Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Report: White House Asked Don McGahn To Say Trump Never Obstructed Justice; Democrats Target Trump Tax Returns; Interview With Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA); "New York Times" Reports White House Asked McGahn Twice In Past Month To Say Trump Never Obstructed Justice; Admitted Russian Agent Maria Butina Speaks Out, Denies She Was Part Of Russian Plan To Influence U.S. Politics; Ransomware Attacks On The Rise Crippling Communities, Costing Them Millions Of Dollars. Aired 6- 7p ET
Aired May 10, 2019 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is she being honest about her Kremlin and Republican connections?
And held hostage. Local governments here in the United States hit with extensive cyberattacks, along with big money ransom demands. Stand by for CNN's exclusive reporting on cyber-crime that's crippling counties, cities and towns and costing them millions.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on Democrats striking back against stonewalling by the Trump administration.
The powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman issuing subpoenas for six years of the president's personal and business tax returns, after the Treasury Department formally denied his demand for the information, this as the House Judiciary Committee chairman is reaching up to Attorney General William Barr, trying to get him to comply with a subpoena for the full Mueller report, after the panel voted to hold him in contempt.
Democrats now are considering holding a single vote by the full House on a package of contempt citations, including the one for Barr and possibly for former White House Counsel Don McGahn.
This hour, I will talk with House Ways and Means Committee member Brendan Boyle. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our Congressional Correspondent, Phil Mattingly, with more on the new subpoenas for the president's tax returns.
Phil, will the Democrats get what they want? PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, with the president saying that he will fight all subpoenas, Democrats involved in this process have made clear they're in it for the long haul.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal consulted multiple times with counsel before taking this step, a step that is a clear escalation. Now, along with subpoenas to both the IRS department and the Treasury Department, included a three-page letter that pushed back on several of the Trump administration's arguments bolstered by the Trump Justice Department as to why they would not comply with the request, including the idea that there was not any legislative intent behind it, and that the president remained under audit.
One of the things noted in Richard Neal's letter was this: "Compliance is not discretionary, under any circumstance, even if the taxpayer is under audit."
Wolf, when you track back through this now month-long process, exchanges of letters between the Treasury Department and the Ways and Means Committee Democrats, you understand that this is likely setting up a case for court.
This is both sides laying the groundwork for the fights to come. And the court subpoena is obviously a step in that process. There is not a lot of kind of consideration that they will actually get compliance with this subpoena. But it is an important step in that stage -- stage process to get to court, a crucial court fight to come over six years of the president's personal tax returns, as well as business tax records as well.
This has been a crucial issue for Democrats, not just over the course of the last couple of months, but for years now. This is going to be a fight that they are certainly all in on and a fight that has a number of steps to come off -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil, the Trump administration is stonewalling Congress, as you know, on multiple fronts.
House Democrats have already had one contempt vote this week. They're threatening, I understand, more.
MATTINGLY: That's exactly right.
Wolf, to put this into context, there are now five House congressional committees that have outstanding subpoenas targeting Trump officials. They have not gotten compliance on any of those. You noted the House Judiciary Committee on the committee level voted to hold the attorney general in contempt earlier today.
What they have not done is move forward for the full House to have that vote. One of the reasons? It's strategic. There are those outstanding subpoenas. There may actually be a package of contempt votes.
It's one of the issues that's being considered right now, one of several options that they're considering. And as they're doing that, as they consider potential contempt votes on several officials, not just the attorney general, also potentially Don McGahn, if he does not come for his scheduled testimony on May 21, other administration officials as well, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jared Nadler has now sent a letter to the Justice Department trying to reopen negotiations for both the full Mueller report and the underlying investigative materials.
In that letter, he states: "The full House has not yet taken action this matter. The committee stands ready to resume the accommodation process to attempt to reach a compromise."
And, Wolf, just to track back, you remember well the two sides were negotiating at length, trying to figure out a way out of this before the contempt vote. When the contempt vote was set to begin, the president exerted executive privilege, and everything broke down.
House Democrats now trying to restart that process with the threat of the full House contempt vote holding over everybody's heads. We will see what actually happens with that. There's one other issue that's obviously outstanding and extremely important to Democrats.
That is the potential testimony of the special counsel, Robert Mueller. There have been negotiations between House Democrats, the Justice Department and the special counsel's team.
Democrats had been targeting midweek next week for potential testimony. We are now told that will not happen. Negotiations continue. When and if the special counsel will testify, still up in the air -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We will find out at some point.
Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, thank you.
As the president's battle with Democrats clearly intensifies, the trade work with China's escalating as well.
Let's go to our chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, once again, the president is fighting on multiple fronts, both at home, as well as overseas.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is true, Wolf.
There is no end in sight, we should also mention, for President Trump's trade war with China tonight. Trade talks ended today without any announcement of a breakthrough.
