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NYT: White House Lawyers Urge Trump to Refuse Mueller Interview; Bannon Testimony Before House Intel Committee Delayed; Source: Trump Will Authorize Release of Democratic Memo; U.S. "Gravely Alarmed" By Syrian Regime Gas Attacks; Trump & Nielsen Speeches on MS- 13 Threat. Aired 1:30-2p ET
Aired February 6, 2018 - 13:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:33:16] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: White House lawyers are reportedly warning the president not to meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Sources tell "The New York Times" that the president's layers are worried the president might be caught lying under oath.
Here's what the president said just two weeks ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you going to talk to Mueller?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm looking forward to it, actually.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You want to?
TRUMP: There's been no collusion whatsoever. There is no obstruction whatsoever. And I'm looking forward to it.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You would do it under oath?
TRUMP: Oh, I would do it under oath, absolutely.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I want to bring in our CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, Laura Coates.
So, Laura, what are the actual risks if the president does decide to answer questions from the special counsel and his investigators?
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the biggest risk, of course, is perjury, that he may make an inconsistent statement to the FBI, which constitutes a crime, even if he's not under oath. The second is he may unwittingly corroborate damaging statements that somebody else has already made. Remember, no one knows what Robert Mueller's team actually knows. The third thing is that Donald Trump, who is pretty much a talker, may introduce new, perhaps damaging information that will introduce a different leg to this investigation that nobody anticipated.
BLITZER: What are the rewards his agreeing to answer questions?
COATES: First, you may have political capital being gained. He said, I have nothing to hind. Of course, I'll volunteer and talk to you. That's totally fine here. Also he may be persuasive and be able to correct his own credibility as someone who can tell the truth. Or he may give information that completely vindicates him in any form or fashion. Those things may happen, they may not.
BLITZER: The president said he's anxious, he wants to answer questions. The lawyers are apparently deeply, deeply concerned for a variety of reasons. So what happens next?
[13:35:05] COATES: They should be concerned, of course. You know, you have somebody who has had a passive line in depositions, in conversations like this. So there are obviously concerns. What happens if the president is cooperative? If he decides to testify voluntarily, he'll do so. If he doesn't, he'll have a grand jury subpoena issued to him, which carries a great deal of weight. And third, if he doesn't do either, he will probably go to the Supreme Court, who will explain issues one and two again. Ultimately, he will have to testify. The longer he will be able to negotiate the terms of this conversation, though, the better he is at having good bargaining power and bargaining chips in terms of the length and the questions asked. But ultimately, Robert Mueller is running this show.
BLITZER: One wild card, he could plead the Fifth, say this is unfair, it's a hoax, it's a waste of time, it's beneath the president, I won't answer the questions, and I'll cite the Fifth Amendment.
COATES: That underlines one of those rewards of gaining political capital, saying, I have nothing to hide. Remember, when you try to cash that check of the Fifth Amendment, you are all but suggesting to people, as Trump said himself during the investigation of one of Hillary Clinton's aides along with the e-mail server scandal, if you plead the Fifth, it makes you look guilty. That's not necessarily the fairest assessment to make. However, it would underline the argument that you are entirely truthful, entirely innocent, any claim.
BLITZER: And you have nothing to hide.
COATES: Nothing to hide. Yes, right.
BLITZER: Laura, thank you very, very much.
COATES: Thank you.
BLITZER: A delay now for former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is under subpoena. He was supposed to start taking questions today from the House Intelligence Committee, but now the ranking Democrat on the committee says the White House is interfering.
Let's go to Capitol Hill. Ohio Congressman Brad Wenstrup is joining us. He's a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. BRAD WENSTRUP, (R), OHIO: Glad to be here, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's talk about Steve Bannon. We'll get to some other issues as well. He is refusing to answer certain questions during the transition, during his time in the administration, during his last appearance. That resulted in the subpoena that was issued. So why exactly is Bannon's appearance once again now being pushed back a week?
WENSTRUP: Well, Mike Conaway, who has been chairing the investigation, as you know, put forward our statement. Let's just make it clear that we want to get him back in, we want to get him to be able to answer all the questions that we ask him. As far as the legal wrangling that goes along with that, I'm not a lawyer, but our lawyers will be working on that. And we do want to get him in to get answers to our questions from both sides of the aisle.
BLITZER: If he fails to show up next week, will he be held in contempt?
WENSTRUP: That, again, is something we would have to decide on as a committee. I think that may be part of the conversation. I don't know. Again, we'll have to have a family conversation about that down amongst the Intelligence Committee for sure.
BLITZER: I want to move on to the dueling memos from your Intelligence Committee. The Republican majority memo that was released last week. Now there is a Democratic minority memorandum that's over at the White House. The president has another four days to decide whether to release it, what to redact, to eliminate, if anything. What do you think the president is going to do?
