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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Health Care Fight; Lawmakers Grill Trump's Supreme Court Pick; Secretary of State Skipping NATO Summit, Attending Moscow Meetings. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 21, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:17]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: the hard sell. President Trump predicts a winning vote on the Republican health care bill, after going to Capitol Hill to pat backs and twist arms. But, tonight, many members of his own party say they still won't vote his way, and time is running out.

Supreme questioning. Mr. Trump's high court nominee says he hasn't made any promises to the president about how he'd rule on pivotal issues, but did Judge Neil Gorsuch make a successful case for his confirmation after hours and hours in the hot seat?

Electronic terror? Thousands of passengers are facing a new ban on electronic devices on board certain overseas flights to the United States. We're getting new information about a security threat behind this unprecedented move.

And sudden silence. The Trump White House clams up about the president's wiretap claim just hours after the FBI director publicly debunked the allegation. Will the tweeter in chief pay a price for one of the most stunningly false statements he's made?

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: Breaking news this hour: President Trump's promise to repeal and replace Obamacare is in jeopardy, despite his personal appeal to defiant members of his own party as the clock clicks toward a cliffhanger vote in the House of Representatives some 48 hours from now.

Mr. Trump, meeting with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, warning many of them that they will likely lose their seats in 2018 if they vote against the leadership's health care bill. But conservative opponents say they still have enough no-votes to defeat the measure even after tweaks designed to win them over.

Tonight, also, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is declaring his independence from the White House, telling senators he'd have no trouble ruling against the president if necessary. Judge Neil Gorsuch facing a marathon round of questioning at his confirmation hearing seeking to reassure wary Democrats that he's not beholden to the president.

Also breaking, CNN has learned that new moves by al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate helped prompt a new electronics ban on certain U.S.-bound flights from the Middle East and North Africa. Recent intelligence suggests AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorists there, they are perfecting techniques for hiding explosives in batteries and battery compartments of laptops and other devices.

I will speak on all these stories, much more with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a key Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by as we cover all the news that's breaking right now.

First, let's go to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, with more on the health care battle that's coming to a head.

Phil, the president's deal-making skills, they are certainly being put to the test right now.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question about it, Wolf, and they're very much a work in progress. One House leadership aide telling me just a short while ago, we're simply not there yet when it comes to the votes.

But, today, today was the day they were waiting for, the president pitching the hard sell trying to get this across the finish line.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUESTION: Can you get the votes, Mr. President?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Think so.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): President Trump on Capitol Hill trying to close the health care deal while laying out the stakes. The president, sources tell CNN, warning Republicans behind closed doors their seats and the entire GOP majority will disappear if the bill fails, something Speaker Paul Ryan agreed with.

QUESTION: The president told your members that he believed many would lose their seats if this doesn't pass, the majority was at risk. Do you agree with that assessment?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Yes.

QUESTION: And do you believe that you guys have done enough to assuage their concerns?

RYAN: Absolutely. The president of the United States came to us and said we all made a promise to the American people and we need to keep our promises. And we keep our promise, and the people will reward us. If we don't keep our promise, it will be very hard to manage this.

MATTINGLY: Mr. Trump applying the pressure on a party divided over the fate of the bill, at one point referencing his fiery Tuesday night rally and warning that the bill's failure would mean the large crowds and the GOP's popularity would disappear.

RYAN: The president just came here and knocked the ball out of the park. He knocked the cover off the ball. This is our chance and this is our moment. It's a big moment.

MATTINGLY: House members said it was the kind of deal-making that won rave reviews.

REP. SEAN DUFFY (R), WISCONSIN: There was no animosity. There was no browbeating. It was a great, fun message that the president had, which was, I got to tell you, the guy is talented.

MATTINGLY: But not everyone listening was convinced.

[18:05:01]

QUESTION: Did he change your mind at all?

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: No, I said the president did a great job, and I appreciate the president. But the bill is still bad.

QUESTION: So, you are going to vote no on Thursday?

JORDAN: That's what I plan to do, yes.

MATTINGLY: And the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus warned that support isn't there yet.

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: There still are not enough votes to pass this particular bill.

