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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Trump-Stormy Daniels Scandal Heats Up; President Trump Enacts Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum; Soon: Announcement Outside White House About North Korean Invitation to Trump. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 8, 2018 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Will it live up to the president's hype? We're going to tell you what we're learning this hour.

Trade warpath. President Trump defies many global and political allies by publicly signing on to new tariffs. After days of high- level protests, is Mr. Trump's policy any less controversial or confusing tonight?

Quiet Stormy? As the porn star pursues her new lawsuit against the president, we're told that Mr. Trump is upset about his spokeswoman's response to the scandal. Have members of his own team put the president in greater legal and political jeopardy?

And threatening subpoenas. A top Democrat wants to force the president's former campaign manager to talk after Corey Lewandowski refused to answer some key questions in the Russia investigation. Who or what persuaded him to clam up?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking tonight, that so-called major announcement on North Korea that President Trump says will happen very soon.

It's not clear if it will be an important advancement or a sudden distraction. It comes as the president takes the next step toward launching a possible trade war while also facing new fallout from his alleged affair with a porn star.

This hour, I will talk with a former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, and our senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara, and our correspondents and analysts, they are all standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, what can you tell us about this announcement on North Korea we anticipate fairly soon?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think we have gone from fire and fury to fast and furious. At least that's how the developments are happening over here at the White House.

We had a very surprise visit in the Briefing Room not too long ago. I think you have some of the pictures of the president. He basically surprised everybody in the room when he said that there's an announcement coming up at 7:00 this evening on South Korea.

And my understanding, from talking to a senior administration official in just the last several minutes, and some of our other colleagues who are also reporting this, that the South Koreans are expected to make the announcement in the Briefing Room.

And my understanding from talking to a senior administration official, Wolf, is that this announcement will be about the South Koreans and their recent dialogue with the North Koreans about denuclearizing Pyongyang. And so we will be looking for that at 7:00.

As to whether or not the president will make another visit to the Briefing Room, I did talk to another senior administration official who said, I don't want to get ahead of the president. That could or could not mean that the president may be coming back in. We don't think that's going to happen, but we should hold that out as a possibility.

But, as you know, Wolf, and you just described this a few moments ago, it's been sort of fly by the seat of our pants all week long over here at the White House. That goes for the president, too, as he's dealing with a number of issues from tariffs to Stormy Daniels to the Russia investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's been a taxing week for President Trump, who signed a proclamation initiating new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports coming into the U.S., a move that's likely to spark a trade backlash from American allies.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Steel is steel. You don't have steel, you don't have a country.

It was not fair.

ACOSTA: Earlier in the day, the president took note of the collateral damage caused by his new tariffs, the sudden resignation of his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, a fierce critic of free trade policies. Mr. Trump made fun at Cohn, who strongly opposed the tariffs, describing his outgoing aide as a globalist.

TRUMP: He may be a globalist, but I still like him. He's seriously a globalist, there's no question. But, you know what, in his own way, he's a nationalist, because he loves our country. And where is Gary? You love our country.

(APPLAUSE)

ACOSTA: But for all of his tough talk, the president signaled he is making exceptions in applying some tariffs. TRUMP: We're negotiating with Canada and the NAFTA, and depending on

whether or not we reach a deal, also very much involved with that is national defense, but if we reach a deal, it's most likely that we won't be charging those two countries the tariffs.

ACOSTA: A much softer tone than he had last week.

TRUMP: People have no idea that our country has been treated. They have destroyed the steel industry. They have destroyed the aluminum industry.

ACOSTA: But the president is unleashing some of his fury behind the scenes, venting that he is not happy that Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed that he's been in arbitration with porn star Stormy Daniels, who alleges that she had an affair with Mr. Trump.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I can share that the arbitration was won in the president's favor.

ACOSTA: A source close to the White House said the president believes Sarah gave the Stormy Daniels storyline steroids.

But White House officials pushed back on that, insisting the president has no issues with Sanders. Democrats are taking note of the lack of GOP outrage over the Stormy story.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: You can be sure if any of that were happening with the Democrats, the Republicans would be very involved in it. But our time should be spent making the future better for the American people.

