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Hurricane-Force Gusts Predicted As Fire Death Toll Grows; Critic Compares Putin to Notorious Drug Kingpin; Interview With Senator Edward Markey; White House Chaos; Melania Trump vs. Deputy National Security Adviser. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired November 13, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Trump is weighing a White House shakeup, possibly replacing multiple senior officials. And in a truly extraordinary move, the first lady, Melania Trump, publicly called for one senior official to be fired.
Unconstitutional. Tonight, President Trump is facing multiple lawsuits, including one from CNN over the decision barring our chief White House correspondent, and others challenging the president's controversial appointment of Matthew Whitaker as the acting attorney general.
And line of fire. Historic and deadly infernos raging out of control in California fanned by hurricane-force winds. Tonight, the death toll continues to climb in the state's worst fire disaster on record.
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 multiple breaking stories swirling around the White House tonight, including President Trump and his lawyers reviewing written questions from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about possible collusion.
At the same time, the president is said to be weighing replacing some top officials, and in a stunning move, the first lady, Melania Trump, has publicly called for one of them to be fired.
And tonight, the president and five top officials are facing a lawsuit brought by CNN over the decision to suspend the press pass of our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
I will talk about all of that and more with Senator Ed Markey of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by.
CNN's Brian Stelter has details of the lawsuit. We are going to have much more on that in a moment.
But, first, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown.
Pamela, a truly remarkable move by the first lady of the United States.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.
An extraordinary statement from the first lady about a top national security aide, Mira Ricardel, saying that she no longer deserves to serve the White House. And around the same time the statement came out, Ricardel was seen as a ceremony with President Trump.
BROWN (voice-over): Late today, Mira Ricardel was seen with the president at his only public event at the White House. Tonight, she was ousted from the West Wing, fired from her role as deputy national security adviser after drawing the ire not of the president, but of the first lady.
In a rare rebuke tonight, the first lady demanded Ricardel, John Bolton's deputy, be fired, saying in a statement, "She no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House."
Ricardel recently feuded with the first lady over her trip to Africa, arguing over seating on the plane and National Security Council resources, one source tells CNN. The sources say the president is also considering potential replacements for other senior positions, both inside the Cabinet and the White House.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are looking at a lot of different things, including Cabinet.
BROWN: The potential shakeup could include Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, officials tell CNN.
At the White House today, the president ignored questions about staffing changes.
TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.
QUESTION: Are you planning to make staff changes at that level?
BROWN: The president is said to be unhappy with Secretary Nielsen's handling of immigration and border security and could ask for her resignation in the coming days, multiple officials familiar with the matter tell CNN.
The president's angst today was not just reserved for his own team. Trump trolling one-time close ally French President Emmanuel Macron, launching a barrage of incendiary tweets, saying that the French -- quote -- "were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not." And threatening to impose new tariffs on French wine.
"France it very hard for the U.S. to sell its wine into France and charges big tariffs, whereas the U.S. makes it easy for French wines and charges very small tariffs. Not fair. Must change."
Mr. Trump's frustration with friends and allies come as he continues to be dogged by the special counsel's Russia probe. CNN has learned the president met with his legal team over the Veterans Day holiday to go over a series of written questions from Mueller's team.
The questions focus on colluding with Russia, but not obstruction of justice, part of an agreement with Mueller's team to -- quote -- "move forward with the president's participation," according to a source.
BROWN: And the president is once again meeting with his legal team today to go over those questions from Robert Mueller's team, and a source familiar says the plan is to give those answers to those questions back to Mueller's team within the coming days.
Now, as for Ricardel, CNN has reached out to her for comment and has not heard back, and there's still confusion here at the White House, Wolf, in terms of what her future is, a source telling my colleague Jeff Zeleny that President Trump has made the decision to fire her.
Another White House official says there are no personnel changes to announce right now and that she is still in the office. We will have to wait and see how this transpires -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on CNN's lawsuit against President Trump and other top White House aides for suspending our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta's press pass.
A hearing has now been set for tomorrow afternoon before a federal judge.
Our chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter is joining us.
Brian, what is the latest?
BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
The judge in this case, Timothy J. Kelly, was assigned earlier today. He has given an 11:00 a.m. deadline to all the defendants, including the president, to file any response they might have to CNN's lawsuit.
