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President Trump Threatens News Media; Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; CIA Director Nominee Under Fire; Plane Carrying Freed Detainees Back in U.S.; Trump Slams Media, Tweets "Take Away Credentials?". Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 9, 2018 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: New details of corporate payments he received that attracted the attention of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, six months ago.

Tortured explanations. President Trump's pick for CIA chief pledges she won't restart the agency's harsh interrogation program.

And revoking credentials. President Trump appears to threaten the news media after complaining that unfavorable coverage is fake news.

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

CNN has just learned that preparations are now under way for the proposed summit between President Trump and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to take place in Singapore.

Senator Jeff Flake of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees, he's standing by to join us live. We will talk about that and more. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

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

Jim, the Trump-Kim summit is getting closer to reality.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And we're hearing from administration officials that preparations are being made for this upcoming high-stakes summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un to take place in Singapore.

You heard the president earlier today rule out the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. And so it now appears at this point that the administration is preparing a summit location of Singapore for this meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, although no date is set.

Of course, we should point out, President Trump being President Trump, the final details can always change. But just as President Trump is trying to de-escalate tensions with North Korea and welcoming home these American prisoners detained by that regime, that expecting to happen overnight, he's ramping up the rhetoric on Iran, warning of severe consequences if the reactivates its nuclear program.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Closing in on what may be the biggest TV reality moment of his life, President Trump is nailing down plans for a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're just working arrangements, but...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Will it be the DMZ?

TRUMP: It will not be there.

ACOSTA: While he's celebrating the arrival of three American prisoners who were released by North Korea and on their way home.

TRUMP: Right now, flying back are three what they were calling hostages. We call them fine people, three really fine people. Seem to be healthy.

ACOSTA: He's still tamping down expectations that his summit with the regime will produce a nuclear breakthrough.

TRUMP: Everything can be scuttled. Everything can be scuttled.

Doesn't mean -- a lot of things can happen. A lot of good things can happen. A lot of bad things can happen.

ACOSTA: As for the other nuclear deal he just ripped up with Iran, President Trump issued a not-so-veiled threat of military action if Iran resumes its nuclear ambitions.

TRUMP: I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program. I would advise them very strongly. If they do, there will be very severe consequence. OK?

ACOSTA: The president then told his Cabinet he will pursue a new agreement with Iran.

TRUMP: So we're going to make either a really good deal for the world, or we're not going to make a deal at all. And Iran will come back and say, we don't want to negotiate. And, of course, they're going to say that. And if I were in their position, I'd say that, too, for the first couple of months, we're not going to negotiate. But they'll negotiate, or something will happen.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump has boasted for years he could outnegotiate the Iranians, repeatedly using an ethnic stereotype during the campaign.

TRUMP: But the Persians are great negotiators. The Iranians are great English. So -- and they -- they just killed -- they just killed us. ACOSTA: Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, doesn't sound

impressed, tweeting about the U.S. Exit from the nuclear deal: "The president's shallow and ludicrous behavior wasn't unexpected. This man's corpse will also be worm food."

Whatever happens in North Korea or Iran, Mr. Trump seems to expect only positive coverage from the media. In a tweet, the president revealed what was long suspected, that he sees negative dues as fake news: Ninety-one percent of the network news about me is negative. Fake. Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?"

The president defended his hostility toward the press at a news conference last year.

QUESTION: Aren't you concerned, sir, that you are undermining the people's faith in the First Amendment, freedom of the press, the press in this country, when you call stories you don't like fake news? Why not just say, it's a story I don't like? When you call it fake news, you're undermining confidence in our news media. Isn't that important?

TRUMP: Here's the thing. I understand what you're -- and you're right about that, except this.

See, I know when I should get good and when I should get bad. And sometimes I will say, wow, that's going to be a great story. And I will get killed.

I know what's good and bad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: As for the Americans heading home from North Korea, the president says he plans to greet the prisoners' arrival with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington overnight, in the very early morning hours of tomorrow.

Asked whether he expects to receive the Nobel Peace Prize earlier today, Wolf, the president said he simply wants a good deal for the world.

[18:05:01]

But now the president has doubled his work. Just as he wants an agreement with North Korea, he has to figure out a way to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. And that is a table he is not sitting at right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.

We're learning more tonight also about the corporate payments to President Trump's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen, including around to a million from a Swiss pharmaceutical that attracted the attention of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, six months ago. Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, has more.

And, Sara, these payments that could pose some serious new problems for Cohen.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly could, Wolf.

