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The White House says it did no wrong in asking the FBI to knock down reports of contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials during the election campaign; The White House bars CNN, The New York Times and other major news organizations from a press briefing. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: -- send astronauts on the next Orion flight in 2019. Of course, first NASA needs to finish building its heavy lift rockets that can push Orion to Mars or theoretically beyond.

Be sure to tune into CNN this Sunday for State of the Union. My guest Senator Bernie Sanders, Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey. That's 9 am Eastern.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Turning over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, denials of wrongdoing. The White House says it did no wrong in asking the FBI to knock down reports of contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials during the election campaign. But Democrats are demanding an investigation.

Blocked from briefing. In an unprecedented move, the White House bars CNN, The New York Times and other major news organizations from a press briefing, while selectively letting others in. Did President Trump order the punishment?

Irony and insults. The president gives a speech slamming the news media and repeating the phrase "enemy of the people." The president says no one should use unnamed sources. This, on the same day that the White House held a press briefing attributed to unnamed officials.

And nerve agent murder, did North Korea use the deadliest of all chemical nerve agents, a substance banned around the world, to kill the half-brother of the dictator, Kim Jong-un?

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Trump on the offensive lashing out at both the FBI and the news media. He used Twitter to slam the FBI saying it can't stop national security leakers who he says are giving classified information to the media.

But the White House is also playing defense after CNN was the first to report that top officials asked the FBI to knock down media reports that Trump associates were in frequent contact with Russian officials during the election campaign. The White House says it wasn't trying to pressure the FBI. But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says Chief of Staff Reince Priebus -- and I'm quoting her now -- "committed an outrageous breach of the FBI's independence," and she's now asking for a formal investigation.

The president is also keeping up his attacks on the media, railing against what he calls fake news, and again using the phrase "enemy of the people."

And in a stunning break with accepted, long-standing practice, the White House, without any explanation, barred CNN, The New York Times and other major news organizations from a briefing by the Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

And a stunning new twist in the death of the brother -- the half- brother, I should say, of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Officials in Malaysia say he was killed by the deadliest of all chemical nerve agents, VX, a substance internationally.

I'll speak with Republican Congressman Jim Himes of the Intelligence Committee and our correspondents, analysts, and guests are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with the White House denial of any wrongdoing in its conversations with the FBI as Democrats call for an investigation. Our justice correspondent Pamela Brown has new details on this CNN exclusive. Pamela, what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today the White House isn't denying CNN's exclusive reporting that it requested the FBI to speak out against report about Donald Trump's associates and their contacts with Russians. But they have pushed back against any suggestion they put pressure on the FBI to do so, saying the contact over the report was made by the FBI first.


BROWN (voice-over): Today, the White House is saying it did nothing wrong after CNN's exclusive report that the FBI refused the White House's request to knock down media reports about contacts between Donald Trump associates and Russians during the campaign.

A senior administration official says the unusual White House request came only after the FBI approached White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to say a story in The New York Times as not true. The White House explained its actions by saying the conversation happened on February 15 after a 7:30 am meeting led by Priebus.

FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe asked Priebus for five minutes alone after the meeting ends, according to senior administration officials, and calls The New York Times report "total BS." Priebus, the White House says, asked McCabe "can we do anything about it to set the record straight?"

In follow-up phone calls, administration officials say, both McCabe and FBI Director James Comey declined Priebus' request, but did tell him he could cite top intelligence officials to say there's nothing to the story.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I've talked to the top levels of the intelligence community and they've assured me that that New York Times story was grossly overstated and inaccurate and totally wrong.

[17:05:03] BROWN (voice-over): The back and forth between the White House and the FBI raises questions about whether either side violated long-standing Justice Department procedures.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's very, very important that you limit contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice for two reasons.

One, you don't want actual pressure placed upon the Department of Justice in connection with an investigation or prosecution.

And, two, you don't want the appearance of political influence with respect to an investigation or prosecution.

BROWN (voice-over): According to these DOJ memos, the communication should only happen when "it is important for the performance of the president's duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective." And the memos preclude FBI officials and White House officials from talking directly about pending investigations.

