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THE SITUATION ROOM

American Accused of Spying Appears in Russian Court; TSA Makes Plea for Backup as Shutdown Drags on According to Internal Email Obtained By CNN; Ex-Trump Aide Special Counsel Mueller's team asking about Trump campaign's ties to NRA. Aired 6:30-7p ET

Aired January 23, 2019 - 18:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: -- tells CNN that when he was interviewed, Mueller's team expressed interest in the Trump campaign's relationship with the National Rifle Association during the 2016 race.

[18:30:09]

Let's get some more with our correspondents and our analysts. And, Gloria, what are the main concerns about a Trump-NRA relationship?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, I think that what Bob Mueller was interested in is finding out a little bit more about the NRA's ties to Russian nationals. We know that Maria Butina, who tried to get in with the NRA and cultivated relationships there, has now pled guilty essentially to being an operative on behalf of the Russians. We know that the NRA has raised $30 million on behalf of the Trump campaign. We know that the then candidate Trump spoke to the NRA in 2015 when he was running for office.

And so I think what the Special Counsel is trying to find out is was there any link between Russian nationals, the NRA and the Trump campaign.

BLITZER: And what else do you think Mueller and his team are investigating trying to probe?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: So nothing in that report that Sarah did earlier suggest that they have accused the NRA of any crimes. But Maria Butina and Aleksandr Torshin or Russian politicians were at that NRA convention 2015 when President Trump spoke before he was a candidate. They were at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2016. They popped up at lot of these republican events. And then, of course, Maria Butina was given a question in December of 2016 at one of President Trump's campaign or pre-campaign speeches specifically about the U.S. relationship with Russia. How in the world did that happen?

BLITZER: Yes, very intriguing indeed. Kaitlan, we're trying to make some sense out of Rudy Giuliani's recent statements over these past few days that his assertion that President Trump never told Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, to lie to Congress. Giuliani told the New Yorker Magazine this. I have been through all the tapes. I have been through all texts. I have been through all the emails and I knew none existed. The reporter for the New Yorker then followed up. "Wait, what tapes have you gone through?" Giuliani, "I shouldn't have said tapes." Giuliani then later in a separate phone conversation with our own Dana Bash said, "The President isn't pissed at all about Giuliani's confusing comments." So he's just trying - he just wants him to clarify all these comments. What are you hearing?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There aren't many things that the White House and Adam Schiff agree on. But as he just said to you, he doesn't think Rudy Giuliani is doing a good job and White House officials do not think Rudy Giuliani is doing the President any favors either. Comments like this have been happening ever since Rudy Giuliani was first brought on to make remark and he needs to go back and either clean up the mess or sometimes he's planting a seed, as he did with the hush money payments, because that's information that's going to be revealed later on.

The confusion over this remark to The New Yorker about saying that there're tapes, and then going back and saying, there aren't tapes, well, there are tapes but they don't concern this raise questions about Rudy Giuliani's other remarks where he'll say, well, I reviewed all of the evidence including the tapes that he's representing here that he says has nothing to do with Michael Cohen. But then when he's asked questions about the Trump Tower and Moscow timeline, he says he doesn't know all the details and can't answer. So it raises the question, if he's seen all this evidence and he has gone through all of this, how can he not answer pretty simple questions like what the timeline is.

BLITZER: Yes. Mark, your colleague at the New York Times also spoke with Rudy Giuliani and he described the term, tower-Moscow, conversations. And they're quoting the President, Rudy Giuliani is quoting the President as going on from the day I announced to the day I won, from the day I announced to the day I won. Giuliani later tried to clarify that in The New Yorker interview saying, "What I was talking about was if I had those conversations, they would not criminal." He didn't have the conversations lawyers argue in the alternative. If we went to court, we would say we don't have to prove it's true or not true because even if it's true, it's not criminal. That's confusing but does any of this add up?

MARK MAZZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think the significance is, first of all, that he's extending the timetable by months from what we knew about the Trump Tower negotiations. At first, it was, well, they ended before any republican primaries. Then they ended sometime in the summer, according to Mueller documents, when Cohen was involved in having these discussions about furthering the deal. Now, he says the - it went all the way up to the election.

And then the question, of course, is did they actually ever end? Did anything officially end or they put on the backburner, we still don't know. And, of course, the bigger picture, and this is what Adam Schiff raised, was you have the President a candidate trying to negotiate a very lucrative deal, at the same time, he's calling for sanctions relief, he is calling for - echoing Putin's talking points and so - and he's calling for hacked emails to be released. So it's quite significant, the sort of mix of personal and public.

[18:35:03]

BLITZER: Because he is speaking the first person, Rudy Giuliani quoting the President, going on, from the day I announced to the day I won. That would be in November 2016, not just through the summer but all the way until the elections.