MATTINGLY: That even after Republicans sweetened the deal designed to bring both sides closer together, adding block grants for states to deal with Medicaid, including work requirements for enrollees, and trying to convince moderates, promising $75 billion in tax credits to make the bill more appealing to older Americans.

The bill even specifically targets moderate New York Republicans, providing $2.3 billion for counties outside of New York City by blocking how the state funds Medicaid. Still, it's unknown if the changes will be enough.

Win or lose, Trump is all in on a bill that still very much hangs in the balance.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, just to give a sense of what's going on behind the scenes right now, Speaker Paul Ryan cleared his schedule,so he's available to members that have questions.

His deputy whip team, his close allies have been furiously working both on the House floor during votes and behind the scenes over the last couple hours trying to gauge where their members are, get a sense of where they can be. But the reality remains this. There's work to be done over the next couple days. Wolf, I think it's worth noting they are operating without a net right now. There is no plan B, there is no alternative. They have to get to the 216 requisite votes, or this will go down, Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly over up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Now to the president's U.S. Supreme Court nominee and his job interview for a lifetime appointment that could impact Americans for decades to come.

CNN's Jessica Schneider is covering Judge Neil Gorsuch's confirmation hearings.

Jessica is with us in THE SITUATION ROOM for us.

He clearly wanted to send a message he's above politics.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that was his repeated message, Wolf. Judge Gorsuch was steadfast in sticking to his script that it's Congress who writes the law, judges merely enforce it.

But that didn't stop Democrats from seizing on some key concerns.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): In the midst of a 10-hour day of tough questions, Judge Neil Gorsuch emerged as a Supreme Court nominee who refused to be pinned down.

NEIL GORSUCH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: When I became a judge, they gave me a gavel, not a rubber stamp, and nobody comes to my court expecting a rubber stamp.

SCHNEIDER: Senators pressed Judge Gorsuch on his views and future rulings, but instead he pointed to his respect for legal precedent and pledged to keep his personal opinions out of consideration.

GORSUCH: My personal views, I would also tell you, Mr. Chairman, belong over here. I leave those at home.

SCHNEIDER: Judge Gorsuch rarely referenced President Trump directly, but firmly rejected the notion that his nomination was premised on a litmus test.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Did he ever ask you to overrule Roe v. Wade?

GORSUCH: No, Senator.

GRAHAM: What would you have done if he had asked?

GORSUCH: Senator, I would have walked out the door. It's not what judges do.

SCHNEIDER: Democrats seized on Gorsuch's decisions they say favor big business.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: How do we have confidence in you that you won't just be for the big corporations, that you will be for the little men?

GORSUCH: I participated in 2,700 opinions over 10-and-a-half years. And if you want cases where I have ruled for the little guy as well as the big guy, there are plenty of them, Senator.

SCHNEIDER: Minnesota Senator and former "Saturday Night Live" performer Al Franken hammered into Judge Gorsuch for his dissent, offering no sympathy to a truck driver who was fired for leaving his disabled trailer behind after spending hours in the cold and snow at the side of the road.

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die, possibly, by driving on an unsafe vehicle. That's absurd.

SCHNEIDER: Democrats also touched on President Trump's twice written and twice rejected travel ban. It's a case that Judge Gorsuch could hear if confirmed.

GORSUCH: The Supreme Court in (INAUDIBLE) held that due process rights extend even to undocumented persons in this country. OK. I will apply the law. I will apply the law faithfully and fearlessly and without regard to persons.

SCHNEIDER: President Trump praised his nominee throughout the hearing, tweeting: "Judge Gorsuch is the kind of judge we need on SCOTUS, someone with a brilliant lead mind and commitment to constitutional principles. #ConfirmGorsuch."

Judge Gorsuch seemed unflappable, but showed a rare moment of frustration and lamented the politics of the process.

GORSUCH: There's a great deal about this process I regret. I regret putting my family through this.

[18:10:02]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But to my question...

GORSUCH: Senator, the fact of the matter is, it is what it is.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Judge Gorsuch repeatedly stressed his judicial independence. And when asked if he'd have a problem ruling against President Trump, the man who appointed him, Gorsuch replied, "No man is above the law."

Wolf, senators continue to hear from Judge Gorsuch. They will hear from witnesses as well. The hearing tonight goes until 9:00 p.m. And, of course, that committee vote is scheduled for April 3 -- Wolf. BLITZER: Yes, and more questioning tomorrow as well. So it's not

over with yet. Jessica, thanks very much.

