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THE SITUATION ROOM

Giuliani Leaves Law Firm, Gets Parting Shot on Hush Money; Trump Heads to Rally after Announcing North Korea Summit; VP Pence: It's Time For Mueller To Wrap It Up; Israel Strikes Iranian Targets In Syria After Rocket Attack; Trump: North Korea Summit Is Going To Be A Big Success". Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 10, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Denying knowledge. Rudy Giuliani denies that President Trump knew anything about Michael Cohen's efforts to sell access to the president. And Giuliani's now former law firm sharply rejects his defense of hush money payments.

[17:00:22] Ready to meet. President Trump welcomes home American prisoners freed by North Korea and announces a date and a place for his summit with the dictator, Kim Jong-un. But as he heads to a campaign rally, is the president celebrating too soon?

Making contact. Stormy Daniels' lawyer says right after the FBI raid on Michael Cohen, Cohen contacted the porn star's former lawyer. What was he looking for?

And firing missiles. Hours after President Trump withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal, Iranian forces attack Israeli positions and Israel unleashes punishing strikes at Iranian targets in Syria. Are they headed toward war?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. Rudy Giuliani stirs up more controversy, telling CNN that President Trump was not aware that the -- his private attorney, Michael Cohen, had been peddling access to the president. Giuliani's defense of secret hush-money payments leads to a parting shot from his law firm.

I'll speak with Congressman Eric Swalwell of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. And our correspondents and specialists, they're all standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with our chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this, so first of all, what did the president know about Michael Cohen's peddling efforts?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That is the big question, right, Wolf? Did the president know that his longtime fixer was effectively selling access to him? Rudy Giuliani told me the answer, according to the president is no. Giuliani told me that, as of this morning, he had only spoken to the president once about this when the story first came out about Cohen and that the president wasn't aware of that situation.

Giuliani also said that he would only get concerned if somebody says that all of this involves the president, and so far they're not saying that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Meanwhile, Giuliani, Dana, resigned from his law firm today, which he had taken a leave of absence from in order to help with the president's legal defense. What happened?

BASH: Well, Giuliani released a statement saying that he is permanently resigning from his firm because of the pressing demands of the Mueller investigation. But, Wolf, the firm, Greenberg Traurig, is making clear that his colleagues there weren't happy about Giuliani's remarks last week when he was talking about Michael Cohen and the payments to Stormy Daniels.

Giuliani said basically that the law firms do this all the time, without their clients knowing. Well, here's what a spokeswoman for the law firm said. She said, "We cannot speak for Mr. Giuliani with respect to what was intended by his remarks. Speaking for ourselves, we would condone payments of the nature alleged to have been made or otherwise without the knowledge and direction of a client."

BLITZER: Yes. Quite a little swipe from Greenberg Traurig, of a law firm, at Rudy Giuliani. What about what else are you learning, Dana, about the potential for President Trump's sitting down with Robert Mueller, the special counsel?

BASH: Well, Wolf, Giuliani told me today that President Trump's current legal team hasn't held a lengthy prep session with the president for a potential interview with special counsel Robert Mueller. He said, however, that they likely will. Why? Giuliani said, "You never know." He said it sharpens up all our answers then. Then we're not guessing about what the president knows.

But Wolf, Giuliani also told me that real negotiations with the Mueller team about a potential interview are not currently happening.

BLITZER: Great reporting, Dana. Thanks very much. Dana Bash with the very latest.

President Trump is on his way to a campaign event in Indiana this hour after welcoming home three American detainees freed by North Korea and announcing a date and a place for a summit with the dictator Kim Jong- un.

Let's go live to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's joining us from Elkhart, Indiana.

Jim, much bigger event now added to the president's schedule, what, a month from now?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And President Trump, he'll be taking a victory lap here in Indiana to celebrate the homecoming of the three American prisoners who arrived back in the U.S. overnight.

