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THE SITUATION ROOM
North Korea Nuclear Fears; How Deep Is Trump-Russia Connection?; U.S. Military Drops Massive Bomb in Afghanistan; Dems: New Trump Obamacare Tactic "Reckless" & "Blackmail"; North Korea Can Test Nukes 16 Times Bigger Than Hiroshima Bomb. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 13, 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: President Trump praises the mission. Did he personally authorize it?
The British intelligence. Sources tell CNN that U.K. and other European intelligence agencies intercepted communications between Trump associates and Russian officials during the presidential campaign. Now the CIA director is calling WikiLeaks a hostile intelligence service assisted by Russia. How deep does the Russia connection go?
Ready to launch? North Korea's now set to be primed and ready to conduct a nuclear weapons test at any time. President Trump is vowing the North Korea threat will be taken care of. How will he respond to an underground nuclear detonation?
And pushing for collapse. President Trump says he's considered pulling funding for crucial Obamacare subsidies to force Democrats to negotiate with him. What will happen to the millions of people who rely on them if the president makes good on that threat?
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're following breaking news. For the first time ever, the United States has used the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal, the so-called Mother of All Bombs.
An American warplane dropped the 21,000-pound explosive on ISIS targets in Afghanistan. President Trump is praising the mission, but won't say if he personally authorized it.
Also breaking tonight, we're learning that British and other European intelligence agencies intercepted communications between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials during the presidential campaign. Those communications were then passed on to U.S. intelligence, according to congressional law enforcement and intelligence sources.
We're also following developments in North Korea, where there are now some new signs the Kim Jong-un regime is poised to test a nuclear weapon. A group that monitors the country says the underground site for the detonation is -- quote -- "primed and ready." The test could coincide with a major North Korean holiday that begins just hours from now.
We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including the former foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton Jake Sullivan. And our correspondents and experts analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go straight to the Pentagon.
Barbara Starr is getting new information on the breaking news.
Barbara, you broke the story earlier in the day. What are you picking up now?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.
We now know that the U.S. military had been planning this mission over the last couple of weeks and the details, even if the president didn't authorize it personally, the details were briefed up and down the chain of command.
STARR (voice-over): For the first time ever, the Mother of All Bombs was used by the U.S. military in combat, the largest non-nuclear bomb used in combat, targeting ISIS fighters in Eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. A U.S. Air Force special operations MC-130 dropped the bomb via parachute.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We targeted a system of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters used to move around freely, making it easier for them to target U.S. military advisers and Afghan forces in the area.
STARR: The MOAB, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, also known as the Mother of All Bombs, is a 21,600-pound bomb that explodes in the air. It's blast is supposed to destroy a target area that can spread over thousands of feet.
On Saturday, a U.S. Army special operations soldier was killed in combat in the same area.
SPICER: The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously, and in order to defeat the group, we must deny them operational space, which we did.
STARR: One reason it was used, the area is so remote, the U.S. believes there were no nearby civilians.
BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They probably had a very large concentration, and it made perfect sense based on the time of day that they were going to attack that they could have a massive kill in this area, not putting any special operators or any conventional forces at risk. STARR: Now the challenge, did the bomb work as planned in its first
MARKS: It explodes above the ground at a distance, depending upon what type of a shape and a blast you want to have, and as described, it is a concussive blast. So everybody underneath that thing is either obliterated, ears are bleeding or they're completely destroyed.
STARR: The military will now fly back over the site to assess the damage from the bomb dropping. They will look for any evidence that there were civilians in the area. Right now, they don't think there were.
All of this comes as the Trump administration is considering sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan to help train and advise the Afghan forces there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: In addition to the 9,000 or so who are already on the ground. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks for the terrific reporting.
President Trump, meanwhile, is calling the first ever use of this giant bomb a successful event.
Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, is joining us.
Sara, this is the second major military strike under the Trump administration in a week, following that missile attack on that Syrian air base.
Update our viewers on the latest.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
And today, we got a very different tone, a very different posture from the White House in terms of this military action. When it came to intervening in Syria, the White House walked us through the president's thinking, when he learned of this information, when he made the decision to order those strikes in Syria.
But they were much more tight-lipped on this mission in Afghanistan. And when the president was asked about it, from reporters today, instead of taking credit, instead of saying he was the one who ordered this strike, he put all the credit on his military and said he certainly blessed the mission, calling it a success.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Did you authorize it, sir?
