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Trump's Lawyers to Meet with Special Counsel; Tillerson Backs Off "No Preconditions" for North Korea Talks. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 15, 2017 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: -- are now preparing to meet soon with Robert Mueller and his team. What does that mean for Mr. Trump and the Russia cloud hanging over the White House?

Freeing Flynn? The president isn't dismissing the idea of a pardon for Michael Flynn suggesting it could be a possibility depending on what happens to his fired National Security adviser. Are his lawyers taking the same wait-and-see attitude?

And out of order. A jaw-dropping scene in the Senate as one of the president's judicial nominees can't answer basic legal questions asked by a member of Mr. Trump's own party. Will the embarrassing performance keep him off the bench?

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

This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Breaking tonight Republicans lift the veil of secrecy surrounding their compromise tax bill releasing new details just a little while ago. As negotiators locked in the final language, they also locked in yes votes from two GOP holdouts, Senators Marco Rubio and Bob corker. Republican leaders now apparently very confident they have enough support to pass the bill next week. But three key GOP senators have yet to publicly reveal their votes and two others have serious health problems that might keep them from voting.

Also breaking, sources now tell CNN that President Trump's personal lawyers are slated to meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team as soon as next week. We're told they are hoping to gain a clear understanding of the next steps in Mueller's investigation and what that means for the president.

This as Mr. Trump launches new attacks on the Russia probe, bashing the FBI, while he headed to a graduation ceremony over at the bureau's academy. The president again insisting there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, but just 24 hours ago two key Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees told me they believe there is evidence of an intent to collude.

Also tonight the president appears to be leaving the door open to a possible pardon for his fired National Security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI and now is cooperating with the special counsel. When asked about a Flynn pardon, Mr. Trump told reporters, and I'm quoting now, "We'll see what happens."

This hour, I'll talk with Congressman Ted Lieu, he's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly, he's up on Capitol Hill with the latest on the tax bill and whether Republicans have the votes to pass it.

Phil, new details of the bill were just made public. What are you learning?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Well, $1.5 trillion tax cut. A sweeping overhaul. Hundreds of pages long of the entire U.S. tax system. And now we know exactly what's in it.

If you look at the top line, Wolf, the Obamacare mandate, the individual mandate, that is repealed. The corporate rate, it goes from 35 percent down to 21 percent and that change would take effect in 2018. There are also cuts across the board on the individual side of things. Take a look at where they stand currently versus where they are going to be.

Right now there are seven brackets. There will still be seven brackets in the new bill, but if you walk through them with me, it's 10 percent will also stay 10 percent. The 15 percent bracket in current law drops to 12 percent. The 25 percent bracket, that drops to 22 percent. 28 percent, that drops to 24 percent. The 33 percent bracket, that drops to 32 percent. The 35 percent bracket stays the same. And the 39.6 percent top bracket drops to 37 percent.

The income threshold as to how you qualify for those brackets. Those are also shifting as well. Obviously very important on the individual side but another key point when it comes to the individual rate cuts. They expire, they sunset at the end of 2025. That's for budget reasons, Republicans trying to actually pay for this plan based on the rules that they are working with.

Now I talked about the corporate side, so also important for individuals when it comes to deduction. Now, Wolf, there were a lot of deductions that were on the chopping block throughout this entire process, a lot of deductions that the House actually ended up cutting all together. I want to walk you through some of those that still exist. These are deductions that are in current law and will remain in current law when or if this bill is signed into law.

Included the medical expense deduction, obviously a lot of people very considered about that one, when that is in the House bill. That will remain. The tax free graduate school tuition waivers, that remains. Student loan interest deductions, that remains. The teacher spending deduction, that remains. These were things that were very popular across the board. House Republicans tried to do away with them. They ended up failing in that endeavor.

The reason why they wanted to do away with them is to help pay for this bill. They ended up being too popular and they will end up surviving.

Wolf, you can also look at the state and local tax deduction. This was a key point, throughout negotiations here. They wanted to repeal it entirely. They then compromised to allow for property tax deductions capped at $10,000, that has been expanded even further.

[18:05:03] Now you can also, with your property tax deduction, include one of two things, income tax deduction or sales tax deduction. So there's an expansion there. That's important for high tax states like New Jersey, New York and California.

