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Trump's Budget Demands; White House Won't Rule Out Possible Manafort Pardon; House Speaker Comes Out Against Impeachment; Wife Of George Papadopoulos Testifies Behind Closed Doors To Senate Intelligence Committee; Interview With Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) Virginia, On Pelosi's Impeachment No-Go; White House Won't Answer Whether Trump Said Democrats Hate Jews; Suspect In Murder Of Kim Jong- un's Half-Brother Suddenly Freed. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 11, 2019 - 17:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I'm Brianna Keilar in for Jake Tapper. Follow me on Twitter @BriKeilarCNN or tweet the show @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, picking a fight: if the president is looking to provoke Democrats, he got what he wanted as they declare his huge new budget with more money for a border wall dead on arrival. Also he was reportedly saying Democrats hate Jews. The White House won't say.

Just not worth it: Nancy Pelosi says Donald Trump is unfit to be president but comes out strongly against impeachment, telling "The Washington Post" he's just not worth it.

Will that divide Democrats?

Boeing grounded after a second catastrophic event, jets are grounded around the world but still flying in the United States.

Are they safe?

And time and words: President Trump again denies he said something that he clearly said on camera. He called Apple CEO Tim Cook "Tim Apple." No big deal.

But why would he come up with a tortured explanation that he was condensing words to save time?

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


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news; new provocations as the White House refuses to address a weekend report that he said Democrats hate Jewish people. The president is already on record saying Democrats are anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.

He threw down another challenge today with his record budget request to Congress. It landed with a thud. It would slash spending across most government agencies while boosting defense spending and setting aside more money than ever before for his border wall. Congressional Democrats call it dead on arrival.

But Democrats may face a new battle among themselves as Pelosi comes out against an impeachment effort, telling "The Washington Post" that President Trump, quote, "is just not worth it." I'll speak with congressman Gerry Connolly of the Oversight Committee and our correspondents and analysts will have full coverage of the day's top stories. Let's go to Jim Acosta.

Jim, it seems like the president is out to deliberately pick some fights with the Democrats.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That was certainly the case over the weekend. Once again, for the first time in more than 40 days, the White House finally held a press briefing.

It was supposed to be about the president's budget the briefing went off the rails when the White House was asked about the president's comments that Democrats hate Jewish people. That's according to the president. It was another example of the administration seeming incapable of defending the president's rhetoric and it's a preview of the campaign to come.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Asked about one of President Trump's latest line of attacks (sic) accusing Democrats of hating Jewish people, the White House doubled down, standing behind the incendiary comments.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that's a question you will have to ask the Democrats.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Over the weekend, Axios reported that the president made the false claim at a private speech in Florida, repeating what he said on Friday.

TRUMP: The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party and a anti- Jewish party. And that's too bad.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in her first briefing in more than 40 days defended the president's remarks, pointing to anti-Semitic comments made by Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, in which she tried to sidestep Trump's troubling rhetoric after the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville.

ACOSTA: (INAUDIBLE) debate when you're saying something that's just patently untrue.


SANDERS: Stating their policy positions -- ACOSTA: -- but Democrats don't hate Jewish people. It's just silly.

It's not true.

SANDERS: I think they should call out their members by name and we've made that clear. I don't have anything further --


ACOSTA: -- after Charlottesville, saying that there are very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville, essentially suggesting that there are very fine people in the Nazis.

SANDERS: That's not at all what the president was stating. Them not at any point in our --

ACOSTA (voice-over): Sanders was also pressed on the Russia investigation, refusing to rule out a pardon for Paul Manafort.

SANDERS: The president made his position on that clear. He'll make a decision when he's ready.

ACOSTA (voice-over): And again, accusing the president's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, of lying to Congress when he denied seeking a pardon from the president.

SANDERS: What I can tell you is that Cohen's own attorney stated and contradicted his client when he said that he was aware that those conversations had taken place. I think that it's time to stop giving him a platform, let him go on to serve his time.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Sanders declined to comment on the checks signed by the president that Cohen says were used to pay off porn star Stormy Daniels.

