Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Interview With Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt; President Trump Set to Address Country; New Details on Trump Speech to Congress Tonight; Women Face Murder Charges in Death of Dictator's Brother. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 28, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And he's expected to lay out what White House officials call an optimistic vision for America. We're learning new details this hour of what the president will say.

The time is right. President Trump, himself, tells me and other news anchors he wants to pass an immigration bill with compromise on both sides. Is he changing his tune on one of his key campaign pledges?

The opposition. Republican lawmakers are voicing concern about parts of the president's agenda. And Democrats with filibuster power in the Senate, they're almost universally opposed to the president's plans. What will Mr. Trump be able to get through Congress?

And greatest threat. The president calls North Korea and its nuclear arsenal the number-one menace to the United States, as two women are charged with killing the dictator Kim Jong-un's half-brother with a nerve agent. Did Kim, himself, order the murder?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. New details are emerging this hour of the speech President Trump will be delivering before a joint session of Congress in just a few hours.

A source briefed on it tells CNN the president will talk about the economy, health care, education, law and order in a speech described as optimistic. He may also address immigration, a subject he spoke about with a group of journalists today, including me. The president made a major statement.

And let me quote the president of the United States -- quote -- "The time is right for an immigration bill as long as long as there is compromise on both sides" -- end quote.

The president also expected to tout his rollback of what he sees as overburdensome regulations, which he believes will stimulate the economy even more than tax cuts. Today, Mr. Trump ordered a review of the Obama administration's clean water rule to assess any economic harm.

We're covering all of that this hour with our guests, including the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. He will join us live. And former Hillary Clinton national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.

Let's begin with the president's speech tonight and his bombshell announcement on a comprehensive immigration bill.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us with the latest.

Jim, what are you hearing about whether the president will actually talk about this comprehensive immigration legislation tonight?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are told he will. We are told the president is expected to signal an openness to a compromise immigration bill in his speech to Congress tonight, part of that bill, a possible path to citizenship for the so-called dreamers. Those are the kids who were brought to the U.S. illegally.

The president is also talking about a bill where undocumented immigrants who have not committed to crime can stay in the U.S. legally. That is a big shift from where he has stood in the past. It's just one of a number of big-ticket items for President Trump who will be delivering perhaps his most important speech since his inauguration.


ACOSTA (voice-over): With polls showing a majority of Americans disappointed with his first month in office, President Trump will try to hit the reset button in a speech to a joint session of Congress.

In a rare moment of humility, the president is acknowledging he hasn't been perfect.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think in terms of effort, which means something, but I give myself an A-plus, OK, effort. But that's, you know, results are more important. In terms of messaging, I would give myself a C or C-plus.

ACOSTA: The president will attempt to get that messaging right tonight, laying out his plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, crack down on illegal immigration, tackle the budget, grow the economy, and beef up national security.

But the president is learning quickly health care may be the most daunting task.

TRUMP: All I can do is speak from the heart and say what I want to do. We have a really terrific, I believe, health care plan coming out. ACOSTA: CNN has learned House Speaker Paul Ryan has received

assurances the president is expected to embrace much of the House GOP plan for Obamacare, with one source saying the White House is now working hand in glove with Republicans.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Do your job, do your job!

ACOSTA: The speaker hopes a replacement proposal will calm tensions flaring up at congressional town halls.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Look, I think you're going to have a lot of churning on any kind of legislative product like this. This is a plan that we're all working on together.

ACOSTA: On immigration, a senior administration official is signaling an important shift, saying the president is interested in a compromise bill that could give the undocumented a path to legal status.

But the White House is floating the proposal just as the president is expected to point at guests sitting with first lady Melania Trump, including Jamiel Shaw, whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant.

Democrats are countering that with their own guests who are impacted by the president's travel ban on majority Muslim countries.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: He talks like a populist, but governs like a pro-corporate, pro-elite, hard-right ideologue.

ACOSTA: The president is already facing deep skepticism over his initial budget plan that ramps up defense spending while slashing domestic programs, a plan budget experts say will blow a hole in the budget. The improving economy, the president said, will make up any shortfall.

TRUMP: I think the money is going to come up from a revved-up economy.

You look at the kind of numbers we're doing, we were probably GDP of a little more than 1 percent. And if I can get that up to 3 or maybe more, we have a whole different ball game.

ACOSTA: But there are looming questions hanging over the president's speech, such as the multiple investigations into his campaign's contacts with Russia during the election. In an interview with FOX News, the president blamed his predecessor without offering any evidence.

TRUMP: I think that President Obama is behind it, because his people are certainly behind it. And some of the leaks possibly come from that group, you know, some of the leaks, which are really very serious leaks, because they're very bad in terms of national security.

But I also understand that's politics. And in terms of him being behind things, that's politics. And it will probably continue.


ACOSTA: Now, in bullet points on the speech obtained by CNN, the president is expected to say the U.S. supports NATO. That is an alliance that he has criticized in the past.

