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National Security Advisor Putting Iran 'On Notice'; Fresh Ukraine Fighting May Be Trump's First Test with Putin. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 1, 2017 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Iran on notice. An Iranian missile test draws a veiled threat from the president's national security advisor. As the Trump administration faces its first foreign policy challenge, is it prepared to back up its words?

[17:00:20] Nuclear option. As his new Supreme Court nominee makes the rounds up on Capitol Hill, the president tells Senate Republicans to, quote, "go nuclear" to cut off any stalling tactics by Democrats.

Capitol Hill chaos. President Trump gets his secretary of state, but two Republicans say they'll vote against his education secretary nominee, as the GOP changes committee rules to advance other cabinet nominees.

And Putin's proxy war. A new upsurge of deadly fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebels. It could be President Trump's first big test with Vladimir Putin. Why isn't he speaking out on this crisis?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're tracking multiple breaking news stories tonight. President Trump's national security advisor says Iran is, quote, "officially on notice" after it test fired a ballistic missile. Michael Flynn says the launch violates a U.N. Security Council resolution and calls it the latest in a series of provocative moves by Iran.

President Trump, accompanied by his daughter Ivanka, makes an unannounced visit to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base to honor a U.S. Navy SEAL killed in this week's anti-terror raid in Yemen. Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens was the only American to die in the operation, which targeted al-Qaeda leaders.

As his Supreme Court nominee is introduced up on Capitol Hill, President Trump says Senate Republicans should, quote, "go nuclear" if needed to cut off any filibuster by Democrats. That would change the rules to allow confirmation by a simple Senate majority.

And while former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson is confirmed as secretary of state, Democrats are digging in their heels on most cabinet confirmations. Senate Republicans took an extraordinary step today, changing committee rules to get around a Democratic boycott and advance the treasury and health nominees. But two GOP senators say they'll vote against education nominee Betsy Devos, forcing colleagues to scramble to save her nomination.

I'll speak with Democratic Senator Sheldon White House. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're all standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with the Trump administration taking tough -- talking very tough in the face of its first major foreign policy challenge. Let's go live to our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, over at the State Department.

Very strong words, Michelle, aimed at Iran.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. This was put out there as a strong statement. The White House making it very clear, after this latest ballistic missile launch by Iran, after the attack on a Saudi ship by Iran-backed rebels off of Yemen, that the White House is, in its words, "dedicated to holding Iran accountable." And it's considering a whole range of options in response.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): A tough line on Iran at the White House today.

MICHAEL FLYNN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.

KOSINSKI: National security advisor Michael Flynn offering a cryptic warning after Iran tested another ballistic missile Sunday.

FLYNN: The Trump administration condemns such actions by Iran that undermine security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place -- which places American lives at risk.

KOSINSKI: The new administration making it clear it believes the missile launch violated a U.N. resolution. Flynn's comments today follow this warning from U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley yesterday.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: The United States is not naive. We are not going to stand by. We're going to act. We're going to be strong. We're going to be loud. And we're going to do whatever it takes to protect the American people.

KOSINSKI: A strong message, but how exactly the U.S. will act is unclear.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think we wanted to make very clear that we felt as though that -- their actions were both provocative and in violation and making sure that they understood that we weren't going to sit by and not act on those actions.

KOSINSKI: Iran has launched ballistic missiles several times over the last few years. In January 2016, the Obama administration's Treasury Department did impose sanctions specifically targeting those helping Iran get supplies for its missile program.

But prior tests have gone down with no more response than statements of condemnation. Experts say the missile tests, while provocative, do not violate the nuclear deal the U.S. and five other countries helped negotiate.

TONY BLINKEN, FORMER DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: Some will say that that there are those in Iran who are actually trying themselves to undermine or sabotage the nuclear agreement that we reached with Iran. They're trying to take provocative actions to get us to respond, to get us to pull out of the agreement. Many in Iran, many conservatives don't like the agreement.

[17:05:15] KOSINSKI: President Trump on the campaign trail talked about getting tough on Iran, but not necessarily ripping up the nuclear deal.

DONALD TRUMP (R), MCCONNELL OF THE UNITED STATES (via phone): It's a horrible agreement. I will make that agreement so tough; and if they break it, they will have hell to pay.

