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Interview With Delaware Senator Chris Coons; Veteran Affairs Secretary Out; Stormy Wants Trump to Testify Under Oath; NYT: Trump Lawyer Floated Idea of Pardons for Flynn, Manafort; White House "Cautiously Optimistic" About North Korea After Kim Jong Un's Talks with China's Leader in Beijing. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 28, 2018 - 18:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Will Mr. Trump be forced to tell all under oath?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking tonight, the president kicks another high-level member of his team to the curb in a tweet. Mr. Trump announcing just a little while ago that the Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin, is out.

We're also following breaking news on the Russia investigation. "The New York Times" is reporting a presidential lawyer floated the idea of pardoning Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort last year, as the special counsel was closing in on those high-level former Trump campaign aides.

This hour, I will get reaction from Senate Judiciary Committee member, Chris Coons, along with along with our correspondents and analysts.

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

Jim, it's official now, the VA secretary, Shulkin, fired.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It's as if the president had this in his back pocket, waiting to unveil it on the American people, announcing that he is replacing his VA secretary, David Shulkin, with the White House physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson.

Dr. Jackson, you will recall, made a name for himself, you might say, by declaring the president to be in excellent health. But I'm told by a White House official that some of these questions about David Shulkin, ethical questions over at the VA, were becoming too big of a distraction for him to carry out the president's agenda when it comes to reforming care for our nation's veterans.

Now, that distraction, that shakeup over there at the VA pales in comparison to the big, very big legal questions facing the president tonight. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, she tried to avoid answering basic questions today, whether the president has ever considered issuing pardons for former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Sanders also offered up the same denials in the Stormy Daniels scandal, which the president appears to be hiding from every day now.



ACOSTA (voice-over): Dodging nearly every question coming her way, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders struggled to answer whether President Trump's legal team floated the prospect of pardoning former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in the Russia investigation.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I did not talk to him about it specifically, but, again, I have been in a number of conversations. It's never come up.

ACOSTA: Sanders largely relied on a prepared statement from White House attorney Ty Cobb to deny that the former's outside lawyer, John Dowd, raised the pardon idea. Cobb told CNN what he told "The New York Times," which first reported the story.

"I have only been asked about pardons by the press and have routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House."

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, I would refer you back to the statement from Ty Cobb. As I said, an on-record statement from the president's attorney here at the White House on these matters has said there's no discussion or consideration of this.

ACOSTA: The president didn't close the door on the possibility of pardons in the Russia probe when he was pressed on the issue late last year.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We will see what happens. Let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.

ACOSTA: The White House also didn't want to address the latest from Stormy Daniels and whether the president would comply with a request from the porn star's attorney to sit down for a deposition in the case.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: We have addressed this once again, extensively, and we have nothing new to add, and for any new questions, I would refer you to the president's personal

Again, I'm not going to get into a hypothetical question.

ACOSTA: Sanders also once again refused to say whether the president knew that his personal attorney attempted to pay off the porn star.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, the president has denied the allegations. We have spoken about this issue extensively. And I don't have anything else to add beyond that. Anything beyond that, I would refer you to the outside counsel.

ACOSTA: The White House denied it's hiding the president from the press, something aides, in fact, have been doing all week long.

QUESTION: Is he too busy to take questions from the press?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, we take questions from you guys every day in a number of different formats. And right now I'm standing up here taking questions from you.

ACOSTA: While Sanders claims the president has denied the allegations, Mr. Trump has not done so in front of the cameras.

QUESTION: Is Stormy Daniels a liar, sir?

ACOSTA: It's a question he won't be able to escape forever.

(on camera): Why has he not spoken on Stormy Daniels, Sarah?


ACOSTA: Now, the press secretary may have made more trouble for the White House with her response to questions about police shootings of unarmed African-American men.

Sanders described those cases as local matters that should be left up to local authorities, but violations of civil rights are obviously federal matters, making cases of police brutality a national issue.

Now, as for Stormy Daniels, Sanders has repeatedly claimed the president has addressed the porn star's claims. But, Wolf, to put it plainly, that is false. The president has not done so and no number of Cabinet shakeups will make that go away -- Wolf.


BLITZER: A fair point, indeed. Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Let's talk more about the breaking news on the idea of pardons for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is here.

