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Acting AG Refusing to Appear before House Panel without Guarantee He Won't Face Subpoena; Trump Furious after House Intel Chair Hires Former Aides to Help Oversee Administration; Prosecutors Still Probing Cohen Campaign Finance Crimes, Other Individuals; Interview with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA). Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 7, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Sam Kiley in Venezuela, thank you for the report. Please stay safe.

You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JakeTapper. You can tweet the show @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks for watching.

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WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Happening now, breaking news. Subpoena standoff: acting attorney general Matt Whitaker says he won't appear before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow unless he is promised tonight that he won't face a subpoena forcing him to detail his conversations with President Trump. The committee now has less than an hour to respond.

Exercising oversight: the House Intelligence Committee hires former White House aides to help the panel as it investigates the president, a move that's said to have infuriated Mr. Trump. Tonight's he's accusing Democrats of stealing employees and harassment.

Wanting a public report: an exclusive new CNN poll shows an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the findings of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation should be made public, with nearly nine out of 10 Americans calling for answers.

Will the administration try to keep Mueller's report secret?

And Butina's boyfriend: the Republican operative tied to alleged Russian agent Maria Butina is charged with wire fraud and money laundering in an unrelated case. But he also face charges of a conspiracy and secretly acting as a foreign agent.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER (voice-over): We're following breaking news, an extraordinary standoff between the Justice Department and the House Judiciary Committee. Acting attorney general Matt Whitaker is refusing to appear in a closely watched oversight hearing tomorrow unless he receives a written assurance within the next hour that he won't face a subpoena compelling him to divulge details of his conversations with President Trump.

I'll talk about the breaking news and more with Congresswoman Jackie Speier. She's a member of the Intelligence and Oversight Committees, that are both investigating President Trump. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by.

First, new details on the breaking news. Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju. He is on Capitol Hill for us.

Manu, the deadline for the committee to assure Whitaker there won't be a subpoena is less 6:00 pm, less than an hour from now.

What's the latest on the standoff?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Any moment now, Wolf, we're expecting a response from the House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler and we don't expect him to take kindly to the statement from the Justice Department that the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, will not appear before this committee tomorrow if he is served with a subpoena.

This came after a rather unusual move by the Democratic-led House committee to authorize Nadler to issue a subpoena if Whitaker chooses not to appear or if he does not answer the committee's question.

The committee has a wide range of questions that Democrats want to ask him, including conversations he may have had with the president, about the Mueller investigation, about discussions that may or may not have occurred with the president, about his decision not recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller probe as well as that he talked to the president about the Michael Cohen guilty plea and the fact that federal prosecutors implicated the president in multiple crimes.

They want to know if those discussions occurred. Now pushing back, the Justice Department sending that letter to Nadler today, saying this, from the assistant attorney general Steven Boyd, "The acting attorney general will testify that at no time did the White House ask for or did the acting attorney general provide any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel's investigation.

"We do not believe, however, the committee may legitimately expect the acting attorney general to discuss his communications with the president."

Now the president himself was asked about the standoff today. He seemed to not be too concerned about what Whitaker would say if he does decide to testify.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would say, if he did testify, he would do very well. He's an outstanding person, a very, very fine man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Wolf, what Whitaker and the Justice Department did not say, they did not say if they would, in fact, assert executive privilege in any discussions that occurred between Whitaker and the president to deny that testimony from going forward.

That was a question that Nadler has had for weeks.

Will Whitaker and the White House force him to assert executive privilege so they would not be able to discuss those communications?

The Justice Department didn't say that. They said they would wait until after the negotiations continued to make that assertion. Still, this issue is unresolved, clearly. We expect Nadler to respond any minute.

BLITZER: We'll have coverage of that, obviously, as soon as it comes out. The outcome could set a significant precedent, Manu, if the committee does subpoena Whitaker.

What comes next in this power battle?

RAJU: Well, the question is what does Whitaker do?

Does he ignore the subpoena?

And if he does ignore --

[17:05:00]

RAJU: -- the subpoena, the House has several steps they could take potentially to hold him in contempt. That moving forward and contempt citation, it's complicated because it could end up in court, it could be more of a symbolic move than anything else and it may not end up with what Democrats want, which is to get Whitaker before this committee in a public testimony, answering these questions.