And the reality is that, after the election, after Trump was elected, corporate America was panicking. They were looking to hire anyone who could give them insight into the new coming administration. And Michael Cohen was working in Trump Tower during that transition right down the hall from Donald Trump, and he saw an opportunity.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): The president's personal attorney Michael Cohen embroiled in another potential scandal, as he faces allegations of influence peddling.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: We're talking about the president of the United States here. And here you have Michael Cohen, his right-hand attorney, who appears to have been selling access to the Russians, to other foreign entities, and to multinational corporations.

MURRAY: Buying access is nothing new in Washington. Plenty of top Trump campaign ads have made a lucrative living since the presidential campaign by doing just that.

But the scrutiny over payments to Cohen could present new headaches for a man already under criminal investigation. Cohen's attorney described his client's consulting work as -- quote -- "providing strategic advice and business consulting."

A source familiar with Cohen's post-election pitch says it went something like this: "I don't know who's been representing you, but you should fire them all. I'm the guy you should hire. I'm closest to the president. I'm his personal lawyer."

But some of those business deals could cause headaches for Cohen. Columbus Nova, which says it hired Cohen as a "business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures," had ties to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, ties that have caught the attention of special counsel Robert Mueller.

In a statement to CNN, the general counsel of Columbus Nova insists the Russian oligarch had no control over the company, saying: "The company is 100 percent owned and controlled by Americans. Any suggestion that at any point in time Viktor Vekselberg or any of his companies owned or exercise any control over Columbus Nova is patently untrue."

Cohen's clients defended their relationships with Cohen, insisting they did nothing wrong in hiring him for consulting work. Korea Aerospace Industries paid Cohen $150,000 for what they call

legal advice on the cost of accounting standards regulation. AT&T, which is trying to buy CNN's parent company, Time Warner, paid Cohen at least $200,0000. It says Cohen was hired 'to provide insights into understanding the new administration."

And Novartis said it quickly realized Cohen could not provide them the insight they wanted into health care matters, and "The decision was taken not to engage further." Already under contract, the company still paid Cohen nearly $1 million over the course of a year.

Novartis say it was also contacted by the special counsel over its payments and provided all information requested.

AVENATTI: Evidently, this guy's a lawyer, he's a real estate agent, he's an accountant, he's a doctor, he's a business accountant. Well, evidently, Novartis hired him to consult on health care matters. I mean, this guy is a multitalented guy. Evidently, he's like the Leonardo da Vinci of our time. Who knew?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, we're getting a bit more details tonight from Columbus Nova.

In a new statement, the company says neither Viktor Vekselberg nor anyone outside of Columbus Nova was involved in the decision to hire Cohen or provided funding for his engagement.

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen's lawyer had not commented -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thanks very much, Sara Murray reporting.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona is joining us. He is a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

So, what's your reaction to what we just heard from Sara, her reporting? What red flags do these Michael Cohen payments raise?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Well, kind of odd, obviously.

But they're very new, and so just trying to grasp it. I know there's been some call for the Judiciary Committee to investigate. I think the special counsel is certainly investigating already and has authority to do so.

So, I would certainly wait to see what he comes up with, and make sure that they cooperate, which it looks like they are.

BLITZER: Some of your colleagues are in the Senate want a formal Senate investigation. Are you with them on that? FLAKE: Well, I think we ought to see what the special counsel does. It looks like he's already investigating it. And if he doesn't have access to materials, then maybe we get involved.

But I don't see that happening. I think that they are cooperating with him. Companies have in the past.

BLITZER: Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, says these payments to Cohen have nothing to do with the White House.

[18:10:03]

Do you believe that is accurate?

FLAKE: Right.

Well, obviously they wanted access. I don't know why else they would have a contract with Michael Cohen. But did Donald Trump even know about this? Who knows? So I don't know how to gauge that statement.

BLITZER: Yes, those are fair questions that they will take a look into.

In a statement, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis says they were contacted in November of last year, in 2017, by the special counsel's office. That is about six months or so ago.

So what does that tell you, that they were contacted six months ago by Mueller's team?

FLAKE: Well, it tells you he's running a tight ship over there. Very few leaks, if this went this long without coming out. And it sounds like he's on top of the situation.

So I think Bob Mueller is a professional. He is doing his investigation. He ought to be allowed to continue and finish it.

BLITZER: Let's turn to foreign policy, while I have you, Senator.

North Korea now says they have released those three American detainees, at President Trump's specific request. So what does North Korea, do you believe, want in return?

FLAKE: Well, I'm glad that they're being released. That is a good thing. I don't know how else you can now read that information. I'm happy for them and their families.