Sara, if it's true, that the former lawyer, Dowd, brought up the idea of pardons, could that potentially be seen as obstruction of justice?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is sort of a gray area for legal scholars. One of the things we do know is the president does have these broad

powers to be able to pardon someone. So it could be perfectly legal. I think the question is, what were the conversations surrounding this? If you had, for instance, John Dowd promising to pardon either Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn if they agreed not to testify, sure, there might be something for Robert Mueller to look in there in terms of obstruction of justice.

But, right now, the reporting doesn't seem to suggest that. And, again, the president is free to pardon whomever he chooses.

BLITZER: You're also learning some more about these indications of a possible connection between the former Trump camp, deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates, and a person with ties to Russian intelligence. Tell our viewers what you're learning about this. Potentially could be very significant.

MURRAY: Yes, it's an interesting development. We're learning of some new court filings that prosecutors in the special counsel's office say that Rick Gates was in touch in September and October of 2016 with someone who is not named in these filings with ties to Russian intelligence.

And they say that Gates actually knew -- they were aware that this person had some kind of ties to Russian intelligence. The filings say that this person is pertinent to the investigation. Now, the only reason we know all of this is not because Robert Mueller has suddenly decided to come out and tell us about it, but because it came out in court filings because of this Dutch lawyer who pled guilty to lying to the special counsel.

And this is someone who had worked with Rick Gates and had worked with Paul Manafort and he was lying about these contacts between Rick Gates and the person with ties to Russian intelligence. So it will be very interesting to see how that evolves and if we get any more information from future court filings.

BLITZER: Yes, the Dutch lawyer is awaiting sentencing and they have put all of this information into some of the documents have that have now been released publicly. Thanks very much, Sara, for that report.

Joining us now, Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat who serves on the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf. Always good to be with you.

BLITZER: All right, so let me get your immediate reaction to the news, the breaking news that President Trump is replacing his Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin, with his White House physician, Ronny Jackson.

COONS: Well, this is just the latest in the abrupt exits from Trump's Cabinet. I have had the chance to meet and worker with VA -- former VA

Secretary Shulkin a number of times over the last few years. I found him to be competent and a tireless advocate for veterans. But, obviously, it is the president's choice who will serve in his Cabinet.

I don't know the White House physician. I look forward to learning more from confirmation hearings. But I will remind you, over just the last few weeks, we have seen the national security adviser, the secretary of state dismissed abruptly on Twitter, in the case of Secretary of State Tillerson, in a way that was personally humiliating.

It is concerning to me that the president is increasingly seeming to manage his Cabinet more like this is a reality TV show than like it is a serious leadership effort on behalf of the interest of the United States.

BLITZER: Yes, lots of changes among the senior staff, including Gary Cohn, who was the head of the National Economic Council. He's now gone as well.

Let me ask you about this "New York Times" report that if the president were to pardon Flynn or Paul Manafort, he was floating that idea. At least his lawyer, John Dowd, was floating that idea to their respective lawyers -- would you view that potentially as obstruction of justice?

COONS: Well, Wolf, that would really depend on under what circumstances that was offered.

If there was an offer of a pardon in order to induce those two individuals, Manafort and Flynn, to refuse to cooperate with the special counsel, I think that would be important evidence of a corrupt purpose, of an intent to try and obstruct an ongoing investigation.

The president does have a fairly unlimited pardon power. There has never been an attempt by a president to pardon himself. That is something that's an unresolved question.

And I think it would have to be part of a larger investigation into obstruction of justice, but we already know that that's what special counsel Robert Mueller is, in part, investigating, is a number of efforts by the president to impede the investigation by special counsel Mueller.

So if, as reported in "The New York Times," this was something offered to these two in order to induce them to refuse to cooperate with the special counsel, I do think that would add more substance to the obstruction charges.

BLITZER: Yes, there's obviously a lot of unanswered questions. A lot more information. We all need to learn about that.

On the issue of Rick Gates, he was the deputy campaign chairman, as you know. The notion now that we have learned that he had some contacts with Russian intelligence, a Russian intelligence officer during the course of the presidential campaign, some are suggesting it looked like attempted collusion, if not collusion.


What are your thoughts?

COONS: Well, I think this is why we should continue with the Senate Judiciary Committee's investigation and the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation.

