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THE SITUATION ROOM

White House Rejects Democrats' Request For Documents On Trump Communications With Putin; Pentagon Denies Russian Jets Chased Away U.S. B-52 Bomber As Moscow Accuses Washington Of Risking A Nuclear War; Flooding Follows Trump Tariffs Delivering Double Blow To Midwest Farmers; Interview With Rep. Anthony Brown; Floods Follow Trump Tariffs Delivering Double Blow to Midwest Farmers; Trump Moves to Recognize Israeli Control of Golan Heights, Claim It's Not a Bid to Help Israeli Leader in Tough Election. Aired on 6-7p ET

Aired March 21, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: After the president railed about Hillary Clinton's e-mails, is his administration now doing the same thing?

Refusing to comply. White House officials say they won't give House Democrats information about Mr. Trump's private conversations with Vladimir Putin. Why are they insisting on secrecy?

Holding pattern. The Trump team is on alert right now, awaiting Robert Mueller's long-anticipated report. We're learning more about how the president's legal and political teams are getting ready.

And tweeting recognition. President Trump overturns a longstanding U.S. policy on Twitter, saying it's time for the United States to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Was it a gift to his prime minister pal Benjamin Netanyahu, who's in a very, very tough reelection fight?

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: Breaking news this hour, as the White House braces for the Mueller report to drop, there is a new escalation in the battle between the Trump team and House Democrats who are investigating the president.

Tonight, the administration is rejecting a request for documents on Mr. Trump's private communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And lawyers for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are disputing new claims by the House Oversight Committee chairman. Elijah Cummings says some senior White House officials have used personal e-mail to conduct official government business.

He accuses Kushner of communicating with foreign leaders through a private messaging app, this as the president is upending a decades-old U.S. policy, announcing it's time to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Tonight, the president says that he wouldn't know if that helps Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reelection. The election is in Israel in less than three weeks.

I will get reaction from Congressman Anthony Brown. He sits on the Armed Services and Ethics committees. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the administration is doing battle with House Democrats, as anticipation for the Mueller report hangs over Washington.

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

White House officials, like the rest of Washington, are on the edge of their seats waiting for this Mueller report to drop. But while those expectations are building, Democrats are complaining the White House is stonewalling their investigations into the president's personal conversations with Russia's Vladimir Putin, as well as another probe into Trump family members Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

The Democrats up on Capitol Hill want to know, WhatsApp?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): As the White House is awaiting the arrival of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia, the president is clearly gearing up for battle for the 2020 election, firing up the conservative base.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have a president who is also fighting for you. I'm with you all the way.

ACOSTA: But tonight the president is facing new accusations of stonewalling, as House Democrats complain the White House is blocking their efforts to seek information about Mr. Trump's conversations with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Democratic leaders released this letter from the White House counsel stating: "While we respectfully seek to accommodate appropriate oversight requests, we are unaware of any president supporting such sweeping requests."

House Democrats are seeking any documents that could reveal why the president seemed so eager to accept Putin's denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

TRUMP: I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

ACOSTA: House Democrats are also on the hunt for personal e-mails and encrypted text messages from Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, revealing in a statement that the attorney for the president's daughter and son- in-law confirmed that Mr. Kushner has been using WhatsApp as a part of his official duties in the White House, and also confirm that Ms. Trump continues to receive official e-mails on her personal e-mail account, and she does not for the e-mails to her official account.

Using private messaging to conduct government business was something Mr. Trump slammed Hillary Clinton for doing in 2016.

TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

ACOSTA: As for the Mueller report, the president is urging its release.

TRUMP: Let it come out. Let people see it. That's up to the attorney general. We have a very good attorney general. He's a very highly respected man. And we will see what happens.

ACOSTA: One reason why, growing optimism inside Trump world, where advisers believe the report will conclude the president did not commit any crimes. As one adviser predicted, "This clears the deck for us."

There is a fresh sign the president is working to shore up his support heading into the 2020 campaign, as he lends a hand to a key political ally. The president announced the U.S. will recognize Israel's control over the Golan Heights, an area that's been hotly contested for decades, tweeting: "After 52 years, it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights."

[18:05:08]

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: President Trump has just made history. I call him. I thanked him on behalf of the people of Israel.

ACOSTA: The move is a gift Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an unabashed Trump supporter who's facing reelection next month. But the president denied he did it for any political reasons.

TRUMP: No, I don't -- I wouldn't even know about that. I wouldn't even know about that. I have no idea. I hear he's doing OK.

ACOSTA: But the president is still facing pushback on his recent comments that he approved the funeral for the late Senator John McCain.

TRUMP: I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which, as president, I had to approve. I don't care about this. I didn't get a thank you. That's OK.

ACOSTA: The site of McCain's funeral, the National Cathedral, released a statement contradicting the president's comments, saying -- quote -- "Only a state funeral for a former president involves consultation with government officials. No funeral at the cathedral requires the approval of the president or any other government official." (END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And getting back to those Democratic investigations up on Capitol Hill, an attorney for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner pushed back on the claims coming from House Democrats, saying they were not completely accurate.

