Return to Transcripts main page


Sources: Trump Lawyers Anticipate Mueller Interview Request, Want to Limit Scope; Trump Touts Tax Cut, Aides Defend Weekend Boast; Trump Administration Ending Protections for 200,000 Immigrants. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 8, 2018 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Answering questions? Lawyers for President Trump are anticipating a request for the president to talk to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and are discussing how to set limits on any interview. Could the president end up sitting down face-to-face with the special counsel?

[17:00:26] Forced out. The Trump administration says nearly a quarter of a million immigrants who fled devastating earthquakes and have been in the United States now for 17 years, they now have to go home. That latest get-tough move comes as Congress and the president are bracing for a fight over hundreds of thousands of other young immigrants. Could that fight force a government shutdown within days?

"O," say can you see? Friends of Oprah Winfrey tell CNN she's actively thinking about running for president in 2020. And few people who saw her rousing speech during last night's Golden Globes have any doubts. What's the Trump White House saying about all of this?

And talking peace. Minutes from now, South Korean negotiators will be leaving for the first high-level talks with North Korea in years. Will the talks affect Kim Jong-un's missile and nuclear weapons program and the sky-high tensions right now on the Korean Peninsula?

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. Sources with knowledge of the matter tell CNN lawyers for President Trump that they are anticipating a request for the president to talk to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His legal team is discussing the parameters of the interview.

The president is eager for the investigation to end and as recently as this weekend insisted once again he did not commit any crime. The president just wrapped up a speech in Nashville, touting the tax cuts just passed by the Republican Congress. Behind the scenes, the president's team is scrambling to push back on new questions about his fitness for office and defending the president's weekend boast that he's a "very stable genius." We're also following the presidential buzz generated by Oprah

Winfrey's rousing speech at last night's Golden Globe Awards. Today, two of Oprah's close friends tell CNN she's actively thinking about running for president of the United States.

We're also following important breaking news on the Korean Peninsula. Any moment now, South Korean negotiators will be heading for the first high-level negotiations with North Korea in more than two years. The talks are likely to focus on a possible invitation for North Korean athletes to compete in next month's Winter Olympic Games just across the border in South Korea. But the talks come as tensions remain very high because of Kim Jong-un's missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, a member of the House intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees, he's standing by to take our questions. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

But let's begin with the breaking news on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and the possibility he may talk to President Trump. Our justice correspondent Pamela Brown is with us. Our CNN senior political analyst, Gloria Borger, she's with us. Both have been working their sources.

Pamela, what do we know about Mueller's team and the talks, potential talks with the president's lawyers and eventually maybe with the president?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, sources tell us that the president's lawyers are anticipating a request to interview the president from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and there have been internal discussions about setting the parameters for any such interview, what the possible interview might look like.

Our sources tell us that the matter was broached in a previous meeting between both sides, the president's lawyers and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but there was nothing definitive. We're told that there were no substantive discussions or active negotiations going on. In fact, we're told that that will likely take place at a later date when the both sides meet.

But the expectation, Wolf, has been for months now that Robert Mueller would not wrap up his investigation without putting in a request to interview the president. So this preparation has been going on for quite a while.

But now, given where things stand in the investigation, the fact that White House witness interviews have wrapped up, according to Ty Cobb, White House special counsel, and the fact that it's been broached in a previous meeting, the feeling is that this could happen sooner rather than later. And it would be significant, of course.

BLITZER: It would be very, very significant. Not every day that a prosecutor, a special counsel, gets to speak with the president of the United States. So Gloria, how might an interview along these lines take place? And

what kind of limits could White House lawyers presumably try to impose on the nature of the Q&A?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: As many limits as they possibly can, Wolf. You know, what they're doing is they're looking at how previous administrations have handled kind of similar requests. And what they're trying to do is find out, first of all, whether he needs to testify under oath at all. Would his testimony be recorded? Could he potentially answer questions in writing the way Ronald Reagan did with Iran-Contra?