He's also looking to make a pitch for what he's calling partners in peace. That sounds very much like his strategy for forging an alliance with Russia to take on ISIS. That is something we heard so much about during the campaign.

But, Wolf, back to the subject of immigration, I'm told by one key congressional source that there may be some wiggle room for the president on this openness to a compromised immigration bill, basically signaling that unless that immigration bill is exactly something that he would support, he may not in the end want to sign an immigration bill.

And a White House spokesperson here at the White House earlier this afternoon told reporters, for now, the president's priority on immigration is border security and deporting criminals who are undocumented, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

We're also learning that President Trump may address the U.S. raid on al Qaeda in Yemen that left a U.S. Navy SEAL dead.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is working that part of the story for us.

Barbara, you're picking up new information.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We are, indeed, at this hour, Wolf.

All Pentagon eyes on Capitol Hill tonight to see if President Trump, in fact, talks about this raid that occurred last month. What we know is that, yesterday, the White House came to Pentagon officials and said, what can be declassified, what could the president talk about to better explain to the American people how a Navy SEAL died? Was the raid really worth it?

Did they get the intelligence they were looking for about al Qaeda in Yemen, which is a group that has posted direct threat to the U.S. in the past, has built bombs capable of getting onto airplanes, was responsible for that "Charlie Hebdo" attack against the cartoonists in Paris?

So, we don't know if President Trump will talk about it, but what we do now know is, by all accounts, they did get a significant amount of intelligence. The analysis about what they got in the raid remains ongoing, but a senior official says they got intelligence, broadly describing it, involved in what al Qaeda in Yemen is targeting, what targets they may be plotting against, their explosive manufacturing techniques.

Remember, again, they have practiced building bombs that can get on airplanes -- and even who they're recruiting and training for future attacks. So the Pentagon feels the raid very definitely yielded intelligence, but a final readout about how much intelligence, how valuable still remains to be finalized -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara working your sources at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this with former State Department official and Hillary Clinton national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Jake, thanks very much for coming in.

Jake, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: So, what do you think? The president said to a group of journalists, including me today -- let me read specifically what he said.

And I'm quoting President Trump. "The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides."

I assume you're encouraged by that.

SULLIVAN: Well, I will believe it when I see it. This is somebody who during the campaign talked about a deportation force to round up millions of people, who gave a speech in Phoenix after he went to Mexico and said 11 million people would be subject to deportation, and who has presided over in his first weeks in office the raids and roundups of mothers and grandparents and people who are just law- abiding and going about their lives.

So the words he said today are one thing. His actions so far and his pattern over the course of many months are quite another. So, let's see how this actually...


BLITZER: What his aides say is they're rounding up all the bad guys right now, the gang members, the drug dealers. That's what they're rounding up. The good people, they're not rounding up right now.


What we're told by an administration, a senior administration official is that they want to make sure that the millions of good undocumented immigrants in the United States have a path to legal status, so they can work, get jobs, pay taxes, and don't have to worry about being deported, not necessarily a pathway to citizenship, but a pathway to legal status. You would be encouraged by that?

SULLIVAN: I think a pass to citizenship is definitely the right way to go, not a path to legal status, because we shouldn't have second- class citizens in America.

But this would still be a major shift for Donald Trump, who has talked, as I said, about a deportation force that would literally go into homes and schools and workplaces and deport not just criminals, but law-abiding citizens as well.

This would be a dramatic change for him. And, frankly, given his penchant for saying things just to distract the press from one story and move it to another, I think we should all just believe it when we see it and when this is actually put forward.

And the Republican base and Republicans in Congress are going to have to have a real reckoning if, in fact, the proposal on the table from the White House is to allow millions of law-abiding people to stay in this country.

BLITZER: Have legal status to stay in the United States. The dreamers might have a pathway to citizenship, we're told. They will be just fine. These are the children who were raised in the United States, brought to the United States by their undocumented parents. That would be very encouraging to you, too, if this new legislation included that?

SULLIVAN: This is a case that President Obama and Hillary Clinton have both made passionately, that these young people deserve a chance at the American dream.

So, if, in fact, the Republicans come around to join us in that position, of course we will welcome it. But, again, right now, these are just words and suggestions, and they could end up being nothing more than that. And I think we have to hold both the president and the Republicans accountable to follow through on...

BLITZER: And you heard Jim Acosta say the president has now decided he will mention this, he will address this issue, comprehensive immigration reform, in his address before Congress later tonight.

That in and of itself is significant. We're told earlier he was planning on doing a speech in a couple weeks on this issue. But if he does it tonight before a joint session, that's important.

SULLIVAN: It is important, although it's pretty astonishing, you have to admit, for somebody to have gone around the country looking millions of voters in the eye and telling them one thing and then coming out and doing something quite different.

Now, in the end, if he heads in the right direction on immigration, that's all to the good, from my perspective. But it really raises some pretty fundamental questions about what lies at the core of Donald Trump.

