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Trump Denies Existence Of Dismal Internal Polls; Trump Scolds His Chief Of Staff for Coughing in the Middle of an Interview; Former Trump Aide Hope Hicks To Testify Behind Closed Doors Wednesday; Interview With Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) On Use Of Cyber Weapons Against Russia; Pentagon Has New Images That Show Iran Attacked Tankers; Biden Declares He Plans To Win Key Battleground States; Kim Jong-un's High-Stakes Diplomatic Gamble Plays Trump, Putin, and China's Xi Off Each Other. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 17, 2019 - 17:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Our condolences go out to Anderson and his family today. May her memory be a blessing.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks For watching.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: headed for confrontation. the Pentagon reveals new images to make its case that Iran was behind recent attacks on tankers while -- in a CNN exclusive -- a key Iranian official warns the U.S. and Iran are headed toward confrontation.

Polling purge: as he prepares to officially launch his 2020 campaign, President Trump is furious over internal polls, showing him trailing Joe Biden and other Democrats. The campaign's answer: fire the pollsters.

Coughing fit: the president throws a fit over his chief of staff's coughing fit, which interrupted an interview just as the president was discussing his financial statement and it is all caught on tape.

And facing his rivals: front-runner Joe Biden shows up at a forum with his Democratic rivals, saying if he's nominated he'll campaign and win against Donald Trump in the South.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


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

BLITZER: Breaking news: the Pentagon reveals new images to boost its case that Iran is responsible for attacks on oil tankers. In the CNN exclusive, a senior Iranian official warns the United States and Iran are headed toward a confrontation. Also breaking: Democratic front-runner Joe Biden shows up at an event

with other candidates and says, if he's nominated, he'll face President Trump in the South and beat him there.

As President Trump is about to officially launch his 2020 campaign, he's fuming over internal polls, showing him badly trailing Biden in key states. The campaign has basically shot the messengers, firing three pollsters.

The president is also accusing "The New York Times" of treason for reporting that officials are reluctant to brief him about cyber operations against Russia, fearing he may give away secrets.

I'll speak with Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of the Oversight and Intelligence Committees and our correspondents and analysts will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

As the president is officially starting his campaign, he may be getting off on the wrong foot. Let's begin with our White House Correspondent Abby Phillip.

Abby, the president is not happy on the eve of the big event.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, not at all. President Trump's week was supposed to be about this campaign rally tomorrow in Orlando. That is expected to be massive.

But instead everyone has been focused on these leaked numbers coming from his own campaign, showing him trailing Democrats. And the president's anger about this has prompted a major shake-up in the president's polling team.


PHILLIP (voice-over): President Trump on edge tonight on the eve of the official launch of his re-election campaign in Orlando tomorrow.

TRUMP: Well, I don't believe those polls.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Slamming his own campaign polls that show him losing to former vice president Joe Biden and other Democrats in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and moving to purge the officials who made them.

TRUMP: Those polls don't exist. But I just had a meeting with somebody that is a pollster and I'm winning everywhere. So I don't know what you're talking about.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Trump falsely tweeting that the polls which were conducted in March are fake and adding, "We are looking really good. But it is far too early to be focused on that."

Yet the campaign is moving quickly to quell Trump's fury, purging three pollsters who conducted the 17-state survey over the leaks. Those officials privately acknowledging that the firings were less about the accuracy of the polls and more about satisfying Trump's demands.

The president also offering an expansive view of his presidential powers, telling ABC News that he believes the Constitution gave him the power to fire former special counsel Robert Mueller.

TRUMP: Article II would have allowed me to fire him but I wasn't going to fire him. You know why?

Because I watched Richard Nixon go around firing everybody and that didn't work out too well.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC HOST: So your position is you can hire or fire anybody, stop or start --

TRUMP: That is the position of a lot of great lawyers.

PHILLIP (voice-over): And Trump repeatedly citing Article II of the Constitution but dodging questions about whether he believes the president is above the law.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So a president can't obstruct justice.

