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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador; Interview With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; Trashing Trumpcare; Republicans Investigating Trump-Russia; Trump Taps Former Critic to be Ambassador to Russia; U.S. Commander Takes Responsibility for Deadly Raid; U.S. Marines Join Local Forces Fighting in Syria. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired March 9, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is he sharing classified information that could have an impact on a high-profile investigation?
Registered foreign agent. We're learning more about the overseas contacts of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Did he keep the Trump camp in the dark?
Trashing Trumpcare. Democrats are trying to stamp the president's name on the GOP's health care plan, as he faces growing opposition within his own party. Who will take the fall if the bill fails?
And boots on the ground. U.S. forces right now, they are on the move in Syria, making their presence known in advance of a major battle against ISIS. Will more American troops soon be on the way?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We have breaking news this hour on the FBI director's secret briefing up on Capitol Hill, James Comey meeting right now with top House and Senate leaders who have a level of security clearance that would allow them to share sensitive classified information.
Comey's visit coming as lawmakers investigate Russia's election meddling, possible ties to the Trump campaign and the president's claim that he was wiretapped by President Obama.
Also breaking, CNN has learned that the Senate Intelligence Committee wants all Trump associates who allegedly spoke with Russian officials to testify before the panel. That includes the ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
In the health care debate, the White House insists President Trump is not trying to jam the GOP plan down anybody's throat, this after the bill was fast-tracked through two committees despite mounting opposition, especially among conservative Republicans. Democrats are seizing on the controversy, trying to label Trumpcare,
make that label stick, as the president privately threatens to blame them if the legislation fails.
And the founder of WikiLeaks says the CIA has lost control of its entire cyber-documents after his group posted a trove of stolen documents. Julian Assange says he will share detailed information with tech companies so they can develop ways to block spying through TVs, computers, and smartphones.
We're covering all that and much more this hour with our guests, including Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill with more on the FBI director's trip to the Hill.
Manu, they're meeting right now. What are you learning?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Right now, Wolf, actually, House leaders are meeting with FBI Director James Comey, breaking up right now walking right behind me.
It looks like Adam Schiff leaving this meeting, not coming and addressing reporters. But it looks like it's just breaking up, Wolf. What we are learning here is that this briefing really focused on the issue of Russia, Russia's meddling in the elections and as well as whether or not any Trump officials, Trump associates were involved in -- had discussions with folks involved with Russian officials at that time during the presidential election.
That was one aspect that they were looking at. Also, Wolf, an opportunity at this briefing to talk to Comey specifically about the issue that Donald Trump raised over the weekend, whether or not he was wiretapped by President Obama, something the president asserted in those early morning tweets on Saturday, something we have heard that James Comey was not happy about.
This was an opportunity for them to talk about it and we will learn if they actually gained any evidence of that just momentarily. We will see what Adam Schiff is telling our reporters who are just talking to him right now, Wolf.
But there is some tension between House intelligence members and the FBI director about whether or not he's giving them enough information for them to make assessments. That is one issue they hope to discuss in the closed-door meeting just moments -- it looks like it just concluded right now, Wolf.
BLITZER: What are you hearing, Manu, from your sources about who the Senate Intelligence Committee might call to testify during their upcoming hearing into Russian influence during the campaign?
RAJU: What I know is senators on that committee want any Trump officials who have discussed any issues with Russian officials during the campaign to come before the committee. Now, that includes people like Paul Manafort, who was the campaign
chairman at that time, as well as Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who had to resign after having discussions with the Russian ambassador and appearing to have misled the vice president of the United States about exactly what he discussed.
A number of senators say they want to hear directly from those Trump associates because they looked at some raw data from the CIA that shows the extent of the Russian hacking, but they're trying to connect the pieces to on whether or not there was any connection between Trump campaign officials at that time during the election and whether there was any collusion whatsoever.
If they don't come, Wolf, I'm told that they're prepared to subpoena them to appear as well.
