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THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump & McConnell Show Unity after Bannon Declares 'War'; Trump: Not Considering Firing Mueller. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 16, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


TAPPER: He's a deranged animal."

[17:00:20] I don't know about that last part. But it is very difficult to understand why President Trump currently keeps making claims like this.

That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, closer than ever. At a free-wheeling news conference, President Trump appears side-by-side with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying they've never been closer. But the united front comes just hours after the president said his party isn't getting the job done and after his former chief strategist bragged that conservatives have cut off McConnell's oxygen. Is today's show of unity a new strategy or a momentary illusion?

Shifting blame. Despite the legislative failures by the president and a Republican-controlled Congress, Mr. Trump says he's not blaming himself for a stalled agenda. Instead he's pointing at Democrats, calling them good at obstruction while in the next breath offering to work with them on health care. Will the president get support from his own party or be forced to work across the aisle?

"A great guy." President Trump offers his familiar kiss-of-death compliment, saying he'll look into a blockbuster report about a U.S. congressman he picked to be his point man on drug control policy. The report blamed a law sponsored by Pennsylvania Representative Tom Merino for crippling the government's efforts to end the opioid crisis. Is Merino's nomination as drug czar now in big trouble?

And no diplomacy. In a stark new warning, a top North Korean official tells CNN Kim Jong-un's regime isn't interested in diplomacy with the United States until North Korea develops a missile that can hit the East Coast of the United States. Is it more rhetoric or a new reality?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories. The result of a wide and wild news conference by the president.

Just two days after the president's former chief strategist declared war on the Republican establishment, the president stood shoulder-to- shoulder with the man who embodies the GOP establishment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The president declared that the two men have never been closer and predicted victory for the Republicans' efforts to cut taxes and repeal Obamacare.

This afternoon's news conference also was remarkable for the president's rejection of any blame for this year's many failures to pass major parts of his agenda, saying earlier today that Republicans have not gotten the job done and adding -- and I'm quoting him now -- "I'm not going to blame myself."

On health care and taxes, the president specifically blamed Democrats, calling them terrible on policy but good at being obstructionists.

Also breaking, a top North Korean official tells CNN that Kim Jong- un's regime is committed to developing a long-range missile that could hit the U.S. East Coast. The same official went on to say that until North Korea develops both defensive and offensive capacity with nuclear weapons, it isn't really interested in diplomacy with the United States.

We have a lot to discuss with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, and the hasty hastily arranged news conference in the Rose Garden over at the White House.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, hastily arranged is...

BLITZER: Sara, the president certainty had a lot to say.

MURRAY: That's right, Wolf. Hastily arranged is absolutely right. He showed up with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to talk about the fate of his legislative agenda. Of course, McConnell will be key to any of that agenda getting through the Senate, and as they stood side-by-side, Trump insisted there was no bad blood between them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... a friend of mine, and he said...

MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump maintaining tenuous ties with his own party today, appearing to defend his conservative ally, Steve Bannon's, efforts to unseat Republicans in one moment...

TRUMP: I know how he feels. It depends on who you're talking about. There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves.

MURRAY: And softening his approach just hours later, saying his former chief strategist, who's taking aim at sitting GOP senators, may need to adjust his targets.

TRUMP: Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk them out of that, because, frankly, they're great people.

MURRAY: Trump's sudden about-face when it comes to party loyalty...

TRUMP: Just so you understand, the Republican Party is very, very unified.

MURRAY: Coming after he had lunch with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and appeared alongside him in the Rose Garden.

TRUMP: My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding. Has been outstanding.

[17:05:03] MURRAY: While Trump may be touting a warm relationship, McConnell remains one of Bannon's key foils...

STEVE BANNON, BREITBART MEDIA: We've cut your oxygen off, Mitch, OK?

MURRAY: ... as he declares open season on the GOP.

BANNON: Right now it's a season of war against a GOP establishment.

MURRAY: As for the majority leader, he's standing by the incumbent crowd and warning that Bannon's efforts represent a recipe for failure.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: You have to nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home.

MURRAY: Both Trump and McConnell making clear their uneasy alliance is necessary to notch a major legislative win like tax reform and keep control of the House and Senate.

TRUMP: And we have races coming up, and as you know, and a year from now. I think we're going to probably do very well. I can say this: if we get taxes approved, we're going to do unbelievably well.

