Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Russia Threatens to Shoot Down U.S. Planes; Otto Warmbier Dies; Heated Congressional Race; Dems Stage Senate Slowdown Over GOP Health Bill Secrecy. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired June 19, 2017 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Russian jet threat. Moscow warns it will consider U.S. and coalition aircraft as targets in an angry response to the downing of the Syrian warplane. What's the Pentagon doing tonight to avoid a dangerous new conflict with the Kremlin?

And freed American dies. A college student who spent more than a year in a North Korean prison dies just days after returning home in a coma. Tonight, Otto Warmbier's parents are blasting the tortuous mistreatment of their son by Kim Jong-un's regime.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We are following the breaking news in the Trump-Russia investigation. Tonight, the White House is dangling the possibility that the president will finally reveal if there are Oval Office recordings by the end of this week. House investigators have asked the administration to turn over any tapes of Mr. Trump's conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey by Friday.

They are looking into Comey's claim that the president asked him to end his investigation of ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Also tonight, new indications that Flynn may have failed to disclose yet another overseas trip relating to Russia when he replied to renew his security clearances last year. Two House Democrats now are requesting documents about a trip Flynn took to the Middle East in the summer of 2015 to pursue a joint U.S.-Russian business venture to develop nuclear facilities in Saudi Arabia.

Also breaking this hour, a dramatic new move by Democrats to protest the Republicans' secretive process to overhaul health care. Democrats launching a talk-a-thon on the Senate floor tonight to bring the work of the chamber to a halt.

And Russia is ramping up its rhetoric against U.S. actions in Syria, threatening to consider coalition aircraft, including U.S. aircraft, as targets, the Kremlin responding to an American fighter jet shooting down a Syrian warplane that dropped bombs on forces allied with the United States.

This hour, I will talk about those stories and more with former Defense Secretary and Washington veteran Leon Panetta. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN's Brian Todd with another breaking story, the death of the young American who was held prisoner by North Korea for almost a year-and-a-half.

Brian, what can you tell us?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just a short time ago, Otto Warmbier's parents announced that he died this afternoon, that he passed away a little less than four hours ago surrounded by his family.

The 22-year-old's death comes at a time when tensions between the United States and North Korea have rarely been higher. And many are watching tonight to see how the U.S. is going to respond.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): By the time Otto Warmbier was in a U.S. hospital, doctors said his condition was dire.

DR. DANIEL KANTER, UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI HEALTH: No signs of understanding language, responding to verbal commands, or awareness of his surroundings. He has not spoken. He has not engaged in any purposeful movements or behaviors.

TODD: Tonight, Warmbier's parents say their son has -- quote -- "completed his journey home," that Otto Warmbier died today at 2:20 p.m. Eastern time. The family says when he arrived in Cincinnati last week in a vegetative state, Warmbier's face looked anguished, but within a day, they say, his face changed. He was at peace, they say.

Warmbier's doctors told reporters they had discovered he had lost much of his brain tissue due to cardiopulmonary arrest and the two brain scans sent by the North Koreans suggested he'd been in a vegetative state for at least 14 months.

KANTER: The earliest images are dated April 2016. Based upon our analysis of those images, the brain injury likely occurred in the preceding weeks.

TODD: Experts say while they are surprised North Korea would allow an American being held to reach such critical condition, they say mistreatment in North Korean jails is not uncommon.

GREG SCARLATOIU, COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: We know that they applied very brutal treatment, torture, beating, rape, to their own people and also to foreigners who are held in custody.

MICHAEL GREEN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: All of a sudden, he was thrown into this hell hole. So, anything is possible. He could have suffered shock when he was sentenced to hard labor. He could have been beaten. He could have tried to take his own life. Whatever the circumstances, it is likely the result of the fact that the North Koreans put him in this situation.

TODD: There are key questions still unanswered tonight after Warmbier's death. Why did Kim's regime keep Warmbier's condition a secret for so long?