But the prospect that the president's own family members were conducting government business over private communications raises questions about whether the Trump family learned any lessons from the 2016 campaign, when they hammered Hillary Clinton over her e-mail use.

And, Wolf, as for the Mueller investigation, and when that wraps up with the Mueller report, I talked to an administration official earlier this afternoon, who said they do expect over here at the White House to get some kind of heads-up as to the timing of the release of the Mueller report, but not the contents of the Mueller report.

They expect Bob Mueller to play this by the book -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta at the White House.

Let's talk more about the newest sources of conflict between the White House and the House Democrats, including the Oversight Committee chairman's concerns about Jared Kushner's use of a private messaging app.

Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is joining us from Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, what are you learning about Kushner's use of the WhatsApp app for communicating with foreign leaders?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

And, Wolf, this information goes back to a meeting back in December between Chairman Cummings and Jared and Ivanka's lawyer, Abbe Lowell. In meeting, Chairman Cummings said that he learned and he was told by Abbe Lowell not only about Jared and Ivanka, as he says, of personal accounts to conduct government business, but also specifically about Jared Kushner's use.

Cummings says that Lowell told him in the meeting of the private messaging service WhatsApp to conduct White House business to communicate with foreign leaders. Now, there is, as Jim mentioned, some pushback coming from Jared Kushner's lawyers tonight, Abbe Lowell saying that's not necessarily the conversation he remembers, not the conversation and information that was received.

He says that he never said Kushner's communications over WhatsApp were with foreign leaders or officials, but certainly many more questions about what exactly was exchanged for potential classified information to be revealed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Amidst all this, Sunlen Serfaty, the White House is also rejecting a request for more information about communications between President Trump and Russian President Putin. What are you learning about that?

SERFATY: That's right. This was a request from the top three Democrats of the powerful committees up here on Capitol Hill.

They are looking for and asking for information over Trump's conversations with Vladimir Putin. And the White House making a very clear this evening that they are not going to give the requests -- the documents they want.

The White House counsel saying that they believe the courts have long established communications with foreign leaders are protected and confidential. The White House statement saying -- quote -- "According to the White House counsel, the president must be free to engage in discussions with foreign leaders without fear that those communications will be disclosed and used as fodder for partisan political purposes and foreign leaders must be assured of this as well."

And certainly all of this flurry of activity today, not only this, but Chairman Cummings' back and forth, certainly underscores how Democrats up here on Capitol Hill, Wolf, are flexing their oversight muscles. And certainly this tug of war over information continues.

BLITZER: Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill, thank you just.

Just about everything that's going on here in Washington right now is under a cloud of anticipation for Robert Mueller's final report, two years in the making. The president's legal and political teams are busy fine-tuning their game plans for this truly historic moment, when the report is handed over to the new attorney general, Bill Barr.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown, and our CNN crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz.

Pamela, when the report is finally done, and we anticipate that to be very, very soon, how do you expect all of this to unfold?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it will certainly be the end of a big chapter, but it will also usher in a new chapter.

And that will be any fallout over the report and disclosures of the report that Robert Mueller is handing to the attorney general, Barr. We think any day now, that will happen.

[18:10:01]

And so a couple of things will likely happen. First of all, the big question will be, will the White House have an opportunity to weigh in on whatever the attorney general will give to Congress beforehand?

Our reporting is the White House expects to look at what he's going to hand to Congress, to assert executive privilege, if need be. But that is something that the Democrats are already crying foul on, saying that they do not want the president to be able to shield information from the public in an investigation about himself. So you're going to see a political battle likely over that. And then

the Democrats have already said that they're willing to subpoena to see the full report. So this very well could end up in court with a judge deciding what happens with the report.

BLITZER: You have been covering this, Shimon, for two years, like a lot of people out there.

What are the unanswered questions you're still awaiting?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think the biggest question is going to be the collusion question. What did the president know? When did he know it? Who in the campaign was telling him things?

Look, I think they have pretty much already established, the special counsel, that there was collusion with folks on the campaign in terms of people like Paul Manafort, and his conversations with Russians, people working for the Russian government. But the big question is, what did the president know? When did you know it?

And will that be answered in this report? The other big thing is the entire obstruction issue. We have heard almost nothing from the special counsel's office in terms of that. What did they find? Did they find that the president tried to obstruct justice by firing James Comey? Did they find that he perhaps was trying to end the Flynn investigation when he asked James Comey to drop it?

Those are the key questions in this report that I think everyone wants answered either way. And the other thing I want to make a point of is this whole idea that the president -- Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI at the time, making accusations that Trump is working for the Russian government, may be an asset of some kind of the Russian government, does that get answered in this report?