TRUMP: A president can run the country and that is what happened, George. I run the country and I run it well.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And if the president does it, it is not illegal?

TRUMP: I'm just saying a president under Article II -- it's very strong. Read it.

PHILLIP (voice-over): The interview also offering a window into the former TV executive's fixation on optics, Trump snapping at his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who interrupted him in the middle of an answer, in which he claimed he might one day release his tax returns.


TRUMP: No, at some point I might. But at some point I hope they get it because it is a -- it is a --


TRUMP: -- fantastic financial statement.

And -- let's do that over. He's coughing in the middle of my answer.


TRUMP: I don't like that, you know. I don't like that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your chief of staff.

TRUMP: If you're going to cough, please leave the room. You just can't, you just can't cough. Boy, oh boy.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I'll shut up. And I'll come over here.

TRUMP: You just can't do it. You just can't do it. Just --

MULVANEY: Sorry, Mr. Trump.


Do you want to do that a little differently then?


PHILLIP (voice-over): And while Trump was quick to throw his senior official out of the room, the president found himself out of the loop on a major U.S. strategy to counter Russian cyber attacks.

According to "The New York Times" there was broad hesitation to brief Trump about a plan to place software code in Russian power grids that could be used for future cyber attacks or surveillance.

Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail over concerns about how he might react and the possibility that he might share sensitive information with foreign officials, like he did in 2017 when he discussed a classified operation in Syria with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office.

Over the weekend the president slammed "The New York Times," accusing the paper of "a virtual act of treason" and calling the report "not true."


PHILLIP: Now President Trump suggested that the report was putting national security at risk by detailing these efforts on the national security side of things but it also noted that the National Security Council was notified about this report and they declined to comment, also raised no concerns about national security with the publication of the details.

And President Trump and Congress themselves gave the national security apparatus the power to do this without the president's explicit OK.

BLITZER: Abby Phillip, thanks very much.

To Capitol Hill now where the push for impeachment among Democrats seems to be gaining some momentum. Our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly is joining us.

What are you learning?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN U.S. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, while Speaker Pelosi has made clear that now is not the time to launch an impeachment inquiry, at least externally it appears American voters, particularly Democratic registered American voters, are warming to the idea. A "Wall Street Journal"/NBC poll showing that 27 percent of voters

polled, mostly driven by Democrats, now support launching an impeachment inquiry. That is up 10 points from last month.

And if you track those numbers with the internal dynamics in the House Democratic Caucus, they actually line up very closely; 63 House Democrats now say they want to launch an impeachment inquiry. That is about 27 percent of the House Democratic Caucus.

Now as Speaker Pelosi points out regularly, that is a minority. That is not 50 percent. And there are a lot of members who aren't there yet. But there is growing frustration; among that group, a very vocal minority led in some ways by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Take a listen to how she characterized things.


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), NEW YORK: Every day that passes the pressure to impeach grows. And I think that is justifiable. I think the evidence continues to come in.

And I believe that, with the president now saying that he is willing to break the law to win re-election, that goes -- that transcends partisanship. It transcends party lines and this is now about the rule of law in the United States of America.

JON KARL, ABC NEWS HOST: How real is that progressive frustration that Speaker Pelosi has said, at least so far -- and she seems to be really holding the line -- that she's not ready to do that?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think it is quite real. I believe that there is a very real animus and desire to make sure that we are -- that we are holding this president to account.


MATTINGLY: Now Wolf, the frustration may be real but as I said Speaker Pelosi has made clear she's not moving off of her current line. That line is continuing to go through with the investigations, multiple committees and multiple different issues that they're looking into, have people come testify, continue to fight it out in court, win some of those court cases as well.

That is her position. It is a position she's not moving from, despite where some in her caucus may be, despite where the public polling may be. The big question is whether that will hold if the numbers start to grow -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil, one of the president's former aides, Hope Hicks, is about to testify before Congress.