TRUMP: Everybody knows exactly what happened, so -- and what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they have done the job, as usual.
So, we have given them total authorization, and that's what they're doing. And, frankly, that's why they have been so successful lately. If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that to really what's happened over the last eight years, you will see there's a tremendous difference, tremendous difference.
So, we have incredible leaders in the military, and we have incredible military, and we are very proud of them, and this was another very, very successful mission.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MURRAY: Now, after what has been a very eventful week here at the White House, the president departed, heading down to his Florida estate to take a break for the Easter weekend -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Sara, thank you, Sara Murray over at the White House.
Let's get some more on all of this.
The former policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, the former director of the State Department Policy Planning Office, Jake Sullivan, is joining us.
Jake, thanks very much for joining us.
JAKE SULLIVAN, FORMER ADVISER TO HILLARY CLINTON: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: Did the Obama administration, as far as you know, ever seriously consider using this Mother of All Bombs?
SULLIVAN: Well, without getting into classified information, of course, this was one of the options that was available to the Obama administration. President Obama would have sought military advice about when and whether to use it.
And this network of caves and tunnels in Eastern Afghanistan seems like the type of target that would be appropriate for it, but a mission didn't come together to do that during the Obama administration.
BLITZER: I assume that the Taliban, the enemy in Afghanistan, ISIS in Afghanistan, during the Obama administration, had similar tunnels and caves, deep underground infrastructure that potentially could have been destroyed with a bomb like this, right?
SULLIVAN: Well, keep in mind that during much of the Obama administration, we had a much larger military footprint on the ground in Afghanistan. We had troops all over the country, up to 100,000 at one point.
So the use of special operations forces and conventional ground forces to roust the Taliban and al Qaeda and other terrorists from positions was an option more available. Now the air weapon is basically the key weapon that we are using to go after this type of tunnel complex.
BLITZER: So did the U.S. military from your perspective make the right call in dropping this Mother of All Bombs?
SULLIVAN: We don't know enough to be sure yet about the circumstances of the operation, but it certainly would appear that this was an appropriate use of it.
BLITZER: But I just want to be precise. As far as you know, was there ever like a decision that either the secretary of defense or the president of the United States had in his mind during those eight years of the Obama administration that this was simply too big of a bomb to drop on any target and avoid it?
SULLIVAN: I'm not aware of them taking this option off the table, absolutely not, no.
BLITZER: So you don't have a problem basically with the U.S. military now dropping this bomb, but you want to get evidence of the bomb damage assessment?
SULLIVAN: Yes. When you're going to use a weapon that is this significant, that has the kind of potential blast damage that it has and the potential for civilian casualties, you want to make sure that the details come in as to who else was in the area, what the target was, to what extent was it successful, before drawing conclusions.
That would only be prudent. But, in principle, using this weapon for this kind of purpose is an appropriate step for the military to take.
BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the message, the signal, the warning the dropping of this bomb might send. Listen to this exchange the president had.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I don't know if this sends a message. It doesn't make any difference if it does or not. North Korea's a problem. The problem will be taken care of.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, he's very precise, the problem will be taken care of, talking about North Korea.
First of all, do you think the dropping of this bomb in Afghanistan was in part designed to send a message elsewhere, including North Korea?
SULLIVAN: It's hard to know, but I doubt it.
I think that the generals who were designing the operation here would have been focused on the main thing, which was, how do we get at the terrorists who are hiding out in Eastern Afghanistan?
[18:10:05] I don't think that North Korea would have been in the front of their
minds in choosing to use this bomb at this time. Of course, I don't know that for sure, but that would be my judgment, based on my knowledge of the Pentagon and military decision-making.
In terms of whether or not North Korea pays attention to this, I think they look at what the United States does elsewhere, here with respect to the strike in Syria, but, fundamentally, the North Korea calculus is not going to rest on the use of a particular device against terrorist groups in the Middle East or South Asia.
And so I don't think we should over-read the extent to which use of this device in Afghanistan is going to spillover into calculations in Northeast Asia.
BLITZER: So, if the North Korea leader, Kim Jong-un, is paying attention, watching, watching CNN, which they get, at least the few of the elite get in Pyongyang, you don't think he would be nervous to see this?
