Return to Transcripts main page


White House: Trump Believes He Has Power to Fire Mueller. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 10, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: -- "THE LEAD." I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer, right next door in THE SITUATION ROOM, @WolfBlitzer.

[17:00:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Follow the money. The FBI agents who raided the offices of President Trump's personal attorney were looking for records about the payments to two women who claim to have had affairs with Donald Trump.

What if? As the White House insists the president has the power to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a top Republican senator warns that would be suicide, while Senate Democrats huddle to discuss what if President Trump fires Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Face-off Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a dramatic face-off with senators, apologizing for failing to protect users, calling it a big mistake, and vowing to make changes. But is that enough to defuse anger over the massive data scandal?

And Syria strikes. President Trump is weighing military options to strike back in Syria after promising everybody is going to pay a price for a chemical attack on civilians. We're going live to Damascus.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. CNN learns the raids on President Trump's lawyer targeted records relating to payments to a porn star and a former Playmate. Sources say the president's anger at the raid surpasses all his previous tantrums.

The White House says the president thinks Special Counsel Robert Mueller has gone too far and believes he has the power to fire him, but there are bipartisan warnings from Congress, with a powerful Republican senator saying that would be suicide.

I'll speak to Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. And our correspondents and specialists, they're all standing by with full coverage.

First, let's go straight to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, for the very latest -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was a pretty stunning statement from the White House that President Trump believes he has the authority to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But while the White House is flirting with that possibility, top lawmakers, as you said, up on Capitol Hill are warning the president such a move could mean the end of his presidency.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any plans to fire the attorney general or Mr. Rosenstein?

ACOSTA: Still furious but seething behind closed door, President Trump declined to answer whether he's considering a dramatic move to try to end Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. But the White House made it clear the president thinks he has the authority to fire Mueller.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He certainly believes he has the power to do so. The president has been clear that he thinks that this has gone too far, and beyond that I don't have anything to add.

ACOSTA: The other looming question is whether the president could force out or constrain Mueller by firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who could name a different special prosecutor.

Asked about the fate of Sessions, who showed up at, of all places, a celebration for the Alabama college football team --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Attorney General, have you spoken with the president today.


ACOSTA: The White House didn't exactly hold back the blitz of questions.

SANDERS: I think the president was pretty clear about his frustrations when he spoke about that last night.

ACOSTA: While the raid at the office of the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was ordered bit U.S. Attorney's office in New York and not Mueller, Mr. Trump is outraged at the special counsel. According to justice department rules, Rosenstein, a Republican, had had to sign off on the Cohen raid.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Why don't I fire Mueller? Well, I think it's a disgrace what's going on. We'll see what happens. But I think it's really a sad situation when you look at what happened. And many people have said, "You should fire him."

ACOSTA: The president also vented his frustrations by tweeting: "The Russia investigation is a total witch hunt," adding, "attorney-client privilege is dead." A continuation of the rant he unleashed while sitting next to top military commanders.

TRUMP: And it's a disgrace. It's frankly a real disgrace. It's an attack on our country in a true sense. It's an attack on what we all stand for. So when I saw this and when I heard it -- I heard it like you did -- I said that is really now in a whole new level of unfairness.

ACOSTA: Democrats are taking issue with the comparison.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor was an attack on our country. Nine-eleven was an attack on our country. When Russia interfered with our elections, that was an attack on our country.

ACOSTA: Republicans are urging caution, some with the hope the president is simply letting off some steam.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I don't think he's going to be removed from this office. He shouldn't be removed from the office. He should be allowed to finish the job.

ACOSTA: While other GOP senators are warning Mr. Trump to leave Mueller alone.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: I think it would be suicide for the president to fire him. I think the less the president says about this whole thing the better off he will be. And I think that Mueller is a person of stature and respected; and I respect him. Just let the thing go forward.

