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Special Counsel Investigation Ramping Up?; Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Alaska Earthquake; Kremlin: Trump Canceling Putin Meeting Causing "Tension"; Special Counsel May Reveal New Evidence to Back Up Claim that Manafort Lied; Trump: Mueller Investigation Undermining U.S. Relationship with Russia; Intel Officials: U.K. Assesses Putin Ordered Attack with Deadly Poison. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 30, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: disaster in Alaska. A powerful earthquake hits the United States, causing far- reaching damage in a major city. We're getting new video and information.

Placing blame. As the president attends the G20 summit, the White House is accusing Robert Mueller of undermining relations with Russia. Tonight, Mr. Trump is defending his decision to cancel a one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Facing more charges? The special counsel warns that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort could be put back on trial. As Mueller tries to prove that Manafort lied to prosecutors, he may be poised to reveal crucial new evidence in the Russia investigation.

And very legal and very cool, that's how President Trump is describing his business dealings with Russia, trying to downplay new revelations by his former lawyer and fixer. We're following all the fallout from Michael Cohen's cooperation agreement with the special counsel.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer live here at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news having an impact on President Trump today right in the midst of the G20 summit here in Argentina.

A powerful magnitude-7 earthquake hitting Alaska near the state's most populated city, Anchorage. The governor has declared a disaster. There are reports of extensive damage and multiple aftershocks. The president has been briefed, this as Mr. Trump is now on the defensive over the Russia investigation the day after Michael Cohen's game- changing guilty plea and cooperation agreement with Robert Mueller.

Tonight, the White House is accusing Mueller of undermining U.S. relations with Russia. But the president keeps insisting that Mueller's new bombshell had nothing to do with his decision to scrap a one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin here in Buenos Aires.

This hour, I will talk with the former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

But, first, let's go straight to CNN's Nick Watt. He has more on that major earthquake in Alaska.

Nick, what's the latest?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Anchorage Police Department has warned of major infrastructure damage. They have teams out right now assessing that damage.

So far, we have seen some minor damage to hospitals, to schools, and much more major damage to the roadways in Anchorage and beyond. And those aftershocks just keep on coming.


WATT (voice-over): The terrifying moments the massive 7.0 earthquake rocked Anchorage. Women on the sixth floor of this courthouse ducking under desks, as the building violently rocks for what one eyewitness told CNN was 90 seconds.

The quake forcefully shaking Anchorage Airport before the lights go out. People trying to run out the terminals. Air traffic control frantically alerting inbound flights not to land.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: FedEx 49, heavy, go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Going around, FedEx 49.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Attention all aircraft, there was an earthquake here.

WATT: On the ground outside the airport, this road collapsed, leaving a vehicle stranded in the middle. And there's also reports of a sinkhole downtown and rockslides blocking roads elsewhere.

Buildings quickly evacuated in this city of more than 300,000. This CNN affiliate's newsroom badly damaged. All Anchorage stations knocked off the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just completely smashed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jeremy was standing right over here. I was standing right over here. These are the desks that John and I sheltered under.

WATT: Many residents who lived here their entire lives say this is the worst they've ever felt.

GABRIELLE BLACK, EARTHQUAKE VICTIM: You hear it, you feel it, and we're looking around thinking, it won't be that big. It's going to pass. And things get worse. Things start falling. Just scared it's going to happen again. But it was absolutely terrifying. (END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: Now, it seems that very strict building codes up there in Alaska could have saved many lives here.


Also, some other good news, there was a tsunami watch in force earlier. That has now been lifted. But, as I said, the aftershocks keep on coming, 45 of them at my last count, the strongest a 5.7.

There is a chance we could get an aftershock even stronger than the original earthquake, which was a 7.0 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nick, we will stay in very close touch with you. Thanks for that update.

Right now, let's go to President Trump. He's here at the G20 summit in Argentina. He's feeling the heat from the Russia investigation back home in the United States.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, he's here in Buenos Aires as well.

Jim, there are a lot of distractions for Mr. Trump on this trip.


First, we should point out White House officials say President Trump is being briefed on the latest damage reports coming out of Alaska after the earthquake there. But you're right. The president is still meeting with world leaders here at the G20, with one notable exception, though, Russia's Vladimir Putin.

