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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Sen. Mark Warner (D) Virginia; White House Lashes Out At Mueller Report; Attorney General Bill Barr Under Fire; Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) California Accuses Barr Of Lying To Congress As Democrats Weigh Holding Attorney General In Contempt; Trump Won't Let Former White House Counsel McGahn Testify; FBI Sent Undercover Investigator To Meet Up With Trump Campaign Adviser Papadopoulos To Probe Possible Ties To Russia; Tension Growing Between U.S. And Russia Over Venezuela Crisis; Facebook Bans Controversial Users Deemed "Dangerous." Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 2, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Clandestine meeting. New details of the counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign reveal the FBI sent an undercover agent to meet with adviser George Papadopoulos as part of the probe into possible ties with Russia.

And crossing the Barr. The attorney general under scrutiny in his war with House Democrats, as he avoids answering lawmakers' questions and refuses to hand over notes. Could he face an investigation by his own inspector general?

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: the White House slamming special counsel Robert Mueller for not determining whether President Trump obstructed justice and leaving Congress to take up the question.

In a letter obtained by CNN, the White House counsel, Emmet Flood, denigrates Mueller's report -- and I'm quoting him now -- as a "prosecutorial curiosity," comparing it to a law school exam paper.

Also breaking, new reporting from "The New York Times" revealing that the FBI sent an undercover investigator to meet with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos to probe possible campaign ties to Russia.

And Attorney General William Barr's war with House Democrats is escalating tonight, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi accusing Barr of lying to Congress as the head of the Judiciary Committee threatens to hold Barr in contempt.

We will talk about that and more with the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, in his first television interview since the release of the Mueller report.

And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, this letter from the White House counsel leaked out today amid the growing calls for the attorney general to resign because of his handling of the Mueller investigation.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And one day, Wolf, after Bill Barr was at times critical of how Robert Mueller handled the investigation as well during his testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Now, this letter goes much further than Bill Barr did. It is a scathing evaluation of not only Robert Mueller and how he handled this investigation, but, Wolf, it also turns an eye to the battles between the White House and House Democrats by saying that President Trump wanted it to be known and understood at the Department of Justice that just because he didn't exert executive privilege over the Mueller report doesn't mean he won't do so in the future.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): With the Russia investigation still on President Trump's mind...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People say, how do you get through that whole stuff? How do you go through those witch-hunts and everything else? And you know what we do, Mike? We just do it, right? And we think about God.

COLLINS: New CNN reporting reveals his White House sent Attorney General Bill Barr a letter last month blasting the special counsel, claiming its report suffers from an extraordinary legal defect, Emmet Flood accusing Robert Mueller of playing politics and straying from his mission, alleging his team failed in their duty to act as prosecutors and only as prosecutors.

The White House lashing out at the special counsel for how he handled the obstruction investigation into Trump. Even though current guidelines say a sitting president cannot be indicted, Flood said Mueller needed to either ask the grand jury to return an indictment or decline to charge the case, adding: "The one thing the special counsel was obligated to do is the very thing the SCO intentionally and unapologetically refused to do."

But Mueller said that DOJ guidance had a major impact on how he conducted the investigation, arguing that, even if he found concrete evidence against Trump, he couldn't charge him, but Mueller making clear he wanted to preserve the facts if investigators want to revisit the case once the president leaves office.

Yet Barr, testifying yesterday, repeatedly disagreed with his longtime friend Mueller and the actions he took during the investigation.

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think that if he felt that he shouldn't go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision, then he shouldn't have investigated. That was the time to pull up.

COLLINS: The White House telling Barr in its letter that Mueller overstepped his mandate because some Democrats now want to use his report as a road map for impeachment.

Under oath yesterday, Barr stood by his assertion that the Trump campaign was spied on.

BARR: I'm not going to back off the word spying.

COLLINS: And, today, a report in "The New York Times" could give Trump and his allies ammunition for their claim. According to "The Times," the FBI sent an investigator who was posing as a research assistant to meet with the former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos in 2016 as part of its efforts to look at the campaign's links to Russia.

[18:05:12]

The bureau's moves are now under investigation by the department's inspector general.

BARR: Many people seem to assume that the only intelligence collection that occurred was a single confidential informant and a FISA warrant. I would like to find out whether that is, in fact, true.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Wolf, in addition to that, the president also announced today he's no longer going to be nominating Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve board after comments that he made about women in the past had surfaced.

That seemed to come as a surprise to Stephen Moore, who just an hour before the president tweeted as much, that he said that the White House was fully backing him and that he was not going to withdraw his nomination.

Now, as you know, Wolf, this is the second potential Fed pick that the president has had in the last few weeks that has had to withdraw for past comments they made. And Republicans are sending a pretty stark message to the White House, Wolf, that they need to vet their nominees better.

BLITZER: Yes, Herman Cain was the first potential nominee that had to withdraw his name.

COLLINS: Yes.

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins, reporting for us at the White House, thank you.

