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Interview With New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat; President Trump Revives Mexican Rape Claim; Will Trump Name Embattled EPA Administrator as Next Attorney General?; Porn Star's Lawyer Will Refile Motion to Depose Trump on Monday; Dozens of U.S. Marines Land in Syria As Trump Urges Withdrawal. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Cursing out Congress. We're getting new information about a very ugly outburst by a witness in the Russia probe. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski hurling expletives at Democrats. Did the incident help tear the panel and its investigation apart?

And off-script. The president throws out prepared remarks and revisits some of his most outrageous and false claims, including his allegation of widespread illegal voting in the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Trump saying, to hell with it, as he veers off message again.

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, President Trump is publicly weighing in on the Stormy Daniels lawsuit, denying he knew anything about his lawyers' hush money deal with the porn star, this as we're uncovering new evidence that Mr. Trump hasn't given up on the idea of firing his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a move that could threaten the special counsel's Russia investigation.

CNN learning that this week the president floated replacing Sessions with his embattled EPA chief, even as Scott Pruitt was embroiled in scandal.

I will get reaction from Democratic Congressman Adriano Espaillat. And our correspondents and analysts, they are all standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Pamela, we heard from the president on Air Force One just a little while ago.


And there were some significant developments aboard Air Force One. The president breaking his silence on Stormy Daniels, claiming that he didn't know anything about the payment that his own lawyer made to Daniels just before the election.

This is especially significant, because now the president is on the record denying this, if he ever has to give a deposition.


BROWN (voice-over): Before arriving back from West Virginia tonight, President Trump for the first time speaking publicly about porn star Stormy Daniels and the $130,000 in hush money his personal attorney paid her just before the 2016 election.

QUESTION: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?


QUESTION: Then why did Michael Cohen make it if there was no allegations?

TRUMP: You will have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael's my attorney. You will have to ask Michael.

QUESTION: Do you know where he got the money to make the payment?

TRUMP: No, I don't know.

BROWN: The president also voiced support for his embattled EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.

TRUMP: I think that Scott has done a fantastic job. I think he's a fantastic person. You know, I just left -- I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt.

BROWN: And, tonight, CNN has learned that the president has so much confidence in Pruitt, he has even considered him as a replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions as recently as this week. Such a move would put Pruitt in charge of the Russia investigation, giving him the authority to oversee and even fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

But aboard Air Force One, Trump denied that he has any intention of changing Pruitt's job. Trump's support for Pruitt comes in the wake of a barrage of bad publicity. But as one source told CNN, Trump was 100 percent still trying to protect Pruitt, because Pruitt is his fill-in for Sessions.

A senior administration official tells CNN the president was not pleased with Pruitt's inability to button up several of his controversies in an interview with FOX News on Wednesday, opting to blame critics for his missteps.

SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR: Look, I do believe, as we do our work, Ed, as we're focused on these types of things, they are transformational. And any time that you do transformational things, there are critics and there are people that come against you in that regard. BROWN: Pruitt claiming he was completely unaware that two of his top

aides received unapproved pay raises.

ED HENRY, FOX NEWS: So one of your friends from Oklahoma got a pay raise that is the median income.


PRUITT: They did not get a pay raise. They did not get a pay raise.

HENRY: They did.

PRUITT: No, they did not. They did not. I stopped that yesterday.

HENRY: So, you stopped it?


HENRY: Are you embarrassed that--


PRUITT: It should not have happened. And the officials that were involved in that process should not have done what they did.

BROWN: Pruitt also struggling to explain his rental of an apartment from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist when he first moved to Washington.

HENRY: President Trump said he would drain the swamp.

PRUITT: I don't--

HENRY: Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?

PRUITT: I don't think that that's even remotely fair to ask that question.

HENRY: OK, so, why did you then accept $50 a night to rent a condo from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?

PRUITT: Well, let's talk about that. That is something that, again, has been reviewed by officials here. They have said that it's market rate.

HENRY: You're renting it from the wife of a lobbyist.

PRUITT: Who has no business before this agency.

HENRY: Hold on a second.


HENRY: -- is that Williams & Jensen, right, major lobbying firm, ExxonMobil is a client. PRUITT: Mr. Hart has no clients--

HENRY: Does ExxonMobil have business before you, sir?


PRUITT: Mr. Hart has no clients that has business before this agency.


