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U.S. Narrows in On Terrorist Tied to ISIS, Sri Lanka Bombings; Dem Candidates Expected to Talk Impeachment in Town Halls; Interview With Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL). Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 22, 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: Happening now, breaking news: Democratic plans. House Democrats hold an urgent conference call to discuss impeaching President Trump, as they struggle to level an effective response to the release of the redacted Mueller report. What will their next steps be?

Calling McGahn. The House Judiciary Committee chairman subpoenas former White House counsel Don McGahn, seeking documents and testimony for the investigation into possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. What does McGahn know about the president's efforts to undermine the Mueller investigation?

Restraining Congress. President Trump and his son sue to block House Democrats from getting his financial records and ask a judge to slap a restraining order against lawmakers, blocking their subpoena. Will the courts side with Congress or the president?

And Americans killed, at least four U.S. citizens confirmed to be among the almost 300 people killed in the Easter suicide bombings targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. Tonight, a key suspect with possible ties to ISIS has emerged.

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: The breaking news this hour, CNN has learned that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler has subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn, the clearest sign yet the panel is planning a deep dive into possible obstruction of justice by President Trump.

Also breaking, deeply divided House Democrats holding a high-stakes conference call discussing whether or not to move to impeach the president based on the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller.

And, tonight, sources are telling CNN the U.S. is narrowing in on a key terrorist it believes is tied to both ISIS and the Sri Lanka terror attacks that killed almost 300 people , including at least four Americans. We will talk about that and more with Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi

of the Intelligence and Oversight Committees. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go straight to Capitol Hill.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is joining us.

Manu, first of all, what are you finding out about the subpoena for Don McGahn?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the House Judiciary Committee making a move, serving a subpoena to Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, asking he turn over records by May 7, asking he appear in public by May 21, and an indication of this panel's aggressive investigation into potential obstruction of justice.

McGahn, a central player in the Trump administration for the first two years, an individual whose name was mentioned throughout the Mueller report, and who the president asked to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and that McGahn, apparently, according to the Mueller report, resisted in doing so.

Now, this is all part of the next series of steps that Democrats want to take to move forward. They want to move forward in this obstruction investigation, look into potential abuses of power in the White House, and explore deeply everything that Bob Mueller uncovered in his two-year investigation.

Now, next month is going to be a key month for the House Judiciary Committee. Bill Barr, the attorney general, expected to come in, in the first couple days of May, then Bob Mueller expected to also come in. No date has been set yet for his testimony. And now Don McGahn, the subpoena issued for his appearance.

And this is not going to be the last action taken by this committee. Four other former White House officials have -- may soon get their own subpoenas. The panel has already authorized Jerry Nadler to actually give them their subpoenas. He has those in his back pocket, Wolf, but this is all part of what Democrats plan to do now that the Mueller investigation is over, fight for the full unredacted Mueller report, potentially go to court over it, and begin witness testimony, including public testimony from the former White House counsel, Don McGahn.

BLITZER: Amidst this, Manu, Democrats have been holding a key conference call tonight, as they discuss a path forward after the Mueller report. What are you learning about that?

RAJU: Yes, that's right.

In this call that is still ongoing -- it started at about 5:00. There was some discussion about the issue of impeachment. One individual who brought up impeachment was Maxine Waters. I'm told that the House Financial Services chairman, the person who has pushed for impeachment, called for the president to be impeached, made it clear to her colleagues on this call that she's not asking members to get behind her on this.

She has said that she is pursuing this and not organizing an effort behind it. That is a relief of somewhat to Democratic leaders who have been trying to tamp down calls for impeachment.

Another individual, Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said that any impeachment discussion needs to be thought about soberly, only if the country is behind it, not for the benefit of Democrats or one political party.

Jerry Nadler did not talk about impeachment, I am told, but laid out those next steps in the investigation, announced Don McGahn as well. The committee chairman laid out also various steps they are taking. Richard Neal, the House Ways and Means chairman, indicated that he still plans to pursue the president's tax returns, a deadline for that tomorrow.

[18:05:15]

But he said that he would proceed cautiously in trying to get those tax returns. Elijah Cummings, the House Oversight Committee chairman, said he wants to focus on security clearance problems that apparently occurred at the White House. He raised concern about the lack of documents turned over to this committee.