[18:05:07]

ACOSTA: The White House is also grappling with the president's loose talk in the Russia investigation. A White House official confirmed a report in "The New York Times" that the president has discussed the probe with former Chief of Staff Priebus and White House counsel Don McGahn after they spoke with the special counsel's office.

The official told CNN that Chief of Staff John Kelly has warned the president to be careful, saying "It's pretty clear that Kelly admonishes constantly, and he's not the only one."

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: Sending the message not just to those that have been questioned, but those that may be questioned in the future, that what they said would be commented upon or they would be queried by the president. That's not a good practice. I think John Kelly's advice is sound advice.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, getting back to those tariffs, we should note, Wolf, a number of Republicans, including Jeff Flake from Arizona, Orrin Hatch over there in the Senate, they're both talking about perhaps moving some legislation in the coming weeks to nullify some of these tariffs coming from the Trump administration. So this battle over tariffs is not over yet. But getting back to the

startling announcement that we got from the president just in the last hour in the Briefing Room, we do expect to see a member of the South Korean delegation in the Briefing Room at 7:00 this evening to make this announcement.

We expect it to be about their ongoing talks with the North Koreans to denuclearize the North Korean program there in Pyongyang. And I talked to a senior administration official, Wolf, who didn't want to give too many details, saying they didn't want to get ahead of the president, but described the talks between the South Koreans and the North Koreans as interesting.

Understatement, perhaps, of the day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The leader of the South Korean delegation, Chung Eui-yong, will be making the announcement. What is significant is he was among the South Koreans actually in Pyongyang that met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. We will stand by for that announcement.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

There's more breaking news right now involving Stormy Daniels' legal battle against the president and his lawyer.

Let's go to our senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin, who is working this part of the story for us.

Drew, you have been poring over all the document, all the conflicting statements. What have you found?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: The news comes from that nondisclosure agreement, Wolf, that Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen signed.

Stormy Daniels said she told four people about her alleged affair with Donald Trump. One of them is a woman named Angel Ryan. Angel Ryan is a porn actress herself. Her stage name is Jessica Drake.

In October of 2016, she came forward in a news conference and described an unwanted sexual advance by Donald Trump that she says took place at that very same golf tournament in 2006 where Donald Trump allegedly began his affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels.

At the time, Drake says she was asked to Trump's hotel room, where he grabbed her and kissed her and other women without asking. He later invited her back for a private dinner, which she declined, and says in a phone call, either Trump or someone representing Trump offered her $10,000 and use of a private jet if she would accept.

The Trump campaign at the time said Mr. Trump does not know this person, does not remember this person, and would have no interest in knowing her.

Well, now we know, Wolf, just six days later, that person was named in a nondisclosure agreement being written up by Donald Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen. All of this being revealed today, as Donald Trump's legal team continues to try to figure out just how they can keep Stormy Daniels quiet.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN (voice-over): With details of the alleged affair, the pre- election payment and even the acknowledgement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders that the president was involved.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I can share that the arbitration was won in the president's favor.

GRIFFIN: President Trump and his private attorney Michael Cohen find themselves caught in a perfect storm of their own making.

Legally, their next move could be to enforce the nondisclosure agreement to silence Stormy Daniels by bringing her to court, but bringing her to court would risk revealing all the sordid details in public. They are stuck.

Legal experts say Michael Cohen's mistakes include admitting he paid Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, $130,000, drawing up a sloppy now public nondisclosure agreement, missing Donald Trump's signature, and sending the payment through a secretive Delaware corporation that has his own name attached to it.

All this has, according to Clifford's new attorney, made the rush to silence his client before the election look like a legal hack job.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: The way that this was handled and the documentation, quite honestly, this was amateur hour, Anderson. This is very, very sloppy. It's very, very messy. It is shocking, quite honestly, that something of this magnitude was handled in this way in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election.

GRIFFIN: The legal fight to ensue between President Trump, Michael Cohen, and a porn actress amounts to a contract dispute between private parties.

