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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Washington Congressman Adam Smith; Trump's Birtherism; North Korea Nuclear Test; New CNN/ORC Poll: Economic Outlook Best in Nine Years; U.S. & Russia Announce Syria Peace Plan; Russia Flexes Military Muscle in Region It Seized; Trump: North Korea Nuke Test a Sign of Clinton's Failures; Clinton: World Must Stop North Korea's 'Dangerous Game.' Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 9, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This hour, we're getting new information about just how quickly Kim Jong-un is developing nuclear weapons that could some day strike the United States.

Outrageous threat. Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both are responding to North Korea's nuclear defiance. And they are drawing clear connection to their battle to the White House.

Birther back-down. Key Trump allies claim the Republican nominee has now abandoned a long timeline of attack against the president. But will Donald Trump ever publicly say that Barack Obama was born in the United States?

And Putin's war games. The Russian leader puts out a huge show of military might, signaling he's willing to fight to keep control of land he seized from Ukraine. Is Putin trying to provoke the U.S. and NATO at a time when tensions already are soaring?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the United States says it's ready to do whatever it takes to defend against the grave threat from North Korea's rapidly expanding nuclear program.

Kim Jong-un's regime says it successfully detonated a powerful nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a mil. North Korea claims it now has the ability to produce weapons with the highest strike power that it could use against the United States and its allies.

Tonight, Hillary Clinton says the world must stop North Korea's dangerous game. She met with a bipartisan group of national security experts just a little while ago. Clinton says Kim Jong-un's nuclear threats are a reminder that Americans must choose a commander in chief who can respond with steadiness and strength.

Donald Trump is responding to North Korea's actions by trying to cast blame on Clinton. He's calling the nuclear test -- and I'm quoting him now -- "one more massive failure from a failed secretary of state."

Also tonight, Russia holds massive war games in Crimea, territory Vladimir Putin seized from Ukraine two years ago. Experts say Putin is sending a message to the U.S. and the world that he's in control of Crimea and his forces are ready to fight to keep it.

I will talk about these global threats with Congressman Adam Smith. He's the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and analysts, they are also standing by as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin this hour with North Korea's nuclear defiance.

CNN's Will Ripley is standing by in the region.

But, right now, let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, for the very latest -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.

Tonight, North Korea's nuclear weapons program increasingly appears to be successful. The question is, what is Kim really up to? Does he really want to attack the United States?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): North Korean TV announcing the nation's fifth nuclear test, the second test this year, potentially its most powerful yet. They region claims it tested a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile that could someday hit the U.S.

ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: The international community, United Nations Security Council and especially the other six party powers must hold North Korea accountable for this latest act and heighten the pressure on North Korea.

STARR: A U.S. officials tells CNN North Korea has embarked on a rapidly developing and increasingly successful nuclear and missile test program, this time more than just worldwide condemnation. In Tokyo, Patriot missiles continue to sit outside the Japanese Defense Ministry ready to shoot down any possible North Korean missile.

The South Korean government immediately gathered as South Korea's President Park called Kim Jong-un's regime fanatically reckless.

KIM HYUNG-SEOK, SOUTH KOREAN UNIFICATION MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (THROUGH translator): This is a significant threat to world peace and security and puts the Korean Peninsula into a security crisis.

STARR: President Obama issuing an unusually long statement, calling it a grave threat, and with a very precise warning to Kim Jong-un that the U.S. maintains the commitment to provide extended deterrents guaranteed by the full spectrum of U.S. defense capabilities. That full spectrum language is reminding Kim that the U.S. has its own

nuclear weapons to protect Japan and South Korea. The test comes amid increasing numbers of successful mil tests, meaning if North Korea did successfully test warhead, the regime is now on the path to a nuclear attack capability.

BRUCE KLINGNER, FORMER CIA INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: They clearly have a nuclear weapon. It's just a question of how many missiles they have been able to make it to.

STARR: President Obama says the world will not accept a nuclear North Korea. But even as the United Nations met to discuss potential new sanctions, there's no agreement what would stop Kim, short of military attack.

[18:05:10]

The Pentagon may decide to send ships and aircraft to the region as a symbolic show of force, but the sheer size of this latest nuclear test has unsettled governments around the world.

KLINGNER: Another nuclear test by North Korea is worrisome and quite dangerous. Some experts are saying it could have been 10 to 20 kilotons. That's significantly larger than previous nuclear tests.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Part of the goal is to make sure Kim Jong-un understands not to attack the United States and the Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, that he understands it would lead to such a massive retaliation, he and his regime would not survive.