BLITZER: You're also hearing, Manu, there is a push, a very serious push right now for President Trump's tax returns to be part of all of this. Tell our viewers what you're picking up.
RAJU: Yes, that's right.
The members on that Senate committee also are trying to determine whether or not there is any financial connection between President Trump and any connections, any associates, anybody in Russia.
Now, Dianne Feinstein, who is a senior Democrat on that committee, told me that it's a distinct possibility that the committee could try to subpoena for those tax returns, actually telling me this: "The tax returns become a primary lead into a Russia connection and Russian money in his businesses. He's visited Russia six times by his own voice on television. Who knows what the situation is?"
And, Wolf, this committee gives a lot of power for Democrats to try to subpoena those records. They do not need support of Republicans on that committee. So we will see if they actually take that step. But right now they're not there yet, but they said it is a distinct possibility they could go that route, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Manu, thanks very much. We will of course get right back to you if any of the members who were in that closed-door briefing with the FBI director come to that microphone where you are.
Stand by. Let us know if that is happening.
I want to get the president's hard sell right now on health care.
Let's go to our White House correspondent Athena Jones.
Athena, the president claims it's going great. He used that word. But the revolt among conservative Republicans seems to be strengthening.
ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. You're exactly right.
The conservative backlash for the House GOP's repeal and replace plan appears to be growing. The president is prepared to spend political capital to get this done. And in one of his meetings House members this week, he reiterated the desire for Congress to move swiftly on this issue.
But speedy passage does not look at all likely in the face of a wall of Democratic opposition and then some stiff and vocal opposition from several of his fellow Republicans.
JONES (voice-over): President Trump meeting with banking industry leaders and avoiding questions about WikiLeaks, even as he prepares to face his biggest test yet, selling the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, a top campaign promise.
The president making his health care pitch behind closed doors today with members of Congress, and on Twitter promising: "Despite what you hear in the press, health care is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture."
A growing number of conservatives, however, are painting a far less rosy picture.
REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: We campaigned on the full, 100 percent, I say rip it out by the roots, repeal of Obamacare, and we don't get that with this bill.
JONES: Two skeptics of the man, Congressman Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, were among the lawmakers invited to meet with the president today.
REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Donald Trump and I are not at odds. We want to make sure that we repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something that drives down health care costs and insurance premiums. And this doesn't do it.
JONES: Other Republicans are urging the party to slow down, even as two key House committees today advanced the plan. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeting: "House health care bill can't pass Senate without major changes. To my friends in the House, pause, start over, get it right, don't get it fast."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says Republicans are not rushing the process.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not jamming this down people's throats. We're welcoming ideas and thoughts. We think this is a great vehicle to restore a patient-centered health care bill to drive down costs.
JONES: House Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, called on the party to unify behind the proposal.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: This is the closest we will get to repealing and replacing Obamacare.
JONES: While Democrats and their allies wage an offensive against the president and the GOP plan.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: It's indicative of the fact that the president really doesn't know what he's talking about when he talks about the Affordable Care Act.
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: The easiest way to characterize it is repeal and wreck.
JONES: All this as the White House is fighting a battle on another front, still dodging questions about the president's explosive and unsubstantiated wiretapping claims against President Obama, which Obama and former intelligence officials have flatly denied.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I can say is that the president and our administration are very confident that the congressional committees in the House and Senate that are examining issues surrounding the last election, the run-up to the last election will do that in a thorough and equitable way.
JONES: And those questions about the president's wiretapping claims aren't going away.
But when it comes to this effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, Jim DeMint, the former conservative senator who now heads up the influential Heritage Foundation, said today that his organization cannot support the bill in its current form and that he doesn't think there will be enough votes in the House or in the Senate to pass it -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Athena Jones at the White House, thank you.
Let's talk more about health care, the breaking news unfolding on Capitol Hill and more.
We're joined by Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: My pleasure.
BLITZER: So, as you just heard, the FBI director, James Comey, he's been meeting with key lawmakers, the so-called Gang of 8 up on Capitol Hill right now.
