Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Dems Call for Review of Kushner's Security Clearance; Trump Honors America's Fallen as Russia Controversy Grows; Germany: Trump's Actions Put Europe's Peace 'At Risk'; Two Killed, One Hurt Defending Women from Anti-Muslim Ran; Interview with Rep. Ruben Gallego. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired May 29, 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, secret communications. The Trump administration defends the alleged effort by Jared Kushner to set up secret backchannel links with the Russians, calling that normal and acceptable, but a former CIA director calls it off the map; and Democrats are calling for a review of the security clearance for the president's son-in-law.
[17:00:25] Broken trust. After meeting with President Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Europe can no longer completely rely on others; and Germany's foreign minister says President Trump's actions have put Europe's peace at risk. Is a crucial alliance on rocks?
Democratic terrorism? Domestic terrorism. The FBI is investigating a violent attack on a commuter train after two men are killed trying to stop a man yelling anti-Muslim slurs at two young women. The president tweets that the victim stood up to hate and intolerance. Was this a hate crime and domestic terrorism?
And catastrophic war. North Korea launches its third missile in three weeks as Defense Secretary James Mattis warns a conflict with North Korea could be catastrophic.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Trump honors America's fallen on this Memorial Day, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and visiting the graves of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But as the commander in chief considers boosting America's battle against terrorism, the White House is now on the defensive amid growing questions about contacts with Russia, including what sources say was an effort by the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a pre-inauguration secret backchannel link to Russia. While a former CIA director finds that move appalling, homeland security secretary John Kelly says it's no big deal. Sources say the White House is preparing a war room to combat the growing number of allegations and leaks as multiple Russia investigations gather momentum.
And new controversies are arising from the president's recent overseas trip. After meetings dominated by friction with President Trump over climate, trade and defense, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, says Europeans must, quote, "take our fate into our own hands," while her foreign minister says President Trump's actions are putting Europe's peace at risk.
I'll talk to Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego, an Iraq War veteran. He's on the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
President Trump's son-in-law is the lightning rod as a new storm batters the White House. Top officials are rushing to downplay allegations that Jared Kushner wanted to establish a secret link to Russia back during the transition.
Let's begin with CNN's Diane Gallagher. Diane, what are you learning?
DIANE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, Wolf this may have actually been the reason that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump cut their portion of the overseas trip short. The official White House line was the couple always planned to head back home after the Vatican visit, but sources are now telling CNN that Kushner knew the story was about to break and didn't want to be standing with his father-in-law on a foreign trip when it did.
GALLAGHER (voice-over): Scrutiny and speculation swirling around President Donald Trump's inner-most circle and perhaps the president's most trusted adviser, Jared Kushner.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have a feeling that Jared is going to do a great job.
GALLAGHER: A source tells CNN Trump's son-in-law discussed creating back-channel communications with the Kremlin during a December meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and "The Washington Post" reports that, in intercepted conversations, Kislyak told Moscow he was surprised. Kushner wanted to set up an off-the-record communications system that used Russian diplomatic facilities as a way to bypass U.S. surveillance.
Now, the system was never set up, but as an explanation, the source tell CNN that Kushner wanted a secure lines so he and former national security adviser Michael Flynn could discuss military options in Syria, among other topics.
JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: My dashboard warning light was clearly on, and I think that that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community. Very concerned about the nature of these approaches to the Russians.
GALLAGHER: The spotlight on Kushner comes as the man now in charge of the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, makes his first public speech since being named special counsel. At his granddaughter's graduation, Mueller didn't discuss the investigation but did defend the reputation of the FBI. ROBERT MUELLER, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: The FBI's motto is "Fidelity,
Bravery and Integrity." And for the men and women of the FBI, uncompromising integrity, both personal and institutional, is the core value.
GALLAGHER: The administration isn't denying the Kushner reports.
JOHN KELLY, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia, is a good thing.
[17:05:07] GALLAGHER: Instead, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly spent Sunday morning playing down the severity of the situation.
