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Trump Slams 'Tainted' FBI, 'Bogus' Russia Dossier. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 26, 2017 - 17:00   ET


SCIUTTO: ... the battery instead of the entire phone.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter, @JimSciutto, or tweet the show, @TheLeadCNN. That is it for "THE LEAD" today. I turn you over now to Brianna Keilar. She's filling in for Wolf on THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:17] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, pile of garbage. President Trump once again bashes the FBI and its leadership. His latest tweet accusing the bureau of using the, quote, "pile of garbage Russia dossier" to go after him and his campaign. Nearly a year into Trump's presidency, where does the Russia investigation stand?

Isolation strategy. The Trump administration touts a quarter billion cut to the United Nations' annual budget. It's the latest move from a president who has spent his first year in office reducing U.S. commitments around the globe. Are his critics right when they warn the U.S. is losing influence and becoming isolated?

And North Korea talks? As the U.S. issues new sanctions against North Korean officials involved in Kim Jong-un's missile program, the Russians make a new offer to act as a mediator if the U.S. and North Korea sit down and talk about the growing crisis over nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Will either side take up Russia's offer?

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Despite his promise to get back to work, President Trump headed for the golf course today. He also took to Twitter, once again lashing out over the Russia dossier, calling it a, quote, "pile of garbage." The document, compiled by a former British spy, has become a part of the FBI and special counsel's investigations of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

The president also took a pot shoot at Obamacare, tweeting the new tax reform law essentially repeals the Affordable Care Act over time. He predicts a bipartisan effort to develop what he calls "a great new health care plan." But he doesn't offer any new details or specifics.

And while the president is golfing and tweeting, Russia's top diplomat spoke with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Russians are offering to mediate if the U.S. and North Korea sit down and talk about decreasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The tensions are likely to increase in the wake of today's announcement of new U.S. sanctions aimed at punishing two top North Korean officials.

We'll be discussing today's developments with Senator Ben Cardin. He is the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists have full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with the president taking time from his Christmas vacation and golfing in Florida to once again lash out at the Russia meddling investigation and the FBI.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is outside the president's Mar-a-Lago resort. So, Ryan, why is the president targeting the Russia dossier again?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, this seems to be yet another attempt by the president and his allies to discredit Robert Mueller and his investigation, and here in West Palm Beach, the president had no events on his public schedule, but our cameras did catch a glimpse of him on his golf course here in South Florida.



NOBLES (voice-over): After tweeting on Christmas day, "Tomorrow it's back to work," President Trump spent today on the golf course, the 110th day of his presidency that he has spent at one of his personally-branded properties. He hit the links with PGA tour pro Bryson DeChambeau and former PGA golfer Dana Quigley. But there may have been some work discussed, as well. Also joining the foursome, Georgia Senator David Purdue, a loyal Republican vote for the administration, but someone hoping to forge a bipartisan solution on immigration.

A solution that could prove to be more difficult after a "New York Times" story that quotes the president grumbling in an Oval Office meeting that immigrants from countries like Haiti, quote, "all have AIDS" and that 40,000 immigrants from Nigeria would never, quote, "go back to their huts."

White House officials strongly deny the report, and Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs, argues that there needs to be a plan for people living in the United States under temporary protected status.

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: Congress needs to change these laws as opposed to continual six-month extensions for people that are here from 10 and 20 years ago.

NOBLES: But while immigration, including a promised fix for the so- called DREAMers, government spending, entitlement reform and infrastructure have all been pointed to as priorities in 2018, on Tuesday, the president was focused on a failure from 2017, tweeting, quote, "Based on the fact that the very unfair and unpopular individual mandate has been terminated as part of our tax cut bill, which essentially repeals over time Obamacare, the Democrats and Republicans will eventually come together and develop a great new health care plan."

Republicans were unable to come up with a replacement to Obamacare, but as part of their new broad tax reform bill, they struck the individual mandate, which requires Americans to have health insurance or face a tax penalty. Those fines equal billions of dollars that helped keep the Affordable Care Act insurance market stable.