SANDERS: I'm not aware of those specific --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He testified about this.

SANDERS: The president has been clear that there wasn't a campaign violation. Beyond that, I can't get -- I would refer you back to the president's comments.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The briefing was supposed to be about the president's newly --


ACOSTA (voice-over): -- proposed budget that seeks money for the border wall. Gone is the promise that Mexico will pay for it.

SANDERS: As the president has stated a number of times, through the U.S. MCA trade deal, that will be part of how it takes place.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The White House tried to blame Democrats for the mounting debt in the president's budget with trillion-dollar deficits projected. RUSSELL VOUGHT, OMB: Congress has been ignoring the president's

spending reductions for the last two years.

ACOSTA (voice-over): That's despite the president's promise to eliminate the national debt.

TRUMP: I know more about debt than practically anybody. I love debt. I also love reducing debt and I know how to do it better than anybody.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is still playing clean-up after he referred to Apple CEO Tim Cook as Tim Apple.

TRUMP: You have really put a big investment in our country. We appreciate it very much, Tim Apple.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president tweeted that quickly referred to Tim plus Apple as Tim Apple as an easy way to save time and words. Sanders didn't answer that question as she ended the briefing.

SANDERS: Thanks so much, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- denying saying something that was caught on tape?


ACOSTA: Getting back to the president's comments about Democrats hating Jewish people, Sanders implied that the president has condemned Republican congressman Steve King for his remarks, praising white supremacy.

But the president has never done that publicly. Sanders said she was referring to her own comments about Congressman King.

But Wolf, as we both know, that is not the same as a statement of condemnation coming directly from the president.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thank you.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropped a bombshell about impeachment. Let's go to our Congressional Correspondent Phil Mattingly.

Tell our viewers what Nancy Pelosi is now saying.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN U.S. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Speaker Pelosi has made clear now for months that people should take caution before they go down the pathway of impeachment and now she is going further, saying in an interview with "The Washington Post," quote, "I'm not for impeachment.

"This is news. I'm going to give you some news right now because I haven't said this to any press person before. But since you asked, I have been thinking about this. Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there's something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don't think we should go down that path because it divides the country." And, of the president, "He's just not worth it."

Wolf, there's a couple things to pick out there. First and foremost, it needs to be bipartisan. In order for impeachment to actually move through the Senate, they would need no fewer than 20 Republicans to join all Democrats to actually move that through.

You put it with the idea that the Speaker also references the impeachment effort targeting Bill Clinton back in the '90s as being so politically divisive and you kind of understand, at least at this point in time, based on the facts at this moment, it is not a road she wants to go down.

Some in her caucus are introducing resolutions to do just that.

BLITZER: This comes just as, in the aftermath of a freshman congresswoman, saying she intended to file impeachment papers against the president, is this the Speaker's way of keeping her caucus in line?

MATTINGLY: I think it's more about running cover for her caucus. The Democrats are diverse. There are progressives like Rashida Tlaib who have made very clear they want impeachment as soon as possible.

There are also many, those who ensured Pelosi would become Speaker again, that Democrats would hold the majority again who don't want to have to talk about this on a regular basis, that don't want to go through the fight whether they would vote if an impeachment couldn't move forward.

That's where you see Pelosi's comments coming to the fore here. More about protecting her own members than trying to keep some other members in line.

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly, up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Meanwhile, former Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, went to jail for lying about his contacts with Russians. Today his wife testified behind closed doors up on Capitol Hill.

Shimon, so what did the Senate Intelligence Committee hope to learn today?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE PRODUCER: Right. The focus here would be technically more on her relationship with a former professor, who the U.S. government, the FBI has said, provided information to George Papadopoulos. It's this man named Mitsud.

He and George Papadopoulos had an encounter. Mitsud told Papadopoulos that he had dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign. And it's this person who Papadopoulos' wife had a relationship, she knew him from a previous job she held overseas as well.

It seems that this is what they want to know, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Of course, the wife has been out there. She has always tried to take advantage of the attention that the arrest and conviction --


PROKUPECZ: -- and guilty plea created. She has said that the FBI framed him. Before he pleaded guilty, she came out and said he was going to withdraw his plea. Obviously he didn't do that and wound up serving time.

