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THE SITUATION ROOM
Joe Biden Holding First Fundraiser Hours after Announcing Campaign; Trump Denies McGahn's Sworn Testimony; Interview with Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), on 2020 Democratic Field; Biden Jumps In; House Dems Launch Investigation of "Unprecedented" Homeland Security Firings and Role of Stephen Miller; Judge Orders Release for Man Accused of Plotting Terror Attack; Billed for Release. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired April 25, 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 HOST: Thanks so much for watching.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: Joe Public. Former vice president Joe Biden already raising money tonight just hours after making public his much-anticipated run for the White House and taking on President Trump directly.
Transcripts don't lie: the president angrily denies on Twitter he tried to shut down the Mueller investigation, even though top White House officials gave sworn testimony that he ordered former counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller.
North Korean ransom: CNN has learned that the Kim Jong-un regime demanded $2 million from the United States for the release of the American student, Otto Warmbier, who suspiciously fell into a coma in North Korean custody and later died.
And blocking testimony: as House Democrats open a new investigation into the administration, the White House digs in, determined to stop key officials from telling Congress what they know.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The former vice president, Joe Biden, on the campaign trail tonight, just hours after announcing his third bid for the White House in a video, sharply, sharply rebuking President Trump.
Also breaking, House Democrats launching another investigation of the administration. This one focusing in on the ouster of several top officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the role of the White House aide, Stephen Miller, in the firings. We'll talk about that and more with Congressman Jim Himes of the
Intelligence Committee and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, to our political reporter, Arlette Saenz. She is joining us from Philadelphia.
Biden is there in Philadelphia tonight. Give us the latest.
ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. I've been following Joe Biden throughout this first day of his official presidential campaign, first in Wilmington, Delaware. He's going to be arriving shortly where we are here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for a fund-raiser tonight.
It's a fund-raiser hosted by a Comcast executive. There's going to be a large showing of congressional delegation from here in Pennsylvania, including the state senator, Bob Casey, who is among those who has endorsed Joe Biden today.
The Biden team trying to come out with a strong show of force in this early moment of his presidential campaign.
SAENZ (voice-over): Joe Biden is hoping the third time will be the charm in his pursuit of the White House.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How does it feel to be a front-runner?
JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT AND PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, it's real early but I tell you what, the issue is going to be who -- not only who can win this but who is the best person to lead the country.
And that's what it's going to be all about. It's going to be for the voters to decide that.
SAENZ (voice-over): The former vice president making his entry into the 2020 race official with an online video.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN (voice-over): I'm announcing my candidacy for President of the United States.
SAENZ (voice-over): Front and center in Biden's campaign launch, president Donald Trump, Biden criticizing Trump's response to the 2017 violent protests in Charlottesville, where white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters, leaving one woman dead.
BIDEN (voice-over): He said there were, quote, "some very fine people on both sides."
Very fine people on both sides?
Those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.
SAENZ (voice-over): He issued a dire warning about the country's future if Trump is re-elected.
BIDEN (voice-over): If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SAENZ (voice-over): Biden's candidacy getting the attention of the president, who welcomed Biden to the race in a tweet, warning of a "nasty" primary fight, while adding, "If you make it, I will see you at the starting gate."
At a pizza shop in Wilmington, Biden responded.
BIDEN: Everybody knows Donald.
SAENZ (voice-over): The former vice president receiving a warmer welcome from Democrats, including former president Barack Obama. An Obama spokeswoman issuing a statement, praising Biden's, quote, "knowledge, insight and judgment" and noting the, quote, "special bond between the two men" but not offering an endorsement.
Biden telling reporters he welcomes the competition.
BIDEN: I asked President Obama not to endorse and he doesn't want to -- this -- we should -- whoever wins this nomination should win it on their own merits.
SAENZ (voice-over): Biden came up short in two previous runs in 1988 --
SAENZ (voice-over): -- and 2008. The 76-year old will now need to navigate an historically diverse field that currently includes 19 other candidates.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why are you the best choice for Democrats?
BIDEN: That will be for the Democrats to decide.
SAENZ: Joe Biden is going to be running on his years of experience in Washington. And along with that comes a long record that is going to face fresh scrutiny, certain areas of that. And one of those areas came up today. That was his handling of the 1991 Anita Hill testimony, when she accused a Supreme Court justice nominee, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment.
