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Chief of Staff: Trump 'Distracted' by Mueller Probe; GOP's Mark Meadows Seeks Audit of Mueller Investigation; White House Won't Apologize for Aide's McCain 'Joke'; GOP Lawmakers Push To Obtain Memo On Mueller Probe; Senate Intel Seeks Sam Nunberg Communications With Roger Stone; AT&T Novartis Say Hiring Cohen Was A "Mistake"; U.S. Military Staying Alert For North Korean Missile Threats. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 17:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. Embarrassed and distracted. White House chief of staff John Kelly walks back his comment that President Trump is embarrassed by the Russia probe, now saying the president is distracted. But he's not walking back his latest comments on immigrants.

Auditing Mueller. Conservative critics of the special counsel launch a new attack on the Russia investigation. Will the threat to audit Robert Mueller's team help a Republican congressman get his hands on a secret memo?

Big mistake. The head of communications giant AT&T admits it was a big mistake to hire President Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a political consultant. What do the corporate payments reveal about Washington's pay-to-play culture?

And missile protection. As the president gets ready for talks with Kim Jong-un, CNN gets rare access to America's first line of defense. We'll take you inside the underground command center where the U.S. military keeps watch for incoming missiles.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, the Trump White House is now fumbling with new controversies. It is refusing to apologize for an aide's crude comment about Senator John McCain dying as chief of staff John Kelly grapples with his latest anti-immigrant comments and tries to take back his remark that President Trump is embarrassed by the Russia probe. I'll speak with congressman John Garamendi and our specialists are standing by with full coverage. First to our White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny. A new round of controversy for the Trump White House.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, those comments from John Kelly certainly drew attention today when he said in a rare interview with NPR, the president was embarrassed by the Russia investigation. He said it is something that is always on the topic of conversation when world leaders come to the White House.

So I caught up with John Kelly in the Rose Garden and asked him about that. He said, "No, no, I didn't mean embarrassed; I meant distracted."


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump is either embarrassed or distracted by the Russia investigation hanging over the White House. Tonight that's the sentiment from White House chief of staff John Kelly, going where few aides to the president have gone before, saying the president is embarrassed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe.

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: There may not be a cloud, but certainly, the president is somewhat embarrassed, frankly, when world leaders come in, the first couple of minutes of every conversation might resolve around that -- that kind of thing.

Kelly backtracked hours after that NPR interview, telling CNN in the White House Rose Garden he meant to say the investigation into Russia collusion in the 2016 campaign was a distraction for the president, not an embarrassment. "Well, yes, it's untrue. It's a witch hunt, right? It distracts him," Kelly said. "Not too much, but it's unfair."

Meanwhile, an unseemly feud with Senator John McCain escalated a day after a White House aide spoke callously behind closed doors about McCain as he battles brain cancer, saying he's dying any way.

(on camera): Mr. President, does the White House owe Senator McCain an apology, sir?

(voice-over): At the daily briefing, press secretary Sarah Sanders said the aide, Kelly Sadler, still worked for the administration. But Sanders repeatedly declined to say more or why an apology wasn't warranted.

(on camera): If you won't comment on the specific comment, what does the White House believe about Senator McCain, and is there a tone set from the top here where it is allowed for an aide to say he's dying anyway?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Certainly, there is not a -- a tone set here. We have a -- a respect for all Americans, and that is what we try to put forward in everything we do both in word and in action.

ZELENY: Why not just apologize to Senator McCain --

SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to get into a back and forth, because people want to create issues of a leaked staff meeting.

ZELENY (voice-over): The senator's daughter, Meghan McCain, sounded stunned that the staffer is still on the job.

MEGHAN MCCAIN, JOHN MCCAIN'S DAUGHTER: I don't understand what kind of environment you're working in when that would be acceptable and then you could come to work the next day and still have a job. And that's all I have to say.

