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Interview With Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; Republicans Seeking Health Care Votes; New Report on Russian Election Meddling; Fifth Republican Senator Opposes GOP Health Bill; Iran's Growing Role in Syria Hindering Fight Against ISIS. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired June 23, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: New evidence tonight that Vladimir Putin personally ordered efforts to hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign, a bombshell report revealing Putin's specific instructions to Russian hackers were captured and given to the CIA.

It's complicated. A fifth Republican senator now declares he is opposed to the current GOP health care bill, putting the legislation in even greater peril. Tonight, the White House says the president is ready to start twisting arms. But will that help?

And five feet away. The U.S. releases very dramatic photos of an armed Russian jet's dangerously close encounter with an American spy plane, the Kremlin warplane coming so close, the pilot clearly can be seen in the cockpit.

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: Breaking news tonight, the White House is tamping down renewed speculation that President Trump would like to fire or force the ouster of special counsel Robert Mueller.

In a new interview, the president complains about Mueller's friendship with fired FBI Director James Comey, saying -- and I'm quoting now -- "We will have to see if Mueller should step down."

Press Secretary Sean Spicer says Mr. Trump has the authority to fire Mueller, but has no intention of doing that.

Also tonight, the House Intelligence Committee is still waiting for official word from the White House confirming Mr. Trump's admission that he doesn't have any tapes of his conversations with Comey. The panel had set tonight as the deadline.

After the president's announcement by tweet, he's speaking out about why he hinted at possible tapes in the first place. He suggested he was trying to influence Comey to offer an honest account of their communications. Also breaking, the White House says it's still possible that the

president will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month on the side lines of the G20 summit, this as we are learning more about Putin's personal involvement in Russia's interference in the U.S. election. "The Washington Post" revealing that the CIA received intelligence last summer that capture Putin's direct instructions to help elect Trump and to damage or defeat Hillary Clinton's campaign.

This hour, I will discuss all the breaking news with Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski.

Michelle, as the president speaks out again about the Russia investigation, this new "Washington Post" report is filled with very important new details.


And it shows that the CIA had information. It had captured Vladimir Putin's specific orders on interfering in the U.S. election. You see the Obama administration struggling with this, how to handle it, how to try to make sure it didn't look like they were trying to interfere in the election.

Now, some on the inside regret that they didn't do more to expose it and to punish it.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): Tonight, a bombshell report starkly laying out the U.S. intelligence community's case for Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and revealing it was directly ordered by Vladimir Putin.

"The Washington Post" detailing that intelligence sources had captured Putin's own instructions to disrupt and discredit the presidential race, with the goal of defeating or hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump.

The CIA delivered the intelligence by courier to President Obama in August. "The Post"'s interviews with former senior Obama administration officials revealed the frustrations now among some of them that more was not done to punish Russia. Quoting one: "It's the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked."

They say the administration was worried about appearing to try to influence the election themselves, as well as provoking Russia. One official explained, "Our primary interest in August, September and October was to prevent them from doing the max they could do."

And after the election, some of the harsher options for punishing Russia, like a massive cyber-attack on them or sweeping sanctions, faced concerns and roadblocks from a number of corners.

Former Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken today defended the Obama administration.

TONY BLINKEN, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: Maybe the judgment was wrong. Maybe we should have acted differently. Maybe we should have done things that we didn't do. But given everything we were dealing with, given, first of all, again, the perception that Russia's main objection was to undermine confidence in the elections, that was really one thing that motivated to be careful about how we played this in public.

KOSINSKI: The Obama administration did set the ball rolling for a secret program to infiltrate Russia's infrastructure with cyber- weapons that can be controlled remotely, like cyber-bombs that could cripple Russia's systems, but Obama left office while it was still in the planning stage.


Today, the White House says Trump stands by his January comment that he thinks Russia was involved in the hacking, and has no plans to fire the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, despite Trump in an interview expressing worry over Mueller's friendliness with fired FBI Director James Comey.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Which is very bothersome, but he's also -- we will have to see.

KOSINSKI: In that same interview on FOX, Trump also addressed why he alluded to possibly having recordings of his conversations with Comey, when, in fact, he had none.

TRUMP: That when he found out that I you know that I -- that there may be tapes out there, whether it's governmental tames or anything else, and who knows, I think his story may have changed. I mean, you will have to take a look at that, because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events.

