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Interview With Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego; North Korea's Shifting Tone; Protests in Iran; White House Stands by Trump Slam on 'Deep State' Justice Dept.; U.S.: No Serious Talks As Long As North Korea Has Nukes. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 2, 2018 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: 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. Is President Trump stirring the pot with a new rocket man taunt?

And supporting protests. The Trump administration praises anti- government demonstrators in Iran, as the regime blames its enemies for the deadly unrest. Is the White House refusal to stay silent the right strategy?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the White House isn't backing away from President Trump's stunning claim of a deep state conspiracy against him being waged inside his own Justice Department.

Mr. Trump kicking off the new year with a series of provocative tweets suggesting officials over at the Justice Department should prosecute former Hillary Clinton aid Huma Abedin and put her in jail and take action against former FBI Director James Comey as well.

Also breaking, in a late tweet tonight, the president is threatening to withhold future payments to Palestinians if they don't rejoin peace discussions, despite his provocative decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The president weighing in on multiple global threats and emergencies.

Also tonight, the United States is seeking an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Iran, as the president offers support for anti- government protesters in that country. Mr. Trump declaring that the people of Iran are finally acting against their -- quote -- "brutal and corrupt regime." At least 21 people have died in the unrest so far.

And the Trump administration says it won't take any conciliatory talk from Kim Jong-un seriously unless the North Korean dictator dismantles his nuclear arsenal and stops threatening the United States. U.S. officials say Kim Jong-un may be just days away from a new missile launch only hours after he held out a rare olive branch, raising the possibility of new talks with South Korea.

We're covering all of this, much more this hour with our guests, including the House Armed Services Committee member Ruben Gallego. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the president is dramatically escalating his extraordinary war of words against his own Justice Department.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that is correct. There is such a big legislative agenda on tap for 2018, but the president is starting out his year going after the Justice Department, escalating, as you said, that extraordinary confrontation between the department that's heading up the Russia investigation and here at the White House.


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 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:

HUCKABEE 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 have stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."

All this after the president returned to the White House from a 10-day holiday break at Mar-a-Lago. The president looking ahead to his 2018 and a big list of unfinished business. DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to have a

great year. It will 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's 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 news. It was just reported that there were zero deaths reported 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:

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


ZELENY: Now, the president said he was looking forward to a fantastic 2018. At least in terms of politics, it's getting off to a rough start for him.

He had been trying to convince Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican, the longest serving Republican in the Senate, to run again for reelection to an eighth term. Senator Hatch said this afternoon he plans to retire at the end of his seat, despite phone calls and much cajoling from this president.

Now, one of the reasons the president was trying to convince Senator Hatch to run again, to keep Mitt Romney from running for that seat in Utah. So, Wolf, the central question here is if Mitt Romney runs, which many of his advisers tell me they believe he will, will the president get behind Mitt Romney?

Those two of course have had sharp words over the years.

BLITZER: They certainly have.

All right, Jeff Zeleny reporting for us, thank you very much.

Let's talk a little bit more about the president's claim of what he calls a deep state conspiracy over at the Justice Department.

We're joined by our justice correspondent, Evan Perez.

Evan, is this having an effect over at the Justice Department?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think like a lot of us, I think people at the Justice Department kind of roll their eyes when they see tweets like this from the president.

But there's no doubt there is a cumulative effect that it has on not only the morale of people who work there, a lot of them obviously are civil service. Not just political appointees, but they're also people there who have been there for years serving under Republican and Democratic presidents.

And the problem here is that the president is essentially urging them and ordering them to investigate his political enemies, his opponents. And that's a really big problem for the Justice Department. You're supposed to do investigations based on what evidence exists to support that investigation.

It's certainly what the FBI, that's what the attorney general standards which governs what the FBI does. That's how it works. So it really is unseemly for the president to be saying these types of things out in public.

BLITZER: Is there a sense that you're getting of what this tweet could be about, this so-called deep state, this conspiracy over the Justice Department that is out to get him?

PEREZ: Right.

