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Mattis Warns Kim of End of Regime, Destruction of People; Interview with Representative Andre Carson; Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 9, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:05] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Improvised threat. CNN has learned that President Trump's shocking warning to North Korea of fire and fury was a surprise to even his closest aides. Why did he decide to dramatically escalate the war of words?

Mixed messages. While the president and Defense secretary warn the Kim regime of death and destruction, the secretary of State tries to calm nerves with a much different message. Why does the State Department claim the administration is speaking with one voice?

Inflaming Kim Jong-un. The Trump team says the president's fiery and highly undiplomatic warning was delivered in language the North Korean dictator would certainly understand. Could Mr. Trump's tough talk backfire?

And campaign chair raided. The FBI raids the home of Paul Manafort, former head of the Trump campaign, as part of the special counsel's Russia investigation. What were federal agents looking for?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, the escalating war of words and threats of nuclear strikes between President Trump and the Kim Jong-un regime. Sources are now telling CNN that Mr. Trump's extraordinary warning to North Korea of fire and fury was improvised. And the president later underscored the saber rattling in a tweet touting the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Now the Defense secretary is echoing the president's bellicose language. James Mattis said in a statement that North Korea must stop its threats and stand down on its nuclear weapons program or else face, and I'm quoting now, "the end of its regime and destruction of its people."

We're also following a major development in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. We're now learning that the day after former Trump chairman Paul Manafort met with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators, FBI agents raided Manafort's Virginia home and seized documents.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour, with our guests including Congressman Andre Carson of the Intelligence Committee, and our correspondents and specialists are also standing by in key locations, including Guam now under threat of a North Korean attack.

But let's begin with the escalating war of words between the Trump administration and North Korea. Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is working the story for us.

Jim, both sides are now for all practical purposes threatening nuclear war.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that's right, though it's a war that neither side wants or is frankly likely to launch. Both sides recognize how devastating it would be and the Kim regime, as bellicose as it is, knows it is a war that it would lose, a point that U.S. officials sought to reiterate in the clearest terms possible today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight North Korea put on notice. Defense Secretary James Mattis warning the regime away from any attack on the U.S.

"The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions," Mattis said in a statement, "that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people."

Despite the calamitous tone, the comments appeared to be part of a delicate walk-back of President Trump's surprisingly bellicose and apparently improvised threat to the North on Tuesday.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

SCIUTTO: Overnight Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to calm fears as he traveled through Asia.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours. And I think America should sleep well at night. I have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.

SCIUTTO: This morning the president put an even finer point on his fire and fury comments, touting U.S. nuclear capabilities on Twitter.

"My first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before."

In fact, Trump has ordered a review of U.S. nuclear weapons, though such are required by Congress every eight years. And it was President Obama who ordered the modernization of the U.S. arsenal last year, though that process will take years, not months, and cost an estimated $1 trillion.

There is no indication that the nuclear arsenal is measurably different today than it was when Trump came into office. Hours after President Trump warned Pyongyang, North Korea had already

threatened the U.S. again, warning it would strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear missile if there was any sign that the U.S. planned to attack the North.

[17:05:06] Today the head of U.S. Missile Defenses expressed confidence that the U.S. could destroy an incoming North Korean ICBM.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We absolutely believe that the currently deployed ballistic missile defense system can meet today's threat. I'm confident about it because we have done the analysis, we've built the systems, we've done the simulation. And by the way we've done the testing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: U.S. Military options against North Korea remain hampered by limitations on U.S. intelligence on the isolated state. The U.S. does not have clarity on where all the nuclear weapons and capabilities are hidden in the North, though as part of its strategy, the Trump administration has ordered a renewed focus on improving that intelligence to in turn improve the military options -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Lots of work. That is -- that are needed, no doubt about that.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

So let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, the president is threatening fire and fury, boasting explicitly about the strength and power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The secretary of Defense in his statement invokes the destruction of the North Korean people.

Is there a risk this kind of rhetoric could actually wind up playing into Kim Jong-un's hands?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Very much so, Wolf. A number of sources and officials I've been talking to since this latest cycle of accelerated rhetoric have said this just might be what Kim is looking for.

Look, he has very much embraced the notion he needs missiles and nuclear weapons as a deterrent to prove to his own people he can fight back against what he perceives would be someday a U.S. invasion. No indication that's reality based. But he wants that nuclear deterrence. That's why he's pursuing the program. He wants to demonstrate that power to his people and help keeps him in charge in North Korea.

