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McCain vs. Trump; Interview With Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings; War Widow Reveals Trump Call Made Her Upset; Trump: "No Change to Your 401(k)" Under Tax Reform; Death Threats Prompt Increased Security for EPA Chief. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 23, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Spurring debate. Senator and war hero John McCain takes a thinly-veiled swipe at President Trump and the deferments he got from the Vietnam draft because of bone spurs. But Senator McCain also said he doesn't consider the president a draft dodger. How will the president respond?

And who is being protected? CNN has learned that security is being dramatically increased for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency at a cost of millions of dollars as he faces multiple death threats. At the same time, the Trump administration plans to slash the EPA's budget by 30 percent. How will all of it impact the EPA's ability to do its job?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: new details of the ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger.

Joint Chiefs chairman General Joseph Dunford just held a lengthy news conference amid growing demands for more information. Dunford said an investigation is continuing, but he revealed for the first time that the U.S. troops were returning to their base when they were attacked by what's believed to be a local ISIS affiliate.

And he said it was an hour into the firefight before the American forces asked for additional help. Dunford could not answer why the body of Sergeant La David Johnson was found two days later a mile from the scene of the ambush. Johnson's widow is speaking out publicly about the controversial condolence call she received from President Trump, which she and her family describe as insensitive.

She says the president stumbled on her husband's name, and suggested he only knew it because he had a report in front of him. She said that made her cry and made her very angry.

And CNN has learned that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is getting increased round-the-clock security at a cost of millions of dollars in response to multiple death threats. That comes as the agency faces sharp budget cuts, and Pruitt faces growing questions about rollbacks of environmental protections and meetings with the fossil fuel industry.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour, with our guests, including the top Democrat in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Congressman Elijah Cummings. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with the widow of the U.S. soldier killed in Niger speaking out about the president's controversial condolence call to her.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us.

Jim, there are two very different accounts of that call.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Two very different accounts, Wolf, and no regrets from the president today, but the White House appears to be putting the brakes on anymore comments on the deaths of those four soldiers in Niger.

Today, President Trump was asked repeatedly about his handling of the soldiers' deaths as well as his treatment of a Gold Star mother, but unlike last week, there was near total silence from the president.


QUESTION: Can you tell the public what happened in Niger?

ACOSTA (voice-over): It was an uncharacteristically silent President Trump, avoiding questions all day long on the widow of La David Johnson, the Army sergeant killed along with three other service members in Niger earlier this month.

But the questions are not going away, in part because the sergeant's widow, Myeshia Johnson, shared with ABC that the president said her late husband knew what he was signing up for in a phone call.

MYESHIA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF KILLED U.S. SOLDIER: The president said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways. And I was -- it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone in his voice.

The only way he remembered my husband's name, because he told me he had my husband's report in front of him. And that's when he actually said La David. I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband name.

And that hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country, and he risks his life for our country, why can't you remember his name?

ACOSTA: Shortly after the interview, the president took the unusual step of correcting the widow, tweeting: "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from the beginning without hesitation."

The widow also backed Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who was in the car with Johnson when the president's call came in.

JOHNSON: Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated. What she said was 100 percent correct. It was Master Sergeant Neil, me, my aunt, my uncle, and the driver and Ms. Wilson in the car. The phone was on speakerphone. Why would we fabricate something like that?


ACOSTA: The president and Congresswoman Wilson are still at it on Twitter, with Mr. Trump trying to capitalize politically on the exchange, tweeting: "Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party. A disaster for Dems. You watch her in action and vote Republican."

And Wilson firing back; "Niger is President Trump's Benghazi. He needs to own it."

Wilson is also hitting back at White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who erroneously stated the congresswoman took credit during a 2015 speech for funding an FBI facility in Florida, something she didn't do, tweeting: "General Kelly owes the nation an apology, because, when he lied about me, he lied to the American public."

Now the president's near total silence in the controversy stands in stark contrast with the scene in the Rose Garden one week ago, where he suggested he was more compassionate than past commanders in chiefs when it came to fallen soldiers.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls.

