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Interview With Idaho Senator James Risch; Federal Officials Rebuking Trump; Did White House Help Push FOX News Conspiracy Story?; "Prankster" Uncovers Cybersecurity Lapse at White House; Tillerson to North Korea: "We Are Not Your Enemy". Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 1, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Was the president just joking, as administration officials insist?

And in denial? A top Republican senator warns -- and I'm quoting him now -- "My party is in denial about Donald Trump," and says the GOP leadership bears particular responsibility. How are his fellow Republicans reacting to his damning indictment of the president?

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: The breaking news tonight, the White House now admits President Trump did play a role in the crafting of a controversial statement by his son about a meeting with a Russian lawyer.

The president's personal attorney had repeatedly denied involvement by Mr. Trump in the misleading statement. But Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders today said the president -- quote -- "weighed in, as any father would."

Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee now says confirmation of the president's involvement makes multiple Russia investigations unfolding right now even more important.

Senator Mark Warner tells CNN it also means Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who all attended that controversial meeting, must appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Meanwhile, the White House says a legal review process is delaying the president from signing a sanctions bill punishing Russia for its meddling in the U.S. election. The president has now had the bill for five days.

And there's more breaking news. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. is willing to sit down for talks with North Korea, adding -- and I'm quoting him now -- "We are not your enemy."

His remarks are a sharp contrast to comments by Senator Lindsey Graham today, who says military action is inevitable if North Korea continues its aggressive drive for a nuclear missile.

We are covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Senator James Risch of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

Let's begin with the contradiction between the White House and the president's personal attorney about the president's son's role and the misleading statement that was initially released by Donald Trump Jr. involving that controversial meeting with the Russian lawyer.

CNN's Jessica Schneider is working this story for us.

Jessica, we now have two different stories about the president's involvement.


For several weeks now, the line from the president's attorney has been that President Trump was in no way involved in putting together the statement from his son explaining that meeting with the Russian lawyer. But now the White House is putting a different spin on it, explaining that while the president didn't dictate the statement, he did "weigh in."


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, the White House for the first time is admitting that President Trump played some role in helping draft the initial misleading statement from his son Donald Trump Jr. that disclosed details about Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower, this after pushing back on a "Washington Post" report that the president dictated the statement.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He certainly didn't dictate, but, you know, like I said, he weighed in, offered suggestion, like any father would do.

SCHNEIDER: "The Post" reported that the president was on board Air Force One July 8 on the way back from the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, when he intervened to personally draft the statement. That first explanation released by Donald Trump Jr. stated that he met with the Russian lawyer primarily to discuss a program about the adoption of Russian children.

A subsequent statement acknowledged the meeting was actually set up after Don Jr. was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. CNN reported at the time that some of the president's closest aides traveling back on Air Force One helped draft the initial response from Don Jr., prompting concerns that those White House aides may have exposed themselves to legal scrutiny in the special counsel's investigation.

The new details from "The Washington Post" open the possibility that the president could find himself under similar scrutiny. Despite today's admission from the White House that the president at least weighed in on the initial statement, the president's lawyer repeatedly denied any involvement by the president when the story first broke in mid-July.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The president didn't sign off on anything. He was coming back from the G20. The statement that was released on Saturday was released by Donald Trump Jr., and I'm sure in consultation with his lawyers.

The president wasn't involved in that.

Look, the president did not draft the response. I do want to be clear, the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement.

SCHNEIDER: Jay Sekulow issued this statement in response to "The Washington Post" story last night: "Apart from being of no consequence, the characterizations are misinformed, inaccurate and not pertinent."


CNN previously reported that none of the president's attorneys were involved in drafting that first statement. A person familiar with the matter said that Marc Kasowitz, the attorney at the time designated to handle legal matters surrounding the Russia investigation, was not on board Air Force One and did not participate in writing the statement.

On July 23, Donald Trump Jr.'s lawyer jumped to his client's defense, saying Trump Jr. and his legal team were fully prepared and absolutely publish or make a statement that was a fulsome statement about the nature of the meeting, what led to the meeting, what the conversation was in the meeting.

