance, firing James Comey. BLITZER: Sara Murray, a good report. Thank you very, very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island. He's a member of both the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: I want to get to our top story first. What should the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, ask Steve Bannon during the upcoming interview? And it could happen within days.

CICILLINE: Well, I think it's clear that the special counsel has interviewed a number of people in the president's inner circle that have first-hand knowledge of what the president did and said and what was in the president's mind when he fired James Comey and Michael Flynn. I think that this special counsel is likely to ask Mr. Bannon about the president's conversations, about what the president said or did.

And I think it's clear that the special counsel is focused in on the reason that the president fired the director of the FBI, and you look at the statements and declarations and actions he's taken that really point to an effort to really impede or undermine an ongoing criminal investigation.

BLITZER: According to this new report from NBC News, Congressman, Michael Flynn, the fired national security advisor to the president, didn't tell anyone else at the White House about his interview with FBI agents in the West Wing while he was the national security adviser.

[17:10:07] Do you think Steve Bannon could help -- help shed some light on the time line of Flynn's firing, including what the president knew, when he knew it?

CICILLINE: No question about it. And I think that's a very important development, and it's not uncommon for the FBI to recommend to witnesses that you not share the fact you've been interviewed. But Michael Flynn was working in the White House at the time, and I think Mr. Bannon will have a lot to shed on this issue, as well. No question about it.

BLITZER: Robert Mueller's team is interested in meeting, obviously, with the president himself during the coming weeks. Sources telling CNN that Mueller is focusing in on the firing of James Comey. Does that tell you about anything about the direction of this investigation right now?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, I think it tells us what we've -- what we've known for some time now, that the special counsel is focused on the potential obstruction of justice by the president of the United States. What we don't know is what -- what the other half of the investigation

about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. So we don't know whether that's concluded, whether that's ongoing. But clearly, this part of the investigation is very focused on whether or not the president attempted to impede or interfere or slow down or in any way interfere improperly with an ongoing investigation.

There's obviously a lot of evidence that that is the case. The president's own admission that he asked the FBI director to sort of let this Flynn thing go, that he asked Comey to be loyal to him, and when he was not satisfied that he would be, he fired him in connection with the Russia thing, as he said in his own words. There's a lot of evidence that would suggest that, but that's clearly the focus of the ongoing inquiry by the special counsel.

BLITZER: Should Robert Mueller ask the president to testify, to appear before a grand -- a federal grand jury without his attorneys president?

CICILLINE: Well, I think Robert Mueller is going to do what is necessary to conclude this investigation in a fair and impartial way and to gather all the facts. I think we should have a lot of confidence in his professionalism, his integrity. If he concludes that the testimony of the president is necessary, he'll compel it. I think there -- it's well-established the president has an obligation to provide that information, with one exception.

He can invoke his privilege against self-incrimination. He can say, "If I were to answer this question truthfully, I could potentially incriminate myself in some wrongdoing." And if he invokes that privilege, he's allowed not to testify.

But I think Robert Mueller's going to do what's necessary to get that information and bring the president in either for an interview or for a grand jury to provide those answers.

BLITZER: Yes. I remember when Bill Clinton testified before a federal grand jury via video link from the White House during the whole Whitewater, Ken Starr investigation including the Monica Lewinsky scandal that erupted.

Let me get your reaction to a new report in "The Washington Post" on a conversation between the president and the then-acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe shortly after James Comey's firing last year. According to the report, the president asked McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 presidential election. Does that worry you?

CICILLINE: Deeply. Look, the notion that some of your guests, they've said, or that has been reported, that "this was just a casual conversation. And, you know, people do it in small talk."

Let's not forget the context. The FBI director, Director Comey, had just been fired, in part -- at least in the president's explanation, because he -- because of the Russia thing and because he didn't swear loyalty to the president. It's in that context that Mr. McCabe is summoned to the White House to

meet with the president and asked this question. Completely inappropriate. Just another reminder that this president misunderstands the oath that these individuals take is an oath to the Constitution and to serve the people of this country, not to serve the individual that is the president of the United States.