The problem is this. The president's rhetoric, Washington's rhetoric, also very much aimed at the prospect of war, the prospect of a nuclear interaction. That may be what the U.S. is looking for as deterrence to Kim, that if they threaten him with this kind of total destruction, they'll back off. So it's kind of -- you know, Kim's deterrence philosophy against Donald Trump's deterrence philosophy. The problem is this, there is no indication at this point that Kim sees any reason to back off his weapons program. And the real concern is that there will be some accidental drift into a confrontation. That could be disastrous -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. That is certainly a nightmare scenario.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thanks very much.

So the crisis has put the U.S. territory of Guam and its sizeable U.S. military presence in North Korea's crosshairs right now.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson. He's on the island of Guam for assignment.

How seriously are people there -- they're all U.S. citizens, about 162,000 U.S. citizens living on Guam. How seriously are they taking North Korea's threat of some sort of preemptive strike?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, when we went through border control at the airport here a few hours ago, a U.S. border guard joked with us, welcome to ground zero.

So -- and that was gallows humor, Wolf. Really. People know about the threats, they know that North Korea has threatened enveloping fire from rockets around this small island. But it's not the first time that North Korea has threatened Guam, and, in fact, the THAAD missile defense system was put in after threats going back to 2013.

The governor here has said that the island is safe, that he's working with the U.S. military commanders who have bases here with at least 6,000 active and reserve personnel. He's been in touch with the Department of Homeland Security as well.

It's clearly raised some anxiety, but it has not put a dent in the tourism industry. We came on a plane from South Korea which was full of tourists coming here. Most of the hotels we found were booked solid, no rooms available. So it hasn't put a dent in the tourism industry while raising some anxiety. No signs of panic whatsoever here.

There is a reason, though, that Guam would be a target. It's the closest U.S. territory geographically to North Korea. It's also home to Andersen Air Force Base and that's where bombers flew from just a few days ago which conducted passes accompanied by South Korean and Japanese fighter jets over the Korean peninsula, an obvious show of force. That's the kind of thing that Pyongyang does not like -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. They simply don't like those B-1s, B-2, B-52 U.S. bombers flying from Guam over the Korean peninsula. That really irritates them as we now see.

Ivan, we'll get back to you. Ivan Watson is on the scene for us in Guam.

[17:10:04] Let's get some more in all of this, Democratic Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana is joining us. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. ANDRE CARSON (D-IN), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: What a pleasure. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Congressman, the stern warning from the president and the Defense secretary will work to actually deter North Korea or could this rhetoric backfire?

CARSON: My hope is that this time we are deescalating in terms of the aggression. But at the same time, I think we have to be very firm. I mean, Kim Jong-un is a masterful provocateur, and we don't want to provoke the provocateur. But at the same time we have to send the message, look, a threat to Guam is a threat to the United States, as we just mentioned. It is a U.S. territory. It's not just a military outpost. We have troops there.

I'm confident, though, that we have, if you will, a shield there to protect Guam and others, but I'm more deeply concerned about miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and attaching it to a missile. You know, one of the hurdles with any developing nuclear program has been to accomplish this feat and also attach this to a reentry vehicle.

So he seems to be making progress, but I think any strike against North Korea could possibly bring in nuclearized nations such as Russia and China.

BLITZER: When you say, bring in those nations, what, they would get involved in, god forbid, some sort of nuclear war if the U.S. and North Korea exchanged weapons -- nuclear weapons? What are you saying about China and Russia?

CARSON: I would certainly hope not but it's clear that they have aligned themselves with North Korea in the past. I mean, the four past few years, North Korea has primarily been operating with pretty much Cold War weaponry. But the fact that they've accomplished or attempted to accomplish this feat of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and putting it inside of a missile deeply concerns me.

So I think the United States has a responsibility to make an example verbally out of North Korea, but at the same time we should not do it in a way that is undiplomatic and do it in a way that really justifies Kim Jong-un's ambitions, his megalomania. And I think that that kind of provocation could lead to unfortunate results.

We're putting tens of thousands of Americans in the Korean peninsula in harm's way and we're jeopardizing their nearest neighbor, which is Seoul. And so I think we have to be very methodical, we have to be very wise to navigate around the egomania that is taking place on both sides.

BLITZER: Yes. There are about 28,000 U.S. troops to south of the demilitarized zone in South Korea, another 200,000 American civilians living in Seoul or elsewhere in Korea as well.

