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Directory Comey 'Nauseous' at Idea He Impacted Votes; Key Moderates Flip to Back Health Care Bill; Trump Welcomes Palestinian Leader, Sounds Off Over Twitter on Election. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired May 3, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Catastrophic choice. Blamed by Hillary Clinton for tilting voters against her, the FBI director stands by his pre-election decision to reveal a renewed probe into the Clinton e-mails. James Comey admits the thought of impacting the vote makes him, quote, "nauseous," but insists that to do otherwise would have been catastrophic.
[17:00:24] Flipping votes. Is it the art of the deal? The president persuades two Republican lawmakers to drop their opposition to the GOP health care bill, but is there enough support to keep the Trumpcare plan alive?
No charges. Ten months after Alton Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge police while pinned to the ground, the Justice Department announces no federal charges will be filed against two police officers at the scene, but they may not be off the hook.
And nuclear activity. As a U.S. carrier groups holds war games offshore, satellite images suggest North Korea is still getting ready for a nuclear test. At the same time, a detained U.S. citizen is accused of plotting against the Kim Jong-un regime.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news. FBI Director James Comey is strongly defending his late October decision to reveal that the Clinton e-mail probe had been reactivated. A day after Hillary Clinton blamed him in part for her election defeat, Comey told senators the idea of impacting the presidential election makes him, quote, "mildly nauseous," but insisted that hiding the renewed investigation would have been catastrophic for the FBI.
Comey faced tough questions from Democrats and Republicans alike, but the FBI chief says he can't worry for a second about anyone's political fortunes. Comey says he won't reveal anything about the probe into Russia's election meddling and its ties to the Trump camp until that investigation is completed.
He does say Russia is still trying to influence U.S. politics.
President Trump is throwing his weight behind the troubled effort to replace Obamacare. Two key Republican lawmakers today dropped their opposition to the GOP health care bill after meeting with the president. Changes to coverage for pre-existing conditions brought them on board.
Vice President Pence, meanwhile, went back to Capitol Hill today, trying to drum up enough support to hold a vote.
And as the United States flexes its muscles off the Korean Peninsula, new satellite pictures seem to underscoreNorth Korea's defiance, suggesting Kim Jong-un's regime is moving ahead toward an underground nuclear test. That comes as North Korea accuses a detained American citizen of working to overthrow the regime.
I'll talk to our Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Trey Gowdy. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
Our breaking news first. FBI Director James Comey is standing by his decision to reveal that the Clinton e-mail probe had been renewed just days before the presidential election are.
Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.
Jim, Comey insists he made the right choice.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, with no wavering. In fact, he says he has no regrets, but he did describe his decision as a personally painful one, saying that he's asked himself repeatedly if he made the right choice, and he always comes out with the same answer.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): At times defiant, at others reflective, FBI Director James Comey said the idea that his decision to go public with details of the renewed Clinton e-mail probe impacted the election result made him feel nauseous, but he has no regrets.
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election, but honestly, it wouldn't change the decision.
SCIUTTO: Comey argued that he was battling for the very credibility of the FBI, saying he doubted that top officials in the Department of Justice could carry out the investigation without the perception of bias, this even before a highly-publicized meeting between then- attorney general Loretta Lynch and former president Bill Clinton on a Phoenix tarmac during the height of the campaign.
COMEY: Her meeting with President Clinton on that airplane was the capper for me, and I then said, "You know what? The department cannot by itself credibly end this." That was had a hard call for me to make, to call the attorney general that morning and say, "I'm about to do a press conference, and I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to say." And I said to her, "I hope someday you'll understand why I think I have to do this." SCIUTTO: Pressed by Democrats on why he confirmed the investigation
of Clinton but not a concurrent probe of Trump campaign ties to Russia, Director Comey argued it was a matter of timing: too early for the Trump investigation; not so for Clinton's.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Had there been public notice there was renewed investigation into both campaigns, I think the impact would have been different. Would you agree?
COMEY: Remember, the Hillary Clinton investigation, we didn't confirm it existed until three months after it started, and it started publicly. So I thought the consistent principle would be we don't confirm the existence of, certainly, any investigation that involves a U.S. person but a classified investigation in its early stages.
SCIUTTO: ON multiple occasions, Comey contradicted President Trump on Russian interference in the U.S. election, echoing the U.S. intelligence community and expressing high confidence that Russia carried out the hacking and confidence, as well, that Russia preferred Trump.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D-MN), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: What is your assessment of why the Russian government had a clear preference for President Trump?
