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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Delaware Senator Chris Coons; McCain Returns to Senate to Cast Deciding Vote on Obamacare Motion; Senate Begins Debate on Health Care Reform; Ailing McCain to Senate: "We're Getting Nothing Done"; North Korea Vows Nuclear Strike if U.S. Tries to Oust Kim Jong Un; U.S. Navy Ship Fires Warning Shots at Armed Iranian Boat. Aired 6- 7p ET
Aired July 25, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Time will tell. After publicly and repeatedly blasting his attorney general, Mr. Trump is leaving Jeff Sessions' future a mystery. Why won't the man whose catchphrase was "You're fired" say those words now?
Subpoena dropped. Tonight, a Senate panel has pulled back on an effort to force the president's former campaign chairman to testify publicly. What kind of deal Paul Manafort reach with Russia investigators?
And scolding the Senate. Just days after his brain cancer diagnosis, John McCain rejoins his colleagues to vote on health care, to plead for unity and to encourage Republicans to stand up to the president.
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: President Trump ramping up his public shaming of his attorney general, but refusing to reveal if he plans to fire Jeff Sessions or is hoping he will resign.
At a brief news conference, the president said he's disappointed with Sessions and wants him to be much tougher on leakers. When pressed about the future of one of his earliest and most loyal supporters, Mr. Trump's response was -- quote -- "Time will tell."
Also breaking, Senate Republicans vote to move forward with debate on health care legislation in a dramatic cliffhanger that required Vice President Pence to cast the tiebreaking vote.
Two GOP senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, defying their, joining all Democrats in voting no. The next step is very uncertain with Republicans still at odds over how to dismantle Obamacare.
Just a little while ago, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill giving Congress the power to block any effort by the White House to weaken sanctions on Russia, offering a direct challenge to President Donald Trump's authority.
It is unclear when the Senate will vote on the measure.
And in the Russia investigation, CNN has now learned that the Senate Judiciary Committee has dropped the subpoena aimed at forcing the president's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort to testify publicly. We are told the two sides have agreed to keep talking and Manafort is no longer required to appear at an open hearing tomorrow.
This hour, I will talk about all those stories, much more with Senator Chris Coons. He's a key Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.
Jeff, we heard from the president, but the attorney general's future is still very much in question.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's no doubt about it. His future is in question. But the president's views of him are not.
The president clearly sees this as an act of betrayal. Never mind that Jeff Sessions was the first Republican senator to sign onto his campaign. Tonight, the question is whether he will be the first Cabinet member to go.
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump made clear today he's willing to shame Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but he stopped short of saying whether he will fire him.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm very disappointed with the attorney general, but we will see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell.
ZELENY: In a Rose Garden press conference, the president blasted Sessions once again for stepping aside from the Russia investigation that's now consuming the White House.
TRUMP: If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office. And I would have quite simply picked somebody else. So, I think that's a bad thing, not for the president, but for the presidency. I think it's unfair to the presidency, and that's the way I feel.
ZELENY: For the last week, the president has made clear how he feels, but not what he plans to do about it. It was even on the president's mind Monday night while speaking at the Boy Scout Jamboree. Sessions is an Eagle Scout.
TRUMP: As the Scout law says, a scout is trustworthy, loyal -- we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that. ZELENY: The president then started his day blasting Sessions on
Twitter, writing: "Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a very weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes. Where are e-mails and DNC server and intel leakers?"
But the decision made by Sessions four months ago should hardly have been a surprise. It is precisely what he said he would do during his confirmation hearing in January.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kind of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton.
ZELENY: The president has picked many fights during his six months in office, but none like this. Sessions is beloved by conservatives for his stance on immigration and many issues. The conservative site Breitbart News trumpeting this headline, suggesting the president, not Sessions, has changed his stance on Clinton.
After the election, Mr. Trump said this when supporters continued their campaign refrain of lock her up.
TRUMP: That plays great before the election. Now...
ZELENY: On Capitol Hill today, Sessions' former Republican colleagues rallied to his defense.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama said: "He's not the president's lawyer. He is the attorney general of the United States."
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the president's behavior highly inappropriate.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell added this:
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I think the attorney general is doing a fine job and I think he made the right decision to recuse himself from the Russia matter.
