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THE SITUATION ROOM

Sen. Ben Cardin (D) Maryland Interviewed About Trump's One Hour Phone Call with Putin; Contradicting Pompeo; What About Bob?; Record Economy; Trump to Run on Economy as Unemployment Reaches Lowest Point; Mother of Otto Warmbier: My Son Looked "Like He'd Seen the Devil". Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 3, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:14]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news.

Didn't discuss that after talking with Russia's Vladimir Putin for more than an hour, President Trump tells reporters they discussed the Mueller report and Putin joked the investigation was a mountain that turned into a mouse. But why didn't the president bring up all of Mueller's evidence of Russia's meddling in the U.S. election?

Contradicting Pompeo. Despite what the Secretary of State told me just days ago, President Trump downplays Russia's role in Venezuela's chaos and tells reporters Putin is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela. Is the president frustrated with what -- with top aides who want tougher action against Venezuela's Russian-backed regime?

What about Bob? The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to know what Robert Mueller thinks about a vitally important point in Attorney General William Barr's sworn testimony. Is Mueller upset because Barr inaccurately summed up the finding of the Russia probe? Or as Barr testified, only upset with the media coverage?

And record economy. In the wake of a glowing report on jobs and the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years, President Trump tells reporters he'll run on the economy next year. Will the voters give him credit?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories. President Trump says he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a very good talk that lasted more than an hour today. He says they discussed trade, North Korea, Venezuela, and a possible three-way nuclear weapons deal, including China. But get this. Even though President Trump says the two leaders talked about the Mueller investigation and Putin even made a joke about what the president calls the Russia hoax, he says they did not discuss Russia's meddling in the U.S. election.

The president also tells reporters, and I'm quoting him now, "I'll be running on the economy" after today's new jobs report shows the unemployment rate dropping to 3.6 percent, its lowest level since December 1969.

Also breaking, a new letter to Robert Mueller from Senator Lindsey Graham. The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Graham asked whether Mueller wants to refute Attorney General William Barr's sworn testimony about his reaction to the four-page summary of the Russia probe that Barr released in March.

We'll discuss all the day's breaking news with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He's on the Foreign Relations and Small Business Committees. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's start with CNN's White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, tell us more about the president's phone call with Vladimir Putin.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that call lasted for over an hour today, but one of the most critical aspects of Robert Mueller's investigation did not come up. Now the special counsel's report reveals in detail how Russia interfered in the U.S. election in sweeping fashion, but when President Trump spoke to the man who U.S. intelligence says is behind it all, the topic didn't come up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a very good talk with president Putin. And probably over an hour.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump was in high spirits after his first phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin since the release of the Mueller report.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We discussed, that he actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse. But he knew that, because he knew there was no collusion, whatsoever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: But his good mood was quickly dashed after a reporter asked if he had told Putin to stay out of American elections, which the special counsel said happened in sweeping and systemic fashion in 2016.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Excuse me. I'm talking. I'm answering this question. You are very rude.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Asked again if he warned Putin not to attack or interfere in the next election, the president said it didn't come up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We didn't discuss that. Really, we didn't discuss it. We've discussed five or six things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: It's a question his press secretary also refused to directly answer earlier in the day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The conversation on that part was very quick, but what I can tell you is that this administration, unlike the previous one, takes election meddling seriously.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: The phone call coming amid growing tensions between the United States and Russia over Venezuela.

Several senior administration officials have accused the Kremlin of intervening to prop up Nicolas Maduro, who the Trump administration is working to remove from power.

But today the president downplayed Putin's involvement.

[17:05:00] BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he would like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: That statement directly contradicting what his Secretary of State told Wolf three days ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: He had an airplane on the tarmac, he was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Russia has also acknowledged it has military personnel on the ground in Venezuela. Tonight, new CNN reporting reveals that in recent days, Trump has been at odds with his senior advisers, who have been teasing military action there. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POMPEO: The president has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible, if that's what's required, that's what the United States will do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Sources say Trump has instead cautioned his advisers to stick to the line that all options are on the table.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We have lots of options and some of them are very tough options.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: The president's skepticism coming after Juan Guaido's military uprising failed to gain traction this week.

The botched operation raising questions about the reliability of U.S. intelligence that members of Maduro's inner circle were ready to defect.

One thing the president is feeling confident about, the economy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Are you going to run on the economy?

