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Trump Says He Supports Short-Term ACA Fix; Awkward Moment when Reporter Asks Greek Prime Minister about Calling Trump 'Evil'. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 17, 2017 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Health care deal. Republican and Democratic senators say they have reached a deal to stabilize Obamacare by bringing back subsidies that reduce the costs of health insurance just a week after President Trump ended those payments. The president just signaled he may go along with it moments after declaring Obamacare dead. Will the president and his party now agree to a plan that keeps it alive?

Picking fights. President Trump goes after Barack Obama again, suggesting once more that the former president didn't call families of fallen soldiers, including former General John Kelly, when his son was killed in action. And after hearing new criticism from John McCain, the president warns the senator, "Be careful, because at some point I fight back." Why is the president spoiling for more fights and squandering his political capital?

War at any moment. An alarming new threat from North Korea. Tensions with the U.S. are so high a nuclear war could break out, quote, "at any moment." The North Koreans also claim they're working on a missile that can hit the East Coast of the United States. Is it all just bluster, or can they really attack major U.S. cities, including New York and Washington?

And that was awkward. President Trump's body language shifts dramatically when he learns the Greek prime minister standing right next to him in the White House Rose Garden called him evil during the presidential campaign. You're going to see that uncomfortable moment.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

We're following multiple breaking stories, including big news on health care. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Patty Murray say they have an agreement in principle to restore for two years the subsidies President Trump cut off last Friday. President Trump this afternoon suggested he will back an emerging deal. Just minutes before that, he insisted, though, Obamacare is dead.

The compromise comes just as the president appears to be spoiling for a fight. While defending his claim that President Obama didn't call the families of fallen U.S. soldiers, Mr. Trump said reporters should ask his chief of staff, retired General John Kelly, if Obama called when his son, when Kelly's son was killed in action. And smarting from new criticism from senator John McCain, the president warned -- and I'm quoting him now -- "Be careful, because at some point I fight back."

Also breaking, a federal judge orders a temporary stop to President Trump's latest travel ban just one day before it's scheduled to go into effect. The judge says the administration's third try at a travel ban suffers from the same problems as the first two, saying it plainly discriminates against people based on their nationality. The White House calls this latest ruling dangerously flawed.

We're also keeping an eye on the rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. In a new threat, one of Kim Jong-un's top diplomats says a nuclear war with the U.S. could break out at any moment.

Democratic Senator Edward Markey, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he's standing by. He'll take our questions. And correspondents -- our correspondents, analysts and specialists, they are here with full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the president seems open to a short-term compromise, two years on Obamacare.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he does seem open to that compromise. He, in fact, gently endorsed it earlier today in the Rose Garden, and we do know that he urged Republican Senator Lamar Alexander to work behind the scenes with Democratic Senator Patty Murray.

But again, this is the early stages of support for this. There's much resistance on this from conservatives. The question is if the president can bring them over the finish line on something that he's been criticizing as a bailout for insurance companies.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump embracing a bipartisan deal today to restore Obamacare subsidies only days after he made the decision to cut off those payments.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're fairly close to a short-term solution. The solution will be for about a year or two years, and it will get us over this intermediate hump.

ZELENY: Yet only moments earlier he argued the subsidies, which actually help lower income Americans buy insurance, were simply a boon for insurance companies.

TRUMP: They've made a fortune, the insurance companies. So when I knocked out the hundreds of millions of dollars a month being paid back to the insurance companies by politicians -- I must tell you that wanted me to continue to pay this. I said I'm not going to do it.

ZELENY: The president insisted he was still intent on fully repealing Obamacare, an effort that has repeatedly failed in Congress, despite full Republican control.

A new CNN poll today shows the president approval rating is at 37 percent, with 57 percent of Americans disapproving.

Amid a deepening divide between the White House and Capitol Hill, the poll shows far more Republicans side with the president. Sixty-three percent say they trust Mr. Trump more to handle major issues while 29 percent say they trust congressional Republicans.

That didn't stop Senator John McCain from delivering a strong rebuke of the president and his "America first" world view while accepting a Liberty Medal last night in Philadelphia.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: To refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last, best hope of earth for the sake of some half-baked spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.

ZELENY: In a series of interviews on conservative talk radio programs today, the president held his tongue but warned that he would fire back at McCain, who's become one of his biggest Republican critics.