But it's just not clear, Wolf, what it's going to take to get him to stop his nuclear efforts.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, thank you very much.

I want to bring in CNN's Will Ripley right now. He's one of the few Western journalists who have reported extensively from inside North Korea on the Kim Jong-un regime. Will is joining us live tonight from Tokyo.

What's the calculation, Will, for Kim Jong-un in doing this right now?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He came to power, Wolf, about five years ago, believed to be in his late 20s at that time, now in his early 30s.

And for a while, he was trying to find a message, trying to something to wrap his image around. And this rapid development of the nuclear arsenal and the missile capabilities is his platform.

I was there in May at the Workers' Party Congress when he laid out his reshuffled party leadership, 3,400 of the country's ruling elite. All, unsurprisingly, voted unanimously in favor of his plan to develop nuclear weapons and also try to develop the economy at the same time. He has now fulfilled that plan. We have seen all of these launches just in the last two weeks, four missile launches and now this nuclear test, the second in a year.

BLITZER: Is there any reason to believe, Will, that more sanctions against North Korea will have any impact at all?

RIPLEY: Not from my vantage point here.

When I was there in May, when I was there in January, after the last nuclear test, I was asking to government officials, asking them, what about sanctions, what about growing diplomatic isolation? They said it's not our concern. We will tighten our belts. We will go hungry if we have to. We are going to develop these weapons because that's what our leader, Kim Jong-un, wants to do.

And he has convinced his country it's the only way for them to stay a sovereign state, even though the U.S. and others say it's just leading to more isolation, hardship, poverty for a lot of people there.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Will Ripley in Tokyo for us. He is watching that situation very closely.

Let's bring in the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee right now, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. ADAM SMITH (D), WASHINGTON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Donald Trump says North Korea is China's problem. They should fix it. Do you agree?

SMITH: Well, I think China is in the best position to put pressure on North Korea, but I think it's incredibly naive to say that it's just China's problem.

It's certainly South Korea's problem, Japan and ours. We have a country that's dangerous. They apparently don't care whether their people starve or not. And they possess nuclear weapons. It's a global threat.

BLITZER: Trump also says he'd be willing to negotiate directly with Kim Jong-un, maybe even invite him, if he were president, to the United States. Would that be smart?

SMITH: I don't think there would be any point to that at this point.

Kim Jong-un, we have negotiated with him multiple times. The Clinton administration did. The Bush administration did. And I think what they have made clear is what you said in your report there. They're going to build these weapons. And they don't care about their people. They don't care if they starve.

So, what we have to do is, we have to make it absolutely clear that if they engage in any military activity, they will be destroyed. We have to have a credible deterrent. That seems to be the only thing that will stop North Korea from engaging in military action, as your reporter said. We have sanctioned them, and we should keep sanctioning them, but it's not going to stop them from developing the nuclear weapons.

BLITZER: As you know, the U.S. still has 30,000 troops along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

SMITH: Yes.

BLITZER: And the U.S. has, what, another 50,000, maybe 60,000 troops in Japan right now, all within the missile strike of North Korea.

SMITH: But all also there to show that we are ready to stand with the region, with South Korea, with Japan to defend them against North Korean aggression.

And it's worth noting that that's one of the many alliances that Donald Trump called into question during the course of his presidency, whether or not she should be supporting countries like South Korea and Japan.

I think it would be a dangerous mistake to show Kim Jong-un that we're not going to stand up, because that would I think likely provoke him to act. If he thought he could get away with it, he'd do it. We're the ones that can make sure that he doesn't think he can do it.

BLITZER: You want to keep those troops there, I assume?

SMITH: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Because Donald Trump says if you have to keep them there, at least get South Korea and Japan to pay for them.

SMITH: Well, first of all, Donald Trump is probably unaware of this, but South Korea and Japan do pay.

[18:10:03]

BLITZER: But they don't pay for all of it.

SMITH: Not all of it, but a substantial portion.

BLITZER: Should they be paying for all of it?

SMITH: We have our interests there too. This has been worked out through multiple administrations. I would be willing to look at whether or not they can pay more.

But, look, it's not in our interests if North Korea goes rolling into South Korea or bombs Japan. To disrupt that entire region of the world would be very harmful to the United States. So, we have a stake there, but make no mistake about it. Japan and South Korea pay a lot for our military presence.

