Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Senator Kamala Harris Launches Presidential Campaign; Trump Approves Sanctions On Venezuelan Oil Company As Kremlin Accuses U.S. Of "Direct Interference;" Acting Attorney General Reveals He's Been Fully Briefed On Mueller Probe And It Is Close To Being Completed; Sources: Pentagon Planning Withdrawal Of Up To 50 Percent Of U.S. Forces From Afghanistan. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 28, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: As the acting attorney general now says the special counsel's work is nearly done. After well over a year of anticipation, how will the Trump-Russia saga end?

Making it public. A new bipartisan bill would take the decision on releasing Mueller's report out of the hands of the attorney general. Will it pass? And would it prevent the White House from keeping Mueller's findings secret?

No intention to deal. Roger Stone now says he isn't planning to cooperate with the special counsel after appearing to leave the door open for a deal. Is a presidential pardon on the table?

And state of their showdown. After the president caved to Nancy Pelosi, and the government reopened, the House speaker has now invited Mr. Trump to address Congress next week, and he's accepted. Will his speech help or hurt chances of avoiding a second shutdown?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the Russia investigation.

The acting attorney general revealing tonight that he's been fully briefed on the Mueller probe and that it's -- quote -- "close to being completed."

This as the White House isn't ruling out a presidential pardon for Roger Stone. The longtime Trump adviser faces arraignment tomorrow on his seven-count indictment by Mueller's grand jury.

Also breaking, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just invited President Trump to deliver his State of the Union address on February 5, a week later than first planned. Pelosi nixed the original date because of the government shutdown.

This hour, I will talk with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi, and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our Justice Reporter, Laura Jarrett.

Laura, tell us more about what we're hearing from the acting attorney general tonight, because his words are very significant.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. This is the first time we have heard from the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, weighing in on the timing of when Mueller's work might be provided.

And while he didn't provide an exact timetable, he made it crystal clear that the end is near. Take a listen to exactly what he said just a short time ago here at the Justice Department.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: You know, I have been fully briefed on the investigation, and, you know, I look forward to Director Mueller delivering the final report.

And I really am not going to talk about an open and ongoing investigation otherwise, but, you know, sort of the statements that I made were as a private citizen only with publicly available information.

And, you know, I am comfortable that the decisions that were made are going to be reviewed, you know, either through the various means we have, but, right now, you know, the investigation is, I think, close to being completed. And I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller as soon as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: Wolf, obviously, Whitaker's comments raising a lot of questions about what all this means, but two big issues that raise in the immediate short-term, one being, will we see any more indictments?

Obviously, we saw President Trump's longtime adviser Roger Stone arrested last week. The question is, is that the last one? Will there be any follow-up? Will there be a superseding indictment or is there anyone left to be captured in this probe that has indicted dozens of people thus far?

The other question is how much of a role Whitaker will have to play in Mueller's final report, as the president has nominated someone else, former Attorney General Bill Barr, to be his permanent pick for attorney general, and so, if he's confirmed by the Senate, of course, he's on track for that early next month.

If he is confirmed, he will be the one who is the ultimate decider about what happens to Mueller's highly anticipated report -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that's an important point.

Whitaker, the acting attorney general, Laura, also discussed the scope of the Mueller probe. Could we see the Justice Department investigating issues like lying even after the Mueller probe is complete?

JARRETT: He was asked about that, especially in light, I think, of the president's tweets over the weekend, naming a host of officials that the president feels haven't been adequately investigated by the Justice Department.

And on that issue, Whitaker said that Mueller's scope essentially is what it is, but the Justice Department takes referrals from Congress about lying very seriously and the Justice Department could investigate that all on its own, even if Mueller doesn't do that work, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very significant. All right, Laura, thank you very much. I want you to stand by.

I want to bring in our Crime and Justice Reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, given the -- given what's going on right now, what we're hearing from the acting attorney general, does that mean that any significant law enforcement action is now complete, we won't necessarily see any more arrests?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It would very well be.

I mean, Whitaker is right, and Laura there pointed this out, the Department of Justice does not talk about ongoing investigations, when they're going to end, when they're going to start. They never signal to reporters, certainly, where things stand and what's happening.