This is a defining moment for President Trump, with the Gorsuch hearing and the upcoming health care vote. But there's a big cloud right now hanging over the White House after the FBI director's bombshell testimony yesterday.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the White House doesn't seem to be welcoming any more questions about James Comey, the FBI director, and what he told Congress.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: No, they aren't, Wolf, simply because there don't seem to be any new answers about that.

Now, across Washington, from Capitol Hill to the FBI, other places, everyone has rejected the president's wiretapping surveillance argument, except here at the White House. The White House says the president still stands behind that. So White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked today, why isn't the president talking about it?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Can we expect the president to this week present evidence that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama? Or will he speak about it? Because he didn't mention it last night in his rally in Kentucky.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Right. Well, let's see how the week goes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Let's see how the week goes. Of course, a lot is on the plate here at the White House.

But, Wolf, I was at that rally last night in Louisville, and certainly surprising. He was surrounded by some 20,000 supporters, some of his most loyal supporters. He did not mention it in that setting at all. They do want to turn the page to health care, but the question here is, at some point, will he have to address it?

The FBI investigation is open-ended. It's ongoing here. And, Wolf, there is no question at all the argument for health care, everything else hinges on this president's credibility. The open question, how much that credibility has been harmed in all of this, Wolf?

BLITZER: It's a fair question, indeed. All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Let's talk more about -- let's a little bit -- talk more about this and James Comey's testimony.

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is joining us. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee. Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want to get your thoughts on Judge Gorsuch in just a few moments, but you have said you were surprised it took FBI Director Comey so long to confirm that the FBI was investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Why do you think the FBI chose not to make this investigation public sooner? It's been going on since July, he says, indeed, before the election.

WHITEHOUSE: I cannot figure it out, for the life of me.

First of all, if they're going to really smear Hillary Clinton in ways that prosecutors shouldn't by revealing derogatory investigative information about an uncharged person, then they should presumably have balanced it off by saying that they were also looking at the Trump campaign.

But set all that aside, once the FBI has participated with the intelligence services in announcing to the world that the Russians have influenced and broken into this election, to then not be willing to say, oh, and, by the way, we are investigating it and we're on the case, it's like refusing to investigate when the main bank in town got robbed. It just doesn't make any sense.

So I don't know why they were so careful for so long. It could be that they were having trouble getting clearances through DOJ, but I have no good explanation for why a law enforcement officer wouldn't say the government and law enforcement are looking at an offense that everybody knows took place.

BLITZER: And you remember that the then-Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, wrote to Director Comey back in October before the election saying he should allow the public to know about, in his words, ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his advisers and the Russian government.

Why do you think it wasn't made public in response to that letter?

WHITEHOUSE: It's a mystery.

Now, in response to the letter, the case that you can make is that the intelligence community's public report had not come out confirming that they could attribute the election interference to the Russians.

But, once that came out, that's like saying the bank was robbed, the election was broken into. And, at that point, it becomes very logical for law enforcement to say, we know that this has taken place, we're going to look into it, we're going to get to the bottom of it, we're on the case.

And why it took so long to respond once the intelligence community public report was out is what is mystifying. BLITZER: Yes, but that first public report confirming that the

Russians had meddled in the U.S. elections, that first report came out in early October, also before the election, although a lot of people weren't paying much attention to it.

[18:15:05]

WHITEHOUSE: Yes. And they could have responded then.

BLITZER: That's when that first report came out.

WHITEHOUSE: It's been a mystery.

BLITZER: I guess what their argument is, since it involved classified information, how they were obtaining it, as a result, maybe the Department of Justice didn't want them to release that information that there was an ongoing investigation.

Is that what you have been told?

WHITEHOUSE: That's no argument at all. No, I don't think I would be told that, because it makes so little sense. I don't think the DOJ or the FBI would hazard such an argument to me.

BLITZER: Let's move on.

If the Russian president, if Putin's goal was to sow chaos within the United States, do you worry that all this kind of questioning involving Russia, the Trump campaign, all this public questioning has effectively accomplished that goal that Putin wanted?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, that's one worry.