What are we expecting?

MATTINGLY: Yes, this is a key component when you talk about the Speaker's strategy of having as many hearings, people come up to testify, to try to fight the White House on their decision not to comply with really anything up to this point.

Hope Hicks coming in to testify in front of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It will be behind closed doors so the committee is expected to release a public transcript.

The big question is, what will she actually say?

The expectation is the White House, as they've done multiple times, will invoke executive privilege on her time while she was in the White House. She's willing to talk about her time before the White House, one of the closest advisers on the campaign.

But keep this in mind: the Judiciary Committee is investigating potential obstruction of justice. That would pertain to the time when Hope Hicks was in the White House. What they have not taken off the table, Democrats on the committee, is potentially going to court to fight any executive privilege claims that are put into place.

The big question now is how much will Hope Hicks be willing to give?

And will it be enough for Democrats who --


MATTINGLY: -- right now are scrambling to get as much information as they can, despite the White House trying to throw up a brick wall every opportunity they could get?

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly, thank you.

And joining us now Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. He's a member of both the Oversight and Intelligence Committees.

Congressman, thank you for joining us. You just heard Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez say there is real progressive frustration inside your party with the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi's cautious approach on launching impeachment proceedings.

Are you frustrated?

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D), ILLINOIS: I think there is definitely frustration at the obstructionism with regard to our ability to conduct oversight of this administration.

However, you are starting to see progress on different committees, whether it is Oversight and Intelligence, where I sit, or on the Judiciary Committee, with regard to getting more documents, for instance counterintelligence documents which the Department of Justice is producing to the Intelligence Committee or witnesses coming forward who we didn't think were going to come forward, like Hope Hicks, or court cases being won on an expeditious basis.

And so I think that progress is happening; I'm kind of in the trenches, trying to deal with some of these investigations. We have to expose any and all wrongdoing at this point. BLITZER: At least 63 House Democrats now say they are ready to open formal impeachment proceedings.

What is your message to Democrats who are frustrated with Nancy Pelosi's much more cautious approach on impeachment?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think that definitely, if you read the Mueller report, which I have, I think most people would agree, at least within my party and my caucus, that it was deeply disturbing conduct; indeed, impeachable.

But right now the evidence isn't there to sustain a conviction. And therefore I'm working as hard as I can on my committees to uncover as much evidence as possible to sway public opinion potentially on this issue.

So, for instance, one thing that we're pushing very hard on, which we don't believe that Bob Mueller actually examined, were the financial records that we're trying to get through the Intelligence Committee with regard to Deutsche Bank or on the Oversight Committee with regard to the Mazars accounting firm.

I think this is crucial for understanding why the president does what he does and why, for instance, the intelligence community doesn't want to share all the intelligence it has with regard to Russia or other issues with the president.

BLITZER: Let's move on, Congressman. As you know "The New York Times" is reporting that President Trump is being largely kept in the dark by his own administration about cyber weapons being developed for use against Russia's infrastructure as a warning to the Russians not to use their cyber warfare capabilities against America's power grid and America's infrastructure.

What national security concerns does this raise, the president not being fully informed about what is going on?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think the concerns are at least twofold.

One, maybe our intelligence community believes that the president is reckless with the information that is in his possession; for instance, you mentioned in the setup piece about the information, about the sensitive operation inside of Syria that was shared with the Russians. That might have been recklessly disclosed.

On the other hand, the more nefarious issue is whether he intentionally shares this information with our adversaries or tries to countermand directives that might be used to undermine them.

This is very serious and it is something that obviously we need to continue to explore. That is why I think, for instance, we have to get to the heart of these financial documents and follow the rubles.

What is going on with regard to why does he cozy up to some of our adversaries?

BLITZER: Should the U.S. be conducting these kinds of cyber attacks on Russia's infrastructure?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think General Nakasone of the Cyber Command has taken more of a forward-leaning posture with regard to Russian cyber activities vis-a-vis us and vice versa.

