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Report: FBI Monitored Ex-Trump Advisor Carter Page; Trump: Russia Ties 'May Be at an All-Time Low'. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Is that the kind of information, the kind of knowledge about what states President Trump or then-candidate Trump was trying to win? Did you ever have any discussion about state by state or counties or precincts where President Trump, Donald Trump, might be able to do well?

[17:00:17] PAGE: Jake, absolutely not, and, if you want to talk about disinformation, I tuned in on CNN when they had the first public hearing, and they had my old professor from Georgetown when I was doing the master's in national securities studies program, Roy Godson. And he kept using the term "Soviet," "Soviet," constantly, referring to the ongoing -- or the modus operandi there. It was the exact same lecture I heard when I took his course in the Spring 1994 semester.

So I think it's similar to what President Trump said in that meeting with the secretary-general right now. There needs to be a new view and a new -- new step forward in terms of looking at new realities, and the secretary-general reflected that as well. So I think that's absolutely critical, and I'm -- I'm optimistic that, as these crazy reports are finally put to rest, the ability for the countries in NATO to work together will become much stronger.

TAPPER: I just want to ask you one more question, because I bleeded into my colleague Wolf Blitzer's show. So let me just ask you: the U.S. intelligence committee -- community says that Russia interfered in the U.S. election. They interfered with disinformation. They interfered with stolen information.

The Kremlin says it's not true; there's no evidence of it. You seem to side with the Kremlin. Why?

PAGE: Jake, I have looked in detail as to what was done against me, and I can assure you any interference, even going back to that report in "The Washington Post," if you look at the public relations and information warfare aspects of what -- what was constantly dribbling out with this false evidence against me, I would argue that that's actually much more material and had a much bigger impact on the election.

I have not closely studied that and I have no official position on the -- on the other details.

Going back to the point that the president made, that, you know, we won't make any -- any direct comment or conclusion until full evidence is seen, and I -- I'm not privy to the full classified details regarding that study, which was created under the Obama administration, which supposedly put out this FISA warrant against me.

TAPPER: Well, I mean, that was the FBI that did that. It wasn't President Obama. It was James Comey, who was still the FBI director, and it was a FISA court warrant. But let me just get this straight.

PAGE: Well, also the Department of Justice.

TAPPER: You actually think the articles written about you were more relevant and had more of an impact on the 2016 election than all of the WikiLeaks documents stolen from the DNC or John Podesta or any other -- any other hackers that -- that relayed that information to the public? You think what happened to you had more of an impact on the election?

PAGE: Well, look at what the final impact was or in terms of materiality of information. What did we actually learn from all these WikiLeaks e-mails, is that there's some dishonest things going on in the Clinton campaign. I think most people would not be very surprised about that.

To then have candidate Trump, someone who supported him and other people who have worked with him in the past, all these crazy stories ongoing, continuing to dribble out through his campaign, yes, I have a very strong premonition. Political scientists can study this someday, but my strong view is that that definitely had had a much bigger impact than these immaterial WikiLeaks, which really didn't prove any major new details, other than the fact that the Clinton campaign was acting dishonestly, which I think if this "Dodgy Dossier" is any indication, certainly that is a much more firm indication of that.

TAPPER: Carter, do you still talk to people in the White House? Do you still have a relationship with President Trump and his team?

PAGE: Nothing. Nothing recent, no.

TAPPER: Nothing recent.

PAGE: Nothing.

TAPPER: When was the last time you talked to President Trump or anybody in his orbit?

PAGE: Nothing since the beginning of the administration, since January 20.

TAPPER: All right. Carter Page, thank you so much for answering our questions. We appreciate it.

PAGE: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Have a good day. That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to a very patient Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. All-time low. President Trump says relations with Russia may be at an all-time low. He adds it would be a fantastic thing if the U.S. got along with Russia and with President Putin. No such expectations for Syria's leader, who President Trump calls a butcher.

[17:05:02] Mounting tension. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets directly with Putin and discusses Russia's meddling in the U.S. election, saying later that further sanctions can't be ruled out.

