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Protestor Climbs Statue of Liberty; Couple Poisoned with Nerve Agent in England; Trump to Announce Supreme Court Pick Monday. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired July 4, 2018 - 17:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The question is what happened between now and then led them to this conclusion?

[17:00:06] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Well, there are traces on these materials. We're going to continue to follow the story. That is "THE LEAD" for today. I turn you over to Jim Acosta, who is in for Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Liberty protest. A protester climbs the Statue of Liberty and forces the evacuation of Liberty Island just hours before the Fourth of July celebration is set to begin. Right now, she's in a stand-off with New York police.

Tipping point. EPA chief Scott Pruitt's growing list of controversies is inching forward to the tipping point, a senior administration official tells me, with at least 14 federal investigations now targeting Pruitt. Will President Trump follow through on his pledge to drain the swamp and let Pruitt go?

Supreme choice. President Trump can finalize the choice. He narrows the list of candidates to sit on the nation's highest court.

And no labels? Michael Cohen changes the Twitter bio, dropping a reference to being the personal attorney to President Trump after years of defending Mr. Trump and even saying he would take a bullet for him. Is Cohen's latest move a sign he might cooperate with investigators?

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Jim Acosta, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And this is a SITUATION ROOM Special Report. We're following breaking news. The Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island evacuated just hours before the Fourth of July celebration because of a protester who's climbed onto the statue and refuses to get down.

We'll talk about that and more with Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents, specialists and analysts, they're also standing by.

But first, let's get more on the breaking news out of New York. CNN national correspondent Brynn Gingras is in New York working the story for us. Brynn, this looks like a very dangerous situation unfolding up there on the Statue of Liberty, at least for this one protester.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jim. I mean, this is a protester standing her ground and being daring at the same time. We've seen her sort of walking back and forth around the foot of the Statue of Liberty there, which we estimate is about 150 feet above the water.

And, as you're looking at live pictures over the harbor there, you can see three NYPD officers. Those are emergency service unit officers, highly trained, highly skilled officers that really do multiple practices. We've been on some of them with them, for these type of situations.

They are on a ladder and also connected to each other through harnesses. And what they're doing right now is trying to deescalate the situation, trying to talk to this protester to try to get her to come closer to them so they could put a harness on her and safely get her down.

We know that this call came in about a protest at about 3:15 this afternoon. So the standoff going on almost two hours now. It was a total of eight protesters who, at one point, they weren't that high up. They were further down, where you're seeing those other people standing, and they were holding a sign that said, "Abolish ICE."

Police were able to put seven of them under arrest, but then this eighth person climbed to the foot of the Statue of Liberty there, where you're seeing her continue to be in a standoff.

We also know that NYPD's hostage negotiation team, they are en route. They should be almost there at this point to assist these ESU officers. And what they're doing, even as we speak, is trying to get sort of background on these protesters, background on this person so that when they can get there, they can be in the ear of one of those officers who's having direct communications with this protester.

We've seen the officers hand her a bottle of water, because you can imagine how hot it is right now. But they're continuing their communications, trying to get her to just at least get closer to them. And they're, again, connected to each other through a rope unit, as we've learned through a source.

At this point, Jim, Liberty Island shut down, evacuated, which is another just unfathomable thing at this point on July fourth. You can imagine how busy that island is to -- for tourists and others to see the Statue of Liberty on Independence Day. But this is something we're continuing to follow as we hope to see a safe rescue here of this protester.

ACOSTA: OK, CNN's Brynn Gingras.

We always like to look at the Statue of Liberty on Fourth of July but not like this. Thank you. Keep us updated on how that is developing out there. Let's get more on the breaking news with CNN's counterterrorism

analyst and former CIA counterterrorism official, Phil Mudd, and CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez.

Evan and Phil, obviously, I mean, this looks like a protester who has some sort of issue with the president's immigration policies. This person apparently was carrying an "Abolish ICE" T-shirt. But obviously, in a situation like this, Evan, they can't take any chances, and they have to respond to this as if this could be potentially an emergency, a dangerous situation for people out there on the Fourth of July.

[17:05:09] EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. They have to treat it as if it is a threat, something that could cause harm not only to the person who's up there but, you know, to anybody else. And look, I mean, those police officers who are having to climb up there are putting themselves also in danger just to try to bring this person down.

