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CNN Exclusive: TSA Considering Eliminating Screenings At Some Smaller Airports; 1,000+ Homes Burned in Deadly California Wildfire; : Interview With Utah Congressman Chris Stewart; Trump Calls for End to Russia Probe; Paul Manafort Trial Continues. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 1, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Will the special counsel buy the Trump team's defense that the president wasn't actually telling Jeff Sessions what to do?

Downward spiral. Even by Mr. Trump's standards, his latest Twitter tirade is over the top, as he rails against Robert Mueller and complains that his former campaign chairman is being treated like a mobster. Is Paul Manafort's trial the trigger?

Reducing screening. CNN has learned that the TSA may make a drastic new change that would allow thousands of passengers to board commercial flights without security screening. Stand by for our exclusive report.

And fire warning. As flames tear through an area bigger the city of Los Angeles, California's governor is offering a dire forecast of more destruction, disaster, and death.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the president's urgent and alarming new call for the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to stop the Russia investigation right away.

Tonight,the White House is trying to downplay it as an opinion, not an order. But special counsel Robert Mueller will almost certainly review Mr. Trump's tweet as potential evidence of obstruction of justice.

The timing of all of this is further adding to suspicions coming as the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is on trial for a second day.

I will get reaction from congressman Chris Stewart. He's a key Republican on the Intelligence Committee. And from former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by. First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, this tweet may create, potentially at least, some more legal problems for the president.


The White House is trying to clean up what appears to be a direct attempt by President Trump to order an end to the Russia investigation. Aides to the president say he was just offering his opinion. But just as his former campaign chairman is on trial, the president made his feelings clear today. He wants the Russia probe ended now.



ACOSTA (voice-over): Refusing to answer questions from reporters, the president is letting one of his most alarming tweets yet stand on its own.

With former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on trial over his business dealings, the president took aim at the Russia investigation, tweeting: "This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch-hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further."

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is not obstructing. He's fighting back.

ACOSTA: Still, incredibly, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insisted the president wasn't giving a direct order to Sessions, who's already recused himself in the Russia case.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: It's not an order. It's the president's opinion. And it's ridiculous that all of the corruption and dishonesty that's gone on with the launching of the witch-hunt.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump's legal team immediately put out statements defending the president's tweet. Outside lawyer Rudy Giuliani later told reporters Mr. Trump is just standing up for himself.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: He is a person with a First Amendment right to defend himself, first Amendment right to express his opinion. And as a president, it's even more important that he expresses his opinion, because these kinds of allegations can do damage to the country, not just to the particular president. And if he believes he's innocent, and he is innocent, he should speak out.

ACOSTA: On the Manafort case, the president drew a strange comparison with a famous Chicago gangster, tweeting: "Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse (sic) Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and public enemy number one, or Paul Manafort?" Mr. Trump also appears to be looking for sympathy for himself, tweeting: "Why didn't the government tell me he was under investigation? These old charges have nothing to do with collusion."

But the White House wouldn't say whether the president believes Manafort is guilty.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't believe that's the president's role to play. He believes he's being treated unfairly. Beyond that, I can't say.

ACOSTA: The White House was crystal clear on one issue, whether it's acceptable for the president's supporters to verbally abuse reporters at his rallies, like last night's campaign event in Tampa. Sanders gave the green light.

QUESTION: Does the White House support that or not?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: While we certainly support freedom of the press, we also support freedom of speech, and we think that those things go hand in hand.

ACOSTA: The president used his rally to attack the media, accusing news outlets of using fake polls.

TRUMP: If the fake news did a poll, they're called suppression polls. You know, polls are fake, just like everything else.

ACOSTA: But in almost the same breath, Mr. Trump cited polls to tout his job performance.

TRUMP: They just came out with a poll. Did you hear? The most popular person in the history of the Republican Party is Trump. Can you believe this?

ACOSTA: The president is sending a strong signal he will be hammering the issue of immigration right up until the midterm elections.

TRUMP: You go out and you want to buy groceries, you need a picture on a card. You need I.D. You go out and you want to buy anything, you need I.D.


ACOSTA: As he told Rush Limbaugh, he's willing to shut down the government to get what he wants.

TRUMP: Now, the shutdown could also take place after the election. I happen to think it's a great political thing, because people want border security.


ACOSTA: As for the relationship between the White House and the press, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, relied on a bogus report to try to blame the press for revealing classified information before 9/11.

But, Wolf, Sarah Sanders did not have her facts straight on that one. And that false story was debunked years ago. And, Wolf, as for the president using comparisons to Al Capone with Paul Manafort, the president may not be getting very good political advice in terms of what he's putting out on Twitter.

Of course, that would invite comparisons that Robert Mueller is Eliot Ness. I'm not sure that's a comparison they want to make, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point.

