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Trump Refusing Measures Proposed to Reopen Government; Romney Defends Op-Ed Takedown of Trump; U.S. Ambassador Visits Accused American Spy In Moscow Prison. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 2, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you so much. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter, @JakeTapper. You can tweet the show, @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on CNN right now. Welcome back to everyone and happy new year.

[17:00:17] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Refusing to budge. President Trump doubles down on the government shutdown, saying his border wall is needed for national security, and that he'll hold out as long as it takes. Could a White House meeting with congressional leaders make a difference?

Family feud. After GOP Senator-elect Mitt Romney questions his character, President Trump hits back, saying, "I won big, and he didn't." While Romney's niece, who chairs the Republican National Committee, sides with the president, dismissing her uncle as just a freshman senator.

"Sand and death." President Trump defends his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, saying it offers nothing but sand and death. And he claims he essentially fired Defense Secretary James Mattis, even though Mattis made it publicly clear he resigned in protest.

And letters and threats. President Trump waves what he calls a great letter from Kim Jong-un, saying he has a great relationship with the North Korean dictator, even as Kim issues a new threat to the United States.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, with the government shutdown now in its 12th day and in a new year, the president has just met with congressional leaders over at the White House.

Democrats emerged moments ago, saying he refused to support measures to open the government, vowing to move ahead on their own. That comes after the president took a tough line at an earlier cabinet meeting, saying he'd keep the government closed for as long as it takes, without saying what it would take for him to budge on funding for his border wall.

I'll speak with Senator Chris Coons of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees, and our correspondents and analysts have full coverage of the day's top stories.

First, let's go straight to our White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, the president talking tough even as he met with congressional leaders. That meeting, I understand, has now wrapped up. What's the latest?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It has wrapped up, Wolf. And it doesn't appear that any progress was made. In fact, the White House and Democrats might be further apart than they were 12 days ago when this whole shutdown got started.

Kevin McCarthy, Republican leader, came out and said that the president had invited them to come back on Friday after the race for House speaker was over, but then Democrats came out. They seemed quite bitter over what had happened in that meeting, and they said they are going to bring those bills to a vote to reopen the government, to a vote in the House tomorrow.

But Wolf, that won't make much of a difference, because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not bring a vote to the floor in the Senate unless it has the president's endorsement, and these bills do not have the president's endorsement.

Where we are now is both sides are digging in, and little to no progress has been made.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): Washington in a stalemate tonight with no end to the government shutdown in sight.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States needs a physical barrier.

COLLINS: After President Trump rejected an offer his own vice president and chief of staff floated to Democrats just last week. A deal that would include $2.5 billion for border security, about half of what he's asking for.

TRUMP: No, not 2.5, no. We're asking for $5.6. And, you know, somebody said 2.5. No, look. This is national security we're talking about.

COLLINS: That's a proposal Democrats later turned down. But the president's comments at his cabinet meeting setting the tone for his sit-down with Democratic and Republican leaders from both the House and the Senate this afternoon, who say he's offering no specifics about what he'll sign.

White House aides not holding out hope that a deal will be struck today, but amping up the optics by holding it in the situation room, the secure place reserved for sensitive national security matters.

TRUMP: Could be a long time or it could be quickly.

COLLINS: A Hill source familiar with the meeting calling it, quote, "more of a White House stunt than a serious attempt to have a discussion," as Trump spent the morning claiming Mexico is paying for the wall through the recently renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, an idea that has stumped lawmakers and aides alike, since it hasn't even passed Congress yet.

Trump falsely claiming much of the wall has been built when, in fact, none of it has. The president's cabinet meeting turning into a nearly two-hour affair after he spent the holidays virtually alone.

TRUMP: I was all by myself in the White House. That's a big, big house. Except for all the guys out on the lawn with machine guns. Nicest machine guns I've ever seen.

COLLINS: Trump starting the new year surrounded by a new staff, as 7 of the 21 cabinet positions are now filled by deputies or acting officials, including the chief of staff, attorney general, and defense secretary.