KOSINSKI: But when CNN pressed--

QUESTION: But my question for you is what is the White House, what is President Trump now doing to prevent Russia from doing this again?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: This report is new and we will discuss it with him later.

KOSINSKI: Again and again.

QUESTION: Against Russia, what is he doing specifically to try to stop this?

CONWAY: Well, Alisyn, I realize that we just like to say the word Russia, Russia to mislead the voters and I know that CNN is aiding and abetting this nonsense as well. But--


CONWAY: -- asked the same question three times now, and I have answered it.

QUESTION: And you're not answering.

CONWAY: Yes, I am. He's the president of the United States.

QUESTION: And what's he doing?

CONWAY: He has said very clearly that he wants the voter integrity and the ballot integrity to be protected.


KOSINSKI: A couple of interesting points on where the investigation stands. Tonight, the House Intelligence Committee is still waiting for official word from the White House that they don't have any tape recordings of those conversations between Trump and Comey, and they are still waiting for Comey's memos as well.

And as we see the investigations involved, the Senate Judiciary Committee now wants information from President Obama's former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to see if she might have improperly interfered in the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, lots going on. Good report. Thanks very much, Michelle Kosinski.

Tonight, the deadline for the Trump administration to give the House Intelligence Committee official notice of the status of any White House tapes. In the last hour, Democratic Congressman Andre Carson, a member of the committee, told me the committee still has not yet received anything.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Sara Murray.

Sara, Sean Spicer indicated earlier in the day, as you well know, that the White House might comply with that deadline, even after the president's tweet revealing he personally doesn't have any tapes of James Comey.

What's the latest?


Lawmakers were not necessarily inclined to take Trump at his word, at least at his word via Twitter. They wanted to hear from the White House. They had asked White House counsel to provide any evidence of whether tapes, recording, that kind of thing, exists by the close of business today.

Earlier today, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in an off- camera briefing suggested they may have something to provide to congressional investigators. Listen to what he said. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

QUESTION: Does the White House plan to deliver some sort of official written response to Schiff and the House Intel Committee?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I believe -- and I have to call -- but I believe that there was some communication we have to have by close of business today. So, I will figure out if that is going out.


MURRAY: Now, at this point, if there was some kind of communication, the White House is staying mum on it. It's just past 6:00 on a summer Friday here in Washington, but they have not provided anything that they may have handed over to the committee so far, just silence, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Murray, we have those artist sketches because no cameras were allowed in for that briefing. Thanks very much for that report.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is joining us. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.

Senator, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: I want you to listen to comments from President Trump today on special counsel Robert Mueller. Listen to this.


TRUMP: Well, he's very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome, but he's also -- we're going to have to see.

I mean, we're going to have to see in terms -- look, there has been no obstruction. There has been no collusion. There has been leaking by Comey.

But there's been no collusion, no obstruction, and virtually everybody agrees to that. So, we will have to see. I can say that the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters. Some of them worked for Hillary Clinton.

I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous, if you want to know the truth, from that standpoint. But Robert Mueller is an honorable man and hopefully he will come up with an honorable solution.


BLITZER: Are you confident, Senator, that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who spent, what, a dozen years as the FBI director, is safe in this job? [18:10:01]

BLUMENTHAL: What's clear and what I'm confident of is that Robert Mueller will conduct an investigation with integrity and independence, and that he will be dogged and determined.

And that, evidently, may not be to the liking of the president. I think he is safe for right now in this job because the firestorm that would result from the president firing him would be intolerable. But the president, obviously, he's trying to shoot across his bow, possibly to intimidate him.

And the entire episode with the tapes, which turned out apparently to not exist, was an effort, in my view, to intimidate Jim Comey. And the president has left that issue ambiguous, unequivocal. So, I think that the committees of Congress should subpoena any and all recordings, surveillance, tapes to make sure that none exist.

BLITZER: So far, there have been no subpoenas. There's been a request. The House Intelligence Committee, in fact, has a deadline of today for the White House to affirm what the president seemed to suggest yesterday, no tapes.

But Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat, he says that the president's tweet is not the final word. Do you think it is?

BLUMENTHAL: The president's tweet is far from the final word, because the president's tweet leaves open the possibility that there may be other tapes and recordings.

He says that he can't tell what may be out there. Well, we're talking about the White House, where the most electronic surveillance and monitoring exists. For the president to say, as though he's a bystander, that there may be some tapes of conversations in the White House that may not be known to him is really pretty preposterous.