TRUMP: Thank you, yes. Yes. I'll be running on the economy, sure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: A strong new jobs report revealing the U.S. economy added 263,000 jobs in April. And the unemployment rate fell to 3.6 percent, the lowest in 50 years.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Wolf, Trump has said for some time that all options are on the table when it comes to Venezuela, but our new reporting with the president being frustrated with aides who are pushing the military option too much comes as he's also been privately expressing some concern about Juan Guaido in Venezuela and whether or not he has a solid plan to not only win support from the military but also to take over and take power from Maduro. Now that comes as the president has been pressing his aides on how reliable the information coming out of Venezuela is and whether or not it's being interpreted properly.

Now, Wolf, until now, the president has given John Bolton, his national security adviser some pretty wide leeway into handling Venezuela, but this week he made clear that he does not want people like John Bolton or the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushing the military option as much as they have been. BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks for that report. There's more breaking news up on Capitol Hill. Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. Manu, Senator Lindsey Graham, he's the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has written a letter to the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. What did he say?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He's giving the special counsel an opportunity to clarify anything from Bill Barr's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. In that testimony, Bill Barr discussed in interactions that we had with the special counsel after Barr sent that four-page letter, outlining the top-line conclusions of the Mueller report. It has since been revealed that Mueller wrote a letter to Bill Barr, saying that it did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of his report. And then Barr testified that he had a phone call with Mueller afterwards. And in that phone call, according to Barr's testimony, Mueller raised concerns about the media portrayal of the letter and said that the executive summaries of the Mueller report should be released in order to give the public a better understanding of what happened.

So, Lindsey Graham writes this. He says, "Attorney General Barr testified that you believe media coverage of your investigation was unfair without the public release of those summaries. Please inform the committee if you would like to provide testimony regarding any misrepresentation by the attorney general of the substance of that phone call."

Now, Wolf, Lindsey Graham has been opposed to any public testimony of Robert Mueller. He's been saying that for days. I had a chance to ask his office today whether he's changed that position. They didn't say exactly what -- if he's backed off that opposition, only saying that individuals can provide testimony to a committee in a number of different ways, meaning it could be written testimony, it could be behind closed doors, but we do know that Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee are pushing for public testimony of Bob Mueller and they hope that will happen by the middle of this month, Wolf.

Manu, what are you learning about this new ultimatum from the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, to the Attorney General William Barr?

RAJU: Yes, Jerry Nadler sending a letter today, a final offer of sorts, to the Justice Department to provide the full unredacted Mueller report to Capitol Hill. This after a subpoena was issued that called for the Justice Department to provide the report by this past Wednesday. The Justice Department did not comply with that.

Now this latest offer saying, provide this information, but showing a little bit of leeway. With Nadler saying they're prepared to discuss limiting and prioritizing their request for the underlying evidence. And they want this information by 9:00 a.m. Monday. If not, Nadler is warning that he will move forward with contempt proceedings for the attorney general.

[17:10:02] And that could happen by the middle of next week. Potentially, no word yet back from the Justice Department if they will comply, if they will try to reach some sort of middle ground, but Wolf, this could be setting up court proceedings that could take some time, as Democrats pursue the full unredacted Mueller report.

BLITZER: Manu, I also understand you have some news involving Senator Kamala Harris related to her questioning of the attorney general yesterday, or the other day during the testimony.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. In that back and forth with Bill Barr, Kamala Harris, the Democrat from California, who's also a presidential candidate, pushed Barr about whether or not the White House in any way ordered or pressured the attorney general to open an investigation. Barr struggled to answer. He even said, struggling with the word -- grappling with the word "suggest" opening an investigation. And she asked, well, apparently you don't -- you're not ready to answer that question.

Now she has sent a letter to the inspector general of the Justice Department, asking him to open up an investigation into whether or not the White House improperly ordered the Justice Department to open an investigation. She's demanding this investigation. This comes after other Democrats, including her, signed a letter earlier this week asking the inspector general to look into whether the attorney general in any way mishandled the release of the Mueller report. And that letter signed by other presidential candidates, as well. That other letter by Cory Booker as well as Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Harris as well is on that letter, but on this one now asking to look specifically into the White House's pressure, if any, if it applied on the attorney general to investigate anything. Wolf?