Where does this all leave Republicans? Obviously there are a lot more details buried in here and every industry has a lot to gain or lose by what the kind of fine print of this 500-plus page bill actually ends up in. Well, Republicans feel like they are in a very good place.

Part of the reason to change to the child tax credit, Wolf, that was at $1,000 in the current law. That was boosted up to $2,000 in the Senate version. That will be at that level in the current version. But one of the big fights back and forth was the refundability piece. Essentially how much people could get from that tax credit post their income tax liability.

So basically people that aren't making a lot of money, not very wealthy, lower income people that didn't make enough on the income tax side to be able to qualify for that credit, that has been boosted upward, from $1100 to $1400. Here's why that matters. That was enough to secure Senator Marco Rubio's vote. That was enough to make Senator Mike Lee very happy. He's still on the fence right now but he certainly said he is hopeful that he will get there.

Where does that leave Republicans all together? Wolf, if you talk to GOP leaders, if you talk to their top advisers, they make very clear. They think they are there. They essentially think they have the votes. There are three outstanding votes right now that everybody is keeping an eye on, Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, and Mike Lee. There is a belief right now, according to Senate aides that I've been talking to, that all three of them could end up coming aboard.

We also have two senators that have been out with illness, Senator McCain, Senator Thad Cochran. The hope is that they will be back early next week. They believe -- Republicans leaders believe they can pass this bill even if one or both of them is absent at this point.

Now how is this all going to work going forward? Well, House Speaker Paul Ryan I'm told from a person on one -- on the conference call he is holding with his members right now briefing them on the bill made clear they will move first, and they will move on this bill on Tuesday. Once they pass this bill, the Senate will then take it up shortly thereafter, work through the process, 10 hours of debate there.

They plan on having this bill on the president's desk by Wednesday, to sign, and again just to underscore, after a year of legislative failures, legislative efforts that went in fits and starts, and then collapses, Republicans right now are on the brink of passing something that hasn't been done in 31 years -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very curious, just about the estate tax. I know there were different versions of the House and Senate bills. What did they finally decide?

MATTINGLY: So the House bill doubled the exemption for the state tax and they ended up repealing it. The Senate doubled the exemption but had no repeal. The Senate version ended up winning out in the end. This is obviously for ideological perspective, a very key issue for Republicans, the repeal of the estate tax will not happen. One of the biggest reasons for this issue, it's expense. It costs an enormous amount of money, they are trying to do a lot of things here, whether you look at the child tax credit, whether you look at the individual rate cuts. So the exemption will be doubled but it will not be repealed, Wolf.

BLITZER: They'll go up to $11 million per person, $22 million for a couple, is that right?

MATTINGLY: That's correct, Wolf.

BLITZER: OK. Phil Mattingly, thank you very much.

And now to President Trump and his newest attempts to undermine the FBI and the Russia investigation. We're joined by our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president clearly back on the attack today.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And just as the White House was focused on what was happening over on Capitol Hill as Republicans were getting very close to putting this tax bill together, President Trump once again going off message, slamming the FBI, again describing the bureau's actions as disgraceful, and denying any collusion with the Russians during the 2016 campaign.

The president also appeared to open the door to pardoning his former National Security adviser Michael Flynn before the White House seemed to shut that down.


ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is ratcheting up his attacks on the investigators who are investigating the White House and Trump campaign officials under scrutiny in the Russia probe.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it's a shame what's happened with the FBI, but we're going to rebuild the FBI. It will be bigger and better than ever.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump seized on recent revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team after sending texts that were critical of the president.

TRUMP: It is very sad when you look at those documents and how they've done that is really, really disgraceful. And you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it. It's a very sad thing to watch, I will tell you that.

ACOSTA: The president then once again denied any wrongdoing.

TRUMP: They're spending millions and millions of dollars. There is absolutely no collusion. I didn't make a phone call to Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia. Everybody knows it.

ACOSTA: Before refusing to rule out the possibility of pardoning former National Security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators earlier this month.

TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.

ACOSTA: The White House attorney Ty Cobb threw cold water on that, saying in a statement, "There is no consideration being given to pardoning Michael Flynn at the White House."

[18:10:06] It's not the first time the president has slammed the FBI, tweeting earlier this month that the bureau's reputation was in tatters, its worst in history. The president made his latest comments about the bureau an hour before he praised federal and law enforcement officials at an FBI academy, where he again blasted the news media.