There have just in the last few days been a number of tantalizing developments that suggest that either Cambridge Analytica and Facebook may have been involved in stripping information from 50 million Americans and making that available to a firm that also claimed to have some role in the social media campaign of the Trump campaign, and then this latest report about the deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump allegedly having contacts with Russian intelligence.

I'm struck that the House committee has abandoned its investigation, when they haven't interviewed any of these or a number of other important witnesses. And it's my hope that the Senate Intelligence Committee will continue with its investigation.

I am very much looking forward to the testimony in front of the Senate on April 10 of Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and a number of other social media executives. I think it is critical that we get a better understanding of how social media may have been misused by Cambridge Analytica and how that may have influenced our 2016 election.

BLITZER: By attacking the special counsel, Robert Mueller, by name, has President Trump given the green light to his allies out there to undercut the special counsel's investigation more aggressively?

COONS: Well, that's been a major development recently, Wolf.

The president has for months insisted that this entire investigation is nothing but a witch-hunt and has previous to this week failed to really stand up to a number of Vladimir Putin's aggressive actions. I commend the president for expelling 60 Russian diplomats this week.

I do think there are stronger actions that should be taken. But, very recently, President Trump has taken to personally and directly challenging Robert Mueller. I do think that is sending a green light to his allies to go after and to undermine the reputation of the special counsel and to raise more questions about the FBI and about how the FISA court warrants were initially issued.

In the end, I do hear from Republicans and Democrats in the Senate a commitment to ensure that special counsel Mueller is able to get to the bottom of all of this and he is able to carry forward his investigation without interference from the White House.

BLITZER: Well, do you believe the president potentially is laying the groundwork right now to fire Mueller?

COONS: Well, I think the president would like nothing more than to fire Mueller. In fact, reporting in "The New York Times" suggests that, back in January, he was determined to fire Mueller and was only dissuaded from doing so when his White House counsel, Don McGahn, threatened to resign if he proceeded.

I think it's something the president would very much like to do, and he is only being held back from doing so by getting input from his legal team and from a number of advisers, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, who are making it clear to him that that would cross a serious red line and would invite significant action by Congress in response.

BLITZER: What sort of response, Senator, have you and Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina received on your legislation, your bill to protect the special counsel?

COONS: Well, I think it's critical that we move that bill forward.

It had a hearing last fall. I am convinced that the bill is constitutional. Thom Tillis, Senator Tillis of North Carolina, and I are working to try to get a markup of that bill. But there are many senators who have said to me and who have said publicly that although they think it's critical that the special counsel be allowed to complete his investigation without interference, they don't think that the president is about to fire Mueller, and they don't think that it's urgent that we act at this time.

I disagree. I think it's important that on a bipartisan basis we send a strong signal to the president that it's unwise for him to take any aggressive action that would interfere with this investigation.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks for joining us.

COONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, a unique take on the possibility of pardons for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort from a former U.S. attorney. We're talking about Preet Bharara. He was fired by President Trump. He's standing by. We will get his reaction to this latest "New York Times" report.

And we will also have a full report on the Stormy Daniels case, as her lawyer now tries to get the president to break his silence under oath and under threat of perjury.



BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories.

President Trump ousting another member of his Cabinet, announcing via Twitter he's nominating White House physician Ronny Jackson to replace Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin.

There's also breaking news on the Russia investigation. "The New York Times" now reporting that the president's top lawyer floated the idea of pardoning Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort last year as the special counsel was closing in on the two former Trump aides, this as Mr. Trump faces the prospect of testifying in the Stormy Daniels case.

The porn star's lawyer now asking a judge to allow him to question the president under oath.

Our national correspondent, Athena Jones, is working the story for us.

Athena, Daniels' lawyer keeps turning up the heat on President Trump.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that is absolutely right.

Michael Avenatti has been doing everything he can to keep this story in the headlines. This latest salvo comes just a couple of days after Avenatti amended Daniels' original complaint to now sue the president's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for defamation.


Avenatti is arguing that Cohen has implied that Daniels is lying about the affair she said she had with Trump.

Now, we have been talking a lot about how quiet President Trump has been on this whole Daniels story. Now Avenatti is trying to force the president to answer his questions about it.


JONES (voice-over): Tonight, Stormy Daniels' legal team ramping up the pressure on President Donald Trump and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, seeking to depose both men. But the White House, again, isn't saying much.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, the president has denied the allegations. We have spoken about this issue extensively and I don't have anything else to add beyond that.