I mean, that was a pretty big accusation from the deputy director. Does that get answered in all of this? I don't know, but that's certainly a big question, I think, that's on everyone's mind.

BLITZER: A huge question.

Thanks, guys, very, very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Congressman Anthony Brown is joining us. He's a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services and Ethics committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

I want to get your reaction to the breaking news. As you know, your colleague, the House Oversight Committee chairman, Elijah Cummings, says Jared Kushner used a private messaging app to communicate with foreign leaders. He says other senior White House officials were using personal e-mail accounts to conduct government business.

Does that raise legitimate security, national security concerns for you?

REP. ANTHONY BROWN (D), MARYLAND: Absolutely. This is outrageous. It not only violates the Presidential Records Act, which is just intended to kind of memorialize and capture official communications.

But given Mr. Kushner's background, where he had his security clearance application denied by then Chief of Staff John Kelly, only to be overridden by his father-in-law, the president, it certainly raises national security concerns.

Wolf, we go to great lengths to secure our public servers, our public e-mails, both military and civilian, the White House, members of Congress, so that we can communicate and protect -- be protected against cyber-attacks and hacking.

When you're using WhatsApp and your other private platforms, and you're in charge of communications with Israel, with Saudi Arabia, with Russia, this raises tremendous national security concerns. And I think my good friend Elijah Cummings and his committee has every right to see those communications and to inquire about the use and hopefully the discontinued use of that practice.

BLITZER: As you know, the Democratic chairmen of three really important House committees, they have requested documents pertaining to President Trump's communications with Russia's President Putin.

But the White House has refused that request. Do you think it's important for lawmakers to see those documents? The White House says Congress should not be able to see them, the president has the right for confidentiality in his conversations with foreign leaders.

A. BROWN: Look, Wolf, the White House is relying on what they say is precedent.

These are unprecedented times, where you have the president of the United States in a very cozy relationship with the leader of our chief adversary, Russia, Vladimir Putin, who is a known former KGB operative.

And here you have a situation where our intelligence community tells the president, with ample supporting documents and evidence, that Russia meddled in our elections, but he takes the word over Vladimir Putin after a one hour, hour-and-a-half meeting.

So, certainly, we have a an obligation to see the contents of that communication, if nothing else, a summary, to understand why is it that President Trump continues to side with Russia, at the expense of our democratic elections, at the expense of our NATO allies, at the expense of our presence in Syria?

[18:15:06]

So, sure, we should have access to that and we should be demanding to see those documents.

BLITZER: Here's what the White House counsel wrote back to your colleagues in Congress -- quote -- "While we respectfully seek to accommodate appropriate oversight requests, we are unaware of any precedent supporting such sweeping requests. Rather, the Supreme Court and administrations of both parties have consistently recognized that the conduct of foreign affairs is a matter that the Constitution assigns exclusively to the president."

So what's your reaction to that?

A. BROWN: Well, I wouldn't say exclusively.

I mean, there are provisions in the Constitution that grant to Congress authorities and powers when it comes to foreign relations. Again, this is an unprecedented moment in American history, where our president is in a relationship with the president of Russia, our chief adversary.

For us to simply defer to the administration, I think would be doing what is it -- what I have seen for the last two years in Congress, which is really abandoning our oversight responsibilities as Congress. That's what happened in the 115th Congress.

Right now, the Democrats are in the majority. We made a commitment to the American people that we will conduct oversight and accountability of this administration in matters both foreign and domestic.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to the president's announcement on Twitter today that the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights region on the border with Syria.

That decision has upended decades of American foreign policy, as you know. Did the president make the right call?

A. BROWN: First of all, the manner in which he did it, I don't know if it's just a tweet to support the reelection of Prime Minister Netanyahu or whether he's actually establishing a new direction in American policy.

I think it's wrong. For decades, American policy and also U.N. resolution has been calling for the withdrawal of Israel from those lands that are occupied as a result of a force. I have been to the Golan Heights. I understand the strategic importance of that high ground which overlooks much of Israel.

But that cannot be done by a tweet. It's got to be a policy decision that involves our allies, that involves Congress. What I would rather see in terms of ultimately what happens with the Golan Heights is that it is part of a larger conversation of negotiating Middle East peace.

The way that the president did it, the manner in which he did it was highly inappropriate.

BLITZER: Congressman Anthony Brown, thanks so much for joining us.

A. BROWN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, we're going to turn back to the breaking news on Jared Kushner and new concerns that he used an insecure messaging app to contact foreign leaders. Was national security put at risk?

And what will Democrats do now that the White House has refused to turn over information about the president's conversations with Vladimir Putin?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:44]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news

The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings, saying that President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner used a messaging app to communicate with foreign leaders and that Ivanka Trump has been using a personal e-mail account for official government work.

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

And, Susan Hennessey, let me get your thoughts. You used to be a lawyer over the National Security Agency. It doesn't get more secure than that. Is there a serious national security concern if Jared Kushner, for example, communicates with foreign leaders over WhatsApp?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, of course there's a serious national security concern.