PRUITT: His firm. He's a member of a law firm. To take his relationship--


HENRY: You're not answering the question.

PRUITT: It was like an Airbnb situation.

HENRY: So you only paid for the nights you were there?

PRUITT: That's exactly right.

HENRY: But that's kind of a sweetheart deal.


HENRY: I have never heard of an apartment like this. I have lived in Washington for over 25 years.

TRUMP: This was going to be my remarks. It would have taken about two minutes, but what the hell.

BROWN: Meanwhile, as President Trump chose to get out of Washington today, he was in his element in West Virginia.

TRUMP: No, I'm reading off the first paragraph. I said, this is boring. Come on. We have to say, tell it like it is.


BROWN: What was supposed to be a roundtable discussion about tax reform quickly turned into a wide-ranging campaign-like speech with the president resurrecting one of his debunked conspiracy theories.

TRUMP: In many places, like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that. They always like to say, oh, that's a conspiracy theory. Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people.

BROWN: Trump going back to his first political speech and his favorite incendiary topic, illegal immigration.

TRUMP: And remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower, when I opened. Everybody said, oh, he was so tough. And I used the word rape. And, yesterday, it came out where this journey coming up, women are

raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don't want to mention that.

So we have to change our laws.


BROWN: And today the president said he may send 2,000 to 4,000 National Guard troops to the border, but other details such as when that might happen, whether they will be armed, remain murky tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's get some more now on the breaking news on Stormy Daniels. The president publicly denying he knew about the hush money she received from his lawyer Michael Cohen.

Let's get to our legal analyst, Joey Jackson.

Joey, the president said he didn't know about that $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. Does that actually invalidate the hush agreement?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, good evening.

It depends who you ask. On the first end of it, you can make the argument, right, that a contract is offer acceptance. And, therefore, if I extend an offer to you, Wolf, you accept. You and I are the parties to the contract. To the extent that the president has no knowledge of the contract, where is the acceptance? Who was accepting on his behalf?

Therefore, invalid. Of course, Mr. Avenatti is making a number of other arguments that I think are meritorious in addition to that. However, on the other end of it, you could make the argument that it was a third-party beneficiary contract. You and I have spoken about this. I purchase a car for my son. My son has no knowledge he's getting a car at all.

He's not on the contract or otherwise a party. If that car is not delivered to me, however, he has rights to enforce the contract as a third-party beneficiary. And so that's the argument I thought they were making, until I heard the president say that Michael Avenatti (sic) was acting as my lawyer.

I thought the president's team was going in the way of Michael Avenatti -- excuse me -- making the argument that they were saying that these this was a familial relationship. And as a result of a familial relationship, it would, of course, refute Mr. Avenatti's arguments in that regard by saying the contract then would still be valid.

BLITZER: Because the president flatly said when he was asked, did Michael Cohen, his longtime attorney, make it, the payment, the president said, you would have to ask Michael Cohen, Michael Cohen is my attorney, he used the word attorney, Michael Cohen is my attorney, you will have to ask him.

And what you're saying, Joey, is the use of the word attorney is very significant.

JACKSON: I think it's highly significant, because then you get into the area of this, first of all, the believability area. Is there anyone out there listening to you and I who really believes that any attorney on the planet would make a commitment like that on behalf of a client for $130,000 out of a home equity loan?

I like to think that I represent my clients well. I like to think that I care about them greatly. There will be no time that you will find me taking personal funds and getting those funds on their behalf in order to satisfy a payment.

On the other hand, however, if you would talk about me acting as a family member, as a friend, as a longtime confidant, that would change the equation. And so to the extent that the president is saying that he was acting as my lawyer, that really goes against the whole third- party beneficiary argument. So I'm concerned about the use of that language, yes.

BLITZER: Michael Cohen's spokesman, David Schwartz, issued a statement following the president's remarks aboard Air Force One. Let me read it to you.

"This is an accurate assessment of the facts. This is exactly what I have been saying all along. Michael Cohen made the payment to protect reputation, family, and business. It had nothing to do with the election."

That's the statement from David Schwartz.

But in his comments, the president again called Cohen his attorney. And that is, as you correctly point out, is a significant word.

JACKSON: I think it's highly significant. And we should also note, I mean, listen, there are two ways, of course, in order to make your case.