All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Let's get the Republican reaction to the president's tweet and what it could mean for the Russia investigation.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what are you hearing from GOP senators?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as Democrats have raised concerns about potential obstruction of justice, another sign of that, Republicans for the most part significantly downplaying this latest tweet, saying it's not really anything different than what the president has expressed before, and also resisting calls from Democrats to put new legislation on the floor of the Senate to protect Robert Mueller, prevent him from being fired.

That bill has been stalled in the Senate for months, but no new momentum behind it because Republicans for the most part downplaying it, dismissing his latest concerns.

Now, at the same time, some Republicans did raise some concerns about his latest tweets, saying it's done nothing to help his cause and his case, including Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, who told me this:


SEN. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R), WEST VIRGINIA: Yes, it concerns me. I think we ought to look at -- we need to let the investigation move forward. I don't think it's useful for the president to move in that direction.


RAJU: Now, at the same time, Wolf, as I said, Republican after Republican today did not embrace those concerns that Democrats were voicing, saying that for the most part this was just the president blowing off steam.

And some Republicans also just did not want to address this question whatsoever, did not want to get crosswise with the president.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I think that's out of Jeff Sessions' hands. He's recused himself from the Russia investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not going to answer any questions on the president.

QUESTION: The president called on him to end the Mueller investigation today.


RAJU: Now, that last Republican senator is Dean Heller from Nevada. He's up for reelection in a very difficult race. He also is in a bit of a bind because he needs the president's support to help energize that base ahead of his election campaign, the reelection in November and, apparently, Wolf, does not want to say anything that could infuriate the president.

Perhaps one reason why he did not want to answer that question. But no doubt about it, Wolf, Republicans did not want to embrace these concerns today perhaps because the president is so -- by the Mueller probe, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thank you, Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, Republican Congressman Chris Stewart. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: Yes, good afternoon.

BLITZER: The president has told his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to stop the Russia investigation right away. Is that, in your opinion, obstruction of justice?

STEWART: I think it would be very, very difficult as a prosecutor to make the case.

And, look, I'm not an attorney, but, my heavens, I just think common sense would tell me that it's going to take much more than that to prove any kind of case towards what -- as you have indicated there.

But, look, Wolf, the president can voice his opinion. I don't deny him that ability. But in this case, I wish he wouldn't. I just don't think it helps him. I don't think it helps those of us who agree with him.

The original intent of the special counsel is to investigate collusion. There's been no evidence of that. And I wish he would just let the special counsel finish his work and show the American people what he has found. And if there's something that we need to deal with, we will at that time.

And another thing, Wolf, is that it precludes you and I from talking about other important matters. There's an awful lot going on in the world and yet we spend a lot of time talking about this, and many a times that's because the president has compelled us to talk about this because of some of his statements or some of his tweets.

BLITZER: Well, the president keeps raising it almost on a daily basis.

STEWART: Yes. Yes.

BLITZER: He's the one who brings it up. He's the one who tweeted this morning. And it was a very specific tweet. He said: "The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, should stop this rigged witch-hunt right now before it continues to stain our country any further."

He says countless times, as you know, Congressman, there was no collusion. So why should he be so worried about this Russia investigation? If there was no collusion, as he insists there was no collusion, won't Robert Mueller exonerate him?

STEWART: Well, and that's the argument I have been making. Once again, Wolf, we haven't seen evidence of collusion. And that's not a terribly partisan observation any longer.


Many of the Democrats, I would say most of the Democrats, with only a few exceptions, would agree with that. There isn't evidence of collusion at this point. Let him finish his work.

And my point was -- you and I agree on this. It's because the president tweets and says things like this that we have to talk about it. And I don't think it helps his case. And it detracts us from other important work.

But, look, he is the president and he feels like he's been under siege now for going on two years. He feels like he's been unjustly accused and the people around him have been unjustly accused of very serious crimes, essentially of treason, for going on two years.

I can understand why at some point he would begin to feel like, isn't this long enough? How much longer do we have to have this cloud hanging over me?

BLITZER: But, Congressman, we don't know what Robert Mueller has come up with in this investigation. We didn't know, for example, he was going to indict and charge all these Russians, for example. He may have specific information that you don't know about, and you're a member of the Intelligence Committee, that we don't know about.

He's working his sources, as they say.

STEWART: Yes. Yes.

And he does have additional information that we didn't pursue. It wasn't the purview of the Intelligence Committee to look at some of these financial transactions, for example, that Mr. Manafort and others have been indicted for. And we recognize that.

But, once again, no evidence of any U.S. person at all...

BLITZER: But, Congressman, we don't know if he has evidence of collusion. We know that you may not have seen any evidence of collusion as a member of the Intelligence Committee, but we don't know what he has.

STEWART: But, Wolf, you and I are saying the same thing. There is no evidence to this point.