[18:10:08]

The bigger picture and perhaps bigger storm now focuses on what the president knew and when. Campaign finance watchdog attorney Paul Ryan says the just filed lawsuit provides a trail of allegations that the president knew of the plan to keep Stephanie Clifford silent.

PAUL SEAMUS RYAN, COMMON CAUSE: We have Stephanie Clifford in the legal filings in court saying Donald Trump initiated and directed all of this. That's the first important fact. Second new important factual allegation is the whole purpose of this negotiation, Donald Trump's purpose for engaging in these negotiations was to help ensure his victory in the 2016 election.

GRIFFIN: According to the complaint filed by Common Cause with the Federal Elections Commissioner and the U.S. Department of Justice, that $130,000 undisclosed payment amounts to an illegal campaign contribution or expenditure, in other words, a crime.

RYAN: If this FEC does not investigate, and that's all we're asking for, does not open investigation into this matter, this FEC is hopeless.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: But, as you know, Wolf, the Federal Election Commission is well known for its lack of investigating just about anything, and in its current political makeup, it's almost a certainty this case will go nowhere.

Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, in the past has called the complaint by Common Cause baseless, along with the allegation that President Trump filed a false report to the FEC -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Drew, thank you, Drew Griffin reporting.

In the Russia investigation tonight, a top Democrat is urging a subpoena of a former Trump campaign manager -- I'm talking about Corey Lewandowski -- after he refused to answer some key questions from the House Intelligence Committee.

We're following multiple new threads this hour on the Hill, in court, and behind the scenes in the special counsel's Russia probe.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, tell us more about Corey Lewandowski's appearance today.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this was the second time that Corey Lewandowski went behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee.

It's also the second time that some lawmakers left dissatisfied. In fact, the top Democrat, Adam Schiff, he addressed all of the topics that Lewandowski wouldn't touch, including the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski refusing to answer certain questions in his second meeting behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee, explaining he'd answered -- quote -- "all relevant questions."

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: That's for them to decide, but I think, after 12 hours, I have done enough.

SCHNEIDER: But the committee's top Democrat wants him to come back, saying Lewandowski can't pick and choose which questions he wanted to answer.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: These included questions about the production of the false statement concerning the Trump Tower meeting, questions about the firing of James Comey and conversations about that, as well as any discussions that Mr. Lewandowski had with the president about the potential of firing Bob Mueller.

SCHNEIDER: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort back in court, this time in Virginia, pleading not guilty to 18 counts of bank fraud and tax crimes. Manafort has maintained his innocence in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, even as his former co- defendant and campaign defendant, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty to separate charges as part of a plea deal two weeks ago.

Mueller's team is also talking to Middle East specialist George Nader, CNN has learned, as interest intensifies around a secret meeting in the Seychelles Islands just days before President Trump's inauguration. Nader was there when Blackwater private security firm founder and Trump associate Erik Prince met with officials from the United Arab Emirates and later was present when Prince talked with Kirill Dmitriev, head of a Russian state investment fund, at the hotel bar.

It's unclear whether Nader was involved in that conversation. "The Washington Post" reports that Mueller has gathered evidence that the meeting was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.

JENNIFER RODGERS, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: It makes it seem like they're trying to make deals before he becomes the president. And he doesn't speak for the country before he becomes the president.

SCHNEIDER: Now Democrats are calling for clarification on testimony about the Seychelles meeting Erik Prince gave the House Intelligence Committee in November. Prince denied it was an attempt to set up secret communications between the Trump administration and Russia and did not reveal that George Nader was there.

SCHIFF: If those reports are accurate, there's clearly a significant discrepancy between that version and what we heard in Erik Prince's testimony. Which is accurate, I don't know, and we should find out. But, clearly, both can't be true.

SCHNEIDER: Congressman Adam Schiff wants Prince to reappear before the committee and hand over more documents. Schiff also wants Nader to testify, this as "The New York Times" reports the president asked two key witnesses in Mueller's investigation what they told the special counsel's team.

[18:15:00]

The president reportedly asked former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus if investigators had been nice to him and talked to White House counsel Don McGahn about his disclosure that the president asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, even asking an aide to get McGahn to release a statement saying it wasn't true.

