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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Senator John Kennedy; Interview With Senator Angus King; U.S. National Security Adviser Warns Iran; Rex Tillerson Confirmed as Secretary of State; Trump Attends Return of Navy SEAL's Remains; Trump to GOP: "Go Nuclear" If Needed for Court Pick. Aired 6- 7p ET
Aired February 1, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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 the remains of the first U.S. service member killed on his watch. The White House now tweaking its assessment of the deadly raid in Yemen that was personally approved by the president.
Go nuclear. The president braces for a battle over his new Supreme Court nominee. He is telling GOP lawmakers it's OK to blow up the filibuster rules if necessary. Will Democrats stand in their way or stand down?
And bending the rules. Republicans take an unprecedented step to bypass Democrats boycotting a vote on two Cabinet picks, this as another Trump nominee is abandoned by some members of the president's own party. We're following the high drama on Capitol Hill.
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 this hour. The Trump administration unleashes a stern but vague threat to Iran. White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn going before reporters and cameras to condemn Iran's recent ballistic missile test.
He says the United States is putting the Tehran government on notice. Tonight, a senior official says the administration is conducting a review of how to respond.
We're also following President Trump's trip to Dover Air Force Base for the return of the remains of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed in a raid in Yemen. The U.S. raid targeting al Qaeda killed nearly 40 people, including 13 civilians, about half of them children. After initial praise of the mission, the White House now says it can't be called a 100 percent success because of all the casualties. Also breaking, President Trump urges Senate Republicans to do what it
takes to win confirmation of his new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch. Mr. Trump signaling he supports the so-called nuclear option to prevent the filibuster by Democrats if needed.
Meantime, the fight over the president's Cabinet nominees is taking stunning new twists. That includes an unprecedented move by Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee. They suspended the rules to push forward Mr. Trump's picks to lead the Treasury Department, the Health Department in response to a boycott by Democrats.
I will talk about all of this with independent Senator Angus King of Maine. He's standing by, along with our correspondents, analysts and other guests, as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.
Up first, let's go to our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott. She's over at the State Department.
Elise, what are you learning about the Trump administration's new warning to Iran?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House tonight says it is considering a range of options to hold Iran accountable for its behavior and it's just one example of how Rex Tillerson's job as secretary of state is becoming even harder before he starts.
LABOTT (voice-over): In a surprise appearance at the White House briefing, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn offered a blunt warning to Iran after Sunday's missile test and attack by Iran-backed militants on a Saudi navy vessel.
MICHAEL FLYNN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Iran is feeling now emboldened. As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nomination is confirmed.
LABOTT: An early foreign policy test for Rex Tillerson, confirmed tonight by the Senate as secretary of state. But Tillerson is taking over a State Department in revolt, a scathing protest by more than 900 career diplomats and civil servants over President Trump's new policy banning visas for citizens from seven Muslim majority countries.
In an internal memo obtained by CNN ,the diplomats warn Trump's executive order -- quote -- "will not achieve its aim of making our country safer and is likely to alienate allies in our counterterrorism efforts and increase anti-American sentiment and foster violent extremism."
TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: The cable is at least in my memory unprecedented. And it I think goes to the deep concern and the broad concerns that felt in the State Department over the actions taken by the administration. LABOTT: The memo came through the State Department's dissent channel,
which awards employees for voicing foreign policy concerns without retribution. But from the White House, a blunt warning.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I that think they should either get with the program or they can go.
LABOTT: One longtime career officer pushed out by the new administration used his farewell address to urged colleagues to stay and uphold their oath to defend America from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
TOM COUNTRYMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: The policy without professionals is, by definition, an amateur policy. You have to help make the choices that bring this country forward.
LABOTT: In addition to a restless diplomatic corps, Tillerson must confront allies concerned the new administration is increasing the ISIS threat with its latest moves.
AMBER RUDD, BRITISH HOME SECRETARY: ISIS will use any opportunity they can to make difficulties to create the environment they want to radicalize people to bring them over to their side. So it is a propaganda opportunity for them, potentially.
LABOTT: In Canada, one lawmaker compared Trump's policies to fascism.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will call for immediate action and for the Canadian government to finally start standing up to the fascist Donald Trump.
