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Interview With Senator Chris Coons; Terror in Sweden?; Travel Ban Coming; Trump Names New National Security Adviser; North Koreans on Trump: We Don't Care Who Leads U.S. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 20, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:05]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Russia revelations. As the vice president opens about getting misleading information, a Senate panel starts digging into the Trump administration's communications with Moscow, warning that any and all information must be preserved and protected.

Last night in Sweden. President Trump confounds and confuses by referencing a mysterious event that never happened during remarks about terror and national security. Tonight, the Swedes are fuming that the U.S. commander in chief is spreading inaccurate information.

And the truth about fraud. Donald Trump's claim about widespread about illegal voting is now being disputed by a surprising source, his former campaign manager. Corey Lewandowski says he's in a position to know what happened and didn't happen in New Hampshire.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

President Trump fills a gaping hole in his national security team, naming respected Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as his new national security adviser. McMaster taking over the job after Michael Flynn was fired and another top contender turned the president down.

For the first time, Vice President Pence is publicly acknowledging that Michael Flynn misled him about his contacts with Russia. Pence revealing his disappointment during a news conference with the head of NATO. The vice president in Brussels to try to reassure concerned U.S. allies of President Trump's commitment to NATO and to Europe.

Tonight also, top officials in Sweden are expressing deep anger and dismay with President Trump for spreading inaccurate information. Speaking about national security in Florida on Saturday, the president referenced what happened "last night in Sweden," seeming to suggest some kind of attack that never happened.

The president says he was referring to a FOX News report about immigration and crime in Sweden. Also this hour, we're learning more about the Trump administration's

plans to carry out the president's aggressive deportation strategy. CNN has obtained memos from the homeland security secretary offering new guidelines that could lead to a huge increase in the number of undocumented immigrants detained by the U.S. government, this as the president works to roll out a new streamlined version of travel ban executive order as early as this week.

I will talk with a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Chris Coons. He's standing live, along with our correspondents, analysts as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

Up first, let's go to our CNN White House correspondent, Sara Murray, with more on the breaking news.

What are you learning, Sara, about the president's decision on his new national security adviser?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president clearly wanted to move quickly after to fill this role after firing Michael Flynn. He spent the weekend deliberating on this issue at Mar-a-Lago and he met with a couple of different candidates before ultimately deciding on Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster.

Listen to what the president had to say about him today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just wanted to announce. We have been working all weekend, very diligently, very hard -- that General H.R. McMaster will become the national security adviser. He's a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience.

I have watched and read a lot over the last two days. He is highly respected by everybody in the military, and we're very honored to have him. He also is known for a long time General Keith Kellogg, whom I also have gotten to know, and he's a terrific man, and they're going to be working together and Keith is going to be chief of staff.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MURRAY: Now, Wolf, it's worth noting while there was some uneasiness from some of the international security community around Michael Flynn as national security adviser, we are seeing praise really for Donald Trump's latest pick, both from some in the national security community as well as from Republicans on the Hill.

BLITZER: Sara, the president also raised the very questionable security concern over the weekend involving Sweden. Tell our viewers what he said and the fallout.

MURRAY: Wolf, this comment raised some eyebrows this weekend and caused a lot of confusion when the president appeared to imply there was some kind of terrorism incident in Sweden. Listen to what he said over the weekend. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden, Sweden -- who would believe this, Sweden. They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[18:05:00]

MURRAY: There was no major security incident in Sweden over the weekend, which is why there was so much confusion, including among Swedish officials.

President Trump took to Twitter to try to clear things up saying he made those comments after seeing a segment on FOX News about Sweden and immigration. The Swedish Embassy also shot back on Twitter saying they look forward to informing the new administration about their immigration and integration policies -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Murray, thanks very much.

Air Force One, there you can see it just landed at Joint Base Andrews right outside of Washington, D.C., in suburban Maryland. It's taxiing. The president and his entourage will get off Air Force and then they will head over to the White House aboard Marine One, but the president now back in the Washington, D.C., area.

