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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Rep. Katie Hill (D) California; Trump Versus Cohen; Trump Communications Director Resigns; Outrage Grows Over Lighter Than Expected Manafort Sentence; Trump Claims Michael Cohen Directly Asked For A Pardon; Cohen Responds: Just Another Set Of Lies By The President, Trump: I Feel Very Badly For Convicted Felon Manafort; Source: North Korea May Be Preparing For New Launch; George Conway: Trump Could Push U.S. Toward "Banana Republic." Aired on 6-7p ET

Aired March 8, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:05]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: pardon bombshell. President Trump claims ex-lawyer Michael Cohen directly asked him for a pardon and lied under oath about it. But with that tweet, could the president have set himself up for going under oath as a witness?

Shine down. Like five others before him in the Trump administration, former FOX News Executive, Bill Shine, is out as White House communications chief. The president had been down on Shine for months, and a source says he questioned Shine's judgment on a number of issues.

Witch hoax. President Trump says he feels very badly for Paul Manafort after his ex-campaign chairman was sentenced to less than four years in prison. The president taking the opportunity to once again slam the Mueller investigation. He's even coined a new phrase, calling it a witch hoax.

And banana republic. The husband of White House Counselor, Kellyanne Conway is no Trump fan. Lawyer George Conway is known for his scathing tweets, but today he stood up and suggested the U.S. risks becoming a banana republic under President Trump.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Tonight, in a stunning move, President Trump is claiming his former lawyer Michael Cohen directly asked him for a pardon and lied under oath about that when testifying before Congress.

But with today's tweet, the president may have opened himself up to legal scrutiny and potential testimony in any case involving Michael Cohen. For his part Cohen, tweeted back, accusing the president of -- quote -- "just another set of lies."

Also tonight, former FOX News executive Bill Shine is out as White House communications adviser. One source says the president had questioned Shine's judgment on multiple issues recently, and the president has complained that Shine's presence at the White House did not result in better coverage.

I will speak with Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill of the Oversight Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, Donald Trump always said he'd surround himself with the best people. But, one by one, they're ending up in a lot of trouble.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It hasn't been the best week for those people, Wolf. That's right.

President Trump is down in Florida for the weekend. He toured storm damage in Alabama today. But before he left the White House, he started a new war of words with Michael Cohen, which has the potential to drag the president into a possible perjury case against his former personal attorney.

And today we heard the president start to merge some of his talking points when he referred to the Russia investigation as a witch hoax.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): After shying away from this subject for days, President Trump took aim at his former personal attorney Michael Cohen, accusing his one-time fixer of lying to Congress.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a stone-cold lie. And he's lied about a lot of things. But when he lied about the pardon, that was really a lie, and he knew all about pardons. His lawyers said that they went to my lawyers and asked for pardons.

ACOSTA: The president is referring to this comment Cohen made last week under oath, when he testified that he had not sought a pardon for Mr. Trump, even though his own attorneys had done just that.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: And I have never asked for it, nor would I accept a pardon from President Trump.

ACOSTA: The president went one step further, alleging Cohen had sought a pardon personally, tweeting: "Bad lawyer and fraudster Michael Cohen said under sworn testimony that he had never asked for a pardon. His lawyers totally contradicted him. He lied. Additionally, he directly asked me for a pardon. I said no."

Cohen fired back, tweeting: "Just another set of lies by the president. Mr. President, let me remind you that today is International Women's Day. You may want to use today to apologize for your own lies and dirty deeds to women like Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford," a reference to Mr. Trump's alleged mistresses.

But the president's attack on Cohen could backfire, pulling Mr. Trump into a perjury investigation into his former personal attorney's remarks.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D), MARYLAND: We'd love to hear from the president about it. It does seem like one of these whimsical last-minute presidential inventions.

ACOSTA: Contrast Mr. Trump's war of words with Cohen with the sympathy expressed for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is headed to prison, but may receive a pardon of his own, as he stayed loyal to the president.

TRUMP: I feel very badly for Paul Manafort. I think it's been a very, very tough time for him. But if you notice, both his lawyer, a highly respected man, and a very highly respected judge, the judge, said there was no collusion with Russia. This had nothing to do with collusion. There was no collusion.

It's a collusion hoax. It's a collusion witch hoax.

ACOSTA: Just before the president viewed storm day in Alabama, the White House announced its communications director, Bill Shine, is resigning. Sources tell CNN Mr. Trump had soured on Shine, questioning his judgment on a number of issues.

[18:05:07]

Still, the president released a statement saying: "We will miss Shine in the White House, but look forward to working together on the 2020 presidential campaign, where he will be totally involved."