From what I'm hearing, Wolf, at the moment, there hasn't been much pushback about the impeachment or at least the desire by the Democratic leaders to pour cold water on it. One congressman, Jared Huffman of California, did make a comment, saying, that,look, we need to consider not just the consequence of not -- of impeaching the president, but also what the consequence would be of not impeaching this president.

And that's one argument that advocates of impeachment have been saying. We have to use our majority for something, potentially go down the road of impeachment. But at the moment, Democrats feel pretty good that their caucus is in line with their next step, which is to investigate before deciding to impeach -- Wolf.

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

Let's bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, Don McGahn, the president's counsel over at the White House, is a key player with a lot of direct knowledge about President Trump's efforts to undermine the Russia probe. What are you hearing?

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

And the White House is aware of this subpoena coming from the House Judiciary Committee. But at this point, they're not commenting on it. We're not expecting a comment any time soon. But I suppose a comment could be coming shortly from the president. We will have to wait and see if that happens. Also need to wait and see what Don McGahn's representation, what his

attorney says about all of this. That could be coming soon as well. But President Trump, in the meantime, Wolf, he is trying to convince the public to believe him and not the Mueller report.

The president insisted today that his aides always obey his orders, despite what the Mueller report says. Just today, I was told by a former administration official that there were White House officials who indeed did decline to carry out the president's orders.

And the president is also claiming he's not worried about being impeached, what Manu Raju was just talking about a few moments ago, even though he talked about and tweeted about this prospect earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, everybody. Happy Easter.

ACOSTA (voice-over): At the White House Easter egg roll, President Trump told CNN his orders are always followed.

QUESTION: Are you worried that your staff is ignoring your orders, as the Mueller report portrays?

TRUMP: Nobody disobeys my orders.

ACOSTA: But special counsel Robert Mueller's report says that's not true. Mueller revealed some Trump aides and associates defied his orders, even those aimed at shutting down the Russia investigation.

The special counsel wrote in his report: "The president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful. That is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders."

Democrats want to hear from former White House counsel Don McGahn after it was stated in the Mueller report that he refused a request by the president to fire the special counsel. White House officials insist there is nothing wrong with such an order.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: If the president wanted to fire Bob Mueller, he would have. In other words, he had the -- he has the authority to do that. He fired Director Comey.

ACOSTA: The president also appears to be laying out the case against his own impeachment, tweeting: "Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment. There were no high crimes by me, no collusion, no obstruction, so you can't impeach. It was the Democrats that committed the crimes, not your Republican president."

At the Easter egg roll, the president all but hopped away from the impeachment question too.

QUESTION: Are you worried about impeachment, Mr. President? TRUMP: Not even a little bit.

ACOSTA: The president's outside attorney is also responding to Mueller's findings, arguing on CNN that it was just fine for the Trump campaign to accept dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia.

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's nothing -- there's nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: There's nothing wrong with taking information...

GIULIANI: It depends on where it came from.

ACOSTA: Democrats say that's unacceptable.

REP. LOU CORREA (D-CA): I totally disagree with Mr. Giuliani. There is a lot wrong with taking information from an adversary, foreign adversary, foreign government.

ACOSTA: Another major development in the investigation, the Trump Organization is now suing House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings to block Democrats from obtaining the president's financial statements for the last eight years, saying in a statement: "It's an unprecedented overreach of congressional authority."

Cummings fired back, saying: "The president has a long history of trying to use baseless lawsuits to attack his adversaries, but there is simply no valid legal basis to interfere with this duly authorized subpoena from Congress."

The president was keeping busy on Twitter, announcing former presidential candidates Herman Cain has decided against seeking a spot on the Federal Reserve.

But the president was having trouble communicating the facts on the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, at one point tweeting that 138 million people had died. Mr. Trump also tweeted he had spoken with the president of a Sri Lanka. Turns out it was that country's prime minister.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: As for the president's actions laid out in the Mueller report, a former administration official said Mr. Trump -- quote -- "could have used a lot more firm legal guidance early on in his presidency."

And we should point out, late in the day, the president posted this tweet, Wolf.