[18:05:11]

And that's what makes this so significant, in that this is the acting attorney general. He's telling us he's been fully briefed on this investigation. And the fact that he's saying, he's signaling here that this could be winding down, that this is coming to an end, could indicate that all of the major players, at least within this country, within the U.S., that they can bring indictments against, people they may want to arrest, people that they may want to question, people that they may want to interview, they may be done.

And so what this suggests to us is that this certainly could be that we're now at the end of this and all now that we're waiting for is the final report from the Mueller team.

BLITZER: Laura, do we know if the acting attorney general, now that he's been fully briefed by Mueller on the state of the investigation, do we know if the acting attorney general has now briefed the president?

JARRETT: We don't know that, Wolf. Of course, we would love to know what exactly he's been saying, if anything, to President Trump about this. The one thing that is interesting, though, is that, eventually,

there's been a lot of talk about what happens to the report in terms of it being submitted to Congress, how much the public will see. But one thing to know is that, under the regulations, if there was anything that Mueller wanted to do, and the Justice Department turned him down, that has to get reported to Congress.

And so, eventually, we will have an indication if there was anything, any indictment, any significant step that Mueller wanted to take, and for some reason he was turned down by Whitaker or anyone else, that, we will find out about.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Shimon. Roger Stone, at the White House press briefing today, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, she wouldn't necessarily rule out the possibility that the president could issue a pardon, give him a pardon, wouldn't say whether the president had any interaction with Roger Stone about WikiLeaks or anything along those lines.

She claims she didn't know anything about all of that. He seems to be sending mixed signals, Stone, about whether or not he would cooperate with Mueller. And he's also maybe positioning himself for a possible pardon.

PROKUPECZ: No, I mean, he certainly could be doing that, Wolf.

When you think about what he's saying, on Sunday, he said, well, I may cooperate if I know things, if I have information as it relates to people in the campaign. He says he doesn't have any information. He has signaled that he has no intent of cooperating against the president or providing any information against the president.

Today, he was more matter -- of being more certain today that he wasn't going to cooperate if he had been asked. Look, I think the bottom line is, we don't even know that Mueller would even want him to cooperate. He's not the kind of witness that prosecutors would want to put on the stand. He changes his story quite a lot.

He's not -- right, obviously, he has credibility issues. We don't even know that Mueller would want him to cooperate, but he certainly likes dangling this things. It certainly keeps things interesting.

The other thing I want to point out, what Laura says about the scope of the Mueller investigation, look, there are parts of this investigation that may live beyond Mueller. Mueller could finish. He could be done with his report. But there could be parts of this investigation that the Mueller team, the FBI agents there have found things, have thought maybe things may be illegal and that they have, as we saw in the Michael Cohen investigation, that they may have farmed out to other U.S. attorneys.

Just because Mueller is done doesn't mean that parts of this investigation are entirely over. And I think that's an important point for people to keep in mind.

BLITZER: Speaking of Michael Cohen, February 8, he will testify before the House Intelligence Committee. Adam Schiff announced that just a little while ago.

Thanks very much, Shimon.

Laura, thanks to you as well. Good reporting, as usual.

Let's get to some more breaking news right now on the tense aftermath of the government shutdown. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, just invited President Trump to deliver his State of the Union address on February 5, a week from tomorrow. That's a week later than first planned. Pelosi nixed the original date because of the government shutdown.

Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, there was a very, very rare White House briefing today. Update our viewers on the very latest.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as you said, they have managed to get the State of the Union address back on the calendar. The speaker just reinvited the president back to the Capitol one week from tomorrow.

And just a few moment the ago, the president, he did accept. So the White House, as you said, just wrapped up its first briefing in more than a month. That was earlier this afternoon, as top administration officials announced new sanctions on Venezuela, those sanctions aimed at prodding that country's embattled leader, Nicolas Maduro, to step aside.

But the White House still has its hands full on the domestic side, as aides are scrambling to prevent yet another government shutdown.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have to have a wall.

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's as if President Trump has been hiding in a cave. He's largely been out of sight ever since he backed down in his standoff with Democrats over his quest for a border wall.

And with just 18 days and counting before yet another government shutdown, the president doesn't sound optimistic, telling "The Wall Street Journal" the odds of reaching a deal to prevent another lapse in funding are less than 50/50, which is why top White House officials are warning the president is prepared to declare a national energy, so he can try to go around Congress.

