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Interview With Florida Congressman Ted Yoho; Trump Losing Confidence in Attorney General?; Comey Set to Testify; Sources: Russians Planted False Story Behind New Mideast Crisis. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired June 6, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump sends a four-letter word to the FBI director he fired, this as we're standing by for an announcement on the Russian investigation from the House Intelligence Committee on the status of its Russia investigation.

Losing Trump's support? The attorney general's job security in question tonight after the White House refuses, refuses to say the president has confidence in Jeff Sessions. Could one of Mr. Trump's earliest and most ardent supporters be on the way out?

And Russia menacing. A U.S. bomber intercepted by one of the Putin regime's warplanes. We're tracking the tensions in the air and on the ground between Moscow and Washington.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight on an urgent diplomatic crisis dividing key U.S. allies now being traced to Russia.

CNN has learned that U.S. investigators believe Russian hackers were responsible for planting a fake news report that prompted major Gulf nations to cut ties with Qatar -- the exclusive details coming up.

We're also standing by for a new announcement on the investigation of Russia's election meddling by leaders of the House Intelligence Committee. We will carry that for you live.

Also breaking now, President Trump sends a message to James Comey less than 48 will hours before the fired FBI director's sensational Senate testimony. Mr. Trump telling reporters, and I'm quoting him now, "I wish him luck."

Comey is expected to reveal details about his private conversations with the president, but a source close to Comey tells CNN he does not expect the former FBI director will come to any legal conclusions about whether the president obstructed justice.

Also tonight, new questions about whether the attorney general's job may be in jeopardy, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, pointedly and repeatedly refusing to say if the president has confidence in Jeff Sessions. We're told he is still fuming over Sessions' recusal from the Russia investigation, all this as the White House is now acknowledging that President Trump's tweets are in fact -- quote -- "official statements."

Mr. Trump defending his use of social media during his latest Twitter rant, despite warnings that his online outbursts are distracting from his agenda and could have very serious legal consequences.

This hour, I will speak with Congressman Ted Yoho. He's a Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee. And correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. He has exclusive reporting for us tonight.

Evan, tell our viewers what you are learning.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, U.S. investigators believe that Russian hackers were behind a cyber-breach against Qatar's state news agency.

The hackers planted a false news report friendly to Iran and critical of President Donald Trump that is now being used by Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies as a reason to carry out an economic and political blockade of Qatar.

U.S. and Qatari officials tell us that FBI sent a team of investigators to Doha to help the Qatari government investigate the alleged hacking incident reported back in late May. Intelligence gathered by U.S. security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion.

But the alleged involvement of Russian hackers would add to concerns by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that Russia continues to try to use some of the same cyber-hacking measures on a U.S. ally that it used to meddle in the U.S. 2016 elections.

Qatar hosts one of the largest U.S. military bases in the region and U.S. officials say that the Russian goal here appears to be to cause rifts, Wolf, between the U.S. and its regional allies.

BLITZER: Do U.S. investigators -- and you and your team are doing a lot of reporting on this, Evan.

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: Do they believe that the Russian government is behind this hack?

PEREZ: Well, it is not clear yet, Wolf, whether the U.S. has tracked the hackers in this Qatar incident to Russian criminal organizations or to the Russian security services that are blamed for the election hacks here in the United States.

One official told us that based on past intelligence -- quote -- "Not much happens in that country without the blessing of the government."

Today, President Trump tweeted criticism of Qatar that mirrors broader concerns that the Saudis and others in the region have, that they have long objected to Qatar's foreign policy. In his tweet, President Trump didn't mention the hack, but he voiced support for the regional blockade of Qatar and cited Qatar's funding of terrorist groups.

The Qataris have, by the way, rejected the terror funding accusations. Wolf, the FBI and the CIA declined to comment for the story and the Qatari government issued a statement saying -- quote -- "The hacking of Qatar news agency is an aggressive coordinated crime that represents continuous escalation in the campaign against Qatar. These malicious efforts undermine Qatar's reputation, do not support the unity of the region to fight terrorism, instability and conflict" -- Wolf.


BLITZER: I just want to be precise too. When you say false reports, fake news, it not the kind of fake news that the president refers to, because that's not fake news. This is a serious false news account.

PEREZ: Right. This is a false news account, the kind of thing that the Russians have been using in their so-called active measures.

We have seen this in some of our allies in Europe, around elections in France and Germany. So, it's something that we also saw here during the U.S. elections last year, Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting from Evan Perez and his team, as usual. Stand by.

We're going to get reaction to all of this.

Let's get some now more on the Russia investigation as we stand by for an announcement by the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee investigation.

Our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, is following all the breaking developments for us.