Donald Trump Jr. clarified the purpose of his meeting with that Russian lawyer in a second statement and with the release of an e-mail chain. But now the White House is disputing that Trump Jr.'s initial statement was misleading.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There's no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed, in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had. This is all discussion, frankly, of no consequence.

There was no follow-up. It was disclosed to the proper parties.


SCHNEIDER: And congressional committees are still waiting to hear directly from Donald Trump Jr.

Senator Dianne Feinstein said today that Don Jr. is expected to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September. The president's son has been cooperating with that committee in order to avoid a subpoena and ensure a private interview before any public hearing.

Now, meanwhile, Senator Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee says he wants more information from Don Jr.,who he expects to appear before his committee at some point -- Wolf. BLITZER: Yes, maybe as early as September after the August recess.

Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

The White House is also facing serious questions about why the president still hasn't signed the sanctions bill punishing Russia for election meddling here in the United States.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us.

Jeff, the president has had this bill for, what, five days now. It was overwhelmingly approved in the House and the Senate. What's the problem?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that is a great question here. The White House has had the bill since Friday afternoon. The White House insists the president will sign it. The vice president today, traveling in Georgia, he said the president will sign it as well, but still no sense of when that will be.

Now, Wolf, we know the president and the White House indeed were not supportive of the sanctions bill. They tried to slow-walk it through the House of Representatives. And essentially this bill handcuffs him in, you know, releasing and freeing sanctions in the future. It puts most of the control of that in the hands of Congress, which this White House didn't want.

But, again, he said he would sign it on Friday. He still hasn't yet. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said this today.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: He has not, but as we put out a statement earlier this week, he will and we will let you know when the details and final plan on that...

QUESTION: What's the delay? What's the delay here? You guys have had this since Friday. What's holding him back?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: There's nothing holding him back. There is a review process, a legal process. They are going through that, and he will sign the bill and we will let you guys know.


ZELENY: Now, this was hardly a surprise when the bill was finally passed in Congress. It was passed overwhelmingly, Wolf, as you said, 419-3 in the House of Representatives and 98-2 in the Senate, the only bill of any consequence that receives that type of support.

You can hardly get that kind of support for naming a post office or something, Wolf. So, this is something that if the president would not sign it, there would certainly be enough support to override a veto. He has 10 days to sign the bill. If he does not sign it, it would automatically go into effect anyway. I am told that the White House may issue some type of a signing

statement with that. That is basically the president's ability to add some commentary onto the bill. He may say he didn't like parts of it, but, Wolf, regardless of if he signs it or not, it is going to go into law. We are told he's still going to sign it. We're not sure what's taking so long because it's drawing so much attention to this, again, on this Russia matter, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho is joining us. He's a key member of both the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator Risch, thanks for joining us.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Glad to be here, Wolf. Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Let's go through some of the stories that we're following today. The first one, we now know the president's -- the president's personal lawyer's initial statement as far as that meeting, the meeting that Donald Jr. had, was inaccurate. How do you explain that?

RISCH: Well, I don't explain it. I'm the one that's going tomorrow to be a party to make any judgment on it. So, I'm like you. I'm taking the facts as they come out and we will make a judgment on the whole, as opposed to any particular thing. I'm not as convinced as you are that it was inaccurate.

I want to hear what the people's explanations are and we will make a judgment based on that.

BLITZER: Because his initial statements -- we're talking about Jay Sekulow, the president's personal lawyer -- the president, he said -- this is on NBC on July 16 -- "The president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement. It came from Donald Trump Jr."


The president was involved, according to the White House. Sarah Huckabee Sanders today said the president was involved in the drafting of the statement, didn't dictate it, but was involved in it.

RISCH: Well, as I listen to it, I think she said what he did was give his son some advice, as any father would, as I would for my son or anybody else would.

There's more details here than boiling this down to a simple two- sentence situation. Let's let this play out. Look, we have got lots of material to go through. We have got lots of witnesses to interview and we will make a judgment overall based on what the facts are. And as we have said over and over again, we're going to go where the

facts lead us, and facts are a stubborn thing. And we have got people on that committee, on both sides, that are very good at following facts. We will take them where they lead us.

BLITZER: Yes, you're on the Intelligence Committee.

