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Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; New Trump Tweetstorm; New North Korea Sanctions; How Far Will Trump-Russia Investigation Go?; Pence Rails Against Reports of Possible 2020 Bid; Putin Fishes, Swims, Goes Shirtless in Vacation Photos. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 7, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Kim Jong-un's regime blaming the United States and warning of nuclear war. Can a military conflict be avoided?

Jersey rest stop. The president takes a break from the White House, but not from Twitter, launching new attacks tonight, on his 200th day in office. Is he defying his new chief of staff's efforts to instill discipline?

Not a fishing expedition, the deputy attorney general speaking out about the special counsel investigation he launched defending Robert Mueller and his mandate to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We're following the newest twists in the Russia probe.

And a fishing expedition. While President Trump golfs, Vladimir Putin spends his summer getaway in Siberia, releasing pictures of his macho pursuits on a boat and without a shirt. Is he trolling Mr. Trump?

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

Tonight, as President Trump marks 200 turbulent days in office, he's defending his stalled agenda, attacking the news media and a U.S. senator and denying poll numbers that show shrinking support even within his base. Mr. Trump unleashing new tweets tonight after multiple early morning rants, even as he declared that he's working hard at his New Jersey golf club.

North Korea is ramping up threats against the United States, warning it will pay dearly for new United Nations sanctions on Kim Jong-un's regime. Pyongyang accusing the U.S. of desperate and diabolical moves that are driving the region to the brink of nuclear war. The U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed to punish North Korea for recent ballistic missile tests, sanctions that could cost the country a billion dollars.

We are also following escalating tensions between the United States and Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson telling his Kremlin counterpart that Moscow's election meddling has created -- quote -- "serious mistrust" between their countries, a strong message we haven't heard publicly from President Trump. This as the special counsel's investigation of possible collusion

between Russia and the Trump camp keeps widening. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who launched the probe, says Robert Mueller is not on a fishing expedition, as some Trump supporters claim.

This hour, I will talk to Republican Senator Jeff Flake. He's a vocal Trump critic. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First to the president's 200th day in office spent in New Jersey and on Twitter.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, even with the new chief of staff, the president still seems to be in charge of his Twitter account.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He is fully in command of that smartphone, Wolf. That's right. President Trump may be on what the White House calls a working vacation, but not much has changed from his daily activities from the White House. He is still watching the news and tweeting away.

And the president appears to be focused on energizing his base of core supporters who seem to be drifting away. Take a look at this tweet from earlier today. He tweeted: "Hard to believe that with 24/7 #fakenews on CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, 'New York Times' and 'Washington Post,' the Trump base is getting stronger."

Then he adds this: "The Trump base is far bigger than ever before, despite some phony, fake polls coming from the fake news. Look at rallies in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Ohio."

There is a reason for the president to worry about all of this, as a recent Quinnipiac found a key bloc for Mr. Trump, white voters without a college degree, now disapprove of the job he's doing. Even his own top advisers admit the president has a problem.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: I would note, too, in some of the polling which, of course, I scour daily on behalf of the president, his approval rating among Republicans and conservative and Trump voters is down slightly. It needs to go up. They are telling him, just enact your program.


ACOSTA: Despite the backlash against his social media habits, the president is determined to keep on tweeting. Still, the public has lost nearly all patience with this. The respected Quinnipiac polling unit found 69 percent of American voters say the president should stop tweeting from his personal account, Wolf.

BLITZER: He just tweeted, I think, about North Korea at the same time. ACOSTA: That's right. And we could put this up on screen. This is

what the president tweeted earlier this afternoon.

"The fake news media will not talk about the importance of the United Nations Security Council's 15-0 vote in favor of sanctions on North Korea."

Wolf, we have been reporting on this all day today, all weekend long, the situation over at the United Nations. So, this tweet from the president appears to be fake news aimed at real news.

BLITZER: Yes, we have been reporting extensively on the U.N. Security Council resolution. We have another report coming up very shortly as well. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Now to the Russia investigation, the secretary of state overseas talking tough about Moscow's election meddling here at home. The special counsel issuing grand jury subpoenas and following the money trail.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, we are getting more mixed messages from the Trump administration.