I think that generally we should be prepared to let the Russians know that any operation that they might conduct on our infrastructure or on our power grid would be met with a reaction that is proportionate.

And so I think it is probably appropriate that we take a forward- leaning posture here. But that being said, I think that General Nakasone and the Cyber Command has to also be cognizant that we don't want to initiate activities that could lead to something that goes out of control.

BLITZER: The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said his threat to subpoena the FBI for materials related to a counterintelligence probe --


BLITZER: -- of the Trump campaign is yielding results. As you know Schiff told CBS News that the FBI has started to hand over more information to your committee in recent days.

Have you seen more cooperation now from the FBI as well?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Yes. We have. And this is something that I was referring to earlier. I think that some of the pressure that is being brought to bear on the DOJ and FBI with regard to these counterintelligence materials is actually coming from not only our side but also the Republican side, which is a good thing, and it is starting to yield cooperation.

You may already know this but Devin Nunes and Chairman Schiff together had subpoenaed or asked for these documents with regard to counterintelligence information and I think that this is starting to bear fruit.

BLITZER: Have you been briefed on what is going on with Iran right now, Congressman?

The Trump administration is directly blaming the Iranians for these attacks on these oil tankers in the Gulf.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I can't comment on specific intelligence. But I would just cite what Chairman Schiff said the other day, which is that it appears that Iran is behind these attacks.

But I would just point out two things. One, we have to deal with the Iranian threat in a multilateral fashion. We should not do anything unilaterally.

And then secondly, we can't go to war over this. This is something that is -- something feared in Congress, quite frankly, that the Trump administration may be provoking a confrontation that might escalate into use of military force, which Congress is only allowed to authorize.

And any move to use the 2001 Authorization of the Use of the Military Force in this particular situation would be completely unacceptable.

BLITZER: Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, thank you so much for joining us.


BLITZER: Up next, we have much more on Iran. The Pentagon now revealing new images to make the case that Iran was behind these recent attacks on oil tankers as a key Iranian official now warns that the U.S. and Iran are headed toward confrontation. We're going live to Tehran.





BLITZER: Breaking news right now: the Pentagon has just released new images to help make its case that Iran is behind the recent attacks on oil tankers and that comes as a senior Iranian official tells CNN that the U.S. and Iran are headed toward a confrontation. Let's go live to our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, who in Tehran for us.

So how serious is all of this, Fred?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think right now it is a very serious situation, especially if you look at some of the new images that the Pentagon put out there just a couple of minutes ago, where you do see a boat on one of these images that the Pentagon said was going away from that tanker after what the Pentagon said was sailors from that boat, taking a limpet mine off the side of that ship.

Some of the other images that we are seeing are holes inside of the hull of that ship, placements from what the U.S. said were one of these unexploded mines. There's even a hand imprint on the side of that ship that could be seen as well.

It is quite interesting to see the Pentagon's assessment of all this. They say -- and this is a quote from them -- "Iran is responsible for the attack based on video evidence," of course, something that we've seen before, "and resources and proficiency needed to quickly remove the unexploded mine," the Pentagon essentially saying that because these Iranian sailors were unable to take that unexploded mine off the side of that ship so quickly shows that Iran is behind this.

But you're absolutely right, the Iranians continuing to say they were not behind this attack and, in fact, earlier today, Wolf, a senior Iranian military commander said that if the Iranians wanted to, they could close the Strait of Hormuz at will. And they would do so publicly because their military would be strong enough -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It is interesting because the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, this weekend said the U.S. is considering what he described as a full range of options, including potentially military options.

So what is the reaction where you are inside of Iran?

PLEITGEN: Well, you're absolutely right. And that is one of the things that I think you were mentioning at the beginning, with the senior Iranian official telling CNN he believes that Iran and the United States are heading for a confrontation. And it was quite interesting because he was then asked whether it is a military confrontation. And he said he really didn't know.