SCARLATOIU: Perhaps they waited, hoping that he would come out of the coma. He didn't. Eventually, they panicked.

[18:05:00]

TODD: And how might the United States retaliate for the death of this 22-year-old University of Virginia student who the North Koreans had sentenced to hard labor for allegedly pulling down a propaganda banner in a hotel?

GREEN: The one reason to be careful about military retaliation is the fact that North Korea now has missiles and nuclear weapons that could strike Japan and Korea and potentially threaten the United States. The other reason is, there are other Americans who are hostages and in prison who we also want to get out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Warmbier's family said today -- quote -- "The awful, tortuous mistreatment our son received at the hands of North Korea ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today" -- end quote.

When we called the North Korean Mission to the U.N. just a few minutes ago to respond to that, they hung up on us -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, this comes, what, just a couple days after an incident at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York between Homeland Security officials at a North Korean delegation, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. This happened on Friday. Homeland security officials confiscated at least one package that the North Korean delegation was carrying as they were about to leave New York.

It was a physical confrontation, as the North Koreans tried to grab their package back. The North Koreans called that a mugging. The Department of Homeland Security says the North Koreans initiated the confrontation.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you, Brian Todd reporting for us.

New reaction tonight from President Trump to the death of Otto Warmbier.

Let's bring in our senior White House reporter, Jim Acosta.

So, Jim, I understand the president has just reacted.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. This just happened a few moments ago. The president offered a pretty

heartfelt reaction to the passing of Otto Warmbier. He made these comments on camera just a short while ago. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We pass on word that Otto Warmbier has just passed away. He spent a year-and-a-half in North Korea. A lot of bad things happened. But at least we got him home to be with his parents. They were so happy to see him, even though he was in very tough condition, but he just passed away a little while ago. It's a brutal regime, and we will be able to handle it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, we should also point out, Wolf, the White House issued a paper statement from the president offering his condolences to the family of Otto Warmbier.

Wolf, at the end of that statement, the president does use some tough language, saying that: "Otto's fate deepens my administration's determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency."

He also goes on to say in that statement that the U.S. condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime.

So, the president not mincing any words there in terms of his reaction to the death of Otto Warmbier. They are certainly feeling the impact of this over at the White House tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly are, a very strong statement from the president, and his remarks as well.

Let's turn to another issue that I understand you're doing some reporting on, the future of Sean Spicer and his briefings at the White House. What are you learning?

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.

And we had that very strange briefing earlier today, a briefing that was held in the White House Briefing Room. Yet it was off-camera, there was no audio allowed. We couldn't even record it to use afterwards. Those are the kinds of restrictions that were placed on us today when we were trying to ask a lot of very different, important questions about the Russia investigation and so on.

But putting that aside, Wolf, what we have learned, we have been able to confirm that Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, is under consideration for a different role inside the West Wing. That would obviously free up his position of White House press secretary to go to somebody else.

Of course, we have heard this kind of palace intrigue in the weeks past and the months have been going on during the course of this administration, and those changes have not come to pass, rumors about Reince Priebus, the White House press secretary, rumors about Sean Spicer himself, so, we want to add that caution.

But we do understand that this is being discussed at some fairly high levels inside the West Wing. And, obviously, if the White House press secretary job comes open, there is going to be a lot of speculation as to who might take that job on, as this is a pretty challenging administration to do that sort of job for, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is a really, really tough job indeed. All right, thanks very much, Jim Acosta, over at the White House.

Now to the Russia investigation. As we await confirmation of any possible White House tapes, we are getting mixed messages from the president's legal team about whether the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is focusing in on the president right now.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, who is working the story for us.

Jessica, the president and his lawyers seem to be contradicting themselves.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They do, Wolf.

And really the question in all this is really simple. Is President Trump under investigation? The president seemed to say yes in a tweet on Friday, but when his lawyer was dispatched to make the rounds on television over the weekend and again today, his message was a bit mixed.

[18:10:12]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, conflicting answers from President Trump's legal team to questions about whether or not the president is under investigation.

