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Interview With Indiana Congressman Andre Carson; Weed Crackdown Coming?; Immigration Battle; Trump Wants to Expand Nukes so U.S "Top of the Pack"; Some GOP Lawmakers Dodge Angry Crowds at Town Halls. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 23, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Long way to go. Top Mexican officials state their disagreement with President Trump's immigration policies as they meet with secretaries of state -- the secretaries of state and homeland security during a mission to ease strained relations. Did President Trump just make their job harder by calling deportations a military operation?

Flawless. The White House says the president's revised executive order on immigration is being delayed by efforts to make sure it won't result in the same chaos and legal challenges as his initial travel ban. Will it meet the mark?

And greater enforcement. The White House also says it expects law enforcement agencies to enforce federal laws on recreational marijuana even in states that have legalized its use. Is a crackdown on weed in the works?

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, exclusive new information coming into CNN about efforts by the Trump White House to have agencies, including the FBI, refute stories about contacts during the presidential race between Trump campaign officials and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

We're also following the uproar the president sparked by calling the wave of deportations under his aggressive new policy -- quote -- "a military operation." The White House says the president did not misspeak, but Homeland Secretary John Kelly later clarified there will be no, repeat, no use of military force in immigration operations.

Kelly was in Mexico, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, trying to smooth relations that are fraying under the president's immigration policy. There was open disagreement as they met with top Mexican officials. The foreign minister said there were what he called negative feelings between the countries and said relations have -- quote -- "a long way to go." We're covering all of that, much more, this hour, with our guests, including Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.

But we begin with CNN's exclusive new reporting about White House efforts to respond to CNN and other reporting about Russian contacts with high-level advisers of then-candidate Donald Trump last year.

Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez, they broke the story with Pamela Brown, Shimon Prokupecz and Manu Raju.

Evan and Jim join us now.

Jim, first of all, what did you find out?


CNN is told that the FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications during the 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

Multiple U.S. officials tell CNN that the White House sought the help of the bureau and other agencies investigating the Russian matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, these officials tell CNN. You will recall that CNN and "The New York Times" first reported on this just over a week ago.

And, Wolf, so far, we have reached out to the White House, but the White House has not yet commented on the record.

BLITZER: Evan, this clearly is not a typical request. How did this start?


A U.S. law enforcement official tells us this began with the FBI director, Andrew McCabe, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting on the day after those stories were published.

A White House official, however, disputes that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said that a "New York Times" story vastly overstated what the FBI knows about the Russian contacts.

The White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and then to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories.

But a law enforcement official says McCabe didn't discuss aspects of the case and wouldn't, however, say exactly what McCabe told Priebus. And I should add, Wolf, this is a highly unusual thing for someone high level at the FBI, deputy director of the FBI to be reaching out to the chief of staff to be discussing an ongoing investigation.

BLITZER: Yes. The FBI so far has had no comment.

PEREZ: No comment, correct.

BLITZER: Jim, in the end, the White House had Reince Priebus deny the story. He went on FOX News, what, a week or so ago and said this.


REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: "The New York Times" last week put out an article with no direct sources that said that the Trump campaign had constant contacts with Russian spies, basically, you know, treasonous-type accusations.

We have now all kinds of people looking into this. I can assure you, I have been approved to say this, that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it's grossly overstated and it was wrong. And there is nothing to it.



BLITZER: But, Jim, the investigation is still going on.

SCIUTTO: The fact is this is still an open question. It's a matter of investigation.

The FBI, we know, is still investigating these communications. Several members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees tell CNN that Congress as well still investigating those alleged contacts, and, in fact, that investigation has begun.

Wolf, they have started to collect documents and records as they begin this congressional probe.

BLITZER: Why is this not a typical back and forth between the White House and the FBI?

PEREZ: Wolf, the communication between the White House and the FBI are unusual because of a decade-old restriction on such contacts.

The request from the White House is a violation of those procedures to limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations. And the Trump administration's efforts to press Comey, contrary to the Justice Department's procedures, that are contained in memos issued in 2007 and 2009 that are intended to directly limit these types of communications on pending investigations between the White House and the FBI.

