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White House Hunts For Anonymous Op-Ed Writer; Interview With Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono; Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings Continue; CNN: Pentagon Fears U.S. Troops Could Be At Risk For Potential Russian Attack on Militants in Syria. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 6, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:04]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the president is on the road and raging.

Kavanaugh confusion. Mr. Trump's Supreme Court nominee is hit with cryptic questions about conversations he may have had about the Russia investigation. What was Democratic Senator and possible presidential hopeful Kamala Harris trying to get at? We could hear from her again this hour.

And within a stone's throw. Two associates of Trump ally Roger Stone are about to face Robert Mueller's grand jury. Is it a sign that Stone may be indicted soon?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, a new kind of loyalty test for Trump White House insiders, as the president rages over the anonymous op-ed that portrays him as an amoral leader endangering the United States of America.

More than 20 top administration officials are publicly denying that they are the author, from the vice president to Cabinet members and even the first lady.

We're also monitoring the confirmation hearing for the president's Supreme Court nominee. Democrats pressing their concerns about Judge Brett Kavanaugh and battling with Republicans over the release of documents.

I'll speak with Senator Mazie Hirono. She's a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president is heading to Montana, where you are, getting ready for a rally over there, but that op-ed is certainly, definitely very much on his mind.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And we will see if the president talks about that "New York Times" op-

ed later on this evening when he arrives in Montana for a rally with supporters. He did not talk about it on his way out of the White House earlier today, but we do know the White House has struggled all day long to contain the fallout of this op-ed purportedly written by somebody who describe themselves as a senior administration official.

And we do know, Wolf, multiple White House officials and even their allies outside the White House have been rambling all day long to figure out the answer to one big question. Who is anonymous?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's become a Washington whodunit, as in the mystery of the senior administration official who anonymously wrote a scathing op-ed in "The New York Times" claiming to be part of an internal Trump White House resistance out to stop the President Trump damaging the nation.

So far, more than a dozen top officials, a who's-who's, from the vice president to Cabinet secretaries, all released statements personally or through their offices to say, not it.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's a disgrace. The anonymous editorial published in "The New York Times" represents a new low in American journalism. And I think "The New York Times" should be ashamed. And I think whoever wrote this anonymous editorial should also be ashamed as well.

ACOSTA: Even the daughter of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said it wasn't her father.

ABBY HUNTSMAN, DAUGHTER OF JON HUNTSMAN: Full disclosure, my dad works for the administration.

QUESTION: Did you write it?

HUNTSMAN: I did not write it. And my dad did not write, as far as I know.

ACOSTA: A frustrated Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted out a statement calling for the speculation over anonymous to -- quote -- "stop," as she lashed out at "The New York Times," posting the papers phone number. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she thought it was Vice President Pence and joked it could be a character from the board game "Clue."

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: The vice president. That was my first thought. I guess by process of elimination it will come down to the butler.

ACOSTA: Officials inside the administration have been carefully reading the op-ed for clues. The author suggests there may be more than one resistor in the ranks, writing: "The president's appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office."

And it hasn't gone unnoticed that Pence, who has denied he wrote the op-ed, frequently uses the word lodestar, which appears in the piece.

PENCE: Vigilance and resolve will be our lodestar. Again be our lodestar.

TRUMP: Anonymous, meaning gutless, a gutless editorial.

ACOSTA: The president is clearly furious over anonymous, once again using the episode to bash the media.

TRUMP: So when you tell me about some anonymous source within the administration, probably who's failing, and probably here for all the wrong reasons now, and The New York Times is failing. If I weren't here I believe "The New York Times" probably wouldn't even exist.

ACOSTA: As for solving the mystery of anonymous, the White House has one big problem. There is a lengthy list of potential suspects.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: they're saying senior administration official. That could be many people. There are I think thousands of political appointees, hundreds of folks who would qualify under that title alone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, one administration official told me that the White House wanted a coordinated response to all of this earlier today, but did not get one, as multiple Cabinet secretaries were releasing their own statements throughout the day.

[18:05:02]

As this one official put it, it didn't seem very organized. But, Wolf, this is not the first time we have seen this disarray this week. Obviously, we saw earlier this week when the White House seemed flat- footed, was caught flat-footed trying to coordinate a response to the Bob Woodward book. That took hours for the White House to deliver that kind of response.

But, Wolf, the president has talked extensively about how much he hates anonymous leakers from inside his administration. This one might be the biggest one of them all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Jim Acosta in Billings, Montana, where the president will be speaking at a political rally later tonight.

Let's talk a little bit more about how the Trump administration is handling this op-ed bombshell.

We're joined by our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the president is keeping a very close watch on these denials coming in by top officials.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he certainly is.

I was told by an administration official that the president was watching all of these come in, and, in fact, he was being handed printouts of them as they were coming in, sort of keeping score of who was giving a denial.

And it's interesting. We have seen this time and time again with the president. He really loves a strongly worded denial. He loves that statement. And we heard him say it earlier this week in response to the Bob Woodward book. He called the denial from Defense Secretary James Mattis a beautiful statement.

That was something, of course, he was refuting that he had really blasted the president's intelligence. But I'm told in this situation the president is watching all of these come in and he's keeping track of who is and who isn't saying it.

Now, all of these denials were pretty swift this morning, I would say. The vice president was first out there. His spokesperson said this would be an amateurish act, he wouldn't do this. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveling across the world, he said this was not me. The director of national intelligence said it wasn't us.

So the question here inside the White House still, if it wasn't these top officials, who was it?

Also important to keep in mind, back in Watergate, Mark Felt, who, of course, went on to be Deep Throat, he denied it was him. There was a front-page news story at the time that he said it wasn't him. So who knows if these denials are accurate or not?