So it could lead to a fight that could drag out for some time and, Wolf, by the time that ultimately gets resolved, who knows when that would happen?

By next week we do expect Matt Whitaker to have a new boss, that's Bill Barr, the president choice to be attorney general, who's expected to be confirmed by the Senate next week.

BLITZER: Yes, by the end of next week. He was confirmed by the Judiciary Committee in the Senate today along strict party lines. Manu Raju, thank you very much.

The administration's battle with House Democrats is heating up on another front as well. The Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff has hired officials with experience over at the National Security Council to help with his panel's oversight of the administration, a move that's said to have made the president furious. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Pamela, the president accuses Schiff of, among other things, "stealing people," in his words, who work at the White House. What's the latest?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That's right, Wolf. The president fired off that tweet earlier today without specifying who he was talking about.

We're told that the president is furious and concerned that Adam Schiff is trying to recruit former NSC aides or people within the Trump administration in order to give him an advantage in the wide- ranging investigation into whether there was foreign influence on the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump fuming over multiple investigations involving his administration. According to a House Intelligence Committee aide, chairman Adam Schiff has hired former members of the National Security Council to help with committee oversight of the Trump administration.

It's unclear how recently the officials worked at the NSC or if they even served under President Trump.

But this morning he took to Twitter to express his frustrations, attacking Democrats for initiating wide-ranging investigations, examining his finances and potential ties to foreign nations, well beyond the initial Russia scope.

Trump tweeting that Schiff, quote, "is going to be looking at every aspect of my life, both financial and personal, even though there is no reason to be doing so," adding, "I hear other committee heads will do the same thing, even stealing people who work at White House, a continuation of witch hunt."

The president once again claiming he is the victim of, quote, "presidential harassment."

But according to a new CNN poll, nearly half of Americans, 48 percent, think Donald Trump's campaign colluded with the Russian government to help Trump get elected while 42 percent say there was no collusion.

A sign the American public may support new oversight investigations set to begin in the Democrat-controlled House.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CALIF.), HOUSE SPEAKER: We will not surrender our constitutional responsibility for oversight. That would make us delinquent in our duties.

BROWN (voice-over): Oversight that could include obtaining the president's taxes and an investigation into the administration's child separation policy for undocumented immigrants.

TRUMP: Keep hearing about investigations fatigue.

BROWN (voice-over): The president has insisted an onslaught of probes would be countered by the Republican-held Senate.

TRUMP: No, we can investigate. They look at us, we look at them. It goes on for two years. And then at the end of two years, nothing is done.

BROWN (voice-over): The Senate Judiciary Committee continuing the spirit of congressional partisanship today, voting along party lines to confirm William Barr as attorney general.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.), CHAIR, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The nomination will be favorably reported to the floor.

BROWN (voice-over): As attorney general, Barr will be responsible for determining how much of special counsel Robert Mueller's report will be publicly released.

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: My objective and goal is to get as much as I can of the information to Congress and the public.

BROWN (voice-over): But some Democrats say they're uneasy about Barr's unwillingness to commit to releasing the full report.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIF.: This is particularly concerning as nothing in existing law or regulations prevents the attorney general from sharing the report.

BROWN (voice-over): And according to a new CNN poll, the vast majority of Americans, nearly 90 percent, say they want the Mueller report made public while just 9 percent say it's not necessary.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And in response to the president's tweet this morning, Adam Schiff responded that if the president is worried about hiring anyone from the former administration, maybe he should work on being a better employer.

So, Wolf, you can imagine, with Adam Schiff just announcing this wide ranging investigation, that this is only the beginning of these back- an-forth tweets between the head of House Intel and the president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's -- you're absolutely right. It's only just started. Pamela Brown at the White House, thank you.

A new court filing --

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BLITZER: -- reveals that federal prosecutors are still investigating the campaign finance crimes to which the former Trump fixer and personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty. The filing also says there are other unnamed individuals under investigation right now. Let's bring in our senior Justice correspondent, Evan Perez, who is working the story for us.

Evan, the prosecutors saying they are still investigating Cohen's campaign finance crimes, to which Cohen implicated the president himself.