But the other worry is that Putin influenced the election, so that we have this president, and, indeed, that there was collusion between this president and/or his associates and/or the campaign and the Russians, in which case the Russians know about that collusion, too.

And if the Russians know about that collusion, now they have blackmail material. They have kompromat, as the Russians would say, at the highest levels in Washington.

This has to be sorted out. There has to be daylight shown.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But, Senator, you agree that you don't know if there was collusion, they're investigating that.

WHITEHOUSE: Precisely.

BLITZER: Because, as of now, we haven't seen evidence, hard evidence, maybe some circumstantial evidence that Congressman Adam Schiff talks about, but hard, specific, concrete evidence. Have you seen any of collusion? WHITEHOUSE: I have not. There's a lot of circumstantial evidence, a

lot of magnetic needles are all pointing in the same direction that suggests that there's a North Pole up there, but we have not seen the hard evidence yet, which is why the investigation needs to continue until it comes to a conclusion.

BLITZER: You have confidence that the FBI is the right agency to do this?

WHITEHOUSE: I actually do.

I think that Director Comey's mistake with Secretary Clinton's investigation was a mistake. I don't think he intended to throw the election. And I don't think that he is trying to be political. I think he was trying to, frankly, protect his reputation, and he made a big, big, big rookie error.

BLITZER: In addition to the FBI investigation, do you think this investigation requires what's called an independent commission outside of Congress?

WHITEHOUSE: Not at this stage.

I do think that, as they move forward, we're going to begin to see the kind of things that Senator Graham's and my subcommittee have already developed, which is recommendations on how we can better protect America from this continuing to happen in the future and put together a legislative program to build better bulwarks against this interference.

The Russians are not going to stop doing this just because they were caught. They have actually, I think, kind of enjoyed it, and I believe they're going to continue to play in this space unless we erect some safety barriers against some of their conduct.

BLITZER: Senator, I want you to stand by.

We have some breaking news on the new ban on personal electronics aboard certain flights coming into the United States. We're going to update our viewers on that, get your reaction.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:45]

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

Senator, I want you to stand by.

We have some breaking news on the new ban of personal electronics aboard certain flights bound for the United States. A U.S. official tells CNN that al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen is perfecting techniques for hiding explosives in the batteries of electronic devices.

Let's bring in our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

Rene, what more are you learning?

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I can tell you, I just spoke with a member of Congress who's been briefed on this particular issue.

I'm told the decision to implement this electronics ban on certain flights was based on new intelligence and the reevaluation of existing intelligence. The intel community believed the threat to be "persistent and emerging" and now tonight international airlines are beginning to implement this electronics ban.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): Thousands of passengers flying from Middle Eastern and African airports will now face new stricter security procedures on flights with direct service to the United States.

In an unprecedented move, the Department of Homeland Security is demanding international flights from 10 overseas airports in eight mostly Muslim countries ban almost all electronics larger than a cell phone from the cabin of the plane.

The U.K., following the United States' lead, will now ban large electronics from the cabin of certain flights, too, indicating there is intelligence that's creating concern.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: It's clear that with these new restrictions, the United States is essentially saying that they do not have full confidence in these airports in these various countries to stop bombs getting on planes.

MARSH: Tonight, sources tell CNN the electronic ban was not prompted by a specific plot, but in part by new intelligence. A U.S. official tells CNN al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen was perfecting techniques for hiding explosives in the batteries of electronic devices.

That information was obtained over recent weeks and months. The Department of Homeland Security said the intelligence -- quote -- "indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressively pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks, including smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items."

[18:25:10]

DHS pointed to the February 2016 midair bombing of a Somali passenger plane as proof of terrorist groups' continued efforts to target commercial aviation.

Sources say a sophisticated laptop bomb blew a hole in that aircraft, but U.S. intelligence has known for years terror groups have been working to perfect and conceal explosives to smuggle on board. So why such a drastic ban now? CRUICKSHANK: One scenario is that the new administration in the

United States has reevaluated the entire threat stream to passenger aircraft, taking into account all the intelligence that has come in over the last several years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: The ban is indefinite and it is unclear at this point when it could end. If airlines refuse to comply, they would lose travel certification to fly to the United States, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Rene Marsh, our aviation correspondent, thanks very much.