GONZALES: Typically, the contact from the Department of Justice side comes from the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General. It would be unusual for the FBI Director or the Deputy Director to have conversation with White House officials without the presence of the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General because they report up to the Attorney General.

BROWN (voice-over): With the unusual communication now under scrutiny, President Trump railed against the leaks that have plagued his administration, writing on Twitter: "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers."

"Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on US. FIND NOW."

And he accused the press of fabricating stories.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name.


BROWN: Now, the White House denies talking about the FBI investigation specifically, saying the discussion only centered on the reports. And a US official says that the Deputy Director Andy McCabe did not talk specifics about the case.

Meantime, CNN has learned during a classified briefing on Capitol Hill, FBI Director Comey did not dismiss the existence of any communications between Russians and Trump advisors. He did, however, take issue with the characterization of those communications as involving Russian intelligence, as The New York Times reported, according to a congressional source. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Pamela. Thanks for the good reporting. Our breaking news after the president used the speech today to step up his attacks on the news media. The White House blocked CNN, The New York Times and other major news organizations from a briefing by the Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

CNN White House correspondent Sarah Murray was among those excluded from that briefing. She is joining us now from the White House. What happened? Sarah, you were standing outside his office when all the reporters were supposed to go in and they barred you from going to that briefing?

SARAH MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We were waiting for an off-camera gaggle with the White House Press Secretary. We were told that would be an expanded pool, but we weren't told what that meant.

Apparently, they had created a list of reporters that they wanted to speak with today -- the White House Press Secretary wanted to speak with. And they said that CNN was not on the list. Now, it's not out of the ordinary for administration officials to maybe have gaggles with smaller groups of reporters. For instance, they might invite a group of columnists in for a meeting.

What is unusual was the way they selected their group of reporters. They handpicked certain media outlets. So, for instance, every other major television network, except for CNN, was allowed in. They also allowed in a number of news outlets that are more conservative leaning and favorable to the president, including Breitbart, One America Network and the Washington times.

But they included major newspapers like the New York Times -- they excluded, sorry -- excuse me, major newspapers like The New York Times and like Politico. And I have asked a number of White House aides in the communication shop, why they handpicked these news outlets so far. They have been unable or unwilling to answer that question.

BLITZER: Yes. It's pretty shocking when you think about it. The president today once again called the media fake news and the enemy of the American people. Update our viewers on that.

MURRAY: Well, Wolf, the president was clearly speaking to his base at this conservative conference today. And he served up exactly the red meat he wanted -- they wanted to hear before he ran through a number of his policy priorities. He took some shots at the media.


MURRAY (voice-over): Today, the president leveraging his moment in front of a friendly audience to further escalate his attacks against his favorite foe.

TRUMP: I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It's fake. Phony. Fake.

A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.

MURRAY (voice-over): After an extended opening screed against the media --

TRUMP: It doesn't represent the people, it never will represent the people, and we're going to do something about it.

MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump touted his presidential achievements so far.

[17:10:03] TRUMP: Basically, all I've done is keep my promise.

MURRAY (voice-over): And defended his administration's plans to crack down on undocumented immigrants living in the US.

TRUMP: As we speak today, immigration officers are finding the gang members, the drug dealers and the criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out of our country.

MURRAY (voice-over): As Trump ticks through his top agenda items, he revived his campaign rally cry and vowed to build a wall along the southern border.

TRUMP: We're building the wall. We're building the wall. In fact, it's going to start soon.

MURRAY (voice-over): Today, US Customs and Border Protection announced it will soon ask for design proposals for prototype wall structures near the US-Mexico border. And after the administration's first effort to temporarily ban immigration from some Muslim-majority countries was blocked by the court, today, Trump previewed a new executive order.

TRUMP: We are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country. We will not be deterred from this course. And in a matter of days, we will be taking brand-new action to protect our people and keep America safe.

MURRAY (voice-over): All of this, as Trump offered clues about his first presidential budget. The president has insisted he would cut spending. But, today, he pointed to a dramatic increase in military spending.

TRUMP: We're also putting in a massive budget request for our beloved military. It will be one of the greatest military buildups in American history.

MURRAY (voice-over): And he vowed yet again to repeal and replace Obamacare, dismissing the outcry members of Congress have seen back home in their districts.