[18:10:00]

It says: "Isn't it amazing that the people who were closest to me by far and knew the campaign better than anyone were never even called to testify before Mueller?" It is unclear, Wolf, what the president is referring to there, who he's referring to in this tweet. But top aides to the president, we have talked about them, like Don McGahn, but even Mr. Trump's son-in- law, Jared Kushner, they were all interviewed by the special counsel. So the president, it seems, is once again twisting the truth to undermine confidence in the Mueller report -- Wolf.

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

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois is joining us. He's a member of both the Intelligence Committee and the Oversight and Reform Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And I know you just got off this Democratic Caucus conference call that you have been on for the past hour or so.

First of all, what can you tell us? Where does your party stand right now on this very sensitive issue of launching preliminary hearings, for example, on impeachment?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think that clearly there's differences of views on the ultimate question of impeachment right now.

But there is a consensus on one thing, which is, we have to get a full, unredacted version of the Mueller report, and then, secondly, we have to have Bob Mueller, as well as key witnesses that are featured in the report, come testify on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: Where do you stand, Congressman? Which part of the Democratic Party are you with when it comes to impeachment?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I'm kind of in the camp where, as a former prosecutor in Illinois, I basically learned that you have to investigate before you prosecute.

And right now, I'm focused like a laser on, you know, 1,000 redactions in this report and what's behind them. I will just give you one example. You know, 80 percent of the redactions actually come in volume one of the report, which goes to the potential criminal conspiracy and interference by the Russians.

And of the 14 matters that have been transferred to other jurisdictions, 11 were completely blacked out in the appendices of the report. We have no idea what the wrongdoing is at issue in those proceedings, nor do we know who the targets are.

So we need to understand that, along with the counterintelligence findings, to help protect our democracy at this point.

BLITZER: They make the argument, though, that -- this is the attorney general, Bill Barr -- that if they were to release that information, it could undermine an ongoing criminal investigation, let's say, by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York or the U.S. attorney here in Washington, D.C.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, two things.

One, members of Congress every day review classified information in the SCIF, the underground bunker beneath the Capitol. And we get large group classified briefings. So that's very important to know. This is no different.

And then, secondly, you know, we don't have a king. We have a president, and the president is subject to oversight by the people. And we are the representatives of the people. And we should be able to conduct oversight. And in order to do so, we need that information.

BLITZER: Just moments ago, the House Judiciary chairman, Jerry Nadler, issued a subpoena for the former White House counsel Don McGahn to come before the committee and testify.

How important will his testimony be, as Democrats weigh whether or not to formally open impeachment proceedings?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, as you know, in the report, Mr. McGahn told the prosecutors and Mr. Mueller that he was ordered by the president several times to shut down the investigation or fire Bob Mueller and so forth.

Contrary to what Kellyanne Conway said in your clip previously, the president absolutely can commit obstruction of justice if he has a corrupt motive in potentially firing Bob Mueller.

And so bringing Mr. McGahn before the committees of Congress to explain what he believes were the motives and what exactly transpired is very important in kind of establishing whether there was obstruction.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Congressman, as some of your Democratic colleagues in the House believe, that the leadership may have gotten ahead of themselves by throwing cold water on the prospect of impeachment so quickly over these past couple or three weeks?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: No, I think that what Speaker Pelosi said today was absolutely important, which is that we have to put two things above everything, which is duty and our democracy, over any partisan motives.

I think Chairman Schiff also made it very clear that whatever we decide going forward has to be in the best interest of our country. It can't be one party. It can't be for partisan advantage. That's something that we were elected in the majority to uphold, and also to deliver on pocketbook priorities, which I think is another important factor in what we need to do going forward.

[18:15:00] We have to address the pocketbook issues that the American people want us to address, while at the same time serving as a check and balance on the president.

BLITZER: Because some of the -- some of those wanting the impeachment process to begin right away saying, if you don't go ahead with impeachment, that's also a political decision, because you're not living up to the responsibilities of the House of Representatives.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I understand where they're coming from.

And that's obviously going to be a factor in the decision-making going forward. I think one factor that we also have to consider is that, in 18 months, the American people are going to weigh in on what they think about the Mueller report and whether they believe Mr. Trump deserves a second term.

I think right now the next step that I think everybody agrees on, Wolf, within our caucus, is, we need to continue the investigation. There are some very immediate next steps before each of the committees. You brought up the Oversight Committee, on which I also sit.

