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Sources: Key Senators Irked by Slow Russia Probe; North Korea Detaining American Professor; Interview with Sen. Ben Cardin; Government Shutdown Looms Over Border Wall Fight; Obama Reveals "Single Most Important Thing" He Can Do. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 24, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: Turning it over to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, walled off. President Trump's border wall is now a potential barrier to stopping a government shutdown. A battle is looming over spending billions of U.S. tax dollars on it, when the president vowed Mexico would pay for it. How will the wall fight end?

[17:00:23] Americans held. North Korea detains an American professor, the third U.S. citizen now held by the Kim Jong-un regime. President Trump is speaking out and stepping up pressure. We'll go live to North Korea this hour for an exclusive report.

Investigation angst. Growing frustration among key lawmakers at the slow pace of the Senate probe into Moscow's meddling in the U.S. presidential election. What's behind long delays in collecting crucial documents and lining up key witnesses?

And Obama's back. The former president makes his first public appearance since leaving office, ending months of silence. What is he saying about his successor and the unusual events of the last three months?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following the scramble to avert a government shutdown. On Friday lawmakers are battling over funding for President Trump's border wall, which needs more than a billion U.S. taxpayer dollars to get started, despite the president's repeated insistence that Mexico would pay for it.

We're also following the case of a U.S. citizen being detained by North Korea, exasperating tension over defiant missile and nuclear tests by the Kim Jong-un regime, which is now holding three Americans. We're going live to Pyongyang this hour for an exclusive report.

And new tonight, former President Obama re-emerging after three months of silence with his first public appearance since leaving office. He took part in a forum at the University of Chicago, answering questions while avoiding direct mention of his White House successor.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents and expert analysts, they're also standing by.

Let's begin with a border wall battle and efforts to avoid a government shutdown just days from now. Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us with the latest. Jim, the administration wants more than $1 billion to simply start the construction of that wall.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Trump is moving closer to hitting his first 100 days in office with the prospect of a government shutdown looming over everything. Aides to the president are confident that's not going to happen even though one of the sticking point in the negotiations goes straight to the heart of Mr. Trump owes biggest campaign prompts, the wall.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I have to say welcome to the White House.

ACOSTA (voice-over): It just might be the biggest barrier standing in the way of a deal to prevent a looming government shutdown: President Trump's quest for funding to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The president is ramping up the pressure, tweeting, "The wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth and many others. If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will never be fixed the way it should be."

White House officials are also pushing Congress to make sure wall money is included in any bill to keep the government running.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I think that as long as the president's priorities are adequately reflected in the C.R. and allows us to get moving with an increase in military spending and a rebuilding of our military, as he promised in one of our bullet points and there's enough or face as flexibility for the border wall and border security, I think we'll be OK with that.

ACOSTA: But that flies in the face of what is perhaps the president's biggest campaign promise: that Mexico would pay for the wall.

TRUMP: We're going to build that wall. Don't even think about it. And who is going to pay for the wall?








SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We feel very confident the government is not going to shut down.

Reporter: White House press secretary Sean Spicer insists the president isn't going back on his WORD.

ACOSTA: On the wall, why is there even discussion about shutting down the government over paying for the wall? Isn't Mexico supposed to pay for the wall?

SPICER: Well, I think the president has made very clear that initially we needed to get funding going, and there would be several mechanisms to make sure that that happens. That funding piece will happen in due time.

ACOSTA: In his campaign's contract with American voters, the president vowed to introduce a bill in his first 100 days in office that would force Mexico to ultimately pay for the wall, one of several promises he hasn't kept.

Now the White House is releasing its own 100 days highlights, stressing the military's strike on Syria, the administration's still- frozen travel ban, his Supreme Court pick, and efforts to help women and minorities, nearly all stemming from executive actions. But the president appeared to offer a new promise, finding a solution to North Korea.

TRUMP: People put blindfolds on for decades, and now we're starting to solve the problem.

ACOSTA: The latest polls find Mr. Trump's approval rating at historic lows for a president just 100 days in office. Still Trump voters said in one poll they'd choose him again. The president's supporters can't seem to get enough of his blunt language.