Tonight, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is accusing Attorney General William Barr of lying to lawmakers in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Mueller report. Our Political Correspondent, Sara Murray, has been working the story

for us.

Sara, the war between House Democrats and the attorney general clearly escalating.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Bill Barr decided to pass on spending another day testifying in front of Congress. Nancy Pelosi is upping the ante, calling Bill Barr a liar.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking Democrat, calling the nation's top law enforcement officer a liar.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That is a crime.

MURRAY: House Democrats now threatening to hold William Barr in contempt, ramping up pressure on the attorney general after he refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee today.

As Barr headed to work, Democrats seized on the empty witness chair, creating their own made-for-TV spectacle. Congressman Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, munched on a bucket of fried chicken during the hearing and flaunted a ceramic chicken to drive his point home.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: Chicken Barr should have shown up today and answered questions.

MURRAY: Barr skipping the hearing after Democrats demanded he face questions from staff lawyers in a 30-minute block, on top of the five- minute rounds of questions from lawmakers.

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R), GEORGIA: He took our ability to hear from Bill Barr today.

MURRAY: As Republicans slammed the performance of their Democratic colleagues.

D. COLLINS: We go back to a circus political stunt to say we want it to look like an impeachment hearing because they won't bring impeachment proceedings. That is the reason.

MURRAY: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler threatened contempt proceedings over not giving the committee an unredacted version of Mueller's report by yesterday's subpoena deadline.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: We will have no choice but to move quickly to hold the attorney general in contempt if he stalls or fails to negotiate in good faith. MURRAY: But it's clear the Democrats' strategy is to drag this out,

Nadler vowing to first fight for an unredacted version of the Mueller report, and then try to negotiate with the Justice Department before holding Barr in contempt.

As for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she is all in, accusing Barr of lying after he claimed in previous testimony to be unaware of whether the special counsel's team was frustrated with his four-page summary of their findings.

PELOSI: He lied to Congress. If anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law, not the president of the United States, and not the attorney general.

MURRAY: A Justice Department spokeswoman fired back, saying: "The baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless, irresponsible and false."

The standoff with Congress coming as Democrats raise concerns about Barr's role in other investigations, including whether the White House asked or even suggested Barr open a probe into anyone, a question Barr was unable to answer.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone? Yes or no, please, sir.

BARR: The president or anybody else?

HARRIS: It seems you would remember something like that and be able to tell us.

MURRAY: At one point, Barr even suggested he and the White House are aligned, saying, "We have not determined if privilege will prevent other witnesses," like former White House counsel Don McGahn, from testifying before Congress.

BARR: No, we haven't waived executive privilege.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Democratic lawmakers have plenty more questions, and they say that Bob Mueller is the man to answer them. They are already working on trying to schedule his testimony -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope it happens. We will have to hear from Mueller, as we know.

Thank you very, very much.

[18:10:00]

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia is joining us. He's the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: This is your first TV interview, I understand, since the Mueller report was released several weeks ago. You have been quiet. What do you think the report tells us?

WARNER: Well, on one level, I was surprised, particularly in terms of the activities involving Russia.

Our Senate Intelligence Committee investigation virtually had all that information beforehand. I was hoping that Mueller, with the resources he had, might be able to follow a few more of those threads a little further.

We did not focus as much on the questions around obstruction, but I think it is pretty remarkable that 10 examples were cited. And I understand the White House lawyer today was complaining about Mueller not making a charging decision.

I think it would be great if the White House, in a sense, said the Office of Legal Counsel restriction that says a president can't be indicted would be removed. And then we ought to bring Bob Mueller up and ask him what he thinks, as a lawyer, as a prosecutor, as a former head of the FBI, what he thinks should happen, because he built a fairly extensive case there.

You know, in terms of the Russia activities, I know Mueller has said that he didn't feel that this reached the -- his terminology -- the level of conspiracy beyond a shadow of a doubt. There is no such thing as a legal term around collusion.

But I would say this. If -- he did validate the fact that the Russians intervened. They did it to hurt Clinton and help Trump. There were over 100 contacts. Those contacts included sharing of private polling data with Russia, Russian agents. It involved some parts we still don't know the answer of, of WikiLeaks and Trump confidant Roger Stone being some level of intermediary.

I have just got to tell you, if that -- those kinds of activities are not illegal, I think virtually every American would believe they were wrong and every reasonable American would turn those -- turn that over to law enforcement.

If they were not illegal in 2016, at least going forward in 2020, because the Russians and others will be back, I think Congress ought to make sure that there is an affirmative obligation, when a foreign power tries to intervene in an American election, that if you are receiving that kind of help, you have an affirmative duty to turn that over to law enforcement and let them investigate.

The Trump folks didn't do that.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I know you have gone through carefully the 400-plus-page report. Did you see anything specifically in there that potentially could lead to impeachment?