BLITZER: But, you know, all presidents, once they take office, they see things differently than candidates did. Democratic candidates often say things, Republican candidates often say things. They're elected president, they have to see the world a bit differently. You studied history. You appreciate that. SULLIVAN: Of course. But there's a difference between making

adjustments in the form of compromise and completely changing...


BLITZER: He says this would be compromise on both sides.

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that if, in fact, he followed through with a comprehensive bill that looks a lot like what passed the Senate in 2013, that would be the equivalent of Barack Obama having gotten elected and say actually I think the Iraq War is a good thing, not a bad thing.

That's how dramatic this would be.

BLITZER: But that compromise he's talking about, that comprehensive immigration reform that got through the Senate and not the House, did have a pathway to citizenship. This would not necessarily have that pathway to citizenship. It would have a pathway to legal status.

Let's talk about North Korea for a moment, because a senior administration official told us today that North Korea right now represents the greatest immediate national security threat to the United States, that President Obama, himself, told this to president to President -- to then-president-elect Trump.

You're on the inside. Is North Korea the greatest immediate national security threat to the U.S. right now?

SULLIVAN: It's right at the top of the list.

The possibility of weapons of mass destruction being used against American citizens is the biggest threat to the United States. North Korea is gaining capacity to potentially be able to do that in the not-too-distant future. Terrorists are going around right now trying to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or biological.

This is the number-one threat facing the United States. And, meanwhile, other big state actors like Russia are modernizing and moving forward with changes to their nuclear arsenals and nuclear programs. So this entire issue is one that has to preoccupy the president and the military establishment.

BLITZER: But the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, there's some debate going on, is this guy just crazy or is he a brilliant strategic thinker?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think he's crazy, but a crazy man who has nuclear bombs and a growing missile capacity is someone who represents a clear and present danger to the United States and somebody that we have to take deadly seriously.

BLITZER: I know that President Trump believes China can be instrumental in convincing the North Korean leader to stop this. The U.S. does not want to live with a nuclear-capable North Korea with a delivery capability of a nuclear warhead, but China can get the job done.


Do you believe that?

SULLIVAN: I believe China can bring a lot of pressure to bear on North Korea, but we cannot outsource our entire North Korea policy to China.


BLITZER: What are the options for the U.S. to prevent North Korea from having a nuclear capability, a missile that potentially could hit allies like South Korea or Japan or even the United States?

SULLIVAN: Well, first, mentioning South Korea and Japan is very important.

We have to strengthen our alliances with those two countries, not undermine them. We need to increase our force posture in the region. We need to increase sanctions on North Korea. And we need to work with the Chinese.

But the Chinese part of this has to be only a piece of a broader strategy to stop North Korea's march to a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

BLITZER: Is there a realistic military option to destroy the potential nuclear capability, military capability of North Korea?

SULLIVAN: I believe that all options have to be on the table, and military options have to be part of the mix. They should be a last resort, not a first resort.

But, fundamentally, at the end of the day, we cannot allow North Korea to launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead at the United States. And we have to take whatever means are necessary to stop them from doing so.

BLITZER: Do you have any doubt at all that the North Koreans, Kim Jong-un, personally, were responsible for the assassination of Kim Jong-un's half brother in Malaysia?

SULLIVAN: I don't have any special inside information on it, but I don't have any doubt. I am confident that North Korea was behind it.

And I think they were sending a message to the world, Wolf. They didn't just kill him in any ordinary way. They used V.X. nerve gas and they were advertising to the world this is a capability that they have. And we should not -- we should take that extremely seriously as we move forward.

BLITZER: Because I had heard they were advertising potentially not necessarily to the world, but to their own adversaries, to their own enemies that they have this capability and to their own people if you're even thinking about doing something against Kim Jong-un, look what's awaiting you.

SULLIVAN: Yes. I think that's exactly right.

They were certainly sending a message to potential dissidents at home and plotters against the current leader, but I think they were also sending a message to the world about the kinds of capabilities that they possess and what they might do with them.

BLITZER: We're now told that the president has received options, a plan from the military leadership over at the Pentagon to destroy ISIS within 10 months in Iraq and Syria. Do you accept that? Is that realistic?

SULLIVAN: I think that we have made so much progress in the last years of the Obama administration in shrinking ISIS' space that it's certainly possible that in the coming months forces could take Raqqa, the capital of ISIS in Syria.

But that is not going to end the terrorist threat coming from Syria or from ISIS. It's going to take a sustained long-term effort to root out radical jihadists from that region. And I think if we take our eye off the ball after 10 months, we're going to end up facing threats in the future.

BLITZER: Because we're told that a lot of these ideas, if not all of these ideas, have been ideas that were given to President Obama and his military commanders at the same time.


The plan or the framework that's been presented to the White House from the Pentagon basically is a follow-on from what the administration was considering and what it was doing, what the Obama administration was considering and what it was doing. That's because at the end of the day there's only so many options to take out ISIS.