So, Jessica, what is the latest?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning that James Comey will stick to the facts and leave legal analysis aside. That's from a source who told our Jake Tapper that Comey will detail his interactions with the president, specifically the president's request for a pledge of loyalty and his request to Comey to stop the investigation into Michael Flynn.

But that source says Comey won't go so far as to conclude whether or not the president's actions may have constituted obstruction of justice.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, the president is weighing in on James Comey's upcoming testimony.


SCHNEIDER: Sources say the White House still hasn't set up a war room and is slow putting together a rapid-response team to come to the defense of the president. Part of the holdup? A still, only partially assembled legal team. President Trump's personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, is official outside counsel.

Administration officials said he will determine the official White House response. But there is no top-flight legal defense team at the ready just yet. One source says the number of conflicts D.C. area attorneys may have is one obstacle and a leading litigator says there is concern among Washington lawyers about representing Trump since he is quick to undermine his own interests, as seen this week when he fired off tweets criticizing the Justice Department defense of his travel ban.

For now, his sons are his most ardent surrogates.

ERIC TRUMP, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: It's the greatest hoax of all time. I was there throughout the campaign. We have no dealings in Russia. We have no projects in Russia. We have nothing to do with Russia.

DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: To me, it is without a question, you know, reads and smells like a witch-hunt.

SCHNEIDER: Homeland Secretary John Kelly also came to the defense of President Trump's son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, amid continued questions about Kushner trying to set up secret meetings at the Russian embassy.

JOHN KELLY, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We have to make assumptions, and I will, that Jared Kushner is a great American, he's a decent American, he has a security clearance as the highest level, as I understand it. Back channels are the normal -- are in the course of normal interactions with a country is very, very common.

SCHNEIDER: But Kelly did acknowledge this case may be unusual.

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: Can you tell me if it is also normal to go to an embassy of a country that has been our foe since World War II?

KELLY: I don't know if that was the case. But if that is the case, I am so sure it is normal, but certainly it would be one way to communicate through the back channel.

SCHNEIDER: Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are preparing a long list of questions for James Comey.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I want to get to the bottom of what were the circumstances surrounding the firing, what were the circumstances surrounding these various meetings going back to right after the inauguration and supposedly was he asked to be loyal and was he asked to somehow put a damper on part of the investigation?

SCHNEIDER: The Senate Intelligence investigation is moving forward on other fronts. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has turned over more than 600 pages of documents responsive to a subpoena for his business and personal records, according to a source.

Meanwhile, Chairman Richard Burr and Ranking Member Mark Warner are trying to schedule a meeting with special counsel Robert Mueller. The committee still wants to know if anything will be off-limits for Comey's testimony, even though Comey has told Chairman Burr he has been given wide latitude to talk by Mueller.


SCHNEIDER: And Chairman Burr said that Thursday will be Comey's only public testimony. Senator Burr also says he is trying to obtain Comey's memos, but he doesn't expect to see them before Thursday.

And a Senate Democratic source says the Trump administration and the Department of Justice may actually may not be processing memos for congressional review since they are now all wrapped up in the Mueller probe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

Once again, we're standing by to hear from the top two investigators of the House Intelligence Committee. They are about to walk over to the microphones there. We will have live coverage. Stand by for that.

In the meantime, as the Russia probe clearly intensifies, the president's frustrations with his attorney general seems to be growing as well.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Sara Murray.


Sara, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, refusing not once, but twice to say if the president has confidence in Jeff Sessions.


And we know that President Trump has been aggravated with Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation certainly since he did it, but that aggravation has been growing as the special counsel was appointed and as this investigation appears to expand.

So, today, Sean Spicer was asked whether the president still has confidence in Jeff Sessions. Here is the nonanswer he gave.


QUESTION: How would you describe the president's level of confidence in the attorney general, Jeff Sessions?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I have not had a discussion with him about that.

QUESTION: Last time you said that, there was a development.

SPICER: I'm just -- I'm asking -- I'm answering a question, which is I have not had that discussion with him.

QUESTION: So you can't say if he has confidence in his attorney general?

SPICER: I said I have not had a discussion with him on the question. I don't -- if I haven't had a discussion with him about a subject, I tend not to speak about it.


MURRAY: Now, sources have told us the president has vented in private phone calls with his allies about the fact that this is why he didn't want Sessions to recuse himself. He didn't want to be in a position where he was having to deal with a special counsel.

And that investigation is now touching more and more people more close to Trump, including the president's own son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The president question made a quip about that today as well, saying Kushner is becoming even more famous than the president is -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Murray at the White House, thanks.

That's pretty extraordinary indeed.

Let's get some more on all of this, including our exclusive new reporting. CNN has learned that U.S. investigators now believe Russian hackers were responsible for planting a false news report that prompted major Gulf Arab nations to cut ties with Qatar.

