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Trump Touts Tax Win after Stunning GOP Loss in Alabama; Deputy AG Defends Mueller Probe Amid Claims of FBI Bias; Trump Touts Tax Win After Humiliating GOP Loss in Alabama; Counterterrorism Official Criticizes Trump Anti-Muslim Rhetoric. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 13, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Reaching a deal? House and Senate Republicans say they've reached a tentative deal on a compromised tax cut bill. The president says he hopes it will pass within days and that Americans will start seeing savings in two months. But tonight, even President Trump seems unsure if all Republican senators are on board.

[17:00:19] Defending Mueller. Amid a coordinated attack on the special counsel's Russia investigation, the deputy attorney general goes before a congressional panel and defends Robert Mueller against GOP claims of political bias. Mueller's boss says he sees no reason to fire him.

Trump falters. The president is a big loser after backing the wrong candidate in the Alabama Senate race. Republicans will have only a razor-thin edge in the Senate after Democrat Doug Jones upsets scandal-plagued Roy Moore. So what's the impact on the president's agenda?

And North Korea confusion. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. is -- is -- willing to talk to North Korea without conditions, but the White House offers a different view. So what's the policy toward Kim Jong-un?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. After the earth-shaking GOP loss in Alabama's Senate race, President Trump badly needs a win. And he's closer to one this hour, announcing House and Senate Republicans have agreed on a compromise tax deal.

The president says he hopes Congress is just days away from passing what he calls a giant tax cut to begin in February. The shockwaves are still spreading, but President Trump is downplaying the humiliating Republican loss in deep-red Alabama where he twice bet on the wrong horse: first Luther Strange in the primary and then Roy Moore in the special Senate election.

The president says some Republicans are happy that the scandal-tainted Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones, but adds he would have liked to have had the seat. Jones said he got a very gracious call from the president, and they talked about finding common ground.

As the Russia investigation draws closer to the president's inner circle, with Donald Trump Jr. questioned today at length by the Senate Intelligence Committee staff, Robert Mueller's boss is praising the special counsel and defending his investigation.

Republicans are claiming political bias within Mueller's probe after the release of anti-Trump messages from an FBI agent who was removed from the investigation, but under drilling by GOP lawmakers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says he sees no good cause to fire Mueller, adding no one has asked him to.

I'll speak with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. And our correspondents and specialists and guests, they're all standing by for full coverage.

With the shocking loss of a Senate seat -- Senate seat in Alabama last night, Republicans are all the more eager to push through a tax bill, but no one is more eager than the president himself.

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president desperately needs a win.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He desperately needs a win after last night, Wolf. That's right, President Trump tried to change the subject back to his tax plan today, but after Roy Moore's stunning defeat down in Alabama, even the president's own allies agree Mr. Trump is weakened. One source close to the White House described Roy Moore's loss as an earthquake that is devastating for the president. But that's hardly the only reality TV drama around the White House these days in the last 24 hours.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Trying to steer a wounded Republican Party back on message, President Trump touted the GOP's tax plan that appears to be on its way to final passage.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our current tax code is burdensome, complex and profoundly unfair. It has exported our jobs, closed our factories and left millions of parents worried that their children might be the first generation to have less opportunity than the last.

ACOSTA: The GOP plan is expected to lower the corporate tax rate to 21 percent, trim the top rate for individuals to 37 percent, reduce the mortgage deduction for homeowners, and repeal the individual mandate in Obamacare. A holiday gift, the president claims, for taxpayers.

TRUMP: We want to give you, the American people, a giant tax cut for Christmas. And when I say giant, I mean giant.

ACOSTA: But the president received an early lump of coal in his stocking in the form of the Alabama Senate race, where Democrat Doug Jones pulled off a major upset of Mr. Trump's endorsed candidate, Roy Moore. It was a defeat for the president, who defied warnings from fellow Republicans who rejected Moore, instead listening to his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

TRUMP: A lot of Republicans feel differently. They're very happy with the way it turned out. But I would have, as the leader of the party, I would have liked to have had this seat. I want to endorse the people that are running.

ACOSTA: The president engaged in some revisionist history, tweeting, "I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the general election. I was right. Roy worked hard, but the deck was stacked against him."

