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THE SITUATION ROOM
Justice Department Invites Judiciary Committee Staffers To Meet Over Full Mueller Report; Treasury Department Facing Deadline To Provide Trump's Tax Returns to Congress; Trump Flip-Flops On Mueller Testifying; Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) Virginia Is Interviewed On White House Standoff With Congress; Michael Cohen Lashes Out At Trump, Begins Prison Term; Justice Department Faces Contempt Threat, Offers To Keep Negotiating Over Access To Mueller Report; Satellite Evidence Points To North Korean Missile Launch. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired May 6, 2019 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And our thanks to Bill Weir for that report. You can follow me on Facebook and at Twitter @JakeTapper. Tweet the show @TheLeadCNN. We actually read them. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. See you tomorrow.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Happening now, breaking news: tale of two deadlines. Attorney general William Barr misses a deadline to give congressional Democrats access to the full, unredacted Mueller report.
And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is supposed to turn over the president's tax returns by the end of the day.
Will threats of contempt citations pave the way for action or just more talk and delay?
To testify or not: in yet another flip-flop, President Trump now says special counsel Robert Mueller should not testify before Congress. That's a complete reversal of what the president was saying as recently as last week.
What is the president afraid of that he keeps insisting he's been exonerated?
Parting shot: President Trump's one-time personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen heads to prison for three years but not before lashing out at his former boss.
Is there any way he can help in the ongoing Trump investigations?
And trail of smoke: new satellite images reveal an ominous trail left by Kim Jong-un's latest missile test.
Is the North Korean dictator growing frustrated with diplomacy and going back to using brute force to get President Trump's attention?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news in the fight between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats over access to the full version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report.
This afternoon, hours after the House Judiciary Committee set a Wednesday vote on holding attorney general William Barr in contempt for missing today's deadline to get the unredacted Mueller report to Congress, the Justice Department offered to keep negotiating.
This comes as we await the Treasury Department's latest response to another congressional deadline. It's supposed to turn over the president's personal tax returns by the end of the day.
Instead of showing any willingness to compromise, President Trump is escalating his efforts to shut down the Democrats' investigations. And in a total reversal, he now contends Robert Mueller should not testify on Capitol Hill.
But the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is telling CNN he's open to having Mueller testify in public. Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a member of the House Oversight Committee, he's standing by to take our questions.
And our correspondents and analysts, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories. Let's begin with our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, up on Capitol Hill.
Phil, the Democrats' threat to hold the attorney general William Barr in contempt prompted a new offer from the Justice Department. Tell us more.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN U.S. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. House Democrats in the Judiciary Committee making clear earlier today, they have lost patience and they are moving headlong down the track towards a contempt vote. The Justice Department trying a last-ditch effort to defuse that action., offering in a letter today, hours after they missed the deadline, the latest deadline, to turn over the unredacted Mueller report and all of the underlying evidence that went along with it that they would be willing to hold negotiations at the staff level, at the Justice Department, on Wednesday morning.
Wednesday morning, obviously, coincidentally, probably not, is the same exact time the Judiciary Committee plans to vote to hold the attorney general in contempt for not complying with a subpoena for that report.
Now what the Justice Department said in its letter is that it is willing to try to continue negotiations to seek an accommodation for what the committee is looking for. But Wolf, you've been paying attention over the last couple of weeks. It's no secret that there is a very significant divide on one of the key issues inside the report. And that's grand jury testimony.
The Justice Department has made clear, they do not believe it's legal to turn it over. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler has said they can go to court and get that information and that information must be included in whatever is turned over.
As long as those two things still stand at diametric diametrically opposed positions, it appears there's no way to bridge the divide to reconcile this split.
The big question now is will Democrats move forward with that vote on Wednesday to hold the attorney general in contempt?
As of now, it looks like the answer is yes. We'll have to see what these negotiations, if they take place, end up turning up in the days ahead. But this is an escalation, an escalation that's been weeks in the making and one that underscores that House Democrats not just on the Judiciary Committee but really across the House on Capitol Hill right now are extremely frustrated with the Trump administration.
The Trump administration has made clear they're not turning over documents, they're not turning over witnesses, sometimes they're not coming to testify at all. Now they're trying to take action, Wolf.
BLITZER: And there's another key deadline today, Phil. This one involving the president's tax returns.