And it really is another example of just not understanding that the FBI and the Department of Justice do not work for the individual Donald Trump. They work for the American people. They take an oath to the Constitution, to protect and defend it.

And the notion that the -- you know, the vote of a particular individual would be an appropriate question to ask someone, particularly as you're trying to test, apparently, his loyalty, it's really disturbing. It violates a very basic norm, and I think it was very disturbing to everyone who learned about it.

BLITZER: There's a lot of controversy at the same time surrounding a memo that was authored by the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, about surveillance during the Obama administration. For now that memo remains classified, as you know, but some Republicans are already using its contents to target the overall Russia investigation?

Does that memo have any credibility from your perspective?

CICILLINE: Well, I haven't actually read the memo, but I will say this. This is an individual, Devin Nunes, who has, you know, visited the White House and was trying to cover up, apparently, for some activities either at the White House or the president. And as a result of that activity, had to recuse himself from leading this investigation.

[17:15:00] And I fear this is another effort to distract attention from this very serious investigation, sort of rally around the president. This is Devin Nunes' summary or opinion about contents which everyone who's read it that I know has characterized as grossly misleading. In fact, it caused the Democrats on the committee to do their own memo to set the record straight.

So I think we have to raise lots of questions as to whether or not Devin Nunes is really a credible source for this. This is someone who has made it very clear the efforts he'll go through to protect the president. And I think it's part of a larger effort, sadly, of our Republican colleagues, many of whom have attacked the FBI, attacked the Justice Department, doing everything they can to undermine this very important investigation.

The men and women at the FBI are professionals. They risk their lives fighting terrorism all over this country and around the world. They do extraordinary work, and they deserve our respect and our gratitude. And it's very disappointing to see this ongoing campaign to undermine the integrity and honesty and professionalism of an extraordinary organization like the FBI. BLITZER: Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on

the House Judiciary Committee, has called the memo, in his words, "profoundly misleading." He says that the source material for the memo, his words, "tells a very different story than the memo itself." Should the source material be declassified, as well, if it can help provide context?

CICILLINE: Well, I think Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said the same thing. I think it's important that the American people get the truth, and we have to do it in a way that obviously doesn't compromise sources and doesn't compromise the important work of our intelligence agencies.

But it's very important that we set the record straight. And those source materials, if they can be released, show how misleading and how inappropriate this memo is and that it draws conclusions that just are not fair in an effort to really smear the FBI and smear law enforcement in a way to undermine this investigation. Then I think we ought to do it. But we have to be conscious of the fact that when that's done, we need to be sure it's done in a way that protects the important work of our intelligence community.

BLITZER: Protects what they say, what they call sources and methods...

CICILLINE: Right, exactly.

BLITZER: ... to make sure the U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities are not undermined. That's always a very sensitive issue.

Congressman Cicilline, thanks for joining us.

CICILLINE: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our political and legal specialists. And Laura Coates, let me start with you. What does Robert Mueller hope to gain out of this interview, presumably in the next few days, with the president's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think he's looking for two categories of information. One with the first-hand knowledge information he learned while he was serving in the administration about things he saw first-hand with his own eyes and his own ears. Conversations he had that would lead someone to believe that there was nefarious conduct or wrongdoing on anyone's part.

The other category of information is second-hand knowledge. Things that happened before he actually started with the campaign and the administration. Remember that now infamous meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian adoption lawyer, predated Steve Bannon's tenure. So what did he hear about that? Did anyone talk to him about it? Did anyone -- is there any basis for his statement that he believed there's absolutely no way that Donald Trump Jr. did not walk those people up to his father's office a few floors up from that meeting in Trump Tower? So the combination of those two things are going to be what -- what Mueller is looking for.