KOSINSKI: He also rattled Europe by calling the NATO alliance obsolete, suggesting those allies might have to defend themselves.

Today, as the NATO chief calls the spike in violence in eastern Ukraine dire, calling on Russia to use its influence to stop it, the White House had only this as a response.

SPICER: The president has been kept aware of, through his national Security Council and his national security team as a whole, what's been going on in the Ukraine.

KOSINSKI: Former CIA director, retired General David Petraeus, today warned members of Congress that the U.S.'s global alliances are under unprecedented threat.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Americans should not take the current international order for granted. It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self- sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and eventually collapse. This is precisely what some of our adversaries seek to encourage.


KOSINSKI: Here at the State Department, and keep in mind, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was just confirmed today, but they're not being so definitive in calling this missile launch a violation of the U.N. resolution. They're using language like, it was in defiance, or inconsistent with it. That it's a provocation.

And they're also not completely clear at this point what exactly are these actions or options in response that the White House is talking about -- Wolf. BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski over at the State Department, thank you.

Let's go over to the White House right now. Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, is getting more information. What else, Sara, are you learning about what the White House threat really entails?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we heard from a few more senior administration officials on this. They are using phrases like "highly provocative" to describe this action by Iran and saying that this is the kind of thing that is destabilizing to the region.

But they would not give specifics on what steps the U.S. might take in response. Instead, they said this is the beginning of what's going to be a deliberative process. Obviously, there are options for the U.S. on the table. Whether those are economic options or whether those are military options. And it's worth noting, Wolf, that they would not say one way or another whether military options are under consideration here.

One thing they did seem to want to make clear is that they view this as separate from the nuclear agreement with Iran and that they seem to suggest, just because there is this nuclear agreement with Iran does not mean that the U.S. will just sit idly by on moves like this ballistic missile test, that there may still be a response from the U.S. on something like this.

Now, again, it remains to be seen exactly what that response is, and part of this seems to be designed to pressure Iran to change its behavior. It will be interesting to see if these harsh words coming out of the White House are followed by what kind of action, if any action at all, Wolf.

Yes, because those are really harsh words from the national security advisor. "As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice," almost like a red line, if you will.

There's another major development unfolding right now. President Trump has made a visit to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. There you see him leaving the White House with daughter Ivanka. What can you tell us about this?

KOSINSKI: That's right. He made an unannounced trip to Dover today to participate in the dignified transfer of remains ceremony. This is, of course, for the Navy SEAL who was killed in that raid in Yemen. This is the mission that, at the outset, the White House dubbed a successful mission. Both Sean Spicer said that from the podium at the White House. They said that in a press release.

But Sean Spicer appeared to walk that back a little bit today, acknowledging that it's difficult to call any mission 100 percent successful when there's a loss of American life. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SPICER: You never want to call something a success, 100 percent, when someone is hurt or killed. And that was the case here.

But I think that, when you recognize that an individual like this loved this country so much and deployed over and over again, because he knew that the mission that he was conducting was so important to our protection, our freedom, our safety. And I know that when the president spoke to Karen, his wife, and talked about, you know, the three children that he left behind, she continued to be impressed with -- to impress upon the president, rather, that while it was an unbelievably sad and emotional time for her and her family, that he loved doing this.


KOSINSKI: Now, this is, of course, the first time President Trump has had to deal with something like this: the ramifications of a mission that is carried out under his administration that has led to a loss of American life, and clearly, today he's participating in one of the most somber and

heart-wrenching parts of being the commander in chief.

[17:10:11] BLITZER: He certainly is, and our deepest, deepest condolences go out to the family of the Navy SEAL who was killed, Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens.

I just want to also point out that, in the initial statement released by the administration, they did call the operation successful.

Sara Murray over at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's bring in Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who's joining us now live. Senator, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about Iran, first of all. Very strong words from the national security advisor. You were among those who voted in favor of the Iran nuclear deal.

What did you think of the, shall we call it a veiled threat released by the national security advisor today that Iran is now on notice?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, there are far more questions than answers about on notice of what, and what the consequences might be. But I think that the cooler heads would suggest that continuing to protect the Iran agreement and not spiral towards warfare with Iran over this would be the prudent path.

