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tv   Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer  CNN  January 23, 2018 3:00pm-4:00pm PST

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quit over pressure to oust senior members. is the president trying to meddle with the bureau? north korea even closer. the cia director issues a stark new warning that kim jong-un is just months away from being able to attack the united states with nuclear weapons. what more can the trump team do to protect and defend americans? firestorm. the white house facing questions about a porn star's alleged affair with mr. trump, and with the hush money she was said was illegal. this as some prominent christian conservatives are ignoring the scandal. we want to welcome our viewers in the united states and around the world. i'm wolf blitzer. you're in "the situation room." this is cnn breaking news. >> we're following multiple breaking stories in the russia investigation. tonight, "the washington post" reports that special counsel robert mueller is seeking to question president trump in the
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coming weeks about his decisions to oust national security adviser michael flynn and fbi director james comey. this, as cnn confirms that mueller's team interviewed comey as well as the attorney general, jeff sessions. there's a lot to cover this hour. i'll talk with former u.s. attorney who was fired by mr. trump. and our correspondents and analysts are standing by. first, let's go to cnn's chief national security correspondent jim sciutto. mueller's next big interview could be with the president. >> reporter: that's right. if you look at the people who have been interviewed now or who will soon be interviewed, these names, sessions, comey, the president, if he agrees, it makes it very clear that the focus, a focus of the special counsel's investigation very much on obstruction of justice. the president is on special counsel robert mueller's list for questioning. with mueller planning to interview president trump in the coming weeks about his decision
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to fire national security adviser michael flynn and fbi director james comey. according to "the washington post." >> do you solemnly swear to tell the truth -- >> reporter: cnn learned that comey was interviewed and asked about memos he wrote on his interactions with the president before being fired, this according to "the new york times," which first reported on the interview. cnn has also learned that attorney general jeff sessions was questioned for several hours last wednesday. the first trump cabinet secretary to be interviewed in the mueller probe. and the 15th current or former trump administration official. today, the president said he's not worried about sessions' meeting with mueller's team. >> i'm not at all concerned. >> reporter: topics likely included russia meddling in the election and what sessions knows about the president's decision to fire comey, a matter that
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mueller is investigating for on have you been sh -- for obstruction of justice. >> if i were mueller, i would want to speak to sessions about an obstruction, and perhaps foremost among them, how did it come to pass that comey was asked for loyalty? how did it come to pass that comey was fired? >> reporter: new questions are also being raised about the trump administration's interference with law enforcement. fbi director christopher wray was pressured by the attorney general to make staff changes at the fbi senior level according to a source familiar with the conversation. >> it's one more example of this administration, the president and through his agent, the attorney general, trying to interfere in the fbi's ability to follow the law and help with the investigation into the russia interference with our election and possible trump
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collusion. >> reporter: sessions mentioned that andrew mccabe and the lawyer james baker, though it's not clear whether he told wray to fire or reassign them. baker was reassigned last year. wray threatened to quit with mccabe was fired or reassigned. >> if the president asks you to do something unlawful or unethical, what do you say? >> first, i would try to talk him out of it. if that failed, i would resign. >> reporter: still, president trump told reporters in the oval office today that wray did not threaten to resign. >> he didn't at all. he did not even a little bit, nope. >> reporter: the president has repeatedly blasted the fbi, tweeting in december, after years of comey, with the phony and dishonest clinton investigation, and more running the fbi, its reputation is in tatters, worst in history. fear not, we will bring it back to greatness. some republican lawmakers are
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focusing new criticism on the fbi for apparently losing a series of text messages between top fbi officials who have come under fire for criticizing then candidate donald trump. however, the republican chairman of the senate intelligence committee dismissed the criticism. >> it may be a technical glitch at the bureau. the fact that they have provided, um, the rest of them, certainly doesn't show an attempt to try to withhold anything. >> reporter: news that the special counsel wants to ask the president not just about the firing of james comey but the firing of michael flynn, that's important for a couple of reasons. one, flynn was fired for lying about his contacts with russians. that brings the investigation back to the question of russia, not just things that happened after russia's meddling in the election. another key point as well, flynn pled guilty to a federal crime. he's cooperating with the special counsel. what did flynn tell the special