KELLY: There's a lot of -- a lot of different ways to communicate, backchannel, you know, publicly, with other countries. I don't see any big issue here relative to -- relative to Jared.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I don't think it's standard procedure prior to the inauguration of a president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position.
GALLAGHER: And the meeting with Kislyak was initially not disclosed on Kushner's security clearance form before being amended the next day. But on Friday Reuters, citing seven current and former U.S. officials, reported he'd had several previously undisclosed contacts with Kislyak, including two phone calls between April and November of last year.
His lawyer told CNN in response that "Mr. Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this period. He has no recollection of the calls as described." But Democrats are now calling for a second look.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I do think there ought to be a review of his security clearance to find out whether he was truthful, whether he was candid. If not, then there's no way you can maintain that kind of a clearance.
GALLAGHER: The president waved off questions but in a statement told the "New York Times" in part, "Jared is doing a great job for the country. I have total confidence in him."
GALLAGHER: Trump also in that statement pointed out Jared was a, quote, "good person."
Now, legally the fact that Kushner was a private citizen doesn't really matter here. His role in the transition is what the FBI is going to be taking into consideration, and he was acting on behalf of the incoming government, already benefiting from an interim clearance while all of this is said to be taking place. So that's really where the real problem would be, if there is one here, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much. Diane Gallagher reporting for us. President Trump today visited Arlington National Cemetery for a somber
tribute to America's fallen as the White House digs in against growing questions about contacts with Russia. A new controversy stemming from the president's trip abroad.
Let's go to CNN's Phil Mattingly. He's joining us now from the White House. So Phil, what's the latest?
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there was some sense that coming off that nine-day foreign trip, they would be able to have -- the White House would be able to have some momentum going forward, dealing with a number of major issues and decisions. But it's very clear upon landing that the Russia investigation isn't going away any time soon, even as today there was a moment that underscored in vivid, vivid reality the weight of the office the president now holds.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): President Trump back in the U.S. and honoring the fallen.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They each had their own names, their own stories, their own beautiful dreams. But they were all angels sent to us by God, and they all share one title in common, and that the title of hero.
MATTINGLY: Seeking out Section 60, Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
TRUMP: He's looking down, and he's very proud.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you so much.
MATTINGLY: Including 2nd Lieutenant Robert Kelly, the son of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
But back in the White House, even amid the president's own high regard for his first foreign trip...
TRUMP: I think we hit a home run no matter where we are.
MATTINGLY: ... controversy with no sign of abatement and a clear sense that things are likely to get worse.
The president's top outside lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, spotted Sunday outside the White House as senior officials plot the path forward in an administration faced with a special counsel, multiple congressional probes and no shortage of unanswered questions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much. Thank you, thank you. Thank you all.
MATTINGLY: Included in that effort, sources tell CNN, a new war room designed to aggressively fight back at the seemingly never-ending stream of damaging stories and leaks, something sources tell CNN many in the White House believe are a deliberate effort to bring down the president. All as Trump's sons, Eric and Don Jr., met at the Republican National Committee this weekend to urge increased efforts to defend the president.
Mr. Trump himself returning to his bombastic use of Twitter, despite the concerns of some staffers and lawyers, posting, "The fake news media works hard at disparaging and demeaning my use of social media, because they don't want America to hear the real story."
Trump also weighing in on the policy front, ambiguously calling for, quote, "More dollars to be added to the Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act" and touting the progress of a tax reform plan Capitol Hill aides tell CNN is in its earliest stages at best.
But as Trump refocuses on his domestic agenda, shock waves across Europe after his first foreign trip, with German Angela Merkel at a campaign stop just days after meeting with the U.S. president, stating bluntly, "The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over."
[17:10:10] MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, those comments and comments from other senior European officials really reverberating right now in the wake of that foreign trip and particularly given some of the decisions the president has sitting on his table, that he's expected to make in the days ahead.