BLITZER: Let me read to you a statement that the Trump campaign put out today on North Korea and the nuclear test.

"North Korea's fifth nuclear test, the fourth since Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, is yet one more example of Hillary Clinton's catastrophic failures as a secretary of state. Clinton promised to work to end North Korea's nuclear program as secretary of state, yet the program has not only grown in strength and sophistication. Hillary Clinton's North Korean policy is just more calamitous diplomatic failure from a failed secretary of state."

You support her for president.

SMITH: I do.

And more to the point, I think that statement from the Trump campaign is naive, bordering on idiotic. The Clinton presidency, the Bush presidency, the Obama presidency all have tried their best to contain North Korea.

If Donald Trump is blaming any of those administrations for how crazy North Korea is, he doesn't understand North Korea.

BLITZER: Why did all those initiatives fail?

SMITH: Well, because of what your reporter said and what I have said. North Korea doesn't care. North Korea, by some accounts, as many as a million or two million people have starved to death in a given year in their country. They don't care.

BLITZER: When you say deterrence, you think they're afraid?

SMITH: No. Well, here's what I think.

Hopefully, we have got to control them and hope that something changes at some point in the future. There's nothing wrong with trying. But in the meantime, the only thing that will stop North Korean aggression is if Kim Jong-un thinks that if he acts that way, he will cease to exist, his regime will cease to exist. We have to make clear that that deterrent is in place.

BLITZER: I remember back in 1994, and I'm sure you remember as well. I was CNN's White House correspondent when then President Bill Clinton negotiated a nuclear deal with the North Korean regime. Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state, she went over to Pyongyang with a lot of fanfare. It looked very upbeat. North Korea was dismantling its nuclear capability.

How did that deal work out?

SMITH: It worked out terribly, but it was worth the effort.

It was worth trying, because the alternative, if we had just said we're not going to negotiate, they would have gone forward anyway. It was worth the effort. But what that attempt and what the 20 years since then has shown us, and I won't say it a fourth time, but North Korea doesn't care. We have simply got to deter them through a guaranteed response. BLITZER: Let me get your thought on these allegations that the

Russian government is hacking the Democratic Party here in the United States with the impact being to try to help Donald Trump, supposedly, be elected president. Do you buy any of that?

SMITH: It seems fairly clear.

BLITZER: Why does it feel so clear?

SMITH: Well, because most every report has traced back the hacks of the DNC and the DCCC to the Russians.

They're not hacking in to give us Donald Trump's tax returns. So, it would seem that the Russians would prefer to have Donald Trump as president. And when you hear him talk, when you hear him praise Putin and attack our NATO allies, you can see why Putin would that would be a good thing.

BLITZER: But he says what's wrong with having a good relationship with Russia, what is wrong with letting Russia work with the United States to try to destroy ISIS?

SMITH: I totally agree with him. There's nothing wrong with having a good relationship with Russia.

There's everything wrong with saying that we are going to abandon our NATO allies in order to get that good relationship with Russia. Our relationship with our NATO allies is pretty darn important too. And to sacrifice one, to sacrifice a relationship with democratic institutions that have been our allies for decades that are also fighting ISIS -- and, by the way, I'm still waiting for Russia to actually start fighting ISIS, instead of bombing the freedom fighters who are going against Assad in Syria.

So, to sacrifice NATO for the sake of Putin, given his record, again, I think...

BLITZER: So, you disagree with Trump when he says that the Russians want to destroy ISIS just as much as the United States does?

SMITH: I hope we can get them to that point. Thus far, the evidence doesn't show that.

And, look, let me just say again I would love to have a better relationship with Russia. I think it was a horrible missed opportunity after the wall came down, after communism fell that Russia went the way it did with Putin. We should work back to that. But we shouldn't sacrifice our allies and sacrifice our vital national security interests for the sake of that.

BLITZER: Congressman, I need you to stand by. Don't go away. We have more questions for you.

We're getting breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. At this moment, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they are announcing new deal attempting to reach peace in Syria. We're being told it's designed to try to bring Bashar al-Assad to the table.

[18:15:00]

This is just coming into CNN right now. Stand by, new information coming in. We will have much more on the breaking news out of Geneva, Switzerland, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news coming in.

Moments ago, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, announced a new deal attempting to reach peace in Syria.

[18:20:01]

We're being told it's designed to bring Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, to the table.

Let's go to our international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, outside the hotel where this deal has been announced.