Obviously, in a court of law, that's the one way. And I think that we will really learn, should we get to the deposition parts of this, where people have to actually give sworn testimony, we might get to the truth around what happened, how it happened, where the payment came from, how it was made, why it was made

We will get to that. That's a court of law. But what you read was a statement. And, as attorneys, we're also looking to get the high ground in the court of public opinion.

But I think from a credibility perspective, if you're going to make the argument that Michael Cohen was simply acting as a lawyer, I just think it defies all common sense and credibility, because lawyers do not act in this way. People who love and care about someone, who are family members with someone, who are longtime confidants and advisers with someone, they could, in fact, make a payment, you don't know anything about it, I got you.

But to say you acted in my legal capacity, I think that raises the specter of not passing the smell test.

BLITZER: Let me see if you agree with Michael Avenatti and his statement that he released following the president's comments.

He said: "Our case just got that much better. And we very much look forward to testing the truthfulness of Mr. Trump's feigned lack of knowledge concerning the $130,000 payment as he stated on Air Force One. As history teaches us, it is one thing to deceive the press and quite another to do so under oath."

Do you agree with him that his case just got much better?

JACKSON: Well, let me say this. It's not a lie -- well, it's not a crime to lie to the press, but it certainly is a crime to lie in a deposition or other places.

Now, for example, I bring you back 20 years ago when Bill Clinton, then president, looked at the camera and said, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky, I did not. Then Monica Lewinsky testifies in a grand jury. Bill Clinton testifies in the grand jury and says, yes, the relationship was physical.

And, therefore, he had to tell the truth. And so the problem is, now the president is on record. And so, in a deposition, it's fair game, should he depose him, that is Mr. Avenatti, the president, he can ask him the question about what he went on record as saying.

And if he veers away from that, it's very dangerous, because now you're lying under oath, it gets you into, again, I refer to Bill Clinton, impeachment territory because of a lie you tell in the deposition.

I think, and I would be one to advise the president to settle this case immediately. Forget about the motion to compel arbitration. You don't need it. You don't need to be right. Just get out from under it. Because if he is deposed, it becomes a significant problem.

BLITZER: And so the point being, how will Michael Avenatti use the president's comments in his case?

JACKSON: I think in a very significant way. I think two ways. Number one, I think he's taking it to the people. He's taking it to the public and speaking about, look, let's talk about this.

We as trial lawyers all the time, Wolf, we go before juries and we talk to them about common sense and good judgment. Are there any one of you, as you sit there, who believe A, B, or C? And the jurors have to answer that question. So in the first way, he's using it to gain the high ground in the court of public opinion, saying, this is nonsense. And the second way he will use it in the event he gets to depose the

president to say, excuse me, Mr. President, you came to the back of Air Force One. You happened to make some statements in response to some questions, did you not? Let's talk about what you said and let's talk about whether that's true.

You know you're under oath, sir, do you not? So answer the following question. And then he will proceed with asking him questions concerning his relationship with Michael Cohen, the payment of Michael Cohen, was it reimbursed, where did it come from, what was his knowledge of it? What did he know? When did he know it? How did he know it?

And that's when you get into ground that you just don't want to be in. You're the president. You have got a lot of things to do. I know you want to be right. I know you're arguing this never happened. Write a check. Well, we know Mr. Avenatti said he's not accepting a check. Do what you need to do to get out from under this before you have to testify, and when you testify, you're on very dangerous ground, because we know, we can be fair about this, that this president plays fast and loose with what we believe to be truthful.

And you can do that in the press. You can do it in the back of Air Force One. You cannot do it in a grand jury. You can't do it in a deposition. You can't do it to federal investigators. You just can't. So I would say, if I'm advising him, Mr. President, let's take a pass. We need to move on. Settle this case.

BLITZER: Let's say the president is telling the truth. And I'm looking at the transcript of what he said. He did not know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. He didn't know why Michael Cohen made the payment. You would have to ask Michael Cohen. He didn't know where Michael Cohen got the money. No, I don't know.

Let's say he's telling the truth in all of that. What ethical or legal questions potentially would that raise for his attorney, Michael Cohen?

JACKSON: Well, two things, Wolf, and I will answer that question.

But I think, in saying that someone is telling the truth, again, it's all about credibility and everything has to be evaluated in context. And I think this is what you hear a lot about. So you mean to tell me, 11 days, a week and a half, whatever the specific time frame before an election when you were under siege by women accusing you of various things and this could have been the straw that broke the camel's back, you knew nothing about it?