TRUMP: The people that you're watching, they are not you. They are largely, many of them, are the side that lost. You know, they lost the election. It's like how many elections do we have to have. They lost the election. But I always say, Obamacare doesn't work.

MURRAY (voice-over): For Trump, the event today was something of a victory lap. While his 2011 speech at a conservative political action conference previewed his political ambitions, Trump snubbed the event last year. And what a difference a year makes.

TRUMP: You know, the dishonest media, they'll say he didn't get a standing ovation.


MURRAY: Now, while the president went over a number of his priorities at CPAC today, he didn't give a lot of details about the timeline or, for instance, what he will do on tax reform or on healthcare, repeal and replace. He's speaking to Congress next week, Wolf, so it will be interesting to see if he offers more meat on the bones in terms of substance when he talks to them.

BLITZER: Yes. That speech before Congress Tuesday night. Sarah Murray, thank you very much. Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. He is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Let me get your quick reaction, first, to this truly unprecedented move by the White House today blocking CNN, The New York Times, the Los Angeles times, Politico, Buzzfeed, other major news organizations from a briefing. What's your reaction to that?

HIMES: Well, this is all part of the larger effort that President Trump is doing to try to isolate and attack all of those whose job is fundamentally to get at the truth. And let's face it, I understand that he's called the media the enemy of the people. There's a reason that freedom of the press is the First Amendment to the Constitution because it's essential to a functioning democracy.

And though the media doesn't get it right all of the time, their job, by the way, like the FBI's job, like the CIA's job, is fundamentally about getting to the truth. But the truth is so poisonous to this administration that they will continue to try to raise doubts and to isolate and to criticize anyone around them who speaks the truth.

BLITZER: Let's turn to the other top story. The White House says that White House officials didn't do anything wrong when they asked the FBI to knock down reports of contacts between Trump aides during the campaign and Russian officials.

You sit on the House Intelligence Committee which is already investigating links between Russia and President Trump's fired national security advisor Michael Flynn. Should your committee begin digging into this as well?

HIMES: Yes, we should. The idea that they didn't do anything wrong is just absurd. There is a memo from May of 2009 that makes it very clear that people in the FBI and Justice Department, in general, are not to have this kind of contact with the White House.

People should think a little bit about what it is that the White House and that the Chief of Staff asked the FBI to do. They said, help us knock down this story. They asked for a very political thing there.

And if you step back away from this, Wolf, you've got to ask yourself the question, if there's no there-there, as the White House has repeatedly claimed and shown to be wrong, Michael Flynn was only calling the ambassador to wish him a Merry Christmas and that turns out to be false, in a long line of falsehoods.

[17:15:09] If, in fact, the White House is correct and that there was no contact with Russians and there's just nothing to see there, they should be out in front saying, let's do this investigation, let's show everything, let's get the documents out, let's move on so we can start talking about infrastructure.

But, of course, they're acting in exactly the opposite way. They are doing everything they can to delegitimize the study, to say that the truth doesn't matter, and continuing to be dishonest about it. That is not the activities of a group of people who, in fact, don't have anything to hide.

BLITZER: Should the White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus face some sort of discipline for his contacts with the FBI during this pending investigation?

HIMES: Well, I think we need to hear reassurances from the White House that this will never happen again. And lest my friends on the other side of the aisle need a reminder of how serious this is, it was way, way, way back, maybe three or four months ago, when they were out of their mind with outrage over the fact that a former President Bill Clinton got into a plane with the then Attorney General Lynch, and this was an absolute catastrophe.

And now, you actually have the boss, the president, the president's chief of staff deliberately, and not denying it, but deliberately trying to spin the FBI and -- oh, well, no big deal, nothing to see here. It is a big deal and then we need assurances from the White House that they will do what they would do if there was, in fact, nothing to hide, which is to say we're cooperating fully with all of these investigations and we will keep our hands off of it until the investigations are done and the American people know what happened with the Russians, what happened with Michael Flynn, and all of the things that these investigations need to get to the bottom of.

BLITZER: The Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as you know, very early supporter of President Trump's election campaign, a constant fixture out there on the campaign trail, given his political connections to the president, should he recuse himself from any investigation into these ties between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials?

