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Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) Interviewed About DOJ Legal Opinion; Collusion Clean-Up?; International Situation. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 14, 2019 - 17:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news.

Trump's taxes. Tonight the Justice Department has just released a lengthy legal opinion which supports the Treasury secretary's refusal to hand over President Trump's tax returns. Will House Democrats now turn to the courts?

Collusion clean-up? If President Trump is trying to clean-up a mess of his own making, now saying that if presented with campaign dirt by a foreign source, he would give the material to the FBI after taking look.

International situation. A U.S. official says a drone spotted Iranian boats closing in before the attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The president says subsequent video reportedly showing Iranian removing a mine from one vessel proves that Iran did it. Now the Pentagon says we have an international situation.

And plot twist. Stunning new twist in the shooting of baseball legend David Ortiz as the alleged trigger man yells to reporters that Ortiz was not his intended target while prosecutors say the suspect already admitted to plotting to kill Ortiz.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Breaking news. The Justice Department has now released a legal opinion supporting Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's refusal to give Congress President Trump's tax returns. Mnuchin now has rejected a request and a subpoena from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman.

Meantime, President Trump is trying to clean-up his comment about being willing to accept campaign dirt from foreign sources. He now says he would give them material to the FBI after checking it out himself.

Also breaking tonight, we're learning that before two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, a U.S. drone was fired on after spotting Iranian boats closing in on the tankers. After the attacks, the U.S. military released video that it says, shows Iranians removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the ships.

I'll speak with Senator Mazie Hirono of the Judiciary and Arms Services Committees. And our correspondents and analysts will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju. Manu, what are we learning about this new Justice Department legal opinion?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, in a very aggressive 33-page letter sent tonight from the Office of Legal Counsel, from the Justice Department, for the first time detailing the legal argument why the Trump administration will not turn over President Trump's tax returns. Six years of his tax returns for the House Ways and Means Committee despite facing the subpoena from the chairman of that committee, Richard Neal. In this opinion the Justice Department calls this quote, "unprecedented," this request, calls it a quote, "serious risk of abuse."

What they are accusing Richard Neal of trying to do is essentially release these tax returns publicly. They believe that the comments made by the chairman suggest that perhaps he could do something that would undermine the secrecy and sensitivity of President Trump's tax returns.

Now one of the things they are arguing here as a Treasury Department did in rejecting the subpoena that Richard Neal issued earlier this spring was saying this lacks a legitimate legislative purpose. This is an argument they have been making in this fight and in other court fights as well. But Richard Neal, the chairman of the committee has said that there is a legislative purpose. He said one thing they are examining is whether or not the presidential auditing system on tax returns whether that needs to be overhauled in any way. Whether there need be anymore legislation to change that.

And of course, that's been the justification as to why the president has not released his tax returns despite his predecessors doing so while they were campaigning for president. But nevertheless they are making the argument here that there's no legitimate legislative purpose even though courts in separate court battles have rejected the notion that Congress does not have a legislative purpose when seeking separate records, including financial records in a separate court case but nevertheless that is the argument here accusing the chairman of the committee doing something what they are saying unprecedented and something that could risk abuse of the president's tax returns, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, Manu, what's the next move for Democrats?

RAJU: Well Democrats are setting the stage for a legal fight in acknowledging that this could play out for months, if not years behind closed doors. Earlier this week, the House general counsel told Democrats in a closed door meeting that this fight could take some time potentially until 2020 maybe even beyond. No one quite knows but Democrats are trying to initiate that lawsuit sometime soon. Some members of that committee, the House Ways and Means Committee have expressed concern that they have not moved more aggressively. Not filed a lawsuit even earlier.

[17:05:03] That's one member of the committee, Lloyd Doggett, told me just yesterday he believes this committee needs to be more aggressive filing a lawsuit, calling for an impeachment inquiry instead. Saying that can actually help their efforts to get information including the president's tax returns.

Expect that debate among Democrats to continue but the best way to pursue this kind of information but nevertheless at the moment what's going to happen is litigation. Democrats will fight to get these tax returns and the Justice Department now laying out their rationale of why the Trump administration should not turn over six years of the president's tax returns, Wolf.

BLITZER: Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill. Thank you.