JONES: The adult film actress' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, filing a motion overnight, asking a federal judge to allow him to question Trump and Cohen under oath, for up two hours each.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: We want to know the truth about what the president knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it.

JONES: Part of an effort, Avenatti says, to get to the truth, as his client fights to be let out of what he argues is an invalid hush agreement, aimed at preventing Daniels from talking about an alleged 2006 affair with Trump.

AVENATTI: When we get to the bottom of this, we're going to prove to the American people that they have been told a bucket of lies.

JONES: In addition to asking for documents directly to Trump and Cohen related to the nondisclosure agreement, Avenatti wants to know whether Trump knew about the hush agreement and the hush payment, the $130,000 Cohen says he paid to Daniels to keep quiet, who provided the money for the payment, what role Cohen played, and whether Trump was personally involved in efforts to silence Daniels to benefit his presidential campaign by preventing voters from hearing plaintiffs speak publicly.

The media-savvy Avenatti is also raising his own questions about his Trump's role in the deal, saying he asked Trump's lawyer Charles Harder in a meeting last week whether the president was a party to the hush agreement.

AVENATTI: We heard crickets. He said they don't know yet whether Mr. Trump was a party to this agreement. He said, we haven't figured it out yet, to which I responded, well, why don't you just ask Donald Trump?

JONES: David Schwartz, Cohen's lawyer in another matter, who is also serving as his spokesman, called the motion to depose Trump and Cohen a reckless use of the political system and a politically motivated charade.

Avenatti says he is confident his motion will succeed, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent in the 1997 Bill Clinton vs. Paula Jones case, writing, "It is firmly established that a sitting president is not afforded special protection from a civil suit regarding conduct before he or she entered office."

All this after Avenatti told Wolf he's now vetting claims from more women who say they have similar stories about Trump.

AVENATTI: I can announce that the number is not six. It's now eight.

JONES: He says two of those women have signed confidentiality agreements.


JONES: Now, CNN has reached out to Trump's lawyer in this matter, Charles Harder, but has not gotten a response. A hearing date on the motion to depose the president and Cohen is set for April 30.

And Avenatti is also asking that a jury trial be set for no later than 90 days after the court decides this motion or as soon as is convenient to the court. So he's definitely keeping the pressure on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena, thank you very much. Athena Jones reporting.

Let's bring in CNN's senior legal analyst, former U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara.

Preet, could the president eventually be deposed in this specific case?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: The word deposed has two meanings. I presume you mean be interviewed by a lawyer.

I think yes. The law, as Michael Avenatti says, is very clear, since the Paula Jones case that involved former President Clinton. If the underlying case proceeds, there's nothing preventing as a constitutional matter or executive authority matter the president having to sit for a civil deposition based on conduct that occurred before he was president.

And so that's a real possibility.

BLITZER: And would that be made public, what he says?

BHARARA: Ordinarily not, but there are circumstances in which it can become public, yes.

BLITZER: Very interesting.

Let's turn to the Russia investigation. "The New York Times," as you know, is reporting that the president's former lawyer John Dowd discussed pardons, at least floated the idea of pardons with lawyers for both Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. What red flags does this raise?

BHARARA: So, this is an enormously, to my mind, crazy story. I don't use the word crazy lightly. I think it raises a lot of red flags.

First, I will say, you know, you have to presume that "The New York Times" go it right, because it's a very, very big deal to make, I think, this allegation.

On the other hand, John Dowd vehemently denies it, to use the words of the president of the United States, very flatly in the reporting that I saw. So someone is not telling the truth, and "The New York Times" has decided to go with the party saying that the pardons were floated.

Let's presume that's correct for the moment. It's unclear why on earth a representative of the president, who's representing him in connection with the Mueller investigation, would approach lawyers for other people who are being looked at last fall and last summer in connection with the Mueller investigation and float the idea of a pardon.

If the president is going to assert his pardon authority, which a lot of people think is as broad as can be, pardon the people or not.


And you have a better argument later on that the pardon was simply an exercise of presidential authority, based upon appropriate bases, like, you know, you thought the person was innocent, hadn't done anything wrong, as opposed to it being a quid pro quo.