SULLIVAN: I think he has looked over the course of the last few years at a broad-based use of American force, large numbers of ground forces, huge amounts of ordnance dropped from the sky across Iraq and Syria against ISIS and Afghanistan.
That has not to date stopped him from testing nuclear devices, advancing his missile program and the like. I would not regard this particular bomb as fundamental to his calculation. I'm sure that he will take notice, but I don't think that we should over-read the extent to which it's going to happen.
BLITZER: It's interesting to me, and I'm sure to you and a lot of others, the timing. Within a week, the U.S. launches 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against that Syrian air base. A few days later, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever has been dropped on an ISIS target in Afghanistan. Now, that timing, is it just a coincidence?
SULLIVAN: It's hard for me to say.
I believe that our military doesn't like to do things for show. They like to do things to accomplish particular objectives. So, I think their purpose in the 59 Tomahawks was to deter future chemical weapons in Syria, and their purpose in dropping this particular device was to get at a target of tunnels and caves that ISIS was occupying in Afghanistan.
I would be surprised if what was driving the military here was a demonstration project for North Korea.
BLITZER: As you know, the U.S. military has seen increased Russian activity inside Afghanistan right now. So if Putin and his leaders, his military leaders, are looking at this U.S. military action, what do they say?
SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, Putin should recognize that he is playing with fire to the extent that he's supporting jihadists in Afghanistan. And there's increasing evidence that he is.
And the United States should be absolutely clear with him that we are going to take out these terrorists. That was something the Obama administration worked very hard at in its time and the Trump administration is carrying that forward.
BLITZER: You think the U.S. military was sending a message by dropping this bomb to the Russians?
SULLIVAN: Once again, I really believe that our military, our professional military leadership is focused on achieving concrete, tangible objectives, not on dropping bombs for dropping bombs' sakes or for sending messages.
I would be surprised to learn if that was what they were trying to accomplish here. Certainly, though, it has some second-order effects. It will have some impact on other countries' calculus. I just think we shouldn't put too much weight on that.
BLITZER: We now have learned, our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon has learning that the U.S. did intercept communications between the Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparing for that sarin gas attacks on those civilians in Idlib province in Syria killing all those civilians and those kids that we all have seen the video and pictures of that.
In light of that evidence, do you believe the launching of those 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against that Syrian air base was justified?
SULLIVAN: I do believe it was justified. I think the U.S. has put forward a compelling case that Syria was behind this attack and carried it out in premeditated and brutal fashion. And responding to deter them from doing it again is an appropriate thing to do.
BLITZER: Looking back, was it a mistake during the Obama administration -- the president drew that red line -- there was a chemical assault on civilians by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He didn't launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Should he have done that?
SULLIVAN: At the time, I believed that he should launch missiles. He wanted to go to Congress to get authorization. Congress dragged its feet on providing that authorization. And many of the congressman who at the time said this is a bad idea, I'm not going to let Obama do it, are now Trumping the fact that Trump has done it.
So, I worry that what happened in 2013 is politics intervened on the Hill, and as a result the strike was not taken.
BLITZER: He didn't really need from his perspective congressional authorization. It would have been nice to get it. He could've launched those missiles on his own.
SULLIVAN: He came to the conclusion that he needed congressional authorization, because at that time in the conflict, he expected that there was probably going to be have to be repeat attacks.
And to the extent the U.S. was going to be in an ongoing conflict in Syria, he would need congressional backing.
BLITZER: But I was always the impression -- I remember covering it -- that he asked for congressional authorization. He really didn't push all that hard for that congressional authorization.
He didn't make the case to Congress and the American public, pass this legislation now, so we can go bomb the Syrian regime of Assad.
SULLIVAN: As someone who sat in briefings with dozens of members of Congress, who went with the vice president up to the Hill to twist the arms of members who listened to the president make calls and called in the leadership of both the House and Senate to try and sell the Syria airstrike, I just have to respectfully disagree that we didn't make a real effort at it.
In the end, too many members of Congress simply didn't want to move forward with this, and that's when the opportunity presented itself to try to remove the weapons.
BLITZER: Yes, but we didn't see a lot of the arm-twisting. We saw the prime-time address.
I think the bottom line is looking back it was a mistake not to launch those missiles, even without congressional authorization, because it sent the wrong message to the people in Syria and elsewhere.