Then there will be this 3:30 p.m. hearing in the U.S. District Court in Washington. So we are seeing this kind of epic battle for press freedom shaping up, because both CNN and Acosta have sued, alleging First and Fifth Amendment violations. The First Amendment violations involve freedom of the press, the idea that according to CNN Acosta is being discriminated against based on his content, based on his reporting, based on his work at the White House.
The Fifth Amendment violations that are alleged here involve due process because there are rules and regulations for how the Secret Service hands out and then revokes press passes, and those regulations were not followed in this case.
So both a First Amendment and a Fifth Amendment argument, and those arguments will begin in court tomorrow afternoon.
BLITZER: Brian, how is the White House preparing to fight this lawsuit?
STELTER: We have heard from Sarah Sanders today, one of the six defendants. She says CNN is just grandstanding by suing and she says the White House will vigorously defend this case.
Here is a portion of her statement where she talks about how Acosta was asking too many questions and being too aggressive at last week's press conference. She says: "The White House cannot run an orderly and fair press conference when a reporter acts this way, which is neither appropriate nor professional. If there's no check on this type of behavior, it impedes the ability of the president, the White House staff and members of the media to conduct business."
That's the new word from Sarah Sanders, but the explanation or the rationale for revoking Acosta's credential has shifted over the past week. Initially, last Wednesday night, the claim was that Acosta had placed his hands on a White House intern. You will remember that intern came over, tried to take the microphone away and Acosta kept asking questions.
Well, obviously Acosta did not mistreat the intern. Everybody saw the video. We all know what happened. But Sanders posted a distorted video apparently taken from Infowars in order to argue Acosta had acted inappropriately.
But she is not claiming that anymore. You will notice in today's statement she is not saying that Acosta placed his hands on anybody. Instead, she is just saying that he tried to hog the mic and wouldn't let other reporters ask questions.
But as you know, Wolf, from your time at the White House, lots of reporters ask lots of follow-ups. It is pretty normal at the White House.
BLITZER: That's what reporters do. They ask follow-up questions.
All right, Brian, thank you very much, Brian Stelter, working his sources on all of this as well.
Let's get some more on the president and his lawyers reviewing Robert Mueller's questions about possible collusion.
Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is here with us.
Sara, Mr. Trump's responses to Mueller could be submitted in the coming days. What comes next after that, an actual sit-down Q&A between the president and Mueller and his team? SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, I
think Mueller and his team would love to have a sit-down Q&A, but that probably is not in the cards.
I think it depends on how soon they hand these questions over and how Mueller's team feels like the answers to those questions compare to the interviews they have already done and the information they have already have.
The president has been out there saying he would love to sit down with the special counsel, he would be fine with that. The reality is he and his legal team seem to be doing everything possible to avoid putting President Trump in a room with Robert Mueller or his investigators.
BLITZER: We know that the president's longtime fixer and lawyer spent a decade working with then private citizen Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, he spent hours with Mueller's team yesterday, a federal holiday, going over who knows what.
But I assume the White House is concerned about this.
MURRAY: Well, I mean, who knows what? Like you said, we know Michael Cohen has obviously been cooperating with investigators, not only investigators in New York, but also the special counsel's office.
And the big concern I think for the White House has to be what else does he still have to offer information on, is there another shoe to drop? Obviously, what we saw when Michael Cohen was in court in New York about those campaign finance violations was a very big shoe, Wolf.
BLITZER: Interesting development today. Jerome Corsi, longtime associate of Roger Stone and a Trump adviser over many years, he said yesterday he expected to be indicted by Mueller. He also said that he would have much more to say today on his Internet radio or YouTube program.
He didn't show up to host the show today. What are you learning?
MURRAY: Well, this I think the dance you do, I guess, when you are expecting to be indicted. We saw Jerome Corsi go out and say he is expecting an indictment. He said he was going to continue to host his Webcast all week long.
He also has been trying to do a number of interviews throughout the day today, but I know that his lawyer is trying to put the kibosh on all of these things. His lawyer really wants his client to be quiet, which I think is what any lawyer would want any client to do in a situation when they're waiting for a pending indictment from the special counsel.
So, today, at least, when it comes to the Webcast, it seems his lawyer may have won. We will see what tomorrow brings in the Jerome Corsi saga, Wolf.
BLITZER: Every day is dramatic.
Sara, thank you very much.
Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts is joining us. He is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
So, what do these developments tell you right now about where Robert Mueller's investigation stands?
SEN. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well, it is clear that the White House is stonewalling on the one hand. They don't want to answer questions.
