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Interview With Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Trump Bans Transgender People From Military; Trump Blasts Attorney General; Republican "No" Votes Defeat Another GOP Health Bill; U.S. Predicts North Korean Nuclear-Tipped ICBM in 2018. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired July 26, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:03]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We are learning more about the internal pressure on the president to stop shaming Sessions.

No repeal, no replace. Republicans fail to approve another bill aimed at dismantling Obamacare. Can they muster enough votes to push any kind of health care legislation through the Senate?

And stalled sanctions. A measure that would limit the president's ability to ease penalties on Russia hits a new snag. Tonight, new doubt about when and if the bill will make it to the president's desk.

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, the commander in chief creates new confusion and uncertainty in the U.S. military with a surprise decision to reinstate the ban on transgender service members.

Mr. Trump announcing a major policy decision in a tweet, declaring the United States will not allow transgender troops in any capacity. Tonight, the White House isn't offering any clarity on what will happen to transgender Americans who are serving right now in the military, saying the administration and the Pentagon still have to work out a plan to implement the president's order.

Also breaking, the White House insisting Mr. Trump still wants Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department, even as he continues to publicly vent his disappointment with his attorney general. The president blasting Sessions in yet another tweet while the embattled attorney general was under the same roof attending a meeting at the White House.

We are told multiple top White House officials have urged the president to stop bashing Sessions, advice he appears to be ignoring, along with a growing backlash among Republicans in Congress.

And a new Republican defeat tonight in the Senate's marathon health care debate. A bill to repeal Obamacare without a replacement in place failed because of opposition by seven Republicans and all the Democrats. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now planning more votes on another variation in an uphill battle to scrape together enough Republican support to at least get something passed.

This hour, I will talk about those stories and more with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat on the Health and Judiciary Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, a lot of questions and concerns tonight surrounding the president's very surprise decision to ban transgender troops.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, it looks like the heads of the military branches here at the Pentagon caught off-guard by the president's decision and the crucial question for the thousands who are still currently serving. What will happen to them? Will President Trump have them forcibly booted out of the military?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): President Trump making military policy via Twitter, today suddenly announcing: "The United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military," sparking instant criticism from Democrats and Republicans.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: I believe that is an awful decision. I serve in active duty in the military, and I can tell you, we don't care about gender orientation or identity or who you love.

STARR: Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also saying: "There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train and deploy to leave the military, regardless of their gender identity."

But some lawmakers agree with the decision, citing Trump's reasoning that the military "cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical cost and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."

REP. VICKY HARTZLER (R), MISSOURI: We need to spend every defense dollar where we need to, and this has been a real concern.

STARR: A 2016 RAND study concluded gender transition health care coverage for transgender military members would increase the Defense Department's health care by as much as $8.4 million, a tiny fraction of the Pentagon's overall $49.3 billion health care expenditures.

SARAH MCBRIDE, TRANSGENDER ACTIVIST: This isn't just about health care. This, according to Donald Trump's tweets, is about not allowing transgender people to serve at all.

STARR: That same RAND study put the number of transgender service members at between 1,300 and 6,600.

Two unanswered questions? Under President Trump's ban, will those already serving be forced out? And what about Defense Secretary James Mattis, who just last month ordered a six-month delay so DOD could study the issue further?

The Pentagon will not say if Mattis agreed with this sudden Trump announcement.

[18:05:05]

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The decision is based on a military decision. It's not meant to be anything more than that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Very unlikely we have heard the last from Congress about all of this. Just recently, the House defeated a measure that would have banned the Pentagon from spending funds on transgender persons health care -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

I want to talk some more about the questions that the Trump administration can't or won't answer at least now about the president's new transgender ban.

We are joined by our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, you were in the briefing today. And we certainly did not get a whole lot of clarity.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, indeed, not a lot of clarity. Many questions about this policy, and largely because of how it was announced. It wasn't a speech. There wasn't a backroom briefing, no information handed out.

It was simply sent out in a short burst on social media this morning, and it certainly gives rise to a lot of questions. At this briefing today, the new press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she called it a very difficult decision. But then she had trouble answering what it actually meant and how it would be implemented.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Implementation policy is going to be something that the White House and the Department of Defense have to work together to lawfully determine.