TRUMP: People have to be careful, because at some point I fight back.


TRUMP: You know?

ZELENY: All this as the president returned to remarks he made Monday in the Rose Garden about how President Obama and other presidents treated the families of fallen American soldiers.

TRUMP: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls.

ZELENY: That comment wasn't true. The president dialed it back slightly in another radio interview before taking the unusual step of raising the death of White House chief of staff John Kelly's son, a Marine who was killed in action in 2010 in Afghanistan.

TRUMP: I mean, you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? You could ask other people. I don't know what Obama's policy was.


ZELENY: Now, two White House officials tell us that President Obama did not call John Kelly or his wife when, some seven years ago after their son died. For his part, John Kelly declined to comment or talk about this at all today.

But, Wolf, we do know that John Kelly and his wife were invited to a gold-stars family breakfast here over Memorial Day back in 2011, and they sat at Michelle Obama's table.

Wolf, all of this discussion about presidents and phone calls has left an unsavory taste in the mind of many here, and they simply wish the president would move on beyond it. Again, John Kelly has not talked about this at all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's head over to Capitol Hill right now. Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is standing by.

Sunlen, tell us more about this bipartisan deal that seems to be taking shape on Obamacare.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, importantly, this deal is only a deal in principle. Today the deal makers admitting themselves that the devil is in the details, and they also admit the details have not been ironed out yet.

Now, the contours of the deal would extend two years of funding for Obamacare's cost-sharing program, of course, something that many Democrats up here wanted, in exchange for more flexibility by states of Obamacare. That's something that the Republicans wanted.

Now we know that senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray had been working on this proposal for weeks, and they really ramped up that effort behind the scenes in the wake of President Trump abruptly ending those subsidy payments.

Here is Senator Patty Murray today on the Capitol Hill.


SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D, WASHINGTON): Right now patients and families across our country are looking at the harmful steps that President Trump has taken to sabotage health care in our country.

Chairman Alexander and I were able to find common ground on a number of steps to stabilize the markets and to help protect families from premium spikes as a result of the sabotage we have seen from this administration.


SERFATY: Now this is important to note, this is very, very far from a done deal in any way up here on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he would not commit to any sort of path forward, saying that they're still reviewing the proposal and certainly we've already seen pushback really quickly come from House conservatives, who are not happy in any way with this. So the sales job up here on Capitol Hill, Wolf, just starts today.

BLITZER: It certainly does. Another sensitive issue, Sunlen, where do things stand right now in the rush to pass a budget in order to clear the path for tax cuts?

SERFATY: Well, procedurally, it's inching forward. They're pushing towards a vote either Thursday evening here in the Senate or Friday morning, the wee hours of Friday morning. That's important, because that would pave the way for tax reform, if it passes, to go forward without any Democratic support, only Republican support.

Republican leaders say they feel good about where their numbers are right now, but I have to say, it was just a remarkable day of infighting within the Republican Party. You had open debates between senators Rand Paul about the specifics of this budget proposal. He wants less defense spending, calling out people like Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham, who want more defense spending in the budget.

And it was a fierce back and forth at times. Senator Graham at one point really essentially called out Senator Paul, saying don't screw this up for tax reform. Here's just a little bit of the back and forth.


[17:10:10] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't know if he doesn't understand it or he's trying to create a straw man to vote "no." He's always voting "no" at a time when we need him to vote "yes."

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Lindsey Graham wouldn't know a conservative he met if he met one, all right? He's never been a conservative. He's probably a big part of why we have such a massive debt in this country, because he is unwilling and unable to be restrained at all on the money he throws at the military.

So no, I don't consider him to be a conservative nor a bona fide Republican critic.


SERFATY: Just a remarkable back and forth all day on Capitol Hill, really revealing the deep divides in the Republican Party right now.

Now, despite all of that noise up here on the Hill, Republican leaders say they believe they can cobble together these votes. They believe the budget will pass this week, paving the way for tax reform. One thing that makes it a little easier, Senator Thad Cochran. He announced he will be returning here to Washington this week. He had some medical issues, but certainly odds more in the Republicans' favor with him back here, intending to cast his vote for the budget -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Really nasty exchange there between Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul. John McCain really had some nasty words about Rand Paul, as well.

All right. Thanks very much, Sunlen Serfaty.

Joining us now, Democratic senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. He's a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us. First of all, do you support the compromise worked out by -- by Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray?