But the president is making it clear that was just the sneak preview before the main attraction. The date and location are set, as you said, for the president's summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. The president already has his eye on the ratings.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's the kind of winning President Trump promised, welcoming three American prisoners back from North Korea.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF HE UNITED STATES: He was nice in letting them go before the meeting. I mean, frankly, we didn't think this was going to happen.

ACOSTA: But now comes the big test: a face-to-face encounter with perhaps the most dangerous man on the planet. As the president tweeted, "The highly-anticipated meeting between Kim Jong-un and myself will take place in Singapore on June 12. We will both try to make it a very special moment for world peace."

Ever the showman, Mr. Trump made it clear even with freed American detainees, he's always thinking about the ratings.

TRUMP: It's very early in the morning. I think you probably broke the all-time in history television rating for 3 a.m. in the morning. That I would say.

ACOSTA: The question now is whether the president can convince the North Korean leader to denuclearize. Mr. Trump praised Kim Jong-un's treatment of the prisoners.

TRUMP: We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people. They are really three incredible people.

ACOSTA: Even though one of the detainees had to clarify.

KIM DONG-CHUL, RELEASED DETAINEE (through translator): We were treated in many different ways. For me, I had to do a lot of labor, but when I got sick, I was also treated by them.

ACOSTA: But for now, Americans like what they see, with more than half saying in a new CNN poll they approve of the president's handling of North Korea. And more than three years agree with the decision to meet with Kim Jong-un.

Still, critics in both parties worry the president isn't treating the North Korean dictator as the menace he is.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: It is so troubling to hear President Trump say that Kim Jong-un treated the Americans excellently. Kim Jong-un is a dictator.

ACOSTA: Arizona Senator Flake points to the death of American Otto Warmbier, who died after being imprisoned in North Korea.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I have been concerned about some of the rhetoric lately, calling him very honorable. Here's a guy who killed the last guy, Otto Warmbier, and has murdered some family members and a lot of people there. So I think we need to go in with our eyes wide open about what we're dealing with.

ACOSTA: Despite those concerns, there is cautious optimism that perhaps North Korea is ready for change.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Every time the North Koreans make agreements, they get sanctions relief, and then they break the agreement. So it's not time yet to pop the cork on this. On the other hand, I'm delighted that we're going to be entering into these negotiations; and maybe this time it will work.

ACOSTA: The next few weeks will be critical for the president, making plans for a Singapore summit as he weighs whether to agree to another crucial meeting with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Vice President Pence raised some eyebrows by urging Mueller to speed things up.

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We fully cooperated in it. And in the interest of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up, and I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for the summit, the president was talking to reporters before coming out here to Indiana. He said he thinks that the upcoming summit in Singapore will be a big success. And privately advisers, Wolf, saying that the White House is confident that the president will get what he wants, that the North Koreans will pledge to denuke, as Mr. Trump likes to put it.

The president feels he already has a foreign policy win under his belt. A moment he'll be soaking up at this rally here in Indiana later on this evening. A rally, I should say, that feels very much like a re-election campaign event. Over both of my shoulders, Wolf, are signs that say, "Promises Made And Promises Kept." And people in the crowd here are holding up signs that say, "Keep America Great." That is, of course, the re-election slogan for President Trump in 2020, Wolf, even though we're two and a half years from the 2020 election -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He's already got a campaign rally going. All right. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California. He's a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.

Congressman, thanks for joining us. Let's get to North Korea for a -- quickly. It looks like the president is making some significant progress in the run-up to his meeting with Kim Jong-un next month. Do you give him credit?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: I do. And I'm rooting him on, Wolf. You know, good work in getting these prisoners back to the United States. And, you know, I hope that he is able to prepare and understand, you know, what we want out of this and able to articulate what our objectives are to Kim Jong-un but also able to listen so that he can relay back to our policymakers what Kim Jong-un wants, how he sees North Korea's role in the world and what he is willing to do to denuclearize, so that we can verify and monitor that they are, indeed, doing this and not -- we are not just being punked by them.

BLITZER: Are you optimistic about next month's summit in Singapore?