[17:05:04] ACOSTA: The Cohen raid comes during another turbulent week at the White House as the president suddenly scrapped a trip to South America set for this weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you disappointed not to go to South America?

TRUMP: I am, actually. I would have loved to have gone.

ACOSTA: A decision that surprised even his top economic adviser, who thought Mr. Trump was still going just this morning.

LARRY KUDLOW, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE ECONOMIC ADVISOR (via phone): I'll be traveling with him, with the group going to Latin America. This -- well, say, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Japanese summit after that in Florida. I don't think it's going to stop him. It never stops him.


ACOSTA: And as it turns out, he's not going. The White House said the president is no longer going to South America, where he was to attend the Summit of the Americas, so he could focus on the U.S. response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria. But the last time the president authorized airstrikes on Syria, we should point out, was when he was at Mar-a-Lago last year.

Now at that event for the Alabama football team, the president told a reporter, as you heard there, he would have loved to have gone to South America. Just want to make sure our viewers heard that, Wolf.

At the same event, the attorney general was asked if he had spoken to the president today. He said he hadn't; only that he wanted to add, "Roll Tide." So Wolf, the attorney general has not been sacked just yet.

BLITZER: Not yet. We'll see what happens on that front. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

We've been getting new details on the raids against President Trump's lawyer and the president's reaction. Let's bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, and our CNN justice correspondent, Evan Perez.

Evan, we know the president thinks -- at least the White House says -- he could fire Mueller directly, but there's also a lot of concern he could undermine this whole investigation by going after the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well I think what the president is hearing is from people around him, people who support him who are telling him that, obviously, firing Robert Mueller is a red line that he cannot cross. And so the way to try to have an impact on what Robert Mueller is doing is to perhaps fire Rod Rosenstein.

And you can see some of the groundwork being laid by people who are close to the president, including the fact that they blame Rosenstein for the slow production of documents that are being demanded by Congress related to the FBI, related to the FISA application, the surveillance application -- the surveillance warrant that they took out on Carter Page.

And you could also see some of this coming out into the president's tweets, as he explains his frustration that he believes Rosenstein is essentially not doing his job, which is to manage and to supervise Robert Mueller. So stay tuned and see whether -- where this goes as far as president and Rod Rosenstein is concerned.

BLITZER: And if he were to fire Rod Rosenstein, could that be folded into a possible obstruction of justice case against the president?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely. There's no reason why it couldn't be. Certainly, the special counsel would look to see whether or not this was being done to send some kind of a signal to -- to investigators, much like perhaps maybe the Comey firing. So this could fall within a purview of the special counsel, and it could open the president up to more problems if he went ahead and did that.

But you know, it's clear, based on what we're hearing and what Evan was saying, that this could be a move by the president to rein in some of what's going on with the special counsel, because it's clear that the president thinks they have overstepped their boundaries, and they've gone too far. And now they need someone who's going to pull them in.

And so he could perhaps be looking to put someone in that job that will tell Mueller, "Hey, you've gone too far here. Enough is enough." BLITZER: What else are you learning, Evan? I know you do a lot of

reporting on this, on the actual raids on Michael Cohen's home, his hotel room where he was temporarily staying and his office.

PEREZ: Yes. So we've been told, obviously, that there's been some broad mentions in the search warrant for details and documents. And one of the interesting things -- and this goes far back to Cohen's issues, his business dealings, his business records.

That has to do with taxi medallions in New York. These are -- it gives him this ownership of taxis in New York. They were highly lucrative back in the day before the -- before Uber, before Lyft. And certainly something that was difficult to get. And for some reason now, according to sources we've talked to, the FBI has been looking into that, into his business records on the taxi medallions. They've searched his home for that information, and now that seems to be something that they're looking at, as well.

PEREZ: And what we have learned from some of the reporting we did, Wolf, is that there were 21 shell companies that Michael Cohen has created over the years in Chicago and New York that controlled 54 taxi medallions.