He tweeted this Friday. "I am being investigated for firing the FBI director by the man who told me to fire the FBI director. Witch- hunt."

One of the president's lawyers, Jay Sekulow, making the rounds on the Sunday talk shows, telling CNN's Jake Tapper this:

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR DONALD TRUMP: Let me be clear. The president is not under investigation.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, the president said, "I am under investigation," even though he isn't under investigation?

SEKULOW: That response on social media was in response to "The Washington Post" piece. It's that simple. The president is not under investigation.

SCHNEIDER: But he told FOX News this:

SEKULOW: So, he's being investigated for taking the action that the attorney general, deputy attorney general recommended him to take.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": You have now said he is being investigated after saying that you didn't...

SEKULOW: No, he's not being investigated.

(CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: You just said that he's being investigated.

SCHNEIDER: Today, yet another response, SEKULOW: on CNN criticizing "The Washington Post" for using five anonymous sources to back up its story that special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating the president for possible obstruction of justice in the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

SEKULOW: Those reports in "The Washington Post" were false. The legal team has not been notified of an investigation...

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Just because you haven't been notified doesn't mean you're not under investigation.

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: There is no duty to inform you.

SEKULOW: No duty to tell in the sense of an obligation to tell, but you know how it works in Washington. If you were a target, if you were being investigated, you would be told really quickly into the investigation process.

SCHNEIDER: The White House is also being elusive about the existence of any tapes from inside the Oval Office. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said it's possible the president could have an answer by the end of this week. Friday is the deadline for the White House to turn those tapes over to the House Intelligence Committee if they exist.

The committee has also requested Comey's memos on his conversations with the president by the end of the week.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: One way or another, we need to get an answer. And if we can't get an answer, then I think we need to -- we will ultimately need to subpoena those potential documents to make sure that we have them.

SCHNEIDER: And Jared Kushner could be changing his legal team since his lawyer was a partner with Robert Mueller at a D.C. law firm before Mueller became special counsel. Kushner's attorney issued this statement.

"After the appointment of our former partner Robert Mueller as special counsel, we advised Mr. Kushner to obtain the independent advice of a lawyer with appropriate experience as to whether he should continue with us as his counsel."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And there are still questions about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's role and whether he might recuse himself if Mueller's investigation expands to include the firing of James Comey.

The White House today would only state that the president has confidence in every person who serves in the administration, even though the question was specifically about Rosenstein. Also this week, Obama Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, he will testify publicly before the House Intelligence Committee, and, Wolf, that is on Wednesday.

BLITZER: Yes, he testified behind closed doors the other day, but now in public. We will monitor that for our viewers as well.

Jessica, thanks very much, Jessica Schneider reporting.

Let's get some more on all the breaking news we're following. Leon Panetta is joining us. He's the former defense secretary, former CIA director under President Obama. He also served as chief of staff to President Clinton.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want to get through a lot of the major news we're following right now, including an American citizen who has lost his life, a young student from the University of Virginia, as a result of the treatment by the North Koreans.

How should the Trump administration respond to this?

PANETTA: Well, it's obviously a very tragic moment for the family and for our country.

A brutal regime, I think, is responsible for what happened to this individual. And I think the administration has to respond forcefully. I know the president indicated that we would respond. I think that's good. I think we do need to file a formal protest with the North Koreans, demanding that we find out what the circumstances were for what happened with this individual in prison.

Clearly, that's where the damage was done. We need to find out why that happened, and then take appropriate action against that government.

BLITZER: Appropriate action, respond forcefully, it sounds ominous, Mr. Secretary. You know there are three other Americans who are also still being held by the North Koreans right now.

We're just putting their pictures up on the screen.

When you say respond forcefully, besides issuing a protest through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which represents U.S. diplomatic interests from time to time, what does that mean?

[18:15:00]

PANETTA: Well, there are a number of options that I think can be looked at. Obviously, there are diplomatic options involving, as I said, a protest and condemnation.

