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White House Stands by Trump Slam on 'Deep State Justice Dept'; New Signs of Trouble for House Russia Probe; Iran Blames Enemies, Slams Trump. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 2, 2018 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SIT ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Enemies list? The White House stands by as the president calls his own Justice Department deep state and attacks the former FBI director and a former Hillary Clinton aide. Is the president putting together an enemies list to distract from the Russia investigation?

Turning the tables. By blocking witnesses and preventing Democrats from following up leads in committee hearings, are GOP lawmakers trying to turn the tables on the Russia investigation and steer it in another direction?

Nuclear button. Kim Jong-un now says he has a nuclear button on his desk while at the same time suggests high-level talks with South Korea. But U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley says there could be no serious talks as long as the North has nuclear weapons. Is the U.S. blocking a chance to diffuse the crisis?

And bowing out. The longest-serving Republican senator, Utah's Orrin Hatch, announces he won't seek re-election. That clears the way for Mitt Romney to run for the seat. Did the president beg Hatch to run again in a desperate bid to block Romney?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump is back at work, attacking in all directions with a new barrage of tweets. In a stunning assault on his own Justice Department, the president brands it as part of the so-called deep state bureaucracy, a term popularized by right-wing conspiracy theorists. The White House is standing by the president's attack, which includes a suggestion that a former Hillary Clinton aide should be jailed, along with a new swipe at the fired FBI director Jim Comey.

And as anti-government protests rage in Iran and the death toll surges, the White House is now voicing support for what it calls a popular uprising while the president tweets that Iranians are finally acting against what he calls a brutal and corrupt regime. Iran says enemies are fomenting the violence and calls the president's tweets useless and offensive. Meanwhile, Pakistan's leaders are holding an emergency meeting after

the president's first tweet of the year accused Pakistan of giving the United States nothing but, quote, "lies and deceit." And now the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, ups the ante, accusing Pakistan of a double game, working with the U.S. at times while also harboring terrorists. She says the U.S. will withhold a quarter billion dollars in aid.

And Haley seemingly pulls out the rug under from Kim Jong-un's offer of talks with South Korea, saying there can be no serious talks until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and warning North Korea of tougher measures if they carry out another test.

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

But let's begin with President Trump's stunning attack on his own Justice Department. Let's go straight to our senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, the president seems to be going all- in on a conspiracy theory. Is that right?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is, indeed. There is a big legislative agenda on tap for 2018, but the president instead today went after his Justice Department, escalating an extraordinary confrontation with the agency that's heading up the Russia investigation.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump opening a new front tonight in an unprecedented war with his own Justice Department. The president blasting the DOJ for being part of what he calls the deep state, a conspiracy theory suggesting the government bureaucracy is against him.

In a tweet, the president saying, "Deep state Justice Department must finally act." The president adding that Hillary Clinton's top aide, Huma Abedin should go to jail" and implying former FBI director James Comey should be investigated.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president finds some of those actions very disturbing, and he thinks that we need to make sure, if there is an issue, that it's looked at.

ZELENY: When asked whether the president believes the entire Justice Department is part of what he calls the "deep state," Sanders said this.

SANDERS: Obviously, he doesn't believe the entire Justice Department is part of that.

ZELENY: For the president, it was his latest attempt to revive an old fight with former rival Hillary Clinton and her top aide, Huma Abedin. The FBI previously has said she was careless in her e-mail habits and handling of information, notably sending messages to her husband, disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner's computer. Just last week, when asked whether he would order the Justice

Department to reopen an investigation into Clinton's e-mails, Mr. Trump told "The New York Times," "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."

All this after the president returned to the White House from a ten- day holiday break at Mar-a-Lago.

[17:05:04] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Happy New Year, everybody.

ZELENY: The president looking ahead to his 2018 agenda and a big list of unfinished business.

TRUMP: We're going to have a great year. It's going to be a fantastic 2018.

ZELENY: The to-do list includes passing a government spending bill in the next two weeks; repealing Obamacare; fixing CHIP, the Child Health Insurance Program; immigration; and border security.