And, there, we do need to get the answers to our subpoenas with regard to the president's financial records, as well as the records we have requested from Deutsche Bank and other financial institutions with regard to Mr. Trump.

I think that, on the Intelligence Committee, we have to get at the counterintelligence findings that Mr. Mueller came across. There might have been ties between Trump officials and the Russians that might not be criminally conspiratorial in nature, but, nonetheless, might form the basis of kompromat.

That is information that the Russians can use to exploit or manipulate Trump officials or others in our government that can endanger our national security. So we have to get that information right away.

BLITZER: The president, his personal lawyers, are now suing to block a subpoena by your committee, the Oversight Committee, for his financial records from his accountants who dealt with his Trump Organization over the years.

Why do you think he's trying this tactic for the first time in response to this specific subpoena?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think that this is an area that's obviously sensitive to him, but it's so crucial for Congress to get these records, for two reasons.

One, we know that under our banking statutes and other statutes, you cannot commit fraud in connection with applications for loans and other instruments in connection with financial institutions. And so that's one reason.

The second is, we need to understand his entanglements, potentially with our foreign adversaries. And so we need to get those financial records. I know that Chairman Neal on the Ways and Means Committee is also trying to get the president's tax returns, which also get at this important question.

And then obviously from the Intelligence Committee and Judiciary Committee and others, we're trying to get the information with regard to Deutsche Bank and potential money laundering, which is also a significant issue that we need to get at.

Again, we need to protect our democracy right now. We need to understand what are the counterintelligence implications of having Mr. Trump potentially having ties with the Russians.

BLITZER: But are you concerned that this whole subpoena battle would go on and on and could drag on in the courts for a long time? You won't be able to enforce these subpoenas. It would underscore a weakness of congressional subpoenas.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I think that we have to press forward. I believe that we stand on firm ground with regard to the subpoena power.

I think that the president and his team potentially risk litigating these subpoenas, because, if they were to voluntarily cooperate, they could help to potentially keep the scope more manageable, and essentially do this in a voluntary fashion and make it easier on them. But if they want to go the subpoena route and litigate it, that's up to them. We will be -- we will see them in court.

BLITZER: Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues next.

Now that former White House counsel Don McGahn has been subpoenaed, what will he reveal to the House Judiciary Committee about President Trump's attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation?

Plus, President Trump contradicting the Mueller report, insisting nobody, nobody disobeys his orders, despite a dozen allies and aides who testified under oath otherwise.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:09]

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news: House Democrats discussing possible impeachment of President Trump in a conference call.

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

And, Jackie Alemany, you have been speaking with your sources about this hour-long-plus conference call that's going on. What are you hearing? JACKIE ALEMANY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, that's right.

The call actually just ended minutes ago. And the takeaway here is that Nancy Pelosi did not make an immediate call to initiate impeachment. There were a few really illuminating quotes, though, from the speaker, where she basically told her caucus that a prosecutor can prosecute a ham sandwich or not.

That's prosecutorial discretion, basically saying she wants to take the time to collect all the facts before coming to a conclusion. Other members went on to respond that her tactics here are really cautious, but need to be done expeditiously, right? This is pretty time-sensitive.

[18:25:00]

More importantly, there was a lot of conversation and asks for talking points from constituents. Richard Neal said that his constituents are really concerned with Trump's tax returns, asked for talking points on that.

There were asks for data as it relates to impeachment's effect on elections. And there is this conundrum here, right, because a lot of members are saying, hey, guys, look, we need to take this slow, because impeachment is a political process. And we can't move forward until we feel like there is political support here, but with Pelosi continuing to say, hey, this cannot be political, we need all of the facts.

Pelosi also said, we have to save our democracy without passion or politics, just the presentation of the facts.

There's also this recognition here, and while it was not explicitly said, because as my sources were saying, they didn't want to come out as critical of Pelosi, but that there is a problem with narratives and messaging. And there needs to be -- there needs to be more salient talking points put out to members, so that all of the narratives don't collide here, especially as there are protracted legal battles.

BLITZER: Let me get some reaction to that.

Jeffrey Toobin, what do you think?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, impeachment is certainly just not happening. And if anything change -- I mean, nothing that appears imminent is going to change that.