After creating uproar, President Trump is now back-tracking his comment about being willing to accept foreign campaign dirt. Let's go to CNN's chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta for the latest. Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump, Wolf, has caused some collusion, confusion, now saying he would inform the FBI if a foreign government tried to offer him political dirt on an opponent. The president has been all over the place on this issue appearing to say he was pro-collusion after months of claiming there was no collusion.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump is doing some collusion clean-up insisting he would go to FBI if a foreign power handed him damaging information about a political rival. Though the president seemed to leave some wiggle room conceding he might look at it first.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (via telephone): Of course, you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that. But, of course, you do that. You couldn't have that happen with our country, everybody understands that and I thought it was made clear, in fact I actually said at the beginning, I think I said I'd do both, but how are you going to -- if you don't hear what it is, you're not going to know what it is.


ACOSTA: Still it's an attempt at damage control after sounding curious about collusion.


TRUMP: I think you might want to listen. There's nothing wrong with listening.

It's not an interference. They have information. I think I would take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I'd go maybe to FBI. If I thought there was something wrong.


ACOSTA: One Trump campaign aide sees the president's comment as a directive.


KAYLEIGH MCENANY, TRUMP'S CAMPAIGN SPOKESWOMAN: The president's directive, as he said, a case by case basis. He said he would likely do both. Listen to what they have to say but also report it to the FBI.


ACOSTA: As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to dismiss Mr. Trump's remarks.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): They just can't let it go. I said weeks ago, case closed. We got the Mueller report, the only objective evaluation that will be conducted.


ACOSTA: But some Republicans are taking issue with the idea of accepting foreign dirt.


REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Nobody should ever, ever take any foreign intelligence or any information from any foreign government. If that's not the law and I think it is, if that's not the law, we need to make that clear.


ACOSTA: The president also got testy with the notion that he evaded questions on obstruction during the Russia investigation.


TRUMP: I answered a lot of questions. They gave me questions. I answered them in writing.


TRUMP: Look, George, you're being a little wise guy, OK, which is you know typical for you. Just so you understand. Very simple. It's very simple. There was no crime. There was no collusion.


ACOSTA: And Mr. Trump rejected former White House Counsel Don McGahn's claim that he was asked to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I don't care what he says. It doesn't matter. That was to show everyone what a good counsel he was.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Why would he lie under oath?


TRUMP: Because he wanted to make himself look like a good lawyer.


ACOSTA: The president is standing by White House Counsel Kellyanne Conway after a government watchdog recommended that she be removed from her position for accusations of violating the Hatch Act by engaging in political activity in her official capacity.


TRUMP (via telephone): It looks to me like they are trying to take away her right of free speech. And that's just not fair.


ACOSTA: But that's not exactly true as the law does limit political advocacy for federal employees. The president also talked up Vice President Mike Pence but not enough to guarantee he would support him in 2024.


TRUMP (via telephone): I love Mike, we're running again but you know you're talking about a long time. You can't put me in that position. But I certainly would give it very strong consideration.



ACOSTA: The president's re-election campaign is now acknowledging that it's seeing polling numbers from back in March that showed former Vice President Joe Biden leading Mr. Trump in some key states. In a statement from the campaign they just put out a short while ago aides argue a lot has changed since March and adding quote, "these leaked numbers are ancient in campaign terms." But make no mistake, Wolf, they are concerned about Joe Biden inside the Trump campaign, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sure they are. All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, a member of both the Judiciary and the Armed Service Committees. Senator thanks so much for joining us and I want to get right to the breaking news here. You heard it reported. The Office of Legal Counsel over at the Justice Department has just released this very lengthy and I have it here, 33- page opinion siding with the Treasury Department's refusal to hand over President Trump's tax returns to lawmakers, tax returns from the last six years. Does that hurt Congress' case right now? Where do you go from here?

[17:10:01] SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): This is totally not unexpected. The law, the relevant law says that these returns must be turned over. The word must says must. So whatever Attorney General Barr and the Office of Legal Counsel is arguing does not comport with the plain meaning of the statute. But it's not surprising because you have an attorney general who continues to act like the president's personal lawyer and not lawyer for the United States. So once again, sadly, I'm not surprised because basically what the president wants are people around him who will protect him and who will make sure that he gets his way.

BLITZER: I just want to be precise. The law says that the Treasury Department shall hand over the tax returns. That's the argument that the Congress is making. But the letter from the Office of Legal Counsel over the Justice Department says Congress' request raises, in their words, a serious risk of abuse. Do you have any concerns about lawmakers abusing their power in cases like this, for example, releasing that confidential, that quiet information about someone's tax returns making it public?