Director Comey hasn't made any public comments about President Trump's assertion that President Obama wiretapped him during the campaign. But we understand that certainly has been one of the subjects he's discussing in these meetings. If you were inside, tell us what you would want to learn from Director Comey right now.
SANDERS: Well, you know, Wolf, as I'm sure your viewers well know, every other day, President Trump sadly says something which is totally preposterous.
A little while ago, he talked about three to five million people voting illegally in the last election. Total nonsense. He talked about how he won the Electoral College in a wider margin than any other candidate in recent history. Total nonsense. He saw people celebrating in Jersey, New Jersey, the destruction of the Twin Towers. Total fiction.
And now he's come up with the idea that his phone was tapped by President Obama. And I think this just adds to a lot of the delusional statements that we hear from President Trump.
BLITZER: I want your reaction to the news out of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator, where sources are now telling CNN that members want all the Trump associates who met with, spoke with Russian officials during the campaign to testify. We're showing our viewers all of them. You see them up on the screen right now.
In your view, is the investigation being done right now by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the right track?
SANDERS: I'm not a member of the Intelligence Committee. So I can't give you a definitive answer.
But I think the average American is kind of shaking his or her head, and kind of asking, what is going on in terms of President Trump's relationship to Vladimir Putin? In Putin, we have a guy who has moved Russia in a very authoritarian direction, who has been very, very aggressive and imperialistic.
And yet you have a president of the United States who keeps saying very nice things about him. Does -- and the questions I think the people are asking is, number one, was there collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians? We know the Russians played a very significant role in the campaign. Was there actual collusion?
Number two, Trump has received, we believe, and this has to be investigated, significant financial support from people in Russia, the oligarchs and so forth. Do they have anything on our president? Because the bottom line is, we want foreign policy to be made for the best interest of the American people, not the Russian people.
BLITZER: Do you believe, Senator, there was collusion?
SANDERS: That is exactly what has to be investigated.
BLITZER: Have you seen any hard evidence that there was?
SANDERS: No, I have not.
But that is exactly what has to be looked at. What we do know is there is very hard evidence that Russia played a very significant role in our election process, and that is absolutely unacceptable. That is an outrage.
And Russia has done that previously to other countries and probably has a mind to do it again. That is completely unacceptable. I think the evidence is overwhelming that Russia wanted Trump to become the president of the United States. That, we do know. Do we know that there is -- definitively that there was collusion? No, to the best of my knowledge, we do not. But that has got to be investigated.
BLITZER: The other question, Senator, you raise, why the president during the campaign and since, has been so nice to Putin in his comments and has avoided saying anything negative about Russia or Putin. What is the answer to that? Why do you believe he hasn't?
SANDERS: Well, that's exactly what has to be looked at.
If you have in Putin a man who is an authoritarian, moving his country further and further away from the democracy that they developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, if you have a guy who has been very aggressive internationally, if you have a guy who has interfered in our own election, why would you be saying nice and friendly things to this guy?
That is exactly the type of question I think that has to be explored. But I will tell you, what my mind right now is on, what I have been working on, is this disastrous so-called health care plan that the Republicans have brought forth.
BLITZER: I want to turn to this repealing and replacing Obamacare, a subject very close to your heart, as all of us know.
The House health care bill has received a chilly reception from a lot of Republican conservatives, who think it doesn't go far enough in repealing the Affordable Care Act.
SANDERS: Wolf, Wolf, Wolf...
BLITZER: Go ahead.
SANDERS: Wolf, first of all, let's get our definitions correct.
The so-called conservatives, in my view, are right-wing extremists. Paul Ryan would be very upset at you if he thought you didn't think he was a conservative. The Congress is run by conservatives. You have extremely right-wing people who think that the repeal efforts have not gone far enough.
In my view, when we look at what Republicans are doing, it should not be seen as a health care legislation. Essentially, it should be seen for what it is, is a massive tax break, $275 billion, for the top 2 percent.