ZELENY: The Arizona Republican senator and decorated war hero has been among the president's biggest critics. This controversy started when he said he opposed the nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the CIA because of her history with the agency's interrogation tactics he believes are torture. McCain's daughter addressed Sadler, a special assistant to the president, directly.

MCCAIN: Kelly, here's a little news flash. We're all dying. I'm dying, you're dying, we're all dying. And I want to say that, since my dad has been diagnosed the past -- it's almost a year July 19 -- I really feel like I understand the meaning of life, and it is not how you die, it is how you live.

[17:05:09] ZELENY: Cindy McCain had this to say on Twitter: "May I remind you my husband has a family. Seven children and five grandchildren."

All this as Kelly's tough talk on immigration raised eyebrows. As a four-star Marine general, he once oversaw threats on the U.S. border as head of Southern Command.

KELLY: The vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States they are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13. But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They are overwhelmingly rural people.

ZELENY: It came as the president's frustration with immigration boiled over this week, blasting Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for not acting swiftly enough. The exchange behind closed doors in a cabinet meeting so heated she threatened to resign, "The New York Times" reported. She denied it.

Asked in the Rose Garden whether Nielsen will stay in her role, Kelly simply said yes.

It's the latest example of another tumultuous week in the Trump cabinet. Embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt under fire and multiple investigations for excessive government spending and more. In the Roosevelt Room with Pruitt sitting nearby today, the president was asked this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you feel confidence in administrator Pruitt, Mr. President?


(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY: So the president there expressing confidence in his EPA

administrator, who was sitting just a couple of feet away when they were meeting with some auto CEOs here at the White House to talk about fuel energy standards.

But Wolf, it is clear that White House officials say they are, in fact, waiting for the outcome of about 12 or so separate investigations about Scott Pruitt. His spending, his ethics, other habits at the EPA. So it's very much unclear if he will stay in that position or not.

Wolf, all this comes as we're ending another week here on who the next V.A. secretary will be. That position has been opened since the last one was fired -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you. Jeff Zeleny.

Conservative critics, meanwhile, of the special counsel's Russia investigation may have found a new avenue of attack.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, more pressure, I take it, tonight on Robert Mueller's investigation from some key House Republicans.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. Conservatives in the House have been actively targeting the special counsel's investigation for weeks finding new areas to try to get information, to try to undercut some senior Justice Department officials who were overseeing the probe and get more information about exactly what Robert Mueller is doing.

Now I am told in a closed-door meeting last month, Mark Meadows, the head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, along with Jim Jordan, demanded to see a document from August that was drafted by Rod Rosenstein, given to Bob Mueller, detailing exactly what Bob Mueller could investigate.

Now that document has been heavily redacted. It was turned over in court filings. But those congressmen wanted to see the unredacted version. Rosenstein said no. They've looked into other areas to get more information. The new effort: to try to get the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, to look -- to look into the scope of the Mueller probe and how much money is being spent as part of the investigation.

Mark Meadows said earlier today on C-SPAN that, in fact, he was going to request a GAO investigation to look into the Mueller investigation.


REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: There will be a request for us to audit the financial resources of this investigation. It used to be part of statute. It's certainly within the parameters, since it's an appropriated funds from Congress that we will be sending a request to the GAO, the General Accountability Office, to actually look at an audit and make sure that those funds are put forth properly, and so that letter will be going out next week.


RAJU: Now, Wolf, this as the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, himself has been going after the Russia investigation and questions that he has about why the Russia investigation began in the first place. He had a private briefing yesterday at the Justice Department, along with Congressman Trey Gowdy, to learn about information they were seeking about someone who is described as an intelligence source who had provided information over to the Mueller probe.