Shine, a former FOX News executive, is the sixth person to take on the communications job, raising questions about the president's commitment to hire the best people.

TRUMP: We are going to get the best people in the world. We're going to use our smartest and our best. We're not using political hacks anymore.

ACOSTA: The president may need a new communications director to help spin the latest unemployment numbers showing the economy only added 20,000 jobs last month.

Still, the president said there's nothing to worry about.

TRUMP: The economy is very, very strong. If you look at the stock market over the last few months, it's been great.

ACOSTA: The president is looking to put Democrats on the defensive, accusing them of going soft on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar after the House passed a measure condemning hate speech, a move sparked by the freshman Democrat's anti-Semitic comments.

TRUMP: The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They have become an anti-Jewish party.

ACOSTA: But the president overlooked his own record.

TRUMP: And you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for the departure of the White House communications director, a source close to the White House said there were growing concerns about the administration's cozy relationship with FOX News, where Bill Shine was recently a top executive.

Shine was partly responsible for the dramatic reduction in press briefings with reporters in recent months. Instead, we would see top officials routinely on FOX News, instead of in that Briefing Room.

And the source of said it is -- quote -- "dangerous" to have Shine so close to the decision-making in the West Wing, but Shine is not going far from the president. He's going to be taking on a position advising the Trump campaign. So we will see more of Bill Shine out on the campaign trail -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what happens next.

All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Let's bring in our senior White House Correspondent, Pamela Brown.

Pamela, we're also learning the president has been obsessed with his former fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen, fuming about him constantly. What are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

Our reporting shows that Michael Cohen and his testimony and all the fallout surrounding it last week has really been getting under the president's skin, and he's been distracted by it. My colleagues Kevin Liptak, Kaitlan Collins reporting that, just minutes after national security meetings, President Trump has been bringing up Cohen and his testimony.

After calling lawmakers, he will bring it up shortly after. It seems to be constantly on his mind. Not only that, Wolf, but our reporting shows that even in Hanoi, when he was there for the North Korea summit around the same time as the testimony, the president was bringing it up there. He was upset that a reporter asked him about Cohen.

And on the way home on Air Force One, once again, the president was fixated on Cohen, bringing it up. So, clearly, this got under his skin.

Cohen is one of -- the only associate of Trump charged by Robert Mueller who has really publicly gone after him in such a bold way, calling him a con, calling him a racist, and making these claims to Congress. Clearly, that's been upsetting the president.

The question today is why, a week after the testimony, is he just now tweeting out that Cohen committed perjury, and that he asked for a pardon directly? That really is raising a lot of questions. BLITZER: Since the president claims, Pamela, that Cohen personally asked him about a pardon, is the president now potentially a witness in a perjury case?

BROWN: Well, that is the big question. I actually asked Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, whether he would be willing to be a witness in a perjury case and be interviewed by investigators.

And basically he said that the president wouldn't need to be a witness because there are so many other witnesses. He said he included himself in that. But certainly the president is opening himself up for that, saying that Cohen directly asked him and basically saying he committed perjury to Congress.

Now, as we know, Cohen and his attorney say that's not true. He didn't -- he was just talking about after the joint defense agreement had ended. But, certainly, it's brought more scrutiny on to the president of whether he would be willing to be a witness in any sort of perjury investigation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Pamela, thank you, Pamela Brown reporting.

Joining us now, Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill of the House Oversight Committee. That's the committee that heard testimony from Michael Cohen.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. KATIE HILL (D), CALIFORNIA: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: What do you think? Is the president potentially opening himself up to becoming a witness, if there is some sort of perjury investigation of Michael Cohen, who said that he never asked the president for a pardon? The president said he directly asked him for a pardon.

HILL: I mean, I think it's certainly possible.

The chairman, Chairman Cummings, is very deliberate in all of this. I know he's reviewing with Mr. Jordan the entire transcript of what exactly was said. And they're going through that entire process.

But the reality is that, to me, it doesn't really -- what we have to focus on is that, whatever was said previously, we need to focus on what was said in that testimony, from the point that he decided that he was going to be cooperating with us and no longer covering for the president. That's what really matters.

[18:10:05]

And I just think that this is yet another attempt by the president and his allies to diminish what we know could be very credible. And I think that that's really where this...

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: But if he did lie, Michael Cohen, before your committee under oath in open session about a possible pardon, that has undermined, further undermined his credibility. He is already a convicted liar, as we know.

HILL: Yes, I mean, it's certainly not ideal. That's for sure.