The Iranians currently, their assessment right now, is they believe that there are certain forces within the administration, like national security adviser John Bolton, who are trying to steer the administration toward a war. But they fundamentally don't believe that President Trump wants a war.

However, the senior Iranian official telling CNN, this area, the Middle East, is an area of unintended consequences. So certainly the situation very dangerous.

BLITZER: Very dangerous. We'll have a lot more on this coming up later. Fred Pleitgen in Tehran, thanks very much.

Coming up, Joe Biden makes a bold prediction about taking on President Trump.





BLITZER: President Trump apparently rattled by some internal poll numbers as he prepares to officially relaunch his re-election campaign tomorrow night. Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts.

And Gloria, the president doesn't like some of the polls and called them fake polls because they show what he doesn't like, that he's trailing Joe Biden in several key battleground states.

Does he really believe these are fake polls?

[17:30:00] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You're asking me what Donald Trump really believes? I don't know the answer to that question, Wolf, but I think it's a real sign about how concerned he is about these polls.

Look, if he were your average candidate, he would have every right to get upset if one of his pollsters were leaking internal numbers that look bad for him. I could totally understand that. But he is taking it a step beyond that. What he is saying is that not only were these polls bad, he says it's not that they were bad, they're fake, and my polls were actually great.

And so you have to -- you have to ask, why would anybody leak these numbers? And I think the answer may be that might be the only way to communicate with Donald Trump. Which is if you want to force him to pay attention to bad news, you may have to put it out there in the media so it could focus him and these people lost their jobs as a result.

BLITZER: Three of his campaign pollsters, they lost their jobs.

BORGER: They lost their jobs as a result, but that's probably not a surprise.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: And just to add quickly to Gloria, we saw that in the 2016 campaign.


CILLIZZA: He -- regularly using television to communicate with him.


BLITZER: I want to play a clip for you from the ABC News interview with the President where he grows -- becomes really angry at his White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: At some point, I might. But at some point, I hope they get it because it's a fantastic financial statement. It's a fantastic financial statement. And -- let's do that over. He's coughing in the middle of my answer.



TRUMP: I don't like that, you know. I don't like that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your Chief of Staff.

TRUMP: If you're going to cough, please leave the room.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Maybe you should get a shot of -- you know, I'll come over here.


TRUMP: You just can't --


TRUMP: You just can't -- STEPHANOPOULOS: Just a change of shot.


MULVANEY: Sorry, Mr. Trump.


BLITZER: What's your analysis?

CILLIZZA: Oh, OK. Well, a few things. One, remember, Donald Trump's formative experience prior to becoming President of the United States, his media past experience is what? As a reality T.V. star and executive producer, right? So that's what you see there, at least in part, which is he wants the audio to be clear. Even before he says let's do it over again, he repeats "it's going to be a wonderful financial statement" so that they have that without the Mick Mulvaney cough. That's one -- point one.

Point two, let's remember -- I don't think this was his driving impetuous. I think it was the producer in him. But Donald Trump, noted germophobe, does not like to shake hands, does not like to be around sick people. Who does? I mean, I get it when people have colds, you know.

But some of all of that goes into it. It's just how he treats people. This is his Chief of Staff. I will say, Wolf Blitzer would into the treat someone like that. I have coughed, I have sneezed before on set, right?


CILLIZZA: There is a sort of an understanding that some things are involuntary reactions.

BORGER: Have some water, right.


CILLIZZA: I don't think Mick Mulvaney was like here is the time when I can cough and draw attention to myself. He just -- the last part there is so telling where he kind of does the --


BORGER: Angry.

CILLIZZA: As though he has been wronged in some meaningful way by his Chief of Staff coughing.

BLITZER: It was very, Bianna, was very, very awkward.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, speaking of leaking information, I'm surprised that portion of the interview wasn't leaked, given that it was recorded last week. I didn't watch it last night but I read through the transcript and this stood out at me. I didn't understand what was going on with this cough.

