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Trump: 'The Russians Had No Impact on Our Vote'; House Close to Wrapping Russia Probe; Trump: North Korea Seems 'Sincere' in Desire for Talks; Trump Doubles Down on Tariffs. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 6, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, everyone. Appreciate it. Thank you for watching "THE LEAD." I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer.

[17:00:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. No impact. President Trump says Russia had no impact on votes in the 2016 presidential election, stressing that while Russia did meddle, there was other -- also other interference from other countries, without naming those countries. Without naming those countries, the president suggests a new election system, saying, "It's called paper."

"We'll see what happens." President Trump says North Korea's stunning suggestion that it's willing to discuss giving up its nuclear arsenal, seems to be sincere, but he stresses, "We'll see what happens." Is Kim Jong-un feeling heat?

Investigation infighting. Republicans say the House intel Russia probe has gone as far as it can and should wrap up shortly. Democrats say not so fast. Will partisan infighting scuttle the investigation?

And Russian spy poison. A former Russian spy turned British agent is in critical condition right now, along with his daughter, after both were found unconscious in a public area in England. What's behind Britain's stark warning to the Kremlin?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Our breaking news. President Trump applauds North Korea's remarkable signal that it's willing to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons. He says Kim Jong-un's regime seems to be acting positively, suggesting sanctions have played a role.

And as the president says Russia's election meddling had no impact on votes, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee signal that the panel's Russia probe is drawing to a close. But Democrats say it's far from finished.

I'll speak with Congressman John Garamendi of the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they're all standing by with full coverage.

A wide-ranging news conference by the president. Let's go straight to our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, the president says Russia interfered in the election but didn't

accomplish anything.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Trump conceded today that Russia did meddle in the 2016 election, but he toned down that comment, as he often does, by insisting once again that Russia had no impact on any votes.

He also made a promise to the American voters that anything Russia tries in the upcoming mid-term elections in the fall will be counteracted by the U.S. But that is contrary to what top intelligence officials have told lawmakers, that the U.S. is not as prepared as it should be.


ACOSTA (voice-over): He did it again. President Trump downplayed Russian meddling in the 2016 election, insisting Moscow didn't swing any votes his way.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever. But certainly, there was meddling, and probably, there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals. And I think you have to be really watching very closely. You don't want your system of votes to be compromised in any way, and we won't allow that to happen.

ACOSTA: At a news conference with the Swedish prime minister, Mr. Trump was pressed on whether he was concerned the Russians would try to interfere in the upcoming mid-term elections.

TRUMP: We'll counteract whatever they do. We'll counteract it very strongly. And we are having strong back-up systems, and we've been working. Actually, we haven't been given credit for this, but we've actually been working very hard on the '18 election and the '20 election coming up.

ACOSTA: On the steady stream of reports of chaos inside the West Wing, the president boasted he is attracting only the best and the brightest candidates.

TRUMP: You know, I read where, "Oh, gee, maybe people don't want to work for Trump. And believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House. They all want a piece of that Oval Office. They want a piece of the West Wing. And not only in terms of it looks great on their resume. It's just a great place to work. It's got tremendous energy. It's tough.

I like conflict. I like having two people with different points of view, and I certainly have that. And then I make a decision. But I like watching it. I like seeing it, and I think it's the best way to go.

ACOSTA: On one issue that is dividing his White House staff, Mr. Trump's plans for trade tariffs on U.S. allies, no worries from the president. TRUMP: When we're behind on every single country, trade wars aren't

so bad.

We'll do it in a -- in a very loving way. It will be a loving, loving way. They'll like us better.

ACOSTA: But top Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan is breaking from the president, explaining trade wars aren't that simple.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: What we're encouraging the administration to do is to focus on what is clearly a legitimate problem and to be more surgical in its approach so we can go after the true abusers without creating any kind of unintended consequences or collateral damage.

ACOSTA: Earlier in the day, in the Oval Office, the president welcomed the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough between North and South Korea.

TRUMP: We have come, certainly, a long way, at least rhetorically with North Korea. It would be a great thing for the world. It would be a great thing for North Korea. It would be a great thing for the peninsula.

ACOSTA: At one point, the president suggested his involvement in the talks helped save the Olympics as he praised North Korea's participation in the games.

TRUMP: We've been given tremendous credit, because the Olympics was not going well.

ACOSTA: As for the president's comments about Russia, they come on the same day the director of national intelligence told lawmakers that the U.S. lacks the proper strategy for dealing with the threat.

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: You know, one coherent strategy between the executive branch and the congressional branch has not been put in place yet.


ACOSTA: Now, as for the turmoil inside the White House that the president doesn't want to talk about, one of his top economic advisers, Gary Cohn, was conspicuously absent from the news conference, Wolf. Take a look at this, if we have this available to put up on the screen. I snapped a picture of Cohn's seat card that was reserved for him in the East Room of the White House. Gary Cohn ended up not joining us for that news conference. While that seat was reserved for him, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, took Cohn's seat -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting. We'll see what happens as far as Gary Cohn is concerned.