HIRONO: The president said himself during his campaign that he would release his tax returns and he says a lot of things and he said a lot of things during his campaign but he hasn't delivered on very many of them. So here is another instance. The word shall is in the statute. Shall means - shall which means must. So that's how I look at it.

And again, I'm really disappointed. More than disappointed in the attorney general for not reading the statute the way it should be read. This is an attorney general who believes in what's known as a unitary executive which means all power goes with the executive, i.e., the president.

So, there's a lot of danger in that the perspective of the attorney general with regard to not just this but so many other issues that will come before Congress. And their attempt to get to the bottom of what this administration is doing in so many areas and including, by the way, continuing obstruction of the Mueller report and what that portends.

BLITZER: So what do Democrats do now?

HIRONO: We have to go to court. And I just think that every time that the Trump administration makes a decision or he does an executive order, somebody has to go to court. What a waste of resources and time. But that's what we're having to do. So that's one of the reasons that this administration is so intent on packing the courts with, by the way, the complicity of Mitch McConnell. So intent on packing the courts with people who will side with the president on this as well as so many other issues. That is their intent and the court packing that is going on and why Mitch McConnell sole intent on having as many judges being placed in their lifetime positions as possible, as quickly as possible because just about everything this administration does leads to a court battle. BLITZER: Senator, let's turn to the president's stunning admission that he would be willing to accept foreign dirt on a political opponent including foreign dirt provided from Russia or China or other adversaries of the United States. You support opening an impeachment inquiry but many of your Democratic colleagues still very much reluctant to open a formal procedure. Do you think comments like this from the president will convince lawmakers who might be on the fence right now that it's time to begin impeachment proceedings?

HIRONO: I've said that it's time to begin impeachment inquiries which means that we're going to be very focused on all of their different aspects of what this administration is doing this including, by the way, the obstruction of justice claims that are examined by Mueller.

So, yes, I say it's time for us to be very focused on what we need to have the country focused on as we all know. And it's been said and framed this way, people are going to watch the movie. They're not going to read the book. They're not going to read the 400-page Mueller report. And particularly the part two which talks about and lays out the obstruction of justice activities that this president has engaged in and continues to engage in.

BLITZER: The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is dismissing your concerns, the Democrats concerns about the president's latest comments. He says Democrats are trying to keep the 2016 election alive. What's your response to Mitch McConnell?

HIRONO: I think it's really sad that Mitch McConnell continues to support the president and everything he does. He is like a total apologist for the president. What I think should happen is that every single member of Congress should be asked would you take dirt, would you meet with the foreign country to accept dirt on an opponent. Every member of Congress should be asked that. And I noticed that Mitch McConnell couldn't even answer that. I consider that pathetic and I would say unpatriotic.

[17:15:01] BLITZER: Let's turn to another sensitive issue. You're in the Armed Services Committee. The attacks on these oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the Trump administration says Iran is behind these bombings. Have you been briefed on these attacks?

HIRONO: No. And I think Congress needs to be briefed because this administration's reputation for honesty is not exactly high. And so Iran could very well be behind these attacks but we need to know for sure. And I'd like to hear from the Intelligence Community and if we are creating a scenario where we could possibly go to war with another country, for one thing the president needs authorization from the Congress and he is certainly not moving in that direction. And as our European allies have said, this is a time for maximum restraint because we hardly need to be bungling ourselves into yet another Middle Eastern war.

BLITZER: Senator Hirono thanks so much for joining us.

HIRONO: Thank you. BLITZER: Up next, more on the breaking news. The Justice Department has just released a very lengthy opinion which supports the Treasury secretary's refusal to hand over to Congress President Trump's tax returns.


[17:21:10] BLITZER: Breaking news. A U.S. official says a U.S. drone was fired on after spotting Iranian boats closing in before the attacks on the tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The president says subsequent video purportedly showing Iranians removing a mine from one vessel proves that Iran did it.