BLITZER: Excellent point, indeed.

Is the White House more focused on finding this individual, the so- called witch-hunt that's under way right now, or the substance of the points this person was making?

ZELENY: That's a good question. We have heard very little discussion about the actual substance of the matter, which really is an overriding theme between the Woodward book this week and this, the fact that there are officials across the government trying to protect the country from the president.

Very little soul-searching that I can see talking to a variety officials. They are trying to find who is trying to take the president down, but not trying to look at actually what appears to be the root of all of this. We tried to ask the president this as he was leaving the White House early this afternoon, and flying out to Montana for that campaign rally. Not in the mood to talk.

But this is not a reflective -- a self-reflective person, necessarily. He thinks things are going just fine. So we will see if there's ever answer to this. But watch for him tonight at the rally. Almost certainly he will say something.

BLITZER: I'm sure he will. And it will be very, very lively at the same time. Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny.

Now to the battle over the president's second U.S. Supreme Court pick, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. We have seen new fireworks in the Senate confirmation hearing. And that's continuing tonight.

Let's go to our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider. She's up on Capitol Hill for us.

So, Jessica, what's the latest?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today, the big flash point was over documents, and the drama began to unfold when New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said he was ready to risk expulsion by disclosing confidential e-mails.

But Republicans said it was all a big show. They said that they had released those e-mails among others at 4:00 a.m., five-and-a-half- hours before this hearing was even slated to begin. But tonight that is still a detail that Cory Booker is disputing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: Then apply the rules and bring the charges.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a possible presidential contender in 2020, claiming he was going to expose documents marked committee confidential.

BOOKER: I'm going to release the e-mail about racial profiling. And I understand that that -- the penalty comes with potential ousting from the Senate.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: That is irresponsible and conduct unbecoming a senator.

This is about the closest I will probably ever had in my life to an "I am Spartacus" moment.

SCHNEIDER: But Republicans called the move a political stunt, saying the documents in question had been cleared for release hours before the hearing, calling out those across the aisle.

CORNYN: Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate or of confidentiality of the documents that we -- that we are privy to.

SCHNEIDER: One of the newly released confidential documents disclosed by Democrats, this 2003 e-mail from Brett Kavanaugh when he was working in the George W. Bush White House.

"I am not sure that all legal scholars refer to Roe as the settled law of the land at the Supreme Court level, since court can always overrule its precedent."

Kavanaugh downplayed the e-mail exchange and tried to clarify.

BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE NOMINEE: I think it was overstating something about legal scholars. And I'm always concerned with accuracy. And I thought that was not a quite accurate description of legal -- all legal scholars, because it referred all.

[18:10:02]

To your point, your broader point, Roe v. Wade is an important precedent of the Supreme Court. It's been reaffirmed many times.

SCHNEIDER: Kavanaugh also faced further questions from an exchange with Senator Kamala Harris, also a possible 2020 candidate, late Wednesday night.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: Have you discussed Mueller or his investigation with anyone at Kasowitz, Benson & Torres, the law firm founded by Marc Kasowitz, President Trump's personal lawyer?

KAVANAUGH: I need to know the -- I'm not sure I know everyone who works at that law firm.

HARRIS: I don't think you need to. I think you need to know who you talked with. Who did you talk to?

KAVANAUGH: I would like to know the person you're thinking of, because what if...

HARRIS: I think you're thinking of something, and you don't want to tell us.

SCHNEIDER: Seemingly blindsided Wednesday, Thursday morning, Kavanaugh was resolute.

KAVANAUGH: I haven't had any inappropriate conversations about that investigation with anyone. I have never given anyone any hints, forecasts, previews, winks, nothing, about my view as a judge or how I would rule as a judge on that or anything related to that.

SCHNEIDER: And Kavanaugh made his view clear that whatever the Supreme Court may rule on presidential power, it will be binding.

KAVANAUGH: I have made clear in my writings that a court order that requires a president to do something or prohibits a president from doing something under the Constitution or laws of the United States is the final word in our system, our separation of powers system.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And Judge Kavanaugh also stressed today that he is not a Republican or a Democratic judge, instead saying he is an independent U.S. judge and will be the same if he is named to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And the questioning will continue tonight. Four more senators have to ask questions. And then they will go into closed session, Wolf, where Judge Kavanaugh will face even more grilling behind closed doors -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Jessica Schneider up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, Senator Mazie Hirono. She's a Democrat. She serves on the Judiciary Committee that is questioning Judge Kavanaugh right now.

Senator, thanks so much for joining.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: Aloha.

BLITZER: All right, I want to get to all of that. But let me begin with the anonymous op-ed in "The New York Times."

Do you believe, Senator, that this unnamed Trump administration official should come forward publicly?

HIRONO: Of course.

And, by the way, that the fact that there are a group of them, there's a group of them trying to save this country from the worst of the Trump impulses, it makes me wonder, how bad could it be, because even as overt things, such as the $1.5 trillion tax breaks to the richest people in our country, separating children from their parents at the border, undoing environmental laws, as though kinds of overt things are bad, are not bad enough.

So I would want these people to come forward, because they are not accountable to anybody. They're not voted in. Why don't they come forward and tell us what's going on in the White House? We do know that it's chaotic.

BLITZER: Well, we did hear from this anonymous official, what this official believes is going on in the White House.

Their argument, Senator, is that they're trying to protect the American people, protect national security from the commander in chief himself, from the president of the United States, and they can only do that if they stay on the job.

HIRONO: I think that's really trying to justify how they're wanting to make sure that certain of his programs gets through, such as separating the children at the border, such as these huge tax cuts, such as some of the other things I mentioned.

They're not even defending the Affordable Care Act protections for those with preexisting conditions. So, basically, they're picking and choosing what things that they want to protect us from, the president's worst instincts. I shudder to think what else could be coming down the pike but for these unnamed people.