But the White House insists that has nothing to do with the cloud hanging over the president's head, the Russia investigation.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Down in Argentina, President Trump appears to be trying to tango his way out of one diplomatic dance, a meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

QUESTION: Mr. President, will you be exchanging pleasantries with Putin?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know. I don't know. Not particularly. I don't know.

ACOSTA: The president suggested his decision to scrap a formal meeting with Putin at the G20 summit had nothing to do with the Russia investigation, but was in response to Moscow's escalating tensions with Ukraine.

TRUMP: Ukraine. Ukraine. We don't like what happened. We're not happy about it. Nobody is. And hopefully they will be able to settle it out soon, because we look for to meeting with President Putin.

But on the basis of what took place with respect to the ships and the sailors, that was the sole reason.

ACOSTA: The White House went further, saying in a statement: "The Russian witch-hunt hoax, which is hopefully now nearing an end, is doing very well. Unfortunately, it probably does undermine our relationship with Russia. However, the reason for our canceled meeting is Ukraine. Hopefully, that will be resolved soon, so that productive conversations can begin."

The president is in full damage control mode after his former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project, admitting is discussions with then candidate Trump about the deal extended well into the 2016 race.

Just before signing a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, Mr. Trump was downplaying that Cohen bombshell, tweeting: "Against all odds, I decide to run for president and continue to run my business. Very legal and very cool. Talked about it on the campaign trail. Lightly looked at doing a build somewhere in Russia, put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn't do the project. Witch-hunt."

But contrast that with so much of what Mr. Trump has said in the past, including this declaration days before he was sworn into office.

"Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I have nothing to do with Russia. No deals, no loans. No nothing."

The reality is then candidate Trump never talked about the Moscow project on the trail, even as he was touting the benefits of improved ties with Russia.

TRUMP: They say Putin likes Trump and he said nice things about me. He called me a genius. He said we're going to win. That's good. That's not bad. That's good. Some of my opponents said, we want you to disavow that statement.

Why would I disavow, OK? Why? But if we could get along with Russia, wouldn't that be a good thing, instead of a bad thing?

ACOSTA: Even his former top aides pushed back on questions about Mr. Trump's business dealings with Russia, as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort did during the Democratic Convention.

QUESTION: So, to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with anyone Russian oligarchs?

PAUL MANAFORT, FORMER DONALD TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: That's what he said. That's what I said. That's obviously what the -- our position is.

ACOSTA: At the G20, Putin is making the rounds, bumping into Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, another leader President Trump may only see briefly, as the U.S. is distancing itself for the moment from the kingdom in Riyadh after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Putin was all smiles with the prince.


ACOSTA: The president is scheduled to meet with other world leaders before leaving the G20, including China's Xi Jinping for a high-stakes discussion on trade issues.

And as for the new questions hanging over the president in the Russia investigation, there are some grumbles inside the GOP over Mr. Trump's changing stories on that Moscow project. One top GOP strategist told me earlier today it would have been a different campaign in 2016 had the public known about that project -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Let's talk a little bit more about all of this. The president of the United States right now, he's here on the world stage. And he's under a lot of pressure in the Russia investigation back home.

I'm joined by our international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, who is watching all of this unfold.


The White House says this whole Mueller investigation is damaging U.S.-Russia relationships. Is that true? Is that playing out here at the G20 summit?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: This is what the Russians would have us believe as well.

Russian President Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that canceling the meeting raises tensions between the two countries. So the Russians are certainly enabling that, enabling that message, if you will. They would have that a lack of meeting to address such things as weapons controls, so the INF, the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty, something that both countries want to deal with, that's not getting dealt with.

So that seems to be the type of context that they're putting it in.

BLITZER: I suspect the U.S.-Russia relationship was damaged a lot more by the Russian meddling, the hacking during the presidential election in 2016 than what's going on right now.

ROBERTSON: But since that has happened, since everyone has known about it, since President Trump has known about it, he has sat down with President Vladimir Putin.

And Vladimir Putin, we think back to Helsinki in the summer, came out of that meeting smiling. He could not have been happier with that meeting. So on that particular issue, the Russians don't feel that they're taking any heat when President Trump gets in the room with their president. BLITZER: So President Putin that believes that what he had hoped

would be a stronger U.S.-Russia relationship during the Trump administration has been undermined by the Russia probe, the reaction in Congress?

ROBERTSON: I kind of get the sense if you go back the G20 last year, when he sat down, when Putin sat down with -- it was at that time Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign secretary, sat down in that room together, they had a really extended meeting.

