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Interview With Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R) Pennsylvania; Will Public See Mueller Report?; Michael Avenatti Charged With Federal Crimes; White House Official: Trump Team Still Hasn't Seen Full Mueller Report. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 25, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Who's he promising to investigate for so- called treasonous and evil acts?

And extorting Nike. Lawyer and Trump nemesis Michael Avenatti under arrest right now, charged with federal crimes in two states. Stand by for stunning details on how Avenatti allegedly made threats and demanded millions.

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 tonight, a White House official tells CNN that the Trump team still hasn't seen Robert Mueller's full report, this as President Trump claims it would not bother him at all if the special counsel's findings were made public, as Democrats are demanding.

A day after the attorney general released a summary of the report, CNN has learned that Mueller surprised the Justice Department three weeks ago by revealing that he would not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice.

Also breaking, rocket sirens blare near the Israel-Gaza border, as Israeli forces have been retaliating for an attack that hit a home in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cut short a visit to the United States after meeting with President Trump.

I will talk about the breaking news with Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

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

Jim, there's still a lot about the Mueller report that we don't know and that the Trump team doesn't know, either.

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

White House officials are sounding confident, despite the fact, according to one White House official, that they have not seen the full Mueller report over here at the White House, but the president is taking a victory lap after Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in 2016.

But the White House is on the warpath tonight, with the president accusing people of doing -- quote -- "very evil things," and other top White House officials accusing Democrats and the media of lying to the public.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Savoring what may be his biggest political victory since his election, President Trump welcomed special counsel Robert Mueller's findings of no collusion with the Kremlin, but he took some swipes at his critics.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wish it could have gone a lot sooner, a lot quicker. There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things, I would say treasonous things against our country.

And, hopefully, the people that have done such harm to our country -- we have gone through a period of really bad things happening. Those people will certainly be looked at.

ACOSTA: The president sounded open to the idea of releasing the full Mueller report to the public, saying that's up to Attorney General William Barr.

TRUMP: Up to the attorney general, but it wouldn't bother me at all.

ACOSTA: And the president appeared to change his tune on the special counsel when asked about Mueller's handling of the Russia probe.

QUESTION: Do you think Robert Mueller acted honorably?

TRUMP: Yes.

This witch-hunt.

ACOSTA: That's a departure from the president's cries of a witch- hunt, a talking point the Trump campaign turned into a coffee mug. Now Mr. Trump is attacking the investigation, while praising its findings.

TRUMP: This was an illegal takedown that failed, and hopefully somebody's going to be looking at the other side. So it's complete exoneration. No collusion. No obstruction.

ACOSTA: But that's not exactly true. As the attorney general's summary of the Mueller report says: "The special counsel states that while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

The White House is going one step further, blaming the media for the Mueller probe. SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Democrats and

the media perpetuated that lie day in and day out and breathlessly covered every single second of negative attention that they thought would be the one moment that would bring this president down.

ACOSTA: But it was President Trump who fired FBI Director James Comey, leading to the appointment of the special counsel.

TRUMP: And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.

ACOSTA: And there were other moments that raised suspicions, from the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

SEAN SPICER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable instances is what led the president to ask for General Flynn's resignation.

ACOSTA: To Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian attorney offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

TRUMP: I think, from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting.

ACOSTA: Which is why Democrats want to see the full Mueller report.

REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D), PENNSYLVANIA: And what you notice is the attorney general in the four-page letter offers only partial quotes of very little evidence of what that evidence was. All of that leads me to say, we need to see the report.

[18:05:03]

TRUMP: It was a false narrative.

ACOSTA: One thing Mr. Trump's legal team is not willing to reveal, the president's written answers to the special counsel. For now, that's hands off.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's not a simple just wave your hand and we release the document. I think that would be very inappropriate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: The president told reporters he hasn't thought about whether to issue any pardons in the Russia investigation when the Mueller probe was under way. Any talk of pardoning figures in the investigation was slammed as potential obstruction by Democrats.

But now that Mueller has wrapped up his work, it does now seem to be once again a live option for the president, though a source close to the White House told me earlier that it is way too early to talk about that.