Talking to witnesses isn't illegal, but it may raise more questions in the possible obstruction of justice piece of the probe.

RODGERS: It makes it more likely that the time he took those actions, he was thinking the same thing, let's get this thing off the rails. So, to me, it's another piece of evidence for obstruction.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And when it comes to Corey Lewandowski's appearance before the House Intelligence Committee today, now Congressman Schiff wants Republicans to issue Corey Lewandowski a subpoena to come back. It's something Republicans will only say they will take under advisement.

Of course, Republicans have signaled they're ready for this probe to end, while Democrats say there are still more witnesses to be called. And, of course, Wolf, Democrats now want Corey Lewandowski to come back. He was only there for about three hours today. They say he just didn't do a sufficient job answering the questions they asked.

BLITZER: Jessica Schneider with that report, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of the stories breaking tonight.

Leon Panetta, he is joining us. He's the former defense secretary, the former CIA director.

Thanks so much, Mr. Secretary, for joining us.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So based on the developments you have seen, that we have all seen so far, what do you anticipate from the president telling us there will be a major announcement by the South Korean delegation on North Korea coming up fairly soon?

PANETTA: Well, Wolf, from out here, 3,000 miles away from Washington, it looks like another version of the Keystone Cops going on at the White House.

And it would be funny, if it was not so serious, in terms of its implications, particularly with regards to the trade war that's going to start, but also the issues related to North Korea and South Korea.

I mean, I think that there's no question here that South Korea has been pursuing with the North Koreans an effort to try to establish some kind of negotiations with regards to the whole issue of nuclear proliferation, and they seem to be making some good progress.

So I would not be surprised if the announcement relates to that set of negotiations. But the real question that concerns me is whether or not the United States and all of this chaos that's going on at the White House has established any kind of strategy as to what the position of the United States will be, should those negotiations proceed.

BLITZER: That's a good point.

CNN has learned, Mr. Secretary, that this South Korean delegation hand-delivered a letter from the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to the White House for President Trump. And that could be significant. The South Korean delegation, the leaders, they actually met with Kim Jong-un.

What do you make of that? A message from Kim Jong-un to President Trump?

PANETTA: Well, it's obviously been very interesting to watch Kim Jong-un begin to act like a diplomat and trying to establish these negotiations.

I think the way he handled the issue with regards to the Olympics, his willingness to participate in that, and now his willingness to engage in negotiations and include, as you have said, a letter to the president of the United States tells me that, you know, there is an opportunity here for the president, South Korea, and North Korea to be able to sit down and at least begin the process of negotiations.

I hope the president takes advantage of that. I hope the president responds to Kim Jong-un in an effective way, so that, hopefully, the world can breathe a sigh of relief here if these negotiations can begin in earnest.

BLITZER: Let's see what this South Korean announcement is.

Let's turn, in the meantime, Mr. Secretary, to the president's announcement today on new tariffs. Are you surprised that there hasn't been more pushback from Congress?

PANETTA: Well, obviously, I expect that those who are critical of this decision, as they should be, because what the president's announcement means today, in real terms, is that we're -- we are now going to open up a whole trade war with countries across the world.

There's no question that those countries are going to retaliate, that, as a result of that, the prices are going to go up in this country, industries are going to be impacted, jobs are going to be impacted. The Americans are going to have to pay a tax as a result of these tariffs that the president is implementing.

[18:20:12]

And it would seem important now that the Congress take steps to make clear that we need to have, not tariffs, but negotiations, if we're ever going to resolve the issue of fair trade. That's the only place it's going to take place.

History has told us, whether it was Smoot-Hawley tariffs in the early '30s, whether it was the tariffs that President Bush placed on the steel industry when he was in office, that it all backfires.

And these tariffs that the president announced today are going to backfire as well. At some point, we have to understand that the only way to deal with these issues is through negotiation, not through tariffs.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on another sensitive issue that's brewing right now. The White House is trying to explain why the president's personal lawyer paid $130,000 to a porn star only a few days before the 2016 presidential election.