I think it is time for people to come forward and have us face certain facts about this president. He is unreliable. He lies every single day. This is a serious threat to our democracy.

BLITZER: So do you believe the president is unfit for office?

HIRONO: This is what -- you know what? Do I want a president who lies every single day and who has the kinds of policies?

I think it's the lying that bothers me the most. And as this unnamed person said, he has no -- he's amoral. He has no moral compass. And that is dangerous for our country, because I have said before that, with this president, it's all about himself every day, every moment.

BLITZER: I want to show you -- put up on the screen all those Cabinet members, the vice president of United States, truly extraordinary. All of these people -- and you see them, all the pictures up there -- they have issued public statements, either directly or through a spokesperson, denying that they were the one who wrote that article in "The New York Times."

This is pretty extraordinary, what's going on right now. Have you ever seen anything like this before?

HIRONO: Of course not.

[18:15:00]

And they're sending out all their denials and everything else, but they are closest to the president. They should know. Obviously, they're not ready to come forward and let the public know and our country know what's going on inside the White House.

But we have a pretty good idea. It's chaos.

BLITZER: Do you believe it's time for members of the Cabinet to start discussing the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which could potentially lead to the ouster of the president?

HIRONO: Apparently, some discussions along those lines had already occurred.

And I'm just saying that the people who should know, so-called adults in the room, they need to step forward. And they're not prepared to do that as yet.

BLITZER: Because in that article in "The New York Times," there was this line: "Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president."

But they thought it would lead to a constitutional crisis. So they backed away.

Let me get your thoughts on what's going in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the president's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

As you know, Democrats on your committee, the Judiciary Committee, including yourself, released documents this morning that were said to be committee confidential, confidential documents. But the chairman, Chuck Grassley, says those documents had already been cleared, were released earlier overnight. So why did you imply those documents were being suppressed?

HIRONO: Well, they were suppressed.

And, in fact, this is a perfect example after the fact trying to cover their, as we say in Hawaii (INAUDIBLE).

The process of -- as laid out by the chairman, was that we had to clear documents that we intended to use. I did not request that this document be cleared. And they're trying to say that they had actually cleared it this morning, or they have proposed different times that they so-called cleared my document.

I refer to the document last night. The fact of the matter is that they don't want to be confronted with an idea of having to expel some of us because they cannot justify why these documents should have been confidential in the first place.

BLITZER: Senator, we're going to get back to the hearing right now.

Speaking of that specific issue, Cory Booker, Democratic senator from New Jersey, is asking filled Kavanaugh questions.

Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

BOOKER: ... can't help but wonder what else, again, he might be holding back, what else they might be trying to hide.

And so I understand you stand by your record, but it's our job to try to examine that record, the fullness of that record. And so I just want to ask you some questions perhaps that can illuminate Bill Burke's role.

And so, Judge, have you communicated in any way with Bill Burke or his team since Justice Kennedy's retirement announcement on June 27, 2018?

KAVANAUGH: I saw him on the Saturday after my -- Saturday after my nomination. I saw him at an event, a social event with a number of people.

BOOKER: Was that -- did you communicate with him beyond that?

KAVANAUGH: Yes, I have not communicated with him beyond that, nor do I -- have I had -- I have said before, on the documents, I haven't been involved in the substance, the process. I have stayed away from that.

That's an issue for the Senate and the Bush librarian.

BOOKER: OK. So if you haven't communicated directly with him about this process, have any of your intermediaries that have been working with you or preparing you for this been in discussions with Bill Burke or his team since Justice Kennedy's retirement announcement on June 27, 2018?

KAVANAUGH: All I can say is what I have -- what I know.

BOOKER: So, to your knowledge, you don't know if your people who have been preparing you for this have been in consultation or coordination with Bill Burke?

KAVANAUGH: When you say people?

BOOKER: Who have -- you have been helped to prepare for these hearings, I imagine.

KAVANAUGH: You mean White House and Justice Department people?

BOOKER: Whoever might be helping you prepare for these hearings.

KAVANAUGH: I don't know what the White House -- the White House and Justice Department people could speak for themselves about that.

BOOKER: I guess what you see I'm asking you is if the folks who are preparing you have been communicating with Bill Burke about these documents, what's being released or anything like that?

And you do have no knowledge of that, or do you know if people who have been preparing you have been in contact and communication with Bill Burke about these documents?

KAVANAUGH: I don't know what the process has been, other than what I...

BOOKER: But I'm not asking about the process.

I'm asking, do you know if the people who've been preparing you have been in touch with Bill Burke about the documents, contents and documents or anything related to documents?

KAVANAUGH: I don't know the answer to that question.

BOOKER: You do not know if the people who've been preparing you have in any way been communicating with Bill Burke about the documents?

KAVANAUGH: Can you -- do you want to identify some specific...

(CROSSTALK)

BOOKER: No, sir, I'm just asking you that.

KAVANAUGH: Who prepare -- I just want to make sure we're on the same.

BOOKER: Yes, sir.

KAVANAUGH: So that there's no confusion.

I don't know who's -- I have been staying out of it, for obvious reasons. I have let other people -- it's not my privilege to assert. BOOKER: So, you have never taken -- you have never taken a stand regarding the release of the documents with anybody in the White House, the DOJ or anyone else? You have never taken a stand on this?

[18:20:10]

KAVANAUGH: This is an issue for the Bush Library.

BOOKER: I understand there is an issue. You have stated this on the record.

I'm just asking, have you ever taken a stand with anyone from the White House or the DOJ about document release?

KAVANAUGH: No, I don't have a -- they -- I don't have a position, stand.