I tried today reach her today. She said she couldn't talk because she made a promise to members on the committee that she would keep their meeting private.

BLITZER: We are also waiting for long-time Trump ally Roger Stone to submit a court filing today. We'll explain why his book that addresses the Mueller probe doesn't violate a court gag order.

Could the judge put Stone in jail if she is not happy with what he has to say?

PROKUPECZ: She could put him in jail. She could fine him. She could further institute some kind of release conditions. The point is she is not happy yet again with Roger Stone, this time because of a book that has been released previously and has a new introduction.

He advised the court he was going do this. She has all sorts of questions about when did he decide to do this?

There's a new part to this book, a new introduction with new information that attacks the Mueller team, the probe. It is that that she will take issue with. She is asking for more information.

When did he decide to do this?

Were his discussions with the publisher before the gag order?

She is hoping to learn more information. If she is not satisfied with what he has to say in these court filings that are supposed to come any minute, it is a very good chance she will drag him back to court and may put him in jail.

BLITZER: The former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was just sentenced to almost four years in prison. He could serve more time when he is sentenced for separate crimes on Wednesday. Today the White House press secretary said a pardon is still on the table.

How significant is that?

PROKUPECZ: It is very significant. Manafort could be facing up to another 10 years if the judge decides to give him the maximum. What is significant is the fact Trump still has not backed down from the idea that perhaps there is a chance for Manafort to get pardoned in all of this.

If you think about it on Friday when the president spoke he said again feeling bad, he keeps giving us hints he wants to go ahead. His attorneys do not want him doing anything like this while Mueller is still in engaged.

Keep if mind there are prosecutors in New York, local prosecutors, that intend to charge Paul Manafort if he is pardoned.

BLITZER: Shimon Prokupecz, reporting for us, thank you very much.

Joining us now Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia. He's a member of the Oversight Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee.

Want to get your reaction to this news of Nancy Pelosi saying I'm not for impeachment.

What's your reaction?

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: I think she is being Speaker. I think she is lowering expectations about the prospect of impeachment and reminding people of the gravity of that move.

I think that's a useful thing to remind us that impeachment is a last resort in the Constitution, not a first resort.

BLITZER: Do you agree with her?

CONNOLLY: I wouldn't go as far as the Speaker. If we're presented with compelling evidence that the president committed impeachable offenses, I think we have to vote for impeachment.

BLITZER: You think the Mueller report will do that?

CONNOLLY: I don't know.

BLITZER: A lot of expectations, you guys, the Democrats will be disappointed when he releases his report to the attorney general, the attorney general decides what to release to the Congress and to the public.

CONNOLLY: I think the Mueller report will be an important document for us. But we have our own investigations that are underway. So far, we have had one public hearing. It is very early to make a judgment as to whether this could lead to impeachment.

But I think Pelosi is serving a useful purpose, setting some ground rules that you have to meet a very high bar.

BLITZER: Is she wrong to be issuing a statement, impeachment proceedings a bad idea?

CONNOLLY: I think she is setting a bar for all of us that we have to pay attention to.

BLITZER: Because you understand where she is coming from?


BLITZER: The House Rules Committee are considering a resolution that would call for the Mueller report to be released to the public in full.

Is that purely symbolic?

Is it going to go anywhere?

What's your thought?


CONNOLLY: I think the special prosecutor's report belongs in the public domain. I think sunshine is the best disinfectant. I think the public needs to know what everybody else knows.

BLITZER: What if they don't have any evidence that the president committed some sort of crime?

The Justice Department rules are -- Comey violated it -- but you don't release that kind of information if you're not going to charge someone.

CONNOLLY: The release of the document, whatever is there, will lead to a vigorous debate. Whatever he finds or doesn't find will be supplemented by ongoing congressional investigations.

BLITZER: The latest developments involving Michael Cohen, the president tweeted that Cohen directly asked him for a pardon.

Today the White House is refusing to elaborate at all on that conversation.