And it should be noted, Wolf, the president's legal troubles are hardly behind him. He has been implicated in a case of alleged campaign finance violations up in the Southern District of New York. And the Democratic investigations, they have just begun into a whole slew of allegations up on Capitol Hill -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Also tonight, as the White House remains in the dark about many specifics of the Mueller report, Democrats are ramping up their demand for full public disclosure, while Republicans echo the president's claims of victory.

Our Senior Congressional Correspondent, Manu Raju, is up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, the battle for access to the Mueller report is apparently only just beginning.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and Democrats in the House are still planning to pursue their investigations in the days and weeks ahead.

I just spoke to the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Adam Schiff. Asked him if he accepts the finding from the special counsel, from the special counsel's view there was no -- could not establish there was conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

He said, well, that's a criminal determination, he could not find enough proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But he said his investigation is different. It's counterintelligence, and he said it would move on. He said, specifically, our investigation has always focused on counterintelligence issues. And he said that we need to look into whether the president was compromised in any way, need to look into, for example, into the financial issues.

Was the president driven during the campaign about other financial issues that could help him out? The question now for Democrats, do they risk overreaching if they retrace some of the same steps that Mueller took when he found no evidence of conspiracy?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, scrutiny is intensifying over Attorney General Bill Barr's four-page letter summarizing the findings of Robert Mueller's two-year investigation into Russian interference.

CNN has learned that Mueller's team told Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein three weeks ago that the special counsel's office would not reach a conclusion about whether the president obstructed justice.

Instead, Barr writes, Mueller "sets out evidence on both sides of the question" and reveals that he made the decision along with Rosenstein to not prosecute Trump for obstruction of justice, despite citing this critical line from the Mueller report: "While this report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Mueller's report gave the attorney general both sides of the equation. From my point of view, I think what Mr. Barr and Mr. Rosenstein did was very appropriate.

RAJU: Still, there's no indication if Mueller asked Barr to draw a conclusion or intended to leave the question of whether the president obstructed justice up to Congress. Democrats are now demanding answers, calling on the Justice Department to release the full Mueller report and the underlying evidence.

And they're questioning whether Barr's previous skepticism about the obstruction probe played any role in his decision.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Mr. Barr applied for this job by drafting a memo on his own, a 17, 18-page memo, in which essentially makes the argument that a president of the United States can't be charged with obstruction of justice. And so he is sort of fulfilling that commitment.

RAJU: Yet, Democrats also were in an awkward spot after two years of seizing on contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russians to suggest a conspiracy to sway the election to Trump.

In his letter to Congress, Barr, quoting Mueller's reports, said the special counsel did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government to influence the elections.

(on camera): There are a lot of Democrats who believe that Trump was compromised by the Russians. Does this finding put that to rest?

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: No. I don't think this finding explains Trump's behavior with respect to Putin and the Russians.

RAJU: Do you believe that there was no conspiracy between Trump and Russians?

REP. RO KHANNA (D), CALIFORNIA: I trust Mueller's conclusion. But, as you know, Manu, a prosecutor can have a significant amount of evidence and then say it just doesn't rise to the level of a crime. That doesn't mean there may not have been misconduct or wrongdoing that the American people should know about.

RAJU (voice-over): Still, Democrats plan to claw forward with their investigations, despite facing the risk of overreaching, with a recent CNN poll saying the Russia investigation does not even rank as an important issue for voters heading into the 2020 elections.

[18:10:07]

Today, the Senate Judiciary chairman planned his own inquiry into the FBI's handling of the Russia probe and Clinton e-mail investigation. SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: What makes no sense to me is

all the abuse by the Department of Justice and the FBI, the unprofessional conduct, the shady behavior.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: Now, Lindsey Graham has had a conversation with Bill Barr earlier today, and Barr confirmed that he would, in fact, come before his committee, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee.

So expect that in the days ahead. And also Lindsey Graham revealed, making some news, saying that he spoke to the president about the president's attacks against John McCain, the late senator, saying that McCain had passed along that dossier of Trump-Russia allegations.

Graham revealing for the first time that he was told about the dossier when McCain got it, and he urged McCain to go to the FBI after the 2016 elections. And he said he told the president that. And McCain, according to Graham, he said, acted appropriately.