Any word from the Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, tonight?
MATTINGLY: Not yet. It's something we're expecting any moment. The Treasury Department laying out in a letter to --
MATTINGLY: -- House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal, a Democrat, that they would respond in full, whether or not they would be willing to turn over the president's tax returns, plus tax returns for eight of his business entities by today.
But not to play spoiler here, Wolf, the reality is there's no expectation the answer will be yes. As you can see from the Treasury Department's letters to the two deadlines they've already missed, they have significant concerns, significant problems, they say, on constitutional grounds with this request.
And what this means, not unlike what we've seen with the Mueller report and what we've seen on several requests to the House Oversight Committee, this is at some point going to wind up in court.
Everything House Democrats are doing on the investigative front, they're being turned down on document requests without subpoenas. They're not getting compliance on the subpoenas and that means contempt votes may be coming, more subpoenas may be coming but most certainly every Democrat I've talked to out there who's involved in these things recognizes this is heading to the courts.
It's not going to be a short-term process. It's going to be a long- term one. There are going to be a lot of lawyers, a lot of serious issues and a lot of continuous fights ahead for the Democratic majority here in the House, the White House and all of their cabinet officials, Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thank you.
Also breaking this afternoon, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham telling CNN he's open to having special counsel Robert Mueller testify in public about the phone call with the attorney general William Barr. But it's coming just after President Trump reversed himself, saying Mueller shouldn't testify at all.
Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's got the latest -- Jim.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president is reversing himself on the testimony of the special counsel Robert Mueller but the president has also steered clear of the news today that his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, reported to prison earlier today.
That silence on Cohen comes as the president, as you said, is once again lashing out at the Mueller report, saying that the special counsel should not testify up on Capitol Hill, despite sounding open to that idea in the past.
The president is continuing to maintain that he hasn't committed any crimes but earlier today, Wolf, nearly 380 former federal prosecutors begged to differ.
ACOSTA (voice-over): As he honored the Army football team at the White House, the president sidestepped the news that his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was heading off to federal prison; instead, launching a full-scale blitz against the Mueller report, tweeting, "There are no high crimes and misdemeanors. All the crimes are on the other side," a reference to Democrats.
But nearly 380 former federal prosecutors argue that's not true, saying in a statement on the website Medium, "Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in special counsel Robert Mueller's report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice."
REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D), ILLINOIS: Certainly, the next step is, we need to have Bob Mueller come to Capitol Hill and testify. I expect that's going to happen this month.
ACOSTA (voice-over): But now the president doesn't want that to happen, tweeting, "Bob Mueller should not testify." That's a departure from what he told reporters, that it's up to
attorney general William Barr.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, should Mueller testify?
Would you like to see him testify?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know. That's up to our attorney general, who I think has done a fantastic job.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA (voice-over): Barr told Congress, that's fine with him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about Bob Mueller?
Should he be allowed to testify before this --
WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: I have already said publicly, I have no objection.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is feeling cheated, re-tweeting Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who said, "I now support reparations. Trump should have two years added to his first term as payback for time stolen by this corrupt, failed coup."
That won't sit well with Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told "The New York Times" she's worried the president won't give up the White House if he loses in 2020, saying, "We have to inoculate against that. We have to be prepared for that."
As for Michael Cohen, he once said he worried about that as well.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: Indeed, given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that, if he loses the election in 2020, that will there will never be a peaceful transition of power.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA (voice-over): The legal turmoil for the president comes as he's grappling with a range of foreign policy headaches, with the administration sending an aircraft carrier to the Middle East and a warning to Iran, this happening amid a delicate cease-fire in the region between Israel and Gaza militants after a weekend of violence that left at least 23 people dead.
And North Korea trying Mr. Trump's patience with a missile test over the weekend. The president maybe causing some heartburn for his own team by failing to bring up election meddling with Russia's Vladimir Putin last week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you tell him not to meddle in the next election?
TRUMP: We didn't discuss that. Really, we didn't discuss it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA (voice-over): Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that's no big deal...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We talk to leaders all the time. We cover a broad range of subjects. Sometimes conversations just aren't long enough to include every issue that might be brought up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA (voice-over): -- before bringing it up himself with the Russian foreign minister.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
POMPEO: The same thing I've shared with him each time we've had a chance to cover that particular topic, which is that it's not appropriate. And we'll do everything that we can to deter it.