[18:10:15]

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: what I do know is if they don't come back with a deal, that means Democrats get virtually nothing. That will make the president and force him to have to take executive action. MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: It's still better,

John, to get it through legislation. That's the right way to do it. But, at the end of the day, the president is going to secure the border one way or another.

ACOSTA: Despite of complaints from conservative allies that Mr. Trump was taken to the woodshed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi...

LOU DOBBS, FOX NEWS: She has just whipped the president of the United States.

ACOSTA: ... the White House is trying to insist the president somehow won the stalemate.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The negotiations are still ongoing. And I would argue that conservatives that actually have influence have supported the president throughout this process. This is a simple fix. It's easy for Democrats to sit down and come to an agreement and work with us to get border security.

ACOSTA: Democrats are already sounding worried about the prospects of reaching an agreement with the president.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: I think the 35-day-long federal shutdown was completely senseless. I think for the president to take us back into another shutdown would be senseless. But the point of compromise is to not begin by saying absolutely no at this end or this end. It was the president who caused this shutdown by demanding $5.7 billion for a wall.

ACOSTA: The shutdown appears to have done some political damage to the president, with the latest CNN poll of polls showing less than 40 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Trump's job performance.

The Russia investigation likely isn't helping, with his longtime adviser Roger Stone sending mixed messages about whether he might cut a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller, after the Nixon era dirty trickster was indicted last week.

Stone telling ABC News Sunday:

ROGER STONE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I would certainly testify honestly. I would also testify honestly about any other matter, including any communications with the president.

ACOSTA: And then today, just 24 hours later.

QUESTION: Are you willing to cut a deal with Mueller to avoid the case going to trial?

STONE: I don't answer hypothetical questions. I have no intention of doing so, however.

ACOSTA: As he has with other targets or the Russia probe, the president is downplaying his relationship with his close friend, tweeting over the weekend that "Stone didn't even work for me anywhere near the election."

Another friend of the president's, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is out with a new book claiming that Mr. Trump thought he had put an end to the Russia investigation when he fired former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, an assessment shared by son- in-law Jared Kushner.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I said listen, Flynn's the only guy who spoke to the Russians, apparently, and he said, so I think this is going to end it. And I just laughed. And I said, Mr. President, it's unfortunate that I have to tell you this, but having done this myself for a living, we're going to be talking about this on Valentine's Day in February '18.

And they laughed out loud. And Jared told me I was crazy.

ACOSTA: The White House was asked whether the Trump presidency was somehow endangered by the growing number of aides and associates ensnared in the Russia investigation.

(on camera): Roger Stone last week, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn. Are you concerned, is the president concerned that as more and more of his associates, former aides are brought into this investigation, are indicted, plead guilty in this investigation, that this presidency is in danger?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Not at all. In fact, I think nothing could be further from the truth. The more that this goes on, the more and more we see that none of these things have anything to do with the president.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, we should also point out Press Secretary Sarah Sanders didn't really knock down the idea of a presidential pardon for Roger Stone, meaning that remains a live option for Mr. Trump.

And, Wolf, we want to draw your attention to one other thing that happened at the White House briefing earlier this afternoon. John Bolton, the national security adviser, was caught on camera -- a photographer took a picture of this, of his notepad. He was holding this notepad in the Briefing Room.

And if notice, in that second line, it says "5,000 troops to Colombia."

Well, in just the last several minutes, our White House producer, Kevin Liptak, was able to get a statement from a White House official over here. That very brief statement in response to this question about what that was all about essentially said, as the president has said, all options are on the table when it comes to the situation in Venezuela.

So a very interesting development that really sort of went over all of our heads this afternoon at the White House briefing. We obviously couldn't see that from the front row of the Briefing Room, what was scrawled on the national security adviser's notebook.

But that, very almost cryptic line there, it says 5,000 troops to Colombia, the White House not knocking that down as potentially being an option for the United States in dealing with this crisis that's unfolding in Venezuela -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. And then he said, all options are on the table, presumably the military option as well.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: Very significant, very significant, indeed. All right, good work, Jim. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta over at the White House.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi, who serves on the Armed Services Committee.

You want to give me your quick reaction, 5,000 U.S. troops potentially being deployed to Colombia, if they're needed, to deal with the situation in Venezuela?

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: We always talk about the Constitution. The Constitution says only Congress can wage war. Is that what he intends to do in Venezuela? We're going to go to war in Venezuela?