TRUMP: We're off to a very good start, as you know, with the great tax cuts and ANWR and getting rid of the individual mandate, which was very, very unpopular, as you know. But we are going to have a tremendous year.

ZELENY: The president held meetings inside the West Wing today but was away from public view. He sent out nearly a dozen tweets so far this year, including the first of 2018 that touched off an international incident with Pakistan: "The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools."

That prompted the Pakistan foreign ministry to summon the U.S. ambassador to explain Trump's tweet about lies and deceit, after blasting it as invective.

The president also raising eyebrows tonight after taking credit for no fatal airline crashes on commercial flights. "Since taking office, I have been very strict on commercial aviation. Good new. It was just reported there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record."

It's actually been nearly eight years since the last fatal commercial airline crash in the U.S. Asked how the president could claim responsibility for the safety streak, the White House press secretary answered like this.

SANDERS: The president has raised the bar for our nation's aviation, safety and security. He certainly is very grateful.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY: So the president, of course, spending a lot of time sending messages out on social media, clearly beginning 2018, as he did through much of 2017.

But, Wolf, even though the president said he's looking forward to a fantastic year, he is starting the year with a political setback, and that comes in the retirement from Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican senator. The president, through phone calls and repeated meetings, even rides on Air Force One, encouraged Senator Hatch to run again. Senator Hatch announced today he is retiring.

Again, that paves the way for Mitt Romney to run for the Senate from Utah. That is something this White House did not want. The open question is, will this president support Mitt Romney if he does get into the race?

BLITZER: That's a good question, given the history of what Mitt Romney said about Donald Trump during the campaign.

ZELENY: Indeed.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Jeff Zeleny reporting.

As lawmakers start returning to Capitol Hill, there are now new indications that at least one of the Russia investigations could be breaking down. All this as a new deadline approaches for the Justice Department to respond to the House Intelligence Committee chairman's request for dossier records.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what are you learning?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight the House Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are running into a collision course of sorts as the two sides are preparing for an end of an investigation that occurred -- could occur in the coming days and weeks.

Now the Republicans say that they have investigated this matter fully. They've interviewed scores of witnesses, and they that they're prepared to write a report, even suggesting that there has been no collusion. They're saying they have not seen real serious evidence, virtually no evidence of any collusion between the Russian officials and Trump campaign.

Now Democrats say there are a number of areas that have not been fully investigated. They say the Republicans have rushed witnesses into the committee. And they say that they've been trying to issue subpoenas on a number of fronts, including to get financial records from Deutsche Bank, which had done business for the Trump Organization, to see if there were any ties with the Russians.

Now, this comes, Wolf, as tension is looming over Congressman Devon Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, the Republican that stepped aside from the investigation months ago over allegations he did not handle classified information properly.

But he has since been cleared by the House Ethics Committee about his handling of classified information, and he has run his own investigation on the side, looking into the Justice Department and its relationship with Christopher Steele, who is that former British agent who did put together that dossier of Trump and Russia connections, allegations of these connections.

Now, Wolf, Nunes wants the Justice Department to turn over records by tomorrow over the relationship with the Justice Department and Christopher Steele. No word yet if the Justice Department will do that. This is part of a long-running fight that Nunes has had with the Justice Department over this issue, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Manu, all this comes as a new report suggests the dossier is not what started the Russia investigation, right?

RAJU: Yes, that's right. "The New York Times" reported over the weekend that George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who actually has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about some of these contacts pertaining to Russia, met with the Australian diplomat in London last year and said that he had dirt -- he could get dirt from the Russians on the Clinton campaign. And this came after Papadopoulos was informed about these leaked e-mails that had been hacked by the Russians from the DNC's servers. And Papadopoulos had been informed about this and mentioned about the opportunity to get dirt on the Clinton campaign from the Russians.

