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Interview With Maryland Senator Ben Cardin; President Trump Eliminates Health Care Subsidies for Low-Income Americans; President Trump Looks to Change Iran Nuclear Deal; Priebus Testifies Before Special Counsel; Trump Ending Key Obamacare Subsidies; Amid Travel Probe, Interior Secretary Faces Flag Flap. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired October 13, 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 HOST: Happening now, breaking news: In or out? President Trump takes a tough new stance against Iran, threatening to unilaterally pull out of the nuclear deal reached during the Obama administration. But he stopped short, instead punts to Congress. Can lawmakers meet the president's demand to strengthen the agreement?
Scuttling Obamacare. President Trump acts on a campaign promise and strikes a body blow to the Affordable Care Act, ending critical subsidies that help cover low-income Americans. Will millions of people now face steep premiere hikes? Will congressional Republicans move to undo the president's action?
Aiming at police. Las Vegas officials now reveal that at one point during the shooting, the gunman turned his fire away from concert- goers and targeted law enforcement vehicles arriving at the scene. And police are now clarifying the timeline of the attack. Why were there discrepancies with the hotel?
And red flag? The raising of a personal flag over the Interior Department is raising new questions about Secretary Ryan Zinke, already under investigation for his use of private planes. Why has he revived an arcane military ritual?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news. Controversial moves by President Trump to dismantle two of President Obama's signature achievements, including the Iran nuclear deal.
He's threatening to pull out of the agreement unless Congress strengthens it. Mr. Trump calls the deal one of the worst in U.S. history.
The president is also cutting funding for a critical subsidy that helps insure millions of low-income Americans through Obamacare. He calls the subsidies -- and I'm quoting now -- "a payoff to insurance companies." The president's move could lead to higher premieres for middle-income earners.
And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is facing questions tonight over a little known military ritual he's revived. He's ordered a special flag flown over the Interior Department when he's there and lowered when he's not. Zinke is currently under investigation over his use of private planes for official travel.
We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin, and former Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
But let's begin with the major announcements by President Trump on the Iran nuclear deal and the Obamacare subsidies.
Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, has the very latest.
Jim, these are both issues the president campaigned on.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Trump spent the day chipping away at Barack Obama's legacy by going after two of the former president's signature achievements, Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal.
The president defended those decisions, as well as his handling of Puerto Rico, claiming that he, in fact, loves the people on the island.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Today, President Trump turned his campaign rhetoric into action, threatening to unravel the Obama era Iran nuclear deal, but only after he kicks the issue to Congress, giving lawmakers a chance to toughen the agreement. If Congress fails to act, he warns, he may scrap the deal.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I may do that. I may do that. The deal is terrible. So what we have done is, through the certification process, we will have Congress take a look at it. And I may very well do that.
ACOSTA: The president arrived at his policy after senior leaders in his own Cabinet pleaded with him to stay in the agreement for now. But the president was still in a defiant mood, insisting that Iran had violated the agreement.
TRUMP: The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement.
ACOSTA: Just one day after his own secretary of state told reporters -- quote -- "We don't disagree. We don't dispute that Iran is under technical compliance."
Still, the president's move stops well short of his campaign threats to completely pull out of the agreement.
TRUMP: Our leaders never read "The Art of the Deal," one of the great books, of course. The Iran deal, this recent deal, which is a catastrophe.
ACOSTA: The president is taking dramatic action to undermine another piece of Barack Obama's legacy, Obamacare, ending the payments to insurance companies that help provide health care to lower-income enrollees.
TRUMP: And one by one, it's going to come down.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump said his actions won't harm the poor.
(on camera): Aren't you concerned about poor people losing health care?
TRUMP: No, because I think what we will do is we will be able to renegotiate so that everybody gets it. We just took care of a big chunk, and now we will take care of the other chunk. What would be nice, if the Democratic leaders could come over to the White House. We will negotiate some deal that's good for everybody.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Experts say the president's move will hike rates for both middle-class and lower-income Americans at an estimated cost to the government of more than $7 billion next year. The president is acting to dismantle Obamacare, even though he said he would let it collapse on its own earlier this year.