[17:05:05] The president falsely stating today that he fired his former Pentagon chief, James Mattis.

TRUMP: As you know, President Obama fired him. And essentially, so did I. I want results.

COLLINS: Mattis resigned in protest over the president's sudden decision to withdraw troops from Syria, saying as much in a scathing resignation letter that sources said Trump didn't realize was so critical. He blasted the retired general today.

TRUMP: But General Mattis was so thrilled. But what's he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good.

COLLINS: Trump, who didn't serve in the military but prides himself on being surrounded by generals, adding --

TRUMP: I think I would have been a good general, but who knows?

COLLINS: Though that's far from the president's only feud in Washington, with incoming Senator Mitt Romney telling CNN's Jake Tapper this today.

SENATOR-ELECT MITT ROMNEY (R), ARIZONA: He was endorsing me. I wasn't endorsing him. And I haven't decided who I'm going to endorse in 2020.

COLLINS: That interview coming after Romney bashed Trump in a scathing op-ed in the "Washington Post," claiming the Trump presidency, quote, "made a deep descent" with the departures of Mattis and John Kelly.

The president uncharacteristically restrained in his response.

TRUMP: I read his op-ed. I just hope he's going to be a team player.

COLLINS: But he seemed to be saving the fire for Mitt Romney's own niece, the RNC chair who Trump urged to stop using her maiden name last year. She didn't name her uncle, instead, writing, "For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack Donald Trump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Wolf, Mitt Romney has responded to that criticism from his own niece, telling Jake Tapper in that interview that he believes she was just expressing her own viewpoint, saying what she believed was best for the president and for the Republican Party. A Republican Party that he is a new senator and is going to be sworn in on Thursday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins over at the White House, thank you.

Let's go to Capitol Hill right now. Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is on the scene for us. Sunlen, what's the latest you're hearing there? I s there any path in the immediate future to a compromise to get the government back open?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As of now, no, Wolf. And it is certainly a grim mood tonight on Capitol Hill. This is 12 days into this partial government shutdown, and as of now, it is not clear when or how this will all end.

The House and Senate leaders went over to the White House earlier this afternoon, and it's very clear afterwards that there was just no progress made, no solution, and both sides really dug into each of their positions even more.

We heard from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, returning up here to Capitol Hill moments after that meeting, and he said, essentially, there was no progress made in that meeting today, and he predicted this could go on for quite some time.

Now, tomorrow there will be some symbolic action over in the House. That is the first day of the new Congress, and the House -- the Democrats will take over the House of Representatives. And they have been very clear that they intend to move very quickly on two proposals.

The first would be to reopen the agencies and the departments that were -- had been shut due to the shutdown. Fund those portions through the end of September. Those noncontroversial agencies and departments.

Then another proposal to fund DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, just for another month, until early February. But maintaining the funding levels at $1.3 billion for the border security. This is something that Nancy Pelosi says she spoke with at the White House at that meeting today, and essentially said this is her offer on the table.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), INCOMING HOUSE SPEAKER: We're asking the president to open up government. We are giving him a Republican path to do that. Why would he not do it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: But, again, this is going nowhere in the Senate. If it does indeed pass the House tomorrow, which we believe it will, this is a nonstarter. The White House has called it a nonstarter. Mitch McConnell is very clear just a few minutes ago, said he will not bring it up in the Senate. He knows that President Trump at this time will not sign that into law.

And again, the leaders have been invited back to the White House on Friday after little, if zero, progress is made today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. You heard the president today. It looks like he's not budging, at least not yet. Do you see any way out of this shutdown, at least at this point?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Wolf, I'm not encouraged by what I just heard.

I'll remind you that two weeks ago, the United States Senate unanimously passed a funding bill, because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had heard from the White House that President Trump would sign it. He then changed his mind, and less than -- the next day reversed position and said he would only sign a funding bill if it had full funding for his $5 billion for border wall. That's where we stand now a dozen days later.