WARNER: Listen, Wolf, I'm more focused on how we prevent this from happening going forward, to make sure going forward that we have an affirmative obligation that, if a foreign agent or a foreign country tries to interfere in an election, you know about that, you have the obligation to turn that information over to law enforcement.

I want to make sure -- we have got bipartisan legislation now -- that we do a better job of securing the integrity of our elections. And Mueller pointed out the Russians tried to attack all 50 states, and frankly got into local election databases. And I think we were very, very lucky that they didn't make a changing of votes.

We need to -- we have got tangible things we can do to improve the security of our election system. And I also have been working on legislation, because we also saw how the Russians manipulated Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, how we make sure that we have some guardrails around social media, so that that dark underbelly of social media -- that's where we see hate speech and dissension constantly taking place -- that we don't allow foreign governments to use those tools to interfere in our elections.

And I will have legislation there. So I'm focused on how we make sure this doesn't happen again, whether it be Russia or any other foreign adversary. And I hope, again, that many of my Republican colleagues, who on a lot of these issues have agreed, will actually work with me to make sure this becomes the legislation.

BLITZER: So, you're the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee. You're -- you see all sorts of extremely sensitive, very classified information. You're part of that so-called Gang of Eight.

Did -- have you -- first of all, have you seen the redacted portions of the Mueller report?

WARNER: Wolf, the attorney general has made the redacted portions available. I have not gone and look at them.

I don't think any of the Democrats have yet because we believe that the version of the report without the redactions ought to be at least available to all members of Congress. I think that has been grossly restricted by the attorney general, trying to in a sense sweep this under the rug.

And I would like to play out the opportunity to let every member of Congress see this before I go view the version that has got no redactions.

BLITZER: Why not go view the full report and at the same time continue to play out the opportunity that other members eventually will be able to see most of it as well?

[18:15:02]

WARNER: Wolf, at some point, I'm going to see the full report. And one of the things I think is very important as well is to see the underlying particularly counterintelligence evidence that went into that report. Again, remarkable that the attorney general made all his judgments without looking at any of the underlying without looking at any of the underlying evidence.

I don't think that's appropriate legal ethics. But I will get a chance to see all of that. I do think, from just the current standpoint, as the House and others try to force the attorney general to release the non-redacted report to all members of Congress, I'm going to hold off until we see how these proceedings go forward.

BLITZER: Well, in this letter that was released today by the White House special counsel, and it was written on April 19, five-page single-spaced letter, he made it clear that they're not going to make it clear that underlying evidence to you.

WARNER: Wolf, I believe from a Gang of Eight intelligence standpoint -- maybe the special counsel won't, but it's terribly important.

Remember, we have got an ongoing investigation of our own, bipartisan, that continues that is based on counterintelligence, how we make sure Russia or any other country doesn't do this again. We have the right as the Oversight Committee to look at that underlying counterintelligence evidence.

That's our responsibility. We're going to get a look at that. And we're going to make sure -- again, that's our charge to make sure the intelligence community and law enforcement prevents this from happening again, and we have got to have that underlying evidence to make those conclusions.

BLITZER: The chairman of your committee, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, it's a curious note.

He's mentioned in the Mueller report. It appears that Senator Burr told the White House about a March 2017 briefing that he got from the FBI director at the time, James Comey -- he was later fired -- on the Russia investigation, and even, according to the report, identified some people under investigation.

A spokesman for Burr says he doesn't recall this conversation. Do you think Burr did the wrong thing? Does he need to step down as committee chairman?

WARNER: Listen, Wolf, the chairman and I have had a -- we've had our bumps along the way. But we have both tried to make sure we maintain a bipartisan investigation, because this goes to an attack on our nation.

And I was not aware of the references made in the Mueller report. I was surprised by that. The chairman has said he's going to, you know, lay out his version of the facts to the whole committee. I owe it to him to have him have that opportunity. But I think it's very important that we keep classified information classified.

BLITZER: Have you spoken directly with the chairman about this?

WARNER: I have spoken with the chairman. And, again, I'm going to give him the opportunity to talk and brief the full committee and have him do that first, before I tell you my whole views on national TV.

BLITZER: But do you believe what the Mueller report says about him?

WARNER: Listen, I have had a very strong working relationship with the chairman. And we have had lots of times where this could have -- investigation could have gone off the tracks, the way the House investigation did.

We have had the opportunity to pursue the vast majority of witnesses that Democrats and Republicans alike have felt were appropriate. And I want to try to maintain that good working relationship.

BLITZER: But if it's true, potentially, it could undermine that trust that you have in him.

WARNER: Listen, Wolf, we will see how this plays out. We have had our disagreements in the past, and there are many times where he disagrees with me and I have disagreed with him, though, at the same time, I feel when we're talking about a foreign nation attacking our democracy and in a way to help one candidate, Trump, and hurt another candidate, Clinton, that has been validated by Mueller, validated by the whole intelligence community, no matter what this White House or what the White House's semi-lawyer who's supposed to be our attorney general says on a regular basis.