Just to be precise, on Air Force One on the flight back to the United States from the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, as far as the drafting of that statement, she did say, Sarah Huckabee Sanders -- quote -- "The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had."

Do you believe that the meeting, that meeting, the controversial meeting at Trump Tower in New York City in June of last year during the campaign, was just about adoptions, when Donald Trump Jr.'s own e- mail traffic from Rob Goldstone, among others, stated the meeting was an offer to -- quote -- "provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia"?

RISCH: You know, Wolf, I don't want to get too deep into the weeds on this, because we're going to hear lots of things. But the beginning of this probably was that this lawyer, who had been hired and had been very active in trying to undo the Magnitsky legislation, wanted to have a meeting to talk to him about that.

Now, the Russians, over a period of time, long before this meeting, had always talked about the sanctions that Putin had put on in response to that legislation regarding adoption. I suspect those were the hooks that started the meeting.

I don't know that for a fact yet. I'm going to reserve judgment on that. There's probably a lot more to this here than what has been regurgitated in the national media on the meeting with the focus on a part of the meeting, as opposed to what the meeting was set up to do.


RISCH: But, again, I don't want to make a judgment on this.

BLITZER: But they did release -- Donald Trump Jr.'s attorneys, they did release that e-mail chain which specifically said that there is incriminating, there's dirt on Hillary Clinton. He responded in the e-mail, "I love it."

Clearly, that was what he was hoping to get, opposition research, as they call it, as far as Hillary Clinton's campaign was concerned.

RISCH: They don't call it that. Everybody calls it that.

As you know, I have run 33 times, I have been involved in presidential campaigns. There is in every campaign an effort regarding opposition research, both your own and somebody else's. So, when you're talking about opposition research, this isn't some big revelation that the national media has stumbled upon that the Trump campaign did this. I would guarantee you, there's many files in the Clinton campaign that

dealt with opposition research.

BLITZER: Now, let me ask you this, Senator. I have known you now for a while, and I suspect the answer is no.

But if you had been approached by the Russians with opposition research potentially about a candidate who was challenging you, would you have taken a meeting like that with an attorney representing the Russian government?

RISCH: With what we have, I would say no.

But having said that and having done this all my life, I would have a whole lot more information before I made a decision than what's on the table right now. And I don't know what that is.


BLITZER: You're a former governor. If you had been approached about something like that, I suspect you would have immediately gone to local law enforcement or the FBI and reported this kind of invitation.

RISCH: I'm also a former prosecuting attorney.


RISCH: And all of those would have weighed into that decision.

I don't know exactly what the representation of this woman was as far as who she represented...

BLITZER: Well, we see the e-mail. You read the e-mail chain.

RISCH: I did.

BLITZER: It was clear what they had in mind was dirt on Hillary Clinton.

RISCH: I guarantee you there were phone calls in addition to those e- mails, and I want to hear all of it before I answer the question that you put to me, what would you have done under these circumstances? And we're going to have to judge that. We will get there.

BLITZER: All right, let me get your thoughts, because you're on the Foreign Relations Committee, too, on the delay in the president signing the Russia sanctions legislation. Are you concerned about that?

RISCH: With all due respect, Wolf, and I say that from the bottom of my heart, it must be a slow news cycle, because if he'd signed it the first day, I imagine everybody would be yelling that, hey, they didn't study it, they didn't read it, they didn't have the lawyers go over it.

[18:15:12] He's got -- the news is that he's got 10 days in order to sign this

legislation, or it becomes law without his signature. We're in the middle of those 10 days. Have me back after the -- those 10 days and we will see if it's still a news item.

BLITZER: Are you at all concerned -- the president, he likes to tweet, likes to speak out about all sorts of issues. When it comes to Russia and these sanctions, he has been silent. He hasn't praised the Senate, which passed it, what, 98-2, hasn't praised the House, which passed it 498-3.

How do you explain the silence when it comes to Russia and sanctions from the president of the United States?

RISCH: I talked to the president the . He didn't mention the , and I didn't ask him about that.

But it amazes me. Every time I turn on the TV, the national media is complaining about these tweets he puts out and all the stuff he's talking about. And now he didn't tweet, and that's as big a problem for him as when he does. So, let's talk about North Korea.