You talk about the Paris climate accord. The White House saying that in the coming days they will decide whether or not to pull out of that. You also have Afghanistan, the president weighing whether or not to add additional troops to that fight that's been going on since 2001. Couple that with the domestic agenda, Wolf, no shortage of major agenda items that they're considering right now, all in the face of this Russia investigation that shows no sign of stopping any time soon.
BLITZER: No sign at all. Phil Mattingly at the White House, thanks very much.
Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee. He's also an Iraq War veteran.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: Thank you for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: Administration officials, Congressman, they've been arguing that requesting a backchannel was standard practice. The former CIA director, Michael Hayden, on the other hand, said, "I know of no other experience like this in our history." Where do you stand?
GALLEGO: I think if you are asking for a backchannel the first mistake you're making is asking for that backchannel to be secretive and to conduct it through the Russian embassy. It means you're trying to hide something. It means you might be embarrassed with what you're going to say or you don't want our U.S. intelligence to say [SIC] it.
You know, government officials talk to each other informally all the time. The fact that Kushner is trying to do this -- and he tried to do this in such a back-handed secretive way really brings up a lot of questions. And at the same time, not notifying us during his security clearance about this is also a problem. It really questions whether this man should have security clearance and, in my opinion, he's not acting like a responsible adult, and he should not have security clearance at this point.
BLITZER: So your problem is not necessarily having a backchannel but having a backchannel that would use Russian embassy and Washington communications and not go through U.S. communications, is that right?
GALLEGO: Yes. The biggest problem here is the fact that you're trying to hide something.
Our domestic agencies are not going to be listening in on regular chatter between government agencies and government heads to foreign heads. It's when you're actually trying to do something illegal or questionable then that's going to be a problem which is, again, brings to mind -- the big question is why did you feel that you had to go to the Russian embassy to have these types of conversations? That's extremely unheard of.
And for us, in government, who do have security clearance -- I have a top-secret clearance -- that kind of communication would clearly get us all in trouble. And Jared should not have a security clearance at this point. It's extremely irresponsible for him to have it, and could be potentially dangerous to this country.
BLITZER: The argument that you've heard -- and all of us have heard it -- is they didn't really want to -- the Obama administration officials to know what they were doing with the Russians, having this -- this backchannel conversation involving Russian -- the Russian role in Syria. You've heard that.
GALLEGO: I've heard that. At the same time, you know, the Obama administration was in its twilight of the administration. If they were going to do any type of policy change, they had already discussed that with the Trump administration. This sounds like an excuse after the fact. It's also a cover-up. This was not discussed during his application for the security clearance, and it's very convenient that they chose, I believe, that excuse.
BLITZER: The former CIA director, John Brennan, he raised some eyebrows last week when he suggested that some Americans may have been led down what he called "a treasonous path" by the Russians, whether wittingly or unwittingly.
Based on what you know so far, Congressman, do you believe Jared Kushner's actions fit that description?
GALLEGO: I think Jared Kushner's actions fit a description of somebody who is irresponsible, does not know what they're doing; they're way over their head. The word "treason" should not be thrown around very lightly. That's a very serious charge.
But there definitely, in my opinion, was something that was untoward that occurred during the Trump administration, through the transition, as well as during the campaign, in terms of collusion with the Russian government during the campaign cycle versus Secretary Clinton. And this is why it's important that we have an independent investigation and that we also allow the special counsel to do their job.
Right now, what we should definitely be asking for is for Jared Kushner's security clearance to be taken away. Whether he has done things on purpose or not on purpose or if he was led astray, it doesn't matter. Either way, he's a liability to U.S. government -- to the U.S. government right now.
BLITZER: Was it naivete? Was it inexperience on Kushner's part or something else?
GALLEGO: There really is no excuse, naivete or not. He is roughly my age. I know of young men and women that have security clearances that are much younger than him that serve in the military. They know the consequences of their actions.
[17:15:03] You know, he needs to realize that this is the grown-up world now. If he cannot handle his job, he needs to turn in his security clearance and go back to doing real estate in New York City. This is serious work. People's lives are at stake and there's no excuse, whether it was malicious or whether it was unintentional.