We have got to make sure that it doesn't happen again, and the ability to have a bipartisan group of policy-makers who will come together with consensus recommendations on how we prevent this from happening again is one of the most important things I can do.

BLITZER: It certainly is, because, clearly, by all accounts, the intelligence community believes not only is it happening right now, but it's going to intensify as we get closer to the 2020 election.

The whole purpose of what the Russians were doing were to sow dissent, to undermine the democracy, to create chaos, political discord here in the United States. And clearly they're anxious on continuing that.

WARNER: They are, Wolf.

And that's what's so extraordinarily frightening, frustrating. I don't know the appropriate word to use when you hear the president's official lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, saying no big deal taking help from Russia, when you have got the president's son-in-law saying what's a few, you know, Facebook ads, where you have the attorney general in his testimony in a sense joking about some of these items.

I think these are not joking matters. I think this is a foreign nation attacking our country. And we still have a White House that basically denies that this took place, and we have a White House that is so afraid of Donald Trump's wrath that, when the former secretary of homeland security said, let's get a Cabinet meeting together to actually plan for 2020, the White House chief of staff said, let's not have that meeting because it might offend the president.

[18:20:13]

This is outrageous, and it is, candidly, beyond the pale, and why our committee, bipartisan, and why this Congress needs to make sure it doesn't happen again.

We need to make a law in place that if you receive assistance from a foreign power during an election, you have an obligation to report that, that we make sure that we have our election systems safe and secure with a paper audit trail and that the large companies who have 90 percent -- three companies have 90 percent of our voter files.

There's some way to have security checks on those files, and that we have some rules of the road around Facebook, YouTube, Twitter in terms of how they are not going to be manipulated on a going-forward basis.

Every American -- I don't care what political party you belong to -- ought to be part of that fix, because what we saw -- and the Russians not only did this against us. They did it in the Brexit vote. They did it in the French presidential elections. You add that, all they spent up, it's less than the cost of one new F-35 airplane.

So this is cheap and effective. And America needs to be on guard. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, said just last Friday that this is an ongoing threat. And the level of dismissiveness from this White House is -- frankly, stuns me.

BLITZER: And Russia's not just a foreign nation. It's a hostile foreign nation, as you know.

Let's talk about the attorney general, Bill Barr. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, says the attorney general actually committed a crime by lying to Congress during sworn testimony under oath. Do you agree, first of all?

WARNER: I saw Barr's answer earlier, I think it was last month, to Senator Van Hollen, where he was asked specifically, did he have any idea that Mueller might either agree or disagree with his so-called four-page summary? He said he had no idea.

Well, we now have documented evidence of not one, but two letters from Mueller indicating his frustration with Barr's characterization in the four-page letter. To me, those two, his earlier statement and the facts of what appeared, don't jibe.

And if that, to me, is not telling the truth, and I don't think the attorney general of the United States should be in a sense not telling the truth before Congress, as well as in his daily course of activities.

BLITZER: Do you want him to resign?

WARNER: I think it would be better for the whole nation if Bill Barr, who I actually had hoped, because he's got -- had a distinguished legal career, would come in and be an independent attorney general, because lord knows we need now more than ever respectful rule of law.

I believe he has not met the standard. I believe he instead views himself as the president's personal lawyer. Maybe he can join up with Rudy Giuliani. But he should do that and not try to continue to act as the attorney general.

Yes, I believe it would be in the best nation -- interests of our country if he resigned.

BLITZER: Let me play for you something that's just coming in right now. I want you to listen to what the president just told FOX News moments ago about the former White House Counsel, Don McGahn. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Well, I have had him testifying already for 30 hours.

QUESTION: So is the answer no?

TRUMP: And it's really -- so, I don't think I can let him and then tell everybody else you can't, because especially him, because he was a counsel. So they have testified for many hours, all of them, many, many, people.

QUESTION: So, as far as you're concerned, it's really -- it's kind of done? It's done?

TRUMP: It's a blanket. I can't say, well, one can't and the others can.

QUESTION: OK. So, is it done?

TRUMP: I would say it's done. We have been through this. Nobody has ever done what I have done. I have given total transparency. It's never happened before like this.

QUESTION: So Congress should be...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: They shouldn't be looking anymore. This is all -- it's done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let me get your reaction.

First of all, he clearly doesn't want his former White House counsel, Don McGahn, to testify before Congress, even though he spent 30 hours testifying before the Mueller report. And he says you guys should not even be looking into this anymore. He says it's done.

WARNER: Well, I think we have all known that Donald Trump has not understood our three branches of government or has not really demonstrated much respect for the rule of law. I think about all the ways he's, you know, impugned the integrity of

the intelligence community, the FBI, the Justice Department repeatedly. And I think we're again getting into very dangerous ground.

I don't think there's been any president of either party that's liked it when Congress has investigated them. But the idea that this White House is going to suddenly -- and we have seen it with Barr today and we may see it if he exerts executive privilege or some of the statements he is saying where no one should go up to testify...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Do you want Don McGahn to testify?