So it gets to the point of credibility, right? We all as people -- you know, law's a gray area. It's never a mathematical science or question. You're operating in the gray. And you're relying upon people, jurors to get it right based upon argument.

So to your question, Wolf, is there anyone out there, support the president or not, who believes that that can be true? Now, accepting your proposition that it is for now, now you have to ask about Michael Cohen, which you have. And that is that there are some serious ethical dilemmas.

We as lawyers don't go out and settle cases on a whim, because we feel like it, because we're good people, because, ah, I just want to look out for you, it's the right thing to do, I love you, man, and therefore we write checks. Not how it works.

We have ethical professional rules that we have to deal with, one of which is informed consent. If there's a settlement agreement, I have to speak to my client. We sit down, we talk about it. My client asks, is it a great thing to do, is it a bad thing to do? How is it going to affect me, my reputation, my family, my job?

We have these discussions. You're ethically bound to do that. And to the extent you don't, it's a problem. So, yes, it would affect him. And it would appear to me that the president by calling him my lawyer could have very easily said, he's like family to me, I love him, he's like a son to me. Would have changed the equation. He said, my lawyer.

And if the president is telling the truth in that regard, I think it raises some questions for Mr. Cohen.

BLITZER: Do you believe it could change the request by Stormy Daniels's attorney, Michael Avenatti, to depose President Trump?

JACKSON: I one that believes -- look, I have seen the various press he's done on this and other networks concerning this particular case. He appears to me to be driven by the truth.

This doesn't appear to be a money-based type of approach to litigation. I think he's made plenty of that. And so the reality then becomes is, if you want to get to the truth, the best way you get to it is by having people, Wolf, raise that hand and you have a court reporter there and everything is transcribed.

And goodness forbid you veer away from what's truthful. And again, we know the president is -- he's very apt to sort of -- we can call it puffing, we can call it misrepresentations, we can call it fabrications. But there are some concerns about things that he says that are not true. You can't do that in a deposition.

He can talk to you and do it, he could go on other networks and do it, he can come to the back of the plane in Air Force One and do it. When you're under oath, you have got to tell the truth. And if you don't, guess what? Bill Clinton again, hate to speak about him, but the fact is, he was impeached as a result of a lie he told in a deposition. You don't want this happening to you, Mr. President.

Settle this case, get out from under it, whatever it takes.

BLITZER: Joey, Peter Stris, he's the attorney for Karen McDougal, the former Playmate who also alleged having an affair with Donald Trump. Stris just wrote this on Twitter -- quote -- "Now that

@realDonaldTrump has cleared up everything for Michael Avenatti re: Stormy Daniels, will he be making a statement about our client, Karen McDougal, or should we ask Michael Cohen?"

What's your reaction to that?


JACKSON: My reaction to that is that obviously it's gamesmanship. I think it's a wise tweet to make in this point in time. I would advise the president not to be making any statements at all, whether it relates to Ms. McDougal, Ms. Zervos, as it relates to Stormy Daniels.

Why he said this, why he came to the back of the plane, why he ad- libbed it, I have no idea. The first thing we say to clients, Wolf, please, don't talk, don't say anything. He did say something. He's on record now. And I would highly doubt he would say anything about Ms. McDougal


BLITZER: Joey, yes, I want you to stick around. We're going to continue to follow the breaking news.

President Trump finally breaking his silence on Stormy Daniels, saying he knows nothing about his lawyer's payment to the porn star.



BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including President Trump just now breaking his silence on Stormy Daniels, saying he knows nothing about his attorney Michael Cohen's $130,000 payment to the porn star, just 11 days before the 2016 presidential election.

Also breaking, we're getting a new window into the collapse of the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation. One of the final straws, an ugly hearing in which President Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, cursed out Democrats and refused to answer their questions.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, has been digging on this.

So, Manu, what are you hearing from your sources?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: This is an investigation, Wolf, that got increasingly contentious, all the way to the bitter end and culminated in this very heated the interview with the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

And we're learning new details about that testimony where he apparently cursed at Democrats on the panel repeatedly. But after he testified, the investigation ended and left the public no closer to learning the truth of what actually happened when Russians meddled in the 2016 elections.


RAJU (voice-over): Behind closed doors, the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation broke down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are adjourned.