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counsel about his own dismissal, what the president said to him and will the president's testimony match one that? >> and they're looking closely with how he cooperates, what kind of information he has. he hasn't been sentenced and all of that is relevant. thank you very much. jim sciutto reporting for us. now over to the white house. white house attempting to down play and dismiss some of the fast breaking new developments in the russia probe. let's go to pamela brown. what are you hearing from the trump administration tonight? >> reporter: the press secretary repeatedly said there was no collusion, that the president didn't engage in collusion with the russians. but it appears here that robert mueller and the special counsel is zeroing in on obstruction of justice as it pertains to the president, not necessarily collusion. according to "the washington post," mueller has reached out to trump's lawyers, asking to question him on two specific topics, as jim reported on, the firing of james comey and former national security adviser
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michael flynn. investigators want to know his state of mind, his intent, why did he fire them? was it to obstruct the russia probe, as you'll recall? james comey wrote in his memos that the president asked him to drop the investigation into michael flynn. so mueller's team will presumably want to find out why that is. but, again, sarah sanders, the press secretary, is down playing all this, saying the white house is fully cooperative, that this should wrap up soon. here's what she said today during the press briefing. >> as we said probably just about every day this year since we've been here, that we're going to be fully cooperative with the special counsel, and we're going to continue to do that throughout the process. but we're also not going to comment on who may or may not or could be interviewed at any point, but we're going to continue to be fully cooperative with the process. >> reporter: while the white house wants the probe to wrap up soon, it's far from clear that that will happen. we learned that jeff sessions
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was interviewed by special counsel mueller's team. so clearly these interviews are ongoing. what form the interview will take with the president and mueller's team is unclear. sources say there could be a hybrid situation where he's interviewed in person, as well as in written questioning. certainly, if and when this happens, wolf, it will be a significant development. >> certainly will be. pamela brown, thank you. joining us now, senator sheldon whitehouse, a member of the judiciary. thank you for joining us. >> happy to. >> "the washington post" reporting that robert mueller plans to interview president trump in the coming weeks, particularly about his firings of his national security adviser michael flip and the fbi director james comey. is he building a case potentially for obstruction of justice? >> yeah, and probably has been for a long time now. >> you speak as a former attorney general of rhode island. tell us why you believe that. >> well, because there has just
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been such an abundance of evidence pointing towards that, whether it's the firing of comey, the statements that were made beforehand seeking loyalty. the statements that were made afterwards to the russians, saying that he got rid of comey for the investigation. and then this big cloud of twitter and media on various potential witnesses in the grand jury like jim comey, and on the credibility of the fbi. if all of that is viewed as being intended to influence the grand jury, then that's a form of obstruction of justice. so it would be appalling if the mueller team were not looking at all that evidence and trying to get to the bottom of how and whether obstruction of justice occurred. >> senator, do you believe the president will cooperate? how much can his legal team, for example, influence the nature of this interview with mueller and his team and the format? >> i don't think bob mueller and
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his team are going to be easy to intimidate. i think they're going to get what they want. obviously, he's the president of the united states and certain courtesies as to where you take the interview, and as to what questions can be answered in writing opposed to the ones the prosecutors really want to see live is within bob's discretion, to let him have that flexibility. i'm sure he'll be courteous in that respect. but none of that is going to inhibit bob mueller's ability to get the information that he needs. >> last wednesday -- >> by the way, when he's doing this, when he's doing this, now his witnesses, whether it's sessions or trump himself, are under pains and penalties of perjury. they're within the ambit of the false statements law. and there is no executive privilege. so even the phony nonassertion assertions of executive privilege have to be swept aside. if you're deliberately not remembering stuff, that also can
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create legal peril. so it's going to be harder for sessions or for trump to have fits of amnesia. >> we've now learned that last wednesday, the special counsel robert mueller and his investigator spent hours interviewing the attorney general of the united states, jeff sessions. how significant is that? >> very significant. again, it puts sessions both the equivalent of under oath. it strips him of executive privilege and requires him to answer questions fully and truthfully. second, there's just so much to go into about the obstruction of justice, about the firing of comey, about what was going on with the meetings with the russians back at the convention, which may well be related to the trump efforts to strip on behalf of russia the stuff ukraine provisions out of the republican matt form. sessions was around long enough to know about that stuff, if there was anything going on there. so there's a broad, broad, broad