SEN. ED MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Yes, I do. I think that it is a fair compromise. I congratulate Senator Alexander and Senator Murray for their brilliant work to solve a problem that could have led to the collapse of insurance markets all across the country. Could have led to a loss of coverage for cancer and diabetes, for addiction coverage all across the country, so I think they've come to a wise, sensible and bipartisan resolution of the issue.

BLITZER: Would they have been able to reach this compromise without President Trump's halting those subsidies last Friday?

BLITZER: I think in many ways, that was the precipitating moment, because the president was basically saying that he did not care if the insurance markets collapsed. He did not care if the premiums rose by 8 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent or more all across the United States of America.

So I think that's really what focused the attention then of Patty Murray, Lamar Alexander and many others on this issue. And I think now we have a common-sense solution to the problem, and the president is now signaling, thank God, that rather than sabotaging health care in the country, he's going to try to find a way to sign this bill and to make sure that there is some stability in the health care marketplace.

BLITZER: Before there's a bill, it's got to pass the Senate, pass the House. So it's certainly not yet a done deal. But do you think there was some strategy in the president's effort last Friday to derail these subsidies? That he thought if he did that, it could lead to a bipartisan compromise?

MARKEY: I think you're giving him a level of strategic credit that is beyond my power to be able to grant to him. But nonetheless, whether it's by luck, design or inadvertence, that is what has happened today. And as long as the president says at the end of the day that he can support it, that he can sign it, then ultimately, that's a good thing for the American people.

BLITZER: But won't the same disagreements over the future of health care remain two years down the road? This is a two-year deal, a two- year compromise. Are you just kicking the can down the road?

MARKEY: There's no question that the far-right Republicans in our country have declared war on the Affordable Care Act, as they have, by the way, on Medicare and Medicaid, which is what we see in their budget proposal this week. They still harbor an ancient animosity towards each one of those bill: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. And they want to leave them as debt- soaked relics of the programs which they are today.

So you are right; they are not going away. We will revisit this battle over and over again, and as early as this week as they try to take a machete to Medicaid and to Medicare in their budget.

BLITZER: If this compromise deal is passed in the Senate and the House, signed by the president, presumably it would take a lot of pressure off many Republicans in next year's midterm elections. Some of your fellow Democrats suggest that could be a political mistake. Do you agree?

MARKEY: Well, again, helping the American people is good policy, and good policy is always good politics. But without question the Republicans were coming to realize that they were going to be blamed for the sabotage of the health care insurance marketplace and that, as premiums rose, they were going to have to bear the political responsibility for it in the 2018 election cycle.

[17:15:12] But that's no reason why Democrats shouldn't try to work with them in order to solve the problem, and that's what's happening this week with our fingers crossed that it can pass the entire Senate and the House of Representatives.

BLITZER: Because here's another issue, potentially, down the road. Let's say you pass it; it's signed by the president. The president repeatedly says -- and he said it again today -- that Republicans will have the votes to repeal and replace Obamacare, maybe in March or April, in the spring of next year. Should Democrats make this deal with the Republicans, knowing that the president might be aiming for a full repeal next spring?

MARKEY: Well, they do not have the votes right now. That's why John McCain's thumbs down was so important on that repeal act earlier in the summer. And it's no sure thing that they will ever have the votes to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The more that they battle to try to repeal it is the higher the favorability of the Affordable Care Act has been in our country, because people now understand much more fully how badly their families are harmed if Medicaid, if a machete is taken to Medicaid, if hundreds of billions of dollars are taken away to give tax breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent in our country. That did not poll well in August of 2017. It won't poll well in March of 2018 either, even closer to the election day.

BLITZER: There's lots more breaking news unfolding even as we speak. We're going to get your reaction. Take a quick break, Senator Markey. We'll resume our conversation right after this.


[17:21:25] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who's on the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, I need you to stand by. We're getting some new information from the Pentagon right now.

The Pentagon is launching a full-scale investigation into a deadly ambush that left four U.S. soldiers dead and plenty of confusion in its wake. I want to quickly go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, the military likes to say it leaves no one behind on the battlefield. This time, unfortunately, it did. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SGT. LA DAVID JOHNSON, U.S. ARMY: I'll take the challenge.

STARR (voice-over): Twenty-five-year-old Sergeant La David Johnson left behind a widow and two young children. A third is on the way. His body was not found for two days.