The White House, in the meantime, is silent on those House Democratic investigations that Phil Mattingly just mentioned a few moments ago, House Democrats who, by the way, are now questioning the actions of another Trump associate, the president's outside attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump's lead outside attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is making a startling admission, that he plans to turn to Ukraine's incoming president, in an effort to dig up dirt not just on the special counsel's investigation into the Russian meddling, but also on Joe Biden's son Hunter's ties to the Eastern European country.
Giuliani first confirmed his plans to "The New York Times," saying: "Somebody could say it's improper. And this isn't foreign policy. I'm asking them to do an investigation that they're doing already and that other people are telling them to stop."
He also told CNN -- quote -- "I don't want any favors. I just want this investigated."
Top Democrats are crying foul.
REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: We have come to a very sorry state when it's considered OK for an American politician, never mind an attorney for the president, to go and seek foreign intervention in American politics.
ACOSTA: Democrats say Giuliani's plan sound eerily similar to the president's infamous call on Russia to meddle in the 2016 election.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have had enough of that. And that Rudy Giuliani should just back off.
ACOSTA: Giuliani's trip to Ukraine comes as former FBI Director James Comey is blasting the president, saying in CNN's town hall he agreed with hundreds of former federal prosecutors who said Mr. Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice if he weren't in office.
JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Yes, I agree.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: No doubt?
COMEY: No doubt. Again, there's 10 different episodes. I actually think the ones that would be most likely charged are not necessarily the ones that involved me, but particularly this McGahn episode.
ACOSTA: Comey added that Russia could still have compromising information the president.
COMEY: I don't know the answer to that.
COOPER: You think it's possible?
ACOSTA: He also slammed Attorney General William Barr.
COOPER: Do you think he's behaving less than honorably?
COMEY: I do, yes. And, look, I'm sorry...
ACOSTA: And former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for their handling of the Mueller report.
COOPER: So Rod Rosenstein, you're saying, is a person not of a strong character?
COMEY: Yes, I don't think he is. Of accomplishment. Very bright. But he's not strong enough.
ACOSTA: Part of a pattern, Comey told CNN, of the president eating his subordinate's souls one bite at a time.
COMEY: Far more often, it shapes and bends and pulls in weaker souls. And he does it -- I have seen him -- it's happened to me. The man lies constantly.
ACOSTA: Away from the Mueller probe, the president is escalating his trade war with China, raising tariffs on $200 billion worth of the economic giant's products coming into the U.S. and tweeting: "Build your products in the United States and there are no tariffs."
Even some Republicans are questioning what Mr. Trump is doing.
REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: But the way you deal with that is not what using a tit for tat tariff war, because, ultimately, a tariff -- we should think of a tariff like a sales tax.
ACOSTA: The president's critics say he's a trade hypocrite, as Mr. Trump has manufactured his own products in China in the past.
TRUMP: They are great ties.
DAVID LETTERMAN, TALK SHOW HOST: The ties are made in where, China? The ties are made in China.
TRUMP: Well, I'll tell you -- and you know what? David, in all fairness, I have been very open about that, and not all of them, by the way. But I have been very open about that.
ACOSTA: Now, as for China, the president tweeted late in the day that the new tariffs may or may not stay in place, depending on these ongoing negotiations that broke off earlier in the day.
That may well be a signal from the president that he's hopeful for some kind of resolution in these trade talks, as Mr. Trump is well aware of the potential damage that an all-out trade war could have on the U.S. economy, with the 2020 election the horizon, Wolf. And as for Russia meddling, we should note, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is headed to Russia, Sochi, Russia, in fact, on Tuesday to meet with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. All eyes will be on the secretary of state to see whether or not he mentions Russian meddling and tells the Russian leader to cut it out, as we're all anticipating Russia to try this once again in 2020 -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We will see what happens.
Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you very much.
Joining us now, Congressman Brendan Boyle. He is a Democrat. He serves on the Ways and Means Committee that's demanding the president's tax returns.
Congressman, thanks so much for coming in.
REP. BRENDAN BOYLE (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Thank you.
BLITZER: So your committee chairman, Richard Neal, has just issued subpoenas for the president's tax returns, six years, personal business tax returns.
How quickly is this going to go to court?
BOYLE: Well, unfortunately, I'm not exactly optimistic about the Trump administration cooperating with any of these subpoenas.
And the substance of this issue is important, but it's beyond the current context of this individual president and this administration. What we're really talking about is whether or not we're going to consider Congress of the United States, the first article of the Constitution, a co-equal branch of government.
This unprecedented obstruction from this administration is really threatening the ability of Congress to perform an essential function of Congress, and that is oversight of the executive.
So I think that, when Chairman Nadler talked about this being a constitutional crisis, that got some attention. I don't think that was hyperbole or exaggerated rhetoric. That is how serious these issues are.
BLITZER: The legal argument that the Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is making and denying your committee chairman's initial request, he says that your committed has no -- quote -- "legitimate legislative purpose for this request."
BOYLE: That's not...
BLITZER: So what is -- what is your legitimate legislative purpose? And will it hold up in court?
BOYLE: First, let's be clear. IRS Code Section 6103 does not give either the IRS commissioner or the secretary of the treasury any discretion in this matter. There simply is none.
