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Trump Defends Congratulatory Call to Putin; Trump Ordered Nondisclosure Agreement for White House Staffers; Russia Blames U.S. for Spy Poisoning. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 21, 2018 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Defending Putin. Criticized for congratulating Russia's Vladimir Putin on his election win, President Trump defends his move and Putin's Russia, saying they could help solve problems. Why does a former CIA chief say Russia may have dirt on the president?

[17:00:26] Nondisclosure. Sources say President Trump demanded that White House staffers sign a nondisclosure agreement just like his Trump Organization employees. Why did the White House go along with the idea, even though the document is seen as unenforceable and possibly illegal?

Poison pinned. Despite the president's kid gloves treatment, the Kremlin lashes out, trying to pin the blame on the United States for the nerve-agent poisoning of the former spy in Britain.

And accusing the president. While the president may be at risk from lawsuits by a porn star and a former Playmate, the most damage could come from a former contestant on "The Apprentice," who just scored a legal victory.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, the president is defending his move to congratulate Russian president Vladimir Putin on his re-election, saying, "Getting along with Russia is a good thing."

But he's furious over a leak that aides warned him not to do so. And by ignoring that advice, the president triggered a chorus brought on criticism from Capitol Hill, much of it coming from Republicans. With the criticism, more warnings not to move against the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

I'll speak with the Republican Senator Jeff Flake who's warned that the president -- what the president is doing potentially could lead to impeachment.

And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with President Trump. In a fury over a White House leak about his congratulatory phone call to Vladimir Putin. Let's go straight to CNN senior White House correspondent Pamela

Brown. Pamela, the president is now defending that call.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And he fired off tweets today, defending that call in the wake of this criticism that he didn't bring up election meddling with Vladimir Putin and also congratulated him on his election victory, despite warnings from his own advisers.

The president then went on to trash past administrations for failing to work with Russia, who he says can help solve some of the world's problems.


BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump is defending his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, writing in a tweet, "The fake news media is crazed, because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong. Getting along with Russia and others is a good thing. Not a bad thing."

The president trashing past administrations for failing to work with Russia, writing, "Bush tried to get along but didn't have the smarts. Obama and Clinton tried but didn't have the energy or chemistry. Remember reset? Peace through strength."

The Twitter tirade comes as the president is seething after a leak to the media that his national security adviser specifically instructed him not to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his recent re-election victory. "The Washington Post" reported the warnings were included in the president's daily briefing materials, with a section in all capital letters reading, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE," citing officials familiar with the call, a call in which the president did just that.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory. The call had to do also with the fact that we will probably get together in the not too distant future.

BROWN: The leak sent Trump into a frenzy, furious over who in the small group of staffers with access to that information could be responsible. White House officials were rattled, as well. A senior White House official noting that leaking presidential briefing materials is grounds for dismissal and, in all likelihood, illegal.

Some inside the White House believe the leak was an attempt to embarrass Trump, as well as his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who was with the president when the call with Putin was made.

The latest leak coming as McMaster is already facing speculation that he could be the next high-level stopper to be ousted.

Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, wouldn't specifically comment on Trump's decision to call Putin but told reporters today that he wouldn't waste his time speaking with a criminal.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: What he did in Georgia, what he did in Ukraine, what he's done in the Baltics, what he's done in -- what he's done in London, poisoning people with nerve gas. That's a criminal activity. I wouldn't have a conversation with him, frankly.

BROWN: Trump's call with Putin is just the latest example of the administration's seemingly soft approach with Putin himself. On Tuesday, the White House wouldn't say if Russia's election was legitimate.

[17:05:03] SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We don't get to dictate how other countries operate. What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country. And that's not something that we can dictate to them how they operate.

BROWN: And just last week Sarah Sanders refused to say whether Russia, who U.S. intelligence chiefs unanimously agree meddled in the 2016 election and are actively trying on undermine the 2018 elections, is a friend or foe.

SANDERS: I think that's something that Russia is going to have to make that determination.

BROWN: Former CIA director John Brennan recently suggested the president could be compromised by Putin.

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I think he's afraid of the president of Russia.


BRENNAN: Well, I think one can speculate as to why. That the Russians may have something on him personally that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult.