ACOSTA: There is one other foreign policy concern that could have a great impact on the economy and that is the president's trade --
ACOSTA: -- war with China. The president's threat to hike tariffs on China rattled the markets earlier in the day but it seems that those jitters have eased.
In the meantime, the president will stay on the sports theme later on this evening,, giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to golf champion Tiger Woods. That's about in an hour. Usually the president gives this out to honor a lifetime of achievement but he's giving it to Woods to celebrate his win last month.
And this is an opportunity for the president to weigh in on all of these subjects that have come up over the last several days, from Robert Mueller testifying to his trade war with China and so on.
We should point out, he did not take any questions earlier today at a different sports event and all day long, we have not had any briefings with any administration officials, from the press secretary on down. They have been staying away from our cameras all day long -- Wolf. BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you very much.
With us now, Democratic representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia. He's a member of the Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. As you know, the House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler is moving forward with plans to hold the attorney general in contempt for refusing to provide the unredacted Mueller report to Congress.
But the Justice Department has extended an invitation to negotiate with committee staff in person on Wednesday.
Should the chairman, Jerry Nadler, take up this offer from the Department of Justice?
REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: That's really up to Chairman Nadler to make a determination as to good faith. When you look at the context of attorney general Barr's behavior, I think there's ample reason to believe that he's not acting in good faith.
You know, if somebody deserves the benefit of the doubt and is acting in good faith, you can buy them some more time to negotiate the terms of an agreement. In this particular case, attorney general Barr mischaracterized the Mueller report.
And we now know Mueller himself thinks that. He refused to come and testify before the House Judiciary Committee, even though he had just done it at the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And he's redacted large portions of the report and refused to provide underlying substantiating documentation that the committee needs to do its work. And so, given that record, I don't know that he frankly deserves the benefit of the doubt before the committee considers contempt.
BLITZER: I ask the question, Congressman, because holding the attorney general in contempt is more symbolic than practical.
Would it be more productive to continue negotiating and see what you could come up with?
CONNOLLY: Again, if we had a good faith effort on the part of the attorney general on an honest, just disagreement about what parts of the report should or should not be provided, that might make sense.
I don't think the history of this relationship and the history of the behavior of Mr. Barr, frankly justifies giving him the benefit of the doubt. And, by the way, a contempt of Congress resolution is not a great way to cap your career.
And frankly, if Congress gets serious about following up on that, it could lead to other things, as well, that I think would be very injurious to Mr. Barr and what's left of his career.
BLITZER: What do you mean it could lead to other things? Because we know that --
CONNOLLY: Well, for example --
BLITZER: -- Eric Holder, the attorney general, was held in contempt because he didn't provide certain requested documents by the Republican majority on the so-called Fast and Furious uproar.
CONNOLLY: Yes, that's right. Well, Mr. Barr, I mean, the Congress could request the bar association to disbar the attorney general because he is in contempt of Congress and has failed to comply with legitimate subpoenas issued by the legislative branch of government.
He could be fined. And I just think that he's going down a path that is really strange for somebody with his kind of career and reputation. What a way to end your career, falling on, you know, on the dilemma of a contempt citation issued by the Congress, because you won't cooperate.
BLITZER: So far, there's no indication the Trump administration will meet today's deadline to hand over President Trump's tax returns.
So what's the next step for Democrats?
And you're on that Oversight Committee, so you're watching that closely.
CONNOLLY: You know, Congress, I suppose, has several avenues to pursue but one of them is to issue a contempt citation in the event that the Secretary of the Treasury fails to cooperate or the commissioner of the IRS fails to cooperate with a legitimate subpoena and/or request by the Congress. Under the statute, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is entitled to look at the tax return and to have that information.
CONNOLLY: And once again, we have defiance and noncooperation by the administration. And again, put it in context. It's not just that narrow issue that we're disagreeing about, it's across the board.
And when you look at that behavior, this is stonewalling the legislative branch of government and that just can't go on unless Congress is prepared to roll over and play dead for every future president.
BLITZER: President Trump now says the special counsel, Robert Mueller, should not testify before Congress.
If the attorney general acts on those words from the president and tries to prevent Mueller from appearing before Congress, what will you do?
CONNOLLY: Well, again, I think, you know, Mr. Mueller ultimately ends up being a private citizen and can exercise his own judgment.