TRUMP: You see, there's the fake news back there. Look at them.


TRUMP: Fake news. No, actually some of them are fine people. About -- let's see, who's back there? Yes, about 30 percent.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Robert Mueller's merry band of Democratic donors.

ACOSTA: But the president appears to be echoing complaints on conservative media and from GOP lawmakers about the Mueller investigation.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: It's as if when Bob Mueller picked his team he was fishing in the "never Trump" aquarium.

ACOSTA: The attacks on federal law enforcement officials come little more than a year after then-Trump surrogate and now White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted, "When you're attacking FBI agents because you're under a criminal investigation, you're losing."

Democrats worry the groundwork is being laid for the president to dump Mueller.

REP. DENNY HECK (D), WASHINGTON: I think the fact that Bob Mueller removed somebody for those text messages is, in fact, proof that Bob Mueller is committed to undertaking this investigation with the utmost of integrity.

ACOSTA: The president's intense focus on the Mueller probe is yet another distraction for GOP leaders who are trying to pass tax cuts before leaving for the holidays.


ACOSTA: Republicans want to move on the tax plan before incoming Alabama Senator Doug Jones is seated after defeating Roy Moore. Mr. Trump is ready for Moore to concede that race.

TRUMP: I think he should. He tried. I want to support -- always I want to support the person running. We need the seat. We'd like to have the seat. I think we're doing very well on the tax. We'll see what happens.


ACOSTA: And while he was praising the FBI, the president was once -- excuse me, while he was criticizing the FBI we should point out the president was once again praising Russian president Vladimir Putin. The president after talking to Putin yesterday over here at the White House by phone said he appreciated the Russian president's kind words about Mr. Trump's performance on the economy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he did. All right. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, at the White House.

And we also have some breaking news on the Russia investigation tonight. Our justice correspondent Evan Perez is joining us with details.

Evan, tell us about this potentially important meeting that is now clearly in the works.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, sources tell us that the president's lawyers are planning to meet with the Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team we're told as soon as next week for what the president's lawyers are hoping will be a chance to find out the next steps in the Mueller investigation.

Now the Trump legal team led by John Dowd and Jay Sekulow is hoping that they can see signs that the end is near in the Mueller investigations. They've had other meetings but here's why this one is of significance. The White House says that everyone who works there and who Mueller has asked to interview has now gone in for interview. One of the last ones happened earlier this week when White House counsel Don McGahn sat down for his interview.

The White House has also finished turning over documents that were requested by the special counsel. Now there's no request to interview the president or the vice president at this point. We just received this statement from Sekulow and he says, quote, "We not and will not discuss our periodic communications with the special counsel."

Wolf, of course the Trump lawyers know that Mueller could still come back to ask for more interviews and for more documents. And it's important to note that there is no requirement for Mueller to actually give them any information. They are hoping he's going to show them his cards, but there is a chance he won't do that.

The bottom line is the president and Republicans, Wolf, are getting inpatient. They want the cloud of this investigation lifted.

BLITZER: Evan, is there a sense of how quickly this investigation is now moving?

PEREZ: Well, the Mueller investigation is actually moving relatively quickly compared to typical white collar criminal investigation that often stretch into years. He's been on the job about seven months or so and already Mueller has brought charges against four people including two who have pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.

Other lawyers representing people involved in the case that we've talked to, Wolf, don't see any signs that this is wrapping up soon. Sources tell us that questions being asked by investigators deal with the firing of the former FBI director James Comey and details of the White House handling of that 2016 Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Junior set up with Russians offering negative information on Hillary Clinton.

We know that some members of Mueller's team are specifically assigned to the issue of obstruction of justice. And we don't know what else Mueller is still digging into -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan, we heard concerns yesterday from Congressman Adam Schiff, he's the top Democrat in the Intelligence Committee that the House investigation could be shut down. Is there a chance Mueller's investigation could be shut down as well?

PEREZ: Look, we don't know and the odds are against that. But we do know that Republicans are getting inpatient. And we heard today from Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida, he's saying he wants Republicans to join him to shut down the Mueller investigation.

[18:15:10] The congressional investigations obviously depend on the patience of Republicans. If they decide that they've had enough, they can stop the congressional investigations. But shutting down Mueller's investigation is another thing entirely. It's certainly more treacherous politically, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

Evan Perez, good reporting. Thank you very much.