MAZZETTI: And he is saying, this is what the President said to him.

BORGER: And you also have the President's attorneys who have done written answers to Bob Mueller and you don't know whether their written answers actually match with what Rudy Giuliani is now saying, and I think that's a headache for them.

But let me just say one thing about Rudy Giuliani. People at the White House may think he's doing a lousy job. There is one person at the White House that matters and that's Donald Trump. And Donald Trump trusts Rudy Giuliani, he likes Rudy Giuliani, he thinks he's out there fighting for him, no matter what he says, and if he stirs the pot and creates chaos. Well, who thrives in chaos? Donald Trump.

COLLINS: Yes. They don't seem to have a problem with them mudding the waters, just as what we've seen Rudy Giuliani do.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around, hold your thoughts for a moment. We've got to take a quick break. Much more on the breaking news, Kaitlan has some new information on what's going on inside the White House right now. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

[18:40:49] BLITZER: There's more breaking news. We're following right now votes in the U.S. Senator that is scheduled for Thursday on two competing bills that will end the government shutdown, but neither is expected to get the necessary 60 votes needed to pass. And, Kaitlan, you're getting some new information on how the White House is dealing with all of this and some dissention inside.

COLLINS: So the government - the White House has had a communications problem for months now, but this government shutdown is really laying bare all the tensions that have existed. And a lot of that based on our reporting with nearly a dozen current and former White House officials goes back to the President not empowering one person to really lead the messaging strategy at the White House. And when we asked the White House about our reporting today, Sarah Sanders told me, the guy that's in charge of this messaging here is the President himself.

But behind the scenes, you have this kind of four-way rat race going on between not only Sarah Sanders but also Bill Shine, Kellyanne Conway and Mercedes Schlapp kind of all running around, they're all present in the meetings with the President holds, even from pretty mundane hurricane briefings to the meetings that they've had, these three meetings in the situation room with democrats trying to negotiate their way out of this shutdown.

But what we're told by sources is regardless of the fact that these four senior communications aides in these meetings, they don't feel that they have been able to develop some kind of cohesive strategy to help them really with the optics of the shutdown. And as you know, the President has been irritated by those polls that show most Americans are holding him responsible for the shutdown and not democrats.

So, really, that's been an existing problem they have had. Some of our reporting shows that the president thought bringing in Bill Shine, his former television executive, to be his communications director essentially was going to solve that. And the president thought he was going to get better coverage. But, of course, that's a thought that the President has had several times during his time in office.

And he's been complaining lately saying he doesn't think that Bill Shine has helped him. And even aides who thought perfect comms director for the president would be a former television executive have been somewhat disappointed by Bill Shine, because they say his strategy is largely consisted of calling Fox News host, booking officials on those shows, but they don't feel he is helping to expand their support outside of the people who already support the President.

BORGER: Sometimes when you have a message problem, you really have a problem problem. And the problem, it seems to me, is not the message and the communications strategy. It's the fact that the President of the United States came out and said, number one, he'd be happy to own any shutdown over the wall, and number two, there haven't been any real kind of negotiations or movement and the president is still insisting on this wall, which a majority of the American public doesn't support. Yes, you can blame Bill Shine, you can blame Sarah Sanders, you can blame anyone you want, but the President won't look at himself, of course, and he does have a problem because of the substance of what's being discussed.

BLITZER: The buck stops with everybody, Gloria, not with like - but this president, he is really the communications director. He wants to control everything. He tweeted today that Sarah Sanders is not doing her briefings because the press covers her so rudely and inaccurately. She doesn't talk to the press from that podium anymore in the West Wing of the White House. But the President, he is pretty available. He goes out there and talks all the time.

MAZZETTI: Right. And as Gloria said, he has taken ownership of the shutdown and its ripple effects, the ripple effects are real. The longer it goes on, the longer it has actually economic impact, not just in Washington, but in missed paychecks, in loss of consumer confidence. I mean, this falls right at the doorstep of the White House. So however you want to communicate, you've got a problem here if you've already owned the problems. And so that's something that the longer this goes on, the bigger the problem is.

BLITZER: Do you think the President has lost confidence in Sarah Sanders that's why for a month now, she hasn't gone out and briefed the press from the White House briefing room? SWERDLICK: I think it's a couple of things, Wolf. I think the President still thinks he is his own best spokesperson even though he does rely on Press Secretary Sanders sometimes. I also think it's the case that he knows and the entire White House staff knows that every time you go in front of the White House press corps, you are not just going to get questions about what you want to message on, you're going to get questions about what Giuliani said, you're going to get questions about Special Counsel investigation, and they haven't had good answers for those.

[18:45:05]

BLITZER: Yes.