It seems to me you can infer from the facts and circumstances that the idea you're going and floating the idea, if it's true, of a pardon means you're trying to get something out of it. Either you pardon someone or you don't pardon someone.

And I find it remarkable that John Dowd, who in other ways has not served the president well, would do something like that, knowing that it would likely become public. There's no privilege that attaches to the conversation between John Dowd and Michael Flynn's lawyer.

And the last thing I will say about it is, it's unclear from where we sit what exactly the conversation was and what the details of it were and how close this comes to an argument for obstruction.

But my bet is that the Mueller team knows, because they probably have taken a look at what Michael Flynn has said and what Michael Flynn's lawyer said. At the time that the pardon floating apparently happened, Michael Flynn was not yet cooperating. He has now pled guilty, and presumably in connection with that guilty plea and a decision to cooperate, he has provided conversation details about the nature of conversations with John Dowd and the suggestion that there be a pardon.

So, I think it's a serious thing all around.

BLITZER: Could Dowd be any trouble as a result of this, if this "New York Times" report is true?

BHARARA: It's unclear. It depends on what Dowd specifically said. It also depends on who told him to do it. I mean, I think there are different ethical problems that arise or exposure problems that arise, depending on what Donald Trump told him or didn't tell him.

I think if he was acting as a rogue lawyer on his own, I find that completely absurd, because you would have to know that at least as a P.R. matter and as an optics matter if this became known, it puts a lot of pressure on the president and makes him look terrible.

On the other hand, if the president had directed him to sort of feel the folks out and let them know that a pardon was in the offing, if they played ball or it was in the offing no matter what and he was just sort of thinking about it, then I think Dowd is a little bit less culpable, because he's acting out on the instructions of his client.

But I think that what's really important to want to get to the bottom of, I think, for the Mueller team and also for everyone else, given the stakes here, is, what was Donald Trump's role in asking John Dowd or not asking him to feel out this pardon idea?

BLITZER: By the way, in "The New York Times," Dowd says, "There were no discussions, period, as far as I know, no discussions."

"The New York Times" clearly doesn't believe Dowd. They say they have three people with knowledge of the discussions and they're standing by their reporting.

It seems, you know, Preet, that efforts to protect the special counsel right now are ramping up. What would be the consequences if, if President Trump were to fire Robert Mueller?

BHARARA: Again, that's unclear.

I heard your prior guest, Senator Coons, talking about this. I think it's up to Congress. And you have heard some rhetoric, mostly from the Democratic side, about the fact that there will be hell to pay if Bob Mueller was pushed aside, and you have heard some rhetoric on the other side as well.

But it's unclear if people will put their money where their mouth is. Lots of people have said lots of things over time about what would be red lines, and they don't necessarily follow through. I think it depends on what the picture is for the elections in 2018. Members of Congress who are the ones who could step in and do something about this also have to pay attention to what their constituents want in their particular districts.

And not to be a political prognosticator, but I think it depends a lot on what public reaction is. So if a lot of people around the country are upset and, as some people have suggested, take to the streets and protest in a loud way and there's a lot of pushback, you're more likely to get something out of Congress.

If not, you might just be left with the status quo.

BLITZER: Good point.

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, is Stormy Daniels' lawyer playing mind games with the president with his new request to depose Mr. Trump under oath?

And the potential fallout if a top Trump lawyer actually pushed to pardon Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. Would the special counsel consider it obstruction of justice?


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking tonight, the White House is pushing back after a "New York Times" report that a lawyer for the president raised the possibility of pardoning Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort last year amid concerns about what the two former Trump aides might tell the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The White House insists that no pardons are under discussion or consideration.

[18:34:19] We're also following the legal battle between the Trump team and porn star Stormy Daniels. Daniels's lawyer now is trying to get the green light to question President Trump under oath.

Let's bring in our legal and political analysts, and Joey Jackson, could the president eventually be deposed or is this a stunt?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, there's no question, Wolf, that he will be deposed. I mean, I believe in this very strongly.

I'll first say that I believe that this imperils his presidency as significantly, if not more so -- and we don't know the status of the Mueller investigation -- but as that does. Why?

Now, there, of course, is precedent for a president to be deposed about civil matters that proceeded his presidential duties. So we know that he could be deposed on that basis.