[17:05:11] Consider what he said to an astronaut on the Space Station when told a manned mission to Mars would have to wait until the 2030s. The president said that's not fast enough.

TRUMP: Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or at worst during my second term, so we'll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?


ACOSTA: The White House is also looking to make a big splash on Wednesday with the president's tax reform proposal. A White House official says the president is expected to recommend a 15 percent corporate tax rate. That's a massive reduction for U.S. companies from their current rate of 35 percent, though it's unclear how any of that would be paid for by the Trump administration. And as for the wall, White House officials are still touting that drop in crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border as one of their biggest accomplishments during the first 100 days in office, Wolf, but when asked whether that means the wall is no longer necessary, they say no. Aides are saying no. The president still wants his wall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jim Acosta over at the White House, thank you.

We're also following reports of growing frustration among key senators at the slow pace of the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential race.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working the story for us. Jim, what are you hearing from your sources?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you'll remember the Senate Intelligence Committee was meant to be the leader in this Russian investigation. You've had the problems and the divisions on the House side, the Devin Nunes recusal, et cetera. A more even balance between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Intelligence Committee, but now we're seeing breaks in that bipartisanship.

Several Democratic members and staffers telling CNN that there are problems and delays in calling key witnesses and getting key documents, and they want to see that changed.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R-NC), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I'd like to call this hearing to order.

SCIUTTO: Tonight complaints of frustrating delays inside the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Russia sought to hijack our democratic process.

SCIUTTO: Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is quote, "very unhappy the investigation is not moving faster," according to a Senate source familiar with his thinking. Why? Delays in collecting crucial documents and lining up key witnesses for public testimony.

Another source with knowledge of private conversations says it took Senator Warner and GOP committee Chairman Richard Burr nearly two months to negotiate with the intelligence community for access to sensitive information. A spokesman for senator Burr declined to comment to CNN, though last month, Burr described the committee's access as unprecedented.

BURR: They've been provided thousands of pages of documents and have reviewed, to date, a majority of those documents. We're within weeks of completing the review of those documents.

SCIUTTO: More than a month ago, Senator Ron Wyden wrote senators Warner and Burr demanding, quote, "a thorough review of any and all financial relationships between Russia and President Trump and his associates." To date, that portion of the investigation has yet to begin.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I think this must move much more aggressively and particularly on the key issues: open hearings, following the money. And I have made it very clear to the bipartisan leadership of the committee that this needs to move faster, and it needs be more transparent.

SCIUTTO: Republicans and others on the Intelligence Committee dispute the complaints. Independent Senator Angus King told CNN, quote, "I don't know of any partisan delays or any of that. The staff is working very diligently at it."

GOP member Senator James Lankford tweeted, quote, "Reports about Russia probe are wrong. Don't confuse silence for lack of progress. Intel Committee must conduct classified investigations quietly."

Still, the committee has yet to interview or request any key witnesses...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much.

SCIUTTO: ... including former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

CNN has learned the FBI gathered intelligence last summer that suggests Russian operatives tried to use Trump advisers, including Page, to infiltrate the Trump campaign.


SCIUTTO: GOP committee member Susan Collins says the probe cannot be rushed.

COLLINS: Obviously, I wish there were a way that it could go even more quickly, but I think it's important that we be thorough.


SCIUTTO: I just spoke a short time ago with Senator Angus King, the independent senator on the Intelligence Committee. He said, in his view, it remains a bipartisan review, Wolf. He notes that this week they're just back from recess, of course. They're going to meet three times on the Intelligence Committee this week. But he did say, "Call me in a week, and I'll tell you then if it still remains a bipartisan effort."

BLITZER: We know the House Intelligence Committee has hearings scheduled for May 2, closed-door hearings, open hearings. When is the first Senate hearing?

SCIUTTO: Well, we don't know yet, and one of the questions is when are they going to call people like Carter Page, Paul Manafort, et cetera? I'm told by a Senate staffer that, listen, they're going to call them, but they're only going to get one shot at them. So they want to call them when they're ready to do so.

[17:10:04] BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that report.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland is joining us. He's the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Do you believe your colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee have the resources right now they need to conduct a thorough investigation?