Questionable connections. New information that the FBI monitored former Trump advisor Carter Page as a suspected Russian agent, while former campaign manager Paul Manafort is now expected to register as a foreign agent in a bid to resolve questions about his past work for Ukraine.

And a CNN exclusive. Democrats and Republicans on the intelligence committee see new evidence that Obama administration officials did anything -- did nothing illegal or even unusual in unmasking Trump associates.

And on the outs. President Trump warns White House chief strategist Steve Bannon to stop feuding with son-in-law Jared Kushner, saying, quote, "I like Steve, but" -- Will his next words be "You're fired"?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump says relations with Russia may be at an all-time low. And after meeting with the NATO secretary- general, the president said he no longer believes the alliance is obsolete. He said it would be a fantastic thing if the United States got along with Russia and with President Putin.

President Trump says he heard things went, quote, "pretty well" during today's meeting in Moscow between Putin and secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Tillerson met for hours with Russian leaders and says he told Putin that relations are dismal.

Earlier, Putin made it clear he agrees, saying ties between the two countries have worsened during the Trump administration. The Moscow talks were blunt, with sharp differences over the deadly chemical attack in Syria and the U.S. missile strike that followed.

Underlying all of that, strains brought on by Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, which Tillerson says could lead to additional U.S. sanctions against Russia. And President Trump hasn't thrown Steve Bannon under the bus, not yet, but he's certainly delivered a very blunt public warning to his White House chief strategist. The president telling the "New York Post" -- and I'm quoting him now -- "I like Steve, but" -- going on to downplay Bannon's role in the election campaign and his own relationship with Bannon, and the president seemed to put the burden on Bannon to end this feud with son-in-law Jared Kushner or else.

I'll talk to Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

We have a lot of ground to cover from the president's news conference, so let's go straight to our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, sum it all up for us.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you heard President Trump during the news conference with the NATO secretary- general Jens Stoltenberg, real signalling a shift in his attitude towards Russia.

He described the relationship between the United States and Russia as at a low point. That was certainly some of the biggest news to come out of this news conference. And while he did label Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad a butcher and, again, defended his actions in Syria to launch missile strikes to retaliate against that country for its use of chemical weapons against innocent people, the president stopped short of criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin who is arguably Assad's biggest backer. Here's more of what the president had to say about Russia during this news conference.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago, if NATO and our country could get along with Russia. Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia. It would a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and is we got along with Russia, and that could happen. And it may not happen. It may be just the opposite.

I can only tell you what I would like to do. I would love to be able to get along with everybody. Right now, the world is a mess, but I think by the time we finish, I think it's going to be a lot better place to live, and I can tell you that speaking for myself. By the time I'm finished, it's going to be a lot better place to live in, because right now it's nasty.


ACOSTA: Now the president went on to say during this news conference that the U.S. is going to get to the bottom of whether Russia had advanced knowledge of Syria's use against -- use of chemical weapons against its civilian population,.

But, Wolf, there was one other shift that was notable during this news conference, and it was a pretty historic shift. During the campaign, you'll recall President Trump time and again refer to the NATO alliance as obsolete. Today he reversed it, did a 180 on it, and said NATO is no longer obsolete in his mind. And you heard the NATO secretary-general touting the fact that many of these NATO member countries are starting to contribute more -- pay more into the NATO alliance than they used to in the past.

BLITZER: Another shift on China. He spoke pretty glowingly about China, his meeting with the Chinese president. China, a country he spent years bashing.

[17:10:06] ACOSTA: That's right. Extraordinary, especially when you spend as much time on the campaign trail as I did, listening to Donald Trump time and again go after China, describing China as raping this country, really hurting American workers in terms of seeing American jobs shifted overseas.

He promised on day one of his administration that he would label China a currency manipulator, but it seems that that trip down to Mar-a-Lago and his meetings with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, really changed his attitudes about China and its leader. He was almost growing in his praise of President Xi. Here's more of what he had to say.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Last night separately, I spoke with a man that I've gotten to know. I don't know Putin, but I do know this gentleman. I've spent a lot of time with him over the last two days, and he is the president of China. You were there. Most of you were there, and it was quite an interesting period of time.