And Mitch McConnell will not bring to the floor the path forward that I believe House Democrats will pass tomorrow, because he still doesn't know what President Trump will accept.

[17:10:08] This is a shutdown without a purpose. This is a shutdown that is senseless. And I frankly think it is not only hurting 800,000 federal employees across the country; it's hurting our reputation as a democracy around the world.

BLITZER: Eight hundred thousand federal employees and their families, we should add, as well.

The president wants Congress leaders to come back on Friday. Do you think anything is really going to change over the next couple of days?

COONS: Well, Wolf, I think it's positive that they're meeting in person. That's more likely to produce some sort of breakthrough than staying at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

But the Senate and the House have already presented President Trump with two different paths out of this. He simply needs to say yes to one of them. BLITZER: The president -- do you think the president is serious when

he says he'll wait as long as it takes, his words, as long as it takes to get his border wall funding?

COONS: I certainly hope not. He did tweet this morning that Mexico is paying for the wall. Something that's puzzling, because he is citing a new trade deal that hasn't even been considered by Congress as the mechanism by which he somehow thinks that Mexico is paying for this.

Frankly, Wolf, you know, out of a $3 trillion budget, to have the entire seven different entire departments of the U.S. government shut down over a $5 billion disagreement, strikes me as an embarrassing impasse in Washington.

We funded $1.3 billion last fiscal year in border security, and that hasn't been fully spent yet. I join with the majority of the Senate in supporting $1.3 billion in border security this year. I think the president should accept that deal, and we should move forward.

BLITZER: Yes, it was also surprising in that same tweet that you referenced, when he said Mexico is already paying for the wall, which they're not. Much of the wall, he says, has already been fully renovated or built.

And so the question immediately emerges, if much of the wall has already been renovated or built, why do you need so much more money if it's already been done? If the project has already been done? So that's -- he didn't explain exactly what he meant there.

The president also says, Senator, that Democrats want to keep spending money on foreign aid and that he just wants a fraction of that for funding a border wall. He says, "Tens of billions of dollars going to countries that don't do anything for the United States." He simply wants $5.6 billion to protect the security of the United States along the border with Mexico. What's your response?

COONS: Well, I've worked in a bipartisan way with Republicans in the Congress over the last two sessions to protect needed funding for foreign aid programs that contribute to our security, to health and to prosperity in the developing world.

You know, the majority of our foreign aid goes to just five countries, and these are countries that are critical security partners for the United States. Whether it's Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan or for humanitarian relief in Syria.

I do think that we've made important strides in recent years in making our foreign assistance more transparent, more efficient and more accountable. That's something I worked closely with former Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, on. And I don't think that this is an apples to orange comparison.

We have voted for more border security investments. What I don't support is billions of dollars for a concrete wall in the desert between Texas and Arizona and California and Mexico. And frankly, neither do many of the folks who represent those districts or those states.

BLITZER: The president made several false or wild claims today during the two-hour cabinet meeting, which was all on camera. Among other things, he says he fired the defense secretary, James Mattis. He claims Mexico, once again, is already paying for the border wall. It's not.

And he overstates -- clearly overstates the number of immigrants here in the United States. He says more than 30 million are here. That number is seen as wildly exaggerated.

Can lawmakers, Senator, negotiate with someone who doesn't seem to have a grasp on all these relevant facts?

COONS: Well, one of the difficulties of negotiating with President Trump is both his grasp of recent developments and facts and his willingness to take a position and then stick to it.

As you know, last year, a bipartisan compromise on immigration and investment in border security was presented to the president. He accepted it, said this is terrific. A great resolution, let's move forward. And then 48 hours later, abandoned that compromised position and actively mobilized against it.

That's why it's been frustrating, difficult to try and reach a resolution on some of these divisive issues that relate to trade, to national security, to immigration.