ACOSTA: Add to that, "Roll Call" is reporting the White House scrambled to obtain contact information for families of fallen service members after the president told FOX Radio he almost always makes those calls.

TRUMP: I have called, I believe, everybody, but certainly I will use the word virtually everybody.

ACOSTA: It's another textbook example of the president throwing the White House off-message. This week's agenda item overshadowed? Tax reform.

TRUMP: People want to see it, and I call it tax cuts. It is tax reform also, but I call it tax cuts.


ACOSTA: Now, White House officials confirm the West Wing did attempt to expedite condolence letters to families of fallen soldiers after the president's remarks in the Rose Garden last week.

The official said during this process, a discovery was made that there were -- quote -- "bureaucratic reasons" for why some of the letters had not gone out to families sooner. In most of those cases, this official said, letters and contacts were delayed because the service member killed in action had been involved in what they called multiple casualties incidences.

This official said the White House directed that the condolence letters then be sent out, Wolf. That's the explanation for the White House tonight as for why those letters were rushed out last week.

BLITZER: Interesting. All right, thanks very much, Jim Acosta at the White House.

Let's get some more on the breaking news about the ambush of U.S. troops in Niger.

Our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is joining us, at the news conference at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs chairman that ended just a little while ago.

Jim, some new details. Still, though, many questions unanswered.


And General Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, willing to take all the hard questions and, where he could answer, willing to answer, including confirming that this unit was on its way back to its operating base when it came under attack. It was not freelancing, not following another mission outside of its original orders.

But on many other basic questions, including whether the evacuating forces took the simple step of taking a head count to make sure everyone was accounted for, still no answer there.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the U.S. military is offering new details on the ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead, though many basic questions remain unanswered.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: U.S. forces accompanied that Nigerian unit on a reconnaissance mission to gather information. The assessment by our leaders on the ground at that time was that contact with the enemy was unlikely. Mid-morning, on October 4, the patrol began to take fire as they were returning to their operating base.

SCIUTTO: According to General Dunford, troops first requested air support a full hour after initial contact with the enemy, approximately 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters.

DUNFORD: my judgment would be that that unit thought they could handle the situation without additional support. And so, while we will find out in the investigation exactly why it took an hour for them to call.

SCIUTTO: A U.S. drone already in the air reached their position within minutes. French Mirage jets responded next, arriving about two hours after initial contact, though none conducted airstrikes. To fight the impression the Pentagon has not been forthcoming, Dunford

vowed transparency with victims' families and the public.

DUNFORD: I think we do owe the families and the American people transparency in incidents like this, and we intend to deliver just that.

SCIUTTO: As she said her final goodbye to her husband this weekend, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson told ABC's "Good Morning America" she is still waiting for answers.

JOHNSON: I don't know how he got killed, where he got killed, or anything.

SCIUTTO: Still unexplained, why was Johnson's body recovered 48 hours after the ambush? And how did it end up nearly a mile away from the scene of the attack?

DUNFORD: I can tell you, once we found out that Sergeant Johnson was missing, we brought the full weight of the U.S. government to bear in trying to identify -- to try to recover his body.

SCIUTTO: Lawmakers are also demanding details.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Americans should know what's going on in Niger.

QUESTION: Yes, yes.

MCCAIN: Should know what caused the deaths of four brave young Americans.

SCIUTTO: Adding to the confusion, senators claimed over the weekend that they were unaware the U.S. had so many troops in Niger in the first place.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger.


QUESTION: You heard Senator Graham there. He didn't know we had 1,000 troops in Niger. Did you?


SCIUTTO: The Pentagon and the White House, however, say they did notify Congress about the U.S. mission in Niger several times this year via briefings and letters.