You have the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association saying that this will be a disaster for the American people. You have the AARP saying -- and listen to this. If you are 64 years of age and you are making $25,000 a year, your premiums are going to go up by $7,000.
This is a Robin Hood proposal in reverse. They're throwing five million to 10 million people out of insurance, raising premiums for low-income and working-class people, defunding Planned Parenthood, denying over two million women the right to get health care where they want.
But the good news is, all of you who are watching, if you're in the top 2 percent, Republicans are there for you, a very significant tax break.
BLITZER: You know the president told some conservative Tea Party groups that if the House health care bill that Paul Ryan is pushing forward right now does not pass, he can simply, he says, let Obamacare fail and pin the blame on you and your fellow Democrats.
I want your reaction, Senator, to that plan, if, in fact, that were to be his plan.
SANDERS: Well, I think that is incredibly cynical. I think politically it will not work.
The American people understand that we have a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican president. And if they can't get their act together, they're going to be held accountable, not anybody else.
But here is the point. You know, they have told us for eight years how terrible the Affordable Care Act is, and yet we have added 20 million people to the ranks of the insured. Is the Affordable Care Act perfect? Far from it.
And we should remind everybody that the United States today is the only major country on Earth that doesn't guarantee health care to all people, and yet we spend far, far more per capita for the very dysfunctional system we have. And the Republicans want to make that worse.
They want to throw so many people off of health insurance. What does that mean if you finally health insurance and they throw you off? It will raise premiums for older people in this country. So I think what they're looking at is a disaster, and maybe -- and the other point is, an indication of what kind of disaster it is, they want to pass it in the House and bring it to the Senate. Do you know how many hearings that they want to have in the Senate on
this bill? Zero. Here is a monumental bill, billions of dollars, impacting, you know, almost the whole country, they want no public discussion.
BLITZER: Do you think it would pass the Senate?
SANDERS: Well, the first point is, how can you have -- I'm a member of the Health Education Committee. I was involved in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. We had hearing after hearing, meeting after meeting.
Republicans want zero meetings. They don't want any discussion. They want to push this thing through because they don't want the American people to know what's in it. Whether it will pass the Senate or not, I don't know.
But I think you have a number of folks who are concerned, Republicans concerned, about the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Others are concerned about what massive cuts in Medicaid would mean for their own rural states.
BLITZER: I want to get your reaction to something else, a subject very close to your heart.
We heard today from the new Environmental Protection Agency director, Scott Pruitt. I'm going to play a clip for you.
And then we will discuss.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Do you believe that it's been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate? Do you believe that?
SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR: No. I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do. And there is tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.
So, no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.
PRUITT: We don't know that yet, as far as we need -- we need to continue the debate and continue the review the analysis.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, he says it's -- he would not agree that it's a primary contributing of the global warming that we see. I see you smiling. But go ahead. Give me your reaction.
SANDERS: Well, that really -- honestly, I wish I could come up with another word. It is pathetic, that that is the position of the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The debate is over. Something like 97 percent of the scientists who have written peer-reviewed articles on the subject agree that it is human activity and CO2 emissions that are causing devastating problems already in the United States and around the world.
And that you have the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who denies that reality, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, is -- not only is it sad. It's a real threat to the well-being of this country and the world, because the truth is we're going to have to become very aggressive in transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel, away from CO2 emissions, into energy efficiency, into sustainable energy.
That is the future of this planet. That's for our kids, our grandchildren, and future generations. And that you have the Trump administration continuing to deny the reality and the horrors that climate change is already causing is very sad indeed.
BLITZER: What, if anything, can you and the Senate who disagree with him do about it?
SANDERS: Well, I think the American people who do know, who do know that the reality -- they're seeing the reality of climate change with their own eyes.
They're seeing lakes that used to freeze every winter no longer freezing. They're seeing higher sea levels in coastal communities. They're seeing more drought. They're seeing more flooding. They're seeing more extreme weather disturbances.
The people have got to stand up in their local communities and their state communities and at the federal level. They're going to have to put pressure on the Trump administration for the sake of future generations to transform our energy system. What's going on there in the EPA is really sad and it is a disgrace.