And I think that the current administration is going it have to think very seriously about how they make modifications to what has been an increasingly successful campaign at the end of the Obama administration to shrink ISIS' territory.

BLITZER: The president wants to increase defense spending, national security spending, by $54 billion in the coming fiscal year. For the Pentagon, that would be about a 10 percent increase in defense spending. Good idea?

SULLIVAN: I think it is really important that we increase defense spending, because it has been artificially kept low by the sequester, by these artificial caps that reduce defense spending below what was necessary to keep the United States safe.

But here's the problem. At the same time, the Trump administration is proposing massive cuts to diplomacy and development, more than a third cut to the State Department budget. That would be a huge mistake.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Tell us why, because the argument is all this foreign aid going into these countries, U.S. taxpayers can't afford it. There's so much work that has to be done here in the United States. Instead of building schools in Pakistan, let's say, they should be building schools in New Jersey. You have heard those arguments.

SULLIVAN: Of course.

Well, first of all, foreign aid represents 1 percent of the federal budget, 1 percent. Second, that plan that the Pentagon gave to the president on ISIS, it didn't just involve military spending. It involved civilian spending, because any general knows that they cannot successfully defeat terrorism without all three elements of American power, defense, diplomacy and development.


And, finally, if you strip away diplomacy and development, as tools in the arsenal of the United States, all you're left with is the military. And if all have is a hammer, then every problem is going to look like a nail, and we're going to end in a lot more wars and conflicts abroad.

BLITZER: All right, well, Jake, I want you to stand by. There's more to discuss.

We're also taking a look at Congress. What is Congress looking for in the president's speech tonight? We will talk about that.

The new EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, chief is standing by. We will talk about the president's plan to boost the economy by rolling back some environmental regulations.



BLITZER: All right, the breaking news this hour, new details of the speech President Trump will be delivering before a joint session of Congress later tonight.

We're told the president will tout his rollback of all sorts of federal regulations.

Let's get some more on all of this with the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

Administrator, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: All right.

So, senior administration officials tell me the president will address the importance of cutting lots of federal regulations to boost the economy. He believes maybe eliminating these regulations will do a better job boosting the economy than even cutting corporate and other taxes.

CNN, by the way, is reporting this could include a 25 percent cut to your agency, the EPA budget, which would be about $2 billion of your $8 billion annual budget. Would you be OK with that?

PRUITT: Well, Wolf, first on the regulatory issues, I think the president is keeping his promises.

When you look at the regulatory state in this country, we for the last several years have seen Washington, D.C., acting in a way to dictate the states across the country. And so you're exactly right. Today, the president signed an executive order withdrawing the waters of the United States rule.

That's good for farmers and ranchers, economic development across the country, and this regulatory overreach is in process to being taken back and given back to the American people. So, that's exciting.

As far as the budget is concerned, that process is just beginning. Obviously, there's lots of discussions that will take place between the executive branch and Congress. And we will just work through that process in the right way.

BLITZER: But are you OK with a 25 percent cut in the EPA budget? And, if so, where will those cuts come from within the EPA?

PRUITT: Wolf, half of the EPA budget is grant-related. And those grants go to states across country for water infrastructure and those types of issues. That's very important to protect.

The dialogue is going to take place between the White House and Congress. We will handle it the right way and make sure that priorities of the EPA are protected as we go forward.

BLITZER: So, those EPA grants to states, will they continue as is or will they be drastically cut?

PRUITT: We're actually advancing an agenda with Congress that those water infrastructure grants actually continue and are strengthened. Those Superfund sites across the country that need to be cleaned up from Portland, Oregon, to Butte, Montana, need to be a focus of how we spend money to improve the environment.

So, that's going to be a continued discussion as we go through the budget process.

BLITZER: If that's 50 percent of the budget, though, where will the cuts come from if they want to eliminate 25 percent of the EPA budget?

PRUITT: I think, Wolf, what we need to realize is this is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process. And so that process will continue. These priorities that I have talked about will be a focus of how we conduct ourselves at the EPA.

BLITZER: But you're the administrator. What would you recommend?

PRUITT: As I have indicated, those grants that go to the states across the country are key to making sure that water infrastructure is advanced.

That's one of the best ways we can improve partnerships with the states. The Superfund sites as far as cleanup in key areas like the port of Portland and Butte, Montana, will continue to be a focus and we will discuss that through the budgeting process.

BLITZER: Well, let me press you. Should we expect layoffs of hundreds, if not thousands, of full-time EPA employees, cuts of enforcement of environmental protection regulations?

PRUITT: I think, Wolf, what you should expect is for the EPA to operate within the process of rule of law. We're going to roll back the regulations that have been an overreach in the past.

That's going to be our focus in the near term and the budgeting process will play out.

BLITZER: The majority of the EPA budget goes to the states, as you correctly point out. So if the budget is slashed, how are these states going to be able to enforce critically important regulations?