TRUMP: Let Obamacare fail. It will be a lot easier. And I think we're probably in that position, where we will just let Obamacare fail.
ACOSTA: Holding an impromptu mini-news conference on the South Lawn of the White House, the president also defended his actions in Puerto Rico, including his tweets slamming local leaders on the island, as well as his warning that assistance won't last forever.
(on camera): Why do you keep going after Puerto Rico and saying you won't stay there forever?
TRUMP: We have done a great job.
QUESTION: You didn't say that about Texas or Louisiana. You say it about Puerto Rico. Why?
TRUMP: We have done a great job in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has to get the infrastructure going. We're helping them with their infrastructure.
ACOSTA: Now, as for the Iran deal, there are mixed messages coming from the administration. While the president said today he may end up canceling the agreement altogether, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that the U.S. would remain in the deal if Congress does nothing.
And it's unclear Republican lawmakers will be able to find the votes on Iran when they have failed to act on so many other fronts. So, Wolf, while the president has kicked the can down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress, it's unclear what happens if they kick it back -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Jim Acosta, over at the White House.
Reaction from the Iranian government has been quick and sharp.
Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is joining us from the Iranian capital of Tehran right now.
Fred, what are you hearing over there? What's the reaction?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the reaction has been extremely forceful, Wolf, and also extremely fast.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran came out really only a couple of minutes after President Trump finished his speech with a speech of his own and absolutely blasted the U.S. president, saying that the U.S. can't unilaterally pull out of that deal, accusing him of lies and deceit in President Trump's speech.
Also saying at some point that President Trump's remarks show that the U.S. was -- quote -- "against the Iranian people."
Now, there were two things that really stood out. On the one hand, he said that the Iranians would not pull out of the deal unless the U.S. was not in compliance, in other words, if the U.S. does levy new sanctions against Iran.
But the most important thing, I thought, was that he said that he stood by the Revolutionary Guard. President Hassan Rouhani, who's a moderate, defended the Revolutionary Guard. Only a couple months ago, he was criticizing them when he himself was running for president here.
It certainly seems as though the power structure, sides that have been at odds with one other, really seem to be pulling together in the face of what President Trump said today.
And just a quickly word. One of the other things that we did, Wolf, is we actually walked around Tehran and spoke to some ordinary folks, both moderate-thinking people and some hard-liners. And the moderates were really disappointed, they said. They said, look, they thought that this nuclear agreement could mean economic benefit, that there could be better relations with the U.S.
Certainly, many of them don't really think that that's going to be possible anytime soon. The hard-liners, for their part, seem to be gloating, saying, look, we told you all the time there's no way Iran can trust America -- Wolf. BLITZER: And simultaneously the Treasury Department here in
Washington announced new sanctions against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, thank you very, very much.
Let's get some more on the president's decision to end critical Obamacare subsidies that help insure low-income Americans.
Democratic leaders say it's another effort by the president to sabotage Obamacare.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Make no mistake. Last night, the president single-handedly decided to America's health premiums for no reason except spite and cruelty.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly is up on Capitol Hill.
Phil, strong words from Nancy Pelosi. Despite the Republicans' total opposition, contempt for Obamacare, it's still possible, I take it, that they may take some action to undo what the president actually announced today.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's certainly on the table.
And, look, while the president made this decision and angered and outraged Democrats, who are unified in saying there needs to be a legislative solution fast, he perhaps intentionally or unintentionally also created a rift inside the Republican Party.
Wolf, there's no question. When it comes to conservatives, they say get rid of the payments. Allow Obamacare to collapse. Do whatever you can to try and get rid of this law. That is being maintained right now.
But on the moderate side of things, they don't feel the same exact way, Wolf. They believe that these payments should continue until a repeal and replace effort can be kicked back into gear next year.
In fact, if you look at the Senate Health Committee chairman, the top health care policy official in the chamber, Lamar Alexander, he's actually had ongoing negotiations with Democrats to try and address this issue on a short-term basis.