HIMES: This is the classic situation where you would have a recusal where you would have the appointment of a special prosecutor, particularly since the entity and the people being investigated have shown day in and day out with attacks on the FBI, with attempts to go to the FBI to get the FBI to spin the truth, they have shown themselves not to be acting in good faith and helping out in this investigation.

So, yes, I do think it would be appropriate just as Attorney General Lynch did. Subsequent to that meeting with Bill Clinton in that aircraft, she recused herself from any of the investigations around the email.

Jeff Sessions, at this point, needs to appoint a special prosecutor. We need to have an outside commission. We need to take this out of the political realm in its entirety and get to the bottom of all of the allegations and problems here.

BLITZER: There are more questions for you, Congressman. I need you to stand by. We will continue our conversation right after a quick break.


[17:22:25] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, a member of the intelligence committee. Congressmen, the president lashed out on Twitter today. Let me read his tweet: "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to the media that could have a devastating effect on US. FIND NOW."

As you know, Congressman, many congressional investigations only take place because of the information that first comes to light in the news media. What do you make of the president's direct attack today on the FBI?

HIMES: Well, first of all, like so much of what he says, it's simply not true that the story came out, broken by CNN, that the Chief of Staff to the White House had asked the FBI to help color a story was hardly classified national security information.

What is a threat to this country, of course, is when Iran and China and North Korea see the president of the United States attacking his own security services, his own intelligence community. You can only imagine what the leaders of those countries are thinking, knowing that the United States president is apparently at war with the very people who will advise him on the most sensitive questions of whether there is a threat to the United States, whether there's a terrorist threat, what the Russians are doing, what the Chinese are doing.

This has been one of the most disheartening things of the Trump administration. The president of the United States has got to stop publicly attacking the patriotic men and women who put their lives at risk to keep this country safe.

BLITZER: Yes, makes no sense to go after the FBI like this. Earlier suggested the intelligence community was almost -- the CIA was like Nazi Germany. You said this morning on CNN's "New Day" -- and I'm quoting you now -- you said, "there is no doubt in my mind that if this story broke in an alternative universe with a President Clinton, articles of impeachment would be drawn up, as we speak."

Are you suggesting that President Trump should face impeachment?

HIMES: No, I'm not suggesting that at all. I think it is way, way too early. And I don't think that that kind of discussion is helpful to getting to where I think we all want to go, which is to a stabilized White House where we can talk about infrastructure, where we can talk about tax reform, try to find ways to work together. I don't think any impeachment talk is particularly helpful in that regard.

The point I was trying to make was think about what the very people who are running the country today said about the possibility that Chelsea Clinton might remain on the board of the Clinton foundation, a non-profit foundation. That was a huge deal.

[17:25:02] But when Kellyanne Conway is selling Trump attire out of the White House, well, that's just not that big a deal when, as I told you before, there was a meeting between ex-President Clinton and the Attorney General on the tarmac of some airport, that is a massive deal, huge attacks on the Clintons, but now we actually have somebody in the White House trying to get the FBI to color a story.

So, yes, you know what, there's no question in my mind that if Clinton were president right now and what happened last night happened, there would be lots of talk in the Republican Congress about the impeachment of alternate universe President Clinton.

BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, thanks very much.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, the latest and very disturbing revelation that an internationally banned chemical weapon was used to kill the half- brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.


[17:30:00] BLITZER: We're following multiple developments in the story CNN was first to report. The top officials over at the White House asked the FBI to refute stories that Trump associates were in frequent contacts with Russian officials during the election campaign. The White House says there was no wrongdoing, that it was not trying to pressure the FBI. Also today, President Trump lashed out at both the FBI and the news media. Let's bring in our experts. And let me start with David Axelrod. David, he's blaming the FBI for these leaks, for the ongoing investigation, but in the process he seems to be confirming CNN's own excellent reporting.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISER: He sure seems to be, Wolf. First of all, let me say I agree with what Congressman Himes just said, which is it's hard to understand how the -- a story about the White House Chief of Staff calling the FBI, to try and enlist them in quelling a story that discomfited the president, is a national security matter or a classified matter. So, we should set that aside. That's no more true than when news organizations do some stories that he doesn't like, that that qualifies them as enemies of the people. But the underlying story is one that should be further explored by the congress and others, and that is, did the Chief of Staff call over there for that purpose? Because there are real lines of demarcation that should not be crossed by a White House Chief of Staff, running political errands for the president over at the FBI. And if that's -- if that's what happened, then it clearly bears more investigation.