We know that FBI Director James Comey rejected the requests, according to the sources we have been talking to, because the alleged communications are the subject of an ongoing investigation. And, Wolf, obviously, again, I underscore that indeed if the deputy director of the FBI reached out first thing in the morning to try to tamp down the story and to try to give the White House this guidance, that also is highly unusual.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, thanks for that reporting, exclusive reporting, I might ad.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana is joining us. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. ANDRE CARSON (D), INDIANA: Thank you, Wolf. Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: All right, so you just heard Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez's reporting that the FBI refused a request from the White House to knock down recent stories reported by CNN and "The New York Times" about contacts between associates of Donald Trump during the campaign and Russians.

Were you aware that the White House had made this request to the FBI?

CARSON: Well, it's unfortunate, I mean, hearing the news, but it's not surprising.

I think we have an administration that has constantly accused entities like CNN, "The New York Times" of being fake news. And I think this is a masterful attempt to minimize and trivialize the fourth estate, the media, which is there to hold folks accountable in a way that causes disillusionment and suspicions in the hearts and minds of the American people.

BLITZER: Are you concerned about this request?

CARSON: I'm deeply concerned about it.

I think provisions were established years ago, over six or seven years ago, so that this contact between the FBI and the White House regarding pending investigations would, in fact, be limited, for good reason. And the fact that the administration is using its authority to impose on the FBI in a way that is unlawful and unethical, quite frankly, disturbs me.

BLITZER: Were you aware that the White House made this request to the FBI, Congressman?

CARSON: No, I was not aware. So, thank you for this remarkable reporting.

BLITZER: The White House clearly may have a violated longstanding policy, as you point out, of not discussing investigations with the Justice Department.

Do you think this is something that Congress needs to investigate? CARSON: Without question. I think it goes along the lines of other

questionable acts, not only the violation of the Emoluments Clause and other violations as it relates to General Flynn speaking to Russian diplomats.

But I think it exacerbates the air of suspicion around this administration's so soon, in fact, too soon.

BLITZER: I know you're a member of the Intelligence Committee. Have you been brief on contacts between Trump officials during the campaign and Russians known to the U.S. intelligence community?

CARSON: Well, I'm not at liberty to go too far into this, Wolf. But my personal belief is that there have been inappropriate contacts made by folks in the administration.

And I think it's Congress' duty to investigate this contact and unearth the truth, as it were, so we can move forward with an agenda that be benefits the American people.

BLITZER: Just to be precise, you do believe there should be a full- scale investigation now?

CARSON: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman, stand by.

We are going to have a lot more to discuss. We will take a quick break. We will be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana. He's a member of Intelligence Committee.

As we follow the breaking news, exclusive new information coming into CNN about efforts by the Trump White House to have agencies, including the FBI, refute stories about contacts during the presidential race between Trump campaign officials and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

Congressman, you just said you believe the Trump administration did have some contacts with the Russians. Are you referring to officials currently serving in the Trump administration?

CARSON: Well, my personal belief is that, as was evidenced by General Flynn, and you had top campaign adviser Paul Manafort who had contact, and which he had to resign because of it.

I think the contacts have been suspicious. And I think it's important and it's on Congress to investigate these matters, so we can move forward with an agenda that serves the American people, as I have said. BLITZER: Well, we know the former National Security Adviser Michael

Flynn is no longer serving in the administration. Do you know if anyone else currently serving in the Trump administration had contacts with Russians known to U.S. intelligence?


CARSON: At this time, no.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by.

I want to get some more information. We're getting additional information on other key issues right now.

Earlier today, President Trump praised the increase in deportations under his aggressive new immigration policies. But his characterization of them raised some eyebrows.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 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, when you see gang violence that you have read about like never before and all of the things, much of that is people that are here illegally. And they're rough and they're tough, but they're not tough like our people. So we're getting them out.


BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, Homeland Secretary John Kelly a little bit later had a very different message today in Mexico. Explain.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he did indeed. He specifically was asked about those two words, military operation. Of course, John Kelly, a former military man himself, a longtime decorated military man, had specific language and a sharp response to the president.


JOHN KELLY, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: There will be no, repeat, no mass deportations. Everything we do in DHS will be done legally and according to human rights and the legal justice system of the United States.

And, again, listen to this, no, repeat, no use of military force in immigration operations. None. Yes. We will approach this operation systemically and in an organized way, in a results-oriented way, in an operational way, and a human dignity way. This is the way great militaries do business, the United States, Mexico, and many others.


ZELENY: And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was also asked about the military operation. He said the president was simply using that as an adjective, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff, the president also gave an interview to the Reuters news agency, spoke out about the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Tell our viewers what he said.

ZELENY: He did indeed, Wolf. This is something that he's been talking about as he was running for president. He has been raising questions about the capacity of the U.S. nuclear system.

Well, in that interview this afternoon with Reuters here at the White House, he talked about that as well as North Korea.


TRUMP: Well, I think China has tremendous control over North Korea. Whether they say so or not is up to them. But they have tremendous control over North Korea. I think they could solve the problem very easily, if they want to.

I guess, look, under the circumstances, there is always -- I would never say no. It may be very late. It's very late. It's very late in the picture right now.

QUESTION: What do you mean?

TRUMP: Well, it's very late. We're very angry at what he's done, and, frankly, this should have been taken care of during the Obama administration. Missile defense is one of the many things that can be done. There is talks of more than that.

QUESTION: Like what?

TRUMP: Well, there is talks about a lot more than that. We will see about what happens.

Well, I think they're grand champions at manipulation of currency. So I haven't held back. They -- we will see what happens. It would be wonderful -- it would be wonderful. A dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we're going to be at the top of the pack.


ZELENY: So, those words there, "We're going to be at the top of the pack," the White House again, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked exactly what the president meant by that.

And he said, look, he was simply saying that the U.S. should have the best capability, he was not suggesting any type of immediate buildup. But, Wolf, that interview there with Steve Holland, a veteran White

House correspondent here for Reuters, we played it in full there, at least that chunk of it, to give you a sense. And it was a bit all over the board there with North Korea and then ending with the nukes.

But this is one of the first foreign policy interviews this president has given in his first month in office -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very important. Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny, over at the White House.

We're also following the visit of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to Mexico today, this on a mission to ease the tensions sparked by President Trump's rhetoric about the country and his immigration policies.

Mexican officials said they disagree with the United States right now, but Tillerson called the talks productive.



REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: In our meetings, we jointly acknowledged that in a relationship filled with vibrant colors, two strong, sovereign countries from time to time will have differences.

We listened closely and carefully to each other as we respectfully and patiently raised our respective concerns.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our CNN global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.

Elise, what else are you finding out about Mexico's side of this visit?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's really the Mexicans have been kind of caught off-guard by all this.

I'm hearing, in private, what the Mexicans are saying. In public, Secretary Tillerson went down with Secretary Kelly with a conciliatory message that struck the right notes. Secretary Tillerson made a nod of some of the problems headed down south affecting Mexico, which you never have heard really before.

But you have President Trump talking about expelling illegal immigrants, the bad dudes, as he put it, to Mexico, outside of any legal agreement. And he practically did so while Tillerson and Kelly were in the air down there. So, clearly, Mexicans were expecting this to be on the agenda, but it made for a chilly reception for Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly.

Take a listen to the interior minister today.


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.


LABOTT: And the Mexicans do seem to be caught off-guard with all this.

Normally, you have the White House rolling out a policy several days before such a visit. There is time for the dust to clear and for the aides to set the table for the visit. But today you had Secretary Kelly having to walk back the comments by Donald Trump that this was a military operation.

Secretary Tillerson had to make clear the U.S. realizes Mexico is a sovereign country. This was a similar situation when the president rolled out his executive order on the border wall and Mexico paying for it while the Mexican foreign minister was in Washington, which really blindsided him and prompted the president to cancel his visit.