BLITZER: The tension continues. Manu, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee as well as the top Democrat on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. Senator, thanks so much for joining us. As you heard, President Trump says he discussed what he calls the Russian hoax with Vladimir Putin during their one-hour phone conversation today, but he didn't warn Putin about Russia's interference in the 2020 election, didn't go over Russia's interference in the 2016 election. What does that tell you?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Wolf, it tells me that Mr. Putin believes that he can continue to interfere in our elections and the president of the United States will not take action against Mr. Putin. To miss an opportunity, when you're talking about the Mueller report, to tell Mr. Putin that he better not interfere in our elections, we know that he interfered in 2016, he better stay completely out of anything dealing with our election, to miss that opportunity, to me is a green light to Mr. Putin that it's OK with the president if he gets involved in our elections. And that's a horrible message to send.

BLITZER: Beyond that, President Trump also apparently taking Putin's word that Russia isn't looking to get involved in Venezuela. But you heard the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, tell me here in THE SITUATION ROOM that Russia is supporting Maduro on the ground and convinced the Venezuelan leader not to flee the country when apparently there was a plane on the tarmac ready to take him out of Venezuela. Why are we hearing two very different, totally contradictory things from the president and his own Secretary of State?

CARDIN: Wolf, this is extremely concerning. We've had many conversations, those of us in Congress, with the Trump administration. And quite frankly, we have been in agreement that we have to prevent Russia's continued interference in Venezuela. And being involved with Cuban troops. It almost is very similar to Russia's engagement in Syria, using Iran's troops to interfere in that country. That Russia has been engaged in giving advice to keep the Maduro regime intact. And for the president of the United States to appear to side with Mr. Putin rather than his Intelligence Community and the Secretary of State, very clear evidence that Russia is engaged in Venezuela is again very dangerous for our policies in Venezuela.

BLITZER: Your Senate colleague, Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has now extended an offer to Robert Mueller to testify if he thinks the attorney general misrepresented his views. Is this a stunt by Lindsey Graham, as some are suggesting, or do you think the senator has really changed his mind on having the special counsel testify?

CARDIN: I don't want to pre-suppose what Lindsey Graham is thinking, but I think it's critically important that Mr. Mueller testify before the Judiciary Committee. The Barr testimony was just such a defense for the president and so misrepresented the direction of the Mueller report.

[17:15:04] I think it's critically important that Mr. Mueller be given an opportunity to testify in open session for the Judiciary Committee to further illuminate in regards to Russia's engagement in the 2016 elections, as well as the assessment on obstruction of justice issues that Mr. Mueller made.

BLITZER: The president says it's up to the attorney general as to whether Robert Mueller testifies before Congress. Barr has said he'll allow the special counsel to do so, but are you worried he could reverse course?

CARDIN: You know, the president has reversed course frequently, but the Attorney General Barr said quite clearly that he had no problems with Mr. Mueller testifying before Congress. So, I would hope that both in the House and Senate, we would hear from Mr. Mueller. Again, there's two major issues here. One is Russia's engagement in the 2016 elections and protecting us from further attacks in the 2020 elections. We have several committees that need to hear directly from Mr. Mueller in regards to what Russia did in 2016 in order to defend our Democratic institutions. And then we clearly have an issue about the president's conduct. There were 10 separate episodes that Mr. Mueller reported on that could lead to obstruction of justice charges. And the Congress has a clear constitutional responsibility as an independent branch of check and balance to follow up on the information presented by Mr. Mueller. So we have to hear from Mr. Mueller's part of our responsibilities in both the House and Senate. BLITZER: Despite all the turmoil involving Russia, we did get some very positive, almost incredible economic numbers today. Look at this, unemployment is the lowest that's been here in the United States since 1969. Job growth is strong. Hourly wages are up. Does President Trump deserve credit for this?

CARDIN: Well, you know, first, let me say that it's remarkable that President Trump never wants to give the Obama administration credit for a lot of what they did to plant the seeds in our economy for it to grow. Secondly, let me point out that although we have good gross numbers, Americans, many are hurting as far as their own income is concerned in the workforce. They have to work more than one job. The income they're receiving is not adequate in order to deal with their basic needs of life. We have not seen a fair distribution of the wage growth in America.

These are issues that we need to deal with, and President Trump has yet to acknowledge or deal with these issues. So we still have a lot of work to do. We all want to see good numbers, but we also want to see workers being rewarded for their work and being able to support their families in a stronger way than they can today.

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

CARDIN: Wolf, it's always good to be with you, thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, will Robert Mueller testify up on Capitol Hill? Does he agree with what the attorney general is telling lawmakers about the Russia investigation?