But it deserves verification. And the president's raised the issue. He's opened the door. And only the Intelligence Committees or the Judiciary Committee can close it by verifying with a subpoena whether or not those tapes exist. And it's our responsibility to do so. It's on us.

BLITZER: President Trump addressed that issue of tapes in that early May 12 tweet about tapes in that interview with FOX News. Watch what he had to say about that today.


TRUMP: When he found out that I -- you know, that there may be tapes out there, whether it's governmental tapes or anything else, and who knows, I think his story may have changed. I mean, you will have to take a look at that, because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events.

And my story didn't change. My story was always a straight story. My story was always the truth. But you will have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed.


BLITZER: What do you make of that statement? Does it bolster a potential case of obstruction of justice?

BLUMENTHAL: It definitely bolsters and provides evidence for obstruction of justice. Clearly, the president's purpose or motive here was to have an effect on Comey's testimony.

And I think that the intent was possibly to intimidate or threaten him. But to go to the merits, Jim Comey's testimony never changed. In fact, Jim Comey had a recording. It wasn't a literal recording. It was a memorandum that he wrote right after he finished those conversations about the president telling him to let Flynn go, about the president telling him to pledge his loyalty, and then firing Jim Comey because of the Russia thing.

So, the tapes were really a red herring that the president threw across Jim Comey, very likely to intimidate. And I think that that statement will be potential evidence.

BLITZER: You say potential evidence of obstruction of justice? Is that what you're saying?

BLUMENTHAL: Potential evidence of obstruction of justice, and perhaps if there were other conversations between Donald Trump and members of the White House staff about tapes, about his statement that there might be tapes, indicating that the purpose of that tweet was, in fact, to intimidate Jim Comey.

There is all kinds of evidence that the special prosecutor is going to be eliciting and reviewing to determine whether or not there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians as part of a pattern of concealed, secret conversation involving Flynn and Kushner and Page, Manafort, Stone, all of them actors in this drama, and then the effort possibly to obstruct justice, also involving a possible conspiracy.

BLITZER: All right, Senator Blumenthal, we need to take another quick break.

We're going to resume this interview, get more on all the other breaking news right after this.



BLITZER: A bombshell report from "The Washington Post" lays out new evidence that Vladimir Putin personally directed Russian hacking efforts during the 2016 presidential campaign.

We are back with Senator Richard Blumenthal.

Senator, what's your reaction to this "Washington Post" report that's got all these new details suggesting that Putin personally ordered the interference in the election to hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign and help President Trump's campaign?

BLUMENTHAL: What this report shows is that the United States must act decisively and aggressively and make Russia pay a price.

And that's a matter of bipartisan agreement. I think I'm virtually quoting Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, and we are strongly of a mind in a bipartisan way that the sanctions bill ought to be passed immediately.


It was passed overwhelmingly with a bipartisan majority in the United States Senate, and is now unfortunately caught up in a procedural issue in the House. And there has been almost no support, in fact, no support materially whatsoever from the administration.

So, we need to learn a lesson here. Whether you think that the administration acted appropriately or not -- and, remember, the audacity of this hack was unprecedented. The involvement of the top levels of the Russian government in this kind of intrusion into our democracy was unknown previously, at least.

So, we need to learn that lesson that the Russians need to be made to pay a price, and here's the important point going back to our earlier conversation. Anybody colluding with them should pay a price as well. Americans who aided and abetted them or conspired with them ought to be made to pay a price as well.

And that's the reason why we have a special counsel, why I have urged a special counsel for months and months, and why any obstruction of that investigation really imperils our national security.

BLITZER: Why do you believe President Trump calls the Russia investigation as recently as yesterday a hoax, a witch-hunt, a scam? If he's been briefed on all the top-secret intelligence about Putin and his role in all of this, why is he still refusing to say what you and so many others, almost everyone in the intelligence community, has concluded?

BLUMENTHAL: That is one of the mysteries of this administration.

I want to give the president the benefit of the doubt and say maybe there is some policy reason that he has relating to international relations. But the explanation that seems more possible, based on what we know, the irrefutable evidence of Russian hacking and attacking the United States -- and, by the way, I think it was an act of cyber-war -- is that, for whatever reason, he wants to maintain good personal relations with Vladimir Putin and maybe because of financial interests that he has there or his families or the Trump Organization wants to continue to have those kind of relations.