The president has a lot of support for all Americans, and certainly wants to protect all Americans at all times. The president has expressed concern since this Obama policy came into effect, but he's also voiced that this is a very expensive and disruptive policy, and based on consultation that he's had with his national security team, came to the conclusion that it erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.

The decision is based on a military decision. It's not meant to be anything more than that and it's simply about -- obviously, it is a very difficult decision. It is not a simple one. But the president feels that it's the best one for the military.

When the president made the decision yesterday, the secretary of defense was immediately informed, as were the rest of the national security team that had been part of this ongoing conversation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: So, Wolf, the very end there is very interesting. It said when the president reached a decision, the secretary of defense was informed. He was informed that the president had reached the decision, but, Wolf, virtually no one, certainly from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill, were expecting this announcement to be made this morning.

Some Republicans in this town I talked to, Wolf, wondered if the White House was trying to change the subject, get it off of the Russia investigation, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions matter. We don't know if that's the situation or not. But this was a very major policy decision made in a very unusual fashion, Wolf.

BLITZER: Extremely unusual. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much. We will have more on this story coming up.

I want to go to the president's newest attack by tweet aimed at his attorney general. The president defying advice from his top aides and top Republicans to stop berating Jeff Sessions.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is following the Sessions saga for us tonight.

Dianne, as the White House notes, the president has been very clear about his anger at the attorney general.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, Wolf, this is the one-sided feud that just won't go away. Sources say that the president hasn't spoken to his attorney general in days, choosing instead to air his grievances online and in public forums, all the while Jeff Sessions trying to carry on like business as usual.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER (voice-over): The president refusing to back down.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am disappointed in the attorney general.

GALLAGHER: As White House aides trying to defuse a public assault by the president on one of his most loyal supporters.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: You can be disappointed in someone, but still want them to continue to do their job, and that's where they are.

GALLAGHER: President Trump finding himself under attack by conservatives.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Jeff ought to be treated better than he's being treated.

GALLAGHER: As Capitol Hill sides with Jeff Sessions.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: He is not the president's personal lawyer. He's the attorney general of the United States. He took an oath to the Constitution, not to the president, and I think the president needs to realize that, that he is not his lawyer.

GALLAGHER: Republicans calling for Mr. Trump to quit publicly shaming his attorney general.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I would fire somebody that I did not believe could serve me well, rather than trying to humiliate them in public, which is a sign of weakness.

GALLAGHER: Sessions was inside the White House for what officials say was a routine meeting, but did not meet with the president, who at the same time was firing off yet another tweet attacking his attorney general, writing: "Why didn't A.G. Sessions replace acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation, but got big dollars, $700,000, for his wife's political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives? Drain the swamp."

[18:10:00]

The president's tweet is inaccurate. Dr. Jill McCabe ran an unsuccessful Virginia State Senate campaign in 2015 as a Democrat. The political action committee of Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is a friend of the Clintons, and the state Democratic Party made contributions to her campaign totaling nearly $700,000.

The donation also took place before McCabe had any oversight of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server. President Trump also once interviewed Andrew McCabe seen here heading into the Department of Justice today to replace Comey as head of the FBI.

Over the last week:

TRUMP: We could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.

GALLAGHER: An irritated President Trump blaming his attorney general for everything, from failing to prosecute Hillary Clinton to the Russia investigation to intelligence leaks.

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.

GALLAGHER: Tracking down those leaks, something Sessions has been vowing to do for months.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It is a priority. We have already begun to step up our efforts. And whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail. GALLAGHER: This morning, Anthony Scaramucci carried the White House's

message when he told CNN that the attorney general is and must be focused on leaks.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: He's putting a plan together for the interagencies, and I want to work very closely with him as the director of communications. And I want to work with the other agencies and departments to get our message coordinated amongst ourselves. And we want to uproot some of these leakers.