And obviously, something like this, if there are going to be serious negotiations on nuclear matters, this had to be off the table. So the North Koreans, it seems like they're serious. These are going to be very difficult negotiations.

This is certainly a necessary condition to remove some of these issues before getting into negotiations. It's certainly not sufficient to come to any deal, but it was necessary.

BLITZER: Yes. I'm glad these guys, these three Americans are on their way home right now.

FLAKE: Right.

BLITZER: So what is -- why do you think President Trump thinks North Korea potentially would adhere to a new nuclear deal, when he certainly doesn't trust Iran to do the same thing?

FLAKE: Right.

Well, if you think that Iran's program is opaque, look at North Korea's. We know virtually nothing about their test sites and what they have done, what they have. We have eyes and ears in Iran. Some people think that we need to look at some of the military sites as well.

But in North Korea, boy, talk about not knowing what's there. And they have lied in the past continually. They have made commitments that they have not made good on. So I could see certainly them wanting to get sanctions relief and maybe agree to a freeze. Boy, to think that they are going to actually denuclearize, that is a great hope.

I hope we get there. But we will have to wait and see. And I'm pretty skeptical, as are, I think, most people who have studied the situation.

BLITZER: Yes, the president simply says his goal is no nukes at all on the part of the North Koreans.

Senator, I want you to listen to what the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, told me today just a little while ago. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI ARABIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We have made it very clear that Iran acquires a nuclear capability, we will do everything we can to do the same.

BLITZER: And I assume that means you will acquire a nuclear capability yourself.

AL-JUBEIR: That's what we mean.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What's your reaction to that? If Iran restarts its nuclear program, the Saudis are going to start a nuclear program of their own?

FLAKE: That's been the fear all along, that we will have a point of escalation if Iran gets close. That was part of the impetus for the deal.

Now, to be clear, I didn't think that we struck a very good deal with Iran. I did not support it.

Having said that, once we were in it, with most of the benefits to Iran front-loaded, the release of frozen assets, sanctions relief, getting out now simply relieves Iran of its obligations on the nuclear side of the deal.

So I think it was a mistake to withdraw from the deal at this point. And I do have those concerns, that there will be escalation if Iran decides to start up their program. I hope they don't.

BLITZER: The president says there will be severe consequences if Iran restarts its nuclear program. He used the word severe consequences.

What might those consequences be? What are the options if Iran does restart its program?

FLAKE: Well, I think we all know. We all -- the euphemism used is all options are on the table. And that always includes military options and diplomatic options, everything.

Obviously, we don't want to go there. Nobody wants to attack Iran, but we obviously can't have a bad actor like Iran on the world stage with nuclear weapons.

BLITZER: On another sensitive issue, I want to get your thoughts on this, Senator.

[18:15:02]

President Trump tweeted this earlier today -- quote -- "The fake news is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy and all things else, 91 percent of the network news about me is negative. Fake. Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?"

Is that appropriate, do you believe...

FLAKE: No, it's not.

BLITZER: ... to take away reporters' credentials if they write negative things about the president?

FLAKE: No, it's not.

That, I think -- we have a free press here, and we need to keep it. And I have been very troubled for awhile about the statements that the president makes calling fake things -- real things fake and fake things real.

And the way he refers to the press as the enemy of the people, that is a phrase without a noble pedigree. He ought to be more careful than that, particularly given what that does around the world, when tyrants around the world use those same words now. And you have, I think, 21 journalists around the world being held on false or fake news charges.

So that simply emboldens tyrants when we talk like that. And we ought to have more respect for the press than the president has shown.

BLITZER: Yes, well said. I agree.

Senator Flake, thanks so much for joining us.

FLAKE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead: The Justice Department agrees to brief top House Republicans on intelligence it says could risk lives if disclosed.

And we will talk about it with the former CIA Director Michael Hayden.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:05]

BLITZER: There are new developments tonight in a standoff between House Republicans and the Justice Department that raise the possibility of contempt charges against the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is working the story for us.

Manu, you are getting new information from your sources. What are you learning?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a development in these negotiations that have been going on since Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, warned very starkly that he could hold Jeff Sessions in contempt after the Justice Department said no to turning over documents in response to a subpoena that Nunes sent last week.

The Justice Department raising some serious concerns, even raising it to the White House, that disclosing some of this information could lead to -- quote -- "severe consequences" and potentially risk human lives.

Now, "The Washington Post" has reported that, as part of that request, it refers to a specific source of information. It's a source who actually may have shared some information with Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation.