BLITZER: Do you think Steve Bannon, Susan -- Susan Hennessey is with us -- can give us some light, better appreciation of the firing of Michael Flynn? Specifically, the fact that Flynn, according to NBC News, didn't tell anyone in the White House, only days into the new administration, that he had been questioned by the FBI?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So this is a pretty convenient account that's coming out of the White House. Of course, if Donald Trump knew that Michael Flynn was going to be interviewed by the FBI. That raises the question of, well, did the president instruct Flynn to lie? If he learned about the interview only afterwards, that raises the question: well, did he suspect that Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI and thus known that Michael Flynn might have committed a crime when he had that very consequential conversation with Jim Comey?

So the White House has sort of offered an account by which he didn't know about the interview in advance, and then he learned about the interview, but he didn't expect wrongdoing until after Comey was fired. That's a pretty convenient fact pattern.

Now, Steve Bannon might know. I think this goes to the question of, does he have firsthand knowledge? Does he have secondhand knowledge? Certainly, he's not the only person that knows. Michael Flynn likely knows, even though we know that he is probably cooperating on following...

BLITZER: Why do you say probably?

HENNESSEY: Only because we don't know sort of the specifics. We don't know the nature of his cooperation agreement with Special Prosecutor Mueller. We don't know for sure what he knows. Right? So we don't want to sort of get ahead of -- ahead of the facts and say, well, Michael Flynn 100 percent knows. It seems more likely than not.

The other person who most assuredly knows is White House counsel Don McGahn. So there are any number of people, and whatever those individuals are offering their accounts to Special Counsel Mueller, certainly, they're keeping in mind that, "Hey, I'm not the only person that's going to give this story here."


HENNESSEY: And I'd better have my story straight.

[17:20:02] BLITZER: Well, Don McGahn has already been interviewed by the special counsel and his team.

And Michael Flynn, just to remind our viewers, Gloria, he's already pled guilty to perjury. And the assumption has always been in order to try to get a reduced sentence for himself and avoid any charges against his son, he's fully cooperating and, presumably, Mueller and his team already know his explanation why he was fired.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. One would think. And you'd also think that they'd be trying to get from Michael Flynn, or have gotten from Michael Flynn, what the president knew and when he knew it.

I mean, this is -- you know, this is important. There's a story about Michael Flynn that came out in public that he was only fired because he lied to the vice president. And the question is, is that the truth? Is that the real story? Was he fired because, perhaps, of what Sally Yates said, that he was subject to blackmail? Or were there other reasons?

Who knew? When did they know about this? Why did it take 18 days between when Don McGahn met with Sally Yates and -- and Flynn getting fired? Was it just about the lying to Mike Pence? Did they know more? Did the president know about his conversations with the -- with the Russians? Did the president direct his conversations with Kislyak, et cetera?

So -- so I think what they're getting from Flynn is -- is his interpretation of what was known and then, presumably, if they get to question the president, when they get to question the president, no matter what the format, they'll want to know from him what he knew about -- about Flynn and why he fired Flynn, and did he know about Flynn's conversation.

BLITZER: Let's not forget: Flynn was fired after a newspaper -- I think it was "The Washington Post"...


BLITZER: ... reported that he was involved...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: ... in -- in all of these shenanigans.

BORGER: So were they trying to keep it quiet and not -- and not fire him?

COATES: And you have those recent tweets, too, where the president's lawyer said, "No, I drafted that," about what the president knew at the time that he fired Flynn, about lying to the FBI and also lying to Mike Pence. So there's some inconsistencies that came out of the White House itself as they're going to try to investigate, too.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, there's -- it could be a very, very significant development for Robert Mueller and his team. Rick Gates, who was Paul Manafort's deputy, Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. He's been charged. He's pled not guilty. Rick Gates has pled not guilty to the perjury charges leveled against him.

But there's now some indications that maybe he's changing his mind. May flip. May plead guilty. May cooperate in the hopes of getting a reduced sentence. Potentially, he's got a lot of information to shed, as well, because he was deeply involved, not just during the campaign but during the transition, as well. BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, during the campaign, at

the Republican convention, where Kislyak was there during the transition. He was on the inaugural committee, as well, and he was always somebody to watch. Because from a financial standpoint, he appeared to be most vulnerable. He couldn't afford his legal bills was one of the first headlines coming out of his arrest and his plea of not guilty.