ZELENY: Today, the president suggested his disappointment was about far more than Russia.
TRUMP: I want the attorney general to be much tougher on the leaks from intelligence agencies, which are leaking like rarely have they ever leaked before at a very important level.
ZELENY: So, Wolf, at the end of another strange day here at the White House, the president is not ruling out firing his attorney general, although he did not take that opportunity to say so in that news conference in the Rose Garden this afternoon.
But, Wolf, it's also shining a light on what a potential replacement would look like if he does fire him or if the attorney general resigns. He is saying that he wants someone who he trusts and someone who might be more of his own lawyer.
That could create significant issues for any confirmation process should there be a new attorney general. So, Wolf, in all of the dramas that this White House has engaged in, I can't recall one quite like this where so many Republican senators on Capitol Hill were opposed to this fight and were siding with Jeff Sessions, not the president.
This could be a fight this president may not want to pick with his Republican senators -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's an extraordinary development indeed. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.
Now to the pivotal vote on health care, Senate Republicans agreeing to move forward despite deep divisions and uncertainty ahead.
Let's bring in our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.
Phil, GOP leaders, they squeaked this one through.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no room to spare, no votes to spare, something, Wolf, that really underscores that even though this was a big win today, they still have a very unclear process, no shortage of hurdles ahead.
But make no mistake about it, for a plan that just days ago was left for dead, the Obamacare repeal effort is now very much alive.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Cruz?
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Aye.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): Tonight, the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare revived, even if the path ahead is far from clear.
MCCONNELL: An open amendment process. This is just the beginning. We're not out here to spike the football. This is a long way, but we will finish at the end of the week, hopefully, though we are pleased to have been able to take the first step in that direction today.
MATTINGLY: President Trump and Senate Republicans notching a crucial victory, securing the bare minimum of 50 votes.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On this vote, the yeas are 50 and the nays are 50. The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative.
MATTINGLY: Vice President Pence casting the tiebreaking vote to start debate on the health care bill.
TRUMP: I'm extremely happy that we got this vote. This is -- they say, if you look historically, this is the tough vote to get. Truly great health care for the American people, we look forward to that. This was a big step.
MATTINGLY: Protesters attempted to shout down lawmakers in the chamber as the vote occurred. Now a complex and uncertain legislative process that senators maintain may not even succeed in the end.
But getting it represents a victory for Republican leaders after weeks of coming up short and the plan being pronounced all but failed just days ago. GOP aides telling CNN the president and vice president made a series of last-minute phone calls to on-the-fence senators to close the deal.
MCCONNELL: I regret that the effort to repeal and immediately replace the failures of Obamacare will not be successful.
MATTINGLY: And there was this somber moment, cheers and a few tears for the return of Senator John McCain to cast his vote.
MATTINGLY: McCain, absent for more than a week after being diagnosed with brain cancer, then took to the floor after the vote to lay out a scathing critique of the current state of the Senate.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us.
Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them.
MCCAIN: They don't want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
MATTINGLY: Criticizing the process pursued by his party leadership on health care.
MCCAIN: We have tried to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors, in consultation with the administration, then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them that it's better than nothing.
That it's better than nothing?
Asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition. I don't think that's going to work in the end, and probably shouldn't.
MATTINGLY: And vowing he would not vote for the bill in its current form. MCCAIN: I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue
and amendments be offered. I will not vote for this bill as it is today. It's a shell of a bill right now.
MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, Senator McCain making very clear that a yes vote on this motion to proceed by no means, means that they will be there at the end to vote yes.
Now, just to give you a sense of what is going on now, debate has officially started and amendments are starting to be offered. There could be votes, Wolf, as soon as tonight on those amendments, but keep a very close eye on them, for they are the reason why Senator Mitch McConnell was able to turn it around and actually get to this debate at all.
A serious of promises to various lawmakers, from conservatives, to Medicaid expansion to state senators, all individuals up to this point had essentially killed this process. They are now on board. Their amendments are getting votes and where those amendments end up, where those votes end up will go a very long way as this process commences, and it will be a long and complicated process, to whether or not this bill has any future at all when that final vote comes, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, could take awhile indeed. Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.