[18:15:08]

We don't know. This is something -- an imperial is presidency is what we're developing here in the United States.

He wants to use his power to override the authority of Congress in the appropriation of money with regard to these emergency appropriations, now sending troops into Venezuela. To what, wage war, to change the government? We don't know.

BLITZER: He's sending them to Colombia, but what if these troops are needed to rescue American diplomats or American citizens?

GARAMENDI: Something to think about.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because Congress would not necessarily have to approve that.

GARAMENDI: Probably not have to approve that.

But what is that? We need to understand what is going on here. This president has been out of control for his entire presidency. You just went through 15 minutes of the chaos of this administration, international policy. We need to settle down here. Obviously, we got to deal with this border wall issue.

I will tell you, the Democrats are going to provide whatever money is necessary for real security.

BLITZER: I want to get to that in a moment.

Let's talking about the breaking news.

GARAMENDI: Yes.

BLITZER: You heard the Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, now saying, telling reporters he's been fully briefed on the state of the Mueller probe. And he says it's close to being completed. How significant is that?

GARAMENDI: Those are the words we have heard for more than a year. We will see when this is completed.

I want a complete job done. I want everything that we need to know about the involvement of the Trump and Trump campaign in the Russia, what Russia did. We need to know how to protect our democracy. And, furthermore, the Mueller investigation is just one piece.

The Congress of the United States has to conduct open investigations on everything that's taken place.

BLITZER: Whitaker, the acting attorney general, also says that the decisions that were made are being reviewed as to what is going to be released to Congress, what's going to be released publicly.

Senator Chris Coons tells CNN that is chilling. He used the word chilling. How do you interpret that comment by the acting attorney general?

GARAMENDI: Apparently, he wants to hide the ball. I hope that's not the case. I want all of the information out. The American public wants to know what is going on. We're demanding that.

Congress is demanding that. We can't rely on this attorney general. If we have to pass a law, that all of this comes forward to the American public and Congress, so be it. Will the president sign it? Maybe he will have to.

BLITZER: Would there be enough votes in the House and Senate to override a presidential veto? You need two-thirds. That's not easy.

GARAMENDI: Well, let's find out what's being hidden. And then we will see.

BLITZER: Let's see what the report, when they...

GARAMENDI: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... conclude the report.

As far as Roger Stone, the president's longtime friend and associate going back for decades to the '80s, maybe even the '70s, the White House argues that Stone's indictment the other day has nothing to do with the president, according to Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, and only concerns his testimony to Congress.

What does that tell you about Stone facing charges related to conspiracy?

GARAMENDI: The charges, at least as I understand them, and has been reported, are very, very much into the conspiracy issue.

BLITZER: Well, he hasn't formally been charged with conspiracy or collusion. He's been charged with perjury and obstruction.

GARAMENDI: I just said into the conspiracy issue.

I understand there haven't been charged, but certainly he was in touch with WikiLeaks. Certainly, there was a questions and his e-mails and other information written into that indictment. That would indicate that he was up to his eyeballs in what was going on at that time during that part of the national election process.

So, yes, there's something here. What does it all mean? This is why we have to have it out in the public. And if Mueller's investigation isn't made public, then the Congress of the United States will do so.

BLITZER: As part of the deal to keep the government open, would you support at least some funding for a steel barrier? Forget about the word wall, but some sort of extensive fence so that the president would be able to say he's got his wall?

GARAMENDI: Well, here's what I have said from the very get-go on this.

And that is, tell us why it is necessary in that particular location. What's it going to cost? What are the elements of this? This is standard procedure for the administration when it comes to Congress for money. Why is it necessary? Why this particular location? What is it going to cost?

Does the fence need to be repaired? Is it concrete, is it granite, or is it steel? That's of little consequence to me, but I want to know why and what the cost is.

BLITZER: You want details.

Congressman Garamendi, thanks for coming in.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Lots of breaking news we're following today.

Also just ahead, Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris is about to face Iowa voters. We're standing by for a CNN town hall event.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:23]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including a revelation on the Russia investigation. The acting attorney general of the United States says he's been fully

briefed on the Mueller probe and that it's now, in his words, close to being completed.

Also this hour, we're standing by for CNN's town hall event with Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

Our CNN National Correspondent, Kyung Lah, is joining us from the town hall site in Des Moines, Iowa, for us.