Today, approximately 800 U.S. troops are deployed to Niger. Most are helping build a drone base in Agadez, while others are supporting embassy operations in the capital. The military says that only -- quote -- "a" fraction are special operations forces, advising and assisting Niger's military. DUNFORD: What the American people need to know is with a relatively

small footprint, we're enabling local forces to deal with these challenges before they become a threat to the American people and to help them to deal with the challenges,so they don't further destabilize their local area or region.


SCIUTTO: Well, that footprint in Africa probably larger than many Americans realize. General Dunford confirming today that some 6,000 U.S. troops are in 53 countries in Africa, spread out, perhaps, thinly in some places, many of them facing, as General Dunford certainly described in Niger today, very dangerous territory.

One final point, Wolf. On that question of when the White House first knew something went wrong with this mission, General Dunford said today that the moment it was clear that a soldier was missing, they let the White House know and that that took place the evening of October 4, the day after this firefight took place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Sciutto at the Pentagon for us today, Jim, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

The top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, is joining us.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. We've got a lot of issues I want to go through, but first the Niger uproar.

As you know, after Myeshia Johnson, the Gold Star widow, spoke publicly this morning, President Trump almost immediately disputed her characterization of the phone call on Twitter. She's a 24-year-old mother of two young kids, a third one on the way. What's your reaction to the president disputing her almost immediately?

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Well, first of all, this is sadly another distraction.

Here, we have a grieving wife with two small children, and one on the way, and then three other members of our military who suffered death, and their families are grieving, too. And what are we doing? We are -- have a president that interjects himself into this process. And it just seems like it's an ongoing distraction from the people that we should be lifting up right now.

And then the other thing we need to -- it distracted us from is the investigations that need to take place. I saw what happened with regard to Benghazi. As you know, I was the ranking member of the Benghazi Select Committee. And, Wolf, there were nine investigations with regard to Benghazi.

I think we need to find out what happened, but I think the families will tell you they don't want a political football. They basically want the same things that the Benghazi families wanted. Number one, they wanted no political football. Number two, they wanted to find out exactly what happened. And, number three, they wanted to know what would be done to make sure it never happened again.

And so I think those are the things we have to really concentrate on right now, and my thoughts and my prayers are with these four grieving families.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

Congressman, your colleague Frederica Wilson, she's a close family friend, a mentor to this grieving family down in Florida. The president yesterday tweeted against her once again. He's continuing this uproar going against her, "Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party. A disaster for Dems. You watch her in action and vote."

You know this lawmaker from Florida. What's your reaction when you see the president really going after her, calling her wacky?

CUMMINGS: Unfortunately, it's hard for me to hear you, Wolf, but let me just talk about Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

You know, first of all, I was kind of sad, the position that General Kelly took. I have lot of respect for him. As a matter of fact, I like him. And I was surprised that he interjected himself in this discussion, and then basically said some very inaccurate and untrue statements about probably one of the great sheroes of our time, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

And if he knew a little bit about her, he would know she has carried on a mentoring program of thousands of youth since 1993, trying to help them grow up to be all that they could be.


She is the same one who has spent phenomenal amount of time over the last two years trying to rescue the 300 girls that were captured by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

And so she doesn't have to do these two things, but she does them out of love. But then, when I look back -- and, Wolf, I had an opportunity to take a moment and look back at the naming of -- the speech about the FBI -- the building being named after the FBI agents.

It was an excellent speech. She took no credit for getting the funds, but what she said is that she worked with the speaker and worked it out to get the kind of results she wanted with regard to the naming of the building.


CUMMINGS: And, again -- wait a minute. Let me finish.

And to beat up on somebody like Frederica Wilson, and, for Kelly, General Kelly to do that, I got to tell you, it is shocking to the conscience. And you know what I'm afraid of, you know, a lot of people look at

President Trump and hear the various insulting things he says, and I'm hoping that that is not metastasizing to General Kelly, because, again, I think he -- I find him to be an honorable man. He and I were working together on Secret Service leadership and trying to revamp the Secret Service.

And I actually told him I have a lot of faith in confidence in him. And I hope that he will take a moment and apologize, as an honorable man should do.