COMEY: The intelligence community's assessment had a couple of parts with respect to that. One is he wasn't Hillary Clinton, who Putin hated and wanted to harm in any possible way. And also the second notion that the intelligence community assessed, that Putin believed he would be more able to make deals, reach agreements with someone with a business background.
SCIUTTO: Comey also defended his decision to notify Congress on October 28, just days before the vote, that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Clinton's e-mail practices after the discovery of new e-mails from longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin on the computer of her then-husband, former congressman Anthony Weiner.
COMEY: Somehow her e-mails were being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information. His then-spouse, Huma Abedin, appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding e-mails to him for him, I think, to print out for her so she could then deliver them to the secretary of state.
SCIUTTO: It was that discovery that led Comey to write his now infamous 11th-hour letter to Congress.
COMEY: I had to tell Congress that we were taking these additional steps. I prayed to find a third door. I couldn't find it. Two actions, speak or conceal, and I don't think many reasonable people would do it differently than I did, no matter what they say today. If you standing there staring at that on October 28, would you really conceal that? So I spoke.
(END VIDEOTAPE) SCIUTTO: Comey was pressed on the question of leaks. He said they have been a problem, especially in the last several months, but he says he never leaked to the media, never authorized his staff to leak either. He would not comment on if the FBI is investigating leaks within the intelligence community -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim, you're also getting some new information on the investigation into the Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
SCIUTTO: That's right, and this is a CNN exclusive. We're learning that Susan Rice, President Obama's former national security adviser, that she has declined a request from Senator Lindsey Graham to participate in a judiciary subcommittee hearing next week on Russian interference in the U.S. election.
In a letter obtained exclusively by CNN -- and I have it here -- to Chairman Graham as well as the ranking Democrat, Sheldon Whitehouse, Rice's lawyer writes, quote, "Senator Whitehouse has informed us by letter that he did not agree to Chairman Graham's invitation to Ambassador Rice, a significant departure from the bipartisan invitations extended to other witnesses. Under these circumstances, Ambassador Rice respectfully declines Senator Graham's invitation to testify."
I should add that a source familiar with Rice's discussions tells CNN that when Senator Graham invited her, Rice believed the invitation was bipartisan, and she was then prepared to accept that invitation.
However, Senator Whitehouse indicated to her in a letter that the invitation was made without his agreement, as he believed that her presence was not relevant to the topic of the hearing.
Rice considered the invitation a diversionary play to distract attention from the investigation into Russian election interference, including contacts between Trump allies and Russians during the campaign.
Graham told CNN earlier, CNN's Manu Raju, that he invited Rice before the Senate panel to determine whether the Obama administration, quote, "tried to politicize intelligence."
We should add this, as well, that despite declining this invitation to appear, Rice's lawyer assured senators Graham and Whitehouse, quote, "Ambassador Rice is prepared to assist congressional inquiries into Russian election interference because of the important national interests at stake -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good reporting. Jim Sciutto, thanks very, very much.
And joining us now, a key member of the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
Senator, thanks for joining us. You just heard Jim Sciutto's report. Do you think the Susan Rice invitation to testify was a diversionary tactic on the part of the Republicans? SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: I
don't want to assign any particular motive to anybody in all of this. We had a very good opening, bipartisan hearing, laying out what the Russian election interference toolbox was.
We had a bipartisan agreement to go forward with the former deputy attorney general and the former director of national intelligence, to look at which of those Russian tools from the toolbox were actually used in the last election. I think that it would have diverted from the thrust of the hearing for her to come there. That was the reason that I was not part of the invitation, and -- but I don't want to assign motives to anybody else.
[17:10:07] BLITZER: So you didn't want her to testify at this point, right?
WHITEHOUSE: We have, you know, the former deputy attorney general, who has never testified before in Congress.
BLITZER: You're talking about the acting attorney general, Sally Yates.
WHITEHOUSE: The former deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, and the former DNI, who has only testified publicly in the Senate once. I think that's a heck of a hearing, and we're going to learn some very important stuff, I hope, in that hearing. And if down the road, we want to go other ways, then we can go other ways, but I didn't want this hearing stepped on by a different witness who does not contribute to those issues.
BLITZER: And she was the deputy attorney general, you're right, but then she became the acting attorney general after Loretta Lynch.
Let's get back to today's hearing. Do you have confidence in the FBI Director, James Comey?