How problematic, potentially, is this for the president?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And I think what would probably be more worrisome to the president is that the Trump Organization is within the sights of prosecutors in Manhattan, who are working on this investigation.

The idea that his own company, the company he has spent all his years building and which his family members are in charge of, would be part of this investigation is I think what would bother the president most about this.

As you said, we learned in this court filing that this is still very much at the center of an investigation. This is the reason why the judge is asking the prosecutors to try to identify what parts of the court record they could unseal so that the media organizations, including CNN, that have asked for this stuff to be unsealed, for her to know, for the judge to know what could be unsealed and what needs to be kept under wraps.

As you mentioned, one of the things that the judge ordered prosecutors to do is come back by May 15th with a list of the names of individuals who are still under investigation so that they can, essentially, withhold those names from the media when those court records are released.

BLITZER: What else are we learning right now, Evan, about the special counsel's investigation from these transcripts that have been just released on Paul Manafort's sealed hearing earlier in the week, Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman?

PEREZ: So on Monday there was this hours-long court hearing, which was sealed. We sat outside the courtroom for several hours there, Wolf.

One of the things -- we got the transcript of this today; some of it is redacted. But we did learn that essentially prosecutors are saying that Paul Manafort, during the time he was working at the end of the campaign, before he gets fired in August 2016 and even after he leaves the campaign, he goes back to working for the Ukrainians.

One of the people he is working with is Konstantin Kilimnik, somebody who the FBI and who the prosecutors say is a Russian spy, essentially a Russian intelligence operative. So there's a meeting, in particular, in August of 2016, according to prosecutors. They say it's a very important meeting.

It goes to the center of this investigation. Andrew Weismann, the prosecutor, says "I think it goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, what we think the motive here is. This goes to the heart of what the special counsel's office is investigating."

And so he says essentially what happened at this meeting is very much important to this investigation. Paul Manafort's lawyers don't agree that Paul Manafort was essentially lying about anything in this meeting. You remember this is why the prosecutors blew up their cooperation agreement.

But one of the other things, you get the sense from this court filing is that the Manafort lawyers don't agree that Kilimnik is a spy for the Russians.

BLITZER: Yes, he was working with these Ukrainians, pro-Russian Ukrainians, let's be precise on that. Evan, thank you, very, very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democrat congresswoman Jackie Speier of California is joining us, she's a member of both the Intelligence and Oversight Committees, two committees which are investigating President Trump right now.

She also sits, by the way, on the Armed Services Committee. She's a very busy lady, indeed.

Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER, CALIF.: Great to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's begin with a dramatic standoff underway right now between the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, and the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler.

Should the Democrats test their newfound subpoena power on Matt Whitaker right now?

SPEIER: I think what we want is for Matt Whitaker to come before the committee and share with us what he knows, answer questions that the committee members have. And I think the concern is that he is going to stonewall. So I think we'll have to see it play out.

I don't know that it's to our advantage at this point to issue a subpoena. I would prefer to have Mr. Whitaker come first to the committee and then, based on whether he was cooperative or not, then issue the subpoena.

BLITZER: That's apparently what Whitaker wants. No subpoena. Go ahead. Let him answer questions.

If he says he can't answer a question because it was a private conversation with the president, would you accept that?

SPEIER: Well, it depends. The assertion of executive privilege has to be made by the president, I believe. So it would depend on what the question and what the answer was. BLITZER: Democrats, they've laid out a very, very ambitious oversight agenda in the House of Representatives, now that they're in the majority.

Do you worry, though, that House Democrats will have trouble conducting all this oversight of the Trump administration if officials routinely --

[17:15:00]

BLITZER: -- fail to appear and that potentially could happen?

SPEIER: It looks like that's the game plan. And it would be very destructive to the democracy if they do not comply with the subpoena. That means it probably would end up in court at some point. I think it would be very, very destructive. So I hope that's not where we end up.

BLITZER: The House Intelligence Committee has hired some former National Security Council aides to help with oversight efforts.

First of all, can you tell us who these officials are?

SPEIER: I don't actually know their names but they worked in the Obama administration under the National Security Council leadership before Donald Trump became president and left either at that time or after Donald Trump became president.

And, truly, there's been three national security advisers in less than two years in that particular office. So it's not surprising that people would leave because they're not clear about what the leadership style is of those that they're working for.