Now, maybe Mr. Mueller has found something that the rest of us haven't seen. I have got to tell you, I think that's extraordinarily unlikely. I think, A -- and this sounds facetious, but it's actually true. A, if it had, I think it's very likely it would have been leaked or there would have been some indication of it.

The second thing is, many organizations, not just House Intel, but the Senate and others, have looked at this for a long, long time. I think if there had been evidence, we would have seen some kind of...


BLITZER: I have got to tell you, though, Congressman, I have covered Washington for a long time. The Mueller team, they have avoided leaking anything. The leaks are coming from other sources, people who have testified before various investigators.

But they have been very, very silent as far as leaking information.

STEWART: They have been much better at it than many other organizations. There's no question about it.

But, Wolf, I would come back to my second point, and I think that's strong enough to make this argument, and that is that others, other than House Intel, the Senate and others, have been looking at this for a long time. We saw virtually no evidence of it.

And I think it's very unlikely that Mr. Mueller finds something that we didn't see at all. But, like I said, and I have said to you many times, let him finish his work. I hope he will do so as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: Right. Well, let me ask you this, Congressman. If the Russia investigation ended before Robert Mueller and his team finish up their work, what would you do about that, if, for example, they were forced to simply stop?

STEWART: Well, I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that they would be forced to stop. I can't see any political way where that would happen.

But if that were to happen, in that very unlikely event, I think that those of us would take up the investigation. If there were unanswered questions, we would feel compelled to take up that investigation. We're going to get to the bottom of this, regardless of where it leads, one way or the other.

And my expectation is, what we're going to find is what we have seen so far. There isn't evidence of collusion or conspiracy with U.S. persons colluding with Russian officials and committing treason.

But if Mr. Mueller's investigation was cut short, I find that very unlikely, and if there were questions that were unanswered, there would be others that would take that...


STEWART: ... take those questions and want to pursue it.

BLITZER: The president was very specific today in that statement, in that tweet. He said he wants the investigation to stop right now, right now. Those were his words.

STEWART: Exactly, Wolf.

And I think that's exactly the way the president feels. He does want the investigation stopped. He thinks it should be ended by now.


BLITZER: but if he has nothing to hide, why is he so concerned?

STEWART: Well, Wolf, I think it's because, again, he's been under investigation, he's had this cloud over him for going on two years, and he believes that there's no evidence, that there is nothing there.

And he can state that. I would like this to end. There is nothing there. It's hurting the American process and the American body politic. But that isn't obstruction. That's very different than him ordering the attorney general to do something which he has, by the way, already recused himself.

I don't think he would have the authority, because he has been recused of that. But that's very different than the president voicing an opinion, which he has done again and again and again on a fairly regular basis, about his concerns with this investigation.

BLITZER: The White House itself has said these tweets are official presidential statements. They sound like an opinion. They sound like tweets, but these are official presidential statements.

Let me get your thoughts on another very sensitive issue. The Paul Manafort trial, as you know, is under way right now. The president is weighing in on this federal trial against Paul Manafort, saying in another separate tweet today that Manafort is being treated badly, unfairly by the prosecutors.

What' your reaction to that?


STEWART: Yes. Well, I have got to tell you that, you know, I'm not -- again, I'm not

an attorney and I'm not a prosecutor, but I have lived a while and I have been active in just the body politic and conversations.

And I think it's quite unusual for a person who's accused of white- collar crime to be treated the way he is. These midnight or these early morning bursts into his house, his family and his children there, it seemed like there were some parts of this that were really quite heavy-handed.

If there was an explanation, a necessity for that, I don't know what it would be.


BLITZER: Well, I will point out, in day two, the FBI testified today they had three knocks before they went into the house. He wasn't answering. But that's another matter.

But he's the one who, according to this judge and according to the prosecutors, he was witness-tampering. That's why he's in jail right now, as opposed to being out on bail.

STEWART: Well, and I'm not here to defend Paul Manafort. I don't know him at all. And I followed the case actually not very closely.

It's very -- it's outside of my purview in Congress and the responsibilities I have. I think most Americans would be uncomfortable if they feel like someone for political reasons was treated differently than someone else who's accused of very similar crimes.

And I think that's what the president is saying. But, look, let's let the prosecution go forward. We will see what the trial -- and what the jury decides.

BLITZER: I will say it's pretty unusual for a sitting president of the United States to be weighing in, pro or con, with opinions as far as a federal trial is under way right now, especially day two.

But, Congressman, I'm grateful to you for joining us. Chris Stewart of Utah, thanks very much.

STEWART: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, is it an opinion or is it obstruction of justice? I will ask the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara to weigh in on the president's message to Jeff Sessions.

And we will have the latest on Paul Manafort's trial. Prosecutors raising serious questions about whether a potential star witness will testify.


