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THE SITUATION ROOM
Furious Fallout; Interview With Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline; Tillerson Talks to CNN About His Future & Trump's Fitness; NYT: Sessions Searched for Dirt on Comey; Russia Warns U.S. Not to Undermine North-South Korea Talks. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 5, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Tonight: new warnings that Mr. Trump is -- quote -- "losing it."
Evidence of obstruction? We're learning more about the focus of the special counsel's Russia probe, including attempts to dig up dirt on James Comey and stop Jeff Sessions' recusal. Was the president behind it all?
Tweet spiral. Mr. Trump goes into a tailspin online, bashing the tell-all book as phony, the Russia investigation is a hoax and dubbing his newly declared archrival Steve Bannon as Sloppy Steve.
Can the president focus on a pivotal meeting this weekend?
And coming to the table. Kim Jong-un accepts South Korea's offer for high level talks. Is it a breakthrough in the nuclear tensions? We will tell you why U.S. officials are skeptical.
We want to welcome our viewers in United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Tonight, disturbing new information that hits at the heart of two crucial questions about the president of the United States. Did he obstruct justice and is he fit to serve?
CNN has confirmed White House counsel Don McGahn personally tried to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. "The New York Times" reports that McGahn acted on the orders of President Trump, who was furious when Sessions recused himself anyway.
Also tonight, the author of a stunning expose on the Trump White House is now claiming that everyone in the president's inner circle, 100 percent, they question his intelligence and his fitness for office. Asked about the president's mental health, Michael Wolff, the author, said he would quote former Trump strategist Steve Bannon by saying, "He's lost it."
As that new tell-all went on sale today, President Trump has been lashing out, tweeting that the book is phony and full of lies and denying he spoke with the author. Michael Wolff says he stands by everything in the book and says he has recordings and notes to back it up.
Breaking tonight, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists he's never questioned the president's mental fitness, despite reports that he once called him a moron. In a TV exclusive, Tillerson also tells CNN that he expects to stay in his job at least through the coming year.
We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Congressman David Cicilline. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's go to our CNN justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.
Jessica, the special counsel appears to have a growing body of evidence that points to potential obstruction.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He does, Wolf.
These new revelations that the president reportedly personally ordered Don McGahn to stop Jeff Sessions from recusing himself, well, that certainly adds another layer of evidence to special counsel Mueller's obstruction of justice investigation.
That portion of the probe was sparked after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. And now that Mueller has the latest information, the questions are getting louder. Did the president improperly intervene?
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, a source close to Attorney General Jeff Sessions tells CNN White House counsel Don McGahn personally reached out to Sessions in early 2017 to try to dissuade the attorney general from recusing himself from the Russia probe.
"The New York Times" reports Mueller has learned about that outreach and that it was a direct order from President Trump, who reportedly erupted in front of several White House officials when Sessions announced his recusal in march.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have recused myself.
SCHNEIDER: Sources put it this way to "The Times." "Mr. Trump said he expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him, the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama."
Reached for comment, White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined. Former ethics czar and CNN contributor Walter Shaub says at the time he recommended recusal and expressed outrage upon learning McGahn was personally lobbying Sessions against it.
WALTER SHAUB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: While I was on the phone talking to Department of Justice officials telling them that Jeff Sessions had no choice but to recuse in order to resolve a criminal conflict of interest, we now learn that Don McGahn was pressuring Jeff Sessions on behalf of the president to do just the opposite. I think that we are in a neighborhood where I hope Mueller is looking
at this very seriously for obstruction of justice because it could be.
SCHNEIDER: Obstruction is part of Mueller's probe, prompted in part by the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey in May. In this letter to the president from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the reported reasoning for removal centered on Comey's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's e-mails.
But shortly after firing Comey, the president admitted he had Russia on his mind.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.
SCHNEIDER: The president spent the weekend before the firing at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where sources say the president drafted a letter he intended to send Comey, but never did.
In it, President Trump, according to "The Times," described the Russia investigation as "fabricated and politically motivated." The paper reports Mueller knows about this letter. A source tells CNN the special counsel has also obtained handwritten notes from former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. They document the president telling Priebus that Comey had assured the president he was not under investigation.