MURRAY: This even as the president insists it's Congress that should shoulder the blame for the slow pace of progress so far.

TRUMP: We're not getting the job done. And I'm not going to blame myself, I'll be honest. They are not getting the job done. We've had health care approved, and then you had a surprise vote by John McCain. We've had other things happen, and they're not getting the job done.

MURRAY: While Trump may believe his fate is safe regardless, Republicans in and outside the White House tell CNN they don't believe the president fully grasps his feuds with the GOP and lack of legislative achievements could put his presidency in peril.

If the GOP loses the House in 2018, Republicans fear the rest of Trump's first term could be buried by Democrat-led investigations into Russian involvement in 2016 and ultimately impeachment proceedings. Leaving Republicans to sound the alarm that a fractured Republican Party will ultimately bring everyone down.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Mitch McConnell's not our problem. Our problem is that we promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, and we failed. We promised to cut taxes, and we've yet to do it. If we're successful, Mitch McConnell's fine. If we're not, we're all in trouble. We lose our majority, and I think President Trump will not get re-elected.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, the White House insists that President Trump is keenly aware of the risks his presidency could face if Democrats take control of the House. They say they don't have a defeatist attitude and that the president will be fighting alongside Republicans to keep control of the House in 2018 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Sara, thank you. Sara Murray over at the White House.

Let's go up to Capitol Hill. Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is standing by.

Sunlen, clearly President Trump and the Republicans, they are eager for a big legislative victory, but it's not clear if their plan for tax cuts will actually even happen this year. What are you hearing?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Wolf. The Republican leaders up here on Capitol Hill, they are desperate for a win on tax reform. They will face this week in the Senate their first big test to see whether their chances are good or not.

The Senate has to pass a budget, because importantly, this would pave the way for tax reform to happen. Importantly, with only Republican support.

Now, President Trump in the Rose Garden earlier today saying he believes they're in good shape on the budget, but clearly, the reality of the moment up here on Capitol Hill painting a much different picture. There are still a few Republican senators who are undecided who say they have concerns. They're basically not there yet.

And adding into this mix the heavy lift, if you will, up here, the fact that one Republican senator, Thad Cochran, he's having medical issues. He likely will not be up here this week to cast a vote. That means the margin for error is even smaller for the Republicans on the budget. Not to mention this larger deadline for tax reform looming for Republicans. The leaders want it done this year.

President Trump was asked about it today. He said that's the intention, to get it done this year, but making no promises.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: I would like very much to see it be done this year, so we won't go a step further. If we get it done, that's a great achievement. But don't forget, it took years for the Reagan administration to get taxes done.

I really believe that we have a very good chance -- and I think Mitch feels the same way -- of getting the -- of getting the taxes done. Hopefully fairly long before the end of the year.

MCCONNELL: Let me just add to what the president said. The goal is to get it done this calendar year, but it is important to remember that Obama signed Obamacare in march of year two.

TRUMP: Just to finish up for Mitch, and we're nine months, right? So we could have a long way to go. But that's OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And they certainly do have a long way to go behind -- beyond just this obstacle of the time deadline that's looming over them. It gets back to the fact that Republicans as a party together just are not there yet on the policy. Still big divides over deficits, over the state and local tax deduction, whether that's eliminated or not.

There is a sense, Wolf, that the Republicans need to get this done, they need to deliver on it, but still the true fact remains is, they still don't know how to get there yet.

BLITZER: Yes, big problem for them. Sunlen Serfaty reporting. Thank you.

Joining us now, California Democratic Congressman John Garamendi. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee.

[17:10:02] Congressman, you heard the president today say that Democrats, they have terrible policy, that they're bad politicians, but they are good at one thing: obstruction. Where do you think Democrats potentially can work together with President Trump?

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: I'm going to start in a slightly different place. The reason the repeal and replace didn't go anywhere and the reason that the taxes are not going to go anywhere is that they are terrible public policies.

Repeal and replace, 20 million, 25 million Americans would lose their health care. Americans said, "No, no way."

With regard to taxes, if you're a deficit hawk and you're looking at this proposed tax cut, you're looking at a $2.5 to $5 trillion -- trillion, "T," trillion-dollar increase in the deficit.

And so what are you going to do? You're going to cut Medicaid, which is also in that budget proposal that's before the Senate and did pass the House. A trillion-dollar reduction in Medicaid? No, the American public is going to say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. This is terrible policy." Oh, did I mention that under the proposal, the outline that we've seen

thus far, 80 percent of that $2.5 to $5 trillion reduction in taxes goes to the top 1 percent of American taxpayers?