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array of things that the attorney general could have been talking about, and it could be that they'll get a second bite at him, too. nothing says these officials only get to be interviewed once. >> as you know, robert mueller is also investigating possible collusion. could the attorney general jeff sessions possibly answer whether others in the trump campaign, and he was in the trump campaign, sessions, knew about this russian offer of dirt, for example, on hillary clinton, an offer that was made to george papadopoulos, who has already pled guilty, a former trump campaign staffer. >> yeah, absolutely. that and other things, as well. given all the meetings that sessions had with russians, and given his ability, just from an investigative point of view, to point them in new directions and figure out who else they need to interview based on conversations or information that sessions can report to them. so there's a good chance that this initial interview with sessions was related just to
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obstruction of justice and collusion may be a later interview, we just don't know what the topic was. but nothing says that everything had to be discussed in just one interview. >> the attorney general is also drawing scrutiny right now for reportedly pressuring the fbi director christopher wray to clean house over at the fbi. what was the motivation behind that? >> well, it's hard to tell. but what's really bad about this is that it aligns very closely with a lot of republican talking points in the attack on the fbi that is being maintained, many of us believe falsely, as they scream to try to either deflect public attention from the russia investigation or taint the reputation of the fbi in the russia investigation with the public, or even to taint the image of the fbi with the grand jurors, to seek to influence the
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grand jury that way. again, way out of bounds to seek to influence grand juror in the performance of their duties. >> devin nunez accused the fbi of abusing domestic surveillance tools, international surveillance tools. what would be the impact of that four page memo's release? >> well, i suspect this is a bit of an amped up version of the document that republican senators released, asking for a criminal investigation into christopher steele, the researcher who put together the famous steele dossier. it's a chance for political folks to take an issue that is buried and classified or investigative material and very selectively get portions of it out into the public domain without the public having a chance to understand the whole story.
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on the senate side, we solved that when chairman feinstein put the whole story out, and i think that helped settle that question. it's more complicated, because there's more information behind the devin nunez report. but the house members who have looked at it and have looked at the underlying material say that it simply does not align with the actual classified material that it purports to summarize. >> christopher steele, not just a researcher, a former british spy who was highly regarded by the fbi, the u.s. law enforcement, and u.s. intelligence community. >> relied on frequently by the law enforcement community for his expertise, way before the dossier appeared. >> that's correct. senator whitehouse, thanks so much for joining us. let's bring in secnn's seni legal analyst. thanks for joining us. >> good to be here. >> let's get to that washington post report, the story that the
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special counsel robert mueller plans to interview the president in the coming weeks, and that mueller wants to question the president about the firings of his national security adviser michael flynn and the former fbi director james comey. what does that tell you about the focus of this investigation? >> it tells you in part that the focus of the investigation is on the president of the united states and the preview in your question, you pointed to the two issues that they want to focus on, if the report is to be believed. it also tells you, it's a big deal. it's been reported for a while that ultimately the president was going to -- that the special counsel's office was going to want to talk to the president, and these seem to be more concrete reports that's going to happen. typically, the timing would indicate that -- at least with respect to the things they're concerned about that implicate the president or about which the president may have information implicating others, they're nearing the end. nothing about this investigation is typical when you have a special counsel who has been
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appointed to investigate the activities oh of the president and his closest advisers. that's not a garden variety case. but from my experience in the u.s. attorney's office as a u.s. attorney, when you have an overt investigation and people know what's going on, you save for the end, in the same way that the fbi did with the hillary clinton e-mail investigation, you save for the end the top dog in the case. and this would indicate, if it's true, and i caution people about necessarily believing the timetable as laid out in that article, because it's probably coming from a defense lawyer, people representing donald trump. but if it's to be believed that this interview might happen in the next few weeks, i think that's a considerable sign that we may be nearing some important inflection point in the investigation and in the case. >> "the washington post" is also reporting that the president's team wants the testimony to be a sort of hybrid, written statements and in-person interview. how much influence will the