"The New York Times" also reports that days before James Comey was fired, one of Jeff Sessions' aides asked a congressional staffer whether there was any damaging information on Comey in an effort to undermine the FBI director. The DOJ has denied this account.
The new evidence relating to Mueller's obstruction of justice probe also raises new questions about Jeff Sessions' future as attorney general. He has offered his resignation before, but the White House suggests he's still safe.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Right now, he's focused on doing his job, we're focused on doing ours. We don't have any reason to see that there's anything different today than there was yesterday. We feel like we're in a great place and we're moving forward. And the attorney general is going to continue showing up to work this week and next week, just like he has every day since we started, and keep doing good work and moving the president's agenda forward.
SCHNEIDER: And new developments tonight pertaining to the so-called Steele dossier.
Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham, they have referred Christopher Steele to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation. These two senators say that Steele lied to the feds about how he distributed the dossier and the information in it.
This criminal referral, it really does seem to further politicize this dossier, Wolf. And, of course, this dossier itself has been a flash point for Republicans. And now Senators Graham, as well as Grassley, they are even saying they want a special counsel.
BLITZER: Yes, Grassley is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate.
Jessica, thank you very much. A very significant development.
Also tonight, President Trump is over at Camp David in Maryland preparing to talk 2018 strategy with Republican leaders in Congress. Questions about his fitness to serve may cast a cloud over meeting now that the author of a new book has thrown a red-hot spotlight on President Trump's state of mind.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, we heard very, very briefly from the president today.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
He was not in the mood for questions on all of that, but President Trump briefly talked to reporters today before heading off to Camp David, but he steered clear of the book that unleashed fire and fury all week long.
It was a rare moment for the president, who passed up a chance to punch back in person after taking a few hits earlier this morning.
ACOSTA (voice-over): It was perhaps the only on-message moment of the week for the president, touting his economic record as he was leaving for Camp David.
TRUMP: The tax cuts are really kicking in far beyond what anyone thought. The market is good. The jobs reports were very good and we think they are going to get really good over the next couple of months.
ACOSTA: The president, who boasts he always punches back, made it clear there would be no on-camera comments today about the book "Fire and Fury" written by author Michael Wolff and starring his former chief strategist and sudden Trump critic Steve Bannon.
QUESTION: Mr. President, have you read the book "Fire and Fury"?
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump saved his fury for his Twitter feed, tweeting: "I authorized zero access to White House. Actually turned him down for many times for author of phony book. I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don't exist. Look at this guy's past and what happens to him and Sloppy Steve," a new nickname for Bannon.
Appearing on NBC, the book's author did not hold back, hammering the president's mental fitness for the job.
QUESTION: According to your reporting, everyone around the president, senior advisers, family members, every single one of them questions his intelligence and fitness for office.
MICHAEL WOLFF, AUTHOR, "FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE": Let me put a marker in the sand. One percent of the people around him.
ACOSTA: And Wolff thanked the president for driving up interest in his book, which was released early due to the heightened demand.
WOLFF: What I say is, where do I send the box of chocolates?
QUESTION: You think he's helping you sell books?
WOLFF: Absolutely. And not only is he helping me sell books, but he's helping me prove the point of the book. This is extraordinary that a president of the United States would try to stop the publication of a book. This doesn't happen -- has not happened from other presidents, would not even happen from a CEO of a mid-sized company.
ACOSTA: As for the attacks on his book, Wolff was ready for that one.
WOLFF: My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than perhaps anyone who has ever walked on earth at this point.
I will quote Steve Bannon. He's lost it.
ACOSTA: Both the White House and the president's friends have fanned out across the airwaves to condemn the book.
HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, we said they spoke once by the phone for a few minutes, but it wasn't about the book. They had a very short conversation, but he never interviewed the president about the book. He repeatedly begged to speak with the president and was denied access.
ACOSTA: Slamming Wolff's key takeaway that the president is not mentally fit for office.
CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, CEO, NEWSMAX: This is just like so absurd. It's so ridiculous. So, 100 percent. I'm around the president. I have been around him quite a bit through the past year. I met him 20 years ago. He is not psychologically unfit. He's not lost it, as he claimed.
ACOSTA: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CNN's Elise Labott he has never raised the issue of the president's mental state.
REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I have never questioned his mental fitness. I have no reason to question his mental fitness. (END VIDEOTAPE)
ACOSTA: Now, the president will spend the weekend meeting with GOP congressional members and his Cabinet up at Camp David to go over the party's agenda for 2018.
One Cabinet member who won't be present is Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Let's put this up on screen, Wolf, just to give you a sense as to all of the top officials, not only in the Cabinet, but members of Congress and the White House staff, quite a number of them, including the vice president there as well.
But Jeff Sessions will not be there. As you know, he has been frequently the subject of the president's fury, but the White House says there's no message being sent to Sessions and an official here says the White House stands firmly behind him. We should note, though, Wolf, in the statement from the White House, they are not saying the president stands firmly behind Jeff Sessions, just the White House, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House for us, thank you very much.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Congressman David Cicilline is joining us. He's a Democrat on both the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.
Congressman, you're on the Judiciary Committee, the top Democrat on your committee. Congressman Jerry Nadler reacted to the news on the White House counsel Don McGahn's behavior by saying -- and I'm quoting Jerry Nadler right now -- suggesting that his behavior was completely unacceptable and he should be removed from his post immediately.
Do you agree?
REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Yes, absolutely.
The attorney general was required to recuse himself both because of provisions in statute and because of the code of professional responsibility. The idea that the president of the United States attempted to change his mind and discourage him from recusing, which he was required to do by law, and the fact that Don McGahn delivered that message is very disturbing.
It was completely inappropriate. And it raises real questions about whether or not the president and Mr. McGahn understand the role of the attorney general, his oath to the Constitution of the United States and the obligations he has to recuse himself in the circumstances of this case.
It also raises questions about the president's sort of understanding what the attorney general's role is. He keeps talking about the attorney general should be there to protect the president. That is not the job of the attorney general. The job of the attorney general is to be independent, to be the chief enforcement officer of our country, to impartially administer the laws of the United States.
He's not there to protect the president. Don McGahn knows that, and his conduct is completely unacceptable.
BLITZER: Does the White House counsel, Don McGahn, need to come and testify before Congress?
I think Mr. Nadler has already made that representation, that he expects to bring him before the Judiciary Committee. We need to understand exactly what happened here and really reinforce this very basic idea that the White House counsel is counsel for the office of the president. He is not the personal lawyer for Donald Trump.
And certainly he should understand the recusal statute. And the idea of trying to discourage the attorney general of the United States from recusing himself from an investigation that he's required to recuse himself from, because the statute requires it, to undermine that is very, very disturbing. We need to know more about it.
But, again, I think it's a reflection of this notion that somehow everyone in the White House and everyone in the administration works personally for Donald Trump, rather than for the institutions and for the country and for the Constitution that they were sworn to uphold.
BLITZER: "The New York Times" reports that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was searching for dirt, negative information on the FBI Director James Comey and that Sessions wanted one negative news article a day about Comey.
The Justice Department flatly denies this. Does Sessions' behavior, from your perspective, Congressman, need to be investigated?
If those facts are true, that is incredibly disturbing information. It makes it clear that his recusal was not only necessary, but appropriate. But in addition to that, it raises real questions about the judgment of the attorney general. Where did he get those instructions from? What was he attempted to justify?
And so I think there are a lot of questions that the special counsel will have. I know there's a lot of questions that Congress has with respect to those claims, and we need to learn a lot more about it.
BLITZER: In "The New York Times" also, there's a report that news -- report that when President Trump decided to fire the FBI Director James Comey, he drafted a letter whose first sentence read that the Russia investigation was -- quote -- "fabricated and politically motivated."
Is that additional evidence potentially of obstruction of justice?
Look, the president has made it very clear. He's done everything he can to stop and impede and undermine this investigation, first characterizing it as a hoax, then trying to stop the concurrent congressional investigations by reaching out to senators, then telling Jim Comey to let this Flynn thing go, then ultimately firing the director of the FBI, and giving the explanation in part because of the Russia investigation.