[17:05:20] What they don't want to do is put the president in any kind of jeopardy. They're his -- they're his attorneys, after all. And allow him to be -- to participate in any kind of open-ended fishing expedition. They believe that would not serve their client well.

BLITZER: Yes, this is a very, very sensitive matter, and they're going to look at all the experiences when other presidents have been forced to testify on these kinds of issues.

I want both of you to stand by. There's a lot of news going on.

President Trump just wrapped up a speech in Nashville, Tennessee, touting his accomplishments, especially the Republicans' recently passed tax cuts. But behind the scenes, his team is trying to defend his fitness for office and explain his tweet over the weekend claiming he's, quote, "a very stable genius."

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, what are you hearing?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Trump trying to get back on message today, touting his economic agenda after spending the last few days defending his own mental acuity. But the president's unusual claim -- and you just mentioned it -- that he's a very stable genius, has demonstrated how too much damage control can cause some damage.


ACOSTA (voice-over): At a speech to farmers in Nashville, President Trump sounded as if he was summing up his first year in office as pure genius.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, are you happy you voted for me. You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege.

ACOSTA: The president was trying to steer his White House back on track after a week of responding to revelations from the book "Fire and Fury" that raised questions about Mr. Trump's mental fitness. Revelations that prompted this tweet over the weekend: "I went from very successful businessman to top TV star to president of the United States on my first try. I think that would qualify as not smart but genius. And a very stable genius at that."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why did you feel the need to tweet about that this morning?

TRUMP: Well, only because I went to the best colleges -- or college. I went to a -- I had a situation where I was a very excellent student. Came out and made billions and billions of dollars, became one of the top business people. Went to television and for ten years was a tremendous success, as you probably have heard. Ran for president one time and won.

ACOSTA: Even fellow Republicans are having fun with that.

JOY BEHAR, CO-HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": So do you think he's like really smart and a stable genius?

SEN. GRAHAM LINDSEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think this: if he doesn't call himself a genius, nobody else will. But the first...


ACOSTA: But it's no laughing matter at the White House...

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The only person who has called himself a genius in the last week is the president.

STEPHEN MILLER, SENIOR ADVISOR TO DONALD TRUMP: Which happens to be a true statement.

ACOSTA: ... where top officials are pushing back on any notion that the president has lost a step.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: I'm there once a week, and I'm there for a day with White House meetings and everything. No one questions the stability of the president.

ACOSTA: But there are questions about the president's political future as Democrats are already swooning over the prospect of Oprah Winfrey in 2020 after her speech at the Golden Globes.

OPRAH WINFREY, MEDIA MOGUL: What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.

ACOSTA: The White House response: Bring it on, Oprah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We welcome the challenge. Whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else.

ACOSTA: The president will likely face re-election without the services of Steve Bannon, despite an apology from the former chief strategist for his comment that Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian attorney was treasonous. Bannon said in a statement, "My comments were aimed at former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a seasoned campaign professional with experience and knowledge of how the Russians operate. He should have known they are duplicitous, cunning and not our friends. To reiterate, those comments were not aimed at Don Jr."

That's despite Bannon's comment to author Michael Wolff that federal investigators are "going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV."

MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY": I'm very fond of Steve. I've gotten very fond of him. And obviously, he's been very helpful, incredibly insightful. This is not true.


ACOSTA: And the White House is making it clear they don't want Steve Bannon back either. Asked whether Bannon could ever return here to the White House, a White House spokesman told reporters the former chief strategist's comments about Don Jr. were, quote, "repugnant and grotesque," adding that there appeared to not be any way for Steve Bannon to make his way back to the White House.

And Wolf, we should also point out the president has that upcoming physical exam on Friday up at Walter Reed. The White House told reporters earlier this afternoon that that exam will not include a psychiatric component -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House for us. Thanks very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas. He's a member of the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: How important, from your perspective, is an interview with President Trump to this whole Russia investigation?