BLITZER: Well, let's talk about North Korea.

But I just want to point out it's not just on Twitter. He's silent in terms of public statements, anything when it comes to Russia. We rarely hear a critical word from the president about Putin or the Russian government. That raises, as you know, among your colleagues in the Senate, all sorts of questions.

But let's talk about...

RISCH: But, Wolf, don't ask me to explain that. You know, what he's thinking...


BLITZER: I know you. You're not shy about criticizing the Russians and the Russians meddling in the U.S. presidential election. You know that.

RISCH: I'm not. I'm not.

BLITZER: I know.

All right, let's talk about North Korea.

I want you to listen to the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. This is what he said the U.S. position on North Korea is. Listen to this.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. And we're trying to convey to the North Koreans, we are not your

enemy. We are not your threat. But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us. And we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and that we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future.


BLITZER: All right. Hours earlier, your Republican colleague Senator Lindsey Graham said that he actually spoke to the president about North Korea and the president told him -- and I'm quoting him now -- "If there's going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there."

What do you make of these very differing sentiments, at least the way they come across?

RISCH: Well, first of all, I have been a party to conversations between where the president was there and Lindsey Graham was there.

And I can only imagine the other parts of that conversation. I think you need to focus on what the secretary of state said. I don't think the secretary of state could have said it any clearer than what the situation is right now.

This is a very, very dangerous situation. And I think the secretary of state is doing everything he can to tamp this down and see that it doesn't escalate to a place we don't want to be, and I'm sure that when it's over the North Koreans were going to wish they weren't there either.

Look, the key to this is the Chinese. The Chinese had a very good hold on Kim Jong-un's father and his grandfather. They have almost no control over him. We have reason to believe that they are not any happier about this than we are. They have the ability to change conduct, I think, substantially better than we do. I don't think it's any secret that there are lots of things going on to try to persuade the Chinese that this is really important to them.

It's important to us. It's important to the world, and they need to take some action that they can take that would hopefully be mind- changing as far as Kim Jong-un is concerned.

BLITZER: Secretary Tillerson also said today he does not blame the Chinese.

Do you think China, though, is to blame or not? Do you side with Secretary Tillerson or the president? You know, he tweeted this the other day: "I'm very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do nothing for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem."

Where do you stand?

RISCH: Well, I think that the president generally laid out what I agree with.

I wouldn't agree that they have done nothing. I think they have done some things, and I think the president has previously given them credit for some attempts that they have made. I share his frustration. I share his fear. This is a matter that could cause real problems in the world if this isn't resolved.


And, as I say, the North Koreans have demonstrated that almost anything we do does not move them to get off of the path that they're on. The Chinese, on the other hand, are their very close neighbors. They share a border. They share a lot of different things. And it's the Chinese that are the key to this.

And the president, as you know, has talked with the Chinese president, and there's more conversations that have been and are going to take place in that regard.

And I think we all need to pray that the Chinese are successful in turning this trajectory, because, if that doesn't happen, these dire predictions are more likely to come true than not. This is a serious situation.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly is. And China clearly plays a key, key role if they want to.

You said earlier, Senator, you spoke to the president today. How worried is he about this situation with North Korea?

RISCH: We didn't speak about that today, but I can tell you, without divulging confidences, that he is very concerned about this situation, as is anybody that deals in our foreign relation matters and in our intelligence matters.

I think his latest tweet that you just read expresses the frustration that he feels, and also, if you will read it and reread it, I think it expresses the danger that everyone is facing here. The president of the United States does not want this challenge by any stretch of the imagination. I guarantee you that.

BLITZER: Senator Risch, as usual, thanks for joining us.

RISCH: Wolf, good to be with you. Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Just ahead, is President Trump in any legal jeopardy now that the White House admits he did play a role in crafting his son's initial misleading statement on that meeting with the Russian attorney?

Plus, Russia preparing for large-scale military exercises on the border of NATO countries. Is Vladimir Putin right now being truthful about how many troops are taking part?


BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

The White House now says President Trump "weighed in" on that initially misleading statement released by Donald Trump Jr. about his meeting with the Russian lawyer during the campaign in New York. That directly contradicts repeated denials by the president's personal attorney.