BLITZER: Seventeen of the women in the Congressional Black Caucus, as you know, are formally asking for an apology from John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, for what they call his blatant lies about Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

Should Kelly apologize?

CUMMINGS: Yes. I think it's only appropriate.

I mean, it doesn't take a rocket scientist. All you have to do is look at the film of when she made the statement with regard to the federal building there in Florida, and listen to that speech very carefully. It's one of the best speeches I have heard, to be frank with you, of something of that nature. And she gave credit where credit was due to the Republicans and the Democrats.

I don't know if you can do it any better. And she took no credit for anything that she had not done, unless -- unlike a lot of public officials. So, again, I think he owes her an apology.

And I think -- but the other thing I think he needs to do is, as a chief of staff and a man, a general, one who has commanded our troops, one who has been entrusted with the lives of so many of our young people, I think he needs to show an example for all, and that is say, you know what, after I went back and I looked at the film, I was wrong and I'm sorry.

And he needs to say that. And he needs to say to his boss, the president, something that I have said many times. We need to stop -- President Trump needs to stop tweeting and simply start leading.

BLITZER: Congressman, there's more we need to discuss, including new information that you're developing. You're investigating White House officials, Trump administration officials using private e-mail accounts for government work.

We will discuss that, much more, right after a quick break.



BLITZER: The Trump administration has a new offer of help in ratcheting down tension with North Korea.

We're back with the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Congressman, I'm going to get to North Korea. There are new developments. That's coming up.

But I want to ask you about specific investigatory work you and your committee are doing. I want to ask about what the committee is trying to do to get some answers from the Trump administration on the use of private e-mail accounts for government work.

Marc Short, the White House legislative director, he joined me here in "THE SITUATION ROOM" last week, and I asked him about your investigation. Listen to this exchange I had with him.



BLITZER: The House Oversight Committee asked you to explain why some White House officials, they use their government e-mail, but they also have private e-mail accounts. And the White House and covered employees, you wrote back to them, "Endeavor to comply with all relevant laws."

Is that the best you can do in the explanation?


BLITZER: Because you didn't satisfy a lot of these members, Democratic members and Republican members. And remember all the controversy about Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server.

So what is the rule right now for White House officials like you and others about using private e-mail?

SHORT: We're not supposed to be doing government business on private e-mail. I think that there's a Public Records Act that makes that clear, and I think the White House is cooperating with each and every investigation.


BLITZER: All right, Congressman, from your perspective, as the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, is the White House fully cooperating?

CUMMINGS: No, the White House has been pitiful with regard to response to our e-mail inquiries. As a matter of fact, they have been rope-a-doping and basically, I think, involved in a cover-up.


And I don't use those words often. What happened is, we asked Ivanka and -- Ivanka Trump and her husband to preserve e-mails after we found out through the press that there were e-mails that were being sent from private e-mail servers, and that is with business information on them. We asked them to preserve them, Wolf.

And you know what they did? Within 24 to 48 hours, they transferred or we call it relocated all e-mails to the Trump business organizations run by the two brothers.

BLITZER: Well, let me just be precise, Congressman. Were they using private e-mail servers or private e-mail accounts?

CUMMINGS: The accounts. They relocated the information.

In other words, they did exactly what the committee asked them not to do. And let me tell you something. If this were Hillary Clinton, they would be going crazy. And the fact is, is that they basically are sitting back and being aiders and abetters to what this Trump administration is doing and not doing.


CUMMINGS: Let me tell you something else, Wolf.

We have basically a president who is not held accountable to anything. Nothing. And the only way we can hold him accountable is there has to be a bipartisan effort. But right now, when he made that statement about being able to walk down New York street and shoot somebody and people would still vote for him, I believe that he was right.

I didn't believe it when he said it, but now I know it.

BLITZER: Are you concerned that some of these White House Trump administration officials are using private e-mail accounts, but in the process they're sharing classified information on those accounts?