WHITEHOUSE: Actually, I do. I think that when he expanded on the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton and went off into the derogatory investigative information that he disclosed, he was making a, you know, Red Sox Bill Buckner massive rookie error, and he's no rookie, so it was a dumb and unfortunate mistake.
All that added material gave a hook for Congress to have a hearing. He then had to go to the hearing. He then said he'd follow up if anything came. That meant that, when the laptop was discovered, he then felt he had an obligation to Congress to answer to, which no prosecutor should ordinarily feel in any ongoing investigation. And so things just went from bad to worse for him, but I do think that he's -- feels very strongly about what happened. And I do think that he's going to work very hard in all of his work to make sure that his reputation for integrity is re-established or not compromised, and, actually, I do have confidence in him for those reasons.
BLITZER: Yes, because he says that, even now with hindsight, he would have made the same decision on October 28. He said if he made a different decision, not notified Congress, that the investigation was reopened. It would have been the death of the FBI as an independent institution in America. Those are pretty strong words.
WHITEHOUSE: Yes, I don't -- A, I don't buy that. B, the only reason they are conceivably true is because he had earlier, in a congressional hearing about this investigation, told Congress that, if anything changed, he'd get back to them.
That hearing should never have happened, because the FBI should not be conducting congressional hearings about investigations. And that only had to happen because he didn't follow the rules and simply say at the beginning, "We looked very hard at this. We put a lot of agents on to it. We turned over all the stones we could find, and we find no basis for bringing charges against Secretary Clinton," end of press conference. That's the way these things should go, unless there's some urgent public safety issue that has to be addressed.
BLITZER: Director Comey also called the capper for him, then-attorney general Loretta Lynch's meeting with former president Bill Clinton. He said that caused him to go public. Do you think that meeting justified what he did?
WHITEHOUSE: I think that explains why, at the initial press conference, he did it himself, rather than turn it over to the Department of Justice to have a press conference saying more or less the same thing.
It does not necessarily justify him adding all of that derogatory investigative information, which is usually against the rules for prosecutors to disclose about an uncharged subject.
So I think it explains why he was the person at the podium. It doesn't explain why he broke the rules and went on to add all that derogatory information.
BLITZER: I watched that hearing. It lasted for nearly four hours. You pressed the FBI director on tax returns, the president's tax returns. Were you laying the groundwork to subpoena for President Trump's tax returns?
WHITEHOUSE: We want to make sure that we know what direction we should go in as we investigate this further, confirming, for instance, that the FBI had in fact interviewed Michael Flynn and that he had given them a statement that the deputy attorney general had seen. That's an important, I think, piece of this, and another important piece of this is the standard nature of looking at tax returns in an investigation where he also agreed that the Russians tend to focus on, you know, wealthy business figures that they can bribe and then hook with phony business deals.
BLITZER: Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.
BLITZER: Congressman Trey Gowdy, he's got some strong views on all of this. There he is, the Republican lawmaker. He's standing by to join us next. We'll be right back.
[17:19:19] BLITZER: Our breaking news. A day after Hillary Clinton blamed him for tilting voters against her, FBI Director James Comey stands by his late October decision to reveal the Clinton e-mail probe had been renewed.
Comey tells senators the idea of impacting the election makes him, quote, "mildly nauseous" but says that to do anything else would have been, in his word, "catastrophic" for the FBI.
Joining us now, Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. He's a key member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. TREY GOWDY (R-SC), INTELLIGENCE & JUDICIARY COMMITTEES: Yes, sir, thank you.
BLITZER: What did you think of the testimony from the FBI director on Capitol Hill today?
GOWDY: Same thing I thought this time last year, last fall. He has a very difficult job. Tough facts make for tough conclusions. I do understand the frustration of my friends on other side, but the reality is, I think Secretary Clinton is primarily responsible for the position that Director Comey found himself in. But I do admit difficult facts make for unusual conclusions.
BLITZER: You serve on the Intelligence Committee in the House. The top Democrat on that committee, Adam Schiff, he had this to say about Comey's testimony in a tweet: "Real choice was not conceal or speak. Comey spoke about Clinton and concealed Trump investigation. Real choice was to abide by DOJ, Department of Justice policy or violate."
So he's suggesting there was a double standard. Do you agree with him?