Kyung, tell our viewers what we can expect tonight.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Harris campaign says the goal tonight will be very simple. The senator is looking forward to talking to the people gathered in the town hall to take their questions, to listen to their concerns.

[18:25:02]

And then from there, the Iowa Democrats say that she had a very good launch, but they're now looking forward to vetting her.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So, let's do this.

LAH (voice-over): Senator Kamala Harris making her first visit to Iowa as a presidential candidate on the heels of her official campaign launch in California.

HARRIS: I will lead with integrity, and I will speak the truth.

LAH: Truth, a word she said more than 20 times in her speech, as she called on supporters to fight for their vision of America.

HARRIS: People in power are trying to convince us that the villain in our American story is each other. But that is not our story. That is not who we are. That is not our America.

LAH: Harris laid out a populist platform, including Medicare for all, debt-free college, and a middle-class tax cut. While she never said his name, Harris made clear she's ready to take on the president.

HARRIS: When we have foreign powers infecting the White House like malware, let's speak truth about what are clear and present dangers.

LAH: In her hometown of Oakland, Harris packed the plaza and the streets, but even in this crowd a reminder that the first-in-the- nation caucuses are still a year away.

AJAY BHUTORIA, DEMOCRATIC VOTER: Oh, she has a huge support. And -- but, at the same time, I'm open to wait to other Democratic candidates who will be making their way.

LAH: Beyond that ever-expanding field of Democratic hopefuls, a curve ball from former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the self-made billionaire who built Starbucks from the ground up tweeting this video, explaining that he's considering an independent run for president.

HOWARD SCHULTZ, CEO, STARBUCKS: Now, the word independent is just a designation on the ballot. If I run for president, I will run as an American under one banner, the American flag.

LAH: The blowback came swiftly on social media from Democrats, saying Schultz will dilute Trump's opposition, calling Schultz an existential threat, to this message from the Washington State Democratic Party on a Starbucks cup, "Don't do it, Howard," a message echoed by Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro.

JULIAN CASTRO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have a concern that, if he did run, that, essentially, it would provide Donald Trump with his best hope of getting reelected.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAH: And the Schultz announcement prompted this reaction from Michael Bloomberg.

He tweeted: "In 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up reelecting the president. That's a risk I refused to run in 2016, and we can't afford to run it now."

Wolf, I am live here on the campus of Drake University. The Harris campaign says, after the town hall, the senator plans to meet with students by stopping by at a watch party here on the campus -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Kyung Lah, reporting for us.

As the 2020 race is taking shape, there's a lot to dig into with our analysts. They're here. They're ready to share their insights on all the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:32:59] BLITZER: We are following multiple breaking stories tonight, including a key update on the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. The acting Attorney General, Matt Whitaker said a little while ago that he's now been fully briefed on the probe, and that it's, in his words, close to being completed.

Let's get to more with our reporters, our analysts, they're all here with me. Gloria, I'll play precisely what Whitaker, the acting Attorney General, just said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: I've been fully briefed on the investigation and I look forward to Director Mueller delivering the final report. And I really am not going to talk about an open and ongoing investigation otherwise, but sort of the statements I made whereas a private citizen only with publicly available information. And, you know, I am comfortable that the decisions that were made are going to be reviewed either through the various means we have. But right now, the investigation is, I think, close to being completed, and I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller as soon as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Gloria, this isn't speculation. He has been fully briefed.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

BLITZER: Se says on the status of the Mueller probe and he says it's close to being completed. What do you think?

BORGER: In that small statement, he has told us more than we have ever known from Mueller, from the Special Counsel's office. And I think he got himself into a little bit of trouble there because he said, and this is what has democrats in a tizzy, "I'm comfortable with the decisions that were - that - I am comfortable that the decisions that were made are going to be reviewed through the various means we have."

Well, what does that mean? Does that mean that he would be involved in the reviewing? Does it mean you'll wait if for the Attorney General Barr? Does it mean that he disagrees with some of the decisions that were made? Is he sending a signal to the White House? Well, yes, maybe I don't agree with some of these decisions, but they're going to be reviewed.

And then you have senators saying - Senator Coons said that it's chilling to hear that, and lots of senators are saying, who are you to make this judgment?

[18:35:07]

You're the person who came out and said it was a witch hunt in the first place. And then he defended himself on that as well.