[18:21:28] BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news on the president's call today for the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, to end the Russia investigation immediately.

The White House and the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani claiming Mr. Trump was just venting his opinion, not giving Sessions an order that could amount potentially to obstruction of justice.

We're joined now by CNN's senior legal analyst, former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

Preet, the president tweeted. Let me read specifically his words . He said: "Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch- hunt right now."

Is that obstruction of justice?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think no lawyer would tell you based on a particular tweet that that constitutes obstruction of justice.

But what you have is something more than the president has said before in a public forum on social media, basically coming close to directing his attorney general, who, by the way, happens to be recused from the Russia investigation, to end it.

And he's made clear over time, interview after interview and statement after statement, a lot of which maybe we don't even know about, but other people who have been interviewed by the Mueller team do know about, that he wants the Russia investigation to be over.

And so in order to prove obstruction in a court of law, you have to show corrupt intent on the part of the person who is allegedly doing the obstructing. And in that tweet, the president seems to provide a neutral reason, saying that Bob Mueller has conflicts, which is rich, given that the one person who does have a conflict in this matter is the attorney general, who he's asking to do that dirty work.

But we have seen, over time, especially in the case of the firing of Jim Comey, that the president of the United States comes up with pretextual reasons to cover up the real reason why he wants to do something. We saw that last year when he fired Jim Comey and had Rod Rosenstein do a memo.

And you may agree with the memo or not, saying that Jim Comey was fireable because he didn't treat Hillary Clinton well. That is, as everybody knows, not the reason ultimately why Donald Trump fired Jim Comey.

This is another piece in the puzzle to someone trying to put together a picture of attempted obstruction.

BLITZER: The White House says the president was just expressing his opinion, his First Amendment rights. What do you say to that?

(LAUGHTER) BHARARA: Yes, that's one of the sillier things that I have heard. Obviously, everyone has a First Amendment right to say what they want, but in certain contexts, it's not about expression, it's about direction, as you sit at the top of government and you have underneath you a Cabinet secretary to whom -- who reports to.

So, for example, would it be First Amendment free speech if at a meeting he directed the attorney general, that is speech too, directed the attorney general to do X or Y and prosecute an adversary or let go of somebody who's an ally?

That's the use -- the mere fact that someone is using their mouth and expressing themselves in English does not necessarily mean you're implicating First Amendment rights.

BLITZER: Mueller is investigating if the president is obstructing justice or tampering with witnesses through his tweets. How do you think he's going to view this latest tweet?

BHARARA: As I said before, I think it's part of the picture. And over time, a portrait is developing that the president wants the Russia investigation to be ended.

And, by the way, the president doesn't distinguish between and among which parts of the Russia investigation he wants to end. He says in blanket form stop all of it, right? He doesn't say stop investigating the areas where we might have colluded, that the Trump campaign might have colluded with the Russians or conspired with the Russians or aided and abetted the Russians in interfering with the election.

We have a case going on right now. It's in the middle of trial, as you have been reporting. Another trial that's going to happen with respect to Paul Manafort in a few weeks.


To shut down the operations would essentially mean shutting down a legitimate criminal case in the middle of its being conducted at trial after a grand jury of Americans has decided it's a case that's worthy of going forward.

And you have other cases like that about which there's no way to cast aspersions with respect to 12 GRU intelligence officials from Russia and a whole bunch of other things that we probably don't know about yet.

BLITZER: If you were prosecuting a case like this and a witness was saying and doing what the president is doing, what would you do?

BHARARA: I would take notes. I would take very careful notes.


BHARARA: And I would weave it into my argument. Look, I don't think anybody knows yet whether or not a prosecutor like Mueller would suggest -- because I don't think he's going to charge the president, because the prevailing on the law is that you can't indict a sitting president.

But whether or not he would make a referral or make a recommendation for what Congress would should is dependent on a lot of facts, some of which we know, some of which we don't know. But this is not helpful to a defense that someone was acting innocently and wants to see the investigation go where it should.

BLITZER: Let me ask you on a related issue. This spring, we're now told, Robert Mueller referred a few cases to the Southern District of New York, to the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. You used to be the U.S. attorney there in New York.

And I'm wondering what it tells you. These were Democrats and Republicans, cases he's referred to the Southern District of New York. What does it tell you about how Mueller is operating right now?

BHARARA: Well, first of all, it tells me, point of pride, based on my former affiliation with the office and running the office, that he has a great deal of confidence in the career prosecutors and investigators in the Southern District.

So if there's something that he thinks is important that should be pursued, but is not within sort of the narrow -- somewhat narrow ambit that he is pursuing, he's comfortable sending it to the Southern District of New York.