BLITZER: But he was with Michael Flynn at the time, when he had that -- those conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Michael Flynn, as you know, a three-star general, the former director of the Defense -- the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency; spent decades involved in U.S. intelligence. He fully understood all of the ramifications. He was there when they talked about, apparently, if you believe the reports, that secret backchannel with the Russians.
Michael Flynn had an enormous amount of experience. Later he became the national security adviser and eventually was fired after a brief stint by the president. So if Jared Kushner was involved in this, wasn't he relying, to a large degree, on the experience, the background of General Flynn?
GALLEGO: Well, that's part of the problem. I don't trust General Flynn. Clear the Trump administration doesn't trust General Flynn since they fired him. He has been questionable in his ties to Russia. He did not disclose money he received from Russian Times, an outfit that is basically run by Putin cronies. He did not disclose his lobbying efforts on behalf of the Turkey government, while at the same time offering advice on the United States position on Raqqah, which was counter [SIC] to what the Turkish wanted.
So the fact that he was there giving advice to Kushner doesn't make the situation any better. It actually makes it much more suspicious, you know. Mr. -- General Flynn has been fired from the Trump administration, and I think Kushner should be following him also. BLITZER: And the Obama administration fired him when he was supposed
to come up for his second tour of duty as the head of the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency. They didn't like his style of operation.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, he's casting doubt on this entire story, suggesting this could have been Russian disinformation put up to stir confusion. Do you think that's possible?
GALLEGO: Well, anything is possible right now, but the most important thing that we could do is to get to the bottom of the truth. You know, Jared Kushner could come in and testify to the Senate Intelligence Agency [SIC], or he could turn over any documents or anything that would prove otherwise. But at this point it seems to be a very corroborated story.
And in terms of what the Russians are doing, if Senator Graham is that concerned, then he should also be urging for full cooperation with the special counsel, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee which is trying to do a full investigation about Russia's collusion in the last elections and continue -- continued efforts to affect our elections even to this day.
BLITZER: Yes. Jared Kushner's lawyer, by the way, says he will fully cooperate. He will answer all the questions of the special counsel and members of Congress at the same time.
Congressman, we need you to stand by. We're going to continue our interview. There are other developments we need to pursue. We'll be right back.
GALLEGO: Thank you.
[17:22:24] BLITZER: President Trump marked Memorial Day by honoring America's fallen at Arlington National Cemetery, but those solemn moments are overshadowed but the latest storm over contacts with Russian by Trump associates, and new controversies have sprung up after over the president's recent trip abroad.
We're back with Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee, an Iraq War veteran.
Congressman, following the NATO meetings, the G-7 summit, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, told a crowd at a campaign event that Europeans can no longer completely rely on partners like the United States and must take their fate into their own hands.
As you know, Germany is one of America's strongest allies. Is there reason to believe that this long-standing alliance is in jeopardy?
GALLEGO: I think it clearly is. Look, Germany also is not just an ally. They also provide troops in Afghanistan and have been providing help in many other areas. You know, the transatlantic alliance has survived 70 years, has brought stability to western Europe, where it did not exist for hundreds of years.
And Trump has done what the Russians could not do through espionage and through other types of nefarious actions. He's starting to break that great transatlantic alliance.
I believe it is our job to reinforce that. This is a treaty that's been voted on by the United States Senate. The president alone cannot break that. But it's unfortunate that he is doing this.
And all he had to do -- all he had to do was go to NATO and say a couple of words. Most importantly, all he had to say was that the United States would back up the commitment to Article V of the NATO treaty. And had he done that, most of these people would not be existing.
But without -- because he did not want to do that, whether it's because he didn't want to take the advice or for whatever reason, now these countries that have been long-standing allies of ours, that have fought with us in Iraq. They have fought with us in Afghanistan and other parts of the world, are starting to question their commitment to the United States. And that's quite unfortunate.