But before that, let's look at this. Here we go again with an erratic decision-making process from this president. He said he would leave it up to the attorney general. The attorney general said he had no problem. He was already on record as saying, if Mueller wants to testify or if Congress wants him to testify, it's fine with him.
We have Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying, all right, if you want Mueller to come and answer some questions, I'm happy to do that, too.
And all of a sudden, the president, in light of that, flips and completely changes his mind, saying he doesn't want Mueller to testify.
And the real question here is, what is the president afraid of?
BLITZER: Well, that's a good question.
What do you think he's afraid of?
CONNOLLY: I think he's afraid of the fact that Mueller clearly is going to testify that he found ample grounds for obstruction of justice as the 384 U.S. attorneys or former prosecutors indicated in your previous segment today and that Congress either ought to act or some future prosecutor ought to act.
And that what held him back was the guidance from the Department of Justice that said a sitting president can't be indicted. I think that's what he's afraid of because I think that's what Mueller's going to testify. The report's pretty clear in that respect.
BLITZER: You serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well, Congressman. As you know, tensions are now rising once again with North Korea, Iran and China. There's a very shaky cease-fire between Israel and Gaza. Russia's exerting its influence in Venezuela.
Does the Trump administration, do you believe, have a plan to tamp down all these growing crises?
CONNOLLY: No. I think it's very clear that bluster and sort of shooting from the hip with intuition is the ready substitute of this administration for delineated, carefully thought-through policy making.
Let's look at North Korea. I mean, I think real damage has been done by giving stature to Kim Jong-un, by President Trump, by meeting with the first president, any North Korean leader has ever met with.
And what did we get for it?
We got an acceleration -- not a deceleration -- of the nuclear program. And to put the finger in the eye, Kim Jong-un tested more missiles just last week. We got nothing for it. We boasted about threats on Venezuela. We allowed Guaido, a
gentleman that we've identified as the interim leader of Venezuela, to believe that military elements were going to switch sides from Maduro to Guaido and didn't happen. So we raised expectations to only see them dashed.
And a lot of empty threats coming out of the White House against Cuba and Maduro, none of which have materialized. So I would argue once again we've set back the stature and credibility of the United States for no good reason.
BLITZER: Congressman Gerald Connolly of Virginia, thanks so much for joining us.
CONNOLLY: My pleasure, Wolf. Anytime.
BLITZER: Up next, Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, heads to prison but not before taking one last opportunity to lash out at the president.
BLITZER: President Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen is preparing for his first night in prison. Cohen is beginning a three- year term for tax evasion, making false statements to a bank and campaign finance violations tied to hush money payments to women on Mr. Trump's behalf.
Let's bring in our National Correspondent, Jason Carroll.
Jason, I understand Cohen lobbed a parting shot at the president today before leaving New York City.
JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He did. And clearly, Cohen has a lot more to say. One of his associates tells me that he already feels as though he's lost so much. He's been disbarred, he feels as though he's lost many of the friends that he had in New York City.
All of this as he's now going to have to learn to be an inmate here at Otisville.
CARROLL (voice-over): Tonight, Michael Cohen is no longer a free man. Trump's former fixer and personal attorney seen arriving this afternoon in an SUV at the federal prison in Otisville, New York, where he will be inmate number 86067-054.
He'll be serving a three-year sentence for, among other crimes, campaign finance violations and tax evasion. Cohen used his last few hours of freedom to issue a not-so-veiled message to --
CARROLL (voice-over): -- President Trump, a man he once said he would take a bullet for.
COHEN: I hope that when I rejoin my family and friends, that the country will be in a place without xenophobia, injustice and lies at the helm of our country. There still remains much to be told. And I look forward to the day that I can share the truth.
CARROLL (voice-over): Cohen was charged in August by the Southern District of New York and pleaded guilty to tax fraud, providing false statements to a bank and two campaign finance violations and by special counsel Mueller's team with lying to Congress.
He has spoken to special counsel Robert Mueller's team on several occasions and has testified publicly and privately and also testified before Congress in the weeks leading up to leaving for prison.
COHEN: I lied to Congress when Mr. Trump stopped negotiating the Moscow tower project in Russia. I am ashamed, because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist, he is a con man and he is a cheat.