President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talk a lot of things. And I said the way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea. Otherwise, we're just going to go it alone. That will be all right, too. But going it alone means going it with lots of other nations.

But I was very impressed with President Xi, and I think he means well, and I think he wants to help.


ACOSTA: And the president appears to be offering a carrot to the Chinese, Wolf, to try to coax the Chinese into helping the U.S. and dealing with North Korea. The president told the "Wall Street Journal" earlier today that he now does not plan to label China a currency manipulator. That' is a flip-flop when you talk about what he promised during the campaign. He promised during the campaign that he would label China a currency manipulator. Telling "The Wall Street Journal" today he is not going to do that, Wolf.

So it just goes to show you, sometimes, and in many cases, candidate Trump is not President Trump -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Secretary of State Tillerson held those lengthy talks in the Kremlin today and says he told President Putin that relations between the U.S. and Russia are at a low point. Putin has made it clear he agrees.

Let's go live to Moscow right now. Our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is on the scene with us. Michelle, some pretty tough talk, I should say, from both sides.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf, and days of this super-heated rhetoric, tension, uncertainty, have culminated in this. The U.S. and Russia are talking, and talking about doing some more talking. That is a positive thing, and, you know, you really see both sides

trying to find some common ground here. But even in the answers that they gave today, what you still see seeping through are these deep shades of the differences. And what you don't hear is Russia backing off from supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad any time soon.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): Four hours of crucial contentious talks with Russian officials, including with President Vladimir Putin himself. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov finally face the press.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I expressed the view that the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): I think there is a great potential for work in the future. We have an open and frank dialogue with the U.S. on many issues, and we have to make sure that that works.

KOSINSKI: The most good that could have come from this, an agreement to keep talking. They decided on a working group to tackle the most critical issues. They agreed to reestablish the now-suspended efforts to keep U.S. and Russian planes out of each other's way over Syria.

Lavrov, though, refused to accept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's responsibility for the chemical attack in Syria, insisting instead on an objective investigation.

LAVROV (through translator): We have seen no confirmation that that was the case, although mostly because the TV images showed that there were people on the air field immediately after the strike, and there were absolutely no evidence which would allow us to talk about the use of some kind of poisonous substances.

KOSINSKI: And the U.S.

TILLERSON: The facts that we have are conclusive, that the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned, and it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces, and we're quite confident of that.

[17:15:06] KOSINSKI: Tillerson insisted Assad's days are numbered.

TILLERSON: Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. They have, again, brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years.

KOSINSKI: While the Russian foreign minister explained ousting him now could be disastrous.

The delicate issue of Russia's interference in the U.S. election, Tillerson stated his case. TILLERSON: As to the question of the interference with the election,

that is fairly well-established in the United States. It's one that we know is serious enough to attract additional sanctions.

KOSINSKI: And Lavrov once again called for more information.

LAVROV (through translator): Not a single fact has been confirmed. Who saw those facts? We don't know. Nobody has shown us anything, and we have said to them, "Show us the evidence for these very slanderous attacks."

KOSINSKI: The rhetoric from both sides has been stark and relentless. Today's meetings show only a hint of a beginning of progress in the face of an enormous and urgent crisis in Syria, and still yet to meet, presidents Putin and Trump, who laid out the problems here most bluntly today.

TRUMP: Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person, and I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world. But when you drop gas or bombs or barrel bombs that have these massive barrels with dynamite and they drop them right in the middle of a group of people; and in all fairness, you see the same kids, no, arms, no legs, no face. This is an animal.


KOSINSKI: A State Department official tells me today that the chances of Russia stepping away from Assad in the near term are next to zero. That Putin is deeply worried that if Assad goes now, there's your power vacuum. Terrorists step in. Russia's not blind to Assad being a terrible option, but they see him, right now at least, as the best if not only option.