So let's get some more in all of this with Congressman Ted Lieu of California. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. TED LIEU (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Wolf. BLITZER: All right. So how significant is it, the reporting we just

heard, that President Trump's personal attorneys are going to be meeting with Robert Mueller and his team maybe as early as next week?

LIEU: I think it is significant. It shows that Robert Mueller is getting closer to what may or may not have happened with the president of the United States. But keep in mind Robert Mueller would not have entered into a plea deal with Michael Flynn to get people under Michael Flynn. He entered that plea deal, a single charge, to go after people above Michael Flynn. There's only a handful of those folks including the president.

BLITZER: Well, are you -- speaking of the president, are you surprised, based on our reporting, that Robert Mueller and his team have not asked for a sit-down for an interview with the president?

LIEU: They may ask at that meeting. We don't know what that meeting will be about. But I think it's significant that they now want to talk to the president's own lawyers.

BLITZER: Yesterday here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, a man you know, also from California, he told me he is very worried, very worried that Republicans are now trying to end the entire House Intelligence Committee investigation, that they may try to end the special counsel's investigation as well.

Do you believe those concerns of his are valid?

LIEU: I do. Now keep in mind Congress cannot end the special counsel investigation. The FBI decides to end that. So even if Special Counsel Mueller was removed, the FBI continues the investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein would take over and then a new special counsel would be appointed. But the FBI keeps on going until the FBI decides to shut it down. There is no indication that that's going to happen any time soon.

BLITZER: So what's your biggest concern right now?

LIEU: My biggest concern is that the president tries do what Richard Nixon did, a Saturday night massacre where he tries to fire multiple official in the Department of Justice who are investigating him. I hope he doesn't do that.

BLITZER: He'd have to fire Rod Rosenstein if Rosenstein doesn't do what he wants, get rid of the Mueller investigation. He's the deputy attorney general that oversees that investigation.

LIEU: That's correct. And Rod Rosenstein testified this week before the House Judiciary Committee, he said there was no cause to fire Robert Mueller. And then under oath, he said every action Robert Mueller took had legal and factual basis. And keep in mind Robert Mueller is a Vietnam veteran, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, he is a man of integrity.

BLITZER: And he was 12 years the FBI director. LIEU: Yes.

BLITZER: Nominated by a Republican and Democratic president, spent 12 years as the head of the FBI.

Congressman Schiff, man you know once again, he said there were very credible allegations, he told me this yesterday, of Russian money laundering through the Trump Organizations and that Republicans in the House are blocking their committee from subpoenaing those bank records. What do you make of that?

LIEU: I think that's unfortunate. I think Republicans need to let the facts come forward. They should not be afraid of what the documents are going to show. And I don't even see how they could shut down this investigation when they don't have all the facts. We don't know what Michael Flynn is going to say when he cooperates with the special counsel. The Intelligence Committee needs to at least know what that cooperation is, what Michael Flynn says. They can't shut down the committee before they get that information.

BLITZER: Do you believe there was evidence -- there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?

LIEU: Oh, absolutely. We already know that lower level individuals like George Papadopoulos attempted to collude. We know that Donald Trump Junior attempted to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. The only question is how high up did this go and who knew about it above Michael Flynn.

BLITZER: And what do you think?

LIEU: I think Jared Kushner is in trouble. There's reporting today that he is looking at hiring a crisis public relations firm. You only do that if you think a crisis is about to hit you.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, he's got a good lawyer, Abby Lowell, he's a well-known criminal defense attorney, white collar, here in Washington.

The Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he was asked today about the idea of appointing a special second counsel. He defended the transparency of the Justice Department in light of all the concerns raised by bunch of critics out there. And you know them well. And then he said this, this is the Attorney General Jeff Sessions.


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We intend to monitor our people, to maintain high standards. But I've got to tell you, sometimes things that might appear to be bad in the press have more innocent explanations. And so fairness and justice should also be provided to our personnel.


[18:20:04] BLITZER: Are you confident that the attorney general will allow the special counsel's investigation to unfold free of any outside pressure?

LIEU: On the Russia investigation Attorney General Sessions is recused, so it's really the FBI director, Special Counsel Mueller, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. With other investigations I do believe Attorney General Sessions can be impartial in other criminal investigations, yes.