BOOKER: I know you don't have a position. I'm asking what has transpired.

KAVANAUGH: Right.

And I'm in the position that I think Justice Scalia was in when he was being asked about his memos from the Office of Legal Counsel. And he said, that's a decision...

(CROSSTALK)

BOOKER: Again, I have a lot -- a short amount of time. I appreciate your knowledge of Justice Scalia's record and statements.

I just want to know what you think, sir, and what you know.

KAVANAUGH: What I think is that's it -- I'm just going to repeat myself. But what I think, it's an issue for the Senate and the Bush Library.

BOOKER: So, why don't we move on?

KAVANAUGH: OK.

BOOKER: You told Ranking Member Feinstein and Senator Coons that you had never taken a position the constitutionality of criminally investigating or indicting a sitting president? You stand by what you told the ranking member?

KAVANAUGH: I'm happy to have my recollection refreshed, but that's my recollection.

BOOKER: Sir, OK. You told Senator Klobuchar that you -- quote -- "did not take a position the constitutionality, period" -- unquote.

You stand by that?

KAVANAUGH: Yes, and I'm happy to have my recollection refreshed. But that is my recollection as I sit here. BOOKER: And that's your position now? Because you said this to me in private as well, that you had never taken a stand on the constitutionality of this issue about the -- about investigating or indicting a sitting president.

KAVANAUGH: Right.

I think, in the various Georgetown events, I referred to it as an open question. In my Minnesota law review, I referred to it as an open question. I think here I have referred to it as an open question.

And I have said, if it comes to me, a lot of things would have to happen.

BOOKER: But have you indicated your...

(CROSSTALK)

BOOKER: I just want to try to get the question in, so you understand what I'm asking you.

KAVANAUGH: Yes. Yes, sir.

BOOKER: The constitutionality itself, have you taken an issue on the constitutionality of these issues about criminally indicting or investigating a sitting president?

KAVANAUGH: No. I have said repeatedly. And here's...

BOOKER: No. That was it, yes or no. You said no.

Can I -- can I refresh your recollection with things you have said, sir?

So this is a Georgetown article. And, again, I have the quotes.

KAVANAUGH: Seems that...

(CROSSTALK)

BOOKER: OK. I just want to walk through it, OK. So you agree you did say this.

You said -- quote -- "The constitutionality itself seems to dictate..."

KAVANAUGH: Yes.

BOOKER: So you're expressing a view on the constitutionality.

Look at what you wrote in "The Washington Post."

"The Constitution" -- again, you use a conditional word -- "appears to preclude," but you talked about the constitutionality -- appears to preclude.

KAVANAUGH: And that was...

BOOKER: Please.

KAVANAUGH: In "The Georgetown Law Journal" in 1998. And as it's been reported, I advised -- my advice to independent counsel Starr was not to seek...

BOOKER: In the Minnesota Law Review article, you said that the Constitution establishes a clear mechanism, talking about what the Constitution establishes.

Yes?

KAVANAUGH: Oh, let's -- let's be very clear. Can I get 30 seconds?

BOOKER: Yes, of course.

KAVANAUGH: OK.

So the Constitution obviously sets out a mechanism for removal.

BOOKER: Yes.

KAVANAUGH: Right.

The question of criminal indictment is simply a question of timing. And the question is, does it have to be after or may it also be before the? Justice Department -- 10 more seconds -- the Justice Department for 45 years has said it must be after.

BOOKER: And I guess you see what I'm getting at here, is that you have talked about this issue quite a bit.

Even what Senator Whitehouse brought up when you were asked -- people were asked to raise their hand, give a hand how many people believe a sitting -- as a matter of law that a sitting president cannot be indicted during the term of office, we saw the videotape. You raised your hand.

You comment on it multiple times. I guess this is sort of what I'm saying. I'm going to -- I'm going to get this...

KAVANAUGH: It said law in the Justice -- it didn't say Constitution.

BOOKER: As a matter of law, yes.

KAVANAUGH: Right. And I do think it's important.

Again, I don't want to take too much of your time. But it's important to know that the Justice Department, since 1973, and to this day, through Republican and Democratic administrations, has had that position.

So before it could come to a court, if I'm on the D.C. Circuit, before it could come to a court, that position presumably would have to change after 45 years, so it would have to change. And then a prosecutor with a president would have to decide, I want to go forward, as a matter of prudence, and then, third, would have to decide, you have the evidence.

BOOKER: OK.

KAVANAUGH: And then, fourth, a -- it would have to be challenged.

BOOKER: Sir, OK.

KAVANAUGH: After all that, it would get to court.

BOOKER: Sir, OK.

KAVANAUGH: And then I would consider it with an open mind.

BOOKER: I want to move on.

[18:25:00]

But you have made clear that you have never spoken about these issues in a constitutional manner. And I just want to say that, in a lot of your statements, it seems like that you're not just talking about this as a matter of policy. You're making some speculations about the constitutionality of it, which I think sends a clear signal about where you stand on those issues.

But I really want to move on, because...

KAVANAUGH: I promise you I have an open mind.

BOOKER: OK.

You speak a lot in your speeches and articles about the matter of character.

And just looking at President Trump's comments, there's a number of sources to keep track of how many lies he tells. It's about -- it's sort of stunning that, according to one source, he's made 4,200 misleading claims during his presidency.

That's an average about 7.6 false or misleading statements per day. Now, I listened to you speak a lot about character and the character of the presidency.

At Duke University in 2000, for example, you said that character matters and that the president of the United States should not -- should be a role model for America.

Do you still think character matters for the president of the United States?

KAVANAUGH: Senator, given the lead-in to your question, you have heard me talk about, I need to stay so far away from any political conversation.

BOOKER: Three zip codes away. I have heard you say that a number of times.