Jim Acosta, thank you very much. President Trump just insisted that Russia -- Russia's election

meddling had no impact on American votes, and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are pushing to wrap up the panel's investigation.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. What are you learning, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. A number of Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee believe that this investigation has essentially run its course. They've spent the better part of the past year interviewing people, going through documents.

And according to the Republicans, they believe that there's no real evidence that there was any collusion between Russians and Trump officials.

Now, the Democrats, on the other hand, say there are a number of areas the committee has simply not investigated, and there's ample evidence to raise concerns that Russians were actively trying to coordinate with the Trump campaign.

Nevertheless, Republicans, senior Republicans on the committee say they've reached that point where it looks like the investigation is essentially over.


REP. PETER KING (R-NY), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I think it's gone as far as it can, but it's not for me to decide. But I would say that to me, I don't see anything else that's out there that hasn't been explored. I think the Senate is pretty much on the same page.

RAJU: You believe this investigation has essentially run its course at this point?

REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R-TX), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, all investigations have a natural conclusion. And as soon as we get everybody interviewed, then we're going to report, get the report finalized. Then we'll -- before -- every investigation ought to have a conclusion, including this one. We're coming toward the end of it.


RAJU: Well, he's referring to that report. The report he's referring to is something that would be issued about the findings of this investigation. Undoubtedly, the report that's ultimately going to come out, is there's going to be a Republican report and a Democratic report. The Democratic report likely to lay out areas that the committee has not explored, including looking at Trump finances, Trump money, allegations of possible money laundering, as well as things that they believe they need information on, like Donald Trump Jr.'s conversations with his father that Donald Trump Sr. had said were protected by attorney-client privilege. But after, Wolf, this interview Thursday with Corey Lewandowski, the

former Trump campaign manager, who initially told the committee he would not discuss topics after he left the campaign in the summer of 2016, after Lewandowski goes before the committee, a lot of the members say, "We don't really know where this is going." It's probably a sign that it's probably going to end, and that's going to leave a lot of questions unanswered, and maybe the Senate Intelligence Committee could maybe come up with a different result as it continues its own investigation, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Let's get some analysis from our experts. And Gloria Borger, let's begin with the president's comments on North Korea. He said they seem sincere, the North Koreans right now. The desire for nuclear talks. Direct -- direct conversations. That's a far cry from what he used to say about fire and fury, blasting Kim Jong-un as "Little Rocket Man." Your analysis of this shift.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the president would say that those two things are related, Wolf, as did he in his presser today, where when he was asked about who was responsible for this progress, he said, "me."

But I think that what we can look to is the president of South Korea, who clearly orchestrated all of this, trying to find a way to diffuse these tensions and released a statement today, saying that the North Korean side has clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize.

And this is something that's a priori for this administration, and they said that in a backgrounder that that is a first step here. Not just the fact that they're not going to do ballistic missile tests, but actually, they're going to state that they will denuclearize.

So I think, you know, the president, to give him credit, had some guarded optimism about this, which I think everyone should have and breathe a sign of relief and see how this progresses.

BLITZER: You know, Nia, what do you make of this pretty remarkable shift in tone, at least?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is. And we'll see what happens. I mean, maybe the most remarkable shift is the North Koreans saying they would be willing to denuclearize. We'll see if that's actually true or if this is just them playing a sort of game to alleviate sanctions or get talks. And so we'll see what happens.

[17:10:14] But I do think the president certainly deserves some of the credit here in terms of perhaps playing the bad cop, talking about the fire and fury, talking about raining down, you know, destruction like the world has never seen, and North Koreans, obviously, nervous about that, nervous about the prospect of war, which is something he's constantly talked about it and he's always talked about it again.

He basically said that the U.S. is still willing to go hard either way. Hard in terms of talks to the North Koreans, possibly, or possibly hard in terms of war. So he's still sort of playing both sides.

BLITZER: How do you see it, Phil?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, we've got to play the middle ground here. The middle ground is you go into this saying, these guys have sold us this horse so many times. How does it happen again?

This is why the presidential isolation doesn't work well. He ought to talk to Obama, Clinton and George Bush. They all went down this road, starting in the 1990s. So you've got to go in skeptical.

I don't think they're going to give up nuclear weapons. I think this is just a way to say, "Why don't you ease up on the heat?" On the other hand, if they want to talk, and if the South Koreans say they're willing to talk, what are you supposed to do? Say no? So you've got to go into this with some skepticism. But you also have to show up a the table, because you don't have another option.

BLITZER: The North Koreans have often said in the past, "You know what? We're not going to give up the nuclear program. Look at Moammar Gadhafi of Libya."