GOWDY: Well, I think it was an unusual case. Keep in mind, Loretta Lynch recused herself, or at least removed herself -- wasn't a formal recusal -- because she met on the tarmac with the spouse of a suspect of an ongoing investigation. So every part of it was difficult.
his is how I would kind of distinguish those two fact patterns. He told us at the end of the investigation that he was not going to pursue charges against Secretary Clinton. That's a little bit different than having that conversation on the front end of the investigation, although in this case, he has told us on front end -- he told us last time we had a public hearing, that there was an investigation, either intelligence or quasi-criminal investigation into matters surrounding Russia's efforts to interfere with our election.
I viewed his press conference with Secretary Clinton as explaining his non-charging decision. If he wants to do that at the end of the investigation with Russia, he's welcome to do so. It's unusual to have that press conference on the front end of an investigation. BLITZER: The president tweeted last night ahead of today's testimony.
I'll put it up on the screen. "FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds. The phony Trump-Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign."
Do you agree with the president's claim, Congressman, that Director Comey gave Hillary Clinton a, quote, "free pass"?
GOWDY: Well, I don't know what he means by free pass. I disagree with Director Comey -- and there's a tape to back it up -- on his interpretation of the elements required to make a successful prosecution. We had quite a lengthy conversation about intent.
Keep in mind, Director Comey didn't say the elements of that offense were not met. He said she lacked the intent to break the law which, as you probably know, Wolf, is rarely proven with direct evidence, almost always circumstantial evidence.
I do disagree with Director Comey's conclusion. I don't know that -- I don't know what the president meant by free pass. I think the press conference that Director Comey gave was an attempt to explain an unusual conclusion, which is you meet the element of the offense, but we're not going to prosecute you regardless, because we can't prove the issue of specific intent.
BLITZER: What about the president's claim that this whole Trump/Russia investigation, in the president's word, is "phony"?
GOWDY: Our investigation is not phony, Wolf. There are four tranches to it. I'm happy that we have begun. We need access to all of the documents. But any time a foreign power seeks to interfere or influence the outcome of our election, that is an American issue to me. It is not a political issue.
So, too, with the unmasking of U.S. persons' names and so, too, with the dissemination of classified information. I think all of these tranches are really important.
I am glad that the committee is back on track to the extent some people thought it was not. We have Comey and Rogers tomorrow. I'm excited to spend three hours with them and excited to interview the witnesses that have access to relevant information, which includes most members of Congress and lots of the other people that are pontificating about this issue. I want to talk to people who actually have access to facts.
BLITZER: Does it disturb you, Congressman, that the president disagrees not only with you but with the intelligence community when he says, "You know what? It could have been China, could have been someone else who interfered in those -- in that hacking effort." He's not convinced it's Russia. Does that bother you?
GOWDY: Wolf, I have never met nor talked to President Trump, ever. You and I have talked more tonight than I have -- I've never met or talked to him, so I don't know what he mean -- the problem with tweets, for me, is it's hard to unlock the mysteries of the world in 140 characters. I can't do it.
So there aren't follow-up questions. There aren't requests to extrapolate on what you meant. I don't know what he meant by that.
I can tell you this. Any foreign government -- and in this instance Russia, but you can insert any country you want -- that attempts to interfere with our Democrat process, that's an American issue.
Now having said that, some of my colleagues in this line of work love to jump to the conclusion without going through the process of identifying facts; and quoting anonymous source and referencing newspaper articles, you would be laughed out of any courtroom in America if you did that. So it's a serious accusation. Let's have a correspondingly serious investigation. Give me the documents; give me the witnesses. And at the end, Wolf, you and I may draw different conclusions, but at least we should have access to the same facts.
[17:25:18] BLITZER: I suspect that you're going to be hearing from the White House. He's going to invite you over, now that you've pointed out you haven't really had a...
GOWDY: I'm just a back bencher.
BLITZER: Get ready for that invitation. He might be watching us, for all we know right now.
Let's get to another issue. As you know, the chairman of your Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz, he's resigning from -- from Congress. Would you be interested in pursuing the chairmanship of that have committee?
GOWDY: Well, Wolf, he is -- he is not going to run for re-election. He may or may not serve out this term. He had surgery last week. He's recovering. He's doing well. So I don't know if there's going to be a vacancy. I have never looked in the mirror and saw the chairperson of a committee before, but I am interested in all three facets of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. I am interested in oversight, but I'm also interested in the reform.
I would need to talk to my colleagues and have a frank conversation with them about whether or not they thought I had the requisite characteristics they were looking for. So we'll see -- we'll see when and if Jason leaves during this term, but my immediate concern is his well-being. He's a very good friend. I care about him as a person. I want him to get better. And if he serves out this term, more power to him. And if he doesn't, then I'll come back on, and you and I can discuss it.