Let's quickly get back to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

I know you got to vote. Very quickly, Senator, will you vote to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court?

WHITEHOUSE: He did not gain any ground on the Democratic side, I don't believe, today. The answers were so evasive and so many of the methods he used for avoiding answers were so sort of at least obvious to people who do this.

So I don't think he gained any ground. I haven't made a decision yet, but I don't think he had a great day.

BLITZER: Will you support a filibuster?

WHITEHOUSE: I think we are going to ask for 60 votes. That has been the recent tradition. And it's been what the Republicans demanded when we were looking at the last episode with judicial appointments was that we not break the filibuster as to the Supreme Court.

So I think that is basically the bottom line. It's the default proposition that they have to get 60 votes for this gentleman.

BLITZER: That would require eight Democrats to bring that number up to 60. We will see if that happens.

All right, Senator, I know you got to vote, so thanks so much for joining us.

WHITEHOUSE: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the uncertain fate of the Republican health care bill. Does it have enough votes to pass the Republican-controlled House?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the drama unfolding around the Republican health care bill with just two days to go before the House votes on the measure. It's still not clear if it has enough votes to pass.

[18:32:12] Gloria Borger, what's going on behind the scenes right now? This is a critical moment for the president and the Republican speaker of the House.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we know that the president met with Republicans today and tried to cheer them an and said, "By the way, if you don't support this bill, you're going to lose; we're going to lose our majority, so you might as well do it."

And I think Republicans right now are looking at their own self- interests and trying to figure out whether it's OK, if they're extreme conservatives, to go against the president in their district or whether they need to be with the president, who is quite popular among Republicans, and that's what they're trying to figure out.

What you have are different interest -- Republican interest groups splitting on this. You have a moderate group like the Chamber of Commerce who says support Donald Trump on this. And then you have more conservative groups who are out there saying, "You know what? If you vote against this, you're going to be in trouble with conservatives and you just might get primaried by another conservative."

So for them right now, this is all about the political stakes back home.

BLITZER: And at the White House briefing, Sean Spicer today didn't rule out the possibility that President Trump would actually campaign against those Republicans who oppose him on this legislation. How serious of a threat is that?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think that threat of Donald Trump going out there and actively campaigning against Republicans is less of a serious threat, because if that's the scenario, if the health care bill fails and Republicans are in political peril, in peril of losing the House, I think the White House is going to want to be doing everything it can to boost up Republicans and make sure Donald Trump saves his majorities in Congress, in the Senate and the House.

But Sean Spicer's threat, as Gloria mentioned, that people, Republicans would be at risk of losing their seats if they were to vote against this bill, I think is less of a threat, really, than just common sense from the White House perspective.

As they've been telling Republicans, the point they've been making is that Republicans have been running on this for years, and the thought of them actually voting against now the best reform package that House leaders in the White House can produce is kind of amazing to them.

BLITZER: If they can't get this passed, Gloria, what about the rest of the president's agenda? Whether tax cuts, trade legislation? He's got a huge agenda out there, but they're all waiting to see what happens to health care first.

BORGER: Right. Look, I think he would be hugely vulnerable. I think that this is a president who has told people over and over again he wants wins. He wants to win. And if he loses this, then people are going to feel like they can go their own way if they haven't suffered for it. And I think it's -- the Democrats will be completely emboldened if he loses it, and Republicans back home are going to say exactly what Rebecca was saying, which is, "Wait a minute. You told us for how many years that you were going to repeal and replace Obamacare, and you can't do that right out of the box?"

[18:35:11] You know, he's -- he's got a lot of political capital right now, because this is his first big thing. He's not going to have any more as you go down the road. So he's spending it all on this.

BLITZER: If he loses on this, will he be able to distance himself from that loss? Because as we all know, he likes to win.

BERG: Right, it would be difficult, Wolf. I mean, Democrats are going to do everything they can to make sure this is Trumpcare, that this is not just GOPcare, that this is not just Republicans, that the president is tied to this. And that's why we've seen now Schumer and Pelosi starting to use that term, Trumpcare, and starting to draw that line between the leadership in Congress, who's been working on this and crafting the policy details, and the president, who has said he supports this even though he hasn't been using his bully pulpit.