BLITZER: The statement that the national security advisor, Michael Flynn, put out said that the recent ballistic missile test by Iran was, quote, "in defiance" of that U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231.

Do you believe that this test, this ballistic missile that went about 61 miles before it exploded, do you believe it was a violation of that U.N. agreement?

WHITEHOUSE: We have been careful so far not to call things a violation of that agreement. First, in order to stay aligned with all of the other European and friendly parties who participated in that agreement, so as to continue to keep the benefits of that agreement in terms of a lot of Iranian nuclear facilities have been poured full of concrete and are shut down forever.

So, I would not want to make that conclusion yet. And I think it's a very consequential conclusion to draw and would require the agreement of our allies.

BLITZER: What action, Senator, do you believe the United States should take if Iran were to continue these kinds of ballistic medium range ballistic missile tests? These missiles potentially, as you know, could have a nuclear war head.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, the key is to keep the multinational coalition together on this, because together the nations can put far more pressure on Iran than we could alone, short of resorting to a military attack. So, it's too early to answer that question because it really depends a good deal on what the rest of our coalition wants to do as a group. We'll be much more forceful and effective as a group.

BLITZER: Senator, I want you to stand by. I want to bring up -- you had a really fiery speech today in the United States Senate involving the confirmation process of Senator Sessions to be the attorney general of the United States. We're going to discuss that and much more right after a quick break.


[17:17:37] BLITZER: We're talking with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. We're going to get back to you, Senator, in just a moment.

But first President Trump is telling Senate Republicans to go, quote, "nuclear" if necessary to push through the new pick for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju, is up on Capitol Hill. So what's the very latest up there, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight Democrats are splitting along ideological lines over how hard to fight the Gorsuch nomination.

Liberals are pushing very hard to fight tooth and nail and to filibuster this nomination, while moderates are reserving their judgment right now. And they are hoping to pick up eight Democrats to break a likely Democratic filibuster.


RAJU (voice-over): As McConnell Donald Trump's choice for Supreme Court made the rounds on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats were struggling with this key question. How hard should they fight the selection of judge Neil Gorsuch to serve on the high court?

Trump warning his party may try to cut out Democrats altogether if they filibuster his nominee, urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to invoke the so-called nuclear option to allow just 51 Republicans to confirm Gorsuch rather than the 60 votes required now.

TRUMP: I would say if you can, Mitch, go nuclear. Because that would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was caught up in the web. So, I would say it's up to Mitch, but I would say, go for it.

RAJU: Democrats are firing back.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: That's enormously unhelpful. That's a threat. And I don't think the president should threaten the congressional branch of government.

RAJU: But Feinstein declined to say if she'd back a filibuster.

(on camera): Do you think Democrats should filibuster this nomination?

FEINSTEIN: I'm not there yet. I can't say.

RAJU: Liberal Democrats are still fuming at Senate Republicans for refusing to even have a hearing for former President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. And they believe Gorsuch should not be given a lifetime seat because of his conservative ideology.

SEN. ED MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Yes, I'm going to -- I am personally going to fight as hard as I can in order to block this confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court of the United States. I believe that it is absolute imperative that he not serve on the Supreme Court.

[17:20:06] RAJU: Yet other Democrats say that Trump is not affecting the ideological balance of the court, since he's filling the seat of the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. And they say they should save their fire power and the filibuster for the next fight, when Trump may replace a more liberal justice.

Senator Joe Manchin bluntly issuing this warning to his party.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: If we're ever going to be back into the majority, they're going to have to learn to work with moderates, they have to be tolerant and understand that. If not, they're going to be in the super minority, and I think that's something that they should be very much concerned about.

RAJU: The White House is hoping to win over Manchin and nine other Democrats who are up for reelection in states Trump won, including Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who is noncommittal about Gorsuch, but says the nominee must win 60 votes.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: I want to listen and learn, but no way we should give up the 60-vote margin, which is the filibuster. RAJU: The battle comes as tensions turn to rage over Trump's cabinet,

with Republicans taking an unprecedented step to change the rules and advance two of Trump's cabinet nominees after Democrats boycotted a committee vote on Tom Price's nomination to head Health and Human Services and Steven Mnuchin to run the Treasury Department.

