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Trump Making False Voter Fraud Allegations?; Did Trump Order Hush Money Payments?; Interview With Senator Richard Blumenthal; Trump Fires Back After Michelle Obama Writes She Will "Never Forgive" Him for His Role in the "Birther" Movement; WSJ: Feds Have Evidence of Trump's Involvement in Hush-Money Payments; Trump Denies Knowing His Own A.G. Appointee; Doctors Take on NRA Over Gun Violence. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 9, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Lashing out. After Republicans lose control of the House, the president is losing his temper, insulting reporters, picking a fight with the French president and taking angry swipes at the Obamas.

And false fraud claims. As the Florida Senate and governor races may be heading for recounts, Mr. Trump is returning to a favorite tactic, alleging election corruption with no evidence to back it up.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: a new report on the president's extensive personal involvement in payoffs to silence the porn star and the Playmate who say they had affairs with him.

"The Wall Street Journal" says federal prosecutors have gathered evidence of Mr. Trump's direct role in the hush money deals with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, which may violate campaign finance laws.

Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, says it is more proof that the president repeatedly and lied about his knowledge of the payoffs. This as Mr. Trump is facing backlash for firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointing a controversial critic of the Russia probe to oversee Robert Mueller.

I will get reaction from Senator Richard Blumenthal. He is a top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

He's covering the president's trip to Paris. Jim, Mr. Trump landed there just a little while ago, but he landed with some new baggage.


The president is on the ground here in France to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The president, though, doesn't sound like he's in much of a mood for peace. He's picking fights left and right, especially on the Russia investigation, but there's also another storm cloud on the horizon.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Leaving for a weekend trip to France, President Trump is having trouble getting clear of some big storms brewing back home.

"The Wall Street Journal" reports the U.S. attorney in New York is gathering evidence that shows the president was involved in hush money deals with two women who say they had affairs with Mr. Trump, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels. "The Journal" says the president was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the payments.

Contrast that with the president's comments last April, when he claimed he didn't know about money going to Daniels.

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?


ACOSTA: As he was leaving for Paris, the president was pressed on the other big legal mess hanging over him, the Russia investigation, specifically his decision to make Matt Whitaker his acting attorney general, a move that puts a critic of the probe in charge of it.

TRUMP: I didn't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for Attorney General Sessions. He was very, very highly thought of, and still is highly thought of. But this only comes up because anybody that works for me, they do a number on them.

ACOSTA: The president repeatedly claimed he didn't know Whitaker.

TRUMP: I don't know Matt Whitaker.

ACOSTA: But that's not true, if you believe what Mr. Trump told FOX News last month.

TRUMP: I never talk about that, but I can tell you, Matt Whitaker is a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.

ACOSTA: Prominent D.C. attorney George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, argued in a "New York Times" op-ed that Whitaker's selection "is unconstitutional, it is illegal and it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does or tries to do in that position is invalid."

The president brushed off Conway's concerns.

TRUMP: He is just trying to get publicity for himself. Why don't you do this? Why don't you -- why don't you ask Kellyanne that question, all right? She might -- she might know him better than me. I really don't know the guy.

ACOSTA: But Democrats, who are about to take control in the House, are vowing to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: The American people spoke on Tuesday. They want a check on abuses of power. That's, I think, one of the issues that was on the ballot. And so we have a number of options. One, we're going to have a funding-the-government vote coming up here in a couple of weeks, and we are going to insist that we protect the Mueller probe.

ACOSTA: Even with all of that on his hands, the president is also sparring with, of all people, Michelle Obama.

In excerpts of the former first lady's new book obtained by "The Washington Post," Mrs. Obama says she will never forgive Mr. Trump for being a birther, saying: "What if someone with an unstable mine loaded a gun and drove to Washington? What if that person went looking for our girls?"

The president dismissed that and took a swipe at Barack Obama.

TRUMP: She got paid a lot of money to write a book. And they always insist that you come up with controversial -- well, I will give you a little controversy back: I will never forgive him for what he did to our United States military by not funding it properly.

ACOSTA: The president is said to be -- quote -- "on the warpath" about vote counts still under way in places like Florida. Mr. Trump complained of voter fraud, but when asked for evidence, he didn't have any.


QUESTION: Do you have evidence of fraud?

TRUMP: Well, I don't know, you tell me. It's always the Democrats.