Now, they got that private briefing. They say at the moment that was a productive meeting, but they want to have further discussions going forward. It's all coming as Democrats are concerned it is all part of an effort to undercut the probe and to potentially even give the president some ammunition to fire Rod Rosenstein or even the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Manu, at the same time, the Senate Intelligence Committee is still investigating possible connections between Trump associates and Russian meddling. Tell us the latest that you're learning.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. Sam Nunberg, the former Trump adviser, has been asked to come to the Senate Intelligence Committee and provide document this month about communications that he had with Roger Stone, that long-time Trump friend. This comes as the committee itself has just interviewed Michael Caputo, another Roger Stone friend, a sign that Stone himself is still an important part of just -- not just the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation but potentially, the Mueller probe, as well, Wolf.

[17:10:06] BLITZER: All right, Manu, thank you very much. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He's a key member of the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, you just heard Manu's report. Congressman Meadows saying this audit request is basic oversight and well within his jurisdiction. How do you see it?

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, that's probably true. But what's the purpose of it? We know that every six months, the special counsel is required to produce an entire display of all of his expenses and entire accounting of his expenses. He did that. The next one is due in about 30 days. That will be available to, certainly, the committees in Congress, both Senate and House. If they want an audit beyond that, fine.

But why is he asking? Mark Meadows, who I would consider a friend, is really, I think, out of line here. He is trying to shut down this investigation, and he's using any method possible to do that. And that's a disservice to this nation, because we really need to know. We really need to know what Russia did so that we can prevent it from ever happening again.

BLITZER: Do you believe the president's allies up on Capitol Hill -- we're talking about these Republicans -- would use that kind of sensitive information that they want to obtain in order to coordinate with the White House?

GARAMENDI: Absolutely. There's no doubt. It's already been done. Nunes did this more than a year ago. He took information that he thought was useful to the White House, ran over to the White House, gave it to the White House, and lo and behold, later found out that the information actually came from the White House to begin with. An effort by the White House to somehow distort and/or derail the investigation. This was a year ago and more.

What I find interesting is that while the House committee is doing his level best to stop the investigation. The Senate committee is doing his level best to find out what happened so that our nation could be protected.

BLITZER: To learn the lessons of what exactly happened and make sure it doesn't happen again.


BLITZER: Let's turn to another important issue that we're covering right now, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, refusing to comment on a rather crude -- a cruel and crude joke that White House aide Kelly Sadler allegedly made about Senator John McCain. Sadler said -- Sarah Sanders, I should say, said she didn't want to talk about internal staff meetings and wouldn't say if Sadler, the aide, should issue an apology. What do you make of that silence from the White House?

GARAMENDI: You're surprised? This is a White House whose boss, the president, started his campaign by bullying people, by demeaning people, by calling people names, by using the crudest of language, and it's gone on since the very first day of his -- his campaign. Right on through his entire presidency.

He spends his time calling out people, demeaning them, using bad -- using language to somehow harm their reputation, and you're surprised that somebody on the staff is doing the same, and they're not willing to fess up and even issue an apology. Don't be surprised, Wolf. This is standard operating procedure from this president, right on down the line.

BLITZER: She apparently did call Senator McCain's daughter and issue some sort of apology, but do you believe she should lose her job?

GARAMENDI: I think there is a need for discipline from the president right on down the line within this entire White House. When the chief of staff issues -- and I'm sure you're going to go there next, when he goes out and says that immigrants can't assimilate, he's not talking -- is he talking about his own grandparents? Who came from Ireland and probably had no education and did assimilate? And their son or their grandson became a four-star general.

He ought to come out. I'll tell you, Kelly ought to come out and visit my district. He ought to come out and visit the real America and get out of the bubble of the White House and see what's really happening out here. The way immigrants, legal and illegal, are assimilating into this economy and driving this economy.

Come to California, which is now the fifth biggest economy in the world, and see what the immigrants are doing. Legal and illegal. They are moving the economy of California. They're moving our society. They are participating and they are assimilating, and they are a large part of the energy that we have, at least in the state of California.

BLITZER: He did say -- I'll quote it, but he said to NPR -- this is the chief of staff, John Kelly, said these undocumented immigrants, quote, "are not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society."

