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Aired May 24, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: -- on his campaign. We're getting new information about two classified briefings and why a White House lawyer was there.
And lava explosions. The volcanic blasts in Hawaii now hotter than ever. The fiery red and orange sea giving way to searing blue flames. We'll take you there live.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We begin this hour with breaking news on the Russia investigations and negotiations for the special counsel to interview President Trump. CNN has learned that the president's legal team discussed a potential date of January 27th, this year, before talks between the two sides stalled.
This hour, I'll talk with Democratic Senator Ed Markey. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondent and analysts, they are also standing by. But right now, let's go to our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. Gloria, tell us what you're learning about this possible interview that almost happened but didn't.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Almost, but almost wasn't good enough. President Donald Trump's lawyers and Special Counsel Robert Mueller discussed this potential January 27th interview with the president before talks between the two sides stalled, my sources tell my colleague, Evan Perez.
The president's legal team discussed the logistics of holding this multi-hour interview at Camp David, which we all know is the presidential retreat in Maryland. But there is disagreement among people involved over just how close the two sides were to an agreement before the president's team finally rejected the plan in a 20-page letter that was spent to the special counsel.
So, this possible date for an interview, Wolf, has never been reported before. And had they done it, maybe the world would have been a little bit different. And if you'll recall at that time the president's attorneys were quite interested in getting this over with and moving quickly, which is why they considered this very seriously.
But in the end, Wolf, they decided and then the chief counsel for the president, John Dowd, decided that it was just too much of a risk and that on constitutional grounds they felt the president was not required to do it.
BLITZER: Let's get some analysis from Jeffrey Toobin, our senior chief legal analyst. What do you think, Jeffrey? Five hours, Camp David, a Saturday back in January. That's what Mueller wanted. Didn't happen.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Right. And I think this is indicative of how everything about the Trump presidency has become harder edged in the last few months. All the so-called grown-ups whether it's Tillerson or McMaster or Ty Cobb, who was one of the White House lawyers, John Dowd, a personal lawyer, they're all gone.
And in their place are people who are much more aggressive. Rudy Giuliani is now the spokesman for the defense. So instead of talking for five hours in January, Rudy Giuliani if he's talking about an interview at all he's talking about two hours. And he is highly, highly noncommittal about whether any interview will take place. I think that's indicative of how positions have hardened in the last few months.
BORGER: Well, you know, if you'll recall, Wolf, on January 24th, the president said when he was asked about a possible interview he said and I'm quoting him here, I'm looking forward to it, actually. Now, at the same time he was saying that he really wanted to do an interview and the president's attorneys wanted to get this over with.
As Jeffrey points out, the strategy now has completely changed. And after the raid on Michael Cohen's office the president completely changed as well. He went from going to thinking maybe I could do an interview, let's get it over with, to I'm absolutely not going to sit down in front of these people.
And I think Rudy Giuliani is reflecting that. So, what they're doing is they are making the public relations case, why should we sit down with these people who are not credible and calling effectively for an investigation of the investigators, which is what they're doing?
BLITZER: You'll remember, Jeffrey, back in January the president's words about a meeting with Mueller pretty upbeat, pretty positive. He really was in witch hunt, witch hunt, witch hunt as much as he does it right now.
TOOBIN: Right. And as Gloria said you have the raids on Michael Cohen's office, which is something by all accounts the president is furious about and now we have this accusation, totally unsupported, but the president's accusation that the FBI was spying on his campaign, which again reflects an aggressive attitude, not bounded in fact, but an aggressive attitude towards the FBI and towards this investigation that at least for some time in the winter was what was in advance and it's now fully in action.
[18:05:05] BLITZER: In January, the president has a different attorney, John Dowd, now he's got Rudy Giuliani. So, where's this heading? BORGER: Well, you know, let me talk a bit about Rudy Giuliani's role here, first of all. I think it's more of a public spokesman than it is as one of his attorneys who's dealing with Mueller. I believe he has only met with Mueller once. Maybe he's talked with him but only met with him once.
And I think you've got Jay Sekulow, who is still there, and you have the Raskens who are doing the really serious legal work and the legal negotiations. What this explains to us in this time line, Wolf, is kind of interesting because we know that in January as you pointed out the president was eager to do this.
On January 29th, John Dowd sends this letter saying we are not going to go along with Bob Mueller on this. And the president we're told read the letter and approved of the letter. And then we're told there are two meetings with the special counsel's office.
One on March 5th and one on March 12th, and at the March 5th session according to one of our sources, Bob Mueller himself said made the case that we need to hear from the president himself because we need to know about what his intent was regarding certain actions. And, of course, that's referring to the question of obstruction and the firing of James Comey.
BLITZER: All right, everybody stick around. There's more breaking news we're following right now. The read out on two highly classified meetings today between Justice Department officials, intelligence officials and top members of Congress. The briefings adding another layer of controversy to the president's unproven claim that an FBI source spied on his 2016 presidential campaign.
Let's go to our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett. Laura, the second meeting broke up just a little while ago on Capitol Hill. What can you tell us?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Wolf, well, the anticipation surrounding these briefings had been building all week, but the main questions surrounding exactly what information would lawmakers receive?