While the president refuses to acknowledge the intelligence community's assessment that Russia meddled in the election, he has even blamed Congress for bad relations with the Kremlin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is leaving no doubt about it.

While traveling in Asia, Tillerson said election meddling is a topic he took head on with Russian officials.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is speaking out where the president has stayed silent, warning Russia that its meddling in the election has hurt U.S.-Russian relations.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We talked about it in the discussion we had with Minister Lavrov yesterday, and trying to help them understand just how serious this incident had been and how seriously it had damaged the relationship between the U.S. and the American people and the Russian people.

SCHNEIDER: Meanwhile, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is defending the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing Russia investigation.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: The special counsel is subject to the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice. And we don't engage in fishing expeditions. SCHNEIDER: And says Mueller's team could expand its probe if appropriate.

ROSENSTEIN: If he finds evidence of a crime that is within the scope of what Director Mueller and I have agreed is the appropriate scope of this investigation, then he can. If it's something outside that scope, he needs to come to the acting attorney general, at this time me, for permission to expand his investigation.

SCHNEIDER: Rosenstein oversees the special counsel, whose investigation has widened to focus on possible financial crimes, as CNN has reported.

Mueller's team is seizing on President Trump and his associates' financial ties to Russia, even though President Trump indicated in a "New York Times" interview any move to investigate his businesses would be crossing a red line.

QUESTION: If Mueller is looking at your finances, your family finances's unrelated to Russia, is that a red line?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would say yes. I would say yes. I don't make money Russia.

SCHNEIDER: President Trump has repeatedly tweeted, calling Mueller's investigation a witch-hunt and fake news.

But Mueller is moving forward, using a grand jury sitting in Washington to issue subpoenas related to Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer inside Trump Tower, according to a source.

Former U.S. attorney general and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie telling CNN's Jake Tapper on "STATE OF THE UNION" that's to be expected.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: This is a normal step taken by a careful prosecutor who is doing a thorough investigation. And I think that's exactly what Bob Mueller is doing. You can't issue subpoenas without a grand jury. It's the grand jury that actually issues the subpoenas.

SCHNEIDER: Christie adding that the June 2016 meeting was -- quote -- "ill-advised."

CHRISTIE: This is not something that should have happened. Everybody, in retrospect, knows this was a bad idea.

SCHNEIDER: But the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, told Jake the grand jury move is significant.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: That wouldn't be taking place if there was really no evidence, no evidentiary basis to move forward.

SCHNEIDER: Republican Senator Thom Tillis, meanwhile, cautioning the president against any move to fire the special counsel. Tillis is co- sponsoring a measure which would bar the president from directly firing any special counsel.

SEN. THOM TILLIS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: It would just be another piece of fodder or fodder for people who are trying to credit what I consider to be one of the important parts of the administration and the FBI within the Department of Justice.


SCHNEIDER: And Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he would not comment on which individuals might be the subject of the special counsel's probe, but he did insist that the president has not directed the Justice Department to investigate particular people,that despite the fact that President Trump has often pressed publicly for the DOJ to investigate Hillary Clinton.

Rosenstein, though, did stress that is just not the way the Justice Department operates -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica, thank you, Jessica Schneider reporting.

Let's now move to major developments involving North Korea, its vow to retaliate against the United States for tough new United Nations sanctions.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is following the story for us.

Barbara, North Korea is warning the United States will -- quote -- "pay dearly."

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: And with that warning, Wolf, comes growing concern tonight that there is always the prospect of a North Korean attack, something President Trump says he would not allow to happen.


STARR (voice-over): North Korea now says the U.S. is driving the Korean Peninsula to war, vowing revenge against new U.N. sanctions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.

STARR: Making clear that it won't give up its weapons program.

BANG KWANG HYUK, NORTH KOREAN SPOKESMAN (through translator): We affirm that we will never place our nuclear and ballistics missiles program on the negotiating table and won't budge an inch on strengthening nuclear armament.

STARR: The U.S. officially remains focused on diplomacy, but there are military options for dealing with North Korea.

H.R. MCMASTER, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Are we preparing plans for a preventive war, right, a war that would prevent North Korea from threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon? And the president has been very clear about it. He said he's want going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: What I will tell you from the United States' perspective is we're prepared to do whatever it takes to defend ourselves and to defend our allies.