So what the U.S. wants Russia to do is convince Assad to take another look at a cease-fire first, then the political process. But, again, nobody knows how long this could take or to what extent Russia will really be willing to play -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Michelle, thank you. Michelle Kosinski reporting from Moscow tonight.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: So you just heard President Trump say it's certainly possible Russia knew about the Syrian chemical attack, but he'd like to think they didn't. Is that positive? What's your reaction to his leaving that door open somewhat?

MENENDEZ: Yes, I think that, when your intelligence tells you that they likely knew about it or maybe did know about it without doubt, and then the most latest information about there being a monitoring of the hospital where people were brought after the attack. And then a Russian bombing of that hospital, which would suggest they're trying to cover up the information, I don't know why you would leave the door open.

And this is a continuing saga that we have with the administration as it relates to calling out Russia. One thing is to say that our relationships are at an all-time low. The other is to call Russia out for ultimately being the entity that is responsible for keeping Assad the butcher, as the president said, in power.

BLITZER: Are you encouraged to hear the president now say he supports NATO? He no longer believes it's obsolete? During the campaign, he called NATO obsolete. He says he no longer believes that.

MENENDEZ: Well, this is the -- the -- you know, rhetoric hitting the harsh reality. NATO was never obsolete, and I'm glad to hear the president say it's not obsolete, however he chooses to now come to that conclusion. NATO has never been obsolete. It's been a critical part of keeping the post-World War II era of peace and security in the world a critical element, not just for Europe but in the U.S. national interests.

The only time that NATO ever invoked Article V, which is the section that calls upon mutual response if one of the NATO countries is attacked, was when the United States was attacked on September 11. So NATO is a critical element.

And you know, I understand his desire to have them pay more of those countries that haven't been paying their full share. That's a good thing. But at the end of the day, to say that NATO was obsolete was never a reality. And at least now, at least I hope our European allies clearly understand that not only the Congress has always believed that NATO is critical, but that the president does, too.

BLITZER: The president says the relationship with Russia right now, in his words, may be at an all-time low. Is this a new Cold War that's underway between the United States and Russia right now? And how dangerous is that?

MENENDEZ: Look, the challenge with Russia is that they continuously have violated the international order. They violated when they came in and took over Crimea. They violated when they send Russian forces into eastern Ukraine -- I was there at the time -- and invaded a country and its sovereignty. Violated the international order when they armed the separatists there in Ukraine and ultimately had one of their missiles struck down a civilian plane. Violated the international order when they indiscriminately bombed civilians in Aleppo in Syria.

And so at the end of the day, the challenge is to bring Russia back into the international order and to change its attitude, particularly as it relates to Syria, and the only way we're going to do that is if we ratchet up the sanctions, go to more significant sanctions we call sectoral sanctions, to get Russia to change its calculus, both as it relates to Assad and as it relates to the consequences of violating international order.

BLITZER: Senator, are you encouraged that President Trump and his administration are clearly getting tougher in their rhetoric, as far as Russia is concerned? Secretary Tillerson brought up election -- Russian election meddling during his news conference in Moscow today, saying there's no doubt Russia interfered.

Do you see these moves as an opening, potentially, to work with the Trump administration?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, I -- I applaud the language, but what we really need is a policy and a strategy that challenges Russia in the ways that I just suggested. There is a bipartisan piece of legislation that has been sitting in the Senate, of which I am one of the sponsors, to ratchet up sanctions on Russia, not only for what they've done in Ukraine, what they did in our elections, which is really a cyber-attack at the end of the day and also for what they've done in Syria. Unless we get them to change their calculus by consequences, Putin's KGB mentality will be I can continue to get away with what I want to do.

And so we need to do more than rhetoric. We need to show them actions, because that's the only thing that Putin understands.

BLITZER: Senator, we have more to discuss. I need to take a quick break. We'll resume our coverage of the breaking news right after this.