CARDIN: Well, I certainly have concerns as to whether they can do the type of thorough investigation that's needed. That's why I called for an independent investigation, similar to what we used after the 9/11 attack. We should have a non-partisan, full-time investigation done as to what Russia was doing in the United States in order to protect ourselves, and the connections to the Trump campaign.

I have confidence that the Senate Intelligence Committee, I know the members will try to do their work, but we can see there's already been some disputes as to access to information. We'll see, but I am concerned as to how far a congressional committee can go in connecting all the information that's important.

BLITZER: You're not alone in wanting an independent 9/11-type commission to investigate. Why isn't there such a commission?

CARDIN: Well, the Republicans won't allow us to move forward on an independent commission. Many of my colleagues have joined me in this request. I filed legislation to do it. In the House, we had efforts by Leader Pelosi to establish this. We've heard Republicans say we need an independent investigation, but the Republican leadership has not been willing to allow us to create such a non-partisan, full-time commission, independent of Congress.

SCIUTTO: As you know, there's a House Intelligence Committee investigation, a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, but there also is an FBI investigation that's been going on, a criminal investigation, into all of this since July. What's wrong with that? Why not just trust the FBI to get the job done?

CARDIN: I think the FBI is doing a very important investigation here. They're looking at the efforts by foreign interests to -- to influence our campaign and whether of our domestic laws were violated as a result of those contacts. That's a very important jurisdiction. They have criminal jurisdiction. Congress does not have criminal jurisdiction; nor would a special commission. So it's important that the Department of Justice to move forward.

It's also important for congressional committees to do what they're responsible to do as far as oversight. But for the American people, I think it's important to have an independent commission that can look at the entire activities of Russia trying to influence the United States. Look at all the contacts and draw an independent conclusion.

BLITZER: Let's turn to another top story, Senator. Lawmakers will need to find some sort of bipartisan compromises including, what, 60 votes in the Senate to pass new spending legislation and prevent the government from shutting down on Saturday.

The president wants Democrats to support funding -- start funding $1.4 billion for the wall with Mexico. Are you willing to provide any funding for that border wall as part of a larger compromise?

CARDIN: First, Wolf, it's ridiculous that we're talking about, in April, completing the FY-17 budget. It should have been completed by October 1, 2016. So this is an untenable situation that we're this late in the fiscal year and still have not passed a full-year appropriation.

The wall would be a waste of taxpayer dollars. It would be offensive to our southern border country of Mexico. We need their cooperation. And let me just tell you: I was on the border, talking to the people who protect our border, and they don't believe a border wall will do anything to help us in regards to the drug trafficking in the United States. Most of the drugs come in through commerce or they come in over the wall -- over our border through air but not through -- or tunnels. The wall itself would have no impact.

This is a waste of money, and it's counterproductive to getting the type of cooperation we need from Mexico in trafficking of individuals or drugs.

BLITZER: Are you willing to shut down the federal government this weekend if that funding is included in the spending bill? In other words, would you allow that one issue to stop the government from operating?

CARDIN: We should not shut down government. We should always continue to fund the operations of government. And I would certainly support a continuing resolution, if we can't get a budget, that would allow us to continue the current policies.

But I must tell you this: it's up to the Republicans. They have control of the White House, the Senate and the House. If they're insisting on wasting taxpayer money, I think some of us have to stand up and say no.

However, let's go -- if we have to, we'll go to a considering resolution. That's a failure, by the way, because we should have a budget, but at least let's make sure government stays open.

BLITZER: As you know, Senator, subsidies for Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, are also at stake in this potential showdown. The president thinks the Democratic Party will get the blame if the government shuts down, because in his opinion, Obamacare is in a death spiral, and they need the money to keep it afloat. What do you make of the president's perspective?

[17:15:02] CARDIN: Well, I totally disagree with it. But let me just remind you, it was over a year ago that we entered into a budget agreement. Democrats and Republicans entered into a compromise with President Obama for the -- for this year's budget. So this is -- the Republicans are backtracking from an agreement that had already been reached in regards to the FY-17 budget.

We are not going to allow the emergency budget to dictate our healthcare policy in this country. We're more than willing to debate ways that we can improve health care in America. We are not going to support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And if the president tries to do this through taking away the subsidies for hard-working Americans who need that for health care, we're going to have that debate in this country.