I assume that this is part of a larger protest. And it's not only an inconvenience to all the people, the thousands of people who go there on the Fourth of July to celebrate the holiday. But also, now, you know, you have to wonder whether you have people who are going to do copycat things at other big locations in New York or elsewhere around the country. I mean, this is he type of thing that happens, and it inspires other people to do equally stupid things. And this is -- this is stupid.

ACOSTA: We don't want that. And Phil Mudd, I mean, obviously, this person, it appears this person has some sort of issue with the president's immigration policy, with the abolish ICE T-shirt. And you don't want to discourage people from expressing their point of view, but this is obviously not the way to do it.

What do you do, given your experience in handling protests and potentially, you know, situations where you have protesters who could pose a threat? How do you handle situations like this? Do you try to allow the person to get their point across? I mean, the Statue of Liberty is symbol to the world that we welcome all immigrants into this country, or at least it used to -- it used to mean that. Do you let these folks get their point across and then bring them down? What do you do?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, in this case, you've got to build empathy with the individual.

In terms of our -- the views of the people in NYPD, I can guess what they're saying. "Excuse me, you just put our officers at risk and destroyed a day for thousands of people and their children. This person needs to spend some time in jail."

But in terms of the conversation with the individual, I can assume that they're building empathy with them.

We have another clue, I think, that's really significant, Jim. And that is they talk about another seven people who were involved this protest. They're offering a couple of things now. No. 1, did they bring anything on that island to suggest it's more than a protest? A backpack you can't explain.

The second is I want identities, because I want to look at things, if I'm an investigator, like their social media profile. Is this it? Or as Evan is suggesting, are there other protests to follow that might be copycat or inspired by this group? I want to make sure this is the end when this person gets off.

ACOSTA: And Evan, what do you make of the timing of this protest? Obviously on the Fourth of July, this is just a huge mess for the NYPD. They're already on patrol for potentially any kind of threats that may be developing on one of our most important holidays of the year.

PEREZ: Right. I mean, look, this is -- obviously, NYPD has a lot of people who are professionals and who are going to be able to protect the city on a day like this. But it really does, you know, sap the resources of these people who are there, again, to protect the city.

There are millions of people who are going to be lining the shores, different parts of the city to celebrate this day and to watch the fireworks celebration later in the evening. And so that's what the focus of the protection detail that they have, the -- all the plans that NYPD had made. Certainly, was not made for this.

But clearly, these people wanted to try to get some attention, and apparently, their -- their protest has to do with the immigration policies, and they want to abolish ICE. It's -- you know, they've gotten their point across, it appears.

But after this, I mean, I think the problem for the NYPD is that they now how to be careful that other people aren't going to try to do other things to try to disrupt.

But I think they'd rather deal with this than, say, something that is, you know, a danger to some of the public that's out there waiting for the celebrations later tonight. But this is really -- I mean, those officers are in danger. I mean, that's not a good way for anybody to be spending the -- this evening.

ACOSTA: And the intense heat there in New York City is -- is something that is going to be, you know, a big problem. For the officers.

PEREZ: They're 150 feet up.


PEREZ: That's a long way to fall.

ACOSTA: It's certainly a dangerous situation for those officers. Well, we hope for the best of them and we don't want to dismiss the concerns of these protesters and people who feel passionately about this immigration issue.

PEREZ: But it almost distracts from that. I mean, Jim --

ACOSTA: It does, it does.

PEREZ: I think it makes -- makes their point actually be diminished by the fact that people are trying to --

ACOSTA: Well, certainly -- it certainly could be taken by opponents of this message and supporters of the president's immigration policy, you know, this could be seized upon as something, "Well, here you go. Here are these protesters. They shouldn't be taken seriously."

But it is a magnificent sight to see the Statue of Liberty there in the New York harbor on the Fourth of July. Hopefully, this will be resolved quickly.

Stand by, gentlemen. We have some other breaking news developing right now. Over in the U.K., there's more breaking news at this hour. Britain's -- and this just came in -- top counterterrorism official has just said that two people found unconscious were exposed to the same nerve agent -- the same nerve agent -- used in an attack on a former Russian spy in March.

Let's go to CNN international correspondent Erin McLaughlin, who is in Amesbury, England, for us.

Erin, this is a very interesting development in that investigation. What are you picking up there?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a shocking development, Jim. Just a short while ago, we heard for the -- from the assistant commissioner for Scotland Yard's counterterrorism unit, which is now at the helm of this investigation. Neil Basu confirmed what people here, perhaps, feared most, that this was the result of some type of an exposure -- it's unclear how -- to nerve agent Novichok, which was used some four months ago against an ex-Russian spy and his daughter.