Let's talk about all the breaking news with Senator Chris Coons. He's a key Democrat on both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf. Always good to be on.
BLITZER: Let's start with the attorney general of the United States. President Trump says the fate of Jeff Sessions, as far as that fate is concerned, he says time will tell. What do you make of the president leaving the door open like this about his own attorney general's fate?
COONS: Well, Wolf, this is a striking development.
It first shows that the president has very little in the way of personal loyalty to Attorney General Sessions, who was the first senator to endorse him and campaigned with him all over the country. It's striking that he keeps making these threatening statements about how disappointed he is in his attorney general.
And I will remind you the reason he's disappointed is because the attorney general appropriately recused himself from an ongoing investigation into the potential collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, something which many Republican and Democratic senators and commentators outside the administration have said was the right thing for Attorney General Sessions to do.
BLITZER: Do you think Sessions should resign amidst all the criticism he's getting from the president himself?
COONS: Well, he's not the president's lawyer. He took an oath to the Constitution, not to the president personally.
And I think as long as he's able to be an effective attorney general, he should continue doing so. I think this raises a more difficult question, a darker question, which is the president's continued threats against the independent investigation of special counsel Bob Mueller.
He's also been working at ways to criticize and undermine that investigation. And I am concerned that what is really afoot here, Wolf, is that the president is trying to get Jeff Sessions to move aside so that he can appoint someone to attorney general who will be more willing to take decisive action against Bob Mueller.
BLITZER: If the president were able to do that, if he did that, if he fired the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and went after the special counsel, Robert Mueller, what would that mean for the Justice Department?
COONS: Well, I think that would be a very dark day for the political independence of the Justice Department.
I think that would be a constitutional crisis, comparable to what happened under the Nixon administration. And I think we would see a number of loyal, capable senior leaders in the Department of Justice who are loyal to the Constitution, is what I meant, resign, rather than agree to fire Bob Mueller.
I will remind you that Bob Mueller, Republican, former FBI director, is very widely well-regarded in the Senate, and I think there would be significant consequences for such a decisive action by the president that would run against what a bipartisan majority in the Senate would like to see happen, which is for this investigation to continue and to reach its appropriate conclusion with the independence and resources it needs.
BLITZER: Tell us why you think there would be a constitutional crisis.
COONS: Well, because I think we would see a president overreaching in a way that would force the Senate to take action to defend the rule of law. We have gone through a process by which Bob Mueller has been appropriately impaneled as the special counsel, and he is currently investigating obstruction of justice.
One of the issues that the special counsel has been asked to look at is whether or not the president, in firing Director Jim Comey, was doing so to try to impede an investigation. If he then goes ahead and fires Bob Mueller, that furthers the obstruction of justice and would force the Senate to take action to stop the president's actions.
BLITZER: The ranking member of your Judiciary Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, asked the chairman of the committee, Chuck Grassley, to call the attorney general to appear before the committee. Do you see that happening?
COONS: We discussed that today in an open hearing on the Judiciary Committee. I do think we're going to see the attorney general before us likely in September for an oversight hearing.
And I complimented Judiciary Chairman Senator Grassley, Republican of Iowa, for the way in which he's been conducting himself and conducting our hearings. He and Ranking Member Feinstein have cooperated well on making sure that, where necessary, requests for documents and subpoenas for witnesses are going out, and that we have an opportunity to question witnesses and for this process to move forward in a deliberate and bipartisan way.
BLITZER: Senator Coons, I want to you stand by. There is more news that is coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We will take a quick break.
We will update all of our viewers right after this.
BLITZER: We're back with Senator Chris Coons.
We're following multiple breaking stories, including new moves in the Russia investigation and a House vote that amounts to a rebuke of the president's continued doubts about Russia's election meddling.
Senator, stand by.
I want to quickly go to our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju.
Manu, the House voted on a bill sanctioning Russia and other countries just a little while ago. Update our viewers.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, actually overwhelming, Wolf, by a full 419-3 vote that this will would actually new impose sanctions on Russia, on Iran, on North Korea, and includes a provision that the White House fought that essentially would give Congress veto power if that bill -- if the administration moved in any way to loosen sanctions on Russia.