MUDD: Yes.

BLITZER: "He gave up his nuclear program after the Gulf War, the Iraq War and where is Moammar Gadhafi right now?"

MUDD: There's no way they're going to give up nuclear weapons. I think when you look at what's happening here, there is one substantial change from the earlier negotiations. And that is, given the number of tests that they've staged over the last few years and the number of nuclear tests, the number of missile tests they've staged, if I were North Korea, I'd say. "We've already gone down the path of nuclearization. Maybe if start conversations now, we could cement where we are" -- a lot further than they were ten years ago -- and still get what we want out of the west, which is ease up on


BLITZER: You know, Mark, he was standing right next to the Swedish prime minister. Sweden's a member of the E.U. He didn't back away at all from his tariffs on steel and aluminum. He says they're going to be imposed, he said, in a very loving way. And he insisted trade wars, once again, he said, aren't so bad. He's getting a lot of grief from members of his own party, the Republican Park, including the leadership of the Republican Party. Getting a lot of grief from allies, but he's not backing away.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Not backing away, and what does that even mean? You know, when he comes out and says, "I'm going to do it in a loving way"?

You know, obviously, a difficult position for him to actually have to stand side by side with another leader in the E.U. and say what he said. But in the end, like, I don't even know if he really believes it himself that he was going to stick with these tariffs.

We already know that it's going to create a trade war. It's going to escalate, because there are going to be tariffs that are put against -- against U.S. goods. And we've already see that with agricultural products right now. And they're talking about Harley Davidsons and -- that are made in Paul Ryan's district; and blue jeans made in Pelosi's district; bourbon made in the state of Kentucky, Mitch McConnell's district.

The bottom line is, I think that he's using this as -- as a negotiating ploy. And I -- in the end I would be shocked to see that this is imposed.

BLITZER: We'll see. He's been talking about it for a long time. We'll see if he backs away from it.

Everybody stand by. There's more news we're following. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:17:37] BLITZER: Breaking news we're following: President Trump now downplaying fears of Russian meddling in this year's mid-term elections, promising to counteract any interference and touting paper ballots as an election security measure.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He's a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Happy to be with you.

BLITZER: All right. So you just heard the president say that he -- that certainly, there was some Russian meddling, but there was also meddling, he said, by other countries, maybe other individuals in the 2016 presidential election. He didn't say -- didn't name anyone. He seems to be downplaying the Russian meddling. He says the administration is now working very hard to safeguard the upcoming midterm November elections, the 2020 presidential election.

Were you at all encouraged by his comments today?

GARAMENDI: No. No, I'm not. Not at all. Maybe he's referring to that 400-pound man lying in the bed someplace that meddled in the American election. No. It was Russia. Russia meddled in the 2016 election. And all of the intelligence agencies say they are now at this moment, and for the last several months, once again, meddling in our election process.

And when just two weeks ago, his key law enforcement intelligence agencies were asked in a formal hearing whether they had any instructions from the president to protect this country's basic democracy, they all answered the same way. No. They've not received any instructions.

Now maybe president has done something in the last couple of days, but he certainly hasn't announced it. And why he doesn't have the courage to stand up and tell Putin, "Get out or you're going to get in big, big trouble," I do not understand, why he doesn't present that kind of necessary courage to protect the most fundamental part of this nation's democracy, our elections.

BLITZER: Well, what do you think the answer is? Why is he reluctant to do so?

GARAMENDI: Well, I think it goes back to the 2016 election. Where we know that there was Russian meddling in election in support of the Trump campaign.

Leaving aside the question of whether there was collusion or not, and I won't go there. But we do know that they meddled in the election in the support of the Donald Trump. The indictment that Mueller brought forward of 13 Russians and two Russian corporations was detailed, excruciatingly detailed, clear about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and who they were doing it for: Donald J. Trump.

[17:20:08] BLITZER: We learned more about the Russian investigation, the special counsel's investigation, from Sam Nunberg, former campaign aide. A brief campaign aide for the Trump campaign. He shared his two-page subpoena from the special -- special counsel.

What does it tell you about the direction that Robert Mueller is heading right now, looking at the names of all the individuals that they want information about?

GARAMENDI: Well, it means that the Mueller investigation is going full throttle. It is moving along very, very quickly. There have been indictments, multiple indictments that have been brought forward.

They're moving closer and closer to the heart of the campaign. They're already there with Gates and with Manafort. But beyond that, how close to the White House will they get with regard to the campaign?

And there's another whole track that's underway, and that is follow the money. What kind of nefarious financing schemes have been undertaken? Is there money laundering? Has there been undue influence?

We know, my definition, Wolf, of corruption is when you use your political power for personal gain. Is there any doubt at all of what Kushner was doing when he was meeting in the White House and, very shortly thereafter, came back with two multi-100 million loans? Is there any doubt about what was going on in Qatar? I think that the answer is very clear. It is corruption of the worst kind.