BLITZER: Senator, we're getting new information on North Korean, the threats coming from North Korea right now. Let's take a quick break, resume our conversation...


BLITZER: ... right after this.


[17:20:28] BLITZER: We're back with Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We want to talk to him about the situation with North Korea.

Senator, stand by. President Trump pressed the issue to members of the U.N. Security Council at a White House luncheon today.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The status quo in North Korea is also unacceptable, and the council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This is a real threat to the world. Whether we want to talk about about it or not. North Korea is a big world problem. And it's a problem we have to finally solve.


BLITZER: And now North Korea's is detaining an American professor. CNN's Will Ripley is in Pyongyang on his 12th visit to North Korea. He has an exclusive report.

Will, you're learning new information. Update our viewers.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know, Wolf, that this American citizen was detained over the weekend at the Pyongyang airport. This is the main entry and exit point of the country.

But the status of his case right now is about as clear as the weather here in Pyongyang. Which means we can't see anything. We don't know anything. We don't know where he is. We don't know the conditions he's being housed in, but what we do know is that this underscores what the State Department calls a real danger for Americans who visit this country.


RIPLEY (voice-over): He was just steps away from boarding a flight out of North Korea, but something happened at the Pyongyang airport, and now an American citizen is in custody.

(on camera): This airport is one of the only ways in and out of North Korea. Just a handful of flights pass through on any given week, and it was here that North Korean officials detained a man over the weekend as he was trying to board a flight out of the country.

Kim Sang-Duk, who goes by Tony Kim, had just finished several weeks of teaching at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a private institution where foreign professors, including Americans, teach North Korean students.

In a statement to CNN, the university says, "We understand this detention is related to an investigation into matters not connected in any way with the work of the university." Details of that investigation or any charges against Kim remain a mystery. So far North Korea has stayed silent.

Complicating matters, Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. All communications go through the Swedish embassy, which confirmed to CNN Kim's detention but refused further comment. The U.S. State Department also says it's working on the case.

OTTO WARMBIER, AMERICAN DETAINED IN NORTH KOREA: I have made the worst mistake of my life.

RIPLEY: Kim joins at least two other U.S. citizens also in North Korean custody. University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was on a sight-seeing tour last year when he was accused of removing a political sign from a hotel wall. His sentence: 15 years hard labor.

Kim Dong Chul is a naturalized U.S. citizen serving ten years hard labor on spying charges. The status of both men unknown.

This apparent third detention of an American citizen comes on the heels of a new warning from the Pentagon after North Korea threatened to take out a U.S. aircraft carrier.

North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, unveiled never-before-seen missiles at the Day of the Sun military parade, including two new ICBMs that could someday be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the mainland U.S.

Despite rising tensions, travel to North Korea continues as normal. More than 100 people boarded Monday's only flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, including dozens of tourists. Tour companies organizing these trips say everyone will leave safely as long as they follow North Korean law. The detainment of yet another American, a sobering reminder going home is not always guaranteed.


RIPLEY: At least 14 Americans have been detained here in North Korea over the last decade, and in the past, the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, came here to secure the release of two of them. Former President Clinton was here back in 2009 to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

But what's complicating the situation now, Wolf, is that the DPRK considers this a wartime law situation in regards to the United States, so they're treating U.S. prisoners very differently, and it makes it much for difficult, perhaps, for the Trump administration to try to negotiate and secure their release. So we really don't know what's going to happen.

BLITZER: Will Ripley, doing exclusive reporting for us from Pyongyang in North Korea, the only western television journalist right now, television reporter on the scene. We'll say in close touch with you, Will. Thank you very much.

[17:25:12] Let's get back to Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, I understand you and Senator Lindsey Graham met with members of the U.N. Security Council earlier today here in Washington. What was their perspective on this very tense situation with North Korea?

CARDIN: Well, I thought we had a very honest exchange of views with the ambassadors to the Security Council of the United Nations, and we did talk a great deal about North Korea and its behavior, on its nuclear ambitions and its use of -- creating more ballistic missile capacity, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. We talked about having a strong position, a united position against their activities.