BLITZER: You know, the president appeared to accuse your committee, the Intelligence Committee and Adam Schiff of, in his words, "stealing" these employees in that tweet that he posted earlier this morning.

Why do you think the president is so worried about this move if, in fact, they were career professionals working at the National Security Council as has been reported?

SPEIER: I think the president protests too much, about virtually everything. I think everything annoys him now. They are not enslaved in the administration. So if they have worked under a different administration and want to now move to the legislative branch, it makes perfect sense.

We had lots of people that left the Obama administration and then came to work in a control setting. So I think the president is just itching for yet another fight.

BLITZER: Yes, there's been a lot of -- over the years I've covered Congress and the White House for many years. There's always a lot of transfer; White House officials moving congressional hearings -- to congressional committees, back and forth, working for different staffs then people, a new president decides to pick some staffers from Congress to come work in the White House and other parts of the executive branch. That's a normal thing.

Let's talk about Michael Cohen, while I have you for a second, the former Trump attorney and fixer. He was scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee during a public hearing. But he ended up backing out of that commitment, citing threats to himself and his family.

Do you think you'll be able find a time for Michael Cohen to testify before he heads to prison?

I think on March 6th, that's coming up in about a month.

SPEIER: Well, the expectation is that Michael Cohen will testify before the House Intelligence Committee and before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. So we're all expecting that to be the case.

BLITZER: But you think he will appear at least before one of the -- because he's ready to appear, apparently, at the end of the month before the Intelligence Committee behind closed doors.

But you think they'll get him publicly as well?

SPEIER: That's our expectation.

BLITZER: All right. Let's see if that happens. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, thank you so much for joining us.

BLITZER: All right, the breaking news continues. We're going to get the latest on the standoff right now and it's a dramatic standoff between the Justice Department and House Judiciary Committee.

Will the acting attorney general appear before the panel tomorrow?

Plus nearly half of Americans believe the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. We'll dive into our brand new exclusive CNN poll.

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[17:20:00]

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BLITZER: The breaking news and a deadline looming, the truly remarkable standoff between the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, and the House Judiciary Committee. Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and analysts

Laura Jarrett, you're over at the Justice Department.

What led to the standoff between the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, and how is it going to end?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, this was really a last-ditch effort by the Democrats to try to grill Whitaker while he's still the acting attorney general. Bill Barr, his replacement, is likely to get confirmed next week by the Senate. So Democrats really only have this one shot to try to get Whitaker in the hot seat.

They wanted to question him about all of his conversations with President Trump and they also wanted to question him about how exactly he got the job, there's been this Democratic speculation that he was supposed to be over here, sort of being a spy for the White House.

So they really wanted to press him on that. Whitaker said, not so fast. I'm not coming to discuss my confidential communications with the president.

So Jerry Nadler had this subpoena in his back pocket ready to use it just in case. Whitaker is now saying, if you don't tell me by 6:00 pm tonight that you will not try to enforce and serve that subpoena on me either tonight or tomorrow, then I am not coming.

So we'll have to wait and see whether they try to enforce the subpoena tonight, in which case Whitaker is not coming.

BLITZER: Because if the Democrats go ahead and try to enforce their newfound subpoena power, now that they're the majority in the House of Representatives, potentially the fear among the Democrats is that that could backfire.

JARRETT: And I think this is a larger issue, this tension we're seen between the branches and Whitaker has really exposed it with this situation. You see how few options Democrats really have when it comes to the enforcement of the subpoena.

It's one thing to get the subpoena through the votes. It's another thing to enforce it and it can be quite messy. They can try to rely on their own inherent power through Congress but that really only goes so far. It's not like the Congress police will realistically --

[17:25:00]

JARRETT: -- arrest Whitaker. We haven't seen that since 1935. They could try to go to court and get a civil contempt order through a judge but that's only civil, not criminal.

And they could try to get DOJ to enforce a subpoena but, in reality, the D.C. U.S. attorney's office is not going to go after the U.S. attorney general. So they really only have so many options to play here.

BLITZER: As you know, the White House and the president expressed total confidence in Whitaker today.