And in order to make sure that that is successful, they're trying to have Whitaker take over at the Justice Department, and consistent with his promises in the past, his prejudicial comments in the past to defund the investigation, to severely limit the scope of the investigation, all towards the goal of making sure that the American people never get the answers to what happened in 2016 in any potential collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
BLITZER: You're clearly very concerned about the new acting attorney general of the United States, Matthew Whitaker. He has already taken over for Jeff Sessions, who is out of there.
What can you do realistically about that?
MARKEY: Well, there is going to be a bipartisan effort to attach a bill to must-pass legislation so that Mueller cannot be, in fact, fired without cause, that he would have an ability to have judicial review of whether or not that had happened, and that all of the documents are actually preserved, so that the House and Senate Judiciary Committees would have access to them.
So that effort is going to be made over the next couple of weeks on the floor of the United States Senate, and so we intend on doing everything we can to make sure that Whitaker is not brought in as a political hatchet man to destroy the Mueller investigation before the American people get the answers that they have been waiting for.
BLITZER: But do you think your Republican colleagues would vote for such legislation protecting the special counsel?
MARKEY: Well, over the past year, they have said that they want to maintain the integrity of the Mueller investigation. They have said that they respect Mueller.
So this will be the moment, where obviously Trump does not want that, but yet, again, the integrity of the United States Senate is on the line. Will Republicans stand up with Democrats to ensure that this investigation is not short-circuited for political reasons? Because that's why Whitaker has been given this job.
BLITZER: Let me get your reaction, Senator, to the very strong and public statement from the first lady calling for the departure of the deputy national security adviser to the president.
Have you ever seen anything like this, a public rebuke of such a senior official by a first lady?
MARKEY: This is unprecedented, Wolf.
This just shows how dysfunctional this White House has become, where the first lady is publicly tweeting that she wants someone on the national security team to be fired.
There's a way of handling this, but that's not the way to do it. We have far many more important things that we should be talking about today, the North Korea nuclear crisis, the Russian-American nuclear crisis, what is happening to the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh.
And ,instead, this is what we're talking about, just another distraction in a dysfunctional White House.
BLITZER: Yes, our Jeff Zeleny, our White House correspondent, is reporting that, for all practical purposes, she's been told she is fired, but they're letting her clean out her desk right now before she is escorted out of the White House.
We expect the president, by the way, Senator to ask the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, for her resignation soon as well and others could be forced out in the next few weeks.
How concerned are you about stability, or lack thereof, inside the Trump administration?
MARKEY: Well, again, it is the prerogative of a president to appoint Cabinet members, but we have to just step back and see that it is being done in the context of this dysfunctional atmosphere that has been constructed.
And so I'm afraid that what this president is now doing is going in and just taking out people that may have had slight disagreements with him, and doing it in a way which is unpresidential on the one hand, but on the other hand just sending the wrong signal to the rest of the world about the stability of our federal government.
BLITZER: Senator Markey, I know you are on the Foreign Relations Committee. I want to ask you about North Korea right now, these reports that it is operating more than a dozen undeclared military bases.
The president responded by saying -- and I'm quoting the president now -- "We fully know about the sites being discussed. Nothing new and nothing happening out of the normal."
He went on to say, "I will be the first to let you know if things go bad."
You say the president is getting played by Kim Jong-un. What do you see happening? What do you want to see happen?
MARKEY: Well, "The New York Times"' report is definitive. It is using the CSIS investigation.
The North Koreans are still manufacturing new fissile material, nuclear material. They're still manufacturing new nuclear weapons. They're still building new ballistic missiles and the capacity to deliver those weapons potentially to the United States, but for sure to that entire Pacific region.
And so the president is just being taken for a ride by the North Korean government. The new normal for North Korea is, they just continue to build nuclear weapons and missiles, they enhance their trade with China and with Russia, which reduces the economic pressure on them, and then they smile as the president of the United States contends that we have won a negotiation, and that there's no reason to be concerned about the North Korean nuclear threat, which is absolutely the opposite of what is happening.
BLITZER: Senator Markey, thanks so much for joining us.
MARKEY: No, glad to be here. Thank you.
BLITZER: All right, the breaking news continues.
A high-level White House official being forced out in a truly stunning way. The first lady, Melania Trump, publicly called for her to be fired. So, what is behind this remarkable move?
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight: As President Trump weighs a White House shakeup, the first lady, Melania Trump, took the truly extraordinary step of publicly calling for the firing of the deputy national security adviser to the president, Mira Ricardel.