Let's talk a little bit about the president's new national security adviser. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, knows a lot about General H.R. McMaster.

Give us a little insight into this new national security adviser.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he is very well known in senior military circles, has been for years, very well- respected by all accounts, a veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan and Afghanistan, was involved in the counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, had been really operating near the top circles for the last several years.

So, very well-respected. But he comes to a very different position, a very different political environment at the White House than military politics, if you will. He is expected to try to bring some calm to the process at the NSC, but his biggest challenge may be, according to officials we're talking to, dealing with Steve Bannon, President Trump's very ideologically driven, by all accounts, political adviser.

Mr. Bannon now has a seat on the National Security Council. General McMaster is a strategist, a military thinker, someone who is very precise, very deliberate, no indication terribly ideologically driven, very much driven by national security goals and strategies, and years of his writings indicate that.

Mr. Bannon driven by ideology to meet the president's needs and requirements. So, how those two will resolve, how they will work together on the National Security Council may be the most interesting thing to watch so far. But for now, expect General McMaster to be very much aligned with Secretary of Defense Mattis and General Joe Votel, the head of Central Command also, working on the wars in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, tell us a little bit about retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, who will now go back and serve as chief of staff on the National Security Council. He had been acting adviser during the time Michael Flynn was fired.

STARR: Right.

General Kellogg, unlike General McMaster, who had to take the job because his commander in chief had offered it to him, General Kellogg is retired, has been retired for several years, very well-known again. Has not really operated in the ISIS era, if you will.

He retired shortly after 9/11, went to Iraq to work on reconstruction. Has a long history operating in Europe when he was on active duty, working with special operations forces. So, again, I think what you're seeing is General Kellogg as chief of staff, General McMaster as the chief adviser, very structured, very precise, very deliberate. How that will play in the White House remains to be seen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, thank you , Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Now to the Trump administration's contacts with Russia. As the vice president acknowledges, he was misled by the fired national security adviser Michael Flynn and a Senate panel is now ramping up its own investigation.

Our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is joining us with the latest.

What are you learning, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is leading the investigation into the Russian interference in the election, took the step of demanding that a number of organizations, including the White House, preserve all records related to all those investigations, a standard step, but a sign that these investigations are very much under way.

Multiple strands. One of the stands on the contacts between the now former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador, this during the transition. We heard the first public comments this weekend from the vice president on his communications with Flynn.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, for the first time, Vice President Pence publicly commenting on revelations that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn misled him about conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was disappointed to learn that the facts that had been conveyed to me by General Flynn were inaccurate. But we honor General Flynn's long service to the United States of America and I fully support the president's decision to ask for his resignation.

[18:10:05]

SCIUTTO: Still, Democratic and Republican senators continue to criticize the Trump administration for being too soft on Russia after the U.S. intelligence community concluded the Russians interfered in the 2016 election.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: My biggest concern with President Trump, and I want to help him where I can, is that he's never really looked the camera in the eye and said, even though it was the Democratic Party that suffered from Russian interference, I am now the leader of the free world, democracy in our backyard, and I can assure you they're going to pay a price on my watch for trying to interfere in our election.

SCIUTTO: The Senate Intelligence Committee has now formally requested that more than a dozen individuals and agencies, including the Trump administration, preserve all information and communications relating to the Russian interference in the election.

The White House maintains the request is just a formality.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: That doesn't mean that there is anything there. It just means that they need to do some thins that satisfy their committee, and as long as they do their job and we cooperate with them, they will issue a report and the report will say there is nothing there.

SCIUTTO: Still, several lines of investigation remain open, including repeated communications during the campaign between Trump advisers and Russian officials and others known to U.S. intelligence, CNN has reported.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: We learned today that Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, died in New York of a heart attack just a day before his 65th birthday.

A contentious relationship often him Churkin and his U.S. colleagues, Western colleagues, but today you also had people saying he was a gracious colleague. That's what Nikki Haley said, the current U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Difficult relationship there, but they all described him as a very friendly presence in that very difficult environment of the U.N. Security Council.