But I also think that we have a -- we're never going to rely entirely on his testimony, for whatever ends up happening from here. We know that that's something that can set the context, it can give us different clues of where to go next. But it's not something that you can rely on, in and of itself.

BLITZER: Do you believe Cohen or do you believe the president?

HILL: Well, considering Cohen was lying previously to protect the president, I'm more inclined to believe Cohen.

I can't speak to whether he had different lawyers negotiating on his behalf. When he was -- when he was trying to cover up for the president, I would imagine, yes, there's probably something that was going on. Exactly what he said in the testimony in terms of like, I have never asked for a pardon, I don't know in terms of parsing words.

That's not really what I was focused on. But I think that, at the end of the day, it's -- I'm never going to rely on just his words alone to be able to kind of come to the final conclusion on this.

BLITZER: The chairman of your committee, Congressman Elijah Cummings, he says that President Trump is welcome to call him to discuss this.

How do you think your committee is going to investigate? This is a serious, serious charge.

HILL: Again, Chairman Cummings is incredibly deliberate about all of this. He is going to be looking into it. He is going to be looking at the different witnesses that are -- as Giuliani mentioned, I suppose, there are other witnesses that are possible, that are possibilities around this whole perjury...

BLITZER: Do you think he will call the president and ask him to testify?

HILL: I highly doubt that the president is going to take his call.

But I'm sure that he will go whatever route he can in terms of getting to the bottom of this. But at the same time, we have to continue with the rest of the investigations that are taking place, including important investigations around the high cost of prescription drugs, around the census that's coming up.

And we can't stop everything that we're doing. I think there's this tendency on the other side of the aisle and among the president's allies to say that, oh, this is all that the Democrats are doing, when that is so far from the case. BLITZER: And I know your committees also investigating security

clearances over at the White House and the decision apparently by the president himself to grant top-secret security clearances to his son- in-law, Jared Kushner, his daughter Ivanka Trump.

Axios, as you probably saw, is reporting that somebody at the White House actually leaked sensitive documents backing up the assertion that the president personally ordered the top-secret security clearances for his son-in-law and his daughter.

Have you seen those documents yet? Do you know anything about those documents?

HILL: I actually haven't yet.

We have had a big day today. So, no, I haven't seen those yet. I'm sure I'll be catching up on that pretty soon. But...

BLITZER: But do you know for sure that the committee does have these internal White House documents on security clearances?

HILL: I don't know exactly what they have. Often, we will -- they're vetting all of that stuff before we get ahold of it. So they're making sure that it's legitimate and that it's protecting whoever the whistle-blowers might be.

So I think it's a good thing that I haven't seen it.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But you seem to be suggesting there must be something there?

HILL: Well, what I do know is that there is certainly -- there are whistle-blowers who have provided enough that it is of a decent amount of concern to the committee that we need to further investigate.

BLITZER: So you think that's why there hasn't yet been a subpoena for these kinds of documents, for these kinds of witnesses to show up and explain why the president decided to give top -- he has the right to do so under the law. He can grant security clearances to anyone he wants, but why they did it in an extraordinary way along these lines?

HILL: Well, there were requests sent by the committee to get these kinds of documents. And so there was enough time. We provided time for the president and for the White House to comply.

So if the compliance is not happening, then that's when a subpoena -- a potential subpoena...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: In addition to documents that may have been leaked, you're suggesting maybe there are whistle-blowers or a whistle-blower who provided additional information? Is that right?

HILL: Yes, that was in the initial request for documents was saying that whistle-blowers had come forward...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Plural, whistle-blowers?

HILL: Yes, it was more than one. I don't know exactly how many.

BLITZER: OK. Yes.

HILL: But there were more than one that had come forward, suggesting -- raising serious concerns about how this entire process had gone forward with providing those security clearances to his family members.

BLITZER: What happens if they don't cooperate, the White House? What do you do then?

HILL: That's when we have to look into the subpoenas.

BLITZER: And that's a real possibility if the president were to cite executive privilege, for example?

HILL: I would say so, absolutely.

And you just have to go that -- down that entire road. And, again, whenever you see a resistance on the part of the White House to provide information, I think that has to raise concern for us. There are a lot of options in terms of redactions that would protect individuals and their privacy, while still providing information on the process and how the decisions were made, and what kind of personnel information -- how we ensure the protocols were being followed to ensure the safety of our country.

[18:15:04]

And we're not asking necessarily for the exact specifics of the people involved, and we certainly don't want to disclose that to the public. So I think that, if the White House is trying to hide that information, then we have serious reason for suspicions.

BLITZER: Then you are ready to go to court? Because there could be a long, prolonged court battle.