[17:05:08] But that ignores the fact that the president put his full weight behind Moore, who had been accused of child molestation.

TRUMP: He says it didn't happen. And you know, you have to listen to him also.

ACOSTA: Even touting Moore's candidacy just across the Alabama border in Florida.

TRUMP: This guy is screaming, "We want Roy Moore." He's right.

ACOSTA: Republicans who have clashed with the president were celebrating Moore's defeat.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I know we're supposed to cheer for our side of the aisle, if you will, but I'm really, really happy with what happened for all of us.

ACOSTA: While Democrats argued the Senate should wait for Jones to be seated before any vote on the GOP tax plan.

SEN. COREY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: I think it's the right thing to do, but the people of Alabama have spoken who they want to be representing them.

ACOSTA: Others in the GOP pointed fingers at Bannon, accusing the conservative firebrand of leading the party into disaster.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Not so much as a political issue, almost as a moral issue. This guy does not belong on the national stage. He looks like some disheveled drunk that wandered onto the political stage.

ACOSTA: Bannon's response to Moore's loss: no apologies.

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: That's because the Democrats hustled. And, you know, people have got to understand: if you don't turn out, they're going to turn out. They did -- you know, hat tip to these guys at the DNC.

ACOSTA: But the election in Alabama wasn't the only source of turmoil for the White House as top aide and former star of Mr. Trump's TV show, "The Apprentice," Omarosa Manigault, abruptly left her position, a reminder of the mountain of melodrama the president has brought to the West Wing that feels like a flashback.

TRUMP: Omarosa has to go. You're fired.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now the White House confirms President Trump did call senator-elect in Alabama Doug Jones. According to Jones, it was a gracious call.

But, Wolf, Republican sources close to the White House and up on Capitol Hill, they are worried that the president has not learned his lessons from Alabama. They are warning the president to stay away from Steve Bannon heading into the midterms. Moving forward, as one source told us, the president has egg on his face because he listened to Steve Bannon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta reporting from the White House. Thank you.

As the Russia investigation draws closer to the White House, Robert Mueller's boss is defending the special counsel as Republican lawmakers claim that Mueller's probe is stacked against the president.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, the deputy attorney general, he stood his ground today during extensive questioning up on Capitol Hill.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: He did, Wolf. Rod Rosenstein, he offered a full-throated defense of his pick to lead the Russia probe. It was a contentious hearing at times, where Rosenstein was unwavering in his support of the special counsel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): President Trump's deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, found himself taking incoming fire from members of the president's party today, defending the Russia investigation and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who he appointed, from Republican charges of bias.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think it would be very difficult, Congressman, for anybody to find somebody better qualified for this job. Director Mueller has, throughout his lifetime, been a dedicated and respected and heroic public servant. I believe he was an ideal choice for this task.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is unbelievable. And I'm here to tell you, Mr. Rosenstein, I think the public's trust in this whole thing is gone.

SCHNEIDER: Under relentless questioning by members of the House Judiciary Committee, Rosenstein repeatedly said he sees no reason to remove Mueller.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you seen good cause to fire Special Counsel Mueller? ROSENSTEIN: No.

SCHNEIDER: And he suggested to Democrats on the committee that the president has not pressured him to do so either.

ROSENSTEIN: I am not going to be discussing my communications with the president, but I can tell you that nobody has communicated to me a desire to remove Robert Mueller.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you afraid of President Trump firing you?

ROSENSTEIN: No, I'm not, Congressman.

SCHNEIDER: Rosenstein also dismissed any idea President Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty, something former FBI Director James Comey suggested Trump had wanted from him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it ever appropriate for the president of the United States to demand a Department of Justice official or FBI director take a loyalty pledge?

ROSENSTEIN: I don't have any opinion about that, Congressman. Nobody's asked me to take a loyalty pledge other than the oath of office.

SCHNEIDER: Rosenstein's staunch defense of the special counsel came as Republicans accused Mueller's team of being influenced by politics, suggesting the special counsel had hired partisans looking to take down President Trump.

Congressman Steve Chabot ticked through a list of contributions he says some members of Mueller's team have made to Democrats over multiple election cycles, declaring it evidence of bias.

REP. STEVE CHABOT (R), OHIO: How with a straight face can you say that this group of Democrat partisans are unbiased and will give President Trump a fair shake?

