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Report: Trump Sought Prosecution of Hillary Clinton, James Comey; Interview With Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly; New Revelations Emerge About Ivanka Trump's Private E-Mail Use; Trump Signals No Punishment for Saudi Crown Prince Over Khashoggi Murder; Flash Flood Watches in Areas Ravaged By Historic Wildfire. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired November 20, 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: In the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, citing U.S. financial interests. Why is he letting the prince get away with murder?
You have got irony. President Trump defends his daughter Ivanka's newly revealed use of personal e-mail for White House business, despite excoriating Hillary Clinton for the same thing. The president claims it is different, but how?
And mudslide danger. An approaching storm threatens to trigger mudslides and flash floods in parts of California ravaged by wildfires. Are thousands of displaced people about to face a disaster of a different kind?
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, including an explosive "New York Times" report just out that says President Trump wanted to order the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute former FBI Director James Comey and Hillary Clinton.
Also, the president's lawyers say they have now turned over his answers to written questions from Robert Mueller -- from Robert Mueller to the special counsel's team.
I will talk about all of the breaking news with Congressman Gerry Connolly. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's get the very latest from our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett. She is over at the Justice Department for more on this truly stunning "New York Times" report.
So, Laura, first of all, what are we learning? LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this remarkable
new report really sheds light on just the extreme lengths that the president would go to try to go after and investigate and prosecute his political rivals James Comey and Hillary Clinton.
According to this report from "The New York Times," the president had conversations with his then White House counsel, Don McGahn, last spring, asking him whether he had the authority to order the Justice Department to look into investigating Clinton and Comey.
McGahn rebuffed him and went as far as having his own White House counsel draft up a memo explaining the reasons why such an order would be detrimental and could possibly result in impeachment, Wolf.
Now, according to this report, it is unclear exactly what the president thought that Comey and Clinton had done wrong, although we have seen him tweet about it at length, calling them corrupt, calling them various names. He called on then-attorney general to prosecute both Comey and Clinton on a variety of occasions, but we haven't seen any reporting that the Justice Department actually followed through on those, except in a certain limited sense, Wolf.
We have reported in the past that prosecutors in Arkansas had been investigating the Clinton Foundation for public corruption issues, pay-to-play issues. We have also reported that a federal prosecutor out in Utah is looking into issues surrounding the Clinton Foundation's ties to a Russian nuclear agency, as well as FISA abuses.
We have heard a lot about those and the connections that the FBI has tried to get in terms of surveillance on Carter Page. And we also know, finally, that the Justice Department inspector general is looking into Comey's handling of his classified memos, Wolf.
BLITZER: What was the reaction from the then-White House counsel, Don McGahn, when the president said he wanted to order the Justice Department to launch a full-scale prosecution of Hillary Clinton and James Comey?
JARRETT: According to this reporting, Wolf, McGahn essentially said this was not a good idea. He rebuffed him. He drafted up this memo. According to the report, it wasn't clear whether the president had actually read the memo.
As we heard from Maggie Haberman in the last hour, she believes that the president actually did understand the risks here, did understand that impeachment was a possibility, and so he did not follow through on it, Wolf.
BLITZER: Susan Hennessey is with us as well, one of our legal analysts.
How inappropriate would it be for the president to issue such an order to the Justice Department?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I mean, I think inappropriate sort of dramatically understates it. This would be a violation of some of the core principles of the Department of Justice.
This type of preventing DOJ from becoming politicized is why only particular offices in the White House are even allowed to communicate with the Department of Justice. More to the point, there are attorney general guidelines, guidelines that say when federal investigators are allowed to investigate, what is called a properly predicated investigation.
If there's not a proper predicate, an actual reason why prosecutors should continue to investigate a case, it is really a grotesque civil liberties violation for them to proceed. And so the notion that the president would be ordering someone in the Justice Department to undertake that action, it is impossible to overstate how big of an aberration that is.
BLITZER: Mueller must be learning so much from Don McGahn, who was the White House counsel. They spent more than 20 -- maybe as much as 30 hours together, Don McGahn answering the special counsel's questions.
HENNESSEY: Well, so it is possible that Don McGahn's cooperation is going to be one of the most significant things here. We don't necessarily know what he's going to say, but we do know that Don McGahn has been central to a lot of the issues that Mueller is concerned about, particularly as it relates to this obstruction of justice.
Whenever Donald Trump previously asked Don McGahn to pressure Jeff Sessions to unrecuse from the Russia investigation, that reportedly is an area in which the special counsel is interested in. Don McGahn is in a position to know a great deal of information and to provide it to Mueller.