Clearly, I think it's important for us to be able to improve relations with Russia. But the fact that he has had this fawning attitude toward Mr. Putin, has not said anything negative about him, continues to, you know, say to me that he does have something to fear and something very serious to fear.


BROWN: And White House chief of staff John Kelly has vowed to launch an investigation into this leak to the "Washington Post," specifically targeting anyone on the national security team who may be trying to undermine the president.

And Wolf, for many, this latest leak is reminiscent of the leaks early on in this administration before Kelly that were seen as a way to embarrass the president. You'll recall one example when the contents of that contentious call between the president and the Australian prime minister leaked out early on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I remember that. All right, Pamela. Thank you very much.

More breaking news now. We're learning President Trump badgered the White House into coming one a nondisclosure agreement for staffers like the one the Trump Organization employees must sign. But is the resulting document even legal?

Our White House reporter Kaitlan Collins has been digging into this. Kaitlan, what are you learning?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've learned that several senior staffers in the White House have signed these -- this form of nondisclosure agreement, that the president had this idea back during the transition that he wanted his White House staffers to sign it, much like he had employees of the Trump Organization sign them back when he was running that. This was decided during the transition.

But the president was immediately told that this is not something that would be enforceable for federal employees. Yet the president persisted. He continued to push this idea throughout those early days of the administration when all those leaks, as you'll recall, and as Pamela just referenced, were coming out of the White House.

Finally, by the spring, Don McGahn, the White House counsel, relented, and he drafted this watered-down, unenforceable version of a nondisclosure agreement that they could have senior staffers in the White House sign.

However, many people I spoke to, some of those including people who signed these agreements, said they did not see it as enforceable. They definitely saw it as a more watered-down version and just something that could placate the president meanwhile and have them -- have him sign these.

Now, obviously, "The Washington Post" first reported details of this. "The New York Times" today reporting many more details on this. And then now we have confirmed these details.

But I need to point out that the deputy White House press secretary, Hogan Gidley, was asked about this report on Air Force One with reporters last week, and he denied that any employees had signed a nondisclosure agreement that had financial penalties in it, as "The Washington Post" reported.

Now when we were described this today, they did not say there were any financial penalties in these nondisclosure agreements, and that is not something that the White House has denied. They actually did not respond to our request for comment.

But it goes to show you how the president is attempting to run the White House much like he ran his private organization, the Trump Organization, by having employees sign these nondisclosure agreements.

BLITZER: Yes. These are federal employees, not his own private, personal company employees. A big, big difference. Kaitlan, good reporting. Thanks very much. Joining us now, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He's a key member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Thanks for having me on.

BLITZER: Lots to discuss. You heard the former CIA director, John Brennan, say he thinks Russia may have something personally compromising on President Trump. Do you agree with that assessment?

FLAKE: I wouldn't want to speculate at all. I -- I am concerned about the call that was made and support for Putin's election victory or congratulations. I have a problem with that. But I wouldn't want to speculate as to why.

BLITZER: How do you explain the president's strong seemingly pro- Russian views? He never says anything negative about Putin at all.

FLAKE: Well, that is a concern. I've been troubled by for a while, as have my colleagues. He's criticized a lot of people, mostly some of my colleagues, particularly on the Democratic side. And Russia never seems the get that same criticism.

So it is a concern. And I wouldn't want to speculate why, but I don't think that it serves us very well, particularly when you have the opportunity to bring up some of these things. The poisoning of the ex-spy in Britain. The interference in our own elections here. And you don't take the opportunity to raise it.

We can use Russian help, certainly, you know, in Syria and elsewhere. I just just haven't seen where this good relationship, supposedly, that the president had, has yielded benefits yet.

[17:10:14] BLITZER: The president just doubled down on his congratulatory message to Putin. He tweeted about all the ways that American and Russian interests might align.

Let me read to you his tweet: "I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory. In past, Obama called him also. The fake news media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong. Getting along with Russia and others is a good thing. Not a bad thing. They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming arms race. Bush tried to get along but didn't have the smarts. Obama and Clinton tried but didn't have the energy or chemistry. Remember reset? Peace through strength."

Are those views reflected, do you believe, in Congress, among Democrats and Republicans? Are those view reflected at the Pentagon? The State Department?