Now, you know, for much of the country, this doesn't mean much, but these things are worth a million dollars back in the day when he bought them. More recently, they're -- they've plunged in value to about $200,000. So it's not clear exactly, as Shimon says, what the FBI is looking at.

We also know from the search warrant that was served at these three locations -- the office, the home and the hotel room -- that they are also looking into payments that Michael Cohen or -- that were made to women and that -- that includes Stormy Daniels, but also this "Playboy" Playmate that you mentioned earlier, Karen McDougal, who has sued the president and -- rather the -- Michael Cohen.

[17:10:14] And allegedly, she was paid $150,000 for her story by the publisher of "The National Enquirer." Her story never made it out, and so the question of whether or not there was some effort to try to keep this story out of the headlines before the 2016 election, just as the Stormy Daniels payment of $130,000 --

PROKUPECZ: And just quickly --

BLITZER: I want to point out, that $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal, the former Playmate, was in August of 2016, a couple of months before the election. The payment to Stormy Daniels was 11 days before the election near the end of October.

And the connection -- what are you hearing about the connection between the president and the owner of American Media, the parent company of "The National Enquirer," David Pecker?

PEREZ: Right. David Pecker is one of -- one of the president's supporters. He obviously cheerleads the president a lot. They have a longtime relationship down in Florida. And I think the question is whether or not this story was bought with

the purpose of keeping out -- keeping it out of the headlines, to essentially buy her silence. And so that's the reason why she has filed this lawsuit.

And so it's kind of a surprising thing that this would be included in the search of Cohen, because Cohen has claimed that he had nothing to do with this, that this had to do, again, with American Media and "The National Enquirer" doing a private deal with this woman.

To be clear, American Media says that they are cooperating with all inquiries on this issue, and they say that they simply bought the story and decided not to publish it, because they say they didn't find it credible. That's their story.

BLITZER: Yes. Karen McDougal got $150,000. Stormy Daniels, Shimon, got $130,000.

PROKUPECZ: And keep in mind: the people that are doing this investigation in New York are public corruption investigators. And that's important in all of this. Because that's where this is being generated, and those are the investigators that are going through all of this now.

BLITZER: Shimon, Evan. Guys, excellent reporting, as usual.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.

Senator, let me get your reaction. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, says the president believes he has the power to fire Mueller directly. Do you believe he has that power?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, under the rules for special counsel, the power to dismiss is with the -- Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and only for cause. That's how the rules of special counsel are written.

Therefore, if the president dismisses Mr. Rosenstein, it's the first step to dismissing Mr. Mueller. And clearly, in I think many of our views, that would cross the line.

BLITZER: The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is reluctant to consider legislation to actually protect the special counsel, Robert Mueller. He said it's unnecessary, because he doesn't believe the president will actually remove the special counsel. How do you see it?

CARDIN: Well, you listen to the president. He really is -- is sowing doubt in the investigation, which is obviously attempting to influence the investigation.

We could protect the integrity of the investigation by passing a pretty simple statute to protect the special counsel, that protects Mr. Mueller. We should have done that a long time ago. The president's threats should not be used to try to influence this investigation. BLITZER: How would the Congress react, Senator, if the president were

to fire Mueller?

CARDIN: I really do think that would create a constitutional crisis and that you would see the American people and the members of Congress take steps in order to make sure that investigation goes forward and the firing is reversed.

BLITZER: Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, warns of serious repercussions for the president if he were to fire Mueller, but he wouldn't say what those repercussions might be.

It would require, as you know, 67 votes in the Senate to remove the president from office if he were first impeached in the House of Representatives.

Are there enough Senate Republicans, do you believe, willing to take that vote?

CARDIN: I think where we would have the support of the American people and the support of Congress is to make sure the Mueller investigation continues regardless of what the president tries to do. So that investigation can reach its logical conclusion. I would hope that we would have strong bipartisan support to protect the integrity of that investigation, regardless of what the president wants to do.