Is the president's use of the term fire and fury, Congressman, undercutting his message?

CARSON: I think in some ways it is. I think it was an impulsive response, obviously. And so I think one of the things that has to be done, when you have a president who speaks extemporaneously quite often he has not disciplined himself in a way or allow his staff to discipline him or to work on being disciplined in terms of delivering his message in a firm way but in a very measured way.

I think when we make inflammatory comments against a tyrant, I think you fan the flames of hostility. But I think his response obviously, his point was taken well, but again, we don't want to lead this ego -- this megalomaniacal personality into attacking Guam, Seoul or anyone else.

BLITZER: But you heard the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with one of the much more measured statement earlier today, say, look, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un clearly doesn't understand the language of diplomacy and that explains why the president's rhetoric was so harsh. Do you buy that?

CARSON: Well, we've not been diplomatic, either. So I think that we -- we have to lead by example. And I think in leading by example, we have to appear at least diplomatic. But at the same time, making an example initially at least verbally. I don't think we should take military response off of the table, but I think our diplomatic response sends an example, it sets the tone, it allows our international partners to join us in this fight of thwarting Kim Jong- un's ambitions, but in a very real sense we don't want to make these kinds of inflammatory and provocative statements and put America in harm's way.

BLITZER: A preemptive U.S. military strike against targets in North Korea would immediately result in -- forget about a nuclear retaliatory strike but a conventional nuclear strike against Seoul in South Korea just below the DMZ.

[17:15:02] And potentially given the artillery, the thousands of mortars of artillery pieces, the million-man army that they have just north of the demilitarized zone. That could result in the death of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people within only a few days.

So here's the question, Congressman. Is there really a good military option when it comes to North Korea?

CARSON: I can't speak to it. I'll leave that up to the generals, the very wise generals. What I will say is that I don't think that President Trump should try to make outlandish statements to one-up Kim Jong-un. But at the same time I think we have to do what we've always done, and that is to leave the threat lingering, that if he were to attack one of our military outposts, if he were to attack South Korea or Seoul or any of our allies, I think that he will be met with equal or greater force. And he should be.

BLITZER: President Trump's fiery warning, the use of the words "fire and fury," for example, to North Korea was improvised at that moment, not part of a formal, scripted statement that he had prepared to deliver. This according to three people with knowledge of his remarks.

So here's the question. Does this concern you that he did not plan ahead when he spoke like that?

CARSON: Absolutely it concerns me. I mean, the presidents before from President Obama who handled North Korea very well to President Bush before him and President Clinton before him, all have lost sleep to some degree over the North Korea question. I think so as President Trump is learning how to become a president, my advice would be for him to become more measured and speak to his staffers before making these kinds of provocative statements in the future.

BLITZER: What I don't understand, why you think those three former presidents handled North Korea well. Bill Clinton tried to stop the North Korean program. He failed. George W. Bush failed in that effort. Over eight years, President Obama tried desperately to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Failed. All of them failed.

Why do you think they handled it well?

CARSON: Well, I think it's a matter of personal constitution, I think it's a matter of personality, I think it's a matter of allowing the experts who you surround yourself with to advise you in a way and for you to digest the information, process the information, learn the facts, learn the information and respond appropriately and diplomatically.

BLITZER: Stand by, Congressman. We're going to have more to discuss. We're getting more information as we always do here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll take a quick break, we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:22:04] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. Sources now telling CNN that President Trump's extraordinary warning to North Korea, fire and fury, was improvised. We'll have much more on that. That's coming up. But there's other important news we're following.

Congressman -- Democratic Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana still with us. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, I want to talk to you about the newly revealed FBI raid of the home of the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Stand by for a moment, I want to get some details from CNN's Dianne Gallagher who's working the story for us.

Dianne, this raid was part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. And this is quite the development here. Agents showing up before the sun came up, the surprise raid, walking out with documents, some related to Manafort's tax and business records. The nature of all this really could be a sign from the special counsel that the investigation is getting serious.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER (voice-over): A surprise wake-up call for the president's former campaign chairman from the FBI. On July 26th, the source tells CNN that without warning, agents raided Paul Manafort's Alexandria, Virginia, home. According to the "Washington Post," they arrived before sunrise with a so-called no-knock warrant, seizing materials including financial and tax records as part of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The FBI agents working for Special Counsel Mueller believe that he is hiding something. They conducted their search in the early morning as is normal for them so that the individual whose residence it is has no opportunity to destroy or otherwise tamper with the evidence that they seek.