BLITZER: We've got to take a quick break, Congressman. Stand by. We have more questions for you. We'll resume the interview right after this.


[18:25:10] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California. We're following the breaking news in the Russia investigation. CNN learning that the president's lawyers are planning to meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team as soon as next week.

Among other things the president said today, he was asked if he was planning on pardoning Michael Flynn, the fired National Security adviser, who pled guilty, the president said I don't want to talk about pardons with Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see. Your reaction?

LIEU: If the president pardons Michael Flynn because he's afraid of what Michael Flynn is going to say and his cooperation with Special Counsel Mueller, that's obstruction of justice and it's also grounds for impeachment. You just can't do that. You can't try to affect this investigation by pardoning a witness who may say something bad against you.

BLITZER: But don't you think that Mueller and his team in accepting this plea bargain agreement with Michael Flynn, he pled guilty, he's a convicted felon right now, they got everything out of him in the course of all of the discussions they had leading up to that plea agreement?

LIEU: We don't know. We don't know exactly what all the conversations have been. But Robert Mueller has been very smart. He only charged Michael Flynn with one count. Meaning that state prosecutors could go after Michael Flynn for other alleged crimes Michael Flynn engaged in and the president cannot pardon him for those crimes.

BLITZER: But why do you think it would be an obstruction of justice if the president were to pardon Michael Flynn? The president has the authority under the Constitution to issue pardons.

LIEU: He does unless the reason is to prevent negative information from coming to the president. Then in that case you're trying to use the pardon power to effect investigations against yourself.

Now it's clear that no one knows what's going to happen. This will be a constitutional crisis. It's a gray area. I do have to say the president is doing a lot of things that are in constitutional gray area but my view is it would be obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee has asked the chairman to issue subpoenas to the Trump campaign to get information about those data analysts to see if they have any contacts who are working -- the data analysts who were working with the Trump campaign, any contacts with WikiLeaks or any foreign actors. Is there a reluctance to do that now -- and you're on the Judiciary Committee -- on the part of your Republican colleagues?

LIEU: Absolutely. The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have been stonewalling. They've been trying to shut down any attempt to investigate the Trump campaign or collusion. I think that's unfortunate. And my hope is that if there is a change in the makeup of Congress next November, that we will have robust investigations in the House Judiciary Committee.

BLITZER: The president clearly enjoyed what Putin said about him yesterday in the phone conversation. The president said nice things about Putin. But as you know the deadline to impose new U.S. sanctions against Russia for its meddling in the U.S. president election is quickly approaching that legislation. It was passed overwhelmingly in August, overwhelmingly in the House, Senate, the president reluctantly signed it into law.

What can you and your colleagues do if the president slow walks it, refuses to implement those sanctions against Russia?

LIEU: Well, let me first say, it's another sad day for America when the president attacks the FBI but praises former KGB official Vladimir Putin. And the president and his administration have been dragging their feet on the bipartisan, bicameral sanctions that Congress passed against Russia. It's my hope that they will implement the sanctions by the deadline. If not, then Congress could in fact pass another law that would force those sanctions to occur on a bicameral, bipartisan basis.

BLITZER: Congressman Ted Lieu, thanks so much for joining us.

LIEU: Thank you.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Just ahead, we'll have more on the breaking news on the Russia investigation. Will the president's lawyers get what they want in a meeting with the special counsel, especially when Mr. Trump is very busy criticizing the FBI?


TRUMP: When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories this hour, including a key meeting in the works between President Trump's lawyers and the special counsel and this team.

[18:34:06] Let's bring in our correspondents and analysts. Abby, what does it say to you, that the president's lawyers, the private attorneys not the White House counsels, the private lawyers, will be meeting with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his team as early as next week?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they've been from the beginning trying to project cooperation with the special counsel investigation, trying to get a handle on it by giving them what they need and saying that eventually, it will exonerate their client.

It seems like what they're trying to do is just find out what's going on, which is a pretty standard thing for lawyers to do. We know that the White House interviews are finished and that they're done interviewing, for the most part, interviewing White House staffers. So the question for the president's lawyers is what's next? And what more can they need?

They've been telling the president, we know, that this thing is coming to a close soon. They need to find out whether that's true or not.

