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Trump Aides Bannon, Priebus Deny Reports Of Split; Conway Predicts Trump Will Turn CPAC Into "T-PAC"; Reuters: Trump Wants U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Buildup; North Korea Denies Blame For Death Of Dictator's Brother; Global Alert Requested For North Korean Suspects; Bannon Warns Critics: "Every Day It Is Going To Be A Fight". Aired 5- 6 p ET

Aired February 23, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00] JAPE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Turning it over to Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, mission to -- to Mexico, I should say, top Cabinet official are dispatched on what President Trump concedes is a tough mission, tending to relations frayed by his immigration policies. They get an earful from Mexican officials.

Military operation. After the president describes the immigration round up, says a military operation, the Homeland Security secretary is first to tell Mexico there will be no use of military force.

Brothers at arm. The president's top aides make a rare joint appearance dispelling reports of disunity as chief strategist Steve Bannon again slams the news media and warns that every day is going to be a fight.

And global alert, investigators now calling for a worldwide hunt for the North Korean suspects in the killing of Kim Jong-un's half brother as new questions arise about his poisoning at an airport in Malaysia.

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

President Trump praises the round-ups of undocumented immigrants saying, and I'm quoting him now, "We're getting really bad dudes out of this country." He calls the deportation raids a, quote, "military operation." The White House says the president did not misspeak, but meant that phrase as an adjective.

That came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly met with counterparts in Mexico, a trip which President Trump described as tough. Mexico has slammed his immigration directives and Kelly today was forced to emphasize that there will be, in his words, no use of military force in immigration operations.

The president's chief strategist Steve Bannon made a rare public appearance today alongside White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. Bannon told a conservative conference that the president is maniacally focused on keeping his campaign promises. He warned critics that every day is going to be a fight. Republican lawmakers are holding another wave of town halls across the

country today and are again running into fierce criticism from angry voters. They have been booed, jeered and heckled on topics ranging from health care to President Trump's tax returns.

I'll speak with Republican Congress Marsha Blackburn who had her own town hall this week and our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

An unusual show of solidarity today by the president's top aides and a show of force from one of them. The White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, some pretty tough talk today.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Tough talk indeed, Wolf. Now this was from one of his key advisors who was at the center of every decision that's made inside this White House. We know his world view and we see the actions his fingerprints were all over. But we seldom see or hear his voice. We did hear that today. And he said the president is simply doing everything he promised to do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump's most influential advisor had a blunt message today for anyone wondering whether the president will change in the White House.

STEVE BANNON, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: All the opportunities he had to waver off this, all the people who have come to him and said you've got to moderate. Every day in the Oval Office he tells Reince and I, I committed this to the American people, I promised this when I ran and I'm going to deliver on this.

ZELENY: Steve Bannon, a master mind of the West Wing, making a rarely public appearance today. He joined White House chief of staff Reince Priebus on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

BANNON: If you think they're going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day -- every day it is going to be a fight.

ZELENY: Bannon's influence is seen in virtually everything the president does. But his voice is seldom actually heard, at least in public. Since Bannon left his post leading the provocative and fiercely conservative Breitbart News site to join the Trump campaign last year, he's been calling for a new political order.

BANNON: The center core of what we believe, that we're a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global market place with open borders, that we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being, and I think that's what unites us.

ZELENY: Today he called it the deconstruction of the administrative state. Suggesting the Trump administration plans to go well beyond wiping away President Obama's agenda.

BANNON: If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the de construction, the way the progressive left runs is if they can't get it passed they're just going to put it in some sort of regulation in an agency. That's all going to be deconstructed.

ZELENY: The joint appearance also allowed Bannon and Priebus, the two top advisors to the president, to make the case they are on the same page. Despite reports of tension and disagreement during their first month in office.

BANNON: I can run a little hot on occasions.

(LAUGHTER)

BANNON: And Reince is indefatigable. I mean, it's low key but it's determination.

[17:05:04] The thing I respect most and the only way this thing works Reince is always kind of steady.

ZELENY: The annual conservative gathering which devoted considerable time last year trying to stop Trump from winning the GOP nomination sang a different tune today.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: I think by tomorrow this will be TPAC this year.

(LAUGHTER)

CONWAY: No doubt.