[17:26:43] BLITZER: Our breaking news. President Trump has some pretty harsh words for Russia, saying relations right now may be at an all-time low. But he's also praising China's president, saying the two leaders, they bonded during their meetings last week at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.

We're back with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, President Trump also told "The Wall Street Journal" in this interview that he will no longer label China as a so-called currency manipulator. I know you've supported legislation calling Chinese currency manipulation an illegal trade. React to this reversal by the president, who pledged, by the way, during the campaign to label China as a currency manipulator as part of his first 100-day action plan.

MENENDEZ: Well, it's a huge turnaround for the president, and -- and also for American workers. China manipulates its currency whenever it finds the necessity to do so to prop up its own workers and its own economy, but the consequence of that is that American workers get hurt; American companies get hurt; and ultimately, our economy gets hurt.

And so I guess this warming of relations between him and President Xi may have had him change his mind. But I hope he got a commitment from China that they're not going to be a currency manipulator anymore and that they're going to help us with North Korea, because they have the ability to do so.

Now I don't know if he played one thing off for the other, which his comments also that suggest that he's going to be helpful to us, President Xi is going to be helpful to us on North Korea, and he's turned around on currency manipulation. But, you know, the proof is in the pudding. And so far, China says they want to work with us on North Korea, but they haven't done what is necessary. And clearly, they have the biggest wherewithal to turn North Korea in a direction that moves it away from its nuclear weaponization.

BLITZER: Senator Menendez, thanks very much for joining us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, is President Trump's chief strategist on thin ice right now as West Wing feuding spills into the public eye? The president is delivering a rather blunt message to Steve Bannon. We'll bring you the details.


BLITZER: Breaking news that we're following, President Trump tells reporters that relations with Russia right now may be at an all-time low. He was spoking alongside the NATO secretary-general, the head of an organization that Donald Trump as a candidate called obsolete. It's a dramatic reversal for the president, the latest sign the violence in the Middle East is complicating his campaign promises.

[17:33:51] Let's bring in our panel. We've got Ryan Lizza with us; Chris Cillizza with us. This is going to be a little confusing.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS: We're just trying to test you. Anchor Skills 101.

BLITZER: Yes, this is going to be a little confusing. But Ryan, the president was asked if he believes that Russia knew in advance about the Syrian chemical weapons attack and his overall view of Putin. I want to play for you what he said.


TRUMP: I would like to think that they didn't know, but certainly, they could have. They were there, so we'll find out.

General Mattis is looking into it with the entire Pentagon group that does that kind of work. So I -- it was very disappointing to see. It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia; and that could happen, and it may not happen. It may be just be the opposite.

Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia. This has built for a long period of time, but we're going to see what happens.


BLITZER: It sounds like a very significant shift from what he used to say.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. Thu= first time that I think I can remember the president actually talk about Russia in that way and acknowledge how poor relations are.

And, you know, we're seeing Trump deal with the world, with the realities of the world: that Russia is not our ally in Syria, especially when we're -- we're launching cruise missiles into -- into Assad's airports.

[17:35:08] He's standing there with the head of NATO, right? Trump on the campaign trail used to criticize NATO more than he ever criticized Putin, so he's realizing that NATO is a bedrock of American security, that we have to side with NATO and you have to be very skeptical of Trump so it's like this gradual, you know, education of what Russia represents right now in the world.

Yes, and he used to say during the campaign NATO is obsolete. Today he flatly said, "I used to say it was obsolete. I no longer believe it's obsolete."

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He did. A lot of flip flops, you could say, from Trump today, but I agree with Ryan, that this is an education for him. He came into the campaign process not knowing a lot about foreign policy or national security. Personally, by virtue of his past inexperience in government, but I think also by virtue of the fact that he didn't really study up on these things. He didn't think he needed to. He thought he knew the answers already. And I think that we're seeing that this is a crash course for Donald Trump now as president of the United States.

BLITZER: You know, Chris, this move towards a more Republican establishment type of foreign policy seems to be a shift from the strategy he had during the campaign. Also the strategy that Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, has put forward, maybe not isolationist but non-interventionist.