BLITZER: He certainly is.
Sara Murray is with us as well.
The Trump team, they have now submitted to the special counsel the written answers to the written questions involving what was called collusion.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, interestingly, not on the obstruction of justice issue. The president's team has made it very clear they were not going to answer any questions on the obstruction point, but instead they did turn in their answers.
President Trump said today that he finished writing them on Monday. His lawyers confirmed that they turned them over to the special counsel, and these have to deal with Russia-related questions. They have to deal with the Russia collusion question.
And Rudy Giuliani, one of the president's lawyers, did put out a statement and said: "It has been our position from the outset that much of what has been asked raised serious constitutional issues and was beyond the scope of a legitimate inquiry. This remains our position today. The president has, nonetheless, provided unprecedented cooperation."
And then it goes on to sort of lay out some of that cooperation. Wolf, in some senses, that's true. We have heard past prosecutors say that they would love to have, you know, the White House counsel in cooperating, providing 30 hours of interviews, but in other cases, that's not true.
I mean, the president made it very clear this week he is not willing to sit down for an interview, and we have obviously seen presidents in the past be willing to do that.
BLITZER: You know, it is interesting, because, Laura, you are getting some more information about the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, where he fits into all of this.
JARRETT: Yes, and that's been the big question, Wolf, since he came on board earlier this month, exactly how he would handle all of these issues, given his relationship with the White House.
And we're getting some new reporting from my colleague Pamela Brown, and the issue here is that, on multiple issues, according to a source familiar with the matter, the president raised the issue of the Clinton investigation and how it was progressing, not only with the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, who was then the chief of staff for Jeff Sessions, but also with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
Now, we do not know exactly what Rosenstein's response to this issue was, but we do know that, at least when it came to Whitaker, he came prepared with answers and was trying, at least according to the source, to appease the president in some way.
This source did not feel as though he had crossed some sort of red line in these conversations, but the fact that they even happened is stunning, frankly, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, so I just want to be precise. The president, in addition to raising this issue of wanting to prosecute, launch a prosecution of Hillary Clinton and James Comey, raising the issue with Don McGahn, his White House counsel at the time, he also raised the issue with Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and the then chief of staff to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, Matthew Whitaker?
JARRETT: Yes, so our understanding is that he was pressuring -- or I should not say pressuring, but rather checking in with them on the status and what was happening with the Clinton investigation and what update he could receive on that.
As we have mentioned a couple of times, Wolf, John Huber is this prosecutor out in Utah who has been looking into certain issues surrounding Clinton, and there are also prosecutors down in Arkansas looking into the Clinton Foundation. And so according to this source who is familiar with these
conversations, Wolf, that the president was very much interested in talking to both Rosenstein and Whitaker about these issues.
BLITZER: Because, as you point out Susan, the tradition is the president, he should stay away from telling law enforcement what to do.
HENNESSEY: I think this is a great example how important it is to have people who abide by the rules and support the rule of law in these critical positions.
It is Don McGahn refusing to actually execute this order that prevents it from happening. And I do think that highlights how incredibly problematic it is to have somebody like Matt Whitaker, somebody who has made public statement suggesting hostility to the Mueller investigation, who has not taken steps to recuse himself consistent with DOJ guidelines.
That really is a red flag that whenever we have a president who has these impulses, right, he wants to violate these rules, he wants to violate sort of the basic principles of the rule of law, he is now removing the very individuals who over the past two years have actually been in a position and had sort of the fortitude to push back against him.
MURRAY: And, Wolf, I think this all gets to the idea that President Trump believes the government works for him, that the government is now there to serve him because he is the president of the United States.
And so all of these people should do whatever he wants them to do on any given day. He sort of abdicates himself from the traditional responsibility that we see from presidents, what we would expect from the leader of our government, that they would say, the government is here to work for the American people, we are going to open an investigation if and when it is warranted.
Trump doesn't see it like that. It is all about his enemies and the people who are loyal to him, and he has continued to view the world that way since he has been in the White House.
BLITZER: It is interesting also. The other explosive ingredient in this "New York Times" article, Susan, is that the president is deeply disappointed in Christopher Wray, the FBI director whom he nominated to be the FBI director, suggesting that his refusal to be more aggressive in investigating Hillary Clinton suggests that the FBI director is weak.
HENNESSEY: So, look, it is obviously incredibly frustrating to the president any time he comes up against a Justice Department or FBI official who is willing to abide by the rules.