COOPER: What do you think, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I think this meeting may be more hyped than -- than deserved. You know, there is a constant give and take between prosecutors and people who are the subjects of investigations, their lawyers, that is. And it often deals with logistical matters in terms of interviews, in terms of document production.

You know, one big question that is certainly out there is whether or when Mueller's team will be able to interview President Trump. And it will certainly be Dowd and Sekulow who will be making the decision with the president about -- about whether such an interview takes place. And I wouldn't be surprised if that is at least one subject that comes up when this meeting takes place.

BLITZER: But correct me if I'm wrong: If Mueller says they want to question the president of the United States, can the president turn him down?

TOOBIN: Well, he can turn down a -- a request for an informal interview. There's never an obligation to talk to a FBI agent. The question, then, for Mueller would be would they issue a grand jury subpoena? And would he then try to fight that in court or would he testify?

Bill Clinton, of course, did testify on video during the Ken Starr investigation. Hillary Clinton went down to the courthouse to testify in the grand jury in the Whitewater case. That is as much a political judgment as a legal judgment. But the question of the president's testimony, his cooperation, that's

been hanging out there unresolved. And certainly, that -- that is a question that very well might come up in this meeting.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be a significant moment indeed.

Kaitlan, you cover the White House for us, as well. How does the White House view the status of this entire Robert Mueller investigation right now?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they consistently have said, as Abby was pointing out, that they think it's wrapping up, and we don't really know why they keep saying that. There's been no indication about that from the special counsel's office.

And I think the last time that multiple people from inside the White House were going on television shows and saying that was shortly before the whole Flynn plea deal was found out.

So we've got all of that going on. And then the White House -- also another interesting aspect is how we've seen the president be surrounded by people who are reaffirming his position that this is a waste of time and a waste of money. And that's continued to go on as, when he was on Air Force One last week, he was with Congressman Matt Gaetz, and this morning on CNN, Matt Gaetz was calling on Republicans to call on Bob Mueller to be fired and saying that he needs to, quote, "put up or shut up."

So it's a very interesting aspect to see those people who have continued to re-affirm that this is a hoax and a waste and whatnot and a witch hunt.

BLITZER: You know, earlier today, you know, the -- Rebecca, the president said what's going on with the investigation right now, and the FBI, he said "It's very very disgraceful. You have a lot of angry people that are seeing it. It's a very sad thing to watch."

But we heard a different line from the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, when he was asked about all of this today. Listen.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We intend to monitor our people, to maintain high standards. But I've got to tell you: sometimes things that might appear to be bad in the press have more innocent explanations. And so fairness and justice is also -- should also be provided to our personnel.


BLITZER: He seemed to be open to letting the Mueller investigation play out its course.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he certainly sidestepped the question, Wolf. And that's significant. I mean, despite the fact that he -- that Sessions has obviously recused himself in this case, which is an important thing to consider, he certainly wasn't defending the investigation. He certainly wasn't defending the FBI itself and the bias or lack thereof of the people who work in the FBI. And that's pretty significant coming from the attorney general, the lead law enforcement officer in the United States.

BLITZER: Let me ask Jeffrey to weigh in. Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Well, just consider how amazing it is that the president of the United States is attacking, over and over again, the attorney general, the Justice Department, the FBI, calling them biased, calling them incompetent, saying a lot of people are upset about it.

You know who "a lot of people" are? "A lot of people" are the people who watch FOX News. Other than that, a lot of people are actually not upset about this investigation. That's shown, you know, over and over again in the polls.

And, you know, the question here is whether the president is really going to take action with pardons or trying to fire Mueller. And every time the president threatens pardons or he threatens to shut down the office, you hear Ty Cobb, you know, in the White House say, "Oh, well, pardons are not under consideration."

You know, between Ty Cobb and President Trump, one of them is president of the United States. And I think I would listen to him more than the lawyer about what's really going to happen in this investigation.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Judging the president's judicial nominee, who failed to answer basic legal questions that should have been softballs from a Republican senator. The video now going viral.


[18:44:45] BLITZER: We're back with our correspondents and analysts and stunning video that speaks volumes about one of the president's judicial nominees, Jeffrey Peterson. Let me play this clip for you. This is one of the president's judicial nominees. He's -- presumably, if he's confirmed by the Senate, will have a lifetime position on the U.S. District Court here in Washington D.C.