Yet one Trump nominee is running into problems, after two Republicans announced they'd vote against Betsy Devos as education secretary, which would force Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie in the Senate.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: This is not a decision that I made lightly.


RAJU: And tonight, Wolf, Republican officials are telling me they are confident that Betsy Devos will get confirmed as the next secretary of education by a 51 to 50 vote when Pence does come to the Senate and break a tie, either later this week or early next week.

But Republicans pushing very hard against Democratic tactics to delay nominations on other key nominees, including Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, Democrats boycotting that committee vote today. But tomorrow they're planning on meeting again and are warning they could move that nomination also directly to the floor.

BLITZER: Do we know for sure, Manu, that all 48 Democrats will vote against Devos?

RAJU: We have a very good feeling that they will. There's no indication yet of anyone breaking ranks. Even the moderates like Joe Manchin are saying that they will vote against Devos. She's one of the nominees who seems to be breaking down along party lines and the first nominee we're seeing, actually, Republicans to revolt and break ranks.

BLITZER: All right. Manu, thanks very much. Manu Raju up on the Hill.

We're back with Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Senator, on CNN this morning you didn't express any concerns about George -- about Judge Gorsuch's qualifications, but you did express concerns about a Supreme Court that's delivering, in your views, politically conservative outcomes. Shouldn't the focus remain on qualifications, judicial temperament before you start discussing politics?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, in an ordinary Supreme Court, I think that would be the ordinary way to proceed.

The problem is that under Chief Justice Roberts, when Justice Scalia was alive, the five Republican appointees went on a complete partisan political tear and just delivered decision after decision after decision, 5-4, with no regard for the Democrat appointees; and over and over again aligned with big Republican-friendly special interests.

And if we're going to go back to that, where the majority of the Supreme Court is simply a delivery system for big special interests through the mechanism of the court, then I think we have a real problem on our hands, and it's not good for the court in the long run. And that's an important question that Mr. Gorsuch is going to have to answer.

BLITZER: But Justice Kennedy is a swing vote. He sort of goes sometimes with the Democratic nominee, sometimes with the Republican. And Chief Justice John Roberts, his vote affirmed Obamacare, and he was a Republican nominee, as well. So, it's not always strictly along party lines.

WHITEHOUSE: It's pretty darn close. And if you look at the array of decisions, from Citizens United to Heller to Shelby County, to all the decisions cutting back on corporations' exposure to courts and juries, the environmental decisions, the EPA decision, they line up into a very predictable pattern, in which the five Republicans will lineup with the big special interests and deliver what they've been asked to in the amicus briefs that they and their front groups have filed.

And it's time for that to come to a stop and for judges to get back to judging again and stop being a delivery system for big special interests.

BLITZER: So, will you filibuster?

WHITEHOUSE: We will -- you've to be clear about what you mean by that. Filibustering on the floor and going there and disrupting things is one definition of filibuster. Requiring the Senate to honor the 60 votes that the Republicans held us to for so long is another.

[07:25:13] Yes, we absolutely ought to require a 60-vote threshold for this judge, the way Mitch McConnell has insisted on for any major action by the Senate.

BLITZER: As you heard, President Trump urged the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to, quote, "go nuclear" if Democrats threaten to filibuster, use that 60-vote majority necessary to vote involving Judge Gorsuch. What impact do you think that will have on the Senate if McConnell accepts the recommendation from the president and goes nuclear?

WHITEHOUSE: I think this is Majority Leader McConnell's call. I think he'll be hesitant about doing it, because so many of his majority are on record against precisely this. I think it was unproductive of the president to do this, but he's a rash and willful person who doesn't mind doing damage to American institutions. So here he goes again.

BLITZER: Don't Democrats, Senator, bear some of the responsibility for this breakdown of normal Senate collegiality, because it was the Democratic party under Harry Reid, when he was the Democratic leader in the Senate, that weakened the filibuster rules back in 2013, got rid of the filibuster option as far as cabinet nominees are concerned? So, all the cabinet nominees going forward right now only need 51 votes. There is no 60-vote requirement.

WHITEHOUSE: Correct, and that has been much to the advantage of the Trump administration. So, you know, I think it loosened things up in terms of executive nominees getting into the cabinet, and it loosened things up for the lower court judges, but it was the Senate's common understanding that it would not apply to Supreme Court justices.