One of the predicaments he is in with respect to now Director Wray is he probably can't get away with firing an FBI director twice. And so I do think that the president is cognizant of that fact, cognizant of the notion that he was sort of forced in or pressured into an establishment choice, and he has regretted that ever since.
That's why I think it is going to be incredibly important to watch who exactly he is considering nominating to fill the attorney general position.
BLITZER: And it sends a message when an article like this comes out, Laura, and the president is suggesting Christopher Wray, the FBI director, is weak because he's not more aggressive in launching a prosecution, investigation of Hillary Clinton.
It sends a message to thousands and thousands of FBI personnel out there who are simply trying to do their job.
JARRETT: Yes, of course, and, at least so far an unfounded investigation. There's been no evidence, at least propounded these far, that there's any there there, and yet the president's only gripe with Wray according to this article is that he has not done enough to prosecute Clinton.
It has shades of how his only gripe with Jeff Sessions was the fact that he had recused himself from the Russia investigation. Of course, the commonality there is what serves the president's ends, as opposed the ends of justice, Wolf.
BLITZER: Sara, what happens if Mueller is not satisfied with the written responses that the president and his legal team have now submitted to him?
MURRAY: Well, Wolf, I think that's what everyone is waiting to see. I mean, look, it is certainly possible that the special counsel would want to move forward with subpoenaing the president and want to have him in front of him to answer more questions for an interview.
The question, of course, is whether Matt Whitaker, the man that Donald Trump has now handpicked to be in charge of the Justice Department, would be willing to sign off on that. And then you can bet even if, you know, in some universe Matt Whitaker did sign off on this, there is going to be a legal battle.
Rudy Giuliani has made it very clear that if there was any kind of subpoena, they would fight that tooth and nail, and so, you know, it sets you up for a kind of protracted fight. The question is whether the special counsel will be happy with these answers or whether they even need them.
As you pointed out, we have a lot of interviews, a lot of time with Don McGahn, a lot of interviews with other people who were serving in the White House at these key moments. So they may have enough from those interviews to make whatever case they want to make.
BLITZER: And let's not forget, Don McGahn was the White House counsel, not the president's personal attorney. He works for the American people. Everybody, stand by. There's a lot more news we are following.
I want to go to the White House right now. Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is standing by.
Jim, first of all, any reaction there to this "New York Times" bombshell report?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As a matter of fact, Wolf, the president just landed in Florida for his Thanksgiving trip down there and he was shouted a question.
We can show you some of the video as he is arriving there in Florida. A few moments after this arrival footage was shot, he was asked a question. A reporter shouted a question whether or not he ordered the Department of Justice to investigate Hillary Clinton. Wolf, the president did not answer that question.
Obviously, this is all breaking after the president talked with reporters earlier today. But in just the last several moments, a reporter did ask the president a question as to whether or not he ordered the Department of Justice to investigate Hillary Clinton.
And that is a prospect he raised out on the campaign trail. It is something he has talked about frequently over the years, how he would like to see Hillary Clinton investigated for all sorts of things. He was just asked that question, but did not answer it.
He did talk to reporters about other issues earlier today and he did send a very strong signal that he stands with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom's apparent role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The president seems to be dismissing a CIA assessment that the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi's murder.
And when I asked the president whether he is allowing the Saudis to get away with murder, he told me earlier today his decision is based on his policy of America first.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Just moments before a ceremonial pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey at the White House...
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will be issuing both Peas and Carrots a presidential pardon.
ACOSTA: ... President Trump delivered a chilling message on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In a statement that begins with "America first!" the president seemed to dismiss a CIA assessment that found that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing, saying: "It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event -- maybe he did and maybe he didn't!"
Leaving for Thanksgiving, the president defended his decision to side with the Saudis.
(on camera): Are you leading the Saudis get away with murder, murdering a journalist?
TRUMP: This is about America first. They're paying us $400 billion- plus to purchase and invest in our country. That's probably the biggest amount ever paid to the United States.
ACOSTA: Don't you believe the CIA?
TRUMP: They didn't make a determination. And it is just like I said. I think it was very -- maybe he did, maybe he didn't. They did not make that assessment. The CIA has looked at it. They have studied it a lot. They have nothing definitive.
ACOSTA (voice-over): In a statement, the president also appeared to buy into a Saudi spear of Khashoggi, adding: "Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an enemy of the state and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Khashoggi's family has blasted those claims as ridiculous. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed up the president's statement.
MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This is a long, historic commitment and one that is absolutely vital to America's national security. It is a mean, nasty world out there.
ACOSTA: But not all Republicans are on board.
REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R), FLORIDA: I'm concerned about our standing in the world and what it says about the United States.
ACOSTA: The president's willingness to believe Saudi denials is consistent with his posture towards other undemocratic countries, like Russia and its meddling in the 2016 election.
TRUMP: Maybe it was. It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?
ACOSTA: The president's explosive statement comes less than a day after his own daughter Ivanka Trump came under scrutiny for her use of private e-mails to do government business.
MARC SHORT, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: It is hypocritical and certainly it looks bad. And I'm sure that the media will have a field day with it today.
TRUMP: I tell you what, for what she's done, they should lock her up.
ACOSTA: Hypocritical because it is a reminder that her father savaged Hillary Clinton for her private e-mail use.
TRUMP: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception.
ACOSTA: A source close to Ivanka brushed off the story in a statement, saying: "This is a 14-month old story. There was nothing there then and there is nothing there now."
The president insists his daughter did nothing wrong.
TRUMP: They weren't deleted, like Hillary Clinton who deleted 33. She wasn't hiring. She wasn't doing anything to hide her e-mails. There was no deletion. There was no nothing. What it is, is a false story.
ACOSTA: Now, as for Ivanka Trump's e-mail use, a source close to the White House and the Trump family says the president's daughter obviously knows better, as she watched the 2016 campaign like the rest of us.
As this source put it, Ivanka -- quote -- "deserves to get hit" over the issue.
And as for Khashoggi, the president keeps defending his decision with claims that the Saudis are spending a fortune on U.S. weapons, but only a fraction of those financial gains have actually materialized at this point. The president said he will not destroy the U.S. economy over Khashoggi, but a lot of lawmakers in his own party would say at this point, Wolf, that there's plenty he could do about Khashoggi without damaging the economy -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, reporting tonight from the White House North Lawn, thank you very much.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Joining us right now, Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia. He is a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as well as the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for coming in.
REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: So, what is your reaction to this bombshell "New York Times" report that the president wanted to order the Justice Department to launch a prosecution of Hillary Clinton and James Comey?
CONNOLLY: I think it is prima facie evidence of abuse of power.
No president gets to use the Department of Justice and the FBI like his personal fiefdom. And we don't wreak vengeance or political opponents and adversaries, especially after an election you won. Get over it.
But that takes us down a terrible road. It is one that ought to be unacceptable to both Republicans and Democrats. BLITZER: Is that something that your committee will be looking into,
And I would expect the Judiciary Committee would also look at it. He's now getting into territory that's very dangerous, something we have tried to avoid, but this kind of abuse of power is exactly what got Richard Nixon into trouble.
BLITZER: Well, he was thinking of doing this. His White House counsel, Don McGahn, said, don't do it because that could lead potentially to impeachment.
So he apparently didn't formally order the Justice Department to launch a prosecution. What does that say?
CONNOLLY: We can be grateful for Don McGahn, apparently, at least in that respect.
But we have to remember that this comes in the context of firing the FBI director because he didn't do what he wanted him to do on the Russia thing, and firing his attorney general because he recused himself on the Russia thing, and threatening so many others.
And he's packing the courts, with his Republican enablers in the U.S. Senate, so that he can get better kinds of judicial rulings.
BLITZER: The article also says that the president is now deeply disappointed in the FBI director, Christopher Wray, whom he appointed, because he isn't tough enough, aggressive enough, and he is seen, according to "The New York Times," as weak.
CONNOLLY: Yes. It is a pattern with Donald Trump.
And it is in blatant violation of any respect for rule of law. America is a country that respects rule of law, not the whims of whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office.
And the FBI post, the director of the FBI, is not the, you know, personal servant of the president of the United States. He serves the whole country.
BLITZER: If the president were to do what he thought of doing,, ordering the Justice Department to launch prosecutions of his political critics, his political enemies, like Hillary Clinton or James Comey, do you believe that would be an impeachable offense?
CONNOLLY: Yes, I believe that would be crossing a line.
BLITZER: And you would launch formal impeachment hearings in the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives?
CONNOLLY: That would push members of Congress who have voted no on impeachment resolutions, like myself, over the line, absolutely, because we have to up hold the rule of law and the Constitution of the United States.
BLITZER: There is now an acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, Matthew Whitaker, who previously has said as a private citizen he thinks there should be an investigation, a prosecution of Hillary Clinton.
He is now the acting attorney general. What does that say to you?
CONNOLLY: It says to me that Donald Trump didn't get what he wanted out of the previous attorney general...
BLITZER: Jeff Sessions.