CARROLL (voice-over): Cohen first started cooperating with Mueller's team and the Southern District of New York after agents seized documents related to the $130,000 in hush money Cohen admitted paying to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.
Trump has repeatedly denied having an affair with Daniels and he initially defended Cohen when teams of federal agents raided Cohen's office, apartment and hotel room last year.
TRUMP: So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys, good man. And it's a disgraceful situation. It's a total witch hunt. I've been saying it for a long time.
CARROLL (voice-over): But when it became clear to Trump his former fixer had flipped and was cooperating with investigators, the relationship quickly soured, Trump calling Cohen "a rat" in a tweet.
Experts say Otisville is a top prison for white-collar criminals. The facility, located about 70 miles northwest of New York City, has been called a castle behind bars. "Forbes" magazine once ranked it one of America's 10 cushiest prisons.
Cohen's fellow inmates include Fyre Festival convicted con man Billy McFarland and "Jersey Shore" tax evader, Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino.
CARROLL: And, Wolf, a little bit more about his time that he'll be spending here. Wake-up is at 6:00 am, lights out at 11:30. He'll be assigned a job. He'll still have time for extracurricular activities. It's why some prison experts call Otisville the Club Fed of prisons. But still make no mistake, he is a prisoner -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And he will be for three years. Jason Carroll, thank you very much.
Stay with us. We're standing by for the start of the White House ceremony, where the golfer, Tiger Woods, will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
[17:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BLITZER: Breaking news. After missing today's deadline to turn over the unredacted Mueller report, the Justice Department now says it's open to negotiation with Democratic lawmakers. But Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are moving ahead with a vote to hold the Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress.
Our legal and political experts are here with analysis.
And, Susan Hennessey, the Department of Justice tells the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, it is willing to keep negotiating but is disappointed the committee is moving toward holding Barr in contempt. What's the committee's best strategy for obtaining an unredacted copy of the Mueller report?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: So Bill Barr has been unreasonable about all kinds of things, but this is actually an example in which the committee is being unreasonable and Bill Barr is not.
What they're fighting over is 6(e) material, grand jury material. Bill Barr cannot give that to Congress without court permission. It would be a crime for him to do so. So, really, what the House is doing is they knew he wasn't going to be able to comply with this request and are now moving to hold him in contempt for doing something they didn't -- they knew he couldn't do in the first place.
Now, that's not the end of the story. Bill Barr, if he wanted to act in good faith, could join the court -- join the House in requesting that the court provide this material to Congress. There is precedent for that.
What Bill Barr is really attempting to say is, I can't give you this information without court permission, and you're on your own in getting -- in getting the court to agree. But this is a little bit of a political stunt or at least that's what it feels like.
You know, I do think that this is an example in which the House might be better to expend their energy on things like getting the President's tax returns, focusing on securing Robert Mueller's testimony, rather than fighting over things like 6(e) material where DOJ ultimately does not have the final say.
BLITZER: Speaking of tax returns, Chris Cillizza, the deadline is tonight for the Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, to tell House Democrats whether he will turn over the President's tax returns. There's no indication the White House will cooperate in that effort, so what's the next step for Democrats?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, they're not. This is all just positioning at this point. If Steve Mnuchin suddenly comes out later tonight, Wolf, and says, actually, we'll hand them over, I will fall over stunned because it just will not happening, so -- happen.
[17:34:47] So there's a couple of options. One, they can subpoena to try to get the tax returns. Two, they can hold Treasury Department, IRS, Steve Mnuchin in contempt. Or three, they can begin the legal process of suing the executive branch to try to obtain these under that relatively obscure provision of IRS law that allows the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the House to look at a president's or anyone's tax returns.
So this is -- we're about a third of the way down this road. It -- the next step will be Treasury saying no, and then the ball will be in Richard Neal's court, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Again, all those three options -- subpoena, contempt, legal -- will all just be another step. None of those will be final. The White House is going to fight this tooth and nail to the very end, maybe all the way up to the Supreme Court.
BLITZER: I suspect you're right. You know, Bianna Golodryga, the President now says -- and he said it via Twitter -- that Robert Mueller should not testify before Congress. But the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, he tells CNN he's open to public testimony from the Special Counsel. So do you expect we will hear from Mueller directly?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the President was open to it before he wasn't open to it so that constantly changes. And of course, we heard from Bill Barr last week saying that he had no problem with it as well. Bill Barr reports to the President, but Bob Mueller reports to Bill Barr.