KAVANAUGH: Three zip codes.

BOOKER: And -- but that wasn't what you did when you were a Bush appointee.

You talked a lot about Bush's character, even in your confirmation hearing. You said at your swearing-in ceremony -- you were willing to comment about President Bush and his character. In fact, you said he was -- you had the greatest respect for President Bush.

Now, we have a president now that has said a lot of comments. And this isn't in any way a partisan or political issue, because people on both sides the aisles have denounced the kind of statements that this president has made, matters of character.

Trump -- President Trump during the campaign referred to immigrants as racists (sic). He said a federal judge wasn't able to do his job because of his heritage.

He bragged about sexually assaulting women. He has mocked a disabled reporter.

I could go on and on and on. The list they provided here is long, but my time is brief.

Do you want to say right now, do you have the greatest respect -- you said this about the last president. You thought it was OK. Do you have the greatest respect for Donald Trump?

KAVANAUGH: Senator, to reiterate, you do not hear...

BOOKER: You can't even say if you have great respect for Donald Trump?

KAVANAUGH: You don't hear sitting judges commenting on political...

(CROSSTALK)

BOOKER: I'm just asking you what you said about President Bush in the last time you were before the United States Senate.

Do you have the greatest respect for Donald Trump?

KAVANAUGH: I appreciate the question.

And what I have said during this process is, I need to stay away.

BOOKER: And you don't need to report -- three zip codes away. You don't need to repeat again. You're not answering my question.

And I want to tell you why I'm building towards this, because there's an issue of this president who's asking for loyalty tests from the people he's putting forward for offices. Now, you heard how he's continuing to bash the attorney general of the United States of America, and saying that if he knew he was going to recuse himself, that he wouldn't have put him forward.

You seen this president demanding loyalty, expecting loyalty. President Trump not only said that about Jeff Sessions, but you know he has said that about other folks.

And so you're not willing to say about the -- comment on the character of this president. You're not willing to say if you have great respect for this president.

Just last night, you wouldn't comment on the fact that the president, to one of my other colleagues, when he was talking about both sides being to blame, really excusing, it seems, the behavior of neo-Nazis.

And I'm just wondering, what kind of loyalty is being required of you for this job? That what I'm building to by asking you and trying to keep apples to apples. What you said about President Bush, why aren't you saying it about President Trump?

And so I want to just -- just build to this in the remaining time I have left. In May of 2016, then candidate Trump put out his first list of potential Supreme Court nominees. You weren't on that list.

In September 2016, he put out another longer list. You weren't on that one. Then, in May 2017, something incredible happened. Robert Mueller -- Mueller was appointed by the special counsel to investigate any links and coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

The president was now in jeopardy, or at least campaign was in jeopardy. He was a subject of a criminal investigation.

And then President Trump puts out a third list of nominees, and your name is on that list.

Now, you have heard so many of my colleagues asking about your views of the constitutionality of a president being investigated. You're failing to at least hold President Trump in your eyes to the same level of the presidential character which you've talked about in speech after speech.

Suddenly you're going mum as to the character of this president, given all his lies and remarks that have been characterized on both sides of the aisle.

And now there is a suspicion -- and I don't think it's a big leap to think that the public has this suspicion -- that somehow you're in a position -- and I wonder, do you credibly believe that, if you agreed right now to recuse yourself, do you credibly believe that somehow, like he said with Jeff Sessions, that he would not hold your nomination up if you recuse yourself? Do you credibly believe that?

JUDGE BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: Senator, in this process, I need to uphold the independence of the judiciary. And one of those --

BOOKER: But that's what's at question right here. Right now there's a shadow over the independence of the judiciary, because a president who has been credibly accused by his former lawyer of being an unindicted conspirator has an opportunity to put a judge on the bench.

The only judge from that list that was added after the Mueller investigation of all those judges, you're the only one that has spoken extensively, from raising your hand at a Georgetown Law School event to speaking about it. I don't think it's a big leap to have the common person begin to suspect that you're being put up right now, a person that can't even speak to the character of this president, won't even say what you said about George Bush, that you have the greatest respect for a president. And granted, it's hard to say about someone who brags about sexual assaulting women.

It is understandable for people to suspect there's something going on, that somehow this is rigged, that you are going to get on that bench -- and I hear your admonitions that you're going to be independent, but the suspicion is clearly there.

And so you've written extensively about this. You've spoken to the issue. You've written about the issue in law journals. Can you tell me why the common person, millions of Americans, wouldn't sit back and say, "Well, this is Donald Trump who's demanded loyalty from an FBI director, demanded loyalty from the attorney general, all the people he seems to be putting in positions in law enforcement." In fact, he criticizes in the most -- tweet we saw right before these hearings began, criticizes very dramatically the Justice Department for doing investigations on folks, it seems, because they're Republicans, in the most partisan way. And to me, that casts a shadow over these whole processes. It's a shadow.

Of course, it's extended by not having your documents, extended by not having access to your full record. But can you speak to that for me, sir? Can you speak to that credible suspicion that people might have that this system is somehow rigged, and the president is putting somebody up just to protect him from a criminal investigation?

KAVANAUGH: Senator, three quick points. One, my only loyalty is to the Constitution. I've made that clear. And I'm an independent judge.

Two, the Justice Department for 45 years has taken the position, and still does, that a sitting president may not be indicted while still in office.

Three, I have not taken a position on the constitutionality and promised you I have an open mind on that question.

And four, I did talk about a congressional proposal which was not enacted. And as you've heard me say for two days, I draw a distinction between what Congress does and what the Constitution requires.