So there's a dispute inside the Republican Party. Democrats are firm that something has to be done. There are a series of legislative deadlines for things like spending bills, keeping the government open over the course of the next couple of months. This is an issue that will have to be at least entertained by Republican leadership.
At this point, Wolf, they aren't tipping their hand on the next step, but I have talked to several aides who made clear this absolutely complicates the calculus going forward. And they don't necessarily know how this is going to end.
BLITZER: So, was this move by the president today, Phil, done in concert with Republicans up on Capitol Hill? Did they know this was coming?
MATTINGLY: Somewhat unexpectedly, Wolf, they had no idea.
Several sources tell me that they were not informed ahead of time. Some of the leaders learned about this via news reports. And you think about the legislative agenda. You think about this being put on their plate.
The fact that they weren't given a heads-up certainly doesn't make everybody happy up here. Look, you have to I think kind of view this, at least as I have been talking to aides and advisers throughout the course of this day about this came to be, through the lens of the president himself.
Over the course of the last couple months, I'm told in several meetings he has looked at these payments to insurers as a bargaining chip. It's the reason why they have only been paid out on a month-to- month basis. There hasn't been certainty for insurers about how long they would paid.
And it's the reason why he chose to pull the plug. With repeal and replace, at least for the time being, not an option, he feels, according to advisers and sources, that this is the way to bring Democrats to the table.
But, Wolf, I'll tell you, having listened to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and as you have listened to Democratic Leader in the House Nancy Pelosi, they make very clear they don't believe the president has the leverage here. They believe they do. It's their votes they will need to pass some of these legislative initiatives at the end of the year.
And that means they think they can get the payments. The big question is, can Republicans, Wolf?
BLITZER: Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thanks very, very much.
Let's get some more on all of this, all the developments today. The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, is joining us.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
And let's talk about the Iran nuclear deal first.
Back in 2015, you voted against the Iran deal, one of the few Democrats to do so. You wrote that the deal legitimizes Iran's nuclear program. So, why do you call President Trump's announcement today to no longer
certify the deal one of the most dangerous decisions the president has made?
SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Well, Wolf, first it's good to be with you.
I think you have got to separate two things. I opposed the agreement when it was presented because I thought we could have done a lot better dealing with Iran's non-nuclear issues and dealing with what happens after the time periods to make sure Iran does not become a nuclear weapons state.
But it's clearly in our national security interest for the United States to comply with the nuclear agreement as long as Iran's complying with it. If not, we would be isolated internationally. Iran could get relief from the international community, and they would be able to continue a nuclear weapons program.
That makes no sense at all. Secondly, when we're dealing with the non-nuclear violations, the support of terrorism, what they do to their own people on human rights violations, the ballistic missile tests, we need the international community working with us, so that we can get unified sanctions to get Iran to change their behavior.
Now that the United States is on a path to be out of compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement, it gives us less leverage. That's why the president's national security team, and to a person, agrees that it's important for us to remain in the agreement, but seek tough enforcement.
BLITZER: Well, specifically, Senator, what kind of reaction do you expect from the other signatories to the agreement, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European allies, including Germany?
CARDIN: Well, we have seen some of the reaction already. I saw the tweet from the French ambassador.
They're clearly concerned. They're concerned by the president's language that gives the impression that the United States may walk away and be the one that violates the agreement. They recognize this agreement as one in which it is in their national security interests as well, but they need the United States in the agreement.
If the United States were to pull out, no one knows exactly what Iran would do. So I think there's great concern in Europe about the U.S. intentions. It makes no sense to throw this to Congress. This is a presidential responsibility to deal with these issues. Congress can't rewrite the nuclear agreement.
You have to talk to the negotiating partners and see how you can deal with some of the gaps that are in the agreement. I'm all for trying to figure out how we can ensure that Iran never becomes a nuclear weapons state. I'm all for trying to strengthen enforcement under the agreement. But that's what you need to talk to the Europeans about. You can't do it with congressional action.
BLITZER: Well, Congress could impose new sanctions, targeted new sanctions. You originally voted the against the deal in 2015 because you thought it was not a good deal, it could have been a better deal, better negotiated deal. But Congress could take legislative steps right now to improve the deal, right?