One thing I'll say as a positive: the president announced an abrupt withdrawal of American troops from Syria just a few weeks ago, which led to Secretary Mattis, a decorated, seasoned, senior Marine Corps general, to resign in protest from his position as secretary of defense.

[17:15:10] President Trump has now backed off and said that he will have that be a slower withdrawal of our troops, over four months. That will be less disruptive. I still think it's a bad decision. But to spread it out over four months is an improvement and will make less harm to our security position in Syria.

BLITZER: Finally, Senator, the president's cabinet right now did have a full-scale cabinet meeting today. Look at this. It's filled with a whole bunch of temporary place-holders. At the attorney general -- acting attorney general; defense secretary; acting EPA administrator; U.N. ambassador; White House chief of staff; interior secretary; OMB director, Office of Management and Budget. Does it concern you?

COONS: Yes. I'm particularly concerned that the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, is someone who should not be in that position. The president jumped over the Department of Justice succession statute. Rod Rosenstein should be the acting attorney general, and we ought to promptly be holding hearings on the nominee to be the next attorney general.

To have seven different important cabinet posts, including secretary of defense, attorney general and chief of staff, filled by acting positions who haven't been subject to scrutiny or confirmation by the United States Senate is a very concerning development. And suggests that there really is a lack of professionalism and focus at the highest levels of the administration.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks so much for joining us.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, we have more breaking news. The U.S. Ambassador to Moscow visits an American detained on accusations of spying. So what's behind the Russian move?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:00] BLITZER: The breaking news this hour. President Trump meeting with congressional leaders over at the White House on this, the 12th day of the government shutdown. The president is standing firm on his demand for more than $5 billion for his border wall with Mexico, saying he'll keep the government shutdown, and I'm quoting the president now, for as long as it takes.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts. And David Chalian, do you think that the president is feeling the pressure of all of this right now? It's intense.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, certainly, reading his Twitter feed over the holiday break seemed to suggest he's feeling some pressure, because he is quadrupling down on his positions.

This is of the president's own doing, right? He has painted himself into a corner here, and he and his Republican colleagues are looking for a path out right now.

The Democrats are the ones that are just about to get a little more power than they had, so they feel very emboldened to keep the position that they had, pass those bills back over to the Senate, throw the hot potato over there and say, "Hey, first day of the new Congress, we voted to open up the government again. Republicans keep it shut down." So now that hot potato is going to be back in the president's corner.

BLITZER: Remember, what, a couple weeks ago when he met with Pelosi and Schumer, he said, "I would own it if the government shuts down," because he wants a border wall. "I'm happy to take responsibility for it." So he's got a lot of responsibility on his shoulders right now.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. First it was he would own it, and now he's changed it. He's calling it the Schumer Shutdown.

Look, I think David is exactly right. I think we see the near-term, how this plays out, as the Democrats are sworn into the House. And they pass the so-called clean bill, right? Now, the Senate has already passed that unanimously, I think. Right?

BLITZER: Right. LIZZA: So there will be a lot of pressure on Mitch McConnell now.

This is all going to be about what Mitch McConnell decides. Does he allow the Senate to pass again a bill that they just passed recently unanimously, and send it to the president?

And then you get into, well, what does the president do? Does he veto it, and do the Democrats and Republicans together have the votes to override that veto? In the House, probably not. In the Senate, surely. And so I think that's -- those are the next steps that have to happen before we see --

BLITZER: Because you remember, the White House gave the green light to Mitch McConnell to allow the Republicans to vote for that so-called clean bill.

LIZZA: Previously.

BLITZER: But the next morning, the president was under a lot of fire from conservatives out there, saying he's caved; he's, you know -- given in.

LIZZA: He literally called Rush Limbaugh and said, "All right. You're right. I'm going to shut down the government over this wall." So I think those are the sorts of parliamentary steps that happened before him. Because I don't think either side right now is in a -- is approaching anywhere near a deal.