The White House saying that this was an effort for Congress to sort of impose its will on foreign policy areas that should be dictated by the executive branch, something that the members of Congress simply rejected. It was really a rebuke to the administration from both sides of the aisle and overwhelming passage in the House, this after, Wolf, a 98-2 vote of an earlier version that passed the Senate.
The question is, what does the Senate do now? Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested they want to make some minor tweaks. But expect a bill that will pass overwhelmingly to land on the president's desk. The White House has not said yet, Wolf, what they will do. BLITZER: If the president vetoes it, there is a very good chance that
veto will be overridden, given the lopsided majorities in the Senate and the House.
Update our viewers also, Manu, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now all of a sudden they're dropping their earlier subpoena of Paul Manafort who had served as President Trump's campaign chairman last summer.
RAJU: Yes, sources familiar with the matter tell me that actually a deal has been cut between the Senate Judiciary Committee and Paul Manafort over that subpoena that was issued last night to compel Paul Manafort to appear tomorrow in a public session.
Now, there have been intense negotiations happening behind the scenes with staff and the Senate Judiciary Committee and with Paul Manafort's lawyers. It appears a deal may have been reached. And Senator Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, expressed some optimism earlier today that perhaps they could continue to talk.
This came, Wolf, after Paul Manafort had -- and the committee had agreed last week to not have this public session and actually have a private interview, as well as provide the committee with records.
That seemed to have fallen apart earlier this week, especially when Paul Manafort went before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session to talk to staff members about that Trump Tower meeting that he attended with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner.
But now it appears that he is at least reached some sort of accommodation with the Judiciary Committee to not be forced to appear in a public session. The question is exactly what he agreed to. We don't know the answer to that.
And Jared Kushner, too, Wolf appearing today on Capitol Hill, second time in two days before the House Intelligence Committee. The question now is, will he appear again? Some Senate Democrats want to hear from him again, including the top Democrat on the committee, Mark Warner, telling me absolutely that he needs to come back and answer questions from senators since he answered questions from staff earlier this week -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, Kushner answered questions behind closed doors for some three hours earlier today.
Manu, thanks very much.
I want to go back to Senator Chris Coons.
What can you tell us about Manafort and what he may or may not be able to provide your committee? Do you agree with the decision all of a sudden to drop that subpoena?
COONS: Well, Wolf, I think there remains a determination on the Senate Judiciary Committee to have Paul Manafort testify in front of the committee. I think what you're seeing developing tonight is that the timing to
have him in front of our committee tomorrow was just too tight, and so efforts to bring him in this week, before we likely go out on recess for August, are being negotiated to instead have him appear in September.
But that's just my hunch based on what I have heard from staff who have been communicating with Senator Feinstein's office. I don't think there's been any walking away from the Senate Judiciary Committee from the idea that we need to have Donald Trump's former campaign manager come and testify about why he failed to register as a foreign agent, given his significant indebtedness to folks close to the Kremlin and the significant funding that he's allegedly received from a Ukrainian leader who was a close ally of the Kremlin.
My goal is that we end up with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort all appearing in front of Judiciary for public, under- oath testimony. I think that's the way we can advance our side of this.
Wolf, I also think we just heard an overwhelming vote from the House of Representatives on the Iran and Russia sanctions bill. And it's my hope and expectation the Foreign Relations Committee, on which I serve, will promptly take that up in the Senate and we will get it sent to the president's desk.
BLITZER: What about Donald Trump Jr.? When do you think you're going to be hearing directly from him in this open session you want with all three of them?
COONS: My expectation at this point is, it won't be until September.
Remember, Wolf, we have just taken a vote on the floor where 50 Republicans agreed to go on to an as yet unrefined ACA repeal bill. We will spend the next several days debating and voting on what, if any package the Republicans can agree to, some repeal or repeal and replace, or repeal and delay bill.
It is as yet uncertain. That will take up a number of days. And my expectation is that we won't get to a Judiciary Committee hearing on those three individuals until we come back in September.
BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks for joining us.
COONS: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead: North Korea threatens a nuclear strike against the United States.