BLITZER: Yes, we hope his surgery of his foot was successful, as well. I know he's coming back for this vote.
Speaking of this vote, the health care bill in the House of Representatives, do you expect that there will be a "yay," 216 votes that will allow this bill to go forward to the U.S. Senate? GOWDY: Wolf, if I knew the answer to that question, I would probably
go buy a lottery ticket in South Carolina. I don't -- being in leadership is an impossible job, which is why so few of us raise our hands and volunteer. I don't know if we have the requisite number of votes. And I frankly am not smart enough to know the politics of calling for a vote if you don't have the requisite number of votes.
I know that people are working awfully hard on it, and I assume that they are working in good faith, both the more moderate wing of our conference and also the Freedom Caucus. I know leadership is working very hard. Our committee chairman produced a product.
So I -- I hope we have a vote, but I can't -- I don't know that anybody can tell you that that vote will take place tomorrow.
BLITZER: Do you believe it will do enough to help South Carolinians in your district who have pre-existing conditions get through and have the adequate medical treatment and insurance they need?
GOWDY: Well, Wolf, I have some of those people in my very own family, and I have met with scores of people since January whose families are in that exact same position.
I don't know a single Republican that does not want to take care of people with pre-existing conditions. I am fine for my friends on other side of the aisle or the other side of this issue to question the legislative product. Where I do draw the line is on us questioning one other's motives.
I don't know a member of the House, from Joey Kennedy who happens to be a friend, to Mark Meadows in the Freedom Caucus, that doesn't want to take care of sick people who have pre-existing conditions and allow them the opportunity to have continuous service at a rate they can afford.
The means by which we get there, reasonable minds can differ, but you can get me in the "take care of people with pre-existing conditions" category.
BLITZER: Let me just press you, Congressman. Yes or no. Does the current legislation that you're going to vote on maybe as early as tomorrow take care of people with pre-existing conditions?
GOWDY: If it didn't, I wouldn't vote for it, Wolf.
BLITZER: So you're going to vote for it?
GOWDY: Yes, sir.
BLITZER: Congressman Trey Gowdy, thanks very much for joining us.
GOWDY: Yes, sir, thank you.
BLITZER: Coming up, a disturbing look at new activity in North Korea's nuclear test site. Also, a pair of key Republican moderates flip from "no" to "yes" on repealing and replacing Obamacare, but the Democrats still aren't budging.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: It's time for the Republicans to abandon their moral monstrosity and pull this bill.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We're following important breaking news in the fight over repealing and replacing Obamacare. After meeting with President Trump over at the White House, a pair of key Republican moderates announced they're flipping from likely "no" votes to "yes."
[17:33:53] Let's get details from our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly. He's up on Capitol Hill.
Phil, what caused the change?
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there was a need for it. If you talked to members, Wolf, it was very clear. Those who were in the "no" column, those who were in the undecided column, were very comfortable with how this new language was going to treat those with pre-existing conditions, and I should note that this new amendment was something that wasn't necessarily what was planned. It was more organic.
Take a listen to how Congressman Fred Upton described how this all came to be.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. FRED UPTON (R), MICHIGAN: The president was seeking our opinion, probably a lot of my colleagues, over the last number of weeks. Again, when he called me yesterday, I told him I was a "no," and I told him that I was a "no" because of the provision on pre-existing illnesses, and he said that he wanted it covered.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: And from that came actual amendment language, $8 billion that would be added to this bill to try and address these issues specifically.
Here's where we are right now as this is happening. You see Vice President Pence has been on the Hill all day. He's now departing. We had House leaders are currently meeting in Speaker Ryan's office to try and figure out if this blitz, what we've seen over the course of the last 24 hours behind closed doors, will actually get them to where they need to be.
[17:35:10] The key question, though, Wolf, remains on those pre- existing conditions. There are plenty of critics, both health policy analysts, Democrats and even some Republicans, who don't believe it goes nearly far enough.
Take a listen to what Democratic leader Nancy please he to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: They think they can dupe the American people by saying, "Well, we were going to eliminate pre- existing conditions, but now instead, we're going to give you $200 if you have a pre-existing medical condition. Please.
What you would need is probably about $200 billion over ten years. What they have done is $8 billion over five years. If you divide that by the number of people who have a pre-existing medical condition, you get about $200 or $300 a year.