He said most of them don't have much of an education, can't speak English, but you make a fair point. I think most of our ancestors who came to this country couldn't speak English, didn't have much of an education either. I assume that's in your case and my case and most Americans' cases.

GARAMENDI: Absolutely.

BLITZER: And that's why he's getting a lot of heat for those words.

GARAMENDI: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Do you want to make any final point on that?

[17:15:04] GARAMENDI: Well, he deserves it. He deserves to be called out. He deserved to be called out, because it is the most un-American thing you can possibly imagine. From the second top official within the White House.

It is disgusting that he would consider Americans that -- consider these people that way. They're finding their way. They are building part of our economy. You take those people out of the economy throughout this nation and you will not have chicken on your plate. Because they are the folks that are working day in and day out in the -- in the poultry industry and the agriculture industry and the shops across America. They're cleaning our hotels. They are essential.

And we need a comprehensive immigration reform so that they can become legitimate and legal in our country so our country so that our country can put away this terrible problem of the immigration and we've got to stop this kind of out and out what amounts to, in my mind, racism.

BLITZER: Yes. There's nothing -- nothing bad about people who have a so-called rural background. We need those people, as well. All right. We'll see if he elaborates in the hours and days ahead on that. Congressman Garamendi --

GARAMENDI: He should.

BLITZER: -- thank you so much for joining us.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. The chief of staff, John Kelly, trying to retract his remark that President Trump is embarrassed by the Russia probe. But is it any better to say that the president is distracted by the Russia probe?

And CNN gets rare access to America's first line of defense. We're going to visit the underground command center where the U.S. military is on round-the-clock watch for incoming missiles.


[17:20:54] BLITZER: Breaking this afternoon over at the White House, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, refusing to acknowledge or disown a so-called joke by a Trump aide who reportedly said Senator John McCain's opinion doesn't matter, because he's dying.

Let's bring in our political and legal experts, and Gloria Borger, what do you make of that so-called joke?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, it wasn't a joke, and it wasn't funny. And secondly, it would have been very simple for Sarah Sanders to get up there and say, "We regret it. It's unacceptable. She's called the family. She's called Meghan McCain. She's apologized for that, and now let's move on."

The only assumption I have to make here, Wolf, is that Sarah Sanders was speaking for -- to an audience of one, and that would be the president of the United States. And it would seem to me that, if the president wanted an apology to come from the White House, on behalf of the White House, saying it was inappropriate, that would have been done.

Instead, Sarah Sanders said, "Look, I don't comment on anything that comes from a leak." And where do you think that came from?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I think that is a key point. Look, we know this woman made the comment. We know it is incredibly distasteful. We know that she immediately tried to apologize for it. And then we have nothing but silence from the White House.

I think in many ways, right now, if we are to talk about how Washington has got a change and our political rhetoric has got to change, then we've got to have some forgiveness. So I would say, for her, let there be forgiveness. For the White House let them be pillared for the fact that they refused to even acknowledge this. It's a very simple thing for them to do.

BLITZER: Why is it so hard for this White House, Sabrina, to actually admit a mistake and to apologize? SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, the tone is truly set from

the top. And the president is someone who himself has mocked senator John McCain most infamously, of course, during the campaign when he made that comment that he prefers those who were not captured, of course invoking the fact that Senator McCain was a prisoner of war.

And time and again, we have seen this pattern where this White House simply refuses to apologize for anything and, in doing so, they turn what could have been, you know, something that we talk about for maybe an hour or two into a multi-day story.

And I also just want to point out that there is this faction of people on the right, and that includes Trump's own supporters who strongly disapprove of Senator John McCain. And so there's also some element of feeding that anti-McCain sentiment that is part of the right flank within the Republican Party.

BLITZER: Let me get Jeffrey Toobin inn on this. What do you think, Jeff?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Donald Trump hates apologizing. He never apologizes.