BLITZER: Senator Bernie Sanders, thanks so much for joining us.
SANDERS: My pleasure.
BLITZER: Coming up, I will speak with a Republican critic of the Republican health care bill, Congressman Raul Labrador. He is standing by. Is the president's sales pitch working on him?
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, the FBI director, James Comey, has just left the U.S. Capitol after briefing key members of Congress. So far, the lawmakers have had no comment. His meeting with the so-
called Gang of 8, top lawmakers, came amid the investigation into the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia and the uproar over the president's claim that he was wiretapped by President Trump.
Let's get some more on the breaking news with our experts and analysts.
And Jackie Kucinich, let's talk about this meeting. It was significant he went to Capitol Hill, Comey, to brief these members, because some of them have complained that they're not getting enough information.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly.
This is in the midst, of course, of what the president tweeted on Saturday about perhaps wiretapping of Trump Tower. They have a lot of questions. It's more common for the FBI to go to them than for Congress to go to the bureau.
But he does have a lot of questions to answer, particularly ahead of the intel hearings that are going to start as soon as I believe not next week, but the week after.
BLITZER: The Senate Intelligence Committee, now there are some senators, they want to call some former Trump campaign associates like Paul Manafort, who was the campaign manager, Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, Carter Page, to actually come before the committee and testify about their contacts with the Russians.
Potentially, how damaging could that be?
DAVID SWERDLICK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, I don't think it's fatal, Wolf, but it's damaging, because, for one, it's going to give a visual to remind people that there are these former Trump aides who at least are being investigated for having contacts with Russians.
Whether or not they did, it remains to be seen in those hearings. The other thing, Wolf, I think, is that it's going to enable Democrats to ask particularly General Flynn about his meetings with the Russian ambassador and to ask him why he didn't disclose that earlier on in this whole process, in this whole controversy.
BLITZER: And the other issue, Jeffrey Toobin, Dianne Feinstein, the senator from California, she, among others, say it is very likely, very possible they may actually want to subpoena Donald Trump's IRS -- his tax returns.
That's an issue that keeps dogging him. Can they do that legally? If they subpoena those tax returns, does he have any choice about making them available to the Senate?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: No. A subpoena is legally binding.
But color me skeptical that this is actually ever going to lead to his tax returns being disclosed. This is something that the Trump campaign and now the Trump administration have fought doggedly to protect.
There are a lot of Republicans on that committee, a majority, who are supporters of the president. And unless Democrats or the lawyers for the investigation can identify with real precision what they want in that tax return, I just think the Republicans are going to fight tooth and nail, as is the Trump administration, to keep it from being disclosed.
And I -- regardless of what the legalities appear to be, I'm not counting on seeing that tax return ever.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by.
I want to bring in Republican Congressman Raul Labrador. He's a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, also a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.
REP. RAUL LABRADOR (R), IDAHO: It's great to be on your show, Wolf.
BLITZER: I know you have to vote at any moment, but let's talk while you still have an opportunity. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, says it's now or never for passing a Republican healthcare bill. I want you to listen to what he said today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: This is the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare. The time is here, the time is now. This is the moment. And this is the closest this will ever happen. It really comes down to a binary choice.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. I want your reaction.
LABRADOR: Well, I think he's absolutely right, that this is -- the time is now. The time is today. We need to make sure that we repeal and replace Obamacare. But this bill is not it.
What this bill does, if you think about it, Wolf, the first line of this bill says that this bill amends the Affordable Care Act. So it's not a repeal or replacement of the Affordable Care Act. It's just an amendment to the Affordable Care Act.
So I think we can go much further than what leadership wants us to go. I think we can actually have real reforms in this bill. But I agree with him: I think the time is now. I'm just surprised and disappointed that our leadership has decided to just go a tenth of the way, as opposed to all the way.
BLITZER: The Trump administration believes, Congressman, they can win over critics like yourself with a charm offensive directly from the president. Are they wasting their time?