LABOTT: And, Wolf, President Trump is expected to swear in Rex Tillerson within the hour. He's expected to start work tomorrow. The State Department is already setting up to welcome him.
Many diplomats hope he can come and calm the chaos here at the State Department. Some diplomats I spoke to said one early thing Secretary Tillerson could do is meet with some of the authors of this cable, let them know that he respects them, that he hears them, that he has their back. He had that reputation as CEO of ExxonMobil and it would go a long way, they say, to getting him in good standing with the diplomats he will need on his side here in Washington and abroad going forward.
BLITZER: He's got a huge, huge challenge indeed. Elise Labott at the State Department, thank you.
Now to the president's new Supreme Court nominee. Confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch are expected to begin in about six weeks. But the president already is giving GOP leaders advice on how to push the nomination through the Senate. Let's go to our White House continue, Sara Murray.
Sara, the president thinks his launch of Judge Gorsuch is going well so far.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He and other administration officials really do. For a White House that's really been marked by chaos since Donald Trump moved in, the rollout of Neil Gorsuch was seamless. Donald Trump appeared presidential and aides are very pleased with how it went.
Now President Trump is making clear he's willing to ask his allies to go to extreme measures to assure his Supreme Court pick is confirmed.
MURRAY (voice-over): After a polished rollout for his Supreme Court pick.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, I am keeping another promise to the American people by nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch of the United States Supreme Court -- to be of the United States Supreme Court.
MURRAY: Donald Trump is encouraging his Senate allies to prepare for battle and ensure federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed. The president urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today to prevent Democrats from filibustering his pick by invoking the nuclear option if necessary.
TRUMP: If we end up with that gridlock, 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.
MURRAY: Trump administration officials are looking to rebound from the tumultuous implementation of their travel ban. And after a chaotic start to Trump's presidency, now they're aiming for a more disciplined approach.
When it comes to the president's Supreme Court pick, the White House is trying to ensure a smooth process with the help of its conservative allies.
TRUMP: I really think he's a very dignified man. I would like to see him go through a dignified process. I think he deserves that and hopefully it will go quickly.
MURRAY: Trump met with a group supporting his Supreme Court pick at the White House today and the administration is working in tandem with Republican leadership in the Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee, and other outside groups to put pressure on Democrats and avoid a filibuster.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: We Democrats will insist on a rigorous, but fair process. MURRAY: Senate Democrats appear divided on how hard to fight the
Gorsuch nomination, and some red state liberals like West Virginia's Joe Manchin already appear inclined to play nice.
SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I'm anxious to sit down with the new nominee to find out more about him.
MURRAY: But despite almost half a day of establishing relative normalcy in the White House, the president couldn't set aside his ongoing grievances, Trump marking the first day of African-American History Month with a so-called listening session with supporters.
TRUMP: We honor the tremendous history of the African-Americans throughout our country.
MURRAY: And complaints about the media.
TRUMP: And turned out that that was fake news.
TRUMP: Fake news.
It was never even touched. So I think it was a disgrace. But that's the way the press is. Very unfortunate.
MURRAY: Now, when it comes to Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick, Democrats already appear divided about whether or not they are going to push for a filibuster.
That is a glimmer of hope for the White House, which has been extremely frustrated to see the way Democrats have handled Donald Trump's Cabinet picks -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Sara, we do know also that the president decided he wanted to go to Dover, Delaware, to Dover Air Force Base. You see him there walking on the South Lawn of the White House to Marine One with his daughter, Ivanka. They wanted to pay their respects to the Navy SEAL that was killed in that attack in Yemen, Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens.
Is he back at the White House yet? This was a very emotional moment. The family of Chief Petty Officer William Owens was there receiving the coffin and his remains.
MURRAY: It was certainly a very emotional moment and really sort of gives you the magnitude of what it is to be the new commander in chief.
This is the first time Donald Trump participated in this dignified transfer of remains ceremony. We are expecting him to be back at the White House any minute now. He has not yet landed. Reporters are on the lawn there. They will be waiting to see his return -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And later this hour, he is going to be swearing in Rex Tillerson as the new United States secretary of state. Sara, thank you very much, Sara Murray reporting from the White House.