[17:10:25] Now one question, Wolf, that investigators on Capitol Hill still say they do not have the answers to is whether or not Papadopoulos informed the Trump campaign about this Russian effort to give -- get dirt on the Clinton campaign. That's an unexplored question that Democrats in particular on the House committee say they have not had an answer to, yet. And, of course, Papadopoulos has not come and met with any of these committees on Capitol Hill as he's been tied up with his own legal problems with the Mueller -- Robert Mueller investigation, Wolf.

BLITZER: He certainly has. All right, Manu, thanks very much.

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

Senator, thanks for joining us.

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

BLITZER: Happy new year. Let me begin and get your reaction to the president's tweet this morning. There were several, but this one stood out. "Crooked Hillary Clinton's top aide, Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put classified passwords into the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors' pictures on submarine, jail. Deep state Justice Department must finally act, also on Comey and others." As we pointed out, Senator, that tweet is misleading on several

levels, but I want your thoughts on the president's apparent belief that the Justice Department is now part of what he calls a deep state intent on trying to destroy his presidency.

COONS: Well, Wolf, this suggests that 2018 is going to be every bit as unsettling as 2017 with regards to unfocused tweets by the president, trying to shake the very foundations of our democratic order.

Previous presidents may have been unhappy with the Department of Justice or may have wanted them to do things, but rarely in American history has a president ever so publicly attacked the Department of Justice.

And in this particular tweet, he lays out three different names: his former opponent, Hillary Clinton; her aide Huma Abedin; and the former FBI director whom he fired, Jim Comey, and suggests in a wandering and unfocused tweet that somehow they should all be investigated, that jail might be an appropriate outcome and that the DOJ, which is opposing him because it's part of some rumored deep state, needs to now finally act.

Wolf, this is a really troubling attempt by our president to continue to undermine the rule of law and to suggest that somehow the Department of Justice should take direction from him over Twitter.

BLITZER: Yes. The president says, "Deep state Justice Department must finally act."

But during an interview with "The New York Times" the other day, the president said he had what he called the "absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department." Those are his words. Do you worry he may try to assert that type of control and use the Department of Justice for his own ends?

COONS: Yes. I'm concerned that, although the president's lawyers continue to say that they will fully cooperate with Robert Mueller's investigation, that the president's erratic behavior on Twitter, his shifting back and forth and the statements like the one you just read, suggest that he might abruptly take action, such as firing Robert Mueller before his investigation can fully conclude.

BLITZER: The House Intelligence Committee chairman Devon Nunes, as you know, he's turning his focus towards the FBI and the Justice Department. He's demanding records on the dossier complied by that former British spy on Donald Trump's Russia connections. Do you believe Nunes is trying to muddy the waters of this entire investigation?

COONS: Well, I'm concerned that a number of House Republicans are making increasingly baseless attacks on the Department of Justice and the FBI. And that this is not just demoralizing to federal law enforcement but destabilizing to the rule of law. To have folks in office trying to assist the president in his ongoing effort to undermine this investigation. This is not constructive, and I think it is in everyone's interests,

Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, for these investigations to be allowed to move forward to their logical conclusion. And if they reach the conclusion there was no collusion, so be it. If they reach a conclusion that there was, then I think rule of law demands that we follow those conclusions.

But this sort of effort by Devon Nunes, the House Republican chair of the Intelligence Committee, to open a side investigation without consulting the full membership of the committee is another troubling development, Wolf.

BLITZER: According to that report in "The New York Times," Senator, the dossier didn't prompt the FBI to begin its Russia probe back in 2016. It began when one of Donald Trump's advisers, George Papadopoulos, boasted to an Australian diplomat in London about dirt Russia had on Hillary Clinton. The Australians eventually passed that information along to U.S. government sources.

Does it seem likely to you, Senator, that Papadopoulos also shared that information with top Trump campaign officials?

COONS: It seems hard to believe that, if this Trump campaign aide, Papadopoulos, had access to very damaging dirt on Hillary Clinton stolen by the Russians and proffered to him that he felt so enthusiastic about that he was bragging about it to a senior Australian minister -- excuse me, an ambassador serving in London, it seems hard to believe that he wouldn't then also share it with the Trump campaign.