And later, a rare public statement from the mother of Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after his release from a North Korean prison. She says after his release, her son's eyes looked like he'd seen the devil.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:22:40] BLITZER: Breaking news. The president says he never raised Russian election interference during a phone call with Vladimir Putin today, although he claims the Russian president did crack a joke about the Mueller report. Let's get some more from our legal and political experts. And Laura Jarrett, they spoke for more than an hour and the president never raised Russia's interference in the 2016 election, which was a central conclusion of the Mueller report.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: And yet the Mueller report said that Russia's interference was sweeping and systemic. And not only did he not raise that fact, they're joking about it. Putin is saying, well, it was a mountain and then it turned into a mouse. They're making light of the fact that Russia attacked our Democracy. And it appears the president not only doesn't want to discuss that, but there's no plans for what are we going to do about going forward.

BLITZER: And Phil, he keeps calling it the Russia hoax. Still, he's talking about the Russia hoax. You saw some of his tweets today. PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, I think if you look at this, quickly, you look at the president has asked, or the U.S. government has asked the British to extradite someone who was involved in that election activity. That is Julian Assange. Now we have another country that has a dozen people in its military intelligence service involved in subverting American Democracy and the president, who has obviously the Department of Justice below him can't even say, what about the 12 people we have under indictment. His question for himself is, I wasn't implicated in the report, therefore, it doesn't matter. So Putin gets a get out of jail free card, and the GRU, the Russian intelligence service says, let's go to the next round, bring on 2020.

BLITZER: Well, that's the concern, Jackie that maybe because the president was silent, maybe Putin is going to say, you know what, let's do some more.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Every intelligence service has said that the Russians are planning to do this again. But you know this goes back to the president always equating the Russia investigation with his own legitimacy as president. And another thing I just want to point out, why in the world are we talking about Vladimir Putin from what's going on in the White House on a day where the economy was the big news of the day. There's no ability of this White House to keep it focused on -- on a story that's actually good for them.

BLITZER: You also heard, Elena, thanks for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, you also heard the president refer to his former White House Counsel Don McGahn, in a statement today. He's a key witness in all of this. He spent 30 hours testifying before the Mueller investigators. And the president sort of suggesting yesterday and a bit today that maybe he's not going to allow him to appear.

[17:25:05] ELAINA PLOTT, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC": I spoke to Mick Mulvaney at length in his office last week on the record and he told me that the White House is prepared to stave off these subpoenas to the very end, which I absolutely read as this president being willing to invoke executive privilege if needed. But listen, Mulvaney's point is if the Democrats wants to start impeachment hearings, do that. But don't dredge up old witnesses for the purpose of recycling an investigation that concluded after two years.

BLITZER: Can the president do this executive privilege, even though he allowed him to spend 30 hours appearing before the Mueller team? Can he still claim executive privilege?

JARRETT: It's a privilege, it's not a guarantee. And it has very clear limits. And one of the limits is, once you've put everything out into the public square, that's a waiver. So, it's not just that he allowed McGahn to testify in front of Mueller, you could say arguably that's still the executive branch, but then they took everything he said and they gave it all to us. We have all of McGahn's testimony. That's over.

BLITZER: Because everybody wants to hear from McGahn, right? They want to hear from Mueller, but they want to hear from McGahn as well. KUCINICH: Right. And it's kind of his call, whether he wants to appear in front of Congress at this point. What are they going to do? Fire him?

BLITZER: He's a private citizen.

KUCINICH: He doesn't work there anymore.

BLITZER: Let's speak to somebody who used to work in the FBI. What do you think, Phil?

MUDD: I agree. If I were McGahn and I wanted to go up there, I would say, it's in the public interest for me to appear. I know what the White House is saying, how do I have a privileged conversation with a member of the staff in the White House in the executive branch by chance someone is going to be called two years or a year down the road to testify. But clearly the biggest political investigation in 50 years, a central figure who has already talked about it, the public interest is to have him speak, I think he might. The White House interest is not so much.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's much on all the breaking news. And we'll follow that right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:31:28] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with our analysts and our correspondents.

Phil Mudd, the President was on the phone today for more than an hour with Vladimir Putin, and he said -- the President says Putin is not looking at all -- I'm quoting the President now -- not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela. But that totally, totally contradicts what his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told me here in "THE SITUATION ROOM earlier in the week. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: He had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay. We think the situation remains incredibly fluid.