Tonight we're learning Joe Biden and Anita Hill have in fact spoken recently. I want to read a statement from his spokesperson that said, "They had a private discussion where he shared with her directly his regret for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country."
And tonight, Anita Hill has also spoken to "The New York Times." She gave them a quote, saying, "I cannot be satisfied by simply saying 'I'm sorry for what happened to you.' I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose."
She told "The New York Times" that she is not ready to support Joe Biden until he is actually held accountable or accepts responsibility for his actions during that hearing. This is just one of the many questions Joe Biden is going to face in these early days of this campaign.
BLITZER: CNN's Arlette Saenz in Philadelphia, covering the Biden campaign, thank you, Arlette.
We'll have a lot more on the Biden campaign coming up. Our political experts are standing by. We'll get to that.
First, to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, at the White House.
The president is taking some sharp exceptions to a critical finding by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He certainly is. President Trump angrily denied one of the key findings in the Mueller report that he ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
The problem for the president, Mueller's report is drawn from comments made by people who swore to tell the truth.
That raises the question, if the White House isn't worried about what McGahn has to say, why is the West Wing blocking his testimony?
ACOSTA (voice-over): Swatting away a key finding in the Mueller report, President Trump denied he attempted to shut down the Russia investigation, a denial that came in his favorite social media echo chamber as he tweeted, "I never told then White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so.
"If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn't need McGahn to do it. I could have done it myself."
But that's not true, according to the Mueller report, based on interviews with top White House officials who swore to tell the truth or face perjury charges, the report states the president called McGahn at home and directed him to call the acting attorney general and stated the special counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed.
Democrats have subpoenaed McGahn to settle the issue at a hearing.
REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI), MEMBER, JUDICIARY AND FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEES: A witness is compelled to comply. If a witness does not, he or she will be held in contempt and thereafter civil action can be undertaken that can impose fines and even imprisonment for the failure to comply.
ACOSTA (voice-over): The president has vowed to fight that subpoena.
TRUMP: We're fighting all the subpoenas. Look, these aren't like impartial people. The Democrats are trying to win 2020.
ACOSTA (voice-over): But a former Trump transition official who's now a critic of the president wonders why he is standing in the way of McGahn's testimony.
J. W. VERRET, FORMER TRUMP TRANSITION AIDE: I think it's incredibly unfair and dishonorable of the president to call Don McGahn a liar and then forbid him an opportunity to speak up for himself in a public forum. I think someone who doesn't give his staff that kind of loyalty doesn't deserve it in return, to be frank.
ACOSTA (voice-over): New questions are also being raised about the Trump administration's high stakes negotiations with North Korea after "The Washington Post" reported that Pyongyang demanded a $2 million payment to cover the medical expenses for Otto Warmbier, who died after being imprisoned by the regime.
A former U.S. official who helped negotiate Warmbier's release said he was under strict orders to secure the American student's release.
JOSEPH YUN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It was clearly understood by me and Rex Tillerson indeed tell me, get him out.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Earlier this year, the president said he accepted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's denials about Warmbier's condition.
TRUMP: Some really bad things happened to Otto, some really, really bad things.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But why are you --
TRUMP: He tells me -- he tells me that he didn't know about it. And I will take him at his word.
ACOSTA (voice-over): The president also appears ready to troll the latest contender in the 2020 field of Democratic candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: We can't forget what happened in Charlottesville.
ACOSTA (voice-over): -- who jumped into the race with a video, slamming Mr. Trump for his handling of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA (voice-over): The president tweeted, "Welcome to the race, Sleepy Joe. I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign. It will be nasty - you'll be dealing with people who truly have some very sick and demented ideas."
Biden brushed off the tweet.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Vice President, do you have a message for President Trump?
He welcomed you in the race, questioned whether you have the intelligence to be the president of the United States.
BIDEN: Everybody knows Donald Trump.
ACOSTA: As for the president's tweet about Don McGahn, it perfectly illustrates why the Trump legal team was adamantly opposed to an interview with the special counsel, given the president's history of making false statements.
The president's lawyers were obviously fearful that Mr. Trump could, in fact, perjure himself by contradicting the sworn statements made by top White House officials like Don McGahn.