Now, at the same time, Wolf, Graham has blocked a measure from going forward in the Senate to call for the public release of the Mueller report, demanding a second special counsel be named to look into the Clinton e-mail investigation.

And just earlier today, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, also blocked that measure from going forward. He says the focus should stay on the Barr and Mueller report, see if that comes out, Wolf.

BLITZER: Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Let's bring in more of our Russia investigation reporting team.

Our Senior White House Correspondent, Pamela Brown is with us, along with our Senior Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez.

Pamela, Mueller's team notified the attorney general, what, we have learned, some three weeks ago that Mueller would not be making a formal decision on whether the president had committed obstruction of justice. Tell us why this is so significant.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's significant because he didn't make the decision that he did in the letter yesterday to Congress in 48 hours.

It's not like he received Mueller's report on Friday and then only had the weekend to decide. He's been briefed since the beginning and he was told three weeks ago that Mueller would not be reaching the conclusion on his own and that essentially Mueller was punting to Barr.

So that is significant because it contradicts this narrative by some of the Democrats, including Congressman Schiff, who said he only did this in 48 hours. But, of course, all this raises the question of why did Mueller punt to Barr on this? Is it because he didn't get the interview with President Trump?

We know he wanted to, from our reporting. Is it because there was internal debate? Now, the next phase of this is, what else will be released? We know Bill Barr is going through the report, scrubbing it with Robert Mueller to figure out what can be released.

And our understanding is, on the obstruction part of this investigation, it might be easier to release information because it doesn't have the same grand jury secrecy rules and so forth that apply to the collusion.

And in the memo to Congress, Barr said that there was conduct Mueller was concerned about that wasn't in public view. He said most of it was in public view, but some of the contact about obstruction wasn't. And so I think that's what -- we're anxious to see, what he was talking about?

BLITZER: When do you think, Evan, we're going to see a more complete, thorough version of the Mueller report?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, I think the Justice Department and Bill Barr, they are making no promises, Wolf, that we're going to see the full thing.

That's going to end up being probably a big battle with Capitol Hill, with the lawmakers, who want to see the full report. However, I think, as Pam points out, there is an effort that began even over the weekend, and today, there are lawyers working there on trying to find parts of this report that they can release to members of Congress.

Perhaps they will do pieces of it that they can, but as Pam points out, it's a little complicated because some of this is grand jury information, which is illegal for anyone to release unless a judge allows it. And then there's also possibly some classified information, other information from foreign countries that is part of this.

As you remember, Mueller said that he had a number of countries that provided information. So I think it is a complicated issue, and they're working as quickly as possible, and I think they're making no promises as to how fast it will go.

BLITZER: Bottom line, could take a while before we see more of that report. Hopefully we will see it all one of these days.

PEREZ: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks, guys, very much, Evan and Pamela.

Joining us now, Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick. He serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

You're a former FBI agent. You're a former prosecutor. When you read this very carefully worded letter from the attorney general to Congress, do you see this as a complete and total exoneration, as the president says, or do you think these conclusions were more narrowly focused on what could be, let's say, criminally prosecuted?

REP. BRIAN FITZPATRICK (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Yes, Wolf, thanks for having me on.

Three things jumped out at me. Number one, it was confirmation that the Russians did, in fact, attempt to infiltrate our elections both through social media propaganda and through the hacking of various e- mail servers and dissemination through several entities.

Second, the finding that the Trump campaign and the president did not collude. And, third, with respect to the obstruction of justice, a much more ambiguous and amorphous finding of evidence on both sides of the equation, at which point they deferred to the attorney general. So those are the three takeaways.

[18:15:10]

BLITZER: Do you hope the president will finally admit, after all of this, what his intelligence community has told him repeatedly, that Russia did interfere in the presidential election?

In Helsinki, as you remember, he seemed to be totally siding with Putin.

FITZPATRICK: There is no question that Russia interfered.

We have known that for a long time. Everybody should be acknowledging that. Mr. Mueller's report now confirms that, along with all the indictments that he's brought down on that issue, which, by the way, Wolf, I was one of two Republicans to co-sponsor legislation to protect my former boss, Bob Mueller, allow him to follow the facts wherever they lead, report those facts with unimpeachable integrity.