[17:10:04] CASTRO: Well, it's going to be absolutely critical that the special counsel be able to interview Donald Trump on issues not only of collusion with the Russians, who interfered with the 2016 election, but also on issues of money laundering, for example, and obstruction of justice. Those three very big things, among others. And so, you know, I think the nation is anxious to see when that interview takes place.

BLITZER: How much influence should the president's legal team have in shaping the scope, the format of a potential interview along these lines?

CASTRO: Well, you know, in -- in law there is a back and forth between plaintiffs and defendants, for example. Parties to a suit about the conditions of a deposition, for example. So that's not extraordinary at all, that they would try to negotiate on behalf of their client. And, you know, we'll see what comes of that. But it's pretty much par for the course.

BLITZER: What does it tell you about the state of the investigation right now, that they're getting -- apparently, they're getting close to wanting to interview the president?

CASTRO: It tells me that they probably have a pretty good sense of the lay of the land at this point on all of the issues that I spoke about, and they've talked to many of the people below the president that they need to speak with; and now they're ready to talk to the principal person himself.

BLITZER: On the Senate side of the investigation, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Judiciary Committee, a former prosecutor himself, he predicts more charges, possibly even for Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and Donald Trump Jr. Do you agree?

CASTRO: Well, as you know, I can't discuss the interviews that I sat through or particular individuals who I believe may face legal liability, but based on what I've heard and seen in the interviews that have gone in front of the House Intelligence Committee, I would expect that there will be more people who are prosecuted by the special counsel.

BLITZER: Including the president's son-in-law and the president's son?

CASTRO: That I can't address. But it would surprise me if no one else is -- is prosecuted.

BLITZER: "The New York Times" has -- is now reporting new details on how the White House counsel, Don McGahn, lobbied the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, against recusal. The attorney general recused himself from Russia probe, as you know. And how Sessions was actually looking to put out damaging information on the FBI, the former FBI director, James Comey. He was fired by the president. Do you think these men need to be -- to be investigated?

CASTRO: I think they should certainly be part of the House and Senate investigations and the special counsel investigation, at least come in front of those bodies and testify about what they know regarding obstruction of justice in that case. Absolutely.

BLITZER: Over the weekend, President Trump strongly defended himself against these new questions arising from this bombshell book about his mental state. What did you make of his response?

CASTRO: I think the unfortunate thing for the president and really for the country is that the president's responses and his tweets and the bizarre tweets seem to affirm some of the allegations in the book and, I think, raise questions, you know, about the issues that were brought up in that book.

BLITZER: Give me an example of what your concern is.

CASTRO: Well, you see those, basically, very erratic tweets, and so I think people do wonder about his mental state, his mental condition.

You know, I think you've got to be fair to a president and to an individual to not be careless about making those claims, but, again, in the book, there are allegations that are troubling; and when the president goes off and does five tweets in a row that seem very strange and bizarre, Americans do start to wonder.

BLITZER: Is it appropriate for Democrats and others, for that matter, to question the president's mental fitness for the job?

CASTRO: Not without good cause. Now, I will point out that President Trump himself tweeted about President Obama's mental fitness when President Obama was in office. So -- but I think Americans are generally respectful of the president, whoever that is, and so I don't think it should be done without good cause.

But, again, some of the behavior that's been shown by this president does give Americans pause and raise questions.

BLITZER: Congressman Castro, I need to take a quick break. There's a lot more we need to discuss. I want you to stick around. We'll resume our conversation right after this.


[17:19:04] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro. He's on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, I need you to stand by. There's some breaking news in the fight over immigration we're covering. The Trump administration today announcing it's ending what's called temporary protected status for nearly a quarter million people who have been in the United States for some 17 years. They came from El Salvador after devastating earthquakes. They now have until late next year to go back home.