ZELENY: Basking in the glow of Republicans in full control of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade, activists are pressing for tax reform and overturning Obamacare. But former Republican House Speaker John Boehner poured cold water on that idea telling a health conference in Florida, "I shouldn't call it repeal and replace because it's not going to happen." He went on to explain he believes any reforms will be more modest saying Republicans never ever agree on health care.

At the White House the president talking tough about immigration, comparing his crackdown to a battle plan.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're getting really bad dudes out of this country and at a rate that nobody has ever seen before. And they're the bad ones. And it's a military operation because what has been allowed to come into our country.

ZELENY: Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly offered this clarification to the words military operation which raised alarm.

JOHN KELLY, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: And again listen to this. No, repeat, no use of military force in immigration operations. None.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And, Wolf, White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered another clarification. He said the president was simply using military operation as an adjective to describe a precise immigration operation.

Speaking of immigration, one other note on that travel ban, that executive order that we were expecting this week. We're told to expect now that it's coming next week, we're told. Sean Spicer again saying the administration is trying to do a flawless execution of this, translation, Wolf, they're still trying to figure out how to write something that can stand up to a legal challenge.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you. Jeff Zeleny reporting.

Republican lawmakers meanwhile are holding more town halls across the country, facing more anger from voters.

Our national correspondent Deborah Feyerick is in Kentucky for us.

So, Deb, what's the mood there?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the mood outside of the hotel was one of anger and frustration and uncertainty over the new policies set forth by the administration. Inside, however, Senator Mitch McConnell, he was laughing and joking, got a standing ovation. He has chosen to avoid any sort of public town halls.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You work for us.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Angry constituents filling meeting rooms and auditoriums around the country, expressing concerns to the senators and representatives willing to meet them face to face.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R) ARKANSAS: Everyone in this room has been hurt or helped --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have been helped. I have been helped. Obamacare saved my life, Senator.

FEYERICK: Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton getting an earful Wednesday night. On issues ranging from Obamacare to immigration. At one point, even confronted by a 7-year-old boy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Donald Trump makes Mexicans not important to people who are in Arkansas who like Mexicans like me, my grandma and he's deleting all the parts in PBS Kids just to make a wall.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He cannot do that. FEYERICK: A Virginia resident asking Republican Congressman Scott

Taylor about trips taken by the president's children on behalf of the Trump's family business, asking why Americans should be footing the bill.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's a legitimate concern about the cost of security and the travel of the president and his family. It's a legitimate concern. Absolutely, just like it was the last administration well, too. It's a legitimate concern.

(CROWD BOOING)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

FEYERICK: New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance confronted by a woman who believes Donald Trump has a problem with the truth and that Congress has an obligation to stand up to him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Republicans need to push back when he is not honest.

(CROWD CHANTING "PUSH BACK")

FEYERICK: Anticipating the public anger, many Republican lawmakers now opting to forego public face-to-face public meetings altogether.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: It's great to be here again to see all of you.

FEYERICK: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the guest speaker at a ticketed Chamber of Commerce lunch Thursday, up to $60 to attend. As protesters gathered outside, McConnell addressed the guests inside.

MCCONNELL: Protesting is about as American as apple pie. It's pretty clear what they are protesting and that's the outcome of last year's election.

[17:10:01] FEYERICK: Those words did not sit well with two constituents inside who did buy a ticket in order to be heard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator, we're not protesting the election. We're protesting right to work. We are protesting losing our health care. We are protesting Russian interference in the White House. We are protesting the fact that to get in front of you we have to pay dollars.

Why won't you hold a town hall with your constituents? We want to hear from you. We want to talk to you.

MCCONNELL: Yes. Was somebody else invited to speak? I kind of missed it.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you afraid of? FEYERICK: Leaving the luncheon, protesters shouted their frustrations

at the senator who has only made himself available at pay-to-enter events.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK: Now, Wolf, the senator dismissed the demonstrators who were here earlier saying that they were simply part of Kentucky's failed Democratic Party. However, when I told him that I've spoken to a teacher and a horse farmer, even a woman who identified herself as a moderate Republican, he said well, we hear them but there is just a fundamentally different view of how to move ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Deborah, thank you. Deborah Feyerick in Covington, Kentucky.