Nic, what do we know? What do we know about the specifics?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, Wolf, 18 hours, marathon session of talks here today comes on the back of three meetings between Kerry and Lavrov over the past two weeks and of course many, many weeks of work and groundwork that have been put in place here over that time.

But what we're learning now here is that this deal is something that Secretary of State John Kerry said he and President Obama feel that there is enough in this deal and they have got enough confidence in the Russian side that there's something here that can hold that will keep Russia to account, Russia requires to put pressure on President Bashar Assad to engage in a real way in the peace process, something that hasn't happened before.

This is how Secretary Kerry began to lay out the first steps in the process.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Today, the United States and Russia are announcing a plan which we hope will reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement towards a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria.

The Obama administration, the United States is going the extra mile here because we believe that Russia and my colleague have the capability to press the Assad regime to stop this conflict and to come to the table and make peace.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: ... that have been laid out, that Assad forces will have to stop their fighter jets flying, will have to stop their barrel bombings over certain areas where civilians have been killed, where the Russians and Assad say that they have been targeting terrorists, where civilians in high numbers have been killed.

That's barrel bombing to end, Assad's jet fighters to stop flying in areas that the United States has worked with the Russians, to delineate very, very clearly, he said.

They are also saying there must be a very clear access for humanitarian aid into key areas in Aleppo. Talked about the Castello Road junction, that there will be a pullback of both sides, both forces, both government and rebel. This will open the road for the rebel areas to get much needed humanitarian aid, 300,000 people living in that area of Aleppo.

There's another area in Aleppo that will also have to be allowed to get free passage to aid. What Kerry, Secretary Kerry says is, there will be a seven-day test period for both sides. Both sides, he said, must follow their commitments here. The success of this, he said, will depend precisely on the actions of both the government and the opposition, but a seven-day test period to see if this cessation holds.

If it does, that means the potential to move forward on for more political talks in the coming weeks, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, clearly, it's not a done deal by any means yet.

Nic Robertson in Geneva for us.

Our own global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, she is inside that room with the secretary of state and the foreign minister, getting more information. We will check in with her.

But, Congressman Adam Smith, the ranking Democratic, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, is with us.

You trust the Russians in a deal like this?

SMITH: No, in a word.

I think it's good. I applaud Secretary Kerry, because I think the effort needs to be made. The only way to stop the carnage in Syria is to get some sensible transition away from Assad. And the Russians are key to that.

I think at least if, in the meantime, we can get some humanitarian aid to some of these places that are suffering, that's a win. But at the end of the day, Syria will not make a successful transition to a reasonable government until Assad agrees to leave.

BLITZER: Well, Assad is not leaving.

SMITH: Right. Exactly.

BLITZER: The Russians -- when John Kerry speaks about a political transition, we know the United States would like to see Bashar al- Assad go, but the Russians don't want him to go.

SMITH: Right. Exactly. And that's the problem.

And it's not just a matter of the United States would like to see Assad go. There will be no peace in Syria until he does go. He has become such a reviled figure for so many Syrians and for so many others, frankly, in the Arab world and in Turkey, that the fighting won't stop until he goes.

Now, this is a step hopefully towards a more peaceful situation in Syria. But until Russia steps up and convinces Assad that he needs to move, it's not ultimately going to solve the problem.

BLITZER: Yes. It's not the first time they have had this kind of a deal.

SMITH: Exactly.

BLITZER: It hasn't exactly worked out. The slaughter continues in Syria right now.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state.

Just ahead, we will have more on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, their war of words over national security. Is Trump sending mixed messages on North Korea?

We're also taking a closer look at the new muscle-flexing by Russia, as Vladimir Putin's intentions become an increasingly hot topic out there in the presidential race.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:00]

BLITZER: Right now, we're getting breaking news from Donald Trump's campaign.

CNN's Sunlen is joining us with details.

Sunlen, Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, I take it, has just released his tax returns?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, Mike Pence releasing 10 years of his tax returns from the years 2006 to 2015.

And this is significant, because it really does shine a spotlight on the fact that the man at the top of the ticket, Donald Trump, still refuses to release his own tax returns. This really almost certain that this issue will remain front and center for their campaign.

Now, Donald Trump tonight is also facing questions on how he would handle North Korea's latest provocations. And what he's doing is trying really to place blame on Hillary Clinton, saying she is responsible as a former secretary of state.