WARNER: Of course Don McGahn should testify.

BLITZER: What if the president says he's not going to? What are you going to do?

WARNER: Well, I think then you get into questions around executive privilege.

But I think the broader question is, Wolf, is, I have heard out of this White House that there may be in a sense a full ban on White House personnel -- that's what's been reported in the press at least, that there's been musings about potentially saying nobody should go testify before Congress.

[18:25:10]

Well, in my mind, again, if we allow that to become the new normal, what would happen with this president, what with happen with a Democratic president on a going-forward basis -- again, my hope would be that that since most of this activity seems to be in the House, that you might actually have cooler heads in both parties go to this White House and say, you just can't ignore the law.

You just can't ignore the powers of Article 1, the Congress. And my hope would be that the overwhelming number of Americans, regardless of bipartisan affiliation, would say, come on, you know, this is one of the fundamentals of our democracy.

If we suddenly are ignoring those kind of rules, those kind of laws, those kind of precedents, then, frankly, what the Russians did in 2016, they are successful.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people thought their mission was accomplished.

I know you got to run. But let me get quick reaction to this report. It was posted on "The New York Times" today that an undercover FBI investigator met with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos just two months before the 2016 election.

Now, this is what the president and the attorney general say was spying, was spying against the Trump campaign by what they would call the deep state. Was that appropriate?

WARNER: Wolf, Mr. Papadopoulos, who shared information with a foreign diplomat who was friendly to America, and the information was that he knew that Russians had hacked Hillary Clinton and they were going to release that information to help Trump.

Now, that's a Trump campaign affiliate. Now, if the FBI had that information, and they didn't investigate, they would have been derelict in their duty. And the idea that somehow law enforcement using people that are undercover, I mean, I don't -- I didn't -- I'm frankly amazed that anyone would call that into question.

But it has been this pattern. I mean, I go out and try to visit my FBI offices on a regular basis because I feel like the FBI from this president is under constant assault. I feel the Justice Department, pre-Barr, is under constant assault. I know the intelligence community has been maligned on a regular basis by this president and this White House.

Again, I think we're in an uncharted area where respect for rule of law and the notion that you can somehow, you know, make these kind of charges that this White House makes, I hope we'd all take a deep breath.

BLITZER: Senator Warner, it was kind of you to join us. I know you have got to run. But thank you so much.

WARNER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will certainly welcome you back soon, Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

WARNER: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: Let's get some reaction to all the breaking news right now.

Our Senior Legal Analyst, former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, is joining us.

So, Preet, so, let me ask you about what the president just told FOX News about the former White House counsel Don McGahn. He says he doesn't think he will let McGahn testify before Congress, even though he spent 30 hours testifying before the Mueller investigators. Can the president do that?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: The president can assert all sorts of things, and it might have to be fought out between his administration and the Congress and potentially in the courts.

But it's an odd position to take, not only because on one occasion they not only allowed, but directed Don McGahn to cooperate with the special counsel, Bob Mueller, and talk all about conversations that he had with the president. Some of those are sensational and they have been debated over the last number of days.

And even in that circumstance, there's been reporting that they said they were reserving the right to protest further release based on executive privilege. That's all well and good.

But then you had a later occasion, much more dramatically, with the entire Mueller report being released, and there was again, in sort of dramatic fashion, the attorney general of the United States saying in a way that I think he was trying to get some credit from the public for being transparent, and on behalf of the administration, said, there's not going to be any executive privilege asserted with respect to the report.

And now, after two occasions where's there's been, you know, something akin to a waiver -- and the second time I would argue basically an explicit waiver of executive privilege -- I don't know on what basis you're going to prevail in saying Don McGahn has already given all this testimony, and much of which now we have seen because the report has been made public.

I don't know how you prevail on that claim, although the president can make it, and there may be a fight about it.

BLITZER: There certainly will be.

I also want to ask you, Preet, about the attorney general's testimony before the Senate yesterday. Were you surprised to hear Attorney General Bill Barr raise issues, specific issues with Mueller's work?

BHARARA: I'm not that surprised, because I think we have learned over the last number of weeks that he is of a mind to protect the president, rather than, I think, look at all the issues in an independent and fully fair-minded way.

[18:30:02]

We also had some inkling that he was going to disagree with Bob Mueller's legal reasoning, because even before he became the Attorney General, as we've discussed many times, he put forward a memorandum without knowing the facts, without knowing necessarily what the evidence showed to say basically because executive power is so broad that the President could not be accused of obstruction.

I did find it a little bit odd that he accused Bob Mueller being snitty in that letter that he sent that became public in the last few days.

BLITZER: Yes. Barr didn't give a clear answer on two big questions, as you know, whether the President ever suggested that he opened a specific investigation into anyone and whether he discussed the ongoing investigations stemming from the Mueller probe directly with President Trump. Did his answers raise red flags for you?