Let's bring -- let's talk about all of the breaking news coming out of the White House tonight.
Senator Angus King of Maine is joining us. He's an independent. He caucuses with the Democrats. He's a key member of both the Armed Services and Intelligence Committee.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Thank you, Wolf. Glad to be with you from the Capitol tonight.
BLITZER: You're from the Capitol. That's an important place to be. Lots of drama going on over there. We will get to that.
But I want to get your reaction first to the White House announcement, the response to Iran's recent ballistic missile test by saying that Iran is now -- quote -- "on notice." On notice, what does that mean to you?
KING: I don't know exactly what it means. I think it's appropriate that there be a forceful response.
Iran has violated the U.N. resolution, in my view, with regard to missiles in the past, and I think it is important that they understand that there are going to be consequences. This is separate from the nuclear deal, which is a different issue, which continues to appear to be effective.
I had a briefing on it this week that they're abiding by the rule. But I think some response to the missile test is absolutely appropriate. Now, I hope that it doesn't include trying to undo the nuclear deal. I think that would be a grave mistake.
But we will have to just wait and see what General Flynn meant when he said on notice.
BLITZER: When you say a forceful response, give me an example or two of what you have in mind.
KING: Well, there could be additional sanctions, for example, relating to this, not to the nuclear deal, not the re-imposition of the sanctions that we had.
I also think it's important, Wolf, that we consult with our allies. The thing that made the sanctions effective that brought us to the point of getting the nuclear deal was the fact that they were not just the United States. They involved other countries in the world, including China and Russia. So if we could put together a multilateral response involving other countries, I think that will make it even stronger.
That's one possibility. And I'm sure the White House is considering a range of possibilities.
Let's talk about another source of tension internationally right now, the escalation of fighting in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian troops and the rebels backed by Russian President Putin. Does this merit an equally stern response to Russia right now?
KING: Well, it does.
And I think this is -- I know the president talked to Mr. Putin on Saturday. I don't know what they talked about. I hope that this was part of the subject. Russia just continues to kind of -- they call it hybrid war around here, where they're fighting through other people, they're funding them, they're equipping them.
And I'm sure there are Russians involved in Eastern Ukraine as well. So this is an escalation. It's a dangerous one, and I think it's one where we have to have a clear and unequivocal response. Now, one of the issues is, you know, do we provide more lethal aid? Do we provide more defensive aid, more than what we're already doing?
And the danger there is that, whatever we do, Russia responds to. So this is a delicate situation that requires some pretty good combination of willpower and diplomacy. So, I think Rex Tillerson is going to be sworn in, in about an hour. He's going to have his work cut out for him.
BLITZER: General David Petraeus, the former CIA director, had a warning today. He was testifying on Capitol Hill that the Trump administration shouldn't take the international order for granted right now.
Do you have confidence in the president and his national security team that they can in fact enforce all of these international norms that have been built up for decades?
KING: Well, I am concerned about it, Wolf, to tell you the truth.
The way the travel ban came out over the weekend I think was ill- planned, ill-timed, ill-designed, and obviously wasn't thought through because of the negative implications it has for national security.
In fact, it's exactly what ISIS wanted us to do. And I think it was a really serious mistake. So I'm worried about the national security team. And now we're going to have a secretary of state in place. We now have secretary of defense, homeland security, CIA, but we're not going to have a director of national intelligence for probably another two to three weeks.
So this is important stuff. But if we can have more people involved than were involved last weekend, I think that's a good thing, because, as I think General Petraeus testified today, you have got to think these things through into first, second, third order of facts. This is chess, not checkers. And the consequences have to be taken into account.
BLITZER: Senator, you voted to confirm President Trump's choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. He's about to be sworn in officially. You believe he may be able to stand up to the president. How would you like him to do that on these key foreign policy issues?
KING: Well, I think one of the things he has to say to the president is, take a deep breath. Let's slow down. We don't have to do everything at once.
For example, Iran has tested missiles before. This isn't the first test that's occurred. And we don't -- it's not like we have to respond in the next two or three days. I think that's number one.