But, as of tonight, Donald Trump is still not outlining what his strategy would be.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): Donald Trump is trying to blame Hillary Clinton for the rise of North Korea's nuclear capabilities.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It was announced that North Korea performed its fifth nuclear test, its fourth since Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. It's just one more massive failure from a failed secretary of state.

SERFATY: But Trump did not say what he would do to respond to the provocations if he were president, and his campaign refused to provide details.

Trump said Tuesday he believes China should take the lead in dealing with North Korea.

TRUMP: China, this is your baby. This is your problem. You solve the problem, because China can solve that problem.

SERFATY: In March, the GOP nominee suggested that Japan should acquire nuclear weapons to guard against threats from North Korea, breaking with decades-old U.S. policy.

TRUMP: Now, wouldn't you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons? And they do have them. They absolutely have them. They can't -- they have no carrier system yet, but they will very soon.

SERFATY: And Trump is facing more fallout on another foreign policy front...

TRUMP: He is really very much of a leader.

SERFATY: ... after his praise Wednesday of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

[18:30:04] SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA), VICE-PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: What about invading other countries is leadership? What about running your economy into the ground is leadership? What about persecuting LGBT Russians is leadership?

SERFATY: And now a controversial interview is adding fuel to the fire, with Trump appearing on "Russia Today," a Russia state-funded TV propaganda channel. The Trump campaign is trying to down play it calling it a favor to the interviewer, Larry King.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHAIR: Former CNN superstar Larry King has a podcast. And Mr. Trump went on his podcast. Nobody said it was going to be on Russian TV.

TRUMP: Who are you voting for?

SERFATY: But the substance of the interview is what is also raising eyebrows, with Trump blasting the U.S. media on Russian TV. An odd context, given not only the lack of press freedom in Russia but the epidemic of assassinations of journalists in Russia who challenge the Kremlin.

TRUMP (via phone): The media has been unbelievably dishonest. I mean, they'll take a statement that you make which is perfect, and they'll cut it up and chop it up.

SERFATY: And he downplayed concerns about Russia meddling in U.S. politics, dismissing reports that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee, despite officials saying there is little doubt the country was behind the hack.

TRUMP: I think it's probably unlikely. I think maybe -- maybe the Democrats are putting that out. Who knows? But I think that it's -- it's pretty unlikely.

SERFATY: Meantime, the Trump campaign is trying to clean up another controversy: Trump's refusal to disavow his birther past, questioning if President Obama was born in the U.S.

CONWAY: He believes President Obama was born here. I was born in Camden, by the way, New Jersey. He was born in Hawaii.

SERFATY: Trump's surrogates are now out in full force, saying Trump now accepts that President Obama was born in the U.S.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: Donald Trump believes now that he was born in the United States.

I believe it. He believes it. We all believe it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: Now, it's important to note that Donald Trump has not backed off those accusations publicly himself yet, even though he did have a chance earlier in the week to do so. He was asked by reporters. He did not disavow those accusations and those insinuations, Wolf. He just said that there's something that he doesn't talk about anymore -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen. Thanks very much. Sunlen Serfaty reporting.

Let's get in our political experts.

Gloria Borger, Donald Trump addressed in his speech today North Korea but briefly. Used the occasion, though, to attack Hillary Clinton for her stance on North Korea. I guess that's his strategy.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Look, his strategy is that she is a former failed secretary of state and that the only reason we are having problems in North Korea right now is because the Obama administration, with her at the helm of the State Department, did not properly deal with the problem.

Now, I would also point out that today, Hillary spoke. and he spoke. And both of them talked about China and the need for China to get involved to solve this problem, which was kind of interesting to me. Because they both seem to be, at least, sort of on the same page.

BLITZER: China has the most influence...

BORGER: Of course.

BLITZER: ... over North Korea right now.

So Jackie, it does raise this question, because he says North Korea's China's problem. They can handle it. On the other hand, he often trashes China, sends these mixed messages.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right.

BLITZER: What is it?

KUCINICH: Well, the other thing about what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump said about China, yes, Hillary Clinton did say that. But Donald Trump has basically said it's China's problem. Hillary Clinton was a little more nuanced, saying U.S. and allies should pressure China.

Donald Trump in 1999 ha said that in -- North Korea should be preemptively bombed if all negotiations...

BLITZER: If the negotiations failed.