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president's he will team have in determining the format? >> yeah. i don't know what that is, a hybrid. generally speaking, prosecutors want, if they -- if they're demanding it, they want to speak face-to-face, sitting in a room across from the person they're trying to get information from. and the defense lawyers and they associates can submit documents or affidavits, they can do presentations. but i would find it remarkable if it would be acceptable for the president's lawyers to say, with respect to some issues we're going to give you a document and testimony in writing of some sort that's not sworn. and in some other cases, with respect to some other questions, we'll make the president of the united states available for questioning and follow up that back and forth. that doesn't seem to hold a lot of water as far as i'm concerned. >> would it take place, the questioning of the president of the united states, before a federal grand jury or in an office at the white house or an
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office at the mueller's justice department? >> it could be any one of those thing things. from what i hear being reported from reports an't the special counsel's conduct, if cases where you have a high profile person who is very busy with other duties, and there's no more high profile person in the country or the world than the president. you make accommodations and often the first thing you ask for is a voluntary interview. that seems to be the practice with other significant witnesses in the investigation. so again, this doesn't always work out this way, but the way we did it and the way most people have done it, you make an offer to have a conversation that may be under oath but typically, because it's also a crime to lie to an fbi agent, whether or not you're under oath, sometimes you forego the oath and people sometimes will testify in front of congressional testimonies also don't testify under oath when it's a voluntary type of situation. so i would imagine in the first
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instance, as a matter of deference and courtesy and to get the ball rolling, the mueller folks could be saying you make the president available at a time convenient for him for a period of hours and we'll come to you. we went to the offices of high profile people, too. just to get the meeting on the books and get it going. >> does it suggest to you, as it suggests to other people, that the mueller investigation may be winding down if they're getting ready within the next few weeks to interview the president of the united states himself? >> i was saying a couple of minutes ago, i think that actual hi does indicate they may be true. it may be true and lots of caveats, because we don't know what's happening behind closed doors. we just found out in another report that you haven't mentioned yet that jeff sessions apparently underwent an interview at the hands of the special counsel's office and we didn't hear about that for a
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week. so we don't really know what the status is, other than the signals we get that are taking place. but the bottom line is, the good bet is, they're nearing the end of some stage of the investigation. if it is true that there's a man to interview the president of the united states in the near future. >> this notion that robert mueller and his team have been working obviously for months and months and months on this. they know a ton of information. they know a whole lot more than the pub hick knows, that we knows, and they basically know the answer to every question they're getting ready to ask the president and want to make sure he tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. is that a fair assumption? >> the first part of what you said is absolutely true. the mueller team knows a whole lot more than we do. i think it's also generally the case when you interview someone at the conclusion of an investigation, and the reason you do this at the end, is you want to be able to make sure you
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don't need two bites oh of the apple. so you collect all the information you have, the recollections of all sorts of other witnesses involved in the firing of jim comey or whatever the situation was with michael flynn or collusion with russia, if that's proven or not, and having the benefit of all that information, you can ask more probing, ultimate questions of who may be the ultimate target of the investigation. so then you find that information from other witnesses and wished you would have asked a followup of your main witness. it isn't always the case that you know the answer to everything. sometimes it's the case that part of the reason you do these interviews is not necessarily always to nail the person you're interviewing, but also to see if that person has a more innocent or reasoned -- or reasonable explanation of what looks nefarious to the prosecutors. people forget this. sometimes the job entails giving people an opportunity to explain themselves. sometiming when people take the
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opportunity to explain themselves, they dig themselves into a digger hole. but on occasion, people will give a reasonable explanation as to why you did something that's more innocent than guilty. so it's a combination of those things. >> you just raised about the attorney general of the united states, jeff sessions. he was interviewed for hours by the special counsel last wednesday. how important is his testimony to this overall investigation into possible obstruction of justice? >> that depends on what he says and what he knew. i think it makes sense for the attorney general to have been interviewed, because as part of the investigation is about the nature and circumstances and reasoning behind the firing of jim comey, by all reports, jeff sessions, even though he recused himself from the russia investigation, was involved in the process of terminating jim comey, that's relevant. the other thing it points out that i think is really interesting, is everyone understands that donald trump has been very angry at jeff sessions for recusing himself