CONNOLLY: ... and has groomed this individual to basically be much more receptive to his whims and his wishes. That's a very dangerous situation for the country.
BLITZER: I want to ask you about Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist.
I believe he was a resident of your district...
CONNOLLY: He was my constituent.
BLITZER: ... in Northern Virginia. He was a columnist for "The Washington Post."
You saw the lengthy statement that the president released today saying, you know what, maybe he did, maybe he didn't, talking about the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, order the murder of this journalist, but what is more important is that the U.S. needs to maintain a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia.
CONNOLLY: I think that's one of the most amoral statements any president of the United States has ever uttered.
A man was murdered in cold blood, premeditated. Our intelligence community says it was with the knowledge, if not the architecture, of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. And, essentially, on the day our president pardons two turkeys before Thanksgiving, he effectively pardons the crown prince of Saudi Arabia for murdering an American resident.
BLITZER: His argument, the president's argument in this statement, this formal statement that he released, it would harm American interests if there was any deterioration in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
It would embolden Iran, he says, hurt the U.S. economy because jobs are created by the U.S. selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, and eventually help Russia and China, who would pick up those sales.
CONNOLLY: Well, if America loses its soul and its moral standing in the world, that's an enormous loss, too, far more important in the end of the day than whatever dollar amounts we might lose in selling weapons to a corrupt kingdom.
BLITZER: And you believe the CIA assessment that they put out that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia personally ordered the murder of this journalist?
CONNOLLY: We know a lot.
We know that the 15 individuals who perpetrated this murder were associated with the crown prince. We know the two planes that flew them in were under the auspices of his office personally. We know from intercepts that he helped direct his brother, who was the ambassador, to, in fact, provide false assurances to Khashoggi, so that he could go to the embassy -- the consulate and not have anything to worry about.
That was a setup. And that was directed by the crown prince personally. And our own CIA says so. We can't let that go by. That's not all right.
BLITZER: And the initial assessment of the CIA, that it has this conclusion with a high, a high degree of confidence.
CONNOLLY: Of certainty, that's right.
BLITZER: High confidence.
All right, thanks very much, Congressman Connolly.
CONNOLLY: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks for coming in.
There's much more news we are following. We will take a quick break.
We will be right back.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, "The New York Times" reporting that President Trump wanted to order the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute the former FBI Director James Comey and Hillary Clinton, but he was warned by his then White House counsel, Don McGahn, that that potentially could lead to impeachment.
Let's get some more on all of this with our analysts and our commentators.
So, David Swerdlick, what do you make that -- of the fact that CNN is now learning that the president apparently raised this issue, not just with Don McGahn, but with others as well, including the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, it suggests to me that the president, one, sort of can't let go of some of the fights that took place in the 2016 election, particularly with Secretary Clinton about her e-mails, some other issues.
And then it goes back to early in his presidency dismissing or firing FBI Director Jim Comey on a pretext that was different in a memo, different in a letter, and different in that infamous now Lester Holt interview.
It does strike me as something of an abuse of power, even though the president has ultimate authority over the Department of Justice, which is why, if you look at "The New York Times"' reporting, it is almost certain that the White House counsel, Don McGahn, recommended that he not go down that road.
BLITZER: Because it was seen, Jackie, potentially by Don McGahn as abuse of power and could lead to impeachment.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, right.
It seems like the former White House counsel was trying to save the president from his worst impulses. But, as we know, the president cast a wide net with who he was talking to, and, apparently, he was talking to folks that were firing him up, pushing him to want to pursue Comey and Hillary Clinton.
And, you know, the White House counsel was doing his best to serve his client.
[18:30:11] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And the article also says, Susan, that the president is deeply disappointed in the FBI director, Christopher Wray, whom he now sees as weak because he wasn't assertive enough in launching an investigation of Hillary Clinton.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, I think we should understand that these other investigations really are about throwing sand in the eyes. Right? What he's actually concerned about is excessive focus on the Russia investigation, the obstruction investigation; and he wants to distract using these other investigations. This is abusive, plain and simple.
Secretary Clinton was investigated and cleared by the Department of Justice. Jim Comey was investigated in an extensive inspector general's report that was released to the public. There was no finding of any kind of criminal wrong doing. And so for the president now to attempt to essentially use the apparatus of the state to go after his enemies, and that really is what he's doing, you know, the job of the Justice Department is to do justice, not to be the president's personal goon squad.
And you know, two years into his presidency, the sort of excuse that he just doesn't understand this stuff, he doesn't know the protocol, he's not a politician, that just isn't acceptable. It is just not accurate anymore. He knows what he's doing.