I think behind the scenes here is what the president has been trying to do. We have seen it now for a period of weeks, which is to sort of throw sand in our eyes and the eyes of everyone and to distract from the Russia investigation. And I think one of the things that knowing that it would be very difficult and possibly at this point politically impossible to support the firing of Robert Mueller or to try to engineer that, what I think you're seeing is a strategy here to encourage the Justice Department to appoint a second special counsel to go after Hillary Clinton.

Never mind the fact that Hillary Clinton is a private citizen. She lost the election. She's already been investigated. I think the president and the Republicans who support him have been sort of laying the groundwork for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, and, in that way, perhaps get in the way of Robert Mueller and what he's trying to do.

I'm not sure it's going to work, because, again, you have to have the evidentiary standards for you to appoint a special counsel here, and I'm not sure you're there, but I think that's what they're trying to go at.

BLITZER: Evan Perez reporting for us, Evan, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Congressman Ruben Gallego is joining us. He is a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Let me read the tweet that he posted, the president of the United States.

I will put it up on the screen. "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."

So, what message is the president sending?

GALLEGO: Well, first of all, agreeing that he doesn't sound like the president of the United States. It sounds like Donald Trump. But it's unfortunate that we're in this time and place.

What it says is that this president is deeply paranoid about what this investigation is going to find. And what he's trying to do in the meantime is essentially to erode any trust in the FBI or Department of Justice or any other institutions that have traditionally involved in keeping the president in check.


This is why you see him attacking the press. This is why you see him attacking the Department of Justice, the courts and now the FBI. I just find it deeply ironic for somebody who says he's pro-law enforcement that he's attacking one of the largest law enforcement organizations that is responsible for us, keeping us safe.

For example, we just heard about the FBI stopping a terrorist attack last week in San Francisco. And for some reason, the president of all the times did not come out and congratulate them.

This man just doesn't understand the Department of Justice and he doesn't understand civil servants. Civil servants and the FBI, they care more about country than themselves. The reason that the president doesn't understand it is because he cares more about himself than the country. BLITZER: "The New York Times," as you know, Congressman, is reporting

that George Papadopoulos -- he was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign -- that he was drinking apparently one night in London.

He bragged to an Australian diplomat in London that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton. And when the hacked e-mails eventually a few weeks later were published, the Australians then reported what Papadopoulos told them to the FBI, to U.S. law enforcement, to the intelligence community.

That helped launch, according to "The New York Times," the Russia investigations.

Do you believe that Papadopoulos also told the Trump campaign about these upcoming e-mails, the hacked e-mails, the dirt on Hillary Clinton?

GALLEGO: I know he spoke to somebody.

First of all, if a person is supposed to be the coffee boy, whatever they called him, for him to be traveling around the country meeting with diplomats, having drinks with diplomats, tells us...

BLITZER: This was in London.

GALLEGO: Yes, he was clearly moving up and down the social scene using the title, at least the imprint of the Trump administration -- sorry -- the Trump campaign.

So I do think he spoke to somebody. I do believe that he was in contract with higher-up officials within the Trump campaign. And that's actually what launched the original campaign.

Republicans are trying to paint this as something that has to do with the Steele dossier. Now we know for a fact that this is actually essentially started because one of our closest allies, who we have security agreements with, we have intelligence-sharing agreements with, decided to talk to us because they were worried about what was occurring.

BLITZER: What does that tell you about Australia's level of concern that on a sensitive issue like this, once those hacked e-mails are out there, they go to their U.S. counterparts and say, hey, look, a few weeks ago, a couple of months ago, we were told by this guy, we didn't think it was really credible, but obviously he knew what he was talking about?

GALLEGO: Well, clearly, for the Australian government to take a chance like this and actually go and talk to our intelligence services tells you that they were very worried and aware this is a very serious undermining of not just our national security, but our security all around the world, including with our allies.

And the fact that they potentially were taking a risk of really getting the next president mad, potentially if Hillary had lost, tells you that they knew that this was a serious issue and that they had to go forward with it.