But then a surprise guest showed up on the scene today, Emmitt Flood, the latest edition to the White House legal team, raising questions why exactly the man that's been added to help defend the presidency in the Russia investigation would be included in a meeting that was supposed to be about Congressional oversight?
Now, the White House says there's nothing to see here. Both Flood and Chief of Staff John Kelly attended to make some opening remarks about transparency, and they shortly departed before the actual substance of the briefing got going.
But there's still questions about why take the risk at any appearance of impropriety. On the substance of the briefings the Democrats say they simply haven't seen anything thus far to support the theory, the unsupported theory that the president has been pushing all week about a mole in his campaign. Take a listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JARRETT: Now, Republicans on the other hand, aren't saying one way or another whether they are satisfied with the briefings today, but they're unlikely to stay silent for too long -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Laura, thanks very much. We're going to have much more on the story coming up. But there's more breaking news, I want to go live right now to CNN correspondent, Will Ripley. He is inside North Korea for us.
Will, you were there on the scene when members of the Kim regime were told by you that the president of the United States was canceling this June 12th summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. You broke the news to North Korean officials. Tell us the very latest you're hearing on the reaction.
WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yes, Wolf, we've just gotten off the train here in Wonsan. We're on an overnight train back from the nuclear site at Pyunggeri, and it was very late last night when I got the phone call from our international desk.
And you don't have internet on the train. Basically, they were just reading the letter from President Trump (inaudible) North Korea's Foreign Ministry blasting the vice president for his remarks comparing North Korea to Libya.
Obviously, the North Koreans -- the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (inaudible) strongly worded response. Nonetheless, it was an extremely awkward and uncomfortable moment. And I'm afraid as the news spread amongst all the officials onboard that the United States had canceled the summit on the same day what they considered to be a meaningful gesture by blowing up three of their nuclear test site in Pyunggeri along with all of the buildings on the site.
Now there is probably going to be a lot of debate about how significant those steps actually were towards making the site unusable. There were no nuclear (inaudible) experts in our group to verify that what we were seeing was actually significant and meaningful steps towards denuclearization.
[18:10:08] But you know, from the North Korean perspective they did something big and on the same day they did that, they get the news President Trump has canceled the summit in Singapore. There were phone calls being made.
We don't have an official statement just yet and because of the sensitivity and really severity of this situation. This is more than a bump in the road. We don't have any official reaction right now.
We're going to wait until something is put out from the higher level of the government. I can tell you, Wolf, the North Korean response is not going to be good. They're going to feel that Americans have shown our true colors here.
Any trust between the United States and North Korea probably completely shattered at this point as a result of this. Frankly, it's really anyone's guess what's going to happen here.
BLITZER: We're standing by to get some new images, new pictures from North Korea. Will, I'm going to get back to you. Stand by. The president says the U.S. military right now is ready if Kim Jong-un respond said by doing something that the president says would be foolish or reckless in response to the cancellation of the summit next month.
The president's decision to scrap the talks is renewing serious questions about his dealing with the North Korean leader that wept from taunting him as rocket man to praising him as very honorable.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown. Pamela, tell us how about all of this so dramatically unfolded and what happens next.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a senior administration official saying tonight that the summit was canceled after a string of broken promises and odd judgment calls on the part of North Koreans. And in order for the summit to be put back on, the Trump administration would need to see the opposite from what they've seen from the North Koreans this past week.
BROWN (voice-over): President Trump canceling his would-be historic summit with North Korea today.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Based on the recent statement of North Korea, I've decided to terminate the planned summit in Singapore on June 12th.
BROWN: Warning that if North Korea were to retaliate, the U.S. military is standing by to respond.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Hopefully positive things will be taking place with respect to the future of North Korea. But if they don't, we are more ready than we have ever been before.
BROWN: In a meeting with South Korean President Moon earlier this week, Trump hinted the summed may not happen on its original timeline.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: It may not work out for June 12th, but there's a good chance that we'll have the meeting.
BROWN: But the real trouble started Wednesday night when North Korea's vice minister of foreign affairs released a statement calling Vice President Pence a political dummy and saying whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States.
The insult targeting Pence coming after his Monday interview with Fox News where the vice president brought up the Libya model.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn't make a deal.
BROWN: In that case after agreeing to disarm, Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was overthrown and brutally killed several years later. Sources say Trump and his aides were infuriated by North Korea's statement on Pence and one senior official said the threat of nuclear war was the final straw.
A U.S. delegation in Singapore making final preparations for the summit was stood up by its North Korean counter parts last week, and the North Koreans went silent amid attempts to discuss the summit's agenda.
A source telling CNN the president made the decision to cancel the summit this morning. The news delivered in a hand signed letter that an official says was dictated by Trump.
It boasts of the United States' nuclear prowess. You talk about nuclear capabilities but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used and called the missed summit a truly sad moment in history.
The president saying today he had a wonderful dialogue with Kim Jong- un starting with the return of three detainees from North Korea.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: The dialogue was good until recently, and I think I understand why that happened.
BROWN: Anticipation for the summit had been building for weeks.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I'll be meeting with Kim Jong-un to pursue a future of peace and security for the world, for the whole world.