STARR: With two recent intercontinental ballistic missile launches, and a nuclear warhead development program, all options are on the table.

MCMASTER: And that includes a military option. Now, would we like to resolve it short of what would be a very costly war in terms of the suffering of mainly the South Korean people?

STARR: Experts say the problem is not bombing North Korea's weapons program. It's what happens next.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: You strike North Korea, they're going to strike back. And they have a devastating conventional arsenal built up right on the border that could lay waste to Seoul.

STARR: The former director of national intelligence says the military option has to be kept on the table, but it's not a good one.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: A peremptory military operation against North Korea would be disastrous, because I believe the North Koreans would unleash all that artillery and rocketry they have lined up along the DMZ. And they would, as they have vowed many times, turn Seoul into -- quote -- "a sea of fire."


STARR: And if the U.S. were to try and attack some of North Korea's weapons sites, one of the big questions is just how soon could they rebuild it all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much, Barbara Starr reporting.

Let's bring in our senior military and diplomatic analyst, John Kirby, and our CNN counterterrorism analyst, Phil Mudd.

How serious is this, John?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It's very serious, deadly serious.

And I think General McMaster was right to say you can't overstate the threat that they pose, that they continue to develop this program, which is why it's good that even with all the mixed messaging coming out of the White House, the administration is working across all the elements of power.

You have McMaster and Mattis working military options which nobody wants to use. You have Tillerson exploring negotiations. You got McMaster and Haley working on these sanctions. It's brinkmanship, to be sure, but it's brinkmanship using all the tools of national power.

The real question is how much of an effect this is going to have on Pyongyang.

BLITZER: How do you see it, Phil?


But this is one of those classic situations where you look at a problem, and the more complicated the problem is, it's almost the fewer options the president of the United States has. You look at the statements by people in the administration about potential military action. There is one problem among many if you take military action.

That gives authorization to Kim Jong-un to do something, either across the border or with missiles against the United States. If you want to take military action, not only do you guarantee that you take out the missile capability. You have to protect the conventional capability in South Korea.

I think the difficult answer is you're going to have to talk to him if you want to deal with this because the military option is really ugly.

BLITZER: Because if you have been along the demilitarized zone just north of the DMZ, you have a million North Korean troops with thousands of artillery pieces and mortars that could level and potentially kill millions of people just south of the demilitarized zone, including the capital of Seoul.

KIRBY: That's right.

Phil is right. It becomes escalated really fast. And, oh, by the way, you can't bomb away their knowledge. Aside from the devastating effects of war, they have developed this program, ballistic and nuclear, and they are starting to advance it. You're not going to bomb away that knowledge. They are always going to have that.

Again, all the more reason why they have got to find an avenue here for diplomacy, for negotiations and for trying to get them incentivized to come to the table, which, right now, Wolf, they're not interested. They don't see a need to negotiate.

BLITZER: The U.N. Security Council resolution, Phil, impressive 15-0, Russia on board, China on board. China is key right now. Take a look at this. North Korean economy, 85 percent of North Korea's imports come from China; 83 percent of North Korea's exports go to China. The key is China right now.

MUDD: It is, and this is one reason that there is a direct linkage between what's happening domestically in the United States in terms of chaos at the White House and what's happening internationally. If you want to bring pressure on the North Koreans that's going to

take months and years, potentially, of talks and any intervention that the North Koreans allow into their missile or nuclear program. You can't one week say I'm on board with the Chinese, they're down at Mar- a-Lago, and the next week say the Chinese haven't been that supportive, we have to have a new option.

You have to have stability in the White House to say, here's a multiyear plan. If it's the Tillerson plan that's going to include conversations with the North Koreans, but you can't change route every month.

BLITZER: At this summit out in Manila, the South Korean foreign minister actually met with the North Korean foreign minister face to face. They had a meeting. The U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did not meet with the North Korean foreign minister. Was that a missed opportunity?

KIRBY: No, no, this is not the time for us to be having direct negotiations with the North.

First of all, you want to go into any negotiation with them with the international community behind you and supporting you and a very clear agenda of what you're trying to get out of it. This was not the moment, not the time.