But, nevertheless, Republicans are pushing back and saying they want this information. And in a development tonight, the Justice Department has agreed to a brief Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy, the Republican on that committee, to at least give them to some -- a classified briefing about this information that they have requested, that Nunes has requested.

Now, Wolf, after talking to a number of Republicans, they simply do not believe the Justice Department's warnings that this could actually lead to the loss of lives or this could actually endanger this individual source.

Republican Mike Conaway, who ran the Russia investigation, told me this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R), TEXAS: That's an easy thing to assert. But this -- to the extent that I know the people who they're talking about, I'm hard-pressed to understand who is threatening their life.

RAJU: So, you don't -- you think that they're overplaying their hand.

CONAWAY: I think there's certainly a possibility of it.

I would be open to evidence to the contrary. But you're always concerned about it, because that's an easy thing to assert. It sounds great. Something is going on, but I'm not convinced.

(CROSSTALK)

RAJU: Now, Wolf, Democrats believe this is all part of an effort to undercut the Justice Department, undercut Robert Mueller's investigation, and, if the Justice Department does not comply, to take steps to hold these senior officials in contempt, to give the president a pretext to dismissing them.

The Republicans say that's not their intention, this is simply oversight. But ultimate -- another question, Wolf, is later tomorrow, when these two men, Gowdy and Nunes, go over there, will the chairman actually read those documents?

We have reported that in response -- request documents in the past, Nunes has not read those documents, allowed Gowdy to read them, allowed his staff to read them, even as Nunes has come out afterwards to sharply criticize this investigation and sharply criticize what information they have turned over.

So we will see what happens tomorrow. And we will see this alleviates any of the concerns the Republicans have about this information and about what it may mean going forward -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, those Republicans are clearly at odds with the White House itself. The White House with Sessions, at least for now.

Manu Raju, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

The former CIA Director, CNN national security analyst General Michael Hayden is joining.

He has an important new book that's just been released. It's entitled "The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies."

General, thanks so much for joining us. I want to get your book in a few moments.

But what's your reaction to Manu's reporting? What are the risks to the source, the ongoing investigation if this information is made public?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, Wolf, I get the drama, because it's happening in a hyper-political context.

But, frankly, this a bit of an old movie. I experienced this myself when I was director. It's classic separation of power dynamics between the executive and the legislative branch, made more important, more dramatic today because of the topic area, the Russian investigation.

I'm a little surprised that the White House has sided with the Department of Justice. But I'm also pleased that we're going to go meet people halfway tomorrow, to have the meeting at Justice, brief people in camera, and begin to work on a way forward.

[18:25:12]

This is generally how these things are resolved.

BLITZER: Let me ask you about Gina Haspel, the nominee to become the next CIA director.

During her confirmation hearings today, she pledged not to restart enhanced interrogation or torture.

But listen to what the president used to say out on the campaign trail. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Torture works, OK, folks? Torture -- I have these guys, torture doesn't work. Believe me, it works, OK?

And water-boarding is your minor form. Some people say it's not actually torture. Let's assume it is. But they ask me the question, what do you think of water-boarding? Absolutely fine. But we should go much stronger than water-boarding. That's the way I feel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, I know you support Gina Haspel's nomination, General.

HAYDEN: Right.

BLITZER: But is there any evidence she would stand up to the president, President Trump, if he demanded to go -- quote -- "much stronger than water-boarding"?

HAYDEN: Oh, absolutely.

Look, Gina was very straight on this today. We're not going to do this. We did this in unique circumstances, under extremis, but we are not going to go back and do it, frankly, Wolf, not because it didn't work, not because she's repudiating what the agency has done in the past. What she's saying is, agency officers went out there to do it. They're thought the nation and the administration had their back. They didn't. They were exposed to great risk. And now she will not -- like any other director, will not sure people out there in harm's way.

And, frankly, let me say something that Gina would not. This is the last president I would expect to have our back to go out and do something edgy if things begin to unwind.

BLITZER: During the course of the confirmation hearing, in response to our questions from Senator Kamala Harris of California, Gina Haspel refused to say that if the enhanced interrogation program or the torture program back after 9/11 was immoral.

With hindsight, if she still won't say yes or no whether or not it was immoral then, can she, you believe, stand up to the president?

HAYDEN: Oh, absolutely.

And, look, Wolf, I have gotten that question too. And I have given the same answer that Gina did. I won't answer. What I usually say is that I thank God I didn't have to face the decision that George Tenet and others had to face in 2002 and 2003.

And then I usually add, they're a bunch of other people in the room who should be thanking God too that they didn't have to face that question.