If that had taken place in an African country, we would be screaming about corruption. We talk about corruption in Russia. It's exactly the same thing. It's happening here in America, and it's got to stop.

BLITZER: Republicans in the House, your colleagues, Republican colleagues, they're hinting that their House Intelligence Committee investigation and, some are suggesting, the Senate investigations could soon come to a conclusion. Should the American people trust their final reports?

GARAMENDI: No. Not at all. And there's evidence for that.

The Nunes memo, which was clearly biased, which was clearly incomplete, which clearly did not lay out all the facts, written by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee for the purposes of providing cover for Donald J. Trump and his crew. That's what was going on. Would they do better with Nunes in charge? Absolutely not. Don't count on it.

Count on this. If they shut that down, the American people may very well wind up without the full information that we need to protect our democracy in the future. We need that information. We need to write laws. We need to provide the money.

And by the way, we did. Wolf, we provided $120 million to the State Department to push back on Russia, to protect our election. Zero, not one nickel of that money has been spent by this administration. It's one more example of the dereliction of fundamental responsibility that the administration has to protect America.

BLITZER: That $120 million was appropriated back in 2016; and you're right, none of it has yet been spent by the State Department. Who do you blame for that?

GARAMENDI: The president and Tillerson. Who else to blame? They're running the operation. Tillerson knew the money was there. If he didn't know the money was there, then that's a dereliction also.

And by the way, Tillerson happened to be the best buddy of Putin. So he's Putin's buddy. What do you expect? He's going to use that money to push book on Putin? Hasn't happened.

What's going on here? Why can't the president push back on Russia? Why can't the president protect America from Russia's meddling in our most fundamental process, our elections? Why can't Tillerson use the $120 million to protect our nation, to push back on Russia? I think the answer is, we're going to find out if those investigations continue.

BLITZER: I want you to listen, Congressman, to the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, a former U.S. senator, what he said earlier today about Jared Kushner's security clearance. Listen to this.


DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I don't believe it's a threat to our national security. No. He now has, under General Kelly's direction, had a temporary access to some types of information but not the highly classified information.


BLITZER: Do you trust the DNI's judgment on this? GARAMENDI: No, I don't. I know that the Trump campaign and the Trump

administration, throughout the 19 -- the 2016 campaign and up until this moment, during this presidency, wants to harp on Hillary's question about whether she properly cared for classified information. There was a legitimate question there. No doubt about it.

[17:25:01] But this administration had in the White House more than 100 people who could not pass the fundamental security requirements to get secret information. Top-secret information. That went on for a year. And we know that they have access.

I spend a lot of time in classified hearings. I'm on the Armed Services Committee. And I know that that information is extraordinarily valuable for economic purposes. I know that, if that you know the American government is doing this or the foreign governments are doing that, you can trade on that information.

And I want to ask, did anybody trade on that information? Were there any whispers back and forth? What's going on here? What kind of information did Kushner have -- have when he met with the Qataris? What happened? This is one of our allies and, suddenly, this administration turned on them. Why? Because Kushner couldn't get a loan? What's going on here? All of these questions are out there.

And it really bothers me that, after two and a half years of harping after Hillary Clinton's lapses in security, this administration has done it a thousand times worse in the White House.

BLITZER: I will point out that the president specifically asked his son-in-law, senior advisor Jared Kushner to deal with Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, in addition to dealing with the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. That was one of his assignments, as a senior advisor, to the president. And he asked him to do so. But I understand your concern.

Give me a final thought before I let you go.

GARAMENDI: It's a very real concern. He was asked to negotiate with Qatar. He was asked to negotiate with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And he was also asking them for money. That's corruption. There's no other word for it, and it has to stop. This White House has to be cleaned up.

And we need a president to protect this nation's most fundamental process: the process of our election. And if he won't do it, then he ought to get out of there, and we need somebody in that position that's ready to protect America from what Russia considers to be an information war. A three-letter word, war.

BLITZER: John Garamendi, thanks for joining us.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, Britain sends a very harsh, high-level warning to the Kremlin after a former Russian spy turned British agent is the victim of an apparent poisoning. And there's been a revolving door over at the White House, but

President Trump there's says no chaos; there's no problem.


TRUMP: And I read, gee, maybe people don't want to work for Trump. Believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House. They all want a piece of that Oval Office.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[17:37:30] BLITZER: We've got breaking news. "New York Times" just now reporting that Gary Cohn, the president's top economic adviser, plans to resign.