BLITZER: Maybe it was a negotiation. Maybe it would have been an opportunity, though, for the U.S. to deliver a direct warning to the North Korean foreign minister, stop it.


KIRBY: I think we have done that. I think they certainly have gotten the word about the concern that we have over their program. This is not the right time right now to sit down face to face and even deliver that directly to them.

What they crave is regime survival. What they crave is the credibility, validation by the international community for what they're doing. And I just don't think we're at a point right now where we can or should give them that.

BLITZER: Guys, I want you to stand by.

We have a special guest. Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is joining us live right now.

Senator, thanks so much.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Let's talk about North Korean right now. North Korea saying the United States is driving the Korean Peninsula to war, potentially nuclear war.

How should the U.S. proceed right now? FLAKE: I think as we are.

Many of us just last week had a classified briefing with General Mattis and Secretary Tillerson. And I have to say that I think most of us left that meeting feeling that we're doing what we can and on the right path.

And certainly over the weekend, the Security Council resolution was a big boost. I think we're all very happy and gratified with how that came off.

BLITZER: Do you think, Senator, that these sanctions, even more sanctions are enough that China will do what is necessary, given China's key role as the key exporter and importer to North Korea?

FLAKE: We just don't know. We just don't know.

The sanctions have not worked in the past. These are ratcheted down even tighter. So, perhaps. We all know that we don't have much leverage. China has leverage. We don't know how much. With North Korea being so close to where they want to be, it's difficult to say whether or not they will pull back now.

But this is the best, I think, course we can take right now, and I'm glad that we have General Mattis and Secretary Tillerson in charge here of negotiations. That makes us, I think, feel good.

BLITZER: The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the United States, in her words, is prepared to do whatever it takes when it comes to North Korea.

Senator, is there realistically a military option?

FLAKE: Well, it's not a good option there. It's a cliche now, but there are no good options and it's also cliche to say all options have to be on the table. But they do.

We're in uncharted territory and we just hope North Korea will see the light and realize that the best path forward for them is to cease the testing and negotiate.

BLITZER: Well, when you say when administration officials say all options are on the table, what does that mean, all options are on the table? The military option could lead to disaster, potentially thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people killed...

FLAKE: Right.

BLITZER: ... in the course of North Korea's retaliation with conventional weaponry.

FLAKE: That's right.

I mean, with Seoul so close to the DMZ, it doesn't take long-range missiles. This is artillery that can hit. So, I think everyone knows the reality there, but would it be a worse situation to allow them to continue to test and have confidence that they could reach the West Coast of the United States?

And that's certainly not a good option. So I think the military options have to be on the table. Nothing's good.


BLITZER: If there is no realistic military option, what are the other options?

FLAKE: Well, the other options are that North Korea will realize that its economy, that they cannot continue -- they're still not there yet in terms of confidence that they can, you know, hit the targets they want to hit. And that obviously what they would like to do is be able to hit the United States, if for no other reason, than negotiating power.

They're not there yet. And hopefully with us tightening down on sanction and if China really does cooperate and help there, the hope is that that turns them back. But there are no guarantees here. Like I said, we have a leader there that everyone believes is unstable, and we just don't know what they will do.

But I'm confident that we have the right leaders in charge in terms of General Mattis and Secretary Tillerson. That makes us, I think, all feel better.

BLITZER: What about President Trump?

FLAKE: Well, I think he's put together a great Cabinet and these -- particularly with regard to Defense and State, so I feel good that these people are there. I really do.

BLITZER: You feel good that his Cabinet, secretary of state and secretary of defense, his national security adviser are all solid and strong, but do you have that same confidence in the commander in chief?

FLAKE: Well, obviously, he's not been in this position before. Nobody could hope to have been. He doesn't have military background or diplomatic background either.


But he's put people, good people around him. So, I think no president comes in prepared for this kind of eventuality. So, I think it's a tough situation. We have good people negotiating, and I think we can feel as good as we could possibly expect at this point.

But it's a tough situation. It really is. And we don't -- we have never been here before.

BLITZER: We have got a lot more to discuss, Senator Flake, including what you write about in your brand-new book, "Conscience of a Conservative."