Let's get some more with CNN legal analyst Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate special prosecutor.

Richard, thanks very much for joining us.

I want you to listen carefully. This is Jay Sekulow, the president's personal attorney, repeatedly denying any presidential involvement in that initial Donald Trump Jr. statement.


SEKULOW: I wasn't involved in the statement drafting at all, nor was the president. But I'm assuming that was between Mr. Donald Trump Jr., between Don Jr. and his lawyer.

That was written -- no, that was written by Donald Trump Jr. and I'm sure in consultation with his lawyer.

QUESTION: Because "The New York Times" is reporting that the president OKed the statement.

SEKULOW: Well, they're incorrect. The president didn't sign off on anything. He was coming back from the G20. The statement that was released on Saturday was released by Donald Trump Jr., and I'm sure in consultation with his lawyers.

The president wasn't involved in that.

I do want to be clear the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement. It came from Donald Trump Jr.


BLITZER: But, today, the White House press secretary, Richard, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, "The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had" in the drafting of that misleading statement.

Here's the question. Does this discrepancy, what the president's personal attorney repeatedly said, what White House said today, put the president potentially in any legal jeopardy?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, this is what happens when the role of lawyer is conflated with spin doctor. We don't know whether Mr. Sekulow had an actual conversation with

President Trump about this. But if he did, was this just a casual waiver of the attorney-client privilege? Or, if he didn't speak to him, who is going to believe what Mr. Sekulow has to say about the facts in the future?

This is just one of any number of different discrepancies that have emanated from the White House, including from the president, over the course of the last six months on this issue.

BLITZER: Is this of interest to Robert Mueller, the special counsel, this discrepancy?

BEN-VENISTE: Sure it is.

BLITZER: Tell us why.

BEN-VENISTE: Because there is a growing compendium of misstatements that are consistent with the idea that there is something to hide about the Russia relationship with Mr. Trump and his closest associates.

Was this simply one more misstatement trying to obscure the true facts that eventually are beginning to come out?

BLITZER: Is the statement alone, though, the discrepancy, potentially obstruction of justice?

BEN-VENISTE: I don't think so. I don't think so. The statement wasn't repeated under oath, as originally drafted. It has come out, as several other things, beginning with the rationale for firing Mr. Comey.

Remember, the White House came out with a variety of different reasons for it, all of which were quickly negated by Mr. Trump himself in an interview with NBC, where he said, I was uncomfortable about the Russia investigation. I fired the FBI director.

Similarly, Sarah Huckabee Sanders now hits the president's lawyer with a mallet right between the eyes, and has kind of contradicted what he had just said as recently as last night about the drafting of that statement.


[18:47:43] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: A self-described prankster appears to have exposed a disturbing cyber security lapse over at the White House. That individual impersonated multiple White House officials, fooling top staffers with bogus e-mails, including the president's homeland security advisor Tom Bossert who deals with cyber warfare.

We're back with our experts.

Gloria, how does this reflect on this White House?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Badly. I mean, it's ridiculous, Wolf. I mean, here you have, you know, cyber security expert being pranked by somebody who was making believe he was Jared Kushner. I mean, look, we all -- we all worry about this in our day to day lives, but this is the White House we are talking about. And these are high-level communications.

There is some indication that some of these people did go to the FBI with this. I gather it looks like Eric Trump said he did. I don't know if he did or he didn't.

But, you know, it seems to me that when you're cutting money for cyber security in the budget, you ought to be able to pay attention to what's going on at the White House and understand that this is just your run of the mill prankster. This isn't some Russian hacking in, hacking into the White House, or hacking the election. This is a run of the mill prankster who was able to do this. There better be some more controls on this.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. You know, David, in January, just before taking office, the president tweeted this. Julian Assange said a 14- year-old could have hacked Podesta. Why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info.

Do you think the president maybe today has some new perspective on this?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: The treasure trove of Trump tweets for every single story that we report on is an amazing thing. Listen, this is a little bit of a Keystone Kops kind of moment for the White House. I don't know how people are supposed to sort of feel like they've got their arms wrapped around what is a pretty significant modern-day threat overall to the government. And if this is how it gets handled in the White House and so easily penetrated, you know, it raises lots of valid questions about whether or not this team that is in the West Wing, that is in the White House, that's in the administration, has their arms fully around this problem.