It's up to -- it's up to Bob Mueller. I don't know why he wouldn't want to testify at this point given all the confusion that his two years of really nonstop work have put into this investigation.
But that having been said, if he wants to leave the Justice Department, I would assume he can at any time, thus making him a private citizen. So I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be able to ultimately make the decision himself, given that Barr has already said he's had no problem with it.
BLITZER: You know, April Ryan, the President previously said it should be up to Barr whether Mueller testifies or not. So why is the President changing his tune now?
APRIL RYAN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: Well, Wolf, for obvious reasons. The President does not want Robert Mueller to go out there and speak his truth versus what the President has said. You know, the President said he was fully exonerated. And then, when
Mueller came out, he said that he did not like the synopsis of the synopsis from the Attorney General, William Barr, and he also contradicted what the President said about obstruction of justice.
Bob Mueller testifying could bring more evidence against this president that he doesn't want out there, to show that he is -- he's done something wrong, which he does not want out there.
But there's also a little bit more to it, Wolf. Right now, you have Mueller and Barr at odds. From what I'm hearing from my sources that are very close to the situation, Mueller and Barr are not talking.
So you do not want, if you're the President of the United States, for the Special Counsel to go out and speak to the world and to testify about things, especially when he is not in lockstep or at least in conversation with the U.S. Attorney General.
BLITZER: Standby, we've got some breaking news we want to share with our viewers right now. The Treasury Department has just responded to House Democrats, their demand to see the President's tax returns.
Let's go to CNN's Lauren Fox. Lauren, what are you hearing?
LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, we just heard from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that he will not fulfill that request for six years of the President's business and personal tax returns.
That request coming from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, who had requested this information using an IRS section known as 6103 that he said gave his committee the power to ask for this information. This is, of course, breaking news, and escalating this fight for the President's personal and business tax return information.
Now, Richard Neal has a few options. He can basically sue, go right ahead, and say that the Treasury Department is not fulfilling their legal obligation for this information, or he could file a subpoena on top of that and then go to court that way. So those are a couple of the options.
We have not heard yet from Richard Neal. This request being denied just moments ago -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And this -- it's not a surprise, Lauren. We never anticipated that Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, would go ahead and do this.
So I assume the Democrats, Richard Neal, and the House Ways and Means Committee and other Democratic leaders, including the Speaker, they have a game plan in mind to take immediate action.
FOX: Well, absolutely, Wolf. You know, from the very beginning, Richard Neal has been clear that he's been building and preparing for a court case. He never expected this to come easily. Back when I interviewed him in November, he said that this was all
about going slowly, being careful, being deliberate, making sure that all the ducks were in line for when the inevitable court case came to be. And obviously, it seems like we're moving forward with that sooner than later, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Lauren Fox, good reporting. Thank you very much. Let's get some reaction.
All right, Chris Cillizza, I suspect you're stunned by this news.
CILLIZZA: I mean, yes, good thing I said what I said three minutes ago, Wolf, because I would've really fallen over. That would've been bad.
[17:39:55] Yes, this is not surprising. Mick Mulvaney, the White House Chief of Staff has said this. Donald Trump has said this. Steve Mnuchin has said as much previously, which is they believe this to be a political request to embarrass the President politically. And therefore, they feel as though they do not need to comply.
Now, this is going to be -- as Lauren noted, this is going to be a legal fight over what the word "shall" means. Because in the IRS statute it says that if the Ways and Means Committee Chairman requests from the IRS a tax return, the Treasury Secretary shall furnish it.
Now, we'll see, but that's the fight to come. Donald Trump, from the start -- let's just take one step back, Wolf. Only major presidential candidate since Watergate not to release any of his tax returns. Only president since time in memoriam, since we started doing this, to not release any of his tax returns.
He is unique in this regard. He has basically made a calculation -- I think he did it a while back -- that it was more damaging for him politically for those returns, even a little bit of them, to come out than the hit he would take for a lack of transparency and for them not coming out.
But make no mistake, this is a legal fight that I do think is going to move up the court system. I don't know how quickly, but it's hard for me to imagine that it doesn't get appealed up, up, up, all the way to the Supreme Court because Donald Trump is not giving in. He is not suddenly going to turn his taxes over after three-plus years of stonewalling.