GALLAGHER: In a statement confirming the search warrant, Manafort's spokesman added that his client, quote, "has consistently cooperated with law enforcement and other serious inquiries and did so on this occasion as well."

Now the warrant was served the day after Manafort met behind closed doors with Senate Intelligence investigators. President Trump's former campaign chairman has voluntarily turned over hundreds of pages of materials to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and more than 400 pages to the Senate Judiciary Committee just last week, some of which pertained to him retroactively registering as a foreign agent.

But U.S. officials tell CNN that investigators became more suspicious of Manafot when they turned up intercepted communications that U.S. intelligence agencies collected among suspected Russian operatives that were discussing their efforts to work with Manafort to coordinate information that could hurt Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. But during the campaign, Manafort denied working with the Russians.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign, and Putin and his regime?

PAUL MANAFORT, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN: No, there are not. It's absurd and, you know, there's no basis for it.

GALLAGHER: Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who was then Assistant Attorney General Mueller's special counsel, believes that investigators obtaining a warrant for Manafort's tax and business records could be a window into the special counsel investigation.

[17:25:00] ZELDIN: If you can obtain charges that are viable against them on something collateral to that, then you can use that as leverage to strike a deal with respect to the type of evidence that you want with respect to the heart of your matter, in this case the collusion.

GALLAGHER: The president has said that Mueller would be crossing a red line if he starts looking into Trump and his inner circle's non- campaign related financial history.

ZELDIN: The president doesn't get to draw red lines. If he is a person of interest to the special prosecutor, Mueller makes the determination of what he's going to be investigating, and that's that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER: And perhaps some further evidence that there is serious dedication to this investigation, the Justice Department released the financial disclosure forms for Robert Mueller and five of his team members, and, well, the special counsel and the investigators, they are walking away from potentially millions of dollars in the private sector just to be part of this investigation.

Wolf, it is important to note that the ethics officials determined on each of those forms there were no ethnics violations there.

BLITZER: Yes. But they are committed to law enforcement, giving up lots and lots of money to go to work for the special counsel.

Thanks very much for that, Dianne Gallagher, reporting.

Let's get back to Congressman Andre Carson, a member of the Intelligence Committee.

You're also former law enforcement, Congressman. When you hear about this raid by the FBI at Paul Manafort's suburban Alexandria, Virginia, residence the day after he met with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators, what do you think?

CARSON: Well, as a former police officer, I'm familiar with these so- called no-knock warrants and they typically happen to suspects who have not been very cooperative during an investigation. They may be hostile toward investigators, they may be obstructionists in their actions, and they just may be a hindrance to the investigation overall. So I think it's a significant turn by Director Mueller in this investigation. Stay tuned.

BLITZER: The FBI agents did receive from a federal judge this warrant to go in there with the so-called no-knock search. Does that -- and the judge needed probable cause in order to grant that warrant. Do you believe there is some reason to believe that an actual crime may have been committed?

CARSON: I think Director Mueller is a skilled investigator as was mentioned. I mean, he left millions of dollars in the private sector to follow his passion. He's a skilled investigator. He's skilled at assembling a great and fantastic team of investigators to complete the task at hand, and I think that his instincts are pretty good as it relates to these kinds of matters. He has the experience and it shows.

BLITZER: Do you believe this FBI raid at Manafort's home may have been done also at least in part to send a message first of all to Manafort but maybe to others? CARSON: Well, I think the message is already being sent. As we

speak, we already have two congressional committees investigating this matter. We have Director Mueller and his team, a special prosecutor investigator and looking into these matters. So we have -- we already have a three-pronged approach working, and I think that today's actions just add on to it. But I think the message has already been sent. It was sent months ago.

BLITZER: Do you believe this move -- and you're a member of the House Intelligence Committee -- was done in coordination with the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee? Could it have spurred by the meeting that he had with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators only the day before?

CARSON: I can't speak to these matters, but what I will say is that I think the American people are watching, and I think historians will have a lot to write about as we move forward in the future.

I think one of the great things about the House Intelligence Committee specifically is that the House Intelligence Committee in many ways has gotten us to this point. And I think it's one of the beauties as we have the Senate committee as well complimenting the great work and we have Director Mueller doing his thing. So I think we're all working in concert but on separate tracks to preserve our democracy in a very real way.