How do you learn what happened if the White House won't provide further details on when the president alleges Cohen specifically asked for a pardon?

CONNOLLY: It's problem because I think "The Washington Post" last week said this president, so far in his term in office, is up to 9,000 lies and counting. So trusting him to be a source for what may or may not have taken place in a private conversation is dubious at best.

Michael Cohen will have to explain his testimony. He may have been meaning after the mutual defense agreement expired, I did not seek the pardon nor would I accept one.

BLITZER: What's your reaction to the president saying publicly and privately that Democrats hate Jews?

CONNOLLY: That was one of the most hateful and odious utterances of anyone who has ever occupied the Oval Office, to smear the loyal opposition with that kind of incredible biased statement is just a new low in our politics. It's clearly not true. It's very, very hurtful and I think it's designed to divide in the hope that he can gain American Jewish voters. I don't think it will work at all.

BLITZER: You heard Sanders say that's because you, the Democrats, didn't specifically cite Congresswoman Oman in your resolution. CONNOLLY: I don't think Ms. Sanders has a lot of credibility after Charlottesville, after Steve King, after so many comments by this president, after his singling out various and sundry ethnic groups -- Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, African Americans -- for hateful remarks and racist remarks. I don't think they have any standing to comment on the opposition.

BLITZER: Congressman Connolly, thanks for coming in.

CONNOLLY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, breaking news. In a stunning twist, Pelosi says she is a no when it comes to impeachment.

Why is she rejecting a move favored by so many within her caucus?

After a second catastrophic crash, Boeing's newest jets are grounded in many countries but still flying here in the United States.

Are they safe?





BLITZER: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now dismissing the idea of impeaching Trump despite reiterating her belief that the president is unfit for office. Pelosi says, quote, "He is just not worth it."

Experts are here with analysis.

Abby Phillip, what do you think?

How significant is this?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it tells you a lot about how Pelosi sees the politics of the next several years. For some Democrats, the top priority is voting Trump out. There's a concern that what will happen is what happened with Bill Clinton during his impeachment. His approval rating could go up and causing Democrats to lose out on public sentiment.

Nancy Pelosi said it is her guiding star for how she will be Speaker of the House. She believes if she loses public sentiment, they will lose the entire effort here and they could end up inadvertently reelecting Donald Trump to a second term.

I think for Democrats, it is Pelosi trying to tell them, I know what I'm doing here. Trust me on this. We want to go the electoral route and not try to go forward with an impeachment process.

BLITZER: She says that he is not worth it. Why bother going through an impeachment process, in her words, he's not worth it.

What do you think?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: To pick up on what Abby said, she talked about the Clinton impeachment as being crippling for the nation and so divisive. This is without a president that had access to social media and every day was calling these investigations a witch hunt and presidential harassment.

So I think that she sort of sees the writing on the wall when it comes to what the poll numbers suggest, about how Americans feel about impeachment. We don't have a Mueller report at the time. She's nothing if not very strategic. She wanted to put this on the record. She said it in the interview. She prefaced it by saying I'm going to make news right now. I have been giving this a lot of thought.

It's pretty clear she was not only speaking to the American public and probably to the president as well but also to her own constituents.


BLITZER: Is she signaling that she doesn't really believe the Mueller report is going to rise to the level of impeachment?

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is hard to say exactly but it does feel like she is saying, given what we know now and what has been made public, she doesn't see an avenue for impeachment.

I agree that impeachment really is an extraordinary remedy. I think she was careful in saying this is based on what we know today. She's left herself some room if there's something that so galvanizes the whole country that the Republicans and Democrats support impeachment. Short of that, I think she sent a strong message not wanting to go there.

BLITZER: The impeachment process begins in the House of Representatives. The Democrats have the majority and you need a simple majority to impeach a president but then it goes to the Senate for a full trial. You need a two-thirds majority to convict the president and remove that president from office.

I suspect she believes that they won't ever go along with this. There won't be a two-thirds majority and why waste everyone's time in the House?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE GUARDIAN": That's precisely the thinking among Democrat leaders that even if you were to get enough support to pass something through the House, then you wouldn't have that two-thirds majority in the Senate.