[17:05:00] Despite the elimination of the tax penalty, Obamacare remains in place. And some 9 million Americans have just signed up for Obamacare health care plans, exceeding expectations in a shortened enrollment period. Regardless of the president's pleas, there are no signs of progress on a new health care deal.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Instead of bragging about more Americans without health insurance, we should join every other main major country on earth, guarantee health care to all people, and end the absurdity of paying twice as much per capita.

NOBLES: And despite the sunny West Palm Beach skies, the president and his agenda remain under the cloud of the Mueller investigation, something Mr. Trump continues to attempt to discredit.

Today on Twitter, he suggested that the dossier produced by a former British intelligence officer, which the president called a, quote, "pile of garbage," was the basis for the special counsel's investigation. While the dossier has been used in the investigation, it is far from the entire basis of Mueller's inquiry.


NOBLES: And as we mentioned, since he was inaugurated, the president has spent 110 days at his own -- his Trump-owned properties. And if you do the math, Brianna, that works out to one third of his presidency -- Brianna.

KEILAR: That is a lot. All right. Ryan Nobles in West Palm Beach. Thank you, sir.

And while the most salacious allegations in the dossier have not been verified, its broad assertion that Russia waged a campaign to interfere in the 2016 election now is accepted as fact by, really, the entire U.S. intelligence community.

I want to bring in our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. So, Evan, the president tweets, and he suggests that he believes the entire Russia investigation was based on the intelligence dossier, but it's not that simple, is it?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. It really is not that simple. Brianna, look, the fact is that the dossier was compiled as part of opposition research, first paid for by Republicans who were opposed to Donald Trump, and then later on by Democrats in the Clinton camp, people associated with the Clinton campaign who wanted to try to bring him down. It was opposition research, and it was compiled by a former British intelligence officer. But I think the underlying thesis of the dossier is this: is that

Russia was trying to use connections with the Donald Trump campaign, people inside the Trump campaign and associated with the Trump campaign, to try to use that to have some influence. And that, as you know, is something that the intelligence community was very much concerned about. They took it very seriously. And it has formed the basis for this investigation. That is the basis for this investigation, which is now being handled by Robert Mueller, the special counsel.

We have to remind people, too, that there's four people who have been charged as a result of this investigation.

KEILAR: And that wasn't just anonymous sources talking about what the intel community believes. I mean, that is the director of national intelligence's report that was put out in January, that if you Google you can go online and read it and actually see it there.

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: So what about this -- the president saying that the contents of the dossier have been discredited?

PEREZ: It's just not true. I mean, the fact is that there's aspects of the dossier that the FBI worked very hard last year to try to corroborate. And there are some aspects that they probably will never be able to corroborate, simply because of the way how things work. Once people became aware of this, some of the communications stopped. And so that's something that we know that the FBI was frustrated with. But we do know that they were able to find that some of the communications that were described did, indeed, occur.

Now all of this is noise. The president is, for political purposes perhaps, and some of his supporters are trying to draw our attention away to this shiny object, which is the dossier. But, really, this is, again, about Russian interference in the 2016 election, which we know that the president is having a hard time accepting, because he believes that that undermines the legitimacy of his election.

Look, again, this is something that is an investigation that's ongoing by Robert Mueller, by the special counsel. We'll see where this ends up, but it's not really about the dossier. This is a much bigger deal than just this simple document.

KEILAR: Very good. All right. Even Perez, thank you so much for that report.

And joining us now to talk more about this is Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Happy holidays to you, sir. Thank you so much for being with us on this day after Christmas.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Brianna, it's good to be with you. Thanks. KEILAR: I want to get your reaction to the tweet that we saw from the

president this morning, where he claimed that the dossier is a pile of garbage. He suggested that it is really the sole basis for the Russia investigation. What is your reaction?

CARDIN: Well, the president almost every day tries to discredit the Department of Justice and the FBI investigation, which I find very disheartening. The independence of the Department of Justice is critically important. No one's above the law, and the investigation must be given full credibility. The president is doing just the opposite.