Let's go live to CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen. He is joining us from Tehran right now. Fred, how is Tehran responding and have they specifically addressed this new video released by the U.S. Military Central Command?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've been looking for that throughout the day really on Iranian state television, also from Iranian officials as well. That specific video is not something that they have talked about at all. There are some Iranian news agencies that sort of mentioned that this video existed but there really hasn't been any commentary as to what exactly is in that video. However, the Iranians are continuing to stick by their stories saying they are absolutely not behind the attacks on those tankers. In fact they are saying they believe it's the U.S. that's been fueling the tensions in the Gulf of Oman. So the Iranians absolutely they are sticking by their story.

One of the things that's been a big thing here on Iranian media especially on the Forces News Network which are semi-official, they've been saying look even the company that runs the ship that was in question, that's allegedly in that video, the sailors from that ship are apparently saying that they don't believe that their ship was hit by a mine. They are saying they believe that it might have been some sort of projectiles that were fired at the ship. So that's certainly something that is getting a lot of air play here in Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranian foreign minister again saying that the U.S. is fanning the flames of what's going on in the Middle East. Javad Zarif came out and he said that he believe it's the U.S. that is trying to destabilize the region and prevent diplomacy from happening. Wolf?

BLITZER: Fred, president Trump says his pressure campaign is working and that Iran right now is in deep, deep trouble. Does that appear to be the case? You're there in Tehran.

PLEITGEN: Right. No, it certainly doesn't. I mean there are two things that President Trump has wanted to achieve. On the one hand, he wanted the Iranians to go back to the negotiating table. On the other he wanted things to calm down especially in the area of the Persian Gulf and of course also the Gulf of Oman as well. Right now what you have is you have the standoff between the U.S. and Iran which apparently is still going on in the Gulf of Oman and which has been going on. The tension of course has been high in the entire Persian Gulf region. And then if you look at some of the things the Iranians have been saying over the past I would say 24 hours or so and especially today at Friday prayers, they were saying that they believe that Iran supreme leader humiliated President Trump by rebuffing an offer from President Trump which was brought over here by the prime minister of Japan for new talks to happen. So, right now the Iranians, not willing to talk and of course the situation here in the Persian Gulf heating up rather than cooling down. Wolf?

BLITZER: Absolutely right, very, very tense. Fred Pleitgen in Tehran for us, thank you.

Coming up, we're going to have more on the breaking news. The Justice Department backing the refusal to release President Trump's tax returns to investigators calling the request unprecedented.

Plus, the president tries to tamp down the furor cause by his remarks that he would take dirt on his opponents from foreign adversaries.


[17:29:07] BLITZER: Breaking news. The Justice Department has just weighed in on a congressional Democrats request to see President Trump's tax returns over the past six years. The legal opinion supports Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's refusal to hand over the tax returns and calls the Democrats' request unprecedented and a quote, "serious risk of abuse."

Let's bring in our political and legal experts who will talk about this ongoing battle.

Laura Jarrett, you're over there at the Justice Department. You've gone through this 33-page document from the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. What's your analysis?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: It's a pretty aggressive argument, Wolf. Basically what the Justice Department is saying here is look, we recognize that the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neal has brought authority to get the tax returns under this little known provision. It says shall furnish. That means the Treasury secretary shall turn them over.

[17:30:00] However, the Justice Department concludes that because Chairman Neal doesn't have a legitimate legislative purpose here, therefore, Mnuchin doesn't have to turn them over.

And they looked at a litany of statements that Chairman Neal and other Democrats have made. And the Justice Department concludes that, really, the true purpose was to make the tax returns public, and they don't see that as a legitimate legislative interest.

Even though Neal, of course, has said that he is interested in looking at how audits are done on presidents, and he's looking into other legislative proposals, the Justice Department doesn't buy any of that and says, therefore, Mnuchin had a duty not to disclose the returns. Of course, the Justice Department doesn't have the last word here, of

course, Wolf, because Chairman Neal has subpoenaed for the tax returns, and so this is likely a battle that is heading to court. But the fact that the Justice Department has now weighed in is certainly trying to give heft to the administration's position.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point. Mark Preston, it looks like the Democrats are going to challenge this. They're going to go to court. It could wind up, potentially, when all is said and done, in -- before the United States Supreme Court to make a decision. This could take a long time to get there. I assume the President would rely on the conservative majority in the Supreme Court to back him up and refuse to release those tax returns.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, there's no question, right. I mean, he's been trying to play this out and try to run out the clock as long as he can.

We should note, I mean, there's no law that says if you're running for president, you have to turn over your tax returns. That's just something that has been done. However, his insistence not to show them and to continually say that he is -- that he is being -- under audit leads you to believe, what is in these tax returns that he doesn't want us to see?