WhatsApp is not a secure communications channel. The United States government spends hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every single year, some of the finest mathematicians and cryptographers in the entire world, focused on providing secure communications for government officials.

Jared Kushner has decided he wants to use an app that you can download for free on your phone. The bigger security concern here isn't just what foreign intelligence services might be looking at. Certainly, they're all trying to get these messages right now, but, actually, substantively, the communications that he's having.

In national security, the U.S. government is all on the same team. They have to communicate with one another. The military has to talk to the State Department has to talk to the Pentagon. They all need to be able to be on the same page.

And so whenever Kushner is essentially freelancing, not communicating with the other side, that puts our government at a disadvantage, essentially, because now we have foreign adversaries in some cases who know more about U.S. policy than we do.

It also raises a question about whether or not Jared Kushner might be being duped or taken advantage of. We have seen lots of reports that foreign intelligence services reportedly think he's sort of ripe for manipulation because he's naive and inexperienced, has a high level of access, and also has very, very complex business relationships, which he has not fully divested from.

So this really is the perfect storm of a really grave national security threat.

BLITZER: Yes, it's very serious.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Does anybody...

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Does anybody remember the 2016 campaign? Wasn't there like some issue there about e-mails and e-mail security?

I assume the news media and Republicans in Congress will take this issue as seriously as we spent days, weeks, months talking about Hillary Clinton's e-mails. I mean, it just shows how that issue was basically just a joke and an attempt to use -- just to get Hillary. It had nothing to do with national security.

[18:25:09]

BLITZER: So, Jeffrey, could there be some serious legal jeopardy, legal problems for these White House officials who were communicating official government business over private e-mail accounts or over WhatsApp?

TOOBIN: I doubt it.

Unless there was an actual disclosure, an unauthorized disclosure of classified information, I don't think there would be a criminal matter. These things are not usually handled at a criminal level, although we had months of criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton, of course.

BLITZER: What do you think, Joey?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I mean, I would certainly agree.

I mean, the fact is, is that you can't be hypocritical -- hypocritical about these things. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. And then, certainly, it leads to the issue and the conclusion that it was simply political in nature.

The fact is, as Susan says, is that when you have information and that information is sensitive, it doesn't even have to be classified. It just could be information that is sensitive enough. That's why we have these protocols. That's why we have these procedures in place, so that it's not used. You don't use WhatsApp. You don't use texting.

You don't use e-mails. You use secure service. And to the extent that you don't, there has to be repercussions for it.

BLITZER: You know, Pamela, you have some new reporting on requests from House Democrats, committee chairmen, regarding the communications between President Trump and President Putin of Russia. What are you learning?

P. BROWN: Yes, that's right.

Once again, the White House is rejecting requests from Democrats on Capitol Hill, this time pertaining to documents about communications between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.

The White House released a letter today to three Democrats on the Hill, basically saying that courts have long established that communications between presidents, United States presidents, and foreign leaders should be protected and kept confidential.

But what you're seeing playing out here, Wolf, is this larger strategy from the White House to make it difficult, to impede these Democratic- led investigations on Capitol Hill into what they view, the White House views, as aggressive investigations into the president and improper efforts to obtain protected presidential communications and conversations.

But as one White House official I spoke to said, yes, there is the strategy. But also we have to make sure in these letters that the legal reasoning could stand up in court if it gets there. Of course, Democrats on the Hill say this is all about stonewalling.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: I think the White House is actually on pretty safe legal ground on this narrow issue of communications between the two presidents.

That really is at the core of foreign policy, which is largely delegated to the executive branch. I can't imagine any court ordering the disclosure of information relating to president-to-president communications.

BLITZER: Well, let me read the response from the White House counsel, Susan. We will get everybody's reaction.

"While we respectfully seek to accommodate appropriate oversight requests, we are unaware of any precedent supporting such sweeping requests. Rather, the Supreme Court and administrations of both parties have consistently recognized that the conduct of foreign affairs is a matter that the Constitution assigns exclusively to the president."

HENNESSEY: Yes, so I agree with Jeffrey that they probably couldn't get this particular communication between the president and a foreign head of state.

That said, that is unequivocally false that the Constitution exclusively assigns all foreign affairs to the president. Congress has legislative, they have appropriations authorities. They can pass their own sanctions.

And really the argument that they're offering here is not just this really astoundingly broad assertion of executive power in foreign affairs, but also saying that Congress doesn't have the right to conduct oversight in this space.

So even if these core conversations might ultimately be protected, this is the White House I think asserting an argument that is just constitutionally unsupportable.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes, on narrow legal grounds, I also agree with Jeffrey. And I think precedent suggests that the White House has a point.

But for this White House to argue that they have this exclusive realm in foreign policy, a power reserved to the Article 2 branch of government, after just last week trying to take away a power of the Article 1 branch of government related to the wall, the power of the purse, smacks of hypocrisy at best.