We're to go through that, more on what's going on involving the president. Let's take a quick break, resume this conversation right after this.



BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump caps his 200th day in office with an angry new tweetstorm slamming a Democratic senator and the news media as he rails against the Russia investigation, coverage of his administration, polls showing his support among his base shrinking.

We are back with Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He's the author of a new book entitled "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle."

Senator, I want to get to the book in a moment. But, first of all, do you think it's appropriate for the president to launch this Twitter attack against Senator Richard Blumenthal today? It went on and on.

FLAKE: Well, I don't think it's helpful.

We -- in the Senate, we have a 60-vote hurdle to pass almost anything or we need unanimous consent just to move ahead. And in order to be able to work with our colleagues across the aisle, it's tough if we get so personal with them. So, I don't think that it's helpful in terms of legislation moving ahead.

BLITZER: But you couldn't even pass the -- what's called the skinny repeal, anti-Obamacare legislation, with 50 votes.

FLAKE: Right. Well, that's what I'm saying. I think we have reached about the limit of what we can do as one party. So, we're going to need to work with our colleagues across the aisle.

And it's difficult enough to do so. and they have really obstructed putting together the president's team on judges. They drug their feet. It's been tough enough without these kind of bromides against individual members of the Senate.

So, I would hope that we can settle down and work with one another.

BLITZER: Your new book, "Conscience of a Conservative," has been making lots of waves. As you well know, it's been seen as an anti- Trump book. But here's the question some folks are now asking, Senator. I want to give you a chance to respond.

Why not come out with these opinions before the 2016 election? Do you think if you had, you could have made more of a difference politically?

FLAKE: Well, I actually started writing this book long before Donald Trump became president.

I argue in the book that this drift that the Republican Party has been on started long before. You know, we had the majority in 2001 when I got to Congress, the majority in the House, the Senate, and we also had the White House, and we lost it because I don't think we behaved well as Republicans, all the earmark spending and we basically abandoned the principle of limited government.

I'm concerned now that the course that we're on with some issues like trade, with protectionism, and with populism, that we're similarly -- we're going to write ourselves out of the majority again. That's my concern. We have got to get back to traditional limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

BLITZER: You have been asked, Senator, if you have left the Republican Party, your party. You said no. But has your party left you?

FLAKE: No, I think that, by and large, the party has been animated by conservative principles. But I am concerned lately. Populism, you may be able to win an election with it, but it's not a real governing philosophy.

And on free trade, I'm very concerned about the direction there. We are going to handicap our economic future if we don't enter into bilateral and multilateral trade deals. We have globalized as a world. Certainly, it's happened, and the question is do we latch onto it and harness it, or are we left behind by it?

And also, on immigration, I think that we have got to be a more welcoming party. I was very heartened by the autopsy we did on the party and on our policies after 2012, and we seem to have abandoned that. And I think in the future, we're going to need to get back to playing the game of addition, rather than subtraction.

BLITZER: The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, pointedly was asked last week if the president was still considering helping to fund a $10 million challenge against you. And I want you to listen to what she said. Listen to this.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not sure about any potential funding of a campaign, but I think that Senator Flake would serve his constituents much better if he was less focused on writing a book and attacking the president and passing legislation.


BLITZER: All right. I want you to respond. Go ahead.

FLAKE: Well, I can't be concerned with what the president is going to do. I have to just be concerned with what I'm going to do.

In Arizona, we have a history of electing independent-minded Republicans, Barry Goldwater and John McCain just two examples. And I think that my constituents expect me not to be a rubber stamp for any president.

I didn't always agree with George W. Bush. I voted against his No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug benefit. And I expect to vote against this president when I think he's wrong and vote with him when I think he's right. [18:30:21] BLITZER: The statistics show, by the way, you voted with

him, so far at least, maybe 94, 95 percent of the time. But you do disagree with him on certain policies. What's the biggest difference that you have with the president?

FLAKE: Well, with regard to how often I voted with the president, most of what the Senate does in the first six months is vote on the president's cabinets or, in this case, the Supreme Court pick and other judges. I've always felt that presidents ought to have leeway to put together their team, and I've supported President Trump with regard to Neil Gorsuch, great pick. He's got a great cabinet around, as we talked about before.