We know he's worth a lot of money. We understand they're really complicated, right? But what is in them that he is so insistent about it? That in itself, I think, is his downfall.

BLITZER: Even if the administration were to lose in court, this process, you know, April, could drag on and on and on for many, many months.

APRIL RYAN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: Yes, Wolf. This is what the President, well, when he was a civilian, Donald Trump, used to do. He would go into court battles knowing that he would make the other person lose interest in it. He would wait it out for so long and play this gotcha game going to court.

But this is a different stage. This is the American public. He's trying to play this out in the court of public opinion, but it could actually backfire on him because, as he's going through, you know, we get information. Information is leaked. And what if there is information that he can't refute?

So this is a dangerous game that he's playing, but he's done this before. And if it does go to the Supreme Court, he is hopeful that that majority, that conservative majority, will actually look in his favor -- be on his favor. And the question is, what is the Justice Department doing now also? Is this checks and balances, or is this I'm in your court?

BLITZER: The Office of Legal Counsel, Phil Mudd, at the Justice Department is supposed to be nonpartisan.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes. BLITZER: Very, very legal. You used to work there. You worked in

the CIA, the FBI.

MUDD: Yes.

BLITZER: What's your experience? Is it non-partisan, the Office of Legal Counsel?

MUDD: No, but that's a different question from saying whether there are excellent lawyers there. There are excellent lawyers there just there's -- as there are at the Supreme Court. Would you ever sit back and look at conservative and liberal divides on the Supreme Court and say there's no politics there? You can be a great lawyer and still be hired by the Republicans or Democrats and have a political view.

One quick story, when I was at the -- at the CIA helping to run the counterterrorism program, we asked the Office of Legal Counsel for an opinion, multiple opinions, on techniques. They told us they were constitutional and legal under President Bush, like it or not. What did President Obama say? He told us, publicly, that we tortured people.

So if you want to look at divides about how the Office of Legal Counsel looks at issues, you can go back over time, and you can't escape the fact that there are some politics here, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. You know, Laura, the President, today, is trying to walk back his truly stunning admission that he would accept dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government, including a hostile foreign government like Russia or China. Listen to what he is now saying. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (via telephone): I don't think anybody would present me with anything bad because they know how much I love this country. Nobody is going to present me with anything bad.

Number two, if I was and, of course, you have to look at it because if you don't look at it, you're not going to know if it's bad. How are you going to know if it's bad? But, of course, you give it to the FBI or report it to the Attorney General or somebody like that.


BLITZER: So he says, of course, you have to look at it, otherwise you won't know if the information is good or bad. Does that make any legal difference?

JARRETT: No, not at all. There's no exception in the law in order to take a look or take a peek at something to decide whether or not you should turn it over to the FBI. The law is pretty clear here, I think, despite some sort of back and forth, you know, that the President's had, that his allies have had, saying that there seems to be, you know, some murky ground here and that they were sort of inexperienced previously on the campaign.

The law is pretty clear, you cannot take a thing of value from a foreign government. You just simply cannot do it. The interesting part, of course, is if you look at the Special Counsel's report in the Mueller investigation, it shows that at least in the case of some of the instances, at least with Don Junior, there was a question about the intent to receive information.

[17:35:08] And at least, in that case, Mueller concluded they couldn't conclude that Trump Junior knew what he was doing was wrong. And so that's why I think you've seen sort of legislative report -- proposals bubbling up this week with other congressmen, especially Mark Warner, saying we need to make the law crystal clear here.

BLITZER: What do you think, April, about the President's cleanup effort?

RYAN: Well, I want to piggyback off of something that Laura just said. After two-plus years, by now, the President understands -- and after this Mueller investigation, he understands the stakes are very high, O.K.?

But when you -- when you deal with this issue, saying that he would take dirt from another country, our founding fathers put that into their pillars, the pillars of this nation, to thwart the French and the British from coming and infiltrating into our government.

Now, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by ranking member Greg Meeks, they are going to look into this next week. They're going to talk about what's going on. They're going to talk about a way forward with this. They want to make decisions on this because this goes right back to the Mueller investigation.

If the President meant it or not, it does not bode well for him. This is a very serious, serious situation.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There's more news we're following. President Trump today compared her to Jackie O. Tonight, CNN is taking a closer look at the first lady, Melania Trump.