COLLINS: Yes. And to that effect, when Sean Spicer was the Press Secretary, the President told him to stop doing briefings because he thought every time he did it, the coverage got worse. But the president likes Sarah Sanders. It's a very good relationship and he likes seeing her on TV, just not in briefings.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Where else would it be?

COLLINS: Television interviews.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's more news we're following.

An American man appears in a Moscow courtroom as his lawyer reveals the alleged evidence that has Russia calling him a spy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:50:13] BLITZER: We're learning new details of the case against an American man accused by Russia of spying.

Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us live from Moscow.

Fred, you were there when Paul Whelan appeared before a Russian court today. What happened?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was the first time, Wolf, that we saw Paul Whelan since he was arrested here in Moscow at the end of December. He seemed to be in half decent spirits, trying to smile every once in a while, but certainly, very much aware of the gravity of the situation which has now become a lot tougher as Russians denied him bail. Here's what we learned.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Tonight, American Paul Whelan remains in Russian detention, forced to stand in a glass cell as a judge shot down his request for release on bail while he awaits his espionage trial.

REPORTER: Are you being treated okay, Mr. Whelan? PLEITGEN: Paul Whelan not allowed to answer CNN's questions behind

bullet proof glass in the high security courtroom.

Whelan was detained by Russia intelligence service, the FSB, in his hotel room in central Moscow in late December and charged with espionage. His lawyer saying he was given a classified flash drive.

VLADIMIR ZHEREBENKOV, LAWYER FOR PAUL WHELAN (through translator): Paul received information and I confirm the information is classified as state secretive information on a flash drive. In reality, Paul was expecting to receive from an individual information of a cultural nature, him attending one of the cathedrals, Paul's vacation photos.

PLEITGEN: Paul Whelan's lawyers says he was misled into taking the classified information, but the attorney defending the investigation.

REPORTER: Do you think it's going to be a fair trial?

ZHEREBENKOV: The process was very constructive and professional. Whelan's rights were observed.

PLEITGEN: But the attorney also admitted that so far the defense has only been able see about 5 percent of the evidence available in this case.

ZHEREBENKOV: The investigators failed to prove Paul's position, specifically, he did not view this information as state secrets.

PLEITGEN: Some are speculating Russia pay have taken Paul Whelan as a possible bargaining chip, perhaps to exchange him for a high Russia profile in American detention, like Maria Butina, who has admitted to working as a foreign agent inside the U.S. Russia vehemently denies the allegations, but Paul Whelan's family continues to call for his release.

While we still lack any details from the Russian government about why Paul is thought to be a spy and who provided him with the alleged state secret the family statement reads, we are certain he was entrapped and is not guilty of espionage.

After being denied bail, Paul Whelan's hardship in a Russian jail continues. His attorney saying it could be months before his trial even begins.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: The State Department coming out tonight as well, Wolf, calling on Russia to provide for a swift, fair and transparent judicial process, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen in Moscow for us, thank you.

Just ahead, a new sign of how severely the government shutdown is impacting the TSA. It's a CNN exclusive.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:58:01] BLITZER: Now, a CNN exclusive, a disturbing sign the TSA is being stretched thin as the government shutdown continues.

CNN's Rene Marsh is working the story for us.

Rene, the agency is, what, now, pleading for help?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: They absolutely are. CNN obtained this e-mail obtained by a TSA executive Monday morning. In this e-mail, TSA is making a plea for 250 volunteer officers who were deployed to airports struggling with the excessive callouts due to the shutdown. Now, the e-mail says the volunteers are needed for deployment over the next week. And the e-mail was sent to TSA officials in more than ten states with more than 100 airports.

And this is a clear indication that the agency is bracing for staffing shortfalls to get worse as federal employees prepared to miss a second paycheck, and that will happen on Friday. Now, the volunteers would presumably come from airports that haven't faced the strain from callouts in order to help airports that have. As you know, CNN has already reported many back-up TSA officers have been deployed to Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta, Newark, as well as New York's JFK.

But this is just the latest example of increasing anxiety within the agency about the rising number of callouts the number of TSA officers calling out from work has grown in recent days. Over the weekend, we saw that it was more than three times what it was a year ago. And so far this week, more than double the percentage of what it was a year ago.

So, clearly, staffing is still top of mind for this agency as this shutdown continues.

BLITZER: Where are they going to get the money to pay for these employees, these TSA employees, to travel from airport to airport? They have to stay overnight. It's not cheap.

MARSH: Exactly. It certainly is going to cost them thousands of dollars to deploy this force to help with staffing. TSA says that they have money that's appropriated specifically for situations as far like life and death. And they consider this one of those security situations.

BLITZER: They've got to end the shutdown, they've got to go quickly, because there is a lot at stake.

Rene, good reporting. Thank you very, very much.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.