BLITZER: But there are some areas, Congressman. I assume there are some areas where you would be willing to work with the president and the Republican leadership. For example, lowering the cost of prescription drugs. The same drug, prescription drug in the United States, as you know, winds up costing a lot more than the exact same drug costs, whether in Canada or England or other countries. You would be willing to work with him on that.

GARAMENDI: Excellent point and absolutely true. Democrats have proposed that time after time. We've tried to put that into -- in fact, we offered that as an amendment to the repeal and replace legislation some 60 times that went through the House of Representatives. But they would never -- they, the Republicans -- would never allow that amendment or that bill to have a vote. So, yes, absolutely.

And there are many other things that we can do to assist and to make the Affordable Care Act work. But keep in mind, just this last week, the president did two things to seriously torpedo, sink, otherwise cause to fail the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.

First, he allowed really junk insurance policies to be sold across state lines called various alliance programs. If you'd like to get into a discussion about that, as insurance commissioner for eight years, I went after those characters, because they were a bunch of fraudsters.

Secondly, he took away the CSR, the consumer buy-outs...

BLITZER: The subsidies.

GARAMENDI: ... of the subsidies, absolutely. And that's some 7 million people immediately.

BLITZER: What he says on the subsidies is that these are just bonanza revenue for the big insurance companies that are making a ton of money. By eliminating those subsidies, he's going to keep the insurance going for folks out there, but the insurance companies, the big -- the big insurance companies are not going to have the enormous profits, he says, that they currently have. What do you say about that?

GARAMENDI: Well, first of all, he never bothered to understand what the Affordable Care Act does. Written into the foundation of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, is a requirement that the profit and overhead administrative expenses of the insurance companies cannot exceed a certain percentage. And that percentage is fairly high. It's in the 80 percent range, depending upon the nature of that insurance company.

Secondly, the subsidy buys down the premium. It buys down the premium. That is it subsidizes the purchaser of that premium, and these are people that are 250 percent of the poverty rate in a given area. And most of the people that are going to be harmed here are in those areas that voted for Mr. Trump.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you about a specific proposal that's going to be on the table soon.

GARAMENDI: Sure.

BLITZER: Your colleagues in the Senate -- Lamar Alexander, he's a Republican, Patty Murray, a Democrat -- they're working on some compromise health care legislation, an interim measure. That's what the president calls it. He was signaling today he'd be ready to go along with it. Are you willing to go along with that kind of interim measure to fix some of the problems of the Affordable Care Act?

GARAMENDI: Absolutely. And we've been screaming and shouting that that be done, particularly this subsidy program. That is -- it takes one line to solve that problem. The president says it's illegal. Well, it's before the circuit court, and nothing is illegal until the court actually rules on it.

But we could solve that with one simple sentence. That these subsidies are appropriate, are authorized to be appropriated. That's all you need to do to solve that particular problem.

[17:15:05] Once again, we have offered amendments on the floor of the House and in the Senate to do that. Totally rejected by the Republicans.

Which brings me back to the fundamental point. The problem here is not that the Democrats are not working with the Republicans. It's that, A, the Republicans refuse to even allow any Democratic solution to be included, and secondly, the policies of the Republicans themselves are terrible for the American people. Why anyone would want to go out and purposely, physically harm people, I will never understand.

BLITZER: All right.

GARAMENDI: That's precisely what their proposed legislation does.

BLITZER: Well, let's see if this bipartisan effort Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, if that can get off the ground as sort of an interim compromise on health care. And I suspect you'll be ready to support that.

GARAMENDI: We're all-in.

BLITZER: I think the president will be ready to support that as well. He wants a deal. He wants to show something has been accomplished, at least on an interim basis.

Congressman, there's more we need to discuss, including major national security issues coming to the fore today, including North Korea. We'll take a quick break. We'll discuss that when we come back.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:52] BLITZER: Breaking news. North Korea now says it is not -- repeat, not -- interested in diplomacy with the United States until the North Korean regime develops a weapon capable of reaching the East Coast of the United States.

Only moments ago, the State Department here in Washington says -- said it's up to North Korea to change course and return to what is described as credible negotiations.

We're back with Democratic Representative John Garamendi of California, who's a key member of the Armed Services Committee.