PRUITT: Wolf, the focus will be on making sure that the states are adequately funded with water infrastructure in these grant proposals that we have worked on for a number of years. As I indicated already this evening, that's going to be a continued focus of the agency. We will work through the budgeting process to protect those dollars.

BLITZER: You have said you believe that the states aren't near what you call vessels of federal will that should just carry out federal dictate from Washington, your words.

Do you think the EPA should be abolished and the states, themselves, should handle environmental regulations?

PRUITT: No, there's a very important role for the EPA to play. There are air quality issues and water quality issues that cross state lines.

The EPA has a very, very important role. I think what's happened over the last several years, Wolf, is a disregard, a displacement of state authority, sometimes in direct contravention to the statute.

Congress has been very specific over the years to give specific authority to the states. And what's happened is, you have had an attitude in Washington, D.C., over the last several years that just wants to treat the states as mere vessels of federal will. That must change.

We have got to create a partnership, not an adversarial relationship. The president is committed to that. Those partners across the country to ensure clean air and clean water, they stand ready to be a partner with us and we're going to emphasize that as we lead at the EPA. BLITZER: In some states, as you well know, for example, California,

regulations are actually a lot stricter than federal laws require.

If you return regulatory power to the states, which clearly you're recommending, does that mean you're willing to accept, for example, California's vehicle emissions standards?

PRUITT: Well, Wolf, I think, with respect to regulatory power, what we want to recognize is the authority given to the states through statute.

What happened with the previous administration is a disregard of the statutory authorities given to the states. And so we're going to look at each of those situations on how to increase that, strengthen that and ensure that there's an active, vibrant partnership to ensure clean air and clean water.

BLITZER: Will you give California its annual waiver to set its own vehicle emission standards?

PRUITT: Well, that's a process, Wolf, that I don't want to prejudge. That's actually a rulemaking process or an administrative decision that we've not yet begun. That will be reviewed in due course.

BLITZER: The president, as you know, he signed this executive order to pave the way to eliminate an Obama administration rule that expanded what waters can be regulated by the U.S. What do you say to these people out there who say you're getting rid of critically important regulations that keep our drinking water clean and safe?

PRUITT: What's important for the EPA, to pass rules that are consistent with the congressional power given to that agency. No agency at the federal level has power that Congress has not given it.

And so when you look at the Clean Water Act and what the EPA did with the waters of the United States rule, it was regulating waters -- or seeking to regulate waters that were dry creek beds in certain parts of the country. Puddles in some instances. And that's not an overstatement.

So you had farmers and ranchers, those who build subdivisions across the country, oil and gas producers, the economy had literally ground to a halt, because the permitting requirements that went along with this redefinition, this reimagining of what constitutes a water of the United States.

What the president did today was provide clarity. What the president said today is that we're going to make sure that, whatever definition is adopted by the EPA is consistent with the authority given to it by the courts and Congress to provide certainty to people across the country.

BLITZER: But Administrator, can you guarantee that the water supply, the water people drink, will be safe if pollution isn't limited? Why not limit pollution? PRUITT: Well, states are, as you know, Wolf, with respect to the

Clean Water Act, over half the Office of Water's budget in -- at the EPA, about 80 percent of the budget goes to the states to help critical water infrastructure. And so there -- the states are an active partner in ensuring water quality. And that's something we're going to continue and pursue with each of those respective states across the country.

BLITZER: Do you think coal-fired power plants should have regulations?

PRUITT: There are air quality standards that, irrespective of the source of the energy, whether it's natural gas or coal, or what have you, they have to meet air quality standards that we establish as far as national emissions standards.

So it -- I think what's happened over the years, Wolf, is you've had this attitude that regulations ought to be used to pick winners and losers in the energy mix. What we need to do is make sure we pass regulations that those that are regulated know what's expected of them so they can allocate resources to comply.

Washington, D.C., should not be in the business of picking coal or natural gas or wind or renewables one over the other. It should be about setting rules that apply fairly across the board, to make things regular for all those that are in the industry. That's not happened the last several years, and that's what we're committed to do at the EPA.

BLITZER: The -- President Trump, he told "The New York Times," as you know, in that interview, not that long ago, a few months ago, that he does believe -- he does think there is, in his words, "some connectivity between human activity and climate change." Do you agree with the president?

PRUITT: I mean, as I indicated in my hearing, Wolf, I mean, we know that there is a warming or -- a warming of the planet; climate change is occurring; and there's some human contribution to that or human activity that contributes to that. How to measure that precisely is very challenging.

But there's a very important question that I think people leave out: What power has Congress given the EPA to respond? As you know, what we have is a Supreme Court decision and an endangerment finding that the EPA made in 2009. What we don't have is Congress's -- Congress giving the tools to the EPA to respond accordingly. That's something that needs to be talked about as we go forward on this issue. But it's very important that we don't disregard that very important component.

BLITZER: Do you believe climate change is a global emergency?