BHARARA: They did, and not just because on those two issues you worried that he wasn't giving a clear answer even though he had ample opportunity to say what he meant and to explain what the circumstances were in connection with his answers to Senator Kamala Harris, but against the backdrop of all sorts of other things that have called into question his credibility. And not only are we talking about concern about his credibility, the Special Counsel Robert Mueller himself who wrote, you know, two extraordinary letters saying that there had been a mischaracterization of the scope and nature of his investigation because Bill Barr put out that four-page summary which he insists still not calling a summary which boggles my mind.

So I think people need to be concerned about whether or not there's -- you have a White House that's bent on retaliation against people who were former or current or future, by the way, Joe Biden comes to mind, future political adversaries as opposed to based on the merits and on the facts.

And when you have an Attorney General dissembling about whether or not there was some instruction and saying, I'm grappling with what the word suggest means, I think that's worrisome.

BLITZER: In a letter sent to the Attorney General the day after the Mueller report, that we've all got a copy now of five pages, single spaced, the day after the Mueller report was released, the top White House Special Counsel, Emmett Flood, writes, and I'm quoting now, the Special Counsel and staff failed in their duty to act as prosecutors and only as prosecutors. He calls the Mueller report, and I'm quoting again, a prosecutorial curiosity.

But did the Office of Legal Counsel, the opinion over at the Justice Department, preclude Mueller from making a call one way or the other?

BHARARA: So I don't have a clear answer on that. I think there're a lot of problems with this letter that I also have read in the last hour or so. The one thing on which I think that both Bill Barr and the folks who wrote the letter have some reason to be quizzical is it's not 100 percent clear to me what the reasoning was behind Robert Mueller saying, I can't decide one way or another.

It is true that it was surprising that Bob Mueller didn't make a decision on the question of whether or not the crime of obstruction was committed. I think it came as a surprise to a lot of people. And I've been trying to figure out the reason I'm inferring some things and reading between the lines, but it's not absolute clear.

I don't know that it's precluded or not. I think that's a reason why it's incredibly important both in the House and the Senate to have Bob Mueller come and, in a straightforward way, explain his reasoning. The other thing I think that's odds about the letter is, over and over and over again, the White House -- the President's lawyer, Emmett Flood, says in this letter repeatedly that he is upset essentially that this -- there's this public report, that the prosecutors are just supposed to make their decisions known publicly in indictments and otherwise confidentially in declination memos.

And this was, in fact, a confidential report. And he talks about all the problems with this report as written for the public. It wasn't written for the public. So it seems that their ire should be directed a little bit more towards Bill Barr who, while he's taking flack for redacting some portions, deserves credit for making the rest of it public.

Bob Mueller did not write it for the public. Bob Mueller wrote it according to the regulations for Bill Barr, and he bears some responsibility if the President's lawyer is going to say this is unfair and they could have made those arguments to Bill Barr as an initial matter, not the day after.

BLITZER: Preet Bharara, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Sure, Wolf. Thanks.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get some more on all the breaking news. Our correspondents and analysts are here. And let me play the clip once again. This is the President of the United States moments ago speaking to Fox News and was asked about whether his former White House Counsel, Don McGhan, should be allowed to appear to testify before Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Well, I've had him testifying already for 30 hours.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE, FOX NEWS CHIEF INTELLIGENCE CORRESPONDENT: So is the answer no?

TRUMP: And it's really -- so I don't think I can let him and then tell everybody else you can't because -- especially him because he was a Counsel. So they've testified for many hours, all of them, many, many, many people.

HERRIDGE: So as far as you're concerned, it's really -- it's kind of, it's done?

TRUMP: It's a blanket. I can't say, well, one can and the others can't.

HERRIDGE: is it done?

TRUMP: I would say it's done. We've been through this. Nobody has ever done what I've done.

[18:35:00]

I've given total transparency. It's never happened before like this.

HERRIDGE: So Congress should be --

TRUMP: They shouldn't be looking anymore. This is all -- it's done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Well, you heard it, it's done. Yes, he said it several times.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Look, it's not surprising given what the President has said in the recent past, given Emmett Flood's letter today to Barr saying they wanted to reserve the right on privilege. And they don't want Don McGhan testifying in public because, honestly, he's the worst witness against the President that exists right now.

And just like he didn't like the Michael Cohen testimony, this testimony would be devastating to the President because what Don McGhan would say is what he said to the Special Counsel, which is that the President wanted me to lie and he wanted me to get the Special Counsel fired. They don't want it.

BLITZER: Can the President exert executive privilege even though he did allow McGhan to testify for 30 hours before the Mueller investigators and even though McGhan now no longer works at the White House, he's in a private law firm, he's a private citizen?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Well, certainly the President can try. He's going to run up against two primary problems. One is that you ordinarily can't selectively waive privilege. You can't allow him to testify for 30 hours in one context for a public report and later claim, oh, no, I didn't intend to waive executive privilege. There's little precedent that would support that position.