ACOSTA: Another nemesis that might be on the president's mind is Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels, who writes in a new "New York Times" op-ed that the president can, in fact, be indicted.

That is contrary to the claims coming from the president's defenders and lawyers, who say he cannot be indicted. Wolf, Avenatti says the theory should be tested in court -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I just spoke with him in the last hour and he made that point. Jim Acosta, who is in Paris with the president, thank you very much.

Now let's dig deeper into this new report on the president's involvement in the hush money payments. We are joined by our national correspondent, Sara Sidner.

Sara, this "Wall Street Journal" report has a lot of important, new information.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly does, Wolf, an explosive report really when you consider the details in it that could put Trump in more hot water, if you will, when it comes to the two women he is accused of having an affair with and paying off and trying to silence.


SIDNER (voice-over): "The Wall Street Journal" reports that Donald Trump not only knew about hush money payments made to two women to keep their alleged affairs with him out of the press before the 2016 presidential election, but he was directly involved in the payments and process to get those stories killed.

The report says Trump in 2015 met with David Pecker, the head of AMI, which owns "The National Enquirer" and other publications, and asked him, "What can you do to help my campaign?"

The women involved include Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels, both of whom say they had affairs with him. Trump denies the allegations.

The report says: "'The Wall Street Journal' found that Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others."

Daniels was convinced Trump knew about her hush agreement and sued him to get out of the agreement.

STORMY DANIELS, ADULT FILM ACTRESS: My attorney and I are committed to making sure that everyone finds out the truth.

SIDNER: McDougal told CNN's Anderson Cooper in an interview she was unsure.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think Donald Trump would have been aware of this deal?

KAREN MCDOUGAL, FORMER PLAYBOY PLAYMATE: One of the big complaints with why I think my contract is illegal is because his attorney was talking to my attorney, so...

COOPER: Michael Cohen -- you're saying Donald Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen...

MCDOUGAL: Correct.

COOPER: ... was talking to Keith Davidson, your attorney?

MCDOUGAL: Speaking with Keith, without me even knowing, without my knowledge. I would assume that maybe he knew. I know his attorney did. I can't say that he knew.

SIDNER: "The Journal" also reports the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan has evidence of Trump's participation.

And people familiar with the investigation have told CNN prosecutors had prepared a draft indictment of his then attorney Michael Cohen that was more detailed and included additional charges, but dropped it when Cohen suddenly decided to plea.

CNN has previously reported that a source says Trump and his son Eric were directly involved in efforts to stop Stormy Daniels from speaking out. Trump has previously denied any knowledge of the payments to Daniels.

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

TRUMP: No, no.

QUESTION: Then why did Michael -- why did Michael Cohen make this, if there was no truth to her allegations?

TRUMP: Well, you have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you will have to ask Michael Cohen.

SIDNER: In August Michael Cohen revealed in a plea deal with federal prosecutors that he knowingly made a contribution to Trump's campaign in excess of the limits of the Election Act, at the request and suggestion of one or more members of the campaign.

Court documents suggest Trump knew about the deal with the women. CNN obtained audiotapes from Cohen's attorney of a conversation Cohen taped between himself and Trump allegedly discussing details made with tabloid owner Pecker.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David.


SIDNER: Now, AMI has not responded for a comment, as we have requested.

And, as you know, you had Michael Avenatti on, the attorney for Stormy Daniels. He's on the warpath saying that he believes that Donald Trump broke the law and that he should be indicted.

He is speaking about federal election finance laws, saying that he believes the president broke those laws. The president's attorneys have long said he did not break any law and doesn't believe he should be indicted or sued or otherwise -- Trump. Sorry.




BLITZER: OK. Thanks very much.

SIDNER: Trump is on my mind.


BLITZER: Sara Sidner, reporting for us, thank you very much.

Let's get back to the firestorm over the president's new acting attorney general and his oversight of the Russia investigation that he's publicly criticized.

As the president tries to distance him from Matthew Whitaker, the deputy attorney general is now speaking out for the first time about his new boss over at the Justice Department.


Our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett, is on the scene for us.

So, Laura, you had a chance to speak with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, today. What did he have to say about his new boss?


It was very interesting. We managed to get a few minutes for a pull- aside with the deputy attorney general out in Virginia when he was there for an investiture ceremony for a new U.S. attorney, Zachary Terwilliger.