Number two, I think Rex Tillerson should be meeting with his new team at State, meeting particularly with defense and intelligence, to understand what our options are and what the consequences are. So he's -- and, plus, as you I think your report mentioned earlier, there are some 900 career diplomats at the Department of State who have raised serious questions about the way the ban was done.
I think they're right. But Rex Tillerson also has to deal with that, and make sure that they're protected, that they understand that their voices have been heard, that they're not subject to some kind of retribution.
So Rex Tillerson has got a delicate job to do. I met with him yesterday at some time, and I sort of joked that I think one of his virtues is he didn't seek this job, he doesn't need this job. But the joke was, after what's happened in the last week, I'm not sure he necessarily wants it. But he's there and he has taken on this responsibility.
And my hope is that he will be a mature, thoughtful voice that will help to broaden the discussion within the White House, because this is, as I say, the steps that are taken have huge consequences.
BLITZER: And General Mattis, the secretary of defense, is a mature, forceful voice as well.
Senator King, thanks very much for joining us.
KING: Thank you, Wolf. Always a pleasure.
BLITZER: Thank you.
Up next, a Republican's take on the fighting over the president's nominees. I will speak live with Senate Judiciary Committee member John Kennedy. He's standing by. We will talk with him right after the break.
BLITZER: Tonight, Senate Republicans are going to new lengths to get some of the Republican's more controversial Cabinet nominees confirmed. It's been a very busy and chaotic day up on Capitol Hill.
Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.
So, Phil, what's the latest?
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, whether it's dislike bordering on disdain for the nominees themselves or just outright frustration with everything they have seen from the Trump administration over the last 10 days, Democrats are doing everything in their power to throw roadblocks in the way in the U.S. Senate. And that has slowed things to a crawl.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: They ought to be embarrassed. It's the most pathetic treatment I have seen in my 40 years in the United States Senate.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): On Capitol Hill, dissent into confirmation chaos, the first cracks in the Republican wall. Two GOP senators throwing a scare into Trump officials over the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary, both opposing the pick.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I simply cannot support her confirmation.
MATTINGLY: All as Senate Republicans urgently changing committee rules to move forward to other crucial Trump Cabinet nominees.
HATCH: I intend to get the committee to back where it was.
MATTINGLY: House and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, circumventing a two-day boycott by Democrats frustrated by what they allege were flat-out lies from the nominees.
SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: They met as a rump committee, in violation of democratic principles, in order to advance the interests of two ethically flawed nominees. I think that's very troubling.
MATTINGLY: Meanwhile, just two floors above in the same building, a second group of Democrats launching a second boycott.
SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: I cannot participate in any way possible
MATTINGLY: This time to slow EPA nominee Scott Pruitt, the moves underscoring a sharply negative turn, Democrats standing firm in recent days, the scope of the power of Republicans now hold.
QUESTION: What are the ramifications in this chamber, in this body if that anger sustains? SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Well, we have got to deliver on our
promises. The most consistent message that I'm conveying to President Trump, to the new administration and to leaders in both houses of Congress is, this election was a mandate for change.
And now we have got to deliver.
QUESTION: Well, you need Democrats presumably on some issues.
CRUZ: Well, listen, I hope Democrats are willing to work together, but we have actually got a lot of tools that enable a majority to act, even if the Democrats continue in extreme obstruction.
MATTINGLY: Democrats unable to block GOP nominees and increasingly frustrated by the administration striking back with every procedural lever they can pull, and when those run out, lambaste the nominees on their way to approval.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Before this committee votes to advance this nomination, it's important that we know whether Senator Sessions is able or willing to separate fact from fiction and speak truth to power.
I am not confident that he is, and I will be voting against him. And I want to thank the chairman for his indulgence.
MATTINGLY: Senate Republicans on a party-line vote advancing the nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general and the full Senate confirming President Trump's top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, underscoring a harsh reality for Democrats.
If Republicans stay together, every single Cabinet nominee will be confirmed.
QUESTION: What do you think this means kind of for Senate going forward?
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: It just takes more time, and have to put more hours, but we're going to get the job done.
MATTINGLY: Wolf, the Senate Republicans' ability to really stick together as a unified bloc is what made the decision for Republicans to go against Betsy DeVos as education secretary nomination so jarring, back-to-back on the Senate floor.