Look at the Kaiser Family -- the Kaiser Family Foundation; look at some of the experts on the subject. It's a joke. It's a very sad, deadly joke.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: Obviously, Republican staff that drafted the amendment don't believe that's actually the case. But I think that's what Republican leaders are fighting right now.
The big question now: can they have a vote? Can they have a vote before those members leave on recess tomorrow afternoon? I can tell you House Republican leaders have made clear they are targeting, Wolf, a vote on health care tomorrow.
The big question, as they meet right now, is how confident do they feel that they have those votes, as the House speaker has made very clear throughout. They're not going to put anything on the floor until they have the votes, so if they do, expect that vote soon, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, they're working really hard, the Trump administration. We just saw some live pictures of the vice president, Mike Pence, walking through the corridors. He's trying to get the support that they need to get to this vote.
Phil, thanks very much. Phil Mattingly, doing an excellent job up on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, President Trump is trying his own at resolving two of the most difficult problems around: persuading Republicans to agree, of course, on replacing Obamacare, as well as the issue of the Israeli and the Palestinians, trying to get them to make peace. But the president's tweeting is proving to be a distraction.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Lots happening over at the White House. What's the latest?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf. The White House was back on the defensive today over one of the president's tweets after he laid into FBI Director James Comey over his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails.
But aides to the president appear to be all but saying "Never mind." And speaking of the election, the president is still trying to make good on one of his biggest campaign promises. You saw that activity up on Capitol Hill. It's all about repealing Obamacare.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Even as he welcomed the Palestinian president to the White House to try to end the violence in the Middle East, President Trump can't seem to make peace with the past, specifically Hillary Clinton's contention that the FBI's role in the 2016 election helped Mr. Trump win.
The president tweeted: "FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton, in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds. The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign."
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: That was not my intention, certainly.
ACOSTA: Despite that harsh criticism, the White House insists the FBI director has the president's support.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has confidence in the director.
COMEY: The White House has another headache on its hands, the quest to find enough support to pass the GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare in the House. The president has reached out to roughly a dozen House members, both in person and over the phone, sending the signal he's open to changes to lure moderates. Those moderates are uneasy that Trumpcare would weaken Obamacare protections for people with pre-existing conditions, allowing states to opt out of those provisions, though a fund would be set up to help the most vulnerable.
(on camera): Why even monkey around with pre-existing conditions? That's the most popular thing in Obamacare. Why are you guys spinning your wheels messing around with pre-existing conditions?
SPICER: I wouldn't call it messing around or however you phrased it. I think the president wants to do everything...
ACOSTA: Right now people with pre-existing conditions are covered. They're not discriminated against.
SPICER: Just hang on.
ACOSTA: Why not just keep that protection in place?
SPICER: The president has made it very clear pre-existing conditions are covered in the bill under every scenario. I don't know how much clearer we can state it.
ACOSTA: So everybody with a pre-existing condition under Trumpcare they're going to be fine.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Democrats aren't buying it.
PELOSI: They think they can dupe the American people by saying, "Well, we were going to eliminate pre-existing conditions."
It's a joke. It's a very sad, deadly joke.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a great honor to have the president with us.
ACOSTA: On foreign policy the president is taking on another big challenge, Middle East peace. As he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the president insisted that decades of violence in the region may not be so tough to solve after all.
TRUMP: Let's see if we can find a solution. It's a -- something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.
ACOSTA (on camera): Why does he believe that the toughest -- arguably the toughest foreign policy challenge in our lifetime may not be as difficult as people have thought?
SPICER: I think both of these leaders have very publicly expressed the confidence they have in the president's negotiating skills and the president's desire to work to get peace.
[17:40:10] ACOSTA: Now, as for health care, White House officials are courting nervous GOP members to take the plunge and vote "yes" without any assurances that the bill that they vote for won't be drastically changed in the Senate.
That's where moderate Republicans are highly unlikely to support whatever comes out of the House and seek some big changes their own, Wolf. So while we're all focused on the House, very little attention has been paid to the Senate, where a lot of big changes could happen, Wolf.
BLITZER: Huge changes. Then it's got to go to a House-Senate conference committee for more changes.
BLITZER: Then it's got to go to votes in both chambers. This is a long, long process.
ACOSTA: Long way to go.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.
Let's bring in our political specialists. And Mark Preston, what are the chances that this last-minute amendment on pre-existing conditions will turn the tide and get to a vote that will pass?
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Twenty-four hours ago, I would say it has absolutely no shot of passing; and it potentially might now, you know, given the fact that the White House seems to be so invested in it.