PRUITT: I think the Clean Air Act, when you look at the structure of the Clean Air Act, it was set up to deal with local and regional pollutants. If greenhouse gases and the CO2 issue is anything, it's a global issue. And so I think that there's a very fundamental question -- in fact, it came up in several meetings that I had with with individual senators -- has Congress equipped the EPA to deal with that issue, if it's a priority of this country?


PRUITT: And they have not, Wolf. So that's something that we're going to have to wrestle with and deal with as we go forward. There's an issue about the endangerment in Mass v. EPA, the Supreme Court case, but there's a very important process question that has to be addressed on whether Congress has given authority...

BLITZER: All right.

PRUITT: ... invested the EPA to deal with it.

BLITZER: The question is, is it a crisis right now? And will you continue to allow EPA scientists to study the human connectivity to climate change?

PRUITT: I mean, Wolf, is that issue any more important than PFOA in the Hudson River with Senator Gillibrand, where people are facing a health risk? Is it any more important than the ozone issue that we deal with in certain parts of the country?

The answer is we have many priorities at the agency. We must focus on those, improve our air quality standards. And we should celebrate, actually, the progress we've made as a country.

[18:35:11] And one thing I want to emphasize to you.

BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt for a second.

PRUITT: This paradigm that we've had -- this paradigm that we've had for years that, if you're pro-energy, you're anti-environment -- if you're pro-energy, you're anti-environment -- that paradigm is something we have to reject. We can do better than that as a country.

BLITZER: I understand that. But will you allow EPA scientists to continue to study the human connection to climate change?

PRUITT: Our research at the EPA should be devoted to rule making and rule making that we are adopting. And that's where the research -- and that's where it's been applied historically and where it's going to continue to be applied.

BLITZER: Is that a no, then?

PRUITT: Is that indicated in our research? The Office of Research Development is devoted to doing what? Supporting rulemaking that we pass as an agency in working with the states to improve air and water quality. That will continue.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about another issue that's now come up, and I want to get your response. The Oklahoma attorney general's office released e-mails between your office and the energy industry when you served as the state's attorney general. It shows that you received some talking points from the energy industry; even sent letters drafted by energy companies' lobbyists.

So first of all, can you confirm all that, and will you now, as EPA administrator, allow energy companies to draft policy or regulations?

PRUITT: Well, I think you're making some assumptions there, Wolf, that perhaps we don't have time to get into, other than to say that the steps that I took as attorney general of Oklahoma was to advance the state's interests in protecting the industries that we regulate.

All those issues that you're referring to relate to hydraulic fracturing. And the EPA and the federal government has very limited oversight in those areas. And that was the state interest to protect the regulatory regime that's been established at the state level.

In fact, we've been regulating hydraulic fracturing in the state of Oklahoma since the late 1940s. So that was about the state's interest, not on behalf of any particular industry or any particular business.

I will say to you, as we go forward at the EPA, what's important is hearing all voices. As I shared with the agency this week that my role is to listen, to learn from those folks that we have at the agency, and to lead and make decisions but do so within the process and the rule of law that's been established by Congress.

BLITZER: I know you've got to run. Let me give you one final question and give you a chance to respond. The released e-mails suggest that, at least on a couple occasions, you used personal e-mail -- your personal e-mail address for business. That's not illegal. The concern is you may be withholding e-mails sent to energy companies. I want to get your reaction.

PRUITT: You know, I know that there's been a very robust process that's been -- that's been implemented in providing those e-mails. I think there were over 7,000 e-mails that were -- that were provided. There's not a lack of information or a lack of willingness to provide what's necessary, Wolf. And we'll continue to make sure that happens. But thanks for the evening -- tonight, the talk.

BLITZER: Administrator Scott Pruitt of the EPA. Congratulations on the new job. You've got a tough one over there. We'll stay in close touch with you. Thanks for joining us.

PRUITT: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: The president's agenda. We've got new information coming up on the president's speech tonight. More on the breaking news as we count down to the first address before a joint session of Congress and the president. We'll be right back.


[18:42:50] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news learning new details of the president's first speech before a joint session of Congress. Only a little bit more than two hours away.

Let's dig deeper with our reporters and analysts. Sara, what are you hearing about the president's speech tonight?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think what we're all looking for is how far he's going to delve into the details on some of these issues. In the briefings that reporters have received in the briefings the White House has given, Republicans on the Hill, they've been very sparing in these, saying there will be broad contours of the president talking about how we need to do healthcare reform, we need to do tax reform.

But what Republicans on Hill are really looking for is some kind of full-blown embrace of their plan on health care. Remember, they are getting hammered on that every time they go home to their districts. They really want the Republican [SIC] to be sort of the salesman in chief for this.

BLITZER: What does the president, Gloria, need to do tonight?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think he needs to do that to give them a signal that they're on the same page so they're not out there alone. I don't expect him to go into detail.