I'm glad that he's done that. He's done a fine job. There are over 40 of my former colleagues in the FBI who were part of this investigation. And he did great work as far as the Russian piece and I'm glad that he concluded the investigation after taking his time; 22 months is a long time, but he rounded it out.

And now it's time for Congress to do their job, by the way.

BLITZER: That's a good point as well.

As you know, the president, over these past 22 months, he's repeatedly attacked Robert Mueller constantly, almost constantly, throughout this entire investigation, but now all of a sudden the president is not only accepting Mueller's findings without reservations. He actually said today that he believes Mueller acted honorably.

How do you explain this complete reversal?

FITZPATRICK: You ought to take one position when it comes to law enforcement. We ought to support them, no matter what their conclusion is, having full faith and confidence that they are professionals, that they will do their job.

I said that from day one about Bob Mueller and day one about all of my amazing colleagues, the amazing women and men of the FBI and the Department of Justice, no matter what the conclusion was. We got to put faith in our institutions.

BLITZER: That's another good point.

You're calling for the Mueller report to be released to the American public, of course to Congress. The president says he wouldn't have a problem with that, although he says it's up to the attorney general to make the final decision.

Do you want him to go further and actually direct the attorney general to make the report public?

FITZPATRICK: Well, I think that's where congressional oversight comes in, Wolf.

The attorney general's indicated he's going to do it. Now, it pertains to both 6(c) grand jury information, as well as national security sources and methods. So, once that's scrubbed, it goes through the judicial review process, that's when the oversight role of Congress comes in, to make sure that we round out all four corners of that document.

Obviously, that report needs to be released. Nobody knows how long the Mueller report is, whether it's 20 pages or 2,000 pages. I think that will be relevant to how quickly we get it. But now it's Congress to exercise oversight.

But I do want to emphasize, Wolf, there are three things that all of us in Congress ought to be demanding, truth, transparency and finality. And anybody who's not demanding all three, I would respectfully suggest is not doing their job as a representative.

BLITZER: According to the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.

But we still don't have answers as to why people in the president's orbit had so many interactions -- we're looking at some 16 Trump people who had contacts with the Russians, and several of them actually wound up lying about those contacts.

You're a former FBI supervisory special agent. Is there an innocent explanation for that?

FITZPATRICK: Well, you know, that's why we got to see the Mueller report.

I can tell you that anything we can do here in Congress, we can subpoena witnesses and subpoena documents, but what the FBI is able to do, and the Department of Justice, they can do a whole lot more. They can execute search warrants. They can get pen registers, cell site information, Title III wiretaps. They can really do anything permissible under the Fourth Amendment, far more than any investigative body here in Congress. So that's why I think it's so important that we see that full report from Bob Mueller and proceed from there.

BLITZER: And I hope we see that full report. I agree.

If there's information in the report about, let's call it, unethical behavior that doesn't necessarily rise to the level of criminal conduct, is that something the American people should know about?

FITZPATRICK: Yes, Wolf, I'm a big believer in transparency, for sure. And I think we ought to demand that. I think it's important for the faith that people have in their governmental institutions.

So I support that, but I think all of my colleagues ought to be very, very cautious that this not turn into a political circus, because I believe there would be a political backlash on whoever does that. We ought to demand the truth, demand transparency, but also finality, because every minute we're spending on this, we're not spending on something else.

BLITZER: Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, thanks so much for joining us.

FITZPATRICK: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, the attorney Michael Avenatti, who represented porn star Stormy Daniels in a suit against the president, has been arrested and been charged with fraud and with trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:29]

BLITZER: There's more breaking news tonight on new federal charges against Michael Avenatti, the former lawyer to Stormy Daniels and nemesis of President Trump.

Avenatti has been arrested in New York City. He's accused of attempting to extort some $20 million from the sporting gear giant Nike. He's facing separate federal charges in California on bank and wire fraud.

CNN's Kara Scannell is here in THE SITUATION ROOM following all this for us.

What are you learning, Kara?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

So, the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan announced these charges today of extortion against Michael Avenatti. They allege that Avenatti and an unnamed co-conspirator, who CNN learned is celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, were engaged in a scheme of extortion against Nike, threatening to expose damaging information about the company on the eve of its corporate earnings announcement, as well as during this March Madness NCAA Tournament, threatening to knock billions of dollars off the company's market cap.