Let's bring in our correspondents and analysts.
And, Gloria, let me read the statement from the first lady's press secretary. "It is the position of the office of the first lady that she no longer" -- referring to the deputy national security adviser -- "she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House."
Have you ever seen anything like that from a first lady of the United States?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No, not publicly like this. I mean, there should be a new TV show called "1600" or something. I mean, it just seems like a soap opera over there.
And this isn't the first time that a first lady would get involved in personnel moves. That's been happening for decades and decades. I mean, Nancy Reagan comes to mind, of course.
But usually these things are worked through the White House chief of staff, the president of the United States. It is announced by the White House. It is done professionally. This was done with all of the aplomb of, you know, Bravo and "Housewives."
I just can't -- I can't describe it. And I think it is absurd that it was announced by the first lady's office. This is a woman who works on the national security staff. She may not like her, she may not get along with her. The reporting that we have is that there was trouble on the Africa trip. Fine.
But she works for John Bolton. She doesn't work for Melania Trump.
BLITZER: Yes. And it is also a public shaming of this deputy national security adviser, such a public rebuke by the first lady.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. Completely unprofessional, unprecedented, as you said, Wolf.
And I think it is important for us to consider why would the first lady take this step? Why not just work this out in private with her husband, with John Kelly, the chief of staff?
And, ultimately, the assumption we have to make is that either her efforts in private failed or she wanted to make this very public power move. And either way, it is not the sign of a White House that is, indeed, a well-oiled machine, as the president would like us to believe. There is a great deal of drama happening behind the scenes and we are now seeing that unfold in public.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: It could be both that it didn't work privately and she wanted to have a public undermining, because who does this really undermine, right?
CHALIAN: It undermines John Kelly, the chief of staff, who is responsible for running the West Wing in a smooth way, and it undermines her husband, of course.
BORGER: And the national security adviser, by the way.
CHALIAN: Of course. And she is not doing it without the knowledge of all of them.
BLITZER: Sabrina, we are showing some video.
Just before the first lady issued that statement through her press secretary, this deputy national security adviser, you see her highlighted there. She was at a White House event with the president, and she is smiling over there. SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": You know, one thing that's also
notable is that John Bolton is currently traveling with the vice president in Asia. So, you know, news of her departure is coming when he isn't even here to weigh in.
And it is worth noting that, you know, John Bolton was arguably one of the only allies that she had left in the administration. Now, I know a lot of the attention is on the statement that we saw from Melania Trump simply because it is highly unusual and she is also a first lady who has kept a fairly low profile, so it's a pretty remarkable statement for her to have made.
But one thing about the deputy national security adviser is she had also butted heads with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. She also had clashed with the defense secretary, Jim Mattis. There was some skepticism that within that she was perhaps responsible for leaking some of the damaging stories about this White House.
So, I think in some ways, sort of like DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, there has been some talk behind the scenes that perhaps this move was coming, and then the first lady's statement gave them the opportunity to pull the trigger.
BLITZER: In effect, it's also a slap, as Sabrina says, of John Bolton, the president's national security adviser, who recruited this woman to be his top deputy.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think that's right.
I think one thing that a lot of people might be missing here is that the deputy national security adviser is one of the most important national security positions in the entire U.S. government. This is somebody who is responsible for helping implement and shepherd Cabinet-level policy.
And so this is really not something that you would expect the first lady of the United States to be weighing in on at all, or for any of these kinds of really, really critical personnel decisions to be made based on essentially who gets along and who likes who.
It really is unprecedented and astounding.
BLITZER: And it comes at a time, Gloria, when there are other shakeups anticipated, the secretary of homeland security, maybe the White House chief of staff.
As I said, it seems like a long time ago, but the attorney general was fired, what, six days ago.
BORGER: Was that six days ago?
BORGER: Yes. Look, it's very common when you start know -- after an election, the president says, I'm going to change my Cabinet. I want to have new blood, blah, blah, blah. We knew the Sessions was coming.
But what we're -- I think what we're seeing is this kind of dangling of jobs and decapitation, public beheadings, which is a little unseemly to me. If you're going to fire Kirstjen Nielsen, OK, just do it. Let's not talk about it for three days.
The woman has worked hard. She and Donald Trump clearly disagree with each other. He hasn't liked her for a long time. John Kelly is defending her. So all we're doing here is, the White House is kind of stirring its own pot here with the deputy national security adviser, with Kirstjen Nielsen.