Joining us now, Congressman Ted Yoho. He's a Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: Great to be here, Wolf. Thanks for having me on.

BLITZER: So, what does this tell you about Russia's global ambitions?

You heard our exclusive reporting.

YOHO: Well, you are seeing people do this all over the world, other countries doing this. And Russia seems to be very astute at doing what they are doing, spreading misinformation, spreading propaganda, creating chaos.

And they have seem to have done this very well. But we have seen North Korea doing what they have done with the malware that they sent out that caused the havoc a couple weeks ago. And so is the new -- I don't want to say the new normal, but this is the future. We're in the 21st century.

And you are going to see more and more of this going on, unfortunately. What I want to see is our country leading the efforts to block these kind of interferences from any country and then we have to hold ourselves accountable so that we're not doing this.


BLITZER: Congressman, I just want to say, this is pretty extraordinary to hack into a state media organization, plant this false story, as a result of that, you see this enormous diplomatic rift that has emerged, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, other Arab countries severing diplomatic relations with Qatar as a result of a false Russian-planted story.

YOHO: I agree.

And I this think is very dangerous. And this is something the world community needs to be on notice. When another country can cause this kind of a havoc and break diplomatic ties with allies, this is something we all need to come to the table and we need to negotiate these things.

And when is enough enough? And when do we have a definition of what constitutes an act of war when things like this happen? And, of course, if that constitutes an act of war, what's going to be the appropriate response? And these are the things that I hope our intelligence community, they investigate, they find out, so that we can craft policies to prevent this. This is serious. This is very serious.

BLITZER: But the president is taking credit for the severing of ties with Qatar. You saw some of his tweets this morning. He tweeted: "During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar. Look," among other tweets.

He is taking credit for this development, which now appears to have been the result of Russian hacking into the Qatari news service.

YOHO: Well, I'm going to let you ask him the purpose of his tweets and why he did that.

But, again, when they start doing these and we respond based on false information, this is a dangerous situation for everybody around the world, because if it could happen to Qatar, the same thing could be going on with Germany or one of our other allies, the U.K.

And this is something that I hope the president with his team makes sure that before we respond that we know their facts.


BLITZER: It seems to be going on all over the place. But I assume -- you're a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee -- it deeply concerns you what is going on right now.

YOHO: Sure.

It does. All it takes is for the misinformation to get out there to where somebody reacts to that. And that's what we don't want. And so we need to plot slowly, cautiously.

And I would recognize to President Trump to make sure -- and I'm sure he has a good reason of why he did that, but let's make sure it is accurate before we respond to it.


BLITZER: Well, here's the question for you, though. Does it concern you that the president is tweeting about this?

YOHO: You and I have talked about this before. It is not the way I would communicate. I would use it for certain things.

I wouldn't be there with a finger in somebody's eye all the time. I think it can be an effective tool. It is not something I would do. And I know a lot of people kind of would like to see that reined in.

BLITZER: Yes. Yesterday in a tweet the president really blasted his own Justice Department for that travel ban decision, which, he by the way, signed as an executive order.

YOHO: Right.

BLITZER: And today the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, would not confirm that President Trump still has confidence in the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who was among one his earliest supporters.

Do you believe, Congressman, that attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is safe in his job?

YOHO: I think he is for right now.

And I think President Trump put the best person in there he thought would fulfill that. And if it gets to the point where he lacks confidence, I think he will make a change, but I don't see any reason for right now. Jeff Sessions I think has done a great job for him to accuse himself -- or recuse himself in the beginning, to say, you know what, I don't want to have that conflict or that controversy, so I'm stepping out of that.

And I think that was a smart thing and I think history will be on the side of Jeff Sessions on that. And I think he has done a great job and then as we move forward, the travel ban, I think you are going to see that overturned by the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: But hold on a second. Hold on, Congressman.

Mike Conaway and Adam Schiff are now speaking.


REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R), TEXAS: Just wanted to make sure that you and the American public know, as well as our colleagues in the House know that we have an active investigation going on.

We are pursuing it aggressively. We're pursuing it on a bipartisan basis. And each of the lines that you would expect, whether it's documents, people, whatever the case may be, we have been pursuing that.

As you print folks know, I have been relatively circumspect about my availability. And I will continue to do that, because we're going to do the investigation the right way. And I don't need to do it in front of you. In fact, I cannot do it in front of you.

But just want to make the American public aware that we do have an aggressive investigation on, ongoing right now and we intend to follow every lead, talk to every witness and get to some answers that all of us -- questions all of us want answered.

So, thank you for being here this afternoon.

With that, I will turn to my colleague Adam.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Mike, thank you.