RAJU: After a bitter feud erupted with President Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Sources tonight providing new details to CNN about last month's contentious hearing with Lewandowski, who refused to answer a range of questions from Democrats, including communications with President Trump and what he knew about the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Lewandowski, sources say, cursed multiple times at Democratic lawmakers, including Jackie Speier of California, at one point saying, "I'm not going to answer your F'ing questions."


While Democrats objected, Republicans defended Lewandowski, saying he had answered all questions relevant to the committee's investigation.

Lewandowski told CNN that: "I had to repeat on multiple occasions that there was no collusion, cooperation, or coordination, because the Democrats couldn't understand my plain English way of speaking."

Lewandowski was the final witness in an investigation that has ended amid deep mistrust between both parties, with Republicans concluding they found no evidence of Trump campaign collusion with Russia and Democrats charging that the GOP stifled the inquiry.

But as the House probe falters, special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is aggressively moving. Sources tell CNN that at least three Russian oligarchs have been targeted for questioning by Mueller's team. One of whom was stopped in the New York area and had his electronics searched when his private jet landed.

The investigators want to know whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled cash donations directly or indirectly to Trump's campaign and inauguration.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Well, I think it shows that Mueller is, in the old Watergate sense, following the money.

RAJU: As Mueller makes his move, the Trump administration now ratcheting up pressure on Moscow, preparing its toughest action in response to Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, with plans to issue new sanctions against several oligarchs tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to two senior administration officials.

In response, a Kremlin spokesman said, "There are no oligarchs in Russia."

Even though President Trump has remained mostly silent or undercut his own Intelligence Committee's findings about Russian election meddling, Washington is now engaged in an escalating feud with Moscow. After accusations that Russia was behind the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter on British soil, the U.S. has since moved to expel dozens of Russian diplomats, prompting Moscow to retaliate, kicking out American diplomats from Russia.

The State Department confirming 60 U.S. diplomats left Russia today. Still, even some Trump allies, including outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, say not enough has been done to punish Russia.

H.R. MCMASTER, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We have failed to impose sufficient costs.

RAJU: Tonight, scrutiny also intensifying over the data analytics firm tied to the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, and how it accessed private data from Facebook users. Facebook now says the firm may have obtained information from 87 million Facebook users, up from its previous estimate of 50 million.

MARK ZUCKERBERG, FOUNDER, FACEBOOK: At the end of the day, this is my responsibility.

RAJU: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg set to face a grilling on Capitol Hill next week on how his company worked with Cambridge Analytica and how his company failed to root out Russian interference.

ZUCKERBERG: We didn't focus enough on preventing of use and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well. And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech, in addition to developers and data privacy.


RAJU: So, now, after we reported on Corey Lewandowski's appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, he told me that Democrats on the committee were the first to use foul language during his testimony, Wolf, and he said, I felt the need to respond in kind. He said -- quote -- "The language they used in the committee was appalling."

He also said, "I had never heard such language used before."

Now, Lewandowski said he did not recall what precisely was said and he would not name the Democratic members of the committee he was referring to, so, Wolf, the debate continues going forward about what exactly Corey Lewandowski said, but no one disputes some rather tough language exchanged in the final witness interview that led to this result.

BLITZER: Very, very ugly, indeed. Manu, good reporting. Thank you very much.

Let's talk about all the breaking news, including President Trump's first comments on the Stormy Daniels controversy.

Joining us now, Congressman Adriano Espaillat. He's a Democrat who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, first of all, do you believe President Trump when he says he didn't know about that $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT (D), NEW YORK: It's hard to believe that he didn't know. But, nevertheless, he said he didn't know, and he sent to his attorney, and his signature is not on the document, in the agreement.

And that then leads to a question on whether or not he was truly a party to the agreement. And that will play out in whatever legal proceedings are ahead of us.

BLITZER: Do you think there's a role for Congress? Should Congress be investigating this $130,000 payment?

ESPAILLAT: I believe so. I believe that it was done prior to the election. It was done during campaign season. And it was hush money to quiet somebody up. And I think that there's a role for Congress to play in looking into this particular matter.

BLITZER: To look into whether, 11 days before the election, this was, as some people have suggested, an in-kind campaign contribution that would be -- that would be illegal.

ESPAILLAT: It could have been -- that could be construed to be an in- kind campaign contribution that would be -- that would be illegal.

[18:30:06] REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT (D), NEW YORK: That could be construed to be an in-kind campaign contribution, and if such, it would be an illegal contribution. And I think there's plenty of room to look into that and to get to the bottom of it and figure or not -- figure out whether or not it was legal.