SULLIVAN: I believe that launching a responsive strike to a Syria chemical weapons attack was appropriate in 2013, and it would have been appropriate in 2013 and was appropriate today.
BLITZER: All right. Jake, don't go too far away. We have a lot more to discuss, more breaking news coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. We will be right back.
BLITZER: We're back with the foreign former foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, Jake Sullivan.
Jake, stand by.
We want to talk a little bit more about the new information obtained by CNN about contacts between the Trump associates and Russian officials.
But, first, I want to get some new details that CNN is learning.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is joining us.
Pamela, we're learning more about the role of British intelligence in all of this.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
We have learned that British and other European intelligence agencies intercepted communications between Trump associates and Russian officials and other Russian individuals during the campaign, and then passed on those communications to their U.S. counterparts.
This is according to U.S. and European sources who have spoken to myself and my colleague Jim Sciutto. And the various communications were captured during routine surveillance of Russian officials and other Russians known to Western intelligence over the course of several months, we're told.
The sources said that British and European intelligence agencies, including the GCHQ in Great Britain, were not proactively targeting members of the Trump team, but rather picked up these communications during what's known as incidental collection, monitoring the Russian officials that they were speaking to, according to these sources.
And the FBI is using this information, Wolf, that was passed along as part of its counterintel probe of possible coordination between Russian and the Trump associates, Wolf.
BLITZER: Pamela, the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, spoke publicly today for the first time in his new role and focused largely on criticizing WikiLeaks and how it was used by the Russians. Tell our viewers what he said.
BROWN: That's right.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo used this opportunity in his first public remarks to take direct aim at WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, saying he wanted to call WikiLeaks what it is, a non-state hostile intelligence service acting on behalf of former adversaries like Russia.
In fact, he basically WikiLeaks is in a sense an extension of Russian intelligence services. And then he went on to say that Assange is a narcissist who cares more about his own celebrity and making a splash than risking U.S. lives.
And he cited an example of al Qaeda praising WikiLeaks for providing the means to fight the U.S. And, of course, the irony here, Wolf, is that during the campaign, you will recall then presidential candidate Donald Trump praised WikiLeaks repeatedly and said he loved it after the site released stolen e-mails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and the DNC -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Pamela Brown, our justice correspondent, thank you very much.
Let's get back to Jake Sullivan, former foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton.
What's your reaction to what we heard today from the new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, really describing WikiLeaks for all practical purposes as an arm of Russian intelligence?
SULLIVAN: Well, my reaction is, Mike Pompeo is right, and Hillary Clinton said so before the election.
In October, she made the point that WikiLeaks was acting as an extension, an arm of Russian intelligence. And that didn't stop Donald Trump for going out 164 separate times to praise WikiLeaks, to cite WikiLeaks, to tell people to go read WikiLeaks.
Vice President Mike Pence went and said to people, tell your friends and neighbors to go on WikiLeaks. This, in effect, was given support to what their CIA director is now calling an arm of the Russian intelligence service, a non-state hostile intelligence actor.
BLITZER: But I assumed your pleased that the CIA director now is saying WikiLeaks is for all practical purposes once again an arm of Russian intelligence. That's a pretty significant statement.
SULLIVAN: I'm pleased, but I have to say this was obvious and apparent to anyone following this closely.
So, I'm glad that Director Pompeo has caught up to this, has made the point, but this is not new news. It has been well-known for some time now that Russia has used WikiLeaks to advance its interests at the expense of American interests.
And it's high time now I think for the president and the vice president to come out and reinforce what Director Pompeo has said.
BLITZER: Jake Sullivan, thanks for joining us.
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the breaking news, the first ever use of the largest non-nuclear bomb in U.S. combat.
Plus, North Korea is said to be -- quote -- "primed and ready" for a new nuclear test.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, President Trump says an unprecedented new show of American military force was very successful, the United States dropping the so-called Mother of All Bombs on ISIS targets inside Afghanistan.
It's the largest non-nuclear bomb the Pentagon has ever used in combat.
Let's talk about that and the other breaking news we're following with our political team.
Rebecca Berg, what message does it send that this administration, the U.S. military decided for the first time ever to use this weapon? REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, clearly, it sends a
message, Wolf, that Donald Trump was serious when he said on the campaign trail that he would aggressively take on ISIS.