And I think they are sort of treading on thin ice here, per Susan's argument, that this -- this power is not exclusive and infinite.

BLITZER: Yes, because you make -- you guys make an important point.

And, Joey, I want you to weigh in as well. Congress has certain roles and responsibilities in foreign policy, especially the power of the purse, to appropriate funds for foreign aid, for example, and other areas of national security.

JACKSON: Yes.

You know, Wolf, I will do one better. Anyone heard of the power to declare war, right? There's no more foreign authority that's more vested in a branch of government than that. And so on the issue of the president having exclusive authority, that's just too much of an overstatement.

On the issue of this being a sweeping request, I think that's an overstatement as well. The fact is, it's not sweeping. It's very narrow. It's very specific to the issue of what these communications are.

And also, again, it's an issue that the -- they're looking at in terms of reviewing and overseeing. We talk about Iran-Contra, right? Remember that in the '80s? Should we just forget about, and Congress say, hey, arms for hostages, it doesn't matter.

[18:30:04]

It's exclusively within the province of the President. Or even the issue of Fast and the Furious, as it's related to Arizona and tracking guns to Mexico. Did Congress abdicate responsibility? No. There's an oversight authority and ability to be had here. And I think it's a major overstatement to suggest that, you know what, this is what the President does, leave us alone, it's presidential harassment. That's just not true.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: Jeffrey, let me get your reaction to an op-ed just posted in The New York Times by the former FBI Director James Comey. He says this among other things. I'll read a line or two.

Quote, I hope that Mr. Trump is not impeached and removed from office before the end of his term. I don't mean that Congress shouldn't move ahead with the process of impeachment governed by our constitution if Congress thinks the provable facts are there. I just hope it doesn't.

What's your analysis? You've read the article.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I frankly find that puzzling. I'm not sure what he is saying there. I think he is saying, as he said before, that the political process should go forward, that Donald Trump should be voted out of office by all the people, not just by Congress. What he is hoping for, perhaps other people on the panel can enlighten you, because I found that part of the op-ed piece kind of mysterious.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think there's two major points in that op-ed. One is that he calls for, and this is his words, the return to the apolitical administration of justice, that too many people on both sides of the aisle see institutions like the FBI, and he is an FBI institutionalist, as like a tool of partisan warfare and that it should come back to being seen as a law enforcement organization. And then I think it's just a general warning to all of us, the body politics, the media, that the point of the Mueller report is to get to the facts of this, not to find that the President is necessarily culpable or less culpable, but to know exactly what happened.

BLITZER: What -- yes, go ahead.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I was just going to say, on the impeachment part, my understanding in reading the op-ed was he was making the case, if the President is impeached, then a certain part of the population would look at that as a coup and it would further divide the country. And my understanding was that was the argument he was trying to make.

What was interesting in terms of Mueller, he said, look, I just want this to be an example how justice should work. But he said, I don't care what the actual result is. And I've got to say, I don't buy that.

BLITZER: Fair enough.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE: It is a little structured [ph]. No. I mean, clearly, he has been arguing that -- he has been making this argument sort of consistently since he has written his book that, essentially, impeachment would let the American people off the hook.

BLITZER: Let met let Joey Jackson weigh in. Go ahead, Joey. JACKSON: Look, I think the point of the matter is that if there are issues that are worthy of impeachment, it should be pursued. Yes, we have a political process at the end of the day. Yes, we have voters that go out and they'll vote, and that will happen in 2020. But if there are issues that are worthy of impeachment, then that's what should be done. Perhaps it's a bit premature. And as much as we're all waiting for the Mueller report, it's not here yet. Perhaps there are things that shed light

But I will say this also, Wolf. In addition to the Mueller report, we have something called the Southern District, right, pretty close to me here in New York, which is also doing and dealing with issues that are investigatory nature outside of the direct scope of what Mueller is doing but could be impeachable, nonetheless.

BLITZER: Pamela, how is the White House bracing for the release of this Mueller report? We anticipate it could happen at any time.

BROWN: Yes. I can tell you White House officials are on high alert. And, basically, they are reading the tea leaves, like we are. They are sort of in this wait and see approach. But they are preparing, laying the groundwork. While most of the White House is siloed off from all of this, it might flood the Special Counsel. And the White House has held meetings, gaining, outlining different responses to different outcomes, whether some of the information that comes out or leaks is exculpatory or damaging. It wants to have a response ready to go in the face of that. So they are ready and waiting, like we are.

BLITZER: How long --

TOOBIN: And you know what they're going to say.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: They are going to say the whole thing is old news, nothing burger [ph], no news here. I mean, we could all write their response in advance, right?

BROWN: But in fairness, this is a bit of a win for the White House because it appears that they have gotten through this entire investigation without the President sitting down with Robert Mueller. So that is viewed as a victory. But to Jeff's point, they are probably going to seize on what the President has already said. Look, this is witch hunt. There were no charges on conspiracy or obstruction. See, the President was right all along, like Jeffrey said.