But, Wolf, a source familiar with this issue says the president has not waived his right to assert executive privilege and block McGahn from testifying. That source said the president is allowed to express his opinions on Twitter without affecting his rights and privileges. That's a legal argument that's likely to be tested in court.
BLITZER: You're absolutely right. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut is joining us. He's a member of the Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Let me get your reaction first of all to the former Vice President Joe Biden, officially today jumping into the presidential race.
Is Biden the right candidate to lead Democrats into 2020?
REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT), MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Look, Biden is certainly the most experienced candidate, I think, in there. He's been a senator, been vice president, been expert in foreign policy. So I think his is a good additional voice.
I don't know if he's the right guy. That's exactly why we have a primary process, so the Democrats can figure out who they want to put up in November 2020. But he's certainly, obviously, a very, very big addition to a very, very big field. I'm going to enjoy watching and seeing what he brings to the competition.
BLITZER: So you're not ready to endorse him yet?
HIMES: You know, I don't think a lot of members of Congress are ready to endorse anybody just yet. I'm a huge fan of Joe Biden. He helped me politically over the years. I really respect him. I think he's a statesman. I think he's got great ideas. I'd also say that about some of the other folks in the field. So, no, I'm not quite ready to issue an endorsement just yet.
BLITZER: Let's turn to the Mueller report. The president tweeted this morning this.
He tweeted, "I never told then White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller."
But the Mueller report says, and I'm quoting from the Mueller report, "McGahn recalled the president telling him 'Mueller has to go' and 'Call me back when you do it.'"
Mueller also wrote that, and I'm quoting once again, this was from Mueller, "Substantial evidence supports McGahn's account."
Do you want to hear directly from McGahn to -- for him to testify before your committee or other congressional committees?
HIMES: Of course I do. And I think the Congress probably does, too. Of course, the president, Don McGahn is no longer his employee. So the president has no authority to order him not to appear before Congress.
I would think that, now that the president has actually called him a liar, he might want to come before the Congress in order to clear his name. But, you know, there's a larger thing the president is doing here. He's doing what he always does, which there are elements of the Mueller report, a lot of the Mueller report, quite arguably, the whole Mueller report, which are stories of just how gangster-like, how unethical this president and his people are.
And so he's trying to cast doubt on one of the charges that ultimately perhaps could be used in an obstruction investigation. He's trying to cast doubt by just saying it's not true. He does it all the time.
The other thing he's tried to do is to try to get us all to focus on one little element of the fact. Because if we're focused on that one little element, we're not talking about the fact that the president wrote a check in the Oval Office to a porn star in order to buy her silence.
We're not talking about the big picture, which is that somehow the president believes that this report is both rock solid exoneration of him but it's also -- I won't use the word on television -- bull. You could ask some questions about that.
But as long as he's directing our attention to some little issue around Don McGahn, we're not asking those questions.
BLITZER: What happens if, for whatever reason, Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, decides to defy the subpoena?
HIMES: Well, that would be -- that would really be something. We'd have a couple of routes of recourse, if you will. Number one, we could go to the courts. That's a pain in the neck because Congress has the right to subpoena an individual to appear.
The White House can assert executive privilege and, if they do that, they need to say to Don McGahn, we don't want you talking about the following conversations that you had with the president. That's legitimate. The White House cannot say -- there is no law, there is no justification, there is now precedent for the White House telling Congress that it can't subpoena an individual, a document or whatever else.
By the way, Don McGahn, I would think that he would be smart. The man is an attorney and I think he would realize that he probably doesn't want to spend the next six months of his life and the immense amount of resources it would take to fight a court battle, et cetera.
My guess is, at the end of the day, Don McGahn, regardless of what the president tells him, is likely to appear before Congress.
BLITZER: I want to go to the big picture, Congressman. You cautioned in the past that impeachment proceedings, in your words --
BLITZER: -- have exactly zero chance of removing President Trump. I assume you are referring to the fact that you need two-thirds votes, 67 senators to agree to do so. And that's pretty unlikely.
When you look at the president's efforts to stonewall congressional oversight, how does that influence your personal thinking about at least getting the ball started in the House of Representatives?
HIMES: Yes, so remember we're talking about two different things here.
Number one is, does this president deserve impeachment?
Has he possibly committed crimes that would cross that legal threshold in the Constitution of high crimes and misdemeanors?