Take a listen to what Neil Basu had to say just a short while ago.


NEIL BASU, ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER FOR SCOTLAND YARD'S COUNTERTERRORISM UNIT: We confirm that the man and woman have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, which has been identified as the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal.


MCLAUGHLIN: Now, the key question is how did this happen? How did this couple, British couple, in their 40s, identified by the media as 45-year-old Charlie Rowley and 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess, come into contact with this weapons-grade nerve agent? And authorities right now don't have the answer to that. It's the source of a furious investigation that's ongoing now in Amesbury, as well as nearby Salisbury, which is about nine miles away. What authorities have established, though, is a timeline of sorts of events. We know that on Friday evening, according to a friend of theirs, they were actually in Salisbury, walking around the sights. We know that Dawn Sturgess fell ill that Saturday morning. Charlie -- Charlie Rowley, rather, fell ill later in the afternoon. And at that point, authorities thought this could possibly be drug related, some sort of contaminated batch of cocaine or heroin. That was their working assumption.

But as the symptoms progressed on this couple, they then started to look at the possibility that this was Novichok exposure and have confirmed that today, Jim.

ACOSTA: OK. CNN's Erin McLaughlin. Thank you very much for following that. So very big breaking news happening over.

Phil Mudd, I want to ask you about this, the fact that they found this Novichok nerve agent, the same agent that was used against the ex- Russian spy, an attack that we believe was essentially conducted by the Kremlin, ordered by the Kremlin, what does that say to you? Is it -- is it possible that this is just a residual effect of that initial attack? We heard Erin McLaughlin saying that these folks who were -- who were exposed may have been walking around that same area. Or is this possibly another attack that the authorities over there have to worry about?

MUDD: My first question is the one you're posing. You need a biochemist here to figure out what is the life span of that nerve agent, and can it have lived in the streets of the U.K. for whatever it's been, since March now, to have affected these individuals?

Either way, if you're in the U.K., and if you're in the U.K. leadership, you're looking at a president of the United States going to talk to Vladimir Putin in a week and a half, and I think you're stepping back, saying if this was a residual attack or if it was a new attack, is the president of the United States, as someone that represents the country that used to be the leader of NATO, going to raise this with Vladimir Putin, in addition to meddling in American elections, and say, "What are you doing in Europe? How can we build a relationship with you if this is the kind of thing that you're doing in European countries?"

BLITZER: All right. Well, stand by. We're going to bring in Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is standing by. He is a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, we have to go to the breaking news out of the U.K. this evening. Apparently, we're hearing from British counterterrorism officials that these two people were exposed to the same nerve agent that was used in that attack on the former Russian spy.

Can we -- what does it say to you at this point? What are you thinking about as this information is coming in?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Well, Jim, obviously, this is just breaking. I think we have to learn a lot more. But obviously, it's very disturbing. And I think, as your last guest just said, I mean, we have to be able to determine whether or not this was residue that remained there that could have caused this. Was it a new attack?

But as we all know, the president's about to meet with Vladimir Putin. And there are a lot of us who are very concerned about that conversation, because Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have done everything to undermine western democracies, to undermine the functioning of NATO, to attack the American presidential election. And this is an opportunity for the president, if he uses it, to make it very clear that the United States is going to stand up to that.

I don't have a lot of confidence he's going to do that, because he hasn't taken any of this very seriously. But hopefully, this will be on the list of things that the president will raise when he meets with Vladimir Putin.

ACOSTA: And are you concerned that the president has been a little too conciliatory in his rhetoric going into this summit with Vladimir Putin? Just the other day, he was tweeting that Russia says they had nothing to do with meddling in 2016.

And now we have the president. He needs to confront Vladimir Putin, not only on that, obviously, but also, on what may be either another attack in the U.K. or at least the residual effect of an attack early -- earlier on, that is obviously a major concern for the NATO allies that the president also has to meet with?

CICILLINE: Yes, absolutely. Well, first of all, the president hasn't been too conciliatory going into the summit. He's been too conciliatory since the very beginning.

We just saw the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a Republican-led committee, a bipartisan report, confirmed again the conclusion of our intelligence agencies that Vladimir Putin led an effort to interfere with the American presidential election. He did that for the express purpose of helping Donald Trump and undermining the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

And despite that report just being released, the president again tweets this statement where he seems to accept the denial from Vladimir Putin. He's tried in every way to diminish the seriousness of this investigation, has not in any condemned Russia for doing this. And all indications are they're up to it again, that they're -- they're engaged in activities to try to interfere with the upcoming election. And we need a president who's going to make it very clear that that is not acceptable.