BLITZER: And we know -- we know the president now also discussed it with Whitaker, now the acting attorney general, but he was then the chief of staff to then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions. HENNESSEY: I mean, look, I think every new piece of information we
hear about Matt Whitaker becomes more problematic and more concerning. The Justice Department is an incredibly important institution, and this is an illustration of the ways in which it can be very seriously abused if you don't have responsible actors at the top.
Also, keep in mind, that the Justice Department is not just focused on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Jim Comey. They have a whole entire department, an incredibly important domestic law enforcement mission, to execute, as well. And so this kind of -- this kind of distraction and this kind of unqualified individuals at the helm, it is really an incredibly troubling situation.
BLITZER: How do you think, Phil Mudd, officials over at the Justice Department are going to react to all of this?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Believe it or not, Wolf, it's 48 hours before Thanksgiving day and I'm giving thanks. It's a rare moment, run the videotape, where I'm thankful.
Look, the president squeezed the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to step away from the Sessions' recusal on Russia. Sessions stood up with a backbone and said, "Mr. President, no."
The president pressed the former FBI director, James Comey, before Comey was fired, "Please step away from the Flynn investigation," the investigation into the former national security adviser, General Flynn. The former FBI director said no.
The president is now apparently pressing this -- or has pressed this FBI director to begin some investigations, and this FBI director would appropriately say no.
Wolf, my message is, regardless of whether you're Republican or Democrat, when the president tries to overstep his bound, give thanks. The system repeatedly said, "No, we're not going to do it."
BLITZER: Josh Campbell, you're a former FBI supervisory special agent. You worked with Comey for part of your career. How do you think folks at the FBI are reacting to all this?
JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: So there are 130-some-odd federal agencies in the United States government, independent agencies. There is exactly one agency that the president is fixated on, is obsessed on, and that is the Department of Justice, and the FBI, I'll throw in there, as well.
And I think that's because he knows that it's the only agency in government that can potentially harm him personally and can also be used as potential bludgeon to go after his political enemies.
I suspect, and I know this having served in the FBI, that this was long a topic of conversation, this violation of norm, that independence between Justice and the White House. It was a topic of conversation then; it's a topic of conversation now. I continue to talk to many of my former colleagues. And the reaction has been the same. And that is, you know, when Donald Trump, President Trump served in the Trump Organization, he was the king. Whatever he said went, and whether you worked at whatever level inside the organization, when he told you to do something, you did it or you resigned. He didn't have that same power coming over into the government. I think that's a lesson that he continues to learn.
But, again, with that I think the upshot, at least, that he thought was that he would be able to use these instruments of power to jail his political enemies. Unfortunately for him, it appears he's just getting another scandal that's being laid out for the whole world to see, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stick around. There's a lot more. We're following the breaking news. The president's lawyers now say his answers to Robert Mueller's questions are in the special counsel's hands. We have new information. Stick around. We'll be right back.
[18:39:09] BLITZER: We're following more breaking news in the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, Russia investigation.
Jackie, we just learned that the president's lawyers have finally submitted the written answers to the written questions to Robert Mueller's team. Where do you see things heading?
KUCINICH: So -- well, the president hopes that this is the beginning of the end of the Mueller investigation, but we don't know that to be the case yet, because these -- these questions just deal with before he was president. We don't know if Mueller is going to really push the issue and demand that he be interviewed about obstruction of justice questions.
BLITZER: Because Rudy Giuliani told "The Washington Post", Susan, that the answers are complete and detailed but there's, quote, "nothing there that I haven't read in a newspaper." What does that tell you?
HENNESSEY: First of all, I would say that we've seen in the newspaper is already pretty bad for the president. We actually have videotape of the president standing up and saying, "Russia, if you're listening." So I don't know how strong of a defense that ultimately is.
Look, there are still obvious open questions based on media reports. Did Donald Trump know about this Trump Tower meeting in advance, and is he willing to say that he didn't know about it in advance under oath?
And so I think that whether or not these are new issues or not, the president answering under oath could be game changing.
BLITZER: What do you think? DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I mean I think it is
going to be about whether or not his answers, the president's answers, match up with other information that the special counsel's team already have.
I agree with Susan that the summer of 2016 Trump Tower meeting is probably very central to this. Both the meeting and what the president knew about it, if he did know anything about it, and what he did or didn't know about the initial White House response to that meeting.
BLITZER: How do you see this working out, Josh?