Let's understand what Avenatti is doing. Everyone's saying, "Oh, but it has to go to arbitration first." No, what Mr. Avenatti is saying is that "We challenge the whole basis of the agreement. We think it's void. It's against public policy. We think it's predicated upon fraud; it's hush money. And so I want to use the federal court to get discovery to determine whether the agreement is valid."

And in essence, in getting that discovery, to look at the very question, Wolf, about the validity of the agreement, you get he's arguing to depose the president. And he's just saying, "I want two hours with him to ask him some very critical questions."

Remember, finally, the reason why Bill Clinton was ultimately impeached. It was because he lied in a deposition. In the event that the president comes forward and he has to be deposed and he lies, it his imperils him in a significant way. The big distinction between the Mueller investigation and this is that with Mueller, he could plead the Fifth. In a deposition, "Answer the question, sir. Answer the question."

BLITZER: And Michael Zeldin, Avenatti is pointing to that 1997 Supreme Court case involving then-President Bill Clinton, so that gives him a precedent. How strong of a case do you think he has?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, he has a precedent if he's in federal court. And in the Summer Zervos versus Trump case, he's got the same precedent in state court. So those two cases stand for the proposition that, in the right case, discovery is allowable against the president for actions undertaken before he came -- became president.

The question in this case is whether or not discovery is necessary. He's filed a declaratory judgment to ask, is this contract valid? A court could rule that they don't need discovery for me, the court, to answer that question. Or the nature of the discovery sought can be done through written interrogatories or the production of documents. It doesn't necessarily lead to the conclusion that an oral deposition will follow.

BLITZER: As you know, Gloria, the White House won't say if President Trump knew about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. Clearly, this story isn't going away. Do they need to at least answer that question?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, they've got Michael Cohen saying that the president didn't know. They have Michael Cohen's representatives saying that the president didn't know. It's very clear to me that Sarah Sanders doesn't want to touch this at all. And you know, her language is "to the best of our knowledge, the president has responded."

He hasn't responded. He hasn't talked about it personally. He's going to have to at some point. He doesn't have to talk to the media about it. We'd like him to, but he doesn't have to. But he may have to talk about it in court. And that is where he faces some jeopardy.

Because, you know, going back to Bill Clinton again, that's where, in the Paula Jones case, he lied about Monica Lewinsky, and that got him in a lot of trouble. And so, you know, I'm sure his attorneys, the president's attorneys are worried about this.

BLITZER: Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives.

BORGER: Yes, he was.

ZELDIN: May I add just one thing in addition to that, which is that he is smartly, Wolf, not speaking in this case. Because what we have seen is that if he speaks and says something is a lie, as was in the case of Summer Zervos, he's going to get sued for defamation. And if he gets sued for defamation, then all of what Joey was talking about, the deposition is foregone.

BLITZER: Bianna, is Avenatti's strategy simply to goad the president into speaking?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: (AUDIO GAP) -- from Michael Avenatti. I mean, when have we ever seen the president be this disciplined to not speak out? We've seen Avenatti going on every single network of choice that this president follows and continues to throw punches. And you can see that he's hoping that the president will finally take the bite.

Now, the president has thus far not said anything, but it appears to be that he's acting sort of as Oz behind the curtain, continuing to tweet about other things. But we haven't seen him before the media.

And you could say that this is smart on Avenatti's part from a strategic standpoint. You don't see him giving many interviews to specific law publications, right? He specifically talks, you can see, almost, to the president through these television interviews that he continues to give. And at some point, you've got to say Avenatti is the one that keeps this story going.

BLITZER: And he's doing a pretty good job at that. I assume you agree, Joey?

JACKSON: I really do.

And you know, there's a question about this whole expedited process that Avenatti is looking for. I think, in essence, he's doing the president a favor in asking for it to be expedited. Why? I mean, you know, if I'm the president's lawyer, I want this done and gone. Do we want this to be prolonged until the midterm elections come, and we're talking about Stormy Daniels and you're imperiling people in the party?

I mean, not here to talk politics, here to talk law. But we as lawyers in defense counsel constantly speak with our client about, "Look, is the tactic to delay this proceeding? Do you need us to expedite the proceeding?"

[18:40:00] And I think, certainly, the president should agree to have this matter done and resolved.