And myself along with a couple other reporters were able to talk to him about a conference call that he did with U.S. attorneys around the country, and he described for us how he showed support for Whitaker. Take a listen.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have worked with Matt Whitaker for about five-and-a-half years he served as U.S. attorney. We overlapped for five-and-a-half years.

We actually served under seven attorneys general during that period of time, four Senate-confirmed and three acting attorneys general.

And I explained to our U.S. attorneys that, based on my experience working with Matt then and over the past year that he's been serving as chief of staff, that I think that he is a superb choice for attorney general. And he certainly understands the work, understands the priorities (OFF-MIKE). I think he will be -- I think he is going to do a superb job as attorney general.

(END VIDEO CLIP) JARRETT: So you heard it, a superb choice.

Now, the context here of course is important, as these two men have a complicated relationship, I should say. We all remember a few weeks back as we reported that Whitaker had actually discussed with the president potentially taking Rosenstein's job as an acting deputy attorney general, when we all thought that the deputy attorney general might be fired by the president for his comments.

But, of course, that didn't happen. Rosenstein stayed on the job, and now it appears he's trying to offer something of an olive branch, something of department solidarity, as the onslaught of bad stories continue about Whitaker this week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are you learning, Laura, about why Whitaker was originally chosen to be paired with Jeff Sessions? He was the chief of staff to the then-attorney general.

JARRETT: Well, that was no accident.

And sources tell us it was actually the architect, this construct came about because of former White House counsel Don McGahn, who thought that Whitaker would be a good choice for the job. He wanted someone over here that he thought could put a check on the Justice Department, sources say, and it was also at the urging of the head of the Federalist Society, a powerful voice, Leonard Leo, who has deep ties with the White House.

And he came out with a statement today saying he supported the pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as the chief of staff, but he did not have a prior relationship with Sessions. Sessions did interview him, he liked him, he obviously picked him.

But the idea that the White House was not heavily involved in the choice, as the president somehow suggested today he didn't even know him, although he had said the exact opposite several weeks ago, our reporting shows that he has been at the White House a number of times. He has spoken with the president a number of times, including, as I mentioned, about taking the deputy attorney general's job, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Laura, thank you very much, Laura Jarrett reporting.

Joining us now, Senator Richard Blumenthal. He is a Democrat. He serves on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

And I want to get your thoughts on the new acting attorney general in just a moment, but let's begin with your reaction to this new bombshell report in "The Wall Street Journal" which details the president's involvement in the payoff schemes to women he allegedly had affairs with.

Do you believe the president committed a crime? SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: The president did commit a

crime, according to the charging document that the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York submitted to the court in connection with the Cohen plea agreement.

It, in effect, charged him as an unindicted co-conspirator, without naming him, and this very abundant detail indicates additional evidence, very strong factual support for that, naming the president, in effect, as an unindicted conspirator.

BLITZER: You served as the attorney general of Connecticut. How unusual would it be for prosecutors to draft an 80-page indictment laying out so much evidence?

BLUMENTHAL: Very unusual to have a talking indictment, as it is known, laying out the case in such abundant detail, but also then a 22-page document in connection with the plea agreement that further bolstered it, and now this report that provides additional evidence about the details of Trump's own communications with Pecker, with Cohen, with others, and the knowledge that McDougal and Stormy Daniels are also bringing to the case.

So, clearly ,there's a lot of cooperating going on here, and it spells trouble for Donald Trump in the Southern District of New York, which, again, is outside of the special counsel's direct purview.

BLITZER: The direct purview, but they work closely together on many, many of these cases.

No sitting president, as you know, Senator, has ever been indicted. Do you think that could change?


BLUMENTHAL: It could change, but Robert Mueller is very much a by- the-book, cautious and deliberate prosecutor who is methodically and meticulously putting together the mosaic of evidence regarding Russian collusion, involving the Trump campaign and potential obstruction of justice.

When he makes a conclusion, it will have to be based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a very high standard, for any defendant, and an even tougher one when you consider a public official, and even harder when it is a public official like the president. So the odds are against an indictment of the president, but he is certainly putting every effort into collecting this evidence.

BLITZER: Because the current position of the Justice Department is a sitting president cannot be indicted.

But do you think that ultimately that this new information contained in this "Wall Street Journal" report could prove more damaging to the president than the Mueller probe?

BLUMENTHAL: It could prove more damaging to the president because it is a discrete, definite crime involving campaign finance and fraud against the government.