SCHNEIDER: And Republican members pointed to newly-disclosed anti- Trump text messages between two employees at the FBI: Agent Peter Strzok, who helped lead the Clinton e-mail server investigation, and FBI lawyer Lisa Page. The two exchanged hundreds of texts throughout the presidential campaign in 2016 when they were allegedly having an affair.

Page texting in March, 2016, "God, Trump is a loathsome human."

Strzok responded, "Yet he may win."

[17:10:04] Another exchange said, "Oh, my God, he's an idiot. He's awful."

Strzok had been assigned to Mueller's investigation but was removed by Mueller this summer when he learned about the texts. Rosenstein stressed the inspector general is now investigating those messages along with the handling of the Clinton e-mail server investigation, pushing back on Republican calls to immediately appoint a second special counsel.

ROSENSTEIN: If we believe there was a basis for an investigation or a special counsel, I can assure you that we would act.

SCHNEIDER: Under questioning by Democrats, Rosenstein pointed out that Mueller was appointed FBI director by both Republican and Democratic presidents and confirmed unanimously by the Senate, saying that political affiliations or opinions are different than bias.

ROSENSTEIN: We recognize we have employees with political opinions, and it's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions. Pardon me.

And so I believe that Director Mueller understands that and that he is running that office appropriately. Recognizing that people have political views, but ensuring that those views are not in any way a factor in how they conduct themselves in office.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: But Rosenstein's defense did not placate Republicans. And now the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn, he is calling for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to clean house of people on his team who have been politically active or have made comments critical of the president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Schneider reporting. Thank you very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. So you're on the Judiciary Committee. You heard the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. He was before the House Judiciary Committee today. Faced all these questions about whether a second special counsel is needed to investigate potential conflicts of interest in the Robert Mueller probe. What did you make of his answers?

COONS: Well, I agree with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, that in Robert Mueller, we have a Republican who was nominated by a Republican to serve as FBI director and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. He is conducting his investigation, to the best of my knowledge -- and this is what Rosenstein testified to today -- in an impartial and balanced manner.

Where there have been allegations brought forward about bias or political views by folks who are involved in any way, he has removed them, reassigned them or demoted them. That's what we would expect would happen and I don't think we should appoint new special counsels simply because there are members of the House would like us to look into. I do believe that the House Judiciary Committee, the Senate Judiciary

Committee and the relevant Intelligence Committees are fully capable of looking into these concerns and making sure they're aired fully, as they were today in the House. I continue to have real confidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

BLITZER: The Justice Department, as you heard, they handed over these very blunt anti-Trump text messages sent by an FBI agent who has since been demoted. Do those texts show a bias against the president in the Mueller investigation?

COONS: No. But they show that that FBI agent had some strong personal opinions. Once that had come to light, he was removed. He was not in a position of leadership of the Mueller investigation. And I don't think this compromises or even complicates the ongoing Mueller investigation.

BLITZER: Do you believe Robert Mueller is safe in his role as the special counsel?

COONS: I think it's important to make it clear that there are bipartisan efforts to make sure that the independence of the Department of Justice, respect for rule of law is moving forward.

As you know, Senator Tillis and introduced a bill a number of months ago. Senator Graham and Senator Booker introduced a bill a number of months ago. We've had a hearing on the Judiciary Committee. We are working out the differences in language, and I hope we will soon be reintroducing a consensus bipartisan bill that would strengthen some of the protections for any special counsel.

BLITZER: Would it -- if it were to pass, and I don't know if it would pass, even though you do have bipartisan support. But let's say it were to pass, would it guarantee that Mueller could not be fired?

COONS: No. But it would ensure that a special counsel, Robert Mueller or another, could only be fired for good cause. In Department of Justice regulations, it calls out what those are. Sort of gross impropriety or a conflict of interest, dereliction of duty. It means the special counsel can't be fired for no reason but it does lay out reasons for which the special counsel could be fired and then puts in place a process by which a three-judge panel could review that firing.

I think it is a -- a responsible, balanced step to make sure that going forward, special counsels aren't subject to being fired at the whims of the president or of leaders in the Department of Justice.