This in no way undercuts Gina's commitment that neither she nor the agency are going back to this.

BLITZER: We saw a major development today, as you know, General, with the North Koreans releasing three American detainees. They're on their way home right now with the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

North Korea says that was in response to President Trump's specific requests. So, what does the Kim Jong-un regime, do you believe, want in return?

HAYDEN: Oh, I think it was an absolute essential for Kim to do this if he gets the meeting he desperately wants with the American president.

Now, look, there are a lot of issues bearing on this problem, Wolf, that won a major American concession is that we're giving Kim Jong-un a sense of equivalency to the president of the United States.

And that was never going to happen while he was holding Americans hostage. So I thought this was a given all along. And credit to the president and Secretary of State Pompeo for making it happen.

BLITZER: Let's turn to the president's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

President Trump says there will be -- quote -- "very severe consequences" if Iran restarts its nuclear program.

But are there good options for possible retaliation if that happens?

HAYDEN: Wolf, I have my questions about that.

We kind of jettisoned plan A yesterday. I don't -- I personally don't know what plan B is. And plan A took its strength out of the fact that we were unified with major European nations. And so until we reconstruct that unity, which we broke yesterday, I don't know that we can actually up the pain on Iran to a sufficient degree.

BLITZER: Your new book is entitled -- and let me get the title specifically -- "The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies."

Why do you -- what do you hope that people will take away from your new book?

HAYDEN: Wolf, I kind of describe our problem as a three-layer cake.

And the basic, biggest layer is us. It's our political dialogue. It's our drift to a post-truth culture, where we base decisions less on fact and evidence and more on feeling, preference, emotion, grievance, loyalty, tribe.

And now we have a president who recognized it, exploited that, and, frankly, I think makes it worse by some of the things he does and a lot of the things he says.

And the top layer are the Russians coming in and

[18:30:08] manipulating the two layers below. So to a fist order, this is less a book about the president, although I talk about him a lot, and more about us and how it is we treat one another in our political dialogue.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks so much, General, for writing this book and thanks so much for all your service. We really appreciate it.

HAYDEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the president's personal lawyer received more than a million dollars in payments from corporations, including one linked to a Russian billionaire. So what kind of sales pitch did Michael Cohen make to drum up that kind of business?

And three Americans released by North Korea. They're on their way home right now. Should President Trump get the credit? Can he build on that in a summit with Kim Jong-un? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:35:34] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We have breaking news coming into CNN. The Israeli military says Iranian forces on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights fired rockets at Israeli targets tonight.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you hearing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.

This happened a short time ago. Israeli defense forces confirming that they logged 20 missiles from Iranian Quds forces fired into Northern Israel into Golan Heights.

Go back a minute. Iranian Quds forces. That is critical here to what is happening. These are forces of the Iranian regime. They are the most militant forces of the Revolutionary Guard of Iran, which already is the most, shall we say, militant element of the Iranian forces.

So you have a good deal of concern emerging here. Twenty of their rockets fired into northern Israel. The Israeli defense system known as Iron Dome firing back. Israelis tonight warning they may take further action against Iran -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Barbara.

Oren Liebermann is in Jerusalem for us. What are you hearing from the Israelis, Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Wolf, I just got off a conference call with IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (UNINTELLIGIBLE). As Barbara just mentioned, more than 20 rockets fired. They will tell you that there are still explosions we hear in the distance. Whether that's more Iron Dome interceptions or rockets hitting the ground, we have yet to find out. But there is still explosions that we're hearing in the distance. At least a half a dozen or so in the last few minutes.

On top of that, we've heard drones flying all night, long before we got the heads up from the IDF that rockets had been fired at the Golan Heights. We've been hearing these drones, perhaps surveillance drones, flying over the area.

Let me reiterate, about an hour ago, the Israeli military says 20 rockets were fired at Golan Heights. Iron Dome intercepted a number of those. So far, the IDF, Israeli military, says damage is limited, and there has been no casualties. But that continues to point and that is obvious, again, Wolf, because these explosions in the distance. So whatever attack was coming seems to be ongoing at this point.

In terms of an Israeli military response, the IDF says they have responded but have not been more specific about the form of the response, number of strikes in that response, or the target to that response. That information will be coming at some point this evening.

But so far, as Barbara mentioned, and as we're hearing right now, more than 20 rockets have been fired from the Quds force, the militant section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, at Israel. A number of those rockets have been intercepted. And we continue to hear these explosions every few minutes or so. Perhaps Iron Dome interceptions of more rockets or more rockets themselves landing in Golan Heights. We'll get that information to you as soon as possible.