I happen to believe the president could be indicted legally and the trial postponed until the end of his term as president under the Constitution. But the question really will be for the special counsel and for the Southern District of New York based on the evidence. It will be a very fact-based decision.

BLITZER: Let's move on and get to some other important issues.

You're considering suing the Trump administration over the appointment of the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. Why do you believe his appointment is illegal?

BLUMENTHAL: The president should withdraw this appointment.

It raises very serious constitutional questions. We have made no definite decision about whether or not to seek a court action, but clearly Matt Whitaker has never been confirmed to his present post. He was confirmed as U.S. attorney, but not as chief of staff, and, therefore, his installation in this position potentially violates the advice and consent requirement under the Constitution, as well as other statutory requirements.

So the president would be well-advised to withdraw it. In addition, of course, Mr. Whitaker has indicated a profound hostility to this special counsel investigation, saying that there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign, saying that it is Mueller's lynch mob.

And the specter here is of, in effect, a slow-motion Saturday Night Massacred, a death by 1,000 secret deaths and cuts to the Mueller investigation, cuts in spending, cuts in authority, cuts in charges that could be brought, and that is very, very, deeply troubling.

BLITZER: The president says he didn't speak to Whitaker about the Mueller probe before appointing him. Do you buy that?

BLUMENTHAL: I have very strong suspicions that there was some conversation about it.

It is an issue that should be investigated by the Judiciary Committee in the Senate or the House, because, again, it goes to the question of Whitaker's hostility to the special counsel's investigation, the appearance of a conflict of interests.

He has set forth a road map for how to stifle and strangle this investigation. He has indicated how to do it through cuts in the funding for positions in that office, through limitations on its authority, and through the potential disapproval of indictments that may be brought by Mueller.

And he has direct responsibility, as the acting attorney general.

BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. BLITZER: All right, just ahead, we are going to have more on this

bombshell report on the president's central role in hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, how an 80-page indictment exposed Mr. Trump's involvement every step of the way.

Plus, we are just minutes away from a court-ordered deadline, as a legal battle unfolds in Florida, where the elections for Senate and governor are still undecided.



BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories on the federal investigations weighing right now on the president as he begins a trip over the weekend to Paris.

Tonight, "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that the feds have gathered evidence of Mr. Trump's personal involvement in hush money payments to women, refuting his past denials and potentially, potentially violating campaign finance laws.

Let's get some more from our reporters, commentators and analysts.

Laura Coates, this bombshell report in "The Wall Street Journal," do you believe the president broke the law?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it looks like he did, yes, and I believed when Michael Cohen gave his guilty plea and they immunized David Pecker following that opportunity.


BLITZER: The head of American Media, which publishes "The National Enquirer."

COATES: Precisely, or known as "our friend David" in a secret video -- or audiotape recording issued by Michael Cohen before his actual arrest and plea.

And all that indicates to me that the prosecutors issued and gave immunity to this person because they believe that he had some risk of legal exposure, number one. Number two, the actual guilty plea of Michael Cohen talked about almost an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, talking about someone who was equally involved in trying to circumvent federal campaign finance laws.

Now we find additional support that shows that Donald Trump knew about the payments in advance, that he asked a question of, what can you do for my campaign, which is really different than what happened in the John Edwards case, where he said, that could have been a dual purpose. He was trying to hide a mistress from his then pregnant wife. That may be the reason, as opposed to a campaign.


That question almost directly puts him in the line of extreme legal exposure and shows that he may have indeed violated criminal law.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, what's your analysis?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I hesitate to disagree with Laura. So I'm going to line up with her.


MUDD: I think there's a different -- an additional perspective on this.

And that is not whether the president violated law. That's whether the federal government or state government wants to bring charges. I mean, in contrast to the overall question we have here, whether there, for example, was cooperation with the Russians, this is pretty low- level legal violation.

I think the interesting question, if you think that the government is going to bring charges against the president, is forget about the acting attorney general. I think the past 24 hours, there's been too much focus on him. There's Rod Rosenstein. He's going to weigh in on this.

There's going to be questions to any attorney general nominee in the Senate, what do you think about these charges? There's going to be what a grand jury thinks about this. They are independent of the Department of Justice, and there could be a state jurisdiction that weighs in here.

So I think the real question is not whether the president did something wrong, it's whether somebody is going to do something about it.

BLITZER: Abby, you cover the White House for us.