BLITZER: Do you think it was irresponsible, Mark Preston, to be coordinating, if you will, a White House Chief of Staff asking the FBI for some back up in denying these stories?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and I would even go a little bit stronger than saying coordinating. I would say influencing, you know, attempting to influence the FBI to try to get on board with the narrative that there was really nothing there, and they needed their back up. Especially at a time right now when there's so much politicization around the FBI, with this past election and ongoing investigation. So, I don't think necessarily Reince Priebus was trying to do it out of -- let's put it this way. I think he did it and he didn't realize what he was doing.

BLITZER: Yes, with just inexperience, is that what you're saying?

PRESTON: Correct. Yes.

BLITZER: You know, Sunlen, walk us through what happened at the White House -- a truly extraordinary development. They were having a press briefing off-camera, it's what they call a "gaggle", and accredited White House correspondents almost always are invited to these gaggles. They're alerted -- this is what's happening usually in the press secretary's office. I spent seven years as a White House correspondent during the Clinton administration, so I'm very familiar with this. But all of a sudden, certain news organizations reporters were barred from going in.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, and gaggles aren't an abnormal thing for a White House to do. They typically hold an off-camera gaggles, they don't step on the president's message of the day, when he gives a big speech, as was today when President Trump spoke at CPAC. But when they called this gaggle, reporters gathered outside, time for the briefing, CNN, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, POLITICO, and BuzzFeed were turned away. They said they were not on this list of invited attendees. And other outlets, I should point out, that were invited and were allowed into the briefing today were Washington Times, Breitbart News, more conservative outlets, which certainly leads to the question of, are these outlets being let into these gaggles because of their coverage, whether it was more favorable or less favourable? Of course, this is what you have many White House correspondents -- veteran White House correspondents saying it's unprecedented. And the White House Correspondents Association today, protesting the decision, saying it's wrong to unfairly, you know, leave out people from their --

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: -- Sara Murray, our White House correspondent. She was

standing outside the press secretary's office, ready to go in with her notebook, and all of a sudden she's told, "You're not on the list." What explanation are they giving?

PRESTON: Well, Wolf, they're saying that they had it as a pool, and for our viewers out there, that is a group of reporters who will report on behalf of all the White House correspondents. It's usually done because of spacing issues. They had it as a pool and then they decided to expand it. They didn't go beyond that, but here's the problem with that. Timing is everything. Just a few hours earlier, you had President Donald Trump before a big audience at a conservative gathering, calling the media the enemy of the press. And I'd like to say, one thing that John McCain said recently, during a "MEET THE PRESS" interview, he said that by doing this, this is how dictators get started. And I think that is something -- I think a lot of people look at us, in the media, and say, "Oh, you cry a lot about not getting access or that you're being attacked." It's not about us, it's really about this is a slippery slope going down.

[17:35:09] BLITZER: Let me play for all of you what Sean Spicer said back in December. He's now the Press Secretary. What he said about the possibility of barring news organizations at that time. Listen to this.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY AND FORMER REPUBLICAN COMMITTEE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: And I think we have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, that that is something that you can't ban an entity from. You know, conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that's what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.


BLITZER: You know, David Axelrod, you remember the first four years of the Obama administration you served in the White House. What they're saying, Trump officials now, is that, "The Obama folks did the same thing to Fox News that we're doing right now." You're shaking your head. We looked it up. You did at one point say, and I'm quoting you now, "Fox is not really news." But go ahead.

AXELROD: Well, yes, and then there were -- there were times when I was troubled by some of the reporting they did, the stories that suggest, for example, that Obama was educated in a madrassas in overseas, a story that, by the way, CNN quickly knocked down. Those things did trouble me, but here's what I didn't do, Wolf. When I was working for the White House, I never refused to appear. You know, I was on their "Fox News Sunday" show on a regular basis. I never suggested that they be banned from gaggles or banned from the White House newsroom. As irritating as I found their reporting at times, I understood that that was beyond the pale.