So, they right now are in violation of the law. And, specifically, Secretary Mnuchin is in violation of the law by not complying. That's number one.
Number two, there is -- as Chairman Neal demonstrated in his letter released today, there is a legitimate legislative purpose. Going back decades, every president automatically every single year is under an automatic audit.
We, as the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, have the ability, indeed, the responsibility, to make sure that those audits are being performed, as they should up to the law.
There was already, by the way, a congressional hearing into this matter some months ago. So, A, Mnuchin doesn't have the distraction to deny this request anyway and ask for a legislative purpose.
But even if he did, there is clearly a legislative purpose.
BLITZER: On another subpoena, the House Judiciary Committee, the chairman, Jerry Nadler, they voted, the Democrats voted to hold the attorney general, Bill Barr, in contempt.
But now Nadler is offering him another chance before there's a full House vote on that subpoena to hold him in contempt, a full House vote. How long is this going to take?
BOYLE: That, I don't know. But I really hope that the attorney general cooperates with this.
We have already had the Judiciary Committee vote finding him in contempt. I would be willing to vote in the full House to also find him contempt if he didn't comply with the subpoena.
But, again, it would be in the best interest of both branches of the government, the executive and the legislative, if the attorney general would follow the law, comply with the subpoena, because, again, what is at stake here is actually more important than the individuals that we're talking about.
There is a greater principle regarding our Constitution that is at stake.
BLITZER: Congressman Boyle, thanks so much for coming in.
BOYLE: Thank you.
BLITZER: Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania.
And just ahead, more breaking news on the Democrats issuing new subpoenas for the president's tax returns. Will the strategy work?
And what do Democrats hope to accomplish by possibly bundling multiple contempt of Congress citations together? We will talk about all the new legal wrangling with the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. He's standing by live.
BLITZER: All right, there's more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
"The Wall Street Journal" now reporting that former White House counsel Don McGahn rebuffed a request by the White House to say the president did not obstruct justice.
This is a dramatic development that's unfolding right now.
Joining us to discuss this, the former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. He's now a CNN senior legal analyst. He's also the author of the new bestselling book "Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law," an excellent new book.
Preet, thanks so much for joining us.
Let me get your reaction to this new reporting from "The Wall Street Journal." In fact, let me read the first two sentences. And then we will we will discuss.
This is from "The Wall Street Journal": "Within a day of the release of the Mueller report last month, President Trump sought to have former White House counsel Don McGahn declare he didn't consider the president's 2017 directive that he seek Robert Mueller's dismissal to be obstruction of justice, but Mr. McGahn rebuffed the request, according to people familiar with the matter."
The second sentence in the article: "Mr. Trump has publicly denied asking Mr. McGahn to fire the Russia probe special counsel since the release of the report in which Mr. Mueller detailed that directive and a subsequent request by Mr. Trump that Mr. McGahn deny that conversation ever happened."
Quote -- "If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn't need McGahn to do it. I could have done it myself," Mr. Trump tweeted last month.
This is very dramatic. What's your reaction, Preet?
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, a few reactions.
In some ways, it's surprising. Seems like an odd move, literally within 24 hours of the fairly dramatic and detailed and thorough Mueller report being released. But it's par for the course, not to use a golf metaphor, for President Trump.
In fact, in the report itself that talks about -- in volume two -- talks about the exchanges between Donald Trump and his lawyer, the White House lawyer Don McGahn, there's a whole discussion of how he had asked Don McGahn to basically get rid of Bob Mueller, and Don McGahn didn't do that.
And then when the stories leaked out about that exchange between him and Don McGahn in "The New York Times" and elsewhere, Donald Trump tried to get McGahn say that those facts weren't true, that he hadn't used the word fired, and to dispute the facts. And Don McGahn refused to do so there as well.
So, on the one hand, it seems so nuts -- I hate to use that word -- that you have a person who has been painted in a bad light, the president, for trying to get people to bend to his will, and to say things that were -- that are exonerating of him, because he cares about exoneration, and to do the very same thing that was set out and set forth in the Mueller report the day after the report comes out.
It also, by the way, is in some ways worse than what happened with respect to the factual allegations that he tried to get Don McGahn to recant with respect to the reporting, because here he was asking Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to make a legal conclusion about obstruction.
So it's a bad look. I don't know why he went about doing it. And it certainly looks bad that Don McGahn rebuffed him. Now, if you go on to read the article, which I only looked at 90 seconds before I came on air, McGahn's lawyer says a very diplomatic thing.
And I know him well, and he's a smart lawyer and maybe the best position to take a look. He said, look, they didn't take it as a threat. And they thought it was a professional -- I don't have the language in front of me -- a professional and polite request, seeking to put some kind of gloss on it that it wasn't something awful and nefarious.
But in light of all the other things that have gone on, I think it was -- it was a poor move, and I think -- I think looks not good.
BLITZER: There's more details now coming in from "The New York Times," which has not only matched "The Wall Street Journal" report, but has additional details as well.
Let me read a few sentences from "The New York Times"' story that was just posted.