CARDIN: Congress has already taken steps this year to authorize new sanctions against Iran for its non-nuclear activities, for its support of terrorism, for its human rights violations, for its ballistic missile violations.
What Congress won't do, we're not going to pass legislation that puts us on a path to violate the nuclear agreement. We, the United States, should not be the violators. We should insist on strict compliance and deal with the other issues with our European partners.
And Congress has already passed legislation to do that.
BLITZER: Senator, we have some breaking news that's coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM on the probe into the Russian election meddling investigation here in Washington.
I want to bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's got details.
What are you learning, Jim?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're learning just now that special counsel Robert Mueller today interviewed the former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus as part of the Russia investigation, confirmed just a short time ago by Reince Priebus' lawyer.
We have this statement from him, William Burck, saying -- quote -- "Mr. Priebus was voluntarily interviewed by special counsel Mueller's team today. He was happy to answer all of their questions" -- end quote there.
CNN reported late last month that Mueller was getting ready to interview senior staff close to the president. The first interview took place last week, that of the chief of staff of the National Security Council, Keith Kellogg, but this the most senior member of Trump's team -- I should say former member of Trump's team -- to be interviewed so far.
It is CNN's reporting that other people on the list that Mueller is interested in speaking with include Sean Spicer, the former press secretary, Hope Hicks, the current communications of the White House, as well as Don McCahn. He is -- Don McGahn, rather. He is the White House counsel.
But, tonight confirming that, today, counsel Mueller's team interviewed Reince Priebus, the president's former chief of staff, as they continue their investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
BLITZER: Very, very significant news. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that.
Senator Cardin, I want to get your reaction. What does it say to you that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is calling in these former Trump White House officials, including Reince Priebus today for a lengthy interview? What does that say to you?
CARDIN: Well, we know Mr. Mueller is going to be very thorough. We know that there are many questions about contacts between Russian officials and those in the Trump campaign, and that there's going to be a lot of information as to whether there was any cooperation here.
We know Russia interfered in our elections. We now know that they had a comprehensive plan that involved social media. The question is, how much was -- were the Trump people involved in this?
And I think that interview is certainly going to be a very interesting part of that investigation.
BLITZER: Going to be a lot of analysis on that as well.
Senator Ben Cardin, thanks very much for joining us.
CARDIN: Good to be with you, Wolf. Thanks.
BLITZER: We're going to have more on the breaking news. Stay with us. We will be right back.
BLITZER: More now on the breaking news.
The special counsel team led by Robert Mueller has interviewed the former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, today as part of his probe into Russian election meddling and possible obstruction of justice.
Let's get some more on this and other critically important issues.
The former Defense Secretary, former CIA Director Leon Panetta is joining us.
Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us.
And I want to get your reaction to the breaking news that Reince Priebus, the former Trump White House chief of staff, was interviewed by the special counsel today. You're a former White House chief of staff. What does that say to you about the fact that he was called for this interview by the special counsel?
LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, it doesn't surprise me. Obviously, the chief of staff is in the White House close to the
president, close to other advisers that are involved with the president. He was also involved in the campaign, so he's familiar with those that were part of the campaign. So it doesn't surprise me that Bob Mueller, who is conducting a very thorough investigation, would want to interview Priebus and also probably interview others that are not only working in the White House, but those who have worked in the campaign.
BLITZER: Is it more likely -- and, obviously, we're just speculating -- that the questioning focused more on the Russian meddling in the presidential election or on the possibility of obstruction of justice in the firing of the FBI director, James Comey?
PANETTA: Well, there's no question that the chief of staff was present during the Comey firing, so he will probably want to get his impressions on that.
But I also think he will want to get his views with regards to any relationships that could have involved campaign ties with the Russians.
So there's an awful lot to hear, to try to get information on, and I'm sure that Bob Mueller will do everything in his power to get that information.
BLITZER: Yes. And you also heard Jim Sciutto report that he's calling other current and former Trump White House officials for questioning as well, which raises the question, Mr. Secretary, are there concerns about presidential privilege?