And you kind of got the sense there that, at that moment, Trump -- Putin was looking Trump in the eye and measuring him up, and even at that stage, after two-and-a-half-hours realizing potentially that this was a man who he couldn't -- who he couldn't rely on at least to go back home and to be able to deliver on whatever commitments he was getting, that he was being given there in those meetings.

So I think there was a sense of weakness there. But right now, I mean, absolutely, President Putin at the moment must be looking at this and thinking this -- President Trump is so toxic that whatever aspirations I had, whatever leverage I thought I had, it's falling away.

And as the more investigation continues, he can only be sort of thinking this is getting worse. It's not going to get better.

BLITZER: Another dramatic development unfolding here at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires is the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

He's here. He's on the world stage, this following the Saudi murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. How's he being received? How is that playing out?

ROBERTSON: Well, it's kind of interesting, because let's face it.

Right now or in a short time, there will be a big dinner behind closed doors and President Trump will have the opportunity there to perhaps talk to him. Mohammed bin Salman perhaps get a chance to go around the table talk to other leaders. We won't really know.

So far, he got a high-five from President Putin, which just seems bizarre to all those of us who follow and listen to what the CIA has been saying, that in their assessment that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for authoring the plan and plot that would ultimately kill Jamal Khashoggi.

In that, it seems that at least on the world stage bin Salman is getting something of what he wants. He met privately with the Indian prime minister. There were agreements there to put further investment into India. So clearly that relationship is going well.

Theresa May, she went to his residence today to meet with him. She didn't try to meet with him publicly at the G20. She went privately to have a meeting, pressure him about the Khashoggi murder. So in that context, he kind of gets what he wants. He doesn't get a public rebuke.

The only leader here who stood up to him was the French president, Macron, who spoke to him face to face. There was a camera close by. We don't know if it was positioned there intentionally, but it was close by.

And it caught that interaction, and it looked like tough interaction. So I think if you look at the way that Mohammed bin Salman has been able to interact with all these different leaders, he's getting the rehabilitation that he wants.

Now, President Trump, we don't know what he's going to say there. He could have extended conversation with him at this private dinner that's behind closed doors. The cameras are not going to get in.

But at the moment, you would think that Mohammed bin Salman must be feeling quite pleased with the way this has gone for him so far.

BLITZER: All right, let's see how it unfolds tonight and tomorrow. The summit continues tomorrow.

Thanks very much, Nic, for that report.

Let's get some more perspective right now. Joining us, the former Defense Secretary, the former CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

Why do you think the White House says that the Mueller investigation is undermining the relationship with Russia, when the Russian cyber- attack during the 2016 presidential election in the United States didn't?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I find it strange that the president would say that the canceling of the meeting was based on what happened in the Ukraine and in the Black Sea, and had nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. And then a few hours later, they talked about the Mueller investigation undermining the relationship.


I think it's clear to anyone who understands these issues that Russia is the primary villain for undermining the relationship with the United States, not only in what they did with the Ukraine and taking Crimea, not only to their effort to go into Syria, not only the cyber- attacks on our election system, but also what they did the other day on the Black Sea and intimidating to Ukraine.

Those acts by Russia, very aggressive acts by Russia, are what are undermining the relationship with the United States.

BLITZER: Did President Trump do the right thing by not meeting with Putin, by canceling that two-hour scheduled meeting tomorrow with Putin, and not meeting with the Saudi crown prince? PANETTA: Well, I come from the school that says that, when you have a

G20 meeting, the purpose of that is diplomacy. And it gives the president of the United States the opportunity to do a number of bilaterals with world leaders, to be able to talk about some of the key issues that are impacting on our national security.

So I regret the fact that this president decided that he was not going to sit down with Putin and confront him directly on what is happening in the Ukraine and what is happening with regards to the nuclear agreement and what is happening with regards to continuing cyber- attacks on our country.

All of those issues, the president of the United States ought to be willing to stand up and speak directly to Vladimir Putin about doing that. That's the whole purpose. And I think, when the president, frankly, cancels those meetings, it again feeds into this impression of weakness, and that's what Putin is taking advantage of.

He's taking advantage of the United States because he reads weakness in the United States and how we react. And he's going to continue to be a bully as long as we don't stand up to him.