"White House officials asked at least twice in the past month for the key witness against President Trump in the Mueller report, Donald F. McGahn II, to say publicly that he never believed the president obstructed justice, according to two people briefed on the request. Mr. McGahn, who was the president's first White House counsel, declined."
One of the people said: "His reluctance angered Mr. Trump, who believed Mr. McGahn showed disloyalty by telling investigators for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about Mr. Trump's attempts to maintain control over the Russia investigation."
And, Preet, listen to this. This is from "The New York Times." "The White House made one of the requests to Mr. McGahn's lawyer, William A. Burke, before the Mueller report was released publicly, but after the Justice Department gave a copy to Mr. Trump's lawyers to read. Reading the report, the president's lawyer saw that Mr. Mueller had left out that Mr. McGahn had told investigators that he believed Mr. Trump never obstructed justice."
So these are more details, not just once, but twice...
BLITZER: ... making that request to McGahn, but twice being rebuffed.
Look, I stand by the comments I made a couple of minutes ago, that this is a president who tries to get everyone to see things his way. I don't know that the very -- the mere fact that he was trying to do that constitutes some further offense.
But it comes close to the to the line, given the authority that he has, and given the reputational impact he can have on someone because of how he tweets and sort of generalized threats that he's made about people who he thinks are going to say bad things about him and whether or not they can get further jobs and everything else.
I'm not saying it is this, but it smacks a little bit of witness tampering. I'm not saying that it's witness tampering, but it's the kind of thing that you have to be very, very careful about. And this president doesn't have a lot of carefulness about him with respect to any of this.
What's important to him is to get as many people as possible to say, he did nothing wrong, even when the facts show otherwise.
BLITZER: We know from the Mueller report, all 400-plus pages, that the president told McGahn to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and that he didn't fire the special counsel.
The president asked McGahn to deny a report that the president told McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn once again refused.
What do you make of that? And how significant would McGahn's testimony in an open session of Congress turn out to be?
BHARARA: I think the testimony would be very significant, because you will be hearing the Q&A in flesh and blood, and there will be the possibility of follow-up questions and little more details about the conversations could be gone into.
How significant is it? I think it's quite significant. Now, you use the term fired. And I have seen now both the attorney general of the United States and the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, say all sorts of things to try to explain that away.
I mean, Bill Barr has said, quite cleverly, I think, that the fact that Donald Trump wanted Bob Mueller gone, and that the reason he wanted Bob Mueller gone, or at least the pretextual reason that he put forward -- and to my mind pretextual -- was that Bob Mueller had some conflicts that his own lawyers told him were silly and ridiculous and didn't make any sense.
And there were no conflicts. Bill Barr's argument is that, if the president wanted Bob Mueller gone on that basis, he wasn't interfering with an investigation or obstructing any investigation, because the assumption would be, Bob Mueller leaves because of the conflicts, and then some other special counsel would be put in his place, so that could not possibly mean or intend to have meant the end of the investigation.
I think that's a nice and interesting gloss to put on it after the fact. I think everyone understands, from the president's words, actions and more actions that we're hearing about in real time as we do this broadcast, that he wanted the investigation over.
It wasn't just that he wanted Bob Mueller gone. He wanted the investigation over. And I think the testimony that McGahn will give about that is incredibly important for people to hear.
BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to what we heard last night from the former FBI Director James Comey in the CNN town hall with Anderson Cooper.
Comey said he thinks the president would be charged with obstruction, if not for the fact that he's the sitting president of the United States.
House Democrats still undecided on that front. How would you advise them to think about this, if you had that opportunity?
BHARARA: Yes, I mean, so my advice would be, you got to continue to look at the facts and get every witness that you can possibly get before the committee.
Now, the most important thing is to try to find out new facts, to try to get new details about what the conversations were and other aspects of the narrative that maybe were not included in what was otherwise a fairly thorough report by Bob Mueller.
But I also think there's value -- maybe some people will disagree with this. There's also value in having people come before the House committee and, even if they're not giving a lot of new detail, to just -- to say, plainly and openly and candidly to the American people, who will be watching, what in fact happened.
I mean, the polls show that only 3 percent of Americans -- and I believe that's probably a high number -- have read the full Mueller report. And so there's no -- there's nothing wrong in my mind with bringing people before the committee to ask them questions about things that were not included, but also for them to go through the facts that were also disclosed in the Mueller report, so that people will more likely be in a position to judge their candor, judge their demeanor, and judge what the narrative is.
I think that's very important.
BLITZER: The House today threatened to combine a vote and hold both Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, and the attorney general, Bill Barr, in contempt. Is that a pressure tactic?
BHARARA: I don't know that that makes a whole lot of difference.
I think there -- there's no legal consequence that's different. There's no constitutional consequence that is different. I think people have different views about what shock and awe means, and if you combine a bunch of contempt citations in one, maybe that's a bigger deal and causes public opinion to turn in favor of the people who are finding contempt.