This is a compelling lead that is worthy of being followed up, and it suggests that there may yet be evidence that ties the path of the e- mails that were hacked by the Russians from the DNC and the Trump campaign.

BLITZER: All right. Senator, stand by. There are other developments unfolding, even as we speak right now. I need to take a quick break. We'll resume our conversation right after this.


[17:20:12] BLITZER: Demonstrations and street clashes have raged across Iran for a sixth day. More than 20 people have died as protests over economic hardship have resulted into a direct challenge to Iran's Islamic regime.

The Trump administration is praising the protesters and the president today tweeted this, quote, "The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their pockets. The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching," closed quote.

We're talking with Senator Chris Coons of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, stand by. I want to bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim

Sciutto. You've been to Iran, what, a dozen times over the years. This is potentially an extremely significant moment.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It is. And it's something that's caught off-guard a lot of people both inside and outside the country.

You heard the supreme leader today, attempting to blame this on Iran's enemies as if the support for this is coming from outside the country. But fact is, this is very much a domestic incident. Organic is what the White House called it today, and there is some truth to that. And it's different from past protests that we've seen in Iran in a number of ways.

In 2009 during the elections there, I was there. That originated in the capital of Tehran. A lot of university students. This one is different. It's all across the country. Lots of working class people involved and in places where you don't normally see people in the streets.

Another difference, a target of these protests now is this mildly reformist president, Hasan Rouhani, who was a product, really, to some degree of those 2009 protests, seen as someone who's going to make Iran more free, more prosperous. But there's been a lot of disappointment in that. And they're targeting some of their ire against him, as well as the mullahs who run the country and the supreme leader.

Really essentially at the core of this are economic concerns, particularly after the U.S. nuclear deal. The expectation among Iranians was that there was finally going to be some economic growth there, that they were going to stop being this international pariah. They could trade. They could travel. hhe and that was going to be reflected in their lives. But there's been a lot of disappointment. They haven't seen it, and they're blaming their leaders for that.

BLITZER: Yes. Billions of dollars has been flowing in, but it's not going to the people, it's going elsewhere. How is Iran responding to these developments on the streets not just in Tehran but other cities, as well, and how are they responding to what the president, President Trump is saying?

SCIUTTO: Well, domestically -- and you're seeing in the video we're watching there -- the police very heavy-handed. Nearly 20 people have been killed. Hundreds of people have been arrested. There s not great allowance for this.

People of Iran certainly don't have the freedom to demonstrate like this, but to some degree, they -- you know, they're overwhelming those forces. But the police pushing back and a concern that they might push back even more.

As far as, Wolf, international criticism, the U.S. et cetera, Iran has not taken kindly to that. They shot back at the U.S. today, saying, "You should be concerned with our own violence in your own streets. Gun violence, et cetera."

But here's one big difference that was noted by Karim Sagapour (ph), who's a well-known Iran analyst, and that is in 2009 when those election protests took place, just about a million people in Iran had smartphones. And I was there, and social media played a big part in organizing, getting witness -- witness accounts out.

Today 48 million Iranians have smartphones, access to the Internet. And that means they don't watch the state media. They can find out what's happening on their own. And that's what you're seeing happening on the streets.

BLITZER: The regime is trying to block some of those -- some of those opportunities to get that social media.

SCIUTTO: Social media, Instagram.

BLITZER: They're trying to block some of those sites. All right. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, reporting for us.

We're back with Democratic senator Chris Coons of the Foreign Relations Committee. So, Senator, should President Trump offer his opinion on the arrest in Iran so publicly? He's been tweeting almost every day about it. Or, as some have suggested, is he simply giving fuel to Iranian hard-liners by aligning himself with the protesters?

COONS: Well, Wolf, I do think it's important for leaders in the United States, including our president, to speak out on behalf of and in support of human rights around the world.

I was surprised that even Rouhani, the leader of Iran, the elected leader of Iran, recently said that there is a right to protest, something previous Iranian leaders have not recognized or celebrated, but clearly, the internal security services are already cracking down fairly hard on protests. I think it is important that we continue to speak out in support of the Iranian people as they try to pursue their own goals.