GALLAGHER: Over the past 24 hours, Sessions has also continued to tackle his shared priorities with the president, going after sanctuary cities and getting tough on crime. But while Sessions may be focused on the job, the president yesterday didn't seem sure.

TRUMP: We will see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER: Now, sources tell us that Sessions has no intention of resigning, so that means if the president wants him out as attorney general, he's going to have to dust off that famous phrase of his, you're fired.

Wolf, if the current climate is any indication, you can bet that the blowback on that decision would be severe.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly will be. Thanks very much, Dianne Gallagher, reporting for us.

Let's talk about all of the breaking news with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We heard from the White House today that they want to -- quote -- "lawfully implement" President Trump's ban on transgender Americans serving in the U.S. military. They want to coordinate together with the Pentagon.

Do you believe the president's tweets constitute a lawful order, at least right now?

WHITEHOUSE: It's not really directed to anybody, so it doesn't have the nature of an order.

And obviously it's something that can't be implemented right away, because it hasn't been developed to the level of detail where you could actually implement it. It's like saying, build me a house. Well, you can't go build it until you have architectural plans and done the basic legwork to figure out how it's going to affect whom.

Obviously, not a military decision, first, because the president isn't qualified to make that kind of decision, and, second, because it interrupted the military's process for making a military recommendation to the president that then would have been a military decision.

(CROSSTALK)

WHITEHOUSE: So, this looks like he's just trying to change the topic as Russia starts to strangle him more and more.

BLITZER: I was going to say, he is the commander in chief. It is his constitutional right to make these kinds of decisions.

WHITEHOUSE: I'm not saying he doesn't have the authority to do it. I'm saying he doesn't have the capability to do it. This is the kind of thing where anybody responsible would refer to their own generals and get the advice of the actual military about how to implement this, instead of just firing off a tweet.

It doesn't have the aura of seriousness. It looks like he's trying to throw yet another shiny object out there to distract people from what's going on with Russia. And, as usual, when he throws the shiny object, he figures out a group that he thinks is vulnerable and just tries to be mean to them.

BLITZER: Yes, we are told that the top generals and admirals at the Pentagon were all caught off-guard by the president's announcement on Twitter earlier this morning.

So, Senator, what does it tell you...

WHITEHOUSE: I understand they actually had a process going to reach this decision, so they could get it to him. So, he actually interrupted his own process.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Well, General Mattis, the secretary of defense, announced last month he needed six months to make a thorough review of this proposed ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. It's only been a month. He had five more months to go, and then all of a sudden the president made this announcement on Twitter this morning.

WHITEHOUSE: Yes.

BLITZER: This new policy affecting several thousand service members, transgender service members already serving on active duty right now, what does it say to you about their future?

[18:15:03]

WHITEHOUSE: Well, it's one of the unknowns.

Thankfully, people who are serving our country in uniform have certain rights to be treated fairly, both under the Constitution and under the rules of the United States military. And I don't think that a presidential tweet is cause to remove them. What happens if you find out that the person squirrelled away at the

Defense Intelligence Agency who knows the most about this particular faction of ISIS and uses that knowledge every day to save our service members and to attack ISIS happens to be transgender?

You actually make the decision to get rid of that person because of a presidential tweet, potentially putting our mission in harm's way because a core individual with specialized knowledge is no longer available to them? I mean, none of this makes sense.

BLITZER: let's talk about the future of the attorney general of the United States. What do you think, Senator, President Trump is trying to accomplish with his repeated humiliating attacks on Jeff Sessions?

WHITEHOUSE: He's trying to manipulate him. Every single complaint he has is the backside of a suggestion.

Why won't he fire the acting director of the FBI? Suggestion: I want you to fire the director, acting director of the FBI. Why won't you indict Hillary Clinton? Suggestion: You should indict Hillary Clinton. Why didn't why did you recuse yourself? Suggestion: You should go back and start interfering in the Mueller investigation.

All of these are suggestions, and they are suggestions that Jeff Sessions do something improper. And that is an offense to people who know Jeff Sessions, which is why so many Republicans are speaking out about this.

But it's also an offense to the Department of Justice. This is not an institution that is designed to respond to that kind of presidential direction. It's designed to be independent from the president, to follow the law, and to follow the Constitution.