[18:25:23]

Avenatti said that he wouldn't do that if he and his co-conspirator were paid more than $20 million.

A dramatic fall for Avenatti here. Now, the Nike lawyers went to law enforcement when the Avenatti levied this threat. And they have recorded him both visually on audio and video of him, and this is one of the threats that prosecutors allege.

Avenatti said: "I will go take $10 billion off your client's market cap. I'm not (bleep) around and I'm not continuing to play games. You guys know enough now you have got a serious problem, and it's worth more in exposure to me to just blow the lid on this thing."

Now, the U.S. attorney Geoff Berman in New York announced the charges earlier today. And he said it was nothing but an old-fashioned shakedown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEOFFREY BERMAN, U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: When the company's lawyers resisted paying Avenatti to conduct an internal investigation, Avenatti told the company it could skip paying for an internal investigation if, instead, it simply paid him $22.5 million.

Then Avenatti said he would -- quote -- "ride off into the sunset." Avenatti was not acting as an attorney. A suit and tie doesn't mask the fact that, at its core, this was an old-fashioned shakedown.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCANNELL: Avenatti was arrested this afternoon. He's being presented in court right now.

Mark Geragos, the alleged co-conspirator, has not been charged with any wrongdoing in the case. He was a CNN contributor, but he's no longer, as of today, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Kara Scannell, with the latest on that.

Just ahead: President Trump says releasing the complete Mueller report wouldn't bother him, but while he claims he was exonerated, does the full report tell a different story?

And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff says his panel will continue its investigation, focusing in on financial issues, like the Trump Tower Moscow project.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00] [18:31:52] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news on Robert Mueller's report on the Russia investigation, and when and if Americans will actually get to see all of it. Tonight, a White House official tells CNN the Trump team still hasn't seen the full report about 24 hours after the Attorney General released his four-page summary.

Let's bring in our team of experts. And, Gloria, on the issue of obstruction, it's very clear, Barr's letter explains that the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, he laid out what he called evidence on both sides, but the judgment actually comes from the Attorney General because Mueller decided he wasn't going to make a final decision on whether there had been obstruction of justice. This is important to consider right now, where it all has.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I mean, this is the big question. I mean, what Barr said that it leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as difficult issues of law and fact. And so what we don't know is why Mueller could not make a straight out decision on this. Was it because he did not interview the President?

Was it because there was disagreement among his legal team? Was it because if he couldn't come -- he knew he couldn't prosecute on -- that it wasn't prosecutable? So we really don't know. And Mueller, generally, is known as kind of a black and white sort of guy, so it was very surprising to me that there was no conclusion.

Now, the way this law is written, you send it to your boss, who is the Attorney General, and he knew the Attorney General was going to decide and he probably was also very well aware that the Attorney General has called the theory of obstruction fatally misconceived. So I'm sure it was not any surprise to Bob Mueller what the Attorney General and Rod Rosenstein decided to do.

BLITZER: Because Mueller concluded, according to this letter that Barr wrote, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him, which is a very significant statement.

Jeffrey, the Attorney General also quotes the Special Counsel as writing that the investigation did not establish, he used the word, establish, that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government. How do you interpret that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it -- I interpret it as there was no proof to the extent that there was -- you could build a criminal charge around it. Obviously, there is some evidence of connection between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. The Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016 is explicitly set up as a coordinated effort of the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The email that set it up refers to the Russian government.

But what Mueller concluded was that all the evidence taken together did not establish a sufficient connection to build a criminal case. And, ultimately, that conclusion is what's most important about Mueller's findings. BLITZER: And the word, establish, some have suggested, has a specific legal connotation.

[18:35:00]

TOOBIN: I'm not sure. I mean, I think establish is a word like proof. This is not a legal document, certainly not the Barr letter about the Mueller report. His job, Robert Mueller's job, was to see if there were prosecutable criminal cases. And, clearly, he concluded that there was nothing about the whole collusion area that is the relationship between the Russian government and the Trump campaign that rose to the level of a criminal offense that he could charge.

BLITZER: Yes, that was a big win for the President. There's no doubt about that.