BLITZER: What does it tell you according to "The New York Times" that the Australians informed the FBI, the U.S. law enforcement intelligence community about these hacked e-mails, what Papadopoulos was telling the Australian diplomat in London, but, apparently, they didn't get this information directly from the Trump campaign?

GALLEGO: Well, it tells you a couple of things, that there was a certain level of collusion that was actually occurring within the Trump campaign.

Again, I don't know how far it went. But the fact that the Australians were more quick to actually talk to the FBI than our own U.S. citizens really questions the motives of the Trump campaign.

And for me, it points to that there was some high-level collusion going on within the campaign with the Russians and with WikiLeaks to make sure that they were able to expose these e-mails and use them as a weapon.

BLITZER: What does it say to you that Devin Nunes, he's the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that he wants the investigation to probe into FBI activities, Justice Department activities right now?

And a lot of Democratic members of the intelligence community, Intelligence Committee, are deeply concerned about what he's trying to do.

GALLEGO: Well, first of all, Devin, Representative Nunes, at first said that he was going to recuse himself from the investigation. Now he's trying to start a side investigation essentially to basically throw dust up in the air and create this atmosphere of doubt that's going into the investigation.

So I think it's actually the person who's entirely responsible for this is Speaker Ryan. Speaker Ryan should remove Devin Nunes not just from being committee chair, but also from the committee. He is clearly compromised.

His intention is to compromise the investigation. And the fact that Speaker Ryan is not actually taking actions to basically make sure this investigation continues in a very forward and aggressive, but yet honest manner really tells me what the goal is. And the goal is to protect the president, not to get to the truth.

BLITZER: All right, stand by, Congressman. There are more developments even as we speak.


We will take a quick break. We will be right back.


BLITZER: We're back with House Armed Services Committee member Ruben Gallego. We're following the breaking news on the U.S. response to anti- government protests in Iran.

Congressman, I want you to stand by for a moment.

The White House tonight says President Trump will not stay silent about the deadly unrest in Iran, the president backing the protesters in a new tweet just posted, while blasting the Iranian government, as well as blasting former President Obama.

Mr. Trump declaring -- and I'm quoting him now -- "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. U.S. is watching."

Let's bring in our security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto.


Jim, you have reported extensively from Iran over the years. You have been there a dozen times.

Help us understand what's going on, on the streets of Tehran and other major cities in Iran right now and how the president's words could have an impact.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This is a truly unexpected outpouring of public protest in Iran.

Very different from previous protests we have seen there. A couple of differences. One, if you go back to 2009, the election protests, I was there on the ground. It originated in the capital, Tehran. A lot of university students.

This one is much more national in small towns and big towns around the country. That is a big difference. Two, it also has a different target, not just going after the mullahs that run the country, the supreme leader, but also the elected president, Hassan Rouhani, who when he was elected, was seen as something of a reformer who was going to bring in better relations with the West. Better economic conditions.

And, in fact, that was the expectation from the U.S. nuclear deal, the U.S.-led nuclear deal, with Iran, that that would finally open up Iran's economy to the world and, therefore, allow the Iranian people to travel more freely, do business more freely, that the country would have more economic prosperity.

That just hasn't borne out to the degree that they wanted, and they blame virtually everyone, really. They blame the mullahs who run the country who absorb a lot of the money coming into the country. They blame Hassan Rouhani, who was elected to change these circumstances there.

And you're seeing really surprise from inside Iran at just how extensive these are and a real question now, Wolf, about where these lead to, how long they last and what degree of a threat they may pose to this regime.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting for us, thanks very much.

Let's back to Congressman Ruben Gallego.

Do you support the president's approach right now, President Trump's approach, to talking about these protests as bluntly as he is?

GALLEGO: Absolutely not.

First of all, if you look at the tweet, the president's more interested in making sure he get to slam Obama, President Obama, than it is to actually try and aid the protesters.

If you actually wanted to aid the protesters, then you wouldn't actually block any of them from trying to become refugees, because there's going to be a lot of resultant political refugees coming from Iran after this.

But if you look at Trump's doctrine, no Iranian would be allowed to get any type of status here in this country. So that's number one.