All of this comes as Congress gears up for a fight over protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought to this country as children and know no other home.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty. Sunlen, are we -- are we once again talking about the risk of a potential government shutdown?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are, Wolf. Lawmakers are at an impasse here over DACA, which has been entangled into the negotiations over the spending bill, a spending bill that they have to get solved before that deadline that's ticking away on January 19.

And you have here both sides really entrenched in their positions. Democrats here, they're saying that they won't agree to any spending bill if it does not address DACA and extend the protections for DREAMers. And then you have President Trump on the other side. He continues to insist and demand that, as part of the deal, that the wall that he wants to build along the U.S.-Mexico border be funded. This is something the he brought up with his meeting with congressional Republican leaders at Camp David. Here he is this weekend.


TRUMP: We want the wall. The wall is going to happen or we're not going to have DACA. We want DACA to happen. We all -- everybody, I think I can speak for

everybody. We want -- John Cornyn from Texas, we all want DACA to happen, but we also want great security for our country. So important.

I believe that Mexico will pay for the wall. I have a very good relationship with Mexico.


SERFATY: And, of course, building the wall and making Mexico pay for it was then-candidate Trump, one of his biggest campaign promises. But for now, Trump is calling for U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill, requesting from Congress, Wolf, $18 billion over the next ten years to potentially build that wall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There's another story that's breaking right now, Sunlen. You have some news about a new witness coming before the House Intelligence Committee in the coming days. What can you tell us?

SERFATY: That's right, Wolf. This news coming in from my colleague, Laura Jarrett. Her reports that Bruce Orr, former Justice Department official, who met with the Fusion GPS founder and Christopher Steele here, he will have a meeting in front of the House Intelligence Committee on January 17. So new moves in this investigation as this goes forward. And again, that's reporting from my colleague, Laura Jarrett, according to Department of Justice officials.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thanks very much.

Let's get back to Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro.

So what's your reaction, Congressman, to the news that Bruce Orr, this Justice Department official who met with the Fusion GPS founder, Glenn Simpson, and Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote that dossier, scheduled to meet with your committee on January 17?

CASTRO: Well, as you know, I can't comment on the interviews until after they happen, but as I've mentioned before and I know Adam Schiff has mentioned, there are still many witnesses, including folks at the Justice Department, that we need to hear from in order to fully do our investigation the right way.

BLITZER: His wife, Bruce Orr's wife, this Justice Department official, his wife, Nelly Orr, worked for Fusion GPS. And that's raising, as you know, all sorts of questions out there. What, if any, questions does it raise for you?

CASTRO: Well, Fusion GPS is one of the central characters in this whole narrative and so, you know, the interview that we had with Glenn Simpson was extremely informative for the committee; I think was very revelatory in terms of some of the legal liabilities that President Trump may face down the road from the special counsel. And so, you know, we need to hear from more a lot more people to get a complete picture. BLITZER: Let's get to another critically important issue that's got

to be resolved very soon. Would you support some funding for a physical border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, if it led to protecting 700,000 or 800,000 DREAMers here in the United States?

CASTRO: I think that's going to be a very tough deal for the president to make. I don't believe that we should be trading the lives of 800,000 young DREAMers for a wall across America.

And as somebody that represents Texas, I know that most Texans do not want a wall across 1,200 miles of the Texas/Mexico border. And so those are two issues that really should be separated.

Look, Republicans control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. If they want to take a vote on the wall, they know that they can do that separately and still take another vote on the DREAM Act, which is the way that I think that we should handle this.

BLITZER: What if the president and the Republican leadership say, you know, It's -- it's all or nothing. You've got to accept the wall. Pay the $18 billion for the wall. In exchange, you get to let the DREAMers stay in the United States"? How would you vote on legislation like that?

CASTRO: Of course, that was the $18 billion that Mexico was supposed to pay for this wall, but I would vote no, Wolf.

BLITZER: And risk making those DREAMers leave the country, is that what you're saying?

CASTRO: Yes, we can't support a wall. We're not going to support a wall across America. And I think that there's still an opportunity here for the president to do the right thing, for Congress to do the right thing.