WENSTRUP: That's far from me to know. What I do know is that memo needs to be vetted, as ours was vetted. We had ours seen by Christopher Wray, and he said everything in ours was factual. I think there are some things in that memo that need to be redacted from the standpoint of national security, as far as procedures and things like that. That's fine. We voted to release ours, we voted to release theirs. They did not want to release ours, but that's OK. That's how the process works. But I think the more we get this out into the light -- we try to get to the truth. We have oversight over these processes. That's how the government works. The DOJ, the FBI, they don't have oversight over us. We have oversight over them. So we have to play our role and use the tools that we need to, to provide the truth to the American people and get it out in the best way that we can without compromising national security.
BLITZER: You've read the 10 pages of the Democratic memo rebutting several parts of the Republican memo. Did you see anything in there that should be redacted for security reasons, because it could compromise, for example, how the U.S. intelligence community has sources and methods to gather information? WENSTRUP: I think to some degree. That needs to be put in front of
the experts. That's how it should be down. To make sure we're not doing that. It is a rebuttal for sure, but I will tell you it didn't change any of the facts that are within our memo. So, again, let's get everything out on the table. That's our job. And I take it very seriously and I want to proceed in a professional manner. I feel like we have stuck to all the rules and gone through the process that the rules allow, and we'll continue to move on. This is a serious thing and it's a serious thing to consider.
[13:40:13] BLITZER: So just to be precise, Congressman, from your perspective, and I assume the perspective of other Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, you'd like to see the White House release the memo as is?
WENSTRUP: I wouldn't say that, because I think it needs to be vetted by the professionals, as ours was --
BLITZER: But assuming the professionals - assuming the professionals say there's nothing in there that compromises national security, you want it to be released as is?
WENSTRUP: I would say yes. And I think we will have an opportunity to see what they have to say about it. But I don't think it will go as is, because I think there will be some things they will want to change.
BLITZER: Because the ranking Democrat on your committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, a man you know, he says he's not afraid of redactions for sources and methods for classified information. He's afraid of what he calls political redactions. The White House will decide to redact a sentence here, a paragraph there, or whatever, because it embarrasses Republicans. What about that?
WENSTRUP: He should know something about it, because, as we know, in the FISA application, there was a tremendous redaction. And that was the fact that the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid for that dossier that was part of the FISA application. That, to me, was one huge redaction, if you will.
BLITZER: Wasn't that included in a footnote that the information for the dossier was coming from partisans, from political operatives?
WENSTRUP: That is far -- first of all, that's not good, either. I don't think that should have been in there. Then you take it out completely, in your opinion. That is far different from actually being paid for by a political party, by a political campaign. That's --
BLITZER: Devin Nunes, the chairman of your committee, Trey Gowdy, a key member of the committee -- and Trey Gowdy is the only Republican that's gone through all the raw information. Just like Adam Schiff, the only Democrat who has gone through all of the raw information. Both of them have now acknowledged publicly that there was a footnote in the summons, in the surveillance warrant that went to the court that stipulated that the information was paid for by a political party.
WENSTRUP: But it wasn't that specific. Why not be completely open and honest? Why not put it all out there? By the way, the reason there's only been so few people to see it, at this point, is because those were the rules set up the DOJ.
I'd also just like to remind you, I'm a doctor that came to Congress to try and serve our country, but we've been stonewalled throughout this whole year. We've had to issue subpoenas and they've been ignored by the FBI and the DOJ. I think there is an opportunity right now for Christopher Wray and Mr. Rosenstein to come forward and really lead on this issue, and say, you know what, we have great agencies with a lot of great patriots that work for us. And we know that, too, because we deal with them. But this is a great opportunity for them to say, let's air our laundry, let's see if someone did something wrong, let's see if we played by the rules, and maybe we just need to change the rules. But all of that should come out. And we do it in a setting that the American people can understand and see.
BLITZER: Do you agree with your Republican colleague, Trey Gowdy, who says the dossier, the Steele Dossier, very controversial, and, in his words, "Has nothing to do with meeting at the Trump Tower in New York. The dossier has nothing to do with emails sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos' meetings in Great Britain. It doesn't have anything to do with obstruction of justice? So there's going to be a Russia probe even without the dossier."
Do you agree with Trey Gowdy?
WENSTRUP: Oh, I agree. And what we're talking about with the memo is a subset, if you will. We're talking about how the FISA court operates. You have to think about this court. It's one of the few courts, when you're seeking a warrant, where the accused does not get representation, which is pretty un-American, in and of itself. That's why it's even more important that the process be pure and that the people bringing forth evidence to seek the warrant are revealing everything. We know it's a felony if you're withholding evidence. Now, I'm not saying it was necessarily done on purpose, but it sure looks like it was withheld, that important component of actually who paid for this.
BLITZER: I want to be precise. I know you got to run. You want Robert Mueller and his team of investigators to continue this investigation? You disagree with the president that it's all a whitewash, a hoax, that too much taxpayer money has been spent? You believe in Robert Mueller, is that right?
WENSTRUP: I believe, in this situation, he should be going ahead with his investigation. I hope it's done fairly, obviously. That remains to be seen. He should be left alone to do his work and, hopefully, we'll get a fair evaluation of what he sees happened and took place here in American history.
BLITZER: Congressman, thanks for much for joining us.
WENSTRUP: You bet. Thank you.