We had Jeff Sessions. There will be more. Will Mattis leave? Will Kelly leave? It's -- it is a television production. And this is what the president does.
CHALIAN: This is his pattern, right?
CHALIAN: He did this with Reince Priebus. He called everyone around, who should be my chief of staff?
And this is how he likes to produce this reality show.
BERG: And who watching this unfold would want to work in this White House?
They're going to have to replace these people who are leaving or getting fired. Who is going to want to work there?
SIDDIQUI: And to Gloria's point, we have been talking about the prospect of Kirstjen Nielsen's departure being imminent for months now, because it's clear that the president kind of soured on her and her work at DHS.
But some of this is also her being a victim of unrealistic expectations. A great deal of the president's frustration with Kirstjen Nielsen has to do with what he believes is an insufficient job when it comes to enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But some of the expectations that he has had, that she could shut down, for example, the border or that she can dramatically reduce the number of migrants who are showing up at the borders to seek refuge, it's not really within the control of any DHS secretary.
So now I think the question is, who might see be replaced with? And would that person perhaps amp up even more enforcement in the way that the president wants? But, ultimately, you're still going to face some barriers, because a lot of what he wants to do simply isn't feasible, if even constitutional.
BLITZER: Take us inside the government right now. You worked at the National Security Agency.
What's the impact of all of this tumultuous firing and these statements that are coming out? What is the impact inside the administration?
HENNESSEY: Yes. So, this White House is exclusively oriented around personal relationships with the president, if the president likes you or not.
And if he doesn't like you, it's really hard to implement your policy. It's really hard to get anything done. And President Trump is a pretty fickle guy. And so what we have seen as a result of that is this really unbelievable, remarkable degree of turnover and high level staff turnover.
That really is incredibly disruptive for the U.S. government. We focus a lot on kind of the palace intrigue elements of this, but these are people who hold important jobs, jobs that affect Americans, jobs that affect our national security every single day.
And every single time we see this kind of churn, especially something that is unplanned, that's chaotic, that is not sort of a coordinated rollout, it makes it that much harder for those individuals and everyone who works with them to do their jobs well.
BLITZER: And, Gloria, I know you have been doing a lot of reporting on this.
How frustrated is the president right now, not only by the staff shakeups, but by what Mueller is doing right now in the post-midterm election? He's accelerating his activity.
BORGER: He's churning.
BLITZER: So, the president clearly, at least in the public statements, the way he's been behaving since the midterm election, doesn't seem to be very happy.
BORGER: No, he doesn't.
And as our colleague Pamela Brown was reporting today, his lawyers spent the day with him yesterday going over their written answers to questions about collusion that they received from the special counsel.
And so he has been -- he has been with his attorneys, which I'm sure doesn't make him thrilled, because he has other things that he would like to do much more.
But there is a lot -- there is a lot going on. And the distractions are distractions that he seems to cause, which I think is a problem for everybody inside the White House.
It's taken a long time for his attorneys to even get to sit down with him, Wolf, and we know that this is only about collusion. This is not about obstruction.
[18:30:14] We do not yet know whether the special counsel will require the president to actually meet with him face-to-face to answer questions about obstruction. They're allowing these written answers on collusion, but we don't know anything else that's going to -- that's going to -- transpire, and that clearly causes -- causes anxiety. You know how the president feels about Bob Mueller and you know that he appointed Mr. Whitaker, Chris Christie says, to put a -- to put a button on the investigation.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And I can only imagine how he feels about Michael Cohen, his long-time fixer and lawyer, who spent hours with Mueller and his team here in Washington yesterday.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Probably nervous, Wolf, because Michael Cohen knows so much about Donald Trump, so much about his company, so much about the campaign that he is possibly now likely sharing with Mueller and his investigators.
BLITZER: We're going to talk more about the Mueller investigation. There are other new developments unfolding. Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[18:35:51] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Key developments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. So Susan, what do you anticipate happening now? Because the midterm elections are over, Mueller is moving supposedly quickly to try to wrap things up. He's going to be getting, presumably, the written answers to his questions on collusion. Where do you see this moving?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So, a little bit we're reading the tea leaves here. It would not be surprising if we saw a number of indictments, you know, coming from this point. There's also reports that, potentially, Mueller is sort of in the final sprint in terms of authoring this report and deciding whether or not it will be shared with Congress.