Secondly, I think the idea of ratcheting up sanctions against the North Korea regime -- we have sanctions in place. Very frankly, they could be enforced in a more vigorous way by ourselves, as well as the Chinese.

Going to China to, again, indicate that this is not acceptable, and that the Chinese government needs to do what's necessary here to find out exactly what happened, and, in addition to that, adding other pressures in terms of indicating that we are going to continue to build up our strength in that region in order to make clear to the North Koreans that we are not going to stand by while they do this to our citizens, and we're not going to stand by while they continue to test their missiles and test their nuclear weapons.

That's unacceptable.

BLITZER: As you know, the Warmbier family -- and our hearts go out to them. Our deepest condolences go out to them.

The family was very critical of the way the Obama administration handled this entire incident. Looking back, the 17 months he was held by the North Koreans, were mistakes made?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I don't know -- I'm not sure that anyone outside of the administration really knows just exactly what steps were taken.

But the problem is with North Korea that, unless you're putting constant pressure on them, unless you're making very clear to them how seriously we consider these kinds of incidents to be, then these things tend to drag on, and that's, I'm afraid, what happened here.

BLITZER: Let's turn to the pressure facing the president on the Russia investigation right now.

As you know, President Trump's lawyer, personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, is arguing that the president was only following the advice of his Justice Department by firing James Comey, the FBI director, and that the move was within his constitutional authority.

But has the president already contradicted that defense with his own words?

PANETTA: You know, it's a little hard to tell just exactly what was being debated over the weekend. I mean, the reality is that this attorney does not have and does not

know whether or not the president is under investigation. And for that matter, I guess the president doesn't know that to be the case either. There's only one person that really knows that issue, and that's the special counsel.

And, clearly, as a result of the testimony on the Hill, as a result of some of the other reports that have been done, there's no question in my mind that at some point the special counsel is going to investigate the issue of whether or not there was an attempt to interfere with an investigation.

BLITZER: Let's move to another important issue right now that is unfolding right now, could affect millions and millions of Americans.

Senate Democrats are bringing the chamber, the Senate chamber to a halt right now to protest the closed-door work of the Republican health care bill. Is that escalation smart politically right now?

PANETTA: Wolf, this is a moment when, you know, you wonder why there are angry and frustrated people in this country who look to Washington and see very little getting done.

And, you know, we have -- there's no question we have a dysfunctional Congress. I think to some extent we have a dysfunctional presidency as well at this moment in time. And I think everything, everything that can be done to try to put pressure on both Republicans and Democrats to work together to try to resolve these key issues, particularly on health care, is something that ought to be done now.

I know the Democrats have to fight the Republicans. I know the Republicans are doing their thing to try to keep this within the party. But I really think that both parties need to look at the larger picture here, which is that literally the United States of America will be affected by what they do, and they can't do this in secret and they can't do this simply by fighting each other over these kinds of issues.

They have got to learn to work together to do what's right for our country.

BLITZER: That's the way things will get done, on a more bipartisan way, if it's possible to get back to that track.

[18:20:01]

Another issue -- and I want you to put your hat on as a former defense secretary of the United States, Mr. Secretary -- this awful collision in recent days between the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, an Arleigh Burke destroyer, a billion-dollar ship and a merchant ship that killed seven U.S. sailors.

It's -- for those of us who used to be Pentagon correspondents, I was there when they commissioned all those Arleigh Burke destroyers. This is one of the best the U.S. has. And now these seven American sailors are dead. What went wrong possibly? PANETTA: Well, there's no question, Wolf, that human fault was

involved here. This would not happen were it not for somebody's fault.

Now, whether it lies with that vessel that hit the destroyer or whether it lies with the destroyer remains to be found out. But make no mistake about it. This kind of collision should not happen. And I don't think there's any question that it will be fully investigated. The problem is that we have lost lives, and those lives were lost because somebody who was responsible did not accept that responsibility.

So, there's fault here. There's human fault here. We will find out exactly where that lies in the investigation that I'm sure will follow up on this tragic incident.