To me, the answer to that question is yes. That doesn't mean we absolutely should impeach or, right out of the box, as the Speaker of the House has said, there's additional work to be done in terms of really highlighting the behavior of this president, holding investigations, bringing people like Don McGahn in front of us. That is all true.
It also remains true, I'm not sure that the probability that the Senate convicts is zero percent because I think I heard Senator Mitt Romney actually say some critical things about the president.
So maybe the chance of senatorial conviction is up to 1 percent or 2 percent now. But the point remains, those who see impeachment as a way of removing the president from office, we remain a long way from that being true.
That doesn't mean you don't do it. It just means don't go into this thinking that impeachment results in him no longer being president.
BLITZER: On a different subject, a subject close to my heart, but I'm anxious to get your thoughts; you are renewing your effort to require at least two White House press briefings per week.
What can you tell us about this legislation you are proposing, legislation you call the Free Press Act?
HIMES: Yes, and really more important than the legislation I'm introducing is what it is a reaction to. We're now at day 45 in which we have not heard a peep from the White House. There has been no press conference from Sarah Sanders, from anybody else.
That's a problem for our democracy. And I think I know why. I think the White House doesn't want to talk about the Mueller investigation, about the way forward.
But that's a real problem. The White House and the president are enormously, enormously powerful. The president has said that he is all into transparency and yet we've set a record with 45 days of absolutely no press conference, no opportunity for people like you to ask questions.
That's not about transparency. That's about hiding things. That's about being fearful that you might ask to get questions that would cause you have to have give tough answers.
So anyway, my legislation just says -- and I'm pretty cognizant of the fact that my legislation is not likely to become law next week when we get back -- but it does say the White House would be required to do at least two press gaggles a week and give reporters an opportunity to ask questions. That is, again, an essential part of our democracy.
BLITZER: Previous presidents, at least in modern times, have had briefings almost every day, every working day when the president is in town over at the White House. That's not the case right now. Congressman Jim Himes, thanks so much for joining us.
HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: The breaking news continues next. We'll get more on the new Biden campaign and the challenges he's facing in this increasingly crowded field of Democrats.
Plus, surprising new developments in the case of a U.S. Coast Guard officer accused of plotting a domestic terror attack.
BLITZER: The breaking news: the former vice president, Joe Biden, is already out there on the campaign trail just hours after he launched his third run for the White House. Biden joins 19 other Democrats officially seeking the presidential nomination.
Let's discuss with our political experts, a bunch of good ones here right now, starting with David Chalian, our political director.
The former vice president makes a strong case why he should be elected president in this official announcement on video today. He refers to the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN (voice-over): That's when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, "some very fine people on both sides."
Very fine people on both sides?
With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you think of that decision by the former vice president to immediately target but arguably, certainly the lowest if not one of the lowest points of the Trump presidency?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, I think there are three things going on there. And I think it was a strategically wise decision. I thought it was a really strong debut. Three things.
One, the rationale for why this 76-year-old guy, who has had a 46-year long career in Washington, is coming out of retirement because the stakes are so big. So it lays the table, big picture as to why he's doing this, for the soul of the nation.
Also two political strategic points going on here. One, he's trying to get ahead to the general election, take on Donald Trump mano a mano, and that, he thinks, is his best calling card in the primary fight to say, I'm the one that can beat Donald Trump. He wants to take it right to him.
And finally, the Charlottesville incident itself, one of the big questions about Joe Biden's candidacy is, can he relate to the modern day Democratic --
CHALIAN: -- Party?
It's not the same Democratic Party he sought to lead in 1988 or even in 2008. And by choosing that event, where racism was at its core, an event that has a specific emotional appeal to African Americans, a key constituency in this base, he didn't do the scram thing. He didn't do the lunch pail guy in the middle class, white working middle class guy that he has an appeal with as his launch.
He did this and he did it deliberately to show that he is attuned to this moment in the Democratic Party.
BLITZER: He showed video in that announcement, video from Charlottesville, where these protests -- where these thugs were walking around with Nazi signs, neo-Nazis, declaring, "Jews will not replace us." We all are familiar with that video.
DANA BASH, CNN SR. U.S. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, look. He's going to get into the fray with the 19, at least 19 competitors that he has, about the progressive ideas: Medicare for all, all of those things. That's going to be discussed ad nauseam.