CILLIZZA: I was just going to make -- you're exactly right. The dovetailing of Donald Trump moving -- and, again, I remind everyone that Donald Trump is sort of a day-to-day presidency.

Today is not necessarily predictive of tomorrow, but what we've seen is sort of a broad movement toward a more establishment view, Republican view of foreign policy with the demotion of Steve Bannon and not just a demotion from the National Security Council but the willingness of Donald Trump to basically say, "Yes, a guy who works for me." There's clearly a rising and a setting here. The rise of sort of the Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn and Tina Powell views and the setting, at least for the moment, of the Steve Bannon/Steve Miller views.

BLITZER: In this new interview in "The Wall Street Journal," he refers to Mr. Bannon as, as you point out, "a guy who works for me," and he noted that he, the president, is his own strategist.

CILLIZZA: I mean, that's... BLITZER: This is the second day in a row, because the "New York

Post," he said something very similar.

CILLIZZA: And so if you thought "The New York Post" interview which, probably not, but you thought that interview, maybe that's not what Trump meant, it's clearly what he meant because he followed a day after all of that controversy about sort of talking down Bannon with another shot at Bannon and basically saying, "I'm the guy who gets the credit here, not Bannon."

LIZZA: This is a guy who ran his campaign, let's remember, in the general election, a guy who has an office steps from Trump's Oval Office.

BLITZER: You obviously didn't read the interview in "The New York Post," Ryan, because he said, you know, he came in late. He had already beaten all of the senators and the governors. Remember that, Rebecca?

BERG: Like Sean Spicer demoting Paul Manafort to some volunteer who worked on the campaign. I mean, when they decide that these guys are no longer useful or no longer helpful to their image, they just toss them aside.

CILLIZZA: Somebody I used to know.

BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, let's talk a little bit about the latest words the president is using in describing the Syrian dictator, calling him, among other things, a butcher. He's not necessarily immediately saying he's got to be removed, but some of his aides are clearly making that point. You've got to get him out of there

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No way, Wolf. Look, money talks, those words walk. Let me tell you what's going on here.

If you want to get him out, you're going to have to use force. He's survived a six-year civil war, and he's gaining ground in that civil war. There are players here who can effect a change if they choose to. Obviously, the United States is front and center. There's no way we're sending in the U.S. Army, and we don't have a coalition ally on the ground we can rely on.

You think the Saudis are going to move in, the Turks are going to move in, the Iraqis, the Jordanians, the Lebanese?

So when Rex Tillerson walks in and threatens the Russians to say, "You've got to get this guy out," if I'm Sergey Lavrov on the other side of the table, I'm saying, "Where's the money, dude? What are you going to ante up?" A lot of tough talk out of Washington, but I can't figure out how -- what kind of leverage we have with the Russians. They're going to laugh us out of the room.

BLITZER: We're standing by, by the way, to have a live interview with the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg. He's going to be joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have a lot more coming up. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:43:50] BLITZER: We're getting an inside look at the moments leading up to President Trump's decision to order Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian air base. Listen to this.


TRUMP: We had finished dinner. We're now having dessert, and we are the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that "The ships are locked and loaded. What do you do?" And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way.

And I said, "Mr. President, let me explain something to you." This is during dessert. "We've just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit," by the way, unbelievable, from you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit.


BLITZER: So incredible. It's brilliant. It's genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five. I mean, what we have in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.

Now we're going to start getting it because, you know, the military has been cut back and depleted so badly by the past administration and by the war in Iraq which was another disaster. So what happens, is I've said, "We've just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq [SIC]." Iraq.

MARIA BARTIROMO, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Are you headed to Syria?

TRUMP: Yes, heading towards Syria, and I want you to know that.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I'm anxious to get Phil Mudd's reaction to that. Go ahead, Phil.

PHIL MUDD, FORMER COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Well, I feel like I'm getting a nervous tick here, Wolf. Let's break this down into two pieces.