BLITZER: Very tragic incident and our hearts go out to the families and friends of those seven U.S. sailors who are now dead.

Mr. Secretary, there's more we need to discuss, including escalating tension right now over the skies of Syria as the U.S. downs a Syrian warplane and the Russians are now threatening retaliation. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:26:13]

BLITZER: We're back with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. We are following the breaking news, President Trump now slamming what he calls a brutal North Korean regime after the death of an American prisoner returned to the United States in a coma.

Secretary Panetta, I want you to stand by, because I want to get an update on a new Russian threat against U.S. and coalition aircraft flying over Syria.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, who is following the story for us.

Barbara, what is the very latest?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Russians are saying that the U.S. engaged in an act of aggression. The U.S. says it's taking all due precautions against the Russians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): U.S. pilots flying over Syria now on the lookout for Russian airplanes or missile threats following the weekend shoot- down by a U.S. Navy FA-18 Super Hornet of a Syrian warplane, this because the Kremlin threatened that any U.S. warplane operating in certain areas of Syria would be considered a threat.

When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was asked if he was confident that Russia would not shoot down a U.S. warplane, the answer was carefully worded.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: I'm confident that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russian Federation operations center, and I'm also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves.

STARR: Defense Secretary James Mattis taking the threat seriously, his spokesperson issuing a statement. "As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria."

The Pentagon won't offer details, but the goal is clear, get U.S.backed ground forces to push ISIS out.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They're sending warnings to the Syrians, to the Iranians and to the Russians that this offensive must be the top priority and it cannot be hindered.

STARR: When a Syrian warplane attacked those U.S.-backed forces on the ground, the U.S. reacted. It began Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Pro- Syrian regime forces attacked the U.S. fighters near the city of Tabqa, a key area on the way to Raqqa, the ISIS capital, driving them from their fighting positions.

U.S. aircraft flew in, launching flares to scare off the pro-Assad units. The actually also contacted the Russians to try to stop the fighting. At 6:43 p.m., a Syrian SU-22 dropped bombs near the U.S.- backed fighters. It was immediately shot down, the coalition said, by that U.S. Navy aircraft as a matter of self-defense.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And now a full-court press on by the Pentagon to talk to the Russians to try and de-escalate this whole situation, so nothing spirals out of control -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a dangerous situation, indeed. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

I want to bring back the former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Mr. Sixth, Senator Chris Murphy, he tweeted this earlier. Let me just read it to you. "Four direct engagements with Syria, Iran, Russia in 45 days. Trump is quietly starting a new war that Congress has not declared. Red alert."

Do you think that is a fair assessment of this escalation?

PANETTA: Well, I think he's got to look at the actual situation as it took place.

It certainly sounds to me like self-defense, and self-defense is a pretty important principle when it comes to combat. And the reality is, we have forces on the ground. We are working with forces that we support there to try to fight ISIS and to try to remove them from Raqqa. It looks, clearly, at least from what has been told here, that the

Syrian fighter went after those forces, attacked those forces, and the response was one of self-defense, to bring it down.

It is certainly an act that raises the tensions in that area and, look, this is a chaotic situation. You've got the Russians. You've got the Syrians. You've got Iran. You've got Turkey. You've got the United States. You've got other countries that are involved there.

You've got other forces that are involved there. There is a tremendous amount of deconfliction that has to go on there and I'm sure it's probably pretty hit and miss. I think we do have to consider that what happened here probably takes this into a new chapter in terms of whether or not all of these forces that are engaging in Syria can develop effective ways of trying to avoid some kind of direct conflict between those forces.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's been many, many years since U.S. war planes have engaged in air to air combat, with a war plane from another nation. But here's a very sensitive issue that is emerging. How concerned are you about the rhetoric now from Russia, that any U.S. or coalition plane flying over Syria potentially could be considered a target?

PANETTA: I think we have to obviously treat that seriously, but, you know, the fact is we were willing to shoot down a Syrian plane that was attacking our forces. That's important to remember, that the United States is not simply going to stand by and let that happen.