[13:45:02] BLITZER: The White House getting ready to answer questions. All of this moments away. Looking at live pictures from the White House press briefing room. Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, will walk in fairly soon, start answering reporters' questions.
The White House also, on another important issue, has vowed that Syria will pay, quote, "a heavy price" for any chemical attack. But now, after more attacks on civilians, will the Trump administration make good on that threat? We'll discuss that, all the breaking news when we come back.
[13:50:02] BLITZER: The United States is, quote, "gravely alarmed" by alleged chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian regime.
We want to warn you, the images you're about to see are disturbing.
The volunteer rescue group, the White Helmets, says nine people, including three of its volunteers, were injured in the attack in Idlib Province on Sunday. The U.S. State Department says this is the sixth report in the last month alone of chemical weapons being used on civilians in Syria.
To discuss this and more, I'm joined by CNN's military and diplomatic analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, a former spokesman for the State Department and the Pentagon.
The U.S. is gravely alarmed. So what happens next?
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: That's the big question. That's what the administration is asking themselves right now. What needs to happen next is these reports have to be confirmed. From that video, clearly, it looks like there was some chemical agent used. Chlorine being weaponized is against international law and that will necessarily draw certain questions that the United States and the U.N. Security Council will have to answer. But it's going to be difficult. You saw Ambassador Haley express extreme frustration that they couldn't even get a condemnation statement out of the Security Council because the Russians wouldn't allow it to go forward.
The other thing that the administration is worried here is, is the Assad regime trying to fly under the radar here? In other words, sort of gray zone use of chemical weapons? They know they got hit pretty hard for the use of sarin. Chlorine is harder to detect, harder to confirm. Are they going to continue to use barrel bombs of chlorine gas to try to stay under that short of threshold? BLITZER: Remember, last April, when the U.S. launched Tomahawk cruise
missiles against Syrian targets in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians in Syria. Is the U.S. about to get to that point once again?
KIRBY: That's, again, I think that's what they're trying to figure out. I don't know. It was very clear, convincing evidence about the use of sarin that justified -- used to justify those attacks. They were effective. We haven't seen sarin gas attacks since then. It's possible that Assad could be trying to use chlorine, knowing even though it's against the law, it's harder to detect, to try to prevent the United States from retaliating in that way. It would be a mistake for him to try to pursue that, obviously. Not just for his own people but for the stakes of an international response. We'll have to see.
BLITZER: I want you to stand by.
There are new developments unfolding, involving North Korea right now, the nuclear threat from North Korea.
Let's take a quick break. Much more right after this.
[13:56:48] BLITZER: Vice President Mike Pence is in Asia ahead of the Olympic games that begin in South Korea this week. He's bringing with him a harsh stance on North Korea. During a stopover, the president said he has not requested a meeting with North Korean officials. But at the same time, did not necessarily rule it out. Is the U.S. sending contradictory messages to North Korea?
Admiral Kirby is with us.
Oh, Admiral Kirby, I want you to stand by.
The president is now speaking at the White House at an event on immigration. I want our viewers to listen in.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Big group. It's a very talented group of people.
Well, thank you very much. We need talent for what we're doing, believe me.
We're here to discuss the tremendous threat of MS-13, one of the most violent and vicious gangs anywhere in the world. We've really never seen anything quite like this.
The level of ferocity, the level of violence and the reforms we need from Congress to defeat it. I'm honored to be joined by DHS Secretary Nielsen, top officials in federal law enforcement, and our local sheriffs, our great, great sheriffs.
We're also joined by Congressman Peter King. Peter, thank you. Congressman Lee Zeldin. Lee? Good to have you. Been working hard on
this, you, too, I know that.
Martha? Martha McSally. Good, I hear you're doing well out there. That's what the word is.
Congresswoman Barbara Comstock. Barbara? Thank you, Barbara, very nice to have you. And Congressman Michael McCaul, who's really an expert on this subject and has been for a long period of time. It's a tough subject.
MS-13 recruits through our broken immigration system, violating our borders, and it just comes right through; whenever they want to come through, they come through. It's much tougher now since we've been there. But we need much better border mechanisms and much better border security. We need the wall. We're going to get the wall.
We don't have the wall, we're never going to solve this problem. And I've gone to the top people. Many of these people are at the table right now, including this group. And without the wall, it's not going to work.
During my State of the Union, I called on Congress to close the immigration loopholes that have allowed this deadly gang to break so easily into our country.
My administration has identified three priorities. We went through and looked very closely. We've identified three priorities for creating a safe, modern and lawful immigration system: securing the border, ending chain migration, and canceling the terrible visa lottery. We've been discussing it. We've been talking about it. We're talking about it in Congress. We're talking about DACA and how we can work that out. And I think the Democrats don't want to make a deal, but we'll find out.
As Congress considers immigration reform, it's essential that we listen to the law enforcement professionals in this room today.
And so I'm going to turn it over to Secretary Nielsen, who will begin the discussion. And you folks might want to stay for a little while, OK?
[14:00:03] KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, DHS SECRETARY: Yes. Mr. President, thank you for hosting this round table today on MS-13. As you know, it's the first gang dangerous enough to be classified as a transnational criminal organization.