What type of information would Reince Priebus, for example, be able to share? What kind of information, presumably, as a former White House chief of staff, would he not be able to share?
PANETTA: Well, that's a good question.
I think a lot will depend, obviously, on his advice from counsel. But, normally, if it involves direct conversations with the president, it's privileged. But if it involves relationships within the White House, discussions with others in the White House, that's probably something that Priebus can testify to.
BLITZER: Let's talk about the president's statement today on the Iran nuclear deal.
From your perspective -- and you're a former defense secretary, former CIA director -- what are the repercussions of the president's decision to not certify that the Iranians are complying with the nuclear deal?
PANETTA: Well, I worry very much, Wolf, that it's going to damage the United States' position in the world. It's going to weaken our world leadership at a very dangerous time. It raises questions about whether we will stick to our word, whether
we're credible, and it really raises questions about our going it alone in the world and not working with our allies and working with others to try to make sure that we try to get Iran to address these other concerns.
I just think it creates a very dangerous example of a president who is anxious to blow up agreements, but doesn't quite have a strategy as to where we're going once he does that.
BLITZER: I want you to listen to what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense all had to say in recent days about Iran's compliance with the deal.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Iran is not in material breach of the agreement and I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of the nuclear capability by Iran.
REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: My view on the nuclear deal is they are in technical compliance of the nuclear arrangement.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe it is in our national security interest at the present time to remain in the JCPOA? That's a yes-or- no question.
JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Yes, Senator, I do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That's James Mattis, the secretary of defense.
What does it say to you, Mr. Secretary, that the president today contradicted his own top national security advisers?
PANETTA: I worry about that a great deal, because I think the president, particularly when it comes to foreign policy issues, has to rely on the advice of his national security team.
And in this case, every member of that national security team recommended against his step that he took today in decertifying the agreement.
You know, Wolf, I think, just standing back for a moment, presidents are going to be judged on the bridges they build, not the bridges they tear down. This president has been very good at tearing down bridges on trade, on health care, on immigration, on climate change, and now on this nuclear agreement.
He has not been very good about building bridges, and so what we're creating is more uncertainty about, where do we go from here? And to throw it to the Congress, a group of 535 members who frankly have a difficult time working with legislation that they ought to be dealing with, now are going to somehow come up with an approach on dealing with Iran, that just creates even greater uncertainty as to where we're going in the future.
BLITZER: As you know, some in your party, the Democratic Party, have voiced serious concerns that by walking away from this Iran nuclear deal, the president is destroying the precedent of honoring agreements that were negotiated and approved by previous presidential administrations.
Do you believe this potentially harms America's credibility?
PANETTA: Oh, I don't think there's any question, but that, when you -- when America breaks its word, that it undermines our credibility.
And, very frankly, the danger here is that it empowers our adversaries, because Iran will argue that they have always said that you cannot trust the United States, you can't negotiate with the United States, the United States is only interested in military solutions.
And the president's action provides some confirmation for those views. It does the same thing on North Korea. The North Korean leader has said: This president's word cannot be trusted. We can't negotiate with him because he will break his word, even if he negotiates some kind of approach, and his sole interest is in a military solution.
It gives some credibility to what the North Korean leader is saying. And, by empowering our adversaries, very frankly, it makes the world a lot more dangerous.
BLITZER: Leon Panetta, thanks very much for joining us.
PANETTA: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll have more on the breaking news this hour. The former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, interviewed by the special counsel, Robert Mueller's team in the Russia probe.
And will congressional Democrats heed President Trump's call to come and negotiate about health care now that the president has stopped payments to offset insurance companies' costs of providing policies to low-income Americans?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: The Democrats should come to me. I would even go to them because I'm only interested in one thing, getting great health care for this country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[18:35:30] BLITZER: The breaking news, the former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, says he voluntarily submitted to an interview today with the team led by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Mueller is digging into Russian election meddling and possible obstruction of justice by President Trump.
Let's get some more on all of this with our experts. And Julie Hirschfield Davis is with us, our political analyst, White House reporter for "The New York Times." What do you think Mueller would be most interested in questioning Reince Priebus about?