So, if they want to break that and go forward, that is their prerogative, but it will have lasting consequences in the Senate and immense immediate consequences in terms of cooperation with our side in the immediate months ahead.

BLITZER: So -- very quickly, that decision by Harry Reid and the Democrats to go nuclear on cabinet nominees, was that a major blunder?

WHITEHOUSE: I don't think so. I think that it was something that loosened up the move of cabinet nominees. We could not have anticipated that this president would get elected and appoint such a cabinet of people who are riddled with conflicts of interest and failures of disclosure and divestment. I mean, the problems that we see and that we're trying to resolve are ones that result from the cabinet selection of this president.

BLITZER: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, thanks very much for joining us.

WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Coming up, fresh fighting between Ukrainian forces and rebels backed by Vladimir Putin. How will President Trump now respond to what could be his first major test by the Russian leader?


BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories including national security advisor Michael Flynn publicly threatening Iran.


[17:32:35] MICHAEL FLYNN, TRUMP'S NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Iran continues to threaten U.S. friends and allies in the region. The Obama administration failed to respond adequately to Tehran's maligned actions including weapons transfers, support for terrorism, and other violations of international norms. The Trump administration condemns such actions by Iran that undermine security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place -- which places American lives at risk.

President Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran and the Obama administration as well as the United Nations as being weak and ineffective. Instead of being thankful to the United States in these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened. As of today we are officially putting Iran on notice.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Strong statement. Let's bring in our experts, Phil Mudd, what did you make that of? I think it's fair to say that was a threat, at least a veiled threat.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Really? I can't figure out what he's talking about. This is like a line out of the greatest movie ever, "Caddyshack." Iran is now on double secret probation.

You look at this, Iran has developed ballistic missiles for years, a huge ballistic missile program going back to at least the 1990s. They have an engineering and scientific establishment only beaten by the Israelis in the Middle East. And they have allies, including the Russians and the Chinese.

If you're going to talk like this in the midst of the Russians acting up in Ukraine, the refugee issue we have going on, the end of, potentially, Syrian civil war, the questions about NATO, if you're going to put this on the plate, you've got to go beyond saying, "Hey, they're on probation." What does that mean? In my judgment it doesn't mean anything right now.

BLITZER: He said that this test, the 600-mile test, which ended with an explosion, was in defiance of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, and then he added, he said it was a defiance because that resolution says Iran should not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.

His argument and the argument of other Trump administration officials is that that's -- that missile that went 600 miles, an intermediate- range missile, was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

MUDD: I don't dispute that. The question is, are you serious? Are you going to go to the U.N. Security Council after what happened in Iraq 15 years ago, fast forwarding to what's happening in Europe, for example, and questions about what's going on within the Trump administration? You have the European Union saying within the past 48 hours that they consider now this administration a threat. You're going to go to the Security Council and say, "We want to take action against Iran"?

I don't dispute what the administration is saying about a violation. The question is what are you going to do about it?

BLITZER: Well, during the campaign, Dana, you well remember then- candidate Donald Trump repeatedly said this Iran nuclear deal was the worst deal ever. He would rip it up. He toned back that a little bit; he would review it now. But he hates this deal.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He absolutely hates this deal. But even people who hate this deal, who fought tooth and nail against it, say that, you know, it is a deal; and it's done now. And we have to work within the parameters of what exists right now.

These are the most hardline of hawks in his party. And maybe more importantly most of the people who have been confirmed for national security positions in his cabinet said that, even those who are staunchly anti-Iran.

I agree with you. It's really unclear what the strategy is here that the national security advisor is going for. I mean, tough talk is one thing. Even tough talk can be dangerous, because you never know what it's going to elicit from especially a country like Iran. But then what? We don't know the "then what." And it was also unusual for that to happen before there was even a National Security Council meeting that we know of. You know, it just doesn't seem as though there's a cohesive understanding of what would happen next.