Number two, the last thing you want to do is actually aid these protesters is actually to give an excuse for the mullahs and for the government in Iran to use us basically as a weapon to say that these protesters are actually being manipulated or encouraged by the United States, because if the protesters are going to succeed, they're not just going to be able to succeed by getting themselves motivated.

They're going to have to get a lot of people off the sidelines. And those people that are going to look at these protests are going to see the United States trying to put their footprint into this, and potentially are not going to join them in protest of their government.

If the goal for us is to help bring change internally to Iran, it has to be done through -- by the Iranian themselves, and not necessarily by us trying to throw our weight into it.

BLITZER: It's not just Iran. Tensions also escalating with North Korea right now.

I want you to listen to what Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

Listen to this.


MICHAEL MULLEN, FORMER JOINTS CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: We're actually closer in my view to a nuclear war with North Korea and in that region than we have ever been. And I just don't see how -- I don't see the opportunities to solve this diplomatically at this particular point.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Do you agree with him?

GALLEGO: Absolutely not.

We always have diplomacy as an option. And I think this rush to say that the endgame no matter what is war actually is only going to lead us to war.

There's a lot of opportunity for us. There's a lot of room for us to grow when it comes to diplomatic and economic sanctions. We still haven't fully implemented the sanctions regime on China and on Russia. We need to slow down this rhetoric that the only solution is war, because, when you do that, you will end up in war.

BLITZER: So, is it wise for South Korea to reach out and North Korea to reach out and say there could be a dialogue in connection with the Winter Olympic Games coming up next month in South Korea?

GALLEGO: It is wise for them to do that. What it really says to us is that we're being isolated because of our actions towards South Korea.

We need to be acting in unison with Japan and South Korea in making sure that we're working together. The fact that South Korea is working across the border with North Korea without talking to us tells us about how bad our relationship with South Korea is.

BLITZER: Congressman Gallego, thanks for joining us.

GALLEGO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the president's deep state conspiracy theory and the message it sends to the Justice Department. How does it figure into his claim that he has an absolute right to do whatever he wants with the Justice Department?

And Republican Senator Orrin Hatch announces his retirement. Will it open the door to one of the president's toughest Republican critics to serve in Washington?



BLITZER: We're following breaking news, the White House standing by President Trump's stunning and latest attack on the Justice Department and his call for it to go after top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and the former FBI Director James Comey.

Let's dig deeper with our analysts and our specialists.

And, Jeffrey Toobin, let me read this tweet once again. And I will put it up on the screen.

"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."

So, what message does that tweet alone send to the, what, 100,000 people who work in the Justice Department?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, I hope I don't sound like the boy who cried wolf, because this is so far outside the principles and the norms of presidential behavior, that we are in an outer space realm here.

[18:30:11] This is what happens in authoritarian countries. This leader uses the criminal justice system to punish his political enemies. That's precisely what's being called for here. It hasn't happened yet. Huma Abedin hasn't been prosecuted. Jim Comey hasn't been prosecuted. As far as I'm aware, there's nothing that they could be prosecuted for.

But the very idea that the president of the United States is calling on his Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies is something that is unprecedented since the Alien and Sedition Acts when John Adams was president. That's where we are today.

BLITZER: And the fact that he calls the Justice Department "deep state Justice Department." He says, "Deep state Justice Department must finally act," suggesting that there is this deep state conspiracy there out to get him.

TOOBIN: Yes. Yes. This you know, this makes like the Breitbart website look like "The London Times." I mean, this is such crazy talk that again, you know, maybe we're just ignoring these tweets at this point. Maybe we're just dismissing them, but the idea that the president of the United States who is the head of the executive branch is talking about something in his Justice Department that's the deep state, I mean, it's just madness. This is not how presidents have ever behaved in all of American history.

BLITZER: Sam Vinograd is with us, as well. Sam, you're a former national security analyst during the Obama administration. I want to read to you the response from Sally Yates, the fired deputy attorney general acting attorney general at one point. She tweeted this: "POTUS on 12/28," quote, "'I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department,'" closed quote. She then goes on: "Today, he slanders career Department of Justice professionals as deep state, calls for prison for a political opponent, tries to sic DOJ on a potential witness against him. Beyond abnormal. Dangerous."