And what we've seen in the last 48 hours, expressed by Mr. Bannon, expressed by the president, is something we haven't seen before. This notion that, "If you write things we don't like, we're simply going to ban you." And here's the mistake they're making, this is not going to shut reporting down. Reporters are going to continue to do their work. They may try and put obstacles in their way, but I don't think that's going to change the nature of the mission of the press, the mission of the media, and it's only going to create more interest and more intense support for the role of the media in the future.

BLITZER: I did some checking, David. During the Obama administration, you never blocked Fox from coming to a briefing, but there were moments when there were round-robin interviews, there was one with Ken Feinberg, for example, all the major television networks got that interview, Fox didn't, the other T.V. networks complained, eventually, Fox, I think got that interview. You remember that incident?

AXELROD: Yes, I do remember that. I also remember hearing complaints from various other news organizations that they went so long without having a Sunday interview and so on. News organizations complain. Those things happen. But what never happened during the Obama administration was this notion that news organizations were going to be completely cut out of coverage. What never happened was the President of the United States suggesting that any news organization was an enemy of the people because he was displeased with their coverage. This is -- this may be raised as cover by this administration, but it is a wholly different situation. You have a president of the United States and his Boswell declaring war on the news media, and I think that it will be interesting to see what the public reaction to that is.

BLITZER: All right. There's more -- there's more to discuss on this. Everyone stand by. We've got to take another quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:40:00] BLITZER: We're back with our political experts. Sunlen, listen to what the president said at the CPAC conference earlier today.


TRUMP: They say that we can't criticize their dishonest coverage because of the First Amendment. You know, they always bring up the First Amendment. And I love the First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me. Nobody.


BLITZER: And that clip right there is generating a lot of buzz.

SERFATY: It certainly is, because it sounds like President Trump is mocking the First Amendment here, and it struck a lot of people in the moment. But I think it took on some extra meaning after the antics of the White House today -- this afternoon, from barring certain reporters from their off-camera gaggle. I was also struck in coupling that -- and this is a point that Mark made a few minutes ago -- coupling that with the things we heard from his top strategist Steve Bannon yesterday, at the same forum, CPAC, where Bannon labeled once again the media, the "opposition". You have Trump today, calling the media the "enemy". Those two certainly sending every signal in the book here that they are ready for a fight. That they're going to continue this antagonistic relationship with the press.

BLITZER: You know, what was encouraging, David, was that once other news organizations who weren't barred, heard that CNN, The New York Times, the L.A. Times, and other major news organizations were barred, they decided to boycott, to walk out themselves. Other news organizations like The Wall Street Journal, they stayed in there because they didn't know, and now they say they regret participating in that -- in that briefing, that so-called "gaggle". Your reaction to that?

[17:44:43] AXELROD: Well, look, I'm an old reporter, Wolf. I spent 10 years as a reporter. And I remember as a City Hall Bureau Chief, once being threatened with expulsion from City Hall because the mayor didn't like stories that I had written, and there was a ground swell of support for my newspaper and other news organizations, and that didn't stand. I think that journalists have to hang together here, and, you know, the old saying, "We're either going to hang together or hang separately." They need to stand up for the right of every news organization to do their jobs. And if it becomes the price of admission to write things that please the President of the United States, that's a price too hard -- too high to pay. So, they need to continue to press this issue with the White House.

BLITZER: Do you think he was mocking the First Amendment?

PRESTON: Well, I mean, we only have to listen to his own words to know really where he's at. He talks about -- when he's in press conferences he'll point people out and say, "Oh, he's a good guy. He writes good things about me." "Oh, don't talk to that person over there. That person is a bad person." I think that he's mocking the whole system if the system doesn't work for him.

BLITZER: It's one thing to block news organizations from getting credentials during a campaign. It's a private operation. But it's another thing to block news organizations when you're working for the U.S. government.

PRESTON: Right. So, we've seen this with the Democratic Party since 2004 onwards where Fox News was blocked out by the Democratic Party when it came to presidential debates. But to your point, that's a campaign. That is a political decision in your part. What we're seeing in this White House right now is a taxpayer owned building with taxpayer owned employees who are making decisions on a free press, and that itself is a very scary thing.