And it's really a -- an accidental shooting, or I should say that Trump essentially shot himself in the foot, except that we are now the casualties of this -- actions of his that he just didn't need to take. All he had to do was go and have one normal meeting with these NATO allies, and he did not accomplish that.
BLITZER: He also lectured the NATO allies for not living up to that commitment, that 2 percent commitment, their GDP that they're supposed to spend on defense.
Let me get your reaction, Congressman, to another story we're following, the truly awful news out of Portland, Oregon, where two men were killed and a third very seriously injured while defending a pair of young women from a man yelling anti-Muslim hate speech. Listen to one of those young women describe how it happened.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[17:25:13] DESTINEE MANGUM, TARGET OF ANTI-MUSLIM SLURS: He told us to go back to Saudi Arabia, and he told us that we shouldn't be here and to get out of his country.
Me and my friend were going to get off the Max, and then we turned around while they were fighting. And he just started stabbing people, and it was just blood everywhere. And we just started running for our lives.
Thank you to the people who put their life on the line for me, because they didn't even know me, and they lost their lives because of me and my friend and the way we looked. And I just want to say thank you to them and their family, that I appreciate them, because without them we probably would be dead right now.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Very sad. One of those men, Rick Best, was an Army veteran. You're a veteran, as well, Congressman. On this Memorial Day, what do you think of the heroic actions of these young men?
GALLEGO: Well, I think it's important for us to remember the best of America was represented by those young men, as well as those young women that were just exercising the right of religion by just being human and being on a public train. And the fact that somebody would espouse those types of views is disgusting, considering how many hundreds of thousands of men died trying to fight the Nazis in -- during World War 2. You know, it's disgusting that this is becoming more common.
I really urge the FBI and all departments to really start looking at this stuff, you know, whether it's skinhead or white nationalist movement, as an actual serious threat. They -- it's not just what happened in Portland. A few days before that, a young student to be lieutenant in the Army was killed in Maryland by another known white supremacist. This is a growing problem, and we need to face it and treat it like it is, like the criminal organization that it is.
BLITZER: Congressman Gallego, thanks so much for joining us.
GALLEGO: Thank you so much.
BLITZER: We're going to have more on that story later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Also coming up, Kim Jong-un's latest missile test raising alarming new concerns. Does the U.S. military have the ability to shoot down a North Korean attack?
BLITZER: We're following developments over at the White House as administration officials defend President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who's under intense scrutiny right now for his alleged dealings with Russia. A source tells CNN that in December, early December, Kushner requested a secret backchannel for communications with the Kremlin.
Let's bring in our specialists.
And Phil Mudd, you're a former CIA officer, analyst. One of your colleagues, another former CIA analyst, tweeted this: "At the CIA if I arrange comms" -- communications -- "with Russia outside official channels and set up a secret meeting in a third country, I would be tried for espionage."
You spent your career over there. Do you agree?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: That's wrong. There are two words we need to drop out of this heated conversation. One is "espionage," and the second is "treason."
There's a question of judgment here. In the midst of a federal investigation, after the president -- at that time the president-elect of the United States -- is starting to receive intelligence briefings that presumably include conversations about Russia, there's a judgment by Jared Kushner and the president's team that says, "I trust the Russians more than I trust the Americans. I'm going to go talk to the Russian embassy, because I don't trust American channels."
We don't know what he said and whether anything he said was either inappropriate or illegal, and I'm going to presume he did this at the behest of the president-elect of the United States. There's a question of judgment here, but all this conversation about treason and espionage has to stop. We don't know.
BLITZER: I assumed he was also acting at the recommendation of the president's then top national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, retired general, later became the national security adviser, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
BLITZER: Who knows all about U.S. intelligence capabilities and gathering, and they went to that meeting together with the Russian ambassador. I assume Kushner, who's not experienced in intelligence, was relying on Flynn.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes. I find it hard to believe, no matter what you think of Jared Kushner, that he was lone-wolfing it on this, that he developed a plan entirely independent of Donald Trump or Mike Flynn or anybody else.