BLITZER: Senator, let me switch quickly to the Alabama Senate race. Could Doug Jones' victory put the Senate in play for Democrats next year?

COONS: Well, it certainly shows that the voters of Alabama are taking another look at the Trump administration and at who's running on the Republican ticket.

[17:15:14] In this particular case, I think it's important for us to look at who the citizens of Alabama voted for. A dedicated public servant, an experienced prosecutor, someone who stood up for civil rights. And the fact that Doug Jones was able to win in a deeply red state that hasn't elected a statewide Democrat in 25 years, that there was terrific and strong turnout across the board both by the African- American community and by folks who typically vote for Republican candidates. That that's what put him over the top.

I think that should make it clearer that there is a real chance for a Democratic sweep in the House and for Democrats to hang onto our seats, even to pick up a few seats in the Senate.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, I know you've got to run and vote.

COONS: Yes.

BLITZER: Go ahead. We'll continue our coverage in just a moment. There's a lot going on. We're following all the breaking news. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:24] BLITZER: There's breaking news. Alabama's new senator- elect, Doug Jones, just told reporters he had a very gracious call from President Trump today after his shocking win.

President Trump told reporters today that a lot of Republicans are very happy with the way the Alabama Senate race turned out. Democrat Doug Jones won despite the president's support for Republican Roy Moore. And this morning, president tweeted, quote, "I said Roy Moore would not be able to win the general election. I was right."

Let's get some insight from our political specialists. You know, Gloria, the president, he really went all-in in the last few weeks for Roy Moore.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He did.

BLITZER: How much of this was a referendum on the president's approval rating. A new -- a national poll, Monmouth poll, what shows that his approval number right now is only 32 percent. That's the same number that the Pew poll had the other day.

BORGER: Right but his approval in the state of Alabama is almost to 50 percent. I mean, that's low, considering he won the state by two to one, but he has a better approval rating there.

Look, I think it was a combination of this candidate that people found repulsive and couldn't vote for and the fact that Donald Trump jumped in at the last minute, you know, may have helped Moore almost -- almost win, but it wasn't enough. And you know, when you break down the numbers, there were -- there were enough people who held their nose and voted, and voted for a Democrat or wrote in a Democrat because of -- because of Moore.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The fact that a Democrat just won the state of Alabama is a referendum on the Republican candidate. There's no question about it.

But because President Trump went all-in and then doubled down for him in a really aggressive way, against the advice of most of the people who were in and around him talking to him, except for Steve Bannon, who gave him the opposite advice, of course, means that it is -- he helped -- he kind of went down along with Roy Moore. And certainly, it is an embarrassment, and it is a miscalculation and one that will be used against him because of the allegations against Roy Moore for years and years to come.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And I think we have to place Alabama in the larger context. This isn't the only election we've had in recent months. And you look at Virginia, for example. You look at New Jersey, you see some of the same trends continue that are beyond -- above and beyond Moore. Suburban turnout that has shifted to Democrats. And a clear reaction to Trump. Heightened Democratic turnout, particularly in this case among African-Americans.

I mean, there are a lot of warning signs here for the Republican Party.

But on that poll, Wolf, the thing that interests me is the president tweets all the time about how well the economy is doing, unemployment at a 17-year low, the stock market is up and everything. And the question is, if things are going so well, why is he doing so badly? And I think the answer has to do with his own character, his own performance, his own behavior.

BASH: Right. Things are going -- things are going well despite his performance and his behavior.

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: Well, but there's a disconnect between the good news...

BASH: Yes.

AXELROD: ... and people's attitudes toward him. And the Republican Party itself is going to have a hard time if they go into 2018 with a president with a 32 percent approval rating.

BORGER: As their cheerleader. He's not -- you know, Donald Trump as a cheerleader is not something a lot of Republicans may want. I mean, this is a man that people find personally offensive, and that's what the low approval rating is about. It's not about the economy. He does well when -- that's the one area when people say is he doing well, it's the economy.

AXELROD: The problem is he's not a cheerleader, he's a jeerleader. Right? That's what he enjoys doing. He likes picking fights. He likes...

BASH: Pretty good. Did you just come up with that?

AXELROD: I did as I was sitting here, just right here.

BORGER: That was very good.

AXELROD: This is where the magic happens.

BASH: That's why you are David Axelrod.