And, as you well know, the president has repeatedly denied any knowledge of any payments to Kevin McDougal or Stormy Daniels.


And that's the other part of this, is the fact that this is all exposing a long-running lie from the president and the people who work for him who've reinforced this lie over many, many months.

It's becoming very clear now that virtually everything that the president has said about the series of events surrounding these hush money payments has been untrue.

And, interestingly enough, it doesn't seem to have had a huge effect. But as we get further and further down the legal line, it'll be interesting to see what whether that starts to change. When it becomes clear, if it becomes clear, to Phil's point, that there is legal exposure, will voters start to pay attention to this, or have they become kind of used to it by now?

I think there's a real risk here that that has already happened. BLITZER: Sara, you have done a lot of reporting on this, and some are

already suggesting this bombshell report in "The Wall Street Journal," the information it contains potentially could be more damaging to the president that the Mueller probe.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I think right now, it raises a number of concerns, because we don't know that the president is implicated in anything when it comes to the Mueller probe.

Obviously, he's still doing his investigation, whereas when it came to what Cohen said in court, when it came to his guilty plea, he very clearly implicated the president in this scheme as he was pleading guilty to a crime.

I think the other sort of door it opens that is certainly potentially worrisome to the president, but also maybe even members of his family, is that Michael Cohen was working for the family business at the time. And so it gives prosecutors a reason to ask questions and go poking around in how the Trump Organization was running its finances and who else may have been signing off on payments like this.

And that could be it certainly worrisome to President Trump, Wolf.

BLITZER: Could the president actually face criminal charge? Could he be indicted by the Justice Department? Because I understand, Laura, that the current position of the Justice Department is a sitting president can't be indicted.

COATES: Well, that's the current position. It's really a guideline. It's not set in stone, nor should it be.

Think about the timing of when that memo was drafted. It was drafted around the Kenneth Starr investigation, and it was the Clinton Justice Department who said, hey, we can't indict a sitting president. Well, that 2000 era memo is now having weight and implications right now in 2018, but it still has never been tested in a court of law.

And there are legal scholars who debate this issue, whether or not you can indict the sitting president, whether the Nixon -- U.S. vs. Nixon case that, if the president is not above the law, and you cannot say that the administration of due process and justice should fall victim to the president's position, well, then you might say that if no one's above the law, that includes an indictment as well.

There are others, like your last guest, Senator Blumenthal, who suggest, well, you know what, you could probably indict, and then not have a trial until after his term, which would eliminate any concern about the head of the executive branch having all of this time taken over by trying to defend an actual case.

So it's a debate, but as we see right now from Mueller's team, as you have seen from his decision not to make any indictments or anything else before the midterm election, they seem to be abiding by current legal policy. BLITZER: And we have heard -- Abby, you cover the White House for us

-- that a lot of officials over there are deeply concerned, now that the Democrats are going to be in the majority in the House of Representatives starting in January, they will have subpoena power, oversight.

They're going to be a lot more aggressive in trying to get this kind of information than the Republican majority has been.

PHILLIP: Exactly.

I mean, that's the other half of this equation, is that now -- for the last two years has been the president's party basically protecting him from a lot of these kinds of investigations. That is going to change immediately upon Democrats taking over the House.

And maybe they -- this won't end up in legal trouble for the president personally, but there's almost a certain likelihood that he's going to have a lot of inquiries. It's going to take up a lot of his time, a lot of the White House's time.

It's going to cost a lot of money, and it's going to put a lot of people around the president in some legal jeopardy or in the position where they're facing subpoenas. This is going to be a real headache for the White House, in addition to all of the stuff related to Mueller, which they are not totally prepared to deal with in terms of what is coming down the pike on the Democratic House side.

[18:30:19] BLITZER: Yes, I felt for a long time, Phil -- I wonder if you agree -- what should really worry the president is that there are individuals who are very close to the president as a private citizen, like David Pecker of American Media, Allen Weisselberg, the long-time chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, who have received immunity in exchange for their testimony, their cooperation. They know a lot.


Let's -- let's play a scenario that goes a little bit outside of a standard court case. That is, we've heard that the Mueller team is putting together their final report. Presumably, that's a lengthy narrative describing not only what's going to be prosecuted but the circumstances that they chose not to prosecute.