The other significant problem they're going to have is whatever the executive branch doesn't want somebody to testify who continues to work with the executive branch, they can say, if you go testify, we'll fire you. That's a pretty good way to control someone.

It's not clear that the executive branch can prevent a former official who actually wants to testify from coming to Congress. And keep in mind that the President has spent the past couple of weeks accusing Don McGhan of lying, a crime of lying to federal investigators. And he is now attempting to essentially prevent or deny McGhan the opportunity to clear his --

BORGER: Do you think McGhan wants to testify?

HENNESSEY: I think this is the big question.

BLITZER: What do you think, Laura?

HENNESSEY: Does McGhan want to?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, he's been conspicuously silent on this issue. But having been called a liar now repeatedly, I would think he would want to clear his name. Mueller found him credible, at least the Special Counsel's office said in the report. We weighed both sides, and obviously the President has another side of the story even though they didn't get to interview him. So I would think that McGhan would want to get that in the clear.

And it's also not clear that McGhan might have some things that would put the President in a good light. He did work there even after the President continued to put pressure on him. So I think that there could be some issues there that Congress would want to tease out as well.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think this president, more than others, knows the power of television and knows the power, you know, maybe some people didn't read the Mueller report. Maybe they didn't read anything about it. And then you'd have Don McGhan saying it in front of, you know, everyone what he said in the report. And I think that would outweigh anything else.

BLITZER: That's a powerful sound bite. Let me bring in Mark Mazetti of The New York Times, our CNN National Security Analyst as well. You've got an important piece you posted today, you and your colleagues, over at The New York Times. You learned two months before the 2016 presidential election, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos sat down with a woman who was actually an undercover investigator for the FBI. Tell us about that.

MARK MAZZETTI, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So we knew about this meeting that George Papadopoulos had with a man named Stefan Halper, who was a confidential informant for the FBI. He's a Cambridge University professor in England.

What we learned is that actually the FBI sent another investigator to work with Halper as part thereof operation. This would be someone who could kind of oversee the operation. Remember, Halper is actually just an informant, not someone who could gather evidence, even possibly testify in court.

So it clearly shows the level of anxiety inside the FBI during this critical period of time with emails spilling out, questions about Russian involvement. And as we said earlier, Russia -- Papadopoulos had already heard about offers of Russian help. So it was clearly tried to be a pretty intricate operation against Papadopoulos.

BLITZER: According to Papadopoulos, Mark, the woman almost immediately began asking him questions about Russia connections, possible Russia connections. According to Papadopoulos, he walked out of a second meeting with her because of her line of questioning about Russia. Was this an intelligence failure on the part of the U.S.?

MAZZETTI: Right now, it doesn't seem that way because we know there wasn't sort of some big mother lode of information that George Papadopoulos could have offered. I mean, they were clearly prodding to find out was he a key link between the Trump campaign and Russians because of his previous interactions. We now know that he wasn't. And so it would be hard to characterize that as a failure because it doesn't seem like a key piece of information in this case was missed.

BLITZER: You know, Laura, the Attorney General, Bill Barr, used the word spying.

[18:40:03]

There was spying going on the part of elements of the U.S. government, of the Trump campaign. Is this what he was referring to?

JARRETT: This is one of the big questions I have right now actually. Because he made it clear yesterday in his testimony that there was more there than just the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act against former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page, and more than the Halper, the confidential informant. But the question is, is this the big there, there, is this what he's so worried about or is there something else we still don't know about. He says there could be more issues. And so he wants to look into the genesis.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's a lot more we need to discuss. More on all the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back. We're following the breaking news. Let's get back to our correspondents and our analysts. And, Gloria, the Attorney General came under fire from the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. She said he lied to Congress. If anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime.

BORGER: Right. That's pretty strong words. And I don't think that she can prove that it's a crime, that he lied, sorry. Lying is a crime. Because what he did was he split hairs in a meticulous way --

KUCINICH: Masterful hair-splitting I think is what Whitehouse said yesterday.

BORGER: Masterful hair-splitting.

[18:45:00]

Was he being deceptive? Sure, because he said, well, I didn't know the staff was upset. Not that the question wasn't asked have you heard from special counsel Robert Mueller that he was upset, then he would have had to answer it in a different way. He didn't volunteer information.

And Nancy Pelosi has a point here because perhaps that is not what we ought to be expecting from the attorney general, I would argue it's not. But I don't know that she can prove her case.

HENNESSEY: I think that's right. Look, clearly, the attorney general lacked candor, he was being intentionally misleading. That said, the bar for perjury is extraordinarily high. It has to be an unambiguous question, unambiguous false statement and response.

That just wasn't the case here. If there's a problem here, really it is an issue with the questioning. Right? Whenever you give the sort of ambiguous question do you know what they were referring to, had that been phrased as have you had any communication with Mueller or anyone on his staff regarding your response to the report, things like that specific yes-or-no questions.

Whenever you see experienced prosecutors like Kamala Harris asking questions, you see her say, yes-or-no question here. That's to box people in, and get them specific on the record.