The regime that has held sway in Iran since 1979 is brutal and repressive. I'm the co-chair with Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina of the Senate Human Rights Caucus. And we put out a bipartisan statement in sympathy and solidarity with the Iranian people as they try to express their desires for more economic freedom and more political freedom.

[17:25:03] BLITZER: So do you believe, Senator, that regime change in Iran would be in the national security interests of the United States?

COONS: Well, I don't think the Iranian regime is a friend of the United States, of democracy or of human rights, but I also think that our ability to actually affect regime change in Iran is very limited. And it is important that we talk about these demonstrations in ways that can't be misused by the Iranian regime for propaganda purposes internally.

As your previous conversation with Jim Sciutto suggested, access to the Internet, access through social media to each other in Iran is an absolutely vital piece of making it possible for the Iranian people to express themselves.

And there are steps we can take to help ensure that those who are seeking to express themselves continue to have free access to the Internet. Other repressive regimes around the world try to shut off the Internet or to censor the Internet, and it's important that we continue to encourage.

BLITZER: President Trump, Senator, has railed against the nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration with Iran. In October, he demanded that Congress take action to address some of the deal's perceived weaknesses. So far, though, apparently nothing has been done.

Do you think the president is signaling his intention to reimpose sanctions on the Iranians later this month, potentially undermining this agreement? And I know you reluctantly voted in favor of the Iran nuclear deal.

COONS: Well, Wolf, an important part of the record here is that the Iran nuclear deal was a deal about just that, about Iran's nuclear program. It didn't restrict the United States' ability to take action against Iran's bad behavior with regards to human rights or support for terrorism or its ballistic missile program. And on a strong bipartisan basis, this past year Congress did just that, we gave the president the power to impose stronger sanctions against Iran on those specific areas, human rights violations, ballistic missiles, support for terrorism.

I would be concerned that if the president were to tear up the Iran nuclear deal it would further distance us from our European allies who were vital partners in that work; and it would remove any remaining restrictions on the Iranians from racing forward towards a nuclear weapon. We already have a significant strategic challenge with North Korea. We don't need a nuclear-armed Iran facing us with another challenge.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, does the president believe there's a so-called deep state that's out to get him? Why is he attacking his own Justice Department?

And North Korea's Kim Jong-un is warning that he has a nuclear button on his desk but offers talks with South Korea. Is the U.S. Blocking a chance to diffuse the crisis? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including the White House standing by President Trump's rather bizarre tweet, insisting that the "deep state Justice Department," his words, must finally act on former FBI director James Comey and Hillary Clinton's former top aide Huma Abedin.

[17:32:08] Let's get some insight from our specialists. And John Kirby, the president seems to believe very, very powerfully that this so-called deep state is out to get him. What are the consequences of that kind of conspiratorial thinking?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: It's ludicrous thinking is what it is, and I think one of the consequences is, aside from the message it sends to the people at the Justice Department -- it's an insult to their service to the country -- but I think it makes one believe that he is trying, in some way, to inoculate or discredit the investigations -- the Russia investigation so that when it comes out, he's already laid the groundwork for that.

It also makes we worry a little bit about what tyrannical sort of almost illegal acts he might be willing to take in the future against the Justice Department if they don't do what he wants to do. It's just so counter -- counter to what we're supposed to stand for as a democracy.

BLITZER: Rebecca Berg, how pervasive is this thinking among Trump associates that there is this deep state group out there, including inside the Justice Department, that wants to bring him down?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, certainly, he does have his advisers, Wolf, who do believe, as he believes, in this deep state concept. There are some Republicans who have raised alarm about this, as well, sort of echoing the president's concerns.

But I think the most important data point in all this, the most important person is the president himself, because everything flows from the top down with the presidency. And he sets the tone. He sets the agenda. And so if this is a major concern of his, if this becomes a priority of his in terms of the way he deals with the Justice Department, that has real-world implications; and his staff and his administration follow his lead.