So, I think what he's probably doing is cementing Jeff Sessions, who probably rides a little bit uncomfortably over there with all the career people, into a band of brothers who are going to resist this kind of improper political pressure because they know it's the right thing to do. It's why they're there.

BLITZER: Do you believe that if the president were able to remove the attorney general one way or another, do you think he could successfully get a replacement, a new attorney general confirmed through the Senate?

WHITEHOUSE: It would be extraordinarily challenging and would create an absolute firestorm.

I think that we are probably better off with an attorney general than without one and that ultimately one would be confirmed. But he may find out the Senate stacks up against him and demands a nominee that meets our requirements, rather than just the willy-nilly pick of the president under these circumstances. So, he may find out that he ends up with an attorney general he is a lot less comfortable with than Jeff Sessions.

BLITZER: All of this comes, Senator, as the president's anger over the Russia investigation clearly continues. Your committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing today, but you reached a deal with Paul Manafort's lawyers. He's the former Trump campaign chairman.

So, he did not have to publicly testify today. Are you, first of all, satisfied with Paul Manafort's cooperation? And when can we expect the American public to hear testimony not only from him, but from Donald Trump Jr.?

WHITEHOUSE: The committee is working with Paul Manafort's representatives. We're working on getting a schedule for when he can testify publicly.

As you know, the subpoena was for today, so, it was very short notice. And I don't fault him for negotiating back from that. We are also seeking a variety of documents, and potentially even a staff interview to prepare the committee for questions at a public hearing.

So, it's regular work ongoing in the committee to prepare for a good public hearing later. And I approve of all of that. We are kind of tied up right now with health care, and we have the August recess at some point coming. So, I would not expect at this point to see Paul Manafort or Don Trump Jr. in the Judiciary Committee until sometime in September.

But I do think it is the committee's expectation that we will see them in the committee in public hearing in September or perhaps October.

BLITZER: Senator Whitehouse, thanks so much for joining us.

WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

We have much more on all the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:17]

BLITZER: We're following a lot of breaking news this hour, as the president faces new backlash for banning transgender military troops and for his continued bashing of his attorney general.

Also tonight, another set back for his hopes of repealing Obamacare with the defeat of another Republican health care bill in the U.S. Senate.

But in the midst of all of this, the president making an announcement about U.S. jobs, cutting to the core of the promises that helped get him elected.

Let's go back to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, we heard from the president just a little while ago about this new announcement in Wisconsin. JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: We did indeed,

Wolf.

This is a significant announcement. Foxconn is the name of the company. They have been eying spots in Michigan as well as Wisconsin, but they settled on Wisconsin to build what they are saying is a $10 billion plant that could bring some 13,000 jobs to Wisconsin.

[18:25:10]

And Foxconn is the company that makes screens for iPhones, for televisions and other things. It's a major supplier for iPhones and other pieces of technology, Wolf.

It is being viewed as a very big deal. It is also in Speaker Ryan's backyard. So, it's one of the things that the president is holding up here as a big announcement.

Now, this comes with some incentives from the state of Wisconsin, some $3 billion in incentives the state legislature has to approve. It would be the biggest group of incentives for any type of business to come into Wisconsin.

But I was just talking to Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is here at the White House, just a few moments ago. Wolf, he said he would like to call this Wisconsin Valley, like Silicon Valley. He wants to make this the beginning of high-tech jobs in that state. But, Wolf, perhaps one note of caution. A few years ago, Foxconn announced a $30 million plant in Pennsylvania. That plant has not yet started being built -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, stand by. We will get back to you, Jeff Zeleny.

Dana Bash, what do you think, this plant in Wisconsin going to go forward right now? This is what the president promised he would do. He seems to be delivering on that promise.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He does.

And, look, we do a lot of sort of calling out the president on things that are not going well. This is something that appears, at least at first blush, to be going extremely well.

Jeff just laid out the deal. And we've seen it. I was just looking at some of the local coverage in Wisconsin. The fact of the matter is if they do go forward and build this, it is supposed to be a facility that is even bigger than the Pentagon. And you know what that means, Wolf, because you covered that building for a long time.