SWALWELL: You know, Wolf, I am. We've been able to make a step here that we have not seen in the past. We have to be, you know, realistic. This is a regime that, in the past, has made promises like this and has failed to live up to them. But, you know, credit to where credit is due and I'm rooting for success here. But the president is going to have to do two things that he has not shown that he's been able to do, which is to prepare and listen. If he can do that, then it really puts the ball in the North Koreans' court, and we'll see how serious they are.

[17:10:10] BLITZER: Let's turn to another top story, Congressman. Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, says President Trump wasn't aware that Michael Cohen, the president's private lawyer for a long time, was trying to sell access to the president after the election through his company called Essential Consultants. That's the same company, by the way, that was used to pay off the porn star, Stormy Daniels. Do you think that's -- do you think that's true, that the president didn't know about these efforts to generate lots of money for Michael Cohen?

SWALWELL: The president has a crisis in credibility right now, Wolf. He had earlier asserted that he did not know about the other payoffs to Stormy Daniels, so it's hard to believe that he didn't know about Michael Cohen's arrangements. I would say that, because this involves the president's lawyer, he should open up the books. He should encourage Mr. Cohen to open up the books so we can see for ourselves and judge what the president knew.

BLITZER: Is this just another example, though, of the sort of influence peddling that happens all the time in Washington? Or do you have any evidence that there was something more corrupt here?

SWALWELL: It shouldn't happen. This is the type of behavior that candidate Trump promised he would get rid of that you wouldn't see, you know, pay-to-play, and this is exactly what we see.

And look, you know what, Wolf? We see this all over. We just saw Sheldon Adelson. He got a multimillion-dollar tax cut and then just dropped $30 million into the Republican campaign. So this type of stuff, I think both parties should unite. Put bills on the president's desk that gets rid of dirty maps and dirty money. He talked about wanting to clean this up, and I see it as an opportunity, if someone on his team was involved and he doesn't approve of it, let's find a way to get it out of Washington.

BLITZER: But just to be precise, there's nothing illegal about devoting so much money for campaign purposes or other purposes, right?

SWALWELL: Well, if Michael Cohen promised that he could provide access and that he could affect President Trump's decision making, then that would be illegal; but it's too early to tell. It smells and, again, this is a team that has shown to be shadowy operators in the way that they paid off Ms. Daniels, how closely they drew us to the Russians, and now what we're learning about Mr. Cohen.

So, you know, I now -- I would rather verify before I trust anything that comes from the president or his team.

BLITZER: The special counsel, Robert Mueller, has been digging into Cohen's company for months now, well before the Stormy Daniels story went public in January. How significant is this to the entire Russia investigation?

SWALWELL: Well, Special Counsel Mueller is doing what House Republicans were not willing to do in our Intelligence Committee investigation. He's being aggressive. He's not taking them at their word. He's conducting an MRI of the president's businesses, his campaign, and his family members.

And I think what he's going to find is what we found in the limited investigation that we had, which was deep personal, political and financial ties to the Russians.

And when I hear Vice President Pence say, "Wrap it up," you know, Wolf, they're still counting Russians. They still are encountering lies, and they've gotten guilty pleas for those lies, which takes the investigation much longer. And they still have a subject in the investigation, the president of the United States, who refuses to sit down for an investigation. So we can wrap it up when they count all the Russians, stop the lies and are able to get the president in the witness chair.

BLITZER: The chairman of your committee, Devin Nunes, he went over to the Department of Justice today for a classified briefing on the Russia probe. The top Democrat on your committee, Adam Schiff, he's scheduled to receive a separate briefing on that information from the Department of Justice.

All this comes after weeks of tension between Republicans and top Justice Department officials, including threats from Nunes to hold the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in contempt if he didn't turn over certain documents related to the Russia probe.

Was it the right call, do you believe, Congressman, for the Department of Justice to invite these lawmakers to this classified briefing today?