But I'm told from Republican officials they believe her nomination is still on the path to approval and it's going to be about as close as you can get. Right now, it looks like it's going to be a 50-50 tie. What does that mean? Well, Republicans hold the White House, which means Vice President Mike Pence will be making his way to Capitol Hill to cast the deciding vote in Betsy DeVos' favor -- Wolf.
BLITZER: The vice president is president of the U.S. Senate. Phil Mattingly reporting for us, thanks very much.
Let's bring in a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Don't you believe that these Democratic senators have some legitimate questions about these nominees that deserve answers?
BLITZER: None of these questions deserve answers?
BLITZER: Because some of them are pretty serious questions.
KENNEDY: I think the answers have been provided.
I sat through all of the Judiciary hearing for where we considered the new attorney general. I think every question was asked. The answers were given. I'm not sure everybody agreed with the answers. And that's OK. This is America. You can believe what you want. And the Democrats on these nominations can do what they want. This is America. And it's a free country.
But that doesn't make it correct. I predict that all of these nominees will be confirmed, including Ms. DeVos. I think the new Supreme Court justice will -- the nominee will be confirmed. And I think that's what the people in our country want.
This was a change vs. status quo election. I know to some extent all elections are. But this clearly was a change vs. status quo election, and the people voted for change, and we're going provide that change.
BLITZER: But isn't it the job of the United States Senate, whether Democrat senator, Republican senator, to properly vet all of these nominees?
KENNEDY: Sure, it is. And that's what we're doing.
Now, the problem we had today is that some of the Democrats just wouldn't come to the committee hearing. I don't know how you can vet somebody if you refuse to come. That is their prerogative. Under the rules, they can do that.
And let me say it again, even if it wasn't under the rules, this is America. They can believe what they want. But this idea that these nominees have not been properly vetted, that they haven't been asked tough questions, that's just nonsense. That's nonsense on a stick.
BLITZER: What does it say that the vice president, Mike Pence, may have to break a 50-50 tie? Two of your Republican colleagues, they are going to vote against the education secretary nominee. What does that say to you?
KENNEDY: It says to me it's going to be a damn close vote, 50-50. But, look, I don't think that's any surprise. Mrs. DeVos -- and I know not everybody agrees with her point of view on education, but I do.
Let me tell you what I will in education. I will support anything in elementary and secondary education, I don't care what it is, and I don't care what the political consequences are, if it's going to help our kids learn. And I think that's Mrs. DeVos' attitude.
Now, she stepped on some toes because she wants to change things. She believes that we ought to put kids first for a change and not the parents and not the teachers, as important as our teachers are.
And let me say something. I have been a volunteer substitute teacher in our public schools for 15 years. I do it three times a year. So I know what it's like to be a teacher. It's tough.
But we have got a problem with elementary and secondary education in America and we need to fix it. And I think our new education secretary is going to get started on that and I predict she will be confirmed. It may be close, but it still counts.
BLITZER: You're on the Judiciary Committee.
BLITZER: Was it appropriate for Judiciary Committee staffers to work in secret on President Trump's immigration order the other day, even though the chairman wasn't notified, I believe you weren't notified, the senators themselves were not notified?
KENNEDY: I don't know anything about that. I have read the executive order.
I think, clearly, the process on the executive order was a little rocky. But I think it passed the national security and border security test.
[18:30:14] I've read the executive order cover to cover. Now it doesn't say anything about discriminating against anyone on the basis of religion. It takes seven countries, countries of concern that were identified by President Obama, and says, "For 90 days, we're going to take a second look at how people from these countries coming into our country are vetted."
And right there, in the executive order, as big as Dallas, is an exception that says the secretary of state and the homeland security secretary can make exceptions in the interests of our country, which they said they would do in terms of people who already have legal immigration status such as a green card.
So there was -- in my judgment, a lot of people got excited and lost a little sleep and got upset over nothing. Now, I don't mean to minimize the concern here. It's a very important subject. But if you stop and read the executive order, all it says is, "We're going the start doing a better job of vetting people who come into our country. It doesn't matter where they're from, and it doesn't matter what their religion is." Who can disagree with that?