So what do you think, Congressman, about these statements, the statement from the North Koreans, statement from the U.S. Secretary Tillerson; said diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops? Do these statements from both sides reflect any desire to negotiate?

GARAMENDI: This is a huge, tragic situation in which we're spiraling downward very, very rapidly here. The rhetoric is from both sides, both from the United States, from the president principally, even Tillerson's most recent remark, and, of course, from the North Koreans that are always bombastic in their statements. But now this -- this war of words really sets the entire world on edge and certainly for our men and women in the military in Korea and the millions of South Koreans, they are scared and they should be.

It's a very, very taught trip wire in the Korean Peninsula. And there's almost always some sort of an incident between the armed forces of the North and the South and even the United States, and any one of those incidences could set off a tragic and horrible war.

With regard to the negotiations, it's not surprising. After the president of the United States rejects a program, the joint program with five -- six of the major countries of the world in agreement, and in agreement that there was no violation; and the president simply pulls the plug on that, it's not a surprise that North Korea is going, "Well, wait, we're not going to negotiate. We can't trust the United States."

BLITZER: You're talking about the Iran nuclear agreement, which on Friday the president did not certify that the Iranians were complying, but he didn't completely reject it. He sent it to the Congress, the House and the Senate for further review.

But let me get to something else he said today. Very specific. He was asked if his visit to South Korea next month, part of an Asian visit. If he were to visit the Demilitarized Zone while in South Korea, would that provoke North Korea? And he said he'd take a look at it. Do you think it would be wise for the president to visit the DMZ when he goes to South Korea next month?

GARAMENDI: I've said many, many times, this is the time for Teddy Roosevelt's admonition, carry a big stick, speak softly. This is not the time to increase the rhetoric, to increase the pressure, and to do anything that would -- that could cause that trip wire to be -- to be sprung.

And it's quite possible -- I mean, these two armies are looking at each other, really, across just a couple of yards, and with the president there, that's certainly going to create a lot of -- a lot of rhetoric and a lot of anxiety and quite possibly a difficult issue.

We've got to get to negotiations. Clearly, the Chinese are key to this. Russia is a key. Japan, South Korea. Negotiations are still possible, but you've got to cool the rhetoric.

And, frankly, it's not just speak softly, it's tweet softly. Ramp it down. Take it down. And get that -- get back to the negotiation table and don't talk about bombs.

And, yes, certainly South -- North Korea's going to continue to try to improve its bombs and its ballistic -- intercontinental ballistic missiles. The sooner we get to the negotiating table, the sooner we can stop the progress in North Korea, the sooner we are to a situation that could -- difficult, but I believe possible -- could lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is in everybody's interests. Certainly, the United States, South Korea, Japan and China.

BLITZER: All right. Let's not forget, there are 28,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea...

GARAMENDI: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... right now. Plus many members, thousands of their family members are there with them. Two hundred thousand U.S. citizens working and living in and around Seoul, which is only, what, about 20 miles below the DMZ, plus millions and millions, of course, of South Koreans. All right. The stakes are clearly enormous.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

GARAMENDI: Sure, thank you.

BLITZER: John Garamendi of California.

Coming up, we have new information coming in on those alarming new threats from North Korea. Kim Jong-un's regime working on a ballistic missile that could hit America's East Coast.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. Breaking news. President Trump meets with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, trying to smooth over a rocky relationship and get his legislative agenda back on track. But his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is driving a new wedge between the two men, declaring a "season of war" on the Republican establishment and threatening to oust any senator who opposes the president. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[17:30:54] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know how he feels. It depends on who you're talking about. There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves, but most of them, I'll tell you what. I know the Republican senators. Most of them are really, really great people that want to work hard and they want to do a great thing for American public.

But you had a few people that really disappointed us. They really, really disappointed us. So I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels.

Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk them out of that, because, frankly, they're great people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's discuss with our political experts. David Chalian, the president right now seems to be a little bit torn between Mitch McConnell and Steve Bannon. Although it seems clear who he needs more, at least right now.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. We should make clear, the second comment you saw there, Mitch McConnell was just standing out of the frame and next to him when he, all of a sudden, was saying, "Hey, I'm going to talk to Steve and maybe talk him out of some of these Republican primaries he wants to take on the establishment with."