BLITZER: I just want you to elaborate, Mr. Secretary, on what you said earlier, that he was apparently ready to leave, head off to the airport -- Maduro -- but the Russians talked him out of that. Is that right?

POMPEO: That's right.

BLITZER: Do you blame --

POMPEO: He was heading for -- he --

BLITZER: So you blame Russia for the violence right now?

POMPEO: He was headed for Havana.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That certainly sounds 180 degrees different than what we heard from the President today.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No, I wouldn't say so, from the President's perspective. Look, from day one, the President has created myths. His subordinates can't speak when the President creates a myth. He's not just a liar, he creates an alternate universe for a group of Americans, 40 percent of the population or so, who don't follow, as a lot of people don't, international relations enough to know what's going on.

The myth that when he stepped off the plane from the first meeting with North Korea, we're safer. We haven't gotten anywhere. The myth that Kim Jong-un maybe didn't know, in a dictatorial -- in a dictatorial country about how Otto Warmbier died. The myth on the electoral trail. I've got a secret path for Syria and for ISIS, which I suppose meant we're going to withdraw as he proposed, the President, and leave it to the Russians and the Syrians.

What the President's done through Twitter and through his statements is to sell myths to the American people that have no connection with reality, like this myth about Russian involvement in Latin America. And then his subordinates can't speak again because, as soon as they get out there, either the President will come after them on Twitter -- think Tillerson -- or the President will fire him. It's a myth-making industry and it works.

BLITZER: You know, Jackie, this isn't certainly the first time that the President seems to take Russia or Putin's word over the word of his intelligence community or his top officials.

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, it's the path of least resistance. The President doesn't think that, you know, picking a fight with Vladimir Putin is worth it, particularly, because any time he talks about Putin, he ends up talking about, you know, Russian collusion, no collusion. So, you know.

And the President also has a pattern of believing strongmen over his own intel chiefs. I mean, they -- Phil mentioned North Korea. There are lots of examples of that there, too. So it's just -- it -- we just see this play out again and again and again.

BLITZER: But, Elaina, it keeps playing out with Russia and Putin more than anything else.

ELAINA PLOTT, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Of course, it does. And I was speaking with Rudy Giuliani earlier today, and he said, that's fine. If you actually think that Russia did something wrong, that Putin did something wrong, let Mueller come forward and talk about that.

I think Senator Lindsey Graham's letter was a perfect example of that, saying, if Barr has, in fact, represented what Mueller is saying, let him come forward and clarify to the public the extent of the threat of Russia.

BLITZER: The 2020 presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, a member of the Judiciary Committee, she is now calling on the Justice Department's Inspector General to investigate whether the White House urged the Attorney General, Bill Barr, to open investigations into the President's opponents. What are you learning about that?

[17:34:52] LAURA JARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it was one of the more memorable moments, I think, from the hearing because she kind of stumped Barr. And he said, well, what do you mean by "suggest," or I -- you know, I'm not really sure what to do about that.

And he didn't really end up answering the question, so she's now calling on the Justice Department watchdog to do something about it. And he takes referrals from Congress regularly.

Other members, other 2020 candidates, have already called on Michael Horowitz over at the Justice Department to look into Barr's handling of the report, his press conference, all of this. So it's -- it will be interesting to see whether Horowitz takes him up on it. It's a pretty low Barr and no one has to approve it. It's up to Horowitz completely whether to do it.

BLITZER: What did you think of Lindsey Graham, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's offer today, under certain conditions, to let Mueller come before the committee and testify?

KUCINICH: It will be interesting to see, I mean -- and Phil would know this better than I would in terms of what Mueller will do, but asking him to come and directly contradict Barr, who is someone who he is close with, someone who he has worked with, it is -- it seems like that's out of character. But I don't know, it's really -- how the letter was phrased is really interesting and how Mueller will react.

BLITZER: Well, let's ask Phil.

KUCINICH: Yes.

BLITZER: What do you think, Phil?

MUDD: I think Lindsey Graham thinks we're all a bunch of department store dummies. I mean, there's no way Mueller's going to show up.

KUCINICH: Yes.

MUDD: First of all, Mueller is there about his duty, investigate Russia. What is Graham trying to do, divert the conversation to a he said/she said with Barr? What does have to do about Russia?