HIRSCHFIELD DAVIS: Well, Reince Priebus was there for, obviously, some very key moments in the White House, including President Trump's decision to dismiss James Comey, the FBI director. He was there during the transition. He was there for all the back and forth about the national -- the first national security adviser, General Flynn.
And so there's definitely a lot that he was present for in terms of key meetings, key memos that might have been written, and key conversations that the president had with his senior staff about decisions he was making and why he was making them, which again gets to the issue of obstruction of justice, which we know is part of what the special counsel is looking into right now.
BLITZER: It sounds to me, Jeffrey Toobin, like a significant moment in this investigation that Mueller is now calling some former White House chief of staff for questioning, whether it's involving obstruction or Russian meddling or collusion or anything along those lines. It signals to me it's a new phase in this investigation.
TOOBIN: That's certainly true. I mean, when you are doing an investigation of a large organization like the White House, you don't start with the people at the top. You work your way up. You assemble all the documents, all the e-mails, all the memos if there are any, and then you -- you interview the top people.
And you know, when you're talking about the White House chief of staff, only the vice president, the attorney general perhaps, and the president are higher ranking.
So the fact that Mueller's investigation feels like they are at a stage where it's appropriate to interview Reince Priebus suggests that they feel like they are -- they are making progress. It doesn't mean they are making progress towards making a case. It means that they feel like they are getting towards making decisions, and that's obviously a very important thing.
BLITZER: So Ron Brownstein, the timing of this coming today, what does that signal to you, and is it more likely they were -- that Mueller and his team were more interested in talking about obstruction of justice or Russian meddling in the election?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I'm glad you added that last part, because it seems to me that is the real significance here. Obviously, Reince Priebus was the chair of the Republican National Committee during the campaign and could be someone who would be of interest on questions about whether there was any collusion and particularly on data targeting and social media and that sort of thing.
But I think -- clearly, I think the headline out of this that people will take is that this really underscores the idea that the special -- the special counsel is looking very seriously at the question of obstruction of justice in the White House now.
As Jeffrey says, it doesn't mean he is necessarily moving toward a case, but it certainly -- you would not need to talk to the White House chief of staff unless you were interested in actions that were taking place after the administration, I think, took power. And those center on those questions of obstruction of justice.
BLITZER: And you heard, Jeffrey, you heard Jim Sciutto report earlier that the special counsel also wants to interview other current and former White House officials: Sean Spicer, former press secretary; Hope Hicks, the current communications director. What does that say to you?
TOOBIN: Well, it shows that obstruction of justice is really the heart of -- or certainly one of the hearts of what he is looking at, because it's not just the firing of James Comey. It is -- it is the various explanations that were put forward for why Comey was fired and also the -- Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting and the issue of how that was explained and whether intentionally false statements were put out by the White House.
That's why you need people like Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer, who were involved, apparently, in crafting that explanation, and ultimately, who made the decision to put out a false story if, in fact, a false story was put out?
BLITZER: You know, Julie, it's interesting. You cover the White House. I assume when White House officials hear this, that somebody like Reince Priebus, for example, was called to testify to answer questions or at least be interviewed by the special counsel and his legal team, that gets folks, I assume, nervous over there.
[18:40:00] HIRSCHFIELD DAVIS: I think so. I think folks were nervous to begin with. I mean, it's been clear for some time that many people at the White House are going to be at least looked at in this investigation. Whether they're interviewed or not is another question.
But for several months now, it's been the case that everyone's sort of been on pins and needles to figure out, well, "Are they going to want to talk to me, and what are they going to want to talk to me about? And is that going to entail public testimony? Is that going to mean that I need to get a lawyer?"
And now Reince Priebus does not work at the White House anymore. There are people who are still there, who are, you know, still dealing with the president every day, and they are, I think, increasingly nervous that they may become a focus of this and I think probably hoping that whatever Reince Priebus has to say keeps them out of it.
BLITZER: And you know, Ron, as those -- we've covered several times when White House officials, current and former, are being interviewed by a federal prosecutor. They have to hire attorneys. It's not cheap. It's a big deal, and you never know what it's going to lead to.