It's -- I would argue it's not totally clear. He needs both. That has been the conundrum of the Trump presidency. He needs Bannon out there fighting and keeping the fire burnings with the Trump base, because that is what is keeping Trump afloat right now.

But you are right: Trump also knows he needs to get something across the finish line and get a bill on his desk from this Congress to sign, specifically tax reform now, and so he needs Mitch McConnell on board, together, to get that done.

So he does need both pieces of the pie, and I think that's what we saw today on display. Both pieces of the pie.

BLITZER: Yes, but the fact that he came out of that lunch, went into the Rose Garden with Mitch McConnell, answered reporters' questions for 45 minutes, pretty extraordinary show of support for Mitch McConnell right there.

CHALIAN: Huge show of support for Mitch McConnell. I'm curious to know if Mitch McConnell sort of asked for that before they went into the Rose Garden at that. After being pummeled by Bannon over the weekend, did he actually say, "Mr. President, standing next to you would be a good idea maybe in the Rose Garden." We'll find out.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, because all this is playing out after the president's candidate in Alabama lost; Steve Bannon's candidate in Alabama won. So how is that impacting the current situation?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think it was overplayed, you know, very much. And Kaitlan, who's from Alabama, went to school in Alabama, was a reporter in Alabama, certainly when she was down there in college, I think Steve Bannon came in very late to that. There were other factors at play. Luther Strange, the incumbent, was going to lose anyway to Roy Moore.

But I do think, as David's saying, that Donald Trump needs to be very careful about how he tiptoes with Steve Bannon. He cannot alienate Steve Bannon, but at the same time he can't alienate Mitch McConnell. He's really walking this very fine line.

And this really, Wolf, this isn't about a -- about control. This isn't a fight over control for the Senate, control for more votes, control to try to get legislation passed. This fight right now that Steve Bannon is really enacting and pushing forward is a fight over the heart and soul of the Republican Party as we move forward. Not in the next year, not in the next two years, in the next ten years.

BLITZER: Kaitlan, what does it tell us that this news conference in the Rose Garden, Mitch McConnell and the president show up, answer reporters' questions? On the White House schedule today there was supposed to be a press briefing with the press secretary in the West Wing of the White House. All of a sudden, they drop that, and the president comes out and shows his support for Mitch McConnell.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it was pretty hastily arranged. But the question is, how long is the support for Mitch McConnell going to last?

You know, it was a lot for them to come out to the Rose Garden, standing side by side, saying they have a great relationship. But how long is it until Mitch McConnell does something the president like -- doesn't like, and then he gets on Twitter and lashes out at him like we've seen him do in the past?

Because today the president maintained today this great relationship that they're closer than ever before. But not only has the president fumed privately about McConnell. He's gone after him on Twitter several times. And just two hours before this press conference, he was saying that he fully understands why Steve Bannon is doing what he's doing, and Steve Bannon has declared war on Mitch McConnell.

But right now, the president is painting overall this rosy picture of his relationship with Capitol Hill, which we know has been strained at best. Even with members of his own party. Look who he's gone after recently: John McCain, Dean Heller, Jeff Flake, Lisa Murkowski, Bob Corker, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham. Like, the list goes on and on and on.

[17:35:15] But I think right now the president and Mitch McConnell realize they need each other and both very desperate for a legislative win. BLITZER: We've got some live pictures, by the way.

David, the president now in South Carolina. He's going to be attending a fundraiser. I think you can see him over there in the middle of that crowd. Just -- just got there. This is not an open event where he's going to be speaking. It's a closed-door event, right?

CHALIAN: It is closed. We're not going to see his remarks, but he's there supporting the candidacy of the governor, Henry McMaster, who became the governor because Donald Trump put Nikki Haley in his cabinet; and was one of the earliest supporters in the Palmetto State for Trump's candidacy in 2016.

BLITZER: Yes, so there you can see the president. You know, the president also as he was standing aside [SIC] Mitch McConnell today, he was very effusive, very praiseworthy. Outstanding relationship today. It's always been an outstanding relationship, he said he had.

But listen to who he gave -- who he blamed for the failure to get significant legislation, health care, through earlier this year. This was at the cabinet meeting he had inside the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Despite what the press writes, I have great relationships with, actually, many senators, but in particular with most Republican senators. But we're not getting the job done. And I'm not going to blame myself, I'll be honest. They are not getting the job done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He said they are not getting the job done.