However, I mean, as you saw from the subpoena today to Don McGahn, the White House counsel, who is -- former White House counsel -- who was featured in perhaps the most dramatic moment of the Mueller report, the Democrats are doing oversight. They are investigating the operations of the executive branch.

That's what they're supposed to do. It's perfectly possible to do that, while leaving the question of impeachment open and unlikely to be addressed. But that doesn't mean the investigation should stop. BLITZER: Because they're moving with a subpoena to get Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, David Swerdlick, over before the Judiciary Committee to testify.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right.

And the advantage, as Jeffrey was saying, that Democrats have right now, if they have one at all, is that they can call all these witnesses to have them sort of retell their stories before the cameras or, in some cases, probably behind closed doors, that have already been laid out in that report.

Democrats can't unring the bell of the March 24 letter from the attorney general. The White House has that one in their pocket. But the White House can't unring the bell of the fact that the report is out there now, and that Democrats can go one by one and have people tell their stories all over again to the American people.

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins, how worried should White House officials and the president specifically be if Don McGahn actually goes before the cameras, testifies before an open session of the Judiciary Committee?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the stories he told to Robert Mueller were pretty damning.

And that's something that the president has spent the last several days fuming about, Don McGahn in particular, because when he was in the White House, the president and he had this troubled, at times complicated relationship, because they didn't get along personally.

But then, of course, McGahn was responsible for half -- a lot of the judges that part of -- have been a big part of the president's legacy.

So the question whether or not he would actually go on camera and testify to these events that happened to him is something that the White House would certainly have a lot to say about, because, so far, a lot of what McGahn said, I believe, he was cited over 150 times in the Mueller report, which really is revealing how just much at the center of what Democrats want to get into , these claims that -- these allegations of obstruction of justice, he's right at the center of that.

BLITZER: What are the Democrats hoping to achieve by getting Don McGahn before the committee? Because he spoke extensive -- 30 hours before Mueller?

ALEMANY: Yes, that is a great question. I think that's something Democrats are still figuring out. It's something that I know was raised on the call, in addition to potentially calling Attorney General Barr to testify as well, because I think a lot of Democrats are concerned that this is just going to be an opportunity to sort of clean up their mess and make a good show for the president.

That being said, Don McGahn did reveal some potentially problematic and embarrassing information about the president. And there might be more of that extends beyond the red lines that Mueller was confined to.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Yes, just because someone is mentioned in a 450-page single- spaced report is very separate from seeing someone tell a story to a national audience on television.

I mean, look, we are a nation of video learners. The idea that the president -- that the president told Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, and then McGahn was instructed to lie about that instruction, it's one thing to read that in print. It's another thing to hear it.

And I don't think the Democrats have anything to explain away in why they would want the nation to see that. That's oversight.

BLITZER: You think , Jeffrey, that the Democrats -- their subpoena, they want not only the complete unredacted, unredacted Mueller report, all 460 pages, without anything blacked out, but they also want all the underlying evidence that was collected.

Now, 30 hours of testimony by Don McGahn, that's several hundred pages of transcripts. They want all of that as well, don't they?

TOOBIN: They do. I think that's a real long shot that they'd get that. I mean the irony here is the Republicans when they were in charge of the House of Representatives they got all sorts of investigative material in the Benghazi investigation, in the investigation of the FBI agents involved with the beginnings of the Mueller investigation. But I think a court order directing the Justice Department to turn over Mueller's investigative material is remote.

Now, they have a better chance of getting the unexpurgated report but in any event the legal fight is going to eat up a lot of months regardless of what the outcome ultimately is.

BLITZER: It certainly will. Now, Kaitlan, you had a little exchange with the President of the United States today on the South Lawn of the White House. Let me play the clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Are you worried that your staff has ignored your orders as the Mueller report portrays?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nobody disobeys my orders.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He looked at you directly and said, "Nobody disobeys my orders."

COLLINS: Because that came after a weekend where the President was in Palm Beach fuming because one of the portraits that emerged from this report when it came out is that not only is the President dishonest at times, but he also has a staff that often ignores his directives or slow walks him or tries to manage him. That is something the President resists. He does not like that portrayal of him and he was furious about this.

And as we reported over the weekend, my colleague Kevin Liptak and I, the president was also seeking assurances from people who are still there that they're following his orders, because a lot of the people who were portrayed in the report namely Don McGahn, Jeff Sessions, Corey Lewandowski and others are people who either don't work in the White House or have left the White House.