But whatever has started here about an hour ago continues at this point. Wolf, we'll get you more information as soon as we can.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Oren, I know you're -- I'm now told you're on the Golan Heights yourself. Usually, when Israel detects rockets coming in from across the border, sirens are going off, warning people to go into shelters. Has that happened based on what you've seen?

LIEBERMANN: There's been warning. Rockets have come over. We're used to having a red alert when the rockets are going off. We have gotten that alert. We spoke with the Israeli military, because they have not issued instructions to head to bomb shelters. But we know yesterday the Israeli military was on high alert, and bomb shelters were open.

In that sense, this is a response that Israel very much expected. It was also a reported strike near Damascus that Syria has attributed to the Israeli air force for the retaliation from not only from that recent strike but also from other recent strikes in Syria that Iran and Syria have blamed on Israel.

But to your last question, there has not yet, as far as we know, been instructions to head to bomb shelters at this point. Israeli military says that the damage is limited right now. There have been no casualties. But as I said, we continue to hear drones while we hear explosions. The attack may very well still be ongoing. The Israeli military will still have a continued response.

BLITZER: Barbara, yesterday you reported that Pentagon officials were deeply concerned that, as a result of the president's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Iranians could strike out against Israel. What else are you hearing about that?

STARR: Well, Wolf, you and I were talking about that just 24 hours ago, and we are 24 hours past President Trump opting out, if you will, of the Iranian agreement. Not a surprise to U.S. military intelligence that this has occurred.

[18:40:14] They have been watching this entire situation really around the clock for the last several days as there has been escalating rhetoric between Israel and Iran.

Hard to see this tonight as anything else than an episode of open conflict between the Israelis and Iranian regime. The Israelis, in fact, the IDF as part of their statement -- I want to read it to you -- said a short time ago, "The IDF views this event with great severity and remains prepared for a wide variety of scenarios."

This is the Iranians directly attacking Israeli territory. Expect to see an Israeli response. And in fact, earlier today, a U.S. defense official confirmed to me that last night airstrikes inside Syria that no one had claimed credit for were actually believed to be the work of Israeli forces as they once again went after Iranian weapons sites inside Syria. We have seen these Israeli strikes inside Syria. The Israelis are not publicly admitting them. But it is well understood that these airstrikes are being conducted by Israel to try and take out these Iranian weapons sites so they cannot attack inside Israel.

I think you better than anybody, Wolf, would know that the Israelis are not going to sit back after tonight's events. We should expect, by every measure, to see additional Israeli military action against the Iranians. And in the middle of all of this, the U.S. military extremely concerned about the escalation of a potential emerging conflict tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a deeply concerning development.

And Oren Liebermann, if you're still there with me, I know you're up on the Golan Heights. The -- you know the Israelis are going to respond and they're going to respond very severely to these Iranian rocket attacks. What else are you hearing?

LIEBERMANN: You're exactly right there, Wolf. The Israelis will absolutely respond. A (UNINTELLIGIBLE) critical strikes or not, Syria and Iran blame a number of strikes. About four or six strikes, at least, on the Israeli military, carrying out strikes on Syrian military bases that have Iranian forces.

At the very least, it seems clear that those are ones they'd want to strike (ph). Those that have Iranian forces in Syria. So those targets appear to be picked out. And we know, again, from the military, that the strikes, the response, that is, has begun at this point. And from indications we're seeing here, the response could continue.

We haven't heard an explosion since we got on the phone with you, but we heard before that. Minutes before that. We continue to hear drones flying throughout the area. Something we've heard all night.

But as Barbara pointed out, Israel has very much been expected a response, and it's not just in response to Trump pulling out of the Iran deal. That response was expected for a number of strikes in Syria that the Iranians and the Syrians pinned on Israel.

So this is something that was very much in the making, something that was very much expected. As for the targets that were struck, the hallmark of the strikes that we've seen have been Syrian military bases with an Iranian presence. Very much expected that would be the target. Again, whether it's just one military base or a number of them, that we'll see as we get more information from the Israeli military on where they -- where they've pinpointing their responses.

BLITZER: All right. Oren Liebermann up on the Golan Heights. Be careful up there.

And Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thanks to both of you. We're, of course, going to continue to follow these breaking developments out of the Golan Heights. But there's also other important news. There's breaking news in the

legal battle between President Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and the lawyer for the porn star Stormy Daniels.