HILL: It's possible. It's absolutely possible.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Paul Manafort's sentencing yesterday. He got almost four years by this federal judge in Northern Virginia.

The president today said he feels very badly for his former campaign chairman. Do you worry that there's a possibility the president might grant Paul Manafort a pardon?

HILL: I think there's certainly a possibility he will.

I think you see the difference in someone who has cooperated with the president the entire time vs. someone who hasn't. You have got Cohen, who has said that he's no longer going to be protecting the president and that he's cooperating with the special prosecutor and with the Oversight Committee and the other committees in Congress.

And then you have Manafort, who blocked that progress at every single turn. And, of course, the president is sympathetic to one, not sympathetic to the other. And I think that -- certainly, I could absolutely foresee him rewarding the behavior of the person who's trying to protect him.

BLITZER: He has the right to do so, the president.

HILL: Yes.

BLITZER: He can grant pardons if he wants to do so.

If he does that, grant him a pardon, what happens then?

HILL: I mean, we don't have any recourse to that.

But, again, I think it starts to build more and more of this case to the American people of, like, what? Are we OK with this? Is this the America that we want to see? Is this what we're OK with, sitting in our White House? This is -- I think it really comes down to the kind of questions that we're asking ourselves.

Is this who we see as reflecting us, as the American people? Is this the kind of democracy that we want to move forward and to leave to the next generation?

BLITZER: Where do you stand on the House of Representatives launching impeachment proceedings?

HILL: I think that impeachment is a political process, as much as it is anything else. So, to me, what we're doing right now is, we are in a search for the truth. We are uncovering the truth. We are trying to paint the picture for the American people of what exactly has happened, because, for two years, the Republicans in Congress have tried to shield it, to hide the truth, and to make sure that it is not exposed at all in order to protect the president.

So, ultimately, we're going to reveal what we can. And it's really up to the American people at that point, through their representatives, through the people's house. I'm going to see what is reflected in my district. Each of my colleagues is going to have to do the same.

But what I can tell you right now is that my district does not approve of the job that Donald Trump is doing. They don't believe that he is fit for office. They don't believe that he is someone that we can trust. And I think that as far as this investigation continues, as this whole process continues to play out, we are going to need to have a fully robust case to be able to move forward on anything like that.

And we're going to have to make sure that the American people are with us.

BLITZER: Because you clearly have the votes, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, for the House Judiciary Committee to launch impeachment hearings, impeachment proceedings.

You may have a majority vote there. But in the Senate, you need two- thirds.

HILL: Right.

BLITZER: And if you don't have two-thirds majority, even if he is impeached in the House, like Bill Clinton was, he is going to be acquitted in the Senate.

HILL: Exactly. That's why we -- that's why there's -- it's not helpful for us to just launch this impeachment proceeding if we don't have the buy-in of the American people that has to be reflected by the senators.

I think -- again, I think this entire process needs to play out. We have to make sure that all of the facts are uncovered. We have to make sure that the Mueller report is exposed and that we don't just get this watered-down version that's reported as kind of the summary piece, and, hopefully, that we can get to the bottom of this.

We need to show the security risks that are happening because of it. We know that the president's actions in terms of what is happening in the Middle East, in terms of pulling out in Syria and in Afghanistan, there are direct benefits to Russia from those actions.

And so does that tie back to potential influences that he has from Vladimir Putin and from other foreign interests? Where does that tie together? And is he ultimately making decisions that benefit those actors, as opposed to the American people? And is he putting lives at risk?

That's where, to me, the nexus of it all comes together.

BLITZER: We hope you will stay in touch with us.

HILL: Absolutely. Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks so much, Congresswoman Katie Hill of California. Appreciate it very much.

HILL: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Just ahead: Bill Shine is out as White House communications chief. Why was the president so down on the former FOX News executive?

And there's more breaking news. There are now some ominous signs that North Korea may be preparing a new missile launch, after blaming the United States for what it now admits was a failed summit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:09]

BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump accusing his former fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen of lying to Congress.

In a tweet, the president claims Cohen directly asked him for a pardon, contradicting Cohen's sworn testimony to the House Oversight Committee. Cohen claims it's the president who's lying.

Let's dig deeper with our experts and our analysts.

And, Jeffrey Toobin, here's what -- here's what Michael Cohen -- this is what the president tweeted about Michael Cohen: "Bad lawyer and fraudster Michael Cohen said under sworn testimony that he never asked for a pardon. His lawyers totally contradicted him. He lied. Additionally, he directly asked me for a pardon. I said no. He lied again."

If you really knew, the president, that Cohen lied under oath, which is perjury, another crime, why are we just hearing about this now?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's a good question.