Now two weeks later, a U.S. official tells CNN it's still not clear what exactly happened. A team of military experts is now looking at everything about the ISIS attack that killed four soldiers and the confusion that shrouds the incident. Starting with how the 12-man green beret-led team went into a village in unarmored trucks and no intelligence that they were walking into an ambush by 50 heavily armed ISIS fighters.

SEN. JACK REED (D-RI), RANKING MEMBER, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I have questions about intelligence. Were we aware of the capabilities and the intent of the ISIS forces?

STARR: Defense Secretary James Mattis says intelligence is often not perfect.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: If you want a guarantee in my line of work, go buy a General Electric toaster. You know, we do the best we can with the intel.

STARR: The team had been in the area before, helping train local forces. This time, the Americans were attacked with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

MATTIS: This was a hard fight. This was -- this was a very tough fight.

STARR: Still, no answers why Sergeant Johnson was left behind when the helicopters came in. At first, they thought he might be alive. Navy SEALs scrambled for a rescue mission, but 48 hours later, local Nigerian troops found him dead. No one can yet say if he was alive for a short period of time.

The incident already raising the potential prospect of a Benghazi-like investigation when Congress looked at that attack on an American diplomatic compound in Libya that resulted in four U.S. deaths.

SEN. MIKE ROUNDS (R-SD), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: In the Benghazi incident, you had a case of where there was clear testimony, there was information coming out saying there were hours and hours of activity going on. We don't have the facts on this yet. If similar facts were to be determined in this particular case, you may very well see the same type of a demand for a review.

STARR: Still, the Pentagon is talking about the good news.

LT. GEN. KENNETH MCKENZIE, JOINT STAFF DIRECTOR: I would say that what was actually very positive about it was the fact that they were able to have close air support overhead about 30 minutes after first contact, which is pretty impressive.

STARR: The reality: those aircraft did not have the authority to bomb ISIS fighters, leaving the Americans in a fire fight for 30 minutes with no help and a struggle to get the wounded and dead evacuated.


STARR: And Defense Secretary Mattis is making it clear he wants some answers. He wants to know what went wrong here so they can fix it and it doesn't happen again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Good report. Thanks very much.

Let's continue our discussion with Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Do you have concerns, Senator, about the deployment of U.S. Army Special Forces, the quality of the intelligence which they're relying on in Niger, for example, and elsewhere in Africa?

MARKEY: Well, I'm glad to hear that General Mattis wants there to be an inquiry into what happened, what the circumstances were, what kind of intelligence was available to our military personnel in that situation, and what happened in the aftermath of the incident.

[17:25:16] I think the American people will want to have these answers, so I'm glad that General Mattis is making it clear that he believes that it is, in fact, important for that kind of an investigation to take place.

BLITZER: Do you understand what the U.S. mission there is? Why American troops are deployed in Niger right now?

MARKEY: Well, I don't know the specifics of this one mission, but I know that not only in Niger, but in other countries, at least, support American personnel are there to help in the global fight against ISIS, regardless of what name they have in any individual country. But I have no way of knowing what the circumstances were in this particular instance.

BLITZER: What message, Senator, does it send when President Trump accuses his predecessors, including President Obama, of not calling the families of fallen soldiers?

MARKEY: Well, in fact, the question that was asked of President Trump was, what is the situation going on in Niger with our American personnel? That was the question that the press was asking after two weeks of no response from the president or the White House. It had nothing to do with a call to the families of the fallen.

So now today we see that, in fact, there is going to be an investigation into what happened.

So all I can say is I know President Obama. I was actually with President Obama, with the first lady, with the vice president and the second lady when they were at Andrews Air Force base with the families of the Benghazi fallen Americans, and I can tell you it was a very powerful scene to see the president and vice president trying to convey the condolences of the American people to those families and I hope that we can do the same for the families of those who have fallen in Niger. I think that's really what we should be talking about.

BLITZER: Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Thanks very much.

MARKEY: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Coming up, one of Kim Jong-un's top diplomats warns that tensions with the U.S. Are so high right now and nuclear war, he says, could break out at any moment. Is there more to the threat than merely bluster?


BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump says Obamacare is dead, but he's apparently backing a new bipartisan health care deal that could preserve key parts of the Affordable Care Act. The agreement in principle hashed out in the U.S. Senate would restore insurance subsidies cut off by the president last Friday.