The American people will decide who will represent them and not any foreign adversary of the United States.

So I'm very concerned that the president's going to go into the summit and do what he did in North Korea. Not have anybody in the room and make a concession. He did that in North Korea, and he just said, "We'll agree to cancel our military exercises with the South Koreans." That apparently happened in that first hour that they were together without any staff.

And I'm fearful he's going to go in just with Putin alone, make some concession like lifting sanctions or some other terrible action, really, that doesn't advance the national security interests of the United States and really undermines the North Atlantic alliance.

ACOSTA: And let me ask you this. Do you worry that something like this, what has happened over in the U.K. could happen here in the United States?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, I think we have extraordinarily talented and sophisticated and dedicated intelligence agents and law enforcement agents that work every day and do all they can to keep us safe.

But we've had acts of terrorism in our own country; we're not immune from it. Part of that relies on cooperations with -- cooperation of other countries; and so those alliances and partnerships and working relationships really matter. Which is why when the president undermines those, it doesn't advance our own interests.

But I think we all have to -- you know, this is -- we're not immune from that, which is why we need a president who's going to stand up to a thug like Vladimir Putin and make it clear that this sort of behavior is not something the United States will tolerate, and his annexing of another part of a country is something we'll not tolerate, and most of all interfering with the American presidential election is something we won't tolerate.

ACOSTA: And speaking of the summit, there won't be any notetakers or witnesses at their initial meeting. There won't be any official record. Just the president, just Putin, their translators and so on. What concerns does that raise for you?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, look, this is a president who has found the opportunity, every chance he can, to attack and undermine our longest standing allies. The French, the British, the Canadians. But can't manage to find a single negative thing to say about Vladimir Putin. Said he should be back in the G-7. Said that he believes him when he says he didn't interfere with our presidential elections. Says maybe Crimea should be -- belongs to Russia because they speak Russian.

So there's a lot of reason to be worried about the president's desperate interest in being somehow fawning all over Vladimir Putin and doing everything he can to curry favor with him. Leaving him alone in a room with him is something I think should concern everyone. Both because we want to know what happens in that room but also because we don't want to make any concessions. He's already agreed to meet with him without getting anything for it.

So I think this is a president who's interested in the kind of theater, the sort of reality TV diplomacy, the big shot. You know, the big television spot. But the substance of it is often absent. And so I'm very concerned about the summit from the very beginning but particularly concerned about them meeting alone without notetakers and translators.

ACOSTA: All right. Congressman David Cicilline, thanks for joining us.

CICILLINE: Jim, one last thing!

ACOSTA: Yes, sir.

CICILLINE: Jim, one more thing.

ACOSTA: Please do.

CICILLINE: Fourth of July, Bristol, Rhode Island, the oldest Fourth of July parade in America. We had it today. Began in 1785. Statue of Liberty is beautiful, but the Bristol parade is historic.

ACOSTA: All right. And that is worth an additional mention. Thank you very much for mentioning that.

CICILLINE: Thank you.

ACOSTA: And happy Fourth of July to you and everybody back in Rhode Island.

CICILLINE: Same to you.

ACOSTA: We appreciate you tuning in and joining us today, sir. Thank you.

We continue following the breaking news. We want to go back to those live pictures in New York City. Take a look at this. This has been happening for the last couple of hours.

[17:20:05] A protester in a standoff with police after climbing onto the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty, always an amazing sight, especially on the Fourth of July, but the NYPD having to do some very difficult and dangerous work, trying to get this situation resolved.

We're going to keep you on top of that. Stick with us. We'll have more on all this and all the other breaking news happening right now when we come back.


ACOSTA: And the breaking news this hour. A protester who's climbed the Statue of Liberty in a standoff with police, prompting the evacuation of the Statue of Liberty Island, and Liberty Island on this Fourth of July. You're seeing live pictures right now of the NYPD trying to resolve the situation. We're going to have more on this in a moment.

But first, new details about President Trump's Supreme Court pick. Sources are telling CNN a final decision on a nominee will likely be made Thursday or Friday. That is just coming up in a day or two from now.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny has more on this.

Jeff, president's aides trying very hard to keep all of this under wraps until Monday's announcement. Isn't that right?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They are indeed, Jim. And in this leak-prone White House, we'll see how well that works.