Let's presume also that the Congress gets a hold of that eventually, along with the grand jury, and then you lay under that all these people you mentioned, Trump confidantes who have decided they're going to talk. We're going to spend two years, regardless of whether there's a legal case, discussing what Mueller found and what people say about it.

BLITZER: Let's not forget, Sara, that Michael Cohen worked for the president as a private citizen for ten years as his lawyer and fixer.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He worked for a long time. And you know, Michael Cohen has certainly made no secret of the fact that he is happy to cooperate however he sees fit. He went out and encouraged people to vote for Democrats in 2018. So I think, you know, he has a little bit of a grudge to bear here.

And I think that's what's really unsettling for President Trump when you watch this play out, is he sees more and more people who were close to him who are now cooperating, who are now offering to share what they know. And he does not have a good view into what exactly they are sharing. And anyone would be unnerved in that situation.

BLITZER: They certainly would. All right. Everybody stand by. We have a lot more on the breaking news right after this.


[18:36:35] BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, new information emerging about the acting attorney general of the United States, Matthew Whitaker, and his role in the administration as President Trump attempts to distance himself from Whitaker.

And Laura Coates, let's get to this controversy. Some people actually believe the appointment of Whitaker to be the acting-attorney general after Sessions was fired was unconstitutional.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, they'd be really accurate, because what happened when this person was appointed it upended the line of succession.

There's a reason why it has to be a Senate-confirmed person to be a position of such gravity. And so there was a line of succession. It included the deputy attorney general, the solicitor general. The chief of staff was never there in the line of succession.

And you got the notion of how did the president have the authority to do so? Normally you don't argue with somebody who can answer the question, you and what army, but Mr. President, is it the Vacancies Reform Act you are using? No, that wouldn't qualify. Because although he was confirmed back in Iowa, that was years ago. And you can't rely on that as a confirmation.

No. 2, is it a recess appointment? Well, that is kind of a give and take, too.

And so the president has done this action. And I have been talking about it as akin to what if the president of the United States were suddenly incapacitated, and they put chief -- General Kelly there instead. There's a line of succession for that, as well. And so it really is a fundamental issue of the Constitution, but he did it anyway.

BLITZER: The other problem that a lot of people have is they've been going back and looking at his statements over the years, and at one point, he suggested Marbury versus Madison is one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever, even though it's the basis, from the early 1800s, of what the Supreme Court has been doing, and he also said there should be a religious test for judicial nominees. COATES: Both of these are stunning. First of all, Marbury versus

Madison has never been controversial. It's where the courts are able, in many ways, to say we can be the arbiters, the final deciders in what is constitutional and not, and we assert ourselves as a co-equal branch of government. For him to say it's an inferior branch, does not bode well on his judgment.

On the second issue, there is a First Amendment that says we don't actually establish or endorse religions. And therefore, to imply that a judge is supposed to no longer be secular in their approach is completely antithetical to the Constitution. And I really doubt his judgment if that's what he said.

BLITZER: You also seemed to suggest that if you're not a Christian, you don't believe in the New Testament, you know, you shouldn't really be promoted to be -- to get a serious judicial nomination. So if you're Jewish or you're Hindu, or Muslim or Buddhist, or an agnostic or an atheist, forget about it.

MUDD: You might want to actually read the history of the people who founded this country, not all of whom might have identified as Christian. So I mean, the Founding Fathers wouldn't agree with that statement.

On this issue of who's the inferior piece of government, after having 25 years in the executive branch, let me offer a quick lesson. If you look at what the American people think about the legislative branch, they think that's a bunch of clowns. If you look at what the American people think about the executive branch, we saw that in voting: 50 percent, give or take, don't like what they see in the executive branch.

My point is the polling data, not just Phillip Mudd, polling data consistently tells you if you want somebody to trust, forget about the president, forget about a senator, forget about the members of Congress, we trust judges.

BLITZER: Abby, you were over there when the president answered questions as he was leaving the White House this morning and you asked a serious, appropriate question to the president about Whitaker, trying to maybe curtail the whole Mueller probe. I'm going to play the exchange and then we will discuss.


PHILLIP: Do you expect Matt Whitaker to be involved in the Russia probe? Do you want him --

[18:40:04] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's up to him.

PHILLIP: Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot, you ask a lot of stupid questions.


BLITZER: He rudely insulted you, which was totally inappropriate. Your question was 100 percent perfect, got right to the point.