You know, the issue of the written questions does put Trump in a difficult position, because there are questions that have been reported that Mueller is interested in in which the president actually, even though he can sort of be careful in the written terms, there's no good answer for him. Either he has to admit to something that is legally problematic, or he has to not tell the truth, or he has to admit to something that is going to cause him political damage.
And so even whenever we're in this really careful space of only -- only having to require response to written questions, this still is a really perilous thing for the president.
BLITZER: But his team of lawyers are drafting those written answers.
HENNESSEY: Sure. I think the issue is whether or not the facts are on their side or not. Certainly, those questions have been very, very carefully designed in order to elicit precisely the information that Mueller and his team are after.
BLITZER: There could be some indictments as early as this week. Jerome Corsi, an associate of Roger Stone, he said publicly yesterday he expects to be indicted in the coming days.
SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Yes, certainly, all things have pointed toward the investigation increasingly focusing on Roger Stone and his associates.
We also talked about how Michael Cohen sat down with investigators, and although his cooperation may have more to do with the campaign finance violations with respect to hush money, he also has intimate knowledge of Trump's dealings.
And I think that it sort of is a perfect storm for the president, and I think in some ways, some of the changes that we were just talking about, this shakeup, that's his way of sort of lashing out.
And it's also why some people are calling into question the appointment of Matt Whitaker, because this is a critical period. As more indictments come through, this is someone who has been outwardly critical of the investigation. He was not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and he will have the potential to rein in, if not shut down, the Russia probe.
And so Senator Jeff Flake, in fact, has just said that he is going to try to bring this legislation to the floor tomorrow that was designed to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. He said there may be objections, and he's essentially going to force his Republican colleagues to come out and object. Otherwise, they do hope that they could have a vote on the floor.
BLITZER: David, Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general of the United States, now the state of Maryland has said they're filing a lawsuit saying his appointment was unconstitutional. Another lawsuit in Missouri right now. How tenuous is his position?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, he's clearly going to fight for it. I think that is pretty clear, and the president seems poised to elongate this battle. So I don't know how tenuous it is, because that means getting inside Donald Trump's head, but it is clearly problematic. And the Democrats who are about to take over the House majority have made crystal clear that this is going to be issue No. 1 for them.
BLITZER: Susan, you're a lawyer. How serious are these lawsuits?
HENNESSEY: I think they are serious, and there are certainly open legal questions here about whether it is a violation of the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.
Ultimately, even if the government prevails, it is an enormous legal headache, an enormous distraction for them, and it was entirely avoidable. If the president had just slowed down, actually spoken to his lawyers, found a Senate-confirmed individual to occupy this acting position, he could have avoided all of this trouble. Instead, he was so eager to fire Jeff Sessions, couldn't wait even 24
hours after the midterms, and now he's ended up with a real mess on his hands.
BORGER: Yes, but he didn't want to avoid this. And I think one of the reasons he didn't want to avoid this is that, if and when Mueller issues a report, it's going to be Mr. Whitaker who decides if it's redacted, if it's public, do we get to see it, who does it go to in Congress?
And the president, of course, would like to have none of this go anywhere and would like to have the whole thing be kept under the hood of the car, right?
And it seems to me just reading -- and, again, we're reading tea leaves here, but if we know anything about Whitaker, we know how he feels about this investigation, and it would seem to me this is going to be the next big fight if Mueller issues a report and it is redacted or it is -- or they try to keep it secret.
[18:40:12] BLITZER: But there's going to be a Democratic majority in the House, so they can -- they have subpoena power to get what they want.
BORGER: Maybe. Maybe. I mean, I'm not the lawyer here, and I don't know how this would -- I don't know how this would play out. but it seems to me THAT it would be a big constitutional question here about whether the Congress deserves the right to open this up to the American public or whether, because of privilege issues -- for example, it should be kept secret.
BLITZER: What do you think, Rebecca?
BERG: Well, a congressional fight I think is where this could possibly go, Wolf. On the House side, you can count on Democrats fighting this to the very end. The Senate is going to be a road block, though, at every turn.
Sabrina mentioned the bill that Jeff flake is hoping to bring to the floor. Mitch McConnell has said time and again that he doesn't think the Senate needs to do anything to protect Mueller, to act on any of this. And so Republicans are still going to be pushing back as Democrats try to protect this investigation and try to bring this out into the public sphere.