But I am told the president is likely to have his final decision by tomorrow or Friday. But there is still going to be a finalist list of maybe two or three people, and the war room here at the White House is going to prepare for all of those. No one will know the actual decision except the president himself.

[17:25:11] But we're learning on a variety of fronts this is moving very quickly. I learned tonight that Vice President Mike Pence has also met with more than one contender for this.

All of this happening only one week after Justice Anthony Kennedy retired.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump is only hours away from finalizing his choice for the Supreme Court.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've spent the last three days interviewing and thinking about Supreme Court justices, such an important decision.

ZELENY: Tonight, CNN has learned the president is poised to make his decision Thursday or Friday. The pick will be a highly-guarded secret until an announcement Monday, with the name included on a list with one or two other finalists, so aides in a new White House war room can spend the weekend gearing up for the confirmation fight.

The president leaving the White House on this federal holiday today, spending four hours at his golf club in Sterling, Virginia, but taking calls along the way.

At times this week, the president sounding like his mind is already made up.

TRUMP: I think you'll be very impressed. These are very talented people. Brilliant people, and I think you're going to really love it. Like Justice Gorsuch. We -- we hit a home run there, and we're going to hit a home run here.

ZELENY: To replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the White House is following a similar roll-out used for Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first nominee to the Supreme Court.

TRUMP: Please, Louise, judge. Here they come. Here they come.

ZELENY: But the question is whether his second nominee will follow in the same ideological mode. The president has interviewed at least seven potential justices, including these federal judges thought to be leading contenders: Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, both of whom clerked for Justice Kennedy. And Amy Coney Barrett and Joan Larson, who clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The president is also said to be considering Amul Thapar and Thomas Hardiman, who was runner-up to Gorsuch.

All candidates are in their 40s or low 50s, a sign the president is intent on leaving a long and lasting legacy.

TRUMP: We have to pick a great one. We have to pick one that's going to be there for 40 years, 45 years.

ZELENY: Tonight, the president is also facing another decision: how long to keep embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in his cabinet.

TRUMP: I'm not happy about certain things.

SCOTT PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Scott Pruitt, administrator of the EPA.

ZELENY: For months, the president has kept Pruitt on the job, despite more than a dozen investigations and far more controversies over his ethical conduct. But one administration official telling CNN the White House is reaching a tipping point on Pruitt.

All this as new details are emerging about the president openly considering invading Venezuela during a meeting last August on diplomatic sanctions to the country. Aides urged him against using military force, fearing it would backfire on the U.S., but a day later the president publicly suggested he was still considering it.

TRUMP: We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option.

ZELENY: Tonight, one senior administration official telling CNN the president was simply thinking out loud about using force.


ZELENY: Now Jim, the president spent about four hours today at his golf course in Sterling, Virginia, just outside Washington. Returned to the White House a short time ago and is already on the South Lawn of the White House for that Fourth of July picnic.

Interestingly, several members of the cabinet are there. Guess who's there? Scott Pruitt. The president just introduced him a few moments ago, so at least for now, Jim, it seems like Scott Pruitt is still on the job here tonight -- Jim.

ACOSTA: He hasn't fallen too far out of favor. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you so much.

Still ahead, the latest from New York City where a protester on the Statue of Liberty is in a standoff with police. You're looking at live pictures right there. We're going to keep you posted on those developments.

Also ahead, is Michael Cohen sending a signal by erasing his role as President Trump's attorney from Twitter? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: We're following two breaking stories. A protester on the Statue of Liberty is in a stand-off with police. She is affiliated, we're told with the group Rise and Resist. But an organizer for the group tells CNN their protest against the president's immigration policies did not include anyone climbing the statue.

[17:33:08] Also breaking at this hour, Britain's top counterterrorism official has just said that two people found unconscious were exposed to the same nerve agent used in an attack on a former Russian spy in March.

And also on this July Fourth, a very busy July fourth, Michael Cohen appears to be declaring his own independence -- we couldn't resist that -- from President Trump. Cohen changed his Twitter profile today, dropping the description as himself as "the personal attorney to President Donald J. Trump."

Let's bring in our analysts to talk about that.

Joey Jackson, I'll go first to you. I suppose that might just be a factual change on his Twitter bio, that maybe he is no longer the personal attorney to President Trump. So, you know, just changing it to reflect the facts as they stand now. Nothing more. Right?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, certainly, it's a factual change. And a technical change.


JACKSON: But certainly, it could be, and probably is, a lot more than that.


JACKSON: You know, the unfortunate reality is that oftentimes or sometimes in marriage there is divorce, and so, you know, if ever there was a time to question the relationship between him and the president, now would be such a time.