BLITZER: Do Senate Democrats have a plan, if the president were to fire the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein?

CARDIN: I would hope that Congress would have a plan. I hope that this would be responding to a constitutional crisis. It would not be a Democratic plan or a Republican plan. It would be a plan to protect the Constitution of America, that no one is above the law. This is not about pleasing the president of the United States. This is about that the rule of law and protecting the rule of law here in America.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the specifics of the FBI raid against the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in New York. Based on what you've seen, what sort of legal trouble is Cohen facing right now and how do that affect the president himself?

[17:15:13] CARDIN: Well clearly, they're concerned about the cash payments that he made and whether that was appropriate or not. The manner in which it was not reported, the manner in which the investigation has been affected by what he has said and done and the records that may prove that.

So it's clearly important information in regards to a criminal investigation. It's gone through the normal procedures of a U.S. Attorney's office with the appropriate approval process, it is part of a normal way that investigations are done. And it was executed against a lawyer.

BLITZER: Senator Ben Cardin, thanks so much for joining us.

CARDIN: My pleasure, Wolf.

BITZER: More breaking news coming up as the White House issues veiled threats about firing Robert Mueller. Will lawmakers do anything to protect the special counsel?


[17:20:26] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking news stories, including a new warning from a top Republican up on Capitol Hill that it would be, quote, "suicide," end quote, for the president to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller.

Let's go to Manu Raju. Manu, are lawmakers doing anything to protect the special counsel right now?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT CORRESPONDENT: Not legislatively, Wolf. Republicans say they're concerned about any move to fire Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein. The deputy attorney general -- they believe it is political by damaging to the party and presidency but making something very clear. They are not ready to confront the president on this yet. Because they are placing blind faith in the White House that the president will not move to fire Robert Mueller.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), MAJORITY WHIP: I think that would be -- there would be some serious repercussions and it is hard to predict exactly what that might look like. But so I think Director Mueller ought to be free to do his job and let the courts and let the lawyers and -- work it out.

RAJU: Why not pass legislation proactively to protect him, given the president's threats here?

CORNYN: I don't think it's necessary.

RAJU: Are you concerned that the Senate is not doing enough to prevent this possible outcome?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: It is still my view that Mueller should be allowed to finish his job. I think that's the view of most people in Congress. I haven't seen clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed. Because I don't think that's going to happen.

PEREZ: What gives you that confidence, sir? Because he keeps --

MCCONNELL: I'm not going to answer the hypothetical. Because I don't think he's going to be removed.

SEN. THOM TILLIS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Well, I think he said similar things before so I don't think that that's anything new in my opinion.

PEREZ: He did throw up the possibility of firing him.

TILLIS: Nor did he say he was going to so we just need to say where that plays off.


And from Thom Tillis the Republican and the co-authors of the two bills awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary committee and Tillis not having a sense of urgency at this moment to move on his legislation.

Similarly, Chuck Grassley did say it would be suicide for the president to fire Robert Mueller, the judiciary chairman has not scheduled a vote on any of the pieces of legislation yet. He wants these two bills to be reconciled. He wants to eliminate what he considers constitutionality concerns.

And Wolf, in a sign of how Republicans are just not as concerned about the process of this firing yet, they had an hour-and-a-half lunch behind closed doors. Members did not bring this topic up at all, even though it's been dominating the news since the president's remarks yesterday.

So a real sign that Republicans are ready to move on. They hope the president doesn't take -- doesn't take any steps to fire Robert Mueller, but they certainly are not going to do anything to confront him proactively, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens next, Manu. Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're learning new details about what investigators were looking for during the raids on Trump attorney Michael Cohen's office and residences. What does it tell us about where this investigation is now headed?


[17:28:15] BLITZER: We're keeping our eyes on the Trump White House right now. Earlier at this afternoon's press briefing, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, told reporters, the president, quote, "Certainly believes he has the ability to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, directly."