And the President, even moments later, brought it back up with George when George thanked him for the interview. And he said, what, you agree with me, right, on the cough? It's really bad.


GOLODRYGA: But he has been known to humiliate his team in the past as well. Look at what he said about Chris Christie. Look at what he said about Rex Tillerson. So this isn't that novel in that sense.

But, you know, one theory I read -- and I didn't even think about it from this perspective but given the subject and the sensitivity surrounding his tax returns, somebody pointed out that maybe it was Mick Mulvaney trying to save the President and not trying to create a sound bite that could be used later on for ABC. But of course, that wasn't what the President thought of and quickly, quickly got frustrated with him as we saw.

BLITZER: During the interview, Joey, with ABC, the President also said he believes the U.S. Constitution gives him the power to fire the Special Counsel Robert Mueller if he wanted to. He chose not to fire him. He says, in part, because of what happened to Richard Nixon who fired a whole bunch of people. What do you make of the President's legal theory?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I would disagree for a couple of reasons. And let's start here. Certainly, he's learned from the lessons of the past to get everyone up to speed, right, in 1945, I believe it was or -- excuse me, 45 years ago is what I mean to say, 1973.


JACKSON: What happened was, is that Nixon certainly wanted to get rid of the Special Counsel. And as a result of that, he says to his Attorney General, you know what, fire the Special Counsel. Richardson, the Attorney General, says no, so he goes to the Deputy Attorney General, Ruckelshaus, says you fire him. And, ultimately, Bork fires him and that didn't produce well results for Nixon in '73, 45 years ago.

So to this issue, why I disagree, I think one of the things the constitution does is it says that the President has to faithfully execute the laws. When you abuse your power, to me, that's not faithful execution. And I think certainly -- and we've heard the Deputy Attorney General, so from a practical matter, we know the President cannot directly fire the Special Counsel. He'd have to do it through the Deputy Attorney General.

[17:34:59] But you need good cause to do that. And what good cause would there be? That there's this investigation. I don't care about this investigation. I want it to disappear. To me, that's an abuse of power. And as a result of that, it's not constitutionally permitted, and it goes against the President faithfully executing the laws of the United States. BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There's a lot more we need to discuss,

and we'll do that right after this quick break.


[17:39:55] BLITZER: A bold new statement tonight from the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who is predicting election victories in key states if he's the party's nominee.

Gloria, I want you to listen to what Biden said at this forum earlier today.


JOE BIDEN, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I plan, and if I'm your nominee, winning Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, believe it or not. And I believe we can win Texas and Florida if you look at the polling data now. It doesn't mean -- so it's a marathon. It's a long way off.


BLITZER: So what's his point here? He's trying to show he can beat Donald Trump?

BORGER: Right, and I think it's a little early to do that, honestly. Looking at the polling now is not a great idea. But he also knows that, in reading the polling among Democrats, one of the most important things to Democrats is nominating somebody who they think can beat Donald Trump.

So he's trying to play up that point for himself as opposed to the other candidates, but there is a real danger here. And we all know it. We all covered the Hillary Clinton inevitability campaign, the electability campaign of Jeb Bush in 2016, so you got to go slow with this.

I see what he's trying to do. But people want to see you, meet you, hear you, understand who you are, even if you've been Vice President. So I'd go slow on that.


BLITZER: He's also -- I just want to point out, the other candidates, several of the Democratic candidates, are really subtly, sometimes not so subtly, beginning to pounce on the front-runner. Watch this.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are some well-intentioned Democrats and candidates who believe that the best way forward is a middle ground strategy. That approach is not just bad public policy, but it is a failed political strategy.

BETO O'ROURKE, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Within the same campaign, he said that he supported the Hyde Amendment, changed his position on that. He has dismissed China as not a real threat --

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think there is room in our party for a Democratic candidate who does not support women's full reproductive freedom.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is a real hunger. There are people who are ready for big structural change in this country.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think a candidate of any age could speak about the future, but I think not every candidate is doing that.