But I do have big disagreements on trade. He talked in the campaign about ripping up NAFTA. I'm glad they seem to have backed off on that, but that would be very detrimental to the country, and specifically, to Arizona.

On immigration, the immigration package put forward last week, I think is in the wrong direction. Having a point system is fine. We did that in the bipartisan bill. But cutting legal immigration in half is not the right direction we need to go as a country.

And then the -- what was a Muslim ban during the campaign became a travel ban. I think obviously a Muslim ban would be against religious freedom principles that we espouse, but a travel ban is just not helpful in terms of our own national security. That list that was put together was not based on national security needs. I think it will be detrimental in terms of national security, because we can't ascribe radical jihadist views to every Muslim, or people who come from countries that have been compromised by terrorism. I think that's the wrong direction to go.

BLITZER: Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, thanks for joining us.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: And once again, Senator Flake's new book is entitled "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and A Return to Principle."

Just ahead, more on the president's new attacks on Twitter tonight, and why he keeps going after Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. Does he need more to stay busy on his working vacation?

And Vladimir Putin's vacation scrapbook. Are the photos of his fishing trip in Siberia designed to send a message to President Trump?


[18:37:19] BLITZER: Tonight President Trump is refusing to let up in his attacks on a U.S. senator, targeting Democrat Richard Blumenthal in a new tweet this evening at the close of his 200th day as commander in chief.

Let's bring in our correspondents, analysts and specialists. Phil Mudd, this tweet storm against Senator Blumenthal, I'll read a

little of it: "Interesting to watch Senator Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut, talking about hoax Russian collusion when he was a phony Vietnam con artist. Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal. He told stories about his Vietnam battles and conquests, how brave he was. It was all a lie. He cried like a baby, begged for forgiveness like a child. Now he judges collusion?" question mark.

Why do you think the president is doing this?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, first of all, they must not have indoor golf up there in the northeast. Today it's raining, so I presume he's got a lot of time on his hands.

But I think if you look at this, there is one aspect of this, I guess, if you're trying to be an optimist, which I typically would not be, to say in the past, he might have gone after the Department of Justice, as he's done, including his attorney general, after the special counsel. At least he's chosen a member of an opposing party so that the chief of staff and other people in the White House say, "If you've got to vent," and this guy has to vent, "please don't vent at the people running the investigation and please don't vent at other Republicans. Go after a Democrat." I think it's sort of a step up from the third grade to the 5th grade, but that's optimism.

BLITZER: Does it make -- does it seem to you, Jamie, Jamie Gangel, that the new White House chief of staff, General Kelly, is able to reel him in on this vacation?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, General Kelly is a tough guy. If anyone could do it, he can. But don't expect a miracle, Wolf. Kelly has made, no question, everyone tells me, a noticeable positive impact on the president, the Oval Office decorum, on the schedule. On a recent visit to the White House, a Republican source who knows the chief of staff was saying that he was keeping the president on schedule, and that the Oval office was no longer filled with people sitting around or running around. So there is some discipline. Emphasis on the word "some." And even the president jokes about it.

But as far as the tweeting is concerned, even though General Kelly has said that he would like to guide the tweets, I think that he's a reasonable man and, certainly, after today, he knows there is a limit to what he can do, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, there certainly is.

You know, Rebecca, is it a positive sign, though, from the White House perspective, that the president is going after Democrats right now, as opposed to fellow Republicans?

[18:40:11] REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, sure. I mean, maybe that's setting the bar a little bit low for the president, that he wouldn't be attacking his own party and his own interests. But sure, I mean, Republicans are going to be happy as long as he's not going after them and going after Democrats.

I think his allies in the Republican Party and in the White House would still prefer that the president is doing some more strategic attacks on Twitter, as opposed to going after Blumenthal personally on his Vietnam service record. Those sorts of things aren't necessarily productive from a strategic standpoint for the president. He's not talking about policy, about legislation, anything that could help him politically, potentially.

But I don't think Republicans should necessarily be popping any champagne just yet or Rod Rosenstein, for that matter, or Jeff Sessions because, as we know from looking at Donald Trump's tweets over the past months and year, he does tend to go back and forth, and he might not target Republicans one day, but tomorrow, it's always a new day with Donald Trump.