According to "The New York Times," officials insisted there was no single factor behind the departure of Mr. Cohn, who heads the National Economic Council, but his decision to leave came after he seemed poised to lose an internal struggle amid a Wild West style process over Mr. Trump's plan to impose large tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

You know, Gloria, not a huge shock, but just a little bit after the president said there's no chaos, there's no problem in the White House, people are lining up to work in the White House for him, Gary Cohn, who came in from Goldman Sachs early on, worked closely over the past 14 months with the president. Clearly frustrated, hates these tariffs on aluminum and steel and clearly, is now about to leave, according to "The New York Times."

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And Wolf, I gather we are reporting that, as well, now.

And look, Gary Cohn is somebody who's a free trader, and it's been a rocky road for him inside this White House. As you know, after Charlottesville and the president's remarks after Charlottesville, he was publicly unhappy about that and let the president know it, let the country know it. The president did not like that, but Gary Cohn was committed to staying through tax reform, which was also quite important to him. And once tax reform got done, there were some people who thought, "Well, maybe Gary will leave now."

I think he stayed, in fact, from people I've talked to, to try and avert what he would consider to be an economic crisis if the president were to impose -- or try to impose these kind of tariffs. He's a free trader.

And I think this probably reflects -- and I'll get on the phone after this -- this probably reflects the fact he feels he's fighting a losing battle, that he doesn't want any part of this. And I think quite honestly, despite what the president said today, this is going to make it more and more difficult to find good people from outside to want to take Gary Cohn's place. He was also mentioned, for example, as somebody who might replace General Kelly as chief of staff. But clearly, that's not happening.

BLITZER: Clearly, that's not happening. The White House issuing a statement from the president, confirming now that Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser to the president, is leaving. The president saying, "Gary has been my chief economic adviser and did a superb job in driving our agenda, helping to deliver historic tax cuts and reforms, and unleashing the American economy once again. He is a rare talent, and I thank him for his dedicated service to the American people."

[17:35:07] Let's go to Jim Acosta, our chief White House correspondent.

Jim, they're moving along quickly, some of the senior staff. Hope Hicks earlier --


BLITZER: -- the communications director, a very, very close advisor to the president, and now Gary Cohn.

ACOSTA: Right, Wolf. And on the same day that President Trump said at this new conference that essentially, there's no chaos inside the White House. Obviously, when you have your top economic advisor in Gary Cohn resigning as you are weighing tariffs that will impact U.S. allies and probably boomerang back on the United States, in terms of tariffs coming from other countries. That is the definition of chaos.

Especially on the heels of these departures that we've been seeing in recent weeks, like Hope Hicks, the communications director. And sort of like the chaos that we saw in this turmoil over the security clearances, and his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, having his security clearance bumped down in recent weeks, because he could not pass a full background check.

Now Wolf, as you were just reading a few moments ago, we did get some statements here at the White House. They've obviously confirmed all of this. There's one from the president. There's also one from General Kelly.

There's also one from Gary Cohn, one from Gary Cohn saying, "It's been my honor to serve my country and enact pro-growth economic policies to benefit the American people and particularly the passage of historic tax reform. I'm grateful to the president for giving me this opportunity and wish him and the administration great success in the future."

Wolf, I think another thing that is interesting to note, Wolf. You'll recall during the time of Charlottesville, last summer in August, when the president said that there were very fine people on both sides, implying there were very fine people among the white nationalist protesters down in Charlottesville. There were rumblings back then, and we heard them internally, that Gary Cohn was thinking about resigning from the White House over that, resigning from his position at the White House over that. And it now appears that, even though he had been rumored to

potentially replace the chief of staff, John Kelly, that he has decided enough is enough and that this trade issue was enough to simply push him over the edge.

Wolf, one other thing we finally should point out. I was in that press conference with the president and the Swedish prime minister about an hour and a half ago. And there was one very conspicuous thing that we noticed. Two seats in front of me, Wolf, was a seat saved for Gary Cohn. There was a place card on his seat that said "Gary Cohn." He was going to be sitting right in front of Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president. Chief of staff John Kelly was going to sit to the side of the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. And the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

He ended up not joining the news conference, and Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, sat in his seat. That was a sign that there was trouble. Obviously, when the president is talking about tariffs and he said earlier today that he could win a trade war, that trade wars aren't so bad and you can have them with love, that that was not the kind of love that Gary Cohn really believed in here, and he's making it clear, and leaving the White House, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. And the president seemed to hint at a major departure earlier in the day in this tweet, and I'll put it up on the screen. This is the president of the United States. "The new fake news narrative is that there is chaos in the White House. Wrong. People will always come and go; and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change. Always seeking perfection. There is no chaos. Only great energy."

So he said, "I want to change," "some people that I want to change." So the question, I guess, remains, did Gary Cohn resign or was he forced to resign?

ACOSTA: And I think that's something that we're going to have to get to the bottom of. I can tell you, Wolf, talking to sources in the last week about Gary Cohn and where he stands here at the White House, there were people saying internally that Gary Cohn was not happy about the direction the president was taking on these tariffs. But that -- and the president heard those concerns very forcefully raised.