BLITZER: Let's get to some other sensitive issues, Congressman, while I have you. The president says he won't replace his attorney general with Scott Pruitt, but he was considering doing exactly that, as recently as earlier this week. Do you believe the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is safe?

ESPAILLAT: Well, I thought we were going to catch a break, and perhaps we wouldn't get that citizenship question in our census form, since it was the Justice Department that asked for the citizenship question to be in the census application.

But, look, we've seen people go and come -- and leave the White House in a short period of time. The turnover has been tremendous. I would not be surprised if the attorney will be subject, as well, to some kind of pressure to leaving. If not now, in the future. The president may be looking at avenues and ways to try to get to Mueller in the future.

So we've got to be watchful. Congress must be watchful, and we've got to really uphold the rule of law.

BLITZER: If Sessions, the attorney general, were fired, Congressman, and a new attorney general was confirmed, someone who would be in charge now of the Mueller investigation, as opposed to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, would that raise, at least in your mind, the question of obstruction of justice?

ESPAILLAT: Well, I don't know if I could take it to that level, but certainly, it will raise serious doubts as to whether or not, by changing the attorney general, the White House is trying to get at Mueller, who continues to move forward, continues to put the pressure on, the heat on. And as we saw today, the oligarchs in Russia are now under his radar.

And so he's moving forward, and this is a serious and credible investigation. People have been charged and arrested for it. It comes closer and closer to the White House. And I think it's got a lot to go further. So we'll see what transpires in the next few months.

And on another issue, Scott Pruitt is facing calls for his resignation from the Environmental Protection Agency. What does it say to you, Congressman, that President Trump is defending him? He said just on Air Force One, "I think he's done a fantastic job. He's a fantastic person. I just left coal and energy country. They love Pruitt." He's referring to West Virginia. "They feel strongly and love him." What does that say to you?

ESPAILLAT: Well, clearly, there's been some ethical lapses that have been -- that have emerged with Pruitt. His renting of an apartment at $50 a night. He claims it was sort of like an AirBNB deal. Kind of like a sweet deal for Washington. The rent is pretty high down there. But nevertheless, he rented this apartment from someone that has clear links to the energy industry and has business before the EPA. So clearly a potential conflict of interest.

So these ethical lapses that are mushrooming around Pruitt are troubling, and for him to speak highly about this particular person in his cabinet, I think, is troubling, as well.

BLITZER: Congressman Espaillat, thanks so much for joining us.

ESPAILLAT: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Just ahead, more breaking news. The president breaking his silence on Stormy Daniels and the hush money payment to the porn star.


[18:38:08] BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news. After months of dodging questions about Stormy Daniels, the president tells reporters he knows nothing about the hush money his lawyer paid to the porn star.

Let's bring in our analyst to assess. Michael Zeldin, you're our legal analyst. He said, flatly, when he was asked about the $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen, his attorney, paid to Stormy Daniels, he says he didn't know anything about it. Does this invalidate, potentially, the hush agreement? Because it was presumably in his name.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it creates opportunities for Avenatti and Stormy Daniels, his lawyer. He has moved in court for depositions or other discovery. The president's silence doesn't help that.

When he talks about the contract for the first time, it may allow Avenatti to go back to court and you say, you say to the judge, "You see? We need to evaluate what he is saying in relationship as to whether this is a valid contract."

Also in his request for his declaratory judgment, he says that there are conditions on both parties that have to be met. If Donald Trump's speaking about this contract, in any way abrogates any of those terms or conditions, it may help Avenatti seek to declare this contract null and void.

So I think it's a better day for Stormy Daniels's legal position than it is for President Trump and Michael Cohen.

BLITZER: Let's pick up that, David Swerdlick. Stormy Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, issued a statement saying, quote, "Our case just got that much better." And he also says he now plans to refile a motion to depose the president and Michael Cohen, the president's attorney.

Will the judge potentially view that differently this time?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, perhaps. And just to piggyback on what Michael is saying, this idea -- it is, in a sense, better for the Avenatti/Stormy Daniels side if one of the theories that they've been pushing, both legally and in the media, is this idea that, how can the president be a third-party beneficiary to a contract if he doesn't know about the contract? I don't know how a court would rule on that.