BLITZER: At the cabinet meeting -- and it was all on camera today for about two hours -- the president enlisted his acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, to advocate for the border wall. Is that unusual, to ask the attorney general of the United States to get involved in a political act like that?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the Justice Department has been pretty lockstep with the Trump White House on immigration. And certainly, the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, is not going to change course on this.

But it seems to me, the fact that you had so many people in an acting capacity. I mean, you had something like seven people up there in a temporary capacity, was sort of striking to me.

And for the president to take a shot at his outgoing secretary of defense, James Mattis, was pretty noticeable and unusual.

And then for the president also to have a mock poster of himself in a "Game of Thrones" meme I think is, fair to say, unusual. So it was sort of the optics and the theatre of it all that was striking.

BLITZER: He met with members of the cabinet in the cabinet room, of course, over in the West Wing of the White House, but then when he met with the congressional leadership, Democrats and Republicans from the House and the Senate, that meeting was in the White House situation room, which normally is a room where they have the most extreme national security secrets that are discussed.

Was that unusual from your perspective?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, so clearly, he's trying to sort of emphasize that border security is a national security issue. Traditionally, border security is a national security issue, when you're talking about actually securing the border and U.S. territory from genuine threats.

The problem with Trump's wall is that it's not actually going to secure anything. You know, security experts agree that it is an ineffective waste of money. And there aren't genuine threats here. You know, he's -- President Trump is sort of pretending as though desperate individuals trying to seek asylum are some sort of genuine security threat.

[17:25:13] So I think once again, what the president is trying to do is sort of co-opt the images of national security as a form of pageantry for political purposes. We see him do this a lot, whether or not he's giving political rallies in front of uniformed troops or holding things like this meeting in the situation room.

I think one problem is that it's a little bit like the boy who cried Wolf. It cheapens -- whenever he sort of uses national security justifications in ways that we know aren't genuine, it cheapens that. And so there will come a time in which he actually is going to need, you know, our allies or the American people to rely on something as an important national security issue. And I think people aren't going to believe him, because he's used this as part of his regular political tricks so often.

BLITZER: The president has a situation room. We have a SITUATION ROOM.

CHALIAN: Next week, we should see if we can get them here.

BLITZER: We have a lovely SITUATION ROOM. They're all welcome to come have a meeting here, as well.

Everybody stick around. Much more on the breaking news, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There's more breaking news. Mitt Romney is defending his scathing op-ed, slamming President Trump's character. Just a little while ago, he told CNN's Jake Tapper he wrote it because he wanted to, quote, "make it very clear where I stand."

[17:30:55] Among other things, David, he wrote this, "And I'll read a section of that op-ed. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jess Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office."

Pretty tough words.

He responded, the president, with this. First on Twitter and later over at the White House. He said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was surprised at Mitt Romney. But I just hope he's going to be a team player. And if he's a team player, that will be great.

I will say this. If he fought really hard against President Obama like he does against me, he would have won the election. Does that make sense to you? If he fought the way he fights me, I'm telling you, he would have won the election.

But I think he's going to end up being a team player. I think he agrees with many of the things that we've done and many of the things that we have in mind, and we'll see what happens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What's your analysis?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, just first on that last part, I think we all covered that race. Mitt Romney fought really hard to try to defeat Barack Obama in 2012. I'm not sure that he sort of gave up. I didn't hear that critique of him at the time.

Listen, I think the big question around Mitt Romney, Wolf, for a lot of people, ever since he got into the Senate race and then elected and coming to Washington, is what is he going to do with being the stature of the former Republican nominee in the United States Senate as a junior senator? Is he going to come and put his head down and just work on local issues? Or is he going to use his stature on a national platform and call the president to account when he feels necessary?

Now Mitt Romney suggested in the op-ed, he's not going to comment on every tweet. He's not going to comment on everything the president does. But that he will, especially on these issues of character and integrity, call for accountability for the president.