And what this indicates to me, Jim, is that there's no emissary or someone else from the White House or one of President Trump's friend giving him guidance, giving him direction, giving him that warm, fuzzy feeling that everything is going to be OK.

And at the end of the day, we have to understand that FBI investigations, particularly this one, are real. The consequences could be enormous. When you have a family and a daughter and a son as he mentioned, "I have to look out for them first. So what's it going to be, Mr. President? Are you with me or are you without me? But having me twisting in the wind is certainly not a good look. I'm not going to stand for it. I'm going to go on ABC, and I'm going to voice my grievances. And then I'm going to go on my Twitter account, and I have something to say about it there." Although, a little bit modestly, the fact is that I think it's a large signal about his prospects and what he wants to happen in his life and with this investigation.

[17:35:06] ACOSTA: And Rebecca Berg, are we reading the tea leaves too closely, or was it a mistake for the president to, as Joey Jackson was saying, leaving Michael Cohen out to dry?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, you could look back and say that was a strategic mistake, potentially. Now would it have changed the fact that Michael Cohen flip? Maybe, maybe not. Because in both cases, Michael Cohen potentially would be faced with these legal consequences, possible jail time, maybe fines. We don't know yet. And it's unclear that his personal incentives would outweigh any loyalty he had to the president if the president had been nicer to him or treated him better.

But certainly, the president could have been a little more strategic here.

ACOSTA: And Ryan Lizza, let me turn to another story, obviously, we've been following, the situation with the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.


ACOSTA: President Trump apparently may be reaching a tipping point or that Scott Pruitt is inching towards a tipping point with all of these different scandals and embarrassing episodes that he's going through the last several months.

Do you think his job really is in danger at this point? He apparently is at the picnic over at the White House. Not exactly the skunk at the garden party, I suppose. But --

LIZZA: I mean, it would just be surprising if it wasn't. If this were a traditional presidency with traditional cabinet members --

ACOSTA: Right.

LIZZA: -- the level of -- or the number of scandals -- and, you know, I know not everything is a scandal -- but the number of things that this guy has gotten himself mixed up in. There was a graphic earlier on our air, you know, just a list of ten of the most basic ones. He would have been gone a long time ago.

And we know that cabinet members in the -- even in the Trump cabinet, they are not immune to the scandal politics. Right? There's no more HHS Secretary Price. Right? I mean, Price must be locking at this from wherever he is, saying, "How did I get pushed out, and this guy continues to hold on?"

And often what you hear from Republicans is, "Well, he's at the EPA. He's implementing this very important deregulation agenda."

I mean, any president's -- any Republican president and any EPA administrator under a Republican is basically going to be doing what Pruitt did.

ACOSTA: Price -- Price admitted some mistakes, and Pruitt has not. One key distinction there. But --

LIZZA: There's some bond between the president and Pruitt that has let him survive this long.

ACOSTA: Certainly seems so.

LIZZA: We know that loyalty is a one-way street with Trump, usually.

ACOSTA: And April Ryan, break it down for us. How has Scott Pruitt -- because it is sort of everybody in Washington is wondering, you know -- I would have been fired a long time ago for half of these things. What is his secret? What is Scott Pruitt doing that everybody else is not doing? How can he keep his job this long?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know what the secret sauce is for Scott Pruitt is the fact that this president really understands that he's fired a lot of people. And one, that if he continues to go down this road of firing people, they won't have confidence.

They felt like, you know, they've stabilize a little bit. They've said, you know, "We now have an administration that's really working well."

But he is cognizant of the fact that if he continues to fire key people, it makes him look bad. but not only that. Scott Pruitt at one point, according to a Republican source close to this White House, was someone that the president wanted to look to to replace Jeff Sessions. But it has gotten so bad. So we'll have to see how this plays out.

Fourteen federal probes, 14 federal probes. I mean, about records, how he's taken some things off of his calendar on one calendar, the public calendar, and keeps it on another. That is against the law.

And also trying to buy a mattress or, what, a box spring and mattress from Trump Tower for an apartment. Come on! I mean, you know --

ACOSTA: That is one way to -- that is one way to, you know, make favor with the boss. You know? Compliment him on his mattresses at his hotel, I guess.

RYAN: Yes. How about that?

ACOSTA: Yes. Joey Jackson, let me ask you. This whole notion, and Kaitlan Collins was reporting on this yesterday, that Scott Pruitt was positioning himself with the president, "Well, if things don't work out with Jeff Sessions, by the way, Mr. President, I'd be happy to fill in over there at the Justice Department." What is going on there, do you think?