BLITZER: Thanks to Robert Mueller, we now know that one of the president's closest associates was actually communicating directly with the Kremlin about the Trump Tower Moscow project.

And CNN has learned that they even floated the idea of giving Vladimir Putin a penthouse in that building, in that Trump Tower in Moscow. You're the former CIA director. How concerning is that to you?

PANETTA: Well, it's very concerning, because it's essentially providing a bribe to a foreign leader, in allowing him to have some kind of a plush suite in the Trump Tower.

Obviously, we have got to wait for Bob Mueller to fully investigate this issue. We do have the Cohen plea now. It does indicate that there were efforts obviously to construct the Trump Tower. It would not surprise me that Mr. Trump, as a New York developer, would offer all kinds of goodies to try to attract their approval for building that tower.

But I'm going to wait for the Bob Mueller investigation to determine exactly what was involved here. But if there was this kind of offer, it raises serious concerns.

BLITZER: As you know, Mr. Secretary, the project wasn't publicly known until after President Trump took office. Did the Russians have leverage over him?

PANETTA: I think that this investigation has always been focused ultimately on following the money.

And there's no question that Mr. Trump, as a New York developer, was very interested in exploring the opportunities there and probably exploring financial ties to Russia as well. If the Mueller investigation determines that there were a number of financial ties between Mr. Trump and Russia, there's no question that would have impacted in terms of the relationship between Mr. Trump and his dealings with Russia.

That is the heart of the issue that I think Bob Mueller is looking at right now.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Mr. Secretary, that this Russia investigation has now become an existential threat to the Trump presidency?


PANETTA: I think what has happened in these last few days is that the Mueller investigation has crossed the bridge that President Trump had warned them not to cross, which was to look deeply at his finances, and particularly finances that related to Russia.

And, in doing so, in beginning the investigation in that issue, and beginning to connect the dots as to whether these relationships were extensive, who they affected, who are they related to, what were the decisions that were made based on those financial ties, those are all the issues, obviously, that Mueller is now investigating.

We are without question at a very critical point in terms of the Mueller investigation that will, in fact, determine whether or not this president faces serious problems or whether or not we will have two more years of the Trump presidency.

BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, thanks so much for joining us. We deeply appreciate it.

I want to talk a little bit more now about all the new developments in the Russia investigation.

Joining us now, our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, there was a hearing today regarding Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. What was the latest on that?


And that hearing today was held after that stunning revelation, allegations made by the special counsel that Paul Manafort had been lying to them during his cooperation, in interviews with the FBI and the U.S. attorneys, part of the special counsel's investigation.

So today was generally just a status conference. The judge wanted to hear where things stood. Paul Manafort was not in court. But what we learned was certainly important in this entire investigation, and that is that Paul Manafort court could face more charges. There could be things that he's facing that we don't even know about yet.

And the other thing, Wolf, what we have learned is that this case is going to go on for quite some time, in that the judge now intends to sentence him sometime around -- she set the date as March 5. She's going to rule before then, though, whether or not the government's claims that Paul Manafort violated his plea agreement are in fact the case and whether or not she should extend his sentence somehow, whether or not she's going to be more harsh on his sentencing.

And certainly, Paul Manafort, who is 69, is probably going to face the rest of his life in jail.

BLITZER: Yes, Shimon, as you know, Michael Cohen, the president's longtime lawyer, yesterday said he was working on a deal for the Trump Tower project in Moscow well into the 2016 presidential campaign, through June of that year.

Could Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. be in for more scrutiny now based on what Michael Cohen has now said?

PROKUPECZ: Certainly, that could be the case.

We know that Don Jr., as has been reported, testified through three congressional hearings to different committees over here in Congress about this meeting. Most of his testimony has not been made public. Some of it has been shared certainly with the special counsel.

What we do know, according to some sources, is that Don Jr. was aware of this deal. He, according to these sources, peripherally, really was on the outside of this, they didn't know much about this. Ivanka was involved in the sense that she was offering suggestions on architect and also thinking that maybe a spa would be named after her at this hotel.

So those were the ways in which the family was involved. What's important in all of this is Don Jr.'s testimony whether or not it matches up with what is the truth, ultimately, what the special counsel in this case is investigating.

And what's important in the end is whether or not his testimony in any way contradicts what Michael Cohen says has happened and has now sworn to a court in New York has happened in this case, where he said he lied to congressional investigators to defend and protect the president.