So he wants to make sure the people that are still there are following his orders, treating them like a president's orders and not just like some kind of suggestion.

BLITZER: Shouldn't these 12 people ...

TOOBIN: The irony of --

BLITZER: ... hold on one second, Jeffrey, shouldn't this 12 people have either ignored or disobeyed the President's orders and you can see the pictures for 11 of the 12 are right there, but you can see all of their names. Many of them, Jackie, they were pretty important in protecting the President from doing something he would have regretted down the road.

ALEMANY: Yes, that's exactly right. I mean I think the biggest takeaway here and why Democrats potentially want Don McGahn to testify before the House publicly is this anecdote as it relates to McGahn telling Special Counsel Mueller that the President ordered him to fire Mueller from leading the investigation and the President was very upset with him when he refused to do so and was pressuring him to issue a retraction to The New York Times and McGahn refused to do so. And the President, if we know anything about him, despite his claims that this investigation is over does not like being publicly slighted.

BLITZER: Yes, Jeffrey, go ahead.

TOOBIN: Yes, well, Don McGahn very likely saved President Trump's presidency by disobeying his orders. That's the irony of the President's ire there, his anger at people, McGahn, even Rob Porter, K.T. McFarland, all of these people took Trump's crazy orders and stopped them in a way that may have prevented him from being forced from office.

BLITZER: An important point indeed. Everybody stick around, much more on all the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:38:01] BLITZER: We're back with our correspondents and our analyst. And Kaitlan, the president's lawyer, personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was on with Jake Tapper yesterday here on CNN and he had this exchange. Let me play this clip. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: There's nothing wrong with taking information --

GIULIANI: It depends on where it came from. It depends on where it came from.

TAPPER: You would have accepted information from Russians against a client, against a candidate if you were running in the president --

GIULIANI: I probably wouldn't. I wasn't asked. I would have advised just out of excess of caution don't do it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Does the White House think it's OK to engage in this kind of activity even if it doesn't meet a criminal threshold, but maybe morally improper?

COLLINS: I think it depends on who you ask in the White House and a lot of senior people in the West Wing are people who have been in Washington for a while would say, "No," and they actually do not like when Rudy Giuliani goes on TV and makes comments like that, because they think it weakens their arguments that they're trying to make about the Mueller report.

And, of course, Rudy Giuliani saying there's nothing wrong with taking information from the Russians raises the question then why when the White House is first confronted with the fact that The New York Times is going to report that Don Jr. and Jared Kushner and company had sat down with that Russian in Trump Tower, did they dictate from the President that misleading statement about what that meeting was about, because if they thought nothing was wrong with it why wouldn't they just tell the truth and say as much.

BLITZER: What do you think, David?

SWERDLICK: Look, I try and use the what if Obama had done it frame sparingly but this is a classic case. If one of President Obama's kids had met with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower or Obama Tower before a campaign and taken information from Russians that was damaging to his opponent, there is no way that Mayor Giuliani or any other senior Republican would be saying that this is OK and it's only a criminal matter, it's not a moral matter.

I think we're in a situation here where Democrats are the party that is having to evaluate this on their own, because Republicans are not breaking ranks from the fact that if the President is not, to the letter of the law, guilty of a crime which the reports suggest that he's not, then they are going to stick with him and not criticize him.

[18:40:08] BLITZER: Go ahead, Jackie. ALEMANY: Well, I just think that Rudy going out and saying this

really underscores probably the worst parts of this report for the President which is this overall idea that the Russians were willing to help the President's campaign and the campaign was willing to take that help in return. This didn't ultimately amount to evidence of conspiracy but that does not mean that there weren't acts of conspiracy. And Rudy going on TV really reinforces that notion.

BLITZER: Let me get the legal perspective from Jeffrey Toobin.

TOOBIN: Well, as a legal matter I think Giuliani may be right. It's illegal to accept a thing of value from a foreign source. Now, is information a thing of value? Well, I think that's a complicated question and simply meeting and talking especially a meeting that seemed to have gone nowhere like the Trump Tower meeting I don't think that was a campaign finance violations. I don't think a thing of value changed hands.