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from the russia investigation. now we know that jeff sessions was, in fact, a witness in the case, and the idea that he could have overseen an investigation where he on the one hand is the overseer, and on the other hand actually has testimony that might be relevant to the investigation is untenable. >> sessions, as you know during the campaign, he led the foreign policy team for donald trump. could he possibly have answers to other questions, whether others in the campaign knew about the russia offer to george papadopoulos, dirt on hillary clinton? >> you know, sure. i don't know. yeah, i think anything is possible. anybody who was involved, it's another reason he had to recuse himself from the russia investigation. anyone who is a close associate of the president, involved in a number of meetings that he was, whose recollection of the things that were said and who he met was has been at best sketchy, at worst dodgy or outright false
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and misleading, is in a position to have information that could be damaging. jeff sessions understands, i presume, more than even other people, given his prior life as a united states attorney in alabama, a member of the senate, and now the attorney general of the united states, with oversight of the fbi mind you, what a big deal it is to tell a falsehood in connection with an investigation. >> why do you think the attorney general jeff sessions pressured the fbi director christopher wray to clean house over at the fbi? >> you know, i don't know. it could be innocent, and it could be because sometimes an institution needs a fresh start. he has access to information we don't know. on the other hand, given everything we know about how the fbi has been functioning, and allegations that are being made from various corners, you worry a little bit about that. i think it's the case that chris wray should be commended for trying to run his agency in an
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independent way and not to be bullied around, even by somebody on the organizational chart is ahead of him and above him. i think the fbi will retain credibility over time, notwithstanding potshots that are being taken, but it will retain credibility over time, if the fbi director asserts himself as someone who is independent, knows what's best for the organization, and doesn't at the slightest hint of partisanship change his colors. >> bottom line, what is your sense about this investigation right now? is it heading more toward obstruction of justice or russian collusion or maybe money laundering? >> i'm not going to predict, because people who predict get in trouble, because i understand this is being recorded and i don't want my words to come back to haunt me. look, i think of those three things, we don't know a lot. a lot is submerged.
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but there's been a lot of information that's come out to suggest that the focus on obstruction is a serious part of this. we don't know if it's going to lead to anything at all. sometimes it's the case and it will be disappointing to some people, heartening to other people. sometimes you get to the end of an investigation and you have the final interview to check the box, even if you don't think there will be an ultimate charge. but that's how investigations are done and are supposed to be done. they're not supposed to be prejudged or a preordained result. and it may be that this will lead to something very significant and earth shattering and earth shaking for the country. it also could be something they're putting to dead. >> thanks to much for joining us. let's bring in our spomts a -- correspondents and analysts. >> i agree with everything he said. >> it looks like it's getting to a climax right now, if they're getting ready to talk to the president of the united states. >> as we have reported that the
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attorneys for the president and team mueller of the special counsel's office have been communicating since around christmastime, and now into the new year about just how to do this. it's kind of a dance it was described to me about how they can limit on the trump side the liability, of course, for their client, and how bob mueller can get the information he wants. as preet was saying before, if it was up to team trump, they would have some written interrogatories and respond in writing. and perhaps if that led to a limited kind of questioning, maybe they would do that. i don't know where team mueller is on this. it would seem to me that at some point they would want to have a face-to-face interview with the president. trump's team talks about ronald reagan and what happened during iran contra, and ronald reagan
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gave written answers to questions during iran contra. so they clearly would like that to happen. i don't know if that's enough for mueller. >> jeffrey toobin, "the washington post" is reporting that mueller wants to question the president in the coming weeks, specifically about the firings of michael flynn, his former national security adviser, around former fbi director james comey. what does that tell you? >> well, that to me has always been the heart of the case. even more than collusion. collusion is not a crime. the president's supporters have been pointing that out from day one. there are possibly crimes associated with involvement between the trump campaign and russia. but it is difficult to shoehorn that behavior, whatever it might be, into the criminal horn. however, obstruction of justice is a crime that has often been
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associated with presidential scandals, whether it's richard nixon or bill clinton. and, you know, the firing of james comey alone, james comey was investigating the people around the president and effectively the president himself. the president then fired him as he later admitted because of that investigation. that alone is very substantial evidence of obstruction of justice. whether he lied about other aspects of that is also possible evidence of obstruction of justice. so that remains, i think, the heart of this investigation, whether it turns out that mueller and his team can prove it, either in an impeachment referral or in a criminal case, i don't know. but certainly that's what they're investigating. >> the president in that interview with lester holt of nbc news said he fired comey because of the russia