KUCINICH: ... fail -- failed. So I mean, he's been all over the place on that. And he suggests that, if China doesn't do anything, that we could cut off trade with them, which at the very least would hurt U.S. manufacturing, which would kind of ruin his economic plan. So Donald Trump doesn't really think four steps ahead. It's more like whatever -- whatever he thinks. There isn't a lot of nuance to his foreign policy at this point.

BLITZER: The -- by the way, that 1999 interview with Donald Trump, you know who was interviewing him? That would be me. Seventeen years ago. That was a long time ago.

Let's talk about what he's saying about Putin and Russia. How's that playing out there among Republicans?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Would you take a step back and say this has been a very unpredictable campaign, but this has got to be the most surprising development in the campaign. And arguably, the biggest misstep in the campaign. How can the Republican presidential nominee go out and heap praise on

one of the United States' biggest adversaries? I mean, that is perplexing. And that's what I'm hearing from Republicans, as well. They are biting their tongue. They're taking a step back.

We saw yesterday our own Manu Raju, trying to talk to members of Congress on Capitol Hill. They wouldn't even address it. They would kind of run away from it. Paul Ryan himself wouldn't address it. At this point, I think Republicans are beside themselves.

And I was surprised when you had Pete Hoekstra on earlier at what he agreed with Donald Trump really kind of backed into a corner but decided to agree with him.

I think Republicans, right now, those who were never sold on Trump are really looking at the House and Senate races right now and saying how is this going to affect us?

[18:35:04] BLITZER: He did address that values voters summit here, that conference in Washington today. A lot of conservatives. He seemed to have been extremely -- nicely received.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He was well-received, but it's also a group that he has to do some courting of, and that's why you saw him there today. And you also saw him using some language that he hasn't really used before. They're skeptical of him for a number of reasons.

BLITZER: What kind of language?

Well, he said things like, one, he was stressing Supreme Court appointments. He was going to appoint Supreme Court nominees, right, that he was going to appoint, Supreme Court nominees that would hold up -- uphold their values. Right?

He also said that he would protect the Christian heritage of America. And he said -- he called himself a believer in Jesus Christ. That's not part of his stump speech. He saw him tailoring that. They're skeptical of him. He used to support abortion. He's on his third marriage. He's had affairs. These are not really family values in the way this group looks at them. Given the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, you can imagine this is a demographic that's going to go for Donald Trump.

The issue, though, is with what kind of enthusiasm? That's really the question. Because not only is it just the voting, but this is a demographic that puts in the time and the work to pick up the phones and knock on the doors.

BLITZER: Much more coming in. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:07] BLITZER: We're back with our political team as we follow breaking news tonight. Hillary Clinton is condemning North Korea's new nuclear test, saying

the world must stop Kim Jong-un's dangerous game. Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, Is joining us with more on Clinton right now and her meeting today with national security experts. How did it go, Brianna?

KEILAR: That's right, Wolf. This was a who's who of current and former national security experts, Wolf. Democrats and Republicans important to note. And according to Hillary Clinton, they talked about defeating ISIS abroad as well as at home.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): With national security taking center stage in the race for the White House, tonight Hillary Clinton is showcasing her commander in chief credentials, meeting with a bipartisan group of prominent national security experts.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I asked them to join me for a candid conversation about some of the most challenging issues facing our country.

KEILAR: Among those at the meeting, former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus; and Michael Chertoff, George W. Bush's homeland security secretary.

After the meeting in a carefully-staged event designed to evoke a White House press conference. Clinton came to the microphone to once again blast Donald Trump.

CLINTON: This just becomes more and more of a reality television show. It's not -- it's not a serious presidential campaign. It is beyond once imagination to have a candidate for president praising a Russian autocrat like Vladimir Putin.

KEILAR: But with North Korea's test of yet another nuclear weapon, Clinton is also in a political bind. Trump saying earlier today it's evidence her time as secretary of state was a failure. Clinton condemned the test and said the U.S. must recalibrate its approach with North Korea.

CLINTON: The increasing threat posed by North Korea requires not only a rethinking of the strategy but an urgent effort to convince the neighbors, most particularly China, that this is not just a U.S. issue.

We are not going to let anyone who is a treaty ally and partner of ours be threatened. And we are not going to let North Korea pursue a nuclear weapon with the capacity to deliver it to a United States territory. That is absolutely a bottom line.

KEILAR: Clinton's running mate, Tim Kaine, is accusing Trump of showing a shocking level of disrespect for President Obama in praising Russia's president Vladimir Putin.

TRUMP: He's been a leader far more than our president has been a leader.