I think the words he used at the time were that he would bomb the hell out of ISIS. So, we see him now authorizing strikes that indeed do just that.
[18:30:20] But it says more broadly, of course, that the U.S. is very serious, not only about fighting ISIS, but about taking on all of our enemies. This comes, of course, just days after we sent missiles into Syria. And so it shows that Donald Trump and our military under his direction are not, you know, shy about taking on our targets.
BLITZER: So Ron Brownstein, as all of us remember, during the campaign, Donald Trump has a candidate was always very, very firm, outspoken in speaking out against intervention in these various Middle Eastern countries, but now we see he is intervening. What does that say to you?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think he's actually following the pattern what he talked about in the campaign. What he condemned was the idea of full-scale, on-the-ground intervention, particularly for regime change that would reshape the society.
What he essentially said was "We would keep our distance, but we would use our long-distance military might to attack our enemies." And I think that is, in both Syria and here, even more emphatically, what he has been doing.
He is operating on kind of a narrow ledge, though. I mean, if you look at the public reaction of the attack in Syria, in particular, I think this will have more support. That was on the low end of what we have seen for other military interventions, and essentially, I think that is largely a hangover of the concerns about his judgment and his veracity that have been so evident in polls in the first three months in his administration.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick, the president said today, praised the success of the bombing today, this huge bomb that was dropped in Afghanistan against these ISIS targets. And he said that the U.S. military over the past eight weeks has been -- has shown a tremendous difference, much more effective than the U.S. military over the past eight years. He was pretty specific on that. He's got a much greater renewed confidence on the U.S. military right now, doesn't he?
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": So first of all, the U.S. military is the most capable military in the world, regardless of president. I think it serves his narrative to say that he's turned the page; there's a new sheriff in town; and his leadership, the military is being more aggressive or on a more aggressive footing.
That being said, look, let's face it, President Obama was fighting ISIS since 2014. The Mosul operation was well underway already, and plenty of drone strikes and air attacks had already taken place. He has gotten familiar, or comfortable, I should say, as Rebecca said, with using military fire power now in these last couple of weeks, and so he wants to, you know, project that.
BERG: And also, I think an important point is that Donald Trump has made the point that he did in his comments today that he isn't going to waste time authorizing personally all of these strikes. He's giving the military leeway to make these decisions on their own, which is something that we haven't seen.
BLITZER: Well, David Axelrod, go ahead and weigh in. What did you think?
DAVID AXELROD, FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISOR: Well, you know, the interesting thing about that was that the president during his campaign was highly critical of the generals. Remember, he said, "I know better than the generals." Now he's saying, "Hey, whatever the generals want is fine with me. I've got a lot of faith in the generals."
And it's just one of many examples of how profoundly he's changed from the candidate to the president. You know, he came to this with less experience than anybody who's ever had this job. He acknowledges he doesn't read. He didn't read presidential biographies. And now he's saying, "Well, you know, this is a lot more complicated than I thought."
But the thing is he sold himself as the guy who would make it less complicated. So it's sort of interesting to see him come face-to-face with the realities of governance.
BLITZER: He's changed his mind on several issues within the past few days, David Axelrod: on NATO, for example, relations with Russia, China's currency manipulation, the Export-Import Bank of America, intervention in the Middle East. It's flipped on a lot of these issues within the last few days alone. Is that encouraging to you?
AXELROD: Well, I mean, I think it's interesting to me. Look, I want him to make responsible decisions. I'm not one who wants him to make bad decisions so Democrats can seize a political advantage. I don't think that's good, in the long run, for anyone.
But what we've seen is you had a candidate who had not so much a set of positions but a set of applause lines, and they were very pungent. It's a great applause line to kick China. It's a great applause line to kick Mexico. There's a lot of political currency in attacking NATO. But when you get into that job and you have to make decisions, and you have this grave responsibility, all of a sudden the reality sets in; and that's what we're seeing here.
BLITZER: Right after the election, Ron, President Obama gave some advice to President Trump -- president-elect then Trump, now President Trump. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) [18:35:00] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This office has a way of waking you up. And those -- those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don't match up with reality, he will find shaken up pretty quick, because reality has a way of asserting itself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Obama gave him some good advice.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, well, the place where that's most obvious in the recent flurry of activity is on China, where he said to a remarkably explicit extent, to "The Wall Street Journal," what other presidents -- other presidents have implicitly acknowledged, which is that there's only so far he can push China on trade while he also wants their cooperation on restraining North Korea.