And, remember, the American people already support DACA relief by a margin of 83 percent. So 83 percent of Americans believe that there should be DACA relief for these kids, that they should be allowed to stay. So it's not a matter of convincing the American people. It's really a matter of the president and the Republicans listening to the American people.

BLITZER: Before I let you go, Congressman, CNN's Brian Stelter is reporting that Oprah Winfrey is actively now thinking about running for president in 2020. I know your brother has suggested he might run, as well. What's your reaction?

[17:25:05] CASTRO: I think she's a very accomplished, admirable person. Somebody who's had an incredible career in broadcasting and an amazing and powerful life story. And I think that when it comes to 2020, the more the merrier for Democrats. I think everybody who has a vision for this country and feels compelled to stand up on that stage and share that vision with Americans and with Democrats to compete for the nomination should get up there and do it.

BLITZER: Do you think your brother would step aside if Oprah Winfrey throws her hat in the ring?

CASTRO: You're going to have to get him on the show and ask him that.

BLITZER: Tell him he's invited. He's always welcome to come on our show. We can discuss what he wants to do down the road.

Joaquin Castro, thanks very much for joining us.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, more on the presidential buzz right now involving Oprah Winfrey and a possible run for president in 2020, and the reaction that's generating from the Trump White House.

We're also following breaking news from the Korean Peninsula, where we're about to see -- this is really important -- the first high-level direct talks between North and South Korean delegations in more than two years.


BLITZER: The breaking news, President Trump's legal team is preparing for the possibility of an interview request from the special counsel, Robert Mueller. It remains to be seen what form or format that interview would take, whether or not the president would have to testify, for example, on camera, under oath.

[17:31:07] Let's get some analysis from our experts. Phil Mudd, you once worked for Robert Mueller. Is he going to insist, first of all, in an in-person, one-on-one interview with the president or, you know, Q&A in writing?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I don't think you could do this Q&A. You want to see how the president responds to different questions and answers. Remember, we're at the end game here.

The team, Mueller team has talked to a lot of people at the periphery of the campaign and in the White House. At this point, they're wanting answers not only on what the president says about the facts of the investigation but whether he contradicts what other interviewees have said. If he contradicts somebody, what are they going to say? "We have a follow-up question for you in writing?" I think if they're going to do this, they've got to do it in person.


BLITZER: What's going to be a tough sell?

BASH: To the White House and to president himself, that he should come in and talk to them. He might not have a choice, and they might -- and they might decide...


BASH: ... that he's going to do it the way that Bill Clinton did during...

BLITZER: The Whitewater.

BASH: The Whitewater -- but yes, it was Paula Jones.

BLITZER: With Ken Starr.

BASH: Yes. With Ken Starr.

But at the end of the day, it's going to be a big question about how much, if the president and, more importantly, his attorneys and advisers want him to push back, how far and how hard he is willing to push back.

I've talked to people who are arguing that the last thing in the world that President Trump should do is go and be sort of, from their perspective, the Trump world's perspective, a sitting duck to question after question after question. Just No. 1, given the fact that it's precedent, but, No. 2, given the fact that it's not unheard of that President Trump doesn't -- doesn't stick to script.

BLITZER: I remember, by the way, when Ken Starr, the independent counsel at the time, wanted to question Bill Clinton. They did it for four hours.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: He was at the White House. They let him do it at the White House out of respect for the president, but there was a video link...

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: ... to the grand jury that listened to the Q&A.

CILLIZZA: To add to Dana's point, unless he is sort of compelled to do so, I would be skeptical, because look at -- what do we know about his psyche as it relates to this investigation? He -- if you judge by every public statement he's made, including what we have reported that he said in private, he thinks that this is -- the whole thing is a hoax, and the Justice Department should be investigating Hillary Clinton more.

It's hard, I think, to -- oh, by the way, and then James Comey told him three times -- now this is a long time ago, but told him three times he was not under investigation.