That is basically its own city. So, it is -- never mind kind of the size of it. It is about jobs. And it is about turning around the notion of things that Americans use every day, every five seconds, which is this, and not built here, and finally building them here.

I was just reading something that apparently there is no American plant that builds, that makes these LCD screens, which is kind of amazing to think about when you consider the fact that it was American, you know, sort of know-how that created the iPhone in the first place.

So, yes, if this goes forward in a place like Wisconsin or, you know, anywhere in this country, and the president was involved in helping get it done, along with the Republican Governor Scott Walker, they should be applauded for it. We will see if they get the $3 billion in tax credits through the state legislature, but it seems that there is so much excitement for this, it's hard to see it not happening.

BLITZER: So you think, Rebecca, the iPhone, the Apple iPhone that all of us, a lot of us at least have potentially, down the road, a new version could be made in Wisconsin, as opposed to Taiwan? This is a Taiwanese company, Foxconn, that is going to be developing this plant.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That would certainly be a great emblem, I think, Wolf, for Donald Trump's America first sort of motto, because it is something that every American can understand.

As Dana was saying, every American knows what iPhone is, if not has an iPhone. And, so, it's something, you know, he can very easily use to illustrate what he is trying to accomplish as president.

And you have got to point out that the help he's getting from governor Scott Walker is crucial, and it certainly doesn't hurt the president that there are so many Republican governors in office right now perhaps willing to help him do the same thing. I think 37 Republican governors in office at the moment.

BLITZER: If he can do that in other states, that would be very important.

Everybody, stay with us.

The president's one-way feud with his own attorney general, how difficult would it be for him to replace Jeff Sessions?

Plus, why North Korea's press for a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States may be closer to reality than anyone thought.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking tonight, the Trump White House is struggling to explain the president's relentless bashing of his attorney general, even as some powerful conservative voices are rushing to Jeff Sessions' defense.

[18:34:03] Let's get back to our correspondents, analysts and specialists.

And Dana, this grudge, clearly a grudge, the anger that the president has toward the attorney general, is it going to be resolved or will it continue to fester?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Boy, if I could answer that question, I would encourage everybody to go out and play the lottery tonight. Who knows? Because, you know, if you listen to the people who are close to -- some people who are close to the president who very much like Jeff Sessions, they say that they are trying to get the president to cut it out. Stop sending these tweets. Stop saying these things in public. Stop trolling the guy who endorsed you before anybody would even go near you politically in the United States Senate.

Not to mention, you know, the fact that many conservatives believe that Jeff Sessions is doing the job he's supposed to be doing on immigration and other issues at the Justice Department. So, we'll see.

I think the bigger question at this point is what are Donald Trump's other options? And my sense is that he's not firing Jeff Sessions right now, because he's not sure what happens after that.

[17:35:14] I was told by one source that, you know, that if he did learn any lessons, it's that when you fire somebody like James Comey, for example, and don't have a plan for what you do next, it doesn't go well. Never mind that the firing was probably not all that well- thought out to begin with.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, how difficult would it be for the president to fire his attorney general?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You know, I think there would be a big political storm. And then he'd probably appoint someone like a sitting judge. And he'd get confirmed or she would get confirmed.

I think, you know, the Republicans in the Senate do the president's bidding. Mitch McConnell is there to do the president's bidding. He has done it successfully so far. We'll see how health care turns out.

But in terms of appointments, I think the idea that there would be a real Republican rebellion to the point where they would actually vote against his nominee, which is what it would take to defeat it, I don't think it's going to happen.

BLITZER: And remember, you only need 50 votes now.

TOOBIN: Exactly.

BLITZER: Because you have a Vice President Pence who would break a tie. You don't need 60.

TOOBIN: Yes, and there's no filibusters on executive appointments.

BLITZER: That's correct. All right. Let's talk about the fall-out, though, if he were to do that among Republicans. Rebecca, what do you think?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, among Republicans, I think you've seen the warning signals being sent this week, Wolf, with the Republicans coming out and praising Jeff Sessions. Somme of them even going so far as to warn the president against firing him or pushing him out, suggesting that there would be pretty negative repercussions, not only for the White House politically, but also in terms of the rule of law and stability here in Washington, as well.