However, I mean I think as everyone is pointing out, it's a very bad idea. It's morally repugnant. It's contrary to the values of how we run our campaigns. But is it illegal to accept information alone from a foreign source, probably not.

BLITZER: Because Mueller himself concludes in his report and I'll read the line here, Jeffery, although damaging opposition research is surely valuable to a campaign, it appears that the information ultimately delivered in the meeting was not valuable.

TOOBIN: That's right and opposition research is a thing of value. Campaigns pay good money for it. But this meeting turned into such a fiasco that nothing of value was turned over I guess fortunately as it turns out for everyone affiliated with the President. But as a technical legal matter I think Giuliani was right in what he said. Politically, ethically, morally it's a very different story.

SWERDLICK: As a technical legal matter I do think you can make the case that there was an attempt or a conspiracy to get to commit campaign finance violation. With that being said, Wolf, I think that Jeffrey is right, that it's a close question. You can find both that this was not a crime and also that small C, collusion happened, that members of the Trump campaign sort of played footsie with Russians, I think that's the position that chairmanship among other people has held, find no crime but there was still collusion.

BLITZER: Let's not forget right after the SITUATION ROOM, there'd be a lot more in all of this, the CNN town halls begin right at 7:00 pm Eastern. Five back to back town halls with the major Democratic presidential candidates that's coming up moments from now. We'll take another quick break. We'll be right back.

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[18:47:29] BLITZER: We're only moments away from a major CNN town hall event. Tonight, five prominent presidential candidates on the stage. We'll speak with our political director David Chalian in just a moment. Looking at live pictures coming in from New Hampshire, but first, we

have major breaking news in the terror bombings that left nearly 300 people dead, including at least four Americans.

Our senior international correspondent Sam Kiley is joining us from Colombo in Sri Lanka with the very latest.

Sam, there are important new developments unfolding. What are we learning?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, CNN's Barbara Starr, Wolf, has sources are saying that the U.S. intelligence believes they know who the king pen behind these attacks is, and they are working with Sri Lankans to find out the extent of his network. But they have not yet said anything other than he has Islamist connections, perhaps inspired by the so-called Islamic State.

The extent of the cold blooded ruthlessness of this group, though, Wolf, killed 290 people or more, is revealed by some CCTV footage which we obtained from the Saint Sebastian church. Take a look at how ruthless this bomber was.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KILEY (voice-over): Today, new video shows one of the alleged suicide bombers carrying what church officials believe is a bomb in his back pack.

He pats a toddler on the head as he crosses the church courtyard. State TV in Sri Lanka identifying him as a suspect in one of the bombings. Without hesitation, he strides on into the side door of the Saint Sebastian's Church, close to the altar.

The next frame shows him exploding his bomb, killing at least 122 people who were celebrating Easter mass.

BISHOP JD ANTHONY, SURVIVED SRI LANKA ATTACK: It blasted in such a way, there were children, there were women and all close by, and all were blown off almost. So we had more than 100 people who were killed on the spot.

KILEY: The Sri Lankan military says there were six suicide bombers thought to have attacked two other churches and three five-star hotels within minutes of one another all around the same time.

Local and U.S. intelligence officials believe that the slickly coordinated plot is the work of an international ISIS-inspired terror group. It could strike again soon.

A security dragnet was thrown across the entire country with a state of emergency announced as they uncovered more of the murderous plot.

[18:50:00] In Colombo, a bomb squad performed a controlled explosion of a suspicion van near Saint Anthony's Church, one of the scenes of Sunday's attack. A 6 foot python was found close to the airport, along with nearly 90 bomb detonators at the city's bus stop. Sri Lanka's government had warning from U.S. and India that attacks were imminent and publicly apologized for failing to heed them.

RAJITHA SENARATNE, SIR LANKA CABINET SPOKESMAN: Very, very sorry.

KILEY: On April the 11th, a memo from the deputy inspector general of police advised Sri Lankan officials to raise security due to a potential attack. The government spokesman can't hide the truth from the families of more than 500 injured and nearly 300 dead, four of them Americans.

SENARATHE: As a government, we have to say and we have to apologize to the families and other institutions about this incident.

KILEY: After 30 years of civil war and ten years of peace, Sri Lankans believed they put scenes like this behind them. Whoever was behind this was clearly intent on creating friction between different communities and perhaps causing them to question their faith.