BLITZER: He's the attorney general nominee, Jeffrey, Bill Barr, he's probably going to be confirmed in the next few weeks. He said he doesn't know what form the Mueller report will take. He is not committing to releasing the full report. What's your reaction?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, can i just go back to the Whitaker statement there for a second? I have seen actual deer in actual headlights who express themselves more clearly than the Attorney General of the United States did there. I have no idea what he's talking about.

And this is very serious stuff. I mean, this man is utterly unqualified to be Attorney General, he cannot express himself about a matter of extreme importance, the Mueller investigation, and he has raised all these questions about decisions he's going to review. Well, what is he even talking about? I mean, I think this is just a very serious matter that some grown-up is going to have to clean up soon.

BLITZER: Well, what about Bill Barr? Is he the grown-up?

TOOBING: Well, yes. I mean, Barr showed during his confirmation hearings that this is a serious person with serious understanding of the law. And at least for the good of the country, it seems like he can only be confirmed sooner rather than later because this Whitaker guy, I mean, I have no idea what he is doing there.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": No. I was just going to say, look, I sort of agree with Jeffrey, Wolf. I have been on air right here on CNN with Whitaker. He's a nice guy. He's normally a very confident guy. But he was really hedging all over the place in that statement. As long as he's the acting Attorney General, it is up to him what happens with the Special Counsel's report.

But I think that, A, yes, the nominee, William Barr, would probably be a person with a steadier hand on what to do next. And number two, I really do think this is a situation where if someone tried to suppress any material parts of this report at this point, there would be such a clamber, even from republicans that the public wasn't getting to hear what the Special Counsel --

BLITZER: But, Rebecca -- go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Well, I don't know that that's true. I mean, this is an administration that brazens through things. I mean, I think they could say it's a national security question, they could say it's grand jury material, they could say it's covered by executive privilege. Who is going to - I mean, like what remedy do the democrats have if they want to --

BORGER: Well, maybe Barr. Maybe Barr is serious enough. And the democrats are trying to pass some legislation that says, you have to give us a summary of this. But that's --

TOOBIN: That ain't -- you know, Gloria, that ain't going nowhere.

BORGER: I agree. That's neither here nor there. My big question was, was he sending signal to the White House? Like I'm confident that a lot of these decisions are going to be reviewed. Why are they -- what, why? What was he saying with that?

BLITZER: There is more breaking news coming in. We now have been told by Adam Schiff, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rebecca, that Michael Cohen, the President's longtime lawyer and fixer, he will appear February 8th voluntarily before the House Intelligence Committee.

And Cohen says this. These are strong words. Efforts to intimidate witnesses, scare their family members or prevent them from testifying before Congress are tactics we expect from organized crime, not the White House. These attacks on Mr. Cohen's family must stop. Federal law prohibits efforts to discourage, intimidate or otherwise pressure a witness not to provide testimony to Congress." That's Adam Schiff who said that about Michael Cohen and the fears that he had, why he backed out of testifying in open session before the House Oversight Committee. Now, he'll appear behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee on February 8th.

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, wolf. That's a very clear message that Adam Schiff is sending to the President, to Rudy Giuliani, to anyone else in the White House or allies of the president who might try to intimidate Michael Cohen, basically saying, you will be breaking the law if you do. And, of course, the next question is, well, then could the House potentially impeach the President for that? Could lawmakers pursue routes like that?

And so Michael Cohen is going to have his day to say his piece in public to the House. It's going to be quite the spectacle coming a few days after the State of the Union now rescheduled for February 5th with another potential shutdown looming later this month. And you can bet the president will be watching very closely.

TOOBIN: Wait, is it going to be public?

BLITZER: No, no, it's going to be behind closed doors.

BORGER: We don't know what's going to happen with the Oversight Committee yet. They have been - as you know, Michael Cohen backed out of that because he was afraid, as you're pointing out. And don't forget, he's supposed to go to jail in early March. So we'll have to see what happens with that committee.

BLITZER: We've breaking news coming in to The Situation Room, a very disturbing news coming in from Houston, Texas, right now, where we're seeing reports of multiple police officers struck with gunfire.

[18:40:01]

Our law enforcement analyst, Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent, Josh Campbell, has been working his sources for us. So what are you learning, Josh?