I think also it has the added benefit -- I don't know if this is intentional, but it has the added benefit of assuring that certain investigations that are not at the core of what the special counsel is doing will continue and won't be stopped and can't be interfered with, even if something happens with respect to the special counsel, per the tweet the president sent a little while ago.

BLITZER: We know he referred the Michael Cohen case to the Southern District in New York as well.

All right, Preet, thank you so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Sure. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, let's get to Paul Manafort's trial now and a new mystery surrounding a potential star witness against the former Trump campaign chairman.

Our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, is working her sources.

Jessica, this is day two of Manafort's trial. Update our viewers on the latest.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there was a big bombshell in court. Prosecutors indicated that they might not call Rick Gates as a witness. They left that as an open question.

Now, this could be Mueller's team just playing coy, trying to keep the defense guessing on their strategy. It also could be that the defense played its hand too soon, indicating yesterday in opening statements that they would use any testimony from Rick Gates to actually discredit him.

Or it could have been the prosecution just wanted to continue its questioning of the witness that was on the stand. But either way, this question of will he or won't he, it definitely sent shockwaves through the courtroom.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, new questions about whether Paul Manafort's longtime associate Rick Gates will testify. Despite being described by the defense as the government's star witness, lead prosecutor Uzo Asonye cast doubt on Gates' upcoming court appearance, telling the judge: "He may testify in this case. He may not."

The comment came during the questioning of an FBI agent who found a memo titled "Gates Agenda From 2013" during a raid of Manafort's Virginia condo last July. Judge T.S. Ellis in his push to keep the trial moving said to the prosecutor, "If you're going to call Mr. Gates, this is a waste of time."

Rick Gates may be the special counsel's most notable witness on its list of 35, but it's the defense who has promised the jury he will be a central player in the trial. During opening statements, Manafort attorney Thomas Zehnle deflected blame to Rick Gates, saying he embezzled millions from Manafort and then turned on him after he came under pressure from Mueller's team.

Zehnle telling the jury it was Gates who had his hand in the cookie jar. Gates has plead the guilty to two charges in D.C. and is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Already, the prosecution has called several witnesses, including Democratic consultants who worked with Manafort during his lobbying work in Ukraine and FBI agent Matthew Mikuska, who searched Manafort's condo in a predawn raid last summer.

Agent Mikuska testified the FBI knocked three times before entering Manafort's home using a key they had, disputing some news reports that it was a no-knock raid. Mikuska said agents announced that the FBI was there to execute a search warrant. When agents walked in, Manafort was standing nearby, Mikuska testified. The agent also told the jury Manafort's name was on several documents showing millions of dollars in loan agreements and wire transfer invoices.

[18:30:10] One document was a loan agreement with a California bank who is listed as one of the victims of Manafort's alleged fraud.

But Judge Ellis has blocked the prosecution from showing certain photos illustrating Manafort's extravagant spending, rebuking the prosecutor, saying, "Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle."

But the jury did hear today from an employee at a high-end clothing store in Manhattan, saying Manafort was one of the store's top five buyers and that Manafort was the only client who paid with wire transfers. He said that Manafort once paid more than $15,000 for four suits and two trousers and, in 2013, spent close to $500,000 at the store.

Ronald Wall, a financial executive at the Beverly Hills luxury fashion store House of Bijan, also testified that Manafort used wire transfers to pay for merchandise.

RONALD WALL, FINANCIAL EXECUTIVE, HOUSE OF BIJAN: Az stated, he was a very good customer.


SCHNEIDER: With the flurry of witnesses today, the jury also heard from an employee at Mercedes-Benz, also a real-estate agent, as well as a contractor. All of them talked about Manafort's penchant for luxury items. They also talked about the fact that Manafort often used wire transfers from those offshore accounts to pay for things.

And really, this case has been moving at a breakneck pace, Wolf. In fact, prosecutors told the judge today they expect to wrap up their case next week -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Moving very, very quickly. All right, Jessica, thank you. Jessica Schneider in Alexandria for us.

Just ahead, more on the legal implications of the president's tweet and whether he was attempting to obstruct the Russia probe. Could it all hinge on the definition of "should"?

And we'll break down Rudy Giuliani's defense of the president, whether it could -- it would hold up in court.


RUDY GIULIANI, LAWYER FOR DONALD TRUMP: This whole obstruction of justice thing is nonsense. If he wanted to obstruct it, he'd obstruct it. He could just end it.


[18:36:43] BLITZER: The breaking news tonight. The White House is now saying President Trump's tweet calling on the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to end Robert Mueller's Russia investigation right away is an opinion, not an order.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts.

Joey Jackson, you're our legal analyst. He was very clear in that tweet. Let me read the sentence specifically. Quote, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this rigged witch hunt right now," closed quote. In your view is that obstruction of justice?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, I am of the view that it is not at all obstruction of justice. I don't think there's any reasonable view of this tweet that could be construed that way. And I say that for three primary reasons.