BLITZER: And let's see if it's consistent with what the president said in his written responses to Robert Mueller's written questions. That will be significant as well.

Shimon Prokupecz, thank you very much.

Let's bring in CNN senior legal analyst, the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

Preet, thanks for joining us.

As you know, the president tweeted earlier this morning calling his pursuit of a real estate deal in Russia, the Moscow Trump Tower project, during the campaign, he said it was very legal and very cool, his words.

Was it very legal, as the president insists?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it certainly wasn't very cool, for a lot of reasons that people have been talking about for the last several days.


With respect to whether or not something is very legal or simply legal, there's no such thing as very legal or not. Something is either lawful or it's not lawful.

And, frankly, I think it remains to be seen, depending on how much other evidence of other conduct and activities come to light. As we have seen, the principal way in which -- the principal way in which the president of the United States might be in jeopardy that's easily understandable is if in written answers given to Bob Mueller's office in the last week, he has told a story that is false, and it is contradicted with corroboration by Michael Cohen.

Also if it's the case that the president of the United States in some way tried to get Michael Cohen to lie about the negotiations that were going on and the timing of the negotiations that were going on when Michael Cohen himself was testifying before the Senate, that also I think puts the president in some legal jeopardy.

With respect to whether or not the negotiating in and of itself back in 2016 is a thing that causes him legal jeopardy, it depends on what the other understandings were. It depends on what the Russians were maybe offering. It depends on what the president -- the candidate, about to become president, Trump, was offering to those folks. Does it have something to do -- we don't know yet.

But does it have something to do with provisions that were in the platform by the GOP? Were there other kinds of benefits that were going to be given an exchange for it? All those things, we don't know. I predict that Robert Mueller knows a lot more about them. And we have to see.

BLITZER: I suspect you're absolutely right. I'm sure Mueller knows a ton more than any of us know.

Would offering Vladimir Putin a potentially $50 million penthouse in that Trump Tower in Moscow raise any specific legal concerns, even if the deal for that Trump Tower in Moscow was never finalized?

BHARARA: And, again, it depends on what the facts and circumstances are.

Certainly, there is a possibility and an argument that the offering of a $50 million penthouse to a particular person who's a leader of another country, not just a random official, and not just a private citizen, raises the specter of a kind of bribery under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

You need to know more facts to determine whether that's true, but it certainly doesn't seem very legal. And it certainly doesn't seem very cool. And just on top of all the things I have said already, one of the ways you know that something is not legal and perceived to be legal or proper or appropriate on the part of the person doing it is when they lie about it repeatedly.

Donald Trump has lied about it, Michael Cohen is lied about it, other people have taken to lying about it. And that is the kind of thing that makes prosecutors not only understand whether or not someone has done something that's unlawful, but whether or not the people who are doing those things in their minds knew better and knew what they were doing was unlawful.

BLITZER: Yahoo News, Preet, is reporting that Robert Mueller is interested in the role played by the president's children, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. specifically. Could they face potential legal trouble as well?

BHARARA: Well, I think that anybody who was surrounding the president and was in communications with Michael Cohen and others specifically with respect to the Moscow real estate deal in 2016 is in potential legal jeopardy.

And the principal reason for that is the same reason why the president might be in trouble. And that is who said what when, and for what purpose? The reporting that I understand has come out and the record reflects that Donald Trump -- that Don Jr. has testified to folks in Congress that with respect to the Moscow deal, that all ended and was done and dead by the end of 2014.

And now you have other people saying something different, notably in the form of Michael Cohen. If anybody took to the Congress false statements, I think that's a problem.

And the other implication of that -- not to overstate it, but the other implication of whether or not people were making statements that were false to the Congress, including one to which Michael Cohen has already pled guilty in connection with the Senate, when you think about the powers beyond Bob Mueller, the powers that reside in the Congress itself, with respect to impeachment and a trial on impeachment, it becomes maybe a little bit more difficult to sweep things under the rug when the fraud that was perpetrated and the illegal activity that was talked about was actually perpetrated on the Congress itself, given that they're the body, starting in the House and later in the Senate, if the House is successful, that deals with the question of whether or not there has been abuse of power.

And so if Donald Trump and members of his family were involved in the way that Michael Cohen seems to suggest by his plea allocution, then I think there's a lot of trouble, yes.