The second thing is Mueller's there to talk about several years of work and a 450-page report. And what does Graham say? You can't speak because I can't control that conversation. I can control asking you one narrow question that doesn't really relate to your report.

If I were Mueller, I would never bother answering with a phone call, with a note. And I don't believe he will. I will -- I do believe he'll testify, but he'll never take this bait.

BLITZER: But you think he'll testify before the House Judiciary Committee?

MUDD: Yes, I do. I mean, if you look at not just the question of the report but if you look at the question of a former Marine who's driven by duty, honor, and country, the biggest political investigation in this country in 50 years, I think the Department of Justice and the FBI have a responsibility to talk to an oversight committee beyond the politics of this. And I think that's how Mueller would see it. He's a former Marine.

BLITZER: Elaina?

PLOTT: I think, as Giuliani told me, Graham is emblematic of what Senate Republicans are feeling right now, which is, in fact, a growing frustration that they feel that Democrats think there is a smoking gun still left to be found.

And so I don't actually think you would see a lot of pushback against the idea of Mueller testifying. So that -- in that way, Graham's letter was almost a bluff. You know, if you think that Barr has so poorly represented to you, step up and tell us why.

BLITZER: You saw, you know, Laura, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, threaten the Attorney General once again with contempt, if they don't make available the unredacted Mueller report, the underlying evidence. A lengthy letter that was sent today.

JARRETT: Yes. So they have now come back with another counteroffer after the Justice Department said, hey, come on over if you want. We have a secure room. You can see everything except for the grand jury material.

Nadler is still pressing for the grand jury material. But at this point, I think both sides want to look like they're making certain accommodations because then they have a better chance in court. So the reason Nadler is doing this instead of just going out, guns blazing, pursuing contempt right now is to try to set it up for -- so he has the best possible argument in court.

BLITZER: Everyone, stick around. There's more news we're following. Historic new highs for the American economy but President Trump's poll numbers are stuck underwater. Will voters give him credit in 2020?

Plus, the mother of Otto Warmbier describes the absolute horror in her son's eyes after his return from North Korea.

[17:38:29] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: More now on the breaking news. In light of today's job numbers showing the unemployment rate at the lowest point in nearly 50 years, President Trump, just a little while ago over at the White House, told reporters -- and I'm quoting him now -- I'll be running on the economy. Let's bring in CNN Business editor-at-large Richard Quest.

Richard, does the President deserve credit for these truly impressive job numbers? What has he done right?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: He deserves partial credit. And that's because he inherited an economy that was growing stronger and getting stronger by the day as a result of the Obama policies and -- and, crucially, Wolf, the Fed's ongoing steady hand, but he's also fostered it. Credit where credit is due, absolutely.

President Trump's policies of tax cuts in the first year, deregulation on a grand scale and, to a certain extent, even the protectionist policies have given some room for growth on domestic manufacturing. Yes is the short answer. The President does get credit for the current strength in the jobs market and the economy.

BLITZER: Yet despite the very good news on the economy, the President's overall approval rating in our latest CNN poll is still low, only 43 percent underwater. Fifty-two percent disapprove of the job he's doing. Why isn't it stronger?

QUEST: Give you two reasons. Besides the ethical, the moral, all the other issues on foreign policy, where the President is considered to be weak or at least wanting, the old saying, Americans vote their pocketbooks. Well, that may be true. Now, factor in the question Ronald Reagan used to ask in his election. Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Headline numbers only tell part of the story. They don't tell the difficulties of education costs, health care costs, job security worries, and they don't tell the problem of the greater inequality that's grown in American society.

[17:44:53] Now, you weigh one up against the other. Yes, on a macro scale, things are looking good. But when you start to look at those crucial states that the President is going to need, those blue-collar states, those 800,000 votes that made it for him last time, there you need to ask whether it's a better economy or whether it's, for example, the usual issues of the blue-collar -- security, employment, and education.

BLITZER: Is there a risk of running on the economy for any of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders?

QUEST: Absolutely, because he simply says, look how good it is and you're going to screw it up. And as long as he says that, then he has a strong argument in his favor. The Democrats will find it very difficult, except for those like Joe Biden, in the blue-collar states, who can identify and relate to the working class, the blue-collar issues.

BLITZER: Richard Quest, thanks for that analysis.

Coming up, harrowing stories of starvation and abuse in North Korea. The mother of Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after his release from a North Korean prison, says her son's eyes looked, in her words, like he had seen the devil.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:45] BLITZER: Tonight, an emotional outpouring from the mother of an American college student, Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released from North Korean custody. Brian Todd has the story for us.