And you know, there's a pattern that this president has in insulting journalists, especially female journalists, and especially African- American female journalists.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean I think this was what seemed to me to be the question of the day, the most basic form of asking the president what he wanted his appointee to do in that job.

And I thought his answer was telling, or his lack of answer was telling, but it is also telling as a pattern. Just in this week, both April Ryan, who's our contributor, and Yamiche Alcindor, they're both friends of mine.


PHILLIP: Yes, and they're both serious journalists who asked the president, or attempted to ask the president serious questions, but what we see here is an attempt to avoid answering questions that are difficult or tough. That's part of a pattern.

But Wolf, the answer to that question is extremely important and I think we still deserve to get the answer to it.

BLITZER: What do you think, if that same question would have come from someone from FOX News, would there have been a different response?

MURRAY: I'm sure there would have been a different response. President Trump obviously has a very fond relationship with FOX News, so much so that he hired one of their ousted executives to come work for him in the White House.

But you know, I think to Abby's point, it's really telling that the president not answered the question but got so defensive, so you know, insulting that he would even be asked such a question.

You have to bet that, if there had been actually a kind of Senate confirmation for Matt Whitaker, there would have been questions about his conversations with the president, about whether this was part of an effort from President Trump to rein in the Mueller probe. Those are all questions that would have come up in Senate confirmation.

But instead, as Laura pointed out, the president decided to skip around, go shopping for who he wanted to lead the Justice Department, whether they were confirmed or not. And then when asked about what those motives might be, thought attacking a journalist was the appropriate route.

BLITZER: Very quickly, what did you think?

COATES: I thought it was outrageous. I thought you asked a very pointed and direct question, as every journalist should under the First Amendment, and again, we see a pattern not just towards black females but also journalists. More importantly, the First Amendment itself. And now we see that he thinks the person who should be in charge of the Justice Department also doesn't believe in the First Amendment. I can't be shocked by that.


MUDD: When the president gets uncomfortable, he diverts. What does he say: I want to take away people's security clearances, because they attacked me. Diverting. I want to take away the badge of the member of the press, because I'm uncomfortable with the question.

There's only one question, one question anybody had in that circumstance, and that is what do you think in broad terms about the acting-attorney general and whether you had a conversation with him about what's going happen with Russia. I mean, I don't know what else anybody would have asked. What would you ask the president? Do you dye your hair? I mean, I don't know what else you would ask.

BLITZER: Yes. It was pretty disgusting the way he treated all of these journalists and the way the White House treats some of these journalists. It's pretty -- What has been the reaction among the White House press corps?

PHILLIP: There's been a lot of solidarity. I think we all understand what's at stake here. It is not about us personally. It's about the institution. It's about the freedom of the press. It's about the idea that just because a president doesn't like something that a journalists asks them or says to them, it doesn't mean that retribution or blocking them from doing their job is the answer.

And I think that there are a lot of people who are defending that kind of behavior, who when they are in -- when the shoe is on the other foot, they would be crying foul. That's the reason why we're doing what we're doing, to prevent people from being in that situation when you are no longer in power.

BLITZER: You had some run-ins during the campaign when you were covering the then-candidate.

MURRAY: Yes, he's had problems with me, he's had problems with Abby, he's had problems with Jim Acosta, he's had problems with plenty of journalists from other news outlets. But I think part of this is that Americans have the choice where they get their news from. You can choose to watch CNN or not to. You can choose to read "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post." But every American should have access to basic information coming from their White House. And journalists should not be punished based on what news outlet they come from, because ultimately the people punished are the American citizens, who want to know what's going on in their government, and they deserve to know that.

BLITZER: Abby, you're doing an excellent job for the American people as a wonderful White House correspondent. Thank you very much.

More breaking news, a court-ordered deadline for election officials just minutes away as Florida faces election chaos.


[18:49:11] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Back with our correspondents and analysts.

Michelle Obama, she's got a new book coming out, very personal, but she also goes after Donald Trump for spreading the birther lie which she says potentially could have endangered her daughters.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And it could have. Words matter. And I think that most people look at the birther controversy as one that was discussed among political pundits and didn't have much gravitas among everyday people but, in fact, it did. It had an impact on her exact family.

She's a mother first. She said that when she went into the White House and her vulnerability about that issue, I think, was extremely impactful and accurate.

BLITZER: And when the president was asked about that today, he completely deflected, didn't really go after her, but he said he'll never forgive former President Obama for cutting down the U.S. military.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it was really surprising, being there, to watch him not even acknowledge what she was saying about her fear for her own family, which the president actually knows about that.