But as David said so well, he wanted to set the table with the bigness of a Joe Biden candidacy.
And how did he do that?
He talked about the notion of what this country should be. It could potentially have gone sideways and been corny, frankly. And it wasn't. It wasn't because of who he is and the way they framed it.
And, you know, remember that this is not how this country should be at all. And certainly not in 2020. So appealing to just that -- cutting through all the noise and that basic premise of America should not be the way it is as it is with Donald Trump as president is really the 60,000 feet view of the Biden candidacy.
BLITZER: That argument will resonate with a lot of Democrats out there.
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes, and I think we, to some extent, underestimate Biden at our own peril. I think his warts are somewhat obvious. He's an older man in a time when the party is moving younger.
He's a white male at a time the party is diversifying. He's the establishment at a time when the party is looking to outside voices. All those things are true and they are all hurdles he'll have to overcome. But he does bring significant heft, just to add to what David and Dana
were talking about.
There is an element of every presidential race, where you have to say, can I imagine this person being President of the United States?
Now the Donald Trump equation there is interesting. I don't know if the voters thought that or they wanted change and they didn't care if he looked like a president. But in the past, prior to 2016, that was always a, can I imagine this person looking -- is this a person who can carry on the national stage and on the world stage?
Biden has that built in because of the depth of his experience. He's been around. He's seen all this stuff before and he can speak from a position of authority. So I think there's a lot, yes, there are warts. There are problems. He is not the Hillary Clinton front- runner of the 2016 race, although that wound up being closer.
But he is in that top tier for a reason. I think that video shows it.
BLITZER: One of the reasons -- and I spoke with some pro-Trump political activists who suggested to me they probably fear Biden more than any of the other Democratic potential candidates because they think he could really challenge the president in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that Trump won, that Hillary Clinton couldn't take.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, that's right. Vice president Biden, whatever else, was a very effective number two for President Obama. People remember those years. He had a long career in the Senate that allowed him to have universal name recognition.
And he's a sunny, upbeat guy, even if these aren't sunny, upbeat times. And so I think people are looking to that and it provides a contrast with President Trump, who is more divisive and more combative. So, at a minimum, I think Biden goes in with that strength. I think he has some major weakness in this race but, as Dana said, he had a very strong rollout today.
CILLIZZA: Just one thing on electability. At least I would dismiss likeability in a primary because usually primary voters don't tend to be head voters. They're strategic, like a lot of us, well, this person polls better than this person against Donald Trump. Usually they vote for the candidate they like.
I wonder -- and this is just a wonder -- I always defer to David on these things, so I'm making sure if he agrees with this -- but I wonder if, with Donald Trump in the White House, the Biden electability, which is clearly his strongest, I think, argument, other than I've been there and I've done that, that I'm the guy who can win.
Does it actually have some salience with primary voters, who ultimately, yes, they want someone who agrees with them but more they want to get rid of Trump?
(CROSSTALK) CHALIAN: There is more of a hearing for that argument right now in the electorate.
BLITZER: Guys, stick around. Much more on the former vice president, formally announcing today his run for the presidency. We'll be right back.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with our political experts. And David Chalian, you hear this a lot out there that if Biden were to get close to getting the Democratic presidential nomination, if he were to pick somebody even in advance like Senator Kamala Harris, for example, as his potential running mate, and if she were to agree, that would help him enormously?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, right now Senator Kamala Harris is --
BLITZER: She's running herself.
CHALIAN: -- his opponent. I don't think she's ready to jump on a Biden ticket yet. There was talk about Stacey Abrams. You know, every cycle there's a notion of, can you throw a Hail Mary and change the way you do it and get on - first of all, people don't tend to vote for vice president very much. They really vote for the person sitting at the top of the ticket. He no doubt will want to balance his age and race and all of that and region and all that when he looks for a running mate but I'm not sure that will happen.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And the question also I think along the lines of maybe you were going there, Wolf, is not just here's going to be who my running mate is but I'm 76 years old and I'm not going to deal with this for more than one term. That would be completely not unprecedented but very unusual in modern times.
CHALIAN: Which his advisers said that he batted around -
CHALIAN: Do a one-term pledge but that he had ruled it out.