If you look at how the Republicans have talked about the Russia investigation, they are a lot more inclined to be deferential to the president to downplay any evidence of wrongdoing even in the face of all of these indictments and guilty pleas.

Where the calculus might change is if the president takes a step that is a red line for not just Democrats but even Republicans in Congress. If, for example, he were to fire the counsel, if he were to pardon someone like Paul Manafort, which the White House still isn't taking off the table.

But to Abby's point right now, if you look at the public, it is something that is still very polarizing. A majority of Americans do not think that the president should be impeached. You have seen some of those numbers go up.

So again, a lot of this depends on the president's own actions in the course of the coming months. But again, they do not want to potentially hand a reelection to this president.

PHILLIP: She is not saying let's just treat him with kid gloves. The Democrats are engaged in an oversight process over all aspects of the president's administration and the president's business life and even some aspects of his personal life that could be fodder for Democrats to do what they want to do, continue to investigate him.

From a political perspective, they want to weaken him going into his reelection.

BLITZER: Stick around. There's a lot more we want to discuss. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:32:30] BLITZER: Now, let's get back to the news right now and beyond. I want to play for you a clip. This is the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders repeatedly reacting to questions about a report that the President told told a Republican fundraiser in Mar-a- Lago behind closed doors over the weekend that democrats hate Jewish people. Listen to this.


REPORTER: Does the President really believe democrats hate Jews?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, the President has been an unwavering and committed ally to Israel and Jewish people. And, frankly, the remarks that have been made by a number of democrats and filed to be called out by democrat leadership is, frankly, abhorrent.

REPORTER: Yes or no. Does the President truly believe that democrats hate Jews?

SANDERS: I am not going to comment on a potentially leaked argument [ph]. I can tell you what --

REPORTER: Does he think democrats hate Jewish people as he sent this out on --

SANDERS: I think they have had a lot of opportunities over the last few weeks to condemn, so the abhorrent comments.

REPORTER: Does he really believe democrats hate Jews? I'm just trying to get a sense of that.

SANDERS: I think that's a question you have to ask the democrats.


BLITZER: All right. So, I mean, what's your reaction, Bianna, when you here that? She was so struggling to react to this report. Even though the other day before leaving the White House, the President said democrats are anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.

GOLODRYGA: Well, we didn't hear her deny that the President had said that as had been reported yesterday. Look, we've hit another new low when you read a headline like that. The President can just paint an entire party as being anti-Semitic, especially at a time where you see anti-Semitism around the world on the rise, including here in the U.S. just months after the Pittsburgh shooting. It does hit a new low.

And it doesn't take much to come out and say that that's not what the President meant or that maybe the democrats could have reacted stronger to one of their congressmen in some of her Tweets as opposed to painting an entire party as anti-Semitic.

And I think this is a President taking an opportunity to showcase close ties to the Israeli Prime Minister ahead of the elections in Israel. I think he said if he were electable in Israel, he would give a 98% approval rating. He was eligible to be on the ballot there.

So I think the President seems to be conflating his relationship with one Prime Minister in Israel with his entire relationship with a religion. And, obviously, there have been some concerns about some of the President's comments over the past couple of years.


I don't have to go through all of them. And some tropes that many people had called him out for and others within his own party.

BLITZER: Anne, how do you see it?

MILGRAM: You know, this is one of those moments where you kind of just can't believe that the dialogue has gotten to the point where the President would lump everyone together as a political party. And so, you know, who has done civil rates and hate crimes, prosecutions across the country, I just find it deeply troubling to have the President of the United States using this type of language and a conversation about an American ally and a religion.

BLITZER: It's hard to believe we're even having, Sabrina, this kind of conversation right now.

SIDDIQUI: Well, it certainly shows the extent to which the President and republicans for that matter are trying to seize on this controversy over Ilhan Omar, the freshman congresswoman who has invited a lot of controversy or comments she has made about the pro- Israeli lobby here in Washington, inviting some criticism, that comment she made were anti-Semitic. And this is a President who has had his own history of making controversial claims particularly with respect to the Jewish community, of course, accused of courting white nationalists after Charlottesville saying there were fine people on both sides.