BLITZER: You know, he didn't appear before the House Judiciary Committee today. Did appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, and at times, he clearly struggled to answer some questions. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): You couldn't recall that when Congressman Crist asked you the question a few days later?

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: No, I'm saying that this was --

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): You don't recall for sure?

BARR: I just --

BLUMENTHAL: Let me move on?

BARR: I can say --

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?

BARR: I wouldn't -- I wouldn't --

HARRIS: Yes or no?

BARR: Could you repeat that question?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JARRETT: So not the most flattering portrait I think of his five hours on Capitol Hill yesterday. But that last question from Senator Harris I actually think is really important. And his answer there was very wishy-washy.

And part of the issue might be the fact that the president calls on him and his previous attorney general to open investigations publicly all the time. And so he seems to be grappling with something there. The question is, what has he been saying behind closed doors?

BLITZER: Mark, has the attorney general proven himself to be an honest broker to oversee these other cases that were spun off by the special counsel that are continuing right now?

MAZZETTI: Well, I think you'd certainly say that in the last month, Attorney General Barr has shown an inclination to, you know, at least, you know, protect the president or -- or come to the president's defense on a lot of issues. I don't want to weigh in whether he's an honest broker or not, I don't know whether it's for me to judge.

But certainly his behavior, his actions over the last month, have shown that he has, you know, very much in some ways seen himself as someone who's testing the president. At his press conference, he sort of went out of his way to defend the president's actions.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jackie? KUCINICH: I mean, this is an attorney general that came in with a

very broad view of executive power. I think that's what we're seeing play out.

BLITZER: Certainly will.

Everybody, stick around. There's more news we're following including news coming out of Venezuela. Why the political crisis in Venezuela has tension between Washington and Moscow right now on the rise?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:53:09] BLITZER: Tension is growing tonight between the United States and Russia as the political crisis in Venezuela deepens.

Our Senior International Correspondent, Fred Pleitgen has the latest from Moscow right now.

Fred, the rhetoric on both sides is clearly heating up.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly is, Wolf. You know, the U.S. has told Russia repeatedly to stay out of the Venezuelan crisis. But the Russians are saying they are going to continue their support for Nicolas Maduro and they're lashing out at the U.S.

Here's what we're learning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Tonight, the crisis in Venezuela rapidly turning into a standoff between the U.S. and Russia, Washington accusing Moscow of meddling in America's backyard.

JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Look, the Russians like nothing better than putting a thumb in our eye. It's not ideological. It's just good old-fashioned power politics. That's why we have the Monroe Doctrine which we're dusting off in this administration.

PLEITGEN: Russia's foreign minister firing back.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): I believe that to boldly (ph) announce some tensions of returning to the doctrine which is 200 years old is disrespectful not only to the Venezuelan people but in general, to the people of Latin America.

PLEITGEN: While the Trump administration supports Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido and says embattled President Nicolas Maduro must step down immediately, Russia remains fully committed to Maduro.

Secretary of State Pompeo even telling Wolf the Russians talked Maduro out of leaving office.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: They had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay.

PLEITGEN: Maduro and the Russians deny that version of events. Meanwhile, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton saying Moscow is undermining American interests in Latin America.

BOLTON: This is our hemisphere. It's not where the Russians ought to be interfering. This is a mistake on their part.

[18:55:00] It's not going to lead to an improvement in relations.

PLEITGEN: Nicolas Maduro is a long standing ally of Vladimir Putin. The Russians flew nuclear capable bombers to Venezuela last year, a direct show of force against the U.S.

And even now, the Russians have soldiers on the ground in Venezuela though Moscow claims they're only trainers and maintenance personnel.

While President Trump and Vladimir Putin have repeatedly declared their mutual admiration for one another, the crisis in Venezuela could be turning into a high stakes game of chicken between Washington and Moscow.

President Trump alluding to the option of U.S. military force in an interview with Fox Business.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we're doing everything we can do short of, you know, the ultimate. There are people that would like to have us do the ultimate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, the Russians certainly showing no signs of backing down. They even say that they want to mobilize other nations against what they call America's schemes in Venezuela -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thanks very much.

Just ahead, more on the breaking news. President Trump a short time ago saying he doesn't want his former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify before Congress.

And Facebook banned some of the most controversial users. We have details on who's been pulled offline.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, the social media site Facebook is taking a rare step purging its platforms of some of its most high profile and very controversial users. The company announced just a little while ago it's banning multiple people including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who uses anti-Semitic language and right wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his media outlet Info Wars.

The spokesman tells CNN, those users and others have been deemed dangerous for promoting violence and hate. Civil rights groups have been pressuring Facebook to take action but

the company says evaluating potential violators of its policies takes time.

Other people newly banned from Facebook include right wing media personalities including Laura Loomer, for example, Milo Yiannopoulos and Paul Joseph Watson.

Facebook will remove groups, pages, accounts created to represent the banned individuals when it knows the individual is participating in the effort.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.