So I thought we had a pretty open discussion about it. All of the Security Council ambassadors were there, including China and Russia. So it was a chance for, I think, the Security Council to hear directly from members of Congress about our concern about support from the international community to isolate and change the equation in North Korea so that they find a diplomatic way to end this crisis.

BLITZER: Yes, following your meeting, they went over to the White House to have lunch with the president.

The White House, as you know, has escalated its rhetoric, Senator, against North Korea in recent weeks, including those tough words today from President Trump, in which he called the status quo unacceptable, threatened future sanctions. Is that kind of talk, do you believe, productive?

CARDIN: I think the president has pointed out, and rightly so, that what North Korea is doing, these ballistic missile tests, the ability to put together a nuclear weapon and now to be able to deliver that nuclear weapon perhaps as far as the continental United States, is an unacceptable posture. They're violating their international commitments.

But I think it's critically important that we have mature leadership from the United States in the global community and we find a path forward to change the equation in North Korea. That means we've got to engage China so that it's in North Korea's interests to sit down and negotiate a peaceful end to this development of nuclear capacity.

We want to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. That's what China wants. That's what the United States wants. So I think it's important that we find a path forward.

My concern with the White House is that they have not shared with Congress a coherent policy in North Korea. We need to have that policy in place, so we know our objectives. I am concerned as to whether the Trump administration actually has such policy.

BLITZER: All right. Senator Cardin, thanks for joining us.

CARDIN: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, former President Obama breaks his silence with his first public appearance since leaving office.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So what's been going on while I've gone?



BLITZER: The nation's lawmakers are back here in Washington tonight, looking for a compromise to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the week.

[17:32:35] This afternoon, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer complained negotiations were going very well until, quote, "a monkey wrench was thrown into them." That would be President Trump's demand for money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Let's bring in our experts. And Chris Cillizza, the conventional wisdom is if there's a government shutdown, the president's party, the Republicans, would be at -- would be blamed by the public.


BLITZER: But do you accept that?

CILLIZZA: Yes, I think so. I mean, President Trump is the least conventional politician we've seen in the modern political era. But I think even he grasps the fact that, if you control the White House, you control the Senate and you control the House, and the government shuts down, it is unlikely to be a good thing for your party.

Plus, remember, one of the things they have to prove, broadly speaking, is they can govern, right? This was a party who made its bones as an opposition party to President Obama. Particularly in Congress, they have to figure out to show, yes, we can do these things. We can make the government work. We can do our most basic duty, which is passing these funding bills.

BLITZER: The president and his aides seem to think that subsidies for Affordable Care Act, for Obamacare, are a huge leverage point that they have to convince the Democrats to go along with what they want.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there is some truth to that, Wolf, because the White House has really no leverage in this negotiation, which is a huge political problem for them. It is some leverage, because Democrats obviously want this funding.

But ultimately, look at how this would play out politically in the long term. These are subsidies that, if you're eliminating them or reducing them by themselves, so not as part of a larger healthcare reform package, that means that healthcare companies, insurers are going to need to hike their premiums. And that falls on consumers. And who would the consumers, the American voters, blame for that? Probably Republicans; probably the president. It's not a political situation you want to be in.

BLITZER: So Jeffrey Toobin, it's a good idea for the president to pit health care subsidies on one side against -- versus funding for the wall with Mexico?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's consistent with the way he's governed for the past 100 days, which is appealing to his base. I mean, the two key promises he made as -- as a candidate were he's going to build a wall, and he's going to repeal and replace Obamacare. That's the choice he wants to put before members of Congress.

That hasn't led him to be very popular except with his base, but that's how he's geared his presidency.

You know, these numbers probably have enough fudge factor in them that they can reach some sort of compromise, but he's not giving up on the wall. I mean, this is why he ran and won for president.

BLITZER: Yes, he kept saying during the campaign, Chris -- we all remember -- he guaranteed Mexico was going to pay for the wall. He'd go to a rally and ask the crowd, "Who's going to pay for the wall?" They would all shout, "Mexico!"

But now he's got a little revised statement, this tweet that he put out. He said this: "Eventually but at a later date, so we can get started early. Mexico will be paying in some form for the badly- needed border wall." It sounds like he's backtracking.