What's your reaction?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: From a national security perspective, I read the president's Twitter feed today and I thought, "Wow, Vladimir Putin is having a really good day."

Every time Trump tweets against the Department of Justice, he's making the Russians very, very happy. There is bipartisan consensus -- again, not Democratic, not Republican -- that Russia attacked us during the election and that they've launched an information warfare campaign against the United States to undermine confidence in our institutions.

Every time Donald Trump, again, tweets against the Department of Justice or against his political opponents, he's actively participating in the Russians' information warfare campaign. And I'd urge him to read or reread a July Defense Intelligence Agency report that talks about how Russia views the information domain as strategically decisive and that they're using psychological operations to confuse their intended audience, in this case, the United States.

We know that Kremlin-backed Twitter accounts attack the credibility of the FBI, and now we have the president of the United States doing exactly the same thing. He's making the Russians' job a lot easier.

BLITZER: David Chalian, I want you to weigh in.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I agree with what Jeffrey was saying about just how unprecedented this is. That this is not the way a president, even if you buy the legal argument and agree with the president that he can do whatever he wants with his own Justice Department as he told "The New York Times," that is not -- his behavior today does not match at all what we've seen from all of his predecessors.

Now to some of his supporters, they'll say, "Exactly right. I'm tired of seeing what his predecessors did." And this is exactly the kind of thing that they voted for, to sort of bust up these traditional constraints of the office.

But here's the thing. The president himself is being totally inconsistent on this. That "New York Times" interview when he said he could do anything with the Justice Department, he goes on to say, Wolf, "But, you know, I am going to steer clear of that. I am not -- to get -- to make sure that this is -- I get a fair treatment from Mueller, that I am not going to go after my political opponents." And then today, just a few days after that interview, he does that.

It's the same thing with, like, hanging Jeff Sessions out there. How disappointed he is. Shouldn't recuse himself. Shouldn't be there, but still let's him be at the head of the Justice Department.

He's totally inconsistent except for one thing. He clearly reveals to us that he sees the Justice Department as part of his political arm.

BLITZER: Rebecca.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's especially incredible speaking of inconsistencies here, David, when you consider that Donald Trump ran as the law and order president, as someone who was going to stand up for law enforcement. And it's law enforcement professionals, law enforcement officials who comprise the Department of Justice, who comprise the FBI.

And so at the same time that President Trump says he's standing up for these people in our society, he's also, at the same time, tearing them down and tearing down their reputation.

TOOBIN: And by the way...

BLITZER: Go ahead.

[18:35:10] TOOBIN: By the way, Wolf, when -- you know, there are lots of places in this country where Donald Trump is popular. And you can be sure that criminal defense attorneys are going to start attacking the FBI. FBI agents testify in court every day. Using these arguments that the FBI is untrustworthy, that the FBI is part of the deep state.

These are arguments that are going to be used against the FBI, not just in these political cases. But it's going to be used to damage the credibility of the most important law enforcement agency in the country. All because Donald Trump wants to score a few political points. And again, this has never happened before in American history.

BLITZER: It wasn't just the law enforcement community, the Justice Department, Sam. Earlier in his presidency, he went after the U.S. intelligence community and saying some rather ugly things about the CIA and others.

VINOGRAD: Exactly. And this plays, again, into the broader point that this is what Russia wanted to see happen. The director of national intelligence assessed back in January that Russia interfered in the election to try to undermine confidence in our democracy as part of their ongoing efforts.

Again, this is nothing new, to degrade confidence in the U.S.-led liberal democratic order. So what we're seeing is every key institution in our democracy, our legal system, the intelligence community that supports our policy making, that is unbiased and independent, is being attacked by the president; and that's exactly playing into Russia's interests. The only interest that it serves is Russia's. It does not serve our own.

BLITZER: He goes after the news media, as well.