And he's going after the news media. One tweet he tweeted early earlier: "Hard to believe that the 24/7 fake news on CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, 'New York Times,' 'Washington Post.' The Trump base is getting stronger."

And then he tweeted "Why aren't the news organizations reporting about North Korea, the U.N. Security Council resolution that passed 15-0?"

Well, fact is we have been reporting about it since it happened on Saturday.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, we have. Repeatedly and consistently. Yes, I mean, it's an easy target. Right? Just like they've been saying, go after Democrats safely without getting involved in the investigation in an appropriate way. And the media is a useful foil for him for any time he has to get something off his chest.

And I'll tell you, General Kelly, I know very well, and he is doing exactly what I would expect him to do in terms of processes and procedures there. But I don't even think he believes it's in his mandate or capability to try to change the president and his Twitter habit.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stick around. There's more coming up. We're going to talk about the vice president, Mike Pence, and his heated denial that he's launching what's called a shadow presidential campaign for 2020. Did he protest, though, too much?


[18:46:48] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our analysts and specialists on this, the 200th day of the Trump presidency with new questions swirling about the GOP ticket already in 2020.

Jaime, as you know, "The New York Times" published a story over the weekend about a Republican shadow campaign for 2020 in case President Trump doesn't run for a second term. The story named Republicans Senator Ben Sasse, Senator Tom Cotton, Governor John Kasich, and Vice President Mike Pence as a potential candidate. The vice president slammed the report, putting out this statement:

Today's article in "The New York Times" is disgraceful and offensive to me, my family and my entire team. My entire team will continue to focus our efforts to advance the president's agenda and see him reelected in 2020. Any suggestion otherwise is both laughable and absurd.

So, you've been talking to your Republican sources about this. What are they telling you?

JAIME GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Wolf, you know, there is an old expression that no vice-president ever wants to be seen as measuring the curtains for the Oval Office. And I'm told that Vice President Pence -- and we've heard this for months -- is especially sensitive about following protocol and going to great lengths to make sure he doesn't overstep his role.

And that message that you just read was really for an audience of one, I think. It was for Donald Trump. He wanted to say loud and clear that he is loyal, that he's not coming after his job, and that he is not running a shadow campaign.

That said, I think it's also interesting to note we were told by a senior Republican official today that the White House had a heads up that this article was coming and Pence's office believes that Trump was not angry at Pence about this because -- because he saw it coming.

But this is not going to go away. As you said, Wolf, it's day 200. It hasn't exactly been a smooth ride. So, whether it's Vice President Pence or Senator Sass, Cotton, you know, they are going to be raising money, visiting New Hampshire and Iowa. They may say it's to help other Republicans or for their reelection campaign. But I think if you're politically ambitious and you want to run for president some day, this is what you do and it's not going to go away, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly not.

You know, Phil Mudd, how do you see this, the vice president with that very angry response?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, a little bit over the top. It reminds me of going into senior year of high school and saying, mom, I'll try as hard as I ever have, which of course was a lie.

But I think -- I mean, I believe what the vice president is saying. I think he served as a good vice-president. You cannot avoid rumors in this town, though, about what it would be like to have a President Pence, if anything were to ever happen to Trump.

I do believe that the language that came out in the Pence statement is critical. We have a president that's over the top. That language was over the top and I think he's speaking man-to-man to a president who likes language like, this is disgraceful, it's absurd.

It's Washington. It happens. It's not a big deal. BLITZER: You were a spokesman, so you have a some experience reacting

to those stories John Kirby, when he says disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, our entire team.

[18:50:06] What's your reaction?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, it's using size 12 to kill the cockroach, I mean, again and again and again. I mean, I've never responded to stories like that, never had to, but I do understand where they are coming from from a PR perspective and, as Jamie said, rightly, the audience of one here was really the president, and he needed to kill this. He needed to kill it quickly, efficiently in a big way.

Yes, it drew more attention to the story but it was going to get attention anyway and this was a way to I think be very, very declarative.