[17:32:28] Our political experts are here to discuss.

Gloria, today he said he supports this interim deal, a two-year deal, even though on Friday he said he's ending these subsidies. What gives?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Not so fast on any of this. There has been conservative pushback on Capitol Hill that Dana and I are reporting, Phil Mattingly reporting from the Hill. So conservatives want to get more out of Democrats. There's some reporting they want some kind of market reforms. Maybe we'll hear a little bit more from the president on this tonight when he speaks to the Heritage Foundation.

So he sounded like he was going to support it and then you see conservatives pulling him back. So this has yet to play out, Wolf, before we see exactly whether there is going to be any kind of bipartisan deal.

BLITZER: The Democrats really like it. We just heard from a whole bunch of them. But go ahead.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I was just going to say, I was on my phone while -- while Gloria was talking, because I was exchanging messages with a source saying exactly what Gloria just said, that despite the signal that the president sent earlier today that he was OK with this bipartisan deal to give more money to the insurance companies in order to keep some of the payments for -- some of the help for low-income Americans, he is -- at least the White House is not that thrilled with it.

Why? Because I just talked to a senior administration official who said that they applaud the process, the bipartisan process, but that the notion of just giving the money back through the treasury without getting enough in return from the conservative perspective is not OK. That, you know, the conservatives say that it allows states to have more flexibility, but from the -- from the White House point of view, this person I talked to, that the states have that flexibility already and that they don't get enough in return.

So as much as there is this bipartisan deal, it looks like, if you don't have the White House on board, you're not going to be able to convince very reluctant House Republicans and even some in the Senate, as well.

BLITZER: His remarks in the news conference in the Rose Garden, Ron, he seemed to suggest he's ready to go with a short-term year or two deal that Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Health Committee, and Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat, have put together.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, Mick Mulvaney last week, the OMB director, basically said no to this very deal, which was on the table before he cut off the payments. I mean, Alexander and Murray have shown the ability to work together before.

I think this really goes, though, to the larger issue, Wolf, which is that, you know, you see the president and this -- and the cutting off of payment really is indicative of what has become his go-to legislative strategy, which I have called the hostage-taking strategy.

[17:35:04] I mean, he takes -- he takes an existing program, whether it's deferred action for undocumented immigrants, or these payments, or the Iran deal or NAFTA, and he says he's going to either terminate it, he threatens to terminate it or he does terminate it and says the only way he'll bring it back is if the other side gives him concessions.

But what you saw from Lamar Alexander today is, I think, the weak spot in the strategy, which is that he's taking hostages that would harm his allies as much as his adversaries if he actually harmed them. I mean, there are not a lot of Republicans who are anxious to go into 2018 defending 20, 25 percent, 30 percent premium increases.

So if, in fact, the conservatives do want a hard line, you're going to see some division among Republicans from others who believe that in the end, just like they don't want to go into the election defending deporting large numbers of undocumented teenagers, they may not want to go into the election defending what would happen if you, in fact, cut off these payments.

BASH: But if you take a step back and sort of pull out of the weeds because I think, you know, think we're understandably talking about the very specific details of this deal. What we did see today is a senior Republican and a senior Democrat come to agreement on something that is about one of the most toxic things right now, politically so, and that is Obamacare and what to do about it. Whether or not to let it collapse, force its collapse, which is what the president has said; or whether or not to at least save it temporarily, put a Band-Aid on it and to make sure that, if the Republicans ever do get the votes together to reform or to repeal and replace, as they call it, that in the meantime people who really need money aren't suffering.

BORGER: But, you know, the president also today said, "We have the votes" on...


BLITZER: For repeal and replace.

BORGER: To replace Obamacare, which of course, if they had the votes...

BLITZER: They would vote.

BORGER: ... they would vote.

BROWNSTEIN: They would vote.

BORGER: And they would -- they would do it. And there -- there are Republicans who believe that if they signed onto this deal you would effectively put off repealing and replacing for two years. And they say that they need to show their voters that, actually, they can get something done and not just do this.

On the other hand, their voters are the ones who would suffer if these subsidies...

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. And that's the problem. The underlying dynamic is he believes -- he believed by ending these payments or by threatening to end DACA or by threatening to walk away from NAFTA, he's increasing pressure on the other side to give him more concession.

BASH: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: He's made that very explicit.