SWALWELL: Is they are inviting them to tell them, "We're not going to give you this information," yes, it's the right call. Because Wolf, they are only seeking to act at the president's fixers in Congress. We don't turn over the keys to the FBI evidence locker to subjects of

investigations. And we know that this information, just like the Republican memo earlier in our investigation, it goes right to the White House. And you never in an investigation want to show your evidence file or your evidence locker to subjects, because then they can tailor their testimony to you around what they already know, or they can cook up a story with other witnesses around what they believe you already know. You want to keep a close hold.

We should conduct oversight of the investigation but only once it's concluded. Not to meddle or obstruct an ongoing investigation.

BLITZER: So just to be precise, Congressman, before I let you go, are you suggesting that Devin Nunes is going to take the investigation he received today at the Department of Justice and head over to the White House and inform the White House what he learned?

SWALWELL: If past is prologue, yes.

[17:15:03] BLITZER: Congressman Eric Swalwell, thanks so much for joining us.

SWALWELL: My pleasure.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. Rudy Giuliani tells CNN that President Trump was not aware that Michael Cohen was peddling access to the president; and Giuliani gets a scolding over his defense of hush money payments from his now former law firm.

Plus, Israel launches widespread strikes at Iranian targets in Syria after its forces are attacked by Iranian rockets. Has President Trump's pullout from the Iran nuclear deal touched off, potentially, a brand-new conflict?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:03] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani now telling CNN the president was not aware his longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pitched his access to Mr. Trump to potential clients following the 2016 presidential election, landing very lucrative consulting deals as a result.

Let's bring in our experts and our analysts. And Susan Hennessey, let me start with you. Help us understand the legal implications, potentially, of everything here involving Michael Cohen and his LLC -- Essential Consultants it was called -- over the last two days. Is Cohen the only one facing, potentially, any legal jeopardy?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So sort of putting aside any connections, any possible Russia connections, we've seen a lot of evidence that Cohen was engaged in essentially selling access. Now, that's wrong. It's corrupt, but it's not necessarily illegal. It's not necessarily legal either. But we sort of -- we don't have enough information there yet. That said, you know, there are some indication that something fishy is

going on here. The amount of these payments -- $99,800 -- in the amounts, that's an indication that maybe it was structured to avoid financial reporting requirements, maybe things overseas. You know, and now we know that the Mueller team did reach out and interviewed -- interviewed some of these companies.

You know, that does raise the -- raise the question of whether or not these explanations they have offered the public, you know, essentially that Michael Cohen was a $1.2 million consultant that just didn't work out, whether or not those are the same explanations they offered Robert Mueller and whether or not those are going to hold up under scrutiny.

BLITZER: Are you suggesting, potentially, there's the issue of bank fraud?

HENNESSEY: Well, see, we don't know. A hundred thousand dollars isn't commonly a limit within the United States. There are some foreign -- foreign rules that set at that limit. It's just sort of -- it's an odd number, and considering the sort of widespread strangeness of this episode, it really does raise the question.

BLITZER: You know, Kaitlan, Rudy Giuliani says that President Trump didn't know Michael Cohen was pitching this kind of access. Do you think that defense, though, will hold up?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the president has a tendency of people putting their credibility on the line and then going back and contradicting what he's had them go in public and say.

We saw this with the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, who has been telling us for weeks that, according to what she said, the president had told her he didn't know about that payment to Stormy Daniels, and of course, we've now learned that not only did he know about it, he paid Michael Cohen back for it.

So there is certainly a chance that that could happen here with Rudy Giuliani, who said during a conversation with the president, the president said he did not know about this. That could be what the president told Rudy Giuliani, and that could not be an accurate reflection of the truth or it simply could. The president might not know.

But it would be highly suspicious, since he was so close to Michael Cohen. Surely, he know that, for years before he became president, Michael Cohen was using him as touting his access to Donald Trump. So it wouldn't be surprising if he did it and the president knew about it now, just because he was in office.

BLITZER: Chris Cillizza, did you find Rudy Giuliani's explanation to Dana Bash today plausible?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: It's basically the only explanation he can give, Wolf, without creating a -- he's been good at this -- but without creating a massive controversy.