If he has nothing to hide, David Chalian, why is he going after the FBI, the Justice Department, the intelligence community the way he is?

CHALIAN: So can I paint an alternative universe for a moment? Imagine if last January, when the president was about to take office, that he said nothing is going to be as important to his presidency as ensuring that Russia does not interfere with future elections. And then every week on his calendar was some sort of message event where he got out there and he talked about his total commitment and everything he's doing to ensure this isn't happening.

A different, totally different picture than what we see now, which is somebody who is completely consumed by an investigation, because he thinks it delegitimizes him. If he had focused solely, in response to all this, on actually protecting our democracy going forward, imagine the difference that it would be right now inside the West Wing, inside the White House. Even if an investigation was still ongoing. It may not be consuming him personally the way that it does. Of course, that would be like lobotomizing Donald Trump. That's just not his personality at all.

BLITZER: But Sam, hold on. One at a time. Let me start with Sam. But just elaborate on that point you were making that Putin sits back and sort of enjoys what's going on.

VINOGRAD: I think that he does. The only consistent policy that President Trump has really actively pursued is appeasing Russia. We've seen him talk a big game on other countries like China and taking action for bad behavior. When it comes to Russia, other than the national security strategy where he had some tough words for Russia, he's smiling next to Putin. He's taking Putin's word over the word of his intelligence community. And I think that Putin knows how to push President Trump's buttons.

You just have to look at President Trump's Twitter feed to know that he's deeply paranoid about internal threats and that he really likes being flattered; and we've seen Vladimir Putin do exactly that. Vladimir Putin has stoked concerns over a deep state or internal dissent; and he's also complimented President Trump on things like the stock market, and President Trump keeps falling for it.

So at this point, it looks like the president of the United States is being very easily manipulated by the Russians rather than, for example, David, to your point, taking steps to, in the first instance, hold Russia accountable for their attack on the country, and in the second to deter them from another attack. 2018 is not far away, nor is 2020.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Just to respond to David's point about, you know, why didn't Donald Trump talk about how bad Russia was, maybe he doesn't believe that Russia was bad during the 2016 election. Maybe he thought it was good that Russia helped him win the presidency. I mean, your counterfactual is counterfactual. The -- the -- every piece of evidence, as Sam just recounted, is that the president agrees with -- with Putin. Why would he dedicate his administration to refuting Putin?

BLITZER: Stand by. Everybody stand by, because there's a lot we need to assess. Just ahead, how the White House is defending President Trump's frequent golf games. Stay with us.


[18:44:32] BLITZER: We're back with our correspondents and our specialists. And Sam, let me start with you.

In the span of a day and a half, the president is now on Twitter going after Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and in the last hour or so, gone after the Palestinians, saying if they don't rejoin the peace process, U.S. aid could go away. What impact is all of this having? VINOGRAD: Well, Wolf, I was really hoping that one of President

Trump's New Year's resolutions was to stop tweeting about national security, because it is so counterproductive.

[18:45:00] You look at his tweets about Iran, for example. They're inaccurate and I think they serve the regime's interest. They're inaccurate because I take issue with the fact that he said that the Iranian people are, quote, finally starting to push back against the regime.

I think his staff needs to brief him in the first instance on the Green Revolution in 2009 or the fact that the Iranian people go to the ballot box periodically to try to impact change. Albeit with mixed results.

Now, I think his tweeted about Iran are counterproductive because they're giving the regime an external ally to try to shift blame on to aside from speaking solely about the reasons behind the protests. It's no accident that Rouhani over the weekend talked about President Trump and the United States or that Khamenei earlier today spoke about external enemies as contributing to the protests. This is a convenient way for the regime to try to shift focus away from the fact that frankly, they overpromised on the economic returns that the nuclear deal was going to bring, and the fact that there are real issues that the Iranian people want to see change on the ground in Iran, including inflation and unemployment.

When you look at a country like Pakistan, we're now in a situation where the actual policy issue at hand, the fact that Pakistan has really done not as much as it could to root out terrorists within its borders that are seeking to strike the United States and places elsewhere, to what Twitter responses are coming from the Pakistani government. We're losing sight of the actual policy issues because the administration is consumed with playing clean up to the president's tweets.