And one of the reason why almost 200 members of Congress have brought a legal action against the president -- and I have helped lead this effort -- is that he has failed to disclose all of those financial interests. In fact, he's failed to disclose virtually any of them. And, so, it leaves a gaping doubt. He's failed to comply with the Constitution, to provide disclosure, and to seek consent for many of the foreign financial interests and government dealings with those governments abroad that he has done.

So, I can't say for sure, because we're still seeking information, but there's no question, none whatsoever, that the intelligence community and most of us who know anything about the hacking episode believe that the Russians were firmly behind it, and we need to take action to prevent it going forward, beginning, just beginning with those sanctions that should be toughened.

BLITZER: Well, if the sanctions bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate is passed in the House of Representatives -- it's now being held up, as you say, for procedural reasons. But let's say it's passed and sent to the president for his signature. Do you think he will sign it?

BLUMENTHAL: If he fails to sign it, I believe his veto will be overridden. I think there are enough votes and certainly will be if he vetoes it, but I have to believe that he will see the handwriting on the wall and he will sign it.

BLITZER: A former senior Obama administration official is quoted in "The Washington Post" as saying this.

And I will read it to you. "It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked."

This official saying that President Obama and his administration failed to take the necessary retaliatory actions last summer immediately upon hearing of Putin's role in all of this against the Russians.

Do you think that was a blunder on the part of the Obama administration?

BLUMENTHAL: Hindsight is always 20/20, and we should never govern through the rear-view mirror. But we can learn from those possible mistakes.

They had a tough judgment call to make because they wanted to avoid possibly influencing the election outcome by simply raising the issue. And I think what needs to be learned is much more important from this unprecedented, audacious, absolutely unknown previously act of war on the United States, that we need to make the Russians pay a price going forward. And whether it was right or not, we need to learn from it.


BLITZER: Your committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, as you know, has now requested information from former Attorney General Loretta Lynch looking for answers on whether she attempted to influence the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server.

What are your concerns about her behavior? BLUMENTHAL: The chairman of the committee has focused primarily on

that issue and wants to know of any possible political interference in any investigation.

And, so, the concerns of some of my colleagues -- I'm certainly less concerned about that interference than I am about the firing of Jim Comey. That's what I think ought to be the focus of our investigation. Why was Jim Comey fired? Who participated? Why did Jeff Sessions, attorney general of the United States, having recused himself, then participate in the decision?

Why did the deputy attorney general write a memorandum that clearly was part of a charade, possibly a cover-up? And the obstruction there, with a lawful investigation, ought to be explored. So, the Judiciary Committee has a responsibility for overseeing the Department of Justice, for making sure that the FBI's protected against political interference. That's the reason why Comey's firing is squarely within our jurisdiction and why we need to take this oversight responsibility very, very carefully, and investigate whether it was part of an obstruction of justice.

BLITZER: But, very quickly, Comey himself testified that Loretta Lynch told him, don't call it an investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server. Call it a matter. She also met on the plane, on the plane on the tarmac with Bill Clinton. That's what they want to investigate. Did she influence the outcome of that investigation? Your committee oversees the Justice Department. Your reaction?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, the meeting was certainly not the wisest thing that either Loretta Lynch or Bill Clinton had ever done.

And I think that Jim Comey was reacting as a prosecutor and an FBI director should with an abundance of caution. But I do think that the emphasis of the committee should be on the firing of Comey. And Comey's version of events, his interactions with the president are a matter of memoranda recorded, written by him contemporaneously with the president's conversations, demanding that he let Flynn go, demanding that he pledge his loyalty.

Those memoranda are part of the record that is really important there.

BLITZER: All right. Senator Blumenthal, thanks for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the hard evidence that Vladimir Putin personally directed Russia's election meddling. Did President Trump ever really doubt that Putin was to blame?

And the president's strange explanation for why he hinted at White House tapes that apparently never existed.


TRUMP: Well, you never know what's out there, but I didn't tape. And I don't have any tape. And I didn't tape. But when he found out that I -- you know, that there may be tapes out

there, whether it's governmental tapes or anything else and who knows, I think his story may have changed. I mean, we will have to take a look at that, because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events. And my story didn't change. And my story didn't change. My story was always a straight story. My story was always the truth, but you will have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed. But I did not tape.




BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the "Washington Post" reporting that the CIA received intelligence capturing Russian President Vladimir Putin during the U.S. presidential campaign issuing specific instructions to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign and help elect Donald Trump.

Let's dig deeper with our experts and our analysts. Dana Bash, the "Washington Post" article pretty incredible. It's a real bombshell. How incredible, though, are Trump's statements? Now casting doubt on Russia's role? Only yesterday he suggested it's all a Democratic, big Democratic hoax. He said in another tweet it's a big Democratic scam. He often calls it a witch hunt. Everybody seems to agree the Russians did this except the president.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. And there is a lot of frustration that the president won't, from within the administration, from Capitol Hill, from people who are trying to get his to understand that this Russia issue is a big deal in terms of policy making going forward.

And, you know, there's even some attempt to work around that on Capitol Hill. There's a bipartisan congressional move to make sort of a 9/11 kind of commission on cyber terrorism, to try to avoid this in the future.

But, you know, that is certainly an important part of the story, the part of the story when it comes to preventing in the future. But this story in the "Washington Post" is just jaw dropping.

And any Democrat, particularly those who worked in Brooklyn on the Hillary Clinton campaign, their teeth are probably aching with frustration and pain from the fact that the guy who they loved who was in the White House didn't do anything, didn't act.

[18:35:10]There are lots of reasons and very understandable reasons that were laid out in the story, but at the end of the day, you know, it's not just the current president, it's the former president who sat on his hands.

BLITZER: Former senior Obama administration official in the article, Rebecca, is quoted as saying, "It is at hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked." That after they got definitive word about Putin's involvement in July, they didn't really issue a statement until really early October. The president waited until after the election to impose sanctions, some diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Russians.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And, so, the frustration, you can really sympathize with because they look at how the election turned out now, but retrospect, looking back, the view is 20/20, and it's much easier to unpack what should have happened or what the president should have done.

Looking back on it now, President Obama has said that the reason he didn't want to say anything and didn't want to make this more of an issue than he did or the intelligence community did was because he was afraid that people would assign political motivations to what he was doing.

And you could certainly understand that when you think back on just how divisive the campaign was, how heated it became. Certainly people would have assumed that there was some political motivation there and so maybe it would have diminished the issue. No one knows how people would have received whatever the president would have said or done.

BLITZER: They were sensitive as Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of Homeland Security at that time. The candidate Donald Trump was already saying the election was rigged. If they would have come out with a statement like that, that would have reinforced at least for Trump supporters that notion.

BASH: Right. Except that he was talking about potentially being rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton, not in favor of Donald Trump.

BLITZER: That's what Trump was saying.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, I want you to listen to what the president said on Fox News, this interview this morning, shedding some light on that May 12th tweet, suggesting that there may be tapes of his conversations with James Comey, the fired FBI director. Listen to this.


TRUMP: You never know what's out there, but I didn't tape and I don't have any tape and I didn't tape. But when he found out that I -- you know, that there may be tapes out there, whether it's governmental tapes or anything else and who knows, I think his story may have changed.

I mean, you'll have to take a look at that because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events and my story didn't change. My story was always a straight story. My story was always the truth. But you'll have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed but I did not tape.


BLITZER: All right, Jeffrey, how do you interpret that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's amazing at many different levels. First of all, you have the president of the United States saying he put out essentially this false tweet, this bluff which implied that there were tapes, even though he knew that there weren't.

I mean, you know, presidents don't bluff generally. You know, when the president says something, and that applies to all presidents, they are presumed to mean it and you just have to wonder what this will mean for future statements that the president made.

And the other thing was, I mean, this was a disastrous miscalculation on the president's part because it led Director Comey to start the process that led to the special counsel being appointed.

So, you know, it's just the -- one of many examples of how if Donald Trump had simply concentrated on doing his job as president rather than try to manipulate the investigation of him, he'd be better off, but he can't help himself apparently.

BLITZER: And in that Fox News interview, Dana, he also seemed to go after Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Listen to this.


TRUMP: Well, he's very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome, but he's also -- we're going to have to see. I mean, we're going to have to see, there has been no obstruction. There has been no collusion. There has an been leaking by Comey.

But there's been no collusion, no obstruction, and virtually everybody agrees to that. We'll have to see. I can say that the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters. Some of them worked for Hillary Clinton.