But that, you know, Gary Cohn should not be surprised. The president campaigned on this. He said throughout the campaign. This was part of his pitch to workers in places like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, that he believed in protectionist trade policies and that he was going to slap tariffs on countries that he felt were engaging in unfair trade policies. And that is what he is doing here. And so one has to wonder, what exactly did Gary Cohn think the president was going to do?

Now all week long, Wolf, there was some sense that Gary Cohn was not going to leave the White House. Because as you heard earlier this week, there were these rumblings, well, the president may tone down these tariffs. He may go ahead and bent to some of this pressure and not slap tariffs on steel when it comes to Canada and -- because they're involved in these negotiations on NAFTA and so on.

[17:40:00] But evidently, the -- whatever measures the president was thinking about toning down and softening, that that was not going to be enough for Gary Cohn.

And Wolf, for the president of the United States to say that there's no chaos inside the White House, that is just a flat-out false statement. It has been chaotic week after chaotic week at this White House.

The only thing that stands out is when there is not chaos here at the White House, Wolf, because it happens so rarely. And I think when you have the top economic advisor resigning from the White House because the president is about to slap tariffs on U.S. allies like Great Britain and so on, I don't think it's any surprise that Gary Cohn is doing this.

They used to call him -- remember when Steve Bannon was leaving the White House, Wolf. There were all these leaks coming out of his part of the West Wing attacking Gary Cohn. And one of the names that they had for Gary Cohn at that time was Globalist Gary. He was derided internally inside the White House, because he was seen as a globalist. And you know, that has -- that has always flown in the face of the president's prevailing economic policy, which is to go after even U.S. allies on trade and even when it suits his, you know, political needs.

Keep in mind, Wolf, we're a week away from a very important election in Pennsylvania. Trade is a big issue in that election. And I would have to wager a guess here, Wolf, that there are people inside this White House internally who believe that the president's tariff talk is smart politics out in that part -- in that part of Pennsylvania, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me play that little clip from the news conference just a little while ago. The president speaking about these steel and aluminum tariffs. He's doubling down. They're going forward. He clearly doesn't care what Gary Cohn and some of his other national security, economic and political advisers were telling him. He clearly doesn't care when the Republican leadership in the House and Senate were telling him. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm here to protect. And one of the reasons I was elected is I'm protecting our workers; I'm protecting our companies. And I'm not going to let that happen.

So we're doing tariffs on steel. We cannot lose our steel industry. It's a fraction of what it once was. And we can't lose our aluminum industry. You know, when we're behind on every single country, trade wars aren't so bad.


BLITZER: You know, Nia, it's amazing what's going on over there. The president says everything is great, they're lining up to get jobs at the White House, but people are leaving, big time.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. They're sort of lining up at the exits, at least if you think about Hope Hicks, who just left last week, someone who was a real close confidant of this president, worked with the Trump family for years and now Gary Cohn.

Not a surprise for Gary Cohn. He's been rumored to have been, you know, on his way out the door since Charlottesville, as Gloria and Jim mentioned. I think we have to look who steps into that position. The president's talked about being -- wanting to seek perfection. And whoever, you know, he chooses is it going to be somebody like Navarro? Is it going to be somebody who's more of a protectionist? Right? I think we -- that's what we've seen. The defeat of the globalists inside this -- inside this West Wing.

Bannon, of course, was against the globalists, and he sort of still reigns in that White House. As I mean, Trump obviously has the same philosophy as Bannon on trade.

BLITZER: And, you know, there may be more departures in the coming days, as well, Mark. I noticed we're now reporting that President Trump met with former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, today over at the White House.


BLITZER: And as you know, there's been a lot of rumors that he might come in, maybe to replace General H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, the second national security advisor. Bolton, if he were to get that job, would be the third national security adviser for President Trump.

So there could be more movement. It's pretty clear that H.R. McMaster, who's still on active-duty, three-star general, is not very pleased right now with what's going on.

PRESTON: Certainly not what we're hearing out of the White House and from those that are close to -- to the general.

You know, if Bolton becomes the NSA, takes over the NSA, becomes the national security adviser, he won't have to be confirmed by the United States Senate, which is a very big step. Because there is no way that John Bolton could go up to the United States Senate and actually have a hearing that wouldn't just devolve into absolute political chaos. He is that much hated by those on the left.

But I do think it's important. When we showed just a moment ago of all the departures that had gone out of the White House. This just explains how chaotic it is right now. All of those people all served in one of three different tribes. Right? There was the establishment tribe, which was the Reince Priebus tribe. There was the outsider tribe, which was the Steve Bannon tribe. And then there was the New York/Javanka, Jared, Ivanka, Gary Cohen Democratic tribe.