BLITZER: Bianna Golodryga is with us, as well.

Bianna, this paranoia about the so-called deep state buried inside the Justice Department, is it borne out of the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, Russia probe?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It could very well could be, Wolf. I mean, you have an interview where the president 16 times denied there was any collusion with Russia and you have to start to wonder. You look at what he tweets about China, for example, about China continuing to send oil to North Korea.

Meantime, you read reports from similar publications that Russia is sending technology or allegedly sending technology to North Korea. You don't hear the president speak out about that, as well.

So I think the president constantly not going after Vladimir Putin, not saying anything negative about him, constantly denying collusion and yet you see those surrounding him every few weeks, we're getting more and more bits and pieces of details of meetings that they didn't tell first right, were forthcoming about enough.

So I think that you're seeing the president really speaking for himself when you're asking that question, because if he's saying there's no collusion over and over and over again, it makes you wonder, what's the real story?

BLITZER: Let me read to you, you know, John Kirby, what the former acting attorney general, Sally Yates, had to say about the president's words. This is what she tweeted today. "POTUS on 12/28," quote -- this is in his interview with "The New York Times" -- "'I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department,'" closed quote. "Today he slanders career Department of Justice professionals as deep state, calls for prison for a political opponent, and tries to sic DOJ on a potential witness against him" -- that would be James Comey she's referring to -- "Beyond abnormal. Dangerous."

Do you share her concern the president would try to reshape the Department of Justice?

KIRBY: Yes, that's my worry, Wolf. I mean, I share the concern that she's expressed there. She's obviously smarter about this than I am. But that's what I'm worried about, not only that he's trying to discredit the Russia investigation. And I do think this deep state rhetoric of his is linked to that.

But what he might have in mind in terms of what he thinks he can get away with on the Justice Department and just kind of running roughshod over their processes and the institution in general. I think that's very worrisome.

BLITZER: On the Russia investigation, Rebecca, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devon Nunes, he's focusing in on the FBI's treatment of that dossier, which alleged all sorts of connections between Trump and Russia. He wants to know what role that dossier, that document may have played in guiding the entire FBI investigation, the decision to launch the investigation.

Is this just a way, as his critics, Devon Nunes's critics are suggesting, that Nunes is trying to muddy the waters?

BERG: Well, potentially, Wolf. I mean, again, he's following the president's lead. And because President Trump remains popular among Republicans, even though he has a historically low approval rating overall, you're going to continue to see Republicans in Congress following the president's lead.

He has suggested that this dossier is proof that this is a political witch-hunt, as he has alleged. Of course, there's a "New York Times" report that came out over the weekend that said it wasn't the start of the investigation at all, that a conversation George Papadopoulos had in London with an Australian ambassador was the start of the investigation. The dossier came later.

But the fact that Devon Nunes is continuing to look into this thread just shows how much power the president has to set the tone and set the agenda for Republicans. BLITZER: Bianna, is the House investigation in trouble?

GOLODRYGA: Well, you're starting to see the divide even among Republicans about what are the long-term implications for the president attacking his own Justice Department in years to come? Where does that leave the FBI?

You have a weakened Jeff Sessions, who has been quiet throughout this process. You would think that your attorney general would be defending or speaking out against some of this, but of course he doesn't want to offend the president himself, so you also have Republicans, though, that are pushing for the investigation to end sooner than many Democrats want. So you may have a situation where you have multiple inconclusive reports.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There are more developments unfolding. We're going to talk about Republican Senator Orrin Hatch's announcement today that he won't seek an eighth term in the U.S. Senate and whether Mitt Romney could now seek that Senate seat.


[17:41:45] BLITZER: More breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including from President Trump, who just moments ago, a couple of moments ago, tweeted this. Two tweets. Let me read them to our viewers and get some analysis.