And there's one way, Wolf, that this whole thing could go away. And that's called settlements. Courts love settlements. You get it resolved. It's not a need for litigation, and it gets it off the plate. If I'm the president's lawyer, I'm saying, "Mr. President, you need to settle this case. You can't take the risk of sitting for a deposition and getting tripped up. It will imperil you in a significant way. Get this off the headlines. Do what you need to do. Offer a public apology."

BLITZER: Wait, when you say -- hold on one second. When you say "settlement," Joey, you mean paying money to Stormy Daniels or the other women?

JACKSON: Now, to be clear, Wolf, there are many civil cases where money makes it go away. In this particular case, who knows what actually she's going to want to make it go away? She may, in fact, want the president to come clean. We've heard a lot from Mr. Avenatti about, "I want an apology," or in essence, "I want the truth to come out to the American people." Michael Cohen's calling her a liar.

There may not only be money attached to this, there may be, in essence, the ring of truth, and him wanting, Mr. Avenatti, as her attorney, the president to come out to say, "Yes, I had the affair," Michael Cohen to come out and come clean with regard to the source of the money and the funding. So it may not only be money that helps this case to settle.

But however it needs to settle, they need to be huddling with the president, as counsel, and telling him, "Let's get this settled."

BLITZER: Bianna, go ahead.

GOLODRYGA: I'm not sure many people are holding their breath waiting for the president to apologize.

ZELDIN: Exactly.

GOLODRYGA: But to put this into perspective, you've seen a very disciplined president from reports that we've heard not listen to his counsel by saying to the media that he would sit down with Robert Mueller, ultimately. We have yet to hear the president say that with regards to Stormy Daniels and sitting down with her attorney. That gives you a sense of what he may be thinking and worried about.

BORGER: I have to believe, honestly, that he's not listening to his lawyers, but that he's listening to his wife in this particular case. Because his lawyers have never had a lot of influence over him in any way, shape, or form. I mean, they've tried to get him to stop tweeting, not to tweet about Mueller. That lasted a little bit. Then he was tweeting about Mueller.

I think now what's keeping him quiet is probably personal, and it's probably Melania Trump, and it's probably Barron Trump. And I think that that probably governs him more than anything else, because what's he going to do?

BLITZER: That's a really good point. Stick around. There's more news we're following. We're going to talk about the Trump turnover, also, as the president fires yet another cabinet secretary and looks to replace him with his own physician, whom he likens to a Hollywood star.

And we'll discuss the breaking news in the Russia investigation. If there was talk of pardoning Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, would the president have known about it?


[18:47:24] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our analysts.

We're discussing a breaking story. "The New York Times" reporting that a top Trump lawyer floated the idea of pardoning Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort last year as the special counsel was closing in on them.

Gloria, I want you to listen to what the president said in December, this past December, about his fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I feel badly for General Flynn. I feel very badly. He's led a very strong life and I feel very badly, John.

I will say this. Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI, nothing happened to her. Flynn lied and they destroyed his life. I think it's a shame.

Hillary Clinton on the Fourth of July weekend went to the FBI, not under oath, it was the most incredible thing anyone's ever seen. She lied many times, nothing happened to her. Flynn lied and it's like, they ruined his life.

I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see. I can say this: when you look at what's gone with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.


BLITZER: So, Gloria, what does this tell you about the president's mindset? GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we know that the

president believes that the FBI and the Justice Department have been corrupt and that they're running an investigation that is not credible. We know how he feels about that.

We know that last summer, the discussion came up with his attorneys, we reported it, as did others, where the president kind of just asked -- and I was told it was like a civics lesson -- where the president just asked, well, you know, what is my authority vis-a-vis pardons? And that was kind of explained to him.

This news today, I think, takes it to a different level, where you have, according to "The New York Times," you have the president's lead attorney raising the issue with lawyers for Flynn and for Manafort. What we don't know, and I saw Preet Bharara on the show before and I agree with him, he's the expert, I'm not. But, you know, what we don't know is whether these questions were sanctioned or urged by the president. We don't know if this was just informal, if this was just chatting, or whether it was something more serious.

But we do know that the president believes that the entire Mueller investigation itself, especially as it regards to him, of course, is, what has he called it, a hoax and a witch hunt. So this notion of pardon really is not surprising if you think the whole thing is ridiculous.