BLITZER: He was only, 64, 65 years old?

SCIUTTO: A day before his 65th birthday. BLITZER: Yes, 64, almost 65 years old.

Thank you very much, Jim Sciutto, for that.

Let's turn back to the breaking news right now, the president's new national security adviser.

Joining us, Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee from Delaware

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: What do you think, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the new security adviser, good selection by the president?

COONS: I think he is a good selection, Wolf. Everything I have heard from his background -- I have not met General McMaster, but what I have been able to read and to hear about him is all positive, his training, his experience, his education, his willingness to stand up and challenge folks where he disagrees with them.

I'm encouraged that he's going to be a strong contributor as national security adviser.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people are encouraged, because he's the author of an important book widely read in the military entitled "Dereliction of duty" about the generals' failure, all the generals' failure, for all practical purposes, to stand up to political leadership during the Vietnam War, which, of course, turned out to be a disaster.

Is that sign that he knows what he's doing and he's the right guy for this job to stand up to potential pressure to do the wrong thing from the political leadership?

COONS: Wolf, the fact he's been critical of leadership in Iraq and the historic leadership in Vietnam and yet been promoted and been successful in the military suggests that he has the character and the integrity to be able to bring tough messages and yet succeed.

As you well know, Steve Bannon will be a challenging opponent for him on the National Security Council. And I do think that it's a positive that we're moving to a national security adviser who is not ideologically motivated, but who is rooted in America's national security interests.

I do think that Steve Bannon has injected an air of politics into the National Security Council. And given how difficult this period is, given the challenges that President Trump is facing from Iran and North Korea launching ballistic missiles, to the challenging conflict in Syria and Russia's provocative actions, he needs a strong national security team.

And I'm encouraged by everything I have heard about this general and the role he may play on the National Security Council. BLITZER: I assume you're also encouraged General Mattis is the

defense secretary, that Mike Pompeo is the CIA director, General Kelly is the secretary of homeland security.

Are you among those Democrats who are now a bit assured that at least the national security, homeland security team is in relatively good shape?

COONS: I'm encouraged. It's a significant number of generals, as you might note. And I do think we have a broader range of experience and deep background in foreign policy and national security than just generals.

But the speech that was given by Vice President Pence this weekend at a security conference in Europe was a badly needed and overdue reassurance to our NATO allies. It would have been better if President Trump himself had said those words, but it's important that the national security team begin to stabilize and that we reassure our allies in Europe as we jointly stand up to Russian aggression.

BLITZER: With Michael Flynn out after only three weeks, do you believe that President Trump will not lift Russian sanctions?

[18:15:03]

COONS: Well, I don't know what President Trump's intentions are about Russian sanctions.

It continues to be puzzling and worrying that he has not been direct in challenging Vladimir Putin's inappropriate interference in our election and in speaking forcefully against his ongoing occupation of Crimea, his meddling in Eastern Ukraine, his human rights violations in Syria.

There is a bipartisan bill in the Senate, Wolf, that is advancing that is picking up more and more Republican and Democratic co-sponsors that would require congressional action before those sanctions could be lifted, sanctions that were imposed both for Putin's invasion of Ukraine and for Putin's interference in our most recent election.

BLITZER: Senator, the president now walking down the stairs of Air Force One, just arrived back at Joint Base Andrews on this President's Day holiday here in the United States. He spent the weekend in Mar-a- Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, and he will be getting into Marine one for the quick little flight from Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland over to the White House South Lawn.

He's accompanied by some of his aides as well.

Let's talk about your role on the Judiciary Committee. You have asked the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the FBI director, James Comey, for documents and a briefing on Michael Flynn's resignation. Tell us why you have asked for those documents. What are you anxious to learn about?

COONS: A subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee that is chaired by Lindsey Graham, Republican, and where the ranking Democratic senator from Rhode Island, and of which I'm a member, all of us are asking for documents to be preserved and for a briefing from the FBI director and for testimony from General Flynn, in order that we can better under the relationship between the highest levels of the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin and his Russian intelligence service.