BLITZER: Take us inside a White House after a setback like this. You were in the inner circle in the Obama White House. There were plenty of political setbacks at the time. What's going on?

AXELROD: Thanks for pointing that out, Wolf.

You know, it was interesting. I mentioned last night that when we went through some of these setbacks, and we -- we went through a cataclysmic race in Massachusetts where we lost the Ted Kennedy seat to the Republicans. Unthinkable, really. And there was a lot of doom and gloom in this town and in the White House.

And it was the president himself who kind of pulled everybody together and said, "Hey, you know, we got our butts kicked, and now we've got to figure out how to move forward." And his attitude and his sort of calm and his focus really lifted everybody else up. It may be that that's what's happening in the White House today, but I think highly doubtful.

[17:25:19] BASH: Can I just add the thing that I'm going to be most interested in, in looking at Donald Trump and his approval ratings and just how it translates in 2018 when he's not on the ballot but other Republicans are, is whether there's a mirror between what is going to go on here and what went on in the Obama years. In that President Obama was a unique figure. And that he could win for himself, but when he tried to help other people, it didn't always translate. And the question is whether that's going to happen with President Trump.

BLITZER: Good point. All right. Everybody stand by. There's more we're following now. New information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Let's take a break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with our political specialists.

[17:30:36] You know, Dana, up on the Hill, what's been the reaction so far among Republicans to this win by Doug Jones against Roy Moore?

BASH: Probably a very odd sense of relief, because they're feeling relieved that a Democrat won a seat. But that is the truth. I mean, it really is. Because of the fact that they were bracing for a meeting that they were going to have this morning to discuss what the next steps would be if Roy Moore were elected to the Senate. How they were going to work through the process of doing a different kind of investigation or a more formal investigation that the "Washington Post" and other news outlets did and put it through the process to potentially expel one of their own for the first time in over 150 years. They don't have to do that. And I think even more importantly, to a person, if you remember, the

president went all-in on Roy Moore. The RNC put money back in after pulling out. Not -- no one -- not one member of the Republican Caucus said that they thought...

BLITZER: In the Senate.

BASH: In the Senate said that they thought that Roy Moore should be one of their colleagues. And they think that, to a person, that at the end of the day it's not great to have a one-vote majority, but it's good for the Republican brand.

BORGER: And if you're Mitch McConnell today, obviously you're not happy to have lost a seat. But if you're Mitch McConnell, who had been engaged in this huge battle with Steve Bannon, and the president -- and Steve Bannon wants to take him down and take him out and change the Senate. And the president sided with Steve Bannon over this.

I'm sure you don't go in and tell the president "I told you so." You're about -- but you're about to deliver him, potentially, a victory on tax cuts, and you may feel emboldened or a little bit more muscular to be able to say to the president, "You know, next time listen to me when it comes to picking who the candidates are and who can get elected, because this guy could not get elected and a lot of these people that Steve Bannon wants to run are going to lose, too. So listen to me."

AXELROD: It was interesting. It took about ten seconds after the race was called for all of the anonymous quotes to start emanating, many of them from the White House, all aimed at Steve Bannon.

You know, when you set yourself up as this sort of messianic leader of a historic, revolutionary movement and you fall on your butt, there are a lot of people who have knives out for you. And Steve Bannon is a big target today.

BLITZER: But he clearly had an impact and an influence on the president's decision to support Roy Moore.

AXELROD: There's no -- I think that's true. And I think the president sort of -- you come into favor and you fall out of favor. And I think he was very angry at McConnell for talking him into being for Luther Strange against Roy Moore. Now he may be angry with Bannon for persuading him.

We should say one small thing. I do think the president had some impact on this race in favor of Moore, in the sense that you saw the late-breaking vote going for Moore.

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: I think in those places close to where he campaigned, he probably had some influence. It's just that, much as in Virginia, where there was a heightened turnout in some of these Republican areas, it was dwarfed by the turnout in these Democratic areas. Apropos to our earlier discussion, the question is can the president

campaign for candidates and not only galvanize his own constituency but also hyper-galvanize the opposition?

BORGER: You know, and I don't think Bannon is going to back off one bit.

AXELROD: No.