Let's bring in our experts, and Joey Jackson, what do you think? Does the president really have that power? The assumption I had, based on all the legal experts I was talking to, he first has to go through the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Wolf, that's the conventional wisdom, but I'm one that believes that he can, in fact, fire Mueller, should he decide to do so. And here's why.

You know that there's the code of federal regulations, and that, of course, is what they're relying upon. Everyone who says, "No, no, he can't fire him" points to the 1999 regulations that say, in the event that you want to fire the special counsel, it has to be done for good cause, like conflict of interest, dereliction of duty, some type of misconduct. What can the president of the United States do?

The president of the United States can get rid of or otherwise repeal that code of federal regulations, thereby opening him up to firing him directly. If that were not the case, we wouldn't be having these discussions about special legislation that Congress might consider in order to protect the special counsel. So that's an end to run around it.

So could he do it? Absolutely. In my view, he could. However, there is that code of federal regulation procedure that I believe he can very well circumvent. So I'm one that's of the belief that, unless you have that special legislation, in the event the president wanted to act to make that firing, he could do so.

BLITZER: Very interesting.

You know, Dana, the president did try to fire Mueller last summer, it's widely reported. We've reported, "The New York Times." And he backed off when the White House counsel, Don McGahn, threatened to resign. Didn't happen at the time. The investigation now, the Russia probe much more clear -- much more advanced right now. So what do you think?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well from everything that I'm hearing and my colleagues are hearing about where the president's head is right now, it doesn't seem to be focused so much on Mueller, per se, but his rage is on the people that he personally appointed, meaning Jeff Sessions for recusing himself. The president said that publicly yesterday.

And more importantly, I think, in this case, Rod Rosenstein, who's the deputy attorney general, who because of Sessions' recusal is effectively in charge of -- is in charge of Mueller and apparently was part of approving this search warrant and so forth. So that is where his ire is.

I know just -- I was on Capitol Hill today that Democrats in the Senate were huddled during one of the votes on the Senate floor, talking about the what-ifs. If the president fires not Mueller but Rosenstein and/or Sessions, what will they do? And the hope that Republicans would come along with them.

On the other hand, I talked to many Republicans who should be in the know on Capitol Hill about whether or not the president is seriously considering it, and they all said to a person they can't imagine the president doing that. And when I say that, I mean not Mueller, but the people who he reports to, Rod Rosenstein and even Jeff Sessions.

BLITZER: Because the Republicans, Matthew Rosenberg, they clearly are not eager to go ahead and pass legislation to protect Robert Mueller. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, we heard him say earlier he doesn't think the president will actually go ahead with the firing. But some believe these Republicans are being naive.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": They're definitely gambling. Well, Trump is somebody who has done a lot of the things he said he would do and repeatedly said "he's not going to do that" or "That's too far," and he's done it. There's a lot of pressure. There's clearly a lot of pressure behind the scenes, too, and they're hoping cooler heads inside of the White House will prevail.

But we've seen a lot of people leave this White House. Who are these cooler heads? You know, the lawyers are changing. We've got a fiery national security adviser now. So I think there is a sense of, "Well, we hope so, but I don't think that they know."

And let me ask Bianna what she -- how she sees it. What do you think, Bianna?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they also have a midterm to consider in the next few months, and one of the gambles could be how voters would react, positively or negatively. If, in fact, they do clamp down and pass legislation -- bipartisan legislation that would virtually make it impossible for the president to fire Mueller, look, they've done that in the past when it came to Russian sanctions.

So while on the one hand, they call it political suicide, the end of the president's career and his presidency, I don't think many would expect them to pick up the phone and call Chuck Schumer and start drafting the articles of impeachment if the president does fire Bob Mueller.