Plus, more on the breaking news. The president launches new attacks on the attorney general and leaves his future up in the air.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I'm very disappointed with the attorney general, but we will see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: There's a lot of news that's breaking this hour, including President Trump's refusal to clarify the fate of his attorney general after he publicly berated and humiliated Jeff Sessions in a published interview and tweets, as well as at a news conference earlier today.
[18:31:13] Let's bring in our correspondents, analysts and specialists. And Brianna Keilar, the president said this about Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, at that news conference with the visiting prime minister of Lebanon.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want the attorney general to be much tougher on the leaks from intelligence agencies which are leaking like rarely have they ever leaked before at a very important level. These are intelligence agencies. We cannot have that happen.
You know many of my views in addition to that, but I think that's one of the very important things that they have to get on with. I told you before I'm very disappointed with the attorney general, but we will see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you make of the president leaving open the fate of his attorney general?
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think he's very mad, and he's just indulging that emotion that he has about Jeff Sessions. And then he's going a little further and taking kind of a kitchen sink approach, which is to not only talk about the reason he's mad, but even peripheral reasons why he may be mad and just kind of trying to pile them up on each other.
But one of the things he said, Wolf, that stuck out to me was this. "Leaking like rarely have they ever leaked before at a very important level." You know who's doing that is President Trump. He outed a classified program on Twitter, I think it was last night, wasn't it? And we've seen him do this before, giving information to the Russians, not an ally, in the Oval Office, and it's the very thing -- these are leaks. I mean, I guess you could say he can declassify anything, but he's not doing it in a systematic or thoughtful way. He's just sort of winging it and doing it.
And they're the kind of things, even programs that are widely reported but are classified, government officials don't acknowledge. That generally includes the president, as well. And it's the very thing that Donald Trump and his allies took aim at Hillary Clinton, because some of the classified information in her e-mail that was revealed, and improperly, was widely-reported information that should not have been on an unclassified channel.
BLITZER: You're talking about tweet the president posted at 10:23 p.m. last night.
BLITZER: "The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts of my ending massive, dangerous and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad." That was a classified CIA program.
KEILAR: A highly-classified program.
BLITZER: So that was -- Phil Mudd, you're smiling.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I am smiling. I'm trying to remember -- I think it was the president of the United States who said it was inappropriate for Jim Comey to release an unclassified summary of a conversation. But it's appropriate for the president of the United States to reveal to the Russians a classified Israeli operations and the conclusion of a classified CIA operation.
I guess one of the questions I'd have is, if you want leak investigations, do you want Robert Mueller to add the Oval Office? Because the president is leaking stuff, as Brianna said, repeatedly.
BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, if the president were to fire Sessions or Sessions were to resign, how difficult would it be to get a new attorney general confirmed through the Senate?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, the sense I got on Capitol Hill today, Wolf, is that it would be very difficult. If you think back to what the political firestorm was like after the president fired FBI Director Comey, this would be potentially even much greater, because it would kind of build off of that and all of the concerns that Republicans and Democrats had about that.
Now, we should note that the president found a replacement for Comey that has won widespread support in Christopher Wray. And so, it's not going to be impossible for the president to find a replacement. But I was talking with Congressman Steve King earlier today, a supporter of the president; also a supporter of Jeff Sessions. And he said not only would it be difficult to find someone qualified to take this job, but what highly-qualified person would take this job when you're going to be subject to this sort of abuse from the president and be so vulnerable to losing this job?
[18:35:05] BLITZER: The extraordinary attacks on the attorney general of the United States, the criticism of the deputy attorney general, the criticism of the acting FBI director, the criticism of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, all by the president. What's the impact of that going forward?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, it's hard to see, because as Rebecca mentioned, when he fired the attorney general there was great consternation and gnashing of teeth and tearing of garments; and yet the president got through that, and he did come up with an FBI director that seemed to be acceptable to both parties.
It's not clear with Sessions what the result would be if he were to fire him or even if he were to take the step of firing Mueller. My sense, similar to Rebecca's, speaking to both Democrats and Republicans, is that they consider that a qualitative difference.
But let's be frank. We've had many tests like this before and questions, us around the table, and others questioning, "Is this one different?" and yet the train keeps moving forward. It's hard to say what the hard consequence will be.