BLITZER: Yes, well, during this campaign, the Trump campaign occasionally blocked news organizations including The Washington Post, for example, they didn't like the reporting. All right, everybody stand by. Investigators are now revealing how the brother of the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un died. The question, how did these killers obtain an internationally banned chemical weapon? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:00] BLITZER: Stunning new information tonight as officials in Malaysia say the half-brother of the North Korean Dictator, Kim Jong- un was killed by the deadliest of all chemical nerve agents, a substance banned around the world. Our Brian Todd has been looking into this. What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the substance is a VX nerve agent. And tonight, we've been speaking with chemical weapons experts who say just a drop of this material can kill. The people who know about this chemical say it is astounding that the attackers used this agent in a crowded airport terminal.


TODD: A horrifying discovery from Malaysian officials. They say Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, was killed by a chemical weapon, a VX nerve agent, when he was attacked at the Kuala Lumpur Airport. Experts say VX is one of the most potent chemical weapons. It can kill almost instantly.

JEFFREY LEWIS, MIDDLEBURY INSTITUTE WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION EXPERT: VX shuts down the enzyme that regulates your nervous system. And so your nervous system goes crazy, which is why you see things like convulsions and eventually, you just stop breathing.

TODD: Malaysian officials say the VX was found on Kim Jong-nam's face and in his eyes. Police have said when they touched his face, the two women who allegedly attacked Kim, had a toxic substance on their bare hands.

BRUCE GOLDBERGER, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA TOXICOLOGIST: Exposure to a trace, a drop of VX is lethal. There's a couple of possibilities. One is the VX was somehow encapsulated and then placed onto the skin, or these women were inoculated with the antidote to VX before the incident.

TODD: Both women are still alive but Malaysian police say one of them showed signs of sickness and was vomiting. There could also be collateral casualties.

How dangerous was it for them to do this in the middle of a crowded airport terminal? Could other people have been harmed?

LEWIS: Yes, absolutely. When you think about how toxic VX is, you still would have to be really worried about that. I mean, what if she turned around and bumped into someone, and put their hand -- or put their hand on them?

TODD: Malaysian police are still hunting for four North Korean suspects, who they say trained the women and gave them the chemicals. South Korean officials say Kim Jong-un's regime ordered the hit on his half-brother. VX nerve agents are banned around the world. But analysts say North Korea has ignored the ban and possesses tons of chemical weapons. Tonight, a U.S. intelligence official tells CNN, North Korea has proven it has no regard for human life other than its own leader, and it should be no surprise that Kim's regime would engage in assassination. Analysts say even for the man who executed his own uncle, this attack is disturbing.

SUE MI TERRY, FORMER CIA ANALYST ON NORTH KOREA: I believe that he's more willing to take risks than even his father. I would like to believe that there is a red line such as maybe selling nuclear fusion material to terrorist groups, but the fact that he's willing to use chemical weapons in a public airport like this, now deeply concerns me.


TODD: So far, North Korea has not responded to the report from the Malaysian government that a VX nerve agent was used to kill Kim Jong- nam. But the North Koreans have denied carrying out this attack. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, Malaysian officials say they'll sweep the airport in Kuala Lumpur for any traces of a lethal substance. Wolf, experts say there could still be traces of VX at that airport tonight that could harm people.

BLITZER: That's a good point. Could Kim Jong-nam have possibly -- possibly have been saved after the attack?

TODD: Amazingly enough, Wolf, chemical weapons experts tell us he could have been saved. There's a fairly common antidote available in many clinics. It's called "atropine". It's a chemical that can be injected, can block the effects of VX but in that case, you would have to know that VX nerve agent was used and at that moment at the airport, there is probably no way these officials could have known, that a chemical as powerful as VX was used to rub in his face.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thanks very much.

Coming up, the White House bars CNN and other key news organizations from a press briefing, and President Trump again slams the news media, repeating his use of the phrase, "enemy of the people."


TRUMP: It doesn't represent the people. It never will represent the people. And we're going to do something about it.



BLITZER: Happening now. Pushing back: The White House strongly defends, asking the FBI to deny reports of communications between Trump campaign associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence. Denied Entry: the White House blocks CNN, The New York Times, and other major news organizations from an off-camera press briefing.