But he's got a lot of different audiences here tonight, Wolf. He's got the base of the Republican Party, who voted for him enthusiastically, to reassure them. He's got the internal Republicans sitting in front of him at the Congress. And he also has independent voters, because he has a 55 percent disapproval rating with independent voters. And those are people who voted for him in the last election. I believe it was 48 percent, something like that. So, you know, he's lost ground with them. And he needs to tell them that he is going to be the president of all of the people.

BLITZER: Yes. He's going to have an optimistic tone, very different, we're told, than his inaugural address.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The title of this speech is going to be, "The Renewal of the American Spirit: An Optimistic Vision for All Americans." And the "all Americans" part, I think, people really want to see what that sounds like tonight. Is he going it be inclusive? Is he going to reach out to folks like independents and Democrats and progressives who've been rallying at -- you know, in different cities across the country, rallying against his agenda. So very much want to hear that.

And this optimism, we've heard some of that in his address in Florida, for instance. He talked about an optimistic spirit sort of pouring across the country. So I think we'll hear that, very different from that very dark speech that he gave, all about an American carnage for his inaugural.

BLITZER: Mark, the president told a group of reporters today, including me, quote, "The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides." And he's going to speak about this later tonight. That would be a major development.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It would be a major development, given his rhetoric and how he ran his campaign about how immigration reform and enforcement is really a -- was a key cornerstone to his platform. You know, I just spoke to a senior White House official, just got off the phone with this person who told me that Donald Trump isn't necessarily -- President Trump's not necessarily willing to abdicate his position, specifically, he will move forward with building a wall along the southern border.

But when it comes to the 11 million estimated undocumented immigrants who live in the country, those who are productive, those who are DREAMers, he's willing to discuss some kind of compromise where they could be legalized, not receive citizenship but legalized.

And as, Wolf, you know, and as everyone on the panel knows, Republicans are very concerned about those 11 million becoming citizens because they become citizens and they have the right to vote, and they tend to be constituency that supports Democrats.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, this leads to the question of what does Donald Trump really believe?


BORGER: Where does he stand? I mean, this is somebody who talked about mass deportations during the election. He's got an immigration ban that is quite strict and quite restrictive and is now tied up in the courts. And he's going to have to do another one.

Suddenly, he's talking to a group of journalists today and he talks about, well, wait a minute, maybe we could figure out a way to do this so that only the worst criminals are not allowed to get citizenship, and maybe there should be some kind of a pathway. I mean, that's going from "A" to "Z."

HENDERSON: And it's very off message, right? I mean, we're not talking about who he's going to talk about tonight, presumably this might not come up tonight, but we're talking about this idea that he's for immigration -- comprehensive immigration reform. I mean, if you remember the Gang of Eight bill, the only reason that passed is because of Democrats. Only 14 Republicans voted for that Gang of Eight bill. So, this idea that --

BLITZER: Passed in the Senate. It didn't pass in the House.

HENDERSON: Right, exactly. Exactly.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Let's think about sort of the way this White House works for a second because this is a White House that looks to flood the zone. And so, if they have the president coming out tonight giving this major address, also saying, by the way, maybe I could get on board with comprehensive immigration reform, you know, maybe that means Congress has to come up with something and I would just be willing to sign it if it came to my desk. But he's saying that, you know, a day, or maybe two days before he comes out with his -- another immigration ban.

It sort of gives them an opportunity to play all different sides of this issue and say, well, I'm only being hard line on the criminals. I'm only securing the border. But, look, I don't want to crack down on families.

BORGER: I think -- well --

BLITZER: You know, I was going to say, mark, I'm told the president really wants to talk about unity, working with Democrats, Republicans, Democrats working together to achieve something for the country. That's going to be one of the central messages tonight and maybe on this comprehensive immigration reform, this compromise that he wants, not a pathway to citizenship, but a pathway to legal status here in the United States.

That's an example of what he has in mind.

PRESTON: Well, it certainly is an example, and it all depends on how he delivers the speech tonight. If he has a tone that is embracing, then that's going to go a long way in him having an upper hand on Democrats in Congress who are going to be looked at as obstructionists if they choose not to work with him. Now, when it comes to this one issue, I don't know if there can be common ground found with Democrats, perhaps there is, perhaps there isn't. But we'll see what happens tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around. We're getting closer and closer. So, what will the president say tonight about national security? The most pressing threats facing the country.

Plus, murder charges looming for the women accused of killing Kim Jong Un's half brother.


BLITZER: More now on the breaking news tonight. President Trump's first speech to Congress, he's expected to address national security and threats to the United States.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto has got more.

Jim, the president has some differences with his top appointees when it comes to such issues as NATO, Russia, the term radical Islamic terror.

Will he clear up any of those issues tonight?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it appears that he's going to attempt to clear some of them up, or at least lessen the distance between him and his own advisers on many of these core issues, a message that "America first" does not mean there will be robust engagement with the world. He's going to say a commitment to NATO, but at the same time say that NATO members have to pay. That's already movement for Donald Trump, because you'll remember he's called NATO obsolete. He's questioned the usefulness of NATO today. That's one issue.