BLITZER: What about -- what about the indefinite -- the indefinite ban on refugees coming into the United States from Syria?
KENNEDY: Well, let me talk about that. Let me tell you why I support that.
It's not that we don't want to let Syrian refugees come into America. It's that we can't. They can't be vetted. How are you going to vet them? Are you going to call the Chamber of Commerce in Syria? I don't think so. We certainly can't call the Syrian government.
And folks say yes, but if they're not in our database at the Department of Defense or CIA, they're OK. What if they're not in the database and they're not OK? What if they happen to be a warlord who, for whatever reason, has never found his way into the database?
I think it's not because the American people are cold-hearted or mean or -- I mean, we've done more than our part in terms of welcoming immigrants from all over the world. It's just a matter of national security. And border security -- I think you'd have to agree with me, Wolf -- has become national security. So that's why I support the ban.
BLITZER: Senator Kennedy...
KENNEDY: I hope we don't have to do it forever, but for right now, it would be stupid to let people into our country who want to kill us.
BLITZER: Well, it certainly would be stupid if we knew they actually wanted to kill us. But most of these refugees who have come to the United States -- I think almost all of them -- have become productive, wonderful citizens, residents of the United States. And I'm sure in Louisiana, as well.
KENNEDY: You're right, Wolf. But you know this better than I do, it only takes one. Only takes one.
BLITZER: All right. Senator, we've got to leave it there. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, thanks for joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM.
There's more breaking news ahead, including a warning to Iran by a top Trump White House official. Plus, the president's surprise trip to honor a fallen U.S. Navy SEAL.
[18:37:50] BLITZER: There's more breaking news tonight. President Trump traveling to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for a very somber ceremony: the arrival of the body of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed in a raid in Yemen. Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us with details. Jim, this was an unannounced visit by the president.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And President Trump is expected to arrive at the White House at any moment and head straight to the swearing-in ceremony for his incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
But the afternoon was dedicated, as you've said, to remembering a fallen Navy SEAL who died in the very first known military operation authorized by the president.
ACOSTA (voice-over): A solemn day for the new commander in chief, making his first trip as president to Dover, Delaware, to meet with the family of Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens, who was killed in Yemen targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. President Trump called Owens's family Tuesday, the White House said, to recognize his sacrifice and years of dedicated service to his country.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He went back, deployed 12 times, because he loved this country, and he believed in the mission. And knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that could prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil is something that I think most service members understand that that's why they join the service.
ACOSTA: White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to clarify a White House statement on the raid Sunday, which said, "In a successful raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula headquarters, brave U.S. forces were instrumental in killing an estimated 14 AQAP members and capturing important intelligence."
Today, Spicer sought to qualify the definition of "success."
SPICER: It's hard to ever say something was successful when you lose a life. You never want to call something a success 100 percent when someone is hurt or killed.
ACOSTA: It was the first covert operation under President Trump. CNN has learned planning for operation began months ago during the Obama administration, but for operational reasons, including the schedule of moonless nights needed to obscure the approaching missions, it could not be done before Obama left office.
[18:40:06] According to a diplomatic source familiar with the operation, President Trump authorized the mission fairly quickly.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In order for an operation like this to be planned as thoroughly as you need to plan it, you often create a cell of contrarians who are poking holes in every one of your steps along the way.
ACOSTA: But the team ran into trouble almost immediately. With drones overhead the whole time, Navy SEALS, working together with UAE Special Ops, approached the site. But the Special Ops team was spotted, and a firefight ensued. The terrorists, which including female fighters, took cover in a nearby building. An air strike was called in against the building.
Yemeni officials say 13 civilians were killed in the raid, including 8-year-old Norah al-Awlaki (ph). Her father was Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who directed attacks against the U.S. and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. Three U.S. service members were wounded, and Navy SEAL Owens was killed.
Ospreys were launched from the USS Macon to retrieve the wounded. One of the Ospreys made a hard landing due to technical problems. The aircraft was deliberately destroyed by the U.S.
Defense Secretary James Mattis left a gala dinner in Washington Saturday evening to address the mission that was fraught with risk.