I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous if you want to know the truth from that standpoint. But Robert Mueller is an honorable man and hopefully, he'll come up with an honorable solution.


BLITZER: What's your reaction to that?

BASH: I mean, that last part, Robert Mueller is an honorable man, you know, at least there was one thing in there that you're supposed to say when you're president of the United States, and there is a special counsel.

[18:40:06]But look, I was talking to a Republican, a supporter of President Trump, who -- from Capitol Hill this morning -- who was just apoplectic at the fact that he continues to talk about this investigation, to talk about the players in this investigation in such a detailed way, that could really continue to backfire. I mean, Jeffrey was talking about the tapes that obviously back fired enormously, it blew up in his face, the whole notion of trying to taunt James Comey with basically lying about these tapes. And now he's continuing to taunt them. I'm not so sure that's the greatest strategy in the world.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, I want you to weigh in because that clearly was not a vote of confidence in Mueller.

TOOBIN: No, and I don't think Director Mueller is going to change his investigation because he's intimidated by Donald Trump. But, you know, I think this is an illustration of how, you know, Donald Trump is his own communications director.

When Bill Clinton was president, he had people like our friend, Paul Begala, who used to attack Ken Starr all the time, but Bill Clinton didn't do it.

Here, Donald Trump is doing the job that has usually been outsourced to employees because he's the only one who trusts himself to say these things about, about the man who is investigating him. All it does is keep the subject in the news, and I don't think it's going to intimidate Director Mueller at all.

BASH: I think the opposite actually.

BLITZER: I think the president, though, appreciates what would happen, Rebecca, if he were to fire Mueller, the reaction, what that reaction would be, especially the aftermath of him firing Comey.

BERG: I mean, certainly Republicans have taken great pains to publicly warn the president about how detrimental that would be to his administration and his agenda if he were to fire Mueller. So, good news for them is that the message does seem to be getting through.

But talking about this, maybe not a productive thing, although you could understand why the president, not knowing how this investigation is going to turnout, or where it's going to go, and not having any control over it, you can understand why he would want to lay the groundwork for undermining the credibility of this investigation.

TOOBIN: But by the way, I just would add, I don't think there would be all that great big a reaction among the Republicans in the Congress if Donald Trump were to fire -- were to fire Mueller. You know, John McCain would say he's troubled and several other people would say they were troubled.

But, you know, it would continue to be business as usual. This Republican Congress has decided this president is their guy and they're going to stick with him.

And I don't think anything he could do -- remember Donald Trump said during the campaign, I could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and people would still support me. I think what we've learned is he's exactly right. BASH: I think support is probably too strong. I think that they are living with him and they understand the political reality that they have to deal with, but a lot of their constituents are big Trump supporters. So, maybe support goes a bridge too far. The fact is that it's an arranged marriage that they're just dealing with.

BLITZER: All right, everybody stand by. There is more coming up, including passage of the Republican Senate health care bill. Apparently now in more uncertain situation than ever. Another Republican has just come out against the measure.


[18:48:09] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, a fifth Republican senator now publicly opposing the Republican health care bill. And with a vote planned for next week, it's passage right now increasingly uncertain.

CNN's Ryan Nobles up on Capitol Hill for us.

Ryan, Senator Dean Heller of Nevada called claims that the bill would lower premiums and I'm quoting him now, a lie.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no doubt today, Dean Heller offering the toughest criticism yet on this plan but any Republican and his concerns could expose a real problem for the GOP. How do they make changes to this plan that will satisfy both conservatives and moderates?


NOBLES (voice-over): Tonight, a growing course of opposition to the bill from within the party.

SEN. DEAN HELLER (R), NEVADA: This bill is currently in front of the United States Senate. Not the answer. It's simply not the answer. And I'm announcing today that in this form, I will not support it.

NOBLES: For conservatives, the bill doesn't go far enough. But moderates, like Nevada's Dean Heller, who faces a 2018 reelection bid in Nevada, have concerns the bill negatively affects too many people. The bill calls for major changes to the future of Medicaid, a point Democrats are seizing on.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The president said the House bill was mean. The Senate bill may be meaner.

NOBLES: Under Obamacare, states, if they choose to participate, receive federal funds to expand Medicaid to provide health coverage for low income Americans. The House bill would end Medicaid expansion in three years and give states a block grant to fund Medicaid as they see fit. The Senate version phases out Medicaid expansion more slowly, starting in 2021, but makes deeper cuts to the overall Medicaid program by sharply reducing federal funding over time.