I will say this. That when the president fired James Comey, there was a thin and short-lived cover story for it at the time, that it was about the way he handled the Hillary Clinton investigation. You had this memo drawn up by the deputy attorney general, et cetera. That disappeared in less than 24 hours...
KEILAR: Because of the president.
SCIUTTO: Because the president himself said it was about how he handled the Russia investigation.
Here, even before a possible decision happens, the president has already said that. There's no question, this is about Russia. The president doesn't like the way he's handled it. He doesn't, frankly, like that the Russia investigation is continuing. So, you at least know going in exactly why the president might be going down this path.
BLITZER: You know, Bianna, it's very interesting. At 6:12 this morning, a.m., the president tweeted this: "The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes. Where are e-mails, DNC server, intel leakers?"
I want to play for you what he said -- this is what he said in that exchange he had with Hillary Clinton during the presidential debate last October. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.
TRUMP: Because you'd be in jail.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Secretary Clinton...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. It's not even a year later. What's your reaction when we recall that exchange?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Yes, I remember that debate, and I remembered the reaction. And I remember Trump supporters saying, "Listen, this is Trump on the campaign trail. Trump in office is going to be completely different." And I think the president we've seen thus far in these first six months is the president who at times believes he is above the law, believes that those around him should be loyal to only him, not to the Constitution. I think we've seen veiled sort of commentary about this from everyone from Republicans and Democrats from John McCain today, as well.
And so, we have a president who is thinking about himself, who's thinking about this investigation into Russia. I think this, at this point, is beyond just Sessions, and I think he's got his eyes set on Mueller. It's less about Sessions. It's more about Mueller. And to some degree, Rosenstein, as well.
BLITZER: It's not just Rosenstein, Phil Mudd. It's the acting director of the FBI. He tweeted this at 6:21 a.m. He was very busy very early this morning. He tweeted, "Problem is that the acting head of the FBI and the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H" -- from Hillary Clinton -- "for wife."
He's referring to money that, when his wife was running for an elected office in Virginia. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, supported the wife of Andrew McCabe. She lost that election.
But you know Andrew McCabe. What's your reaction when you hear this slamming of him?
MUDD: Let me take a breath here. I know him well. Let's look at this professionally and personally, because I have a personal relationship, or I did at the FBI with Andrew McCabe.
At a professional level what's the message? That if you're a federal official, your spouse, if they chooses, as all of us are allowed to do when we leave federal government or a spouse of a federal employee, that you can't participate in the democratic process, is that the message? That if you spend 25, 30 years in service and your spouse chooses to participate in the democratic process, the president is allowed to attack you professionally, that's the message?
At a personal level, let's make a quick point here. Andy McCabe when I was there, was head of counterterrorism operations. Decades of taking a paycheck lower than he could have gotten in the private sector.
The president, making money, comes into the Oval Office, attacks women, attacks Hispanics, attacks the executive branch. The president of the United States can't scrape dog crap off of Andy McCabe's shoes. Thirty years or whatever he has of service versus the president who wants to use the authority, the power of the Oval Office to attack a federal official. I don't buy it. He ought to retract it. That's an apology in my world.
KEILAR: It does speak to the fact, though, that President Trump, he doesn't want someone who is neutral if they are well-regarded for being objective and neutral. He wants someone who is on his side, even in positions where their job is to not be on his side. [18:40:02] And it just speaks to that, that he doesn't see the
boundaries. He doesn't see the rules. He's now well-acquainted with them, because he watches the news, and so it's discussed all of the time. But it's not something of concern to him. He doesn't care.
SCIUTTO: And neutrality is defined through the prism of how it affects him and how it views him. Because you look at Jeff Sessions, the first and only senator to endorse President Trump; and you have President Trump comment to the "Wall Street Journal" today, well, it wasn't real loyalty, right? From his own party an early endorser, and from the president's view somehow that wasn't good enough.
KEILAR: And you said he would get through something if there are firings. But he would get through them at the expense of his agenda, as well. I mean, it would be so self-destructive. He would just be creating work for himself and all those around him to do.
BLITZER: Yes, the president...