But the problem is, if you are one of those Republicans trying to warn the president against doing this, there's no evidence, really, that the president listens to that sort of warning or advice. I mean, we saw what happened to James Comey. And as one Democrat -- Democratic lawmaker put it to me today, the president will take whatever incoming he's going to take. He doesn't care, because he's going to do what he wants to do. And I think we did see that with James Comey.

TOOBIN: And he confirmed -- sorry to interrupt. And they -- they confirmed the new FBI director with relatively little controversy, notwithstanding the controversy over the departure of -- of Comey. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt.

BASH: I'm sorry, no, I was just going to say to Jeffrey's point about Republicans so far have kind of fallen in line with the president, that certainly is true.

One thing I just kind of want to put out there is something that the Democrat -- Democratic leader put out there today, which is from the Senate floor, warning the president if Jeff Sessions does go, not to try to do a recess appointment, which would mean Senate confirmation would not be -- would not be necessary.

Now, Ted Barrett, our congressional producer, and I have a story up about the fact that we were told that the president has been urged by some to go this route, to wait until the Senate is in recess.

The problem is, for the past eight to, you know, ten years, the Senate has not formally gone into recess for this very reason. And, so, the question is, if the president wants to go this route, could he actually convince the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to find a way to go to recess. And Ted Barrett is certainly hearing -- and I am, as well, that there is no appetite for that. They're saying to the White House, "Give me a break. We take confirmations seriously."

BLITZER: You know what? Speaking of the Senate, I want to quickly bring in CNN's Ryan Nobles. He's up on Capitol Hill for us tonight.

Ryan, there was another significant setback for the Republicans on health care. Update our viewers.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. The Senate today voting against a plan that would just be a straight repeal of Obamacare. And this isn't that big of a surprise. We knew that there were not enough Republican votes to pass this form of health care reform. But we were a little bit surprised by the volume of Republican senators that came out against it. Seven senators, including some surprises like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rob Portman of Ohio. You know, seven -- these seven senators, six of them back in 2015 essentially voted for the same exact piece of legislation. But that, of course, was when Barack Obama was in office. And this really demonstrates how difficult it's going to be for Mitch

McConnell over the next several days as they now move to their next plan, which is this skinny repeal of Obamacare, which will take out some aspects of the Obamacare Affordable Care Act, but leave the big, vast majority of it in place. And this is all part of a goal to get to a conference with the House where they can come up with some sort of a plan where they can build consensus.

But what this vote showed us today, Wolf, you know, they can only afford to lose two Republican senators. They lost a total of seven. So there's going to be five Republican senators, at least, that Mitch McConnell is really going to have to lean on to get the votes necessary to get that skinny repeal passed.

[18:40:03] BLITZER: Yes, the -- we're looking at live pictures. You see Senator Bernie Sanders speaking right now. The debate continues.

So, they rejected the House -- the House version. They rejected a simple repeal of Obamacare. Now they're working on what you call this skinny version. They're desperately trying to get something passed, Ryan, right now. Anything passed so that it will go back to the House, a conference committee can be formed, and at least work out something else, if possible, right?

NOBLES: That's right. But, Wolf, it's important to point out that the next few days are really going to be a public relations nightmare for Senate Republicans, because we're going to begin this process called vote-a-rama, where essentially any member of the Senate can offer up an amendment on the floor to be voted up or down. And Democrats already have planned hundreds and hundreds of amendments that are going to force Republicans to take really tough votes.

You know, Senator Elizabeth Warren among those who are just going to put amendments on the floor that are going to be difficult in terms of a public relations standpoint for Republicans and that they're going to have to vote down. And we expect almost all of those amendments will go down relatively easy, but this is going to be something that will put them on the record ahead of these 2018 midterm elections, can be used in campaign ads, and are just going to be very difficult.