David Swerdlick, we know that three weeks ago, the Special Counsel's team told the Attorney General, Bill Barr, that Mueller would not reach a conclusion on the issue of obstruction of justice by the President of the United States. Were you surprised to learn that?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: I wasn't surprised to learn that because, as Gloria said, Wolf, this is not the independent counsel statute of the late 1990s. This is the Special Counsel law and the Special Counsel's boss is the Attorney General. So it wouldn't necessarily be inappropriate in any way for the Attorney General, Attorney General Barr, to get a heads-up.

What I was surprised about was on page three of Barr's letter, the last full paragraph. Page three is that obstruction of justice analysis that Attorney General Barr had worked up this legal theory, as you were just talking about with Jeffrey, about, okay, that obstruction of justice wasn't established but also saying twice that it couldn't be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

But this -- the standard beyond a reasonable doubt is for conviction, not for concluding that you can bring forward a charge. So I think that this is another reason why we would need -- maybe there was no evidence, but we would need to see the entire report to know that there was no evidence whatsoever in the eyes of Special Counsel Mueller.

BLITZER: Because, Sabrina, the President tweeted that all of this represents in his words a total exoneration. But the letter itself has a little different explanation because while this report does not conclude the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Precisely. I think that, as we pointed out, the Special Counsel did not conclude that the President obstructed justice, but he specifically did not exonerate him. And according to this four-page letter, he presented evidence on both sides of the issue. It's the determination of Attorney General William Barr along with the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, that based on the evidence Mueller provided, they did not believe there is sufficient evidence to bring charges of obstruction of justice against the President.

That's why you're hearing a great deal of frustration from democrats on Capitol Hill who say that this is what they feared all along, that going back to that 2018 memo that William Barr authored, he clearly was dismissive of the obstruction line of Mueller's inquiry and he had a very expansive view of presidential powers. They believe that Congress, not William Barr, should ultimately be the arbiter of this matter.

That's why Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, is saying he expects Barr to testify on Capitol Hill and democrats are going to press forward in their attempts to demand that the full report be made public.

BLITZER: Politically speaking --

TOOBIN: But to be fair to Barr --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: To be fair to Barr, you did not have Robert Mueller saying, let's build an obstruction of justice case. You had Robert Mueller, for reasons that remain puzzling to many of us, not addressing a -- not coming up with a conclusion about whether there's an obstruction of justice case. So it was not Barr overruling Mueller, which, would have been something of serious concern. It was Barr putting his own gloss on what the ambiguous evidence that Mueller created.

Now, Barr, perhaps, shouldn't have done that at all, but it's not like Mueller said, go ahead and Barr stopped.

BORGER: Right. But Barr is the boss. He is the Attorney General. And if Mueller punted it to him, he and Rosenstein decided that they were going to make a decision about this even though Mueller did not.

BLITZER: Yes. Stick around, guys. There's a lot more we need to discuss. There's more breaking news.

We're expecting to see Stormy Daniels' former lawyer, Michael Avenatti, after he appears before a judge in New York City. You're looking at the microphones there. They're already set up. Avenatti may come out and make a statement. He was arrested today and faces federal charges in not one but two investigations.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

[18:44:08] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts. We're exploring all the questions left unanswered by the Attorney General's summary of Robert Mueller's findings. Even the White House still hasn't seen the full report.

Gloria, politically speaking, this letter, and we've all read it several times, represents a major victory for the President. BORGER: Absolutely. The President has said how many hundreds of times there was no collusion, and Bob Mueller, despite the fact that the President criticized him as having an illegal investigation and working with 13 angry Democrats, et cetera, et cetera, he was vindicated on that. And I think it is a big win for the White House, politically, that they'll probably ride into the 2020 election. We don't know what the President is going to do or say.

Both sides here, I should add, have to be careful about not overplaying their hands. The Democrats have to be careful that they're not looking like they're looking into things that Mueller has already resolved.

[18:45:03] I don't think they're going to do that, but they do want to see the report. And the president, I think, would be wise to kind of not look so vindictive about Mueller who, after all, he did say did an honorable report.

BLITZER: He said that today.

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: Democrats have to be very careful right now in how they deal with all this, Sabrina.