BLITZER: Yes, that's correct. Bianna, what do you think?
GOLODRYGA: Well, that, a, buys the President more time. And, b, given the number of judges that he has been able to appoint in federal court judges, and even the balance now on the Supreme Court, one could argue that the President feels that he has the court system on his side or in his favor. So that could be another one of his tactics.
Not to mention the Treasury is also now immersed in the China trade negotiations, which, you know, in one moment, it looks like it's going well, the other it does not. And over the past few minutes, we've gotten word that it has stalled once again and that the Treasury Secretary and Bob Lighthizer now say that they are expecting to raise tariffs come Friday.
So you've got an economic and financial crisis potentially in the works now that is generating a lot more attention on that than perhaps the President's tax returns at least right now.
BLITZER: You've got several national security issues at crisis point right now as well. Susan Hennessey, this could drag on in the courts for a long time.
HENNESSEY: Yes, and I think that's the entire play here. This is a -- this is essentially a stall tactic. It's not a genuine legal dispute. There's not a big open question over what the meaning of the word "shall" is.
The intention here really is attempting to run the clock such that the President does not have to turn his tax returns over to Congress prior than the 2020 election. And so that really is the game here and the gamble here. It has -- it has nothing to do with the underlying legal arguments. Those just couldn't be clearer.
The law is really, really strongly, unambiguously on Congress' side. But even if the law is on their side, there is going to be a lengthy process and a process that may well push past the next election.
BLITZER: April, why do you think the President -- and you cover the White House -- is so reluctant to let the American public see his tax returns?
RYAN: It's embarrassing. You have so many people saying, Wolf, that this president has inflated a lot of things, not just the economy numbers but his own numbers.
This president -- if he didn't give it, his tax information, when he was running for president, he was not going to give it as president. There is no law saying that he had to, but you know you have people in Congress working on changing that.
But here's the problem. The -- it all is about the money trail, and he doesn't want you knowing where his money is, how much money he has, or how much money he does not have. He has played this game for too long, and he's going to continue it unless he is forced to. And even if he is forced to, he will drag it out until after he's president. If it happens at that time, even.
BLITZER: He keeps arguing, Bianna, that he can't release his tax returns because the IRS still has an audit. They're still auditing his tax returns. When the audit is finished, maybe he'll do it. What do you make of that argument?
GOLODRYGA: It's the longest audit in modern history, I would argue. Look, I tend to agree with April. I think this president has seen that he's been able to win office by not -- without having to release his tax returns, so why do so now. It's a stalling tactic, that's for sure.
And you can imagine that if Bob Mueller does testify, that he will be asked the question. Now, I can't imagine that he would answer it or give much detail, but one could have -- many have speculated over the past couple of years that throughout this investigation, he may, in fact, have had access to the President's tax returns. So that can may be another reason why the President does not want him to go before Congress.
CILLIZZA: And, Wolf, just to be --
BLITZER: O.K. Go ahead.
CILLIZZA: Just to be really clear here. There is no law that says a president of the United States can't release his tax returns under audit, which -- I'm with Bianna, this is one heck of a long audit.
[17:45:02] But Richard Nixon did this in 1973. To prove the "I'm not a crook" thing, he released his tax returns while under audit. There's absolutely no law that allows this, and -- that bans it.
And remember, we've heard a lot of reasons. One is, I'm under audit. One is, my tax returns are so complex, you and members of Congress -- you, average persons, and members of Congress, you couldn't possibly understand it.
And then the one we heard from Kellyanne Conway, which is, all of this was settled in the 2016 election. People didn't care about it, which there's no question on the exit poll that judges what happened in the 2016 election, that deals with Donald Trump's taxes.
So the conclusion that he won and, therefore, no one cares about his tax returns anymore, you could say, well, no one cares about anything negative about Donald Trump because he won, that doesn't justify this.
So there's a changing explanation over time that just gets back to, he doesn't want to do it because there's something in there that's either, to April's point, embarrassing or potentially problematic as it relates to who he owes and how much.
BLITZER: Because the --
HENNESSEY: And I don't --
BLITZER: Go ahead.
HENNESSEY: I don't think we should underestimate the shift in political optics, either. Previously, the President was just passively refusing to release them.