BROWN: With crowds chanting for Trump to win a Nobel Prize.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: That's very nice, thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you deserve the Nobel Prize, do you think?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it.
BROWN: But today Trump leaving the door open for a summit in the future.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: It's possible that the existing summit could take place or a summit at some later date. Nobody should be anxious. We have to get it right. BROWN: But only if North Korea agrees to denuclearize.
[18:15:05] PRESIDENT TRUMP: That bright and beautiful future can only happen when the threat of nuclear weapons is removed. No way it can happen otherwise. If and when Kim Jong-un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting.
BROWN: And a senior White House official says President Trump and Kim Jong-un have communicated through, quote, "diplomacy," but would not specify whether the two men have spoken directly.
Now, Wolf, there has not been a formal response from North Korea to the canceled summit. So, at this point it's a waiting game on the part of the administration to see how North Korea might respond to this -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're going to see what they say and do. Pamela Brown, thanks very much.
Also, right now we're getting the first images from the North Korean nuclear site. Will Ripley our correspondent was there to witness the destruction of that nuclear site. He's once again joining us on the phone. So, Will, walk us through to what you actually saw. We'll show our viewers these new images we're just getting in.
RIPLEY: Hey, Wolf. Yes, we're on our way to sending in our own (inaudible). These images are from North Korean state media. It's just out this morning. First of all, the deputy director of the Nuclear Weapons Institute, who gave us all a briefing once we arrived at the nuclear site showed us a map of the site, four different tunnels.
One of the tunnels was closed several years ago. But with it was the construction of the remaining three, including one tunnel that they conducted five North Korean nuclear tests that they've conducted in 2006.
They also let us look inside where the tunnels were rigged with explosives as far back as we could see. And we were basically taken up to three different observation posts that were built for us. We hiked up the side of the ravine to witness basically North Korea blow them up.
We didn't have any nuclear weapons experts in our group. There were only journalists. So, we can't verify how significant these explosions were. But we did see the entrance to the tunnel completely blocked off.
We also saw probably nine buildings on-site only blown up completely that used to house the control center, the barracks for the officers on site. Just being the first national journalist actually going to a place we've reported about so many times, was truly an extraordinary thing.
But as to what we saw and the steps towards denuclearization is something that we as journalists are unable to confirm or verify.
BLITZER: Will, what was the explanation that the North Korean officials gave you when you were there at that nuclear site for why they have decided to blow up those tunnels?
RIPLEY: They said they were being transparent. They said this was proof that the North Koreans are committed to denuclearization. That he said it was a gesture ahead of the summit in Singapore that was going to be on June 12th for President Trump.
And while we were on the ground for the entire nine hours at Pyunggeri, we were kind of operating under the assumption that summit was still a go. At the same time, it was a directive that came down from the Leader Kim Jong-un that they need to demolish the site and focus all their efforts on the economy.
At that point, they felt even though they were destroying this nuclear facility it would going to be better for their country. Obviously, there are different feelings on the ground here. And a lot towards anger towards the United States.
BLITZER: We're still waiting for an official North Korean response. It's just getting daylight over there.
RIPLEY: That's right. It's about 20 past 7:00 a.m. here in Wonsan. We don't have any internet on our phones, but we're probably another 15 minutes or so away from the hotel. The first thing we're going to do is send in a video and try to get an official response.
None of the officials who are traveling with us are authorized to get a statement from the North Korean government. There's going to be a statement from a higher level, but the impression I get it's not going to be good -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We're going to watch it very, very closely. Has there any explanation at all why the North Korea advance team didn't show up in Singapore in recent days? The U.S. sent a team over there to prepare for the summit on June 12th.
[18:20:08] The U.S. now says the North Koreans were never there. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, former CIA director, he had gone to Pyongyang twice, met with Kim Jong-un. In recent days his contacts and phone calls to North Korea were not being returned. Any explanation at all you're getting from the North Koreans?
RIPLEY: I think what we've seen in terms of the relationship between the United States and North Korea has gone downhill ever since Secretary Pompeo's visit where (inaudible) all smiles. Certainly, he had a great meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, both the first time but particularly the second time.
They have started to develop a rapport. President Trump had stated as much, but what the North Koreans have really been angry about one, the military exercises happening in South Korea, the aerial bombing drills, which had just wrapped up. U.S. says their defense that North Korea said they are a dress rehearsal for engaging. But even bigger than that has been the rhetoric. First starting with President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, comparing North Korea to Libya and then those comments made by Vice President Mike Pence also mentioning North Korea in comparisons of Libya.
Of course, Moammar Gadhafi gave up his nuclear weapons and a few years later he was dead. He was overthrown by U.S.-backed forces. So, any reference to Libya in the same sense as North Korea is absolutely infuriating to the government here, which is why they felt they needed to respond they say with that strongly worded statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
That has now enraged the United States and part of this complete breakdown of this situation and this more than a minor blip. This is a very significant, not even a roadblock. I mean, this is nonstarter.
Things have now potentially gone back to square one. We don't know how the North Koreans are going to respond, if they're going to try to leverage something diplomatically. My sense is it's going to be a much stronger response and angry response from the North Koreans.