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investigation. jim sciutto, as you know, michael flynn, who was deeply involved in the campaign during the transition, and then for about a month or so, became the national security adviser to the president before he was fired. he's not coopera he's pled guilty. he's cooperating with robert mueller. how risky is that for the president? >> this is the president's former national security adviser who pled guilty to a federal crime. he can't be dismissed as a coffee boy as george papadopoulos was, who is also cooperating. he was central during the campaign, and in the transition, and he is cooperating now, with tremendous incentive to cooperate, because he faces enormous -- he faces the possibility of enormous fines. and possibly time in prison. and his son, as well. we know that was a driving factor in him cooperating here. so he has all that incentive to
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one, speak the truth. but again, they wouldn't have given him that deal unless in his proffer he had shown them some value to the prosecution. that all spells potential trouble for the president and for senior people around him. the other point i would make is this, if it is true that the president is being questioned not just about comey's firing but flynn's firing, that takes you back to the russia investigation, right? because flynn was fired for lying about contacts with russians. obstruction of justice is a focus here, and there's an obstruction piece to that, because we know that the president asked comey about hetihet
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>> the investigation is not over. but yes, it's less about collusion as jeff rey was sayin a moment ago, but about obstruction of justice. when you talk about flynn -- jeffrey? >> wolf, that brief clip from the president, i think it's going to demonstrate how difficult it will be to interview donald trump. there's not going to be a judge there to insist he answer a question. so he's going to filibuster.
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he's going to say, as he did in a recent interview 16 times, there was no collusion. regardless of what the questions are to him. you know, i just think the president is in a stronger position here than many of us may be thinking about. because he is in control. if he doesn't want to answer these questions, he's not going to answer them. and what is anybody going to do about it? >> you know, he's really talking about no collusion in terms of himself. i mean, to jim's point, and about flynn's contacts with the russians, that's not donald trump's issue unless, unless he was -- he knew what flynn was doing or gave him instruction. so there is -- there is that question. and i don't know what you would call it, whether you would call it collusion or conspiracy. but trump, when donald trump talks, he's talking about himself, not about anybody else.
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>> which is why they want to at least get him in there and get him on the record about the timeline of what he knew and when he knew it. if you look at the president's tweet from december where he said i had to fire niflynn becae he lied to vice president president pence, that leads to the line of questioning when did you know that general flynn talked to ambassador kislyak, and when did you know that sally yates told don mcgahn this has taken place? and why all this time a year ago did you not say the fbi was the reasoning? >> and the firing didn't happen until it broke out if the news. the decision was made only when it became public, not when folks in the white house knew it happened. >> wolf, can i say one more thing about comey? in the case of comey, we don't just have the lester holt interview, but the letter the president sent to james comey firing him. he said i greatly appreciate you
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informing me on three occasions that i'm not under investigation, but i concur with the decision that it's time for you to go. that's the first question for special counsel mueller. >> jeffrey toobin, how significant is the fact that the attorney of the united states, jeff sessions, spent several hours last wednesday answering questions from robert mueller and his team? >> well, again, it is evidence that i think the mueller team is tending towards the end of its investigation. as preet said, you don't get many chances. you only usually get one chance to interview the top people, like the attorney general, like the president. so they would not have brought jeff sessions in unless they had all the evidence that they wanted to question him about. but he is a central figure. he is someone who has told inconsistent stories about his own involvement with the russians during the campaign. in addition, he was intimately
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involved in the decision to fire james comey. both of those are big parts of mueller's investigation, and you can see why there were hours of questions worth to ask him. >> everybody, stand by. that's much more we're following. including money in the stormy daniels saga. was her alleged payoff by the president's lawyer illegal? woman: i'm a fighter. always have been. when i found out i had age-related macular degeneration, amd,
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robert mueller is seeking to interview president trump in the coming weeks. we're learning that mueller's people already has interviewed two other prominent figures in the russia investigation. the fired fbi director james comey and the sitting attorney general of the united states, jeff sessions. also tonight, there are new developments in the case of stormy daniels, the former porn star reportedly paid to stay silent about her alleged sexual relationship with donald trump before he became president. the watchdog group common cause is pushing for an investigation, raising concerns that laws were broken. brian todd is following this story. what's the latest? >> reporter: common cause is saying it believes the payment to stormy daniels was an inlegal campaign contribution. this puts more pressure on president trump to prove that nothing more than a personal transaction was done here. as stormy daniels cashes in on her latest notoriety, landing bookings at strip clubs around