It's significant to a degree, but I'm not sure it changes any calculation here. Jeff Flake took this approach, Bob Corker, the late John McCain. These people were not able to sway the Republican Party in how they feel about Donald Trump. And I'm not sure Mitt Romney is going to be successful at that, either.

BLITZER: You know, Ryan, Jake Tapper asked Mitt Romney about the complicated relationship these two guys have had over the years and what it means going forward. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Do you regret accepting his endorsement when he sent that tweet during your Senate race?

ROMNEY: I -- he was endorsing me. I wasn't endorsing him. And I haven't decided who I'm going to endorse in 2020. I'm going to wait and see what the alternatives are.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So how do you see this relationship.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They have had a long and complicated journey, Mitt Romney and Trump, right?

I think two things. One, I would say is Trump's response there in the previous video was actually incredibly restrained for Trump, right? He didn't actually viciously attack him. He actually sat back and said, "We'll see. Maybe, you know, he'll be voting with me." I was kind of surprised by that.

Two, I do think it's notable, despite Mitt Romney's history of criticism for Trump, I think it's very notable he has decided to start his career in the Senate with this big public push criticizing Trump. And a couple of possibilities.

One, and I think it's true, he just genuinely believes this. He's reviewed the record over the last two years and thought it was important to say.

But also, he might sense some weakness here. That maybe this president isn't long for Washington. That maybe -- maybe Romney believes that the Mueller investigation and the coming House Democratic investigations -- that we'll see a much, much weakened President Trump. And that he wants to be the leader in the Republican Party taking advantage, to put it crudely, of any kind of Trump fall.

BLITZER: What do you think?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: No, I think that that's right. Look, I think one thing that's interesting about Mitt Romney, and I agree, you know, with what David said. He's taken the exact same approach that hasn't worked with lots of other people.

What will be interesting is whether or not his deeds actually match his words and whether or not he's prepared to actually impose consequences on this president. Because I think what we've seen over the past two years is that sort of, you know -- milquetoast tweets and finger-waving op-eds is not enough to change the calculus here.

[18:35:10] BLITZER: He told Jake that he's not going to run in 2020.

CHALIAN: He did. But, you know, in the op-ed, he cites Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador that was in the first two years of the administration, as an example of a really positive thing that Trump did by appointing her to that job. Well, Nikki Haley has endorsed Donald Trump in his 2020 re-election effort already.

Mitt Romney is not in the same place as Nikki Haley. He refused, in that interview with Jake, to endorse Donald Trump and actually left open the possibility that there could be a Republican primary challenge. Time will tell.

LIZZA: Might not be one, because Mitt Romney's niece might not allow that to happen.

CHALIAN: But this is the 2012 Republican Party nominee saying about the incumbent Republican president that, you know, "I can't endorse him yet, because there may be a primary challenge."

BLITZER: Laura, I want you to update us on the Russia probe right now. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a motion involving -- this is a mystery that's going on in Washington -- an unnamed foreign company that Mueller wants information from, but this foreign company with connections to some other government, unnamed government, is refusing to cooperate.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. So the Supreme Court was actually pretty busy over the holidays on this.

And in a rare move, the chief justice sort of weighed in, issuing a temporary pause on that contempt order, so the fees aren't continuing to run.

It's interesting. The company, we still don't know who it is. We still don't know the foreign government -- the fact that they appealed, at all. This is the first known case escalating all the way up to the Supreme Court. So it could be a big development.

At this point, now Roberts has the option to refer it to the full court to see how they want to vote. So if five justices say, "We want to keep the pause in place here," then the company won't continue to incur these fines, and they could continue to see more on this.

BLITZER: Do you think the Supreme Court is going to get involved in other aspects of the Mueller probe?

HENNESSEY: I think it's certainly possible. You know, these are the types of issues that we expect the court to get involved in. Things like the sovereign immunity of foreign governments.

And there are important questions as this probe potentially moves closer and closer to the president. Does the president have to respond to a grand jury subpoena that was litigated in the Clinton administration but not actually decided.