TOOBIN: He didn't apologize for the infamous remark where he said he likes people who weren't captured.

The only time he apologized was after the "Access Hollywood" tape in that hostage video where he -- you know, he looked like -- you know, it was, like, painful for him. And he just doesn't want anyone in his administration apologizing for anything. So no one is apologizing except for the -- you know, this flunky who said the -- who said this horrible thing.

BLITZER: You think she should lose her job, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: Oh, gosh, I'm such a softy. I never want anyone to lose their jobs. I don't know. Ask Gloria, she's tougher than I am.

BLITZER: Gloria, go ahead.

BORGER: Look, I agree with what Nark was saying earlier, which is there was a terrible thing she did. She called the family. She apologized. She fell on her sword. She probably feels awfully about it. I don't know her, and I don't say anybody ought to lose their job over this.

But what I do think is unforgivable is the way the White House is reacting to it right now. And I do believe that comes from the president of the United States who, if he wanted -- an apology from the podium, Sarah Sanders would have given it. And instead, she refused to talk about it, saying that it was a leak. And it makes them look bad.

BLITZER: It certainly does. TOOBIN: And by the way, as usual, where were Mitch McConnell and the

speaker of the House, like, silence from them. You know, they never comment on any -- any bad thing that comes out of the White House. As appalling as this was.

PRESTON: To wrap this up in a big bow, at that same time where he criticized John McCain for being caught for been a POW. I was there in Iowa with him. He also struggled to say that he would ask forgiveness for God. That says it all.

[17:25:08] BLITZER: All right. Everybody stick around. There's more we need to discuss, including some really, really controversial comments from the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, on immigrants who want to come to the United States. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We're back with our political and legal specialist, and Gloria, I know you've been doing some important reporting on a new interview request from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of the Russia probe. What are you learning?


BORGER: Right. They haven't wound down the investigation. And a former Trump Campaign Aide Sam Nunberg, has been asked to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. And what they are asking for is a closed interview, and also asking for him to produce, it would seem some of the same documents that were requested by the special counsel, e-mails et cetera, that he had with Roger Stone.

So, it seems that they're going to be over that same territory. I spoke with him today, he denies that -- neither he nor Roger Stone knew anything about the leaking of the Podesta e-mails, and that he had no advanced knowledge and he believes Roger Stone had no advanced knowledge of the WikiLeaks releases during the 2016 campaign, but assure they're going over that terrain with him again.

BLITZER: I'm sure Mueller is interested in that. Earlier this year, you remember, Mark, Nunberg was defiant, said he wouldn't even cooperate with interview requests from the special counsel. He eventually did do an interview and he actually came out singing a different tune following that interview. What do you make of that?

PRESTON: It was 72 hours of insanity, right, with Sam Nunberg with between television studios and just go off the rails. You know, I interviewed him for my SiriusXM show a couple of weeks after that, and his explanation was that he got caught up in it, that he didn't understand what he was doing, and the fact of the matter was when he came to his senses, he realized he had nothing to do but to actually submit to the interview. And as Gloria says, even though he's had this correspondent back and forth with Roger Stone, and Roger Stone, you know, said that he was going to meet with Assange and all that. Sam says that he thought that Roger Stone was lying and that was just kind of hyping it up. BORGER: He defends Roger Stone even though Stone has been critically

of him.

PRESTON: Very critical of him.

BORGER: Publicly, he still defends Stone in this instance.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting.

TOOBIN: Wow, Roger Stone versus Sam Nunberg. What a battle of titans. That is fantastic. I'm sorry, Wolf, pardon me.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to cut in a second. I just want to go to Sabrina for a second. You know, then -- another Trump Campaign Adviser, Michael Caputo, he also was interviewed by Robert Mueller and he came out saying, and I'm quoting him now, that Mueller and his team "know more about the Trump campaign than anyone whoever worked there." It sort of underscores the gravity, the extent that the Mueller team -- they know so much more than any of us even have a clue about.