LABRADOR: Not at all. I think what we need to show the president is that we're trying to actually help him. You know, we want to help him keep the promises that he made to the American people.
What the leadership is doing is not keeping the promises that we made to the American people. And I think that Trump needs to understand -- President Trump needs to understand that, if we don't keep those promises, he's going to have a very hard time getting the rest of his agenda going through Congress.
He needs to show strength; he needs to show leadership. And what we're doing is we're having a debate about what the parliamentarian in the Senate is going to accept or not accept. The last time I looked at the Constitution, the parliamentarian of the United States Senate is not in the Constitution. The president is there; the speaker of the House is there, a member of Congress is there. But not the parliamentarian. This is a rule that they've relied on for 20 years. It's time for us to realize that we can go much further than this and to do the right things.
So we're just trying to help President Trump. I think he's with us. You know, President Trump also needs to remember that, when the chips were down for President Trump when he was in the campaign, it was members of the House Freedom Caucus, it was people like me who stood by him. And there were many members of leadership who didn't even think he had a chance of winning.
So now that he won, he wants to help keep those promises, and we want to help him keep those promises that he made to the American people.
BLITZER: Is that a threat that I'm just hearing? A little bit of a threat, Congressman?
LABRADOR: No, it's actually -- that's why we're trying to help him. These are the people -- we are the ones who actually stood by him. There's no threat. We actually want to extend our hands and our friendship to the president. That's why -- and they have been tremendous. Don't get me wrong. The president has reached out to us as conservatives. They have sent people from the administration to work with us. And that's -- and I think they're doing the right things. They're not trying to micromanage the whole thing.
So I think we've had a great, wonderful working relationship with the president so far.
BLITZER: Well, let's see -- let's see if it stays like that, if he sticks to the healthcare bill outline by the Speaker Paul Ryan today.
On Monday the Congressional Budget Office is going to release its estimates of how much this proposed legislation will cost, how many billions of people presumably might lose their health insurance. Will you trust this CBO, this Congressional Budget Office, report when it's released on Monday?
LABRADOR: I will have to look at it. I think I will trust many things in the CBO report.
But the bottom line is that this bill does not do what we told the American people that we were going to do. We told them that we were going to repeal Obamacare completely.
We passed a bill in 2015 that actually repealed a large aspect, in fact, most of the majority of Obamacare. So now, after we pass something in 2015 -- we passed that out of the House and the Senate and we put it on the president's desk -- we're giving something to this president, who's a Republican president, that is weaker than what we gave President Obama a couple of years ago.
BLITZER: I'm told you've got to go vote. Congressman, thanks as usual for joining us. Raul Labrador, appreciate it.
LABRADOR: Thank you very much.
BLITZER: Just ahead, more on the breaking new on the FBI director's briefing to top congressional leaders. What did he tell them?
[18:39:32] BLITZER: The breaking news tonight. The FBI director, James Comey, has left the U.S. Capitol Hill after briefing key members of Congress. Neither the FBI director nor the lawmakers have had any comment, at least not yet.
The meeting with the so-called Gang of Eight, top lawmakers, came amid investigations into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia and the uproar over the president's claim that he was wiretapped by President Obama.
Let's get some more on the other breaking news we're following right now with our experts and analysts.
And Jackie, on healthcare, the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Conservatives, they're lining up in the House. They don't like it. You just heard from Raul Labrador.
Earlier today, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted this. "House healthcare bill can't pass Senate without major changes. To my friends in House, pause. Start over. Get it right; don't get it fast."
Even if it were to pass the House, it would have serious problems even getting a simple majority in the Senate.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And that's -- despite Paul Ryan's amazing PowerPoint today, there are some major hurdles, and that falls on Mitch McConnell. And while he is an incredible leader in a lot of ways, there are Republicans, both on the moderate side and on the more conservative side, that have some things that are not resolved about this bill. And they're going to have to make some changes. This -- the bill that we see today will not be the one that ends up at the end of the day, should there be one. BLITZER: David, the bill we saw today, I think clearly, at least as
of today, could be called Ryancare, not Trumpcare. He really went out of his way, the speaker, to defend this legislation.