And so from the president's standpoint and from the administration's standpoint, he has potentially seen more, and witnessed more than even his colleagues. Paul Manafort left the campaign, and he stayed on.

So when it comes the this white-collar attorney that he hired, who is known to make deals with prosecutors, he is somebody to watch. Because from the get-go, he was somebody who was financially vulnerable; and when someone is financially vulnerable, you know that they are much more willing to negotiate with prosecutors.

BLITZER: Yes. Potentially, he's got a lot of information to share, as well.

Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news. A powerful Republican senator argues that a secret society within the FBI is working against president Trump. Is there any basis to that claim?

And could the special counsel look into the reported hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels following her alleged sexual relationship with Donald Trump?


[17:28:31] BLITZER: We have breaking news coming in from the Russia election meddling investigations up on Capitol Hill. This afternoon not only brought new and bitterly partisan bickering among members of the House Intelligence Committee, we're now seeing a surprising conflict emerging between various other members, as well, in the Senate and the House.

Manu Raju is joining us right now. Manu, tell us what's happening.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The chairman, Richard Burr, his staff actually requested access to this memo drafted by the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes.

That memo, we are told, alleging misconduct by the Justice Department in how it obtained surveillance warrants during the campaign season to look into Trump associates, namely that Trump associates Carter Page.

Well, it turns out the Senate Intelligence Committee can not to that document.

Now, Now, this shows the level of effort that the Republican are going in the House to ensure that this document does go to anyone but House members.

The Justice Department separately has made a request to loo, at this document, as well. And they were not given this document either.

Now this is significant, Wolf, because Richard Burr is one of those few members of Congress that have access to that underlying intelligence on which this memo is based. And him not being able to review these memo makes it -- ensures that he's not going to be able to give an analysis of 2how -- whether or not this memo is accurate or not.

Now, we know the House Intelligence Committee may vote as soon as next week to release the memo, send it to the president, who will make an ultimate decision about whether or not to object to its release. That could happen in a matter of days.

Now, at the same time, Wolf, Democrats are moving on their own front. And the committee in -- the House Intelligence Committee, they're drafting their own memo to -- based off that same intelligence information, and the top Democrat on the committee is saying this in a statement about their new memo. They stay that "the majority seeks to selectively and misleadingly characterize classified information in an effort to protect the president at any cost." They say, "Regrettably, it has been necessary for the committee, Democrats, to draft our own memorandum setting out the relevant facts and exposing the misleading character of the Republicans' document so the members of the House are not left with an erroneous impression of the dedicated professionals at the FBI and DOJ."

And Wolf, this is all leading to some members, including Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to say, release the underlying intelligence so that the full public knows what happens. Not just the memos themselves, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we'll see if they do that. Meanwhile, Manu, some Republicans are suggesting that there's some sort of secret anti-Trump conspiracy within the FBI. What about that?

RAJU: Yes, this is related to these text messages from those two FBI agents, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. These texts have been turned over to Congress. And in one of the texts, according to Republicans who have reviewed them, they discussed, these two individuals talking about a secret society on the day after Trump's election. They say they have to form a secret society. This is according to Trey Gowdy, a Republican was also characterized these comments.

But another Republican who has also characterized this exchange was Ron Johnson. He's a Senate Homeland Security chairman. And he's made these remarks about a secret society, saying he was backed up also by an informant that he spoke to behind closed doors. And I asked him about these concerns that some believe he may be peddling in some conspiracy theories. He defended his comment. This is what he said.


RAJU: What do you say to some folks who say that this is a prominent United States senator, engaging in conspiracy theories by talking about secret societies? SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: That's not my word. That's Lisa

Page and Peter Strzok. All I'm saying is I've heard -- I've heard -- you see the text. They use that: "Maybe we ought to have the first meeting of the secret society." It's not my words. That's theirs. All I'm saying is I've heard that. There were managers, high-level officials, the FBI that were meeting together offsite.