So just because I talked about something for Congress to consider in the wake of the experience with President Bush does not mean that I think that's in the Constitution. I've made clear that I have not taken a position on the constitutionality and have an open mind. So if you put those four points together, I think you should conclude

that I -- and read my 12 years of opinions and read the letters and read the teaching evaluations and look at my whole life, I think you should conclude, respectfully, that I have the independence required to be a good judge.

BOOKER: I appreciate it, respect your point. I afford you, sir, your respect, as well. You've spent your whole life in public service.

And you and I both know -- and I'm not sure if you'll say it right now, but this is unusual times in the United States of America. If you had told me what's been going on the last three or four months was going to happen four years ago, I would think you'd be describing a fiction novel and not something that could actually be happening in our country right now.

You've seen in these last few days everything from a high-level White House official writing about the chaos in the president and invoking the 25th Amendment, which you know very well and much more.

[18:35:10] You have a president under investigation, people surrounding him being indicted, criminally charged. All of us -- I really believe this. Every single senator up here is going to be tested. The test for all of us is coming. And the test for the Supreme Court is coming, as well.

And this is going to be a time where, if we have a constitutional crisis, where the faith in this country will be tested, shaken again, and it's really important that the Supreme Court be above suspicion.

And so, Senator Blumenthal asked you this. I sent you a letter. Why not right now, right now, even at the jeopardy of President Trump pulling back your nomination, why not now alleviate all of that suspicion that the reasonable person can have? Why not just announce right now that you will recuse yourself from any matters coming before the Supreme Court involving the Mueller investigation?

KAVANAUGH: Because if I committed to how I would decide or resolve a particular case and that it would be --

BOOKER: Wouldn't a recusal take you out of the position that you had to decide or resolve, to say this is a time in this nation where I should do the right thing and just take that suspicion off to restore the faith in the Supreme Court and in this country?

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I have ten minutes on my time. I'll give you whatever time you want to respond to it, and I'll make sure you aren't interrupted.

KAVANAUGH: Just a few seconds.

BOOKER: Look at me, will you please? I'm the guy that gave you the time.

KAVANAUGH: Oh yes, sir. If I committed to deciding a particular case, which includes

committing to whether I would participate in a particular case, all I would be doing is demonstrating that I don't have the independence of the judiciary that is of the judging that is necessary to be a good judge. Because all of the nominees who have gone before have declined to commit, because that would be inconsistent with judicial independence.

BOOKER: Senator Tillis.

SEN. THOM TILLIS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Thank you, Mr. Chair. And Judge Kavanaugh, if you want to continue to look at the chair, you can.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So we're going to break away from the hearing, continue to monitor it. But let's get some reaction.

Jeffrey Toobin, you listened closely. How did Judge Kavanaugh do?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, what Senator Booker was trying to do was associate Donald Trump with Brett Kavanaugh and say, in effect, "Since he will have appointed you, shouldn't you get out of any case in which he is principally involved?"

Now, that would be a good argument, I think, if Kavanaugh had come out of the Trump administration in the way that he came out of the Bush administration to go onto the D.C. Circuit. But he's been a judge for 12 years.

Every -- every justice on the Supreme Court was appointed by some president, and that doesn't mean they have to recuse themselves regarding everything regarding that president.

So I think ultimately, Judge Kavanaugh got the better of that exchange, because the mere fact of appointment does not require recusal. That's never been the rule of the Supreme Court.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: But don't you think what Cory Booker was alluding to was his question of whether you can subpoena a sitting president, which is something that Kavanaugh has written on having served -- having served with Ken Starr; and they did get Bill Clinton before the grand jury?

And since that time, he kind of wrote -- it wasn't a legal case, but he has opined, let me say, that -- that perhaps that wasn't the right decision, that presidents can be too busy and that perhaps they shouldn't be able to be subpoenaed while they're still in office.

And that may be, I think, what Booker was trying to get at, that particular point, which could become relevant.

TOOBIN: But you know, judges are not supposed to live in hermetically-sealed containers. I think -- and I think most people think -- it's good for judges to write law review articles.

BORGER: I'm not disagreeing with you.

TOOBIN: It's good for judges to go on -- you know, to go on panel discussions. It's good for them to be part of the world.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: Not, you know, they can't talk to anybody, they can't express any opinions. So I don't see that, the fact that he wrote about this, particularly since this was something that he had expertise in, since he worked on the Starr investigation. I think this is an unprofitable line of --

BLITZER: There was an article in the "University of Minnesota Law Review" --

TOOBIN: Correct.

BLITZER: -- that he wrote which is different than an opinion --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: -- over the past 12 years as a federal appellate judge.

BORGER: But it may be his opinion.

BLITZER: But you know, he makes a good point, that he doesn't want to discuss issues, cases that, potentially, could come before him if he is a Supreme Court justice.

[18:40:01] ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's true. And on some level, I wondered why Cory Booker didn't ask him to explain his rationale behind saying in those articles where he thought the Constitution was probably guiding him toward.

He didn't get that question and so he ended up saying, "When I'm on the court, I'm not -- I'm going to decide it based on the facts in front of me."

But he's doing what every other, you know, Supreme Court nominee who has been before the Senate Judiciary Committee has done when asked questions like this, which is to say, "I can't get into the specifics." I don't think Cory Booker really was expecting anything else, other than try to bring up the subject and, in some cases, make it a part of the record, that this was asked.

BLITZER: And you know, Samantha, the judge has been grilled very tough by a lot of these Democratic senators. They're asking very pointed, specific, direct questions. But he seems to be OK. He seems to be not stumbling. He seems to be moving forward on his way to confirmation.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: He does. And I think that at this point his confirmation will certainly go forward.

But as we look at how the world is probably perceiving this, obviously, these confirmation hearings are partisan most times around. This time around, we just had Donald Trump, basically, on trial before the Senate during this committee. We see abuses of this process from the Republicans, getting documents in at the midnight hour. Cory Booker releasing confidential committee documents earlier today.