What we know about him is that, yes, he is a member of the family. He is a trusted adviser, but he is not someone, I don't think, who believes he should just go and run channels, particularly at that point, right? I mean, particularly in the transition period.
So I think it does not look great, particularly because of the context. This is not the first story we have heard about something -- I don't want -- to Phil's point, espionage, treason, something that looks a little bit odd to a number of people who spent a lot of time there, related to the Trump administration, Trump transition and Russia. And I think that's part of the problem.
If this was a lone event that happened in a vacuum, might not be great for Jared Kushner, maybe shouldn't have done it. But when you have Mike Flynn and Carter Page and Paul Manafort and his -- Jared Kushner's other meetings with Russians that were not disclosed -- and Jeff Sessions is not disclosing meetings with Sergey Kislyak -- you add it all up, and it looks like something that merits further investigation.
BLITZER: If you eliminate, Jackie, treason or espionage, those words, as Phil Mudd is recommending, is he still vulnerable, Kushner?
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: In terms of inside the White House?
BLITZER: Yes, in terms of his position right now, his stature, what he did, because clearly he's going to be questioned by members of Congress, the committees, also presumably by the special counsel.
[17:35:15] KUCINICH: We don't know about the special counsel. He is part of that investigation, of course, but we won't hear about that as much as we may hear coming out of Congress.
As far as his standing inside the White House, it's interesting. There's two camps. There are the people that are rallying around Kushner, and then those who are talking behind his back and saying, you know, "Maybe he should go."
But the other thing is he is the president's son-in-law, and this is where you run into problems with having family so close. Trump has always put family first, and this is no exception. We saw it on -- it might be the reason why the president has been so vehement about his denial on Twitter. He gave an on-the-record quote to "The New York Times." That's how you know this is serious and being taken seriously inside the White House
CILLIZZA: To Jackie's point quickly, Wolf, I think there's -- you have two forces in Trump world. You have Donald Trump, family first always. Always surrounded by a small circle of people, even in the business world, who are all functionally related to him.
And then you have Donald Trump, who hates getting bad press from people who are not him. He's OK with getting his own bad press. He says and does things that get negative press, sticks that on his underlings. But if you're Jared Kushner, who in the chain of command works for him, right, is a staff member, you're getting bad press, but you're also Ivanka Trump's husband, so you're family.
So this is not a Mike Flynn. This is not a Sean Spicer. This is not a Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway. He has a unique status that makes it challenging, I think, for Donald Trump and challenging for us to try to figure out what Donald Trump does.
BLITZER: And what I want to know is did the president-elect in early December know what Mike Flynn and Jared Kushner were doing?
Hold that thought. We're going to take a quick break. We're going to resume this excellent conversation right after this.
[17:41:342] BLITZER: We're back with our specialists. And Phil Mudd, I'm on -- intrigued, and I wonder what you think. Did the president- elect in early December know about these conversations that Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner were having with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador?
MUDD: Boy, you've got to be kidding me. Son-in-law, national security adviser incoming within six weeks or otherwise until inauguration, seven weeks. We have an issue that's prominent during the campaign; that is Russian meddling in the campaign. We have the president, who's repeatedly spoken -- something that's controversial -- about improving ties with a dictator; that is Vladimir Putin. And his team, people who are next to him every single day on a
prominent national security issue are going and saying, "I want a special channel with the Russians," and the president-elect doesn't know? You could sell me a bridge to Brooklyn. I don't buy that.
BLITZER: He probably knew about the special -- you know, the backchannel and all of that, but the fact that they were going to use Russian embassy equipment and make conversations -- make phone calls from inside the Russian embassy in Washington to the Kremlin.
MUDD: This doesn't make sense to me. They were talking to the Russians all along. We know that.