There's another argument, I guess -- and I leave it to the politicians to figure this out -- that a drumbeat of contempt citations and votes over the course of time does the trick even better. But that's sort of outside my pay grade.
BLITZER: And, as you know, the House Ways and Means Committee has now issued a subpoena for the president's tax returns. How do you think this will play out in the courts? Certainly heading that way, it looks like.
BHARARA: Yes, I think it depends on who the judges are.
But I agree with those who say that the law is very clear. It's a broad law. It's fairly plainly stated that that official in the Congress can ask for the tax record information, and it is -- it shall be provided, shall be handed over.
And I understand that, as a political matter, that there are arguments that the president's lawyers have made and others have made that say, well, it doesn't seem like there's a good purpose for this, there's a legislative purpose for this.
I think you can make very good arguments on the other side. But the plain statute, the place statutory language sort of says it all. And people usually, on the side of the president's party, have always said, when they're talking about Supreme Court nominees and lower court nominees, that the most important thing you look at when deciding whether or not a law means X or Y is, you look at the plain language of the statute.
And the plain language of the statute -- if Antonin Scalia were alive to opine on it -- I think says you have to hand it over. And those arguments should fail.
Will they fail, ultimately? Depending on who the judge is, I don't know, but they should fail.
BLITZER: And at the same time, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, has written to the attorney general, Bill Barr, offering once again to continue negotiating on the unredacted Mueller report.
But this letter reads like a list of all of the ways Nadler has tried to work for the Justice Department. Do you believe this is a genuine offer or is this simply building a court case?
BHARARA: I mean, probably -- it's probably both.
Parties who know that they're going to be facing a court -- and, in this case, not just a legal court, but also the court of public opinion -- have an interest, if they're smart, in making a record of their reasonableness, right?
So, on the president's side, there have been letters back and forth between Bill Barr and Emmet Flood and others trying to make the case, both ultimately to a court, because these will be exhibits to court documents, but also for the public, people who are watching this program, to say, well, they have been reasonable.
There are reasonable bases for them to say, we have to redact certain things, reasonable bases for them to say that we can't provide these documents on the timetable that you're saying. We're so reasonable, we're so reasonable, we're so reasonable.
And on the other side of the coin, Jerry Nadler has the same interest in persuading the public to give oxygen to what he's doing and to be supportive of what he's doing, because he's, after all, an elected official. And these things require, I think, consensus, public support, to say, look how reasonable we're being.
[18:30:00] We offered this opportunity, we offered another opportunity. We're offering accommodation and all this ways, and we're being very patient. And at some point, our patience comes to an end and that's good for the public, from the Chairman's point of view. It's also good in a battle that will happen before a court. Because a court, they're separate from what he legal rules and procedures are. Judges are always looking to see who is the reasonable party in this dispute and that party going to get the benefit of the doubt.
BLITZER: Preet Bharara, as always thank you so much for joining us.
BHARARA: Thanks. Good to be here.
BLITZER: All right. Let's get some more analysis from our correspondents and our analysts.
And Susan Hennessey, a dramatic development, "The Wall Street Journal" and "The New York Times," both reporting that Don McGahn, the former White House Counsel, was, according to The New York Times, twice asked by the White House to deny, to come out publicly and deny, say that he never believed that President Trump obstructed justice, and Don McGahn rebuffed those requests.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So talk about not learning your lesson. The Mueller reports comes out, some of the most powerful and damaging information on the grounds of an obstruction charge relate to interactions in which Donald Trump attempted to get Don McGahn to commit a false statement to record. That comes out. Donald Trump immediately turns around in a period of time which members of congress are calling for Don McGahn to come and testify and attempts to pressure, not once but twice, McGahn to commit something to make statement, to create a record that says something that McGahn doesn't actually believe.
Now, whenever McGahn rebuffed him, what are the White House strategies suddenly become, attempting to prevent McGahn from testifying. So, originally, they attempted to get McGahn to tell the story they wanted him to tell. And then whenever he said, no, I'm not going to do that, they pivoted their tactic to essentially prevent him from testifying at all.
BLITZER: You heard Preet Bharara, say -- he did when he say he was witness tampering but it was hovering close to witness tampering. What do you think?
HENNESSEY: Again, as we've seen at the Mueller report, the various elements of sort of the obstruction crimes or the witness tampering crimes can be complex and we need to know all the various pieces of information. Now, McGahn wasn't necessarily going to be testifying, you know.
But I think it does speak to just the President's overall hostility to the law here. This is not about the President not understanding the various technicalities. He should know better than anyone this stuff is deeply inappropriate. It walks right up against the line of criminal law and yet he cannot resist from engaging to this behavior.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it's clear the President believes this is politically damaging to him. One of these occasions was even before the Mueller report was available to the public to read. So after his lawyers got an early look from the Justice Department, they saw what was in there. And according to The New York Times they, saw that McGahn hadn't said apparently to Mueller that he believed that the President didn't obstruct justice.
Now, why didn't Mcgahn say that in the report, but the fact is that he didn't and he also didn't want to say it publicly when the White House tried to pressure him to do it. It's telling because this is also some of the President's advisers trying to get ahead of the President himself who had been privately growing upset about this.