GOLODRYGA: It is very short-sighted.
BLITZER: The president suggested, in this "Wall Street Journal" interview today, that Sessions endorsed him because of the huge crowds that the president as candidate was attracting in his home state of Alabama.
All right. We're going to take a quick break. Much more coming up. North Korea now threatening a nuclear strike on the United States to protect Kim Jong-un. So what's behind this new taunt?
And we have new video of the U.S. Navy firing a warning shot at an Iranian ship. We're learning more about the confrontation and why it was dangerous.
[18:45:58] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our correspondents and analysts on this day when we saw Senator John McCain make a very emotional return to the Senate floor just days after he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Brianna, he did return to the floor and he made a very, very powerful personal statement. Let me play this little excerpt.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: -- are an important check on the powers of the executive. Our consent is necessary. For the president to appoint jurists and powerful government officials and in many respects to conduct foreign policy. Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president's subordinate. We are his equal.
As his responsibilities -- as his responsibilities are onerous, many and powerful, so are ours. We play a vital role in shaping and directing the judiciary, the military and the cabinet and planning supporting foreign and domestic policies. Our success in meeting all these awesome constitutional obligations depends upon cooperation among ourselves.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That was clearly a rebuke of his own party.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: A rebuke of his party, a rebuke of the Senate as a whole, a big rebuke of President Trump. A rebuke of himself as well as. He had a mea culpa in there for contributing to dysfunction.
But something that stood out to me was when he was clearly talking to President Trump, as an audience. We don't covet other people's land and wealth. We were discussing this on the break, you said --
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Iraq.
KEILAR: -- oil and Iraq. We don't hide behind walls, we breach them.
So, it struck me as, I think knowing he had this moment to garner so much attention and put his message forward. You know, John McCain is often in a position to just feel very free to speak his mind. But John McCain, confronting his mortality as he is right now, going through a cancer battle, is especially free to speak his mind. And I think that's what we heard today.
BLITZER: Phil, what was your reaction?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: The truth is a tough teacher. He's a little behind the curve here. If you look at what's happened with the judiciary on immigration, they said to the president, no. Checks and balances. If you look at legislature on health care and on Iran sanctions, they told the president no. Checks and balances.
If you look at what's happened elsewhere across America, including executive branch, the president right out of the box made comments about NATO. He had the vice-president and secretary of defense out there reassuring NATO partners, we're with you.
So, wherever you look, executive, judiciary, if you look at legislative branch, what the people are saying and the representatives of people are saying is the same thing John McCain said. The president can say whatever he wants. If it violates what we think represents America, we're going say no. That's checks and balances.
BLITZER: It's a powerful statement. All of us were riveted when he r when we were watching him make that statement on the Senate floor. What was your reaction?
SCIUTTO: I would say words are important, but the actual legislative moves certainly more important. And today, we have that, the vote on the House floor overwhelming 419-3, passing this Russia sanctions bill which in addition to passing additional sanctions against Russia which the president didn't want, ties his hands, the president's hands on somehow reversing that. Expecting the Senate to do the same.
It's that kind of stuff where you see the system working, as it were, right? You know, the branches of government exercising their authority. And on an issue of substance and on an issue that is very close to the president's heart, treatment of Russia. He came into office saying that he was going to somehow reenergize and warm up this relationship.
So, the words are important and McCain has tremendous power and he's been one of the most outspoken critics in the Republican caucus for President Trump. But when you see those legislative moves on key issues, I think that's really where the test is.
BLITZER: You know, Bianna, as far as Russia is concerned, these new sanctions, this was clearly a rebuke, not just by Democrats, but by Republicans overwhelmingly in the Senate and the House that passed the Senate 98-2, 419-3, in the House. It sort of ties the president's hands if he wants to ease those sanctions against Russia.
[18:50:00] BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: It also shows the president and Vladimir Putin seem to outplay their hand as well, overplay their hand when it comes to how open they've been about their relationship and how they feel about each other.
I think a lot of congressmen, Republican and Democrat were angered when they saw that there was yet another meeting in Germany between Vladimir Putin and President Trump. And I think this in large part was a rebuke towards that, telling the president, listen, we've warned you time and time that Russia is not our ally, and yet you continue to sort of flaunt your fondness and affinity for Vladimir Putin and for Russia. And I think we saw some retaliatory measures today in that sanctions bill.