BLITZER: Congressman Andre Carson, thanks as usual for joining us.

CARSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more on the breaking news we're following. That's coming up next. We're learning that President Trump's fiery threat to North Korea was improvised. Did he accidentally, though, draw a red line for himself that he now has to enforce?

Plus, the administration's seemingly mixed messages when it comes to North Korea. Our top officials on the same page when it comes to confronting North Korea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:34:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The breaking news, we're learning new details tonight about President Trump's incendiary remarks on North Korea, which have clearly escalated tension with the Kim Jong-un regime to a disturbing new level.

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

Jeff, the president's pointed threat to Kim Jong-un caught everyone, I suspect, off guard.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it certainly did. Those comments definitely took people outside the White House by surprise, but we're learning today the president's words were improvised. Officials, though, insist the president had used the same language in private. But saying those words out loud in public particularly fire and fury raised alarm across the globe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump's chilling warning to North Korea has reverberated around the world. And tonight CNN has learned those inflammatory words were improvised, not part of a carefully scripted statement.

[17:35:03] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.

ZELENY: With First Lady Melania Trump on one side and Health and Services Secretary Tom Price on the other, the president delivered a potentially history-making message from his golf course and resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.

TRUMP: He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

ZELENY: North Korea swiftly responded with a threat, saying it could carry out military strikes on the U.S. territory of Guam.

For hours today the White House declined to discuss the origin of the remarks before Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement saying, "General Kelly and others on the NSC team were well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery." She added, "The words were his own."

Today the Trump administration struggled to get on the same page. Flying from Malaysia to a refueling stop in Guam, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended and sought to explain the president's warning.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand because he doesn't seem to understand diplomatic language.

ZELENY: He also attempted to allay concerns the showdown would lead to war. Despite North Korea's growing ability to produce a missile ready nuclear weapons that could reach the U.S.

TILLERSON: And I think Americans should sleep well at night. I don't have any concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days. I think the president, again, as commander-in-chief, I think he felt it necessary to issue a very strong statement directly to North Korea.

ZELENY: Then from the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis amplified the president's message. But instead of talking about North Korea's threats, Mattis said North Korea should cease any actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.

Yet the fierce message drew swift criticism from national security experts and many lawmakers. Speaking on Facebook Live, Senator John McCain said the commander-in-chief should use greater care addressing the North Korea threat.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'm not exactly sure that the president has fully appreciated that when he speaks, the most powerful man in the world, person in the world, his words, his or her words, reverberate all over the world.

ZELENY: James Clapper, director of National Intelligence in the Obama administration, urged the president to tone down his rhetoric.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Having come out with that kind of rhetoric from the presidential level raises the ante. And what we have always done in the past is take the rhetoric emanating from North Korea with a grain of salt.

ZELENY: As for the president, he was silent on the matter today during his working vacation at one of his golf courses. He had no events on his public schedule and the White House declined to say how he was spending his time.

But this picture on Instagram helped answer the question. His August break also includes at least some of his favorite game.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So on the first week of this working vacation, the president is surrounded by his advisers. White House chief of staff John Kelly is in Bedminster as are other national security officials.

And Wolf, tomorrow, Vice President Mike Pence also expected to pay a visit. All of this is coming as this crisis, the most pressing foreign policy challenge, facing the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Jeff Zeleny reporting for us, thank you very much.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and specialists.

And Dana, the president's fiery statement, very tough statement. Did he potentially accidentally draw a new red line for himself that he is going to have to deal with?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Maybe. You know, It's unclear how defined that line is. I mean, fire and fury could mean a lot of things. And he could kind of make it into something different than what it sounds like. I think that clearly this was not something that is traditionally done and you know this, you know, better than most when you're dealing with generally any policy issue but particularly when you're dealing with North Korea where every single word is parsed and had gone over it many, many times, you don't just say something when you're president of the United States off the cuff.

But he did. And he made very, very clear in no uncertain terms. And it wasn't just his words. It was his body language. I don't remember the last time seeing the president with his arms folded like this.

Having said all that, red line or not, this administration has been moving towards making clear that there needs to be a new strategy, that the last three decades of diplomacy with a little bit of -- you know, with a lot of military right behind it but diplomacy has not worked.

[17:40:09] And so that's certainly rhetorically where he's going. The question still is whether or not this is a rhetorical flourish without a strategy behind it.