KEILAR: The FBI really seems to be a new favorite target for President Trump. He's getting a little backup, as well, from some members of the GOP in Congress. He's really taken aim at the FBI in several tweets recently. How much does this concern you?

[17:10:10] CARDIN: Well, it concerns me a great deal. And I think it concerns the American people. It concerns both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Every day we hear a different threat about what he's going to do about firing people or dealing with the Mueller investigation.

The Mueller investigation needs to be supported. And the president of the United States needs to allow that investigation to proceed and reach its conclusions. The president is already discrediting Mr. Mueller, and that just shouldn't have any place in American politics.

I'm pleased to see that Republicans are also defending the Mueller investigation. I think the American people will be outraged if the president tries to interfere with that investigation.

KEILAR: Well, and to that point, some of your colleagues have voiced concerns that the president could fire Mueller, especially as he criticizes the special counsel, as he criticized the FBI. Do you worry he might fire Mueller?

CARDIN: Well, I'm already concerned about what he's done. He's -- he has used his voice to discredit the Department of Justice, the FBI investigation, Mr. Mueller. That already, I think, goes too far, but if he were to try to fire Mr. Mueller, I think that would cross the line. I would think you would find the American people would not put up with that, nor would the members of Congress.

KEILAR: I want to switch gears a bit. You are the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so I want to ask you about Russia continuing to increase their aggressive posture in the west.

Over the Christmas weekend, British navy ships were dispatched to track Russian vessels that were passing near British territory. And the British Defense Ministry said they have seen an increase in this type of activity recently. What do you think about this? How concerning is this? How do you think this reflects on how Russia is relating to the U.S. and its allies?

CARDIN: Well, we've seen a pattern and a practice from Russia which is very much against our national security interests. We saw that as they interfered not only in our elections but in elections in Europe. We see that with their military operations. Now the close proximity to the western troops. But also what they did in Syria and backing the Assad regime.

Russia has done -- and what they've done in Ukraine in occupying a country, an independent, sovereign country. You also have Russian troops in Moldova and Georgia. So this is of great concern, their belligerent international activities.

BLITZER: We still have not seen President Trump actually impose the sanctions on Russia which were passed by wide margins in both the House and Senate in August. He does have until January 29 to do so, but the administration missed a key deadline in October by almost a month.

Do you have a sense of when those sanctions are going to be implemented? And do you have any concerns that all of this time could give Russia and other countries a chance to find loopholes to get around?

CARDIN: Well, the president repeatedly says nice things about Mr. Putin. He's done things that our allies are very concerned about and our relationship with them as far as what he says about Mr. Putin and Mr. Putin's activities.

We are concerned that he missed that first deadline. Senator McCain and I have sent letters to the administration. We intend to very closely monitor the next deadline, which is in January. We expect the administration to carry out the law. It's mandatory sanctions. If Russia doesn't change its behavior and has not changed its behavior, the administration is required to impose sanctions, and we'll be watching very closely to make sure that's done.

KEILAR: Trump -- Trump administration officials have said they're taking time, because they want to make sure there are no negative side effects. So they want to make sure that they're tailoring the sanctions, that they're being very specific.

Do you take officials at their word? Or do you think that the delay has to do with President Trump and the fact that he doesn't say bad things about Russia and signed these sanctions reluctantly?

CARDIN: Well, we know Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin will push the envelope as far as he possibly can. If he feels like he can do more belligerent activities, more aggressive activities and there's no cost to it, he'll do that. So it's important that the United States provide the international leadership to make it clear to Mr. Putin we will not tolerate their behavior, Russia's behavior, and whether it's Ukraine or what they're doing it in Syria or what they're doing it in our elections. It's got to be very clear. That's why Congress by an overwhelming majority, 98-2 in the Senate, passed these mandatory sanctions. The president is required to carry out the laws of Congress. He needs to carry out these sanction laws.