SIDDIQUI: And I think that's precisely why the president's legal team is reluctant to put him in front of Robert Mueller to testify under oath, because Robert Mueller knows a lot more about the campaign than the president might believe that he knows. And this is a president, of course, who has not always been able to stick to the facts so he certainly threatens himself by exposing himself to a risk of perjury. And I think that's part of why the strategy has been to try and agree on a series of question that might be answered in somewhat of a written format or perhaps something in between a formal interview and written answers.

BLITZER: Let's go to Jeffrey now. Jeffrey, Mark Meadows, the Conservative Congressman of the Freedom Caucus, he wants to audit the Mueller investigation right now -- presumably to get access to a key Rosenstein memo. Is this an example of what they call Trump's warriors trying to undermine this entire Russia probe?

TOOBIN: Oh, it's only just starting. You know, Mr. Flood from Williams and Connelly just joined the, the White House staff to deal with Mueller. Watch, they're going to be suing Robert Mueller before too long. You know, asking for audits, asking to limit their jurisdiction.

You know, it is a classic Williams and Connelly tactic -- not to sit back and wait for prosecutors to act, but to aggressively go after them even before they have the chance to issue indictments. And I think what Mark Meadows is doing in the House, what we may see out of the White House, the assault on Robert Mueller isn't just firing him, which I don't think will happen, but there are lot of ways the president and his allies can harass Mueller that are short of firing and it's just starting.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, if you look at some of the polls, at least among a big chunk of the president's base and others, it seems to be working. BORGER: You know, it is working. I mean, the president for the last,

what, three or four months, has been out there discrediting the investigation, saying that it has no credibility, that Mueller hired a bunch of Democrats. He's discredited or tried to discredit the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the FBI, you name it.

And I think that does -- that does stick after a while. And if he has his legal team now as they try to get together with the new attorneys from Florida, and Emmet Flood, it's unclear what exactly role Emmet Flood will have because he may really be there to be the next White House Counsel when Don McGahn decides to leave. So, it's unclear what he will -- what part of this team he will be. But it seems to that they are going to be getting more aggressive, and you see that from Rudy Giuliani, obviously, when he's out talking about -- about next steps.

[17:35:20] TOOBIN: Except Flood will actually learn the facts of the case before he goes on T.V.

BORGER: And so will the Raskins, and so will the Raskins.

BLITZER: Quick reaction from both of you -- Sabrina, you first. The controversial comments from John Kelly, the White House chief of staff saying these undocumented immigrants who want to come to the United States, they have no education, they can't speak English. And as a result, it's going to be hard to assimilate them.

SIDDIQUI: This is an issue that has been examined by academics, at Harvard, by the Migration Policy Institute, all of the research shows that immigrants historically do integrate well and they continue to do so. And these academics have looked at language proficiency and participation in the force, part of why the business community overwhelming supports comprehensive immigration reform is because immigrants are big drivers of the U.S. economy. And frankly, because the government has failed to address the broken immigration system, undocumented immigrants specifically, do have barriers they face that prevent them from fully integrating politically, economically, or socially. So, what this really does is it illustrates the thinking behind the administration's hardline agenda on immigration.

PRESTON: I'll answer this personally. I'm the son of immigrants. The youngest of five who came over here with zero skills, $100, a very sick child came over on a boat, two steamer trunks. and they raised five very productive individuals in this country --

BORGER: Does that include you.

PRESTON: OK. Four very productive individuals in this country. But let me say this, John Kelly is for Massachusetts, that country -- excuse me, that state was built by immigrants, including my parents. And the fact that he would say something like that, I take that personally.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect that his grandparents or great grandparents couldn't speak either when they came to the United States. All right, guys, stick around. There's more we're covering, including this: under the mountain, a rare look inside the U.S. Defense complex, constantly on the watch for incoming missiles. Is anything changing now that U.S. relations with North Korea seem to be improving?