"It's not only Pakistan that we pay billions of dollars to for nothing but also many other countries and others. As an example, we pay the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don't even want to negotiate a long- overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel for that would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"

John Kirby, you're the former State Department spokesman during the Obama administration, press secretary at the Pentagon, also during the Obama administration. Here the president is not only warning Pakistan they're going to lose billions of dollars in U.S. aid, he's warning the Palestinians "You're losing billions of dollars in U.S. aid, potentially, unless you rejoin the dialogue, the peace process," which they've walked away from from the U.S. side with because of the U.S. recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

KIRBY: I mean, put the money aside for a minute, although I know that's hard for him to do. I mean, this -- he's basically just killing again any prospect of a peace process moving forward or any prospect of a two-state solution.

And far from taking Jerusalem off the table, he's the one who laid it squarely on the table when he decided to call it the capital of Israel, which I know other presidents have said they would, and when he promised to move our embassy there. I mean, he's the one who made this an issue and effectively killed any incentive that the Palestinians might have had to sit down and have meaningful negotiations.

BLITZER: Because the U.S. does provide the Palestinian Authority with, you know, a lot of assistance, but now the Palestinians are saying, Rebecca, they're not going to negotiate with the U.S. as mediator. And now the president is suggesting, "You know what? You don't want to talk? You're not going to get the aid."

BERG: Right. Well, one of the things that President Trump doesn't really seem to understand about foreign policy and negotiating with partners or potential partners abroad is that foreign aid acts as a really huge incentive, a form of soft power for these potential -- for these countries, or these people, to work with the United States as opposed to working with some of our adversaries or more aggressive countries like China.

I mean, China is cultivating countries like Pakistan with aid as a potential partner at the same time that the United States is now threatening to pull back. And so there are consequences when the president is making these sorts of threats to either pull back some aid or get rid of it altogether to these countries.

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: He's potentially undermining his own diplomats, who are doing closed-door diplomacy and possibly talking about similar issues, just not out in the forefront the way this president seems to be doing; and could be undermining the work they're doing both in Pakistan and in the Middle East, as well. So I don't really see much of an upside for the president tweeting this.

I don't know if this is out of anger or what have you, but I don't see what the potential reward would be for laying this all out in a single tweet.

BLITZER: Why do you think, John Kirby, and as I said, former State Department and Pentagon spokesperson, why do you think the president all of a sudden starting this new year focusing in on Pakistan, Iran, North Korea? Obviously, Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem, all of these major national security issues?

KIRBY: I don't want to give him too much credit for strategic thinking, but you could make an argument that this is in keeping with his national security strategy, which is all about reciprocity and transactional relationships.

But Rebecca makes the salient point here. That's not how foreign policy works, or at least not -- it's not the only way foreign policy works. It's not just about transactions. It's about doing things that are in your interest and in common interests.

So back to Pakistan, we have a tough relationship, no question about that, but we do share some common interests along that spine between Afghanistan and Pakistan that we can find -- to try to find common grounds to work with them on it.

So even if we're going to pull back the aid -- and I'm actually OK with that in terms of Pakistan -- we still need to find a way to move that relationship forward. That means compromise.

BLITZER: Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Rebecca, she was out today. She was speaking over at the U.N., and she was sounding just as tough on these sensitive issues as the President.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, absolutely. And she needs to echo the administration line, the administration tone, and so she's speaking on behalf of the President. It makes perfect sense that she would be in line with what he is saying and the way he is saying it.

But there are potential repercussions for the United States abroad. And, you know, we haven't necessarily heard from the President that sort of deep thinking, that explanation of why he is saying what he is saying, a sense that this is part of some broader strategy and not some rash tweet that he is just firing off.

BLITZER: Because what --


BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: And it doesn't --

BLITZER: I was just wondering if you saw anything that Pakistan said or did in recent days that resulted in the President's first tweet of the New Year going after Pakistan the way he did.

GOLODRYGA: Well, that's the question so many are asking. Look, I think a lot of people know that Pakistan hasn't been the most forthcoming of potential partners against terrorism in the past. That's not a surprise.

The real question is, why now? What did he -- what has he been briefed about perhaps? What does he know? Obviously, he knows a lot that we don't know.

And what makes it even more confusing is that little bits and pieces that we do know come from these tweets that really don't have much of an explanation to follow them up with.