Now, my concern is that General Flynn may well have engaged in conversations with Russian leadership before he was a part of the Trump administration, while they were still in transition, in a way that intentionally undermined the sanctions that were imposed by President Obama to attempt to punish Vladimir Putin for interfering in our election.

I think it should be a bipartisan matter that we investigate and push back on Russian interference in our election. Wolf, this isn't just about our last election. It's about our next election, and making sure that we are working together responsibly to prevent a repeat of this most recent attack on America's democracy.

BLITZER: When asked if he had actually read the transcripts of those communications between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States, the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said -- and I'm quoting him now -- he said, "I can't answer that question."

That's a direct quote. Do you believe that these transcripts do exist? Have you, for example, seen the transcripts? Will you have access to them?

COONS: I have not seen them yet. I have spoken to members of the intelligence community who have seen them. So I don't know what Reince Priebus is referring to when he says he can't see them.

They are highly classified and sensitive documents and I think they will be made available to senators as appropriate and in the right settings for us to review things that are at the highest level of classification.

BLITZER: You have been told that these transcripts do, in fact, exist?

COONS: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, stand by. We are going to continue our conversation. We will take a quick break. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:23:00]

BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news.

President Trump naming a replacement for the fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, turning to an active-duty lieutenant general, H.R. McMaster.

Let's continue our conversation with Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Senator, Secretary Mattis, the defense secretary, he visited Iraq today. He's working on anti-ISIS options to present to the president. Listen to then candidate Donald Trump back in September talking about he would handle ISIS. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: So, I'm going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS. We have no choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It's been 32 days and now he says they will have a plan by the end of the month. Is this the right approach from your perspective?

COONS: Well, it is the right approach to take a fresh look at our strategy for defeating ISIS, but it is going to require real engagement and genuine leadership from President Trump for us to be successful leading a multinational coalition.

Most of the fighting needs to be done by local forces with support, with equipment, with intelligence and logistics and coordination done by American forces. But, frankly, as the assault on Mosul continues in Iraq and as the beginning of the assault on Raqqa is happening in Syria, this is a very difficult and demanding time.

It's important that a thorough strategic review be done quickly, but that it be done in a way that has a mind towards balancing America's national security with what is really going to work in the context of this region.

BLITZER: One option for the Pentagon is to put more U.S. conventional troops on the ground inside Syria and inside Iraq, for that matter. The U.S. already has about 5,000 ground troops inside Iraq.

[18:25:00]

Do you support an expansion of the U.S. military presence on the ground in those two countries?

COONS: I would have to see the strategic argument for why that's the right answer, Wolf.

My concern is that the more American forces we put, conventional forces that we put on the ground in a forward fighting role, the more we are likely to end up inflaming local passions against Americans. We had a very large troop presence on the ground in Iraq for many years, and we ended up largely succeeding in making our troops the motivating presence that inflamed a lot of Iraqis to rise up and to fight against us.

We do have a more capable fighting force than any of our allies, any of the coalition forces that are currently taking the fight to ISIS. So I understand the temptation to put a larger American conventional force on the ground.

But, as you said, we have already got 5,000 forces in harm's way. We have already taken combat casualties. So I will be looking forward to the strategic review that comes out of this 30-day time period that President Trump has set aside to reassess what is possible in the fight against ISIS.

BLITZER: Secretary Mattis, the defense secretary, said today the U.S. is not in Iraq, in his words, to seize anyone's oil, differing from President Trump, who has said now on several occasions the U.S. should have kept the Iraqi oil.

Does a comment like what the secretary of defense made today reassure you?

COONS: Well, it reassures me.

But I will point to a troubling pattern here. President Trump, candidate Trump made a whole series of very troubling statements about NATO and about his willingness to stand with NATO to face down Russian aggression. This weekend, Vice President Pence had to reassure our NATO allies.