JACKSON: Unless there's a shoe that is yet to drop.

BLITZER: True.

HENNESSEY: Right. And one of the things that -- we do know the report will definitively answer is the question of whether or not Mueller wanted to subpoena the President and someone in the Justice Department overruled him. So that could lead to a whole new sort of scandal, by the way.

BROWN: Which has to be disclosed.

BLITZER: I want to play -- the President today was asked in an interview in another television interview about his comments, recent comments slamming the late Senator John McCain. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Senator John McCain is dead. Why are you doing this?

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: So it's not a good portion of my time. It's a very small portion. But if you realize about three days ago, it came out that his main person gave to the FBI the fake news dossier. It was a fake. It was a fraud. It was paid for by Hillary Clinton and the democrats.

[18:35:02]

They gave it to John McCain, who gave it to the FBI for very evil purposes. That's not good.

And the other thing, he voted against repeal and replace.

REPORTER: Mr. President, he is dead. He can't punch back. I know you punched back, but he's dead.

TRUMP: No. I don't talk about it. People ask me the question. I didn't bring this up. You just brought it up. You asked the question.

REPORTER: Well, you talked about it this week.

TRUMP: You asked me the question. When I went out yesterday to the scrum, they asked me the question. When they ask me the question, I answered question. But you bring it up. I don't bring it up. I'm not a fan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He did bring it up for about five minutes during his speech in Ohio yesterday at that tank factory. Nobody asked him about it at the tank factory, but he brought it up himself.

SWERDLICK: Right, Wolf, a couple of things. First of all, yes, he has been bringing it up all week. And as we talked about yesterday, there is no other way to look at this that he is dancing on the late senator's grave. If he has issues with Senator McCain's policy positions on any issue, it's fair game. This is a different order.

The second thing, to the point about what Senator McCain did or didn't give to the FBI, what else would a sitting U.S. Senator do with sensitive information other than hand it over to the nation's top domestic law enforcement agency. That's logical. And then let them, if there's an apolitical administration of justice, take it from there. BLITZER: All right. Guys, stick around. There's more we need to discuss, including this. A disputed encounter between Russian fighter jets and an American B-52 bomber over the Baltic.

Plus, a double blow for Midwest farmers as catastrophic flooding follows President Trump's tariffs.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

[18:41:11] BLITZER: Tonight, the Pentagon is denying Russia's claim that its fighter jets chased away an American B-52 bomber over the Baltic Sea. Our Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us live from Moscow with details. Fred, the U.S. Military says there was what it calls a routine interaction between the planes but Russia is painting it as something more serious.

FREDE PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you're absolutely right, Wolf. And what we're seeing is Russian TV really going after the United States and the Russian government quite frankly as well. They're calling this an escalation and provocation. But the U.S. says it's a necessary deterrent. Here's what's going on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: Tonight, Russia lashing out at the U.S. after claiming Russian jets intercepted a nuclear capable B-52 bomber over the Baltic Sea. A Kremlin spokesman saying America is risking an escalation in Eastern Europe.

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESMAN: Such actions of the United States do not lead to strengthening the atmosphere of security and stability in the region that is directly adjacent to the borders of the Russian Federation. On the contrary, this probably adds more tension. We regret such actions of Washington.

PLEITGEN: Russia claims it scrambled Su-27 interceptor jets. Russian State TV even showing a graphic claiming the Russian warplanes chased the B-52 away. The U.S. Air Force denies that claim, saying, quote, the B-52 had a routine interaction with the Russian Su-27 while conducting operations over the Baltic Sea. The pilots were using transponders and operating in conformity with international law. The Russian aircraft did not chase the B-52 away and the bomber was able to complete its mission.

The U.S. has deployed six of the B-52s to the European theater, a move apparently meant to send a message to resurgent Russia. The Pentagon is saying, Moscow has been building up its forces and increasingly becoming more aggressive on NATO's door step.

The Russian Air Force recently flying their own supersonic Tu-22M3 bombers over the Black Sea. And while President Trump and Vladimir Putin both say they still want to improve U.S.-Russian relations, Moscow accusing the U.S. of risking a nuclear war. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister saying, quote, the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons is decreasing due to a newly adopted strategy in the United States which blurs the line between national conflict and war with the use of nuclear weapons.

The U.S., for its part, says Russia has long been violating nuclear non-proliferation treaties and says Moscow needs to tone down its rhetoric and its posture.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And Moscow is certainly not toning down its rhetoric. Of course, Vladimir Putin om the [ast couple of weeks and months praising Russia's new classes of nuclear capable weapons. But, certainly, as we have seen in the past days, is the U.S. Air Force not backing down. Wolf?