BLITZER: Let me move on to a very different subject, and I got Rebecca Berg here and I want to play for you an exchange that happened today over at the White House press briefing on the president, he likes to play golf. We all know he likes to play golf. But listen to this exchange with the press secretary.


REPORTER: So, in less than a year in office now, President Trump has visited golf courses 91 times. There's confirmation that he's played the game of golf at least 75 times. Sean back in March told me that this was different than President Obama's use of golf, which was Obama played far less than President Trump but Sean said Trump was using the game much differently.

Can you tell me the biggest single thing the president has accomplished for the American people during his time on the golf course?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it would be developing deeper and better relationships with members of Congress in which those relationships have helped push forward the president's agenda.

REPORTER: So much has been accomplished during this time, there seems to be a bit of a transparency issue with his time on the golf course. We don't always get confirmation of what he's doing there, despite a lot of requests. There was this incident with the box truck. Why does it seem as though the White House is a little self -- you know, has some kind of issue about his time on the course?

SANDERS: I think it's the press that has an issue with his time on the course.

REPORTER: Is there a reason for no readout or confirmation when he's out in his meetings on the course?

SANDERS: We provided information when it's pertinent to the day.


BLITZER: We did some checking. By our count, he's only played golf with members of Congress seven times. Rand Paul, twice, Lindsey Graham, three times. Bob Corker, once. David Purdue, Senator David Purdue, once.

BERG: Right, so we're not sure his golf outing with tiger woods for example was doing anything to advance the president's agenda, but what Sarah Sanders was saying gets to a few I think key issues when it comes to understanding Trump and the Trump presidency. He's a president who is so consumed with his image to his supporters, to voters in general and Americans in general. That he doesn't want to be seen as someone who is taking any time off of the job, even though we all know as sort of an open secret, that he is frequently, during his time away from the White House, at the golf course and even during his time here in D.C., at the golf course practicing his golf game.

So, it's really an image issue for the president, but it's also an issue because he was extremely critical of President Obama for his time spent on the golf course when he was president. Now he's doing the same thing and at an even greater rate.

BLITZER: Let me let Jeffrey Toobin weigh in.

TOOBIN: I can say something I believe no one else at CNN can say, which is I love golf. I love golf so much. I love to play golf. I love to watch golf. You know, so I'm feeling Donald Trump on this.

The only problem here is what he said over and over again about President Obama. He said, I'll never play golf when I'm president. Not only has he played golf, he's played golf more than President Obama, which would be fine, especially with me, if he didn't just -- if he hadn't made this ridiculous criticism of his predecessor. I mean, that's the only problem here I think.

CHALIAN: The Trump tweet that might be crafted about this if we were talking about another president is caught red handed. I mean, it is just the blatant hypocrisy that is the problem here. Nobody begrudges the president some R&R, some time away from the office, some clearing head time on the golf course.

[18:50:02] But when you are this hypocritical, you need to be called out for it, and Sarah Sanders showed today that there's no good answer for it.

BERG: And the fact that the president and the White House haven't disclosed his golf outings as plainly obvious as they have been to all of us really shows I think a sense of self-awareness that the president has that he's going against what he said about President Obama and, you know, doing exactly what he said shouldn't be done when you're president of the United States.

BLITZER: It's, you know, they try, David, we saw while he was at Mar- a-Lago over the past several days, they tried to prevent the traveling White House press pool from even getting some pictures of the president playing golf.

CHALIAN: Yes. Rebecca was listing all the people that he's concerned about his image with, I think one of the people you may have forgotten is his own image reflected back to him on television at night and I don't know that he himself loves seeing those images.

TOOBIN: By the way, president Obama's staff did not welcome cameras when president Obama was playing golf either. There were occasional photographs, but they kept the press at a pretty good distance as well.

So, I think this argument -- I mean, obviously, this truck was a ridiculous thing, and CNN was right to call them out on it. But you know, it is true, even, that President Obama's staff wasn't crazy about those photographs. I guess presidents are supposed to clear brush. They're not supposed to play golf.