FLAKE: No. I don't believe so. I do believe that we can get Russia's help, where our interests align on some of those interests he mentioned. But you've got to go in clear-eyed. You've got to go in recognizing they are not a friend. They are an adversary. And those who try to mess in our elections, that's an adversarial

position. The positions they've taken in Syria to prop up the regime, to help Iran, basically in the end. Those are not things that align with our interests. They are an adversary. As long as we recognize that, by all means, talk to them. But know what you're getting when you talk to the Russians.

BLITZER: Yes. The White House press secretary the other day refused to say whether Russia was a friend or foe of the United States.

The "Washington Post," as you know, Senator, says -- reports the president was given briefing materials in advance of this phone call with Putin that said, in all caps, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE."

FLAKE: Right.

BLITZER: Once again, in all caps. Do not congratulate him. The president went ahead and congratulated him. What does this mean? Does the president actually read those briefing papers, or does he just ignore them?

FLAKE: I don't know. But if the reporting was correct, and the reporting on the call was correct, then apparently, he didn't read the briefings. And I can tell you what it concerns me about and, I'm sure, a lot of my colleagues, is going into very sensitive negotiations that are planned right now with North Korea, you've got to worry about that.

I think that it's good to talk to North Korea, but that's at the end of the road after you've had multiple meetings from diplomats. The meetings between the heads of state are usually, you know, after the fact to wrap things up when all has been decided.

But actually, to send the president in to negotiate on the front end with the North Korean leader, given what just happened with Russia, I think it has a lot of people concerned.

BLITZER: Yesterday you said this about the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who's in charge of the Russia probe. You said this: "We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel. Don't create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing. Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact through impeachment. No one wants that outcome. Mr. President, please don't go there."

Very strong words. Are you saying you'll be ready, potentially, to impeach the president if he were to fire Mueller?

FLAKE: What I'm saying is don't fire Mueller. We don't need that. The president doesn't need that. He has Mueller doing this investigation, because he fired Comey. And there are some pieces of legislation that have been introduced to kind of preempt such a firing. I'm not -- I'm not certain that those, and I don't believe that they are constitutional. There's very little that Congress can do to preempt that. The only remedy is on the back end, and none of us want to get there. So I think it behooves all of my colleagues, everybody, to continue to

say and say more loudly, "Please, Mr. President, don't go there." And the tweets over the weekend where he seems to be softening the ground by undermining the special counsel, that he may be willing to go there. I just hope he doesn't.

BLITZER: Is there another Republican that would join you in pushing for impeachment? If, that's a huge "if." If the president were to fire Mueller?

FLAKE: Well, I know that Lindsey Graham yesterday, prior to any comments I made, was asked whether that would be an impeachable offenses, that kind of obstruction -- obstruction of justice by firing an independent counsel. And Lindsey said yes. There are others. And believe me, there are others who haven't said it that believe that that would constitute obstruction of justice, if there is no cause for the firing.

BLITZER: Because it's pretty extraordinary to hear a Republican. A few Democrats have used the impeach -- the "I"-word, as they say. But for you to put that in that statement was very, very strong.

[17:15:10] Publicly, and as you just point out, a lot of your Republican colleagues say they have no serious fears about the president actually firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel. But I just heard you suggest maybe privacy they have a different view? Is that right?

FLAKE: Oh, yes, definitely. I think there is concern. There is hope, certainly, by everyone that he doesn't go there, and I hope that is the case. There have been statements out of White House that they don't plan on doing that, but -- but some of the tweets over the weekend seem to indicate that he was -- he was softening the ground for that kind of action.

BLITZER: Senator Flake, thanks so much for joining us.

FLAKE: Thank you.

BLITZER: More breaking news coming up. Even as the president praises Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin lashes out, trying to blame the United States for the nerve agent attack in Britain.

And the president may be at risk from lawsuits by a porn star and a former Playmate. But could the most damage come from a legal action by a former "Apprentice" contestant?


[17:20:22] BLITZER: Heartbreaking news, President Trump is defending his widely-criticized congratulatory call to Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, on his reelection, going so far as to say Russia can help the United States solve the world's problems. But the president's gesture isn't necessarily scoring any points with the Kremlin. Let's go live to Moscow. Our senior international correspondent, Fred

Pleitgen, is joining us. Fred, I understand more verbal attacks on the United States today?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes, you're absolutely right, Wolf. But you know, these two tweets that the president sent out is exactly what the Russians want to hear. There's long been the belief here in Moscow that the president wants better relations with Russia, despite the election meddling but that he's hamstrung by the special counsel and by Congress, as well.