JOSH CAMPBELL, FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: Yes, Wolf, a tragic day in Houston. We're still gathering details on the extent of what is actually developing there. What we do know from the Police Union, and he said, up to five officers have been shot in some kind of an encounter with the subject. The Houston mayor, Sylvester Turner, has indicated on Twitter that the suspect right now is down. We don't have additional information about why officers were there and what actually happened during that encounter.

We have seen footage of ambulances obviously showing up, as well as Life Flight helicopters, the nearest level 1 trauma center is not far from that location. But the helicopter being on scene at least signal that this is possibly a very significant situation with possibly significant injuries.

We're continuing to monitor that, Wolf. Again, we have no additional details. The mayor was saying the suspect is down. We'll gather those additional facts and obviously continue to update on the status of these officers just as soon as we get it.

BLITZER: Yes. The President of the Houston Police Officers Union says, "We currently have five officers shot, all on their way to the hospital. One is being Life Flighted on the way to the hospital, will update when I can." We'll update our viewers on much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:55] BLITZER: Tonight here on CNN, the first major television event of the 2020 race for the White House. Presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, will join Jake Tapper for a CNN town hall live from Des Moines, Iowa. You're looking at live pictures coming in.

She launched her campaign with a big event yesterday.

BORGER: She did. And she, you know, this was all very well-planned. You know, she has been to North Carolina. She knows where the early primaries are. She knows California's early, and she's in Iowa.

And it was -- I wasn't there, but the reports are that it was a great event with 20,000 people. And so she looks like she's on her way. Need I say this is early, but she looks like a professional candidate at this point.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, she's a former attorney general of California before becoming U.S. senator.

TOOBIN: You know, what's interesting is that the Democratic Party at this moment has moved left for a lot of people have on criminal justice issues, and that credential may hurt as well as help her because a lot of Democrats are concerned about the issue of mass incarceration, of over-prosecution, of charging felonies when they could be misdemeanors, and she's going to be challenged from the left on what is usually an excellent credential for a candidate for higher office.

Again, as Gloria says, it's very early, but that whole issue of how her career as a prosecutor plays out is one that we're all going to be keeping an eye on.

BLITZER: Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is worrying a whole bunch of Democrats right now. He's saying he's seriously thinking of running for president as an independent, which could split that anti- Trump vote out there.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It could. The last time we had a serious third-party candidate was Ross Perot who got 19 percent in the 1992 general election. That's not insignificant.

I think that Howard Schultz probably has to define to voters why he's running, not as a Republican or as a Democrat, not why he's running at all. I mean, the more the merrier, right? But why he's running as an independent with these worries that he will essentially throw the election to Trump. BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, it's very interesting because there's

apparently some thought of a Republican primary challenge to President Trump getting the Republican presidential nomination. Today, the White House said the president is ready for any candidate that would run against him.

BUCK: That's right, Wolf. And his team has to be prepared for this. When you look at his historically low approval ratings, during a time when there's low unemployment, a pretty good economy, his approval ratings, nevertheless, in the mid 30s. He is someone who is obviously very divisive. And we don't know what's going to happen with the Mueller investigation, either.

And so, Republicans are kind of waiting to see what will happen. It wouldn't be a surprise if there is a challenger. The question is, if someone does challenge the president in the Republican Party, what happens next? Because historically, those challenges have not been successful, but they do weaken the incumbent president in the general election.

BLITZER: What do you think, Gloria?

BORGER: Well, you know, there's some talk about, for example, Larry Hogan, the more moderate Republican governor of Maryland in a blue state, being somebody who might potentially challenge Donald Trump.

BLITZER: John Kasich, too.

BORGER: I think it's tough. I think it's really tough.

The one thing that Donald Trump has done well is solidify his base. I mean, one of the reasons the shutdown has been such a disaster for him is he started losing a bit of his base over it, over the wall. So he's good at solidifying that base of the party, and I think it would be a very, very difficult challenge, not impossible, but very tough.

TOOBIN: But we not such great news this week. It was so bad for Donald Trump with the Stone indictment, with the shut down, Howard Schultz is a gift from God compared to him.

BORGER: Exactly. Yes, exactly.

TOOBIN: He's a gift from God.

You know, these guys, they are billionaires so they think they can do anything, and, you know, one thing he could do is hand the election to Donald Trump. And now, he has support of Bill Burton, one of Barack Obama's close aides from early in the first term.