And I just want to join my colleague. We have discussed the desirability of periodically doing status updates to say that we are following up on a number of requests that we have made of witnesses to provide information, testimony to us voluntarily.

We fully expect most of those that we invited will do so. Obviously, as many of you know, at least a couple of the witnesses that we have sought have decided to decline to voluntarily cooperate, so we did issue those subpoenas to them last week. And we will follow up with others. Hopefully, we will secure the voluntary cooperation, but if not we will use whatever process is necessary.

We are also planning the schedule forward in terms of interviews once we receive the documentation and have a chance to review it, but more than that, we are looking now to what additional open hearings we can schedule.

And Mr. Conaway and I have been in discussions about one of the next open hearings that we'd like to have. We intend to reach out to former Secretary Jeh Johnson. We'd love to have him come and testify before us in a hearing that would be both open session followed by closed session.

We haven't had a chance yet to communicate with the secretary, but he has been certainly cooperative in terms of my interaction with him over many years. And I think he would have insight as one of the signatories into that October 7 statement issued by the I.C. attributing the conduct for the first time by the administration to Russia, as well as interactions that the Obama administration and he had with secretaries of state and local elections officials in terms of the dangers posed to our election elections infrastructure by what the Russians were doing.

So, those are some of the plans we have ahead, but very much appreciate the opportunity to work with Mr. Conaway and we look forward to our continued progress on the investigation together.

CONAWAY: We are not going to take questions, but as we complete things that we can share with you, we understand your desire, keen interest in getting that done, as the subpoenas went out, things are completed, we have now set -- so, as we complete things, we intend to keep you updated as best we can and appreciate you being here this afternoon.

SCHIFF: Thank you. Thank you.

BLITZER: No questions from reporters.

Mike Conaway, the Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee who is leading the investigation after the recusal of Devin Nunes, the chairman of the chairman of the committee, Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, Mike Conaway promising what he called an aggressive investigation.


He say it's already under way. They are not going to stop until they get all of the answers. They are going to be issuing more subpoenas at the same time.

And we just got word from Adam Schiff that Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of homeland security during the Obama administration, would also be called to testify. They having gotten in touch with him yet, but presumably people are telling him now, get ready to testify before this House Intelligence Committee.

And Ted Yoho, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is with us.

What is your reaction when you hear it looks like these two members, they have pretty some good cooperation in this investigation.

YOHO: No, I have a lot of confidence in Chairman Conaway and Adam Schiff.

Chairman Conaway, he has accountant by trade. He is very detailed- oriented and he's very serious about what he does. And this will be a nonpartisan issue. This is something he will go after the facts, along with Adam Schiff.

And this is what the American people want. The American people want closure to this stuff. They want to find out what is behind this and let's move on. Again, as you and I have talked in the past, we're $20 trillion in debt. We have got some things we've got to really deal with and focus on and tax reform, health care, national security.

And let this investigation go through what it's supposed to and I can't think of two better people to lead this than those two right there. And I think you are going to see a good resolution of this.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman, stand by. There are other developments unfolding as we speak. Need to take a quick break. We will be right back.

YOHO: All right.



BLITZER: We're talking with House Foreign Affairs Committee member Ted Yoho.

Congressman, I want you to stand by, because right now we are learning more about the federal contractor accused of leaking classified information on a Russian cyber-attack and the details revealed in the stolen documents.

Our correspondent Dianne Gallagher is following the story for us.

Dianne, what's the very latest?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight, the woman who allegedly leaked that top-secret document is facing serious charges.

Now, we need to stress there is no evidence that any votes were affected by this cyber-attack, but the document itself is raising some new concerns about just how close the Russian military may have gotten to hacking into American voting systems during last year's election.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): The five-page document, which was posted online, is allegedly a top-secret National Security Agency report that details specifics about how the government believes the GRU, Russia's military intelligence wing, worked to hack into election voting systems, including sending phishing e-mails to local election officials in an attempt to steal their log-in credentials.

The e-mails included documents with viruses hidden inside that if opened could help the hackers get access to files on the users' computers.

On Capitol Hill this morning, the homeland security secretary was grilled on what the U.S. could do to prevent such a breach.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: It's clear they were trying to get into that voter file. And I don't think they were going there to try to just hang out.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: There's a lot of drama.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said today the Russian hacking attempts on U.S. elections systems were broader and targeted more states than previously thought, telling "USA Today" the attempted breaches didn't stop on Election Day.

MCCASKILL: Imagine the disruption if thousands of people showed up to vote and their names were no longer on the voter file. What would we do?

JOHN KELLY, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I share your concern. I don't disagree with anything you said relative to the sanctity of our voting process. There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than voting.

GALLAGHER: Tonight, as Congress questions the details of the new report, the Justice Department is focused on the person who it says leaked it.