Many of them are already saying that the president's hands are now untied after this phone call with Vladimir Putin. While at the same time, the Russians also took a major shot at the U.S. today. Here's what happened.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Only hours after President Trump called Vladimir Putin, congratulating him on his election victory --

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory. Moscow throwing a bizarre accusation at America. Apparently, a Russian spy and her daughter poisoned by a nerve agent in England two weeks ago may have been targeted by the United States.

PLEITGEN: "If you fantasize a little bit," this official said, "it is likely that all this could have been orchestrated from across the pond. It's no secret to anyone that the U.K.'s only partner is the only state officially keeping the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the world."

But the Brits insist, based in part on the nerve agent used, it's like that Russia was behind the attack and that it may have been ordered by Putin himself. The U.S. says it stands by the U.K.

Vladimir Putin won a landslide election victory on Sunday against the backdrop of wall-to-wall support. From state media, and with no serious challenger, a monitoring group says there were irregularities. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders is struggling when asked whether the president considered the election to be free and fair.

SANDERS: Putin has been elected in their country. And that's not something that we can dictate to them how they operate.

PLEITGEN: With the president apparently fuming that guidance he apparently ignored from his national security team, urging them not to congratulate Putin, was leaked, Russian state media is having a field day. Guests on this show ripping into the United States but defending President Trump.

"Trump not only congratulated," this guest said. "That would have been just a protocol move. Trump offered a high-level meeting, threw up three topics. That is Syria, Ukraine and disarmament. I repeat again that his hands are untied."


PLEITGEN: And Wolf, the Kremlin officially did not want to comment on the president allegedly having been advised not to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election victory. However, they did say they appreciated the call from the president, and they look forward to working together with him on an array of international issues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thanks.

Coming up, while the president may be at risk from lawsuits by a porn star and a former Playmate, could the most damage come from a former contestant on "The Apprentice"?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


[17:28:26] BLITZER: More breaking news: ABC News is now reporting that former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe authorized a criminal probe of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Sessions fired McCabe late last week.

Our Laura Jarrett is over at the Justice Department. Laura, what are you hearing?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this entire situation stems from Jeff Sessions's confirmation testimony back in January of 2017 in which he said, and I quote, I did not have communications with the Russians. That testimony got him in a bit of hot water after reports later revealed that he did, in fact, have two encounters with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. One in July of 2016 on the sidelines of the GOP convention in Cleveland and another in his office with staff in September.

But Sessions's attorney, his private attorney, Chuck Cooper, is confirming tonight that, despite perjury allegations from some Democratic members of Congress, he is not under investigation.

I want to read to you a statement from Chuck Cooper in which he says, "The special counsel's office has informed me that, after interviewing the attorney general and conducting additional investigation, the attorney general is not under investigation for false statements or perjury in his confirmation hearing testimony and related written submissions to Congress."

Now Wolf, the interesting part here is the situation with McCabe. As we know, he was fired on Friday for lack of candor to Justice Department internal investigators, the office of inspector general. And Jeff Sessions cited that as a reason for why he needed to be dismissed. But a close source to Sessions tells me that he was not aware that he was under investigation for perjury when he fired McCabe. So the two are unrelated.

A representative for McCabe tells me he is not responding to the story, Wolf.

BLITZER: Laura Jarrett over at the Justice Department. Thanks for that report.

Let's bring in our analysts and our experts to assess. Phil Mudd, you know Andrew McCabe. You worked with Andrew McCabe over at the FBI. Is it plausible, in your opinion, that the attorney general wouldn't know about McCabe's role in that investigation?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think that's plausible. I'm not sure how relevant it is. Look, this smells from the outside. One of the questions I'd have for the Department of Justice and the FBI, how many agents walk away from the FBI when they're in the midst of disciplinary investigations without this kind of interaction by the attorney general?

I knew Andy well. He's an honorable man. One of the brightest guys I ever saw at the FBI. It really smells when you're less than two days away from retirement, the president of the United States has hammered you repeatedly, and all of a sudden, the attorney general takes a file and says, "You're fired."