What's their perspective on this battle underway this hour?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think the president thinks if Whitaker does go, he wants him to look good because he's representing him. That's who the president picked to temporarily take over the Justice Department when Jeff Sessions left.

And so I think he would want him to go there and represent him. And I think if he goes and he is getting grilled by these Democrats, the president won't look too favorably upon that.

I also think Laura's pointing to the questions that the Democrats are going to have, about the conversations that Matt Whitaker had with the president about the Mueller probe but I'm not so sure that the Republicans will take it easier on him.

They may not have questions about the Mueller probe but they'll want to know about Lisa Paige, Peter Strzok; they're going to have all those questions that we've seen them pepper people with throughout, saying as they did with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

BLITZER: Bill Barr will be the next attorney general, he was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee today, he's going to be confirmed by all accounts next week, probably next Thursday before the full Senate.

So why do the Democrats need to talk to Whitaker right now?

What's the point?

He will only be on the job for a few more days.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR AT LARGE: So two things. One, because of the way in which he came into the job, right, displacing Rod Rosenstein, in charge of the Mueller probe, ostensibly someone whose background didn't necessarily recommend him for this job. That's part one.

How did this come about?

That's part one. Part two is he has been acting attorney general for a relatively critical period of time. I'm not going to guess on when Bob Mueller is going to be done but we assume sometime in the relatively near future.

So if this is the final mile of the Mueller probe, well, Matt Whitaker has been in place for that.

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA: Once he's not anymore, it's a lot harder to get -- it becomes, why do you need him?

He's not the attorney general anymore. So I think they want to get him now, strike while the iron is hot. I'm of the mind that I don't think it's going to happen. But...

BLITZER: We'll see.

Bianna, you wanted to make a point? BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, to Kaitlin's point, this is an optics driven administration in particular by the president and this could be just a stalling tactic by Whitaker. Remember how uncomfortable he was when asked the question about the Mueller investigation and he started sweating profusely and really not knowing how to answer that question directly and maybe said a bit too much as well.

So if that was a taste of what could possibly come, this could be an administration and even a Justice Department that doesn't want to see something like that repeated.

BLITZER: Yes, well, it will be dramatic. We should know in the next few minutes how this standoff will unfold.

Much more on the breaking news after this.

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BLITZER: We're back with our correspondents and our analysts.

And, Bianna, take a look at this. These are all -- if you look on the screen, we're going to show all the investigations that Democrats in the House want to conduct right now. It's a huge, huge number of investigations.

I suspect that the president is watching right now, getting a little nauseous (sic) looking at all these investigations with subpoena powers that are about to take place.

Is the agenda, though, threatened by Trump administration officials if they refuse to cooperate even under subpoena?

GOLODRYGA: We may have gotten a taste of that today with what we're seeing transpire with Matt Whitaker. On the other hand, even Democrats have said they have to tread lightly when it comes to these investigations because public opinion really matters.

If it comes to a point where Americans think Democrats are now going after this administration and president, in particular, just out of malice, then you know that their reaction may change and they may not be as supportive of Democrats investigating this president and, in particular, his administration's ties to Russia.

So we could be seeing an opportunity for Democrats to start these investigations, which they promised and which this administration shouldn't be so surprised about, knowing what would happen, given the midterms.

On the other hand, they do need to be careful that public opinion doesn't start switching if the country comes to a standstill as far as any sort of policy or bipartisanship.

BLITZER: We just got some breaking news, Laura, I know you got the letter from Jerry Nadler to the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. His response. This demand from Whitaker that he won't appear tomorrow before the Judiciary Committee unless there's a promise of no subpoenas, give us the answer.

JARRETT: Yes, it looks like Nadler is backing down from this subpoena threat. As we know, he only had it in his back pocket, ready to go, just in case Whitaker was not going to show if he tried to serve it. And tonight essentially Nadler says no need.

He goes on to say here in a statement, Wolf, "If you appear," meaning Whitaker, "before the committee tomorrow morning and you are prepared to respond to questions from our members, then I assure you that there will be no need for the committee to issue a subpoena on or before February 8th."

He goes on to say, Wolf, "To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis both during and after tomorrow's hearing."

So we can expect that, if it all goes according to plan, then Whitaker will show up tomorrow. The question is whether he will still answer any questions about his communications with the president.