JACKSON: You know, there's some indication, Jim, that he affirmatively, that is Scott Pruitt, asked about it. But whether that's accurate or not, he obviously disputes that.

But let -- can we talk about something, Jim? Is -- am I the only one who heard of the phrase "draining the swamp"? Right? Is that something that anybody else has heard of?

You know, the fact is, is that there are problems he has and oftentimes, it's optics. Right? This is not the discussion about the merits. This is the optics of things.

And I think when you look at Scott Pruitt and you ask why he's protected, you can think of a lot of things. Right? How does he appear to the base? He's solid conservative. What is he doing to the EPA? He's dismantling regulations and making them user friendly. He makes the president look good. He's loyal to the president.

So all of those things, I think come, and they put him in a very good position, notwithstanding the 14 investigations that April just spoke to and all of the optics of what is this guy doing? And now, not only is he safe but you want to elevate him to be attorney general? Really?

[17:40:08] So it's all about the politics.

ACOSTA: And Ryan, just quickly, I want to get to the situation down on the boarder, because on this Fourth of July, as we're celebrating our independence and American ideals and so forth, we do have an administration that has children separated from their parents and locked up sometimes in jail-like settings. There's a new poll out from Quinnipiac in light of the family separation crisis, 58 percent of American voters disapprove of the president's handling of immigration.

Is there any blowback for him on this, do you think? The president seems to think he can ride this issue all the way to the midterms.

LIZZA: I mean, there's no doubt that the family separation issue is the one immigration policy that this White House felt like -- it's the one part of immigration that they couldn't demagogue, that they couldn't use to their political advantage.

Legally, what that executive order did I'm not so sure, but at the very least, the amount of attention to this issue forced the White House to, at least rhetorically, change course. We have not seen those children reunited, so we haven't actually had a true reversal on the policy.

ACOSTA: Seems as though -- yes.

LIZZA: But knocked the White House back on its heels, this policy. And we know it caused a little bit of turmoil even within Trump's own family, with his daughter making an appeal to change.

ACOSTA: We'll see if they can continue with this policy. They have a clock ticking against them, coming up next week with a deadline to put these kids back with their parents.

We'll move on here.

Coming up, the latest from New York where a protester at the Statue of Liberty -- we're keeping a eye on this one -- is in a standoff with the police there in New York. We're going to keep tabs on that. We'll bring you the latest developments in just a few minutes.


[17:45:30] JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: It is nearly dawn in Thailand this coming Thursday where divers are working to clear obstructions inside a flooded cave so a dozen boys and their coach -- in hopes of bringing them to safety before monsoon rains dump more water into the cave.

CNN's Anna Coren joins us live.

Anna, is there an idea about when divers could start bringing some people out. Is that possible at this point?

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, Jim, that is what everybody is hoping will happen sooner rather than later.

You're right, we are racing against the clock. We're expecting a change in the weather in the coming days, and that will really undo all the hard work that has been done.

They have been pumping hundreds of thousands of liters every single hour. Something like 2 million liters of water had been pumped out of that cave.

So they want to take full advantage of those -- that situation now inside the cave. But we know that areas are still flooded, and they are going to be the extremely challenging areas that they will have to get these kids through.

Authorities are saying they're going to wear full-face oxygen masks if they choose to go down the diving option. They'll be guided by these Navy SEALS, perhaps at times holding on to their backs. And as one diver, Claus Rasmussen, an international diver working with the Thai, said, all the kids will have to do is breathe.

But anyone who has dived before knows that breathing through a mask, a diving mask, can be really, really intimidating, extremely daunting. And you're talking about in cave conditions where it's pitch black, it's confined. And also, they'll be dealing with ongoing floodwaters.

But it's all about the water at the moment. Take a listen to what Claus, this international diver, told us.


CLAUS RASMUSSEN, TECHNICAL DIVING INSTRUCTORS AND SSI INSTRUCTOR TRAINER, BLUE LABEL DIVING: The water levels are down. What I heard is that the water levels luckily are down by like five feet over the last few hours in the outer chambers. So not the inner chamber, nothing like that. But in the outer chambers where we used to have to dive in, where

divers have to go under the water, they can now effectively almost snorkel. Which makes it easier for the first steps of it. Obviously, the conditions in the last bit of it is still very much tricky.