And, remember Wolf, he then went into the Oval Office and yucked it up with Russian officials right after he did that, saying: I got that off my chest. That was really hanging over my head.
And so they were all laughing about it. This is in the Oval Office. The press was not allowed into that, the American press. We only learned that from the Russian media.
This is a president who has made every effort to impede this investigation, to try to minimize it. And now we have additional evidence that it's one of the reasons that he got rid of the director of the FBI.
That on its face is obstruction of justice. Obviously, Robert Mueller has lots more work to do, and he will make the final determination. But there's been an ongoing and very coordinated effort from this president to stop and undermine this investigation. You have to wonder why. What is he afraid of? Why is he so eager to stop Mr. Mueller from doing his job?
BLITZER: In the new book -- and, obviously, we have a copy of the book now, "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House" -- the author, Michael Wolff, reports that a spokesman for President Trump's lawyers in the White House, the Counsel's Office, quit over the president's false statement in response to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with the Russians.
And that spokesman felt, according to the book, that the statement amounted to obstruction of justice. What's your reaction to that?
CICILLINE: Well, I think it's just one more piece of evidence.
If in fact it is true that the president participated in the development of a fake story about Russian adoptions to camouflage the real meaning of that Russian meeting between Trump officials and the Russians, that's just one more piece of evidence.
But one of the things that is so frustrating as you watch all of these things unfold is, this ongoing battle between Steve Bannon and President Trump, the work of the American people is not getting done. We haven't reauthorized the Children's Health Insurance Program. We haven't taken care of funding for our veterans. We haven't dealt with the opioid crisis in our country, and any number of things.
There's important work that is not getting done because we have a White House that is embroiled in scandals and conflicts and investigations. And that's consuming all of their energy, and we're not getting the work done for the American people. And I think that's the -- it's an untold story of this time and time again.
My constituents here in Rhode Island and people all across this country is are suffering because we're not getting the work done that they need us in addressing the urgent issues. My constituents want to know, what are we doing to create good-paying jobs, what are we doing to reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program, how are we taking care of our veterans?
And this ongoing sort of chaos at the White House and attempt to interfere with this ongoing investigation is undermining our ability to get this work done.
BLITZER: Congressman Connolly, thanks for joining us.
CICILLINE: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will talk about the fate of the top White House counsel and whether the president effectively ordered him to obstruct justice.
The former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara -- there you see him -- he's standing by live. He knows a thing or two about getting fired after being forced out of his job as the U.S. attorney in New York by President Trump.
BLITZER: We're following a lot of new threads in the Russia investigation and whether they amount to proof of obstruction of justice.
Joining us now, CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara, who was fired from his post as United States attorney in New York by President Trump.
Preet, thanks so much for joining us.
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Good to be here, Wolf.
BLITZER: You say that if this "New York Times" report on the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, seeking dirt on the FBI director at the time, James Comey, is true, Sessions should go. But how do you determine that? Does the special counsel, Robert Mueller, need to turn his attention to this?
BHARARA: Well, my guess is that Robert Mueller has already turned his attention to everything that you're reading.
If you're reading about something in the press or in a book or seeing something on television that relates to the conduct of people like Don McGahn or Jeff Sessions as it relates to the firing of Jim Comey or the Russia investigation, Bob Mueller knows about it. And his people know about it. And the likelihood is, they knew about it before we did. BLITZER: What would it mean if Robert Mueller and his
investigation, what would it mean for the investigation if the attorney general goes, for example?
Are you comfortable with Sessions leaving, even if that were to hamper the Russia investigation? As you know, he's recused himself from the Russia probe.
BHARARA: Look, you can't predict into the future what will happen to a particular investigation.
But if the report in "The New York Times" is true -- and I'm not saying it is -- and we have seen some reports that turn out not to be true out of various outlets. But if it is true that Jeff Sessions was figuring out ways to have dirt come out -- I don't know what that dirt would have been -- I'm not aware of any dirt with respect to Jim Comey -- but trying to get dirt to come out on him and, as the article suggests in "The New York Times," a negative article about the sitting FBI director every day, that to me is unprofessional, outrageous.