BLITZER: All right. We'll stay in very close touch with you. Will Ripley on the scene for us inside North Korea doing excellent, excellent reporting. We're grateful to you, Will, for being there.
Joining us now is Senator Ed Markey. He's a Democrat. He serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks so much for joining us. What's your reaction? Did the president make the right call by scrapping this summit?
SENATOR ED MARKEY (D-MA), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: This is really unfortunate. Just three weeks from the summit, but what we're seeing is escalating rhetoric over the last couple of weeks. John Bolton started it by commenting that they were looking for the Libyan model, which meant that Gadhafi at the end of that scenario wound up dead after he had given up his nuclear program.
Vice President Pence then started talking about the same kind of scenario on Monday. That elicited a response a yesterday from high ranking North Korean Foreign Affairs officials which then led to this collapse today.
All of this was avoidable. This rhetoric that John Bolton was engaging in was something that the president should have put a damper on immediately. We should have had more confidence building measures that we were putting in place.
And instead it just deteriorated quickly, and the president pulls out. Now, we don't know what the president's motives are for pulling out. Perhaps he came to the conclusion that the definition of denuclearization would not be agreed upon between Kim and himself.
We really don't know. But the sad fact of the matter is the world was the loser today because there were great hopes that this summit could begin a pathway to reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula.
BLITZER: Should the president try for another summit?
MARKEY: Absolutely. We have to just re-intensify our diplomatic engagements. We should stiffen even further economic sanctions on North Korea. There's still a lot more we can do, especially crude oil. And we should even deepen our partnership with the South Koreans and Japanese in terms of regional cooperation on these issues.
So, we should not take this as the final no. We should have a process that we put in place as immediately as possible in order to put a diplomatic pathway back into motion because the military option, which the president talked about today, is not a solution. It will become catastrophic very quickly and so, yes, we do need to go back to the table as soon as possible.
BLITZER: In recent days as you know, Senator, President Trump seemed to be suggesting that China had a role in changing the North Korean attitude towards the summit. Do you think the Chinese leadership, President Xi, has now met twice with Kim Jong-un, do you believe he sabotaged this meeting?
[18:25:05] MARKEY: I don't know the extent to which Xi may or may not want this summit to take place. I do know at least the ostensible justification, which the Trump White House is using is the statement that was made by the North Korean foreign policy official just yesterday.
And that all referred to this whole question of Libya and Gadhafi as a model for the denuclearization of North Korea. And that's just a nonstarter. And I ultimately would put more of a blame upon this escalatory rhetoric and we had moved really from fire and fury to talking about trying to resolve the issues.
And then today the president goes right back to bragging about our nuclear arsenal and his potential for using it if necessary. And that just does not contribute to the kind of atmospheric that we're looking for in order to get a resolution of these critical issues.
BLITZER: Finally, Senator, before I let you go a very different subject. The president's legal team and the Special Counsel Mueller and his team, they discussed a possible date for an interview with the president back January 27th of this year, five hours, Camp David, Maryland before all those negotiations stalled, this is CNN's reporting. Do you believe that interview will ever happen?
MARKEY: I think only Donald Trump's lawyers and Donald Trump himself knows the answer to that question. It is the only way, ultimately, to bring this investigation to a conclusion. The president will have to answer the questions of what he knew and when he knew it.
And when he is able to give that interview, give definitive answers, then we're able to talk about the conclusion of the investigation. But he keeps throwing out these red herrings, accusing the FBI of investigating his campaign last year.
We're going to need an aquarium there are going to be so many political red herrings the president throws out. But it's all for him to avoid doing this interview, which is going to be the necessary condition to bringing the investigation to a conclusion.
BLITZER: Senator Markey, thanks for joining us.
MARKEY: You're welcome.
BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our specialists and analysts who are all monitoring the breaking news. The news that the president lawyer's and the Special Counsel Robert Mueller actually discussed a potential date, January 27th of this year for an interview with the president.
Jeffrey Toobin based on Gloria's reporting and you've heard our CNN reporting, at what point is it over, in other words, does Mueller give up the notion of actually sitting down with the president and simply moves on?
TOOBIN: Well, it has to be soon because this has now been going on for months. You know, Ty Cobb, who was the official liaison between the White House and the Mueller investigation, his job was to arrange for the interviews of White House staff, the documents to be turned over.
That's all been done for several months now and really all that's left in the obstruction of justice investigation is the president's interview. It's not actually in either side's interest to have a long legal fight over whether the president has the right to refuse a subpoena.
Mueller doesn't want to fight it for a year. President Trump doesn't want to fight it for a year, but it seems like that's where we're heading and that could extend this investigation. That alone could extend it for quite a few more months.
BLITZER: Yes, maybe even beyond the November midterm elections.
BLITZER: Do you think Mueller will issue a subpoena to the president?
TOOBIN: Absolutely. It's too important a piece of this investigation. As Gloria reported earlier, the question of the president's intent, why did he fire Mueller? Why did he act in various ways with regards to this investigation? The only way or the best way to find that out is to ask him. And no reasonable prosecutor would conduct this investigation without at least trying to interview the president. He's got to issue a subpoena.
BLITZER: And the president may or may not honor that subpoena. That could go to the Supreme Court, though, right?