CUMMINGS: That's the point. We don't know. And they -- and they basically, when we met with them, they told us -- we met with the -- some of the senior counsel to the White House, and what they said was, yes, they are members of our administration that have confessed to using these private e-mail accounts, but we're not going to tell you who they are, we're not going to tell you anything about them.

And if you want to find out, say, for example, about Mr. Kushner, go to his lawyer.

That's what -- that's what the response to the Congress of the United States was. And at some point, we have to stand up and be congressmen. You know, we -- our job is to be a check on the executive branch, but without this cooperation and working together, it will never happen.

BLITZER: Is there a bipartisan cooperation on your committee to get the job done?

CUMMINGS: I hope so.

I -- Chairman Gowdy worked with me on an initial request. And that's the interesting -- initially, we made an inquiry which was bipartisan. But then when the White House basically gave us nothing, we could not get the kind of cooperation that I wanted.

I'm still hopeful, but I just want to do my job. A lot of people say, well, are you trying to hurt the president? No, it's not about hurting the president. It's a matter -- it's about protecting our democracy.

And what kind of democracy will we leave our children? Because, at the rate we're going, we're in pretty bad shape.

BLITZER: Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, thanks very much for joining us.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead: President Trump falls silent on the controversy over his controversial condolence call to a Gold Star widow. After almost a week, is he ready to put the issue behind him?

Plus, we have details of the dramatic increase in security for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Why is he getting so many death threats?


BLITZER: Two very differing accounts of President Trump's condolence call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, killed in that ambush on U.S. troops in Niger.

[18:33:41] The widow says the president struggled to remember her husband's name, leaving her angry and in tears. But the president has a very different take on that conversation.

Let's dig deeper with our contributors and our specialists. And Gloria, immediately after the Gold Star widow was on ABC this morning, speaking emotionally, very passionately, the president went on Twitter and contradicted her account, tweeting, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from beginning without hesitation."

Since then, several times during the course of today, he was shouted questions by reporters, never said anything else. Is there a new strategy the president, perhaps, is...


BLITZER: ... is pursuing?

BORGER: Hopefully, there is one. I mean, whatever possessed the president to get in a fight with this Gold Star wife is beyond me. And what he could have done is to say, "Look, I am so sorry that you misinterpreted my intentions. My only intention was to honor your husband, to honor his service and if, in any way, I offended you, I apologize." And that would have put an end to it. It's a very simple thing that people do all day long in life when they offend people they didn't mean to offend. They just say, "I'm sorry about it," and move on. [18:35:02] But the president has no ability to admit that he made a

mistake or to say he's sorry. So instead, you end up with this, you know, back and forth and back and forth that only serves to disrupt every other part of his agenda that he's trying to -- that he's trying to deal with.

BLITZER: He wouldn't even have to admit he made a mistake. He could just say, "I'm sorry you misunderstood..."

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: "... what my intentions were. I really feel your pain and I want to express our deepest, deepest condolences."

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well let's figure it out, Wolf. On one side you have a man who has a minor mark on his image here as a result of this. People, I think, looking from the outside -- I was outside Washington for the past week and a half -- would say, "You know, it's a tragedy she lost her husband, obviously. Maybe he made a few mistakes in the conversation with her. Maybe we don't" -- instead, he balances his image versus the grief of a woman who's lost her husband and the father to his child, and he can't let it go.

I agree with Gloria. In government, this is easy. I mean, the issue is painful, but the conversation is easy. She could say he landed from Mars and represents green people and in the grief, you're supposed to say, "The widow gets to say whatever she wants. We're sorry. We respect the loss of life."

BORGER: Of course.

MUDD: "We stand with you." Let it go.

BLITZER: Ron, why can't he do that?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Because I think this is -- there are personal reasons, but I also think by now you have to say there is, in fact, a consistent political approach here; and it's almost as if there's a division of responsibility.

I mean, the president has, since taken office, engaged in a perpetual series of conflicts. Mostly around cultural issues, often with antagonists of color which cannot be, I think, over -- you know, swept under the rug here, as with the Khan family last summer where he, you know, kind of tried to burnishes the image of someone who does not back down from anyone. Who tells his base that he is someone who will fight for them against any potential critic or opponent.