BLITZER: Yes, Rebecca, we're paying attention to it now because of the reaction from the vice president.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And I would note, Wolf, that the president's response on Twitter today has been to bash "The New York Times." you haven't seen anything about Pence. He doesn't believe this reporting.

It's worth noting, also, that the reporting done by "The New York Times," they don't question the quality of that because these reporters did a very good job but it's worth noting that there may be other motives here. It's likely if the president doesn't approve, he could face a primary. So he and his team, Mike Pence, would need those connections in Iowa, these early primary states moving forward.

It's also possible that Mike Pence could be interested in running for president in 2024 or later. And the same could be said for these others. So, there's more going on here than what meets the eye.

BLITZER: There certainly is.

All right. Guys, stand by. Just ahead, a tale of two vacations. Vladimir Putin releasing pictures of a rugged fishing excursion in Siberia while President Trump hits the lakes.


[18:56:19] BLITZER: Tonight, it's Putin versus Trump on vacation. The Russian leader showing off his fishing skills and more.

You know, Phil Mudd, he's in Siberia right now, a fishing expedition. He's fly fishing, shirtless, swimming, showing off and some are suggesting, as you well know, he's sending a message to President Trump.

MUDD: I'm paying 20 bucks down that the president doesn't take that message. I don't think we're going to see him shirtless on the green. I think there are two messages here. One is to the Russians

themselves. If you look at his approval ratings, they are sky high. He does this stuff every year. The power image, it relates to politics, Ukraine, Crimea, Syria. It also relates to him going around scuba-diving, fishing. But I think there is a message to the president that says, I'm a tough guy, and if you want to threaten me on issues like interfering in the election, which the secretary of state just talked to the foreign minister of Russia about, you're not going to get to me. I'm the big guy on campus.

BLITZEZ: What do you think, Jamie? What message is Putin sending?

GANGEL: It's August. He does this every August. And we play it every August.

But I do think that, you know, these are two men who are good at sending messages but in very different ways. Every August, Putin takes off his shirt. I will note that while Donald Trump did a lot of tweeting today, the White House, last I checked, had not released any photos of him on vacation. I'll leave it there, Wolf.

BLITZER: We've seen a few pictures of him in his golf attire out there at the country club but certainly not a whole lot of pictures. What do you think?

KIRBY: Yes, I think there's actually a valid point here. You know, he brought a camera crew with him to go fishing and hiking and then had the video, you know, go viral. There's -- certainly, there was a pr tactic here.

But look, I also think, you know, this is his breakup video. The bromance is over and he's trying to show everybody, I've moved on, man. I'm fishing. I'm diving. You know, I don't -- don't need the United States.

BERG: If you compare, though, Donald Trump's approach to taking vacations, clearly, he doesn't want to send the message that he takes vacations. He doesn't really allow the press to see him in vacation mode.

And he's tweeted on numerous occasions before that he wouldn't take vacations as president and said this as well, that he wouldn't take vacations as president because he loves working too much. And so, you can see Putin wanting to send a different message than that. He has time for leisure, time to have fun. President Trump likes to project himself as a workaholic.

BLITZER: There's the president on the golf course walking over to some spectators over there. He's clearly, Phil, having a pretty good time himself.

MUDD: I think he is. I mean, he has a right to have a good time and I think all of this criticism about going up there, having worked in Washington, go have fun for two weeks, just please don't criticize future presidents for playing golf. Enjoy your time off.

BLITZER: Yes, he is.


MUDD: Not just in Washington, it's (INAUDIBLE)

BLITZER: Because he used to be very critical of President Obama for going to Hawaii and going someplace else on vacation and now, he's 17 days up in New Jersey.

KIRBY: Yes, the two things I've learned is that his prior tweets, before he came in office, were very interesting and, number two, they're very irrelevant because it doesn't seem to matter or stick. Whatever he tweeted before just doesn't apply anymore.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Jamie, a final thought?

GANGEL: Look, this is, I think, a very interesting timing on Putin's part just because of what's happened in the relationship and with all of the friction going on right now. So, it's -- you know, there is a message there, absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, thanks very much.

Later tonight on this day 200 of the presidency, CNN's special report will air "Why Trump Won," CNN's Fareed Zakaria. Join him for an investigation on the president's victory, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, here on CNN.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.