KEILAR: Last week the Trump administration approved the sales of lethal arms to Ukraine, anti-tank weapons to help them in their fight against pro-Russian separatists who have taken over Crimea, part of Ukraine. That's something that you supported. What's your reaction?

CARDIN: I talked to Secretary Tillerson about this, and the Congress has been asked the administration to provide defensive weapons so that Ukraine can defend itself.

Again, if you don't provide this help, Russia will continue to interfere in the sovereignty of Ukraine. So providing them defensive weapons is the right decision. And it's, I think, supported by the overwhelming majority of Congress. I think we wanted him -- the administration to do this.

KEILAR: All right. Senator Cardin if you can stand by for me, I do have much more to talk to you about, including...


KEILAR: ... President Trump saying that he has effectively dismantled Obamacare with this tax overhaul. We're going to talk about that after a quick break.

CARDIN: Sure. Be glad to.


KEILAR: And we're back now with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

But I do want to ask you, sir, about the tax reform legislation that passed before the holiday. The president tweeted about it, that he signed this into law before Christmas.

He said, "Based on the fact that the very unfair and unpopular individual mandate has been terminated as part of our tax cut bill, which essentially repeals over time Obamacare, the Democrats and Republicans will eventually come together and develop a great new health care plan."

[17:20:10] The statement is, of course, not exactly true there, as you know, but Democrats are certainly concerned about the -- taking away the tax penalty for people who don't sign up for insurance. This could drive up premiums. It could make the law unpopular. What can Democrats do with Republicans to solve this?

CARDIN: Well, Brianna, it will drive up premiums in the individual marketplace. Those are getting these premium increases can thank the president for his actions, when he didn't provide the cost-sharing. They can thank the Republicans in Congress for eliminating the responsibility of the individual mandate. It means those that are buying insurance are going to pay a higher premium as a result of those actions.

What we can do is pass the bipartisan legislation that is in Congress that will help but not will not do everything. Eliminating the personal responsibility of the individual mandate means that those that are of higher risk, have greater needs are going to pay -- are going to get the insurance and have to pay more. If everyone's in it, the premiums would be less. So it's going to affect people.

But we need to pass the bipartisan legislation that's authored by Senator Murray and Senator Alexander, which will deal with some of the issues but not the individual mandate.

The bottom line is the president's made the situation worse, but a lot of the protections in the Affordable Care Act are still -- are still there.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about DACA recipients. Undocumented young people, people who came to America as children. They were brought here. And this was obviously protections put in place by Obama that President Trump got rid of and said to Congress, "Look, you have to take care of this by March."

Democrats had said that they were going to pass legislation by the end of the year, and then when it came time to fund the government, they didn't attach this to that, didn't use leverage to make sure that DACA recipients were protected. And you're actually seeing DACA recipients with their protections expiring every day. You have many DACA recipients whose protections are expiring.

Did Democrats mess this up by not holding the president accountable on DACA and just going away for the holiday?

CARDIN: The Republicans have failed to pass the budget for this year. They're already three months late. It should have been passed October 1. We're operating under continuing resolutions. It's the Republicans who are interested in shutting down government. The Democrats are not interested in shutting down government. We're interested in working with a budget that makes sense for this country, that's fair for all of our needs, and we should have passed it a long time ago immigration reform to take care of the DREAMers, to take care of those that are on temporary protective status. The Senate did that a few years ago on a very bipartisan vote. The Republican leadership won't bring those issues up for votes. They control both the House, the Senate and the White House.

And they're putting the DREAMers at risk. Every day they're in fear that they're going to be deported from this country, the only country that they know. It's against what we stand for as a country, and it rips families apart. And the Republicans should have fixed this a long time ago.

KEILAR: But -- but as you lament Republicans controlling both chambers -- and no doubt they do -- this was a chance that Democrats could have taken and a calculation they had to make about whether they would hold this up, protecting DACA recipients. So because of that, can you pledge to DACA recipients in your state that Congress is going to act to protect them?

CARDIN: I can tell them I will do everything in my power to make sure that that happens. I think it's unconscionable that we would rip families apart, people who know no other country but the United States. That would be detrimental to our economy. That makes no sense at all.