Number one, I believe he had to notify the Chinese President. He had to. The alternative is the Chinese President walks upstairs half an hour later, an hour later, looks on CNN and says, hey, there's been a missile strike and the American President knew this and didn't tell me.

There's a separate piece about the decision at the table. I'm going to try to give the President the benefit of the doubt. I can't believe he made the decision at the table.

That's the Defense Secretary, the National Security advisor, the Secretary of State, the CIA Director, have got to sit down in a secure room and say, what targets do we want? When will the targets be ready? When will the ships be ready? And the President simply said, yes, go ahead. If he made the decision at the table, we've got to have another conversation because I don't believe it.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Rebecca, the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrians, today, the Russians vetoed it. But the Chinese, another permanent member of the Security Council, they abstained, and the President was pretty happy. He took it as a personal victory.

REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: That's right. I guess you could take it as a victory. I think that's, maybe, a little bit generous. It would've been better if China were supporting us on this, but at the same time, he does seem pleased with the conversations he had with the Chinese President and everything that's come out of it. But, you know, we'll wait and see.

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORKER: I mean, look, a core philosophy of the Chinese foreign policy is non-intervention in sovereign states, right? So the fact that they abstained is something.

BLITZER: They always would veto together with the Russians. They'd vote against it.

LIZZA: But ever since Libya, the Russians have just absolutely been opposed to anything that smacks of this kind of intervention.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR AT LARGE: One thing Trump has done throughout his life that he continues to do as President -- and anyone you talk to who worked with him in the business world will tell you this -- is no matter what the outcome of a certain event is, he declares victory and moves on.

LIZZA: Yes, yes.

CILLIZZA: For some Democrats, it drives them absolutely bananas because it's, well, he didn't create these jobs, or this was happening before. But he understands the attention span of the American public, particularly on something like this. They'll say, well, he got something done there.

He's reasserting our sense of who we are in the world, our strength in the world. You know, does it really mean anything, I feel like, is the inevitable question.

BLITZER: All right.

CILLIZZA: But that's what he does. It's his thing.

BLITZER: I don't know if this is the first time. I think this may be the first time we have Chris Cillizza and Ryan Lizza here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

CILLIZZA: It's a moment. LIZZA: That's right.

BLITZER: Is that true?



BLITZER: All right. Chris Cillizza, here's the question.


BLITZER: It's an important question.


BLITZER: The President said we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake --

CILLIZZA: Yes. Of course.

BLITZER: -- that you have ever season and President Xi was enjoying it.

CILLIZZA: He enjoyed it.

BLITZER: You got the details on that chocolate cake?

CILLIZZA: Look, here's what I'll say. I'm pro-chocolate cake. I always try to get my wife to go to Maggiano's for their chocolate cake. My wife says Maggiano's is bad for you, and I don't need chocolate cake.

LIZZA: Yes. Right.

CILLIZZA: Look, if we're going to be a pro-chocolate cake country, I'm in.

LIZZA: I'm actually a huge fan of the gnocchi at Maggiano's, not plug.

CILLIZZA: Of course, he is.

LIZZA: But their gnocchi, I mean --

CILLIZZA: Right. So this was at Mar-a-Lago.


BLITZER: Yes. This was at Mar-a-Lago. The best chocolate cake ever.

LIZZA: He was, in a sense, you know --

CILLIZZA: Is it one of those --

LIZZA: Obviously, everything at Mar-a-Lago is the best. It was just --

CILLIZZA: Those big ones? Do you know those? I love them.

LIZZA: But it was a bizarre way to describe the moment.


BLITZER: Let me just get Phil Mudd. What's your thought on the chocolate cake?

MUDD: This is THE SITUATION ROOM, Wolf. We don't do dessert.


MUDD: But the fact he's talking about chocolate cake and he got the name of the country wrong is a little bit concerning.

CILLIZZA: This is the thing. This is to Phil Mudd's point. He's an entertainer at heart, right?

MUDD: Yes.

CILLIZZA: He's someone who --


CILLIZZA: Reality T.V. tells a story of the way in which he sees it in his mind's eye.