That said, I also know the disciplinary process at the FBI. There's something that went on here that led them to believe that what Andrew McCabe did was a fireable offense. So I think we're missing about 80 percent of this story, Wolf. I think something went on with Mr. McCabe, but I can't see that it's appropriate for the attorney general to fire Andy, after what the president did. He should have just let him go.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, how does this change our understanding of McCabe's firing, if it does at all?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: We're not sure that it does. I mean, you hear Laura, a report that Sessions, at least a source close to Sessions, insisting that he didn't even know about this perjury investigation that McCabe was doing. You know, we're just -- I think Phil's absolutely right. We're literally seeing the outside of the onion here, and there's a lot more in that is yet to be peeled.

With regard to McCabe, it was political. It was perhaps more than political. But we know on its face, because the president is so transparent on his Twitter feed, that he wanted McCabe out. And he blamed McCabe and he is using McCabe as Exhibit A of how the FBI is really messed up to try to turn the waters and muddy them with regard to the FBI and Mueller and the investigation. I was talking to a Trump source about this, and I said, "But you know, the FBI is different from the Mueller investigation." And the answer was, I know that. You know that, but most people don't know that.

BLITZER: Laura, what do you make of this?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, it's ironic that, of course, that Jeff Sessions fired someone for being less than truthful; and he's shocked that there was even an investigation. It was a very public dragging following the question by then-Senator Al Franken about whether or not he had Russian contacts. So he can't possibly have been shocked. There were calls for a prosecution. There were calls for an investigation.

The fact that this shows me that there's actually consistency and that there was something that is being done behind the scenes by this investigative agency that had no indication they were trying to choose a side, they were trying to investigate a particular lead.

Now, the fact that it came out that he smells like roses the same week that Andy McCabe did not smell like roses seems a bit convenient to me. But that's where the facts led, apparently.

BLITZER: Let's get to another sensitive issue, David Axelrod. President Trump, as you know, in this latest tweet, he's doubled down on his congratulatory phone call to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. And he also said that President Obama back in 2012 did the same thing.

What's your reaction? Is there a double standard going on right now?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think the issue is less what the president said than what he didn't say. Given the magnitude of what the Russians did in our elections, what they apparently continue to try to do, what they've done in other elections involving our allies. The poisoning of this spy with the nerve agent on the orders of Putin just a few days ago. The fact that none of this came up in the conversation even obliquely is remarkable.

He is right that there are issues that we can work with the Russians on where our -- where our interests coincide. That has always been through the Obama administration, worked with them on Iran and worked with them on Afghanistan and work with them on arms control.

But to give them a complete pass on this kind of behavior is really out of bounds. You know, he says -- he uses the words "Peace through strength." But he -- when he's talking about Russia, he uses words of "appeasement." And that doesn't bespeak strength, and it doesn't lead to peace.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, "The Washington Post" report that, before his phone call, his congratulatory phone call with Putin, the president was briefed by his national security team and given material in which one of the lines said "DO NOT CONGRATULATE," all in capital letters, the Russian president. He was just reelected. He went ahead and did it. He doubled down in another tweet, saying he did the right thing. What do you make of it?

BASH: That he has decided that he is going to chart his own path on everything, but specifically Russia. Time and time again, the president has opportunities to condemn Russia, as other presidents -- Obama and Bush before him -- have on human rights, and on free and fair elections, at the minimum, and he hasn't done it.

[17:35:21] Now, there have been some things that he's done. He's taken a little bit more action militarily in the Ukraine. Finally, we think that the Treasury Department is going to implement

sanctions that Congress forced the president to sign with giant bipartisan majorities.

But at the end of the day, the president just won't budge with regard to giving the people what they want by adding that bit of caution, adding that bit of criticism to the diplo-speak, congratulating somebody who he probably shouldn't be congratulating at all. And he leads everybody to question what his motives are and suggests it's nefarious.

AXELROD: Can I just -- Wolf, can I just jump in for a second? I want to say, I actually -- as someone who worked in a White House, thought it was pretty outrageous that the notes that were given to the president were leaked.