And that was one of the things that Republicans wanted to avoid. They didn't want it to get to this point, which is why many were surprised that Mitch McConnell pushed ahead with the motion to proceed to get this bill to the floor.

But once they get through all of those votes, that vote-a-rama as we're calling it, that's when they hope they can get to something that they can at least get 50 votes for and then get it to that conference committee.

BLITZER: Yes, based on the votes so far. not necessarily going to be all that easy, but not impossible. Ryan Nobles, thanks very much.

Dana, explain that skinny provision, that skinny legislation that Ryan was talking about, because that's apparently one of the last great hopes that the Republicans have. BASH: Yes, it's not the latest diet fad. That is for sure. It is

exactly legislatively what you would think, which is the most basic, limited kind of replacing plan that they think that they could get through there.

You see right on the screen, the individual and employer mandate. They would get rid of that. A tax on medical device makers, which has never been popular, certainly with Republicans, but even several Democrats, who are from states that manufacture those. But would keep the Medicare expansion and subsidies. That would kind of bring a lot of the moderate -- theoretically, bring a lot of the moderate Republicans who are upset and worried about their constituents into the fold. Lisa Murkowski, for example, and others. And that preexisting condition.

So, look, here's the deal. This is, again, bare minimum. If they can get that through the Senate, that would be a great victory for them. But then they have the United States House of Representatives to deal with, which is a big question about whether anything even close to this could get to the president's desk.

BLITZER: This is going to drag on and on and on for a while, Rebecca, right?

BERG: Absolutely, Wolf. I mean, let's not kid ourselves. This is a "hail Mary" pass. Because if Senate Republicans cannot get together among the 52 of them and reach an agreement, going to conference committee where you're adding House Republicans is not going to make this process any easier to reach a deal. It's going to make it much more difficult, much more complicated.

And so, this is really just the only course of action they have left at this point, and it will -- I mean, there's no obvious deal that they could reach in short order, so this is going to drag on for a while.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more information we're getting right now. More on the breaking news. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:14] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're monitoring developments on the Senate floor on a day when Republicans suffered yet another health care defeat. Just one of the several breaking stories we're following right now.

And, Phil Mudd, the other story, really another day, another attack, not just on the attorney general by the president of Jeff Sessions, but on the acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. Drain the swap, the president is writing. He's complaining that Sessions hasn't fired Andrew McCabe, a man you know well from your service over at the FBI.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: So, what's the message here? What's the cause for terminating an employee who has decades of service in the federal government? BLITZER: Well, I'll read the tweet. What he says, he's a Comey

friend who is in charge of Clinton investigation, but got big dollars for his wife's political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives.

Not accurate. Hillary Clinton didn't give him -- her, the wife, the money. It was the political action committee for the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

MUDD: Well, penalty flag here. Let's understand how the FBI works. The FBI directly typically is a political appointee. The deputy director is a career civil servant, someone who comes up through the process, in this case, Andy McCabe, an agent, who serves as an advisor on the FBI bureaucracy to the FBI director. He's supposed to be an enemy of Comey if he's serving as a director?

My point earlier was, if you want to fire him, your cause is your spouse is participating by choice in the American political process. So, the message is if you serve in the federal government, your spouse can't participate in politics? You got to be kidding me.

This is not about Andy McCabe. This is about the president drip, drip, drip, trying to get to the attorney general out because he's too much of a sissy to fire him.

BLITZER: He was a deputy director of the FBI, now the acting director since Comey was fired. But he was being interviewed to succeed Comey at one point by the president.

MUDD: Simple reason why. If you served with him at the bureau, as I did, when he was the head of counterterrorism operations, and as he moved up through the system, promoted very quickly because was talented, very well-liked, experienced across the field.

[18:50:09] And now, the president comes out of left field saying, well, I have a political problem with him. He was interviewed because he was so talented. And the president turns on a dime and says, I don't care if you did 20 years, 30 years of service. I want you out because I don't like Jeff Sessions.