COREN: But they're looking very closely at those water levels every single hour. Now, this rescue is entering its 12th day, Jim. And the boys, from all accounts, are in good conditions.

ACOSTA: Well, we can be thankful for that and we're obviously hoping for the best with that rescue operation.

Anna Coren in Thailand for us. Thank you so much.

Still ahead, the latest on our breaking news, the ongoing standoff between police and a protester who has climbed on to the Statue of Liberty.

Also, the stunning announcement just now that two more people have been exposed to the same nerve agent used to attack a former Russian spy and his daughter.


[17:52:23] ACOSTA: And we're following multiple breaking stories, including Britain's top counterterrorism official just now revealing that two people found unconscious were exposed to the same nerve agent used in an attack on a former Russian spy in March.

So what does this, as well as the new Senate Intelligence Committee report confirming Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, mean as the President prepares for this month's summit with Vladimir Putin?

CNN's Brian Todd is breaking this all down. He's been checking with sources.

What are they saying, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, tonight, our sources and the analysts we speak to are concerned that President Trump is going to be giving away too much in Helsinki when he meets with Putin and that Mr. Trump is going to be almost legitimatizing Putin, rewarding him for all of Putin's aggressive behavior.

Now, the White House keeps saying the President is going to be tough on the man and the Kremlin. But in recent days, President Trump has been much more supportive of Putin's agenda than that of his own allies.


TODD (voice-over): Almost as if he is Vladimir Putin lawyer, defending him before a jury, President Trump again recites the Russian president's talking points, tweeting, Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with meddling in our election. Something the President also said last fall after meeting Putin face-to-face.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe that President Trump Putin really feels, and he feels strongly, that he did not meddle in our election.

TODD (voice-over): That, despite the President's own intelligence agencies and a new bipartisan Senate report which say Putin wanted Trump to win in 2016 and did meddle.

Trump's own national security advisers, H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, have both acknowledged Russian meddling. Bolton calling it, quote, an act of war.

Why does the President repeatedly gloss over Putin's meddling? Analysts say one reason is his insecurity.

JAMES GOLDGEIER, VISITING SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: For Trump, this goes against the very legitimacy of his election. He wants to be able to say I won this election fair and square. I defeated Hillary Clinton, and nobody helped me. I did it myself.

TODD (voice-over): But the President repeatedly, unapologetically, takes Putin's side on several fronts. Reportedly, he told G-7 leaders in Canada that Crimea, the part of Ukraine that Russia invaded and annexed, is Russian because everybody who lives there speaks Russian. It's similar to what he said once to ABC.

TRUMP: The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.

TODD (voice-over): Russia was kicked out of the G-8 after invading Crimea in 2014, but Trump says Putin should be back in the alliance.

TRUMP: Russia should be in this meeting. Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting?

TODD (voice-over): Analysts believe another reason Trump keeps taking Putin's side is the lingering possibility that Putin may have some kind of leverage over Trump, so-called kompromat.

[17:55:08] STEVE HALL, FORMER CHIEF OF RUSSIA OPERATIONS, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: It goes anything from, you know, untoward behavior in front of video cameras in Russian hotels to stuff that is perhaps a less -- a little less interesting to most folks, which is financial impropriety with Russians and representatives of Putin in the past.

TODD (voice-over): Trump has always refuted those implications.


TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.

CLINTON: -- and it's pretty clear --

TRUMP: You're the puppet.

TODD (voice-over): And this spring, the President's team closed a Russian consulate and expelled Russian diplomats after the Russians were accused of poisoning a former Russian spy in Britain.

TRUMP: And probably nobody has been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump.

TODD (voice-over): But experts say Trump delivers a victory to Putin every time he says something like, quote, NATO is as bad as NAFTA, which a diplomat says he told G-7 leaders behind closed doors last month.

GOLDGEIER: Trump is basically handing him a gift that Putin has long sought. In fact, this was a goal of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, divide the United States and Europe. We never thought a U.S. president would be the one to carry this out.


TODD: Analysts are worried about the long-term implications that Trump's leniency towards Putin is going to have.

They say it could send signals to the Russian president that he can meddle in elections in America and elsewhere or that he can take aggressive action against other countries and that America won't stand in the way. Signals that are very dangerous when it comes to Vladimir Putin.

Jim, when you're at the summit in Helsinki, we're all going to be watching that interaction very closely.

ACOSTA: We'll be looking for some independence between the President and Vladimir Putin. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Breaking news next, the standoff at the Statue of Liberty between a protester and police. We're learning new information.