PRESTON: Can we just -- has he ever blamed himself for anything? Has he ever accepted responsibility for failure? Certainly not in this presidency. Not during the campaign. It's everyone else's fault.

CHALIAN: Not in his business world either.

PRESTON: Well, not in his business world either. If you go back to August when Mitch McConnell said down in Kentucky at a home state gathering, "I don't think that Donald Trump quite understands how this works," meaning things are slow in Washington, it wasn't really a criticism of Trump. It was the reality of the world that Trump now lives in. Trump is now trying to bring his world to Washington, and it just is not connecting.

BLITZER: On the one hand, he said the Democrats are obstructionists, they're to blame. But in the next breath, he says maybe we can work out a deal, an interim deal on health care with the Democrats.

COLLINS: Yes, he often goes back and forth between poking members of his own party in the eye and then meeting with Democrats at the White House and striking these deals with him [SIC]. And with tax reform, the president says he's going to need them. He

thinks that he can get some Democratic people to vote for tax reform. But -- and he's had dinners. He's flown with them to their states for these speeches on tax reform.

But the White House has gone in between coaxing them and threatening them. When he gave a speech in Missouri, he said that if Claire McCaskill didn't vote for tax reform, that her constituents should vote her out of office. So it's not likely, when you're saying things like that, that someone is going to vote for your plan -- your bill, which they don't even have a bill yet, just because you're threatening them.

CHALIAN: At least he treats the Democrats and the Republicans the same, coaxing them and trashing them.

COLLINS: That is true.

PRESTON: Because he's not ideological.

BLITZER: A similar strategy. Stand by. There's a lot more going on. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:39] BLITZER: Let's get back to our panel.

David Chalian, the president today said he's not going to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who's investigating Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, but he repeated what he has often said: the whole investigation, it's simply an excuse for the Democrats to try to explain what happened in the November election.

CHALIAN: I would just point him on that part to the comments of Richard Burr, the Republican senator who is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who just a week or so ago held a press conference with an update on the status of their investigation. Nothing what Richard Burr, the Republican senator, said indicated that he was doing this simply because he thought the Democrats needed a feel-good moment after losing the election.

So I just think the facts of the investigation, of Bob Mueller, longtime nonpartisan kind of justice man, is doing this thorough investigation belies that notion.

But I do think hearing the president say unequivocally, "No, not at all, I am not considering firing Mueller." That's different than we've heard. We've heard him talk about warning Bob Mueller on red lines about his finances. We've heard him raise the prospect of sort of "We'll see" if he does. This was just a flat-out -- and that to me, that flat-out rejection of the notion of firing Mueller, shows that Trump is evolving a bit in understanding how problematic it would be if he did fire him.

BLITZER: And he flatly said, in response to that question, that there was absolutely no collusion between his campaign and the Russians; and they ought to get to the end of it very quickly. He wants this over with.

PRESTON: This actually might have been one of the cleanest responses I've heard from President Trump regarding this issue, certainly in the past three or four months. "I'm not going to fire him. There was no collusion. I'd like for it to be over. Just three separate points that are very simple.

And if he's smart, he would continue to say those two. To go on and then to start attacking people individually, whether they're members of Congress, whether it's Mueller or members of his team, or trying to pass blame onto the Democrats only just creates more noise and confusion around the whole investigation.

BLITZER: But this is not going away, Kaitlan, any time soon. You've got all these committees in the House and the Senate. And you've got Mueller, and he's assembled a world-class team of investigators and lawyers and prosecutors. They're going through an enormous amount of information. The fact that they spent hours questioning the former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, on Friday says a lot.

COLLINS: Yes, it does. And we've really seen the scope of this investigation kind of expand as this has go on -- gone on throughout these months of this presidency. And Reince Priebus was just having lunch with the president at the White House the other day. One of the first few times that they've met in person since he was pushed out. So it's not likely this is going to end any time soon.

But we've seen the White House maintain this kind of messaging on this front. Anytime they're asked with anything in regards to this, they say it's a hoax and that it's something that the Democrats came up with. So it's not likely that that message from the White House is going to go away any time soon either.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And they're not just investigating collusion. Their investigation, potentially obstruction of justice.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Without a doubt, which, maybe, end up being the more serious charge that gets proven out here, if you follow the entire episode with Donald Trump, Jr.'s e-mail. That is the heart of the potential obstruction of justice case.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There is a lot more we're watching, including Kim Jong-un now drawing a red line.