[18:50:02] BLITZER: Phil, how do you see it?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think that's right. I think there's an additional piece here. The hardest thing to find out as an intelligence officer is what's going on in somebody else's head, not what they do but what they think.

We are going into a round where I suspect we're going t see more indictments from the Mueller team and those indictments I will tell you get closer to the White House than what we have seen so far. So, let's pull on that thread for a moment.

If those indictments as I suspect get near the White House, we have seen the president presumably say, maybe I should pardon people who I think are subject to hoax. That means pardoning potentially son, son- in-law, I think that was the interesting story. What he does if the indictments get hotter.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, the other breaking news firing of the Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin replaced by the president's personal White House physician, Dr. Ronnie Jackson.

What do you think, especially the way it's done, we learned about it from the president's tweet.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, somebody called it him getting Tillersoned. I mean, it's something that I think we've been expect another part of his staff to be leaving this week. Of course now doing over Twitter potentially maybe to deflect the news of the day was a bit of a surprise. But, again, out of all of the cabinet members who, you know, are

leaving, Shulkin is the last one we would be surprised to see going.

BLITZER: He really likes Dr. Ronnie Jackson. When he was down at fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, he said he's like central casting, like a Hollywood star. He likes the way he looks. He likes the way he sounds.


GOLODRYGA: And don't forget --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.

GOLODRYGA: I'm sorry, go ahead. Well, don't forget he gave him rave reviews as well, the president, rave reviews about him being fit, and his health, and mental well-being as well, I believe that was the case.

Having said that, you have a lot of Obama workers and employees from the Obama administration who also had very good things to say about the doctor. So, so far, you know, the reviews have been good, but the question is, is he suitable for this big position?

SWERDLICK: Yes. Admiral Jackson is general officer. He's a physician. He obviously -- he's already worked with the president, has the basis criteria for the position. But, of course, as you mention, Wolf, he does sort of -- he's handsome and has a square jaw, fits that central casting, camera-ready mode that the president tends to like.

BORGER: Yes, but he liked Tillerson too. He thought Tillerson was right out of central casting, and that didn't go so well. And he's just kind of recasting his cabinet. And it's as if the first season didn't work out so well, so maybe we're going to have season two.

SWERDLICK: The narrative that he was manager who would hire all the best people, that's completely shot. Even if he has the best people now, he whiffed the first time around.

BLITZER: And our Jeremy Diamond is reporting that today was last day at the White House for communication director Hope Hicks, she's now gone as well. It was announced a few weeks ago.

Just ahead, Kim Jong-un's trip to China. Could it derail plans for a summit with President Trump or move things forward? We're getting new insight from the Pentagon.


[18:57:45] BLITZER: Tonight, the White House says it's cautiously optimistic about North Korea after Kim Jong-un's secretive talks in China with the President Xi Jinping.

President Trump says he looks forward to meeting with Kim Jong-un himself. But some experts in the region say the dictator's surprise trip to Beijing could throw a curveball into efforts to lock in a Trump-Kim summit.

Let's go to our pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you hearing over there from your sources at the Pentagon?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, good evening. Defense Secretary James Mattis is already saying that things are on track with the administration preparations for the summit, even with the China trip, they are talking to the Japanese. They are talking to the Japanese, they are talking to the South Koreans, lining up their message points, lining up what they want to present to Kim Jong-un and try and get him to agree to.

But I have to tell you, that there is a lot of concern on a couple of points. Sources are telling us that they believe Kim has continued to build weapons and missiles since last November, which was last time he launched any missiles. The U.S. military strongly believes he has not given up building all of this. The CIA has been looking at it all. And their concern he's already gone into production on some of this.

So the bottom line, when Kim sits down at the negotiating table, across the table from Donald Trump, what officials are telling me is there are two key points, will he declare everything he's got, everything he has hidden away, missiles, warheads, fuel production facilities, storage sites, they don't believe he's going to readily declare all of it. And for whatever he does declare, would he allow an independent international inspection regime. Is he going to let inspectors into North Korea and try and verify the denuclearization they want him to agree to?

There are a lot of ifs here, Wolf. It is a very long road ahead. The president is optimistic. That's a good thing. Good to move away from conflict with North Korea. But the experts are saying it's a long road ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, at least there have been no ballistic missile or nuclear tests since last November. That's somewhat encouraging.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much. Thanks it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.