If he said, "Yes, sure, the president knew that Michael Cohen was selling access to him during the presidential transition," I mean, I think you'd get into really problematic, certainly political waters. I always take Susan's advice on legal stuff, so murky legal waters, as well.

But I think Kaitlan is right, which is essentially, Trump has a broad -- let's say Trump has a broad understanding with Cohen: "I'll pay you a retainer. You solve problems for me. What do you get in return? That you can say you solve problems for me."

So, does that mean he knew what Cohen was doing as it related to the presidential transition? You know, I don't think Michael Cohen ever went to him on November 10, let's say, and said, "Here's the deal. I'm going to go to these companies. I'm going to say I'm really close to you and get as much money as I possibly can from them." I don't think that that happened. I don't think we're going to find a smoking gun like that.

But could there have been a sort of understanding between the two of them? Sure. I don't know how much that implicates Trump, other than sort of a broad knowledge of what Michael Cohen does and sort of what he's selling.

BLITZER: Sabrina Siddiqui, some argue that this is all simply par for the course in Washington, that these consultants, as they're called, sell their access all the time, sell their insight all the time. How do you see it?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, sure. Influence peddling has long been a part of Washington, but President Trump campaigned specifically on draining the swamp and doing away with the precise kind of behavior in which Michael Cohen appears to have engaged.

We know that, at a minimum, Michael Cohen was accepting millions from these companies in exchange for insight on how the Trump administration works. Whether or not he was able to sell direct access, we do not yet know. We don't have a full picture of the scale of Cohen's revenues.

So the question now is what, if anything, did President Trump know? When did he know it? And most importantly, did he personally benefit from any of the arrangements that Michael Cohen set up?

[17:25:08] BLITZER: Susan Hennessey, if Michael Cohen's taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a company, a foreign company like Korean Aerospace, isn't he supposed to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act with the Department of Justice?

HENNESSEY: So possibly. So the Foreign Agents Registration Act had been sort of viewed as dormant, something that the Department of Justice didn't often enforce. It's now resurgent. So Paul Manafort is being prosecuted for violations of FARA. That has a lot of people in Washington, D.C., who have sort of been lapse in their registration, a little bit careless, feeling very, very nervous that it now looks like the Department of Justice is going to start taking these things incredibly seriously.

BLITZER: As they should. And Susan, it originally appeared that President Trump's troubles with Stormy Daniels was separate from the Russia probe. But now we know that Robert Mueller was actually digging into Cohen's LLC months before the Stormy Daniels story actually broke in "The Wall Street Journal." How intertwined are these two narratives from a legal standpoint?

HENNESSEY: So it does appear that Michael Cohen was reusing these LLCs for multiple purposes. At least one of the companies, a pharmaceutical company that gave Michael Cohen $1.2 million. There are possible Russia ties there.

I think what this demonstrates is whenever you -- whenever you start investigating one crime, you never know where that's going to lead. And that's not evidence of Mueller being on a fishing expedition. That's evidence of potential widespread criminal exposure here. And so you start to get a picture of why exactly individuals so close to President Trump appear to be incredibly nervous about the possibility of Michael Cohen flipping.

BLITZER: Kaitlan, the president and his team sort of appear to be distancing themselves from Michael Cohen right now, but in the initial aftermath of the raid against Cohen, Trump was very public in his anger, declaring the attorney-client privilege was dead, calling the raid a disgraceful situation, a break-in. He used those words. What does that tell you?

COLLINS: Well, it's not that surprising that the White House is trying to put as much distance between themselves and Michael Cohen as possible, given everything that we've learned of what's going on with this investigation into his business dealings.

But the fact of the matter is, Michael Cohen is someone who has known the president for over a decade. We often see them together. He's often seen down at the president's Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. I know for a fact that I've seen him at the White House on a day that he had lunch with the first lady, Melania Trump. The president called him in the days after that raid to check in to see how everything was going.

So the White House can try if they want to put distance in between the president and Michael Cohen, but the people who cover the White House, like myself, know the fact of the matter, that we know just how close they are. We know how often we've seen them. We know that they speak frequently. So that's not that surprising.