[17:41:43] BLITZER: The White House says AT&T's payment to President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to consult on a merger with Time Warner are a proof that Mr. Trump won't be influenced by special interest because of his Justice Department is trying to block the deal. Our Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider has more details. Jessica, AT&T now says hiring Cohen was a big mistake.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a big mistake, and AT&T and Novartis are both using that word -- mistake. The CEO's of both companies have sent out e-mails to their employees fessing up about this existence of contracts with Michael Cohen. But these recently revealed payments for what seems to be primarily access to the president, well it is raising a lot of questions both ethically and legally.


Tonight, two companies that paid Michael Cohen hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain access and insight into the president are saying they made a mistake. AT&T CEO Randall Stevenson sent an e-mail to employees worldwide taking responsibility for hiring Cohen, saying: "There was no other way to say it. AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake." Stevenson also announced that one of the executives involved in the deal would be retiring. Novartis CEO Vasant Narasimhan, who is not at the helm when the company contracted with Cohen, acknowledged in a note to employees: "We made a mistake in enter into this engagement and as a consequence, are being criticized by a world that expects more from us."

LARRY NOBLE, GENERAL COUNSEL, CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER: The perception is that what they're trying to do is either buy access or buy information about the president. And it doesn't look good.

SCHNEIDER: A GOP strategist tells CNN, Cohen capitalized on his decade long relationship with the president, using this as his sales pitch to powerful entities looking for a way into the new administration. "I don't know who's been representing you, but you should fire them all. I'm the guy you should hire. I'm the closest to the president, I'm his personal lawyer." AT&T says Cohen came to them during the transition, offering his services. The company paid Cohen $600,000 as part of a $50,000 a month one-year contract that ended in December 2017. AT&T acknowledged it hired Cohen to focus partly on its bid to buy CNN parent company Time Warner. It's a deal Donald Trump lashed out against on the campaign trail.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration --

SCHNEIDER: The Justice Department sued in November to block the deal, and the six-week trial wrapped up this month. A judge is expected to issue a ruling in mid-June.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: What America has seen here raises the specter of corruption in the White House.

SCHNEIDER: Senator Wyden is now promising a full-scale investigation into Cohen's $100,000 per month deal with pharmaceutical giant Novartis.

WYDEN: I want to know what Novartis thought it was buying for the $1.2 million. This was a pretty crucial time. They were looking at getting a cancer drug approved, they were negotiating with Medicare.

SCHNEIDER: The White House didn't directly answer whether the president knew Cohen was cashing in on his presidency but pointed to the fact that government prosecutors sued to block the AT&T-Time Warner deal as proof the president was not affected.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it's pretty clear that the Department of Justice opposed the merger, and so, certainly, the president has not been influenced by any or his administration influenced by any outside special interest.

SCHNEIDER: But some lawmakers are skeptical.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: It's hard to believe that he didn't know about Michael Cohen's arrangements --

SCHNEIDER: And now, experts are debating whether Cohen's deals were illegal. Some say no, since hiring consultants to get access to power is nothing new in Washington.

ASHA RANGAPPA, FORMER SPECIAL AGENT, FBI: On its face, that is not yet legally problematic. He can legally provide strategy based on his own insight.

SCHNEIDER: But did the consulting cross the line?

NOBLE: He actually was selling access, and the president knew about it and the president agreed to it. Even then, it may not be illegal, but you're getting closer to it.


SCHNEIDER: And there are also questions now about Cohen's contract with Korean aerospace industries. It paid Cohen $150,000, and since it is a foreign company, he may have needed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But, of course, Wolf, tonight, no comment from Michael Cohen himself or, really, the president directly.