So the process is broken. It's not working, and it's even more partisan than usual, which really doesn't help us in terms of really putting forward an image of our democracy on stable footing.

BLITZER: Yes, well, let's see what happens in the next few days. But he seems to be moving forward.

Let's talk a little bit about the White House in uproar right now, the president very angry at this anonymous op-ed article --

BORGER: Really? I hadn't heard about that.

BLITZER: -- authored by a senior Trump administration official. How damaging do you believe this all is for the Trump administration?

BORGER: Well, Trump supporters -- this op-ed was printed in "The New York Times," which Trump supporters believe is the deep state and hates Donald Trump; and they will either believe that, you know, it was planted there or that it's untrue, or whatever you want to say.

I don't think it's going to affect Donald Trump supporters, other than perhaps, if the president talks about it, say, at his rally tonight in Montana, other than perhaps getting them to the polls. I mean, it could actually -- when you think about it, it could help him, because he can say, "They are out to destroy me."

TOOBIN: Oh, come on. Come on.

PHILLIP: That's the best-case scenario that the Trump folks believe.

TOOBIN: Best-case scenario. It is, from Republicans who are pro- Trump. I will tell you this.

Now, on the other side of that, the op-ed presents a picture of the president. It's like we've -- we've been doing the blind man and the elephant here, and we've seen pieces of it. And this op-ed presents a fulsome picture of a president which this author believes is a danger to national security and portrays what -- you know, sort of an administrative coup d'etat, which is what Bob Woodward calls it in his book. And I think that is damaging.

But it depends on who you are and what you believe. And you know, again, politically, I'm telling you this, Jeff: Trump supporters are not going to look at that "New York Times" op-ed and say, "Oh, my God, oh, my God, that's terrible." They're just not.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

TOOBIN: You know, Trump supporters are Trump supporters.

BORGER: Right. TOOBIN: And if you believe that, nothing matters. I mean, campaigns

are about saying things and talking about evidence in the real world. And this is evidence in the real world about --

BORGER: I agree with you.

TOOBIN: -- how Donald Trump runs his -- runs his presidency.

And here we have had in the past two days -- we haven't had Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi saying the president is incompetent. We've been seeing, in the Woodward book and here, Donald Trump's employees saying that he's incompetent and incurious and -- and ignorant.

I still have enough faith in America to think that, when you have your own allies saying that you are terrible at your job, that actually is never going to be a political positive.

BLITZER: You know, Abby, and something that I've never seen -- and I've covered Washington for a while -- before. We saw today in the aftermath of this very, very damning op-ed in "The New York Times," top cabinet officials, including the vice president of the United States -- let me put up on the screen. You see all these senior administration officials that issued statements denying they were the one who wrote that article. I've never seen anything like that before.

And the president is getting copies of these -- of these statements. And I assume he's looking to see who hasn't issued that statement yet.

PHILLIP: Right. I mean, this is all part of the Trump show, but I think in a normal White House, this would literally be the opposite of how you deal with a story like this. Every single time from about 7:00 a.m. this morning up until now, that a senior Trump cabinet official has issued a statement denying that they wrote this op-ed, it has extended the life of this story even further.

But President Trump wants that because he wants to know they are willing to express publicly their loyalty to him. You know, meanwhile, however, a lot of people in the White House, first of all, do not believe it's a cabinet level official. They believe it's someone just below that tier.

And so, all of this at the cabinet level doesn't really matter to them, but there is in fact a witch hunt going on right now, people speculating about each other. There's a very good possibility that this only increases the chaos around this president, increases his own paranoia, but also the paranoia of --

BLITZER: It wasn't a very, very senior Trump administration official. I'd be surprised, given the fact that the "New York Times" know who did it and they're getting criticized pretty severely for publishing an anonymous article like this. And a name comes out, but is it well- known? People will be --

(CROSSTALK) SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Exactly. I was a senior administration official. There were thousands of us in the Obama administration, just like there are in the Trump administration. But regardless, Christmas came early for Vladimir Putin with this op- ed. And every time a letter gets to the president's desk and makes headlines, he's probably clapping because it really plays into so many of his objectives. The president looks less credible, the president looks paranoid and it looks like there's insubordination at the White House.

That doesn't really broadcast to the world that things are going well in the U.S. democratic experiment. At the same time, this is a clarion to foreign intelligence officials. You want to throw the president ff track, you want to throw the director of national intelligence off track, you say something nasty about the president, you hurt his feelings and everyone's going to be chasing their tails trying to make him happy and say it wasn't me.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, there is one thing and I will agree with Jeffrey on this, there is one thing about Trump supporters that they do not like. And that is chaos. They don't like seeing the chaos in the White House. Nobody does in the country, including Trump supporters, no matter what they think of Donald Trump.

They like what he's done, they like his policies. They like that he's strong, et cetera, et cetera. They don't like chaos because chaos is scary. And it's scary for anybody.

And the more chaos there is, the more we see things like this occur, it could start whittling away. And we've seen that a little bit, but it isn't going to be the "New York Times" that does it.

PHILLIP: The other problem for Donald Trump electorally is they can make the argument he's being chased by this witch hunt. But then Democrats have a much easier argument, to say this is a presidency in chaos, a presidency that is corrupt in and of itself.

Again, this is the argument Donald Trump made against Hillary Clinton, creating a sense of scandal fatigue among Democratic voters. The risk for Republicans is this that could actually also suppress Republican voters. They're tired of all the chaos, tired of all the drama. They don't want to go out to the polls to deal with this and to extend.