Having said that, I think for the first time in a long time, aside from just focusing his ire against Sessions, we're seeing a lot of anger against Rosenstein. So it will be interesting if we have to see if we have any photo-op dinners tonight with Rosenstein and Sessions and maybe others from the Justice Department supporting Rosenstein.

BLITZER: If we were to fire Rosenstein, Joey, do you think that that could be folded into a possible obstruction of justice case. Rosenstein has to approve all the sensitive decisions that Robert Mueller makes if someone else came in and rejected a lot of those recommendations, could that be seen, potentially, as obstruction of justice?

JACKSON: You know, Wolf, there are two schools of thought on that. The one school of thought is, if you're a Republican, of course it's not obstruction of justice. Are you kidding? The president fires a number of people.

In addition to that, the president has a constitutional certain obligation, duty and responsibility to have the cabinet and people that he wants around him, whether they're special counsels or anyone else. And so if he does that, well, that's his prerogative.

On the other hand, simply because you have the constitutional authority to do something if you do it with corrupt intention, then it's obstruction of justice. So if you look at obstruction as the intentional interference of justice and you're looking to get rid of someone in order to impede or impair justice, then, yes, that would constitute obstruction.

It's all about the state of mind. What lawyers do is they examine states of mind, what prosecutors do is do that, and to the extent that he would do it for a corrupt and unlawful purpose, you could deem it as obstruction. But those will be the two narratives by the both sides in order to demonstrate is it obstruction on the one hand, or is it simply the president being the president who fires whoever at any time on the other.

BASH: I can tell you that the president's legal team is saying privately to people who aren't their client and, of course, to their client, they don't agree with Joey's interpretation of obstruction of justice when it comes to the president of the United States. That they believe the president has the legal ability to fire whom he wants and the executive branch, regardless of cause. And they're preparing --

JACKSON: Let me clarify that, Dana.

BASH: Please.

[17:35:03] JACKSON: Let me just clarify that. That's what I'm saying. In ] other words, there's two schools of thought. The president, on the one hand, has the ability to have serve with him whoever he wants. And I think that's what the Republicans will say. That's what his administration will say.

On the other hand, if you do something with a corrupt purpose, whether you have the authority or not, it's impeding. So I'm not taking a position. I'm merely demonstrating --

BASH: Exactly. I understand.

JACKSON: And the legal gray area that will be argued.

BASH: Absolutely. But, you know, what they argue is that second way to look at it, which may be the way that Bob Mueller is looking at it, depending on how far along he's going in his pursuit of this obstruction of justice question, they argue and they're preparing an argument that -- that is just not legal.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Well, I was going to say, I think it is harder now to see a scenario where you see the president sit down with Bob Mueller, given the latest developments this week. And remember, his lawyers had been advising him not to do so, even as recently as last week. The president said he would still sit down with him. I find it hard to believe that the president would consider that right now.

And to go back to what Bianna said about the midterms. You know, the president fires Mueller or Rosenstein, and we do have these two schools of thought. That is a constitutional crisis.

And the Republicans want to walk into these crucial mid-term elections with a -- the courts, everyone, commentators kind of weighing in on what the constitutionality of this all -- whether the president has broken the law. That is not where you want to be when you're facing crucial elections.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. We've got more on the breaking news right after this.


[17:41:16] BLITZER: We're back with our experts. So let's go back to Joey Jackson, our legal analyst. Joey, help us make sense of this. The FBI apparently going after the residence, the hotel room, the office of Michael Cohen, the president's private personal attorney. Areas of interest include these New York taxi medallions or permits, as they're called, also payoffs to women who allegedly had affairs with Donald Trump.

But what's at stake here? Because these seem to be such -- some very different points of interest.

JACKSON: You know, absolutely. I'll say this here. I mean, the southern district, all districts, but you know, the southern district very aggressive. They know what they're doing. I've litigated cases, had trials there. These are experienced people who know exactly what's going on.