The overwhelming majority of people believe the DREAMers should be able to stay here. We have bipartisan support in the Congress to pass it. If the Republican leadership will bring it up for a vote, we can pass protection for the DREAMers. We can fix our immigration system, but they won't bring the issue up for votes.

Democrats cannot set the agenda. We're in the minority. But we will do everything that we have in our power to make sure that these issues are addressed.

KEILAR: All right. Senator Ben Cardin, thank you so much for joining us and a very happy new year to you, sir.

CARDIN: Same to you, Brianna. Thank you.

KEILAR: Thank you.

And coming up, new alarm over North Korea's quest to develop biological weapons. How great is the danger here?

Plus, a top Russian dissident may not get a chance to challenge Vladimir Putin in next year's presidential election.


[17:28:45] KEILAR: President Trump tweeted that he would be back to work this day after Christmas, however, he managed to work in a round of golf down in Florida today. And the president also took to Twitter. He fired off several attacks. Among other things, he called the Russia dossier, quote, "a pile of garbage."

I want to bring in our specialists to talk about this.

OK, this is -- he did take to Twitter, David Chalian, and he said, "Wow, FOX & Friends, dossier is bogus. Clinton campaign, DNC funded dossier. FBI cannot, after all this time, verify claims in dossier of Russia/Trump collusion. FBI tainted. And they use this Crooked Hillary pile of garbage as the basis for going after the Trump campaign."

I'm over, I'll tell you, this elongated the Twitter format. It's just too -- it's so much to fact check, you know?

OK. But so he's on vacation. But this is on his mind, clearly.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Clearly. He can't help himself, right? He ends his tenure of his first year -- calendar year in office with this big legislative victory, heads out to Mar-a-Lago for Christmas vacation, and clearly wants to steer the conversation in a certain way, reacting to what he's seeing on television; and it reveals what is really on his mind and what really gets under his skin. And not touting the economy. He just tweeted tonight finally about the economy. But clearly, this is on his mind.

And here's the issue. He's eager to try to conflate the dossier with the Mueller investigation. They're not the same thing. It is not the same thing. So he sees this: discredit the dossier, discredit Mueller's team. He, his allies, some of his Republican friends on Capitol Hill are trying to soften the ground underneath Mueller so that, in hopes of whenever an actual adjudication or final report is issued, that the legitimacy of it is questioned, because they have tried to undermine. And that's what this is a part of, too.

KEILAR: And the dossier wasn't the basis -- it wasn't the entire basis for the investigation. There are some things in there that are true. The overarching theme that Russia meddled in the election. Hello, we know that.

CHALIAN: Arguably, the most important thing.

KEILAR: The most important thing, which the intelligence community says is -- officially says is true. You can Google it. There's a report only from the DNI that says this is what happened.

So Rebecca, and that's just what David mentioned, that you now have GOP allies in -- especially in the House, of President Trump's who are, as he put it, softening the ground under Robert Mueller, creating some of this doubt about the legitimacy of this investigation. Is this going to be a problem?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it is not a problem if you're President Trump, because that's exactly what you want to be happening. You want Republicans to be helping amplify your message, trying to discredit Mueller, discredit this investigation, and really win this trial in the court of public opinion rather than, you know, any sort of legal jeopardy that the president or his associates might be in, but it is working so far, Brianna, and I think that's the important thing to remember.

As you see and hear Republicans and the president saying these things, our recent CNN poll on the Russia investigation showed that among Republicans -- so the president's supporters for the most part -- 78 percent now believe that the investigation is an effort to discredit the president, that it's not legitimate. And that's up by 10 percent from just last month. So what they are saying is having an impact.

KEILAR: That is stunning, 78 percent.

Samantha Vinograd with us, CNN national security analyst. I wonder what you think about these continued attacks on the FBI that you're seeing, Sam, throughout his first year. He's also attacked the intelligence community before. You've worked in that realm. You were a senior advise tore the national security adviser during the Obama administration, Tom Donilon.