We're actually seeing Mike Pence play a really big role right now, going up to Capitol Hill multiple days. Donald Trump actually making telephone calls, not just talking about knowing how to make a deal but trying to make a deal.
The big question is, though, again, on the pre-existing conditions; and while $8 billion seems like a lot of money, it's only over five years. And can it really cover everybody? And I think that's where the reluctance is from those Republicans, Wolf, that do not want to sign on.
BLITZER: Yes. Every one of those Republicans critical. They can't afford to lose more than a handful. Otherwise there's not going to be a vote. They're not going to have a vote unless they're guaranteed it will get the 216 votes they need.
Rebecca Berg, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, says it's literally impossible to know the full impact of the $8 billion worth of funding for these high-risk pools that was added in this new amendment. Why not wait and get a full Congressional Budget Office score, if you will, investigation, to make sure that every member knows precisely the impact, based on all the available evidence?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, the simple answer, Wolf, is that they don't want to see the CBO score, because this is a very delicate balance they're trying to strike right now. House Republicans are walking a tight rope with this legislation. They barely will have enough members there to pass this legislation, if they have enough at all.
And so if you add another variable to the equation at the last minute, this could upset the entire balance, throw this bill into a tailspin. That's not what they want. They want to control as much as they possibly can in this final stretch before they try to bring this to a vote. And I think now they feel that they do have the narrative under control, but anything can happen in the next 24 hours.
BLITZER: You've heard the critics, David Axelrod. They say these new high-risk pools don't necessarily guarantee coverage for all the folks out there who do have cancer or other pre-existing conditions.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. I think this is a huge question.
It feels a little bit like the president provided a fig leaf for those members who don't want to say that they voted for a bill that disenfranchised people with pre-existing conditions, but the fact is that most of the experts who looked at this have said this is not an adequate funding for this. And we've had experience with these high- risk pools before before the Affordable Care Act; and it was disastrous for people with pre-existing conditions.
So the game now is to try and get this out of the House by hook or by crook before these members go on recess and have to go and face their constituents; move it on to the Senate and hope that something good will happen in the future. But it's only going to get harder, because the Senate is more moderate. The bill will come back, if it ever comes back to the House, in more moderate form, and then you have the same problem you had before, which is that the Freedom Caucus guys get off the train.
So, you know, we've got a long way to go on this saga.
BLITZER: Because in the Senate, there are 52 Republicans, 48 Democrats, a much smaller majority for the Republicans. And there's, as you correctly point out, there are a whole bunch of those Republicans who are pretty moderate.
So what do you see happening in this Senate if they make some major changes to -- to satisfy the moderates? You know the conservatives in the House, they're going to eventually vote against it.
AXELROD: Yes, and then one of the concerns of many of the senators has been about Medicaid and Medicaid expansion -- the Medicaid expansion that occurred under the Affordable Care Act.
I had John Kasich at the Institute of Politics the other day at the University of Chicago, and he said, "I would flat out -- I would tell these members of Congress to vote 'no,'" because he's expanded Medicaid to 700,000 people in his state, thinks it's very important to maintain that; feels they'll suffer under this bill. And there are a number of Republican senators from states where there has been an extension of Medicaid who share that view.
So there's a lot of stuff to happen even if they are able -- and this is a titanic effort we're seeing on the part of the president, the White House and the congressional leadership, just to get it out of House by a squeaker. This is a -- this is a -- as I said, it's a long road to go here.
BLITZER: But if they can't, Mark Preston, get it through this time, and as you point out, maybe they will. They'll get those 216 votes. But let's say they can't. Is it over?
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: In the near term, it's over. And I think, strategically, it would be smart for them to actually put it aside and try to actually get some accomplishments done. But if they can't get it now, Wolf, then I really do think they have to recalibrate their thinking on how they can get it done. And let's see if perhaps --
REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: But let's remember, we thought it was over last time when this bill fell apart. The President said we're done, we're moving on. And then they went right back to it and, behind the scenes, started negotiating again. So I that reflects how important this is to the larger agenda that the President wants to push forward. PRESTON: Right. And as David says, which is absolutely correct, the
fact is, if it comes out as a squeaker out of the House, it's not like it has a whole lot of momentum going into the Senate, right, where it is just going to get eviscerated, so.
BLITZER: Right. Everybody, stand by. We're following other major developments right now, including some troubling new pictures indicating new activity at North Korea's nuclear test site. Is Kim Jong-un about to order a new underground explosion?