And of course, the big, you know, sort of million-dollar question here, which is can a sitting president be indicted? Ultimately with Richard Nixon, it was the Supreme Court decision that those Oval Office tapes were not covered by executive privilege that sealed the president's fate. And so the Supreme Court may end up having yet another historic role in this.

BLITZER: Get ready. It's going to be exciting, 2019. I think we all agree on that. We're going to watch it very closely.

There's more breaking news just ahead. An American accused of spying gets a key visitor in a Moscow prison.

And President Trump responds to Kim Jong-un's new warning to the United States.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:12] BLITZER: There's breaking news in the case of a Michigan man accused by Russia of spying and being held in a Moscow prison.

CNN's Martin Savidge is working the story for us.

Martin, we're just learning that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, was able to visit Paul Whelan today. What are you learning?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, for the family of Paul Whelan, that is extremely wonderful news. Because for two days, they've had two very basic questions. And that is how is their son and brother, and when is he coming home?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Tonight, Russia says it's allowing U.S. officials access to American Paul Whelan, who's being held in Moscow on suspicion of espionage.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We've made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he's been accused of. And if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.

SAVIDGE: The 48-year-old Michigan man has traveled globally for work.

DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF PAUL WHELAN: He travels for his companies, and looks at their physical structure, their physical plants and analyzes whether there are security risks.

SAVIDGE: Whelan also served 14 years in the Marine Reserves, including two tours in Iraq, and was awarded service medals.

But military court records also show he also received a bad conduct discharge in 2008, following a special court martial conviction for attempted larceny, using someone else's Social Security number and writing bad checks.

Whelan's twin brother says Whelan flew to Moscow on December 22.

WHELAN: He was visiting Moscow for a wedding for a friend and helping his friend, because Paul had been to Russia before and could navigate Moscow and the sites.

SAVIDGE: Employees at this upscale Moscow hotel confirm with CNN that Whelan was a guest here but say they were unaware of his detention. Friends say Whelan is curious about Russian culture and has made

numerous trips there. He's active on VKontakte, a Russian social media site, similar to Facebook. His last status update reads, "Next stop, Moscow."

WHELAN: I knew over the years he had met Russians. I don't know whether it was through work or through his Marine activity. But he had met people while he'd been traveling around, and he connected with them on social media. And he would tell us that when he was traveling he would go and visit those people. So I expect that he probably had a VKontakte page because his Russian friends had a VKontakte page.

SAVIDGE: Whelan's arrest comes just two weeks after alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in U.S. federal court for attempting to infiltrate the NRA and Republican circles, leading to speculation this could be Russia retaliating against the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Based on what I know, this is a hostage situation.

SAVIDGE: Bill Brodeur (ph), a well-known critic and target of Vladimir Putin, warns, this is not a time to acquiesce to the Russians.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Paul Whelan, I believe, was taken as a leverage for Vladimir Putin in response to the Maria Butina prosecution in Washington.

[17:45:00] Vladimir Putin very much doesn't want her to talk to U.S. authorities. And he was in a very weak position, and he needed to change that negotiating position. The response should be that -- that there will be hell to pay for the Russian government if they don't release this man. And it's very important not just for this case, but if this man is allowed to be effectively taken hostage, then other dictators around the world are going to say, look, America has got a weak hand.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting to note, Wolf, that Russian president Vladimir Putin, actually recently talked about this whole issue of retaliation and retribution in his annual press conference and he basically said he wasn't going to take or arrest any innocent people just to make some kind of a swap. Now, it remains to be seen exactly what constitutes the charges that the Russians have against Paul Whelan, but there is one thing his family definitely knows. He is completely innocent. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yeah, I think it's significant that the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Jon Huntsman, personally paid this visit. Normally in a situation like this, they send a lower level counsel or embassy official. But clearly the stakes have been raised by the ambassador personally showing up. Martin Savidge, thank you very much for that report.