RAJU: But you don't know about what.

JOHNSON: Well, no, I don't.


RAJU: So he didn't know exactly what they were meeting about. But he says he wants to continue to dig further into exactly what these meetings were about offsite. He said that, because of the text messages that he saw, because it was something nefarious, an effort to undermine Trump.

But also, Wolf, the top Democrat on the committee, Claire McCaskill, the homeland committee that Johnson serves, she told me that she has not spoken to this informant, who Johnson spoke to, and she has her own questions. So it just seems that the partisan infighting go intensify as this moves forward, Wolf.

BLITZER: You're certainly right. We've got a lot to unpack. Our panel is here. Got to take a quick break, Manu. We'll be right back.


[17:37:43] BLITZER: We're following multiple stories, including word that House Republicans are denying staffers of the Senate Intelligence Committee access to a confidential memo alleging abuses of surveillance laws by the FBI and the Justice Department during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Let's get back to our political and legal specialists.

And Laura Coates, why would the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, who prepared this four-page memo -- he's sharing with it other members of the House -- refuse to share with it members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and refuse to share it with either the FBI or the Justice Department?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: We were just talking about that over the break, the idea that he doesn't want his intelligence to be questioned. I don't mean his actual I.Q. I mean the underlying information that's contained in this memo that was drafted by people who are part of his staff.

Only a handful of people, including Nunes, has actually ever seen the information that it's based on. And so if you were to release it to the public, let alone the actual -- to the Congress members, you're saying to them, "Please, I'm offering this up for debate and offering this up for your critique and your analysis and evaluation whether it's truthful, whether it's enough for me to have this counterattack to the otherwise solid FBI investigation that no one knows what's going on behind."

He doesn't want to be challenged or questioned. He wants it in his back pocket in the event he may have to use it to wield against the FBI's investigation.

BLITZER: Pretty unusual that the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, and his -- his team over there, the Republicans, they don't trust what the FBI or the Justice Department or the Senate Intelligence Committee, to appreciate what they've done?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So actually, Chairman Burr has played a role in knocking down prior...

BLITZER: He's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

HENNESSEY: Chairman of the Senate side, who has access to this underlying information. He's actually played a crucial role in knocking down some of the past scandals, this unmasking scandal.

The other thing that's notable here is this is not a memo by the majority of Republicans. It's a memo of Devin Nunes and his staffers alone. It's not even clear that the other Republicans on his own committee endorsed the findings.

So I think you really have to ask yourself, if you really were a congressman -- a congressman who had found evidence of surveillance abuses that you were really concerned about, what measures would you take? Those would include informing the chair and ranking of the Senate Intelligence Committee, informing FBI leadership, potentially making a referral to the inspector general. So he -- Nunes is sort of claiming that he has all of these concerns. Yet, he isn't taking any of the stuff that you would expect someone who was operating in good faith would do.

[17:40:06] BLITZER: And he's deeply irritating, Gloria, Adam Schiff and the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: That goes without saying, yes.

BLITZER: Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee. He released -- he says he's ready to release his own memo countering the memo, if the Nunes memo is released. They've got a little war going on there.

BORGER: Well, they've a war going on for quite some time, which is why the committee has dug itself kind of into a hole, where people aren't taking it as seriously as they're taking the Senate committee.

And one thing that Susan was talking about during the break, with Burr, is that, if -- if Nunes said to Burr, "Here's my memo," Burr as chairman of that committee in the Senate, has access to the same level of intelligence that Nunes has access to, that a lot of the other committee members don't have access to. So presumably, he would be in a great position to rebut it if he wanted to.

And I think that's probably one of the reasons that Nunes doesn't want to hand it over to him. Because it could be critiques by fellow Republicans, which would then muddy the waters even more.

So Adam Schiff can try to muddy the waters; Burr would be the one that people would take the most seriously, actually, because he is a fellow Republican.