He was questioned by Republican Senator John Kennedy during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Watch this.


SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Can you raise your hand on this one, if you will, to save a little time. Have any of you not tried a case to verdict in a courtroom? Mr. Petersen? Have you ever tried a jury trial?



KENNEDY: Criminal?




KENNEDY: State or federal court?

PETERSEN: I have not.

KENNEDY: OK. Have you ever taken a deposition?

PETERSEN: I was involved in taking depositions when I was associate when I first came out of law school. But that was --

KENNEDY: How many depositions?

PETERSEN: I would -- I'd be struggling to remember.

KENNEDY: Less than 10?


KENNEDY: Less than 5?

PETERSEN: Probably somewhere in that range.

KENNEDY: Have you ever taken a deposition by yourself?

PETERSEN: I believe, no.

KENNEDY: OK. Have you ever argued a motion in state court?

PETERSEN: I have not.

KENNEDY: Have you ever argued a motion in federal court?


KENNEDY: Can you tell me what the Daubert standard is?

PETERSEN: Senator Kennedy, I don't have that readily at my disposal.

KENNEDY: Do you know what a motion in limine is?

PETERSEN: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition at the table.

KENNEDY: Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?

PETERSEN: I've heard of it, but again.

KENNEDY: How about the Pullman abstention document? You'll see that a lot in federal court.


BLITZER: Let me get Jeffrey's reaction. Go ahead.

TOOBIN: Wolf, I know, I know Daubert.

BLITZER: I know you know the answers to all those.

TOOBIN: But you know what? Every second year law student knows those answers.

Just -- you know, for those keeping score at home, Daubert relates to expert witnesses. Motion in limine limit evidence of advance of trial. And abstention relates to state versus federal law.

I mean, it was so painful. It was so awful. Now, the interesting thing to know about that is, you know, Kennedy has a questionnaire from Mr. Petersen in advance. He knew the answers to those questions in advance. So, I mean, he was appalled.

The reason he asked those questions was to embarrass Peterson and really to embarrass the Trump administration for putting up such a grievously unqualified nominee. But, I mean, oh, so painful. Wow.

BLITZER: Abby, what does it say about the vetting of these? This is a lifetime appointment on the U.S. federal district court here in Washington D.C.?

PHILLIP: And he's not the only one. There have several nominees who faced similar issues, maybe they've never tried a court, never tried a case as in this person's case.

This administration has been working overtime to get these nominees into the court in part because this is a huge priority for Mitch McConnell. At the time same time, the nominees, some of them being voted not qualified for the American Bar Association, which in past administrations would completely disqualify you from even getting into the Senate. We have also heard some Republican senators wanting to get rid of the process, making it easier for them to get through.

You know, Kennedy has been very vocal. He does not think that unqualified judges should get to this stage in part because they can't be voted out or taken out of office. They are there for the rest of their natural lives.

TOOBIN: Can I add one point, Wolf?

BLITZER: Go ahead.

TOOBIN: It is worth remembering that they have gotten through a lot of judges. Because Mitch McConnell stopped President Obama from having any judges confirmed in his last year, starting of course with Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court.

So, there is a wide open field. And the Republicans have nominated a lot of very highly qualified and very conservative judges on gay rights, on voting rights, on a affirmative action, on church state relations. They are moving the courts to the right and many of their nominees are highly qualified and they are also very conservative.

BLITZER: Has the White House said anything about this embarrassing Q&A that this nominee had with Senator Kennedy?

COLLINS: Yes, they had, they put out a statement something about the president's opponents getting in the way. And it's like, really, Senator Kennedy is a Republican who endorsed the president multiple times.

PHILLIP: The president has endorsed.

COLLINS: The president has campaigned on his behalf. That was almost laughable. And it's not that outrageous of a stance to want someone who's having a lifetime appointment to be qualified. So, the White House statement on this was just wildly bizarre. I don't know how to react to it when I saw it.

BLITZER: And does the president personally, as far as we know, get involved in these nominees?

[18:50:04] Or is there a group in the White House outside the White House, that's pushing these nominees?

BERG: No, this is absolutely not the president himself. You have staffers that are supposed to be experts, who's supposed to research these nominees and then send forward qualified nominees to the Senate. Obviously, there's a breakdown in that process for this administration, and we've seen throughout the presidency so far that there is disorganizations and chaos, some people not doing their jobs. That's an example of that.