Sources tell CNN the NSA report was given to the online news site The Intercept by this 25-year-old government contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, a former Air Force linguist who was previously assigned to the NSA.

Winner left the Air Force in December of 2016 and this February started working at Pluribus International Corporation, a Georgia company that contracts with the NSA.

Apparently frustrated with the comments she read online that there was no evidence of Russia hacking the location, last month, the Justice Department says that Winner printed the confidential report and mailed it to reporters. Over the weekend, she was arrested at her home after allegedly admitting to taking the document.

Tonight, Winner is in this jail in Lincolnton, Georgia, facing charges of removing and mailing classified materials to a news outlet. Her mother tells CNN she is an athlete who loves animals and that she doesn't know her daughter to be particularly political or to admire famous leakers.

But tweets on an account that appeared to belong to Winner tell a different story. She allegedly followed just 50 other accounts, including Edward Snowden and the hacking group known as Anonymous, and tweets on the account express disdain for Donald Trump, including on February 11, when she allegedly responded to a tweet from the president about refugees, writing: "The most dangerous entry to this country was the orange fascist we let into the White House."

Tonight, Winner's lawyer tells CNN she is -- quote -- "not a traitor." She's a veteran.

TITUS NICHOLS, ATTORNEY FOR WINNER: Now she's been pulled into this political windstorm, where there is a much larger debate going on that this administration is choosing not to focus on. Instead of focusing on the question of was Russia involved in interfering in the election, now we are focusing on whether or not or the extent of punishment for this low-level government employee.

(END VIDEOTAPE) GALLAGHER: Now, according to that criminal complaint, they were actually able to track Winner down pretty easily, because The Intercept sent a copy of the document, which we said had been printed off and mailed, to the government to check for authenticity before publishing it.

Now, because it was a copy, the line from it being folded was visible. Investigators determined that only six people had printed that document off and said that Winner was the only one with previous e- mail contact with a reporter from The Intercept.

Now, we need to you point out, The Intercept says that it still has no idea who leaked them the document. It was anonymous.

Winner did not enter a plea in her initial hearing. She is scheduled to be in federal court on Thursday in Georgia -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Potentially, she could face up to ten years in prison. Diane Gallagher reporting for us. Thanks very much.

I want to bring back Congressman Ted Yoho, the Republican.

So give me your quick reaction to this really dramatic development involving Russian hacking in this presidential election.

YOHO: Well, Wolf, I appreciate you coming back to this. This is something that's very serious. And for this young lady -- and everything that I've heard was alleged, her website and everything she leaked -- if Russia did do this, again we need to get behind this and we need to prevent this from happening. We need to have diplomatic communications on what's acceptable, what isn't. And we need to make sure we're not doing it.

But for this young lady, if in fact, she did do this, that's leaking top-secret information; and it's a -- it's something that's going on in our country. There's not the loyalty. There's not the respect for our government, our country. And if we don't bring an end to this, it's going to get worse.

And I only can look back at what President Obama did with Chelsea Manning, commuting a sentence, or the person from Puerto Rico that was a terrorist. Letting them go. These are people that have done harm to the American people. In the second case, it led to deaths of Americans. No telling what Chelsea Manning's effect had on our country.

But when people do these things, and a president of the United States commutes them and says, "You know what? It was a bad moment for you. Get out of here." There should be ramifications for what people do that brings harm to this country.

And Edwin [SIC] -- Mr. Snowden, when he did what he did, I read that report. People want to hail him as a hero. That man, with what I read, did damage to this country, put our military at risk around the world, and we should not celebrate these people. They ought to be held accountable. And that's what's lacking, holding people accountable. And the American people, again, through these investigations, are going to find out and get to the bottom of that. And I'm happy that Chairman Conaway and Adam Schiff are doing this investigation, because they will get to the bottom of this; and people will be held accountable. I feel very confident in that.

BLITZER: All right. Congressman Ted Yoho. Thanks, as usual, for joining us.

YOHO: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. Let's turn back to the breaking news tonight. Sources are telling CNN that U.S. investigators now believe Russian hackers are behind a false news report that prompted six Arab Gulf nations to cut ties with Qatar, a key U.S. ally in the region. But in a controversial tweet President Trump appeared to take credit for the diplomatic crisis and speaking out against Qatar. Let's dig deeper with our specialists, our analysts.

And Brianna Keilar, it's a pretty dramatic development when you think about the exclusive reporting that we just shared with our viewers.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's extremely dramatic. It's -- it's almost like watching a 007 movie or something. When you think about just the level of meddling here and how this has spurred on countries to take action in a certain way. And it shows, in way, that what the U.S. dealt with in this last election is this global challenge. That this, in its own way, is sort of a world war that so many countries are confronting and that they don't quite have the answer to on how to deal with this.