It's tough to go from that to, "Hey, we need you to come sit down in person." He may not have a choice, but that may be the only way that you make that happen, because his mind is not going to wrap around that. He believes himself to be fundamentally exonerated here. He said no collusion. No proof of collusion. We know in "The New York Times" interview he said it 16 times. That's his firm belief.

BLITZER: Yes. He keeps saying that he's not under investigation. He keeps repeating that, no collusion, but they're also looking into obstruction of justice. They're also looking into money laundering. MUDD: And how do you conduct the conversation about that with a

couple of parameters that we know already? No. 1 is, the president makes stuff up. They miked Trump tower. Actually, the FBI director said they didn't.

My point is when you go into a written conversation with the president and he provides an answer, for example, about his financial relationships with Russia that doesn't correspond with what you've learned elsewhere in the investigation...

CILLIZZA: You can't follow up.

MUDD: What do you say?

BLITZER: You know Robert Mueller.

MUDD: Yes.

BLITZER: You worked for Robert Mueller, the special counsel.

MUDD: Yes. For 4 1/2 years.

BLITZER: So what do you think? What kind of format do you think he wants, remembering that this is the president?

MUDD: He wants facts. And the facts, the best way you can uncover facts would be in a conversation with the president. What he's sitting there saying is "How do I get in front of microphones and say I conducted an investigation about interference with an election and not talk to the man who conducted the election?" How did you do that? Did you talk to the president or not? And the answer might be no. What do you say? He wasn't relevant to the investigation?

BASH: The one -- the one thing that -- that we should keep in mind is that the president doesn't have experience before this, you know, this era being a politician, but he does have experience being deposed.

BLITZER: During earlier lawsuits.

BASH: He was -- yes, he was involved in many a lawsuit. Lots of litigation throughout his -- his life in the business world. So he actually does have experience.

He didn't know -- there's no way he had the emotional sort of baggage that he has that you were talking about, Chris, with regard to this issue, which he believes is, at the end of the day, questioning his legitimacy as president. And sort of everybody around him says it's hard for him to see it any other way. But that might be a reason for the president to have enough confidence that he might tell the advisers or legal experts around him who are saying don't do this, "You know what? I can handle it."

CILLIZZA: One thing that I'll add to Dana's point, he has been deposed before, and if you go back and read -- some of that information has become public. If you go back and read it...

BASH: Yes.

CILLIZZA: ... some of those times the Donald Trump -- deposed Donald Trump is a stark contrast.

BASH: Exactly.

CILLIZZA: We've learned a lot of things about Donald Trump and his dealings from these depositions, which just as a counterpoint, is probably another reason why he wouldn't want to do it, solely because it -- he is -- this is not a campaign rally. This is not the speech that we saw in Nashville that he gave earlier today. We can -- he can say whatever he likes. We can fact check it, but he can sort of say what he likes. This not that.

And in the past he has been, to Phil's point, I don't want to say backed into a corner but forced to confront directly, "Well, you're saying this, but you said that and those two things are directly contradictory. How do you explain? He has struggled, -- as any of us would, he has struggled to do that.

BLITZER: Yes. It's one thing if you tell an untruth or lie before a civil deposition in a lawsuit over the years, but if you lie to Robert Mueller in a deposition along these lines, a Q&A, that's a -- that's a federal crime.

CILLIZZA: To Dana's point -- to Dana's point, too, he hadn't been the president of the United States before. I mean, the stakes are immeasurably higher.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Everybody stand by. There's other information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM as we speak. We'll be right back.


[17:42:04] BLITZER: Let's get back to our panel. Dana, is a government shutdown -- they've got to pass a spending by, what, January 19, not that far off, is a government shutdown inevitable if they can't reach a deal on the border wall with Mexico and the DREAMers?