BLITZER: You know, so much of the conversation over the past 24 hours or so, Jeff, has been directed at the very tough rhetoric uttered by the president of the U.S. Not so much Kim Jong-un and his regime. So there's one school of thought suggesting that actually President Trump undercut his own message.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I don't know if he undercut his own message, but he did send a clear message. His words were unmistakable. He said, further threats will result in fire, fury and --

BLITZER: Fire --

BASH: Fire and fury.

TOOBIN: Fire and fury and power like the world has never seen. I mean, that's something that's pretty clear to understand. There have been further threats since he said it and there has been no reaction yet.

We'll see if this just is written off as just another thing Donald Trump says or it reflects some new policy. But so far there's just been no change, notwithstanding the threat.

BLITZER: And John Kirby, in the course of today, we first saw the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson deliver what was widely seen as a much more restrained statement, followed by the Defense Secretary James Mattis, a very tough statement similar, in fact, to what we heard from the president.

Is this a good cop-bad cop routine on behalf of the U.S. for the North Koreans?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: No, I don't think so, Wolf. I think this is strategy after the fact. This is communications after it's already out. So the president says this, you know, crazy thing yesterday and everybody had to scramble to figure out how they were going to react to it. And clearly -- in my mind clearly what's happened here is Tillerson was told to go out and say what he said. A little bit air out of the tire.

Because look, this is a guy who doesn't like talking to the press and he sure don't like doing it on his airplane. And then you had Mattis follow up. Mattis always wants to go behind the State Department which makes sense. He did it in a written statement which means it could be very controlled and it was stronger. A person close to Mattis told me that they believe he struck a sober tone, somewhere between the president and the secretary of state which was probably the goal.

I don't see this as good cop, bad cop, but this was clearly directed at these guys after the president made his comment to try to put some context to it.

BLITZER: The State Department said, Bianna, that the administration -- all the administration leaders, they're speaking with one voice today. But clearly, they're not necessarily speaking with one voice.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Yes. It doesn't sound that. Look, historically, I think it's pretty common that you would see a split reaction and even opinions within administration particularly within the Defense Department and State, what have you.

But what's surprising here is this administration, the president in particular, had seven months now to come up with some sort of strategy, at least when it came to address the American public on North Korea, he seems very well prepared to talk about Russia and Russia investigation, but they seemed frazzled when it came to North Korea.

You would think obviously that this is a president who's briefed daily on information that we are not privy to, and from what reports suggest, he seemed baffled and disturbed by this "Washington Post" yesterday that North Korea could in fact miniaturize a nuclear weapon. And thus we saw that sort of that solemn mood that Dana described yesterday but it's not that reassuring that we could continue to see different responses from within his National Security team.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Can I just --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.

BASH: Can I just posit an alternative view of potential scenario to that? That he wasn't necessarily, you know, surprised by the "Washington Post" report, that this is intelligence that he has and he's known. And the fact that it was out there allowed him, in his mind, to be presidential, to talk about an issue that puts him in a position of -- a leadership position on the world stage and talk about an issue that is important that is not Russia.

KIRBY: And remember, this report came off of a classified assessment. So it's still not good -- you know, it's still not appropriate to talk about it. I mean, I'm flabbergasted that it leaked, it really shouldn't have, but for him then to pile that on that classified assessment, which is something so incredibly insensitive --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because --

GOLODRYGA: Especially when -- he could have been really embracing the Security Council vote, too.

BLITZER: Exactly.

GOLODRYGA: This is a win for this administration. You have 15 countries unanimously vote to increase sanctions against North Korea. This would have been a win for him that he could have talked about and touted yesterday.

BLITZER: Because the president, you know, he could have very easily, after this DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, leak was given to the "Washington Post" of classified information, the assessment of how much -- how many bombs the North Koreans may already have. Sixty according to this one estimate. Maybe fewer. But the estimate had maybe 60 nuclear bombs and that they've miniaturized. But when we have the president very easily, instead of issuing this very tough statement, he could have said this is another leak, a dangerous leak.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. Yes.

BLITZER: It's very bad for the country to have these kinds of leaks. We're going to go after the leakers. Whoever leaked this information, we're going to -- they're going to go to jail, whatever. He could have said that. Instead, he uttered very different words.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right. And it seems to me, the rule usually is when there is communication confusion, it reflects substantive confusion. It reflects that the administration has not figured out how to deal with North Korea.