BLITZER: David Swerdlick, I'm anxious to get your reaction.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes. So to me, I think it's a head-scratcher, when we see all this, why President Trump, going all the way back to the campaign and the transition, was so interested in, at least with his public statements, in being accommodating toward the Russians.

He probably couldn't have predicted that you'd have this situation with Ms. Winner or the situation with Qatar. Forget all the collusion. Forget all the rest of that that we're still learning about. Just this idea that you have a global adversary like Russia, and we haven't had a clear posture from the administration about why they were so eager to accommodate them, at least rhetorically, in a way we didn't with our allies.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Rebecca, that the president is tweeting his support for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that severed diplomatic relations with Qatar. He tweeted this: "So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the king and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of the horror of terrorism."

You would have thought that the president would have been briefed by his intelligence community that, "You know what? This whole rift may be the result of a false report planted by the Russians."

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You absolutely would believe that, Wolf. And it's inconceivable to me that CNN, although the reporters here are fabulous, that CNN would have been privy to this intelligence information by U.S. intelligence services before the president of the United States.

And so the question needs to be asked at some point, when did the president learn this? Did he know this when he was tweeting? And if he did already have this information, why did he tweet what he tweeted, knowing that Russia was behind this? And so we don't know the answer to that yet.

[18:35:10] But I think the bigger question here, thinking about what a global problem, clearly, Russian meddling is -- Russian hacking, Russian fake news and false information and propaganda, frankly -- the U.S. in any other situation would be taking the lead on an issue like this globally. Would be confronting Russia; would be working with our allies and other nations and partners to try to solve this problem globally and confront it. And our president just isn't doing that right now, because he has downplayed this problem.

BLITZER: Let me get Jeffrey Toobin's reaction.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's just part of the pattern. That this administration has been accommodating of Russia from before the -- I mean, during the campaign, after the campaign. There are all these connections that are being investigated currently.

Why was this -- why were all these administration officials, campaign officials in 2016, meeting with Russians and then not telling the truth about it when they've been asked about it this year?

The idea that the president, you know, relied on false Russian propaganda, to create or endorse a major policy crisis involving Qatar, where we have an enormous number of troops, is even more amazing.

But remember, the president was also tweeting -- retweeting "The Drudge Report." You know, this is a man with access to the greatest intelligence operation in the world, and he's retweeting "The Drudge Report"; apparently, a false story here. It just is...

BLITZER: Retweets "FOX & Friends." He watches that show in the morning. Retweets that.

But also, what's really amazing to me, and I've covered administrations for a while, the White House today refusing to answer a simple question. Does the president have confidence in the attorney general of the United States?

TOOBIN: Well, remember the root of this whole conflict is that Donald Trump remains angry at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and turning it over to Rod Rosenstein.

Talk about no good deed going unpunished. Session was right. There is no way he could have supervised this investigation. He was -- he's involved. His testimony is going to be scrutinized. He can't supervise this investigation.

But Trump seems to think that, if Sessions had simply held on, this problem wouldn't be as big as it is. But you know what, the rules are the rules. And Sessions had to get out.

BLITZER: And Brianna, as you know, we've been reporting, we've heard that the president was so angry at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself, because he saw that as a sign of weakness that eventually led to the creation of the special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller; and the president remains bitterly angry about that.

KEILAR: He clearly saw that Jeff Sessions in that position is someone who had been so close to him throughout the campaign, was someone who could back him up on the Russia issue.

And you'll remember the day the we learned Jeff Sessions was recusing himself. You had that amazing video that White House press pool got of Donald Trump, saying that basically backed Jeff Sessions. And then it was just -- it was like they weren't even on the same page. It was a short time later Jeff Sessions recused himself.

I think this really speaks to your point, Wolf. Which is this independent counsel is something that is -- it must be very troubling; and I think we're seeing that, to President Trump, it's something that is out of his control. And even though, for instance, he's not supposed to have influence over Jeff Sessions in this case, if he were not recused from this. Certainly, it's something that Donald Trump would have been much more comfortable with than independent counsel.

BLITZER: Clearly, it was a slap at Jeff Sessions today, who had been one of the earliest supporters of the president, first senator to endorse him, as well.

Stay with us. We're getting more breaking news. Russia now believed to have sparked a diplomatic crisis, a major crisis in the Middle East, by planting a false story. Talk about that and more. "The New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman is standing by.


[18:43:43] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. CNN has learned that U.S. investigators now believe Russian hackers are behind a false news report that prompted six Arab Gulf nations to cut ties with Qatar, a key U.S. ally in the region.