But Rudy Giuliani did say that the president and Michael Cohen have not been communicating in the last few weeks.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's a lot more we're following. There's more breaking news right after this.

[17:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our experts, our reporters.

Kaitlan, for the first time, Vice President Mike Pence now says it's time for Robert Mueller to wrap up the entire Russia probe. Does this sound like the White House is coordinating to try to get Pence and President Trump on the same page and end this whole investigation?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, it's unsurprising that Mike Pence would want the Mueller investigation to come to an end because it's been consuming his boss for the last few months but I do think this is certainly something we're going to see asa we get closer and closer to that one-year anniversary of the appointment of the special counsel which I believe is in eight days or so. This is the messaging we're going to be coming -- seeing coming out of the White House and we're starting to see it even with Mike Pence who rarely comments on the Mueller investigation if at all. But now, they are starting to make this argument that with North Korea going on, the Iran deal, all of that on the foreign policy front, that the President just doesn't have the time to pay attention to the Mueller probe, to sit down for an interview with Mueller. You can look for more and more of that in the coming days, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Chris, here's what the conservative columnist George Will had to say about Mike Pence in a column for The Washington Post. And let me read a couple of sentences from the column. "Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic. Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying. What's your reaction to that?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: I'm glad he didn't write it about me. Look, I think that George Will represents sort of establishment conservatism for lack of a better word. George Will could well have been writing positive columns about Mike Pence, the Governor of Indiana had Mike Pence not taken the Vice Presidential job or had Donald Trump lost. I think what George Will is reacting to is what you would see a lot of establishment Republicans reacting to, this idea that Pence and Trump are not natural allies. Trump is a former Democrat, Pence is a long time lifelong conservative Republican. Pence spent 17 years in Congress and as governor in elected office, Donald Trump has not done that. Pence is in leadership in the House, Trump obviously not.

So, they're very different but what Pence has done I think is when he agreed to be Donald Trump's Vice President when Donald Trump won especially. He understood, he had gone in on a bargain, which is I am going to be the biggest defender of Donald Trump. There will never be any perceived or real space between myself and Donald Trump because my only path to the thing I want the most and that's to sit in Donald Trump's chair in the Oval Office eventually is through Donald Trump, is being seen as the heir to Donald Trump. So, I think Pence is fine taking the slings and arrows of establishment Republicans because he made that deal, that bargain, a while back.

[17:35:16] BLITZER: You know, Sabrina, when the Vice President talks about President Trump, he often uses a certain phrase. See if you can spot it. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'd like to say President Trump's got broad shoulders and a big heart.

To be around Donald Trump is to -- is to be around a man with broad shoulders.

I have faith in this President's broad shoulders and big heart.

This President has the kind of broad shoulders to be able to take it.

What the American people saw last night is the President that I serve with every day, broad shoulders, big heart.

Boundless energy and optimism, broad shoulders and a big heart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Well, he certainly thinks that the President has a big heart. Look, I think that a lot of these never-Trump conservatives such as George Will, he see Vice President Mike Pence as being one of Trump's biggest defenders. Of course, you'd expect that from his number two, but in turn, it appears that he is engaging in this tribalism in the sense of party over country. You have someone like Mike Pence who is a principled conservative. He long complained about the deficit and yet supported, of course, a tax bill that ballooned the deficit. He's really held up family values, he's willing to look the other way when it comes to the President's indiscretions and these payments to women. This is not the lone in receiving his criticism, House Speaker Paul Ryan has frequently asked, of course, to similarly reconcile what he says is republican orthodoxy with the Trump presidency. The different, of course, is as the Vice President, Mike Pence will own the Trump legacy, especially if he himself were to choose to run for President in the future.

BLITZER: Broad shoulders and big heart indeed. All right, guys, stick around. There's more news we're following. An update on the increasingly dangerous situation in the Middle East where Israel retaliated for a rocket attack on the Golan Heights (INAUDIBLE) multiple Iranian targets inside Syria.