As soon as you make the choice to say, "I'm going inside the embassy, because I want to avoid U.S. government comms." Let me tell you something about the U.S. government. That's in not a backchannel. The naivete here, and I would say extending to General Flynn -- I hesitate to say this -- stupidity to believe, in this environment as the incoming president, you're going to have a backchannel? That is not secret. It's going to go public. Whoever made this decision had to know it's going to go south eventually. It's remarkable arrogance.
BLITZER: On top of all of this, the president has got some major decisions, Chris. He's got to make -- and presumably fairly soon -- he's got to decide on a new FBI director. Several people have taken their names out of consideration.
CILLIZZA: Right. So right before Donald Trump left for his trip we heard, well, no decision was made. He had soured on Joe Lieberman. And while he was gone Joe Lieberman, the former Connecticut senator, said, "Not interested."
Look, I would assume for most people who spent any time in that world, being the FBI director would be a real career capper that most people would want.
I do think he struggles -- this is true of other lower level positions in the White House staffing. I think he struggles when you think, "Do I really want to go into that?"
Now, it's no guarantee it's going to be the Jim Comey situation all over. You will be his pick, but it's not as simple, I think, as it would be if Bill Clinton or George W. Bush was picking a new FBI director, where you said, "Wow, I spent my whole life in this field. This is something I'm interested in doing," because you just don't know. This is someone who clearly has violated protocol in Donald Trump. So asking nation whether he was under investigation and all sorts of things.
Not only that some of the picture
Do you want to want to willingly put yourself in that position?
KUCINICH: And not only that. Some of the picks that were talked about were people that had said negative things about Donald Trump.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.
KUCINICH: That haven't been necessarily positive the entire time, is a major black mark if you're trying to join the Trump administration, particularly with some of the staff that's been there for a while, because loyalty is so prized. So perhaps some people that might do it because of country or because they do want the position might be ruled out out of ended.
BLITZER: And we see a big shake-up in the White House staff, the communications staff?
MUDD: My gosh. And I think this reporting is accurate, but I feel like every three days, we see multiple major mainstream mainstream media outlets reporting that a shake-up is coming. They're building a war room. Sean Spicer is on his way out.
And the only person that we've seen go out is Mike Flynn. And that was after he lied to the vice president of the United States, among many other things, but that was the stated reason.
My offense with Donald Trump; Donald Trump got famous for saying, "You're fired", right, as a reality TV star. I think that desire to be the forceful boss is in him.
I also think he has had a little bit of Obama in him -- this is strange -- but Obama never liked to react to what official Washington him to do. He hated the idea that we'll have to get rid of someone as a sacrificial lamb. I think there's a little of that in Trump, too.
He can't look at where his presidency is, even after what they believe is a very successful nine-day five-country foreign trip, and think, this is exactly where I wanted to be on Day 132 or 133. He has to change. The problem is, the staff -- Jackie, I've heard make this point, of course, is exactly right. The staff is sort of secondary. Donald Trump is the message problem here. You can't --
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: At one point, he was suggesting, maybe eliminate the daily White House press briefings, and he'll do a news conference every two weeks to get his message out. What do you think of that?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, I don't buy that, and I also think the conversation about shake-up is too simplistic. Let's go inside Washington, D.C., for a moment. I served in the National Security Council at the White House. It's not about just who has a job. It's about who has access to power.
CILLIZZA: That's right.
JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Right.
MUDD: And New York is --
CILLIZZA: And who he listens to.
MUDD: That's right. New York is about money. Washington is about how close you are to the Oval Office, who is in, who is out. Steve Bannon, which most Americans didn't pay attention to, being removed from the National Security Council, the Principals Committee? In my world, that is huge. I think you might see a different constellation of who has access to the Oval Office, even if somebody doesn't hurry out.
CILLIZZA: In some ways, that's --
KUCINICH: It's more about layering than it is about firing.
CILLIZZA: And in some ways, that's nothing new under the sun. This is what he does. He plays one against the other.
CILLIZZA: There's four people who essentially have the same job, Deputy Chief of Staff and various different titles. I mean, that's what he does. He creates this chaos.