[18:50:02] His own family has been the subject of threats in the past, but he didn't even address that at all. He took it as a personal critique of his -- of him, but she is speaking about something that, to her, is not only about her own safety but it's also a lie that was racist at its very core.

BLITZER: What do you think, Sara?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, I think Abby makes a great point, that, look, this is a president who says a lot of things and does not spend a lot of time considering what the ramifications of those words might be. It's not that he doesn't understand it. He just really does not seem to care.

And that was certainly true when he spent all of this time spreading the birther controversy, you know, this whole conspiracy theories that he was presented with the truth, he didn't care, he was presented with the fact that it was hurtful, and he didn't care.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by.

Just ahead, doctors take on the National Rifle Association after it tells them to stay out of the gun violence debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:55:35] BLITZER: The National Rifle Association is facing fierce backlash tonight from doctors after it dismissed an article on gun violence in a leading medical journal.

CNN's Brian Todd has details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a very nasty political fight between the NRA and some very prominent doctors, and the fact that it's played out as the country has dealt with two high-profile mass shootings has made this public battle even more bitter.


TODD (voice-over): In the aftermath of two deadly mass shootings, tonight, a heated political showdown between two unlikely rivals, the National Rifle Association and the doctors who treat victims of gun violence. The fight stems from a recent article published by the American College of Physicians calling firearm violence, quote, a public health crisis that requires the nation's immediate attention.

Doctors shared new recommendations on how physicians can help reduce gun violence, such as counseling patients on the risks of having firearms in the home. But the doctors also weighed in on the issues of background checks and illegal gun sales.

That prompted this tweet from the NRA, quote: Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. The medical community seems to have consulted no one but themselves.

But that broadside came just hours before the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, where 12 people were gunned down. Some doctors are outraged.

DR. JOSEPH SAKRAN, TRAUMA SURGEON, JOHNS HOPKINS HOSPITAL: For a group to simply dismiss the medical community that is on the front line of taking care of these patients is absolutely unacceptable.

TODD: Joseph Sakran is a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He not only treats many gunshot wound victims. He was one.

SAKRAN: The bullet ruptured my windpipe right here and then these scars are where I had the emergency surgery.

TODD: In 1994, when he was just 17, Sakran was at a high school football game when a fight broke out and someone started shooting. He ended up with a paralyzed vocal cord. After the NRA tweet, Sakran responded, quote: I cannot believe the audacity of the NRA.

SAKRAN: Where is the NRA when I'm having to tell those loved ones that their family member has died and is not coming back?

TODD: Sakran's tweet was followed by an avalanche of others from fellow doctors, slamming the NRA. One, accompanied by an x-ray says, quote, I helped save a gun violence victim in med school. Those are my hands holding pressure on his femoral artery. The bullet is right by my fingertips. This is me in my lane, NRA.

Recent accounts from weapons experts on the guns used in high-profile shootings have intensified the political debate. CBS's "60 Minutes" recently profiled the effects of bullets fired from an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, one of the guns used in the synagogue shooting. Compared to a standard handgun bullet fired on a gelatin target simulating human soft tissue, the AR-15 bullet is much more devastating. That's one of the many complaints from doctors that it's harder and harder to save the lives of people hit with high-power ammunition.

The NRA refused to do an on camera interview with us, but the NRA is pushing back hard tonight, telling CNN, those doctors attacking the group are pushing a gun control agenda that wouldn't prevent those shootings.

(on camera): When the NRA says, you guys weighing in on policy issues like background checks really isn't in your lane, don't they have a point?

SAKRAN: We have both the possibility and the responsibility to weigh in on this issue that we're having to deal with on a daily basis.


TODD: But the NRA's pushback also includes several online posts from doctors who support the NRA's position, one physician writing that the NRA's -- that those articles written by anti-gun doctors are not from people who are practicing medicine in the trenches and one retired physician here says that he's appalled by what he calls the leftist direction that organized medicine has taken.

Wolf, the NRA is also arguing tonight, as they often do, that these doctors really need to focus on the mental health component of gun violence, but one prominent doctor, that doctor we interviewed, Dr. Sakran, says that only a very small percentage of the gun violence in the U.S. is actually committed by people who have serious mental health problems -- Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's Brian Todd, thanks.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.