[17:50:46] BLITZER: As the United States flexes its muscles off the Korean Peninsula, new satellite pictures seem to underscore North Korea's defiance, suggesting Kim Jong-un's regime is moving toward a nuclear test. That comes as North Korea accuses a detained American of working to overthrow the regime.
Brian Todd is with us. Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we've got new details of new activity at North Korea's nuclear test site. As a fleet of American warships does maneuvers off his coast and his rivals in Seoul and Tokyo have their militaries at the ready, Kim Jong-un seems to brush it all off. And it looks like he's got his teams at that nuclear site working overtime.
TODD (voice-over): At Kim Jong-un's nuclear bomb testing site, a stir of new activity. The monitoring group, 38 North, says satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri site reveals the pumping out water at the North Portal, the tunnel that North Korea may have been preparing for a nuclear test. The pictures from April 25th also show what appear to be mining carts near that tunnel.
BRUCE KLINGNER, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW FOR NORTHEAST ASIA, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: This kind of activity shows they're either maintaining or preparing the nuclear test site for another test.
TODD (voice-over): This comes days after the U.S. military observed digging activity near that same crucial tunnel. A U.S. defense official tells CNN, this suggests a nuclear bomb test is not imminent. Analyst say if Kim was about to test, they'd stop activity and clear everyone out. But the danger remains.
KLINGNER: We know North Korea is going to do another nuclear test, just as we know that they are going to do an ICBM test eventually. We just don't know when.
TODD (voice-over): A top White House official now says there are additional sinister motives for Kim Jong-un in building his nuclear arsenal. CAPT. MATTHEW POTTINGER, ASIA DIRECTOR, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP'S
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: They want to use these weapons as an instrument of blackmail to achieve other goals, even including perhaps a coercive reunification of the Korean Peninsula one day, after they can attempt to coerce the United States to leave the peninsula and to abandon our alliances.
TODD (voice-over): Could the U.S. be blackmailed into abandoning South Korea?
KLINGNER: No. We have treaty obligations. We have an ironclad commitment to defend our allies.
TODD (voice-over): A commitment shown in brand new video of the USS Vinson carrier strike group with fighter jets flying overhead, conducting exercises with South Korea ships. U.S. military officials say the carrier group is now off the Korean Peninsula, a response to Kim's recent provocations.
This all comes as Pyongyang has accused an American, Tony Kim, of trying to overthrow the regime. He's now the third American detained in North Korea. The regime says Tony Kim had worked there temporarily as an accounting professor, but they don't say specifically what he did to get arrested.
MARIE MYUNG-OK LEE, ADJUNCT FACULTY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: But you can basically be arrested for anything in North Korea. When we entered, they gave us a very long list of things we should not bring. No religious tracts of any sort. No Bibles, but also no porn. No firearms. No DVDs of popular movies.
TODD: Now, analysts say the North Koreans will very likely use these three Americans they are detaining as bargaining chips for some kind of concession from the U.S. But they say, if any of these men becomes ill, they'll most likely be released because the regime could face some serious brush back, Wolf, if an American dies in their custody.
BLITZER: Brian, you recently received an assessment of just how many nuclear weapons the Kim Jong-un regime has in its arsenal. Update our viewers.
TODD: Pretty ominous numbers here, Wolf. Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright and his research firm recently reported that Kim has produced between 13 and 30 nuclear warheads. And by the end of 2020, he could have up to 60 of them.
BLITZER: The key is if they can miniaturize those warheads and put them on some sort of intercontinental ballistic missile. We'll see what happens. Bria Todd, good report. Thank you.
Coming up, we're keeping our eyes up on Capitol Hill right now. The Vice President Mike Pence, he's there. And a source tells us, the Speaker Paul Ryan is meeting with Republican leaders right now. Will there be a vote on repealing and replacing ObamaCare? [17:54:53] Also, the FBI Director stands by his pre-election decision
to reveal a renewed probe into the Hillary Clinton e-mails. But James Comey admits the thought of impacting the vote makes him nauseous.
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Mildly nauseous. FBI Director James Comey testifies before Congress about the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, voicing distress that his 11th hour revelation may have impacted the election, but he says he'd still do it again. What did he reveal about the probe into Russian connections with the Trump campaign?
[17:59:54] There will be a vote. The White House vows action on the GOP health care bill despite a razor thin margin. Tonight, there's new momentum as two key Republicans meet with President Trump and flip their votes to yes. Is the much-needed legislative victory for the President at hand?