BORGER: I think this is -- he's going to use this to energize his people to go after the establishment even more. So the tensions that existed before are only going to get exacerbated.

BLITZER: Steve Bannon's on the record as saying he only wants Ted Cruz among the incumbent senators...

BORGER: Right. Right.

BLITZER: ... up for re-election next year to be re-elected. He's going -- he wants others to replace all these other incumbent Republicans.

BASH: Because the goal at the end of the day is very clear and very specific. He wants Mitch McConnell and the current Republican leadership gone. He wants them ousted. And the only way he believes he can do that is by electing different Republicans, new Republicans who are giving him a "no Mitch McConnell" pledge.

The problem that he has, that Mitch McConnell is saying, "I told you so" today, is if you pick a Republican like that, they're much more likely to be more extreme and unlikely to be able to be elected in the general election in the state.

[17:35:16] BLITZER: Good point. All right, everybody stand by. There's more coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, including some more breaking news. The president's son, Donald Trump Jr., has been up on Capitol Hill for hours, taking questions from investigators. We're going to give you an update.

Also breaking, a top U.S. counterterrorism official criticizes President Trump's policies and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:40:17] BLITZER: Breaking news now. Donald Trump Jr. has been in a marathon all-day session with Senate Intelligence Committee staffers.

Let's go live to Capitol Hill. Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is watching all of this unfold. What are you learning, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: yes, I just spoke to Senator Mark Warner, who's the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And I asked him about this interview. I said, "Has Donald Trump Jr. been cooperative so far in this interview with staff members?"

And he said, "Well, look, I want members of this committee, senators themselves to ask questions of Donald Trump Jr."

So the top Democrat on the committee is telling me that he wants Donald Trump Jr. to come back again for another session to answer questions from the members themselves.

Remember, Wolf, this is just staff members, part of this investigation. They typically have staff-level investigations and interviews. They talk to these interview witnesses for hours. This has been happening since 10 a.m. this morning. Donald Trump Jr. has been behind closed doors.

This is the third committee he has met with on Capitol Hill. He did meet with the House Intelligence Committee members last week. And he also met with the Senate Judiciary Committee staff on -- in September as part of each of those committees' own investigations.

Clearly, Wolf, a lot of questions about Donald Trump Jr.'s own contacts with Russians during the campaign, and, of course, that June 2016 meeting in which he was promised dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign, met with others, including Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and other Russian operatives at that meeting that he later said was an issue about Russian adoptions. And the questions about how they responded to the news media initially when the news first emerged earlier this summer, whether they were truthful to the public about exactly what happened there.

Those questions undoubtedly will have been covered in today's marathon session. But the news just moments ago: Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee saying, look, Donald Trump Jr., it's great he's talking to staff but he's got to come back and talk to the members themselves. We'll see if they agree to do just though

BLITZER: Manu, thanks very much.

We have more breaking news. A top counterterrorism official here in Washington who is leaving his government post just told CNN that President Trump's policies, his anti-Muslim rhetoric, are making counterterrorism more difficult.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. So, Jim, what are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: So keep in mind, this is the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, which is the intelligence agency charged with protecting the homeland from terror attacks.

And to be clear, Nick Rasmussen, who's been there for a number of years, is leaving now a year into the Trump administration, is not referencing a specific tweet or comment from a specific individual, but he's talking about the overall environment. In fact, I pressed him, and I said, included in this are the president's tweets, anti- Muslim tweets at times, policy, the travel ban, for instance, that offends Muslim-majority countries. And I said, "Are you saying that that environment is making this job more difficult?" And his answer simply was yes.

He went on to say, "I don't think it's arguable that it's more difficult when the environment is contaminated by mutually suspicion. If you're increasing the amount of suspicion and distress on these communities, it places more challenges in our way."

Of course he's referencing there, Wolf, Muslim communities, because you will hear from people like him that, you know, you need those communities and cooperation with Muslim communities because they're going to help you identify potential actors, bad actors here.

And he's not alone in this -- this assessment. I met with the Manhattan D.A. earlier this week. Cyrus Vance Jr., he made a similar point that you need those communities. And when you have this kind of rhetoric, some of these policies, some of these comments, that makes their job more difficult.