BROWNSTEIN: It's very disruptive. And we have seen these, particularly in the '90s under Bill Clinton when there were multiple special counsel investigations at various points going on, yes, it's a big weight over -- over the White House. I mean, you know, and especially one that has been struggling to establish any kind of sense of normalcy from the beginning. Certainly, more of that seems to be -- more of that process seems to be in place under Chief of Staff Kelly, but you know, this has been a White House that from the beginning has had a higher level of chaos, even before you introduce this added dimension, this accelerant of a special counsel investigation.
BLITZER: All right, every -- go ahead, Jeffrey.
TOOBIN: Can I just add, well, I mean -- an interview with an FBI agent is not under oath. But making a false statement to an FBI agent is a felony, and it is one that the FBI and the Justice Department frequently prosecute. So this is very serious business.
On the other side, it's very important to point out that simply because you are interviewed by the FBI doesn't suggest that your behavior is under scrutiny, that you did anything wrong, even that you need a lawyer. So, you know, I don't want to -- just because someone is being interviewed suggests that there's something -- they did something untoward. But it is serious business when an FBI agent interviews you, and you better tell the truth.
BLITZER: You certainly better tell -- even if it's not under oath, if you lie to the FBI, that's perjury, potentially. You wind up in jail. And you should have a lawyer before you go into an interview like that. That's just my recommendation.
All right. Everybody stand by. There's a lot more we're covering on the breaking news. We'll be right back.
[18:47:15] BLITZER: Lots of breaking news today. Let's get back to our panel.
You know, Julie, the president tweeted this morning, the Democrats' Obamacare is imploding. Massive subsidy payments to their pet insurance companies has stopped. Dems should call me to fix.
So, there seems to be some confusion. Is that realistic the Democrats are going to call him and say, you know what, Mr. President, let's sit down and fix Obamacare?
JULIE HIRSCHFIELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think ironically, that process had been going on. There were some bipartisan talks going on between Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray on whether they could come together and find some sort of a marginal fix because Congress has failed to do what the president wanted, which is to completely dismantle the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something else. So I think this sort of -- this action that he took last night, sort
of just sets back that effort, and I don't think it's likely at all that Democrats are going to come to the table and want to deal with him. But this is part of the strategy he's been talking about since he took office, which is just let Obamacare explode, implode, fall of its own weight, and then they'll come to me begging for a solution, which again seems very unlikely at this point.
BLITZER: The steps he announced, Ron Brownstein, today, removing some of these premium subsidies that are going to affect a lot of middle class and lower income Americans potentially down the road, potentially could further alienate some of the people who voted for President Trump.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. I mean, Wolf, to kind of augment Julie's point, I mean, there's been kind of an epidemic or upsurge of hostage-taking by the president, policy hostage-taking across a variety of fronts all really around the same strategy, ending these payments today, ending the deferred action program for young undocumented immigrants. Even you could argue threatening to terminate both the NAFTA and the Iran deal are all designed to increase his leverage either with Democrats in Congress or with foreign countries or both.
The problem he's got is particularly on this and DACA is he's taken a hostage that it's really unclear that he can harm politically in the end because as you point out, if they do go forward with the changes in the Affordable Care Act that are both today and the executive order from yesterday on association health plans, the big losers would include older working adults, people 45 to 65, two-thirds of them are white. Most of them vote Republican, and they make up an even bigger share of the electorate in a midterm than they do in the presidential year.
So, I think Democrats are very dubious that Donald Trump can in effect pull the trigger of the gun that he is in effect holding here. And for that matter that he would begin to deport a large number of teenage undocumented immigrants next year. So, that kind of cuts into the leverage he might have.
TOOBIN: And if I could talk about this not in political terms but like in human being terms, this is about someone going to an oncologist, getting bad news, and thinking, I don't have insurance to pay for this.
[18:50:06] How am I going to deal with chemotherapy?