Up next, what President Trump is now saying about Kim Jong-un after the North Korean dictator's new warning to the United States?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:00]

BLITZER: President Trump is touting what he calls a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un, even as the North Korean leader warns the United States about continuing sanctions. Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Kim Jong-un just delivered an annual message to his country, a New Year's message. He gave the speech wearing a western suit and did it in a homey setting, but his threats clearly aimed at President Trump and his aides were fairly unmistakable.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

It is a New Year's speech calculated to look like a fireside chat, but designed to deliver a subtle message of fire and fury. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un appears relaxed in a western suit with his younger sister in tow. He sits down in a large leather chair in a library, flanked by portraits of his father and grandfather and begins to speak.

His message, according to analysts, North Korea won't build or test nuclear weapons if the U.S. pulls back its forces in Asia, but if President Trump doesn't back down on sanctions there will be consequences.

KIM JONG-UN (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In the U.S. does not keep the promise it made in front of the world and misinterprets our people's patience and makes one-sided demands and continues down the path of sanctions and pressure on our republic, then we have no choice but to defend our country's sovereignty and supreme interests and find a new way to settle peace on our peninsula.

TODD: What does he mean by a new way to settle peace?

PATRICK CRONIN, THE HUDSON INSTITUTE: Well, he means North Korea will be a long-term nuclear power that can strike the United States homeland and U.S. allies.

TODD: Tonight, President Trump hasn't publicly responded to Kim's threatening words but rather to his optimistic ones, telling his cabinet he just received a personal letter from the young dictator.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just got a great letter from Kim Jong-un, and those few people that I've shown this letter to, they've never written letters like that. This letter is a great letter. We've made a lot of progress with North Korea and Kim Jong-un. Chairman Kim has been -- we've -- we've really established a very good relationship.

TODD: The president again suggesting a second summit could come very soon. But with negotiations over Kim's nuclear weapons deadlocked and with the two countries in dispute over what denuclearization of the Korean peninsula really means, is President Trump making the right move in publicly ignoring Kim's threats? Some analysts say yes.

CRONIN: It is only the president who can convince Kim Jong-un, who is the only decision maker who matters in North Korea, that the United States will strike a new relationship with him if he gives us what we want. That's the president's job in this negotiation.

TODD: The president and his team are still hitting home the point that the U.S. has gotten to a better place with North Korea over the past year with no missiles or nuclear bombs being tested by Kim over that period.

TRUMP: You'd be at war right now. You'd be having a nice big fat war in Asia and it wouldn't be pleasant. And instead of that we're getting along fine. I'm not in any rush.

TODD: But tonight, analysts have a warning to the White House about that outlook.

EVANS REVERE, FORMER U.S. DIPLOMAT IN SOUTH KOREA: By expressing a willingness to continue to negotiate with them but live with their nuclear capabilities, as long as they're not testing nukes and missiles, we're essentially locking ourselves in to a long-term nuclear threat and missile threat from North Korea.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: But some analysts say there is real progress the Trump team could make with Kim Jong-un this coming year. They say the Trump team could get Kim to agree to a verifiable freeze in the production of the material he uses to make nuclear weapons, and then go from there to try to get him to scale back the nuclear material that he already has. Wolf.

BLITZER: Update our viewers, Brian. Just how many nuclear warheads do your sources and experts believe Kim already has?

TODD: Wolf, South Korean officials and weapons monitors tell us the estimates are between 20 and 60 nuclear warheads are already in Kim's arsenal. He's still believed to be operating secret weapons sites and those why the numbers vary so widely.

[17:55:00]

BLITZER: See what happens. Thanks so much, Brian Todd reporting.

Coming up, the breaking news. President Trump won't budge on his border wall, saying he'll keep the government closed for as long as it takes to get the funding. Did a meeting with congressional leaders only lead to more deadlocks?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. As long as it takes, President Trump shows no sign of budging in the shutdown showdown as he summons congressional leaders to the White House situation room.