But I think we should also point out that, when you have a president who leaks himself, how dissatisfied his is with his national security team, his national security adviser, that changes may be on the horizon. You are going, you know -- disloyalty breeds disloyalty. And this was a reflection of that. I don't excuse it, but he ought to look at himself and ask why is it that my White House leaks in ways that other White Houses haven't?

BLITZER: You know, Phil, I want to play for you a clip. This is the former CIA director, John Brennan, speaking earlier today about the president's relationship with Putin. Listen to this.


JOHN BRENNAN, CIA DIRECTOR: I think he's afraid of the president of Russia.


BRENNAN: Well, I think one can speculate as to why, that the Russians might have something on him personally, that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult. The fact that he has had this fawning attitude toward Mr. Putin, has not said anything negative about him. He continues to, you know, say to me that he does have something to fear. And something very serious to fear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe Russia has something on him?

BRENNAN: The Russians, I think have had long experience with Mr. Trump. And may have things that they could expose.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Something personal, perhaps?

BRENNAN: Perhaps.


BLITZER: Yes. What jumped out at me, Phil, was when he said that the Russians may have something on him personally. He didn't explain what he's thinking, what he's suggesting, but I see a little smile on your face.

MUDD: Well, as a former intel guy, I'm salivating. I'm waiting for, like, the second shoe to drop.

Look, Mr. Brennan, who I know well, was clear at the outset, saying he was speculating. He's not saying he knows the facts.

But let's look at the other side of the story that he wasn't asked about that I'd like to grill him on. And that is, look, during the election campaign and immediately after the president was elected, he was seeing the kinds of intelligence, for example, potentially intercepts of the Russian ambassador, where the Russians were talking to Trump campaign officials.

If he's speculating that there was something that the Russians have on the Americans, did he see anything during the campaign?

I'll take it a step further. Remember all that controversy over Susan Rice unmasking intelligence, to understand which American officials were talking to, or Trump campaign officials were talking to Russians? I presume John -- John Brennan saw that same intel. What's behind the speculation, John? Why are you so -- why are you so concerned? Is this pure speculation? Or is there intelligence behind it? I want to know. I want to get back in my old life here.

BLITZER: Laura, how do you think this very strong statement from John Brennan, the former CIA director, might play in the overall Russia investigation?

COATES: Well, I suspect Mueller has some more answers than even John Brennan does at this particular point in time. Because he has the power of the grand jury to get documents. He's been able for a last, oh, eight and nine months, now be investigating, completely incomprehensively. He has -- he has people cooperating along those lines. He may have a great deal of information. We'll have to wait and continue to salivate a little more, Phil, as we all do.

But the overarching theme here is why and about motive and attempt. Because that's the big question and why the investigation led by Mueller is not going to start simply at the inauguration. It's going to go back in time to figure out, was there any avenue for anybody in a foreign country to exert influence and manipulate a presidential candidate and affect the general election of 2016?

That requires you to be, you know, backward looking and figuring out and diving into one of those rabbit holes. What he actually finds, you know that Mueller waits until Friday nights mostly to disclose the information he may know and even then only through talking indictments. So we'll have to wait about that. But I suspect he knows a great deal more and could answer that very question.

BLITZER: And it follows what he said today, Brennan, when he said Trump "will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dust bin of history." When he tweeted that over the weekend, Brennan, I wondered what he was referring to. Stand by. As Stormy Daniels takes to Twitter again. Legal experts

say another woman's lawsuit may pose an even bigger danger to President Trump.


[17:44:44] BLITZER: Breaking news up on Capitol Hill. House and Senate leaders are getting ready to reveal a more than $1 trillion spending bill that has to pass by this weekend to prevent another government shutdown.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. Manu, where do things stand now?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, behind the scenes, congressional leaders are furiously working the write this bill that needs to be passed by the end of the day, 11:59 p.m. on Friday night. In order to avoid a government shutdown.

This 1.3 trillion spending bill has not been seen by virtually all members of Congress.

Really only a handful in the leadership are aware of the precise contents of this bill, and people are hearing different things, including -- President Trump, earlier today, had some are concerns about what he was hearing from members of Congress.

And he actually had to get a briefing or an intervention, if you will, from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, trying to reassure him about what's in this proposal. And the President put out a statement, along with Ryan and McConnell, saying that they were all on board with this plan.