What is the impact of these attacks from the president internally on these departments and their ability to do their jobs?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I was a career civil servant both under President Bush and President Obama, and I have every reason to think that the career civil servants at the FBI and in the intelligence community are working as hard as ever, but this can't be good for morale.

I also think, though, we need to be clear-eyed about the fact that every tweet from the president has a real national security component.

Part of the FBI's mission is to protect the United States against foreign -- foreign intelligence attacks. We know, and there's bipartisan consensus that a foreign intelligence service, Russia, attacked the United States and launched an information warfare campaign to discredit our democracy and our institutions. The FBI is a key part of the fair and transparent legal process that defines our democracy.

So every time the president tweets against the FBI or tweets against the Department of Justice, he's making the Russians' job a lot easier.

KEILAR: I wonder what you think, David, about this member of Trump's legal team that we've now become so familiar with, Jay Sekulow. In this interview with "The Wall Street Journal," he says something that he said before, but he says the special counsel's probe will end soon and this is shared collectively, this view by the president's lawyers. What's the basis for him saying that?

CHALIAN: I looked in that "Wall Street Journal" interview, and I wouldn't find he offered a basis for him saying that.

And by the way, this is the same legal team who had the intuition it seemed that it was going to wrap up by the end of 2017 and that proved not to be the case.

Michael Flynn, it was just Thanksgiving that Michael Flynn flipped and is starting to help the Mueller team. It would seem really fast if it was going to just wrap up in these first few weeks of January.

I do think there is a concern that you hear from some inside and around the White House that the president's legal team is setting these expectations that it's going to wrap up and that if it doesn't, how the president may respond to that may complicate matters.

KEILAR: Sam, what do you think?

VINOGRAD: I think that we need to let the special counsel do his job and however long that takes is what the special counsel needs to get the job done. And that's in the best interests of our country.

I think that in the interim, both the executive branch and the congressional committees that are looking into Russia's attack on the United States should be doing exactly that. We need to be talking about how we hold Russia accountable for their attack during the election and how we deter another attack.

We're not that far from 2018, and a lot of the congressional committees who said their mission is to look into Russian interference instead, frankly, have been using hearings to discredit the FBI and to point fingers and to politicize the work that's ongoing. We have real work to do at this point. [17:25:08] KEILAR: All right. Sam, Dave and Rebecca, you're going to

stick around for me. Fascinating report that we've seen in "The L.A. Times" about a lot of countries who believe that the U.S. is ceding its leadership role across the globe. We're going to talk about that after a quick break.


KEILAR: We're back now with our political and national security specialists. And Rebecca, I want to see what you think about this other tweet that we heard from the president this morning: "Based on the fact that the very unfair and unpopular individual mandate has been terminated as part of our tax cut bill, which essentially repeals over time Obamacare, the Democrats and Republicans will eventually come together and develop a great, new health care plan."

[17:40:18] Putting aside the optimism of the last part of the tweet aside, just this idea where he's -- he's trying to claim that Obamacare has been repealed, which is something that Republicans were -- and President Trump were unable to accomplish.

BERG: Right. But if the president says it enough times, it becomes true in this sort of Donald Trump alternate political reality, and that's exactly what he's trying to do in this case, as well.

And so he is clearly planning, in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, to sell his supporters and Republicans in general and swing voters on this idea that Republicans kept their campaign promise and actually did deal a fatal blow to the health care bill, or the health care law, rather. Whether that's true, I think we would all agree that that's probably not true. It will certainly make things difficult in terms of the stability of health care prices and the markets, but the law still exists.

CHALIAN: I would suggest one person that says it's not true is the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who leads the Republicans in the Senate, since he has just said in an interview that it was tough enough with a 52-48 Senate. He's got a 51-49 Senate now; and Doug Jones, the Democrat from Alabama takes the seat, he says, "I don't think we're going to revisit dismantling Obamacare this year." So the majority leader clearly still sees it as the law of the land.

KEILAR: If you're not revisiting it, that means that it hasn't been done. Right?