MARKS: Those kinds of things will happen in operations like this. So there's clearly a risk assessment. You mitigate the risk as best you can. There will often be casualties. That's just the nature of this business.
ACOSTA: Still, administration officials stress U.S. commandos were able to gather computer hard drives and other reams of intelligence that may provide crucial details on terrorist operations.
ACOSTA: And the White House kept this visit under wraps in private for much of the day at the request of Ryan Owens' family. Out of respect for the family's wishes, there were no pictures of the dignified transfer of remains at Dover earlier today -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Our deepest, deepest condolences to his family. Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you very much.
We have lots to assess. Our experts are here. Our analysts are here. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[18:46:46] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following the breaking news. President Trump's unannounced visit to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the return of a Navy SEAL's remains. Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens was fatally wounded during a raid against al Qaeda terrorist in Yemen on Sunday.
It's these kinds of encounters, Phil Mudd, a president has with a family.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes.
BLITZER: This is a man, what, 12 tours of duty in that part of the world. A Navy SEAL, a wife, three kids, he meets with the family. It has a profound impact, every president has told me that in recent years. MUDD: It is profound. This is not partisanship. This is compassion
that every person in this country should respect, whether it's Katrina, 9/11, San Bernardino. The president of the United States transitions from becoming someone who is overseeing tremendous turmoil in Washington, to someone who represents everyone for a family who just lost a father, a son, a spouse.
He's got to do this. He did the right thing and for all of us, you take a moment to step back and say, "Thank you for doing that, Mr. President, and thank you for showing honor to a family that just lost everything."
BLITZER: Yes, it's so presidential to do it. And he didn't make a big deal of it. He just went there. He did it.
It followed last night, and I think you'll agree, Gloria, pretty successful rollout of the Supreme Court nominee.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And you know, this today, as Phil was saying, is a presidential moment, and a moment as a commander-in-chief.
And I think that our presidents go there quietly, without a lot of fanfare, and when they're there, they pay their respects in private, as they should. And I think that this -- this act by this president, for the first person that we know of who died in the line of duty while he was commander-in-chief --
BLITZER: He authorized that mission.
BORGER: And authorized that mission, I think he's to be commended for going, and for absolutely doing the right thing.
BLITZER: The whole notion, though, of meeting with the family like this, he's been, based on the campaign trail, he was always reluctant to say, "I'm sending troops, let's not get involved", I think this sort of reinforces that.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: I think that reinforces it. And you wonder how moments like this change a president, right? I mean, we've talked so much about will he become presidential, how the office will change him, how he'll change in office. And we don't know yet. I mean, we're obviously not going to get any photos from this Navy. He'll talk about it at some point. Maybe we won't know for years how this impacted his thinking.
But nothing like this embodies the awesome duty and responsibility and power of being the commander-in-chief. You can send young men and young women to fight for this country and sometimes they die in the line of duty to protect all of us. So, it was a moment, I think, that he obviously wanted to spend with this family.
BLITZER: Yes, for a president that underlines the enormity of the responsibility that he has.
At the same time, there's a direct threat to Iran from the president's national security adviser, Mike Flynn, saying, "Instead of being thankful to the United States for these agreements, Iran is feeling emboldened," referring to their ballistic missile test. "As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice."
[18:50:02] That's a threat.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. And I think it was a threat in a sense by Iran to do that missile test shortly after President Trump was inaugurated. It's clearly at least a test of his will or resolve, or to see what message he puts out. On notice, in some ways, is a little vague. In other ways, I think that you would have to expect that someone from the administration would make a strong statement. The question is, what policies going to come to back it up and that is what it is.
BLITZER: So, are they going to back down now for more tests, the Iranians, as a result of this "on notice" threat?
MUDD: You got to be kidding me? They've been developing this for decades. They're looking at this saying, we're on a roll. We're on a roll in Iraq where we turned over Saddam Hussein. Now Shias run the government. We're on a roll in Syria. Sanctions are being pushed back. We've got a nuclear agreement.
They're looking saying, show me some money. I'm sure they're saying, we want to see something behind this and not believing anything will happen.
BLITZRE: All right. Very, very different on a very different note. Last hour you made a statement involving the film "Caddyshack." and we're getting a ton of reaction. It has nothing to do with what we're talking about. I know you want to apologize.