BLITZER: Next Friday, a week from today, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, will provide details on why they believe that Paul Manafort violate his cooperation agreement by lying under oath to the FBI and the federal prosecutors.

Could that hearing give us significant new insight into what kind of information Mueller and his team now have?

BHARARA: It could.

And that's what I think we're all interested in. It's, I think, very -- it'll be very interesting to people to see the ways in which Paul Manafort was telling lies that the special counsel is obviously and understandably upset about.

However, I'll make the following point. To the extent we get an unredacted version of that document and everything is laid bare, and we're all able to read it and talk about it in a week, that maybe could tell us a little bit less about where they're going, because it would have to be the case that the Mueller team didn't think it was compromising any ongoing investigative activity that they're engaging in.

[18:30:24] In other words, to the extent that they wanted to document the lies that Paul Manafort has told them, but they're pursuing things relating to those topics against other people. My guess is they would like -- like to have some portions of that document, if not the whole document, under seal.

So I expect we'll see some things. We may not see all things. And the fact that we may not see all will indicate, maybe not with precision, and with the identification of targets, will indicate that the Mueller investigation is still very active and going places further.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And as you point out, accurately, they know a lot -- a lot more than what the public knows right now even those of us who have been covering it as closely as we have.

Preet, thanks for your excellent analysis. As usual, we're grateful to you.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're going to have much more coming up from here at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

We're going to dig into the White House complaint that Mueller probe is undermining the U.S. relationship with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

And are the new revelations about President Trump's business dealings in Moscow giving the Russians leverage over him?


[18:36:08] BLITZER: We're back. We're here, live in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We're covering the G-20 summit.

President Trump is dining with world leaders tonight, even as the Russia investigation is clearly intensifying back home with an increased focus on him and his family.

The White House is trying to discredit the special counsel, Robert Mueller, by accusing him of undermining U.S. relations are Russia. Mr. Trump going even further with his latest Twitter attacks. Let's bring in our analysts and our correspondents. And Kaitlan

Collins, last night the president tweeted this -- and I'll quote from the tweet -- "This is an illegal hoax that should be ended immediately."

Kaitlan, how much do the recent Mueller investigation developments increase the pressure on the president?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They certainly do increase the pressure on the president, because Michael Cohen is someone who is very close to President Trump. And he has been particularly irked by any of the developments related to him. And we've seen that play out even from when the president was departing the White House for Argentina yesterday, when he came out unprompted and made that statement, calling Michael Cohen a weak person and saying that he only hired him because he did him a favor a very long time ago.

Clearly, the president is still preoccupied with this, even though he is in Argentina. He's got all of these meetings with world leaders on his plate. But on the flight over, he was tweeting out excerpts from cable news coverage of the Michael Cohen developments.

So clearly, it is still something that is on the president's mind that is hanging over his trip there, even though he's got a series of diplomatic problems to deal with, as well. Not only with trade and the Chinese president but also, he's got the Saudi crown prince, Vladimir Putin, and even an icy relationship with the Canadian prime minister.

All of that is happening while he is still tweeting and focusing on -- focusing on these latest developments in the Russia investigation.

BLITZER: Good point. Sabrina Siddiqui, the president, he defended the Trump Tower Moscow project by saying that everyone knew that he was still running his business, even while he was campaigning for president. He said this. The project, he said, was quote, "very legal and very cool. Talked about it on the campaign trail. Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn't do the project."

Sabrina, what do you make of that defense?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, certainly, it contradicts what was initially said about the Trump Tower project specifically. Michael Cohen had initially suggested that discussions over the project had ceased in January of 2016. We now know they were ongoing up until June of 2016, so well into the presidential election and after the point at which Donald Trump had effectively become the Republican presidential nominee.

Cohen also initially said that Russian officials were not responsive to discussions about the project. We now know that Cohen had actually discussed it directly with Vladimir Putin's press secretary. And there was even talk of giving a penthouse to Putin himself. Now, of course, the deal fell apart, but it does cast a new light on

the president, at the same time as this project was under discussion, touting the need for improved relations between the U.S. and Moscow, and especially lavishing praise on Vladimir Putin.

A big question for Robert Mueller and his team will be was there, perhaps, any quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and Moscow? And this is now going to be a subject of that inquiry.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

Susan Hennessey, the temperature is also apparently rising for his children in this investigation. Is that right?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think that's right. I think Donald Trump Jr. in particularly should probably be feeling relatively nervous right now.