No. 1, I do agree that it's an expression of an opinion. Now, we may not like each other's opinion, but because you're the president you have the right to an opinion, too. We have this thing called the First Amendment. We're all entitled to exercise that, whether we agree or disagree. And so yes, No. 1, it's an opinion.

No. 2, I see no corrupt intent there. I see anger. I see disdain. I see frustration. But remember that the crux, the gravamen of an obstruction of justice charge is corrupt intent. I don't see that.

No. 3, and perhaps most persuasively, in order to be deemed criminal you need, No. 1, an act and No. 2, a mental state. Now, you have a mental state here. Right? Fancy word, "mens rea," we use in a court of law. You have the mental state: anger, disdain (ph), upsetness [SIC]. But in terms of the act, the "actus reus," another fancy word that we use, you don't have an act. He's saying something; he's not doing something.

Now if the question you had before me, Wolf, was he just fired the attorney general or deputy attorney general, it would be a very different conversation. But the mere tweet itself, I don't take the view that it's obstruction.

BLITZER: All right. That's very interesting.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Time out here. I've got to disagree for a rare moment with the lawyer.

So last spring he removes the FBI director, James Comey. I guess that's not obstruction. And after he tells the attorney general, "You should shut this down," what's the attorney general supposed to say?

"Well, after he removed my FBI director, that's just an opinion"? Let me tell you I don't see --

JACKSON: So let me push back --

MUDD: Well, wait a minute, homes (ph).


MUDD: I get to speak. You get to do the defense or prosecution whatever it is. But I don't care what the attorneys say, and I don't care what the White House and the dictionary says. I care what my mom says.

When I'm 7 and she says, "You ought to eat your peas," that means, "You better eat your vegetables."

You know, the statement of intent stuff, we know what the president means, and we know it by what he did with James Comey. He wants the investigation shut down. I don't think there's any question about that.

JACKSON: So Sir Mudd, I've eaten my peas. May I respond now?

Here's the reality. The question is regarding a tweet. You're bringing in other ancillary information. If Wolf asked me a question in terms of a compilation of issues that a prosecutor can look to and use this as an indicia of additional evidence that's one thing.

If we're evaluating a stand-alone tweet, my opinion remains the same. One, it's an opinion. Two, there's no corrupt intent. Three, there's no activity, you know, in light of this particular tweet. And so I say no.

BLITZER: But do you see it as part of a pattern, not just this one isolated tweet but part of a pattern over the past year, year and a half?

JACKSON: Now, that's a separate question. If you want to talk about the fact that the president shouldn't be tweeting, that every lawyer he possibly will have will tell him, "Why are you tweeting?" If you look at the issues and look at the tweets and compile all of his mens rea in terms of what he's doing, now you're getting to something.

But if you're telling me, "Wow, this is the bombshell smoking gun tweet that's going to bring down the president," my opinion remains the same, in disagreement with Phil; and I say absolutely not.

[18:40:09] BLITZER: All right. Let's get to Rudy Giuliani, Kaitlan Collins. His explanation, clarification, trying to clean up what the president said in that early-morning tweet. Listen to this.


GIULIANI: He is a person with a First Amendment right to defend himself. First Amendment right to express his opinion. If he wanted to obstruct it, he'd obstruct it. I mean, he could just end it.


BLITZER: All right. What do you make of that?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're trying to make this argument the president's tweets are just his tweets, just his opinions; if he wanted to do something he could.

But we've actually seen the president try to do this before. We know that he tried to have Robert Mueller fired last year. We know that he tried to get Jeff Sessions to take back control of this investigation, pressuring him on multiple occasions. That's what our sources tell us.

So we see that it's not just the president tweeting these things. He's actually having conversations with these people about these things.

So when the president -- the White House can say whatever they want about that, but we can judge it from what we've reported on the president's own actions, his own conversations with Jeff Sessions, his own conversations with the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to know what the president did. It goes much further than just what the president tweeted this morning when he was letting off steam, if the White House wants to call it that. BLITZER: He had an opportunity to elaborate, but he left it to his

two personal lawyers -- Jay Sekulow, Rudy Giuliani -- and Sarah Sanders over at the White House to offer an explanation.

COLLINS: Who had been wrong before, and the president has contradicted all three of them on multiple occasions. So whatever it is, it's final when the president says it, not when Sarah Sanders, Rudy Giuliani or Jay Sekulow do

BLITZER: Samantha Vinograd, he must be feeling some heat right now for him to be reacting the way he is, whether it's the Michael Cohen investigation that's underway, whether it's his longtime business associate, the chief financial officer at the Trump Organization, all of a sudden being subpoenaed to testify. There's a lot going on right now that's clearly irritating, deeply angering the president.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's hard to imagine how he gets any work done. I mean, with everything going on with Iran, North Korea, name your crisis, he is essentially cracking under the pressure.