I think we do have to be firm with the Russians, but I also think that we have to try to work to develop a process of de-conflicting so that these incidents will not happen. This is war. We all have to recognize that there is a war going on in Syria that involves a number of countries and a number of soldiers from different countries that are in conflict.

I'm surprised, frankly, that something like this has not happened before up to this point. But it does tell us that the cause of the seriousness of the conflict that is going on, we have to be very firm about protecting our forces. We have to be very firm with the Russians that they have to work with us to try to deconflict.

BLITZER: Leon Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.

PANETTA: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, is he or isn't he under investigation? We'll have more on the conflicting and rather confusing messages coming in from the president and his lawyers.

And could the U.S. have done more to get Otto Warmbier out of North Korea before it was too late to prevent his death?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:37:42] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news including the death of the American student, Otto Warmbier, who was released by North Korea with severe brain damage after 17 months in custody.

Also tonight, mixed signals from President Trump and his personal lawyer on whether or not the president is under investigation right now. Mr. Trump tweeted that he is, but his lawyer appearing on CNN insisted the president is not under investigation.

Let's dig deeper with our experts and analysts. Gloria, how effective is Jay Sekulow, one of the president's private attorneys, in making the case the president is not under investigation by Robert Mueller the special counsel, many TV appearances yesterday that continued this morning. Clearly the president wants him on TV.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and you can argue that by muddying the waters, which is I think what he did, that he helped the president because he did muddy the waters. And, you know, law enforcement sources are telling CNN and Evan Perez in particular, that the special counsel is gathering information on the president and considering whether there is evidence to launch a full-scale investigation. So, you know, you can parse your words anyway you want, but he is doing his research and he's doing his homework and it doesn't matter what you call it.

BLITZER: Laura, you're our Justice Department reporter. Would any of the president's lawyers be in a position to know definitively whether or not the president is under investigation by Mueller?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: No, not necessarily. In fact, the U.S. attorneys manual which governs Justice Department lawyers says explicitly that you're not supposed to contact a target of an investigation because, think about it, it could destroy the evidence before the investigation has ever really got off the ground. So, this idea that Mueller would reach out to Sekulow and say, by the way, the president isn't under investigation seems way too premature.

BLITZER: We may, repeat may, Rebecca Berg, get word finally from the White House by the end of this week maybe, possibly if there are tapes, tape recordings of the president's conversations with the fired FBI Director James Comey. Why is it taking so long to get -- to set the record straight? Are there recordings or aren't there recordings?

[18:40:01]REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we don't know for sure, Wolf. The president suggested that he wanted to leave all of us in suspense. The truth might be that there aren't any tapes at all and he just doesn't want to fess up to that because he suggested earlier sort of as a threat to James Comey that there were tapes of all of their conversations.

So he might be worried about whether it would make him look bad if there aren't tapes. It might be more of just a plain legal explanation, the White House maybe needs to get their things together to get prepared.

They have a request from the House Intelligence Committee for any tapes if they do exist. But what's interesting, an interesting sort of clue as to whether there might be any tapes, was when the "Wall Street Journal" through a FOIA request suggested from the Secret Service any and all recordings in the White House.

And the Secret Service in the past has been the one to run these recordings for past presidents and they said they didn't have any tapes. So, that could be a hint of where this is going.

BLITZER: The president also hinted we don't exactly know what he meant. He said you will be disappointed when he said when we find out if there are or are not tapes. Do you remember that, Jackie?

You know, it was very strange today, you heard our Jim Accosta, other reporters. They went to the briefing room in the west wing of the White House, not into somebody's office, not into a private area, but the briefing room where all of our viewers know, a lot of TV cameras there.

And Sean Spicer had his daily briefing, but they didn't allow the American public to see it live. It would have aired on CNN, on Fox News, on MSNBC. All of us would have taken it live, but the White House said, no cameras, no audio. You can have a pen and a piece of paper. Take notes, that's it. What is going on?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: One of the things the White House has tried to explain is they don't like to get in the president's way when the president is going to have remarks that day. That aside, this is unusual.