And meanwhile, on kind of the other page, the Republicans in Congress and the executive branch are kind of advancing the conventional Republican agenda. His job, I think, increasingly looks to be precisely to stir up these kind of conflicts.

Now, doing that with a Gold Star family really pushes this to the edge. In fact, you know, I would say we are so far into unchartered waters that you can't even see the shore anymore. But I think we're past the point of viewing these kind of serial conflicts as some sort of coincidence. They are, in fact, I think the essence of how he views the presidency.

BLITZER: And remember, he stirred it up with a Gold Star family during the campaign, the Khan family...


BLITZER: ... during the convention. All of us remember that.

Rebecca, "Atlantic" is reporting that -- that they reached out to several of the Gold Star families whose troops, whose sons were killed in the course of the Trump administration. And they say they have just received some condolence letters that were rush-shipped to them over the past week or so since this controversy erupted.


BLITZER: One father, who lost son in August, was in the collision on the USS John McCain, said this: "Honestly, I feel the letter is reactionary to the media storm brewing over how these things have been handled. I've received letters from McCain, Mattis, countless other officials before this."

It's a little awkward right now to see this unfold the way it is.

BERG: Right. Clearly, this shows that the administration realizes and the White House realizes that they made a mistake here. That they should have contacted these families in the first place, be it by phone call or by letter, in some form or fashion.

And so if we're thinking about this controversy more broadly and the mistake that the president made from an image and political perspective by mentioning this in the first place, and then engaging in this back and forth with the widow of a fallen soldier, there is one positive thing to come of this, which is that the president illuminated a mistake that the White House was making.


BERG: They were not making these contacts with families of fallen soldiers when maybe they needed to.

And so maybe the positive thing that comes of this in the future is that they are sending those letters, and they are making those phone calls. Certainly not the way you want to see this come to light if you're the White House.

BLITZER: And remember, amidst all the uproar on October 17 last week, the president said this at a radio interview: "I have called, I believe, everybody, but certainly, I'll use the word virtually everybody." We now know that was not true.

BORGER: No, we know it wasn't true, and it might have been a bureaucratic snafu and he might not have known, although he's aware of how many people have been killed in action, or he should be. He's the commander in chief.

So that got all of this -- that got all of this started.

You know, the bottom line here is that, because he has such a problem with the truth, you don't know what to believe; and you don't know what not to believe. And so you can hear him, and normally when a commander in chief speaks about something like this, your inclination would be to say, "OK, sure."

But in this particular case, and because of the history we have with this president, it's very difficult to know, you know, what's true and what isn't.

[18:40:06] BLITZER: Yes. Everybody, stand by.

BROWNSTEIN: You know, Wolf...

BLITZER: Hold on one second, Ron. Hold on.


BLITZER: We're going to get much more on this.

There's other important news we're following, as well. Much of the Republican tax plan still very much a mystery, but the president is promising one popular tax break is here to stay.


BLITZER: President Trump is vowing that the Republican tax reform plan being drafted right now won't change one of the most popular ways Americans save for retirement. The 401(k).

Lawmakers reportedly have been discussing some sharp cuts in the amount that could be invested tax free through the accounts. The president says that has gone away.

Let's bring in our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly. He's up on Capitol Hill.

Phil, so what can we expect to see in the final tax reform bill?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, details are sparse right now and there's a good reason for that. And the 401(k) issue is actually really illustrative of what occurs when the details start to come forth, all hell breaks loose, at least from the policy side of things.

Take a look at what the president tweeted this morning. He's tweeted out: There will be no change to your 401(k). This is always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works and it stays.

Now, here's what the president was actually to Wolf, and you kind of touched on it a little bit. What House Republican sources tell me had been considering, or could still be considering, were basically capping the amount that individuals could put in these tax-deferred savings account. Now, the reason for doing this is not to eliminate the tax benefit all together. Wolf, when you get the money out at the end, if you send it to another type of retirement plan, that wouldn't be taxed.