KAINE: If you don't know the difference between leadership and dictatorship, then where do I start with you? A ticket that is praising a dictator, who is hurting his country, hurting his people, as some example of leadership is horrible.

KEILAR: The Clinton campaign is out with a new ad, emphasizing the importance of Democrats and Republicans working together.

CLINTON: That's how we got health care for 8 million kids; rebuilt New York City after 9/11; and got the treaty cutting Russia's nuclear arms. We've got to bring people together. That's how you solve problems, and that's what I'll do as president.

KEILAR: Clinton land is trying to push out a more positive message in what has become a divisive and even nasty race for the White House. A far cry from 2000 when Donald and Melania Trump palled around with then-President Bill Clinton in New York.

These old photos, newly public, among about two dozen released by the Clinton Presidential Library. Obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Politico.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Those were actually photos, Wolf, that the archives officials considered personal.

[18:45:04] But, of course, "Politico" put forward this Freedom of Information Act request and they did get their way on that. Perhaps they would have been considered personal before but certainly in light of the current political circumstances, they're pertinent.

BLITZER: Good point. Brianna, stay with us.

Mark, you know, we have CNN/ORC poll numbers out right now, speaking of the presidential campaign. Fifty-three percent of the American public now say the economic conditions in the United States are good. That's the highest number since 2007. I assume that's potentially good news for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: It absolutely is. And let's tick through why it is. Nine years, the most positive view Americans have had about the economy. We went through a terrible time, of course, with a crash in 2008 and 2009, and, of course, the repercussions afterwards. Just in the past year alone, it's climbed seven points. So, we're now seeing a trend, a very good trend here in the United States where Americans are having a better view of where they were. That's only been in the past few months.

As well as we're seeing that 73 percent of non-whites, so minorities think the economy is doing well. This is all good for Hillary Clinton, of course, but it is a good trend, right track at the right time.

Where she does need help, though, is that 66 percent of non-white college graduates still believe that the economy is not doing very well. So, of course, we have seen that in the poll numbers. We have seen that in a state such as Ohio. Hillary Clinton has some work to do there.

But overall, very good news for Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: And, Jackie, President Obama's approval number at 51 percent in our new CNN/ORC poll. That's pretty good at that stage in his second term

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. I mean, for any president in their second term: that's very good news and particularly good for Hillary Clinton, much like the numbers Mark just cited, because she's been pulling him close and it turns out that was a good thing in terms of being the next term of Barack Obama.

BLITZER: It's a good indicator. It would help Hillary Clinton if people liked what's going on right now and approve of the job that the president of United States has done. Presumably that will spill over in her favor.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, what we saw in the Republican primaries was that voters who were angry and felt betrayed by Washington also felt that they hadn't had a raise in 15 years. These are the voters that Donald Trump appeal to and does appeal to continually. If they start feeling they are getting ahead and these voters may not feel that way, the more voters who feel that they are making progress, the better shot Hillary Clinton has, particularly in Rust Belt states.

PRESTON: And it is worth noting that Donald Trump's a businessman. He talked about making the economy better and how he can make America great again. Well, if there's already a thought that America is great again or getting to be great again, that's going to take a tool out of his weaponry.

BORGER: I don't know that people are there yet --

PRESTON: Right.

BORGER: -- but it might be turning. You still have a wrong track number that is --

BLITZER: I just want to alert our viewers right now. Hillary Clinton is sitting down with CNN for an exclusive interview about the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001. You can see it this Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the attacks. Watch CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION", which begins at a special time Sunday morning, 8:30 a.m. Eastern.

Just ahead, Vladimir Putin sends a message to the U.S. and NATO. We have details of the massive war games he's staging in the region he seized from Ukraine.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Adorned in gash from around the world, Erykah Badu took the stage in Detroit last month as more than an artist. She stood as an activist.

ERYKAH BADU, RECORDING ARTIST: When one of us is a victim, we are all a victim.

CUOMO: Badu was approached by concert promoters to make her Detroit show a benefit for the African-American 490 Challenge. That group, and the Michigan Women's Foundation, hope to finish testing more than 11,000 rape kits found sitting in a police warehouse. In a report last year from the National Institute of Justice, police said budget constraints and staff cuts led investigators to not follow through on tests of those kits.

BADU: When I learned about it, I thought it was very important. I thought it was, at this point in my life, my responsibility.