Now, the cleanup begins.

SANJEEWA APPUHAMY, ASST. PRIEST, ST. SEBASTIAN CHURCH: A lot of people are shouting, weeping, and we can't realize what happened. We can build up our church but we can't build up our lives.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: What a horrendous, horrendous terrorist attack.

Sam Kiley on the ground for us in Sri Lanka, Sam, be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch with you.

Just ahead, Democratic presidential candidates about to talk impeachment as well as about some stunning new policy proposals. We're going to preview tonight's CNN town halls.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:55:52] BLITZER: Coming up right at the top of the hour, the first of five back-to-back CNN presidential town halls. Our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly and our political director David Chalian, they are there in Manchester, New Hampshire, and give us a little preview.

David, the Democratic Party appears pretty much divided right now over the issue of impeachment. Will that issue be an issue, a factor tonight?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I certainly expected to be, Wolf. I mean, not only is the party divided up on Capitol Hill over this, but within the presidential field, we've seen Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro come out in favor of it. We know Elizabeth Warren will be out on the stage tonight.

(INAUDIBLE) CHALIAN: Speaker Pelosi, she's been urging everyone to calm down on

impeachment. So I would imagine that these voters have that top of mind.

BLITZER: Your audience is excited. We got a lot of young people, we're told, in the audience, will be asking questions.

Phil, Senator Warren, she pushing forward, a lot of major policy proposal involving student debt, college tuition. What have you learned?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well-timed given all the students in the audience tonight. Senator Warren going to speak shortly in the town hall. This is yet another sweeping policy proposal from Senator Warren, sweeping progressive policy report. What she stakes her campaign to from better or worse.

And what this will do is really two-pronged. One, it's an idea that Democrats have come down to in large part over the course of the last couple of years, led in large part by Senator Bernie Sanders, and that is free tuition for public college for both four and two years. But it goes further than that and particularly on the issue of loan forgiveness, student loan debt forgiveness.

Any household making less than $100,000 would be eligible for up to $50,000 in loan forgiveness. In total, this would cover about 75 percent of the $1.5 trillion student loan debt that's outstanding. There would also be a $50 billion fund for historically black universities and colleges, grant programs for minority and lower income students. You've seen this repeatedly whether on health care, on the environment, now on student loans.

Senator Warren is trying to stake her claim to the biggest and boldest progressive proposals. That hasn't necessarily played out in terms of having an immediate pay back in the polls and necessarily in fundraising. But it's very clear her campaign and comfortable with this position, a position she's held on Capitol Hill as well, and it's one you're going to hear a lot about in a couple of hours when she takes the stage, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, David, I think there are already 19 Democratic presidential candidates and there could be 20 when former Vice President Biden announces, and that could happen as early as this week, right?

CHALIAN: Yes, we expect him to get in this week. I don't think we thought at the beginning of this process he'd be the 20th person to get in. But indeed, he's going to get in and immediately be an enormous factor, a front-runner clearly in the polls. We'll see if he has the fund-raising prowess that a former vice president should have and how he performs, you know, on the trail with the modern day Democratic Party.

It's not the same Democratic electorate he faced in 1988 when he ran nor when even he ran in 2008. So, how he adopts that is something that I think we'll watch closely as he embarks on this journey, but he does enter as sort of a big dog in this race and I do expect him to be in before the week is out.

BLITZER: Five of the 19, almost 20 will be on that stage tonight behind you tonight.

David, what do they need to do to sort of help themselves jump ahead?

CHALIAN: Well, listen, the youth vote I know Phil and I talk all the time about this. Do they show up? It's one thing to court them, but do they show up?

What we saw in the 2018 mid-terms is that they did and were really a part of the coalition that sent the Democrats into the majority in the House. So I do think that this constituency is so critical for each of these five candidates to win over and tonight is a big part of that. But I also think this is the first time, Wolf, that we're seeing on the stage time before the same audience the ability to compare these candidates to each other. It's not a one off event, and that is a new stage in this Democratic nominating way (ph).

BLITZER: This is major moment. Five key Democratic presidential candidates about to be on this stage.

Phil and David, thank you very much.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Thanks for watching.

CNN's presidential town halls live from Manchester, New Hampshire, they start right now.

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