CILLIZZA: Having come from a newspaper background, a copy editor would have a real fun time with that sentence.

But yes, I think if you break it down and parse it out, he is essentially saying, "Trust me. I know how to make good deals. This is a down payment we will eventually get Mexico to pay."

Again, I think there is a lot of reason to be extremely skeptical of this. And I think what you've seen over the last 48 hours, with the exception of Homeland Security Secretary Kelly to Dana Bash, I think you've largely seen the administration take a step back from the demand that that $1.4 billion be in there, because, frankly, Wolf, it's not just that they're not going to get any Democratic votes if they try and do that; but there's going to be a lot of fiscally-minded Republicans who are not going to go along with that kind of spending for the promise of, "Oh, I'll get another country to pay us back later."

BLITZER: And Rebecca, you know a lot of Republicans are now expressing a lot of doubt that Mexico's eventually going to pay for that wall.

BERG: Oh, my gosh, Wolf, absolutely. I mean, all you have to do is look back to when the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, was introducing his skinny budget to reporters just a few weeks ago, and he literally laughed at the notion that Mexico would be paying for this wall. He was on the record in a room full of reporters.

I mean, this is not a secret. If it is, it's the worst-kept secret in Washington. Mexico is never paying for this wall, and Donald Trump is just stringing his supporters along.

CILLIZZA: But to Jeff's -- very quickly. Just quickly to Jeff's point. He does have to find a way out. He can't just totally walk away from it, because it was so central.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeff.

TOOBIN: Well, it's -- the other point is that the congressmen, the representatives along the border, in whose district this fence -- this wall would be built, they don't want it either. So I mean, there is a lot of movement to kick the can down the road, at least, on this wall, rather than have the government shut down over it.

BLITZER: Yes. Everybody stand by, because there's more news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:42:15] BLITZER: We're back with our political and legal experts.

Jeffrey Toobin, you heard Jim Sciutto report earlier this hour the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election seems to be progressing very, very slowly. Does it appear to you to be deliberate -- what's the problem here?

TOOBIN: Well, Congress never has trouble doing something more slowly than everyone expects, but it is also true that, as I understand it, there are no full-time investigators. It is -- the -- Senator Burr, the chairman, appears to be in no hurry to start subpoenaing documents. And, remember, this is still a Senate that is run by Republicans, who are in no great hurry or with no great enthusiasm pursuing President Trump. That's why so many people think this should be an independent investigation, because there is necessarily partisanship in all of this.

BLITZER: All of a sudden, Chris, the House Intelligence Committee investigation seems to be moving more deliberately than the Senate Intelligence Committee. They've got -- May 2, they've got a whole bunch of hearings scheduled.

CILLIZZA: It doesn't take much. I mean, Jeff is exactly right about the pace of Congress.

What I would say is I think, if you are looking for some resolution to this in a relatively timely manner, look to the Justice Department and the FBI investigation.

BLITZER: That's the criminal investigation.

CILLIZZA: That's the criminal -- not the same, but if you are looking for something, because there's just zero incentive for Republicans to rush this thing along.

Now, they don't want to have the look of stalling, because that is bad for them politically speaking, but they are not going to put this at the top of the agenda. I think they will regularly schedule things. But if you do not have a full-time staff or a full-time staffer working on this, of course it's necessarily going to go slower than a lot of us, I think, would like just to get answers.

BLITZER: One of the arguments they make, some of the Republicans, they want to be really careful, Rebecca, that they don't step on the FBI criminal investigation and do anything that could undermine that criminal investigation.

BERG: And that's absolutely a legitimate concern. I think both parties would agree that that's a legitimate concern. And there's also the question of just how long these investigations tend to take in general when you're looking at a Senate investigation.

I mean, you look at the CIA torture investigation that they pursued a few years ago, and that took years to compile that report, hundreds of pages worth of conclusions that they found. And so you could expect something similar for something of this breadth, of this scope. We're talking about an international counterintelligence sort of investigation. It's not easy for any Senate panel to do.

BLITZER: You think, Jeffrey, there's any chance there will be this 9/11-type independent outside investigation that really takes charge?