BLITZER: Mark Preston, as you know, Iran one of the seven countries on that travel ban Muslim majority countries, if you will, the notion, though, of when Michael Flynn, the national security advisor, says, "Iran is now feeling emboldened. As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice." The words "on notice" reminds me, sort of, of the red line that

President Obama drew in Syria.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Yes, and these threats are actually very similar. Just to go through quickly the time line, back in August of 2012, Barack Obama says, if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, then he will have crossed the red line and there could potentially be U.S. intervention.

Fast forward to 2013. There are reports of sarin gas being used in Syria. But Barack Obama can't do anything, because there's bipartisan opposition for him to put troops in, so he holds back. Russia steps in, fills the void, cuts the deal with Syria, supposedly takes out all of the chemical weapons.

Fast forward to five months ago. The U.N. comes out and says that, in fact, Assad has used industrial chlorine against his people, as well as ISIS using mustard gas.

So, really, it comes down to this. Republicans have thought that Barack Obama should have never made that comment, because it made him look weak. He went out there and gave an empty threat and never followed through on it. And as we talk about what General Flynn is saying there right now, we're kind of befuddled at what he actually means and could he fall into the same trap, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, the whole notion, though, of this early posturing, tough talk by the Trump administration with this threat. If the Iranians go ahead on some more ballistic missile tests, it's going to put an enormous amount of pressure on President Trump and his national security team to do something.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. And certainly, Mike Flynn is putting pressure, even right now with this sort of vague show of strength on Defense Secretary Mattis and also incoming Secretary of State Tillerson to sort of fill in some of the blanks that he's left.

What would some sort of show of force look like from the Trump administration if Iran went any further? And you have in Tillerson and certainly in Mattis people who are very

cautious about the use of military force. Certainly don't want to be engaging in conflicts with a country like Iran without a plan.

And even Trump during the course of his campaign was very cautious about engaging overseas. He said with Syria that Russia should just be able to take care of it. He said that Iraq should have never happened and that the U.S. shouldn't be pursuing that kind of conflict. And so you wonder what he is actually talking about in terms of Iran.

BLITZER: I assume we'll find out fairly soon.

Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news we're following especially here in Washington up on Capitol Hill. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:43:35] We're back with our political and counterterrorism experts.

Dana, you covered the Congress, the Senate for a long time. As you know, Democrats are crying foul right now for Republicans suspending some of the rules, allowing the advancement of nominations.

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: Steve Mnuchin for treasury, Tom Price for the Department of Health and Human Services. Are we seeing a breakdown in regular Senate procedures?

BASH: Yes. I mean, there's no question about it. This is, though, just the latest, frankly.

I mean, just to be fair to Republicans, one of the major breakdowns was the change in long-standing Senate rules that the Democratic leader, then Harry Reid, put in place which was doing away with filibusters for nominees, which they're now having to live by those rules now that they are in the minority and it's a Republican president, Republicans in control. This is the next step in that.

So, the -- and when I say this, it is as you said, the fact that these nominees today didn't get proper hearings. It didn't get proper votes. The Republicans who are in charge said it's because they didn't have any Democrats to do it, so they just changed the rules and sent them right to the full Senate floor.

The question is whether or not all of this is going to continue to snowball and end up in sort of the mother of all rules changes, the mother of all kind of Senate chaos, which would be a 51-seat regular -- excuse me, a 51-vote regular simple majority for Supreme Court nominees. That has not yet happened and it probably won't happen for this nominee, but it certainly may for the next one.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, Mark Preston, you heard President Trump say, I would recommend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell go to the nuclear option just to have that 51-majority in order to make sure this Supreme Court nominee is confirmed.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And you know what, I think Mitch McConnell might do that. I don't think it's going to actually happen on this one. And I think, strategically, Democrats would be smart to put up a fight but then to allow Gorsuch to go through and to take his place on the bench because the big fight is going to be the next Supreme Court vacancy.

And if you look on the liberal wing of the bench, you know, they have one justice who is 78, another justice who is 83. You have the swing vote Justice Kennedy. I think he's 80 years old. So that's where the really big fight is going to be. And that's where, I think, we're going to see a big battle, Wolf, when it comes over the issue of abortion and Roe v. Wade.

You know, I was talking to somebody who is very connected to the pro- life movement. And their eyes are glistening right now because they actually think that they can get Roe v. Wade overturned, especially if they have a conservative bench. That is going to be an epic battle when that happens.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly would be. And, Rebecca, the liberal wing, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, they basically want the Senators to vote no on all these nominations that the President Trump puts forward. How much influence do they have?

REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Well, it's a little bit limited actually, Wolf, in the Senate because you have, in the next election cycle, 10 Democrats who are going to be running for re-election in states that Donald Trump won. And in half of those states, he won by double digits, and it's going to be very difficult for a lot of these Senators to win re-election.

And so their colleagues recognize at least, maybe not always their constituents, but their colleagues recognize that some of these Senators are going to have to make some compromises in order to be able to, at least, have a chance to be re-elected, if not get re- elected. So it's sort of a spectrum at this point within the Senate.

BLITZER: We're going to be watching those 10 Democratic senators very closely on all of these roll call votes.

Everybody stand by. There is more news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, including a deadly spike in fighting involving Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. Will this be President Trump's first big test of wills with Russia's Vladimir Putin?


[17:51:48] BLITZER: There's a new upsurge of fighting in Ukraine where government forces are pitted against Russian-backed rebels. Brian Todd has been looking into this development for us.

Could this be, Brian, President Trump's first direct challenge with Vladimir Putin? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is certainly the first

big test of President Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin. Tonight, we're watching for how the President is going to respond. Will he confront Putin and pressure him Ukraine, or will Mr. Trump not want to risk alienating the Russian President so early on?


TODD (voice-over): Combat near the Russian border. Ukrainian forces battle with separatists rebels loyal to Russia. More than a dozen killed in the fighting since Sunday. Each side blames the other for starting it, and NATO's leader says civilians are in danger.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, just days after President Trump's phone call with Vladimir Putin, the optimism Trump expressed over dealing with the Russian President is at risk.

HOPE M. HARRISON, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Now's the moment. This is going to be a crucial test for President Trump in dealing with Putin. Trump has said he wants good relations. He hasn't paid a lot of attention to this Ukraine situation that is the worry of so many in Europe.

TODD (voice-over): President Trump, who has called NATO obsolete and has been reluctant to publicly criticize Putin, could be under considerable pressure if the fighting intensifies.

KEITH DARDEN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I think he has a strong incentive to get this taken care of very quickly. That if it does escalate and there's an international outcry, it makes it harder for Trump to appear to be appeasing an aggressive Russia.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, key questions, will President Trump personally confront Vladimir Putin and press him to use his influence to end the fighting in Ukraine? Will he risk upending the good start that Trump and Putin's aides say they got off to?

At the White House, this response.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The President has been kept aware of, through his National Security Council and his national security team as a whole, what's been going on in Ukraine. And we'll have further updates as we're going.

TODD (voice-over): Experts are split. On one hand, they say Trump's advisers may tell him he's got to confront Putin, that he can't be bullied by the former KGB agent. On the other hand --

HARRISON: Trump may decide this is in Putin's backyard. I can understand concerns in his backyard. My bigger fish to fry with Putin is help against ISIS, otherwise I want to focus internally in the U.S., not at what's going on in Ukraine. TODD (voice-over): But there are also risks for Putin, if the fight

in Ukraine escalates.

DARDEN: Putin doesn't really want this on the table right now. He's got a favorable President in the White House. If they had a good conversation, that they're getting cooperation on counterterrorism and an attack on ISIS in the Middle East, I don't think he needs anything happening in Ukraine to disrupt what looks to be a very Putin-friendly world right now.


TODD: Tonight, analysts are cautioning that President Trump's road ahead with Vladimir Putin is fraught with potential danger. They worry that, in the short term, with Ukraine, Putin might get President Trump to make some kind of a deal on Ukraine that would leave Ukraine exposed and would make Europe's allies very, very nervous right now, Wolf.

[17:55:04] BLITZER: All right. Brian Todd reporting. Brian, thanks very much.

Coming up, an Iranian missile test draws a veiled threat from the White House, which says Iran is now, quote, "officially on notice," as the Trump administration faces its first foreign policy challenge. Is it prepared to back up those words?


[17:59:58] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. New red line. The President's national security adviser says the U.S. is putting Iran on notice after its provocative ballistic missile test launch. Will the threat be followed by action?

Redefining success. President Trump makes a surprise trip to receive --