SIDDIQUI: Well., certainly. I think their priority right now is on pushing to make the release of the Mueller report public, where there was an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives 420-0 in support of making that report released to the public. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell today blocked an effort by Democrats to do so. I think that's going to be the next major front, something that will likely ultimately go to the courts.

At the same time, Democrats do say there are other matters relating to the president and his associates that are under investigation by the Southern District of New York, including the hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, and efforts by the president and his associates to cover them up, as well as many other lines of inquiry against his family and his businesses. I think Democrats are going to continue to pursue many of those investigations, but they are going to have to, I think, be cautious about seeming like they're on the attack at a time when the president is going to be ability to at least frame some of these investigations as being politically motivated.

BLITZER: How big of a win was this for the president, David?

SWERDLICK: Oh, I think it's a big win for the president the last couple l days. He's able to spin this, even if there's not full exoneration, there's enough for him to spin it as such. I think you combine that with ISIS basically being defeated, or declared -- the coalition declaring defeat over ISIS, and the president sort of coming together with Prime Minister Netanyahu this weekend. This is a good few days for him.

We've seen his poll numbers dip below 40 percent when he's not been on the public's good side. They've gone up above 40 percent when he's been on the public's good side. He's at about 44 percent right now. I bet it can go to 45 percent.

He is liking where he is this week, at least.

BLITZER: You know, we're waiting -- you're smiling. Go ahead, make your point then I got another question.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: These poll the -- you know, compared to other presidents, the polls have not moved with the president. I mean, you know, the difference between --

SWERDLICK: Jeffrey, that's the --

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: Who cares --

SWERDLCK: The range has been from the high 30s to the mid 40s and right now he's at the high end of his range.

You're right, he's not going to get to 50 percent because he doesn't have 50 percent of the country with him.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, I just think, you know, the lack of change has been the real story here, not the change. You know, the difference between 38 percent and 42 percent is essentially just polling noise and, you know, I, of course, we're all interested to see if there are major changes after the release of the Barr letter, but, I mean, the pattern has been good news doesn't change his polls and bad news doesn't change his polls.

BLITZER: We're waiting for Michael Avenatti to emerge from the federal courthouse in New York. As you know, he's been charged with allegedly extorting Nike for millions and millions of dollars.

Let me get your legal analysis of all of this, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: My legal analysis is Michael Avenatti had a bad, bad day. I mean, he is charged in two separate cases in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan with this extortion case trying to get money out of Nike that at least according to the prosecution is not, you know, a settlement for his client, but simply a payoff to go away.

And then in Los Angeles, as part of a fairly conventional fraud, you know, providing false documents to get loans from banks that, you know, to deal with the troubling investment in a coffee company he had in the Northwest. But, you know, Michael Avenatti became a very familiar figure on CNN and elsewhere, but he has had a series of problems since he, you know, since he became famous. And remember, he said he was running for president for a while, which is, like, a megalomaniac move in and of itself. It's a bad problem.

BORGER: What would ever make you think you could extort Nike without the general counsel of Nike saying, wait a minute, you can't do this? I mean, it's just -- it's sort of stunning and we'll have to hear what Avenatti says about it.

BLITZER: Yes. We'll see these allegations, very serious, potentially many years in prison.

Just ahead, top Russian officials, they are now openly gloating about Robert Mueller's findings on collusion. We're going live to Moscow.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:54:15] BLITZER: Tonight, the Kremlin is seizing on the Mueller report's failure to establish any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government. Top officials in Moscow are openly gloating even as they dispute the special counsel's clear finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Our Senior International Correspondent, Fred Pleitgen is joining live from Moscow right now.

So, what are you hearing, Fred, from the Russians?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's some Russian officials, Wolf, who are even using the same language as President Trump, saying that President Trump, at least one of them, has been exonerated from a virtual conspiracy and that those who pushed the conspiracy obviously supporters of the Mueller probe, have been discredited. Just one of many Russian officials who are very happy with the findings of the Mueller report.

Here's what we're learning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[18:55:02] PLEITGEN (voice-over): Tonight, the Kremlin gloating after the Mueller report found no conclusive evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. The four-page summary of the report from Attorney General William Barr setting off a feeding frenzy for state-run Russian TV, the top political show joking about the findings.