Wolf, today, the foreign minister told Tillerson that there was a lot of hurt feelings and grievances that would take a long time to get over.

BLITZER: It was the Mexican president who canceled his visit to Washington because of those comments. Elise, thanks very much for that report.

Let's get back to Representative Andre Carson of Indiana, who is a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, in that interview with Reuters, President Trump said he wants to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, wants the U.S. to be at -- quote -- "the top of the pack."

Are you worried that the U.S. could be headed towards an arms race right now with Russia?

CARSON: I'm always concerned about us becoming overly weaponized.

But in a very real sense, I think we're living in very real times, where we must be armed, we must be manned for battle. It's very unpopular with the American people, but the reality is that the world is a place and many countries have hostile views towards the United States of America.

The question becomes, how do we leverage our partnerships internationally to make sure we're not carrying the weight, we don't become effectively the police officers for the entire world? But in a very real sense, I think it's important for us to stay armed.

BLITZER: So you agree with the president the U.S. should further develop its nuclear weapons, its nuclear arsenal? CARSON: I think we have to be ready for warfare at any given time. I

think that the arsenal that we have right now as we speak is sufficient. That's not to say that we should not make greater investments in newer technologies to stay competitive.

But we have to deal primarily with issues of joblessness. We have to invest in infrastructure. We have to talk about rebuilding our broken educational system. I think those priorities should take precedence over investments in nuclear armament.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, for a long time, Democratic and Republican administrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have been trying to reduce those nuclear arsenals.

This would be a significant shift if we see this new administration actually trying to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

CARSON: Absolutely.

Well, I think we will certainly have a growth in the military industrial complex, without question. But, as I said before, I think the greater investment should go toward our infrastructure, our educational system, and putting Americans back to work.

BLITZER: President Trump also described the deportations now under way here in the United States. He called it a military operation. The White House, as we heard, later clarified that he was using that phrase as an adjective to describe the precision of the operation.

And the homeland secretary, John Kelly, had to reassure the Mexican government that the American military will not be involved in any deportations. What's your reaction to the president's choice of words?


CARSON: Well, I think his choice of words was unfortunate, like so many of his choices of words.

I'm concerned, because this looks and feels like a mass deportation. I think -- I agree, as a former police officer, we need to get rid of violent criminals and those mass murderers and the like and those who are committing heinous crimes.

But to break up families, hardworking families, to cause the kind of anxiety and uncertainty that we're causing with these raids is un- American.

For me, I think over -- I just read a report. If these continue, over the next 10 years, we're going to lose up to $5 trillion in terms of dollars to the U.S.

Look, immigration reform should be at the forefront of the Trump administration's agenda. He should be working with Congress, the members of the Senate, to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Now, optically, I think he's trying to get away from his faux pas and

have a heavy law enforcement apparatus in place, but we're straining local law enforcement agencies with these directives. And, to me, breaking up families is not the way to go. It feels like a mass deportation, Wolf.

BLITZER: Congressman Andre Carson, thanks very much.

And it was fascinating today to hear the Mexican foreign minister say that Mexico is concerned about the human rights of Mexicans in the United States right now. Usually, U.S. officials are complaining about human rights elsewhere around the world. And the Mexican foreign minister was standing right next to the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

Congressman, thanks once again.

CARSON: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, top Trump adviser Steve Bannon makes a rare public appearance, talking about the White House war with the news media and the president's agenda and a whole lot more.

Plus, the president's plans for the country's nuclear arsenal. Is a new arms race looming?


[18:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Tonight, a new warning from the president's Chief Political Adviser, Steve Bannon says Mr. Trump's war with the news media is going to get worse. Bannon making a rare public speaking appearance today, along with other top -- Trump administration officials. CNN Congressional Correspondent Phil Mattingly was at the event. He's still there outside Washington, the suburban Maryland. Phil, we saw members of the Trump team showing unity with conservatives and with one another.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's exactly right. A clear effort right now to not only attach with the conservative movement but also let everybody know that any reports you've seen about dissention within the White House, there just not true. But there was also a bigger point here to make clear, President Trump's agenda was laid out during the campaign, he plans on following through on everything he said.