BLITZER: The president's national security advisor John Bolton just added his name to the list of those denying he was responsible for this article.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: It's a little like China during the cultural revolution where everybody has to go and perform before Mao Zedong and, you know, bow down to their leader. It's sort of a mix between communist China and North Korea, dear leader kind of talk.

You know, this is how Donald Trump runs his presidency. We all said, well don't -- you know, the way to deal with Omarosa's book is to ignore it. He didn't ignore it. The way to deal with Michael Wolff's book is not to engage with it. He engaged with it.

And you know what? He's the one who got elected president, not me. So maybe he's right.

BORGER: I was talking to a friend of his, somebody who talks to him regularly who said to me, believe it or not -- and he spoke with him before the "New York Times" op-ed came out. He said to me, believe it or not, he's perfectly fine. He's just able to disassociate.

And he said look after the Woodward book excerpt, he said look at the Mattis note, look at the Kelly note, look at how they said how dumb the Woodward book was and how they didn't have anything to do with it. He was perfectly satisfied with that and seemed to just be able to compartmentalize everything, deal with that and say, OK, that's done. And I'm moving on with other --

PHILLIP: That's the only option available to him. He literally cannot fire these people, because that would only give credence.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Samantha, you worked in the White House during the Obama administration. You had top secret security clearances. Rand Paul says what they should do now is take everyone in the White House who has classified security credentials, go ahead and issue lie detector tests for them.

[18:50:01] How would -- how would officials react if everyone had to submit to a lie detector test?

VINOGRAD: This isn't "Law and Order." Lie detectors and polygraphs are not the way to stop leaks and unauthorized disclosures. The way to do it, you disincentivize these disclosures by creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their views, sharing their thoughts and don't feel like they have go around the White House communications office to write an anonymous op-ed. It's ridiculous.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by, because there's more news we're following right now. We'll have more on the op-ed mystery, the president's anger and the deeper concerns about whether he is unfit to serve.

And why the Pentagon is now worried about the safety of U.S. troops in Syria. We're learning new information tonight. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:55:14] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. CNN has learned that American military commanders are increasingly concerned that U.S. troops could be at risk in a potential Russian attack on militants in Syria.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's working the story for us.

What are you picking up, Barbara? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.

Tonight, tensions are definitely rising. What we now know is that Russia has warned the U.S. military twice in the last week as recently as yesterday, that Russian forces and regime forces in Syria are prepared to attack in an area where there are U.S. troops. This is along the border where Iraq, Jordan and Syria all come together a place called Al-Tanf. There is a buffer zone that U.S. forces help protect.

The Russians say that there are militants inside of there and they want to go inside of the buffer zone and get those militants out. The U.S. says Russia has promised to stay out of there. So, tonight, a lot of concern that the Russian military may be making its move and that U.S. troops could get caught in the cross fire -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The ramifications enormous. Barbara, thank you.

I want to quickly go back to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Kamala Harris of California is asking questions of the Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: My colleague, Senator Blumenthal, again asked you, and you said you were, quote, pretty confident the answer was no. So, frankly, if last night you had just said no or an absolute no even today, I think this could be put to rest, but I will ask you again and for the last time. Yes or no, have you ever been part of a conversation with lawyers at the firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres about special counsel Mueller or his investigation? And I asked, were you ever part of a conversation? I'm not asking you what did you say.

BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE NOMINEE: Right.

HARRIS: I'm asking you, were you a party to a conversation that occurred regarding special counsel Mueller's investigation? And a simple yes or no would suffice.

KAVANAUGH: About his investigation and are you referring to a specific person?

HARRIS: I'm referring to a specific subject and a specific person I'm referring to is you.

KAVANAUGH: Who was the conversation with? You said you had information.

HARRIS: That is not the subject of the question, sir.

KAVANAUGH: OK.

HARRIS: The subject of the question is you and whether you were part of a conversation regarding special counsel Mueller's investigation.

KAVANAUGH: The answer is no.

HARRIS: Thank you.

And it would have been great if you could have said that last night. Thank you.

KAVANAUGH: In my -- never mind.

HARRIS: Let's move on.

KAVANAUGH: OK.

HARRIS: Yesterday, Senator Blumenthal asked if you could recuse yourself in cases involving the personal civil or criminal liability of the president. You declined to say you would. So, my question is could a reasonable person question your independence in a case of the president's civil or criminal liability?

KAVANAUGH: Sorry, could you repeat it?

HARRIS: Would it be reasonable for someone to question your independence in cases involving the president's civil or criminal liability should that occur?

KAVANAUGH: My independence I believe has been demonstrated through my 12-year record and what you've heard from the people who have worked with me and I believe deeply in the independence of the judiciary. I rule based on the law and you can look at cases that I've ruled against the -- when I became a judge against the Bush administration and I talked about the history of our country and the history of the Supreme Court.

HARRIS: And on that point, sir, in particular history of the Supreme Court and confirmation hearings, Justice Kagan during her confirmation hearing committed to recusing in cases she handled as solicitor general. Justice Breyer committed to recusing in cases implicating his financial interests in Lloyd's of London. Justice Ginsburg refused to commit to recusing in cases that were on her D.C. circuit recusal list. Justice Scalia committed at the hearing to recuse in the case of an issue that he had decided as a D.C. circuit judge.

So my question to you is, will you commit to recusing in any case involving the civil or criminal liability of the president who appointed you?

KAVANAUGH: Right.

HARRIS: Or nominated you?

KAVANAUGH: The independence of the judiciary requires that I not commit to how I would decide a particular case and to issue a commitment on a discretionary recusal issue in either direction, so if I answer that question in either direction, that would be a -- I would be violating my judicial independence in my view by committing in this context. I've explained --

HARRIS: With all due respect, sir, I have shared with you that other nominees sitting at that desk or some desk like that have committed to recusing. There have been circumstances where they have committed.