[18:50:03] And the one thing we know about billionaires is they make political consultants very rich. So, you can expect --

BORGER: But you look at Mike Bloomberg, and Mike Bloomberg has looked into this, and he said, don't do it. I know -- I know everything about this.

BLITZER: He'll run as a Democrat.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's more breaking news.

We're following President Trump's approved sanctions against Venezuela as Russia condemns the U.S. response to Venezuela's growing political crisis. We're going live to Moscow for the very latest.

And we're also learning new information about Pentagon plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:55:17] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. The United States announcing sanctions against Venezuela's state oil company as the political crisis in that country deepens.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen. He's joining us live from Moscow.

Fred, is Russia using the crisis in Venezuela right now as a way to try to undermine the U.S.?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly seems like it, Wolf. And the Russians really do see Venezuela, in many ways, as their sphere of influence and certainly continue to see Nicolas Maduro as a massive ally of theirs in South America.

One of the interesting things that they've been saying is they're actually accusing the U.S. of trying to meddle in Venezuela. The spokesman for the Kremlin coming out pretty angry statement late last night, saying he believes there was synchronization between the United States and the opposition in Venezuela. He said the Russians found it very strange the opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the interim president and the Americans recognized him shortly after that.

So, the Russians essentially saying they don't believe that the U.S. should try to exert any influence there. They're saying that is dangerous.

Let's listen in to what Dmitry Peskov had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESMAN: What is going on in Venezuela is dangerous. But what is even more dangerous is that it's happening upon the United States' direct interference. It's not just allowing it to happen, it's directly interfering. No one even bothers to hide it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PLEITGEN: So the Russians essentially saying that the Americans are interfering. Obviously, what is very much the Western Hemisphere and that the U.S., of course, is part of as well. The Russians are not very happy about that.

Interesting, though, we just learned tonight as well that the Russians, the Kremlin, are saying that so far, at least, they claim that between the Kremlin and the Maduro government, there have been no discussions for possible Russian military or financial aid to be going there to Caracas. The other thing, Wolf, that we have also learned from the Kremlin as well, they're trying to shoot down stories of the Russians possibly having sent hundreds of mercenaries to South America, to Venezuela, to try to bolster security for Nicolas Maduro. Those were press reports that surfaced over the weekend.

Also, the Kremlin with some pretty angry reactions to that. They saying that that comes from the realm of conspiracy, saying it's absolutely not true. But, of course, we do know, Wolf, that the Russians have been using mercenary forces in places like Syria, in places like African countries as well. So, the Russians certainly trying to shoot that down. To them, of course, Maduro an important ally, very economic ties, Russians even having sent strategic nuclear capable bombers to Venezuela not too long ago -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very tense situation. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thanks very much.

And there's more breaking news. Sources are now telling CNN that the Pentagon is working on plans to withdraw up to half the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as peace talks with the Taliban progress.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is working the story for us.

Barbara, is there a deal with the Taliban that will bring a war to the end for the U.S. and bring those U.S. troops home?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Not just yet, Wolf. A lot of details to work out, but some unprecedented progress this time because U.S. representatives are talking to Taliban representatives, and it appears there is at least a framework for some kind of deal to move forward. What the Taliban want is all foreign troops, including 14,000 American forces, out of Afghanistan.

The Pentagon right now looking at maybe that very concept, withdrawing about half of them, 7,000. There's also an option to withdraw about 3,500. It all depends on what kind of security arrangement they can come to.

The question is, will President Trump announce something at this rescheduled State of the Union Address? The Pentagon knows he wants to announce a withdrawal or at least a significant reduction. He believes that that war needs to be wound up after 17 years.

But the really uncertain question right now is the Afghan government. There has to be direct talks in the U.S. between the Taliban and the Afghans, there has to be security guarantees and what kind of role, if any, would the U.S. be left with to continue to conduct counterterrorism missions to go after al Qaeda, to go after ISIS in Afghanistan? So, a lot of open questions but very significant progress that U.S. representatives are saying there's a framework deal but still a lot to be decided -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, still 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, still almost 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. I assume that if the president had his way, he would bring all of those troops home to the United States as quickly as possible. He wants those troops back here in the United States. We'll watch this story develop. Lots of significance there.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thanks very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.