If you look at what has happened now over the past 13 months right now, we've seen all of those tribes basically either be diminished or have gone away at this point. And for a president to say that he was able to clear out entirely everybody in his White House and to knock out those kind of politics that were going on, that says something.

BLITZER: And you know, Phil, he said specifically in this tweet this morning, and it jumped out at me as soon as I read it early one: "I still have some people that I want to change. Always seeking perfection.

Suggests that maybe General McMaster --


BLITZER: -- and a bunch of others are on their way out as well.

MUDD: I think you will see not a more significant emphasis on the power of cabinet secretaries. And you're going to see when you see not only the turnover in the White House but the lack of regard for some of what the President says by even members of his own party in Congress.

Let me give you a couple of examples. The President talked about fire and fury North Korea. Rex Tillerson says we're going to talk. Who won that? I think Rex Tillerson -- Rex Tillerson did.

Something we forgot -- we were talking about this during the break -- the big splash the President made about transgenders in the military. The Secretary of Defenses said no. Who won that one? The Secretary of Defense.

And the biggest one, the President said Russia's a hoax. Who won that one? The Department of Justice not only said no, the Deputy Attorney General appoints a Special Counsel.

So as the President talks about no chaos, it's the cabinet secretaries who are saying, I'm going to do my own thing, because they don't have as much influence as most precedents.

BLITZER: Do you see, Gloria, more departures in the days and weeks ahead?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I do. I think, look, this is a president who has been in office a little over a year. He's had a massive amount of turnover.

People feel it's very difficult to work for him. That it is chaotic. That, in the end, Donald Trump makes decisions the way he makes decisions, which is he throws a grenade in the room, as someone once told me, and then walks out of it. And that's exactly what seems to be happening and -- in lots of policy matters.

And I think these tariffs are just -- are just, you know, the latest example. I was just texting with somebody who is very close to Gary Cohn and close to Donald Trump, a friend of Donald Trump, who said to me, I am so upset by this. Because a lot of people saw Gary Cohn as one of the people left in the White House who actually understood economic policy and knows how to manage.

And I think that they are -- there is a sense among this people and that this core -- this group of Trump supporters that Gary Cohn's absence will really be felt and that his leaving was perhaps a moment when he said, look, I'm not going to win this tariff fight.

You know, Cohn was supposed to have all these folks in from aluminum and steel companies in to talk to the President later this week. I don't know if that's going to occur anymore.

And, you know, Cohn was clearly trying to maneuver the President to a different position. And maybe he learned today that that just wasn't going to happen and the President wasn't in the mood to change his mind or soften his position, and maybe he just threw up his hands. I mean, we'll have to report it out.

BLITZER: You know, Nia, it's interesting to me, a longtime observer of these kinds of things, Gary Cohn and the White House waited until after 4:00 p.m., after the stock markets closed, to make this announcement, knowing, I suspect, or at least fearing if it would have been made earlier in the day.

Gary Cohn, former Goldman Sachs executive --


BLITZER: -- top executive at Goldman, someone who reassured the establishment out there that this administration was moving the economy in the right direction as far as stocks were concerned.


BLITZER: They waited until after the markets closed.

HENDERSON: No, that's a -- that's a really good observation. And we have seen the stock market really respond very negatively, at least initially, to this tariff announcement that the President now seems to be doubling down on.

Maybe it will be more narrow. It doesn't -- you know, we just don't know, but I think you're right. I mean, Gary Cohn was -- he is New York, Goldman Sachs, as you said, and as Gloria was saying, assured a lot of folks in the financial community and industry that things were proceeding along.

And I think he clearly understands the economy in a way that Donald Trump doesn't. So that was reassuring to a lot of folks.

PRESTON: Well, and to your point, too, if we're going to see, overnight, what the foreign markets are going to be doing --


PRESTON: -- and the foreign markets are going to drive what happens at the opening bell tomorrow in New York. And I can guarantee you right now, the foreign markets are not going to respond very favorably to this news.

We talk a lot about Hope Hicks being this moderating factor for President Trump. Well, when it came to the economy, that's kind of how we all viewed Gary Cohn. Putting aside whatever his politics may be, and they might not have meshed with the real, hard conservatives on the hill, he was a moderating factor and a moderating voice in that White House.

BLITZER: You know, Phil, it's not just the economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and others who disagree with the President on these tariffs on steel and aluminum, but the Secretary of State fears the diplomatic ramifications.

The Secretary of Defense fears the military ramifications with close U.S. allies. Canada, for example, the closest U.S. ally, they're not very happy about this.

MUDD: Yes, but time out here. We keep making the same mistake, which is presuming that the President isn't making negotiating moves.

We have a parallel. North Korea. He says, we're going to whack them. Then all of a sudden, months later, he's going to say, well, you know, maybe they paid attention. Let's go to the table. Maybe they're going to denuclearize.