Now, they have a lot of company in that, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration. The Obama administration didn't have an effective strategy, but it certainly doesn't seem like the Trump administration has one either. And I think that's why you see different administration officials saying different things.

BLITZER: Yes.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I mean, can I just offer? I think of all the national security issues that they've dealt with, I do think they should get some credit here for having the most measured, deliberate approach to North Korea.

Now, it has been -- communications-wise, it has been a little spotty. And what he did yesterday only undermined the very thoughtful approach that Haley and Tillerson and Mattis and McMaster are actually trying to apply to this. He's not making their jobs any easier.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around. Don't go too far away. The breaking news continues here on THE SITUATION ROOM.

We have new details of President Trump's tough talk toward North Korea. Could it backfire on the U.S.? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:03] BLITZER: More now on the breaking news, sources telling CNN that President Trump was improvising when he threatened North Korea with fire and fury in a remarkable warning to the Kim Jong-un regime.

Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. He's been working the story for us.

Extraordinary language, Brian, from the President of the United States.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. In recent memory, no American president has spoken that way about North Korea. And tonight, veteran observers of the regime in Pyongyang are warning of what this escalating war of words could lead to.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): President Trump's message to Kim Jong-U.N. -- have no doubt about American firepower if you continue to threaten the U.S.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.

TODD (voice-over): Possibly playing the good cop, the President's top diplomat stressed nothing has changed militarily in the region.

REX TILLERSON, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: I think the President -- what the President was doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand.

TODD (voice-over): Kim's regime has often used apocalyptic rhetoric. Its state-run media recently saying if the U.S. teases North Korea with sanctions and military might, America will be, quote, catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire. But the concern tonight is that the President and some members of his administration are venturing on to dangerous terrain by provoking the young tyrant.

ROBERT MANNING, RESIDENT SENIOR FELLOW WITH BRENT SCOWCROFT CENTER ON INTERNATIONAL SECURITY, THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL: Part of this escalating rhetoric game, which I think is really not very helpful and is just ratcheting up tensions. And my fear, this is how nations blunder into wars.

TODD (voice-over): Trump's Defense Secretary seemed to push Kim even more today, saying North Korea should stop considering actions, quote, that would lead to the end of its regime.

Analysts say that's what might provoke Kim more than almost anything else, the threat of being tossed out of power or assassinated. They say we should never lose sight of what this man can do, even to those close to him when threatened like that.

BRUCE KLINGNER, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW FOR NORTHEAST ASIA, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: He even had his uncle, his mentor, executed by anti-aircraft artillery. He was seen as the second-most powerful man in North Korea, and he was a relative and Kim Jong-un took him out.

TODD (voice-over): Experts say Kim, like his father, is known to use bluster in a calculating way, to stir the pot then sit back and gauge the response. But even if they're speaking in terms Kim would, quote, understand, some believe President Trump and his Defense Secretary will get the opposite of what they're looking for from Kim's regime.

KLINGER: They say they need nuclear weapons to deter against this, you know, war hungry United States. So these kind of comments or even other comments vowing to attack North Korea if they cross a technological threshold will only affirm that, to North Korea's mind, why they need to have nuclear weapons.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But there are those who say the rhetoric from previous American presidents hasn't worked, and tougher talk is needed right now. One analyst who has supported President Trump in the past says this is a more dangerous moment than Trump's predecessors faced with North Korea, and the President's language sends a necessary message to Kim Jong-un that America can act with force if pushed. Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, the administration is also now trying to get the word out that there's no daylight between what Secretary State Rex Tillerson said, what the President said, on the rhetoric they're both using -- they're both using with North Korea. That's what they're suggesting.

TODD: They are suggesting that, Wolf, tonight. The State Department's spokeswoman a short time ago said Secretary Tillerson and President Trump spoke within the past 24 hours, that they're in agreement on the pressure campaign against North Korea. They speak with one voice, according to her.

But Tillerson also did say today that you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out diplomatically. He said it's hard to say if the U.S. has Kim Jong-un in a corner right now.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.

[17:54:55] The breaking news next, a dire new warning from the Trump administration to North Korea of death and destruction. We are following new threats from both sides tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Aggressive warning. After the President threatens to unleash fire and fury on North Korea, his Defense Secretary is issuing a dramatic ultimatum of his own. We are following the scramble to respond to the Commander-in-Chief's provocative and improvised warning.

[18:00:01] Tweeting about nukes. The President follows up on his bellicose riff by boasting about America's nuclear power and claiming credit for it.