I mean, people who don't have insurance, they die more often than people who do have insurance. So, I mean, this is potentially an enormous human tragedy that could be unfolding about people who are not getting health care. And, you know, I know it's a very important political issue, but health care is not just politics. It's actually life and death.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes. And to that point, real quick, you know, there was polling from Kaiser Family Foundation, 70 percent of Americans want the administration to make the ACA work rather than try to make it fail so that it could be repealed and replaced. And I think that the congressional Republicans have to recognize that they are the ones on the front line if, in fact, you have the chaos in the marketplaces that are possible, large numbers of people losing coverage, that it's possible.
The Congressional Budget Office says premiums will go up 20 percent as a result of the action the president took today. And, you know, he thinks this is going to give him more leverage on Democrats. Nick Mulvaney, the head of OMB, today said they would not take the deal that Lamar Alexander is negotiating with Patty Murray. We'll see whether in fact it has more leverage or whether, in fact, these congressional Republicans were asking for a solution for all the reasons that Jeffrey just outlined.
BLITZER: And it certainly seems -- Ron makes a point, Julie, that the president is trying to do away with so many of the so-called legacy items achieved during the Obama, whether the Iran nuclear deal or the Trans Pacific Partnership, Paris climate accord. You could go on and on.
DAVIS: Absolutely. And this is just one more piece of that. It's a way to do it. Congress wouldn't do it legislatively. So, it's a way to do it using executive power, which Obama used it for a lot of initiatives that he couldn't through Congress as well.
But I do think that this has the potential to have a lasting impact, as Jeff was saying, on people's lives. And so, the idea that Republicans and Democrats would allow this to go forward seems unlikely. So I think we'll have to see how Republicans react to this latest move.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around.
We have more on the breaking news we're following. The former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus interviewed by the special counsel Robert Mueller's team as part of this Russia investigation.
Plus, the interior secretary revives a little known, long discarded ritual that even the president doesn't use, but the queen of England does. We'll have details.
[18:57:08] BLITZER: When the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is in his office, you'll see something overhead that you won't see anywhere else.
CNN's Tom Foreman is here to explain.
So what's going on, Tom?
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he is not only one of the more controversial, but one of the more colorful members of this administration and he's not merely marching to his own drummer, but also flying his own flag.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Even outside the Interior Department, it's easy to know if the secretary is at his desk. Because he has ordered the secretary's flag raised above the building when he is in and taken down when he is out, according to the "Washington Post."
The queen of England's staff follows a similar protocol, but on this side of the pond, not even the president does that.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ryan is an Eagle Scout from Big Sky Country in Montana.
FOREMAN: Still from the get go, Ryan has set himself apart.
RYAN ZINKE, INTERIOR SECRETARY: Those that don't know me, I get my inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt.
FOREMAN: Like the 26th president who served in the military and rode horses through D.C., Zinke is a former Navy SEAL who cowboyed up for his first day on the job, boots, hat and saddle. Like Roosevelt, Zinke is a big fan of hunting and fishing.
But unlike Roosevelt who protected 230 million acres of public land, Zinke almost immediately began issuing orders to roll back restrictions and open more public lands to fans of both sports. He even installed a deer hunting video game at the interior building.
Zinke sponsored a "bring your dog to work" day and while several departments offer commemorative coins and souvenirs, Zinke again took it a step farther, having one with his name. Some of his actions have provoked sharp criticism. Several trips he made involving private jets and government aircraft are being scrutinized by federal watchdogs, including one visit to Las Vegas during which he spoke to an NHL hockey team owned by a political supporter.
His aides say all the trips were justified by scheduling matters. Yet environmentalists have raised alarms over how much, they say, Zinke is meeting privately with oil, gas and mining interests while leaving activists out.
Zinke's assessment of the uproar about the jets -- well, he cited another rough rider from the past.
ZINKE: I'd just like to address in the words of General Schwarzkopf, a little B.S.
FOREMAN: Which is another way of him saying he's done nothing wrong and his spokesman told the post flying that special flag shows Zinke is in the garrison, to use a military language, is a sign of his commitment to transparency -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thank you very much for that very interesting report.
That's it from me. Thanks very much for watching.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.