Another good question is, why isn't he telling this to Robert Mueller? I mean, this is relevant evidence to Mueller's investigation, whatever conversations they did have about a pardon or anything else.

[18:25:11]

So if Robert Mueller was still thinking about the possibility of subpoenaing the president, getting a verbal interview with him, this would be further evidence in his -- in his arsenal.

The other question is, who's telling the truth here? And if -- Michael Cohen is someone who's admitted he's lied, and now faces very severe consequences if he lies again. Donald Trump's record on this in particular is particularly bad.

So I think that's something people can figure in, in their calculation.

BLITZER: Shawn Turner, what do you make of this?

SHAWN TURNER, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBER: Yes, look, if we were believing that the president and Michael Cohen had a personal conversation, where Michael Cohen asked the president for a pardon, it's impossible to know who to believe here.

We have to remember that, as Jeffrey pointed out, both of these men have a tortured relationship with the truth. Now, as it relates to Michael Cohen in particular, though, we have to remember that Michael Cohen gave more than 20 hours of testimony in his two closed and one open sessions in which he talked about the president being engaged in a lot of activities that are, at worst, unethical and, at best, illegal.

And so what Congress needs to do with regards to Michael Cohen is, they have to read between the lies. Look, we all understand Michael Cohen lied. We know that. We also know that the president has told lies, but because he made so many statements about things that the president had done, we can't simply look at what Michael Cohen said, and say, look, he lied about the pardon, and so, therefore, we shouldn't look at anything.

Congress should investigate the pardon with all -- as much vigor as they investigate all the other things he said.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's also worth noting that Michael Cohen made his statement under oath, and the president didn't. And so to the extent that we have sort of the contradicting testimony of two liars, one thing that the president could do is either make those statements to Robert Mueller, as Jeffrey suggested, or say it to Congress himself, if he wanted to bolster his own credibility.

BLITZER: Do you think the president might be called as a witness if they do begin another round of perjury investigations involving Cohen?

HENNESSEY: I think it's relatively unlikely, right?

We saw that the Justice Department wasn't willing to sort of push that even related to the core of the Mueller investigation. So I think it's pretty unlikely. That said, it's not a great idea for the president to be sort of tweeting out these conversations.

The whole reason why he was in a joint defense agreement with Michael Cohen was in order to preserve attorney-client privilege related around this stuff. Keep in mind, not just -- the issue here isn't just congressional investigations. Michael Cohen has sued the president, he sued the Trump Organization for failing to pay the legal bills moving forward.

Conversations about pardons, conversations between their lawyers about pardons, those are precisely the kinds of conversations which Michael Cohen might want to introduce. And so I think what we see again is that the president sort of -- he just can't resist the temptation to talk about this stuff, to tweet about it, to fight it -- to fight it out in public.

And oftentimes those statements are contrary to his own legal best interests.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Jeffrey, make your point.

TOOBIN: I'm sorry, but look at the terrible price Donald Trump hospitals paid for his style.

He got elected president of the United States behaving exactly this way. So why should he change? I mean, I just think it's an easy call for him.

BLITZER: Ron, you saw our exclusive reporting earlier that the president seems to be consumed by Michael Cohen in recent weeks.

It's really irritating him and driving his agenda. RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first, I mean, if

he is tweeting about this, it certainly opens him up to questioning about all other conversations he's had related to pardons.

Why is this different? Why is able to comment on this and not on anything else involving everybody else in this sprawling story? But I think to the extent the president is obsessed with this, I mean, it kind of reinforces what has been a conviction from the beginning, I think, of many watching this investigation, that he worries the most about revelations relating to his business, even more than he does about anything related to the campaign.

And certainly Michael Cohen is someone who was involved intimately in many different aspects of Trump and, as Katie Hill said, has put a lot of bread crumbs in front of House investigators and the Southern District of New York and New York state insurance investigators.

And so I think discrediting him is important, not only from the point of view of -- quote -- "collusion" or not, but from this broad -- all the doors that are now being opened into the many ways that the president may have cut corners, at best, and, at worst, veered into outright illegality throughout his business career.

BLITZER: Susan, the president now publicly speaking about private conversations he had with his former lawyer. Does that shatter any attorney-client privilege he might want to cite down the road?

HENNESSEY: Yes, so keep in mind the president is relying on executive privilege and attorney-client privilege to try and prevent all of this information from coming out.

And so if you do talk about privileged conversations in public, you risk waiving that privilege. That's one of the reasons why the president's advisers and lawyers counsel him over and over again to not talk about this stuff in public.