SHAHIDA MAUSI-JOHNSON, PRESIDENT, THE RIGHT PRODUCTIONS: Erykah Badu, as an artist, is one who has always demonstrated a great social consciousness. She brings that to her artistry.

CUOMO: Badu and her fans raised more than $50,000 at the Detroit benefit.

MARGARET TALLET, MICHIGAN WOMEN'S FOUNDATION: We were surprised that they cared so much about Detroit. But, truly, it's that they care about these women and these children.

CUOMO: What's more, donors were able to see their dollars go to something they could end now.

KIM TRENT, PRESIDENT, AFRICAN-AMERICAN 490: And this is a problem where people could see the end of the road. They know that their money is going directly to a cause that is fixable.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:54:56] BLITZER: There's more breaking news just moments ago. Just moments ago, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced a new deal attempting to reach peace in Syria.

[18:55:05] Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is joining us now from Geneva.

You were there when the announcement was made, Elise. Give us the details.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a long day. Sixteen hours' worth of negotiations, month, really, led up to this day, but Secretary Kerry announced what could be a turning point in the civil war in Syria. We are talking right now about a cessation of hostilities throughout the country starting on Sunday. That's the beginning of the Eid holiday, a very symbolic day and that lasts, Wolf, for seven days and we will see an effective grounding of the Syrian air force. The Russians said they have already talked to President Assad and he

will commit to a grounding of his air force in areas where the opposition is operating and perhaps some other areas. If that could hold, Wolf, we're talking about a partnership that the U.S. and Russia have been talking about, a very controversial partnership, to start joint targeting of al Nusra militants and all this time, humanitarian corridors could be opening in areas such as Aleppo, this besieged city, where hundred of thousands of people, Wolf, have been starving without access to water, food, medical care.

The hope, really, is that if there's calm in the country there could be some political talks on a transition on really ending the war, but a key question right now, Wolf, is that the U.S. and Russia can put the pressure on the parties they have influence with. Russia, the Assad regime, can they, in effect, ground his air force. Can the U.S. along with the Saudis and others deliver the opposition to stop fighting the regime? Still a very big question, but a big diplomatic breakthrough tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. But still not a done deal by any means. We'll see what happens, Elise. Thanks very much.

Russia meanwhile is putting on a massive show of military force in Crimea, the region it seized from Ukraine two years ago.

CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us. So, Russia using some military exercises, Brian, to send a strong message.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, Wolf. This is the kind of thing Vladimir Putin absolutely lives for, showing military strength in a place he took over and doing it in spectacular fashion. This is a huge show of force by the Russian military near the border with Ukraine and this is called Kavkas 2016 in Crimea. It looked like Putin was not about to be outdone by those joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

You have multiple rocket launchers fired, coordinated amphibious assault landings on beachheads, bombing runs, explosions all over the water. Dozens of fighter jets flying mock dog flights, strike aircrafts hitting targets on land and at sea, tanks and armored personnel carriers all over the place. There were 12,000 soldiers involved in these war games.

We are told these drills are designed to send a clear message, Russia is ready to fight at any time. These drills are set to practice for an invasion of Crimea and simulate Russian forces fighting off that invasion.

Crimea is, of course, a province of Ukraine that Russia invaded in 2014. Putin denied to invading it at the time, and later admitted it and he's vowed it will be a part of Russia from now on. The war games at a high tension between Russia and NATO allies over Syria, Ukraine, NATO's expansion and, of course, as we're looking at Crimea, the annexation that prompted heavy western sanctions on Russia, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's doing these exercises presumably now to counter what the Russians perceive as another potential threat emanating from it.

TODD: Wolf, it was just three weeks ago that Russia accused Ukraine of trying to smuggle in operatives into Crimea for sabotage operations. The Ukrainians denied those allegations, but the tensions here along that border with Russia and Ukraine is just very, very acute tonight. These exercises are evidence of that. He is determined to show his strength.

BLITZER: Good point.

All right. Brian Todd, very dangerous situation all around on multiple fronts in that region and elsewhere.

Brian Todd reporting. Thank you.

This weekend marks 15 years since 9/11. CNN will be airing an award- winning film that captures the horror and the heroism of that day. You can see "9/11: Fifteen Years Later", Sunday 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

And as Americans get ready to pause and remember one of the most painful moments in our history. Our thoughts, of course, are with the families of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed on that day.

Among them my cousin, Jeffrey Schreier and he was working in the Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage firm in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. He was 48 years old.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.