BLITZER: All right. Stand by, guys. There's much more coming up, including fresh concerns after North Korea tests yet another ballistic missile. Will an upcoming test show the U.S. has the technology to shoot down those North Korean missiles?
[17:51:17] BLITZER: With one launch after another, North Korea is stepping up its missile test and testing America's ability to defend against a growing threat. Our Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us.
Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, U.S. and Japanese officials are very concerned about this latest missile test. This makes at least three missile tests in three weeks for Kim Jong-un's regime, 12 missiles fired just this year. And with a U.S. about to test a missile interceptor tomorrow, there's now enormous pressure on the U.S. military to keep pace with this threat.
TODD (voice-over): Kim Jong-un pushes aggressively ahead in his effort to threaten his enemies with nuclear-tipped missiles. North Korea has just launched its third missile test in three weeks. A short-ranged ballistic missile was fired from an area near Wonsan. It traveled approximately 248 miles, splashing down within Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone, an area where commercial ships are known to operate. One analysts believes the test was designed to simulate a strike on an American base.
PATRICK CRONIN, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF THE ASIA-PACIFIC SECURITY PROGRAM, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: It was apparently a preparation for an attack on Iwakuni, which is a U.S. marine base in the southwest Honshu Island of japan. This is becoming a routine accelerated launch schedule. TODD (voice-over): Kim is testing missiles at a breath-taking pace,
12 missiles fired in nine tests so far this year.
Tonight, experts warn the test of a short-range missile, like the one Kim just launched, while seemingly less menacing than some of his other weapons, allows the regime to tweak its missile technology and get closer to perfecting a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile which could someday carry a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland.
U.S. officials also concerned tonight about North Korea's development after a new arsenal of missiles, which use solid fuel rather than liquid fuel.
THOMAS KARAKO, DIRECTOR OF THE MISSILE DEFENSE PROJECT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The solid are capable of being fired much more quickly. They don't necessarily have to be fueled or have sort of support apparatus. There is no launch pad or anything like that, and so they can be put on trucks, made mobile, and then therefore fired, in principle, from anywhere.
TODD (voice-over): This puts more pressure on the U.S. to upgrade its ability to shoot down North Korean missiles. The Pentagon preparing for an interceptor test on Tuesday.
President Trump, today, tweeting about the North Korean threat, quote, "North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile but China is trying hard."
Japan's Prime Minister, furious with the North Korean missile landing so close to his shores, vows to respond.
SHINZO ABE, PRIME MINISTER OF JAPAN (through translator): In order to deter North Korea, we will take concrete actions together with the United States.
TODD (on camera): What options for so-called concrete action do Japan and the U.S. have here?
CRONIN: Cyber or missile action. The missile action could shoot down a missile test from North Korea should another occur. The cyber action or the launching of aircraft to harass and to inspect North Korean bases could also put the North Koreans on alert.
TODD: Current and former U.S. military officials have said the U.S. does have a program to disrupt North Korean missiles with cyberattacks, a program that "The New York Times" reported President Obama accelerated three years ago.
Now, it's unclear which, if any, North Korean missile launches may have been disrupted by hacking, but Kim Jong-un has reportedly ordered investigations into possible sabotage of his missiles, looking for spies inside his regime. Wolf. BLITZER: What's the latest assessment you're getting, Brian, of how
close North Korea is to having an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead?
[17:55:03] TODD: Well, the latest estimate, Wolf, that we have from experts is they are roughly three to five years away from having that capability. They have not yet perfected a reentry vehicle that would enable that missile to reenter the atmosphere from space without it breaking up. But a test they did a couple of weeks ago gave them critical information on developing that kind of reentry vehicle. That missile they launched two weeks ago reached an altitude of about 1,300 miles.
BLITZER: Yes, it was pretty impressive. Brian Todd, thanks very much.
Coming up, the President's son-in-law, now the lightning rod for a new storm hitting the White House over his alleged effort to set up secret back channel links with Russia as the Trump administration digs in against the growing controversy.