[17:41:07] BLITZER: A White House official tells CNN first lady Melania Trump would be supportive if her communications director, Stephanie Grisham, wants to replace Sarah Sanders. The President announced yesterday Sanders will be leaving her post as the White House Press Secretary at the end of the month.

This comes as our Kate Bennett is shining a spotlight on the first lady later tonight in a "CNN SPECIAL REPORT: WOMAN OF MYSTERY, MELANIA TRUMP." Here's a quick preview.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the first lady of the United States, Mrs. Melania Trump. (APPLAUSE)

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER (voice-over): She's the most unusual first lady in modern history.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Melania Trump is never beholden to the Washington ways of broadcasting everything you're thinking and doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are persistent rumors that Mrs. Trump does not live in this White House.


BENNETT (voice-over): She's forging her own path.



BENNETT (voice-over): Flying under the radar.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Still no sighting of the elusive first lady.

BENNETT (voice-over): Setting her own trends.

TRUMP: Everybody has a different taste.


BLITZER: This jacket.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think she can shake it, do you?


BENNETT (voice-over): Not to mention coping with the intense scrutiny of her marriage.

FRANK BRUNI, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I get the feeling that she cares less about what people think than any of her predecessors.


BLITZER: Kate Bennett is joining us right now. Kate, I want to talk about the new documentary in just a moment, but, first, I want to get to the shake-up inside the White House now that the Press Secretary Sarah Sanders is stepping down. Why do some think Melania Trump's communications director, Stephanie Grisham, could be next in line for that job? And how does the first lady feel about that?

BENNETT: Well, a couple of reasons, Wolf, one is that Stephanie Grisham is an original on the Trump campaign. She started -- she and Dan Scavino are the only ones left who've been there that long.

She started as a press wrangler for the President during the campaign. When his administration started, she worked in the West Wing in the communications office, and then the first lady pulled her over to the East Wing. So she has relationships sort of in all factions of the White House. Also, good relationships with the press.

And she has demonstrated that she is a fiery defender, as we have seen with the first lady, of this administration. She could be the sort of vocal mouthpiece that the President needs as he goes into the 2020 election season.

But certainly, I think the first lady -- if her name is being mentioned -- and it is, I know this from reporting -- it means the first lady endorses it. Because I know Stephanie Grisham likely would not be doing anything, leaving the first lady or even considering it, if Melania Trump hadn't said it was O.K.

BLITZER: The President also unveiled a new design for Air Force One which has, more or less, looked the same for decades. In doing so, he made a notable comparison between his wife and a former first lady. Kate, listen to this.


TRUMP: I like the concept of red, white, and blue and the classic. And I think it's going to look much better, actually. You know, the baby blue doesn't fit with us. And people get used to something but -- and it was Jackie O. and that's good. But we have our own Jackie O. today. It's called Melania. Melania. We'll call it Melania T.


BLITZER: How do you think Melania T. feels about the comparison to Jackie O.?

BENNETT: Listen, I think it's -- most first ladies would love to be compared to Jackie O. as far as her sense of style and her place in history. I don't think that Melania Trump likes any sort of comparison. She's very much her own person.

And we've watched her be very different than most modern first ladies. I'm not sure how she would feel about the comparison. I think, you know, there were moments including the inauguration, images of which we just showed, where she wore a very Jackie-esque baby blue outfit. So, certainly, we'll see, but I don't -- I think she's her own person, Wolf. Check out more about her later tonight.

[17:45:05] BLITZER: Tell us a little bit more about your documentary, "WOMAN OF MYSTERY," that airs later tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. What can we expect? BENNETT: We got very rare access into the East Wing. No one's really

been up there, Wolf, since the Trump administration has begun. We sat down with some of her staff, and we see what's happening behind the scenes and learn a little more about someone that most of the country still has questions about, the mysterious Melania Trump.

BLITZER: We're looking forward to seeing it later tonight. Kate Bennett, excellent, excellent reporting as usual.

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much. And once again, be sure to watch Kate's special report, "WOMAN OF MYSTERY, MELANIA TRUMP." It airs later tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

Coming up, surprising twist as investigators try to figure out why someone shot former Red Sox star David Ortiz.