BASH: He ruled it out. Which is, again, understandable because if you say I'm doing a one-term pledge you're putting in more than one seed in every voter's mind that maybe you're not so sure you can even make it through the first term. So that's understandable.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And David used the word Hail Mary. You know that they can (INAUDIBLE) Hail Mary's. I think that's the right way to think about it. Which is if you are Joe Biden, I always thought this about the one term thing or the -- we're going to announce a young, hip, cool running mate. The danger there is you're basically saying, OK, I have enough glaring errors that I need to do these unorthodox things because otherwise I don't think I can win. Joe Biden shouldn't say that.
Look at where he is. He's in first place in every national poll. He is in first place in every poll in Iowa that I've seen, same thing in New Hampshire, close with Sanders there. But there's no reason for him to fling it all the way down the field at this point and I think anything like that, whether it's intentional or not, that's what it looks like.
BLITZER: How do you say -
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only thing I would add to what everybody said is that even though Senator -- Vice President Biden is older, he's not that much older than President Trump. And so I think that doesn't play as tough for him if he gets to a general.
BLITZER: Biden is 76. Trump is 72.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Bernie Sanders who is the other --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's older than Biden.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, I mean you know -
BASH: But if -- you just made the key point for the general election. Right now the question is, how it's going -- how is it going to look, how he's going to feel? How voters are going to react to him on a stage with a couple of 37-year-olds, others who are you know also a lot younger than he is.
[17:35:07] Not just -- it's not just going to be about experience, and so on and so forth. It's going to be about the same thing that drove Barack Obama to the White House, the same thing that drove Donald Trump. Change. Are we ready for something different, something new, something younger? And that is something that is just not predictable right now in the age of Trump because everything is turned on its head. Or maybe it's not.
BLITZER: Were you surprised he didn't get a formal endorsement from the former President Barack Obama who had selected him as his running mate next in line to the presidency?
CHALIAN: No, I was not surprised. I think Barack Obama telegraphed for quite some time that he was not going to get involved.
BLITZER: Would there have been anything wrong with the former president saying you know I picked him as my vice president. I thought he was best as my vice president. He's now running for president. I endorse him.
CHALIAN: Wouldn't be anything wrong with it except that he would enrage obviously several parts of the party because he would be putting his thumb on the scale. That would obviously be a very big deal, nothing wrong. Barack Obama can choose to do that. But you saw the statement that we heard from an associate of his today who said that Obama thought the primaries of 2007 and 2008 made him a better candidate, made him a better president and he's very excited about the diverse field that he sees in his party right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There' no - I mean if you're Barack Obama standing back, you've done plenty for Joe Biden. Joe Biden's political career is effectively over in that 2008 race. He could stay in the Senate but he's not going for the -- you selected him as VP.
Barack Obama's legacy is cemented. Why pick a fight with some or many parts of the party by selecting Joe Biden. If he's the best candidate, then he'll win. If he's not, then Barack Obama's decision was smart.
BLITZER: All of a sudden, we're talking also about Anita Hill. She tells "The New York Times" today she cannot support the former vice president who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the testimony involving the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings back in 1991. She says, "I cannot be satisfied by simply saying I'm sorry for what happened to you. I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose." Because we had learned earlier in the day the two of them had a conversation.
BASH: That's right. Betty Field (ph) told our Brianna Keilar here that they had talked, wouldn't give any more information. The fact that Anita Hill is not giving the former vice president an out is very interesting. Basically, just to sort of sum up what that said. You got to work for it. You got to work harder for it. Saying I'm sorry is not going to change the fact that when you were Senate Judiciary chairman on a panel of all men, I was not treated well. And you have to make clear through your actions, through your proposals and, you know, and many more things that things that you really do see the world in a different place. And again, the reality is he is running against people who came up in a different world. So they inherently, innately know the world as a different place.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. So I think the challenge for Vice President Biden in terms of a debate stage. Look he was effective when he debated Governor Palin back in 2008. I think he'll actually be effective in terms of age with the contrast with some of those younger candidates. And I think he'll be OK on the issues.
The problem is he's had so many different issues over the course of his very long career that there are so many things debate moderators can ask him about. He can't just compartmentalize the Anita Hill tension. He has got to address his Iraq war vote. He's got to address his 1988 campaign. He's got to address the controversy with assembly woman Flores. Sooner or later you have too long of a list to say you're compartmentalizing. People are coming at you from all sides. That will be his challenge.