[17:45:00] TOOBIN: No. Do you have another question? No. I mean, it's just --

(LAUGHTER) TOOBIN: And you know, Mitch McConnell is not going to agree to this. This is something that, you know, the political heat is off for the moment.

You don't have Democrats talking about it every day. You don't have us in the news talking about it every day. And the only reason Mitch McConnell would do that was if there was just irresistible political pressure because he obviously doesn't want to. And so now you don't have the heat off --

BLITZER: What happens, Jeffrey, if the FBI and the Justice Department issue a series of indictments, and they seek to go after some of these players, some of these individuals, in court? Would that put enough pressure for an independent investigation from the Congress, a 9/11- type commission, to go forward?

TOOBIN: I don't think so, but I think the trials and cases themselves would be such a political bombshell that the congressional investigation might not matter at that point. But, I mean, we appear to be a long way from that.

And, you know, this whole argument, that, oh, we don't want to interfere with the Justice Department, by subpoenaing documents and e- mails, you're not interfering with anything. I mean, the e-mails exist in the world. You're not changing them. And, you know, it's just Congress can always find reasons to delay. They are finding reasons, and, you know, the race between the House and the Senate here is the race between the tortoise and the tortoise.

BERG: This will actually give Democrats, I think, a very compelling political case to make in the mid-term elections. They will probably say on the campaign trail, look at how long this is taking. If you put us in power, we will expedite this process.

BLITZER: A long way to go until those mid-term elections. All right, guys.

Stand by. Coming up, former President Barack Obama steps back into the public spotlight. Will President Trump be as amused as this audience in Chicago?


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So what's been going on while I've been gone?



[17:51:24] BLITZER: In his first public appearance since leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama, today, spoke about what he calls the single most important thing he can do now that he's out of the White House. Let's go to CNN's Athena Jones. She is in Chicago for us.

Athena, tell us more about what the former president had to say.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, during his final weeks in office, we heard the President talk a lot about his post presidency and what his plans were. He talked about the importance of bringing new voices into the political process. And today, he said that developing the next generation of leaders would be the single most important thing he could do as a former president. He also said, today, that conversations like these with young people make him optimistic about the future, and he was clearly enjoying himself.


JONES (voice-over): President Obama in his first public appearance since leaving office.

OBAMA: So what's been going on while I've been gone?


JONES (voice-over): Making the case for civic engagement during a forum at the University of Chicago where he once taught.

OBAMA: The single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton.

JONES (voice-over): The former president was joined on stage by young leaders for a wide-ranging discussion on breaking down barriers to civic participation and bridging divides between the political parties. The President bemoaning a political culture he says can no longer agree on basic facts.

OBAMA: And that the internet, in some ways, has accelerated the sense of people having entirely separate conversations.

JONES (voice-over): But he carefully avoided wading into the politics of the moment, never mentioning his successor by name even as he discussed issues on which he disagrees with President Trump, like immigration.

OBAMA: It's not like everybody in Ellis Island had all their papers straight. You know, the truth is, the history of our immigration system has always been a little bit haphazard.

JONES (voice-over): The event comes after the former first couple enjoyed an extended vacation in far-flung locales, including a nearly month-long sojourn to French Polynesia where they reportedly hung out with Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Springsteen, and the President snapped photos of his wife on the deck of music and movie mogul David Geffen's yacht, scenes that went viral. Today, he had some advice for the young crowd about the perils of social media.

OBAMA: It is true that if we had pictures of everything I've done when I was in high school, I probably wouldn't have been President of the United States. So I would advise all of you to be a little more circumspect about your selfies. JONES (voice-over): And he encouraged them to think about what they

want to do with their lives, not just what title they hope to, one day, achieve.

OBAMA: Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.


JONES: Now, today marks the first in a series of appearances slated for the former president. Next month, in Boston, he'll receive the Centennial Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library. And later in the month, he is set to travel to Berlin to appear with his good friend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the Brandenburg Gate where he famously spoke to some 200,000 people during his first run for the White House -- Wolf.

[17:54:45] BLITZER: Athena Jones in Chicago, thank you. Coming up, new details of President Trump's tax plan and the possible government shut down looming this week.