[17:50:29] BLITZER: Tonight, we're learning surprising new details about the apparent plot that led to the shooting of former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz. He was shot Sunday while at a nightclub in the Dominican Republic. Ortiz now is in guarded condition at a Boston hospital.

CNN's Brian Todd has the very latest for us. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the new plot twists tonight are, frankly, stunning. We have learned that at least two of the suspects are wanted in the U.S. for violent crimes. Layers of this plot are peeling away. Suspects are talking. And at least one of them, it appears, is desperately trying to save his own skin.


TODD (voice-over): A shout from a Dominican jail cell and another strange twist in the investigation into the shooting of David Ortiz. The alleged triggerman, Rolfi Ferreira Cruz, yells to reporters Ortiz was not his intended target, that he was confused by Ortiz's clothes.

ROLFI FERREIRA CRUZ, SUSPECT IN SHOOTING OF DAVID ORTIZ (through translator): It was confusing. I was told the color of the clothing, nothing else. I didn't see him.

TODD (voice-over): A prosecutor in the Dominican Republic disputes that, saying the gunman is clearly seen on surveillance footage going right up to Ortiz and shooting without hesitation.

The prosecutor says the suspect already admitted under interrogation to being part of a conspiracy to kill Ortiz and that they believe he is making up a story to avoid being killed in jail for allegedly targeting such a beloved figure. A former U.S. marshal agrees.

JAMES SCHIELD, FORMER CHIEF OF INTERNATIONAL OPERATIONS, U.S. MARSHALS SERVICE: I think that's probably a bit of self-preservation on his part. You know, Mr. Ortiz is a pretty renowned figure.

TODD (voice-over): The 10-time All-Star slugger for the Boston Red Sox, known as Big Papi, was shot in the back Sunday as he sat in a nightclub in the Dominican Republic. A total of nine suspects have been taken into custody, and prosecutors tell CNN some have been cooperating.

SCHIELD: It tells me there's a potential organization here. It is not just, you know, a case of mistaken identity. It's probably an organization, and there's some reason for why Mr. Ortiz was targeted.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, officials say Ferreira-Cruz, the alleged gunman, is wanted in New Jersey for two armed robberies in 2017. And authorities in Redding, Pennsylvania are investigating whether another suspect, Luis Rivas Clase, is the same man who is wanted by authorities in an attempted murder there last year.

SHERIFF ERIC WEAKNECHT, BERKS COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA: We feel that it is the same individual that's charged with both crimes.

TODD (voice-over): Rivas Clase is still on the run tonight. How could two suspects in violent crimes in the U.S. have made their way to the Dominican Republic? Former U.S. Marshal James Schield says it's possible one or both of them might not have been entered into a national database of wanted criminals. But there are other possibilities as well.

SCHIELD: They could possess some form of false identification under another name. They could have traveled before the warrant was issued. They could have traveled before there was an agreement to put it into the system.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, police are still not talking publicly about what the motive could have been for the targeting of an athlete who, analysts say, was more popular than most presidents in the Dominican Republic.

THOM LOVERRO, SPORTS COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Make no mistake about it, David Ortiz is a larger than life figure not just in Boston but in the Dominican Republic. It could be any kind of slight. It could be freezing out a former friend. This is an athlete with enormous amounts of money. I'm guessing it's probably a very personal, deeply personal, reason if David Ortiz was targeted.


TODD: And tonight, prosecutors in the Dominican Republic are telling CNN they believe some of the planning took place in prison. They say some of the people charged in this case were already in prison for other crimes, and they believe they were involved from prison in setting up the hit on David Ortiz. Tonight, Ortiz is in guarded condition in a Boston hospital, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope he makes a full recovery. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Coming up, the breaking news. The Justice Department releases a legal opinion which supports the Treasury Secretary's refusal to hand over President Trump's tax returns. Will House Democrats now turn to the courts?


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Withholding taxes. Tonight, the Justice Department is backing up the administration's refusal to turn over the President's tax returns. It's a new flashpoint in the Democrats' battle against stonewalling by the White House.

Cleaning up dirt. Mr. Trump is trying to walk back some of his most stunning comments yet that left the impression he was open to foreign interference in the 2020 election. Is his position on potential collusion any clearer tonight?

[17:59:57] Flynn back the court. As the former national security adviser prepares for sentencing, he's expected to face a judge next week. We're going to tell you what Michael Flynn's urgent court appearance is all about.