President Trump, candidate Trump made a whole series of trouble statements about going back to water-bordering and torture, seizing Iraqi oil, and how aggressive he might be in pursuing ISIS. This weekend, the secretary of defense had to reassure our allies in Iraq.

Comparable things have unfolded in other places in the world. We need President Trump to be the person making calming and reassuring statements that show that he is a deliberate and well-informed head of state, rather than relying upon folks in his Cabinet or his vice president to reassure our allies.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Coons, thanks very much for joining us.

COONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the president's choice to be the new national security adviser, will he stand up to the president himself if needed? We have more on the breaking news story.

Also, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tells the messy truth about the president's claims about voter fraud.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. The interviews are over. The president has named a national security adviser. He's Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. The president says he's a man of tremendous talent and experience. Let's bring in our political and security experts.

[18:32:37] Phil Mudd, General McMaster is receiving a lot of praise out there as someone who's a tough, independent thinker. How important are those qualifications to become the president's national security advisor?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, Wolf, I'd take tough over independent in this environment. On that issue of independence, you've got the former CEO of Exxon; you've got four-star generals around the table; you've got a member of Congress in CIA Director Mike Pompeo; and then you have a former businessman in the Oval Office. I don't know how many more -- how much more diversity of ideas we need, but toughness, yes.

You've had, just in the past few weeks, the secretary of defense and the vice president talking about our commitment to NATO and to Europe, and with some tough words on Europe. That's markedly different from what the president has said. I think -- and I think most people in my shoes would agree, you need somebody in that chair who brings some toughness. And the man he just named, I think, in my world is very well-respected in that regard.

BLITZER: Do you worry, Phil, there are too many generals in that inner circle, within the cabinet, those senior positions?

MUDD: I worry but not for that reason. On this issue of generals, I look at this role as someone who's more of a coordinator than an individual who's bringing ideas to the table. Remember, inside Washington, in this case, you have a three-star general telling four- star generals what to do. I think when you're dealing with those generals and with Rex Tillerson from Exxon at State, he will have a tough task. I don't think the generals are going to be the ones who -- who decide everything.

My issue, Wolf, is we've got a bunch of OWDs here. That's people like you and me, old white dudes. If you look at every one of these positions, it's 50-, 60-, 70-year-old people who look like us. Seriously. CIA, vice president, president, State Department, secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, every single one of them. I'm not here arguing that the White House should be the center of affirmative action. I'm just saying, when you're dealing with issues as diverse as what they deal with, I'd like to see a little more diversity around the table.

BLITZER: Let me hear from David Axelrod, and I want to hear your reaction to General McMaster become the national security adviser.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, I was waiting for Phil to say not that that's a bad thing, you know, about being an old white man. So I'll let that go.

Listen, General McMaster is a stellar choice. But we know he wasn't the first choice of the president. The president was turned down last week by admirable -- Admiral Harward. And one of the reasons he was turned down, reportedly, was that the admiral didn't feel, or feared that he wouldn't have enough operational control over the NSC, including its staffing.

[18:35:03] One announcement that wasn't made today was what is the status of K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, who has spent a lot of time on TV, not in the national security structure. Will she remain or will General McMaster get to choose his own deputy? It will be interesting to see. And maybe the point Phil makes will save her spot there.

BLITZER: I'm anxious for Nia to weigh in, as well. What do you think?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, I think that was the big hurdle, I think, in terms of getting somebody in there. Everybody is focusing on K.T. McFarland. She's got some colorful statements in her past, certainly. You know, kind of peddling conspiracy theories. So we'll see if she gets to stay there. The president seems to have said and people around him have said that this new guy coming in, McMaster, will get to pick his folks; and we'll see -- we'll see if that actually happens.

BLITZER: David.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think the other thing we've got to remember about everybody who President Trump has picked. He has said this publicly, in so many words, that he likes folks that look like they're out of central casting. And I think the fact that we have a lot of generals, even if they are old white guys, you know, this does fit the mold of what President Trump likes to see when he puts his senior advisers out there.