BLITZER: We'll leave it on that note right there.

All right. Everybody, stand by.

There are some major developments happening right now involving North Korea. Kim Jong-un's nuclear warning. Does the North Korean dictator really have the launch button on his desk?


[18:55:47] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. The United States says it won't take any talks with North Korea seriously as long as the Kim Jong-un regime has nuclear weapons.

CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us.

Same time, Brian, Kim Jong-un himself is raising the possibility of a dialogue with South Korea.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He is, Wolf. Tonight, Kim Jong-un doing something he has never done before, taking the initiative himself to propose talks with South Korea on the possibility of sending North Korean athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. Now, the South Koreans want to jump at this chance for reconciliation, but tonight, U.S. officials -- they are pushing back, saying Kim is trying to drive a wedge between America and its South Korean allies.


TODD (voice-over): A rare event in Pyongyang, where the world hears directly from Kim Jong-un.

Dressed in a light gray western business suit instead of his universal dark Mao Zedong style jacket, Kim offers a peaceful overture to his enemies in the South. He says he hopes the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang South Korea next month are successful and even hints at the possibility of sending athletes to compete.

KIM JONG UN, NORTH KOREAN LEADER (through translator): We are willing to dispatch a delegation and adopt other necessary measures. The authorities of the North and the South may meet together soon regarding this matter.

TODD: South Korea wants to hold talks with North Korea almost immediately. Tonight, U.S. officials say they're skeptical of Kim's sincerity.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We won't take any of the talks seriously if they don't do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea.

TODD: President Trump's reaction, a tweet saying, quote: rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time. Perhaps that is good news. Perhaps not. We will see.

Does Kim have an ulterior motive with this overture?

MICHAEL GREEN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: He's not doing this out of the goodness of his heart. With Kim Jong-un, you can be sure of that.

First and foremost, he's trying to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, and the South Korean government is desperate to have a peaceful Olympics in Pyeongchang and will give aid to get it.

TODD: What could those talks do to de-escalate boiling tensions on the peninsula?

LAURA ROSENBERGER, FORMER NSC DIRECTOR FOR CHINA AND KOREA: We have seen in the past on the humanitarian front, you know, some steps that were taken, whether it's family reunification, we all know that the North Korean people are being starved by their government. If there were the possibility for some kind of aid and assistance, I think that that could be a positive thing for the North Korean people.

TODD: At the same time, Kim's recent public appearances now feature his increasingly influential younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, as they arrived together for a concert in Pyongyang.

GREEN: Her star is rising because she's not a threat to him. So, she may not be a particularly strong figure, but at least she's a member of the inner family that re-enforces the idea there is a dynastic succession, a cult of personalities, not just one guy.

TODD: But Kim makes it clear, he's in command. In the same speech where he softens on South Korea, he warns America.

KIM (through translator): They must never forget that the nuclear button is placed on my desk at all times. They must realize that this is not a threat but a reality.


TODD: This comes as U.S. officials tell CNN there are growing signs that Kim's regime may be preparing for another ballistic missile test soon. These officials say the North Koreans have recently moved around some equipment indicating a possible missile test rather than some kind of satellite launch or something like that, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Brian, you're also getting some warnings from former U.S. officials who have dealt with North Korea about what could happen if those proposed talks between North and South Korea don't happen or if something goes wrong during the talks.

TODD: They're fraught with danger, Wolf. These former officials saying that while Kim Jong-un's overture is a positive development, they're also warning about what could happen, you know, if these talks break down, if there's a fallout, if he doesn't get what he wants out of these talks. They say Kim could launch some kind of a raid during the Olympics, a cyberattack, or he could do something else to undermine the Winter Olympic Games.

They point out the North Koreans once blew up a South Korean passenger plane in an effort to subvert a South Korean Olympics back in 1998.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you.

This important programming note. Stay with CNN later tonight for a CNN special report on the Trump presidency one year later. That's coming up at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

That's it for me.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.