I would add one point, though, Wolf, which is that all of the changes that you cited, as well as the indications that they are not seeking as fundamental a change in the North American Free Trade Agreement, as he talked about on the campaign, all of those are going in the same direction. They are all areas where his campaign agenda, where his economic nationalism, the kind of insular nationalism, departed from traditional Republican thinking. And on all of those fronts, as if by magnetic pull, he is being pulled back toward a view that is much more widely shared across the party.
You see the same kind of thing reduced to the kind of personnel challenge and the question of whether Steve Bannon is being eclipsed by Jared Kushner. And one of the things I think we are seeing is that the economic nationalism that was so important in Trump's campaign simply lacks institutional support: the think tanks in Congress, and interest groups in the Republican Party. And as all of the interests of the other side of those debates assert themselves, that is where he is, by and large, changing direction with the exception of immigration.
BLITZER: Yes. So David Swerdlick, how much of this is the result of, for example, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, being removed from the National Security Council, the principals committee and other reduction, shall we say, in his influence?
SWERDLICK: Yes, I think it's a cascading effect. Right? Over the course of the last 80 or so days, almost to the end of President Trump's first 100 days, he hasn't gotten great marks on a lot of his initiatives. And some of that is attributed to Bannon's influence or an agenda that Bannon has been driving. And so if that's not working for President Trump, who wants to look good coming out of these first 100 days, it's going to mean a diminishment of Steve Bannon's influence, at least in the short term. I'm not going to predict that he's out, but his way of looking at things is down.
BLITZER: You think so, David Axelrod, that Steve Bannon's removal from some of these key decisions is -- the result has been what we've seen over the past few days, a much more establishment-oriented strategy? AXELROD: Yes. What I think is that you have a president who doesn't
have much grounding in these issues, and you've seen a battle among his aides for primacy and influence on them.
And I agree with David. I think Bannon's initial forays, whether it was on the -- the travel order or on the Affordable Care Act repeal, were not successes.
And Donald Trump doesn't much care about being inconsistent, but he does care about winning. And he hasn't been winning, and I think that's given an opening to the Gary Cohns, to Jared Kushner and others, to run into the gap.
BLITZER: And I think it's fair to say, Rebecca, assuming these military actions, these other moves by the president generate public support, he'll continue more of that.
BERG: Absolutely. This is a president who cited the polls at every single campaign rally throughout the course of the election. You can bet that he's paying attention to his approval ratings right now which are historically low. If those go up, he's going to pay attention to that.
BLITZER: He certainly will. All right. Everybody stay with us. There's a lot more coming up. President Trump's new threats -- threat to Democrats and millions of people with health coverage under Obamacare. Is it political blackmail?
[18:43:42] BLITZER: President Trump has just arrived at West Palm Beach International Airport. He's going to be spending this Easter Sunday weekend down at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach with his family. We understand the first lady, Melania Trump, flew separately down to West Palm Beach from New York City. They'll be getting together Mar-a- Lago. This president likes to clearly go to his estate down in Palm Beach on these weekends, especially a long weekend like this one. There's he's going to get into the limousine, head over to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend.
Most of the senior aides, we're told, remained in Washington. They clearly want to be with their families this weekend, as well. We do know that the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, he drove from the White House out to Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C., with the president. Wanted to discuss some final issues before Reince Priebus headed back to the city to be with his family.
All right. We're going to monitor the president of the United States in Palm Beach this weekend.
We're back with our political team and the fallout from President Trump's renewed push on health care. He's now threatening to kill subsidies to Obamacare unless Democrats take part in negotiations to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Some opponents are accusing the president of a reckless attempt at political blackmail.
Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is joining us. Sunlen, the president is considering a risky move, I understand.
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is a risky move, Wolf. A move that would have some serious implications. And it's already setting off some major alarm bells with Democrats and some Republicans. But the president is essentially here floating these new aggressive tactics in an attempt to force Democrats to the table.
SERFATY (voice-over): After his initial attempt at health care failed, President Trump seemed ready to move on.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, we're going to go toward tax reform.