BLITZER: Serious situation indeed. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow for us, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, many Midwest farmers are reeling tonight from a double blow. First the impact of President Trump's tariffs, which sent crop prices plunging. And now, many of those same farmers are facing catastrophic flooding.

CNN Business Reporter Vanessa Yurkevich is joining us now from Iowa. Vanessa, you've been talking to farmers there. What are they saying?

VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN BUSINESS REPORTER: Hi, Wolf. Behind me is just some of the flooded farmland here in Percival, Iowa. And we're standing about 6.5 miles from where the Missouri River line should be. According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, 100,000 acres of farmland have been flooded in the state. And most of the farmers we have spoken to can't get to their farms to assess the damage. And some think they won't even have a crop to plant this year.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[18:45:02] YURKEVICH (voice-over): It came fast and it hasn't stopped.

The Missouri River flooded to record levels across Midwestern states, taking with it homes, crops and livestock, leaving farmers with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

(on camera): As you stand here and you look at this flooding, what are the emotions that come to you?

DUSTIN SHELDON, IOWA FARMER: There's a lot of pain and uncertainty of your future.

YURKEVICH (voice-over): This on top of new tariffs which have lowered prices on crops and livestock, implemented by a president many farmers here support.

Dustin Sheldon is a fifth generation soy and corn farmer in Percival, Iowa. He hasn't been able to get to his 2,000-acre farm since Sunday.

(on camera): How much of your land would you say is underwater right now?

SHELDON: Ninety-five percent.

YURKEVICH: What is the damage that you're looking at?

SHELDON: It's over a million dollars.

YURKEVICH: Over a million dollars lost?

SHELDON: Yes.

YURKEVICH (voice-over): The Nebraska Department of Agriculture estimates losses up to $1 billion. Here in Iowa, preliminary damage is estimated at $150 million. And according to their Department of Agriculture, it's expected to rise dramatically.

SHELDON: These are the people out here that feed America. And without these people, America is going to suffer. The whole economy is going to suffer.

JEFF JORGENSON, IOWA FARMER: Boy, is it a mess.

YURKEVICH: Standing on the edge of his family farm, Jeff Jorgenson's corn fields are now lakes.

JORGENSON: That's just more money straight out of my pocket. I need to be able to farm this ground. I need to do my job. We're passionate about what we do.

YURKEVICH: Just across the street is Leo Ettelman's sixth generation farm.

(on camera): What should we be seeing right?

LEO ETTELMAN, IOWA FARMER: We see a farm field like the crop harvested last fall.

YURKEVICH: What does this mean for your season?

ETTELMAN: We don't know yet. It's definitely a deep concern. The thing about this flood is it's affecting two years, because a lot of these bins are holding our 2018 crop, that we haven't got delivered to town yet or sold.

YURKEVICH (voice-over): According to the American Farm Bureau, farm bankruptcies were up almost 20 percent in 2018, the highest level in more than ten years. It's something Midwest farmers have been forced to consider.

SHELDON: It's always a possibility with everybody. You might sell everything you own to pay what you owe and you have nothing.

YURKEVICH: Key to their survival is aid. President Trump approved disaster relief funds for Nebraska. And Sheldon is hoping he'll do the same for Iowa.

SHELDON: I don't think they will forget us, because I think he knows how important that agriculture and grain farming, cattle farmer, raising hogs, it is to our country. Give him a chance to do it and go from there. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, I guess we will have to see about making a change.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YURKEVICH: All of the farmers that we have spoken to, Wolf, say they need some sort of federal assistance. They are hoping that the president will declare this area a disaster zone so they can get some of that federal funding.

And, Wolf, it's not over yet. The farmers are expecting more flooding as the snow in the north melts and heads down the river this way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Really serious situation. Vanessa Yurkevich in Iowa for us -- Vanessa, thanks for that report.

There's more breaking news next. President Trump bucks decades of U.S. foreign policy with a major Middle East announcement.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:53:21] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, President Trump upending decades of U.S. policy to tweet, announcing the United States will recognize Israel sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is working the story for us from Jerusalem.

Oren, this is major victory for Prime Minister Netanyahu just ahead of a critical election.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. Ever since 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, it has been considered occupied territory by the U.S. and by the international community. Now, this sudden shift, a major political victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he faces a tough reelection campaign.

No, not Trump, not Netanyahu and not Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the election, but it was the proverbial elephant in the room. Netanyahu has had a tough week in the election, and this is almost certain to give him a boost, and it could be just a start. In just a couple of days, Netanyahu will head to Washington for AIPAC, the American Israeli lobby, where he'll meet with Trump, staying in the Blair House as an official guest of the White House.

That's essentially a campaign stop for Netanyahu and as we picture there with Trump and we'll see if Trump gives Netanyahu any other big political victories here. So, this is certain to give Netanyahu a boost as most of the headlines up until now, up until today have been focusing on the criminal investigations Netanyahu faces. Trump just changed all of that. He's almost certain to give Netanyahu that boost in election polls. And, Wolf, one more point I'll make here is some of those smaller

right wing and center right parties that may have considered supporting Netanyahu's opponent in the elections will now see this, see this as a political victory for Netanyahu and think twice before supporting anyone other than Netanyahu and that is thanks to President Donald Trump.