Donald Trump Jr.'s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee appears to directly contradict Michael Cohen's testimony. Don Junior has testified that the -- this Trump Tower Moscow deal ended in 2014 and certainly did not continue into 2016.

[18:40:10] Michael Cohen has now said that no, that deal did continue well into 2016. And that not only did he keep the president apprised on that deal, he also briefed the president's family members.

Now, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair, Richard Burr, today made a point of noting that his committee has made referrals to the special prosecutor for what they believe to be -- to be false statements. Unclear who that might refer to ultimately.

So I do think that Trump Jr. may have a serious false statements issue on his hands. And if it does turn out that these -- his statements were incorrect, you know, there's also the larger question of why was he lying and was he intending to cover up, potentially, something more nefarious?

BLITZER: John Kirby, the White House says the Mueller investigation undermines the U.S. relationship with Russia right now. Do you think they have a point?

ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I think there's probably a case to be made that Putin now looks at Trump, perhaps, as damaged goods as a result of all the impact of the Mueller investigation so much on their administration. But it's a weak case, Wolf.

And look, Russia is the reason why the U.S.-Russia relationship is in such bad shape. It's their interference in our election, their aggression in Ukraine as recently as their weekend, their intransigence over North Korea, and their failure to help bring the civil war in Syria to an end and act in concert with the rest of the international community. That's what's really driving this relationship down so far as it's gone. And I think to agree that Trump is distracted, he himself is causing

problems bilaterally and multilaterally, because he simply can't let go of his frustration over the Mueller investigation.

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski, you're here with me. We're here covering this G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. How do you think these other world leaders are reacting to all these developments?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: We know how they're reacting, because we hear from their teams. We know that they watch every development just as closely as we do here in the United States, because it affects the relationship. It affects their ability to get their agendas done.

And look what we've seen in the past. When Trump has something hanging over him, when something negative has happened at home and he's in a foul mood, his talks with even the U.S.'s closest allies do not go well.

We see him meeting with either Angela Merkel of Germany or Emanuel Macron of France and venting and ranting on them about trade.

And in this setting, world leaders' teams are telling me that they have no idea which way it's going to go between Trump and Chinese President Xi on their trade dealings, because they feel that Trump is in this state of mind where it can't be predicted whether he's going to go with some of his hardliner advisers or if he's going to change the tune. They have no idea if he's going to go along even with the communique, the group statement that comes out after this. They feel like what's going on domestically contributes to that uncertainty.

BLITZER: We'll see if they will issue that joint communique at the end of this summit tomorrow.

All right, stand by. Everybody stand by. Much more on the breaking news right after this.


[18:47:53] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back here at the G20 summit in Argentina.

We're speaking with our analysts.

And, John Kirby, President Trump, he is skipping any the formal one- on-one meetings with both the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Do you believe that's a missed opportunity to hold these two leaders potentially accountable?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: I think, quite frankly, that's the only reason to have meetings with these two individuals is to hold them accountable and be as stern about that as possible. Since the president has communicated that he's not interested in holding him accountable and since he's proven in the past to not be willing to stand up to Putin, it's probably a smart decision on the White House to not have him have the meetings and be a let down and more of an embarrassment.

But I'll say this -- I mean, look, the G20 is about diplomacy. It's about the chance to get things done. Missed opportunities are something you have to look at when it comes to meetings you're not going to have. And, again, I think in this case, probably not the worst decision for them since he was absolutely not going to intend or put himself into a position where he had to be strong or stern with either leader.

BLITZER: Michelle, what do you think?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: OK, true. But you make the case that the administration does that you still meet with world leaders when terrible things happen like say Putin meddling directly in the U.S. election or Russia taking over Ukraine. You make the case that you still need to maintain the relationship then suddenly you cancel a meeting right after the news comes out of Mueller investigation. It's a little odd and, yes, this could have been a chance to do something stronger than came out of Helsinki.

BLITZER: You know, Susan Hennessey, we saw those two leaders, Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, and Vladimir Putin, they shared a very warm greeting today. They were high fiving each other with a lot of smiles. What do you make of that?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it was clearly for the benefit of rest of the world and it was a little bit disgusting to watch. I mean, these are two leaders who have brutalized their leaders. The CIA determined that Mohammad bin Salman ordered the execution of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident journalist.