Brian, Cindy Warmbier is opening up about the truly horrifying ordeal her family had to endure after he returned home.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. She is opening up, and she tore into Kim Jong-un in a very personal way. Cindy Warmbier has some very blunt and biting comments about the way the North Koreans treated her son. And she called the regime, quote, a cancer on the earth.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): When Otto Warmbier was brought home from a North Korean labor camp in a coma, his mother says he looked like a monster.

CINDY WARMBIER, MOTHER OF OTTO WARMBIER: The look in his eyes, which I didn't know he was blind at the time, was absolute horror. Horror. Like he'd seen the devil. And he had. He was with the devil.

TODD (voice-over): Cindy Warmbier says if she had known North Korea would demand the U.S. agree to pay $2 million for the release of her son, she would have sprung into action.

WARMBIER: If I had to, I would have raised the money, and I wish they would have asked for the money from day one because it was all about hostage taking. But instead, they had a much bigger use for Otto.

TODD (voice-over): President Trump says that money was never paid, although U.S. officials did sign a bill in order to have Warmbier released. He died six days after his return in 2017.

Cindy Warmbier spoke during a panel in Washington today about North Korean kidnappings. Just a mile away, former North Korean soldiers were on Capitol Hill, detailing what they called the brutality of Kim Jong-un's regime.

Former members of Kim's vaunted million-man army, often seen in lockstep on the parade route, said, behind the scenes, those choreographed routines were a facade, hiding rampant abuse and starvation.

JO YOUNG-HWA, FORMER SOLDIER IN NORTH KOREA (through translator): I was really hungry all the time. I was starving. My height is short because of the malnutrition I experienced in the military. From the first day, we were forced to go to villages and steal food from civilians.

TODD (voice-over): Some soldiers were even more desperate. Former North Korean artillery officer Kang Ri-hyuk told us of one young soldier in his unit. During a training exercise, he says, the soldier was so hungry, he ate a frog alive.

KANG RI-HYUK, FORMER SOLDIER IN NORTH KOREA (through translator): He didn't know that this frog was poisonous. He became unconscious, and he died within a couple of hours.

TODD (voice-over): These accounts come a year and a half after a young North Korean staff sergeant made this dramatic dash across his country's border with South Korea, surveillance video showing him being pursued and shot several times by his North Korean comrades. He was rescued and almost died of his wounds. In the hospital, he too was treated for severe malnutrition.

For female North Korean soldiers, mistreatment of a different kind. Choi Yu-jin is a former nurse in the people's army. She says a female colleague of hers was forced to have an affair with a superior officer. The woman became pregnant, Choi says, and almost died when she suffered a miscarriage.

CHOI YU-JIN, FORMER ARMY NURSE IN NORTH KOREA (through translator): She said, when they asked her to have an affair with him, there was no way she could refuse. She had to do it in order to get party membership, so she could have a better life. The only thing she could sacrifice was her body.

TODD (voice-over): These horrific stories come as President Trump remains determined to pursue his personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. Diplomacy which Otto Warmbier's mother calls a charade.

WARMBIER: How can you have diplomacy with someone that never tells the truth? He lies, he lies, he lies all for himself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: We reached out to North Korea's mission at the U.N. for their response to the accounts from those soldiers of starvation and abuse. They didn't get back to us, but Kim Jong-un has previously said publicly that his soldiers should be spared no amount of nutrition so that they could, quote, feel the loving care of his regime -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, Brian, was the Warmbier family told that the North Koreans were demanding $2 million for his release?

TODD: Wolf, Cindy Warmbier says they were not told about that at the time of the negotiations. She says the family only learned of that demand when "The Washington Post" first reported it last week.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.

[17:54:59] Coming up, more on the breaking news. President Trump shares details of a phone call he had today with Vladimir Putin. The President says he and Putin shared a joke over the Mueller report, but that he never -- repeat, never -- raised Russia's ongoing election interference efforts. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. A mountain and a mouse.

President Trump talks by phone with Vladimir Putin for the first time since the release of the Mueller report with the Russian President saying the probe started out as a mountain but ended up as a mouse. Why didn't President Trump warn Putin not to meddle in the next U.S. election?

[18:00:01] Barr back. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler makes a new offer to Attorney General William Barr, hoping to lure him back to testify about the Mueller report --