[17:50:01] I see an exact parallel here where he is making people around the world skeptical about economic policy and saying, well, maybe if you give me something on NAFTA, I'll do something. This might be negotiating. I'm not sure yet.

BLITZER: It may be the art of the deal.

BORGER: Well, or is this because --

MUDD: Yes.

BORGER: Is this because -- is this because he is worried about losing seats in Pennsylvania?

HENDERSON: Yes, I think that's a good point, Gloria.



BORGER: And that -- you know, and to play on the world stage because you don't want to be embarrassed by congressional losses seems to me to be something you don't want to do. And if Gary Cohn is leaving because of this, it's probably because he felt that it was the last straw and that you can't do that to our allies.

I mean, there has to be a certain amount of predictability from a president. You know, you don't want this kind of erratic, well, OK, he is going to scare us now, but he'll come back later and he won't scare us. I think our allies deserve a little bit more than that.


BORGER: And it shouldn't be this kind of guessing game and saying, oh, wait, maybe after the election is over, he'll come around and soften on this issue. I mean, that's -- you know, that's a difficult way to govern the country, much less become a player in the world.

BLITZER: Yes. There's a little bit of chaos unfolding right now despite what the President said, but we'll stay on top of it.

There is other news that we're following also breaking tonight.

After repeatedly testing his weapons and threatening to use them, North Korea's Kim Jong-un has seemingly made a stunning reversal, indicating a willingness to abandon his nukes if -- if -- certain conditions are met. President Trump is welcoming that move up to a point.

Brian Todd is joining us right now.

Brian, there are some pretty big ifs from North Korea. What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've spoken with top American negotiators who have reached major deals with the North Koreans. Most of them agree this is positive news. But tonight, they are also warning not to completely trust Kim's regime.


TODD (voice-over): Not long ago, he said his country could wipe the U.S. off the face of the Earth. Tonight, a dramatic turnaround for Kim Jong-un.

After speaking with top South Korean intelligence officials, meetings attended by Kim's wife and his trusted younger sister, the dictator says his regime is willing to talk to the U.S. about giving up its nuclear weapons.

He has also agreed to stop conducting nuclear and missile tests while his government negotiates with South Korea, including a just planned summit next month.

That's all according to South Korea's national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, who just returned from his meetings with Kim. President Trump is cautiously optimistic.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- the statements and the statements coming out of South Korea and North Korea have been very positive. That would be a great thing for the world. A great thing for the world. So we'll see how it all comes about.

TODD (voice-over): One of America's top intelligence officials is skeptical of Kim's promise.

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Maybe this is a breakthrough. I seriously doubt it, but like I said, hope springs eternal.

TODD (voice-over): Robert Gallucci understands that doubt. Gallucci was the lead American negotiator in 1994 when North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons program to eliminate its nuclear facilities in exchange for aid, for light water reactors, and a normalization of diplomatic relations.

ROBERT GALLUCCI, FORMER UNITED STATES LEAD NEGOTIATOR WITH NORTH KOREA: We made a deal with the North and they gave up the program. They pursued secretly a program using high-end uranium (ph) with the Pakistanis.

TODD (voice-over): At the time, Gallucci says, the North Koreans' excuse for cheating was that the U.S. was not moving fast enough to hold up its end of the deal.

TODD (on camera): What would you tell the lead U.S. negotiator in these talks based on your experience on how to deal with the North Koreans?

GALLUCCI: The first thing is be clear about our objectives, what we really need to get. We should be clear as we can be about what we think the North Koreans are really after.

Do not assume anything about compliance. Do not assume anything like trust is there. Look to monitor the deal.

TODD (voice-over): And Gallucci says even a deal the North Koreans might cheat on could still be good for U.S. national security. Another promise from Kim Jong-un that observers are watching closely, he says he'll work with the South Koreans toward reunifying the Korean Peninsula. What does that mean to Kim?

SUE MI TERRY, FORMER ANALYST, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Kicking the U.S. forces off the Korean Peninsula, decouple U.S./South Korea alliance relationship, and then, with nuclear weapons capability, coerce South Korea to achieving unification on his own terms.


TODD: And reunification on Kim's terms, experts say, means a unified Korean Peninsula with North Korea ruling it, something that the U.S. and the South Koreans would never go for. So practical reunification, experts say, is decades, if not generations, away, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very important stuff. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Coming up, the breaking news. The White House faces yet another key departure as the chief economic adviser to the President, Gary Cohn, is resigning after differing sharply with the President's plan to impose tariffs.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Cohn's silence. President Trump's top economic adviser Gary Cohn becomes the latest high-level official to leave the White House. Was the President's trade war threat what drove him out?

Not worried about Russia. President Trump dismisses concerns about Russian meddling in the upcoming election, saying in a White House news conference that the U.S. has a plan to counteract whatever Moscow does. The President also touts a backup plan, saying -- and I'm quoting him now -- it's called paper.