BLITZER: What's the result, Jeffrey Toobin, of all these attacks by the president on the attorney general, the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, special counsel Robert Mueller, the acting FBI director, Andy McCabe? What's the impact on law enforcement as a result of these presidential attacks?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You know, that's a puzzling question. And I don't really know the answer to it. I mean, I know as a former assistant U.S. attorney, everything that happens off in Washington is like some stage play that means very little to you. I mean, the people in the field are going to do their jobs as they have always done their jobs as I'm sure FBI agents were regardless of what happened with Jim Comey. I think the bigger issue is what happens in sort of the counsel's of Washington.

You know, there are always turf fights between the Department of Justice and the State Department. How does -- how does Jeff Sessions represent his department against, you know, in the, you know, financial battles over government resources when he is so discredited? That I think is what matters, not so much, you know, what happens in the field.

BLITZER: Words from Jeff Toobin and Phil Mudd.

Guys, standby. We have more on the breaking news on the president's continued attacks on the attorney general. Is he laying the groundwork to fire Jeff Sessions?

Also, a disturbing new warning about North Korea's nuclear weapons program and how soon Kim Jong-un might be able to attack the United States?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:06] BLITZER: There is an alarming new warning about North Korea's nuclear weapons capability. Kim Jong-un's scientists and engineers may have a reliable nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile ready for launch much sooner than expected. Let's got to CNN's Brian Todd.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, CNN is told it could be as early as around six months from now that Kim Jong-un has a missile, a long-range missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to the United States. It appears tonight that many of Kim's rivals have underestimated his determination to ramp up this threat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A frightening new assessment from U.S. intelligence tonight of Kim Jong-un's deadliest weapons. By early next year, North Korea will have a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the American mainland, that's according to a U.S. official familiar with the latest intelligence assessment.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN, INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES: What's jarring is the pace at which North Korea has been testing missiles for the past three years. The assumption going forward is that they will continue at this aggressive pace.

TODD: The new assessment means Kim will likely be ready two years earlier than previously expected with technology that could strike the United States. But the official CNN spoke with says while the missile can get off the ground, its reliability could vary. Missile experts agree.

(on camera): What are the variables here?

ELLEMAN: What we have not seen and we don't know yet is how accurate the missile will be and whether it has the mechanisms to protect the warhead as it reenters the atmosphere at very high speed. TODD: July 4th, an intercontinental ballistic missile test fired by North Korea flies more than 1,500 miles into space and returns at high speed. Experts say that launch and North Korea's test of a high thrust rocket engine in March sped up Kim's ICBM capability and showed his determination to have this threat in his back pocket against the U.S.

A key question tonight, once he has a reliable long-range missile that can carry a warhead to America: how will Kim's behavior change?

ADAM MOUNT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: That's the critical question. There are those that believe that now that he has an ICBM capability he will be more likely to aggress at lower levels of conflict. On the other hand, he has shown and demonstrated restraint when it matters.

TODD: Tonight, Kim is vowing no restraint if he's provoked. North Korea is threatening a nuclear strike on, quote, the heart of the U.S. if America tries to remove Kim from power. That's a response to recent comments from the CIA Director Mike Pompeo when he discussed the potential of regime change related to North Korea's missile and nuclear threat.

MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: I'm hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system. The North Korean people I'm sure are lovely people and would love to see him go as well. You might know, they don't live a very good life here.

MOUNT: Threatening the viability of the North Korean regime is exactly what would drive him to launch a nuclear attack against the United States and its allies.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: The nuclear missile threat from Kim's regime has accelerated to such an extent that for the first time, an American state is preparing for it on its own. Officials in Hawaii will soon start a campaign to inform the public there of what to do if North Korea fires a nuclear tipped missile. Experts say it would take about 20 minutes for a missile launched from North Korea to reach Hawaii -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Scary stuff. I'm also hearing that there are some signs tonight, Brian, that North Korea may be about to conduct another missile test?

TODD: Could be hours away, Wolf. A U.S. defense official telling us it appears they are getting ready. Transport vehicles carrying ballistic missile launching equipment were seen moving around in recent days. And just yesterday, North Korea tested the system which propels a missile out of its launch canister. This could be coming soon depending on the weather.

BLITZER: Brian Todd with the very, very latest. Brian, thanks 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.