Let's get some more from our specialists and our analysts. And Gloria Borger, I understand you have some new details on the Cohen legal strategy against Michael Avenatti. He's the lawyer for Stormy Daniels. What can you tell us?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Michael Cohen's attorneys are trying to block Michael Avenatti from his federal court case in Manhattan. They are saying he should not be allowed to represent Stormy Daniels in court, and they're accusing him of circulating false information about Cohen and private bank records about Cohen, because they are the information and bank records of people named Michael Cohen, Wolf, but who are not actually Michael Cohen.

And, you know, this filing really was their first response in reaction to Michael Avenatti this week dumping all the information out about -- about Michael Cohen's businesses. And they argue that Avenatti should not be allowed in court, because he did use bank records and information from, for example, a Michael Cohen who was a Canadian in Tanzania, and another Michael Cohen who is a resident in Israel.

And they further argue that this inspector general report that the Treasury Department is now saying that they're going to look into, is that where did they get these bank records from? Were these bank records obtained illegally?

[18:45:01] They are saying, OK, Michael Avenatti you have done things that should disqualify you from representing Stormy Daniels.

They are not saying the case ought to be thrown out. And, by the way, Wolf, they are also taking issue with the fact that Michael Cohen received money from this Russian oligarch. They're also denying that as well.

So, again, Wolf, this is their first response to what Michael Avenatti has been saying this week about their client Michael Cohen. And what they are saying to him is we will see you in court.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Susan Hennessey, what do you make of this?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. So, one of the questions from the very beginning since this was sort of made public was where exactly did Avenatti get these records? They haven't gone into discovery yet. We're seeing one of the perils if they were not certain this information was accurate and they published it, they would have a read problem on their hands.

BLITZER: You know, Michael Avenatti, the Stormy Daniels' attorney, just published this response on Twitter. Let me read it to our viewers.

Mr. Ryan's submission on behalf of Mr. Cohen is baseless, improper and sanctionable. They failed to address, let alone contradict 99 percent of the statements in what we released. Among other things, they effectively concede the receipt of the $500,000 from those with Russian ties.

Phil Mudd, what do you think about this?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think this is -- there's a legal issue that was discussed. I think there's another issue at play here and it's pretty straightforward. If you look at the past weeks including on this show, Michael Avenatti has drown drawn a lot of blood. He's playing a Trump game, as somebody in West Virginia said, he's more Trumpian than Trump.

He's playing this Trump game about working the media and staying one step ahead, laying out information strategically in some ways really well. Whether you like him or not, he's good at it.

I think this is the other side saying we can't stand anymore for him to be out in front of us attacking us every day including with this documentation.

This is game not only for the judge but for public diplomacy. The Cohen said is saying we got to strike back. We're losing too much ground of this guy Avenatti.

BLITZER: And Avenatti, David Swerdlick, he's clearly not backing down, not backing down at all. Where do you see all this heading?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Wolf, I wouldn't want to hazard a guess about where the judge in this case will rule on the motion by Michael Cohen's attorneys. But I agree with Phil that even if the attorneys are able to get Avenatti banned from representing Stormy Daniels in court, he's doing damage to Michael Cohen's side of the ledger outside of court, on TV, on social media and in terms of information coming out about this case in that statement you just read, that tweet from Avenatti, he is saying now, look, by the way they addressed him, they have essentially admitted that this money was given to Michael Cohen's account through Essential Consultants, whether or not they are admitting there was some tie to Russian oligarch, they are tacitly saying, yes, this money was coming in. That's according to Avenatti.

BLITZER: Yes, this story clearly escalating. Gloria, you have a quick point.

BORGER: Look, this is, you know, now, we're going to see this played out not in the court of public opinion but in court, because Cohen's attorneys are not commenting on the record. They're saying we want our -- we want this court filing to stand on its own.

And, you know, they are accusing Avenatti of passing on knowingly false information to the public about their client and they are saying that as a result of that, you should be disqualified, period, from representing your client Stormy Daniels. We'll have to see how the judge rules on this. What we do know is this is going to make this drag on a little bit longer. BLITZER: It certainly will. No end in sight.

All right, guys. Stick around.

Just ahead, there's new details emerging right now on the release of these three Americans held by North Korea. Tonight, the country says it was President Trump's personal request that made this happen.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:54:00] BLITZER: Live pictures from Anchorage, Alaska, where the plane carrying the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the three newly released detainees, American detainees released from North Korea. That plane has landed. It's refueling right now, eventually take off and head here towards Washington. So, those three detainees are now back on U.S. soil.

President Trump and the first lady, they'll be on hand in the early hour of tomorrow morning when the plane arrives at Joint Base Andrews right outside Washington, D.C.

Our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is joining us.