The problem is on all of these fronts, his own allies would face many of the pains. I mean, the business community, for example, and the agriculture community, staunch allies, cornerstones of the Republican coalition, are increasingly nervous and raising the alarm about what's going to happen to the North American Free Trade Agreement. And I think the fact that Lamar Alexander revived these talks so quickly is indicative of the fact reluctance of many Republicans to go into the next year election with 30 percent increase in premiums.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around. We have a lot more. The president has, over the past few weeks, been sending these mixed signals. The Republicans can't get their act together; he'll work with the Democrats. It looks like, at least on this issue, he signaled today he might be ready to work with the Democrats. Much more right after this.


[17:42:37] BLITZER: Welcome back. Want to get right back to the panel. And Gloria, I want to play an awkward moment that occurred at the news

conference with the visiting Greek prime minister today when a reporter asked the Greek prime minister about something he said about Donald Trump during the campaign.


JOHN ROBERTS, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Mr. Prime minister, with respect to the president, in March of 2016 you said of the potential for a Donald Trump presidency, quote, "I hope we will not face this evil." And I'm wondering if after spending time with the president, you have changed your mind or if you're of the same mind.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wish I knew that before my speech.


BLITZER: So now he's responding. You see the president is in a little bit of an awkward position there. You think he really didn't know, Gloria, that the prime minister of Greece said, "And, of course, what this nomination marks, the ideas it represents, the appeal it reaches and the threat to become even president, I hope we will not face this evil," referring to then candidate Donald Trump.

BORGER: It's hard to know. It's hard to know. It's honestly hard to know whether the president knew and was kind of making a joke about it or didn't know.

If I worked for this president, I don't think I would have reminded him about it. But you can see that body language there, that he kind of tenses up and shook his head a little bit. I don't think he was pleased.

BROWNSTEIN: From what we know about Donald Trump, it's hard to imagine he made it through the entire meeting without mentioning it, if he knew.


BROWNSTEIN: That they would not have talked about it before they walked out.

BORGER: "I heard you called me evil. Now you like me."

BROWNSTEIN: Right, right.

BASH: The body language definitely did not seem like he knew.


BASH: And if he didn't, that's like managing up by his staff to the Nth degree. They know their boss, and they knew what to say and what not to say.

BLITZER: Because there might not have been a meeting with the visiting...

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... prime minister of Greece if the president knew that he called him evil.

BORGER: But you know, but this president likes to win people over.

BASH: He does. And he has had meetings with people, many people, including golfing twice with Lindsey Graham...

BORGER: Right.

BASH: ... who called him, you know, unfit for the White House and much, much more.

BORGER: But how about -- how about Trudeau and the president of Mexico? And so this wouldn't be the first time.

BROWNSTEIN: It's fair to say that there are more than a few world leaders who are inversions of the same situation.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Another awkward moment for the president today, when he got the new issue of "Forbes" magazine. "Forbes" put out their top 400 wealthiest Americans. I'll read a quote from the article.

"The most notable loser was President Donald Trump, whose fortune fell $600 million to $3.1 billion. A tough New York real-estate market, particularly for retail locations, a costly lawsuit and an expensive presidential campaign all contributed to the declining fortune of the 45th President.

How do you like the notion, Ron, that he's called the most notable loser by "Forbes" magazine?

RON BROWNSTEIN, SENIOR EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: He may have some other compensations right now, you know, being President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief, but, yes.

Look, I mean, this is -- I mean, he is -- his brand has become deeply polarizing. And you know, it was, as Josh Greene pointed out in his book, he was actually quite popular among African-American and Hispanic constituencies as a businessperson.


BROWNSTEIN: In office, it's very different. And everything that Trump has touched, I think, everything that Trump has built, is now seen through the intensely polarized reaction to him and his presidency. And those numbers are kind of a reflection of that reality.

BLITZER: He says he is worth $10 billion --

BROWNSTEIN: He also he said he was worth $10 billion, right.

BLITZER: "Forbes" says he's only worth $3.1 -- nothing to sneeze at, $3.1 billion.


BASH: I'm just going to say, I think that's --


BLITZER: But, you know what, he's very sensitive to this. I interviewed him many times over the years when the Forbes 400 would come out, and I would point out what the number is. Oh, that's terrible, I'm worth so much more. He is very sensitive to that.

BASH: That tells me that --

BORGER: But then, you know what, I have an idea. Release your tax returns --

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, and let us see.