BLITZER: And that kind of pouncing is only just beginning. It's going to get a lot more intense.

CILLIZZA: Oh, yes. Particularly, look, who gets attacked? The front-runner. I mean, it affirms the fact, what polling suggests -- what public polling suggests is proven in what the candidates who are named Joe Biden having their own data, which is Joe Biden is the one that you have to bring down if you're going to win.

He -- the reason that he is a front-runner but a soft one is because of that voting record. Is because he was in the Senate for almost 40 years. He voted on lots of things and his voting record suggests he is someone who is -- and he has said this, look, Republicans aren't all bad. We can work with them. Donald Trump is an aberration.

That is not the commonly held view in the Democratic base right now as articulated by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg. That's his issue, is he's got a long record that suggests he's not the liberal's liberal. And he doesn't appear to be trying to run as that.

BLITZER: Bianna, what do you think?

GOLODRYGA: Well, that reputation of being a middle ground candidate and sort of run-of-the-mill centrist is something that at least the Biden camp thinks could be a benefit for them going forward. In their minds, Democrats are going to vote for him regardless of how radical the candidate is, and thus, he doesn't want to get down in the mud and fight with the other Democratic candidates, sort of propelling him up there with Donald Trump. With help from Donald Trump, as well, for constantly attacking him.

But I agree, just because people know Joe Biden as President Obama's Vice President and for his record for the past few decades, no one should just dismiss, especially Joe Biden, that he is already a known entity, and thus, he doesn't have to go out there and persuade voters to vote for him.

So this is something that he is going to have to be tackling as the campaign continues down the road. But right now, he is sort of elevating himself up, saying it's not a time to take any other risks. It's a time to defeat Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Do you think, Joey, it's going to get -- become even more pointed, these attacks?

JACKSON: You know, there's no question about it, Wolf, but let me just say this. I think Grandpa Joe has his eye on the prize, right? What's the critical issue? The critical issue is to win. The critical issue is to take on and otherwise defeat the incumbent president.

And I think what he's doing by giving, you know, these talks and saying I'm going to win Florida, I'm going to win South Carolina, is he's reminding everyone that I'm the guy that can do that. And I think Democrats certainly need to be careful in as much as if you attack, attack, attack, do you, in some instance or to some extent, attack a person who is very viable and could very well take on and defeat the President in 2020?

CILLIZZA: Just one thing about the map. It'd be great -- I'm sure Democrats would love if Joe Biden won Florida, for example, but he doesn't really need to. You win Michigan and Pennsylvania, that is 36 electoral votes. Subtract that from the 306 Trump won, it's 270, so he's got more electoral vote to win.

[17:45:01] So those would be great, Texas 38 electoral votes, Florida, 29, sure. But remember, his math, or any Democratic nominee's math, doesn't need to include those. You just need to win Michigan and Pennsylvania and then one more.

BORGER: And he's not the only Democrat who might have a shot of that.

CILLIZZA: Absolutely.

BORGER: He's trying to portray himself as that.

BLITZER: Right. All right, guys, stick around, there's more news. Kim Jong-un courting China's President as well as Vladimir Putin and President Trump. What is the North Korean dictator's high-stakes strategy?


[17:50:09] BLITZER: Tonight, North Korea is preparing for the first state visit by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. The latest in a series of high profile diplomatic maneuvers by the dictator, Kim Jong- un.

CNN's Brian Todd is here with details. Brian, this follows Kim's recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, those two summits with President Trump.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does, Wolf. You know, after months of silence following the failed summit in Hanoi, Kim Jong-un has, once again, asserted himself on the world stage. As Wolf mentioned, he has met with Vladimir Putin. And now, a rare

show of deference for a North Korean leader where the man he has depended on for years to prop up his country is coming to Kim for a visit.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, another diplomat victory for North Korea's ambitious young dictator, one of several he's scored over the past 18 months. This week, Kim Jong-un gets a visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first time a Chinese leader has deemed it important enough to visit Pyongyang in 14 years. North Korean workers seen today sprucing up the China-North Korea Friendship Tower in Pyongyang.