[18:40:05] I also think, Wolf, that this opens up a credibility problem for the president. If, as the president said fairly unequivocally today, that he knew nothing about it, why didn't he say that all along? We've been talking about Stormy Daniels for weeks. He could have said that at any point in time.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, you've been doing a lot of reporting on the Mueller investigation. Could any of this -- this interest in Stormy Daniels potentially be of interest to Robert Mueller?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Mueller has shown interest in financial dealings of the president. We know that CNN has reported he's requested financial documents. We know from speaking to witnesses who have been interviewed by Mueller, that Mueller has asked questions about financial dealings, certainly involving Russians, but other business practices of the president, even going back to the time before he declared his campaign. With Stormy Daniels, it appears the principle legal problem -- and the

lawyer to the left of me would know better than this, better than me -- but whether election funds were used in that Stormy Daniels payment. And then that would be an elections -- an election law violation. And that clearly could be of interest to the special counsel, as well.

BLITZER: A $130,000 in-kind campaign contribution --

SCIUTTO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: -- that could be a violation of campaign finance law.

You know, Joey, let's talk about some of the other women now who are going after the president, suing the president. Karen McDougal's lawyer. She's the former playmate, wants comment from the president, as well. Summer Zervos, another woman who's going, suing the president, has a legal suit against the president.

How could -- how could this statement now, what the president said on Stormy Daniels -- he didn't know anything about the payment -- potentially impact the other cases?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, if I'm the president's lawyers, I say it has no impact on these other cases. The president made comments. I think they were ill-advised. Any lawyer will tell you, we tell our client not to speak. People can think, of course. They can charm. They can say what they want. They want to love me. Not so. Don't say anything. He did and he has. And I believe that represents a significant problem as it relates to this case.

Why? Because he talked about Michael Cohen acting as his lawyer, not his family member, not a longtime confidant, not "a person I love and trust and respect." And that raises issues for his defense.

And then, of course, it goes to the issue of him being on record now. And so if he's deposed, he could be confronted with it.

But his lawyers will isolate this and, in the event that it's used -- and, oh, it will be -- in the event that he gets to that deposition stage, to just suggest that it relates to Stormy Daniels, has nothing to do with McDougal. You know, know her lawyer tweeted, "Hey, you have something to say to me?"

No, Mr. President, don't say; exercise some discipline. We know he has issues with that. Perhaps he will tweet later about it. He should not do so. Nor should he do so as it relates to the Zervos case.

BLITZER: Rebecca, what do you make of the president finally breaking his silence on Stormy Daniels? The timing of this right now?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's more surprising to me, Wolf, that the president hasn't said anything prior to today, just because President Trump tends to comment on everything. Controversial -- controversies, things that aren't -- but this looks a lot more impulsive than it does strategic, for the reasons we've mentioned.

It creates legal complications for the president. It brings this unflattering story back into the news for him.

But we know that the president is a counterpuncher. When he feels like someone is going after him, he likes to fight back. He has, so far, tried not to give into that impulse on Twitter, for legal reasons. But we saw today that he slipped up and did.

BLITZER: Michael Zeldin, the president's comments today make some bigger problems for Michael Cohen?

ZELDIN: Well, Michael Cohen has said all along, the president wasn't party to this contract. He was just a third-party beneficiary. So, the president's comment really doesn't totally jeopardize Cohen's position on the case.

What it does is it jeopardizes the president's position, I think, more in the public domain. Because he's now talking about this. When his silence was deafening, it was much better for him. Now we're spending our time talking about this. It's going to raise, again, the question of, is he being truthful?

If Avenatti is able to use this to get deposition testimony or other discovery, he's going to have to walk this statement back or affirm it. And that's going to be problematic for him.

BLITZER: All right. There's also we have to assess. We're going to continue our breaking news coverage.

We're also going to have much more on the president's new comments about the Stormy Daniels hush-money payment and what it means for the porn star's case against him.

This as the president's legal team is trying to block the lawsuit of another Trump accuser, Summer Zervos. Are they trying to prevent the president from testifying under oath?


[18:49:10] BLITZER: Breaking news this hour. Stormy Daniels' lawyer says he'll file a new motion to depose President Trump on Monday. This just hours after the president publicly denied he knew anything about his attorney's hush money deal with the porn star.

Listen to what the president said aboard air force one just a little while ago.


REPORTER: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?


REPORTER: Then why did Michael -- why did Michael Cohen made it if there was no truth to the allegations? TRUMP: You'll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael's my attorney and you'll have to ask Michael.

REPORTER: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?