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the country, questions over whether her involvement with president trump could land him in legal trouble. the left leaning watchdog group common cause lodged a complaint, alleging that the reported $130,000 payment to daniels in 2016 to keep silent about an alleged sexual relationship with donald trump, was an illegal campaign contribution. >> i think this payment was for the purpose of influencing the election. that makes it an expenditure by the campaign, given the involvement of michael cohen and president trump himself. >> reporter: common cause wants the federal election commission and the justice department to investigate. common cause says the timing of the alleged payment is crucial. that because daniels was paid just weeks before the 2016 election, and then stopped talking to media outlets around that time, the payment benefited trump's presidential campaign and therefore was a contribution. a contribution that, if it existed, would have exceeded
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limits on donations and also may have violated the law if not reported. some finance experts say it will be tough to prove it was a campaign related expensexpense. still, if the fec deposes key players in this drama, it could get messy. >> to determine what the source of funds were, they have to gather facts, and that's correct involve a conversation with cohen, a conversation with stormy daniels or a conversation with the president. all of which is not good. >> daniels took no questions about the alleged affair when she took the stage on saturday at a strip club in south carolina, but he denies getting hush money, and she and michael cohen denied the affair. tonight, some leaders on the religious right are giving trump a pass. >> we kind of gave him, all right, you get a mulligan, a do-over here. >> tony perkins, leader of the family research council, says
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trump is providing the leadership his movement needs. >> mr. president -- >> reporter: franklin graham, who said bill clinton should resign, said the same thing on msnbc. >> we don't hold him up as the pastor of this country, and he's not. but the president does have a concern for christian values. >> obviously when democrats crossed that line, it was easy for them to criticize democrats. but they did make character an issue. that was one of the hallmarks of the evangelical political movement. what they did with president trump is decide to throw that out the window. >> reporter: trump attorney michael cohen has never denied making a payment to stormy daniels but tells cnn that common cause complaint is "baseless, as is the allegation that president trump filed a false report with the federal election commission. "but we had other questions, specifically where did that reported money paid come from?
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from the trump organization, trump's personal funds, the campaign, possibly a donor or from michael cohen himself? cohen did not get back to us regarding those questions. >> you've been talking to some campaign finance lawyers and others. do they believe this case could really get to the justice department? >> reporter: they say that's a real long shot, that it might not even get to the federal election commission. one expert who knows a lot about this says it would take four votes on that commission just to find reason to believe there might have been a violation of campaign law. that's tough to get. many of these experts just don't see it happening. >> brian todd reporting. let's get back to our correspondents and analysts, as the president faces potential legal problems. jeffrey toobin, potentially, if you believe common cause, this could have enormous legal ramifications of illegal campaign fund-raising, campaign finance laws.
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it potentially could be a very big story. >> well, it could be. but one thing the president has in his favor is that the federal election commission is a paralyzed agency. it is not an agency that is aggressively investigating anything, because it's so polarized along political lines. to launch an investigation, as brian said, would take a substantial majority of the members. the republican members seem unlikely to embrace this, and it is true that, you know, proving that this is a campaign contribution is like buying television advertising time is a difficult thing to do. you know, the president or candidates do all sorts of things that help them be more appealing candidates that are not campaign contributions. this is obviously a very weird and strange situation.
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but what's weird about it is that the president is paying a porn star $130,000. from a common sense perspective, that's what is weird about this. whether it's actually a campaign contribution is a much more difficult legal issue. >> you think ordinarily, gloria, this would be a bigger story than it is? >> yeah, i think it would be. i think it would be a bigger story. i think there's so much incoming right now, and people kind of just shrug. oh, this is donald trump. i mean, one thing that interested me, you ran franklin graham in brian's piece. this notion that the family research council, tony perkins, has said well, the president gets a mulligan on this one. it seems to me that, like the women's groups during the monica lewinsky scandal, they're kind of saying, look, he's going to do what we want him to do. he's in our corner -- >> talking about bill clinton? >> bill clinton.