By the way, the Europeans were opposed to this bill as well. I mean, this goes far and beyond typical sanctions bill. But, clearly, this was a message that both Republicans and Democrats together wanted to deliver to this president.
BLITZER: And, Rebecca, the message to the president overwhelmingly from these Democrats and Republicans, if you veto it and it's unclear what the president is going to do, they have the votes to override that veto.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. So, we could see this setting up a power struggle between the White House and Republicans in Congress in particular. And you think about, Wolf, the White House's relation and President Trump's relationships specifically with Congress during the first six months of his first term. And it's been really discouraging relationship from him. Apart from the sanctions there is no major legislative achievement that he can point to in terms of his agenda that has come to his desks out of Congress.
This, without a doubt, is going to rile him up even further. I personally would be surprised if he doesn't veto it, and that sets up a big fight and a big decision really for Republicans in Congress.
BLITZER: It's not just new sanctions against Russia, North Korea and Iran, Jim, as well.
SCIUTTO: No question. And remember, North -- we talked about a lot of stuff. North Korea is the primary, most immediately I think you can say national security threat to the U.S. It was what President Obama said to Trump as they left.
It was very much Trump's focus early on. Trump invested a lot of public capital in saying he's going to do it differently, he's going to get China on board, all this kind of stuff, and lo and behold, U.S. and China moving further apart on this. North Korea testing more missiles, getting closer to that nightmare scenario of having a missile they could put on a bomb that could hit the U.S. I mean, that should not be forgotten in this. It's a major focus, and so far, the Trump change of tact on this hasn't worked.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody standby. There is more news here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Just ahead, the North Korean regime now lashing out and vowing a nuclear strike if the U.S. tries to oust Kim Jong-un.
Plus, a very disturbing encounter between U.S. and Iranian ships. We're learning new details about why the American vessel opened fire.
[18:57:14] BLITZER: A new threat from North Korea tonight, vowing a nuclear strike on the United States if the Kim Jong-un regime is threatened.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She has the latest.
Barbara, North Korea now working diligently, apparently to build a weapon that can hit the United States.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Very much so, Wolf. And the rhetoric is getting hotter as the weapons get closer.
Tonight, North Korea is saying it would strike a nuclear blow at the United States if the U.S. government appears to be trying to take Kim Jong-un out to change the regime in North Korea. All of this coming after the CIA director suggested that one of the pieces of U.S. policy would be to separate Kim from his weapons. Deal with the nuclear weapons in North Korea.
The North Koreans see that as regime change. The U.S. says that is not the center of U.S. policy. But all of this coming as the U.S. is watching very closely for the next few days and believes North Korea could be getting ready for another ballistic missile launch, Wolf.
BLITZER: Very worrisome development indeed.
And meanwhile, another development. A U.S. Navy ship firing warning shots at an Iranian patrol boat today. What can you tell us about this incident, Barbara? STARR: This went on some time in the northern end of the Persian
Gulf. Some U.S. ships were approached. You hear right there the video.
The U.S. ship had to fire warning shots at this ship to make it back off. It came within 150 yards of the U.S. Navy warships in the Gulf. Very unsafe maneuvering. The U.S. fire -- signaling the Iranians, getting no response and then finally having to fire those warning shots into the water.
We are told the Iranians stopped their advance at that point and basically stayed in the area for some time. Always a bit unsettling when the U.S. Navy has to fire anything at sea -- Wolf.
BLITZER: How unusual is this, Barbara? Because we all remember the time the Iranians captured those American sailors.
STARR: We have had cases in the past of the U.S. Navy firing warning shots at the Iranians. What the Navy tells us is they are very careful. They go through repeated efforts to contact the ships. They make radio calls. They fire flairs.
This ship you can also hear it on the video. Before it fired its warning shots, it fired five blasts of its whistle, an international navigation signal for danger. Finally, going ahead with those warning shots. They often find that the Iranians simply don't respond until those shots are fired -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Very worrisome, as I said.
All right. Thanks very much, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.