If you look at his Twitter tantrums, you look at Rudy Giuliani's Mad Libbing on television, and it's like they're grasping at straws, rather than obsessing over the right part of this investigation, which is holding Russia accountable.

And I just have to say this. The hypocrisy today is at an all-time high. The president pointed the finger at his own attorney general on Twitter, not privately. He expressed an opinion on Twitter, and then later we sanctioned Turkish officials for misusing their positions and law enforcement platforms to imprison Americans and Turkish citizens.

So the president is politicizing our own law enforcement process and then sanctioning Turks for doing the same thing?

BLITZER: What's your bottom line right now, Phil?

MUDD: I think the president's nervous. Look, I think Joey's right on the issue of obstruction. I don't see this as obstruction. I see it as an indication of the president's intent as he sees the investigation winding down.

I would couple this with his transition to personal attacks on Robert Mueller. He didn't used to do this. I think this is an indication that he's starting to feel the heat. He's watching the Manafort trial go on, and he's starting to tell his supporters,, "Get ready for end game, and when that end game happens, these guys are frauds."

COLLINS: And also, they have made clear, they believe this is going to come down to the court of public opinion and that -- not that they think the president is actually going to be indicted for anything. And that is really what the president is trying to do, and in some cases succeeding by convincing them that the Mueller investigation has gone on for too long, by convincing them that Jeff Sessions should not have recused himself, even though Jeff Sessions is known as one thing even by his critics: he is a man of the law and did what he believed was the right thing.

So is the president and his legal team trying to shape the message here they've gone on for too long, they need to wrap it up and that they're about to wrap it up. So then if they don't wrap it up soon, then they can say, "Well, they keep extending it" and whatnot. Even though we saw by Mueller's own actions yesterday, referring those cases to the Southern District of New York, he's trying to keep the scope on a straight and narrow path here.

BLITZER: What does the Paul Manafort trial -- day two ended today, Joey Jackson. What does it say to you about the big picture?

JACKSON: Well, certainly, it says individually about Paul Manafort that he has some pretty expensive tastes here.

But the reality is that, listen, on the merits of the case alone, we know that there's no tie-in to the campaign as of yet. However, you know, in terms of how the case is going, we'll see if the actual prosecution has the goods.

It appears as though they do. It appears as though you have a very fair judge in this particular case, who's saying, "Look, you're allowed to have a lavish lifestyle. We don't punish people for being rich in this case. No, we're not going to see exhibits about how his closet looked like. No, we're not going to talk about oligarchs and Russia. You know, but we're going to talk about the facts and evidence."

And so big picture, I think they need a conviction here. I think it will send a clear message that they do mean business, that they're on their "P's" and "Q's." That they're competent, they're responsible. And I think it certainly fosters the investigation, because people tend to be more cooperative when the special counsel is successful: "We're not going to go to trial. We're going to take a plea deal. And guess what? We're also going to cooperate."

And cooperation, Wolf, means that others could be embroiled in the investigation.

BLITZER: They're moving quickly in that trial, as we see, in day one and day two.

Everybody, stick around.

There's more breaking news. The TSA is now considering a major change to airport passenger screenings. It's a CNN exclusive.

Plus, the latest on the deadly wildfires in northern California. More than 1,000 homes have now burned.


BLITZER: Now, a CNN exclusive. We've learned that the TSA is considering ending passenger screenings at some smaller airports throughout the United States.

Our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh has been working this story.

Rene, anyone who flies has been through these screenings. Why would the TSA now, all of a sudden, decide that some smaller or medium-sized airports, no more screenings?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've got a look at some internal documents and they're all pretty recent. I mean, we're talking about June and July. And the proposal makes the case for eliminating screening at these small and some medium size airports because of one factor being cost savings to the tune of $115 million per year.

But it also makes the argument that terror groups and terrorists aren't that concerned about attacking a smaller aircraft. They're only focused on the big large passenger jets. So the thinking is, or the theory is to beef up security at these larger airports because there's more volume there. And, of course, that's where the larger aircraft are.

But we spoke with several people within the industry. Even national security experts right here at CNN. And they say that's just flawed reasoning because you know as well as I do that ISIS has said, you know, attack any way that you can, whether it's small attack or large attack, just attack.

So, there are some concerns now that we're learning about this proposal here, strictly looking at these airports where they service aircraft with 60 seats or fewer.

BLITZER: Sixty -- well, I'm sure some terrorists would love to get on a plane with 60 people and try to force the pilot or whatever to use that plane as a weapon and go into a building.

MARSH: Well, absolutely. And that's the concern.