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women's groups felt that way about bill clinton. they didn't challenge him on the lewinsky stuff, now there's remorse on that. evangelicals are saying he's in our corner on a lot of issues, so we're not going to challenge him on this kind of stuff. so they're going to have some problems with that with their membership, because at what cost? at what cost? >> jim sciutto, how do you see it? >> listen, i don't know what reality we're living in, that it's such a small story relative to all the stuff that's going on. listen, it's -- for a portion of his base, it's never going to be an issue no matter what he does. the president has said as much. but even beyond the base, it may just be the reality is, with trump, the standard is lower for this kind of personal character stuff in the public eye. and even the folks who don't like trump so much may not be so surprised by it. and it's not what they're focusing on. >> i would just add to that, with the base, also there's a
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part of the base that i think would see an fec investigation or a trial as an attack on the president by the deep state or establishment over something that's long ago been litigated, over something that he denies in a way that would make this politically only >> jeffrey, go ahead. >> but just think about the parallel universe we are in. let's change some names. president obama personal lawyer paid the porn star for silence? what a great story that would be? who george bush paid money to porn store. that would be earthquake. this is whatever. it's unbelievable. >> it's because people shrug and say it's donald trump what do you expect. another thing i would add is that you haven't heard anything
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from the first lady on this. you haven't heard anything from her. she is not going to davos. they didn't publicly wish each other happy anniversary yesterday. so what. the point is she has kept very silent about this. and so people kind of shrug. and conservative evangelical group is giving him a mulligan, why shouldn't everyone else? these are value based interest group here. >> i think gloria is right. similar in the sense when the president says something racist, wolf, people say i don't think he said that. they are like well maybe he said it. this is the same thing here. people expect this kind of scandal with president trump oh,
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maybe a woman came out of the pass. >> everybody standing by. very important news. north korea warning the united states not to push it into ha confrontation, as cia director warns kim jong-un is just months away from being able to attack the united states with nuclear missiles. you do all this research
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new tonight north korea is warning that new u.s. military in the area will be dangerous act that could drive kim jong-un to extreme confrontation. their words. kim's regime defending nuclear program on conference on disarmament as the trump administration is driving home the danger to americans. we are hearing about increasingly urgent crease. >> that's right, wolf, good evening. 2018 is the year both donald trump and kim jong-un may be making decisions that will change the world forever. tonight from the cia a blunt and unset blink public assessment for americans about the ongoing capability of north korea to launch a missile attack on the u.s. >> north korea is ever closer to being able to hold america at risk. >> kim jong-un and the u.s. each have a goal. >> he is trying to put in our
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mind the reality that he can deliver that pain to the united states of america. and our mission is to make the day that he can do that as far off as possible. >> the cia is watching crucial moves by kim. >> their testing capacity is improved and frequently they have tests which are materially successful has also improved. putting them ever closer to a place where americans can be held at risk. >> for now economic and deposit mattic pressure leads the way and claim by cia to make that work. >> we have officers working all around the work working diligently to make sure we do everything we can to support the u.s. pressure campaign and tighten the sanction zbls we all agreed that we will not accept a nuclear armed north korea. >> but diplomate itch clash in switzerlan
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switzerland. pyeongchang making it clear they will not give up weapons. >> and countering nuclear threats from u.s. and constitutes a powerful detriment that prevent others from starting a war. >> the pentagon is considering new weapons to deter north korea, including low yield smaller nuclear weapons with lesl lesl lesley th less lethal. but it may not be enough. >> call it what you will. ca call. >> and director pompeo also made it clear the cia is focused right on on trying to figure out what is going on inside north
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korea with kim and his leadership. but the cia director would not say how the agency is going about that. wolf? >> good point. thanks very much, barbara star, reporting for us. that's it for me. thanks very much for watching. i'm wolf blitzer in "the situation room." erin burnett "outfront" starts right now. "outfront" special news mueller wants to talk to trump. zeroing in on firing of flynn and comey. is mueller preparing a case for obstruction of justice? plus republicans pushing to let a memo out and trump may be backing them. and a major leader says trump gets a, quote, mulligan for alleged a fair with a porn star. tony perkins will be our guest tonight. let's go "outfront." good evening i'm erin burnett. "outfront" tonight


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