[17:46:06] BLITZER: Good point. All right. Thanks very much, Jessica Schneider, with that. Coming up, a unique look inside the U.S. Military's command center where members of the U.S. Military constantly keep watch for incoming missiles and possible attacks.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Even though tensions between the United States and North Korea appear to be calming perhaps significantly, the U.S. Military is not letting down its guard. A CNN crew just got some unique access to the facility that keeps a 24 hour a day watch for incoming threats, including Kim Jong-un's missiles. CNN's Scott McLean is joining us now live. Tell us what you've seen, Scott?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf, for the first time in a long time, there were encouraging signs coming from North Korea but the political optics here mean for little for the people at NORAD, who are tracking the North Korean nuclear threat. In fact, they say that they are just as leery of North Korea now as they were one year ago. Their work is done at two command center here in Colorado Springs, and one of them is buried under that mountain.


MCLEAN: This is America's first line of defense from an incoming nuclear missile. Deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, south of Denver, this sprawling underground bunker is the home of NORAD -- the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The U.S.-Canadian partnership formed to defend against long range soviet bombers during the cold war. Today, it warns of incoming threats from the sky, 24 hours a day, including a North Korean missile, something that seemed like a real possibility just months ago.

KIM JONG UN, PRESIDENT OF THE NORTH KOREA (through translator): They must never forget that the nuclear button is placed on my desk at all times. They must realize that this is not a threat but a reality.

TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

MCLEAN: Since then, tensions with North Korea have cooled down. Kim Jong-un's missile tests have stopped and threats of fire and fury have been replaced with handshakes and talks of optimism ahead of a Trump- Kim meeting. But here inside the NORAD command center, you'd never know it.

TRAVIS MOREHEN, DIRECTOR, NORAD COMMAND CENTER: We have a job to do that's measured in minutes and seconds, and for us to try and account for that political rhetoric, it doesn't fit in. We're worried about pieces of metal flying through space coming to North America.

MCLEAN: CNN was granted rare access to this complex buried under 2400 feet of solid granite at the end of a mile-long tunnel. It's designed to survive a nuclear blast and maintain communications even after being hit. It's secured by 23-ton blast doors, five underground lakes store water and fuel, and its 15 buildings sit on more than 1300 giant springs that let the building sway up to a foot without being damaged in an earthquake or missile strike.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd like to say it's the most secure facility in the world. MCLEAN: Colonel Travis Morehen, a Canadian, has been at the helm of

the command center standing watch during five North Korean missile tests. Despite North Korea's talk of denuclearization, he says NORAD still gets intelligence on Kim Jong-un's nuclear program three or four times a day. What should we read into that?

MOREHEN: You shouldn't read anything into that. It's just that's the scan of the intelligence community looking at North Korea. We've been watching the same as we were previously, the same as we watch any other nation that poses a threat to the United States and Canada.

MCLEAN: The persistent focus on North Korea comes despite President Trump's announcement that the U.S. is pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Iran's president has yet to commit to staying in it, meaning the world could soon have another aspiring nuclear power -- or even two more if Saudi Arabia makes good on its pledge to follow suit if Iran restarts its nuclear program.

If there is a deal to actually denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, is your work done here?

MOREHEN: No. No, it's not. We need to be able to respond to any threat from any nation -- and in my opinion our work will never be done.


MCLEAN: And NORAD is marking its 60th anniversary tomorrow. It is the only binational command of its kind in the world, but it's not the only tenant inside Cheyenne Mountain. There are actually some 15 other U.S. Government agencies inside. But officials won't say which ones. Wolf?

BLITZER: Interesting, good report. Scott McLean on the scene for us in Colorado. Thank you.

[17:55:17] Coming up, there's breaking news. The Trump White House is refusing to apologize for an aide's crude comment about Senator John McCain dying. Chief of Staff John Kelly makes more anti-immigrant comments and walks back his remark that President Trump is embarrassed by the Russia investigation.


BLITZER: Happening new, breaking news, chief of controversy. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks back his description of President Trump as being embarrassed by the Russia investigation.