But not everyone is happy, Wolf, including Senator Rand Paul who has the power to delay the final passage past the Friday deadline to avoid a shutdown. Rand Paul forced one of the two government shutdowns that occurred this year because he was unhappy with that process.

Now, Rand Paul tweeted this just moments ago, Wolf. He said it is a good thing we have Republican control of Congress or the Democrats might bust the budget caps, fund Planned Parenthood and ObamaCare, and sneak gun control without due process into an omnibus -- wait, what?

Of course, a criticism of the current process where Republicans control Congress. He would not say, when he was asked by reporters, whether he would hold up the final passage of the bill.

But other members, Republicans, also have not seen this legislation, are expressing some frustration, including Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana who said this.

He said, hell, I don't know what's in it. I don't even know if I'll have time to read it. I just got a 10 or 15 explanation -- minute explanation over lunch. I'll probably get a memo this afternoon in Swahili. I've got to go down to K Street to find out.

I know I'm new but I'm not stupid. I'm really disgusted. Every senator has one vote. Every senator has to be involved.

And that includes, Wolf, the number two Republican. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told me earlier today that it's not a good process that just four people here in Congress are aware of what's in this bill that's going to affect everybody, in fact, the whole country, $1.3 trillion.

And we'll see if we see it later tonight, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, they'll wait until the last minute to try to get it done. All right, Manu, thank you.

Coming up, Stormy Daniels keeps mentioning the President on Twitter, but the real legal threat to the President may be coming from a former contestant on his reality show.


[17:52:08] BLITZER: We have more breaking news coming in. One of President Trump's attorneys just told CNN the President's legal team will appeal a judge's ruling on a lawsuit by a former contestant on Donald Trump's reality show.

CNN's Brian Todd is here with us. Tell us more about the case, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. This woman's name is Summer Zervos. She accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct against her, and she has just won a key victory in a defamation suit she filed against Trump for calling her a liar.

We have new information tonight on the Zervos case and how it might make the Stormy Daniels case seem like just a minor annoyance.


TODD (voice-over): Donald Trump once fired Summer Zervos on "The Apprentice."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know what, Summer, you're fired.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Zervos, according to legal analysts, presents more of a legal challenge to the President than even Stormy Daniels.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the Zervos case is the most problematic for the President.

TODD (voice-over): Zervos has just defeated President Trump in New York Supreme Court, a major ruling saying, of The President, no one is above the law. The judge denied Trump's attempt to block Zervos' defamation lawsuit against Trump.

Zervos, a businesswoman, accused Trump of sexually assaulting her in 2007 during meetings in New York and Beverly Hills. SUMMER ZERVOS, FORMER CONTESTANT, "THE APPRENTICE": He came to me and

started kissing me open-mouthed as he was pulling me towards him. He then asked me to sit next to him. I complied. He then grabbed my shoulder and began kissing me again very aggressively and placed his hand on my breast.

TODD (voice-over): Zervos was one of the first women to accuse Trump of misconduct in the aftermath of the "Access Hollywood" tape. Trump immediately went on the offensive.

TRUMP: Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign. Total fabrication.


TRUMP: The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.


TODD (voice-over): That's the crux of Zervos' current lawsuit against Trump, that he defamed her by calling her a liar.

ZERVOS: Since Mr. Trump has not issued a retraction as I requested, he has, therefore, left me with no alternative other than to sue him in order to vindicate my reputation.

TODD (voice-over): Zervos cannot sue Trump for the actual alleged misconduct because the statute of limitations has passed for that. But legal analysts say this defamation suit could be a backdoor way to bring out the details of the alleged groping and could be very damaging to the President in a potential trial and a deposition that could be on camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to be a long, painful deposition for the President where they're going to ask him about every single unwanted contact he had with her. And if they can prove the truth of that, that he did, in fact, touch her unwantedly, then his accusations that she was a liar fails and he suffers monetary damages for it.


[17:55:01] TODD: And experts say Zervos' case could open the door for any of the more than a dozen other women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct to bring their own defamation cases against him, to bring him to court where all the details of their allegations could be made public.

And as we just reported moments ago, President Trump's personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, responded to the judge's ruling in the Zervos case, telling CNN they disagree with that decision and they will appeal it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thanks.

Coming up, we have breaking news on the Special Counsel's Russia investigation just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Stay with us.