BLITZER: I've spoken myself to several major U.S. counterterrorism officials who all point out the information that the U.S. has received from Muslims is information that has saved many lives and thwarted several terrorist plots.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So you don't want to alienate the Muslim-American community.

SCIUTTO: No question.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thanks very, very much.

Coming up, the man who appointed the special counsel, Robert Mueller, gets an earful from both Republicans and Democrats up on Capitol Hill.

Also coming up, conflicting signals about the possibility of U.S. talks with Kim Jong-un's North Korea. Is the U.S. ready to sit down at the negotiating table without any preconditions?

[17:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, there are conflicting signals about whether the United States is willing to negotiate with North Korea.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday appeared open to starting talks with Kim Jong-un's regime without any preconditions, but now other voices are weighing in.

Let's bring in Brian Todd. What are you hearing, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, Rex Tillerson and the White House and President Trump are not on the same page on this, and Tillerson may not even be on the same page with his own spokesperson. It could be causing confusion amongst America's allies and the North Koreans. The White House saying now is not the time for any talks because North

Korea has simply been too aggressive. Tillerson, though, has gone out on a limb, saying let's just get the North Koreans in a room and go from there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[17:49:56] TODD (voice-over): Tonight, a bold stroke from America's top diplomat leaves an opening for drawing down tensions with Kim Jong-un. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says America's ready to sit down and talk with North Korea with no preconditions.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Let's just meet. And let's -- we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it's going to be a square table or a round table if that's what you're excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face- to-face?

TODD (voice-over): Tillerson's not on the same page with President Trump. The White House telling CNN tonight that, given North Korea's most recent missile test, clearly, right now is not the time for negotiations.

President Trump tweeted in October that Tillerson was, quote, wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.

The White House says Kim's regime has to show it's willingness to end its nuclear weapons program. And has to stop provoking the U.S. before any talks can even start. Something Tillerson himself said in April.

TILLERSON: North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks.

TODD (voice-over): Tillerson now says it's not realistic to expect Kim to commit to giving up his weapons before talking to the North Koreans. But he does say Kim has to pause his missile test if they talk.

And his spokesperson said, as long as North Korea is launching missiles and testing nuclear bombs, they're not showing they're serious about talking.

Tonight, veteran diplomats and former White House officials warn the North Koreans have negotiated with America before to scale back their nuclear weapons, only to break their promises. And they say Kim's negotiators are known to act like mafia bosses at the bargaining table.

EVAN MEDEIROS, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR ASIAN AFFAIRS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: They basically treat negotiations like an ATM machine.

Every time they want to get a new cash payment, they come to the table, and they -- you know, they use the negotiations to play for time and play for advantage. And then what happens is the North Koreans say, if you don't give us X, we will walk away and conduct a provocation, a nuclear test, a missile test.

TODD (voice-over): Still some analysts say talking to Kim now while tensions are so high could at least bring the danger levels down.

JOSEPH DETRANI, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY FOR SIX PARTY TALKS WITH NORTH KOREA: They could stop the escalation. The talks could stop the missile launches. They could stop the nuclear tests. And, ultimately, down the road, stop the production of more fissile material and start moving it in the other direction.

TODD (voice-over): CNN has reached out to North Korea's mission at the U.N. for a response to Tillerson's offer for talks. We've gotten no response.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, opening the door for talks with Pyongyang is not Rex Tillerson's only big surprise tonight. He also said the administration has spoken to China about how to ensure that North Korea's nuclear weapons don't fall into the wrong hands if North Korea becomes unstable or even falls apart.

Tillerson said U.S. troops might have to cross into North Korea to make sure those weapons are secured, but that they've assured China that American forces would retreat back into South Korea once they did secure those weapons.

Wolf, extraordinary that he's even talking about that.

BLITZER: And amidst all of this, an American diplomat has gone to North Korea in recent days but under the umbrella of the United Nations, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Jeffrey Feltman is his name. He's a former Assistant Secretary of State at the State Department, but he is now a top diplomat with the United Nations.

Feltman did go to Pyongyang last week. He pressured the North Koreans to engage in more diplomacy. He said they were noncommittal, though.

And to clarify again, even Feltman is an American, he went there on behalf of the U.N.

BLITZER: He is the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, but I'm sure he went there without any preconditions.

All right, Brian. Thank you very, very much.

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