[17:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just hours after President Trump announced to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the lid came off in the Middle East. The Israeli military said it hit dozens of sites linked to Iranian forces in Syria after more than 20 rockets were fired in Israeli positions in the Golan Heights. The Israel blames that attack on a branch of Iran's revolutionary guard and warns Iran that it has crossed a red line. CNN's Fred Pleitgen is joining us from Tehran. Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon, but let's go over to Oren Liebermann first. He's joining us from the Golan Heights. Oren, first to you, what's the latest?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, remember, Wolf, it's almost exactly 24 hours since this all started and escalated so rapidly but such a sharp stark juxtaposition between what we're seeing here behind me. It's almost bizarre level of quiet and what we saw last night. It was just past midnight when Israel sent 20 rockets fired by Iranian forces in Syria were targeted at Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights. We were standing in almost this exact spot when we saw the response. Surface to surface missiles, artillery fire, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft fire. That, over the course of several hours over night has since dissipated and the story has shifted to the international community. No surprise, the U.S. very much siding with Israel, defending Israel rights -- Israel's right to defend itself, and condemning Iran.

Meanwhile, Russia, the E.U., and other countries trying to dissipate the tension that soared so quickly here to bring about a de- escalation. It is quiet right now here behind me, but as I pointed out, this is less than 24 hours since this all began. It is far too early, Wolf, to say that this is over yet.

BLITZER: Let's go to Fred Pleitgen in Tehran right now. Stand by. What are you hearing over there, Fred?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, obviously, there's a huge potential, Wolf, for all of this to escalate and get out of control very, very quickly. And I can tell you there's a lot of people here in Tehran who are extremely concerned about the current situation, not only that their country is becoming more and more isolated after the U.S. left the nuclear agreement but now that potentially their country could also be involved in a war in the greater Middle East. It's interesting because officially there has been no statement whatsoever from the Iranian government or from the Iranian military. And Wolf, there were people from the IRGC, from the revolutionary guard corps generals who had public speaking engagements today and did not talk about what was going on in the Golan Heights last night. T

he only thing coming even close to something like a public acknowledgment was President Hassan Rouhani earlier today on a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Iran does not want a bigger escalation in the region, meaning of course, the greater Middle East. It's unclear whether he was only talking about the U.S. exiting a nuclear agreement or if he was also talking about what was going on in the Golan Heights. But again, a lot of concern with a lot of people, especially ordinary Iranians who are already feeling the pinch after the U.S. left the nuclear agreement, now very concerned that things could get even worse for their country if they involved in a larger conflict with Israel in that other part of the world, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Fred, standby over there in Tehran. Barbara Starr, you're at the Pentagon. What's the U.S. military posture looking like tonight?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Watching by the minute, Wolf, the Golan Heights and the region for what exactly what Oren and Fred were talking about, further escalation. Last night, it is now very clear the U.S. had a very good idea ahead of time what was happening by the time the Israelis launched their military response, the U.S. was aware it was Israeli aircraft in the air.

[17:45:06] One of the things that is being pointed out to us, is this was a very carefully orchestrated attack and counterattack if you will on both sides by all accounts the Iranians were targeting Israeli military positions, not at the Israeli civilian population in the Golan, and in return, the Israelis were targeting Iranian military sites back in Syria, not Syrian civilians. But that is a big concern. While it, you know, may have calmed down since last night, if this flares up again and there is any kind of miscalculation, if a missile goes astray, if civilians are hit, there will be instant, massive concern about that very potential of escalation. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. This situation could clearly still escalate dramatically. Barbara Starr, thanks very much. Fred Pleitgen, Oren Liebermann, thanks to you guys as well.

Coming up, President Trump's remarkable transformation in less than 12 months he's gone from threatening Kim Jong-un with fire and fury to calling him nice for freeing three detained Americans.