PHILLIP: And they just have a lot of nominees to fill. I mean, in addition to what Jeffrey just talked about, not letting Obama fill some of these posts, there was already a backlog even before then. So, they just have a really, really deep well that they have to fill and they're clearly scraping at the bottom of the barrel at this point by some of these.

BLITZER: Yes, these are lifetime appointments.

Yes, very quickly, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: Mr. Petersen shouldn't quit his day job, I don't think.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Well, let's see what happens on that front.

All right, guys. Stand by. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses the United Nations and North Korea threat. We're going to talk about the key line of the speech that he decided to leave out. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:55:33] BLITZER: Tonight, Secretary of State Tillerson is modifying his message on North Korea after his earlier offer of talks without preconditions was publicly smacked down by the White House. Tillerson appearing before the U.N. Security Council, warned that Kim Jong-un's regime must earn its way back to the table.

Let's bring in our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski and our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott.

Michelle, it sure sounds like the secretary of state is reversing his position from earlier in the week that he would talk directly with the North Koreans anytime and without any preconditions. What's behind this reversal?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right. Yes, and this was confusing from the start because even three days ago when he was basically saying to North Korea, come on down, we can talk anytime about anything you want. He also mentioned a couple of things that sounded at least mildly like preconditions.

But today, he was all about one big precondition. That there would have to be a sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening activity before the U.S. would sit down to talks. So, the State Department is denying that the White House or anybody made him change tune on this.

But adding to the strangeness is that in his prepared remarks, which we saw ahead of time, he actually repeated that line from a few days ago, about not needing any preconditions before the U.S. sits down with North Korea. Then he took it out. He didn't use that line during his address.

Did seem like a couple of times today he was trying to either please the White House or be more aligned with them. Not the least of which was he opened both of his address and the press conference afterwards by quoting President Trump on the seriousness of the North Korean threat, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Elise, what are you hearing from officials? How serious is the possibility of direct U.S. North Korean talks?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't think U.S. North Korean talks are in the offing right now. I mean, the North Koreans have said they want some kind of parity, military parity with the U.S. before they sit down. That's obviously not going to happen.

But everybody the common wisdom is that they want some kind of nuclear deterrent that gives them strength at the table and that's the feeling that Jeff Feltman, the former American diplomat at the U.N. got when he went there. And so, at the same time, the North Korean seem to be reaching out through the Russians, through the Chinese, and some people think maybe this U.N. channel is a good way for them to talk.

BLITZER: You know, Elise, Senator Graham said this week there's a 30 percent chance that President Trump would have to use the military option against North Korea. What are you hearing from your sources?

LABOTT: I don't think, I don't know where he gets that percentage. I think the one kind of sure bet is that if President Trump did see the North Koreans in the final stages of assembling a full nuclear weapon, not just the warhead, but also the delivery system, he might go at it.

But I think nobody wants to go to war. That's why Secretary Tillerson is clearly making this diplomatic effort. But look, there's an interest in this kind of posturing because the Chinese don't think it would be a credible option. Maybe then they would start to press a little bit more.

BLITZER: Michelle, how does the threat of military action factor into current negotiations?

KOSINSKI: And, you know, at one point, Wolf, it was only about two months ago, that North Korea said it would be ready to sit down to talks once it had proven it could strike anywhere in the U.S. Well, we saw them do that only in the last couple of weeks. So maybe that, maybe they'll stick to their word.

But on the military option, the people who have been conducting the back channel talks with North Korea have actually been speaking out publicly lately, which in itself is unusual. And they've been saying they're worried than any willingness on the part of North Korea, any curiosity they've shown with the new administration in office, to talk or to move forward might be at risk because of the rhetoric that's been coming from the United States.

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski, Elise Labott, guys, thanks very, very much.

Finally tonight, our SITUATION ROOM family is growing again. Meet Willa Vivian. The daughter of CNN producer Ben Krolowitz and his wife Led. Willa was born early this morning, weighing at a very healthy eight pounds, three ounces. Willa and her mom and dad are all doing well and we're told Willa's sister Ayla and brother Cameron are very excited to welcome her to the world and so are we.

Let's send our best wishes to the entire Krolowitz family. Good work.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.