SERFATY: Now, he's pulling a U-turn.
TRUMP: I have to do health care first. I want to do it first, to really do it right.
SERFATY: Pushing health care back to the top of his legislative agenda.
TRUMP: The tax reform and the tax cuts are better if I can do health care first.
SERFATY: And considering scrapping an Obamacare subsidy program which reimburses health insurers for covering low income people.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is an ongoing discussion on that matter.
SERFATY: The provocative idea amounts to a threat to force Democrats to the negotiating table or risk seeing insurers pull out of the Obama marketplace exchanges immediately without the payments, jeopardizing the entire system and putting many low income families at risk.
Trump telling "The Wall Street Journal," "I don't want people to get hurt. What I think should happen and will happen is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating."
The move is not sitting well with Democrats. A Democratic leadership aide telling CNN the president's threat threw gas on the fire.
SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: This is so reckless and irresponsible. I mean, the president tries to say with a straight face it's not going hurt people but it will simply throw a monkey wrench into the system.
SERFATY: And Democrats are already signaling they'll try to make the payments part of the fight over the government spending bill that will happen later this month, that implode strategy is being shot down by some Republicans too.
REP. MIKE COFFMAN (R), COLORADO: I disagree with the president when he says that we ought to let the health insurance exchanges just implode and then the Democrats will come around. That's not fair to the people.
SERFATY: Just as much Republicans are back home for a two-week recess.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you going to side with Trump or are you going to keep your promise and stand with your constituents? We just want to know why.
SERFATY: And facing major blow back from angry constituents.
REP. GREG WALDEN (R), OREGON: Last year in America, there were 225 counties where people had one insurance choice, one.
SERFATY: The Trump administration is insisting their goal to revive health care negotiations is making progress behind the scenes.
SPICER: I think we're getting closer and closer every day.
SERFATY: But sources tell CNN there's no major shift towards any agreement that can pass yet and the lynch pin in getting a deal is still bridging the Republican divide between conservatives and moderates in the House, which brought down a deal before and is still illusive now.
SERFATY: Meantime, behind closed doors today, President Trump signed a law rolling back an Obama era regulation giving states now options now to block federal funding to any organization that provides abortions, including Planned Parenthood. States now would get the freedom to allocate and potentially withhold money that goes to services like birth control, pregnancy test, cervical cancer screenings, among many other services -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Sunlen. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you very much.
Let's get back to the panel.
David Axelrod, let me get your quick reaction to what we just heard. Go ahead.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the president's playing with dynamite. I don't think he's -- I think Democrats are going to be very resistant to this tactic and they're going to let him pull the rug out from under the Affordable Care Act, millions of people could suffer because of the actions he takes and then there's the political blood will be on his hand for this.
So, I -- I think this is a bad strategy, though, I think it's a recognition that they need this in order to move forward with tax reform and he's going back to it because the whole puzzle is hard to put together. Again, this is complicated. Governing is complicated.
BLITZER: David makes a point in that "Wall Street Journal" interview, Ron Brownstein, he said, you got to pass health reform first, you got to repeal and replace before you do anything like tax reform, infrastructure, you got to do this first.
So, he's determined apparently.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he needs the money, right? I mean, in the health care bill, the CBO estimates that the Republican health care bill would reduce federal spending on Medicaid by $880 billion over the next decade, which can be applied as an offset to the cost of tax cuts.
The problem they're facing as I talk about in my column this week is that the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act basically raised the reach of the program up the income ladder precisely as Trump extended the reach of the Republican coalition down the income ladder, and you now have in a number of states, many voters who benefitted from the Medicaid expansion are precisely the lower income white voters who are the core, the cornerstone of the Republican coalition.
[18:50:12] In Ohio, for example, where John Kasich has been opposing this bill, 71 percent of the people who gained coverage under the Medicaid expansion are white and about three-fifths of them lacked anymore education than a high school degree. So, it is largely the Republicans' own coalition in many of these states that would be hurt by this. And that, I think, remains kind of the biggest single barrier. Even if they can somehow find a way to get this through the House, which is very unclear, the prospects in the Senate remain murkier than even in the House.
BLITZER: Is he making progress in wooing the conservative Republicans in the House?
REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Well, it remains to be seen, Wolf. We haven't seen a deal, which is really what they want. But they've been having discussions. Mark Meadows mentioned in an interview this week back in his district that he's had conversations with the vice president, with the speaker.
So, they're still trying to find some middle ground and there's certainly incentive for Republicans to get there. But this idea that Democrats suddenly for no reason except that the president's threatening them are going to join these negotiation, it's a pipe dream.
BLITZER: It does make it even more difficult for the Democrats to join them, right, with the threat like this hovering over their heads?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, there's a policy problem and a political problem. Political-wise, if these subsidies are taken away, as I understand it, you risk people going back to the olden days where people show up at the emergency room with no insurance or more people go on Medicare, that doesn't satisfy people in either party, and there's not a lot of incentives for Democrats to work -- BLITZER: All right. We got some more breaking news coming in, a very
dangerous new discovery about North Korea's nuclear program. As Kim Jong-un may be preparing to press the button on a new test very soon.
[18:56:07] BLITZER: Tonight, a terrifying discovery, as North Korea appears primed and ready to launch a new nuclear test within days, maybe even hours, we're learning that Kim Jong Un's regime has the ability to test devices far more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
CNN's Brian Todd is joining us. He's following all these very tense developments.
The danger from North Korea clearly seems to be escalating, Brian, with the U.S. warships now in the region. President Trump threatening to act.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf, President Trump just said that North Korea is a problem that will be taken care of. And a short time ago, a U.S. defense official told me a nuclear test by Kim Jong Un's regime would be destabilizing and North Korea should be aware that there are consequences for the use of a weapon of mass destruction -- tough talk all around tonight as we get new information about Kim's nuclear capability.
TODD (voice-over): With flags, martial music, and crowd applauding Kim Jong-un swaggers confidently to the podium. This is simply a ribbon cutting for a new block of apartment buildings in Pyongyang. But it's what the audacious young leader is doing with his military that's got U.S. intelligence officials watching closely tonight.
The monitoring group 38 North says satellite imagery reveals North Korea's Punggye-ri site is, quote, "primed and ready" for the country's sixth nuclear bomb test. The group says the North Koreans have stopped pumping water and dumping material from a key tunnel, leading to the underground blast site. And they've noticed something at the mouth of the tunnel.
JOEL WIT, 38 NORTH: This trailer pulling up to the front which may be installing equipment for the test or even installing a device, a nuclear device.
TODD: U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that this weekend, Kim may conduct a nuclear test around the country's most important holiday, the birthday of Kim's grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Tonight, 38 North tells CNN of a frightening capability they've just discovered.
WIT: They've been testing devices in the range of 10 to 20 kilotons, which is about the range of Hiroshima. But we've discovered they can test devices that are much bigger than that, in the range of 250 kilotons.
TODD: That's about 16 times more TNT than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Kim purportedly also has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons.
And today, Japan's prime minister said North Korea may have the capability to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve agent. Could Kim use those weapons like Syria's Bashar al-Assad allegedly did?
VICTOR CHA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The North Korean leader has been such an abuser of human rights. It's entirely plausible that he might consider using chemical weapons in some sort of attack.
TODD: Tonight, President Trump reinforces his point that he's counting on China to help put the brakes on Kim's weapons buildup.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.
TODD: Tonight, as Kim gears up for a possible nuclear test and as U.S. warships head for the Korean Peninsula, analysts worry about a hair trigger mistake.
CHA: The thing I'm concerned most about is miscalculation. Ramping up of tensions of this country, it's like a tinderbox. All it takes is a spark to start a fire.
TODD: And don't look for Kim Jong-un to back off this military posture anytime soon. One analyst says he doesn't think Kim is interested in negotiating anything with the U.S. and its allies until he's got his nuclear weapons capability fully up and running. In that respect, this analyst says Kim Jong-un acts much like a mafia don -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Is there some recent evidence though that China's actually helping Kim with some of these weapons, even while China's president said North Korea's buildup is a problem?
TODD: That's right, Wolf. A recent U.N. report saying U.S. companies have likely been supplying Kim's regime with some of its nuclear and missile parts. The U.N. report says after North Korean rocket test last year, some of those parts fell into the ocean and traced parts like ball bearings and pressure transmitters right back to Chinese companies.
BLITZER: Very worrisome. Brian Todd, reporting, thanks very much.
That's it for me.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.