TOOBIN: But, if you don't testify, it doesn't matter what privilege you waive or not.

I mean, there's -- there's no forum where the president is going to be confronted with, well, you waived attorney-client privilege. Mueller is not interviewing him. He is the only one who is doing it. I mean, I just think the President has a lot more running room in this area than we give him credit for.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: I don't disagree. Although we do see the President sort of asserting these various legal defenses as a reason for not engaging with these questions publicly, like suggesting that there's executive privilege, they're suggesting that there's attorney/client privilege issues.

And so as Ron said, I think by putting this stuff on the table, even if it's ultimately never going to be litigated, he does still do himself a disservice.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little about -- BROWNSTEIN: And by the way, the --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.

BROWNSTEIN: I would say it real quick, the executive privilege is going to be litigated. Because we already -- you have administration officials claiming it in their testimony to Congress. And, certainly, the administration is going to be very aggressive in using that to try to defeat these democratic investigations by rejecting even subpoenas down the road, I'm sure.

BLITZER: Ron, let's talk a little bit about somebody else the President apparently has soured on, Bill Shine, his Communications Director. He is out as of today. And you can see that he follows a list of others who worked relatively short number of days. What's your analysis of what's going on over there as far as White House Communications and the President?

BROWNSTEIN: Look, when you look in the dictionary under impossible job, I think White House Communications Director for Donald Trump will certainly show up at the top of the list. As you see, I mean, it's been a revolving door because -- I mean, the idea he is going to take direction on communications from anyone is kind of absurd.

Last Saturday, he gave a speech to CPAC that went on for over two hours, over 16,000 words. I ran it through a word counter. Open use of profanity from the microphone, something I think almost unprecedented for a President, sublimating all of the economic good news to a very kind of divisive message of I'll protect you, those three words, against all of these changes. Like that is what he wants to run on.

And that is kind of -- and, of course, all the Tweeting that we're talking about today with all the questions that it raises. So every few months, he needs someone, I think, to kind of point to and say, you are the reason why my poll numbers aren't better, my press coverage isn't better.

But the fact is, he is choosing the style of his communications as President and he is making a very distinct bet with that style all the way through of mobilizing his base even at the expense of further alienating the voters who have always been skeptical and who created this democratic majority in Congress that is now investigating him.

But I think for someone like Bill Shine who does not come with a great pedigree in kind of public affairs or public policy, no matter who is in that job, it's probably short-term.

BLITZER: Let me get Jeffrey and Shawn to weigh in, and, Jeffrey, you first.

TOOBIN: Well, it's not just the Communications Department other than Kellyanne Conway, who is still there from the beginning. I mean, they're all gone. Chief of Staff, National Security Adviser, he's gone through several. The only people who are there are the nepotism hires that his -- his daughter and son-in-law and Kellyanne Conway, who has some magical potion that allows her to stay.

But, I mean, the rule is he gets sick of people. It's not the exception.

SHAWN TURNER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATION FOR U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Yes, Wolf. And, you know, the President is going to say what he wants to say, when he wants to say it and the way he wants to say it, as Ron was pointing. And what he expects of his Communication Director is that no matter what I say, you are going to make me look good, you are going to make sure people view me as someone who is saying something positive.

And so for this -- for anyone who takes this job, they have to understand that the President isn't actually looking for someone to give advice and counsel. They are looking for someone to do the impossible and make the President look good no matter what he says.

HENNESSEY: I mean, we saw this -- we saw recent reports about producers in The Apprentice, having to go back afterwards to reedit footage for the reality show whenever Trump did something crazy at the end in order to make it look like it made sense. That is the same job of the White House Communications Director.

The President does something. He does it impulsively. He does it without necessarily thinking it out. And then they have to, after the fact, try to recreate a reality that actually lines up with the President's words.

TURNER: But unfortunately, in this case, he is doing it live on television.

BLITZER: All right, everybody stick around. Stand by. We've got to take a quick break. There's a lot of news that's unfolding right now, how the President is mischaracterizing comments about collusion by the federal judge who sentenced Paul Manafort.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

[18:35:00]

[18:39:02] BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump is voicing sympathy for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has sentenced to 47 months, almost four years, in prison for tax and bank fraud. Susan, I want you to listen to how the President reacted to this earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: I feel very badly for Paul Manafort. I think it's been a very, very tough time for him. But if you notice, both his lawyer, a highly respected man and a very highly respected judge, the judge said there was no collusion with Russia. This had nothing to do with collusion.

There was no collusion. It's a collusion hoax. It's a collusion witch hoax. I don't collude with Russia. So I just want to tell you that his lawyer went out of his way, actually, to make a statement last night, no collusion with Russia. There was absolutely none.