What it would do by shifting it away from 401(k) accounts is it would essentially allow the tax revenue to come up front. Now, why does that matter? You have to pay for tax reform if you want to pass tax reform the way Republicans are currently pursuing it. That means they need revenue. That means there are very difficult choices and very difficult tradeoffs that need to be made.

What you saw from the president this morning is essentially his effort to do away with one of nose potential options and it underscores, Wolf, when the details come out, beyond the nine-page framework that we currently have, there will be massive lobbying fights and very, very difficult choices ahead for not just Republicans, but Democrats as they try and figure out if they want to come on board, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. The president also says he doesn't want to cut entitlement spending at all, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. That's going to meet with some serious resistance on the Hill because they're looking for ways to save some money.

Will there be tax reform, Phil, tax reform deal done before the end of the year?

MATTINGLY: Yes, look, there's a reason it hasn't been done in 31 years. It's hard. And, obviously, what you've seen over the course of the last 24 hours with the tax deferred retirement plan issue is a great example as to why.

But look at this way, last week, Wolf, at kind of the very quiet moment, the Senate passed its budget, and in that budget made some technical changes that allowed for the House to also agree to it. Now, the budget is the vehicle for tax reform. That's how Republicans can pass tax reform in the Senate with a simple majority.

In order to get the House to take the Senate budget, essentially, House Republicans had to give up on a lot of their key budget principles. The reason why? They understood it would allow tax reform to move quicker. Their ability to recognize the political impetus to move on this, to try and agree on tax reform, to get to the finish line on tax reform was very important, perhaps, and kind of very closely held ideological principles is a good sign for Republicans.

But as I noted, the schedule right now, obviously they want to get it done by the end of the year. They recognize how hard it's going to be. Expect the house to release its bill next week. The week after that, committee consideration. Then the Senate will start moving as well. They're going to have to do it in a very tight timeline if they want to get it done.

But I will tell you, something you hear from aides in both chambers, Wolf, they recognize, the longer a tax reform bill or a tax overhaul hangs out there, the more difficult it will be because that gives people more opportunities to attack on specific details. They want to move quickly. That means, Wolf, they really want it done by the end of this year.

BLITZER: Yes, they certainly do.

All right. Good explanation. Phil Mattingly up on the Hill.

You know, Ron Brownstein, the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, she tweeted on Sunday this, she said: The average American family would get a $4,000 raise under the president's tax cut plan. So how could any member of Congress be against it?

How accurate is that tweet?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, that is based on their argument that a cut in corporate tax rates would trickle down into higher wages for American workers. It is very hard to find an economist who does not work for the administration who believes the effect would be anywhere near that large. Some effect? Yes. Anything like that? No.

In fact, the one truly comprehensive analysis of the framework that's been put out by the Tax Policy Center concluded that half of the total tax benefit from the bill would go to the top 1 percent and the families who make up the bottom 60 percent of the income ladder would get a combined 13 percent of the tax bill.

So, I mean, yes, cutting corporate taxes could lead to some improvement in wages. Could it lead to anything like that? I think you'd have a very hard time finding an economist that would put their name on that assertion.

BLITZER: And most of the experts, Gloria, say the deficit would explode if all of these tax cuts went into effect, there wouldn't be any tax -- any cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, 401(k)s, for example.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And the number they use is around $2 trillion over 10 years or more. We don't -- we just don't know. And, you know, our Ted Barrett on the Hill just filed a little bit from Senate Republicans and what they want to hear from the president tomorrow.

What they want to hear is details. They want to hear what he wants in this tax bill, what really matters to him.

[18:50:05] I mean, there was disagreement, for example, today, that sort of spilled out in the open on the 401(k) as you point out.

What else is there that the president wants? And that will affect the bottom line of what it's going to add to the deficit. And by the way, there are still Republicans left, Wolf, who care about the deficit, who believe that you shouldn't have a skyrocketing deficit.