HENDERSON: Yes. And we'll see. I mean, Bannon, right, I mean, does Bannon -- going to have anything to do with this -- this council and the way that that was the sort of structure before? And I think that was, again, some concerns about people coming into this role, whether or not it was going to be too politicized.

BLITZER: We'll see how it plays out.

Everybody stand by. There's more coming up. What did the president know or say about possible campaign contacts with Russia? His former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is speaking out. He's actually speaking out to our own David Axelrod. We'll have that and more when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:19] BLITZER: We're back with our political and security experts. And new developments in the investigation into the Trump administration's contacts with Russia.

David, the former campaign manager for the president, Corey Lewandowski, was recently a guest on your podcast, "The Ax Files." I want you to listen -- and our viewers to listen -- to what he had to say about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Look, I spent a lot of time with Donald Trump. Never, ever, ever, ever in my entire tenure did he ever intimate anything about wanting any help from the Russians. Never. Never brought up. Never discussed. If Paul Manafort did something -- that he was trying to encourage the Russians to be involved in this election cycle -- then he did so on his own accord, without any direction from then-candidate Trump, the campaign, or President Trump. I am certain of that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: David, did you find his explanation convincing?

AXELROD: Well, what I found most interesting about it wasn't that he was emphatic in his defense of Donald Trump. I expect Corey Lewandowski will always be emphatic in his defenses of Donald Trump. But it was also interesting how eager, or at least willing he was to throw Paul Manafort under the bus.

Remember, Manafort was the chairman of the campaign when Corey Lewandowski was fired last June. And so there was a sort of undertone of what goes around comes around. And he seemed very willing to acknowledge the fact that there may have been some contact between Paul Manafort and the Russians. He just was emphatic about the fact that Trump didn't know about it. So it was -- it was a really interesting point he made.

BLITZER: Even if -- Phil, even if the president as a candidate then didn't know about those contacts, does he deserve some of the blame if those contacts were inappropriate with Russian officials?

MUDD: Heck yes. Whether he knew or not is only half of the story, Wolf. I've worked in large organizations, including at the White House my entire life. The head of -- the head of the organization, whether it's CIA, the FBI or the National Security Council, the president sets the tone and sets the environment.

So let's look at what environment we had in the past few months. That's an environment that says, "We're coming in from the outside with new ideas." One of those new ideas is we're going to open up the conversations about the Russians. We have a lot of work to do with the Russians to get off the back foot in places like Ukraine and Syria. And we're going to move fast and loose.

If you want to tell me, as someone who's worked in organizations, that that tone of fast and loose and getting closer with the Russians didn't impact the workforce including General Flynn, I'm going to say you've never worked in a large organization. That's just not credible.

BLITZER: Nia, the Senate Intelligence Committee is requesting that all communications between the -- information and communications related to alleged Russian interference in the election, 2016 election be preserved right now. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, doesn't seem overly concerned about that. He sees it was a formality. How do you see it?

HENDERSON: Well, you know, I think Reince Priebus is doing his job in terms of trying to make it seem like there's nothing to see here. What he don't know is what the FBI knows or what any of these other intelligence agencies know in terms of gathering information about Russia, about the Trump campaign, about the Trump White House.

But sure, I think we're going to hear that line from this White House from aides around this -- this president in the way that we heard from Corey Lewandowski, essentially saying there's nothing to see here and that Trump -- certainly, if there is something to see here, Trump isn't culpable in any way.

BLITZER: David, how do you see it?

SWERDLICK: Well, yes, I think Nia is exactly right. You would expect the chief of staff to say nothing to see here. The problem for the administration, I think, right now is that, from the president on down, no one has been able to satisfactorily answer the question, if Michael Flynn didn't do anything wrong, if there's nothing to see here, why did Flynn have to resign or why was he asked to resign?

BLITZER: Let me go back, David Axelrod, to your podcast with Corey Lewandowski, which was fascinating. I want you to listen and our viewers once again to listen what he said about the allegations by Donald Trump and others, his aides, Steven Miller, for example, that there was enormous, widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire, otherwise he would have won that state.

Listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISER, "THE AXE FILE": Do you think that the election turned in New Hampshire on people coming across the boarder and posing as New Hampshire residents?

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER, "THE AXE FILE": I live on the border, I didn't see buses coming across the line to say that, hey, we've up from Massachusetts. And, candidly, most of the people from Massachusetts move into the southern tier of the state of New Hampshire and that happens to be the most conservative area of the state, in the Rockingham and Hillsborough county are right along that border. So, I don't think you have that.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: He's basically saying the president is wrong. Steven Miller is wrong. Top policy adviser. There is no widespread massive voter fraud in New Hampshire.

AXELROD: Yes, this was really interesting. Remember, this conversation came just a few days after Steven Miller was emphatic on national television saying that everyone who works New Hampshire politics knows that this is a reality, that there are people who are bussed over en masse from Massachusetts to influence New Hampshire elections.

Well, Corey Lewandowski is steeped in New Hampshire politics. He spent much of his life in New Hampshire politics. He came to Donald Trump's attention at an event in New Hampshire and he knows a lot about Republican politics there and what he's saying is no, not really.

BLITZER: Yes, Nia, he could have called for a recount in New Hampshire if he seriously thought there was massive voter fraud, that's why he didn't win the state.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, I think that's right. He never did that. I mean, I think Donald Trump wanted to peddle this idea that he didn't win the popular vote because of these millions of people, 3 million to 5 million people. He talked about them possibly being illegal immigrants and all of them at least in his fantasy voted for Hillary Clinton. And he talked about launching the investigation.

So, this was always sort of a nonsensical conspiracy of Donald Trump, something we've heard from him before. And we'll see if it's put to rest based on what Corey Lewandowski said.

BLITZER: Yes. That same interview, Lewandowski also told David that White House staffers should be blamed for the roll out of the president's executive order, that travel ban. Of course, it didn't work so well.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: You heard Phil Mudd laughing.

Is that fair criticism?

SWERDLICK: Well, with all these answers, I mean, David clearly got a great interview and got the kinder, gentler Corey Lewandowski to sort of open up. But you can expect him clearly to say things that shield the president and put the onus on staff. The staff did have the responsibility, but the president ultimately is where the buck stops.

BLITZER: Let me get to Phil Mudd, because there is an intriguing article in "The Washington Post" just published an op-ed piece written by a long-time CIA analyst, former spokesman during the Obama administration for the National Security Council, Ned Price, someone we know. He just resigned from the agency.

Let me read an excerpt, Phil, and get your reaction. "To be clear, my decision had nothing to do with politics and I would have been proud again to work under a Republican administration open to intelligence analysis. I served with conviction under President George W. Bush, some of whose policies I also found troubling, and I took part in programs that the Obama administration criticized and ended.

As intelligence officials, we're taught to tune out politics. The river separating CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, from Washington might as well be a political moat. But this administration has flipped that dynamic on its head. The politicians are the ones tuning out the intelligence professionals."

I want to get your reaction to those strong words.

PHIL MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: I don't buy it. First of all, we have a president who's got a month in office and you want to tell me that he's already decided what his four years are going to look like in terms of his relations with the intelligent committee?

Second of all, he's nominated and now had confirmed a new CIA director who, by all accounts, including people I speak with on the inside, is doing an excellent job, including transitioning from a political life to an intelligence life.

And, finally, let's see where the rubber meets the road here. We have a secretary of defense, a secretary of state and a vice-president who have said things on Russia, for example, that reflects the intelligence and differ from what the president has said. You can quit if you want, but 28 to 30 days into the presidency, you can't say it's because you think intelligence is politicized. I don't buy it.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, what do you think?

AXELROD: Well, I agree in part with what Phil said, although it's interesting because I agree with what he said before. Ultimately, the buck stops with the president and he's saying -- well, the cabinet members are all saying the right thing even if the president isn't. Well, the president is the guy who sets policy, ultimately.