OK, Sam, I want to switch gears and talk about a couple of foreign policy issues with you. First Russia, because it's now offering to mediate talks between the U.S. and North Korea. Is this, one, a serious offer? And is this something that would, two, actually be a good idea?

VINOGRAD: I think that this offer would be laughable if the stakes weren't so high. Russia is the last person that we want mediating anything that we're involved in.

Russia is definitely not an unbiased party in this issue. Russia attacked our country. Russia has consistently accused the United States, not North Korea, of provoking war on the Korean Peninsula, and until the last round of sanctions, Russia had relatively significant economic interests with North Korea.

So I think this is a pretty transparent attempt for Russia to try to undermine rather than advance U.S. interests.

And, you know, the other issue here is that Russia, I think, is trying to change perceptions about what this conflict is and what it isn't. They're talking about mediating between the United States and North Korea, not the international community and North Korea.

North Korea has violated international law, which is why there have been international sanctions that have been put on it. I think that Russia is trying to make this about the United States versus North Korea so that they can put more responsibility on the United States and more blame if something goes wrong.

KEILAR: What about this -- in this "L.A. Times" report where it says Russia is also -- well, in this case, it could be Russia is trying to pose as a diplomatic solution broker. Russia is so involved in Syria in the peace process. The U.S. isn't. China stepped in when it comes to leading on climate change. Where is the U.S.?

So many countries, this interesting story points out, believe that the U.S. is just backing away from the world stage as a leader. What do you think?

VINOGRAD: Well, just very quickly on this whole Russia mediating in Syria angle, it's the same thing as Russia offering to mediate in North Korea. Russia is actively arming one side in the Syrian conflict, the regime, and now saying that they're going to mediate a resolution to the conflict. It makes absolutely no sense.

But on your question, Brianna, the numbers don't lie and there was a recent Pew poll that showed that just 22 percent of people surveyed around the world had any confidence at all that President Trump was going to do the right thing. That's compared to, I think, 74 percent under President Obama. So there is definitely data to back up the fact that U.S. credibility is diminishing.

And we're seeing this, as you mentioned, as other countries step into roles that the United States has typically played, like a mediator or a negotiator. We've seen France, for example, step in to try to mediate an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict after the United States' decision on Jerusalem. China and Russia are stepping in to play larger roles on the international stage. And then you look at something like the Paris climate accord, we arbitrarily pulled out, we broke our word, and so all of those other countries are now meeting without us.

KEILAR: All right. Sam Vinograd, thank you so much. David Chalian, Rebecca Berg, thank you to both of you.

And coming up, how Russia's bureaucracy just managed to disqualify a man seen as a leading challenger to Vladimir Putin in next year's presidential election.

Plus, growing alarm over North Korea's quest for other weapons of mass destruction, including biological weapons.


[17:49:19] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: We're following important developments in Russia's presidential election. Russia's Central Election Commission just banned an activist who is seen as a leading opponent to Vladimir Putin.

CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us now from Moscow.

So, Fred, how big of a threat to Putin is this man?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alexei Navalny, Brianna, believes that if he ran against Vladimir Putin in what he deemed would be a free and fair election that he could beat Vladimir Putin and he actually thinks that Putin is afraid of him, afraid of Alexei Navalny.

Now we have to keep in mind in all of this that Putin's approval ratings at this point in time are around 80 percent to 85 percent in Russia. But the opposition is saying that that's only because he's not letting the really big opposition figures run against him.

[17:50:06] They also believe that the charges that were brought against Navalny were political motivated, whereas the Kremlin is saying, that look, none of this is in their hands. Basically they had nothing to do with banning Navalny from running. This was a decision made by the Russian election committee because he was charged with embezzlement a couple of years ago. And someone was charged with that simply can't run.

But certainly the opposition very, very angry. And Navalny himself is calling for his supporters to boycott the upcoming Russian presidential election -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And isn't Russia saying that they're actually going to look into that boycott? And knowing that, how much at risk is Alexey Navalny putting himself at?