This is something that, you know, should be questioned because it's important for the American people to see this. Now, another theory is that maybe they don't want the president to see it because he is someone who watches a lot of television and has had some comments about some of the -- I venture to say performances of his press secretary. That said, we don't know that that's the case. It's just a theory.

BORGER: They are clearly experimenting with what they do.

KUCINICH: Right.

BORGER: And there was some chatter today that perhaps they were looking for a different role for Sean Spicer. I don't know this to be the case, but, you know, their communications director resigned so maybe Sean would take over some of those responsibilities and that perhaps they'd have somebody else at the podium.

But maybe they don't want somebody at the podium every day. We've talked around and around this for a very long time and maybe the president doesn't believe that it does him any good and that they don't want the Russia story front and center. And they know that journalists are going to ask about the Russia story.

KUCINICH: And the tweets speak for themselves so --

BORGER: Right. BLITZER: The president not necessarily always -- one tweet did not speak for itself when he said I'm under investigation. I spent seven years as a White House correspondent and when the press secretary goes into the briefing room, there is a briefing, it's on camera.

When he wants to do a private gaggle, that's in the press secretary's office. He meets with reporters, speaks to them on background, gives them some information about the president's schedule, and what the president is doing. This is highly extraordinary.

BERG: It is extraordinary, Wolf. And it's so important to have these briefings, to have an opportunity for reporters in front of the entire country and the American public to be able to ask these questions of the press secretary and push back on some of the things the press secretary is saying. The White House is trying to limit those opportunities. I can't think of one that was last done if it's ever been done. This might actually be unprecedented.

BLITZER: The American public is interested. They watch those Sean Spicer briefings, Sarah Huckabee Sanders briefings. Today they were denied that opportunity because the White House --

BORGER: And you've had Melissa McCarthy out there making fun of you, you might also want a different kind of job, to be quite honest.

BLITZER: That's a good point, too.

BORGER: He's had a very tough time of it and maybe, maybe the president wants to take him off the podium. That could be. But also if you're Sean, maybe you want to find something else too.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by because there's more breaking news we're following, an American student just released by North Korea now unfortunately has died. So, what caused this severe brain damage?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:49:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The breaking news tonight, an American student released by North Korea has now died, according to his family. Otto Warmbier arrived in Ohio by air ambulance last week suffering severe brain damage after being held for 17 months by the Kim Jong-un regime.

Let's dig deeper with our military and diplomatic analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, and our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

John, Senator McCain just issued a statement, very brief. Quote, Let us state the facts plainly: Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime.

So, what options does the United States have right now in response to it?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, I think they are thinking that through right now, Wolf, and they should be. There are a range of options they could take. I think it's paramount that they think about this in proportionality, and that they remember, we still have three Americans that are being detained there.

[18:50:03] And so, you want to be ever mindful of their fates as you make these decisions.

But, look, certainly, there's diplomatic options in terms of demarche. You could enact more or more aggressive sanctions unilaterally from the United States. You could certainly do something to beef up your military posture if you wanted to. You want to send a strong signal that this is absolutely unacceptable.

And I agree with Senator McCain, this is murder. And that's exactly how it should be phrased.

BLITZER: But you've been talking to a lot of officials, Jim. Are there really any good options? North Koreans have like a million-man army just north of the DMZ facing 15, 20 million civilians in 20 miles below in Seoul.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: There are options. The trouble is, you don't know which are going to work, right? They are not great options.

Previous administrations, Republican and Democrats in the same situations have tried negotiations. They've sent high level visitors, Bill Clinton, Bill Richardson, the assumption being that that sort of treatment at that level of a senior leader gives respect to the North Korean regime and that's led to good results. We don't know what might have worked differently here.

But the fact is, as a country, the U.S. needs a strategy because this is not a one-off, right? This is a North Korean policy to take foreigners, including Americans, and this is not by accident the story that they drummed up here was that he stole a propaganda flag, et cetera. No on really believes that. It was a show trial.