TOOBIN: It certainly could, although the other possibility is that if there's a subpoena the president could take the Fifth and refuse to answer. That would be difficult politically, but it would end the legal issue and eliminate the need for any court fight because if someone takes the Fifth, they just take the Fifth and there's no needs for any judge to get involved. BLITZER: Yes, but we know what the president has said during the campaign over the years about individuals who plead the Fifth. Kaitlan Collins, you're a White House reporter. There's been a shakeup in the president's legal team since January.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: There certainly has, and the legal team has really been a mess. They cannot agree on anything. That what the problem back in January, which seems to be the reason why that interview didn't happen because they couldn't agree on what the logistics should be and what the questions should be and what the setting should be.
And that hasn't changed it all.
[18:30:11] We're still witnessing that, even though the president has cycled through an entire thing of lawyers and now has Rudy Giuliani on his team. They still haven't come to an agreement about what this should be.
And it seems what Mueller wants to talk to the president about has only expanded since January. From what this reporting shows, it seems it was actually quite limited what they'd agreed to, what they'd talked to the special counsel about.
And now we know that, of course, recently, those questions were leaked that showed dozens of questions that Mueller wanted to ask the president that weren't just about Russia-related things before the election and during the campaign, but also about what happened since he's been in office with obstruction of justice and all of these things, and also the Stormy Daniels developments that have happened over the last few months.
Things have really changed since January. So it just seems like things are worse and that they are not any closer to an agreement with this. It doesn't seem like much has progressed.
BLITZER: Is there a split, Nia, among the president's lawyers, whether or not he should sit down with the special counsel?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL WRITER: There seems to be. I mean, we hear any number of things out of the White House, the president saying at one point he'd love to sit down with the special counsel. Rudy Giuliani seeming to suggest maybe it's not a good idea, because it could be a perjury trap. Rudy Giuliani saying, "Well, maybe we could limit it to two or three -- two or three or four hours, get the Hillary Clinton treatment and basically have written answers and written questions in advance."
You wonder if the White House, at this point, Donald Trump is regretting not taking that interview back in January. Because as you said, it's expanded; it's dragged on. And at this point, it doesn't seem to be narrowing the scope of this interview. It seems to be expanding, this investigation.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick, what do you think? DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that's right.
I would add that there's another way to look at it, which would be maybe they feel like they've dodged a bullet, so to speak. Because they know more about what Special Counsel Robert Mueller might have now.
Although I agree with you that, as time goes on, it's sort of this balance between the president, his lawyers not wanting him to look like he's acting guilty by delaying an interview, but at the same time, the lawyerly thing to do would be to protect him from a potential perjury trap or from making even just inconsistent statements that would then open them up to further avenues in the investigation.
BLITZER: Let me get your reaction, Jeffrey Toobin, to what's been going on in these classified briefings today, like the Justice Department up on Capitol Hill. They've been briefing Democrats and Republicans on this allegation by the president that there was a spy planted to deal with his campaign during the presidential campaign.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, emerged from both -- he attended both of these briefings, and he said there was no evidence presented at all during either briefing to substantiate the president's claim.
Another top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, called the noon briefings a rogue meeting, because apparently, one of the White House lawyers, one of the new White House lawyers, at least came for for the beginning of that meeting. And they say he shouldn't have been there. What's your reaction?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, let's remember, the whole basis for this inquiry is the president's claim that there was a spy on his campaign, an FBI spy. There is no evidence to support that. Congressman Schiff says nothing came out today that supports that hypothesis. We haven't heard from any Republicans, in any detail, about what they learned in this hearing, but at least so far they haven't come up with it.
So the idea that there was an FBI spy in the campaign is, at this point, a completely unsupported conspiracy theory. And the fact that the White House sent the chief of staff and the White House lawyer in charge of responding to the Russia investigation suggests that they saw this, not as a sort of neutral fact-finding investigation, but as something that they thought could help their case.
Now, it looks like they were wrong. But it is -- it just shows how politicized this process has been, at least by the White House today.
BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Kaitlan, that originally, only two Republicans were supposed to get this highly-classified briefing. All of a sudden, they let Adam Schiff in. Then they had the so-called Gang of Eight, four top Republicans, four top Democrats had a separate meeting up on Capitol Hill.
What forced or caused the White House to shift in allowing Democrats to get access to this briefing, as well?
COLLINS: Well, it's looking pretty bad that they had only invited two Republicans, one of who [SIC] is very close to the president. And I think there were a lot of complaints about that on Capitol Hill.
But also, the president himself got involved on this and said he thought Democrats should be involved and that he was irked that they weren't originally invited to this briefing. But not because the president wants things to be bipartisan, but because he didn't want Democrats to be able to say that the White House was playing games with this. And he didn't want to overshadow the overall story, the conspiracy that the president believes, which is that law-enforcement officials are working against him.
[18:35:06] But going back to the fact that the White House lawyer was at this briefing is just stunning. The White House says that he was only there at the beginning, same with John Kelly. But of course, our Laura Jarrett spotted them all leaving the Justice Department at the same time as Devin Nunes, as several others who attended that briefing. And it raises the question of how this happened.