MUDD: Wolf, I'm deeply apologetic. My former supervisor, CIA Director George Tenet just called me and crushed me. I'm getting e- mails from everywhere. As a child of the '70s and '80s, making a reference to an "Animal House" line and referring "Caddyshack" mistakenly, I'm sorry. I should be put in the dance room, not in THE SITUATION ROOM. I apologize.
SWERDLICK: He should be on double secret --
BLITZER: Yes, he should be on double secret provision.
"Animal House," one of the great films of all time. A formal apology from Phil Mudd for that.
Guys, stand by. We're going to get back to important breaking news we're following. President Trump signs off on an extreme option to get his Supreme Court nominee confirmed. Will Senate Republicans go nuclear?
[18:56:13] BLITZER: It's a desperate measure dubbed the nuclear option, eliminating the Senate filibuster to allow confirmation by a simple majority. And now, President Donald Trump is telling Republicans to do exactly that if needed to confirm his Supreme Court nominee.
Is it smart, Gloria, for the president to be giving that advice to the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?
BORGER: Well, I'm not sure whether the president gives it or not, whether Mitch McConnell is going to take it. I was talking to a senior administration adviser just a few minutes ago who said, look, we're going to get 60 votes, period. So they may not have to go that -- they may not have to go that route.
And the reason they think they're going to get 60 votes is those ten red state Democrats who are up for re-election. And you got their pictures right there. I was told they're particularly focusing on John Tester of Montana, because, of course, they're going to use the argument that this is a judge who comes from the West and don't you want a representative of the West giving all the land use and environmental issues that are going to come up from the court. Wouldn't it be refreshing to have someone who actually understood the west on the court? And they're trying to make that argument to people like Tester.
BLITZER: These are all states that Donald Trump won in the last year's election. So the pressure is on these ten Democrats.
HENDERSON: Yes, the pressure is on those ten Democrats, but they're also -- there is pressure on other Democrats like Chuck Schumer to really stand up against Donald Trump. I was talking to some progressives last night about their real hope that Democrats will show some backbone. They feel like the nomination process that is installing Donald Trump's cabinet, that all the noise that Democrats made around that hasn't really been effective and amounted to much.
So, they are really pressuring a lot of these Democrats to hold the line and to try to block this -- block this appointment. Unlikely, I think, Gloria is right, that they'll be successful progressives. But they're certainly going to try.
The other argument is, maybe they hold their powder --
HENDERSON: -- on this nomination and maybe they wait for the next appointment to the Supreme Court and then really put up a fight.
BORGER: When the balance of power --
HENDERSON: When the balance really is in --
BLITZER: Yes, if there is another appointment. So far --
BORGER: That's right. BLITZER: Do the Democrats rue the day a few years ago when Harry Reid was the Democratic leader and they got rid of that filibuster for cabinet nominees, or they did the nuclear option? Not for Supreme Court nominees but for cabinet nominees.
SWERDLICK: Wolf, maybe some privately do. But they were able to get some of President Obama's lower court picks through and it's not clear to me that if they had played ball with Republicans then that Republicans would play ball with them now. You know, certainly this is sort of an unraveling of Senate collegiality or whatever was left of Senate collegiality. But if anything was proven during the Obama years is that Republicans played hard ball with Democrats. I think Democrats are trying to figure out if they can really play hard ball.
BLITZER: Rex Tillerson is about to be sworn in as the secretary of state, secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, CIA director, soon a director of national intelligence.
Does this team look OK to you?
MUDD: Sure, it does. If you look in comparison to some of the other individuals on the cabinet, I say these guys among my friends are regarded as professionals. Look, the president has a right to select people who represent his political views. In this area, he selected people with those views but also with the degree of professionalism.
For example, at the agency, my friends say the initial days of the new CIA director are very positive. So, I think we're in a good place.
BLITZER: Mike Pompeo, he is highly regarded. You remember the intelligence committee. A lot of Democrats thought he was well- qualified to be the CIA director as well.
All right, guys. We're going to leave it on that note. Once again, thanks for direct, very blunt, but important apology.
MUDD: My pleasure, Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.