Michelle, North Korea now says Kim Jong-un freed these three men at the request of President Trump.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right. And, you know, this was a very secretive trip on the part of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This is the second time now he's been to North Korea in the last two months. He was only on the ground this time for 13 hours, but as we found out this morning in a presidential tweet, a tweet that was not expected here at the State Department, it was a success. Not only in setting up the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un, but in finally freeing these three detainees, all of whom have been held there for more than a year.

Pompeo said he didn't know if he would meet with Kim Jong-un until about an hour before it happened. They sat down for about 90 meetings. He said it was good meeting, it was productive, but there was still question as to what would happen with the detainees, because when Pompeo got back to his hotel, reporters asked him, you know, what about the Americans and he crossed his fingers.

Soon after that, though, North Korean officials said that this was really happening. Now, they landed in Alaska. You know, they don't have to agree to come back to Washington. Two have lived in Asia for a long time. They have family there, but whomever is on that plane, the president is excited about it. He's tweeting about it and he obviously hopes it will be as he described, quote, quite a scene -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. We'll be watching that as well. Look at those big smiles from Mike Pompeo and Kim Jong-un as they shook hands.

Michelle Kosinski, thank you very much. Other news, the president responding to negative news coverage of him

by questioning whether members in the news media should have their press credentials revoked. The president tweeted this earlier this morning, quote: The fake news is working overtime. Just reported that despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy and all things else, 91 percent of the network news about me is negative, fake. Why do they work so hard in working with the media -- why do we work so hard in working with the media when it's corrupt? Take away credentials? Close quote.

The White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about the president's threat. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The fact I'm standing here taking questions, the fact the president took questions from your colleagues just two hours ago demonstrates this White House's commitment to accessibility and providing information to the American public. At the same time, the press has a responsibility to put out accurate information.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's dig deeper right now with CNN senior media correspondent, the host of "RELIABLE SOURCES", Brian Stelter, and CNN political correspondent Sara Murray.

Brian, there's been an official response from the White House Correspondents Association. Tell our viewers what they're saying.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the association said that if the president were to follow through and try to revoke credentials, that would be a, quote, unconscionable assault on the First Amendment.

Now, look, I think we all know the president is venting here. He's bloviating. He's angry about the news coverage he'd seen, so he's complaining via Twitter. We've seen that before. We haven't seen him follow through on these kinds of threats.

But during the campaign, his campaign did revoke credentials from about eight different news outlets. The president said he wouldn't keep doing that if he were elected and so far, he hasn't. But obviously, this was concerning today for that reason.

The president continues when times are tough, when scandals are in the news, when controversies are surrounding his administration, he beats up on the press. And I think we're going to continue to see him try to do this in new ways, worse ways, as things get worse for him.

BLITZER: Sara, you covered candidate Donald Trump during the campaign. The Trump campaign did ban as we just noted, some news organizations from certain events. What was it like back then?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's certainly awkward for everyone's colleagues because, you know, there are journalists who are legitimately trying to do their jobs, the president then candidate Trump didn't like the coverage, and wouldn't allow them into events.

But I think, you know, it's a little disingenuous for Sarah Sanders to go out there and say that they're protecting the First Amendment just because she's answering questions.

You know, I traveled all around the country covering Donald Trump's presidential campaign where he would call out specific journalists, specific media outlets by name, and people would come up to the area, reporters were sitting. They would scream at them. They would call them names. They would swear at them.

And, you know, the campaign did nothing to discourage that and certainly we really haven't seen the president do anything to discourage that kind of behavior either.

BLITZER: You know, Brian, the president just moments ago tweeted this, and I'll put it on the screen. The failing "New York Times" criticized Secretary of State Pompeo for being AWOL, missing, when, in fact, he was flying to North Korea. Fake news. So bad.

What's your response to that?

STELTER: You know, "The New York Times" never actually said AWOL or missing. But FOXNews.com did. That's how they mischaracterized "The New York Times" story. So I think we're seeing another example of a story going from Fox to Sarah Sanders to President Trump. And, of course, it's like a game of telephone, it gets more confused every time.

The president did make a confusing comment earlier in the day that's been kind of missed. He said military pay hadn't risen in 10 years. This was first time in ten years soldiers were getting a raise. That's not true. They've gotten a raise every year.

Another example of the president misstating the facts but not correcting himself. At least news outlet, when they make a mistake, they admit to it. But instead, we're seeing military news outlets today having the success, hey, it seems like the president was confused about how much our service members are paid.

BLITZER: Yes, important point, indeed. Brian, thank you. Sara, thanks to you as well.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.