Do you believe members of Congress should be investigating this?

PANETTA: Well, I don't think there's any questions that issues have been raised here with regards to the potential violation of law, campaign laws, that could have been involved here.

And if that is the case, then I think it ought to be investigated. Whether it's investigated by the Congress or whether it's investigated by the FBI, the issue should be investigated to determine whether or not there was a violation of law.

This does involve the president of the United States. It's, frankly, a kind of repulsive situation all the way around. But we need to find out what the truth is. And the only way you're going to find out the truth is if there is an effective and proper investigation of this matter.

BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.

PANETTA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, where does the Stormy Daniels scandal go from here? I will ask a former U.S. attorney -- we're talking about Preet Bharara -- about that and the legal risks for the president.

And we will have more on the breaking news in the Russia probe and the threat of a new subpoena for a former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:27:01]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories this hour, including new information related to Stormy Daniels' alleged affair with the president and her legal battle with his lawyer.

Let's bring in the former U.S. attorney, CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara.

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's get to some of these legal questions.

Legally, do Michael Cohen's actions make sense? For example, why would a lawyer act this way without consulting his client, if that's, in fact, the case?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Generally speaking, lawyers are supposed to consult with their clients. They're not supposed to take legal action on behalf of their clients without getting their approval.

They're representatives of other people, and so that's what the relationship is about. But, obviously, here -- and I should note, this is a subject matter that's not my usual expertise that you're asking me about on the show today, but -- and it's been a long time since I have had contract class.

But when you have a high-profile person, whether involved in a criminal investigation or something else, like this might be, and you have done something bad or something that you're not proud of or something that you want to keep quiet, you're kind of in a pickle.

And you call your lawyer and your lawyer knows they're supposed to get you out of the pickle. So there has been some criticism of the way in which the president's lawyer, Michael Cohen, constructed this nondisclosure agreement. There was no signature. It may not be enforceable in various ways.

But in defense of him, which is an odd thing for me to say, he had a little bit of a conundrum, because he's trying to both keep something secret, but also have enforceable legal documentation of that secret in some way.

So, you know, it creates a kind of issue. And so when you're thinking about the ways in which he handled it as a lawyer, you have to remember that he was also handling it as a P.R. matter, as a political matter, and as a business matter.

BLITZER: And he was handling it only a few days before the presidential election in November of 2016, which raises all sorts of other questions.

Where do you think, Preet, that this Stormy Daniels saga goes from here?

BHARARA: I mean, I don't know.

One of the things you mentioned is that it was done right before the election. And I don't think this particular issue is a matter for Bob Mueller, but I think some of your other guests on the program have already alluded to the fact that it may be a Federal Election Commission issue.

If it was something that was done, a payment that was made in connection with assisting Donald Trump in winning the election, which I think you can make a reasonable argument that it was, and that's why that much money was paid, then it could be a matter for the FEC.

Whether they're going to enforce it or not is a separate matter. It also may be the case that this has happened with respect to other people. And so I think the thread is being pulled, and it's not clear what it's going to lead to.

BLITZER: Because there are some who think it should be investigated by the FEC, the Federal Election Commission. Others have suggested it should be investigated by the FBI.

If you were still the U.S. attorney in New York and a case like this, a $130,000 payment just before an election were made, and it wasn't reported as a campaign, an in-kind campaign contribution, would this be something you would look at?

BHARARA: You know, it's possible. I would have to give that a little bit more thought, but I think it's possible, yes.

[18:30:02] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's talk about another sensitive issue that's come up. As you know, "The New York Times" has reported that President Trump spoke to both Don McGahn, his White House counsel, and Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff, about their separate conversations with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. If -- that doesn't rise to the level of witness tampering, what are other possible concerns?

BHARARA: Well, first of all, it's very dumb, and I hate to use that word lightly, but when people are being investigated in a serious way, by serious prosecutors -- and the Mueller team is a group of serious and talented and smart prosecutors -- you're not supposed to talk to other people who are being interviewed. And from time to time, you know, even people in government get sued.