A North Korean official says the regime won't even consider diplomacy until it develops an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching not just the West Coast but the East Coast of the United States.

And despite his failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare, President Trump now claims the law is gone for good.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obamacare is finished. It's dead. It's gone. It's no longer -- don't -- you shouldn't even mention it. It's gone. There is it no such thing as ObamaCare anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:01] BLITZER: A top North Korean official now says Kim Jong-un is ruling out any diplomacy with the United States while his regime works on its nuclear and missile programs. Brian Todd is working this story for us.

Brian, tell us what you're learning.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this North Korean official states his country will likely not come to the negotiating table until it has a long-range missile capable of hitting the East Coast of the U.S. And he said his country could test one of those missiles or conduct an above ground nuclear bomb test soon.

The North Koreans, tonight, showing a lot of swagger, confident that their nuclear and missile programs give them leverage over the U.S.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Kim Jong-un, tonight, is playing diplomatic hardball with America. An official from his regime telling CNN, North Korea's not interested in diplomacy until it tests a nuclear bomb above ground and has a ballistic missile capable of reaching the East Coast of the U.S. A capability the Kim regime has been working furiously to perfect, including a recent test firing.

PATRICK CRONIN, SENIOR ADVISOR AND SENIOR DIRECTOR OF THE ASIA-PACIFIC SECURITY PROGRAM, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: It is a high- risk option for North Korea to pursue. We don't know yet what the dynamic will unveil. But this pressure could tip toward diplomacy and a diplomatic opening, or it could tip toward some escalatory action/reaction cycle.

TODD (voice-over): Neither North Korean officials nor U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are ruling diplomacy out. But in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Tillerson also seemed to warn those efforts might fail.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.

TODD (voice-over): Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula are once again ramping up tonight. An American aircraft carrier strike group along with a nuclear powered submarine have launched joint naval exercises with South Korea near the maritime border with North Korea.

American families in the region also dealing with the stress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, this will protect your child from chemical and biological agents to up to 12 hours.

TODD (voice-over): In the coming days, families of American servicemen will be taking part in drills like these on how to evacuate the region if war breaks out.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There is a significant number of military personnel that have their families that are there. They would have to be evacuated. The Embassy personnel would have to be evacuated. This would be a significant mess, and there would be sacrifices that would be made on both sides.

TODD (voice-over): Meantime, America's war plans for North Korea are drawing anger from one of Kim Jong-un's top diplomats. His deputy ambassador to the U.N. calling dangerous a plan by the U.S. and South Korea to decapitate the leadership of North Korea if there's a conflict.

A South Korean official says those war plans were stolen by North Korean hackers who, experts say, keep getting better at security thefts, along with cyber heists from banks and other entities worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

JAMES LEWIS, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The Korean state, its intelligence agencies, are leading cyber criminals going after banks. They put a lot of money into hacking. They have strong teams. And if you compare where they were, say, five years ago, they're much better.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: In fact, some experts believe that's where the conflict between the U.S. and North Korea is hottest right now, in cyberspace. North Korea reportedly tries to hack into U.S. military sites, into corporations and banks, and experts say American cyber warriors have digital tools to try to disable North Korean missiles.

The worry tonight is that these cyber battles could lead to actual kinetic warfare, Wolf.

TODD: Significant worry, indeed. Brian, thank you. Brian Todd reporting.

Coming up, we'll have more on the breaking news out of President Trump's freewheeling news conference in the White House Rose Garden and his claim at a cabinet meeting earlier that it isn't his fault major parts of the Republicans' agenda are stalled.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We're not getting the job done. And I'm not going to blame myself, I'll be honest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[17:54:57] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Side by side. A show of unity by President Trump and the Republican Senate leader he has sharply criticized. The President says he's closer than ever with Mitch McConnell, even as

former Trump strategist Steve Bannon vows to, quote, cut off the Senator's oxygen. So whose side is the President on?

Blame game. The President takes a swipe at the Republican-controlled Congress for failing, so far, to advance his agenda, adding -- and I'm quoting now -- I'm not going to blame myself.

Then he goes after Democrats as well, slamming them as obstructionists.

[17:59:55] Hazardous water. Some Desperate Puerto Ricans are now drinking potentially contaminated water from a toxic site while President Trump insists massive amounts of relief supplies are being sent to the island. Why is he blaming local distribution efforts for continued shortages?