BASH: I don't think it's inevitable, but I think it's more probable than it has been. It's not in Republican -- Republican-led Congress's interest to let the government shut down for any period of time, and I'm guessing that they would at least try to kick the can for as many days or weeks as they think is necessary to do the other negotiations.

But these negotiations, which are not obviously directly related to keeping the government open, are real. And the White House, there's going to be a big meeting tomorrow with not just Republicans on immigration who went down to meet with the president last week but with Democrats, as well.

Now, it's going be a big room of people. I don't really anticipate them getting into the nitty-gritty of the things that really divide them, like how to really deal with border security and how to deal with things like what they call chain migration. How much should citizens be allowed to bring members of their family into this country? Those are some of the sticking points I'm told are going on.

But these negotiations are real, and the big question going forward in the next, as you said, just week or two, is how much the Democrats are going to be willing to give and how much the president is going to be willing to give, particularly at a time where he is at war with Steve Bannon, who was kind of the -- had been, until now, the patron saint of the "anything that allows for citizenship is amnesty" line.

CILLIZZA: I think they go the -- if they can't get a deal, they go kick the can down the road. What we've seen is essentially short-term -- short-term deal, short-term deal, short-term deal. They could potentially...

BLITZER: Two weeks at a time or whatever.

BASH: That's what we're in right now.

CILLIZZA: They could potentially do that. Right. We're in the midst of that.

One step back that I'm amazed by. Trump in Nashville today talking to a farmers' group, says, you know, "We're going to build that wall." What's remarkable is that we are talking about the potential -- though I'm with Dana, Republicans would be crazy to do this. But the potential of a government shutdown over funding for a wall that Donald Trump promised on the campaign would, "trust me" -- not me, him -- be paid for by Mexico. I mean, this is the problem...

BASH: And he's asked Congress for $18 billion.

CILLIZZA: Eighteen billion dollars. And the case is, well, Mexico will pay for -- I laugh because it's not going to happen. Mexico will pay for it at some later date.

But that is the nub on which some, not all, because the DACA debate is real, but some of this shutdown talk. Which if you're a Republican who is up in a vulnerable seat, you're thinking, "Golly, this is -- this is -- a government shutdown is a disaster but it's because the president of the United States, who is a member of our party, promised that Mexico would be paying for this and now we are -- we are having to figure out a way to at least get some funding for it."

BLITZER: For U.S. taxpayers to pay for it.


BLITZER: Over the weekend, the President said, in some form, Mexico will pay for it.

It's a national security issue, the President keeps saying. How do you see it?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I don't see it as a national security issue. If you talk to border security professionals -- and I have -- they'll tell you, if you look at standard crossing points in major cities, the likelihood that an immigrant will come through a major crossing point versus trying to cross in the middle of the desert is much more significant.

In America, we've lost the sense of compromise. If you want to have a real conversation with this, I'd say there are capability to use, for example, sensors or drones in ungoverned spaces across the American border. Why do we need a wall?

But the Democrats can't talk about this, the Republicans can't. So American taxpayers sit there and say, maybe we need a shutdown. I don't know.

CILLIZZA: I mean, look, a shutdown -- politically speaking, given that Donald Trump is at 37 percent in a Gallup weekly tracking poll, given historical midterm trends that push hard against the President's party, a shutdown would be a political --

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The only way it would happen is if Democrats really wanted to prove the point, and they withheld votes to keep the government running.


BLITZER: Yes. With Republicans in control of the White House, the House and the Senate, and if --

CILLIZZA: It's hard to blame Democrats, politically, for that.

MUDD: Yes.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: If there a government shutdown, a lot of people would blame them.

MUDD: Yes.

BLITZER: And the leadership in the House and Senate don't want that.

Stand by. There are high-level peace talks underway on the Korean Peninsula, the first in years. Could negotiators be on the verge of a major breakthrough as South Korea prepares to host the Winter Olympic Games next month?


[17:51:09] BLITZER: There's breaking news. Look at this. Only moments ago, South Korean negotiators departed for their first high- level peace talks with North Korea in years. It's a very significant moment potentially as South Korea prepares to host the Winter Olympic Games next month.