BLITZER: You know, David, we've got a special coming up later tonight, a little bit more than an hour from now at 8 p.m. Eastern until 11 p.m. Eastern. We're looking at what happened a week ago in the election because there are still several contests, key contests that are still too close to call. We'll update our viewers on all of that. But, certainly, a week later the results look different than they looked that night.
CHALIAN: No doubt about it. And I know you thought you were done last Tuesday night, but you're going to be a busy man this evening. Listen, it is an opportunity for us to take a look, because votes have
been coming in non-stop. Last night we learned that the Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema, won the Arizona Senate election. What does that mean? That means that, at best, if they get the recount they want and Rick Scott hangs on in Florida, if they hang onto the Mississippi Senate seat, Republicans at best have a net pickup of two in the Senate.
Democrats may win 37, 38 net gain House seats. They won seven governorships. They've won 350 state legislative seats. About a third of what they lost in the eight years of Obama, they've made up in this one election.
So when you see the total of all of that, which was not available last Tuesday night, and you look at that you see the blue wave that swept across the country last Tuesday. And as you noted, we still have 10 House races to go, a Georgia governor's race, Florida governor and Senate race that are all still hanging in the balance.
BLITZER: Democrats are leading in six of those ten --
CHALIAN: That's right.
BLITZER: -- House races right now. We're going to have a lot of coverage on all of that later tonight.
There's more breaking news we're following. The death toll from California's record-breaking fires is climbing tonight. And there's new fear that fierce winds will make things even worse.
[18:47:27] BLITZER: There's more breaking news tonight. The wildfires devastating large regions of California. Fierce winds fanning the flames continue, and the death toll has climbed into the 40s.
CNN's Nick Valencia is in the northern California town of Paradise.
Nick, the community there has been virtually wiped off the map.
NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the mayor here in Paradise estimates that 90 percent of the town is gone. And despite all of the devastating images that we're seeing surrounding us, we are hearing just incredible stories of survival. Four days after the Camp Fire ripped through this area, we met a man who chose not to leave and fight the flames on his own and he lived to tell about it.
BRAD WELDON, SAVED HOME FROM FIRE: Everything around us was on fire and we knew it was time.
VALENCIA (voice-over): While everyone else in paradise was fleeing the fire, Brad Weldon decided to stay put at home and fight it himself.
WELDON): For the first few hours --
VALENCIA (on camera): You're using this garden hose?
WELDON: This garden house, one out there, one in the front, one on the roof and one out by the shop.
VALENCIA: So, how much help did you have?
WELDON: Me and my 26-year-old helper, my mom's caregiver.
VALENCIA (voice-over): Inside, his 89-year-old mother Norma Weldon --
WELDON: Here we go, mama.
VALENCIA: -- who is blind. She didn't want to leave. So, the two men went outside to fight the blaze as it closed in on them.
WELDON: There was times we were laying on the ground pouring water ourselves so we didn't burn.
VALENCIA (on camera): Was there ever a point you thought you were going to die?
WELDON: Oh, yes. Quite a few. Quite a few.
VALENCIA (voice-over): Four hours into battling the blaze, the garden house runs out of water and they use his above-ground pool.
WELDON: Then it's time to start running with five-gallon buckets and that's even more intense. You're already tired.
VALENCIA (on camera): Who are you?
WELDON: I'm just an old man. I'm just an old guy, man.
VALENCIA: Just an old man that wanted to keep his home from burning up.
VALENCIA (voice-over): He recorded cellphone video as his home began to burn.
WELDON: Feels good to have it. It feels so sad for everyone though. Everybody I know lost everything, and it's sad.
VALENCIA: The Camp Fire tearing through Northern California is now the most lethal fire in state history, responsible for more than 40 deaths and now 30 percent contained.
The Woolsey Fire also remains active in southern California, destroying 93,000 acres so far. In Butte County alone, more than 1,500 welfare checks have been called in to officials from residents who cannot find their loved ones. Brad and his friend Mick Macquarie (ph) consider themselves lucky.
WELDON: We've got some donations. We've got a few loaves of bread.
VALENCIA: Five days after surviving the blaze, they say they have enough supplies to last a few days. Police told them if they leave to get more they won't be allowed to return.
[18:50:03] WELDON: I'm not asking anybody for a handout. I'm just asking to be able to take care of myself. If they'll let me do that, we can live here indefinitely.