And the first thing you learn is that you don't talk to other people about the facts. Because it can create the impression, even if it's not true, it can create the impression that you're trying to both, you know, influence their testimony about something, if they get called back to testify again, or you're trying to figure out how to conform your own testimony, if you're called to answer questions later, to the stories that other people have told. So at a minimum, it's unseemly, it's unwise.

And depending on what the nature of those conversations were, and if there was some anticipation of further questions from the people that he was, you know, potentially trying to coach, it could rise to the level of obstruction.

I read "The New York Times" article, too. And some of the things that I saw I don't think rise to the level of being obstruction. In other words, asking someone like Don McGahn, "How did the interview go? Did they treat you nice?" I think, again, as I often say on the show, the devil is in the details. What precisely did the president say? What precisely did the other person tell him? But at a minimum, it causes the prosecutors to think that someone is up to no good and is at least trying to have a chilling effect on other people.

BLITZER: Preet Bharara, thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks.

BLITZER: We're getting some more information now on this announcement that's coming from the South Korean delegation at the White House on North Korea. The president popped his head into the briefing room to tell us a major announcement was coming forward. We'll have some new information for you right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:36:49] BLITZER: We're standing by for what President Trump says will be a major announcement from a South Korean delegation that's been visiting the White House today and just came from Pyongyang, North Korea.

I quickly want to go to CNN's Will Ripley. He's joining us from Seoul, South Korea, right now. What are you learning about this announcement, Will?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I've just learned from a former senior U.S. official that what the South Koreans delivered, and it was very top-secret, was a letter from Kim Jong-un to President Trump inviting the president for a meeting with the North Korean leader.

This is hugely significant, and this is also an indication that Kim Jong-un is really pushing forward with this diplomatic path. He feels that President Trump was leaning more towards military action, tightening up on the sanctions.

So now the North Koreans telling Trump they're willing to talk, they're willing to meet. And that's what was expected to be delivered in this message that the South Koreans brought over from Seoul to Washington, Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise Labott is with us, as well. Will, stand by for a moment.

Elise, you're our global affairs correspondent. You're getting additional information about what else may be announced.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in addition to that meeting that Kim Jong-un offered, something we understand from our sources that the North Koreans have been weighing since President Trump got elected, we also understand that in that letter, Kim Jong-un offered to suspend nuclear and missile tests. That's the kind of step that the U.S. has been looking for to enter those negotiations.

U.S. officials do tell us, though, this will not change the planned military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea scheduled for next month. We do also, we hear from our sources that national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, will be briefing the U.N. Security Council on Monday about these developments, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very significant, potentially very significant developments.

Leon Panetta is with us as well, still, the former defense secretary, the former CIA director. What do you think, Mr. Secretary, about these late-breaking developments? We'll get formal word in the next several minutes.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, it's extremely interesting to -- to know that Kim Jong-un has issued an invitation to the president. But I would, I would be very cautious about this.

No. 1, the president -- the president needs to know, this can't just be a photo-op with -- with a political candidate. He's meeting with Kim Jong-un, who's threatened to annihilate the United States. And so he's going to have to lay some groundwork here. I think he should talk to our allies, to the South Korean president,

to the Japanese, even to the Chinese and others, to get a sense of whether or not there's a benefit here or something that could be -- could create some difficult consequences.

Secondly, I think he's got to have -- if he does go through with this, he's going to have some very firm talking points about what the United States's position is. And if he just walks in there and is not fully prepared in terms of what our strategy is, then I think that could have the wrong consequences in terms of the impact.

[18:40:05] So, if he lays the proper groundwork with our allies, if he has a firm strategy as to where the United States will go on negotiations, then I think this is worth considering.

BLITZER: We're showing our viewers live pictures from outside the West Wing of the White House, Mr. Secretary. We're expecting this announcement from the leader of the South Korean delegation, who has briefed officials in the White House and is about to walk out and make this announcement.

Would you advise President Trump, if there is, in fact, an invitation from Kim Jong-un for a meeting, would you advise the president to go ahead and sit down, face to face, and meet with the North Korean leader?

PANETTA: I would only advise that, if I felt that the president had sat down and really considered what the consequences of this kind of meeting could be.