OLGA SKABEEVA, TV HOST (through translator): Two years of sleepless nights, and they didn't find any collusion. We didn't elect Trump. Too bad.

PLEITGEN: The Barr letter again underscoring the government's conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Still, the Kremlin continues to deny any involvement.

Vladimir Putin spokesman blasting the inquiry's conclusions.

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESMAN (through translator): I want to remind you the words of one Chinese philosopher who said it's very hard to find a black cat in a black room, especially if it's not there. Centuries go by, but the West doesn't understand this.

PLEITGEN: Some whose actions have been publicly scrutinized now taking to the airwaves, like the Kremlin-linked lawyer who attended the infamous meeting with Trump campaign officials in 2016.

NATALYA VESENITSKAYA, LAWYER (through translator): I did not plan to go to U.S. any time soon but that would lead to my arrest. I'm not scared of a U.S. prison per se for the pretrial hearings. I'm mostly concerned about the manipulations because of this persona of me created in the USA. Kremlin agent, Kremlin spy.

PLEITGEN: Some Russian lawmakers hoping with the Mueller probe over, relations between Washington and Moscow could improve.

A top Russian senator saying, quote, certainly, a lot could be rectified if there's goodwill. I do not rule out any initiatives on Russia in the near future, because the outcome of the Mueller report has now dealt Trump's team a full hand of Trump cards.

President Trump often stated his admiration for Vladimir Putin. Some Russian officials now hope the president will now turn that admiration into a more Russia-friendly policy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And one of the things that Russian officials seemed to be hoping for, Wolf, is for President Trump to make good on his invitation to have Vladimir Putin over to Washington for a summit, and then possibly start building better relations as time goes on, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thanks very much.

Now to breaking news out of the Middle East. Rocket sirens going off near the Israel-Gaza border just a little while ago. Tensions very high after a rocket attack hit a home in central Israel just north of Tel Aviv. Israeli forces striking back even as the Israeli prime minister has been visiting the United States, meeting with President Trump.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is joining us from Southern Israel, right along the border with Gaza.

So, Oren, what is the very latest?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just moments ago, we got another rocket alert coming out of Kerem Shalom at the southern end of Gaza, indicating this round indicating a potential rocket or mortar launch may not be over yet. It was just a few hours ago, 10:00, that there were reports from Hamas in Gaza, that Egypt has successfully brokered the restoration of a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza, and that seemed to hold for all about 20 or 30 minutes.

Then there were more rocket alerts. In fact, as we were standing even closer, we saw two interceptions of Israel Iron Dome aerial defense system and we heard a number of other launches from Gaza into Israel. But we take you back to when this all started. It was roughly 5:15 this morning when a rocket was fired from Gaza deep into Israel. In fact, deeper into Israel than any rocket since the end of the 2014 war, that hit a home north of Tel Aviv, wounding seven people inside. All of this while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington

to meet with President Donald Trump. That trip cut short. He is now on his way back.

Israel said it would respond. Netanyahu said they would respond forcefully and that begun this evening. Israel struck a number of high-level Hamas targets in Gaza, including the intelligence headquarters and the office of Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh.

The question now, how long does this continue? Hamas has fired rockets into Israel in retaliation for those Israeli airstrikes, and now, we're waiting to see where this goes now. It's clear, Egypt and the U.N. are trying to bring about some kind of cease-fire here, their first attempt a few hours ago not successful.

So, Wolf, could very well be we're at the beginning of an escalation, though it's very difficult to sense that at this moment. It was quiet for a few moments before that last rocket alarm. But who knows how violent, how kinetic this night could be when the situations are so tense and the escalations happen so quickly along the Israel-Gaza border.

BLITZER: The rocket launch from Gaza into central Israel just north of Tel Aviv, as you pointed out, very deep into Israel. That's really shaken things up, hasn't it?

LIEBERMANN: It certainly has. Israel blamed Hamas for the rocket launch, said it was manufactured in Gaza by Hamas, although there hasn't been a claim of responsibility. Hamas, in fact, came out and said this wasn't us.

There hasn't been a group that came out and said, yes, this was us, which is, in fact, fairly unusual for these sorts of escalations that we see in these launches.

BLITZER: Oren Liebermann on the border between Israel and Gaza -- Oren, be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can follow on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNsitroom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.