Because just yesterday the White House was saying no White House officials were going to be there, even John Kelly. And they've still not provided a credible explanation for why John Kelly was there, especially why the lawyer handling the Russia investigation was at a briefing on the Russia investigation.
BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Everybody, stick around. There's more we need to discuss.
But right now, I want to turn to another story we're following: the Stormy Daniels lawsuit against the president of United States. A judge has now put the case on hold, and the adult film star's lawyer is trying to change all that, asking the judge to allow the suit to continue.
Michael Avenatti is that lawyer. He's joining us right now.
Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: So why is this so urgent? Why not simply wait those 90 days, as the judge recommended?
AVENATTI: Well, I'll tell you, Wolf, the reason is, is because we're a little concerned that it may be far beyond 90 days. And we are highly confident that Michael Cohen and his attorneys and Mr. Trump are going to make an effort to prolong this indefinitely; and 90 days will turn into 180 and then 270, and before you know it, we'll be looking at this delay of two -- looking at a delay of two or three years. And we want to avoid that, because there's no need for it, and we believe the case should proceed forthwith. And we believe that I should be provided an opportunity to depose the president.
BLITZER: The judge, as you know, he's already ruled on this. He says 90 days. So what are you offering the judge to help him reconsider his decision?
AVENATTI: Wolf, what we have stated in our motion is, is that we will avoid a deposition of Michael Cohen during this stay period, but that other discovery against other individuals should be permitted to proceed against -- including discovery or a deposition of Mr. Trump and others.
Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump have made it clear by their public statements since the stay order was issued that this case is not off- limits. That they can defend themselves or at least attempt to. They've talked about all kinds of facts that they claim are true, which we know are not true. And they've really shot themselves in their foot.
BLITZER: How does this help your client, Stormy Daniels?
AVENATTI: Well, proceeding with the case more quickly, obviously helps our client, Wolf, because justice delayed is justice denied. I mean, the sooner we can get this case fully underway, the sooner these issues can be fully adjudicated. The NDA can be tossed out on the legal grounds that we've requested in the complaint. The defamation claim against Michael Cohen can be proven true and damages can be awarded.
And my client can be permitted to proceed with her life and proceed to speak openly about this without the threat of millions of dollars in damages, which, you know, the president made that same threat only a few weeks ago.
BLITZER: You were cited in a recent BBC report on payments allegedly made to Michael Cohen, the president's longtime personal lawyer. Payments made by the Ukrainian government to set up talks between President Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. You say, suspicious activity reports filed by Michael Cohen's bank shows -- he showed that he received money from, quote, "Ukrainian interests."
Are you certain that those are the payments those suspicious activity reports are referring to?
AVENATTI: There's -- look, here's what I'll tell you, Wolf. We stand behind the veracity of the BBC report and the statements within that report. There's no question that that information is accurate.
I think it's interesting that Michael Cohen nor his counsel have refuted the statements in the BBC report relating to the receipt of those payments. Obviously, it's a very serious charge, and it deserves a serious degree of attention, not just from the American people but from law enforcement.
BLITZER: As you know, those reports are already being examined by federal prosecutors. How does making them public help your client, Stormy Daniels?
AVENATTI: Well, we haven't made anything public as it relates to those specific payments, Wolf. But, look, I think the American people deserve information, deserve facts and deserve evidence. And I don't think it's reckless by any stretch of the imagination for them to -- the American people to have that information. I mean, it's a core principle of our democracy.
Now, where things go after that is up to others. But there's nothing wrong with disclosing information. I mean, that's the entire premise of your profession, and it's a noble one.
BLITZER: But I raise the question because, as you know, the Treasury Department is investigating all these leaks about his finance statements. Are you worried that you -- that you will be compelled to reveal your sources?
AVENATTI: We did nothing wrong, Wolf. We did nothing wrong as it relates to the information that we have proceeded to produce to the American people. And I'm highly confident we're going to be exonerated. I'm not losing any sleep at night over this.
[18:40:09] BLITZER: Earlier this week -- and you know this, as well -- I want to get your reaction -- a bankruptcy court judge ordered your law firm to pay a $10 million judgment to an attorney who once worked for your firm.
You called it irrelevant. You said it was a sideshow. You suggested that you're the target of a smear campaign right now, because you're representing Stormy Daniels. Do you have -- first of all, do you have any evidence to back that up?
AVENATTI: Oh, we have a lot of evidence, Wolf. I mean, you can just go onto my Twitter feed and look at the comments and some of the things that people have posted and some of the fabrications. There's no question that I'm a target of a smear campaign. My client's the target of a smear campaign.
The people on the far right that are protective of this president are getting very, very nervous about me and my client. And they should be very nervous, and they should be panicked, because they understand that we're effective. They understand the American people are listening to us. They understand that we're bringing the facts and the evidence and we can back it up. And they're concerned about what we have to say.
And so now what they're resorting to are personal attacks against me and personal attacks against my client that have nothing to do with the case or the facts or anything else. That's what they're resorting to. But it's not going to work, Wolf, because the American people are smarter than this.
BLITZER: Michael Avenatti, thanks so much for joining us.
AVENATTI: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. We have another breaking story coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. The fugitive founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, who allegedly is responsible for distributing Democratic Party e-mails hacked by Russia during the presidential campaign, sources tell CNN he could soon be kicked out of the embassy where he had been hiding out for the last six years.