Joining us now, one of the lawmakers who has already felt the fury of the town hall, Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. A member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), ENERGY AND COMMERCE COMMITTEE: Sure.

BLITZER: So you held your own town hall in your home state of Tennessee earlier in the week. You told our Anderson Cooper last night that only about a third of the attendees were actual residents of your congressional district. Do you have any evidence to support that claim?

BLACKBURN: Sure. We had talked to people that were estimating crowds, and that is what they thought was those that came out for the event. There was the alternative town hall outside and inside. We do know some of the residents of that community where I always go in and do a legislative update, do it every single year, Wolf. And they weren't able to get inside and we said, you know, just come on by the office and we'll sit down and chat at some point and answer any questions that you have. And so we're continuing right on with our schedule.

BLITZER: The -- we did get this tweet from Trip Gabriel. He's a reporter for "The New York Times." He was there at the event and he tweeted this. He said, "Everyone I spoke to in this town hall identified themselves as TN 7, Tennessee-7 voter, town restricted RSVPs to locals and checked IDs." Is that true that RSVPs --

BLACKBURN: Well --

BLITZER: -- were only going to rep the people from your district and they checked their IDs before they were allowed inside?

BLACKBURN: You know, Wolf, there were some people who stood up to speak and ask a question and they identified themselves as living outside of the district. So I don't know who the reporter talked to. I do know that the first people that RSVP'd about the first hundred people that RSVP'd they had not put up the information on the city's little Web site announcement that you needed to be a Fairview resident.

But, you know, the point is this. There were people that were there. Whether or not they were in my district, they came to express their opinions. Most of them were angry. I stood there and took their questions and gave them the best answers that I possibly could. Others that came that couldn't get in and wanted to visit with me, we had invited them to call the office or to sign a list, and then come on by. And then after the event was over, I went outside to the alternative town hall. And the gentleman that had -- was organizing that, I actually spoke to those that were outside. And there again, invited them into the process.

All opinions matter. As we look at some very serious issues that are necessary for getting this nation back on track.

BLITZER: All right.

BLACKBURN: Things like reforming --

BLITZER: All right. Hold on a second. Hold on one second, Congresswoman.

BLACKBURN: Healthcare. Sure.

BLITZER: Because there is some video that is now out there on social media. I'm going to play it for you and then we'll continue this. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you live in District 7th, please raise your hand. OK. And if you live in --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Almost everyone apparently in that video raised their hand if they live in your district, Tennessee Congressional District 7. And so let me get back to the original question. How do you know only a third of the people who were inside actually were from your district?

BLACKBURN: We do know that people were overheard in the line saying, you know, say that you live in Williamson County. But there again, Wolf, my goodness, you know, they were people that came. They came in. I took their questions. I gave them answers. They are concerned. All voices ought to be heard as we --

[17:15:01] BLITZER: Did they check IDs when people were coming in to see if their addresses were in your district?

BLACKBURN: They did. And they also looked -- Wolf, they also looked at the parking lot. There were a lot of out-of-state tags. They did check IDs when people came in the door. The information we were given was that about a third of the people that showed up were from the district and the rest were not. But there again, you know, you can make a big issue of exactly what number was in the district or outside of the district. There are people that were angry and they had their concerns. I gave them the opportunity to express their concerns. And then even went outside and addressed the alternative town hall.

BLITZER: But if people had IDs showing they lived in your district, that's pretty straightforward.

BLACKBURN: They had IDs to prove that they were -- they had IDs to prove who they were.

BLITZER: And if they lived in your district, they were allowed in, if they didn't live in your district they weren't allowed in.

BLACKBURN: No, that is incorrect. If they had a reservation, if they had a reservation, they were let in the room.

BLITZER: And so they didn't have to prove that they lived in your district?

BLACKBURN: So and that is fine. That is fine. You know, it's one of those things that they had made a reservation. The city let the people who had made the reservation in for the town hall. And quite frankly, you know, I think we have more important things to argue about or to discuss and they were invited in. They were given the opportunity to ask questions. The city was very gracious to them. Not a big deal was made.

Even those that identified themselves when they asked their question as living outside of my district, Wolf, I did not ask them to not ask their question. I accepted their question and I answered their question. So I guess you all are hung up on, you know, the percentages. I mean, I'd rather discuss things about how we replace some of the tax code.