There's a line in the speech about forging new partnerships, where there are mutual interests. Not clear that he's going to mention Russia specifically, but that is a country he said many times in public wouldn't be the worst thing if we got along. Trouble is many of his closest advisers, defense secretary and others, list Russia as the number one threat to the U.S., unclear how they resolve that.

And on the issue of using the phrase radical Islamic terrorism, he's taking great joy, to some degree, in saying that since he's been president and in the inauguration.

[18:55:02] We know that his new security adviser, General McMaster, thinks that is not a useful phrase, because he thinks that it colors the whole religion, rather than people who are taking a path away from the religion of Islam.

It appears that the intention in this speech on these issues is to have some reassuring words, particularly on something like NATO, but he's had a wealth of words before tonight with real stark differences on many of those issues with his closest advisers. Can he bridge that gap in one speech? Unlikely, but appears he wants to make some progress there.

BLITZER: Yes. The president believes that ever since he spoke of NATO being obsolete more than a year or so ago, there has been progress in terms of more expenditures from NATO allies and getting involved in the fight against terrorism, as well.

All right. Jim Sciutto, thank you very much.

A senior White House official says the greatest immediate threat to the United States right now is North Korea with its rapidly developing nuclear and missile programs. That come as murder charges loom for the alleged assassins of the North Korean leader's half brother.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us.

Brian, I understand you're getting new information.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. The two women accused of killing Kim Jong Nam at the Kuala Lumpur Airport are now facing the prospect of being hanged for this murder. Tonight, their families were still claiming they were duped in this operation and we have new information in the women's activities in the hours before the killing.


TODD (voice-over): Extraordinary new video obtained by CNN. Siti Aisyah he celebrates her birthday at a restaurant in the Malaysian capital. Just hours later, police say, Aisyah took part in killing of Kim Jong Un's half brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport.

Tonight, Malaysia officials say Aisyah, a young mother of one from Indonesia, and another woman from Vietnam, Doan Thi Huong, are being charged with murder. They could be hanged if they are found guilty.

TOM VERNI, FORMER NEW YORK POLICE DETECTIVE: This is an extraordinary situation here. You have these women who are claiming that they were duped into this scenario. TODD: The families of both women claim they thought they were taking

part in a TV show prank when they accosted Kim Jong Nam at the airport and rubbed VX nerve agent in his face. Siti Aisyah's aunt says she previously used body lotion and tomato sauce in what they believed were TV stunts.

But Malaysia's police inspector isn't buying it.

KHALID ABU BAKAR, INSPECTOR GENERAL, MALAYSIAN POLICE: She knew very well that it is toxic and she needs to wash her hands.

TODD: A friend of Siti Aisyah's, who asked CNN not to show her face, said Aisyah was easily manipulated.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): She was naive. Whatever people said, she would believe.

TODD: The Vietnamese suspect, Doan Thi Huong, once appeared on a Vietnamese singing competition show, her brother told "New York Times."

And the brother says she posted photos on Facebook under the name "Ruby Ruby."

VERNI: They were clearly expendable and left that to be thrown under the bus and to fend for themselves. They are going to take the fall for this very likely, unless somehow the other individuals are apprehended, which seems unlikely.

TODD: Malaysian officials are looking for four North Korean suspects who they say were the women's handlers, but they believe those men are now back in Pyongyang. South Korean officials say Kim Jong-un ordered the hit on his half brother. The North Koreans deny it.

Tonight, a diplomatic showdown is unfolding. A high level delegation from North Korea has arrived in Malaysia and is pressing the Malaysian government to hand Kim Jong Nam's body to them. The Malaysians refuse to release the body unless a member of the Kim's family comes forward to give a DNA sample or to claim the body.

Kim Jong Nam does have an adult son, but analysts say he may not show up in Malaysia.

JOSEPH DETRANI, DANIEL MORGAN SCHOOL OF NATIONAL SECURITY: There needs to be actions taken to ensure the security of the son, if he should appear, because in my personal view, I think he would be in danger.


TODD: And even if the body somehow were handed over to the North Koreans, experts say, there's no guarantee the body would be treated properly. Given the way Kim Jong Nam was killed with a chemical weapon, the fact that the regime tried to assassinate him once before, and given the way Kim Jong-un deals with his perceived enemies these days, South Korean intelligence now says five North Korean security officials have just been executed with antiaircraft guns -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, the North Koreans are also trying to do some damage control with the Chinese over this assassination, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. A high level diplomatic delegation from North Korea is now in Beijing. Analysts say the Chinese are very likely furious with Kim Jong-un over the death of his half brother. The Chinese are said to have supported Kim Jong Nam and to have protected him, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. We'll stay on top of this story. Thank you very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

Be sure to tune in for CNN for special coverage of President Trump's first address before Congress. Our coverage begins 8:00 p.m. Eastern, one hour from now.

Right now, our special coverage continues with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT".