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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ); Trump Prepares to Meet With North Korean Leader; Michael Cohen Set to Testify Before Congress; CNN Goes Behind Enemy Lines for Rare Access to the Taliban. Aired on 6-7p ET
Aired February 25, 2019 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The right decision about how much of special counsel Robert Mueller's report to share with the public, but says transparency isn't always best. Tonight, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee responds with an apparent threat.
Feeling conflicted. The Trump Organization asks the House Judiciary Committee to stop investigating the president's business, citing an alleged conflict of interest involving one of the committee's lawyers. Tonight, his law firm is blasting what it calls baseless accusations.
High-stakes summit. As President Trump heads to his second meeting with Kim Jong-un, White House aides are privately voicing concern that he will concede too much to the North Korean dictator. Are the president and his top diplomats at odds over the North Korean threat?
And inside the Taliban. CNN gets rare and very dangerous access to the Taliban, spending 36 hours deep inside the territory of the enemy the U.S. has been fighting for 17 years. It's a CNN exclusive.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Trump is en route right now to Vietnam for a second summit with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, but the high-stakes meeting will compete for the spotlight with the spectacle of the president's former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, testifying before three congressional committees this week and the looming conclusion of the special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
Tonight, a possible new clue about how much of it will be made public, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says government transparency isn't always a good idea.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff responded just moments ago with an apparent threat accusing the Justice Department of a double standard.
I will talk about that and more with the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, and our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by. First, let's go to our White House correspondent, Abby Phillip.
Abby, the president and Kim Jong-un, they are both on their way to Hanoi right now.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right, Wolf.
President Trump has been talking up his friendship with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un ahead of this high-stakes summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. But U.S. officials are wondering what exactly the United States can realistically get out of the second meeting between the two men.
Meanwhile, as President Trump leaves Washington, he's leaving behind a number of major controversies that will be waiting for him when he returns.
PHILLIP (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump heading to his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, touting his personal relationship with Kim, as doubts persist about whether the regime is truly committed to giving up its nuclear weapons.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're speaking, we're speaking loud. And I think we can have a very good -- a very good summit. I think we will have a very tremendous summit. We want denuclearization.
PHILLIP: Trump spent the weekend praising Kim, tweeting that he realizes, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the greatest economic powers anywhere in the world, but also lowering expectations about what might be achieved in their second summit.
TRUMP: What's going to happen, I can't tell you. I think, eventually, it would, but I can't tell you. I'm not in a rush. I don't want to rush anybody. I just don't want testing. As long as there's no testing, we're happy.
PHILLIP: Despite the president's rosy outlook for the summit, White House aides tell CNN that they're concerned he might concede too much to Kim in Vietnam. So far, North Korea has taken no known concrete steps toward denuclearization since the last summit.
And intelligence officials have concluded they're unlikely to give up their nuclear weapons at all. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo maintaining that North Korea is still a major threat, despite President Trump's claim to the contrary after the last summit with Kim.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?
MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Yes.
PHILLIP: Meantime, in Washington, President Trump's national emergency declaration to build the wall faces its first major test on Tuesday, as House Democrats plan to vote on a resolution that could undo it. Trump still insisting there is an emergency at the border.
TRUMP: We do have an emergency. We have an emergency of people pouring into our country that we don't want, criminals, smugglers. We have drugs pouring into our country. We can't have it.
PHILLIP: And he seems concerned that Republicans could join Democrats in rebuking him. The president warning his party not to support the resolution, tweeting: "I hope our great Republican senators don't get led down the path of weak and ineffective border security. Be strong and smart. Don't fall into the Democrats' trap of open borders and crime"
Fifty-eight former senior national security officials say otherwise in a new letter, writing: "In our professional opinion, there is no factual basis for the declaration of a national emergency."
All this as the president is announcing an official parade for this Fourth of July, tweeting: "Hold the date. We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4. It will be called A Salute to America, and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment, and an address by your favorite president, me."
PHILLIP: And with all of these events happening almost simultaneously, this will be a high-stakes week for President Trump.
And In addition to all of that, Michael Cohen will be testifying behind closed doors and in public this week as well. But one reprieve for President Trump may be that the Mueller report is not expected to come while he's conducting high-stakes diplomacy overseas -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks very much.
In a new tweet tonight, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, is calling out remarks by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. This comes just hours after Rosenstein raised questions tonight about how much of the special counsel Robert Mueller's report on his Russia investigation will be made public.
Our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is working the story for us.
Evan, it looks like, what, Rod Rosenstein was sending a transparency signal of sorts to the American public.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It certainly seemed that way, Wolf.
And I think -- look, I think is what we know Rod Rosenstein's point of view to be. We saw it in the letter that he wrote when they fired James Comey, which was the idea that if someone is not charged with a crime, in the Hillary Clinton case, for instance, with which the FBI director stood up and did this press conference saying there's not going to be any charges against her, but then said all of the different things that he thought she did wrong.
Take a listen to Rod Rosenstein today speaking on this issue.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: There's a knee-jerk reaction to suggest that we should be transparent about what we do in government, but there are a lot of reasons not to be transparent about what we do in government.
Just because the government collects information doesn't mean that information is accurate. And it can be really misleading if you're overly transparent about information that the government collects. So I think we do need to be really cautious about that. If we aren't prepared to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt in court, then we have no business making allegations against American citizens.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PEREZ: And Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, obviously saw those comments, Wolf, and he tweeted just a little while ago: "This double standard won't cut it. For two years, I sounded the alarm about DOJ's deviation from just that principle as it turned over hundreds of thousands of pages in closed or ongoing investigations. I warned that the DOJ would need to live by this precedent."
And you can see, and he says, "And it will." It clearly is now, I think, the two battle lines are drawn here. And I think even though we haven't seen what's in the Mueller report, and certainly what Bill Barr is going to send over to members of Congress, it's not going to satisfy the members who want to see everything that came from this investigation, Wolf.
And I think you can see that Adam Schiff is signaling that.
BLITZER: Because what he's signaling also is what was good for the Republican majority in the House, they demanded hundreds of thousands of pages of documents involving Hillary Clinton, even though she wasn't charged with a crime. They got those documents.
Now, Schiff is saying, you know what, when you were the majority, you got those documents. Now we're the majority. We're going to get those documents involving President Trump.
PEREZ: And I can tell you that inside the Justice Department, when those fights were going on, that's exactly the concern, the concern that arose, the idea that it was a precedent being set, that it would make the department, put the department in a very bad place when it came time to try to keep other documents...
BLITZER: So, if Schiff and company decide to subpoena for the documents, how is the Department of Justice going to respond?
PEREZ: Well, I think they're going to try to defend the department's policy.
But I think you can see where this is going. There's going to be a subpoena. If the Justice Department decides not to turn over everything, then there's going to be a legal fight. And then the judge will have to decide what happens then.
BLITZER: Amidst all of this, Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, spent a decade working with Donald Trump, is gong to be testifying three times.
BLITZER: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before various congressional committees, Wednesday in open session. What do you anticipate we will hear?
PEREZ: I think Wednesday is going to be the split-screen moment. We're going to see all the pictures of the president in Hanoi with the North Korean leader.
And then you're going to see Michael Cohen, who's going to, according to the questions that the committee has already put out, they say he's going to essentially cover the waterfront, all of his years working with the president, with the private citizen Trump at the time. Talking about his finances. Talking about what his -- the Trump charities, the organization had been up to.
Again, this goes to the heart of what the president has always been concerned about, which is the implication of his family and his business, obviously, in any alleged wrongdoing, which is what Michael Cohen wants to make the point of.
What's interesting, Wolf, what's not in there, anything having to do with the inauguration, which we know is under investigation by the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office. They -- you know, this was a negotiation that happened with the Justice Department before this committee was able to schedule this hearing.
Clearly, there's certain things that are still off the record, at least for this hearing.
BLITZER: Potentially could be very, very explosive, all three of these hearings. And we will watch it, of course, very closely on Wednesday. Thank you very much for that, Evan.
Let's get more on all of this.
Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey is joining us. He's the top member, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee -- the top Democrat, I should say.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's begin with the Russia probe.
You voted against Bill Barr's confirmation for attorney general. What's your reaction to the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein's comments today? Do you agree with Adam Schiff that there's a double standard?
MENENDEZ: Oh, I agree with Congressman Schiff, absolutely.
Thousands of documents were released that violate the very essence of what Mr. Rosenstein said was the -- is the standard that may be used. I think the American people expect and want to see the Mueller report. If there's any intelligence questions there that may undermine our means or methods, those can be redacted.
But, other than that, it seems to me that everything should ultimately be made public. And I am convinced that there will be effort -- if it's not, there will be efforts in Congress to make it public.
BLITZER: Well, should lawmakers subpoena the report?
MENENDEZ: If it doesn't come voluntarily, I have no hesitation to support a vote in subpoenaing for the report.
BLITZER: And when Rod Rosenstein says, look, some of the information may not be accurate, it was collected, they can't confirm it, should that kind of information also be presented to Congress?
MENENDEZ: Well, I don't know what would be in the report that Bob Mueller would put that isn't accurate and can't be confirmed.
I would think that the report, based upon the number of indictments, guilty pleas, actual trials that it's had, that's led people to ultimately be found guilty, that there is a plethora of information in that regard that isn't a question of it being questionable or not.
BLITZER: Should Robert Mueller, himself, after he submits his report to the new attorney general, should he testify in front of Congress?
MENENDEZ: Well, look, I think the first steps first. Let's see what it is that we get from the attorney general.
I mean, one of the concerns I had with the attorney general was that he would not make a commitment to making the Mueller report in all respects public, except maybe for questions of intelligence. And that's a problem.
We will have to see if he makes the report public or not. If he doesn't, then the next step, in my mind, would be to seek to subpoena the report. I think that Chairman Schiff has suggested he's willing to do that. And then the next thing after that, if that doesn't succeed, would be the question of subpoenaing Mr. Mueller. But I don't know what provisions he might invoke as having worked for
the Department of Justice in this regard. So, it's clearly once again with this administration a complicated challenge in which they consistently try to undermine the powers of Congress to have the information that we can make intelligent decisions on.
BLITZER: Let's turn to the president's trip to Vietnam.
He's on his way right now, preparing to meet with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un for the second time. You and several other top Democrats wrote a letter to President Trump raising your concerns about this summit.
Do you worry that the president will concede, what, too much to the North Koreans?
MENENDEZ: I -- listen, I want the president to succeed, but I'm deeply skeptical that the president, based upon his first summit with Kim Jong-un, is headed in the wrong direction, the preparations necessary, the commentary that he made afterwards.
The reason North Korea isn't testing is not because of his engagement. They're not testing because they have achieved what they needed to do so in their test. So giving that up is absolutely nothing. At the end of the day, we don't need a made-for-TV moment.
We need a verifiable, enforceable denuclearization, which means the elimination of all of North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the infrastructure that supports those weapons and ballistic missiles, and a verifiable regime in order to achieve that's the case.
The president walked away from the first summit without even a definition of what the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is. So we're going to a second summit in which there isn't an agreement, the jumping-off point by which you would seek to seek all the other elements of an agreement.
So, I worry that the president wants his made-for-TV moments. I worry that he's dumbing down diplomacy at the end of the day. And I am worried that, for the sake of declaring a victory, he will give too much.
BLITZER: Let's see what happens this week.
Senator Menendez, thanks so much for joining us.
MENENDEZ: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the new pushback from House Democrats after the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein's caution signaling about too much transparency in government investigations.
Plus, what might Michael Cohen reveal to Congress when the president's former fixer and personal attorney testifies this week? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, accusing the Justice Department of a double standard an threatening to subpoena special counsel Robert Mueller's report on his Russia investigation.
Schiff is responding to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who said today that government transparency isn't always advisable.
Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts.
And let me play a clip for you, Laura. This is Rod Rosenstein speaking about transparency, or lack thereof.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROSENSTEIN; There's a knee-jerk reaction to suggest that we should be transparent about what we do in government, but there are a lot of reasons not to be transparent about what we do in government.
Just because the government collects information doesn't mean that information is accurate. And it can be really misleading if you're overly transparent about information that the government collects. So I think we do need to be really cautious about that. If we aren't prepared to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt in court, then we have no business making allegations against American citizens.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the vice chairman, he just tweeted this: "Yes, the Mueller investigation's records, particularly those concerning conduct by the president, are a matter of national interest and must be made available to Congress when the special counsel files his report."
He follows the lead of Adam Schiff, who basically is saying the same thing. You don't want transparency, well, we're going to demand it.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you see Rod Rosenstein articulating there is this line-drawing exercise that is certainly the new attorney general, Bill Barr, is going to have to try to figure out, where exactly do I come down here?
On the one hand, the public is demanding transparency. Certainly, Democrats are clamoring for it. But Justice Department policy doesn't provide that we just fork over everything to Capitol Hill. And certainly in the case of former Director James Comey, you see what the downside of this was.
And certainly, in the minds of Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein, that really reigns supreme. And you can remember the letter Rod Rosenstein wrote articulating the reasons that Comey had to go. And it was the very thing, the idea you don't go out and you talk about people who haven't been charged with a crime. And that's the balance they're going to strike.
BLITZER: Well, why were so many thousands and thousands of documents released by the Justice Department involving Hillary Clinton when she was not charged with any crime?
JARRETT: Well, part of the issue there was the president's allies on Capitol Hill, mainly a very vocal group of House Republicans, demanded it. They said, you have to turn all of this over because the inspector general had already looked at it. It was obviously a closed case.
But now that's coming back to bite them. And this is exactly what Adam Schiff and others are pointing to, saying, she wasn't charged, and yet you turned over everything. So how are you not going to do the same in the Russia investigation?
BLITZER: So now you have -- David Swerdlick, you have Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, they're in the majority, so they have subpoena power.
Schiff tweeting: "This double standard won't cut it. For two years, I sounded the alarm about the Department of Justice's deviation from just that principle as it turned over hundreds of thousands of pages in closed or ongoing investigations. I warned the Department of Justice would need to live by this precedent. And it will."
A huge fight is emerging.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right. And, of course, Senator Warner and Congressman Schiff are right about this.
Let me go to one thing that DAG Rosenstein said. He said, we don't want to get ahead of things if we can't prove things beyond a reasonable doubt. And that's right, particularly if you have a situation where someone is being charged along the lines of a criminal statute. And we know the position is that a sitting president can't be indicted.
So we likely won't see any indictment of President Trump -- of course, innocent until proven guilty no matter what the case -- out of the special counsel's report. But the special counsel's report will go to the attorney general, and then possibly to Congress, with the idea that Congress will at least consider impeachment, depending on what they find, even if, in my own view, it's unlikely that there will be an impeachment.
So the idea this will be withheld from Congress or from the press or the public after two years, Wolf, seems sort of preposterous.
BLITZER: What are you thinking?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, there are two things brewing here, I think, that are going to be real dominant forces here.
One is this political fight that's clearly emerging here, left-right. I think that's more traditional and people are used to seeing them now fight over these kinds of issues, each side sort of spinning why they want it released.
But the other battle brewing is with the American people on what their demand is right now. That is what is going to be such a difficult and tricky position. Americans agree on nothing these days in politics. Overwhelmingly, the American people are agreeing on this. There should be a report that we see. Whatever gets sent, the American people should see; 80 percent of Republicans believe that, 87 percent of Americans overall.
So I think there's a real tension that is being created right now that I think is going to be a treacherous ground for DOJ to walk through.
BLITZER: What do you think, Phil?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I don't think there is a real tension.
I do think politically, but, as a former practitioner, I think Barr is going to have his first big job. His first big job is going to toe to toe with Adam Schiff. He's going to tell Adam Schiff no, and Barr is going to be right.
Let me tell you why. There should be a report, but every investigation, whether it's the Clinton investigation or this investigation, involves interviews, for example, examining documents, examining e-mails from private U.S. citizens.
The federal government has a tremendous capability to violate your privacy. If they uncover things, as they did, for example, about a name that's forgotten, Huma Abedin, about her e-mail relationship with her husband, Comey talked about it publicly. Horrible mistake.
Once they uncover things about you that are sensitive or may be embarrassing, they should not release them publicly. So, yes...
CHALIAN: He could be totally right on the law.
MUDD: Yes. No, I agree.
CHALIAN: I'm just saying there is going to be this political concern that is...
MUDD: I agree.
CHALIAN: ... that is -- that you can't ignore.
MUDD: I agree.
SWERDLICK: Phil, there's going to be highly classified information in there. Obviously, there's a case...
SWERDLICK: ... for not putting that forward to Congress or the public or at least to the whole Congress.
But the idea that we would get the CliffsNotes version of this or A snippet of it after two years of investigation, even if it's to clear the president, the public needs to know, per David's point.
MUDD: I'm not talking about a CliffsNotes.
I'm just saying, if every American out there thinks the full report should be released, I would tell every single one of them, if you were implicated in a federal investigation, and not charged, and you had an embarrassing e-mail...
BLITZER: What did Comey do with Hillary Clinton?
MUDD: He made a stupid mistake. And now the Democrats are saying, let's repeat that.
MUDD: That doesn't make any sense.
CHALIAN: Every Democrat who had expressed real concerns about what Jim Comey did in 2016, they're going to have to watch their words on this, too. I mean, the cross-currents here are going to be tricky for them politically.
JARRETT: But isn't there a risk politically for the president in withholding any of this?
I mean, for two years, we have heard in an unbroken string, this is a witch-hunt, there's no there there, there's no collusion.
So, if anything is withheld, notwithstanding Phil's valid point about department policy, if anything is withheld, I feel like the president's going to be in a really tricky position to explain why it's being withheld.
BLITZER: And if he's right, and he says, the president, there was no collusion, there was no obstruction, what would be his problem with releasing the report?
SWERDLICK: Right. If he knows that he did nothing wrong and the people closest to him did nothing wrong, he should want that report to be out there.
And, again, we, the American people, should want that. Even if you're an opponent of President Trump, you should want that out there to know whether the president is, in fact, cleared of the things that he's alleged to have done, or maybe had done.
BLITZER: Laura, the Justice Department guidelines are that you can't indict a sitting president. The Justice Department guidelines are also that if you don't indict someone, you shouldn't release a lot of information, negative, derogatory information, about that individual that may have been collected in the course of an investigation.
So that's a problem right now.
JARRETT: I think that's the reason Democrats are crying foul here. They're saying the president is in a different position because of the DOJ policy on not indicting a sitting president.
So, to Phil's point, in most investigations, you wouldn't release anything on somebody who hasn't been charged yet. But the political solution for Democrats here is an impeachment process. And so they're saying, we need that information to make an informed decision.
Of course, anything that gets turned over to Capitol Hill, of course, eventually will be in the hands of the public.
BLITZER: And even if the Justice Department rule is you can't indict a sitting president, there isn't such a rule in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats are the majority.
BLITZER: You can certainly go ahead and begin impeachment proceedings, even if the president were not -- is not formally indicted.
CHALIAN: You can.
But, as you know, you have heard from Nancy Pelosi on this, the leader of the Democrats in the House. There is no interest right now in moving ahead with impeachment proceedings in any way, unless there's some indication that Republicans are on board with this in some way, that there's going to a universal appeal, at least a central political force in America that says, yes, this is where we should go.
Nancy Pelosi is not leading her Democrats down that road. I think that is clear. But, to David's earlier point, if the -- if this is totally vindicating Donald Trump, he's going to want to get as much information out there so that more and more people buy into the vindication that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
BLITZER: Now, you're our political director. Let's talk a little bit about the presidential town hall tonight with Bernie Sanders. What are you going to be listening for?
CHALIAN: Wolf, you're going to be there moderating this. What I'm so intrigued to hear -- I know Bernie Sanders was asked, what's going to be different this time? He says, I'm going to win this time.
I'm looking actually to expand and hear from him, what makes you get to the conclusion that you're going to win this time? What is he going to do differently? How is this campaign going to look different and expand beyond what he impressively gathered in 2016? But, obviously, it wasn't sufficient. That's what I'm looking for tonight.
BLITZER: He was -- what, the last time he ran, didn't beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He was considered far left. Not necessarily so much now, given what some of the other Democratic presidential candidates are espousing.
SWERDLICK: Right, Wolf.
And I will be interested to hear what Senator Sanders tells you tonight. He still, I think, is the furthest left. And it will be hard for any Democrat to get to his left on most issues.
But the difference between the last presidential election and now, I think, is that the cluster of candidates is on the left.
You have other progressives or left-leaning candidates versus in 2012. You have Sanders out there on the left lane wide open to himself and you had a cluster moderates, O'Malley, Webb, Chafee, Clinton, all clustered together. And that's why Sanders was able to make --
BLITZER: Phil, what are you going to be listening for?
MUDD: Just one thing, and I agree with the panel here, that is, if you think that we need somebody to go toe to toe with Donald Trump, I think you need somebody who gets outside of East Coast/West Coast fringe. I want to see if he moves beyond the last election. My guess is he won't. If he doesn't, that is if he stays to the far left, I don't think he's winnable.
BLITZER: Because the biggest issue for democrats right now is who is best to beat the President in a general election.
CHALIAN: Yes. Every poll indicates that - and every voter you speak to when you're out on the trail, they are so hungry for somebody that can defeat Donald Trump. Of course, that's an unknowable right now but that is why democrats are showing up in force to so many of these candidates' events. They are looking for a person that can take down the President.
BLITZER: All right, everybody stick around. And to our viewers, be sure join us later tonight when I moderate our next CNN Presidential Town Hall with Senator Bernie Sanders, it's live from here in Washington. Join us at 8:00 P.M. Eastern only here on CNN.
Up next, a very dangerous assignment gives a very rare look behind enemy lines. Our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward joins us with her exclusive report, 36
Hours with the Taliban.
[18:36:06] BLITZER: For the first time, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan has met with a founding member of the Taliban as peace talks resume. More than 2,000 Americans have died fighting the Taliban over the last 17 years. But now, as Washington tries to wind down the war, the Taliban are poised to officially take control of large portions of the country.
Our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward saw firsthand what that will look like. She got very rare and extremely dangerous access to the Taliban territory. Clarissa is with us right now. And I want you to share with our viewers, Clarissa, you're an extremely courageous journalist, what you saw.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we thought this was so important because it's now 60 to 70 percent of the country is either contested or under Taliban rule. And as peace talks gather momentum, there is no question the Taliban believes that victory is in its grasp and we wanted to have a look the at what the future of Afghanistan might look like.
WARD: This is what the Taliban wants you to know. Their moment is coming and they are ready for victory. This is a world you have probably never seen up close. And we are some of the only western journalists to enter it.
America's enemy in Afghanistan is best known for harboring Osama bin Laden as he planned the 9/11 attacks, for its brutal repression of women and for meeting out harsh justice under a draconian interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.
We want to find out who the Taliban is today and if after 17 years of war with the U.S., their Islamic emirate has changed.
Our journey begins in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban was forced to withdraw from here after a bitter battle in 2001. Now, they are just a few miles away.
We're heading out now to meet up with our Taliban escorts. And as you can see, I'm wearing the full facial veil known was the niqab. I'm wearing it to keep as low profile as is possible because there are no western journalists in the areas we're headed to.
The government controls the highway out of the city, but once you turn off the main road, you are quickly in Taliban territory.
To reach our host, we have to cross a small river on a ferry. Billions of U.S. dollars have been poured in to building up Afghanistan's infrastructure. But little of that has trickled down here.
That's our escort just there on the other side of the river.
After months of negotiations, the Taliban leadership has agreed to give Afghan filmmaker, Najibullah Quraishi, myself, and producer, Salma Abdelaziz, extremely rare access into the group's territory.
As women we are ignored, seemingly invisible beneath the full veil that is mandatory in public.
The Taliban has allowed us to visit these areas because it wants to show it is in control. But in our first moments --
Whoa, that's a lot of helicopters, one, two, three, four, five.
Our escorts tell us to stop. We are now on the other side of America's war. In recent months, the U.S. has dramatically stepped up the number of air strikes on the Taliban.
The militant's flag makes us a conspicuous target. But we have no choice but to push on.
Our first stop is a clinic that has been run by the Taliban since they took control of this area almost two years ago. A plaque at the door reveals it was a gift from the Americans in 2006.
Suddenly, a young girl outside is hit by a motorcycle. A boy rushes over to help her. The driver is a Taliban fighter. He slings his gun over his shoulder and wanders over, apparently unconcerned.
Life here is brutal. The girl is rushed inside, her frantic mother following behind.
Is she okay? Is she okay? Are you okay?
But no one seems as shocked as we are. The doctor gives her mother some painkillers and sends her away. After years of fighting here, he has seen much worse.
Who's in charge of the hospital? Who's managing it?
He explained that the Taliban manages the clinic, but the government pays salaries and provides medicine. This sort of ad hoc cooperation is becoming more and more common, and
there have been other changes.
So this is something you wouldn't expect to see in a clinic under control of the Taliban. It looks like some kind of sexual health education, talking about condoms, other forms of birth control.
22-year-old midwife Fazala [ph] has worked under the Taliban and the Afghan government.
What has been your experience working under the Taliban here?
"The Taliban never interfere in our work as women" she says. "They never block us from coming to the clinic."
In the waiting area, these women say it's war and poverty that makes their lives miserable.
Has life under the Taliban changed now from what it was before? No?
"We are trapped in the middle" the woman says, "and we can't do anything."
It's just so sad to see how desperate people are here. The women telling me they don't have enough food to eat, they don't have the proper medicines to treat their disabled children. All they want is peace and some improvement to their quality of life.
It's getting late and we need to get to our accommodation. The Taliban turn off cell phone service after dark. This is when we are most vulnerable.
The next morning, we're taken to a madrasa or a religious school. Under Taliban rule in the '90s, girls were banned from going to school. But we find boys and girls studying.
Raise your hand if you know how to read.
Okay. One, two, three. You can read and write.
Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? A doctor? Bravo.
What's your favorite subject in school? Math. You're smart.
Teacher Yar Mohammed [ph] splits his time between the front lines and the classroom. His AK-47 never leaves his side. The emirate has instructed education departments to allow education for girls of religious studies, modern studies, science and math, he says, but there's a catch. Once they reach puberty, girls cannot go to school with boys. And the sad reality is that few in rural areas like this see women's education as a priority.
The Taliban's focus now is on showing it can govern effectively. Across the country, the group has appointed shadow governors, like Maldavi Khaksar . For his security, Khaksar is always on the move. When the villagers hear that he is visiting, they quickly line up to air their issues. There are disputes over money and landownership.
"Your petition will be dealt with tomorrow" Haksar says.
Corruption is rampant in the Afghan government. The Taliban has a reputation for delivering quick, if harsh, justice.
"The Islamic emirate has laws" this man says. "It has an Islamic Sharia system in place." Khaksar agrees to sit down with us. His bodyguard listens for security updates on the radio. We start out by asking about the Taliban's brutal tactics and the U.S. concern that they could once again offer safe haven to terrorists.
MAWLAVI KHAKSAR, TALIBAN SHADOW GOVERNOR (through translator): Whether it's the Americans or is, no foreign forces will be allowed in the country once we start ruling Afghanistan.
WARD (on camera): Are there real efforts being made to stop killing civilians?
KHAKSAR: Those responsible for civilian casualties are the ones who came with the aircrafts, artillery, B52 and heavy weaponry.
WARD (voice-over): In reality, the Taliban is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in the last three years, alone.
(on camera): And what about these suicide bombings at polling stations, for example? These kill many civilians.
KHAKSAR: We deny this. This accusation is not acceptable to us.
WARD (voice-over): There are small signs that the Taliban is moving with the times.
KHAKSAR: I listen to the radio. Also Facebook and other media.
WARD (on camera): You're on Facebook?
WARD (voice-over): But it's clear that the fundamental ideology has not changed.
(on camera): So if somebody is found guilty of stealing, you cut off their hand?
KHAKSAR: Yes. We implement the Sharia. We follow Sharia instruction.
WARD: And if somebody is found guilty of adultery, you will stone them to death?
KHAKSAR: Yes. The Sharia allows stoning to death.
WARD (voice-over): As we're leaving the interview, the military commander for the district arrives and a dispute breaks out about us.
They should have brought a man, one of them says.
(on camera): So the issue right now is that they don't want us to walk outside with the government because I'm a woman. They think it's inappropriate.
(voice-over): We agree to follow the men at a distance, something I've never had to do in my career.
The commander, Mubariz Mujahid, takes us to a nearby safe house to be interviewed privately. We're warned that political questions are off the table.
(on camera): Do you want to see peace between the Taliban and America?
MUBARIZ MUJAHID, TALIBAN MILITARY COMMANDER (through translator): It would be better if this question was put to the spokesperson of the Islamic emirate.
WARD: Do you feel like the Taliban is winning the war? MUJAHID: God willing, we are hopeful. We are supported by God.
WARD (voice-over): He wants to show off his forces for our cameras. His men are gathering just outside the village.
It is exceptionally rare and dangerous for dozens of fighters to congregate in one place.
(on camera): I have been coming to Afghanistan for more than ten years. I never imagined that I would be reporting from here in the heart of Taliban territory, but we're not going to stay long here because gatherings like this can be a major target for air strikes.
(voice-over): But the commander says America's military might can't keep them from victory.
MUJAHID: We are ready for any sacrifice. We are not scared of being hit. This is our holy path. We continue our jihad.
WARD: Most of these men have been fighting U.S. forces since they were old enough to carry a gun. The question now is, are they ready to put those guns down?
Our visit with the Taliban is coming to a close. It's time to leave. For a large part of Afghanistan, the prospect of a Taliban resurgence remains horrifying. But for many here, it makes little difference who is in charge. After decades of war and hardship, they'll turn to anyone who promises peace.
BLITZER: What an amazing report, Clarissa. We have so many questions. Our viewers and I want to ask you. You really are a remarkable journalist.
Let's take a quick break. We'll discuss right after this.
[18:54:21] BLITZER: We're back with our chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, who spent 36 hours with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Clarissa, this was a truly incredible report that you had. You risked your life to bring it to our viewers. Tell us why you thought it was important, to undertake this reporting mission?
WARD: Well, basically, Wolf, since 9/11, this is a world that has been completely shrouded in secrecy. We never get to see it. It is so rarely accessible to outsiders.
So, when we manage to kind of orchestrate this phenomenal opportunity to actually go in on the ground and see what life really looks like in Taliban territory, we leapt at it. I think people need to know, as the U.S. sits down at the negotiating table with the Taliban, as the Taliban prepares for what it believes is an imminent victory, what does the group look like?
[18:55:08] What values does it hold? How does it change? Who does it want to be? And what does future of Afghanistan look like?
BLITZER: Why do you think they let you and your crew, other truly courageous women in, in the first place?
WARD: One main reason, we worked with an extraordinary award-winning Afghan journalist called Najibullah Quraishi. He has worked on several projects with the Taliban before. They respect him because they know that he is fair.
He is the one who spent months work stating, negotiating with the Taliban on behalf of me and Salma Abdel Aziz (ph), the producer I worked on this story, and he was the one who has able to get us in. There were a lot of complexities to this situation. We had the risk of kidnapping. You had the risk of air strikes.
This is not a story that we jumped into just without thinking twice about it. It took many months of careful thought, careful analysis and planning.
BLITZER: And you had to convince your bosses here at CNN to let you do it. I'm sure there was a lot of concern.
WARD: It was harder to convince the bosses than it was to convince the Taliban. That's for very good reasons. There have been journalists kidnapped in the past.
But in this situation, it made sense, because of the political situation, the Taliban really feeling that talks are gaining momentum. They feel that they're this close to getting the keys to the kingdom. It wouldn't be politically expedient for them to suddenly kidnap a journalist who they'd invited into their territory.
BLITZER: So how dangerous was it? How scared were you?
WARD: I think the moments that were the most frightening were the moments where we saw those helicopters in the distance, our Taliban escorts --
BLITZER: Were those Afghan military or U.S. --
WARD: It's impossible to know from that distance, but there have been a number of U.S. air strikes in that area. They're mostly at night, and there's no cell phone service at night. So, that was also quite concerning.
But we were staying at a house with an Afghan family who support the Taliban, but they're not part of the Taliban. We were with the women, and had no contact with Naji overnight except through sending him notes.
And that was wonderful because it really gave us a different perspective on the situation on the ground. It gave a much more human perspective. Some of these women saying they've never seen foreigners before and they've never really imagined that they would.
BLITZER: And so you think there's realistically a chance that there will be peace, a new Afghanistan led by the Taliban, with the U.S.?
WARD: Well, I tell you what the Taliban thinks. They believe that the U.S. is on the verge of upping sticks and leaving, that the U.S. is fed up, that that's why they're sitting down at the negotiating table with the Taliban.
And they have no doubt that when the U.S. leaves, it will not be difficult for them to cease power, to essentially take the levers of power away from the Afghan government. But for the meantime, Wolf, until they get to that place, they're trying to show the world that they can be more pragmatic, that they can cooperate with the Afghan government, that they can sit at the negotiating table, that they can be more mature and that they can govern.
BLITZER: But for 17 years, the U.S. has led NATO and others in this war against the Taliban, going back to 9/11 and al Qaeda.
Why now? Why -- do you think the Trump administration wants to see the 10,000 or 15,000 U.S. troops who are still in Afghanistan out that this is still happening?
WARD: Well, I think you almost answered the question, because it is precisely because 2,372 troops have been killed in this 17-year war. It is precisely because more than $1 trillion U.S. has been spent on trying to build up this country. And it is precisely because, as you saw in our piece, that very little has changed on the ground in these rural areas. Their life has remained at a standstill. That I think the U.S. is now taking a cold, hard look at the reality and the limitations of the options that it has in this war.
BLITZER: Tell us about that little girl in your report. Our heart goes out to her and her mother, you know, when she was hit by that motorcycle.
WARD: That was a horrendous moment, because we didn't know if she was OK, if she was alive. I could just hear her wailing and wailing, and it was shocking to see how kind of cavalier everyone seemed to be, except for her mother, who was frantic. Everybody else was sort of like, well, she's got both legs, she's OK. It seemed in the end that she was not seriously injured.
But what struck was in any other country, you would think there would be a full physical exam, there would be an x-ray, there would be people gathered around here, giving her a hug, making sure she's OK. But this clinic, Wolf, has seen so many injuries from the most brutal acts of war, so a little girl getting hit by a motorcycle, it just doesn't even raise an eyebrow.
BLITZER: I've got to tell you, we're grateful to you and your crew, your producers, for risking your lives to bring this report to our viewers, really, really excellent, amazing reporting. Clarissa, thanks so much for doing this. Now, be careful, don't do
anymore of this, at least for a while.
WARD: OK, I promise. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you very, very much. What an incredible story.
And to our viewers, remember, I'll be back in one hour for the CNN presidential town hall with Senator Bernie Sanders.
Until then, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.