Let's get some more on all of this. "The New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman is with us. His new book is entitled "Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration." It's a very important book, Tom. Thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: So if Russian hackers were, in fact, involved, responsible for hacking a Qatari news site, planting a fake news story that resulted in Saudi Arabia and these other Arab Gulf States severing relations with Qatar, what does that, first of all, tell you about Russia's ambitions, generally?

FRIEDMAN: Well, it's unprecedented, Wolf. We haven't seen hacking used in that way, to basically explode a relationship between American allies in the Gulf.

And it goes back to the fact this is really serious. What the Russians have been doing with our election, now we know globally. We know from the Europeans, the French, that they tried to intervene in that election. Macron told Putin to knock it off, as well. It's time, I think, we take this, as a government, as a president, as a government, as serious as we should.

This Russian government is out to blow up the western alliance. That's very, very clear. It's been true from the beginning. And Wolf, for the price of less than a MiG 29, look what Putin -- look at the chaos Putin has sewn.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's pretty dramatic indeed. Do you have confidence the Trump administration can deal with this?

FRIEDMAN: I not only don't have confidence, Wolf, I'm appalled at the way they've dealt with this. We have a president who has yet to take this Russian threat serious. What we know from our intelligence communities that they've done to our own election. What we know from the latest NSA document that came out through "The Intercept" that they were probing around inside state election offices.

And we have a president who basically has dismissed this as fake news. His sons I noticed today have dismissed this all as fake news, it's appalling.

BLITZER: So, why is that? I mean, they call it a witch hunt. The president has called it a witch hunt.

Explain. Why do you believe they call this all whole investigation a Russian meddling in the election, Russian interference in other countries, internal issues, a witch hunt?

FRIEDMAN: So, there's a benign explanation and there's a malign explanation. The benign --

BLITZER: What is Tom Friedman's explanation?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I don't know, because either it's because they're hiding something, exactly what we don't know, but we have this bizarre serious of meetings between their election officials. Wolf, you and I have covered elections for a long time, when did you see one party have all these meetings with Russians and many of which they denied and then were later exposed.

The others, it's an ego thing for Trump. He can't accept the fact that having lost by 3 million votes in the popular election, that the Russians might have in any way affected his victory as president. BLITZER: You know, what's pretty shocking to me is the president this

morning at 8:06 a.m., and then at 9:36 a.m., then at 9:44 a.m., was tweeting and taking credit in effect for the Saudi, Qatari, Emirati decision to severe relations with Qatar, which was funding terrorist organizations.

FRIEDMAN: You know, one reason I'm not active on Twitter, Wolf, is because I actually changed my mind. And I read a column once a week and I'm always afraid if I say something on Monday, by Wednesday, I might change my mind. And I'm not president of the United States.

The idea that we have a president who is so undisciplined, Wolf, this isn't adult behavior, let alone presidential behavior, to be diving into situations based on reports you have seen on "Drudge", something that went by you on the morning on FOX News. It is so reckless and irresponsible.

BLITZER: What do you anticipate from former FBI Director Comey's testimony on Thursday? Because you know, there's a lot of buzz about what he potentially might say.

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, we know from the leaks we have to wait to see if this is true and what evidence he has it back it up, that President Trump on several occasions asked him if he would basically cease and desist in the investigation of Mike Flynn, who -- his then NSC adviser, who we now know has his own trail of relationships with the Russians and the Turks and others which weren't fully disclosed. You know, that's certainly one issue.

The other issue, you remember -- you know, one of the problems of covering this story, Wolf, is one nail drives out another. And every day, there's another nail. And so, it almost -- it's dizzying.

But you remember that, you know, Comey testified as I recall, that he got a FISA warrant to wiretap someone in Trump circle, as I recall, during this election campaign. That's not an easy thing to do, to go to national security court and get permission to wiretap someone because you suspect they are engaged in some kind of espionage or potential treason behavior. I'm sure that's going to come up as well.

BLITZER: I wonder if he's going to bring his contemporaneous memos --


BLITZER: -- that he wrote immediately following his conversations with the president, because that could be -- that could be sensational.

FRIEDMAN: It will be a he said/he said unless somebody has a tape.

BLITZER: If there's evidence. The president raised that possibility. Be careful, there could be tapes.

Stand by, there is a lot more to discuss. Tom Friedman is with us. We'll resume our conversation right after this.


[18:53:53] BLITZER: The breaking news tonight: sources telling CNN that U.S. investigators believe Russian hackers are behind a false news report that prompted six Arab Gulf nations to cut ties with Qatar, a key ally. But in a controversial tweet, President Trump appeared to take credit for the diplomatic crisis.

We're back with "The New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman.

Speaking of tweets, yesterday, the president was tweeting that the Justice Department made a major mistake in their revised travel ban, like the original travel ban, and today, the White House is refusing to say whether or not the president even has confidence in the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

We've covered Washington for a long time. You remember anything like this?