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[17:50:48] BLITZER: A short time ago, as he boarded Air Force One for a rally tonight in Indiana, President Trump predicted his upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un as "going to be a big success." Less than a year ago, the President was threatening the North Korean leader with fire and fury. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us. Brian, it's a fascinating transformation.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Wolf. Now, there's no doubt the President has scored a victory with the release of the detainees but his change in rhetoric toward Kim in recent months has been drastic. And tonight, veteran diplomats and former officials are warning of the dangers of being too flattering of Kim Jong-un.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think you probably broke the all-time in history television ratings for 3:00 in the morning.

TODD: A victory lap on the tarmac, standing next to three American detainees just released from North Korea. The President gushes over the dictator who imprisoned them.

TRUMP: We want to thank Kim Jong-un who really was excellent to these three incredible people.

TODD: The so-called excellent treatment of one detainee, Kim Dong- chul, involved over two years in a North Korean labor camp. President Trump's critics are pouncing.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: He weakens American foreign policy and puts Americans at risk around the world. If other of our -- if our adversaries look at what the President has said in reaction to Kim Jong-un, why shouldn't they detain American citizens and get a huge pat on the back when they release them?

TODD: Analysts say the excellent comment must be especially stinging to the family of Otto Warmbier, the American student who fell into a coma in North Korean custody and died shortly after being released. Warmbier's family hasn't commented on the President's remark. Tonight, experts are also warning of the dangers of Trump flattering Kim too much ahead of their summit in June.

KELLY MAGSAMEN, VICE PRESIDENT FOR NATIONAL SECURITY AND INTERNATIONAL POLICY, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I do worry that Donald Trump is heading into the summit with very high expectations of what Kim Jong- un is going to deliver because after a summit if it's not successful, you don't have a lot of places to go.

TODD: This also illustrates Trump's remarkable transformation on Kim Jong-un over the past couple of years, from calling him short and fat and other insults.

TRUMP: You have this maniac sitting there. Little Rocket Man. He is a sick puppy.

TODD: To his recent adulation of the North Korean leader.

TRUMP: He really has been very open and I think very honorable. He was nice in letting them go before the meeting. I mean --

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, AUTHOR, "THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP": I think it is true that the President will take on whatever shape or color is necessary in order to claim a win for himself. And he did it in private life when he talked about his popularity, his ratings on T.V., his building projects. But as President, we've seen that he's willing to declare victory in almost any circumstance.

TODD: A risky proclivity analysts say when the stakes are so high. Biographer Michael D'Antonio says Trump's desire for a win at all cost and the pressures of the job have led him to some legitimate accomplishments as President. But D'Antonio says aides to Trump and Kim will have to sift through a tsunami of strange compliments to get something done at the summit.

D'ANTONIO: The negotiations between Kim and Trump will be a dance of narcissism, so you're going to see Kim trying to exploit the President's ego and I would imagine that the President is going to do the same with Kim.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Tonight, experts are also warning about what could happen if the summit does not go well or later if a deal is reached and North Korea doesn't live up to it. They're concerned that President Trump's whipsaw emotional nature will lead him to get angry to get back on the path of possible confrontation with North Korea and maybe consider a military strike, Wolf? BLITZER: You know, Brian, there have been some signs in recent days of just how tough it's going to be for President Trump to get a strong deal on denuclearization with the North Koreans, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. China's news agency says that during his recent trip to China just this week, Kim Jong-un said the Korean Peninsula could be denuclearized if the U.S. and South Korea were ready to "take synchronous measures for the realization of peace." Well, experts are now interpreting those comments as a sign that Kim is going to demand huge concessions for giving up his nuclear arsenal, including possibly some things which President Trump and the Americans are just not going to be prepared to give up.

[17:55:17] BLITZER: We'll see what happens in that summit a month from now. Brian Todd, thanks very much. Coming up, breaking news, Rudy Giuliani denies that President Trump knew anything about Michael Cohen's efforts to sell access to the President. And Giuliani's now former law firm sharply rejects Giuliani's defense of hush money payments.

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BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, ready to resign? A new report tonight says the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen came close to quitting her job yesterday after President Trump lashed out at her over border security in front of his --