STEVE BANNON, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: He's laid out an agenda with those speeches with the promises he made, and our job every day is just to execute on that. And the mainstream media better understand something, all of those promises are going to be implemented.

MATTINGLY: President Trump's Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, in his first public appearance since Trump took office, on stage with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, dismissing any reports of division, and promised to fight for the very agenda Trump laid out in the campaign.

BANNON: He's going to continue to press his agenda. And as economic conditions get better, as more jobs get better, they are going to continue the fight. If you think they're going to give you your country back without a fight, you're sadly mistaken. Every day -- every day it is going to be a fight.

MATTINGLY: Bannon appearing with Priebus in a public display designed to camp down in a ray of reports of dissention in the ranks.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: In regard to us two, I think the biggest misconception is everything that you're reading.

MATTINGLY: Bannon and Priebus, united in their belief that the press has been unfair to President Trump.

BANNON: Just like they were dead wrong on the cast of the campaign, and just like they were dead wrong on the chaos of the transition, they're absolutely dead wrong about what's going on today.

MATTINGLY: Adding public fueling the fire that is at times engulfed in administration determined to undercut the media with repeated attacks. The Trump agenda now dominating the conservative gathering he skipped last year, where the Conservative Political Action Conference has become the Trump Political Action Conference.


MATTINGLY: With Trump, now the face of the party and the conservative movement. Trump's team pledging to continue their push to roll back Obama (INAUDIBLE) rules, including last night's move to rescind guidance related to transgender use of student bathrooms.

BETSY DEVOS, EDUCATION SECRETARY: This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration's overreach to suggest a one-size-fits-all federal government approach.

MATTINGLY: Even as questions remain as to whether Trump, far from a traditional ideological conservative, can keep the party's elements together.

MATT SCHLAPP, AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE UNION CHAIRMAN: Can this Trump movement be combined with what's been happening at CPAC and other conservative movements for 50 years?

PRIEBUS: First of all, it has to, and we have to stick together as a team. The truth of the matter is Donald Trump -- President Trump brought together the party and the conservative movement. And I've got to tell you, if the party and the conservative movement are together, similar to Steve and I, it can't be stopped.


[18:35:00] MATTINGLY: And Wolf, you've been hearing that message repeatedly from administration officials throughout the day. A recognition that here at the Conservative Political Action Conference, these are the activists, these are the grassroots, and these are the people that need to be motivated at a moment where we're seeing town halls across the country with people raising concerns about the very agenda that they are pushing. It something Vice President Mike Pence, Wolf, within the next hour, will also try and convey to this crowd. Get them fired up for an effort going forward that they believe will be good, not just for conservatives, but for the entire Republican Party. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Phil, thank you. Phil Mattingly over National Harbor suburban Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., is at the conference. Let's bring in our political team. And Manu Raju, let me start with you. We see Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon -- looking at the list -- Kellyanne Conway, the Vice President Mike Pence coming up in a little while. Tomorrow the president will be there at that CPAC conference. Secretaries Tillerson and Kelly, they're in Mexico. Is the administration, what, trying to reset the agenda a bit?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: It sounds that way. And what was common also about today? Donald Trump really hasn't tweeted. I mean, he -- last time, he tweeted, he did -- about half an hour ago, he tweeted something about how the stock market is doing well but has not taken his own administration off message. But I would say that there are things that the Trump administration is doing that is causing some concerns among his fellow republicans. There are a lot of republicans I talked to, wonder why they've picked this fight over the transgender bathroom guidelines.