I also think that it does question, you know, the foreign policy doctrine, let's say, that was introduced by the administration a couple of weeks ago. Even Rex Tillerson's op-ed that he wrote yesterday. I wouldn't say that these tweets support what is written and what even some of his own cabinet officials are saying. So that's questionable, too.

And also, a year into an administration, I think if this tweet had come exactly a year ago, you really would have had a lot of these countries sitting on pins and needles and on edge. I think a year into a Trump administration, they've had a bit more time to try to figure out what his M.O. is. And for better or worse, I'm not sure how seriously they even take these types of tweets anymore. BLITZER: Everybody, stay with us. There are more developments

unfolding, more breaking news, as the White House stands by President Trump's controversial call for his deep state Justice Department, his words, to finally act on former FBI Director James Comey and a top aide to Hillary Clinton.

Also, is a new offer by Kim Jong-un driving a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea?


[17:52:06] BLITZER: We're following breaking news in the U.S. standoff with North Korea right now.

Kim Jong-un's new offer of high-level talks with South Korea received a rather cool reception this afternoon from both the White House and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Haley insists North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before any talks will be taken seriously.

Let's get some more from our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, will Kim Jong-un's offer drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf. It may already be happening. Earlier today, the South Koreans revealed that they are trying to contact North Korea to begin talks.


STARR (voice-over): An extraordinary New Year's address from North Korea's unpredictable leader.

KIM JONG-UN, SUPREME LEADER OF NORTH KOREA (through translator): The entire continent of America is within reach of our nuclear attack. They must never forget the nuclear button is placed on my desk at all times. They must realize correctly that this is not a threat but reality.

STARR (voice-over): Kim Jong-un also suddenly suggesting he might send a team of athletes to the next Winter Olympics in South Korea, which quickly got a positive response from South Korea's President.

MOON JAE-IN, PRESIDENT OF SOUTH KOREA (through translator): The Unification Ministry and Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism should swiftly create measures to resume the inter-Korean talks and help the North Korean squad so that they can participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

STARR (voice-over): Leaving President Trump potentially on the outside looking in.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Kim would love to drive a wedge between the United States and Korea -- South Korea or Japan. It is very important for him to, in essence, take South Korea out of the mix of alliances that it currently has.

STARR (voice-over): United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley not yet embracing progress.

NIKKI HALEY, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: North Korea can talk with anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have.

STARR (voice-over): The President putting his own take on developments tweeting: sanctions and other pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket Man now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time. Perhaps that is good new us. Perhaps not. We will see.

The risk for President Trump? Defending South Korea could be much tougher if North and South grow closer. Already, there are signs the U.S. military may keep a lower profile on upcoming training and exercises.

U.S. policy is unchanged. North Korea must denuclearize, give up its weapons. But Kim is making it clear he will continue pursuing missiles and nuclear warheads.


[17:54:59] STARR: And tonight, there are growing signs that the U.S. intelligence community is seeing that North Korea is preparing for another ballistic missile test. But these preparations came before the latest statements by Kim Jong-un. Whether he really carries through on it and has another test is something the U.S., of course, will be watching very closely -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you. Coming up, breaking news. The White House stands by as the President calls his own Justice Department deep state and attacks the former FBI Director and a former Hillary Clinton aide. Is the President putting together an enemy's list to distract from the Russia investigation?


BLITZER: Happening now. Breaking news. Absolute right. Just days after President Trump suggests that he has unchecked authority over the Justice Department, he's claiming there's a shady conspiracy playing out in Attorney General Jeff Sessions' domain. Is the President building toward any drastic action to help himself or hurt his enemies?

Pushing back. As the Special Counsel begins a new year of the Russia probe, we're following attempts by the President and his party to distract and discredit Robert Mueller.

[18:00:00] Tonight, growing concerns about their intentions as new deadlines loom.

Preparing to launch. With missiles at the ready, Kim Jong-un threatens a nuclear strike even as North and South Korea consider talks to avoid a potential war.