LAURA ROSENBERGER, DIRECTOR OF THE ALLIANCE FOR SECURING DEMOCRACY, THE GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE UNITED STATES: It's quite significant and will be real ammunition for Kim Jong-un to be able to show his people, once again, just how powerful he is on the world stage.

TODD (voice-over): Kim's meeting with his traditional ally comes just days before the G-20 summit in Japan where President Trump, Xi, and Vladimir Putin will all be trying to wield influence.

Kim has met with Xi Jinping several times in China, has met twice with President Trump, and he's met with Vladimir Putin who offered to be a go-between for Kim and Trump.

DEAN CHENG, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: So Kim, sitting there, is now able to play each of these leaders off against the other two and reap the benefits from all three.

TODD (voice-over): With Trump, experts say, Kim is promising denuclearization in return for a lifting of sanctions. Though few experts Kim to keep that promise. With Xi, Kim can promise not to cause trouble with nuclear testing, and the Chinese leader, in return, will keep Kim's economy afloat.

CHENG: And with Putin, in a sense, all he has to do is sit back because Putin is offering things to North Korea -- fiber-optic landlines, additional trade sanctions busting -- almost for no return because, for Putin, what he seems to mostly want is to be recognized as a player.

TODD (voice-over): Extraordinary for a 35-year-old strongman who had never met with a world leader until last year who, tonight, is working channels with three of the world's top power brokers. All of whom about twice his age.

President Trump, in an interview with ABC, again, touted what he called his strong personal relationship with the dictator. When asked if he thinks Kim is still building his nuclear weapons arsenal --

TRUMP: I don't know. I hope not. He promised me he wouldn't be. He promised me he wouldn't be testing.

I believe he respects me. I get along with him really well. I think I understand him, and I think he understands me.

TODD (voice-over): Experts say Kim is deftly playing Trump with a personal letter he just sent to the President, but at the same time, sending the President an unmistakable signal with his meeting with Xi Jinping.

ROSENBERGER: I think that Kim Jong-un's not going to want to necessarily offend Trump, but I think he's also sending a signal that, you know, the U.S. isn't the only one that, you know, Kim needs. That he has other partners and options that will help support him.


TODD: Now, how could this high stakes diplomatic game backfire on Kim Jong-un? Analysts say by holding so many high profile meetings with so many important world leaders, Kim is, once again, raising expectations among his own people about the kinds of concessions he can get from leaders like Trump and Xi Jinping.

But after his failure at the Hanoi summit to win any of those concessions, he is now under more pressure than ever to come away with something, Wolf.

BLITZER: And I understand President Trump, Brian, in that ABC News interview, spoke more extensively about getting that American student, Otto Warmbier, out of North Korea back in 2017.

TODD: He did, Wolf. President Trump said four times in that interview with ABC that his administration never paid to get Otto Warmbier out of North Korea. CNN, of course, has reported that the North Koreans made the U.S. envoy to North Korea, Joseph Yun, sign a pledge to pay $2 million to North Koreans before they would release Warmbier in 2017.

Yun has told us that he never -- he signed the pledge, but the U.S. never paid that bill. Yun still got Warmbier out while he was in a coma. And, of course, Otto Warmbier he died a couple of days after he was returned home.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thank you.

Coming up, breaking news. The Pentagon releases new images to make its case that Iran was behind recent attacks on tankers as a senior Iranian official warns that the U.S. and Iran are now headed toward confrontation.


BLITZER: Happening now, ignoring polls. President Trump is rejecting his own campaign's evidence that he's losing to Joe Biden and other Democrats in key battleground states. Tonight, he's falsely denying the polls exist even as his campaign has fired pollsters to appease him.