It's also -- it's interesting to hear Steve Bannon talk about a few things that he believes are critical to the Trump agenda. Cabinet nominees and (INAUDIBLE) regulation, of course, unites republicans. But talking about withdrawing from TPP, as well as immigration enforcement and building that wall along the border of Mexico, the deportations as well, those things don't necessarily unite the party, but Bannon uses as central to what Trump has already accomplished, it shows some disconnect between the administration and Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: No. And we don't see, David, Steve Bannon publicly out there, speaking publicly today, repeatedly referred to the news media as the opposition party. He's got his own message he's trying to convey.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND THE WASHINGTON POST ASSISTANT EDITOR: He's got his own message and this works out well for all concerned there, right. CPAC needs the Trump team to sort of maintain the relevance. The Trump team needs CPAC to seem more conservative than they actually are. They're right now -- they're pursuing this sort of heavy handed status agenda and it works well for Steve Bannon who's a good communicator when he goes out there, even though he goes out rarely, to get that Trump message out.

BLITZER: Jackie, you wanted to weigh in.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND THE DAILY BEAST WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: I know, I just wanted to add something to what Manu said. He -- well, the transgender issue might be not popular with some republicans, in that room, in that crowd at CPAC, it is a -- what Trump did is actually very popular. When Kayleigh McEnany mentioned it, what the -- that the guides had been rescinded, the crowd cheered. So, what -- if you're talking about - and the kind of Pence-wing of the party are very supportive of something like this.

BLITZER: The social conservatives.

KUCINICH: The social conservatives are very supportive of rescinding those guidelines. So, in terms of your -- looking at what audience he's playing to, it's right there, in that ball room.

BLITZER: Abby, like all of us, you've seen all of those reports over the past month of infighting in the White House, clearly by Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, showing up together today, they wanted to dispel those reports.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND THE WASHINGTON POST NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: And this has been a project for the two of them for quite some time. They've been showing up in interviews together, getting on the phone together, talking about how they work together as a team. And you saw Reince Priebus describe it this way, the conservative movement represented by Bannon and the establishment GOP represented by Reince Priebus. The two of them merging together is supposed to create harmony both within in the White House and outside of it.

But it's important to remember that Bannon, describing Bannon as the conservative movement is a little bit papering over what's really going on here. A few years ago, Steve Bannon was not invited to CPAC because he was so far out of even the activist mainstream. So, Bannon represents a particular kind of conservativism that is more combative and more aggressive, and, you know, their unity is for now really important for sort of the White House functioning as an institution, but it remains an open question, how long can this last, how long can they continue to walk hand in hand?

BLITZER: So Jackie, it was interesting that at the start of that conversation, that Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, Matt Schlapp, who's the chairman. Any -- we heard Steve Bannon joking about he used to be part of what they used to call the "uninvited". Meaning, that he was never invited to these kinds of events, and now he's there, and Donald Trump wasn't there last year as a candidate -- a presidential candidate. He's going to be well-received there tomorrow.

KUCINICH: Not only are they there, they've taken over. The establishment doesn't have a big presence. I think there is only one senator who is even speaking, and it's Senator Ted Cruz. So, it really is a very different event than we've seen over the last -- I mean, I'd say decade.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I used to go to those things all the time.

[18:39:57] KUCINICH: Absolutely, so does Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan was the featured speaker, people, you know, lined up to see Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan isn't there either this year, because of scheduling conflicts. So --

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment, because there's more news we're following. We want to give our viewers a quick update to a story we brought you right at the top the hour. Our exclusive new reporting about White House efforts to respond to CNN and other reporting, about Russian contacts with high-level advisers of then candidate Donald Trump last year. Evan Perez is back with us. Evan, there's an update since you and Jim Sciutto broke the story at the top of the hour. Share with our viewers.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's right. We want to update something about the story that we just reported. A White House official has just clarified the version of events that were given to us earlier, saying that the initial discussions between the FBI Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus occurred on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting on the day after those stories were published. It was not as the White House originally said in a phone call initiated by McCabe to Priebus.

Now, that matches the version that was told to us by U.S. law enforcement officials. But the White House stands by its story that McCabe essentially disputed The New York Times story in his discussion with Priebus. And the official -- the White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and the FBI Director James Comey, asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories that were reported by The New York Times and CNN and other outlets. But a law enforcement official says that McCabe did not discuss aspects of the case and wouldn't -- but they wouldn't tell us exactly what McCabe told Priebus. And as we mentioned, Wolf, earlier, the FBI still has no comment on this story.