I just -- I just think this is a serious moment. And it's not just something where the president is going to show up and they do a photo- op. Make no mistake about it: Kim Jong-un will have some very determined talking points about what he would like to achieve in a negotiation. And I think before the president walks in that room, the president has to be fully prepared, in terms of what the position of the United States and South Korea and our allies is going to be in that kind of negotiation.

If he's comfortable with that, and if we've established that kind of strategy, then as I said, yes, it's something to seriously consider.

BLITZER: As you know, they've --

PANETTA: Where, when, how it should take place.

BLITZER: They've already announced that Kim Jong-un will have a meeting with the South Korean president, President Moon, along the Demilitarized Zone, I think as early as next month. So clearly, the South Korean government is anxious for this kind of dialogue, and they're the key U.S. ally in -- on the Korean Peninsula, of course.

PANETTA: They are, and they -- they've obviously had meeting personally with Kim Jong-un in North Korea. And the South Korean president obviously wants to pursue these negotiations. So I think all of that makes a lot of sense. Obviously, we're in a much better path here, in terms of trying to negotiate some kind of resolution here. But for the president of the United States to -- to now engage with the leader of North Korea, I think if it's going to happen, everybody's got to think long and hard about what kind of -- of strategy are we going to try to pursue, what are our key talking points here, what do we want to achieve? And if we feel comfortable with all of that, then I say yes, it's probably worth pursuing, particularly if it's done in conjunction with the president of South Korea.

BLITZER: All right. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us. Leon Panetta joining us on this important, important breaking news story.

Let's bring in our panel. And John Kirby, let me get your thoughts. The president, as recently as January, was asked, "Would you be willing to speak, have phone talks with Kim Jong-un?" And he said, "Sure. I always believe in talking. But we have a very firm stance. Look, you know what it is. We're very firm. But I would be absolutely -- I would do it, no problem with that at all."

So potentially, a dialogue between Kim Jong-un and President Trump could be in the works.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, potentially. And if it happens, as Secretary Panetta said, that would be enormously helpful and productive. And it may be what's required to actually get some sort of meaningful peace agreement or arrangement on the peninsula.

But the only thing I'd add to Secretary Panetta's very, very sage advice is you've got to start building a framework for getting to those talks. I mean, this isn't the kind of thing that you jump on the plane tomorrow. You're going to have to have lower-level meetings and discussions and really sort of flesh out what confidence-building measures need to be put in place before you can safely and prudently put you president across the table from Kim Jong-un.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, the president clearly is very excited about this. He came into the White House briefing room and told reporters, "Get ready. There will be an announcement, a major announcement by the South Koreans at 7 p.m. Eastern."

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. A big reveal. And we don't know -- we're not quite sure what it is. We don't know whether the president will agree. We don't know whether this is just going to be something that they might agree to do at some time in the future. As Elise was talking about before, it seems that -- that they've said, "OK, we're going to stop -- we're going to stop testing our -- our nuclear missiles as a precondition of this." You know that the United States has been talking about total denuclearization of North Korea. And whether that would be enough for a sit-down remains to be seen.

I mean, we are assuming the president will respond positively, but we have to wait -- we have to wait and see exactly what his preconditions are for any kind of a meeting. Where would it be? And when would it be? And what would have to occur from our point of view before any such meeting could take place?

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. We're getting more information. We're awaiting the official announcement from the South Korean delegation over at the White House. You see the cameras are there, the microphones are there.

[18:45:00] They'll be walking out very soon.

We'll have live coverage, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Any moment now, South Korean delegation will emerge what President Trump calls a major announcement as far as North Korea is concerned.

[18:50:07] I want to go to Will Ripley in Seoul, South Korea, getting new information.

As we a wait this announcement, Will, tell our viewers what exactly you've heard.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are hearing from a former senior U.S. official that what was delivered by the South Korean delegation led by national chief was an invitation from Kim Jong-un to meet with President Trump. And this may explain why the president surprised even his own staff members at the briefing room when he said this announcement was coming. The Blue House here in Seoul is telling us the announcement will be made in English. We believe Chung Eui-yong, the national security chief, will be making the announcement or perhaps he will be standing by Sarah Sanders, also join at the podium, the spy chief from South Korea, Suh Hoon.