Now we're going to see the President actively litigating, using the full strength of the executive branch of the government, in order to prevent those tax returns from coming out, which really, really raises the perception that this is not just about him not complying with the norm. This is about the President actively attempting to hide something that he's afraid of the American people finding out. RYAN: Exactly.
GOLODRYGA: And what worked for the President, perhaps, in 2016, was his opponent. Though we had seen her tax returns, though Hillary Clinton had been a lot more forthcoming, the President was able to paint her in this sort of, you know, she's crooked, she's this, she's that, so that deflected away from the President's own finances. It will be interesting to see who his opponent is going to be in 2020.
BLITZER: We'll see what happens in the days ahead on this issue, as well as the political fallout, if any.
Coming up, is Kim Jong-un growing frustrated with diplomacy? The new missile test suggests the North Korean dictator has been honing his weapons program.
Also, we're standing by for President Trump to award the nation's highest civilian honor to Tiger Woods. Could business ties between the two men explain their relationship?
[17:51:53] BLITZER: Tonight, new evidence that North Korea has been advancing its missile program even as Kim Jong-un negotiates a potential deal with President Trump. Brian Todd has details for us.
Brian, is this a sign the North Koreans are growing increasingly frustrated with diplomacy?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the analysts we spoke to believe it's absolutely a sign that Kim is frustrated and that he wants to exert pressure on President Trump to get back to the negotiating table.
Tonight, sources are giving us new information about the kind of missile Kim has just tested and its threat to American troops and their allies in the region.
TODD (voice-over): The evidence is in the smoke trail. A commercial satellite picture obtained by CNN shows the trail of smoke from a North Korean rocket launch in recent days. Tonight, we have new information on the launch and the projectile.
Two U.S. officials tell CNN this is being looked at as a possible short-range ballistic missile test by North Korea, which followed several firings of artillery. The Middlebury Institute, which analyzed the pictures and provided them to CNN, tells us this is a significant launch.
DR. JEFFREY LEWIS, DIRECTOR OF THE EAST ASIA NONPROLIFERATION PROGRAM, MIDDLEBURY INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: It's a new missile. We had seen it in a parade in February 2018, but they never fired it before. We'd seen all kinds of evidence that they were continuing with their missile program, but this is sort of, you know, hard proof that the missile program keeps going forward.
TODD (voice-over): North Korean media released pictures of Dictator Kim Jong-un, in its words, guiding what it called the strike drill. A drill which analysts say could threaten the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. Most of them stationed at the sprawling base Camp Humphreys which they believe is in range of the newly tested missile.
ABRAHAM DENMARK, DIRECTOR OF THE ASIA PROGRAM, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: This adds another layer of a threat to U.S. troops in Korea but also the U.S. troops in Japan, U.S. -- and our allies in Korea and in Japan.
TODD (voice-over): Still, President Trump and his top diplomat, as well as the South Koreans, are downplaying the seriousness of this test. Trump tweeting over the weekend of Kim, quote, he knows that I am with him and does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that this was a short-range missile which didn't threaten Americans or their allies and didn't break any agreements between Trump and Kim.
MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: But we still believe that there's an opportunity to get a negotiated outcome where we get fully verified denuclearization. Chairman Kim has repeated that. He's repeated that quite recently, in fact. And so we hope that this act that he took over the weekend won't get in the way.
TODD (voice-over): But analysts say this missile test is a clear sign that the young dictator is frustrated that his diplomatic dance with President Trump has stalled.
DENMARK: The reality is that President Trump has met with Kim Jong-un twice, and we have not had any substantial progress towards denuclearization. Kim wants to be a nuclear power, and he's going to do whatever he can to negotiate, to threaten, to cajole, in order to make advances towards that -- towards that goal.
TODD: Analysts say Kim Jong-un is also a savvy observer of American politics. And knowing that he's young and could be in power for a long time, he could be preparing to run out the clock on Donald Trump.
Kim could be at a point, experts say, where he feels he can just walk away from this diplomatic engagement with Trump and wait to see -- wait to see what happens in next year's presidential election, Wolf.
[17:55:07] BLITZER: Very intriguing thought. Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you.
Coming up, President Trump is about to award the Medal of Freedom to Tiger Woods. The President has touted his friendship with the golf champ, but there's a business angle to their relationship as well. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[18:00:01] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Eye on the Tiger.