COATES: But if I can just add on -- add onto that, the idea that remember, up till now, I think that Nunes believes that the idea that innuendo can be very persuasive in the court of public opinion. And the idea of having this innuendo kind of lording over the others, lording over the FBI investigation, is his goal. If he actually has to have that tested, the innuendo goes poof into the air, and all he's left with is having to wait for this FBI investigation.

BLITZER: Bianna, you wanted to weigh in. Go ahead.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, we're pretty read in on this from a day-to-day basis. Imagine the average American at home, constantly hearing about this infighting within these investigations and these committees. I mean, it becomes very confusing, and at the end of the day, it knocks credibility, I would say, from both investigations, from the Senate and the House.

And it must be very frustrating for Burr who, by the way, was a surrogate for Donald Trump, really campaigned with him but really has tried to strike an independent tone here and tried to be as nonpartisan as possible in this investigation.

Remember, we got word that the president over the summer, last summer, had -- had suggested to him to wrap this investigation as quickly as possible. That really irritated Burr.

And so I think to continue this sort of infighting amongst Democrats and Republicans is really stressful for him as far as whatever they'll come up with and their ultimate investigation will lead them and puts more pressure on Mueller, who may be the only one who can come out with some sort of impartial, one would hope, conclusion to this investigation.

BORGER: Well, the game here is to try to discredit the Mueller investigation before the Mueller investigation comes out with anything. To discredit the FBI, to discredit the people who are trying to get to the bottom of all of this. And I think that you muddy the waters, then, before Mueller does anything.

And therefore, you're prepared, in case Mueller says, in fact, that the president did something wrong. Or in fact, the people in his campaign did something wrong. Or that there was obstruction. And you're -- so you know, it's kind of like a prebuttal in politics. You know, you get out there and you say, "No matter what happens, this guy, you just -- you just can't trust him."

COATES: Which is odd. Because if that's the case and Mueller presumably comes out with nothing, then you've said that it's even not credible there. And so you can't believe that there was...

BORGER: Well, you can... COATES: You can spin that in a way, that we think that it's a logical fallacy to say that he can never be entrusted, and the results are always going to be wrong. Because if it turns out that the results are what you actually want to have happen, you've undermined your own argument.

BLITZER: You used to work at the NSA, Susan, the National Security Agency. What do you think of the suggestion that some Republicans are now putting out there that there's a secret society within the FBI whose mission is to bring down President Trump?

HENNESSEY: I mean, it's sort of absurd on its face, right? This appears to be sort of referencing, you know, some text messages that were exchanged between an FBI agent and an employee. If you were going to have a secret society aimed at, you know, overthrowing the government or against Trump, I don't think you would -- you would communicate about it on a government-issued device. That would certainly be bizarre operational security practices for FBI employees.

You know, I think what we're really seeing is sort of a spaghetti on the wall approach. I think Gloria is right. This really isn't about even necessarily laying the predicate to fire Mueller. It's about discrediting anything that that investigation is going to put out from the outset.

You know, really, what we're seeing is just kind of any possible scandal. Anything from unmasking to this memo to the sort of -- the secret society. Throwing it out there. You know, seeing what sticks. And we're really in sort of a perpetual cycle here.

GOLODRYGA: And it's so short-sighted to knock these institutions, assuming that they will be sound in years to come. I mean, ask the people of Turkey, ask the people of Russia what happens when a dictator or president tries to undermine what's supposed to be independent organizations. You keep talking about the questioning of the FBI and FBI agents and people within the FBI and whether or not they're partisan. You do this enough and you're going to have people really question their integrity going forward as an organization.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Everybody, standby. There's more news we're following.

Could the alleged hush money payment to a porn star during Donald Trump's presidential campaign, could it be actually taken up by the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller?


[17:50:15] BLITZER: Tonight, there are new questions about which authorities, if any, could end up looking into a Trump attorney's reported payment of $130,000 to a porn star, allegedly to ensure her silence about a decade-old affair with the President.

Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd.

Brian, what are you hearing? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there has been more pressure

placed on President Trump and his attorney in recent days to defend that alleged payment to Stormy Daniels.