He believed that it would be extremely politically damaging to him even if not legally damaging to him. And I think that's a sign for democrats that there's a something there that they ought to get at. That's only going to fuel the fire as democrats try to get him before the committee.
BLITZER: You know, it's interesting around, Ron Brownstein, because in the Mueller report -- according to the Mueller report, the President, at one point told, Don McGahn, his counsel, Mueller has to go. That was a quote from the Mueller report. The President, he denied it. His aides were denying it. I never told him to, quote, fire, to fire Mueller. If he does testify, this is all going to be very explosive. RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Very dramatic. I mean, don't forget, I mean it was -- our colleague now at CNN, John Dean's testimony during the Senate Watergate hearings a year before impeachment that really crystallized the issues for the country and began the first serious talk of that.
Look, I think what this went under scores above all is the necessity of the country and the Congress hearing from Don McGahn and how absurd it is for republicans like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham basically to say, move along, there is nothing more to learn here. Now, we not only have the need of hearing from Don McGahn about these conversations with the President during his tenure but also the continuing contacts after his tenure.
And it just goes to this kind -- to me, this kind of core issue that we're seeing that you're talking about the subpoenas from the Ways and Means Committee and the Judiciary Committee, is there any point at which republicans in Congress are going to stand up and defend the historic authority of the congressional branch to exert oversight on the executive branch and are they simply going to lock on around the President and all of these issues as they arise even we have a moment like this that's so clearly underlying the need for further testimony.
PHILLIP: President is Tweeting and saying that he's been fully exonerated on this charges, he obviously doesn't actually believe that or he would not be asking his team to reach out to a key witness, Don McGahn, to continue to try to obfuscate on what actually happened. This is his modus operandi, to say that he's been cleared of charges, to say that everything is okay and then, frankly, to ask his henchmen to try to engage in these activities that may be criminal but are certainly unethical. He is obviously worried about the investigations in the house and is trying to color this testimony for that reason.
HENNESSEY: And I think that's exactly right. And I think Ron's point is right about that this underscores the critical importance of having Don McGahn testify.
Now, one of the reasons why you would care about whether or not Don McGahn thought that this was obstruction is because one of the things that members of Congress will going to ask is when the President was attempting to get you to create that record for internal documents, why did you think he was doing that? Was he just doing that because he wanted to send a correction to The New York Times ten days after the story had already been publish or did you think he was trying to do that because he wanted to lock you into false testimony.
That's the kind of information that was not included in the Mueller report but certainly will be critical to Congress as they're trying to make their independent assessment of whether or not the President of the United States violated the law.
BLITZER: Clearly, and, Abby, you cover the White House for us, so they're very, very nervous about McGahn showing up being sworn and sitting and answering questions from members of Congress with all the TV cameras there. PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, the President is clearly extremely bothered by this. He feels like McGahn's testimony in the Mueller report is an open door, that he did not close the case to Robert Mueller and, therefore, to the American public, which is why they have been trying so strenuously to prevent him from testifying in this way.
The President is concerned about the politics of this, the optics of this and also what it does to fuel the investigations that are happening on Capitol Hill, which to him is a -- he puts them all in the same basket. These are, in his view, democratic attempts to harass him. So he is putting all of these things in the same basket even though there are about half a dozen different issues.
So you know, as The Times has a graph in the story that's really interesting. I mean, they say, this is not about a legal risk to the President necessarily. Don McGahn is not going to determine whether or not Trump obstructed justice. However, what it does do is it totally changes the public perception of what is in the Mueller report and what the White House spent weeks and weeks trying to frame in a particular narrow way as a result of Bill Barr's four-page summary of the Mueller report before it was even released.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Ron.
BROWNSTEIN: As we say, we don't know what Don McGahn's sense of obligation is to the public, however. I mean, he has been, you know, a supporter of the President. He's been a good soldier in the conservative legal community. He has been critical to the kind of the pipeline of judges that they have put on the courts.
He wouldn't go as far apparently as kind of after the fact exonerating the President as they asked him to. But is he willing to go to the next step of going before the country as a former official and he is not under the direct control of the President anymore?
Is he willing to go to the country and explain exactly what happened and why he would not provide that, after the fact, exoneration? What is the since of obligation that he feels to the public to explain these episodes that Bob Mueller found so concerning?
HENNESSEY: There is a reason why the White House is so focused on Don McGahn, and because -- it is because the episodes related to Don McGahn are the places in the Mueller report in which Robert Mueller says that all elements of a crime are met. So that is going to be the area in which Congress is really, really focused on.
That is also going to be potentially the area in which Congress is going to -- whenever Robert Mueller does eventually testify or if he does eventually testify, getting Mueller to take that one additional step that he did not do in the report and say, yes, I personally believe the President of the United States committed a crime because all the documentation is right there in that report.