[18:50:00] And so, that would be unsettling to the people throughout the federal national security establishment.

So, I think that's what this gentleman is speaking to.

BLITZER: David, you know, David Swerdlick -- by the way, the president has just returned to the South Lawn of the White House. Marine One landing just a few moments ago. He's back from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach after spending the weekend there.

But what do you think about this intriguing op-ed that I just read a section from?

SWERDLICK: Yes, sure. I mean, I think -- I certainly defer to Phil in terms of what an intelligence officer, what intelligence professional would think. But I also do agree with Axe that, you know, ultimately, it is the president who the people voted for. Not the secretary of state. Not the vice president.

And so, if his positions are unsettling to members of the intelligence community and they want to leave and then talk about that, I think we have to at least take that seriously.

BLITZER: Nia?

HENDERSON: No. And we'll see if more of this happen. I mean, Donald Trump came to town as a disruptor and I think, by all accounts, he is certainly disrupting that. And it means something to folks who have been in civil service for a while, in terms of whether or not they feel like they want to continue on those positions.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. There's more coming up.

An important note to our viewers, you go get a lot more of "The Axe Files" podcast at podcast.CNN.com. You should do that.

Also, Democrats right now, they are struggling to find new leadership in the era of president Trump. CNN will bring an exclusive debate among potential Democratic Party leaders. Dana Bash and Chris Cuomo will moderate. That's Wednesday at 10:00 -- 10:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Just ahead, we're going to hear from the only people in the world who say they really don't care what President Trump is doing. This is a CNN exclusive, from inside North Korea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:43] BLITZER: Tonight, as much of the world struggles to understand what President Trump will do next, North Koreans are telling CNN they could care less who's in power in the United States.

Our correspondent Will Ripley has been granted unprecedented access to citizens in the North Korean capital where Kim Jong-un rules with an iron fist. The news of the outside world is very limited.

Here's Will's exclusive report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Time off is precious in North Korea. Work and school is usually six days a week. Sports are a popular past time. Even in the freezing cold.

Regular North Koreans don't have internet. They can't make international calls. State media is their only small window to the outside world.

"We know President Trump by name," says this researcher. We also know of former President Obama, but we really don't care who is in power. We only care if they stop their hostile policy toward my country.

"Hostile policy," two words repeated by nearly every one we meet. They're in the newspapers they read and on the handful of channels they watch.

"I think it would be a good idea for President Trump to meet with my supreme leader," says this computer engineer. "But he'd have to be willing to put an end to America's hostile policy."

For the most part, North Koreans are friendly, even when they learn I'm an American. Unlike other countries I visit, they don't share personal opinions about President Trump.

(on camera): Even though the media and the outside world focuses a lot on what President Trump tweets and what he says, here in North Korea, the state media actually reports very little about his daily activities. People know his name. They know he's been elected, but they say they really don't focus on what he's doing. They focus on this lives here.

(voice-over): The message they receive is tightly controlled and so are we. We're only allowed to show you the good side of life in Pyongyang. Like this free eye hospital North Korea says was built in just seven months, despite U.S.-led sanctions. We don't see the rampant poverty and food insecurity described by the United Nations and others. We see a hospital shop selling expensive designer frames and we hear a strikingly similar message when it comes to the United States.

(on camera): Does it matter to you who is the U.S. president?

(voice-over): "It doesn't matter at all," says this housewife.

"We don't care who the U.S. president is," says this work team leader. "We have the leadership of Marshal Kim Jong-un."

Even North Korean children spend hours each week learning about their supreme leader. On the play ground, constant reminders this is a militarized nation. Children are taught they must be ready to fight, that they're under imminent threat of invasion by the U.S. and its president.

For decades, a simple effective message has helped keep order and control by keeping out the rest of the world.

Will Ripley, CNN, Pyongyang, North Korea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: A report from Will Ripley, I want to thank him for that exclusive report from inside North Korea.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.