As he has said, those are confidential. Those are protected. Past officials have declined to answer those questions.

So what happens if he doesn't answer those questions tomorrow?

BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point. Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, you're carefully going through this letter as well. I suspect that the keywords are "both during and after tomorrow's hearing."

RAJU: Yes, he's not saying he will not issue a subpoena. He is only saying that if you don't answer our questions, then we may go forward with the subpoena but if you come and you answer our questions, there will be no need for a subpoena.

Essentially putting the ball back into Whitaker's court, saying come to the hearing tomorrow, answer our questions and there will be no need for a subpoena. But otherwise we'll deal with your concerns on a case-by-case basis.

What does Whitaker do if he does not appear tomorrow?

The committee will almost certainly issue the subpoena that they authorized Jerry Nadler, chairman of the committee, to move forward with. That subpoena would come tomorrow if Whitaker doesn't come. And then we'll see the steps they decide to take, whether to hold Whitaker in contempt or escalate the fight like that.

But what they're trying to tell, Jerry Nadler is trying to tell the Justice Department tonight in this letter is, come tomorrow. Answer the questions. There will be no need for a subpoena and we'll decide on the issues on a case-by-case basis on your own concerns and we'll decide what to subpoena then.

Was that far enough for Matt Whitaker?

That's a question for the Justice Department now that this letter is coming at this moment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It sounds like there's still a little bit of a standoff between the Justice Department and the Judiciary Committee. Let me read --

[17:35:00]

BLITZER: -- that one paragraph precisely, so our viewers once again can get the sense. This is from Jerry Nadler.

"If you appear before the committee tomorrow morning and if you are prepared to respond to questions from our members, then I assure you that there will be no need for the committee to issue a subpoena on or before February 8th," February tomorrow.

"To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case- by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow's hearing."

So, Chris Cillizza, there's a little ambiguity there and I guess the Justice Department could come back and say we need some more clarification.

CILLIZZA: I hesitate to say this might be the start of a series of letters but it's true. It sort of depends on what it means.

What does Nadler mean exactly when he says "the questions," "your willingness to answer the questions"?

The truth is -- and Laura noted this -- subpoena or no, I didn't think and don't think it's likely that Matt Whitaker is going to go into any detail necessarily in response to how -- some of the questions that Democrats are going to want answers to.

I didn't think that was true yesterday. I don't think it will be true tomorrow, even if he shows up. So I guess the issue is, if he shows up and doesn't answer questions and claims executive privilege, the ball is then again in Nadler's court because then it's, OK, well, did he answer enough?

What is enough?

A lot of this is very fuzzy lines and very subjective.

BLITZER: Earlier today, Kaitlin, the White House was very supportive of Matthew Whitaker. The president saying he's doing a great job. Now there's some more reaction. COLLINS: Yes, we just got a statement from Sarah Sanders, from my colleague, Pam Brown. And she said -- I'm quoting Sarah Sanders now -- "The fact that Chairman Nadler would try to force the public disclosure of private conversations that he knows are protected by law proves he only wants to play politics."

She said, "The chairman should focus on helping the American people rather than wasting time playing pointless, political games."

Even though now we know that he's not going to try to subpoena him --

CILLIZZA: Does that mean that he's not -- I mean, I'm not asking -- I don't know, but that statement is not the sort of, like, thank you, Chairman Nadler, for understanding. I wonder if that statement is a precursor to, given the uncertainty regarding the Nadler letter, does that mean now Whitaker is not showing up?

(CROSSTALK)

GOLODRYGA: And this goes to the point I was making earlier in that Democrats really need to tread lightly here in the sake of not trying to appear like they're specifically trying to attack or catch Whitaker or anybody in this administration that they would like to subpoena, in the sense that they want this out in the public and they would like their questions answered.

You have the White House countering, by saying this is a public attack, this is something that's unprecedented and you'll see this being played out via, you know, responses and tweets versus what we actually see in a hearing.

BLITZER: You know, Laura, I don't know if you remember. But I remember very vividly when there was a battle between the Justice Department and Congress during the Obama administration.

Eric Holder was the attorney general of the United States. He was subpoenaed for documents on the Fast and Furious issue, refused to provide those documents documents, got a contempt citation from Congress.