BLITZER: Clarissa -- Clarissa Ward's with us, our senior international correspondent.

You heard that report that the U.S. is now banning certain electronics from the cabins on a lot of flights coming into the United States from North Africa and the Middle East. What else are you hearing?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So that's -- it's ten different airports in eight Muslim-majority countries. A lot of them very friendly to the U.S., I should add. Now, any device that is larger than a cell phone, whether it's a laptop, whether it's a tablet, whether it's a camera, you will no longer be able to carry that onboard.

And CNN is learning, according to one U.S. official, that this is due to a specific threat from AQAP, that's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen -- and I'm sure Phil knows more about this than I do -- that they have essentially come close to perfecting the technology of using a battery compartment to put some kind of a bomb into it.

And I will let you speak more to that, but I do want to speak briefly to the kind of geopolitical awkwardness of this on the back of the travel ban. And I just had to read one thing that an Egyptian national who's quite prominent posted. He said, "We're happy to stop bringing laptops on planes to your countries on the condition that you stop bringing Hellfire missiles on planes to our countries."

Clearly, this is very sensitive topic. This is very awkward. It is coming on the back of the travel ban. These are countries that traditionally have a good relationship with the U.S. So there is likely to be some pushback.

BLITZER: But Phil, there's a serious question here. If it's such a potentially grave threat, why are they giving all these airports, these countries, 96 hours' advance notice before it goes into effect?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: We don't want chaos again. I mean, if you look at this as a political and a national security problem, you remember what happened initially with the Trump administration 60 days ago on immigration. This is a rollout that's complicated across countries, across airlines. I've got to believe people on the inside are saying, "We're going back to Department of Homeland Security and others saying, coordinate this internationally, ensure that people who don't work for us -- again, foreign airlines -- can require passengers to put laptops in the hold of an aircraft."

I think this is about coordination and saying we don't want another rollout that looks like...

BLITZER: Well, how close is AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to developing some sort of bomb that can be undetectable in laptops or other electronic devices?

MUDD: We've been hearing about this for years. One of the unique aspects of this, to pick up on what Clarissa was saying, is you would be surprised at how difficult -- now we are 16 years into the post- 9/11 environment, it is for al Qaeda or, in this case, maybe ISIS, AQAP -- that's the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda -- to develop the bomb- making expertise to put materials inside a laptop. You put that against the wall of an aircraft. You put one or two if you have a couple passengers, you could take that down. Very difficult.

I think what you've got here is one of two bombmakers who have that expertise. And that's what the Americans have got to be worried about.

BLITZER: It's a very disturbing development.

Everybody, stand by. We've got more breaking news we're following. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:43:37] BLITZER: There's breaking news from the confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch. Just a few minutes ago, the judge was asked about President Trump's series of attacks on federal judges. Judge Gorsuch replied that he finds those attacks on judges' integrity disheartening and demoralizing.

Let me play the clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORSUCH: I know these people and I know how decent they are, and when anyone criticizes the honesty or integrity, the motives of a federal judge, well, I find that disheartening. I find that demoralizing, because I know the truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Gloria, you remember when the president, he spoke of the "so-called judge" who didn't like his travel ban No. 1, and that seemed like a really -- a precise hit on that judge.

BORGER: So there's a little context here to that -- to that quote, because it is the same exact language that Judge Gorsuch used when he met with Senator Blumenthal as part of his meet and greets; and that was after Donald Trump had been tweeting about a "so-called judge."

And Donald Trump, after Blumenthal came out and said, "Well, this is what Gorsuch said," and nobody denied it, because from their point of view, it was kind of good news to get that out there. It might help them with Democrats, right? It was Donald Trump who tweeted, "Senator Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years, he had" --parentheses -- "Major lie" -- end parentheses, now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?"

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: That was on February 9th.

BORGER: That was on February 9th.

Well, Judge Gorsuch just said it again. So, obviously, Senator Blumenthal did not misrepresent that. And this is clearly something Judge Gorsuch believes whether it would be Donald Trump who would be saying it or any one of us sitting around the table today would be saying.

BLITZER: Well, he accused Senator Blumenthal of, in his words, a major lie.

BORGER: Major lie.