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, I think that's a fair assessment, although once it passes, if it does pass, people will probably also want to refer to it as "Trumpcare." Democrats probably will, because on the politics, that will be easier way, I think, for Democrats to attack it.
What I think, just to go back to Senator Cotton for a minute, I think one thing that Senator Cotton was signaling to his fellow members of Congress, Republican members of Congress, is that, if they don't take this slow and get it right, at least in his view, they're going to own this. And that was, I think, part and parcel of Ryan going out there.
KUCINICH: What I want to say is I think also you're hearing conservatives call it Ryancare, because they don't want to look like they're attacking the president, who has -- who has come out for this. So you're also hearing it -- it's interesting. You're hearing it from both sides.
BLITZER: Yes. Let me change the subject. Jeffrey Toobin, legal issue. The Office of Government Ethics, the director today, sent a letter to the White House, saying the Government Office of Ethics remains concerned by counselor Kellyanne Conway's misuse of position when she was plugging Ivanka Trump's products.
Let me read a little bit from the letter. This is from Walter Shaub Jr. "I am more concerned about the extraordinary assertion that many of OGE's" -- Office of Government Ethics -- "regulations are inapplicable to employees of the executive office of the president. The assertion is incorrect, and the letter cites no legal basis for it. Presidential administrations have not considered it appropriate to challenge the applicability of ethics rules to the entire executive branch. It is critical to the public's faith and the integrity of government that White House employees be held to the same standard of ethical accountability as other executive branch employees."
All right. Explain what he's saying right here.
TOOBIN: Well, there is some question about where these rules apply. Now historically, they have been said to apply to basically the entire executive branch, except -- except for the president himself.
But in a political sense, it's important to point out that this is an example of why it's so important that Republicans control the House and the Senate. If the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, they could call Kellyanne Conway up to a hearing. They could call Shaub up and they could say, you know, "Why aren't you following the law?"
But without the threat of hearings or any further public attention, the White House can just ignore that letter, and that certainly...
BLITZER: So you're saying it's simply an admonishment from this office to Kellyanne Conway and the White House?
TOOBIN: Absolutely. They have no power to prosecute, fine. And so -- they can ignore it without even much political risk, because there is no congressional committee to -- to give this story oxygen. It will just disappear.
BLITZER: But isn't there a larger concern if the White House say they're going to ignore this letter from this office?
TOOBIN: It's a -- it depends who's concerned. I mean, the White House doesn't seem very concerned. I mean, I think this is an example of this White House simply saying, "Look, we are businesspeople. We're going to continue being businesspeople. The president's family is in business."
And, you know, this counseling session that Kellyanne Conway had, I think everyone realized was a nonevent. And there are going to be no repercussions without a congressional committee to give it -- to give the story oxygen and length.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more information coming in, including President Trump's surprising pick to become the next U.S. ambassador to Russia.
[18:49:27] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: He was certainly a sharp Donald Trump critic during the campaign. Now, President Trump has picked former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski is joining us.
Michelle, with everything going on, this post is even more critical than ever.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf, right. You have hacking, Syria, Ukraine, that's a lot to deal with. And Jon Huntsman is a former governor, former ambassador to China. But what really jumps out to you about this news is that not only has Huntsman criticized President Trump in the past, he called for Trump to drop out of the presidential race.
[18:50:02] So, you have to think there must be a very good reason for Donald Trump to get past that. And you can see some of the things that the administration would get out of this choice.
KOSINSKI (voice-over): Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, President Trump's choice for ambassador to Russia could now be a key player in one of the U.S.'s most complicated relationships. A choice made all the more unusual because Huntsman has his own complicated relationship with Mr. Trump. Last spring, the moderate Republican said he could support Trump for president, but in October, Huntsman changed his tune after the release of the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump saying lewd things about women, he called for Trump to drop out, telling "The Salt Lake Tribune" the campaign had become a race to the bottom, that the time has come for Governor Pence to leave the ticket.