BLITZER: We're going to watch it every step of the way. Guys, stick around. There's more news we're following. The attorney for a man accused of plotting to kill prominent Democrats and members of the news media says her client's alleged list of targets, quote, "looks like the sort of list our commander in chief might have compiled." Stay with us for that.
Plus, CNN has learned that North Korea demanded a $2 million ransom in exchange for the release of the American student Otto Warmbier.
[17:41:39] BLITZER: Breaking news. House Democrats have opened a new probe into President Trump's firing of top officials over the Department of Homeland Security. Let's go to our congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty. She's tracking all the news from Capitol Hill. Sunlen, tell us more about this late-breaking investigation.
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is just another chapter in the escalating, the quickly escalating tug of war between the White House and Democrats up here on Capitol Hill. Today Democrats are essentially trying to ratchet up their pressure on the White House. The chairman of the House Judiciary, Oversight and Homeland Security Committees are demanding new documents from the Department of Homeland Security. They want to know what role President Trump and specifically also White House senior adviser Stephen Miller had in the firings and resignations of some recent DHS top officials, including former Secretary Nielsen who resigned earlier this month.
The letter sent to DHS today says in part, quote, "We are deeply concerned that the firing and forced resignation of these officials puts the security of the American people at risk. We are also concerned that the president may have removed DHS officials because they refused his demands to violate federal immigration law and judicial orders. Moreover, we are concerned by reports that, even as he has removed the department's leadership, the president has sought to empower a White House aide Stephen Miller, to 'be in charge of handling all immigration and border affairs.'"
And this, of course, comes after last night. The White House defied the Democrats on Capitol Hill and turned down their request to have Stephen Miller testify in front of the House Oversight Committee on immigration. That's one of several subpoenas the White House is defying as Democrats, Wolf, try to figure out a way to push forward.
BLITZER: All right. Sunlen thanks very much. Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill.
And yet there's more breaking news. A federal judge has just ruled that a U.S. Coast Guard officer accused of plotting a domestic terror attack must -- must be released from detention. Christopher Hasson now faces weapons and drug charges but has not been charged with terrorism. Our justice correspondent Jessica Schneider has been gathering more information. It's pretty surprising. Why has he been released?
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's going to be released, Wolf. And the judge said that really his alleged crimes don't fit the standard for continued detention. So this is Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson. He's been in jail since mid-February. He's accused of plotting a domestic terror attack. But a grand jury has actually only indicted him on weapons and drug charges. So, Hasson's public defender saying in court today that the case against Hasson has really been overblown, and the attorney even went so far to say that Hasson's views aren't that different from those of President Trump. Hasson allegedly kept a hit list of Democrats he wanted to kill, and he kept more than a dozen firearms in his apartment which you can see there. But his attorney said the names that Hasson allegedly assembled weren't actually part of a hit list but instead, quote, "...looks like the sort of list that our commander in chief might have compiled while watching Fox News in the morning."
The defender actually adding to that, that the racial slurs that Hasson wrote are now part of the, quote, "...national vocabulary saying Donald Trump uses similar epithets in his everyday language and tweets." So some strong words there from the public defender.
[17:45:02] But prosecutors disagreeing. The assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland said Hasson was ready and willing to carry out a massive attack. Putting it this way, saying, "This is combat gear. There is no reason to have this. The defendant intended to take his weapons and go."
But the judge here siding with Christopher Hasson saying that he will soon be released and the terms of his release will be decided at a later hearing. But still the judge saying he has grave concerns about Hasson, especially because he stockpiled those weapons and even conducted online searches for the home addresses of multiple Supreme Court justices.
So because Hasson is likely still a threat, the judge put it this way when talking about his eventual release saying, "He's got to have a whole lot of supervision. Somebody who's got eyes and ears on him like nobody's business."
So, Wolf, the judge warning that Hasson is still a threat here but now Hasson's attorney is drawing up some multiple options for his release when he is eventually released. That will be decided at another hearing to come.
BLITZER: It will be surprising development. We'll watch it closely. Thank you very much.
Just ahead, CNN has learned that North Korea demanded $2 million in exchange for American student Otto Warmbier who died shortly after his return home. The United States still hasn't paid the ransom. Could the audacious demand complicate negotiations between President Trump and Kim Jong-un?