Now let's talk about that. The fact is, is that I don't think they're after taxi medallions or anything else. I think at stake is the presidency of the United States. They're looking at what, if any, communications happened with the president and/or the president's surrogates that centered around this entirety of the payment.

And so if you have this $130,000 payment, we've heard a home equity loan. We've heard the president had nothing to do with it. So the FBI, I believe, is examining that and putting it to the test. Whether any directions from the president, was there any guidance whatsoever by the president or any of his parties, any of his surrogates, and to the extent that there would be, there could be potentially crimes there. And you don't ignore other crimes when you're looking at and investigating.

So I believe they're focusing specifically on that money and what they find. And that's why the issue of privilege that we talked about is so big here, too. If that stuff is privileged, there will be arguments about, you know, not so fast, is the crime fraud exception which would eliminate the privilege.

Anything the president might have suggested, not saying the president did anything, I don't know. But if the president suggested to Michael Cohen that he would pay this person off, you know what? And avoid campaign contributions or violations, that would be highly problematic.

BLITZER: All right. Bianna, you were going to say?

GOLODRYGA: Well, I mean, that's another reason why you could say the president is more angry and outraged than he's been over the past few months.

Definitely, I mean, you look at what Bob Mueller has done and, aside from not wanting to appear to be out of his lane or purview, or to look as if he's, you know, drifting away from the Russia collusion investigation, you could also say that, look, the Michael Cohen train has already left the station.

Even if the president does fire Rosenstein and, even if he does fire Bob Mueller, this investigation in New York has already started, and it's hard to see how it would come to an end, even if he does end up firing Rosenstein.

BLITZER: This relationship with the president has had with Michael Cohen for a decade or so, it's a pretty unique relationship.

BASH: It is. There's no question. And Michael Cohen has said -- given various sort of adjectives about the kind of relationship that he has. Fixer. You know, he's even been compared to Ray Donovan, you know, that kind of thing.

But at the end of the day, you know, it seems like people were sort of saying, "Wait a minute. Who pays 130 grand out of their own pocket to protect somebody like Donald Trump."

And people -- it is hard to believe. And I'm not saying that I do believe it. But if anybody were to do that, it would be Michael Cohen. That is how loyal he is to President Trump. That is how much he adores President Trump.

And look, it has been reciprocal for many, many years. We'll see what happens at the end of the day with this. But it is not looking good for Michael Cohen when it comes to his -- you know, the legal jeopardy that he's clearly in and whether or not that translates to the president is the open question.

BLITZER: Matthew, it is very interesting. Mueller is involved in all sorts of areas. All of a sudden, Mark Zuckerberg is testifying up on Capitol Hill today about Facebook, and he says that some Facebook employees have had conversations with the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

ROSENBERG: I mean, we don't know exactly what they're looking into. Zuckerberg made a point of saying, "It's confidential; I can't provide any details."

But look, the broader investigation is obviously looking into Russia interference. Facebook had people embedded with the Trump campaign, and we also know that Russian propaganda or their agents placed thousands of ads on Facebook. So it's not entirely surprising that they have kind of met with Mueller's investigators.

It's not clear how deep the conversations have gone and whether they are looking into any wrongdoing by Facebook. But they'd certainly want to know what was going on inside Facebook and what Facebook could tell them.

BLITZER: Bianna, what does this say to you?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Some ads paid for, by the way, in rubles. So to hear Mark Zuckerberg acknowledge what would be an obvious for anybody who's covered this story for the past year, this would definitely be of interest to Bob Mueller. To the extent of what, you know, the involvement of the Trump

campaign, that's a different story. But Russia's involvement in Facebook and Russia's involvement in interfering in our election is definitely something that you would think would be high on the priority list for Mueller.

BLITZER: Yes. And, Joey, you want to add?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, just that social media has consumed our times, Wolf. And you know, to the extent we talk about collusion, we already know, based upon the prior indictment of the 13 Russians in addition to the company, you know, the involvement of social media, the involvement of interjecting into our political system information, which is false and fictitious, you already know that Facebook has to be the center of much attention in terms of investigation.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure it is. And we'll stay on top of this part of the story and the investigation as well.