Brian Todd is reporting on these late-breaking developments.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Anticipation builds tonight as diplomats from North and South Korea head to the so-called Peace House in Panmunjom in the DMZ for their first face-to-face talks in two years.

For the South Koreans, the motive is to ensure a peaceful Winter Olympics next month amid spiking tensions and fears of war.

So why is Kim Jong-un ready to talk now?

DEAN CHENG, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: In the short term, if he could get some money or if he could get some positive coverage, that would be great. But in the longer-term, the consistent goal, I think, is to really drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say, for the calculating dictator in Pyongyang, this is an ideal time to talk and take advantage of South Korea's determination to pull off a trouble-free Olympics.

SARAH VOGLER, ASSOCIATE RESEARCH ANALYST, CNA: The Olympics, he can use to threaten instability or he can use the enticement of a stable, successful Olympics.

TODD (voice-over): With a longer term goal for Kim of trying to bring an end to joint U.S./South Korean military exercises, which he's always seen as a threat, has the U.S. been sidelined in these talks?

No official U.S. representatives had been invited to Panmunjom. But experts say the two allies are likely in close coordination behind the scenes and President Trump has weighed in, hinting the talks could lead to something bigger.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you willing to engage in phone talks with Kim Jong-un right now?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sure, I always believe in talking.

TODD (voice-over): But coming on the heels of so many intensely personal insults between them --

TRUMP: Rocket Man should have been handled a long time ago.

TODD (voice-over): -- analysts say the North Korean strongman might feel he'd lose face speaking directly with Trump.

VOGLER: After all that's been said, the war of words between the two men over the course of the past few weeks and months, it would be very difficult for Kim Jong-un to meet with Donald Trump one-on-one at this point. Korean culture is very rooted in respect and the legitimacy of the ruler.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, pressure is building for both sides to come up with some kind of deal for dialing tensions back. What could derail these negotiations? CHENG: What if the North Koreans decide that whatever promises they

make, they're not going to uphold them as we've seen repeatedly with missile tests and other things?

The Olympics are a giant, juicy target. It may be something that Kim Jong-un can't resist trying to disrupt, especially if he feels he doesn't extract as much as he thinks he should from these talks.


TODD: Now, South Koreans officials are quoted as saying they may discuss reuniting separated Korean families during these talks. Reunification of the Korean Peninsula overall is a long-term goal for both sides, but that's not going to be negotiated in this round of talks.

Analysts point out Kim Jong-un's regime envisions a unified Korean Peninsula under a North Korea's dictatorship -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, what are the concerns that you're hearing right now as these talks get underway along the demilitarized zone?

TODD: Well, the South Koreans, Wolf, are clearly nervous about pulling off a peaceful Winter Olympics, so a lot of veteran diplomats are telling us they're concerned that the South Koreans are going to give away too much. Is that going to happen?

This has happened before. After a summit between North and South Koreans leaders in 2000, the South Korean President's cabinet was investigated and found to have paid about $500 million to the North Koreans just to go to that summit. It was a bribe essentially.

That's not going to happy here, but a lot of Korea watchers tonight are concerned about the South Koreans giving away too many concessions to Kim Jong-un in these talks.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens in these talks. They are about to get underway. Historic talks indeed. Brian Todd reporting. Thank you.

[17:55:03] Coming up, Oprah Winfrey versus President Trump in 2020? Two of Oprah Winfrey's close friends tell CNN she's actively thinking about getting into the next presidential race.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Getting testimony. CNN has learned that the President's legal team is now preparing for a request by the Special Counsel for Mr. Trump to answer questions. Will there be limits on what the President can be asked?

[17:59:56] Very stable genius. The President gives a new self- promoting speech as he and his allies dispute claims that he's unintelligent and unhinged. Are the Trump camp's protests actually adding fuel to concerns about his fitness?