[18:50:00] And the two TSA sources who tipped us off about this story said the reason why they were speaking out is because this is a major national security concern that the agency is even considering this. You talk about just the possibility of what you can do with a small airplane. I mean, forget about just the explosives you might be able to carry on board, but the aircraft itself could be weaponized. You could get a gun onboard, you can get a knife onboard.

So, there are serious concerns about having unscreened passengers. And let's not forget the flight crew. I mean, you have pilots and flight attendants who will absolutely refuse to fly these routes that have unscreened passenger.

BLITZER: They won't be happy with this. Let's see if it actually materializes.


BLITZER: Good reporting, Rene. Thank you very much.

There is more breaking news next. We're going to get a live update on the deadliest wildfire burning in California tonight. One of 16 major blazes challenging fire crews.


[18:55:05] BLITZER: We are following breaking news. The deadly wildfire in California claiming more homes as thousands and thousands of people remain evacuated.

CNN's Nick Watt is joining us once again from Redding, California.

Nick, the devastation there is truly stunning.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the official toll now is 1,018 homes destroyed. This Carr Fire is now the 6th most destructive fire in the history of California.


WATT (voice-over): The fire still burning, 115,000 acres and counting, and local people now counting the cost. Tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes, some now allowed back, but others from the worse-hit neighborhoods not yet.

(on camera): Do you know what condition your house is in?

PREETHA REDDY, LOST HER HOME IN FIRE: There's nothing left. It looks more like a bomb hit it.

WATT (voice-over): Preetha Reddy and her husband snapped this picture as fire approached.

(on camera): Do you think it will help to actually get back and see it?

REDDY: Yes. If they'd only let us in and, you know, have it sink in.

WATT: I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

REDDY: It's been hard.

WATT (voice-over): And the official word, these wildfires will only get worse.

GOV. JERRY BROWN (D), CALIFORNIA: We're in uncharted territories. We haven't had this kind of heat condition and it's going to continue getting worse. We have to apply all our creativity to making the best out of what is going to be an increasingly bad situation.

WATT: More than 90 fires burning right now across the West, putting a strain on manpower.

MIKE MOHLER, CAL FIRE: The term we hear, it's new normal. It's not new anymore. This is the normal and it's not a season. It's year round.

WATT: Here at the Carr Fire, two firefighters have lost their lives, others lost their homes, but never stopped working. DAVID SPLIETHOF, CAL FIRE: I don't feel that I did anything special.

It's just once I saw my house gone, it was -- there's going to be plenty of time to go back through the remains and see what we can salvage.

WATT: Many firefighters are working 24-hour shifts. Rick Johnson just clocked off.

RICK JOHNSON, CAL FIRE: The temperatures that we've been dealing with, 100-plus degrees, single digit relative humidity. So, yes, it's been hard.

WATT: Right now, 16 wildfires burning across California, 13,000 firefighters on the lines.


WATT: And the fight here right now is up in the forest where the terrain is steep where there is a lot of new vegetation, where the winds are erratic. But authorities here say that they hope they have now turned a corner. The fire is now 35 percent contained, but with the wildfire, Wolf, it ain't over until it's over.

BLITZER: Let's hope it's over soon.

All right, Nick, thank you. Nick Watt reporting.

Let's bring in our meteorologist Jennifer Gray.

Jennifer, is there any relief in sight?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: There actually is, Wolf. It will be a step in the right direction, but it is going to take some time to get all of these fires under control. With 93 large active fires currently burning, temperatures have been in the triple digits around a lot of these areas. Temperatures will finally start to break.

We will see temperatures get down a little bit below normal. That ridge will start to break down. Cooler air will move in. Humidity levels will go up and that's all going to help the firefighters.

So, you see temperatures go from 100 on Friday to 97 on Saturday. That will be a little bit of help, even though temperatures are still very hot at 97 degrees. So, the Carr Fire, of course, being the biggest one. The latest over 115,000 acres, 35 percent contained.

It is now moved up to number six as the most destructive California wildfire. And as we said yesterday, four out of the top eight have occurred within the last year. And three out of the four occurred in October.

So, the fire season is getting longer. This is technically not the peak of fire season, but the fire seasons are getting longer and these fires are getting more destructive, Wolf, and that's what's concerning everyone, especially folks in these fire-prone areas. BLITZER: And as you know, Jennifer, the California Governor Jerry

Brown says the heat and dryness are now worse than they were last time he was governor back in the '70s. Is that true?

GRAY: Yes. I mean, we are extremely dry. Like I mentioned, we are seeing these seasons get longer and so typically much drier now than they normally are this time of year.

That Carr Fire, for example, consuming 27 acres per minute. That is equivalent to about three -- to a football field every three seconds. So, just to give you an idea of how dry this is and also how fast these fires can move. We are going to see these continue to spread, Wolf.

BLITZER: Unfortunately.

All right, Jennifer Gray, our meteorologist, thank you very much.

Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.