BLITZER: This is at example based on what Gorsuch just said during this confirmation hearing of a falsehood by the president.

BORGER: Right. And, clearly, it wasn't because Judge Gorsuch just repeated himself. I mean, he didn't specifically say as Donald Trump did in his tweets, he did not do that, but it's clear what he meant.

BLITZER: Just to be precise, Gorsuch said that anyone who attacks the integrity of a judge, that is disheartening and demoralizing. Strong words. He's trying to get himself confirmed, though, as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. This was part of the strategy here, Wolf. He needs to especially target Democrats and assure them that he will be a check, the judiciary will be a check, the Supreme Court on not only this administration, but any administration.

Of course, the Trump administration is of particular concern right now when you're talking about Democrats and especially if you look at the travel ban that they tried to impose and has been blocked by the courts. That's an example of why they view this as such an important issue, and he's addressing it, but only in oblique terms. And that's bothering some Democrats like Whitehouse who was on your show earlier.

BORGER: All day today, and we were sitting and listening to this and watching this today, what was striking to me is Gorsuch maintaining his independence and saying, you know, on Roe versus Wade, if he had been asked about -- about whether he would overturn Roe versus Wade by the president, that was a question that was raised to him, he said I would have walked out of the room. And he said --

BLITZER: The president never asked him.

BORGER: The president never asked him but he -- at every moment, at every juncture he could today, he went out of his way to establish his complete independence from any administration, including this one.

BLITZER: The testimony yesterday, Phil, involving Director Comey, Admiral Rogers from the National Security Agency, were you surprised how far they were willing to go and confirm that this criminal investigation of alleged links between Trump associates from the campaign and Russia, how far they went in publicly disclosing all of this?

PHIL MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: Surprise? Heck, yes. We went last summer where the FBI director came out on the e- mail investigation confirmed the investigation and then frankly was embarrassed this fall --

BLITZER: Involving Hillary Clinton.

MUDD: Involving Hillary Clinton in the fall when he had to say, well, we're closing it/opening it.

Now, months later, he's going, again, and FBI people on the inside are saying, we don't talk about investigations. You got an out, Director, you can say we don't talk. He comes out again in the wake of the embarrassment of the Clinton investigation, said we're doing that again? Publicly confirming?

That says one thing, Wolf. This is a serious investigation. This isn't just him saying we're sniffing around to see if there's some truth here. You do not do that again after the Clinton scene with this investigation unless there's something serious going on with the counterintelligence --

BLITZER: Based on what you heard yesterday, did you get a sense where this is all heading?

MUDD: I did. One sense I got was the disconnect in terms of where this is headed between Democrats and where the FBI is. When I listen to the conversations yesterday, Democrats were saying here's what we're seeing, here's the concerns we have, here's all the smoke. People met here.

That's not the FBI's job. The FBI's job is to determine whether someone violated a federal law. Meeting a Russian official is not violation of federal law.

That one word, coordination, the concern we have here, is whether there was coordination on release of information about the campaign that violates a federal law. That's fascinating.

BLITZER: You've been getting, Clarissa, reaction, international reaction to this dramatic testimony all day. What are you hearing?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Russians have sort of done a kind of exaggerated eye roll to the whole thing and essentially said, please, we've heard this story before, either prove it or shut up about it.

I think that's very much to be expected. At the same time, it's not getting a lot of airtime in Russia which is kind of interesting. I do think that we're seeing a sort of scaling back on the kind of so- called bromance between President Trump and President Putin. There's a very real sense that the Russians understand those restrictions aren't going to be lifted anytime soon.

I think the more pressing and interesting case is looking at Europe and how the Europeans are viewing this. They're seeing this playing out on their television screens and they're just wondering and waiting, when is the Trump administration going to turn around and publicly chastise Russia or the very least, distance themselves from Russia and reaffirm their commitment to us, because the kind of rhetoric that they're hearing and feeling coming from the U.S. is full of mixed messages.

[18:50:08] Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying he won't attend that NATO summit in April, he'll be visiting Moscow instead. The optics of that are confusing to say the least.

BLITZER: And the president, Rebecca, he's been silent last night when he was in Louisville, he did some local TV interviews. Reporters were told he's not going to talk about any of this, don't even ask any questions.