PHILLIP: But there's not a difference here. Remember, I believe, according to the reporting, Don McGahn got two separate requests to make this kind of statement. One before the Mueller report was release and one after. Don McGahn now has benefit of reading all the other issues that were investigated as part of volume two, as part of the obstruction of justice investigation. So if and when he does testify, he is now looking at that body of evidence in addition to his own personal experience as with the President, which could extensively color his testimony when asked if he views whether the President obstructed justice writ large.
HENNESSEY: Don McGahn has also now suffered the President Tweeting about him, essentially calling him a liar, saying, no, I never did that when Don McGahn is under oath on the record saying that that is what happened.
PHILLIP: And, clearly, the White House views on Don McGahn as disloyal at this point, particularly President Trump, that he was not willing to come out and do this. This is actually -- this would be the three occasions now.
One that's documented in the Mueller report and twice since the Mueller report was completed that the White House has tried to get McGahn to say something publicly that McGahn did not believe was accurate or representative of how he viewed the situation.
So McGahn is now in a position where he doesn't have any loyalty to President Trump. I think to Ron's point, we don't actually know how far he's going to take that because he is a republican, he is a loyal soldier to his party and I think there is a real open question about how far he's going to be willing to go.
BROWNSTEIN: But all of that just underscores this core question, is where do these individuals feel their highest loyalty and obligation lies? I mean, it's whether it's Don McGahn or Robert Mueller who will soon presumably be an ex-employee of the Justice Department would have the opportunity to testify, or for that matter, the republicans in Congress who are acquiescing while the President saws off, literally, centuries of congressional oversight authority.
Do they feel any obligation to these kind of transcendent standards of the rule of law or is it all situational and about defending the interest of this President at this moment at a moment in advance -- at a moment when the country is deeply polarized? Do any of them feel any larger loyalty to kind of transcendent standards like the rule of law or the limits on presidential powers or the separation of powers?
BLITZER: Let read to you, Susan, this line from The New York Times report. The White House made one of the requests to Mr. McGahn's lawyer, William A. Burck, before the Mueller report was released publicly but after the Justice Department gave a copy to Mr. Trump's lawyers to read. Reading the report the President's lawyers saw that Mr. Mueller had left out that Mr. McGahn had told investigators that he believed Mr. Trump never obstructed justice. So if McGahn comes and testifies before Congress and says, he didn't believe that the President obstructed justice, what would happen?
HENNESSEY: Well, I think that is a little bit of a tell, there's a bit of an inference to be made here. If Don McGahn didn't perceive it as obstructive, didn't think the President obstructed justice, why wouldn't he release a statement and say, I don't believe that the President obstructed justice? What incentive would there be for him to not weigh in?
I do think that it speaks to the degree of impropriety about Bill Barr sharing a copy of the Mueller report with the President's legal team in advance. So this wasn't just about putting them on sort of basic notice under already expired law but this was about giving the White House a head start to actually begin interfering with how witnesses in that report were going to discuss their testimony.
BLITZER: Do you think, Ron, any of this is going to have any real political impact and undermining some of the President's very ardent support that he has from his core, from his base, from the republicans?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, so far, I think not from the republicans. I mean, they have really made a historic judgment here as the President has undertaking the systematic stone walling of oversight, that they are going to side with him against the institutional interest of the body in which they serve. And it's something that I'm sure will come back to haunt them the next time there is a democratic President.
And Trump has been very successful at convincing his core, core base supporters that any attack on him is an attempt by coastal elites or other contemptuous forces to silence them. But having said all that, the principal reason his approval rating is so much lower than it should be in this economy is because there are so many suburban voters who are doing well economically but don't find him personally fit to be President. And that I think is something that all of this could re-enforce.
BLITZER: All though in the most recent Gallup tracking poll, his approval number went up to 46 percent, which is better than 38 or 37 percent. Everybody stick around. There's a lot more breaking news that's unfolding right now.
The admitted Russian Agent, Maria Butina, gives a jailhouse interview. She says her case was all a big misunderstanding.
[18:48:24] BLITZER: New tonight, admitted Russian agent Maria Butina speaking out from behind bars and denying she was part of a Russian plan to influence U.S. politics.
Brian Todd is joining us with details.
Brian, Butina says her case was just one big misunderstanding.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's essentially what she's saying, Wolf. Maria Butina spoke out since the first time of her sentencing two weeks ago. The accused spy who pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign official spoke by phone with National Public Radio. She said she has no knowledge and there's no proof that she was part of grand plan by the Kremlin to meddle America's in elections.
But Butina was believed to have tried to infiltrate Republican circles during the last election cycle by working contacts at the National Rifle Association and attending their events. So, NPR asked what was she thinking when she came to the United States and started engaging in those activities.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
MARIA BUTINA, RUSSIAN AGENT: My idea, I came here as a peace builder. I've never hide my love to my motherland. Neither to this country. I love both countries. This is the worst thing of my situation now, was that I am embarrassed that instead of creating peace, by not registering, I created discord. That is what I'm going to carry for the whole, my life.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
TODD: And by not registering, she's referring to the requirement she register as a foreign agent. Now, in that interview, Butina does admit that she had contact with Aleksandr Torshin, the former deputy government of Russia central bank who U.S. prosecutors say was Butina's handler. Torshin has been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
[18:50:00] Butina admits feeding Torshin information about her contacts and her activities in the U.S. But did she know that Torshin that was feeding information to the Russian foreign ministry.