These are two of the leaders of the delegation that went to Pyongyang on Monday. They had an unprecedented meeting with Kim Jong-un at the headquarters of the Workers Party of Korea, it's the first time that South Korea has been allowed inside the building. Clearly, Kim Jong- un came there to deal a deal with the South Koreans. They met with more than four hours. They had an extravagant dinner and he gave them that letter that they flew from Seoul to Washington. They arrived just hours ago and have been in a whirlwind of meetings at the White House.

And now, we're just minutes away from what is expected to be this major announcement, again, what's believed to be a letter from Kim Jong-un to President Trump offering a meeting.

BLITZER: Elise Labott is in New York, she's getting more information as well. What else are you learning, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we also understand the North Koreans are willing to consider suspending the nuclear an missile testing. That's the step U.S. has been looking for North Korean to do in even to even engage in talks. Obviously, the full goal is, you know, complete denuclearization, but even Secretary of State Tillerson has said that he realizes that's something that's going to take time, but they do want to see this initial step from North Korea. And now, the national security adviser who met with the South Korean delegation, H.R. McMaster going on Monday to the U.N. Security Council to brief them on what's going on, Wolf.

But I think we have to be clear. There's a long process ahead, you know, even though there is this invite for a meeting with Donald Trump, there is a lot of steps that have to happen. You know, preparing the ground, talks with maybe the State Department, or other White House advisers before you would have a summit of that nature.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a good point.

You know, John Kirby, usually when there is a summit by the leaders, there are a whole series of leaders by lower level officials.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Absolutely. There should be, and what I would hope, a sort of stair step procedure before you even get to the idea where you might think of putting President Trump across the table from Kim Jong-un. And let's, I mean I don't want to minimize the significance of this. It is significant, it's important, and we all should look forward to this announcement.

But some of this stuff we have heard the North Korean say before. This promise of a freeze while discussions are going. They present that before and busted those promises. So, we really need to be mindful of expectations here and keep them in appropriate level as these discussions move forward.

BLITZER: Clearly, the president, David Swerdlick, is pleased by this. He's the one who told us, get ready for a major announcement.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. He likes major announcements in general, and in this case, if it is as well as reporting, it could potentially be very big. But the administration has to tread carefully here as Admiral Kirby is saying, you have a situation where as Secretary Panetta just said, it's a serious moment, just sitting around the conference table with Jared Kushner and Steven Miller is not going to get it. He's got to consult people who really know what's going on and take it step by step.

BLITZER: So, the stakes are enormous, Rebecca Berg. The stakes right now on the Korean peninsula, the nuclear tension, it's a major crisis.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Absolutely. You have to imagine that there is going to be a great deal of strategic pressure on the president, not only how does he respond to this invitation, but if there is a meeting at some time in the future, or even the long term, how does the president address that?

Leon Panetta in his comments a few minutes was talking about how important it is for the president to have firm talking points, really thought out talking points going into any meeting with Kim Jong-un in North Korea. And this president is not someone who sticks to talking points.

That's something he's troubled with in meetings with Republican leaders of Congress. You have to imagine it would be incredibly difficult for him to do that in a meeting like this.

BLITZER: Announcement only moments away from now. We'll stand by for that. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:59:02] BLITZER: We're standing by for what President Trump says will be a major announcement on North Korea. Gloria Borger, it could include potentially an invitation from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to President Trump for a meeting.

BORGER: Right. And we should caution that there is nobody I've spoken to who is saying that the president ought to jump on a plane any time soon for any kind of a meeting right now. But this is a huge development.

Just, remember, in September, the president addressed the United Nations and he said if North Korea attacked any of the allies or the United States, that the United States would have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. And that was at the time when he was referring to Kim Jong-un as rocket man. Clearly, things have changed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes.

And we are standing by for this announcement momentarily. Let's see how significant it really is. But we'll continue our breaking room coverage.

I'm Wolf Blitzer here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.