LIZZA: But you want the President to know the name of the country he's attacking.

CILLIZZA: Yes. I think we can all agree on that.


BERG: What a contrast to the Obama/Osama bin Laden situation room scene that we remember, seared in everyone's memories. The chocolate cake is quite a different image.

BLITZER: Practically.


CILLIZZA: But Trump as the decider, right? He makes the call, we're going to do it.

BLITZER: All right.

LIZZA: Yes. Chocolate cake be damned.

BLITZER: Guys, welcome to the Cillizza family and the Lizza family.

LIZZA: The first of many.

BLITZER: No relation as far as we know. LIZZA: No, as far as we know.

CILLIZZA: As far as we know, yes.

BLITZER: We're going to do some checking.

CILLIZZA: Yes, we'll do some

[17:49:19] BLITZER: Coming up. As top advisors jockey for position in the West Wing, President Trump warns his chief strategist to straighten it out. Is the president about to tell Steve Bannon, "You're fired"?


BLITZER: President Trump has delivered a blunt, public warning to his White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who's been publicly feuding with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Now the President has referred to Bannon simply as, quote, "a guy who works for me." Let's go to our White House Correspondent Sara Murray.

Sara, will the President's next words be, "You're fired"?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, "a guys who works for me" is quite a demotion from his chief strategist. But from what we're hearing today, it's not so much that Steve Bannon is getting the boot any time soon, but he certainly is in a watch your back situation.


MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump's chief strategist getting a very public slap on the wrist. Donald Trump declining to throw his full confidence behind Steve Bannon in an interview with "The New York Post," saying, "Steve is a good guy but I told them to straighten it out or I will."

Those comments coming just days after tensions between Bannon and Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, reached a boiling point, prompting Trump to tell the two of them on Friday to iron out their differences.

While the White House is publicly down playing staff spats --

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: A lot of it is overblown, what you see in the media.

MURRAY (voice-over): -- a source familiar with the situation says the President was irked by suggestions that Bannon is the one driving the agenda. As Trump allies noted, top staffers could better serve the President by laying low.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Staff are there to serve the President of the United States. They're not there to serve themselves. MURRAY (voice-over): In "The New York Post" interview, Trump

downplayed the role of his own chief strategist, saying, "I like Steve but you have to remember, he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist, and it wasn't like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary."

But Trump's attempt to diminish Bannon as a late comer to the campaign hardly meshes with reality. The former head of the right-wing nationalist Breitbart News Web site was one of Trump's prominent cheerleaders, pointing out at a conservative conference this year that Breitbart took notice of Trump's appeal early on.

[17:55:11] STEVE BANNON, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: It's really CPAC that really originally gave him the springboard. It's the first time in Breitbart we start seeing him and saw how people -- you know, his speeches resonated with people.

MURRAY (voice-over): In the early days of the Trump White House, Bannon's influence steadily expanded, eventually landing him on the cover of "Time" Magazine which dubbed Bannon, "The Great Manipulator."

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: Send in Steve Bannon.


MURRAY (voice-over): His perceived importance was famously lampooned on "Saturday Night Live."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, Donald, that's enough fun for tonight. Can I have my desk back?

BALDWIN: Yes, of course, Mr. President. I'll go sit at my desk, yes.


MURRAY (voice-over): Now the ball appears to be in Bannon's court to mend relationships within the White House and keep a low profile at least for now. Republicans close to the White House warned it will be a heavy lift for Bannon to repair his standing after taking on a member of Trump's own family.


MURRAY: Now Bannon is still a conservative media darling, and the danger in kicking him outside the White House is you could see this right-wing Web sites turn their knives on the West Wing. We may have seen an early inkling of that today when the Washington Free Beacon, which is a conservative Web site, took aim at civil war within the White House, but their knives were out for Jared Kushner, saying he is meddling too far in national security. Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Murray at the White House. Thank you.

Coming up, we have more breaking news. President Trump says relations with Russia may be at an all-time low. We'll be right back.