And today, the White House was pretty silent on it as well. What do you make of that?

BERG: Right. Well, its' not really clear if they have suddenly found some discipline here on this issue and some message discipline or maybe there are some concerns from a legal perspective with an ongoing FBI investigation, with ongoing investigations on the Hill. Do they not want to get themselves in potentially more legal trouble than they are already in? It's not clear.

And, really, this will only last as has been the case in the past until perhaps there is another Trump tweet or another Trump interview. It's really unclear if this is a long-term strategy or if this is just right now.

BORGER: Well, what's he going to do, tweet about his own FBI director? You know, can he say -- I mean, you're laughing, Phil, but what's he going to say? "Sad"? I mean, I just don't -- what can he say about Comey and also wouldn't he have to say something about Barack Obama and the charge he leveled against Barack Obama?

And so, you know, I think maybe Trump on his own without the advice of his staff may know that this is something he needs to keep mum about because, is he going to challenge Comey? If he challenges him, maybe he'd want to fire him. BERG: He's done that with intelligence and --

MUDD: But keeping mum is not a good option. If you're sitting in Europe and you've complained to the White House, Obama and the current president, about interventions in your own election, the Europeans as you're suggesting have to be looking at the Americans to say, when are you going to lead the charge to oppose the Russians?

And you know what the problem is? President Trump's credibility to go to the Europeans and say, I'm going to be the hammer on the Russians about election intervention, about zero as far as I can see. I think that's one of the problems.

BORGER: I think that would only happen if the Russians turned on Donald Trump. And maybe -- you know, my question to you, is when will that happen?

BLITZER: Why do you think that may happen?

WARD: That may happen, yes, because President Putin is an extremely shrewd strategist and you can always wait -- expect him to be one step ahead of the game. And I remember hearing one Russia commentator Julia Ioffe described it brilliantly. She said, "President Putin is going to eat Donald Trump like a sandwich." And I would not be surprised if we see that in the --

BLITZER: Phil, you know there's been some concern the Russians, if they do have anything, they're holding it over the Trump folks' head.

MUDD: Oh, heck, they don't need anything. Let's look at the last 60 days. We are consumed with an internal investigation of what happened in the election. Meanwhile, there's peace talks in Syria, we've forgotten conversations about Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Croatia. There is no conversation about ripping up the Iran nuclear accord, which Russia is deeply interested in.

They got what they wanted. They can run free in Europe and have Trump --

BLITZER: You mean Crimea, not Croatia.

MUDD: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stay with us.

The secretary of state decides to skip a key NATO summit. Why is he going to Moscow instead?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:41] BLITZER: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is skipping a NATO summit next month in Brussels, but he will be attending meetings in Moscow.

Our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski is working the story for us.

Michelle, we're now hearing from a NATO spokesman, the secretary- general, will meet with President Trump next month at the White House. What's the latest?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. So, the president will have that meeting, then a month later, he'll go to the leadership level NATO summit.

But we all know there are a few things in foreign policy have been more confusing than how this administration views and will interact with NATO versus how it views and will engage with Russia.

So, the news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn't plan on attending his first big NATO meetings was extremely surprising in the diplomatic community. State Department says he was already planning on meeting on the sidelines of a different meeting with those foreign ministers tomorrow and traveling to Brussels for NATO just didn't fit into his schedule. It turns out though, what does fit into his schedule next month is a meeting with the Chinese president, as well as traveling to Moscow to meet with Russian officials.

It also turns out that when U.N. NATO countries got word of this about a month ago, they started putting out alternate dates to try to accommodate the U.S. secretary of state. The State Department didn't take them up on that, but only now, one day after this news broke, the State Department says, well, it is going to submit some possible dates to see if this can work.

What this risks looking like, of course, Wolf, is if the secretary of state can make time for China, make time for Russia but not for NATO. This would be a prime opportunity for him to get out there and forcefully reaffirm the U.S.'s commitment. It also raises questions about why the administration would think this was a good idea even if you are only talking about what this looks like and the message that sends, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we all remember all the statements the president made about NATO during the course of the campaign and since. He remains frustrated only a few of those NATO allies are paying that 2 percent of their GDP NATO expenditures.

All right, Michelle. Thanks very much. Michelle Kosinski over at the State Department.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.