Huntsman made waves in the GOP in 2009, when he accepted President Obama's offer to join his administration, a move some saw as a brilliant political play.
THOMAS BURR, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE: Jon Huntsman is rumored as a possible opponent for President Obama, so what did President Obama do? He named him to be the ambassador to China.
KOSINSKI: Huntsman took the job, but later quit and ran in the Republican primary anyway. At the time, Trump was critical, trashing Huntsman on Twitter, "Jon Huntsman called to see me, I said no, he gave away our country to China." Trump also calling him weak, a lightweight and easy pickings. But after Donald Trump won the White House, Huntsman appeared to mend fences.
JON HUNTSMAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: We talked by phone. We've exchanged thoughts and ideas. I congratulated him on the race and I wished him the best of success.
KOSINSKI: So why pick Huntsman now? While the president has passed on hiring many of critics, including Elliott Abrams and Mitt Romney, he's also opened the door to some rivals, tapping South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador, despite her opposition to him during the campaign. In Huntsman, the Trump White House gained someone with respected foreign policy chops, a two-time ambassador who's also led a group critical of Vladimir Putin, a win for a White House opponents fear could be too cozy with Russia.
Others say, this could also be politics. Huntsman once interned for Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, but lately was said to be considering running against him. Could President Trump be taking a page from President Obama's old playbook?
BURR: The joke at the time was, keep your friends close and your enemies in China. The president needs Senator Orrin Hatch. He is chairman of the Finance Committee. He's going to be very integrally involved in all the health care stuff, all the tax reforms. So, I guess what you do is keep your friends close, and your enemies in Russia.
KOSINSKI: Hatch, who said today Huntsman was not going to run again him, has gone to bat for Trump in the past, helping him get his cabinets approved. Now as the longest serving Republican senator, his seat might just be safe, Huntsman gets a big job, and Trump gets his ambassador to help him deal with Putin.
KOSINSKI: Huntsman has described himself as an independent thinker. But you have to wonder, but if he is confirmed, how much with his personal views and expertise, even come into play when so much of foreign policy seems so deeply centered within the White House walls?
BLITZER: Good question. Our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski, reporting from the State Department, thank you.
There is breaking news ahead. We have new details of the FBI director's secret briefing with key lawmakers.
Plus, the commander of the U.S. raid in Yemen, a raid that left a U.S. Navy SEAL dead, finally, is speaking out.
[18:57:58] BLITZER: There are new developments tonight in the U.S. raid on al Qaeda in Yemen that left a U.S. Navy SEAL dead.
Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working the story for us.
Barbara, the commander of the raid is speaking out. What are you learning?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: General Joe Votel, four- star head of the Central Command that oversees military operations in the Middle East, was on Capitol Hill today and he offered some new details. He said he took full responsibility for the raid. He said the investigation has shown that the Navy SEALs on the ground in his view acted completely appropriately.
He said a very heavy price was paid that day, between four and 12 civilians on the ground were killed, including children. He said he took full responsibility for that. They will never know exactly how many, they can't verify it, they are not there on the ground in Yemen. And he said they got valuable intelligence.
Sources are telling us, the military is still working its way through that intelligence, some of it's cyber intelligence, electronic intelligence, trying to see what they can learn to conduct even more raids in Yemen -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You're also getting, Barbara, some new details on the hundreds of U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground in Syria. Explain what you're learning.
STARR: More troops, Wolf, more risk. OK, so here is what we know, 100 Army Rangers are in northern Syria. They have been seen in their combat vehicles, flags flying, very visible.
Not so visible? Another several hundred marines moving in north of Raqqa with artillery, they will be there to support the U.S. forces backed on the ground as those forces move on Raqqa, the last major city in Syria, the last large city that ISIS holds. But there is something even more, they're considering sending an additional thousand forces possibly into Kuwait to be on standby to go into Syria -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Thanks for that information. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.