The judge, I mean, for whatever reason, I was very honored by it, also made the statement that this had nothing to do with collusion with Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[18:40:06]

BLITZER: All right. Let's do a quick fact check. The judge, T.S. Ellis, he did not say there was no collusion. He did say that the charges Manafort was being sentenced for were not related to collusion. But it benefits the President to insist no collusion, no collusion, no collusion.

HENNESSEY: Of course, it does. And this has sort of been his strategy from the outset. It's true that Manafort has not been charged with sort of activity directly related to the Russia collusion question. With that said, there are still huge questions on precisely this issue related to Manafort's conduct, his relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik, his relationship with Oleg Deripaska, providing this polling information, sensitive polling information, Manafort's involvement in this Ukrainian peace plan, that was reportedly favorable to Russia's interest.

None of that was answered by this trial because none of it was at issue in this trial. He wasn't absolved of it. They didn't find no collusion. They were just looking at a completely different set of issues and questions. So I do think the question here is whether or not we are going to get those answers in some other form, namely the Mueller report.

So it's likely that Mueller has some additional information about what Manafort did, even if it's not enough to bring criminal charges. And so the question is whether or not he is going to include that in some sort of narrative to ultimately hand over to Congress.

BLITZER: He was convicted, Manafort, the charges of hiding foreign bank accounts, defrauding the United States American citizen's taxpayers with millions and millions of dollars, stealing that money. In effect, you can see some of the counts right there. His sentence, 47 months in prison, restitution of between $6 and $25 million, $50,000 fine, three years supervised release.

The president feels very badly for Paul Manafort, which is pretty startling when you think most of that money came from pro-Russian Ukrainians who were doing stuff that was not very good for the United States or good for their own people.

TURNER: Absolutely. And you know what this says, Wolf. This says that the President either does not understand or does not care about the seriousness of Paul Manafort's crimes. But the president and Paul Manafort are both that special breed of businessmen that bend and stretch and flex the rules in order to get what they want.

And so what I see here when the President makes a statement like that is I see a person who looks at the world through an us versus them lens. And when he looks at Paul Manafort, he sees an us, he sees someone who engaged in business practices over the years in the same way that he may be familiar with or people he is closely maybe familiar with. And he sees this judge looking at Paul Manafort and saying, look, what you did is -- I've got to slap your hand, but it's not so bad, and he feels bad for him.

I think that the President is going to feel very differently next week when Paul Manafort gets sentenced again. But I think in this case, he just does not see the seriousness of these crimes.

TOOBIN: And remember, I mean, remember what -- I mean, how astonishing it is. The President says, his lawyer went out of his way to say there was no collusion. His lawyer -- Manafort's lawyer is smart. He is trying to get him a pardon. He is trying to ingratiate himself and his client with the President. So, of course, he is going to say there is no collusion. The idea that that was some random objective observation of what the facts are is absurd.

BLITZER: Ron, go ahead.

BROWNSTEIN: Can I add? Manafort's significance politically in the 2020 election may be around corruption, not collusion, as say symbol of corruption. I mean, the promise to drain the swamp was an important part of the President's message 2016. I talked to a republican consultant this week who said he thought it was as important as any other single strand in the message.

And yet, you have all of these questions around so many people around the President, including the President and companies taking out hotel rooms in his properties and so forth when they have interest before the government [ph]. Today, we haven't talked about it. But today, the house unanimously passed H.R. 1, the most significant political reform bill since, really, the 1960s. And you, I think, are going to see the democratic presidential candidates in 2020 really pound at this question of political reform and corruption in Trump's Washington.

BLITZER: All right, everybody stick around. There's more news we're following. But first, an important programming note. This Sunday night, CNN is hosting three presidential town halls, back-to-back live from the south by southwest in Austin, Texas. Former Congressman John Delaney at 7:00 P.M. Eastern, Representative Tulsi Gabbard and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate Sunday night starting at 7:00 P.M. Eastern right here on CNN.

We have breaking news. Signs tonight that North Korea may be preparing for a new missile launch in the wake of the failed Trump-Kim summit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:49:31] BLITZER: We have breaking news on North Korea, which is blaming the United States for the failed summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. We are getting new indications of activity at North Korea's rocket and launch sites. Let's bring in CNN's Will Ripley who has been to North Korea 19 times,

including visiting the biggest launch facility. He's joining us live from Beijing.