Let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, who's been working this story. Jim, tell our viewers what you're learning.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Hiding out for six years from three countries interested in him: Sweden for rape charges; the U.K. for breaking bail; but crucially, here in the U.S. for his possible involvement. You'll remember the U.S. intelligence community views WikiLeaks as a middle man, a cut-out so to speak, between Russian hackers and distributing those stolen e-mails from the Democratic Party as part of the interference campaign in the 2016 election.
For six years, he's been in that embassy in Ecuador. But myself and my colleague, Jennifer McLaughlin, we are told by multiple sources that any day now, as soon as any day now, he could lose that refuge.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Ecuador's embassy in London has been his refuge from British, Swedish and American authorities for six years. But now sources tell CNN Julian Assange's stay there is in jeopardy, opening the WikiLeaks founder to arrest by British authorities and possible extradition to the U.S.
This is something Assange has repeatedly called unjust from the embassy's balcony.
JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER OF WIKILEAKS: And the threats towards me, my staff and WikiLeaks as a publisher will not be tolerated.
SCIUTTO: Recently, the Ecuadorian government caught off his access to the Internet making it virtually impossible for him to manage WikiLeaks. Assange is also now only allowed to see his lawyers. who say their mobile phones are jammed while they're inside the embassy. He's dealing with multiple lawsuits.
As a candidate Donald Trump repeatedly praised WikiLeaks on the campaign trail.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.
SCIUTTO: However, U.S. intelligence believes that WikiLeaks acted as a middle man or cut-out for Russia, as its hackers stole Clinton campaign e-mails and then distributed them to the world, all part of Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
CNN reported last year that the U.S. has prepared charges to arrest Assange. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it a priority.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We've already begun to step up our efforts, and whenever our case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail. SCIUTTO: Assange's lawyer, Melinda Taylor, told CNN, quote, "The
concern from day one until the present is that, if Julian Assange walks out of the embassy, he will be extradited to face what the executive director of the ACLU described as an unprecedented and unconstitutional prosecution under the U.S. Espionage Act."
Still, Ecuador's newly-elected president, Lenin Moreno, is under increasing pressure from the U.S. to expel Assange, who was fleeing rape allegations in Sweden when he first sought refuge at the embassy. Sweden is no longer pursuing the charges against Assange.
LENIN MORENO, ECUADORIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We hope to have a positive result in the short term on this issue that has caused us more than a nuisance.
SCIUTTO: Ecuador, in light of that news, appears to be applying two kinds of pressure on Julian Assange. One, pressure on him by just restricting his access, making it very uncomfortable for him to be there, not able to run WikiLeaks, not able to see his friends, his supporters, et cetera.
But also that pressure from the outside, on the Ecuadorian government to force him out, in effect, hoping in effect, that either he chooses to go or he's forced to go.
[18:45:08] I am told by Assange's lawyers that if he is, if there is an extradition request to the U.K., if he leaves the embassy, that they will challenge that extradition in British courts -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. Very strong reporting from Jim Sciutto. Jim, thank you very much for that.
Let's get some reaction first of all to what Jim has just been reporting.
And, you know, Jeffrey Toobin, the Wall Street is reporting that the president's long-time confidant Roger Stone, quote, privately sought information he considered damaging to Hillary Clinton from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. We should note that the intermediary says the request was never passed along to Assange. Stone says he still hasn't been interviewed by Robert Mueller.
Does any of this surprise you?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: This is actually one part of the Mueller investigation that appears ready for charges. You know, he -- Mueller's office prosecuted a number of Russians who were involved in social media and Facebook and Instagram during the election. What he has not prosecuted is anyone involved in the hacking, the hacking of John Podesta's e-mails, the hacking of the DNC e-mails, Democratic congressional campaign committee e-mails.
Those -- that case has been investigated, and the interesting part about that case is that Roger Stone appears to be a target as well, is that in the other cases, there's never been a nexus, never been a connection between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Roger Stone is potentially -- potentially, he denies it, a connection between the efforts to help Trump and the Trump campaign. And that's something to keep an eye on in this investigation.
BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point.
You know, Kaitlan, Dana Bash is doing some more excellent reporting for us. She now tells us that Rudy Giuliani says that the president's legal team wants to know as much as they possibly can to the extent that they want to make it available about this confidential source that the FBI had wanting to learn about Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election.
And Giuliani tells CNN that knowing about this confidential source is actually a prerequisite for any interview with the president.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Shocker. What a tactic they have picked because of course the president has been railing and he has seized in on the reports about this confidential intelligence source, which the president has branded a spy because he sees it as this more nefarious term and he understands how branding works. So, it's not a surprise to me at all now they're trying to use this in their arsenal to stop the president from sitting down with special counsel Robert Mueller, something Rudy Giuliani has been trying to stop since he became the president's lawyer.
So, it doesn't surprise me at all in the recent days that the president has become obsessed with us, and consumed by it that now, they're going to say it's a prerequisite for them sitting down, because of course, the president has been using everything within his grasp to try to justify his claim the FBI was spying on his campaign, even though we've been told that's not the case, even going as far as to twist James Clapper's, the former head of intelligence, words about this.