But it dragged on and on and on, went through the courts; nothing eventually happened. So these fights between the attorney general of the United States and the Congress, including subpoenas, it's not unprecedented, necessarily.

JARRETT: No, it's not unprecedented. And, as you point out there, I think, with the Holder-Obama situation with Fast and Furious, that gun-running investigation, it's a really ugly process and it can drag out for years.

So while they want to get Whitaker's testimony on the record now while he's still the acting attorney general, if they follow through with some sort of contempt resolution or try to follow it through in court, as they did in the Holder-Obama situation, that could take a really long time. By that point, Bill Barr is already here. And the whole point of this

was supposed to have an oversight hearing on Justice Department issues writ large. Obviously communications between Whitaker and the president are foremost and forefront in the minds of Democrats.

But how much that is something that they really want to press. This is their first big issue, their first big subpoena for something like this.

Is this the card they want to play?

Do they want to use their chits right now?

They have a number of other administration officials; we've seen Secretary Azar, Secretary Nielsen. There's so many people that they want to get on Capitol Hill. The question is, is this really the one they want to push right now?

CILLIZZA: And Wolf, just to that point, go back to the graphic you showed at the top of the segment. This is one of a whole heck of a lot of either active or potential investigations.

To Laura's point, is this where you want to put all of your emphasis?

Particularly because running out the clock as it relates to these sorts of things is very much a bipartisan tradition. This is not something that is unique. My guess is that Donald Trump probably would rather Matt Whitaker not show up. Because Kaitlin's point earlier, if he's going to show up, Donald Trump wants him to be strong and --

[17:40:00]

CILLIZZA: -- to be the sort of thing that everyone is like, yes, that guy knows what he's doing. In his past public appearances, forget his answers, have been a little bit shaky at times. So it may be that this provides them a way out or at least a way close to running out the clock and Democrats have to wonder, is this where you push?

Is this where you make your stand?

Or do you live and fight all of those other days?

BLITZER: Kaitlin, he's only going to be on the job another week or so. So if the Democrats really wanted to question him on decisions that he had made, controversial decisions, they had an opportunity.

Now if Whitaker and the Justice Department decides they're not going to go ahead, they have got an excuse over this whole issue of a subpoena.

COLLINS: Yes, and if they don't force it, and once he's a private citizen, what's the chance of them getting him back there, saying this is the former acting attorney general here, who is not in charge but was in charge for a significant period of time. Let's not forget, he was around before he took over as acting attorney

general, when he was Jeff Sessions' chief of staff. So this is someone who has been around for a significant amount of time.

But I do not think that the Democrats will take it easy on him. Clearly, we know that. But I don't think the Republicans would take it that easy on him, either, judging by what they did when Jeff Sessions was testifying and when Rod Rosenstein was testifying.

BLITZER: But there is a long history, I was going to say -- go ahead, make your point, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: And the public at some point is going to be exhausted by these play out. They may start to tune them out altogether if this is how nasty they're going to be and this is very well the first investigation we're even looking into.

So again, one reason why Democrats may not want to, as Laura said, put all their chits into this one fight.

BLITZER: There is a long history, you know this, Chris, of executive administration officials private conversations with the president, citing confidentiality, citing executive privilege. Democrats do it. Republicans do it. So he does have a point here, Matt Whitaker, if he's asked questions about his conversations with the president, he can cite that longstanding privilege.

CILLIZZA: That's right. So much of Donald Trump's presidency is abnormal. What this is, if you go 50,000 feet up, this is a fight between the legislative branch and the executive branch over how much each tells about the other. That fight is as old as time.

We're focused on this because it's Trump and it's the Justice Department. Understandably so, I think he's given us a lot of reason to focus on it. But this back-and-forth over what can Congress ask and what does the executive branch have to respond to is variable.

(CROSSTALK)

GOLODRYGA: Quickly, it's fair to say what's not normal is how Whitaker got this job in particular, which is one reason why Democrats may not want to let it go.

BLITZER: And didn't go through confirmation hearings to become the acting attorney general of the United States.

All right, guys, stick around. There's more breaking news we're following.

A federal prosecutor files charges against a long-time Republican Party operative, who dated the alleged Russian agent, Maria Butina.