And you can pick a number of other adjectives to apply to it. And if you engage in some conduct that is a fireable offense, that is a violation of your duty to uphold the rule of law, then you have to go. And whether or not that might have some implication for some other thing, like the Russia investigation, which is arguably important, you don't get a bye just because you have some concern that the domino effect will affect some other investigation.
If you do something that is a fireable offense, and I think, as described in the "Times" article, I think that would be, then you have to let the chips fall where they may.
BLITZER: The Justice Department, by the way, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department is denying that part of the "New York Times" report.
There's another element in "The New York Times"' reporting that President Trump ordered his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to try to stop the Attorney General Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
CNN, by the way, has confirmed that effort by McGahn. Was that appropriate?
BHARARA: The best policy for a person sitting in the White House, whether you're the president or you're the White House counsel, is to leave the Justice Department alone, unless you're talking about general policy matters on how to allocate resources and budgetary matters and some other things like that.
The best practice is for the White House counsel not to be directing the attorney general to do any particular thing in any particular case, and especially when you come to issues like ethics and recusal and how things should be handled. They should be handled by the book. And generally speaking, when I was United States attorney, we had
issues that arose from time to time of somebody who was related to someone, who was a former law partner to someone came in on the case or was the target of an investigation. You have to consider the issue of recusal.
And you have career people -- in our office, we had a career person that had been there 30 years -- and there are career people in the Justice Department who advise the political appointees on whether or not they should recuse.
And that process is best left respected and upheld and shouldn't be undermined through pressure from someone at the White House, particularly when there's an overlay of the president thinking about firing the attorney general. Those conversations between -- I don't know what they were -- I don't know what the details were -- but those conversations between a sitting White House counsel and attorney general I think are wrong, inappropriate and should not have happened.
BLITZER: Do you believe Don McGahn can continue, should continue as the White House counsel?
BHARARA: I'm not going to make a proclamation of whether or not he should continue. I think if more information comes out that Don McGahn did the political bidding of the president of the United States to interfere with in any way, to push an investigation or to stop an investigation, then I think he's compromised, yes.
I just don't know that that's true as of this moment.
BLITZER: Can he be forced to testify before the special counsel Robert Mueller or for that matter members of Congress or can he cite executive privilege or attorney-client privilege?
BHARARA: Both of those things are true. He can be asked to come testify. And there are some matters about which you would presume he would have no legitimate basis to assert executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. And then that would be fought out potentially before a judge.
It's not uncommon for anybody in the White House, when there's an investigation ongoing, to claim some kind of privilege to get out of the hassle and the risk of talking about it. But we will have to see how that works out.
BLITZER: "The New York Times" also is reporting, Preet, that President Trump has said he wanted his attorney general to protect him.
Why do you think the president felt he needed that kind of protection?
BHARARA: That's a great question. Someone should ask him.
Maybe that's in that new Michael Wolff book. I don't know. The point, though, is that the attorney general is not supposed to be a person who protects any particular individual, whether the president or someone else, from the legal process that's legitimate and justified.
He's supposed to be protecting the legal process itself. And no one, not even the person who appointed him, is supposed to be in a position -- if you want rule of law to be respected and rule of law to be upheld, you're not supposed to allow that to happen.
BLITZER: Preet Bharara, thanks so much for joining us.
BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, more reaction to a disturbing portrait of the president from the author of that new tell-all book.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOLFF: I will tell you the one description that's everyone gave, everyone has in common. They all say he is like a child.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER; Only five days into 2018, and President Trump is facing new fire and feeling new fury. He's railing on Twitter against the new book that portrays him as unfit and unhinged, and he's blasting the Russia probe amid reports of incriminating, potentially incriminating new evidence.
[18:34:10] We're following it all with our reporters and our analysts. And Samantha Vinograd, according to this "New York Times" report, and you're an expert in this area, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was actually searching for negative information or dirt on the FBI director at the time, James Comey.
President Trump also ordered the White House counsel to lobby Sessions not to recuse himself from the investigation. The president supposedly wanted protection from the attorney general. How damaging is this to the Trump presidency?
SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's damaging to the presidency, but more importantly, I think it's damaging to our national security.
We have to remember that the Russians have, for decades, waged what we call active measures and information warfare campaigns to diminish the credibility of our democracy and our institutions, including by the way, the separation of powers. So that's nothing new.
What's new is that every time we have a thread about President Trump trying to interfere in the investigation or denigrate the credibility of the FBI, we have a scenario where the president is now doing something that helps the Russian intelligence services in their mission to diminish confidence in our democracy.
BLITZER: That's a very serious point that you're making. Kaitlan, "The New York Times" also reporting that President Trump
decided to fire the FBI director at the time, James Comey. He drafted a letter whose first sentence read that the Russia investigation was, quote, "fabricated and politically motivated."
How does that fit in with the other explanations we've heard from various White House officials?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it completely contradicts what they originally said, that on May 9, when he fired James Comey, which was that he did so at the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and at the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And that's what the White House maintained, Sean Spicer telling reporters it was not a White House decision; it was strictly a Department of Justice decision.
And it wasn't just the White House spokespeople saying that. It was also Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, going on television and saying so, Vice President Mike Pence saying so. And they continued that for hours, and then the president himself was the one who said that he did it because of the Russia thing, saying that he would have fired James Comey, regardless of any recommendation that he received. And then later saying that we couldn't expect the spokespeople to maintain perfect accuracy when they were at the podium, because he was such a busy person.
So we've seen, certainly, a big shift in that; and it could be a basis of why were they trying to cover up why he -- why he fired him? Why were they not saying initially what the real reason was?
BLITZER: You know, Ron Brownstein, these are all very significant revelations, and they could add to this potential case of obstruction of justice. What are you hearing from Republicans? How are they reacting?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think it's a really striking pattern, Wolf. If you look at this year, as the questions about President Trump's fitness for office have kind of solidified for many voters, and as the legal questions about his role, particularly on the obstruction questions, have mounted, Republicans in Congress are lashing themselves more tightly to his presidency. They are less skeptical of him than they were at the beginning. There's less distance. There's more of a reflexive kind of attempt to defend, not only in the House where we've seen it kind of most pronounced, but also today with Lindsey Graham and Senator Grassley, pushing for an investigation of the author of the dossier.
And this is -- this is just -- you can't underestimate or understate what a political gamble this is, because the biggest single risk to Republicans in this midterm election are voters who are uneasy about President Trump at best, if not actively hostile, and who want there to be more of a check on him. And yet despite that current, they are very much sailing in the other direction of essentially saying they are acting more as kind of a defense squad than any independent inquiry or check or balance.
BLITZER: And Rebecca Berg, the book -- we have the book. It's generating a lot of commotion, as you obviously know, "Fire and Fury."
The president reacted this way in a tweet: "Well, now that collusion with Russia is proving to be a total hoax and the only collusion is with Hillary Clinton and the FBI Russia, the fake news media," parenthesis, "(mainstream) and this phony new book are hitting out at every new front imaginable. They should try winning an election. Sad."
That was the president's tweet. What does that tell you about how the president is handling all these late-breaking development?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it tells us a lot, Wolf. I mean, first of all, he's dealing with this in the way that the president deals with a lot of controversies, or chaos, in his administration: by tweeting, by lashing out, by blaming his critics, by blaming everyone but himself.
But if you look at that tweet, just try counting all of the conspiracy theories and paranoia in one tweet, it's astounding. And it's a good thing that they expanded the character limit, because he used all of it. There is the FBI collusion with Hillary Clinton, one conspiracy theory. He alleges the media is out to get him and also the author of this book, Michael Wolff. I guess it's not paranoia if everybody's out to get you, but it's astounding to see this sort of thing from the president of the United States.
VINOGRAD: Well, this is a president who likes to be popular. He's very concerned with his popularity, and he certainly does not like to be questioned or have his intelligence questioned. He often -- you know, one time joked he needed to compare I.Q. scores with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, after it was reported that he called him a moron. And that's all this book does, is question his intelligence, his fitness for office and shows that he's deeply unpopular in the West Wing with his own staffers, because that's who Michael Wolf is quoting in this book. And it's certainly something that he's lashing out about, trying to distract from this book.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Ron.