So, it doesn't surprise me at all the Rudy Giuliani is now going to say that this is something they're going to use before he would sit down with --
BLITZER: Yes. Giuliani says they've got to divulge this information about the confidential source, Nia, on, quote, unless they want to give up an interview with the president.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, and we've seen Rudy Giuliani who is certainly the public face of the president's legal strategy here. He before said that because Robert Mueller apparently said that the president couldn't be indicted then there was no need for the president to sit down and there was no need for a subpoena either if the president couldn't be indicted.
So I think we see this public jockeying back and forth with Giuliani and Mueller. Mueller, of course, is essentially silent on this. He's become a bit of a punching bag. A bit of a big shift from where John Dowd was, the legal team was months ago back in January, a different sort of war footing now with Giuliani and the president going after Mueller.
BLTIZER: He also, Giuliani, defended the decision to sends the White House lawyer to the briefing today at the Justice Department. I can't understand why it's inappropriate for White House counsel to be there. Maybe it would be for me or Jay Sekulow, but not the person representing the president inside the White House. That's a quote from Giuliani.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: OK, yes. And the problem is, is that, as has been pointed out many times today already, you have a lawyer representing the president's personal interests going to a meeting about which they're discussing, interviewing the president in connection to the special counsel investigation, Wolf. That is a problem. It's not a neutral meeting.
The other problem is --
BLITZER: All right.
BLITZER: Fair point.
There's more breaking news we're following, guys. Stick around.
Blue flames appear among the red and orange lava in the island of Hawaii. Why they're sparking new fears of explosions.
[18:55:51] BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the island of Hawaii, the big island there, where lava is surging from fissures around the Kilauea volcano.
CNN's Stephanie Elam is on the scene for us once again.
Stephanie, what is the very latest? What are you seeing there right now?
STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what I can tell you now is that some of that lava flow has broken up into three channels that are entering the Pacific Ocean. I can see it from here. And the plume coming up from it is very large and it is cascading away with the strong winds that we're having here today. That's one thing.
We know that some of the fissures have become reinvigorated and are spewing forth more lava. So, they're keeping their eyes on that. They're also keeping their eyes on the summit because those ash explosions continue to happen up there. And they are accompanied by earthquakes as well so those ash plumes are also another thick to be concerned with besides the lava and the toxic gases, which were still spewing here.
Now, as far as that geothermal plant is concerned, they say things there are steady, they continue to quench those wells there. But no new lava has ended up on that property since. So, so far, things are stable there, Wolf. And this very small section of the big island.
BLITZER: What's the latest on the danger to residents?
ELAM: Well, there is always the danger of these toxic gases and the lava. They continue to allow residents in every day so they can check on their property there. It has been encroaching inside of Leilani Estates.
I was in there. I saw where it's come closer to homes. Some hopes have been lost. But they are watching this as one of the evacuation routes has now been crossed over by the lava.
So, they are preparing, they have helicopters ready where they can airlift people out if necessary. They're also asking people to be prepared to self-evacuate if necessary, Wolf.
BLITZER: Stephanie Elam, thanks very much, on the big island of Hawaii. We'll stay in close touch with you.
Let's bring in our meteorologist Jennifer Gray.
Jennifer, so where is the lava headed right now?
JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, wolf, as mentioned there is that third channel now. I'm going to show you, these maps are updated daily. And so, you can see the different colors. The pink is the old lava. The red is the new lava that has formed in the last 48 hours or so. So, you can see where the new tracks are, if you will.
Zoom down on this one area where it's flowing into the ocean. And you can see the pink and then there's that third channel right there that Stephanie was talking about crossing Highway 137. And it continues to flow in the ocean there. And it's producing that laze like we talked about yesterday, the toxic gas and steam.
Here's the new lava flow, those sections where the elevation is a little higher. The geothermal at plant is 630 feet elevation. And then the elevation near this bottom part is 300. That's another reason why it hasn't gotten closer to that plant which is excellent news.
The other reason is what we were talking about yesterday with that wall that the lava has pretty much created on its own as it hardens. So, all the lava is flowing towards the ocean. So that's excellent news.
And here's another picture from above. You can see the lava, most of it heading away from that plant.
BLITZER: Jennifer, explain to our viewers what is the blue flame on the lava that we've been seeing?
GRAY: Well, these are what you're talking about. These pictures right here, the blue flames coming out of the cracks. It's actually producing methane. And when lava covers up plants and trees, when it's ignited, it creates this blue flame and it releases methane. So, that gas has been seeping through the cracks in the ground and
it's been igniting, causing the blue flames that people have been seeing. It can also be harmful if you breathe it because it can displace the oxygen and make people have shortness of breath as well as rapid heartbeat -- Wolf.
BLITZER: So this could go on for a while, right?
GRAY: Yes, people are in this for the long haul in this area. Like we mentioned yesterday, this is a very small part of the island, but the people around here that are impacted, it's a huge deal. It's a serious risk not only to their health but their property.
BLITZER: Yes, we wish them only, only the very best. A lot of help has been coming in to the big island as well.
Jennifer, thank you very much. Jennifer Gray, our meteorologist.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.