While the Senate proposal does extend Medicaid's expansion life a few years longer than the House bill, the end result is the same.

[18:50:04] Low income adults will likely be kicked off the roles.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), COLORADO: This is going to hurt the people that worked hardest to elect Trump.

NOBLES: Republicans argue that the federal government cannot afford increased costs and that Obamacare is leading to out of control premiums and Americans losing coverage.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I really want some freedom in choice allowing Americans to buy health coverage that they -- that fit their needs and that they can afford.

NOBLES: It is this argument at the core of the decision-making process for undecided GOP senators. Both sides of the argument calling for major changes with just a week before Senate leadership has promised the bill will be brought to the floor for a vote. Still, the White House remains cautiously optimistic.

TRUMP: It's a very complicated situation from the standpoint you do something that's good for one group but bad for another. It is a very, very narrow path. But I think we're going to get there.


NOBLES: And in a major development tonight, the political action committee, America First Policies, which supports the president and his administration, has announced they plan a seven-figure ad buy attacking Dean Heller for his opposition to the health care bill. This is remarkable because Heller is likely the most vulnerable Republican who is up for re-election in the Senate in 2018.


NOBLES: Wolf, really startling they would decide to attack Heller at this time.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Good report. Ryan, thank you very much.

Just ahead, a Russian fighter jet flying within five feet of a U.S. Air Force plane. We have dramatic new pictures of this really dangerous encounter.


[18:56:05] BLITZER: New tonight, dramatic images just released of a Russian fighter jet flying within five feet of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane in the international air space over the Baltic Sea. U.S. officials say the Russian jet was flying erratically and they called the encounter unsafe.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, this is but, what, the latest in a string of similar incidents. BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf. Most of the

time they are safe and everybody goes on their way. But not all the time. This one armed and dangerous.

The Pentagon releasing these photos. The Russian fighter jet was armed. You can see the weapons under the wings. You can see the pilot. That tells you how close it is. Within five feet, as you say, Wolf, flying erratically -- flying fast. The Pentagon rated this incident unsafe, unprofessional, and they are not happy about it at all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, there is another story you are following, the U.S. fight against ISIS getting more complicated tonight. What are you learning?

STARR: Well, consider this, Wolf -- we heard today for the first time very bluntly from the U.S. military that if Syrian and Iranian backed fighters actually did begin to fight ISIS, which is doubtful, that the U.S. might actually pull back. The battlefield is getting very complicated.



STARR (voice-over): Iran launching missiles into eastern Syria against ISIS in retaliation for an attack in Tehran.

Russia launching its own missiles at what it said was ISIS targets. The battlefield suddenly has grown more dangerous for the U.S. as Russian and Iranian-backed forces all supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad edged towards areas where U.S. and U.S.-backed forces are operating.

A stunning admission from the U.S. military that it may pull back in southern Syria from the U.S. garrison at Tanf and not advance to the border town of Abu Kamal.

COL. RYAN DILLON, ANTI-ISIS COALITION SPOKESMAN: We are going to be limited to how far out we do patrols with our partner forces.

STARR: The reason? Syrian regime forces and Iranian-backed militias are moving east, boxing in the U.S. effort to fight ISIS.

DILLON: I would say that without having to, you know, work some kind of shot, not deal but I think that the only way we could get to Abu Kamal right now would have to be from a different direction or different location.

STARR: At Tanf now at the center of attention because from Tehran, across this southern Syria region, all the way to Beirut on the Mediterranean, the U.S. says Iran is solidifying its sphere of influence and using this area of southern Syria.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: Iran, unlike the United States and the coalition, is not focused of ISIS inside of Syria. Iran is focused on propping up the regime that committed atrocities in the civil war.

STARR: It's all making it suddenly harder to get to ISIS's last stand, the Euphrates River valley, suspected to be here top leaders, bomb factories, oil facilities, generating money and chemical agents.

For the U.S., a pull back keeps the war from expanding and Syrian and Iranian forces press ahead.

In the last few weeks, a plane shot down an Iranian drone. That just days after the U.S. also shot down a Syrian fighter jet and another drone.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: If the Syrian forces goes against ISIS, that's great. But that's the question. Will they go against ISIS? That's not their top priority.


BLITZER: CNN's Barbara Starr reporting for us.

That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.