And they see an opportunity here to flip the script, especially because, according to the best and available public data, democrats have carried the Jewish-American vote in 24 consecutive presidential elections. The data but then when you increase this kind of hostile rhetoric, I don't think that's the way that you are actually going to be able to convince this constituency that you are, in fact, the candidate that they should vote for. I think it's only adding to a lot of the tension that's already been around this conversation that people want to move on from.

BLITZER: Abby, what are you hearing behind the scenes?

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, well, the lack of -- one of the problems for this White House and one of the problems for Sarah Sanders when she goes up to that podium is that it's very hard to square these kinds of comments that the President makes, like he did about democrats, with what the President says in public, when he said there are very fine people on all sides of the Charlottesville debate, when there were people chanting Jews will not replace us on the streets, when, as a candidate, he re-Tweeted a meme that had a Star of David over a pile of cash and the photo of Hillary Clinton, when there were some concerns about the imagery of associating democratic donors who happened to be Jewish with the desire to have some kind of grand conspiracy of controlling politicians and controlling the United States government. These are some of the problems with the President's rhetoric.

And so it's hard for Sarah Sanders to then square those things. She was asked today about that and it continues to be problematic for them. For the President, what he says in private is often a closed mirror of what he has said in public.

And it should come as no surprise what he told reporters on Friday, what he has Tweeted about this matches up with what he told donors behind closed doors when he was trying to get them to donate to his political campaign.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There is more news that's coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, including involving airlines around the world. They have grounded a popular commercial jet after two deadly crashes in just five months. Why is the newest version of the Boeing 737 still flying in the United States?



[17:42:47] BLITZER: Tonight, a very popular new commercial aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8 has been grounded by airlines around the world in the aftermath after two crashes with eerie similarities, but it's still in service here in the United States. CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us right now.

I assume federal regulators, Tom, they're concerned about the safety of this plane.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. And we're expecting a statement from the FAA any moment while safety advocates are saying this plane must be parked until we know it's safe.


FOREMAN: Tonight, growing questions and calls for caution after the fatal crash in Africa leaving 157 dead shortly after takeoff. China, Indonesia and Ethiopia are all ordering the newest version of Boeing 737, the model which crashed, grounded until more is known.

But the FAA, Boeing and U.S. carriers have yet to follow that lead. Southwest issued a statement saying, we remain confident in the safety of our fleet.

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: I have never said that, hey, it's unsafe to fly a particular model of aircraft. But in this case, I'm going to have to go there.

FOREMAN: The model called the Max has been a fuel efficient popular plane in the U.S. with dozens flying in the United States every day carrying passengers on some of the most popular airlines. But now, safety analysts are saying, hold on.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: I think the prudent thing to do is to ground these aircrafts

FOREMAN: Ethiopian officials say the senior pilot on the doomed plane had an excellent flying record and the routine maintenance check didn't reveal any problems. So many analysts are asking if something was wrong with the plane itself.

After all, last fall, an identical plane crashed in Indonesia taking 189 lives also within minutes of taking off. After the investigation there, the Federal Aviation Administration here issued a directive, warning pilots that a software problem could lead to difficulty controlling the airplane, significant altitude loss and possible impact with terrain, the plane diving itself into the earth.

We don't know if that happened here but --

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN TRANSPORT ANALYST: But there are too many similarities to say that isn't possible.



FOREMAN: In simple terms, analysts say this model, this model, because of its design and the engine placement, has a tendency to tilt upward in flight. So they have software on board that when that happens, it pushes the

nose automatically back down. But if it gets a false reading from a bad sensor, it can actually make the plane start diving directly toward the ground.

If the pilot does not overcome that software immediately and defeat it, then the plane can start essentially roller coasting through the air with potentially fatal results. That's what is believed from the initial investigation happened in Indonesia.

Did it happen in this crash? We do not know. And some people say you need to keep flying just to be safe in the meantime. But others say no, park these planes, keep them on the ground until we have real answers, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope they figure it out fairly soon. Lots at stake. Tom Foreman, excellent report. Thank you very much.