FRIEDMAN: Well, this is unprecedented obviously, Wolf. First of all, we have a president who's got a sign on his desk, the buck stops everywhere but here. So, he's never responsible for anything, number one.

Number two, I think the implications of this, Wolf, forget the Sessions-Trump relationship. They haven't filled out how many positions in this government -- literally hundreds, and senior ones, deputy secretaries, assistant sectaries.

BLITZER: Ambassadors.

FRIEDMAN: Yes. Imagine how many people are going to work in a government where the president will literally turn on you on a moment's notice on Twitter, someone as close as Jeff Sessions was to this guy, probably his most loyal, you know, supporter during the campaign. Or, you know, the administration calls and said we'd like to join the administration, Wolf, and you go home and you tell your kids, I ought to join administration that believes that climate change is a hoax. What do you think kids, should I do that?

So, you know, I would say it was bad enough before all of this, but when Trump starts going after Sessions, someone that close, the message is nobody is safe. And I think that will be -- create a (INAUDIBLE) inside the administration. I don't see how they're going to fill this ship up with anyone of confidence who would want to expose themselves to that kind of thing.

BLITZER: You're just back in Washington from a trip Asia. You were in China, South Korea. What's the reaction you were hearing to President Trump over there?

FRIEDMAN: Well, they're utterly, you know, flummoxed. But they're watching all of this, too. You know, the overwhelming reaction had been in China, Wolf, is some -- China's moving ahead. They're not spending their days doing this kind of nonsense, and trying to figure out whether their leader tweeted something, you know, in Chinese characters that made no sense. They're laying down more high speed rail around the country. You know

what's amazing thing being China? They've moved to a completely cashless society. You can buy vegetables on the street from a seller with your cell phone and his cell phone. They're really forging ahead in the 21st century and we're basically -- we've got a leader who's denying science and issuing tweets on the basis of "The Drudge Report".

BLITZER: Do they have confidence that President Trump could handle a crisis with North Korea?

FRIEDMAN: Oh, what the Chinese have confidence --

BLITZER: The Chinese, the South Koreans?

FRIEDMAN: I think what the Chinese have confidence in, is after Trump came in and scared them on trade, he's going to do all this, I think they have his number. I think they think he's a chump, and I think they know, believe they can easily deflect him with shiny objects, and that he'll never bring down the trade hammer on them that he threatened to do.

BLITZER: How serious is that North Korean crisis right now from their vantage point? Because, as you know, the president says China could resolve it if they wanted to. They've got the leverage on the North Koreans and Kim Jong-un.

FRIEDMAN: Well, Wolf, I arrived in Korea the night before, and I woke up the next morning and missile test took place that morning. Stock market was unaffected. People went to work. They are -- they have gotten totally used to it. There's a real asymmetry in the South Korean reaction, which is, were kind of used to this. I interviewed a bunch of young kids, they've learned to live with this spread, and the American reaction, which is -- my God, this guy might threaten us with a missile one day and that's going to be a huge problem between us and this new Korean government, which is even more dovish toward North Korea than the one that was unseated.

BLITZER: You wrote a pretty powerful column the other day in which you refer to President Trump as the emir of the United America Emirate. Tell our viewers what you were driving at.

FRIEDMAN: Well, we've actually started to resemble one of these Gulf States. We have a president who's I think equivalent of an emir. We have a crown prince, his name is Jared. We have a crown princess, her name is Ivanka.

We have a family that doesn't draw sharp lines between its own wealth and the wealth of the government. We have relatives who play off the notoriety in their connections with the regime.

This is not the kind of government we have ever seen before where the president's son-in-law and daughter are two of the key advisors in the government, and it's not the America we've known, Wolf. Sorry.

BLITZER: So, where do we go from here? FRIEDMAN: I don't know. But I think we're heading to a very bad

place. We have a president who as I said earlier does not behave not only presidential, he doesn't behave as an adult. He behaves in a juvenile way.

And, Wolf, stock market's high. We have haven't had a crisis yet. God forbid, something really big happens. I'm not -- certainly not looking forward to it and I hope it doesn't.

But this man has behaved in such an erratic way, when the sky is blue and the market is up, I truly fear how he'd behave in a crisis.

BLITZER: The bottom line being?

FRIEDMAN: Bottom line is I don't think he's a stable person. I'm not a doctor but this kind of behavior, attacking people around you. How in a crisis are these people going to behave as a coherent team when every decision they have to make, they have to worry about the next day their boss is going to tweet against them.

BLITZER: Tom Friedman's new book once again is entitled "Thank You For Being Late". There you see the cover. "An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations".

Tom, as usual, thanks for joining us.

FRIEDMAN: Pleasure.

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.