PLEITGEN: Yes, he certainly is. Look, he's been put in detention a couple of times in the past. And he certainly is at risk again now. We were on the phone earlier today with the Kremlin, with Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and there he said exactly that. He said, look, we think the authorities should look into him calling for a boycott and see whether or not that's illegal in Russia. And that could certainly spell new legal trouble for Alexey Navalny.

It just goes to show how difficult it is for some of these opposition figures to not only get into the political game and into elections, but then also to stay out of legal trouble as well -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Frederik Pleitgen from Moscow, thank you so much for that report.

And today there's a new offer from Russia to act as a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea. In a phone call with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russia's Foreign minister also warned against aggressive rhetoric and military buildups in the region.

And also today, the U.S. sanctioned two of Kim Jong-un's senior officials, citing their efforts to help improve North Korea's missiles. There also is growing alarm over the North's quest for biological weapons.

Our Brian Todd has more on this frightening possibility.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, we're learning tonight that Kim Jong-un has the capability to weaponize more than a dozen biological agents within just a few days, if he wants to wreak havoc on the Korean Peninsula. There are reports that Kim has been methodical, but unrelenting in getting his scientists to figure out how to deploy deadly agents like anthrax, which killed several Americans right after 9/11.


TODD (voice-over): There are new concerns that Kim Jong-un's deadly ambitions go beyond nuclear weapons. South Korean officials and independent weapons experts are growing increasingly concerned that Kim's regime has the intent and capability to develop biological weapons.

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: They are a weapon of terror in a sense because we have in our own minds these thoughts about the horror of biologicals, outbreaks of disease. This is something that frightens us.

TODD: South Korean government reports recently cited by Harvard University say North Korea has 13 types of biological agents which it can weaponize within 10 days. They say anthrax and small pox are the most likely agents they would deploy.

JOSHUA POLLACK, WMD EXPERT, MIDDLEBURY INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Anthrax is virtually the ideal biological agent for weapons purposes. It's a bacterium that is very hard to -- it can survive all kinds of conditions. It can persist. It is very deadly. You can aerosolize it and spread it around with sprayers.

TODD: June 2015, Kim Jong-un tours the Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute. The North Koreans said it was a factory which manufactured pesticides but some machinery on display raised alarm.

POLLACK: It seems that they have invested a lot in imported equipment that cost them a lot and is I think unreasonable for any civilian application.

TODD: Equipment like what analysts say are industrial-scale fermenters which could produce anthrax on a large scale and other machinery used to convert biological agents into sprayable form. South Koreans would be in the direct line of fire, a threat taken

seriously enough that South Korea holds mock drills for WMD attacks. But American troops in South Korea could also be hit.

TONY SHAFFER, FORMER CIA INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: A small aircraft basically overflying them, individuals who are infected infecting them. There's just no way to guarantee and protect U.S. troops from this.

TODD: Officials say there's no evidence North Korea has yet produced a biological weapon. But with the assassination of his half-brother this year, Kim Jong-un has shown the willingness to use his chemical weapons arsenal. And having the capability for a biological attack with the difficulties in tracing those weapons, experts say, adds another dimension to Kim's threat.

CHANG: With biologicals there's a slight element of deniability. There could be an outbreak of a disease in South Korea. It would take us weeks, maybe even longer, to trace it back to North Korea. And during that time he could kill South Koreans.


TODD: Experts say another advantage this gives Kim is that for every dollar the U.S. and South Korea spend on preparing for an anthrax, small pox, or other biological outbreak, well, that's a dollar they don't spend on preparing for a possible conventional or nuclear attack from North Korea -- Brianna.

[17:55:07] KEILAR: Brian Todd, thank you so much for that.

And coming up, the latest Twitter outburst by President Trump. He is lashing out at the FBI in the continuing Russia investigation.


KEILAR: Happening now, FBI tainted? There's no holiday from President Trump's attacks on the Russia investigation, as he tweets his gripes about the bureau and makes a misleading statement along the way.

This hour we're separating fact from fiction about the notorious --