BORGER: -- and let us see what you're worth. How about that?

BLITZER: Absolutely. Let's see if that happens.

All right, guys, thanks very much. Coming up, new threats from the North Korea. A top diplomat warns that a nuclear war with the United States could break out, quote, at any moment.


[17:51:08] BLITZER: Tonight, new threats from a high-level North Korean diplomat and new concerns about Kim Jong-un's nuclear ambitions.

Brian Todd has details on some of the heated rhetoric coming from the regime.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, we've been speaking with U.S. intelligence officials who are keeping a close eye on these threats.

Kim Jong-un has apparently directed at least two top officials of his regime to issue warnings, subtle and not so subtle, to America. One of them, a threat of potential imminent nuclear war was delivered on the floor of the U.N.


TODD (voice-over): It is the ultimate threat, issued on the floor of the United Nations, and designed to strike fear into the hearts of Americans.


TODD (voice-over): That ominous warning from one of Kim Jong-un's top diplomats, Monday, comes, he says, because the U.S. is, quote, insulting the dignity of North Korea, preparing war plans to take out Kim.

Why issue that threat at this particular moment?

KELLY MAGSAMEN, FORMER PRINCIPAL DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR ASIAN PACIFIC AND SECURITY AFFAIRS: Part of this is their classic bluster, but also it's also brinksmanship on their part. And Kim Jong-un is notorious for brinksmanship.

TODD (voice-over): A U.S. intelligence official tells CNN, North Korea is escalating its rhetoric because Kim wants nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of his regime and because he wants some kind of security arrangement with the U.S.

One of the CIA's top analysts on North Korea recently suggested that while Kim may sound unhinged, he is also strategic in his thinking.

YONG SUK LEE, DEPUTY ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF THE KOREA MISSION CENTER, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Kim Jong-un is a rational actor. I think his long-term goal is very clear, to come to some kind of a big power agreement with the United States and remove U.S. forces from the peninsula.

TODD (voice-over): More than 28,000 U.S. troops are now stationed in South Korea, and Kim's regime often tells its people the Americans are constantly threatening them.

But neither side appears willing to back down. Just last month, President Trump told the U.N. that if North Korea attacks the U.S. or its allies --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

TODD (voice-over): On Monday, North Korea's man at the U.N. appeared to counter that promise, saying the entire U.S. mainland is within North Korea's firing range.

The same day, another North Korean official told CNN his country would not negotiate with the U.S. until it has a long-range missile capable of reaching the East Coast of the U.S., a longtime goal of the regime.

Tonight, missile experts are divided on whether that, too, is idle talk or a real possibility. Some believe the North Koreans may have that capability now, but others say they need to tweak their current missiles, which, some believe, already could hit the West Coast.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN, SENIOR FELLOW FOR MISSILE DEFENSE, INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES: They would have several options. One is to use the engine that's on this particular missile, but pair it with another one so that it produces twice the thrust or forcing action to lift it into space. And then place a larger second stage on there, which allows it to carry one or two warheads up to any place on the continental United States.

TODD (voice-over): Experts say the North Koreans also have to test whether a nuclear-tipped missile can survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere and have to successfully test the missile's guidance system for accuracy, that they might still be at least a couple of years away from having a missile fully capable of striking the East Coast.


TODD: And when the North Koreans get that capability, experts say, it will be a game changer. It will force the U.S. to improve its missile interceptors, which analysts say only work about half the time they're tested. And experts say the U.S. will have to start testing those interceptors a lot more often than it does right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, going back to those war games, the contingencies by the American and South Korean militaries to take Kim Jong-un out if the need arises, if the North Koreans were to -- were -- actually stole those plans, as has been alleged, that would be a real danger.

TODD: It would be, Wolf. A South Korean official says North Korean hackers did steal those war plans. And military analysts say, if they did, that is a real danger to American forces.

[17:54:59] It means the North Korean may know exactly what American forces and South Korean forces are lined up against them. They know where they are. They know what weapons they might have. And they know where their command and control is.

All of that critical information, which may now be in the hands of Kim Jong-un and his commanders.

BLITZER: Very dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula. Brian, thanks.

We have exclusive breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. CNN has learned a company run by a top ally of Vladimir Putin financed the Russian troll factory blamed for the spread of fake news during last year's presidential campaign.

Stand by. We have details.