Here's her answer.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
BUTINA: Yes, I did meet some people. Not all of them but some of them are known to Mr. Torshin. We know he did some reporting or some notes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We don't know if it ever went to any intelligence services.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
TODD: Butina told CNN a couple of weeks ago that Aleksandr Torshin has cut her off since her arrest. She says her father has contacted Torshin twice and Torshin has essentially brushed her father off. Torshin did not respond to CNN's request for comment, Wolf.
BLITZER: She is still sitting in that jail outside of Washington, D.C. She's been there for months and months. When will she get out?
TODD: She's still at adult detention center in Alexandria, Virginia, Wolf. She was sentenced to 18 months, including time already served. She is due to be released in November and she will almost certainly be deported back to Russia.
Now, the question is, how is Vladimir Putin going to treat her when she gets back to Russia. He cannot be happy, Wolf, that she has almost certainly spoken to U.S. intelligence about her activities.
BLITZER: Very good point, important point. Brian Todd, thank you.
Just ahead, major U.S. cities under cyber attack with hackers demanding millions of dollars in ransom. It's a CNN exclusive.
[18:56:02] BLITZER: Now a CNN exclusive. A new report showing a very disturbing increase in ransomware attacks. Local governments are finding their computer systems crippled and held hostage by hackers demanding ransom.
Our senior national correspondent Alex Marquardt is joining us right now.
Alex, I understand, some major American cities, they are under attack.
ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. In this report that was obtained exclusively by our colleague Kevin Collier, it says that these ransomware attacks have taken place now in 48 states, as well as the District of Columbia.
And what usually happens in the case is foreign hackers take control of local government's computers demanding ransom, often times in cryptocurrency.
And many of these places are major cities, as you say, Wolf. Atlanta was hit last year. Albany, recently, and this just week, hackers successfully attacked the city of Baltimore.
MARQUARDT (voice-over): Tonight, the city of Baltimore is under an extensive cyber attack. Hackers launching an aggressive virus called "RobinHood" and holding many government computers hostage. The assault causing police e-mails to go down, as do the board of elections. The finance department couldn't do business this week. Fax machines and printers were on the fritz.
MAYOR JACK YOUNG (D), BALTIMORE: We know that the teams are working hard. And we do know that they are not in control of certain parts of our system.
It's really frustrating. And this could happen anywhere.
MARQUARDT: And it does. A new report shared exclusively with CNN by Recorded Future is one of the first to measure the scope of these kinds of attacks, showing that across the country, ransomware attacks are on the rise, crippling counties, cities and towns, costing them millions of dollars. Since 2013, malicious foreign actors have been detected targeting local governments, law enforcement and universities 169 times, 22 attacks alone this year, figures the group behind the new study says which represent the tip of an iceberg.
ALLAN LISKA, THREAT INTELLIGENCE ANALYST, RECORDED FUTURE: The bad guys see state and local governments as a target that is willing to pay and that they may be able to get a lot of money out of. If nothing else, they may be able to get a lot of news coverage out of.
MARQUARDT: The attackers are not governments. This isn't about politics but money. Attacking targets big and small underfunded when it comes to cyber security.
LISKA: They've got a bunch of really dedicated people but they don't have the latest tools and equipment to protect themselves.
MARQUARDT: Eric Wyatt is one of those dedicated people. Last fall, he fought off a multi-prong ransomware attack on his 100,000-person community north of Anchorage, Alaska.
ERIC WYATT, MATANUSKA-SUSITNA BOROUGH IT DIRECTOR: They were so into our network that they brought down the vast majority of our workstations and servers. This type of attack we saw was far worse than anything I have seen in my past, being in this industry for over 35 years.
MARQUARDT: One thousand employees were affected. Old typewriters had to be dusted off. The ransom wasn't paid but it costs $2.5 million to fix the problems which still linger today almost a year later.
WYATT: We're outgunned. We don't have the resources to fight this fight. The people who are attacking us are better organized, better funded. And we don't have the same level of capability that they do. So, they see us as a soft target, often we are.
MARQUARDT: The FBI is among first calls that victims make. They say attackers have moved from targeting individuals to larger prizes because it's more lucrative.
ADAM LAWSON, FBI MAJOR CYBER CRIMES UNIT SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: We're seeing larger demands of these victims.
MARQUARDT: The problem the FBI believes is only getting worse.
LAWSON: People are paying the ransom and encouraging the behavior. So, I think we will continue to see an escalation in sophistication of ransomware attacks.
MARQUARDT: The good news, Wolf, is that just 17 percent of local and state governments have actually paid the ransom demanded -- Wolf.
BLITZER: CNN's Alex Marquardt, reporting for us -- Alex, thanks very much.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. To all the mothers, a very happy Mother's Day.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.