[18:50:06] BLITZER: Fortunately, you know, John, this was just a prankster. But if it was a real cyber warfare threat, there could have been a disaster.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, I mean, look, this is spear phishing with a harpoon, right? And I find it interesting that the fake Jared can spell and use the word soiree correctly and misspelled the word comparable. So, I agree the statement and Gloria in terms of the embarrassment here. And I can't speak for the White House, but I know Admiral Rogers really well over at NSA, and I can tell you that he's obviously thinking these things very carefully and has strategies in place to do the best he can to help defend us against this --

BLITZER: I think the good news is that they're going to take these fake e-mails and these threats potentially a lot more seriously from now on based on this experience.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely, but you also have to look at how much this president pilloried John Podesta, the DNC and everyone else who fell victim to Russian hackers for the spear phishing that they were involved in. So, again, it sort of like -- it just reflects back. It is instant karma or something for the Trump administration.

KIRBY: It does show the scope of the threat, though, and how agile it really is and how important it is to get -- yes, easy and get ahead of it.

BLITZER: So, what you're saying is if somebody invites you to a soiree, be careful.

KIRBY: If it's you, I'm not going.


All right, guys. Everybody, standby.

Coming up, the Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning a massive military exercise right on the border of NATO countries and there are now fears that the number of troops participating could dramatically exceed official reports. So, how will President Trump respond?


[18:56:11] BLITZER: Breaking news: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is clearly trying to deescalate tensions with North Korea following a suggestion from Senator Lindsey Graham that war maybe inevitable if Kim Jong-un's regime continues to advance its weapons program.

The crisis on the Korean Peninsula is just one of the major foreign policy challenges facing President Trump right now.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is joining us.

Barbara, there are a lot of problems, including a massive Russian military drill, which is raising the alarms across Eastern Europe. Tell us about that.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, military relations with North Korea and Russia are pretty much at a boiling point. But at the Pentagon, what they are looking for is a diplomatic solution to all of this.


STARR (voice-over): Russian President Vladimir Putin cheered naval forces as the country prepares for a large scale military exercise on the border of NATO countries.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): Today, the naval fleet carrying out not only its traditional tasks but also capably meets new challenges.

STARR: The head of U.S. Special Operations Forces warning of a new threat from the Russian military. GENERAL RAYMOND "TONY" THOMAS, COMMANDER, U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS

COMMAND: The point of concern for most of these Eastern Europeans right now is they are about to do an exercise in Belarus-Russia, that's going to entail up to 100,000 Russian troops moving into that country. The great concern is they're not going to leave. And that's not paranoia. That's an active concern.

STARR: Even the secretary general of NATO doesn't believe Moscow's claim it's only sending 13,000 troops.

JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: We have every reason to believe that it may be substantially more troops participating than the official reported numbers.

STARR: It's a Russian move that can't be ignored, experts say.

GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There has to be a strategy. What will we do? What will we put up with?

STARR: And that's just one crisis for the West Wing that new White House chief of staff, retired General John Kelly, is now running.

In North Korea, the U.S. continues to say it's not looking for regime change.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are not your enemy. We are not your threat. But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.

STARR: But after two intercontinental ballistic missile launches and growing North Korean submarine operations, U.S. satellites, aircraft and submarines are gathering every snippet of imagery, electronic intercepts and radar reading. It all could help the U.S. get a vital head's up.

Military options for North Korea has been updated, as CNN previously reported. They're aimed at a rapid response if there is an imminent threat of a North Korean missile attack or use of a nuclear device. The Pentagon is adamant about making diplomacy work. But a key Senate Republican hawks says he was told by President Trump, conflict is always a possibility.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: He has told me that. I believe him. I'm saying it's inevitable unless North Korea changes. If there is going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there.


STARR: And earlier today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said the U.S. would be willing to sit down with North Korea, but only if it gives up its nuclear weapons -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

This important programming note, later tonight don't miss CNN's global town hall event, Al Gore will join Anderson Cooper to talk about how to solve the climate crisis in the Trump era. That's tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.