BLITZER: Yes, McCabe, the Deputy Director of the FBI. Evan Perez, thanks for that update. Just ahead, the Trump White House signals another kind of crackdown, may be in the works. Why marijuana users should be aware.


[18:46:32] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, new remarks by President Trump may stir fears of a renewed nuclear arms race.

We're back with our political team.

Manu, in this interview with "Reuters" -- and it was an important interview -- he said he wants to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, wants the U.S. to be at the "top of the pack". Those are his words. This is at a time after decades of the U.S. wanting to reduce the nuclear arsenal, not only the U.S. but Russia. But it looks like it could be a new nuclear arms race right now.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes. And that's really it's worrying arms control experts who believe that the United States have been going in the right direction up until these recent comments.

What was interesting to see in those remarks to "Reuters" was his criticism of the new START treaty that was signed under President Obama, approved by the Senate. He does not think it was a good deal. He said it was a, quote, "one-sided deal". He can negotiate a better deal.

So, what does that mean in terms of the U.S./Russia relations? What does that mean about arms control? And will he try to get a new treaty with Russia and get that approved by the Senate? It's part of the larger effort by Trump to negotiate what he thinks are better deals on his terms. He's been criticizing all sorts of deals, trade deals, including treaties like this one.

BLITZER: Yes, since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. They're tried to reduce those nuclear arsenals.

Jackie, in the same "Reuters" interview, we heard something unusual for the president. He actually complained about Russia and its cruise missiles. I haven't heard him do a lot of that in public.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a step in the right direction as far as the traditional adversarial relationship that the United States has had with Russia. But the nuclear arms race I think was more concerning, restarting that I think kind of paled any -- I mean, that seemed like a larger issue and then he also said something peculiar, saying, "Well, if I talk to Putin" and he has a number, he can probably give him a call if he wants.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It more or less confirms some reporting earlier that he had criticized that the deals of the U.S. had made with Russia in the past, and then had to sort of -- that had to sort of be tamped down by, you know, his aides. I mean, this is going to be one of those cases I suspect where it's going to be cleanup on aisle four, with folks coming in after the fact, trying to get the temperature down, trying to and get back in line with longstanding U.S. policy. But it's not unusual and it's not new for Trump to go down this road, especially on the START treaty. He seems fixated on the idea that the United States needs to win in that area when traditionally metric for winning is not more U.S. nuclear weapons, but fewer.

KUCINICH: No, no one wins that.

BLITZER: At the White House briefing today, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, he was asked, I want to be specific, whether the administration will be directed to enforce federal marijuana laws. He said, yes, he does think there will be this effort.

Is there a new policy emerging on recreational use of marijuana?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: OK, I don't know yet if there's a new policy. But I think what's interesting about Spicer's answer there is that on the one hand, in the same day that you have the administration pushing this line that they want the states to have the right to decide when it comes to transgender rights, they want the federal government to take a more aggressive role when it comes to marijuana use, even though several states, those states that have states rights have already legalized marijuana. It's an interesting dichotomy.

BLITZER: You go to Colorado and a bunch of other states now, for recreational purposes and not just medicinal purposes, you can use marijuana. And I suspect they're worried when they hear that.

[18:50:01] RAJU: And it's a huge economy out there, too. I mean, this --

BLITZER: Growing too.

RAJU: -- widening business that could be squashed if they do enforce the federal laws here.

BLITZER: Do you think they will?

KUCINICH: You never know with the Trump administration. But I do think the economic impact will make an incentive for a lot of these states to push back hard.


PHILLIP: It seems an odd battle to wage at this point in time. You would end up having to fight them with some governors all across the country who are going to basically stand up for the rules they negotiated themselves with their legislatures as part of bargains to raise money for state coffers. So, this is an issue that, you know, I think the administration is probably going to say this because it's been longstanding conservative ideology that, you know, loosening drug laws is not something that they're interested in. But I would be surprised to see it.