[18:55:01] BLITZER: Yes, elections, April 9th, in the Israel.

Oren Liebermann reporting for us from Jerusalem, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on the breaking news. Dennis Ross is joining us. He's with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's worked on Middle East issues for administrations for decades. He's most recently special assistant to President Obama.

Dennis, thanks very much for coming in.

DENNIS ROSS, THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Pleasure.

BLITZER: What's your reaction?

ROSS: Well, my reaction is this is actually going to complicate the ability of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman to present their peace plan. What this does is put Arab leaders other than Assad who are not calling for anything to be done with the Golan Heights, who basically look at the Israeli presence in Golan Heights and think it's OK, they're now put in a position they have to make a statement, they actually have to react to it.

And it undercuts their own political space. It makes it much harder for them to respond to the Trump administration if it's going to come with a peace plan. So, I feel a kind of irony here. There wasn't anything that was really pressing to do this but it will have obviously a political effect within Israel, but it also complicate the ability to actually present the Trump peace plan.

BLITZER: So, you see this as a blunder by the president?

ROSS: Well, I certainly don't see it as working in the service of what he himself has been talking about. He wants to do the ultimate deal of the century, the deal of the century, this actually undercuts being able to move ahead on that.

BLITZER: Did the president give away a significant bargaining chip with this announcement today?

ROSS: Well, I think it gave up some interesting leverage but, by the way, leverage vis-a-vis Iran. I mean, Iran will also try to use this against the Arabs and the irony is he should have said something about the Golan Heights, something like the following, there's no way Israel should have to be thinking about removing or moving off to Golan Heights, as long as Iran is embedding itself with Hezbollah in Syria. That would have been had the benefit of justifying Israel being where it is, which, by the way, is justified, on the one hand. And on the other, it would have created a fissure between Assad and the Iranians. Now, basically we've played into their hands.

BLITZER: Does this escalate the risk of military action, military confrontation in the region?

ROSS: Not in the near term, but I do think there is -- we are seeing what is a collision course unfold between the Israelis and the Iranians in Syria. The Iranians are trying to create in Syria what they had in Lebanon. Israel is determined to prevent that.

It can't live with tens of thousands of rockets not only in Lebanon, but also in Syria. I do think we're headed on a course that is going to produce a collision at some point. But this doesn't change that material.

BLITZER: And the timing is so significant, what, 2 1/2 weeks or so before the upcoming Israeli election. It certainly looks like the president is interfering in Israeli politics and wants to elevate the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is facing not only a tough reelection but potentially criminal charges as well.

ROSS: Look, there's no doubt that if you look at this decision, it's hard to interpret it as anything but in political terms. There was no pressing need to make this kind of a decision now. Even if you believe Israel should never get off the Golan Heights, with Arab leaders basically looking at Israel as a kind of bulwark against the threats they face and not prepared to say anything about this, you are creating an issue for them that wasn't there before. So, I see it in political terms. I don't see it benefits strategically.

BLITZER: How unusual in terms of American history, and you've served in several administrations over these past few decades, is it for -- the president of the United States so close to an Israeli election to effectively interfere and also invite President Netanyahu to Blair House across the street from the White House only days before an election?

ROSS: Well, to be fair it's not unusual. President Clinton, and I was his negotiator in the Middle East, President Clinton clearly in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, he absolutely tilted toward Shimon Peres who was running at that time against Bibi Netanyahu. So, it's not unusual to see American presidents take a position and in a sense intervene.

I will say this: sometimes it actually produces a backlash. Sometimes it looks like America is trying to determine what the Israeli election ought to produce. So I don't know that it's a given necessarily that even though I think this will provide a short-term boost for Prime Minister Netanyahu, I'm not certain that it won't in the end also create some backlash as well.

BLITZER: What do you think of the way the president made this announcement today with a tweet?

ROSS: Well, he also made it a tweet -- he tweeted when he said we were getting out of Syria. I mean, this administration, with this president, frequently, it's a tweet. There's a lot of problems with tweets, not the least of which you can't really explain a policy, but frequently the tweets seem to surprise everybody who works for him.

BLITZER: Do you think there was any consultation with allies in the region or with members of Congress?

ROSS: I'm quite certain there was not. It's very clear to me most of the Arabs were taken by surprise.

One of the problems with that is, every time you surprise an ally, the more they become convince they can't rely upon you. And the nice thing about having allies is when you need them, they're usually there. If they can't count on you when you pick up the phone to call them, they're not likely to be there.

BLITZER: Dennis Ross, thanks very much for coming in.

ROSS: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Dennis Ross joining us.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNsitroom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.