TRUMP: No, I don't know.


BLITZER: We're also following a new development in another lawsuit involving the president. His legal team taking new actions, try to block a former "Apprentice" contestant's defamation case against Mr. Trump.

Our national correspondent Athena Jones is joining us.

[18:50:01] Athena, what's the latest on Summer Zervos' lawsuit?


Well, Trump's lawyers sought to get this case dismissed altogether, or at the very least delayed until he leaves office. They argued the Constitution bars a state court from hearing an action against the sitting president. They also argued that Trump did not defame Summer Zervos because his denials, his repeated denials over allegations were political speech that's protected by the First Amendment.

Now, last month, a New York judge ruled this case can go forward. So, she rejected those arguments. In her opinion, she said, no one is above the law and she even cited the 1997 Supreme Court case, the Clinton versus Jones case.

The Supreme Court then decided in that case which was, of course, about the sexual harassment lawsuit that Paula Jones brought against President Clinton, they decided that a president can be sued in federal court for unofficial acts. This New York judge says the same applies to state courts.

Now, Trump's legal team is appealing that decision and they want this case suspended until that appeal is heard. Now, two important things to note here, Wolf, one, the appeal in this case is not expected to be heard until September.

The other important point is that based on the arguments that Trump's lawyer is making and the cases that they cite, it apparent the goal here is to delay the discovery process in this case. We've been talking a lot about that. That is, of course, gathering facts before trial through document requests, through depositions, which means having someone answer questions under oath. We know that Zervos' legal team is going to want to depose the president and we also know that President Trump often says things that are imprecise, inaccurate, simply not true.

And we know that it was lying under oath that got President Bill Clinton into so much trouble back in the '90s. it was one of the articles of impeachment. So, that is what Trump's legal team is trying to avoid here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly are.

Athena Jones reporting, thank you very much.

Just ahead, more breaking news as President Trump breaks his silence on Stormy Daniels and the hush money payment to the porn star.


[18:56:43] BLITZER: Tonight, as President Trump has been squabbling over his national security over his push to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, we have some breaking news on troop movements there.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

What are you learning, Barbara?


You know, President Trump may be talking about bringing troops out of Syria but that is not happening right now.


STARR (voice-over): Several dozen additional marines have arrived in northern Syria according to two U.S. officials. At American outposts like this, the marines are boosting defenses.

With 2,000 U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, this may be the last troop increase for the U.S. President Trump says he willing to keep forces there in the short term but he wants U.S. troops out of Syria soon.

TRUMP: I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. We have nothing, nothing except death and destruction. It's a horrible thing. So it's time. It's time. We were very successful against ISIS.

STARR: But how soon U.S. troops come home and what happens next in Syria is anybody's guess.

The Pentagon going to great lengths to put a positive face on it all.

DANA WHITE, CHIEF PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: I've heard rumors of people talking about withdrawal. I know the president said very soon, because we have been very successful with defeating ISIS.

STARR: One top Pentagon general claims it's no big deal.

LT. GEN. KENNETH MCKENZIE, JOINT CHIEFS STAFF DIRECTOR: As we reach finality against ISIS in Syria, we're going to adjust the level there, so in that sense, nothing actually has changed.

STARR: Even disputing the president specifically pressed for a quick withdrawal. MCKENZIE: The president has been very good in not giving us a

specific timeline.

STARR: But an administration official said the president's expectation is that troops will be out in Syria in six months. The current U.S. commander, General Joseph Votel, believes it's not over for the military even after combat ends.

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: The hard part I think is in front of us and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done, and this, of course, is -- there is a military role in this, certainly in the stabilization phase.

STARR: It may all put one of the most plain-spoken four star generals in a tough spot.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I don't think General Votel will accept the idea we have to leave in six months. He's been on the ground. He has looked the Kurdish leaders in the eye and has basically told them we will stay. And he doesn't want to be somebody who goes back or has to go back on his word.


STARR: Now, when U.S. troops do finally come out of Syria, the question is how far will Russia and Iran go to dig in with their influence even further and will other any allies either contribute troops or cash to help rebuild Syria? Wolf?

BLITZER: Barbara, it's interesting, even as the president says he would like those 2,000 troops out of Syria, he did tell reporters just a little while ago he wants between 2,000 and 4,000 National Guard troops along the border with Mexico. We're going to continue obviously to follow that story as well.

Barbara, thanks very.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.