[18:50:02] And because the president of the United States has extended him cover by siding with on a autocratic regime over his own intelligence agencies, that allows, you know, the crown prince to essentially gloat and sort of thumb his nose at the rest of the world.

You know, this image does appear to be getting a lot of negative pushback and negative reaction and I do think that even though the president has this sort of fondness for dictators or autocratic regimes, ultimately, it's the American people who decide what American values are and what Americans stand for and not the president. So, I think some of the strong negative pushback is a remind their collective, you know, we are disgusted by this.

BLITZER: Kaitlan, as you know, all eyes tomorrow on the president's dinner tomorrow night with President Xi of China. And we've gotten some mixed messages from the Trump administration on whether they'll be able to avert a major trade war with China that would have huge ramifications on the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy. What do you anticipate?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's going to be a high stakes dinner regardless. This is the first time they are coming face to face in over a year now. They have essentially been in a stalemate over this trade war for the last several months. And everyone is kind of waiting to see what the outcome is going to be.

Now, White House officials aren't going as far as predicts what will happen. But just a few weeks ago, Vice President Mike Pence was in the same place as President Xi. And he gave a very tough speech about China's economic policies. And some White House officials say that could be Mike Pence playing bad cop, so President Trump can come in here at the G20 summit and play good cop.

But, Wolf, you also have to look at who has the president's ear on this, because his economic advisers are divided into two camps. You got the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the NEC Director Larry Kudlow on one side who want the president to compromise with China. But then on the other side, you got Peter Navarro from the White House Trade Office.

Not only does he not want President Trump to compromise with the Chinese, he wants him to go even tougher on those tariffs. Wolf, guess who will be sitting with the president at that dinner with President Xi? Peter Navarro.

So, White House officials won't predict what's going to happen because, of course, this is a president who can change his mind on a moment's notice. But watch for him to try to emerge out of that dinner, trying to say either that he's got a win here or he has secured another step in some long game that he is playing with the trade war with China.

BLITZER: All right. Good point. Very point good indeed.

Everybody, stick around. There is much more we are following as Vladimir Putin breaks bread with world leaders right now at a dinner here in Buenos Aires. One country is pointing the finger directly at him, in an attempted assassination with a deadly poison.


[18:57:28] BLITZER: Tonight, as Vladimir Putin mingles with other world leaders here in Argentina, the United Kingdom has determined that the Russian president personally ordered a brazen poison attack on British soil.

Our senior national correspondent Alex Marquardt is following this dramatic development for us.

Alex, tell our viewers what you're learning.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the British officials that CNN has spoken with are telling us that not only could many more people have ended up dead in this case but they also told our colleagues Jim Sciutto and Kim Dozier that when you look at all of the different parts of this plot, this could only have happened with the approval of President Vladimir Putin.


MARQUARDT (voice-over): The number of people who could have been killed is in the thousands, British officials say. A deadly chemical attack so brazen they believe it could only have been ordered from the very top by President Vladimir Putin himself.

The nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, targeted former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. He immediately fell ill along with his daughter. They have since recovered, but weeks later, a couple found the discarded poison bottle, opened it and a woman died.

CNN has learned that British officials believe the poison known as Novichok carried in disguise in this small perfume bottle was brought into the U.K. by Russian agents via a commercial flight or a diplomatic pouch.

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Nothing happens in Russia when it comes to security without Putin signoff. There are no rogue operations in Russia.

MARQUARDT: Putin denied Russia was behind the attack but has not hid his feelings about Skripal.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): He is just a spy, a traitor of the motherland. He is simply a scum bag, that's all.

MARQUARDT: The British government has said the attack was carried out by these men, seen here in surveillance video. Authorities accused the men of being agents with Russia's military intelligence unit known as the GRU, and originally suggested the order came from higher up.

THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: The GRU is a highly disciplined organization with a well established chain of command. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.

MARQUARDT: Despite overwhelming evidence, alleged Russian agents claimed they were simply tourists. In custody, they gave an interview to Russian television.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Our friends have been suggesting for a long time we visit this wonderful town. There is the famous Salisbury cathedral, famous not only in Europe but in the whole world.


MARQUARDT: And, Wolf, on top of Putin ordering personally that assassination, the officials that we have spoken with are stunned by what they call the recklessness of carrying around that much deadly poison -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Alex, thanks very much. Alex Marquardt reporting.

That's it.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.