Just ahead, an alleged assassin of Kim Jong-un's half-brother has now been released from prison. Why were charges dropped despite video evidence suggesting her role in the poisoning?


[17:50:42] BLITZER: The public murder of Kim Jong-un's half-brother in a nerve agent attack in a busy international airport stunned the world. Now, one of the alleged assailants has been released. Let's go live to our Senior International Correspondent, Ivan Watson. He's joining us from Hong Kong.

So, Ivan, what's behind this very surprising move?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The short answer is lobbying, Wolf. It appears to be lobbying from the highest levels of the Indonesian government to set their citizen free, a citizen who was a key suspect in this incredible broad daylight murder.


WATSON (voice-over): More than two years after the brazen assassination of the North Korean dictator's half-brother, one of the key suspects in the murder is now suddenly free.

Siti Aisyah, a citizen of Indonesia, all smiles after Malaysian prosecutors suddenly dropped murder charges against her.

SITI AISYAH, SUSPECT IN THE ASSASSINATION OF KIM JONG-NAM (through translator): I feel so happy. I didn't expect that I will be released today.

WATSON (voice-over): Malaysian authorities arrested Aisyah and a Vietnamese woman named Doan Thi Huong after the deadly poisoning of Kim Jong-un's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam.

Security cameras filmed what appears to be the two women wiping something on his face in Kuala Lumpur Airport in February 2017. Soon after, he died, poisoned by V.X. nerve agent. Both women pleaded not guilty.

Four North Koreans have also been charged with Kim's killing. Their whereabouts are unknown.

Aisyah's unexpected release on Monday, apparently the result of high- level lobbying. At a press conference, Indonesian officials showed journalists this remarkable correspondence.

This undated letter from Indonesia's Minister of Law and Human Rights urges Malaysia's Attorney General to set Aisyah free. It argues, quote, Miss Aisyah was led to believe that her actions were for a reality show, hence she had no intention of killing Kim Jong-nam.

On March 8th, the Attorney General wrote back saying, Aisyah would be set free after, quote, taking into account the good relations between our respective countries.

Aisyah's release raises sudden questions about the fate of fellow suspect, Doan, from Vietnam. A question I raised this month with the Vietnamese Prime Minister as he was about to host the North Korean leader.

WATSON (on camera): Did the North Korean government apologize to Vietnam for the involvement of this Vietnamese woman, Doan Thi Huong, allegedly, in the murder of Kim Jong-nam?

NGUYEN XUAN PHUC, PRIME MINISTER OF THE SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM (through translator): This is an issue of the law. We also care about protecting the rights of our citizens. But both countries will discuss this specifically at a later time, not during this period.

WATSON (voice-over): Doan's attorney is now appealing for her release on the grounds of fairness as her trial resumes this week. After all, Siti Aisyah just escaped a possible death sentence and is now back home a free woman.


WATSON: Now, the defense attorney for the remaining Vietnamese suspect, Wolf, says that she has until Thursday to try to make her case. That's when she's expected to appear in court again. And he's urging the Vietnamese government to also intervene. A senior Vietnamese diplomat has told me that they're working hard on this case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan Watson, reporting for us, thank you very much.

Coming up, the breaking news. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drops a bombshell saying she's against impeachment, declaring that President Trump is, quote, just not worth it.


[17:59:49] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Refusing to answer. The White House holds its first briefing in some six weeks, but Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dodges questions about whether President Trump said Democrats hate Jews and about the President's checks to Michael Cohen. And she's not ruling out a pardon for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Not for impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi comes out against impeaching President Trump, saying -- and I'm quoting her now -- "He's just not worth it." And she gives a scathing asses assessment of his fitness for office.

Simona speaks. The wife of former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who went to jail for lying to FBI, talks to the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors. What were lawmakers hoping to learn from her?

And too close for comfort. The potential threat of Chinese cell phone technology to American nuclear weapons. Some experts warn that towers next to missile silos could pause a national security risk.

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