RAJU: States rights is supposed to be Republican --

BLITZER: States rights are very important.

All right, guys. Stand by. We're going to have more on the mixed messages from the Trump administration about the possibility of a militarized deportation for (INAUDIBLE).

When the going gets tough in town halls, some lawmakers are deciding to avoid angry constituents and simply stay home.


[18:55:39] BLITZER: Tonight, there's new fuel for the fury that many Republican lawmakers have been facing across the country. Some members of Congress are dodging planned meetings with constituents rather than face those angry crowds.

Let's bring back our senior congressional reporter Manu Raju.

Manu, some lawmakers thinking twice about having these town halls.

RAJU: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Actually, some members have made it perfectly clear they don't believe that holding these raucous town halls will be a productive use of their time, hoping instead to hold these smaller meetings with constituents.

But, Wolf, GOP leaders are hoping that all this tension won't lead to a bigger problem which would be more than 20 GOP defections in the House and two in the Senate, that would derail their efforts to repeal Obamacare.


RAJU (voice-over): At rowdy town hall meetings, Republicans are getting an earful from voters, worried about President Trump's plans to repeal Obamacare.

But some Republicans are keeping a low profile and skipping town hall meetings altogether.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to host a town hall?

RAJU: Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by one of his constituents in Miami on Thursday morning, asked about why he isn't holding town halls for his constituents.

In Columbus, Ohio, critics seized on Congressman Pat Tiberi's no show a town hall.

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, protesters held their own events, demanding that Senator Pat Toomey show up.

And in Vista, California, Congressman Darrell Issa was confronted by protesters gathered outside his district office.

REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: My hope is, this morning, we'll find a way to bridge these two groups.

RAJU: But he later decided to skip a town hall meeting organized by some of his critics.

ISSA: I'm sending staff there. And they'll be there while I'm here.

RAJU: In Carson City, Nevada, Senator Dean Heller planned to have a friendly meeting with a local Chamber of Commerce, but the meeting quickly turned contentious, and he used press to have a town hall that would include more voters. The senator who is up for re-election next year said he'd have a town hall on this condition -- no booing from the audience.

SEN. DEAN HELLER (R), NEVADA: I'll do a town hall meeting if you promise one thing, is that you won't applaud. No applauding, all right? I'll tell you what? No booing either. Just no applauding, no booing.

RAJU: Some Republicans like Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo are eager to avoid a moment that will go viral online and eventually be used by their opponents. In a statement, Curbelo's office told CNN that he will, quote, "not be part of any planned chaos events."

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are hoping to move a bill to repeal Obamacare as soon as March. But they are stuck on some major issues, including how to deal with the expansion of Medicaid, providing coverage to 11 million low income Americans. They're not expecting Democratic support.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Given how partisan the environment is as illustrated by my friends outside, we're not expecting any Democratic help on either of these major issues.

RAJU: But as work takes shape behind closed doors, voters are growing anxious.

SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: We're going to use all our time and me, I'm unable to speak.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In 2020, you're gone!


RAJU: Now, Wolf, a Republican aide says that Rubio was traveling for part of the week in Europe on official business, while an aide to Congressman Pat Tiberi says that those town hall events were organized bipartisan groups, which is why he skipped that meeting in favor with meeting with constituents.

But one Republican, Wolf, Louie Gohmert of Texas, invoked the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and raising public safety concerns, saying that's why he's not holding town hall meetings. And Giffords said in response, this statement, "Have some courage. Face your constituents. Hold town halls."


BLITZER: So, he basically was saying he was worried about his own security? Is that what that congressman was suggesting?

RAJU: Suggested as much, and that's one reason why Giffords pushed back so aggressively though.

BLITZER: Yes, that's -- a very, very important statement if you will if he is legitimately concerned about security at these town halls.

RAJU: The leadership urged, of course, folks to worry about public safety.

BLITZER: Yes. OK, Manu, thanks very much for that. Manu Raju reporting.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.