CAMPBELL: So Rudy Giuliani put out that statement and said that, you know, there have been some -- you know, millions of pages turned over, millions of dollars spent, and that it's now time to, you know, bring this thing to a close.
The step that he left out was the FBI agents and prosecutors actually reviewing those written responses that were sent over from the White House in order to determine their veracity, determine how much candor is actually, you know, in there, and then compare it with other witness statements that they have. That's not to say that agents don't -- won't want to go back to the House after talking to the people and say, "Hey, you told us this. What about this? What about that?"
So I think that it is a little pie in the sky to think that, OK, we handed over the questions, we're done, let's bring it to a close. There are still several key steps that are left for investigators before they're ready to stamp this thing closed.
BLITZER: And whenever he is ready, Phil Mudd, to release his report, it's got to go through the new acting attorney general, assuming it's any time soon, and Matthew Whitaker -- I see a smile on your face.
MUDD: Well, it sort of does. What happens when the acting attorney general gets it and the Congress of the United States says, "We want to see a version of that report?" How does the acting attorney general say no? You may think the buck stops with somebody appointed by President Trump. I don't think so. I think this game is far from over, Wolf. Far from over.
BLITZER: Because the Democrats, Jackie, they're going to be in charge of the House of Representatives.
KUCINICH: Oh, yes. They're not going to let anything be hidden. It's a question of which investigation is first, not if a lot of these issues will be investigated. So, right. Exactly. I agree with Phil.
BLITZER; David, do you think the president appreciates, understands fully the enormity of what that means for him and his administration, that the Democrats will have complete oversight in the House of Representatives?
SWERDLICK: Wolf, I'm starting to think that in a way he does. His behavior and comportment last week with all of these, you know, mistakes and missteps and angry rhetoric on camera suggests to me that he may be feeling pressure.
And I think going back to something Susan said before the break is true is that, you know, there was a case to be made a year or two ago that the president didn't understand that everybody in the government didn't work for him. I think by now he knows it. He wants it to be one way, but it's the other way.
BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's much more. We're following more breaking news. President Trump now siding with the Saudi crown prince over the CIA in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
[18:47:37] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories tonight, including President Trump signaling that he won't hold the Saudi crown prince accountable for the murder of "The Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi, that despite a CIA assessment that finds out that the crown prince personally ordered the slaying.
And, John Kirby, the president has a whole list of reasons that he doesn't want to undermine Saudi relations and hold them accountable. But first and foremost, he sees Saudi Arabia as a counterbalance to Iran.
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET), CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: That's right, Wolf. This administration holds Iran at the center piece of their Middle East strategy. They're right to be concerned about Iran. But, frankly, there wasn't anything really new in the statement other than what he said about Jamal Khashoggi being a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. That could have been written by the Saudis as a matter of fact.
The other thing I will say about this is I don't believe it was just about absolving the crown prince from accountability here, although there is a part of that, and that's egregious enough. This was about absolving Donald Trump. He knows darn well that the Congress is going to take action and they're probably going to enact new measures that they will be able to get into legislation over his objection to hold the crown prince and Saudi Arabia accountable.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, listen to what the president said about holding the crown prince accountable and whether he was involved in ordering the murder. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They didn't make a determination. It is just like I said, I think it was maybe he did, maybe he didn't. They did not make that assessment. The CIA has looked at it, they've studied it a lot. They have nothing definitive. The fact is maybe he did, maybe he didn't.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The CIA has a high degree of confidence that the crown prince did order the murder.
PHIL MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: Let's be clear. What the president said was utter nonsense. The CIA got burned on Iraq WMD with their level of confidence that Saddam Hussein had WMD. They stepped back and said, well, we're going to have a high confidence judgment, as this in case, we better be darn careful when we use those words high confidence.
Do you think they said, maybe he did, maybe they didn't? They said with high confidence, in a CIA that's very cautious about making these judgments, we're looking at stuff well beyond the audio tape from the Turks on that killing. They are looking at other intel and saying, Mr. President, we made judgment and our judgment is with high confidence that the crown prince knew and authorized this. The president is misleading us. That's not true.
BLITZER: Susan, you used to work in the government, the National Security Agency.
[18:50:00] When you read a CIA assessment or something, is there a box that says maybe he did, maybe he didn't?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY ATTORNEY: No, there isn't. Phil's absolutely right. When the intelligence agency says, high confidence, they mean absolutely positive. This is part of Trump's strategy of sort of exploiting implausible deniability.