Tonight, a question is being posed in the legal circles. Could the Russia investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller expand to include the Daniels case?


TODD (voice-over): She has made one high profile appearance at a strip club, and we're told the porn star, Stormy Daniels, is booked for several more.

But after reports of a six-figure payment she allegedly got to keep silent about an alleged sexual relationship with Donald Trump, serious questions are being raised tonight about whether the reported payment could be investigated by the Special Counsel.

JAN BARAN, PARTNER, WILEY REIN LLP: The thing about investigations by special counsels is that they always find things that are surprising to everyone including themselves.

TODD (voice-over): The left-leaning watchdog group, Common Cause, is calling for the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department to investigate whether the $130,000 Daniels reportedly got from Trump layer Michael Cohen was an illegal campaign contribution.

Daniels and Cohen have denied the affair. Daniels denies getting hush money, but could Special Counsel Robert Mueller expand his probe into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia to include the alleged Daniels payment?

TODD (on camera): If he starts to find monetary transactions in 2016 involving some of the same circle of people, could that --

SOLOMON WISENBERG, PARTNER, NELSON MULLINS RILEY & SCARBOROUGH, LLP: Yes. Could that, theoretically, be a reason? Yes, it could.

He could go and he could say, look, this is part of a pattern. This is the way they do things and -- when they engage in suspicious activities. And so because it's part of a pattern, I think it has bearing on my investigation.

TODD (voice-over): Sol Wisenberg was part of Ken Starr's Whitewater independent counsel team that expanded the probe of Bill and Hillary Clinton's connections to a land deal into an investigation of the Monica Lewinsky affair.

What about Mueller's mandate in the Daniels' case?

WISENBERG: His charter covers a specific topic of Russian collusion and anything that directly arises from his investigation. This didn't arise from his investigation.

TODD (voice-over): Mueller's team told CNN it would not comment on the prospect of expanding its investigation to include the alleged payment to Stormy Daniels.

2Skeptics of the idea of Daniels becoming a legal problem for President Trump point to the previous case of former Senator John Edwards, prosecuted in 2012 for a similar claim of hush money.

Two Edwards' campaign donors supplied almost a million dollars for expenses for Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, and a baby. Prosecutors charged Edwards with accepting illegal campaign contributions, but the hung jury did not convict him.

BARAN: The jury in the Edwards case basically said these transactions and payments were personal. The motivation in large part was to hide things from Mrs. Edwards, the senator's wife. It had nothing to do with the campaign, and we don't think that Senator Edwards committed a crime.


TODD: Legal experts say if there's any federal investigation into the reported payment of Stormy Daniels, tracking the source of that money will be crucial.

We have pressed Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, repeatedly about where that money came from. He has not answered the question.

On the prospect of the reported payment to Daniels being investigated by Robert Mueller or any federal entity, Cohen sent us a one-word text today: baseless. Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, what are you hearing about the chances that the Federal Election Commission will investigate the alleged Daniels payment as Common Cause, that organization, is calling for?

TODD: That it's a long shot, Wolf. That board -- that commission is divided along partisan lines. It takes at least four board members to agree to investigate. And because of the partisan divide because of how the Edwards case broke down a couple of years ago, legal experts say it's not likely the FEC is going to investigate the Daniels case.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.

Coming up, there's breaking news. CNN learns that the Special Counsel will soon interview the former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, about the President's firings of the national security adviser Michael Flynn and the FBI Director James Comey. Is President Trump next in line for questioning?


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're following major breaking news right now.

Quickly, I want to go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown. She's over at the White House for us.

Pamela, tell our viewers here in the United States and around the world what you're learning.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Trump had an impromptu meeting with reporters, Wolf, here at the White House before he leaves for Davos. And he made several headlines during this meeting, starting with immigration.

[17:59:52] He says that he would be OK with potentially legal citizenship for the Dreamers. That is the 800,000 or so people who were brought to the U.S. at a young age from various countries that are here in the United States.

And there has been a big question what's going to happen with them. And the President said here at the White House that he would be open to giving them permanent citizenship.