What's the latest, Will?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we are hearing from Jeffrey Lewis and Melissa Hanham, who are two analysts who have been studying commercial satellite imagery, there is a facility near Pyongyang, known as Sanum Dong, where North Korea is known to assemble ICBMs and space rockets.

[18:50:10] And based on the images that we are now seeing for the first time, it appears that North Korea has assembled something possibly placed it on a rail car and it could be on route to a launch site in North Korea, the likely launch site Jeffrey Lewis tells me would be the Sohae launch facility, which had been partially disassembled after Kim Jong-un made a pledge to take it apart.

But in recent days, post-Hanoi, there has been a flurry of restoration work, according to South Korea's national intelligence service. The spy agency says that essentially, the Sohae satellite launch facility has been restored, there's been vehicle activity, and the U.S. think tank 38 North is saying that it is now fully operational.

So, if you put the pieces together, it seems as if North Korea, the most likely possibility I'm being told, may have put together some sort of a satellite, you know, which uses ICBM technology, banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions. It could be headed to Sohae, and analysts are saying that North Korea really could be preparing to conduct a launch that could happen really in the very near future, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, if it's launch and if it's an ICBM or something similar, something along those lines, that would be something that the president of the United States has said would result in some serious ramifications.

RIPLEY: That's right. And, you know, North Korea, if they were to launch a satellite as opposed to an ICBM, they could make their longstanding argument that the launch is for the sake of scientific research. That's what they said when they put a satellite into orbit back in 2012.

They said that it was a peaceful endeavor to try to launch a satellite into space. We know that North Korea has had a couple of satellites on stand by they haven't launched as they've been in more than a year- long pause in missile and nuclear testing. But, again, the United States doesn't buy that argument because they say that the kind of technology that North Korea would use to put a satellite into orbit is also ICBM technology.

So, whether it's a missile or whether it's a rocket, a highly provocative act if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un goes through with it.

BLITZER: Certainly right on that front. Good reporting, Will. Thank you very much. Will Ripley reporting.

Just ahead, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is no Trump fan, known for his scathing tweets. George Conway today stood up publicly and warned that the United States risks becoming a banana republic under President Trump.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:04] BLITZER: He is the husband of the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway but conservative lawyer George Conway is no fan of President Trump. He routinely makes it clear with his blistering tweets, but today, he took his criticism public in a new way.

CNN's Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tom, this was all about the rule of law.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it really was, and as you pointed out, he is a conservative. The president constantly complains about the Democrats and the liberals coming after him. This is a conservative, and today, he let it fly.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE CONWAY, HUSBAND OF KELLYANNE CONWAY: Now, if people were to get indicted who are not indicted on the basis of whether the president likes them, we wouldn't have a republic, we'd have a banana republic.

FOREMAN (voice-over): He did not use the president's name, but in an extremely rare public speaking appearance, George Conway tore into Donald Trump just the same.

G. CONWAY: And the president has suggested that members of his own Justice Department should be locked up for investigating the president.

FOREMAN: Conway blasted Trump over his ideas on justice, his attacks on freedom of the press.

G. CONWAY: That's a problem of a quite different order of magnitude. You can't have a free country with that.

FOREMAN: Conway has freely attacked the president for a long time, despite being married to top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. Just this past week tweeting Trump, is a fraud and an embarrassment, an inveterate liar, a narcissistic, sociopathic demagogue.

Referring to the president's repeated, unproven claims of being a great student, Conway has tagged Trump summa cum liar, noting Trump's approach is virtually never tell the truth when there is an opportunity to tell a lie. Even offering of an armchair diagnosis, it's pathological, it's an illness.

The president has brushed him off before.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You mean Mr. Kellyanne Conway?

FOREMAN: Suggesting George Conway's barbs are meaningless.

TRUMP: He is just trying to get publicity for himself.

FOREMAN: Kellyanne Conway clearly squirms when confronted about differences with her husband, at times suggesting such questions are fundamentally sexist.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: First of all, I would ask that if you were a man.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: No, you wouldn't.

BASH: A thousand percent I would.

(CROSSTALK)

K. CONWAY: No, no, no.

FOREMAN: But George Conway continues to revel in the role of Trump troll in chief.

G. CONWAY: I kind of like the fact that you can tweet at rich public officials without fear of -- of retribution in the courts.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: He is not alone in this. Although the president's standing among Republicans and support polls remains very, very high, there is, as you know, a very vocal and very strong minority who feel in the Republican Party that if they don't stand up to what this president is doing, particularly with the rule of law, they believe the Republican Party will pay a long and dear price for it.

Conway is one of them and he's speaking up a little bit more than he has.

BLITZER: He is not backing down at all.

FOREMAN: Not a bit.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.