[17:51:04] BLITZER: A shocking revelation tonight. CNN has learned that North Korea audaciously billed the United States for the care of an American student who suspiciously felt into a coma while in North Korean custody and later died.
CNN's Brian Todd got details for us. Brian, this came to light as Kim Jong-un was having his first meeting with Russian President Putin. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Wolf. As Kim Jong-un seemed to signal the United States by flaunting those connections he now have with Vladimir Putin, we learned of that very defiant demand Kim had made of the Trump administration and we spoke to the American envoy who received that bill.
TODD (voice-over): It was a brazen demand from the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea to the Trump administration. Sources say a $2 million bill to the U.S. for the hospital care of comatose American student Otto Warmbier. Sources tell CNN the North Koreans insisted that the U.S. sign a pledge to pay the bill before they release the 22-year-old from their custody in 2017.
Sources say the bill was presented to U.S. envoy Joseph Yun who was sent to North Korea to win the release of the University of Virginia student and that Yun signed a pledge to pay it. Tonight, Yun isn't commenting on whether he signed the pledge but tells CNN he had strict orders from the Secretary of State and the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOSEPH YUN, FORMER U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR NORTH KOREA POLICY: It was clearly understood by me and Rex Tillerson indeed told me get him out.
TODD (on camera): And were those orders from President Trump?
YUN: I believe they were. Yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD (voice-over): The doctor who traveled with Yun to Pyongyang told "The Washington Post," he examined Warmbier in an intensive care unit there that he thought North Korean doctors had done state-of-the-art resuscitation to try to revive Warmbier and that he was surprised Yun had to negotiate for Warmbier's release. Yun would only tell us the negotiations were delicate and he had no guarantee from the North Koreans when he arrived that he'd be able to leave with Warmbier.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YUN: In the end, you know, it was a lot of back and forth on that type of argument I made. Their -- their argument was that he was a criminal and you know, why would they let out a criminal for no particular reason. I told them then, he was sick. He needed to be taken care of by his parents.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Warmbier who was sentenced to jail for tearing down a propaganda poster in his hotel died from brain damage shortly after he was brought back to Ohio. What caused his injuries remains unclear. The North Koreans said he contracted botulism. Warmbier's parents said he was tortured but refused an autopsy. Tonight, Warmbier's father tells "The Washington Post," the $2 million demand sounds like, quote, "ransom."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GREG SCARLATOIU, COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: Otto Warmbier died at the hands of the Kim regime. This is the ultimate cruelty being perpetrated on to the Warmbier family and the people of the United States I would say.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: The U.S. has not yet paid that bill. A source tells CNN, but North Korea could still demand it. Adding another wrinkle to Donald Trump's already complicated negotiations. Those talks hit a stand- still after a failed February summit in Hanoi with Kim. Instead North Korea's leader today was turning to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a summit in Vladivostok. The two leaders exchanged swords as gifts and talked for three and a half hours on topics including denuclearization.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (via translator): Chairman Kim Jong- un is quite an open person and speaks freely. We had a very detailed conversation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Some experts say Kim's meeting with Putin is a sign that Kim's personal relationship with Trump is in trouble and Kim could be looking elsewhere for partners. Analysts say Kim could be trying to put pressure on President Trump to make concessions and even get under Trump's skin.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER TO NIXON, FORD, REAGAN AND CLINTON: He likes to be center stage. We all know that. And to have Putin take back center stage from him is something that -- that will aggravate the hell out of him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Neither the White House nor the State Department would comment on the North Korean's $2 million bill for Otto Warmbier's care and we have this just in from the North Korean news agency, quoting Kim Jong- un or citing him as saying that the situation on the Korean peninsula is at a stand-still at a critical point where it may return to its original state.
[17:55:05] And according to this Kim said the U.S. took a unilateral attitude in bad faith at the summit in Hanoi, Wolf. So, we're at a very kind of tricky diplomatic point tonight as Kim kind of weighs in, again, at the summit in Hanoi saying the U.S. acted in bad faith.
BLITZER: Yes. Tensed situation indeed. Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.
There's breaking news, next, the former Vice President Joe Biden already fundraising tonight after just hours jumping into the 2020 race.
BLITZER: Happening now. Breaking news, Joe's in. The former vice president makes his bid for the White House official. With a takedown of President Trump's response to white supremacists in Charlottesville.