So, what are they going to do about it? These were the Republicans who complained about George W. Bush and his increases in the deficit when he was president. So they need to hear some answers on that as well.

BLITZER: Yes, the devil's in the details right now. When are they going to get to those specifics?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think Phil really touched on that, Wolf. They're going to get to the details at the last possible minute because Republicans want to work out in private some of these disagreements as with the 401(k) issue that the president tweeted about earlier. They want to work out those policy disagreements before they bring this bill into the public sphere, release those details for debate, because then they're going to want to vote as soon as possible, as soon as they release those details to be able to have a chance to get this done.

BLITZER: All right, everybody, stand by.

There's much more coming up including this: the multiple death threats led to a dramatic increase in security for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. New information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.


[18:56:02] BLITZER: We're learning new information tonight about threats against the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

CNN's Rene Marsh is working story for us.

Rene, the agency taking these threats very seriously.

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS CORRESPONDENT: They absolutely are. And, tonight, CNN has learned the agency is beefing the 24/7 security for Pruitt, hiring more agents and installing new security equipment for his office, all while there are new questions tonight about whether Pruitt's EPA policies favor industry over the health of the American people.


MARSH (voice-over): Scott Pruitt is rapidly expanding his security force to an unprecedented level. CNN has learned the EPA's in the process of hiring and training a dozen new agents to provide 24/7 protection for Pruitt. Salaries, alone, could cost $2 million, not including training, equipment, or travel.

The agency says the level of protection is dictated and determined by the level of threat. Pruitt faces four to five times more death threats than his predecessors, that's according to the EPA inspector general's office.

As security spending increases, Pruitt hopes to cut the EPA's budget by 30 percent, including major cuts to the agency's enforcement work and staffing.

Pruitt's schedule lists more than 100 meetings with the fossil fuel industry, but only five with environmental groups.

ERIC OLSON, NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL: What's very clear that EPA Administrator Pruitt is trying to cripple the agency, he's trying to slash the agency's budget. He's trying to keep the agency from doing its job from protecting public health and from protecting our environment. It's very worrisome.

MARSH: A former executive, Nancy Beck, who worked for the chemical industry, is now in charge of shaping EPA's rules on hazardous chemicals. "The New York Times" reported Beck insisted the agency rewrite a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of PFOA, a chemical linked to health problems like kidney cancer, birth defects, and immune system disorders.

And last month, the EPA made a reversal on what's considered safe levels of exposure to radiation. EPA guidelines now say radiation exposures of 5 to 10 rem usually result in no harmful health effects. That's the equivalent of 5,000 chest x-rays, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

OLSON: There are many industries that have been pushing hard to roll back these rules, some of them are in the nuclear industry, some of them are in the hazardous waste industry. Some of them are in the chemical industry. And Scott Pruitt has been meeting secretly with literally scores of these corporal executives quietly behind the scenes.

MARSH: But the EPA is pushing back on the idea that Pruitt is turning a blind eye to bad actors in industry. The agency pointing to an interview in "TIME" magazine where Pruitt discussed his partnership with industry.

Quote: I don't spend any time with polluters, I prosecute polluters. What I'm spending time with are stakeholders who care about outcomes.


MARSH: Also today, the EPA blocked its own scientist from speaking about climate change at a conference in Rhode Island. The agency said they would allow the scientist to attend, but not to speak. And they wouldn't give an explanation as to why, only saying it was not an EPA conference.

Well, in addition to this, we've seen the EPA Website altered, removing language relating to climate change. Wolf, environmentalists say that this was just one more example today of the EPA trying to silence the scientists.

BLITZER: Have they explained why they got rid of all the climate change references on their Website?

MARSH: You know, when we reported on this, their stance has been that this is a new administration and the agency is going in a different direction and we want the Website to reflect the direction that the agency is going in, and that's pretty much the explanation they've been standing by. BLITZER: Rene Marsh reporting for us -- Rene, thanks very much for

that report.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.