VALENCIA: Brad says that there is a lot to be discouraged about, but he's focusing on the positives. He is determined to see paradise rebuild and it was just a short time ago that we learned that the secretary of the interior is going to come to California to meet with those impacted and affected, those fighting the flames on the front lines. Well, Weldon says he wants the president to come. He says he voted for President Trump and he says this is too big of a disaster for the president not to show up -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Nick, thank you. Nick Valencia on the scene for us.
Just ahead, we're getting reports of new troubles for a high-profile critic of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
[18:55:29] BLITZER: Tonight, there's word of new troubles for one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's high-profile critics. Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd, who's working his sources.
Tell us more, Brian.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf.
Vladimir Putin's top political enemy, Alexei Navalny, claims that he's been harassed again by the Kremlin. This comes as another Putin critic has compared the Russian president to a notorious drug lord. Tonight, it seems Vladimir Putin's top critics seem more emboldened than they've been in a long time.
TODD (voice-over): He's been roughed up at protests, arrested, detained scores of times but Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
Tonight, Alexei Navalny, Putin's most powerful and famous arch rival said he's been barred from exiting Russia and he's had his passport confiscated. The opposition leader posted a picture of himself on Instagram awaiting screening at border control. He was trying to get to a human rights court hearing in France. Analysts say despite all the harassment and threats leveled at him
over the years, there's a key reason Alexei Navalny is still alive, unlike some of Putin's other notable critics.
BEN JUDAH, AUTHOR, "FRAGILE EMPIRE": In previous instances where he has been persecuted or detained by Russian officials, there's been such a blowback in Russian public opinion and protests that Putin has been apprehensive and nervous about going through with it.
TODD: Tonight, another well known Putin critic has leveled a stinging broadside at the Russian president. Asked by "Vanity Fair" magazine if he'd compare Putin to Joseph Stalin, American-born financier Bill Browder said, quote, I see him as a modern day Pablo Escobar. Putin has no ideology whatsoever. Putin is pedestrian. All he wants is money and to hurt his enemies.
Escobar, the late kingpin of Colombia's Medellin drug cartel was notorious for his thirst for blood, once blamed for blowing up a passenger plane to strike at his enemies. Browder believes Putin wants to strike at him and spoke about it when we interviewed him in Washington.
(on camera): What are the security threats you've received?
BROWDER: The Russian government has made numerous death threats against me. They want to kill me. They'd like to kidnap me. They'd like to have me arrested and sent back to Russia.
TODD (voice-over): Putin even brought up Browder by name at the Helsinki summit with President Trump, saying he might make Russians available for questioning in the Mueller investigation if Russian officials could interrogate Browder. Trump didn't push back.
Putin has a seething hatred for Browder because Browder spearheaded the passage of the Magnitsky Act, an American law which sanctions powerful Russians close to Putin and prevents them from getting to the money they've stashed outside Russia.
BROWDER: I have found his Achilles heel. I've created a mechanism, a legal mechanism to seize that money and he feels personally aggrieved and he has a vendetta against me.
TODD: Even with his critics emboldened, one analyst believes the only person who can toss Vladimir Putin from power is Vladimir Putin.
JUDAH: I don't think that Putin is vulnerable to an overthrow from the streets, and I don't think that Putin is, for the moment, vulnerable to some sort of coup d'etat. I think that Putin's greatest vulnerability is actually himself and his own physical health, which is one of the reasons he's obsessed with sports and exercise.
TODD: We asked Russian officials for a response to Browder's comparison of Putin to Pablo Escobar. An official at the Russian embassy here in Washington referred us to a previous statement calling Browder, excuse me, a businessman with a stained reputation who Putin has accused of stealing $1.5 billion from Russia when Browder was a financier there. An accusation which Bill Browder vehemently denies -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And Browder has eluded several attempts by the Russians to bring him back to Moscow, right?
TODD: That's right, Wolf. Browder has dodged six warrants seeking his arrest. In one incident this year in Spain, Spanish police apprehended him and took him away. But he was released about an hour later.
Browder has told me he believes that if he's ever extradited back to Russia, it's going to be a death sentence for him.
BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you very much.
Finally tonight, we have some breaking baby news. CNN correspondent Sara Ganim has a new daughter. How adorable. Leyna Francisca Ganim Cevallos (ph) was born Saturday, weighing 6 pounds and measuring 19.5 inches. Congratulations to Sara and the new dad, Danny Cevallos, our former legal analyst. All of us here in THE SITUATION ROOM send our best wishes. Look at how cute she is.
Thanks very much for watching. Stay with CNN later tonight for election night in America continued. That starts in one hour, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.