Everybody, stick around. We're going to have much more on what investigators were targeting during the raid on the residences and offices of President Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen.

There you see him walking on the streets of Manhattan today.

And up next, will the President order a U.S. military strike on Syria? We're going live to Damascus.


[17:51:36] BLITZER: The White House says all options are on the table following President Trump's warning that Syria could pay a big price in response to a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians, including children.

Let's go live to CNN's senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen. He's joining us from is Syrian capital of Damascus.

Fred, is the Bashar al-Assad regime bracing for impact?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it certainly seems to be sinking with them that the prospect of American military action here in Syria is quite real and could happen fairly soon.

There are some telltale signs. It seems as though the Syrian military of Bashar al-Assad has been put on at least a heightened state of alert. And also, there's report of some airplane and troop movement.

Now, some of the things that we've seen here in the Syrian capital is more military convoys that we're used to seeing. It's not clear whether or not that's directly related with the threat of an American retaliation, but it certainly does seem to be a telltale sign.

Wolf, we've also managed to speak to a senior member of the Assad government for the first time about all this. And it's interesting to hear from them.

On the one hand, they claim they're not afraid of American military action. But strangely, they've also -- or it's not gone unnoticed here that President Trump, at least in the medium term, wants to pull America's troops out.

Here is what they had to say.


HUSSEIN MAKHLOUF, LOCAL ADMINISTRATION MINISTER, SYRIA (through translator): Of course not. If you can stop any child in Syria, any young person or woman, they won't be afraid. We weren't afraid. We won't be afraid and we will never be afraid.

But Trump's earlier tweet about American forces exiting Syria is a correct decision. We consider foreign presence without the approval and coordination of the Syrian state to be occupation.


PLEITGEN: So the Syrians clearly don't believe, Wolf, that the Americans are in it for the long run here in this country. On the other hand, they are still quite not -- not afraid but certainly thinking ahead to if this military action could happen.

The Syrians are now saying that they don't mind if international investigators were to come here to Damascus to go to that site where that chemical weapons attack allegedly happened, Wolf.

BLITZER: Would any U.S. military action, Fred, have any impact, let's say, on Russia's support for the Bashar al-Assad regime?

PLEITGEN: Well, I think that would really depend on the scope of what America would be willing to do here in Syria. But it certainly doesn't seem likely that America would do anything that would deter the Russians from sticking by the side of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

The Russians have shown that they are in it for the long run here. They have what's almost a permanent military base for their aircraft up there in Khmeimim, near Latakia. They also have a port in Tartus. And they also have thousands of military and paramilitary personnel on the ground here.

So it would be very difficult to see that the Russians would give up also all of the gains that the Assad government has been able to make thanks to the Russians. First and foremost, of course, here around the Damascus area where that horrible attack happened, but then also in places like Aleppo as well.

So the U.S. certainly would have to put a lot more chips on the table if it were to try and deter the Russians or try to get them to drop President Bashar al-Assad, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens over the next few hours and days. Thanks very much.


BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen reporting for us from Damascus.

Coming up, the breaking news. President Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, speaking to CNN. His first comments since the FBI raid on his office and residences. That's next.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Cohen speaks out.

Tonight, the first reaction directly from the President's personal lawyer after the FBI raid on his private records, including communications with Mr. Trump.

Stand by for a CNN exclusive with Michael Cohen.

Search and seizure. We're learning that FBI agents who raided Cohen's home and offices were on the hunt for information involving playmate Karen McDougal as well as porn star Stormy Daniels. What secrets might be uncovered?

[18:00:01] Firing Mueller? The White House says the President is convinced he has the power to oust the Special Counsel as his fury over the FBI raid goes beyond his past rants about the Russia probe.