They take foreigners, particularly Americans, as bargaining chips, in this case with the worst outcome unimaginable for his family. So, the U.S. needs a strategy but the options are all difficult.

KIRBY: And the one thing I could add, I'd add -- I agree completely is, you know, we could also continue to try to ratchet up international pressure, too. I talked about unilateral options, but this is another example of the brutality of this regime and another reason why -- underscoring why it's important to get the international community even more coalesced with more international --

SCIUTTO: And North Korea is oddly sensitive to how its human rights regime is -- or record, I should say, is seen by the word because oftentimes when at the U.N., for instance, you've had reports that show just the horrible human rights records they have. North Korea is sensitive to that, almost to a degree you wouldn't expect. So, international pressure does have a potential.

BLITZER: You saw the criticism from the family of the Obama administration in dealing with this crisis over these months. I think you were the State Department spokesperson during that time. Looking back, was there anything that the U.S. could have done to save this young student's life?

KIRBY: Well, look, I -- my heart goes out to the family and I understand the pain that they're suffering and the grief is unspeakable today. So, I mean, my sympathies are with them. I understand their frustration.

We understood their frustration at the time when he was detained and we couldn't get him out. All I would tell you, and I know this for a fact, Secretary Kerry worked this very, very hard. There wasn't a single conversation that he had with his Chinese counterpart where he didn't bring up Otto by name and talked about how important it was to try to get him and the other Americans home. This was something that we never lost sight, that he never lost sight of, and we worked it as hard as we could. But, again, obviously, it didn't -- it didn't bring him home and certainly everybody had regrets about that.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a sad -- very sad situation. Once again, our hearts go out to the Warmbier family.

KIRBY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, stay with us. Don't go too far away.

We have much more coming up, including Senate Democrats that are ready to take very dramatic action to protest the secrecy surrounding the Republican health care bill.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:56] BLITZER: Breaking tonight: new partisan maneuvers over health care as Democrats tried to bring the Senate to a screeching halt, to protest the way Republicans are keeping many members in the dark as they struggle to craft their bill and bring it to a vote.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly up on the Hill.

So, Phil, what's happening right now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're looking -- if you look at the Senate floor, you're seeing what's going to be a familiar sight over the coming days. Senate Democrats trying to bringing some light to a process that largely up to this point has taken place entirely in the dark.

Now, we have seen some procedural moves. Several Senate Democrats coming to the floor trying to figure out a way to get the bill, the Senate Republican health care bill referred to committees. That would slow the process down, Wolf.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has stopped them each time they've tried to do that. The reality is, there are no plans to send these bills to committee. The plan right now, as it currently stands now, according to Senate Republican aides, is to have a vote on this bill next week.

Here's the one major hold-up. Republicans don't yet have a bill. There are several key components of this legislation that simply haven't been agreed to yet. The party is very ideologically divided when it comes to health care. So, that's what's going on behind the scenes.

But in public, Wolf, Senate Democrats railing against this process, railing against a bill they haven't seen and trying to do anything they can to slow things up as Republicans prepare for a vote.

Again, the one major outstanding issue -- and this is about as big as it gets -- they don't actually have a bill yet. That work is still taking place. But as long as it does, you can bet, Senate Democrats have made it clear they're going to do anything they can not only to try slow up this process, Wolf, but to try and bring some attention to it.

They believe and also activists outside of the Democratic Party believe there hasn't been enough attention paid to it. They want that attention paid to it, because they believe that would bring on the type of outside pressure that could convince Republican senators to not vote for this. Wolf, as you noted earlier, they need at least 50 of the 52 Republicans in their conference to pass this vote, a very slim margin of error. That's why Democrats believe any pressure they can put on this might help.

BLITZER: Yes, if it's a 50/50 vote, the vice president become -- he's the president of the Senate, he can break that tie.

All right. Phil, thank you very much.

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

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.