BLITZER: Yes.

BLACKBURN: How we free up the health care system.

BLITZER: We're not -- we're not hung up, Congresswoman, on the percentages.

BLACKBURN: Well, it sounds like it.

BLITZER: I only raise it -- I only raised the question because you were the one who said a third of -- only a third of the people who were at that town hall --

BLACKBURN: And that was the estimate that was given to me. That was the estimate that was given to me?

BLITZER: Who gave you that estimate? Who gave you that estimate?

BLACKBURN: People that were there that were watching the crowd and watching people come in, and I wasn't outside until after the whole event was over.

BLITZER: All right. So let's move on. You seem to agree. BLACKBURN: Sure.

BLITZER: With the president and the White House that these protests are being manufactured by liberal activists. You told Anderson last night that the protests are being driven from the top down. But you yourself believe that the anger that you saw there, the tough questions you were asked, those feelings are genuine.

BLACKBURN: Yes, I do think that the feelings are genuine. I think people are honestly concerned. If I listen to the sum of the reports that are out there, I'd be concerned, too. But I know that those of us in Congress are working hard to solve these issues, and that we've been working on the health care issue for a long time. I do know that there is a lot of thought that has gone into how we move to a patient- centered health care system, and that we don't want to see the disruption take place that has taken place -- that took place when there was the initial roll out for the affordable care act.

So what we're trying to do is be responsible and handle these issues in a very thoughtful manner. Now if I were listening to things on the news every night, you know, I'd probably say, oh, my goodness, what is going on? And I would want answers. Now, I'll give you another example. There was a lady who was from a different part of the district, not Fairview, but she was at the town hall. She had some questions, I gave her an answer. She wanted some more completeness to her answer.

She called our office today and we're having somebody get with her that can provide some specifics that she was looking for.

BLITZER: Sure.

BLACKBURN: And that's the way we're going to help our constituents work through this. We're not going to run away from it. We're going to provide the answers that they're calling us, and that they want to get. I think that that's the responsible thing to do.

BLITZER: Very quickly, because I want to talk about Mexico as well, but John Boehner, the former speaker, you heard what he said today, that this is fiction that you're going to be able to repeal and replace Obamacare. He says that's not going to happen. He says congressional Republicans will focus on at least fixing part of the Affordable Care Act, part of the law, but the basic framework will remain in place. I want you to respond to what the former speaker said.

BLACKBURN: What I heard that he said, I would disagree with him. I think that you can expect us to bring forward ideas we have been talking about since 2010. We have worked diligently on how you look at the components, the insurance market place, the delivery systems, the reimbursements that are necessary, how we work with our hospitals to make certain that they are compensated for the care that delivered.

[17:20:08] How we make certain that behavioral health is addressed. These are not things that are new issues or that we have no approaches to how we solve them. And there are plenty of pieces of legislation we have brought forward. There are plenty of ideas, and quite frankly, I think we're all looking forward to the president's speech next week. I think we are all looking forward to moving forward with reconciliation.

Secretary Price was finally, last week, able to get to work after his confirmation.

BLITZER: All right.

BLACKBURN: And we couldn't begin our process until he was in place.

BLITZER: Yes.

BLACKBURN: So, now, we're ready to move forward and we will keep people informed every step of the way.

BLITZER: We're looking forward to the president's address.

BLACKBURN: Yes, we are.

BLITZER: Before a joint session of Congress next Tuesday night.

Congresswoman, stand by. There is more developments happening right now, especially involving the U.S. relationship with Mexico. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:25:35] BLITZER: The secretaries of State and Homeland Security met with their Mexican counterparts today as ties are clearly strained by the president's tough new immigration guidelines.

CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski has more on what are the latest developments.

Michelle, the president warned that this would be a tough mission and didn't make it any easier today when he described deportations as, quote, a "military operation."

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there is that, and clearly Mexico isn't happy. I mean, they were emphasizing human rights for immigrants within the United States and the need for facts to get past negative feelings.

I mean, they went into these meetings demanding respect, acknowledgment that the relationship is a two-way street and they did get that along with multiple reassurance over deportations. And the one word you heard not one single time in any of these public statements today, "wall."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOSINSKI (voice-over): The White House trying to smooth out the suddenly rocky relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, but Mexico didn't hide its frustrations during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly's trip. MIGUEL ANGEL OSORIO CHONG, MEXICAN INTERIOR SECRETARY (Through

Translator): We do not agree on the different measures that recently were stated by the government of the United States that affect Mexico. We have expressed our concern about the increase in deportations.

KOSINSKI: Tillerson and Kelly tried to publicly reassure their Mexican counterparts about new U.S. policy.

KELLY: Let me be very, very clear. There will be no, repeat, no mass deportations. All deportations will be according to our legal justice system, which is extensive and includes multiple appeals.

KOSINSKI: Insisting deportations will focus on criminals.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: There is no mistaking that the rule of law matters along both sides of our border.

KOSINSKI: An acknowledgment that the U.S. also has work to do.

TILLERSON: We underscore the importance of stopping the illegal firearms and bulk cash that is originating in the United States and flowing into Mexico.

KOSINSKI: But today President Trump painted a different picture.

TRUMP: I said, that's going to be a tough trip because we have to be treated fairly by Mexico. You see what's happening at the border. All of a sudden for the first time we're getting gang members out, we're getting drug lords out, we're getting really bad dudes out of this country. And at a rate that nobody's ever seen before.

KOSINSKI: Donald Trump famously kicked off his campaign with controversial remarks about Mexico.

TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

KOSINSKI: Now the White House is trying to put the best face on things.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the relationship with Mexico is phenomenal right now.

KOSINSKI: But Mexico is still insisting they will not pay for a border wall which no one even mentioned publicly today and that they can't be forced to accept deportees who are not Mexican.

LUIS VIDEGARAY CASO, MEXICAN SECRETARY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Through Translator): We must work to reach an agreement that will serve both interests, to overcome aggression, to overcome negative feelings, what would be most important would be the facts.

KOSINSKI: One U.S. official saying the Americans on this trip did a lot of listening. Forced to acknowledge that the relationship at the border is the responsibility of both sides as is accountability.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOSINSKI: Before the secretaries left Mexico this afternoon, there was a meeting with the Mexican president, but we have yet to hear a read-out or any reaction on how that all went from either side -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Michelle, thank you. Michelle Kosinski over at the State Department. Coming up, Malaysia asks for international help in tracking down the North Korean suspects in the killing of Kim Jong- un's half brother. But is it already too late?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: In rare joint appearance this afternoon, President Trump's top advisors, the Political Strategist Steve Bannon, the Chief of Staff Reince Priebus denied reports of behind the scenes conflicts over at the White House. They also talked about the president's long-term agenda. Let's bring in our political experts. And Gloria Borger, let me start with you. They made a big deal about being very close, working together. They also made a big deal about going after the news media. What does that tell you?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it tells me that the agenda is not going to change, that Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus are united in their efforts to get the president's agenda through. And the way they describe their relationship is that Priebus is the one who makes the trains run on time and Bannon is the one who reminds him of the campaign and what the president's promises were and how they are supposed to deliver. I think that Bannon is clearly the visionary here. I don't think Donald Trump would like him to be called Donald Trump's brain, but he is the visionary. And from listening to him today, he is not changing or relenting at all one bit, even if some members of the republican establishment want him to, and including stop attacking the media, but he's not going to stop doing that either. This is who he is, this is how they've won. And they're going to continue.

[17:35:07] BLITZER: You know, Mark, Bannon doesn't make a lot of public appearances. I think this may have been his first public appearance. Why now? Why at this specific conference?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, CPAC is certainly a very friendly venue for Steve Bannon and for our viewers out there who haven't heard about it, it's held once a year. It's been held since the 70s, and it's really the ultimate gathering of conservatives, but specifically young conservatives, young kids who come in college age, who come in and they want to hear from the leaders in the party. And right now, Steve Bannon is clearly a leader of the Republican Party, even if some republicans don't like him. From the audience, he talks about Trump's nationalist agenda. Themes like that play very well in a setting like CPAC.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, the - we heard a lot about how these two guys supposedly behind the scenes don't necessarily get along. But that clearly was a reason why the two of them showed up together today.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is, and it actually bolsters some of what I have been hearing from sources close to both of them, since really they both -- the president took office, which is that the stories about the discord and about the fact that there are two camps that are warring factions just aren't true. To the point that Steve Bannon actually said to me, I believe it was last week, that he was livid, that his former publication, Breitbart, had a big splashy spread on the front of its website going after Reince Priebus. You know, remember, he was not that long ago, the head of Breitbart where they made it a point and the whole kind of reason that they exist was to go after the Republican Party, Reince Priebus was the chair of the Republican Party until two months ago.

But I do believe that they do need each other, and that they do have -- both of them used the word today "partner", and they do have a partnership, because as Gloria said, they have very, very different jobs, very different skill sets. And when it comes to Bannon, I was told early on, when he first came on the campaign in August, that Donald Trump sees him as kind of a peer. He is a very wealthy man, made a lot of money at ironically Goldman Sachs and doing investment banking, and that he also is kind of trying to lay the intellectual foundation for what is Trump's very, very unorthodox brand.

BLITZER: The president, Rebecca, tomorrow is going to be addressing the CPAC crowd over there. Last year, interestingly, he didn't even attend the CPAC conference in the middle of the republican primaries, all of the -- lot of the other republican presidential candidates did. Kellyanne Conway this morning was joking the CPAC conference should now be called "T-PAC".

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it has a nice ring to it, certainly. It's worth noting that Donald Trump has been to CPAC in the past. Two years ago, actually. I interviewed him there before he gave his speech and he was using that appearance to sort of build up his platform among conservatives in advance of running for president. At that time, a lot of us didn't really take him as seriously as we did later on, but he was taking himself and that platform very, very seriously at that point in time, and in the years prior. But it's true that at that time and in previous appearances by Donald Trump at CPAC, people like Rand Paul were the big draws for a lot of the attendees that skewed a lot more libertarian. But what you heard from the Matt Schlapp, the organizer today, is that he considers the conservative movement to be sort of a big tent movement. Right now, Donald Trump is the leader of that movement. It's gone in a slightly different direction, but who knows where it could go in the future.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. There is news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. The president has just given an interview to Reuters speaking about a nuclear arms race. We'll have that and more when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:40:00] BLITZER: In a brand new interview with Reuters, President Trump says he wants to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal to ensure that the United States is, quote, "at the top of the pack." Let's get back to our political experts. How unusual is this kind of language, Gloria, that the president is using, talking about building up the nuclear arsenal? It's a significant development, because presumably, that nuclear arsenal is aimed at another nuclear arsenal, namely the Russian.

BORGER: Right, it is. I mean, look, we are not used to our presidents in current history talking about building up nuclear arsenals. President Obama just called for a world without nuclear weapons. He visited Hiroshima which was a very big moment. And then you have both President Bushs negotiating nuclear arms treaties. The most recent one, the new start, actually calls for U.S. and Russia by February 2018 to limit their nuclear arsenals to the same size for the next 10 years. So, I think the question that now is going to be asked is, what does this mean, president Trump's declaration? Does it mean that he wants to have a different kind of a treaty? Does he want to abrogate new start? You know, this is - these are questions that are going to be asked down the line, particularly by our allies, and certainly, I would assume, by Russia.

BLITZER: In the interview, Dana, he also complained about the deployment of a Russian cruise missile. Is it significant we're hearing at least some criticism of Russia right now from the president?

[17:44:59] BASH: Yes. I mean, honestly, I -- correct me if I'm wrong, I think this is the first time we've heard any criticism of Russia for anything. You know, clearly, he has not said much except for pretty much denying the notion of Russia being involved in and trying to meddle in U.S. elections. This is something that, you know, is a provocation, much less severe than getting involved in America's most important democratic act, which is voting. But, yes, it is significant. Whether or not this is a one-off or it is something that is it - is it kind of a sign that perhaps he is changing and looking at Russia in a different way? We don't know, but it is a change.

BLITZER: Yes. Go ahead, Mark, because I know you've been thinking about that U.S.-Russian relationship as well.

PRESTON: Yes, I mean, it's got to be one of the most complicated things. And I always go back to the beginning of the campaign where Donald Trump running for the republican presidential nomination was embracing Russia. Republicans have always been talking about being a very robust, you know, military presence over in Europe, you know, allowing NATO to be built up as well, and really looking at Russia as an enemy. And now, we have a president who has been looking at them as an ally. So, it's a very confusing situation. And when you hear him criticizing them now, you got to wonder, what is he going to say tomorrow.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Rebecca, your thought.

BERG: Well, it certainly makes more difficult for those in Donald Trump's administration who need to represent him abroad, like Tillerson, like Kelly, even Vice-President Mike Pence in Munich recently. It is really unclear where he is going on some of these key foreign policy issues and uncertainty does not sit well internationally.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by. There is more coming up. North Korea lashing out at what it calls wild rumors it was involved in the killing of Kim Jong-un's half-brother. Will those angry denials raise international tensions?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:00] BLITZER: Investigators are now calling for a global hunt for the North Korean suspects in the killing of Kim Jong-un's half- brother. As new questions arise about his poisoning at an airport in Malaysia. Brian Todd has been looking into this (INAUDIBLE). What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un is pushing back strongly against the accusations that they ordered the murder of Kim Jong-nam. The North Koreans themselves are asking why the two women who allegedly attacked him were not injured if they had poison on their bare hands as Malaysian authorities claim. This comes as Malaysian officials are asking for the help of a top police agency in the manhunt for more suspects. The expanding mystery of Kim Jong-un's half-brother's death tonight involves an international manhunt, and a nasty despite between two Asian powers. The Malaysian police tonight are asking Interpol to put out an alert for four missing North Korean suspects wanted in the death of Kim Jong-nam, but the Malaysian police have said they believe they are already back in Pyongyang.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONATHAN WACKROW, FORMER SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Once they get back into North Korea, Interpol has limited strength or ability to interact with North Korean authorities. But what they want to do is they want to trace the actions of these individuals post-attack to see where they went.

TODD: South Korean officials say Kim Jong-nam was poisoned when he was attacked at Kuala Lumpur's airport, and they say his younger half- brother's regime ordered the hit. Tonight, Kim Jong-un is pushing back hard. His news agency denying the accusation, saying the South Korean's media is "spreading wild rumors about a poison." And that the Malaysian Police investigation is, "full of weak points and contradictions". The North Koreans also raised a key question tonight, if as Malaysian police claim, the two women who allegedly attacked Kim Jong-nam had toxic substances on their bare hands, how did they survive the attack.

LAWRENCE KOBILINSKY, JOHN JAY COLLEGE FORENSIC SCIENTIST: I think it's a dangerous method of poisoning somebody by applying this chemical to your own hands and then touching somebody to administer the poison. I think perhaps each of the two women that were involved in this poisoning had sublethal doses, and only in combination did you establish a lethal dosage.

TODD: Malaysian officials have still not disclosed what type of poison the women might have used. The New York Times reports South Korean intelligence officials are calling the two women "lizards' tails". That is, when the conspirators were discovered, they became expandable and left behind.

WACKROW: I think that they were an asset to somebody. Whether or not it's a disposable asset, I find that too early to early in this investigation to conclude but it's certainly a possibility.

TODD: A friend who owns a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur told The New York Times, Kim Jong-nam often came to his establishment with bodyguards, but stopped coming about three years ago. He had no bodyguards at the airport. Experts say after he publicly criticized his brother, Kim Jong-nam might not have been able to afford protection whenever he left his home in China.

VICTOR CHA, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY DIRECTOR OF ASIAN STUDIES: The North Korean state may have cut off Kim Jong-nam, may have tried to kill him and may have made it very difficult for the Chinese to protect him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, as the Malaysian and North Korean governments continue to bicker over the facts of the case, one key dispute remains unresolved. The Malaysians say no member of the Kim family has yet come forward to offer a DNA sample or to claim the body, and they say they're not releasing Kim Jong-nam's body until that happens. Wolf?

[17:54:56] BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting. Coming up, the president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, makes a rare public appearance. He says the president is maniacally focused on keeping his campaign promises, and he has a warning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE BANNON, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: If you think they're going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day, every day it is going to be a fight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Refused request: Exclusive new reporting from CNN says the White House asked the FBI to knock down reports about contacts during the election campaign between aides to Donald Trump and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.