We all know that he doesn't actually believe this, but what he views this is as not an issue -- about an issue of central American values, American principles, but just sort of another uncomfortable press conference that he has to get through, and I think that is really something that's incredibly stunning and it is an insult to the men and women of the intelligence community who do good and important work to have the president of the United States, their principal client, essentially say, I don't care what you come up with, if it doesn't serve my interests, my narrative, I'm just going to ignore it.
KIRBY: I'm convinced he did this, he issued this statement to get ahead of it. Any leaks about the briefing that he gets from the CIA and to make sure he was able to control this narrative. That's why he did this statement.
BLITZER: You used to write for the "Washington Post." you work at the "Washington Post", David Swerdlick.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITCAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.
BLITZER: Bob Corker who's retiring senator, Republican, he wrote this. I never thought I'd see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
SWERDLICK: That's a strong statement that from an outgoing senator but he makes a point, the White House is saying exactly what the Saudis would want to. About this America first business that the president talked about, Wolf, look, I don't even think this is an America first approach in Trump's own definition. By getting out of the Iran deal, by giving the arms deal to the Saudis and giving them carte blanche in Yemen, he's given them everything they want already. He has no leverage over the crown prince to get him -- to rein him in now, because the Saudis already got everything out of Trump in his first two years.
BLITZER: Do you think there will be enough Democrats -- there will certainly plenty of Democrats, but Republicans to go ahead and force the president to take some action?
KUCINICH: We'll have to see what the appetite is, but you said Corker is leaving. Mitt Romney just issued a statement, he's incoming senator from Utah. He took a strong position against the Saudis and said this isn't -- this isn't in line with American values. So, we'll see what part he plays coming in.
BLITZER: Phil, what message did the president's statement today send out to the rest of the world?
MUDD: I think when you look at the president, roughly 22 months in office, a message is pretty simple. When you look at America first, it's not only money, it's values. Well, we told everybody in this -- on this planet, including when he praised the North Korean leader is you can choose to kill your opponents if we have a national interest in supporting you, we will ignore your killing of opponents in Turkey and Egypt and the Philippines and we'll become your friend. That's the message consistently, not just with Saudi Arabia.
BLITZER: Everybody, stick around.
There's more news we're following, including the news out of California, the fire victims facing another possible disaster, flash floods and mudslides.
[18:57:29] BLITZER: We have breaking news, a new threat to the thousands of people displaced by the historic wildfire burning right now in northern California.
CNN's Nick Watt is in the town of Paradise when was all but destroyed by the flames.
Nick, how is the area, now the area's in danger, what, of flash floods? Is that the latest?
NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And listen, Wolf, since we spoke just 24 hours ago, the number of -- the official tally of homes destroyed has jumped by about 1,000. We're now at 12,637, and that number is jumping as search teams come into neighborhoods like this, which you can see on this high shot that we have.
This used to be a senior community. There is absolutely nothing left here. And we know the search team was here today by the date painted on this driveway, 11/20.
Now, when they come into neighborhoods like this, they will often go first to homes with a car in the driveway, because that's a sign that maybe somebody didn't make it out alive, and as you just said, Wolf, now we're waiting for the sting in the tail.
WATT (voice-over): Tonight, this deadly, destructive blaze now 70 percent contained but these people, many who have already lost everything, not out of danger. Torrential rain is coming. A flash flood watch in effect from tomorrow afternoon through Thanksgiving into Friday morning.
And this tent city in the Chico Walmart parking lot is in a flood zone.
CASEY HATCHER, BUTTE COUNTY SPOKESWOMAN: What we really want people to do as the rain approaches and the weather starts to shift is get inside.
WATT: There is plenty of space in evacuation shelters.
STEPHEN WALSH, RED CROSS: We're going to be here as long as we need to be here. We could be in the sheltering business through Christmas.
WATT: Some are scared to go.
KRYSEL YOUNG, EVACUEE: Just the germs, the norovirus going around, I'm scared because we already got that once.
WATT: More than 100 have been hospitalized by the gastrointestinal bug. Others moved to isolation blocks within the shelters. Many evacuees plan to ride out the rains out here in the open.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, we're getting tarps and stuff like that. It's been rough, but we're making due.
WATT: Down in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties where the Woolsey Fire burned, authorities warning of mudslides and hill slides stripped bare by that blaze and potential debris flow as rains approach. Free sandbags now available from fire stations. Some people will likely be evacuated from their homes once again.
There is also concern up here at the camp fire site that rains could hamper the search for the dead, even wash away human remains or make them indistinguishable from the mud.
BLITZER: That was Nick Watt reporting for us from California.
Thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.