BROWNSTEIN: You know, and that's the real meaning of the book, I think, Wolf. If you go back to election day, we can forget now, but on election day in the exit poll, a little over of a -- a little over of one-fifth of the people who voted for Donald Trump said they did not believe he was qualified to serve as president. A little over one quarter of the people who voted for him said they did not believe he had the temperament to succeed as president, but they were willing to take a chance. They didn't like Hillary Clinton; they wanted change; they wanted an outsider. So they voted for him anyway.
[18:40:08] What has happened over the past year has much more tended to deepen than dissolve those doubts. And this book, what this book really does above all, is show that those concerns, the ambivalence that those voters expressed, has now been solidified not only among the kind of general population but among the people closest to him, who are in the room when he is making decisions.
And that's why I think this book is such a cruise missile aimed at his greatest political vulnerability, which is that we have somewhere between 55 and 62 to 63 percent of the public, depending on the poll, who says that he is simply not equipped to do the job. Before you get to ideology, before you get to agenda, just on the personal qualifications. That's where he is struggling.
And I think that's why Republicans are making this enormous gamble in positioning themselves without opposing any check on a president that many Americans are ambivalent at best about.
BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's more news we're following, including an exclusive TV interview with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
[18:45:14] BLITZER: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a rare interview with CNN is pushing back on reports that he has one foot out the door over at the State Department.
Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott sat down with Rex Tillerson. Here's more of her exclusive TV interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We had a very successful, in my view, year of 2017, pivoting our policies and helping our partners understand those policies. We're now into the implementation and execute against those policies. I think we're going to have a very productive 2018. Again, the State Department gets stronger every day understanding what we're trying to do. And I look forward to having a very, very successful 2019.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: For the whole year?
TILLERSON: I intend to be here for the whole year.
LABOTT: Has the president given you any indication you won't be around for a while?
LABOTT: None whatsoever?
TILLERSON: None whatsoever.
LABOTT: I'm sure you heard about this new book out there about the White House. It's the talk of the town. It describes, you know, a president whose foreign policy is uninformed, that he's not engaged, that he's not interested, that he gets up and leaves meetings with world leaders because he's bored.
You're at the White House several times a week. Is that your experience? TILLERSON: I think among all of the cabinet secretaries, I probably
have spent more time with the president than perhaps Secretary of Defense Mattis who spends a lot of time with him as well. I've never seen the president leave a meeting with a foreign leader.
He's very engaged in the meetings and in our policy deliberations and meetings the National Security Council with him, as I said, a big challenge was pivoting policies in a different direction than they were placed when the president took office from North Korea, to Afghanistan, South Asia policy and Pakistan, to the defeat ISIS campaign. The president prioritized the threats early on, and that's the sequence within which we have addressed those.
And all of those deliberations and these have been not been easy deliberations, these are not easy decisions for a president to make, he has been very deliberative, he has listened to the arguments, he argues back as he should.
LABOTT: Because all --
TILLERSON: He pushes back. And in the end, he makes a decision which we then implement.
I would tell you, on all of the major policy areas, the president has made the right decision on every one of those. How we got there involves a lot of debate and it should involve a lot of debate. It's a very -- it's a very healthy exchange with the president and one which I think is important that we continue to have.
LABOTT: Everybody in this book questions his mental fitness. Did you -- have you ever questioned his mental fitness? And describe your relationship with him, because some people would think it's -- you know, through his tweets and stuff, it's not a very good relationship.
TILLERSON: I've never questioned his mental fitness. I have no reason to question his mental fitness. My relationship with him and it is a developing one and I remind people and I think it's well known that he and I did not know one another before he asked me to serve as secretary of state. So, we don't have a lot of history and past. So, part of this is us knowing -- coming to learn and understand one another.
LABOTT: You're also two different kinds of people.
TILLERSON: Well, we have different management styles. How I make decisions, how I process information, I have to -- I have to learn how -- he takes information and processes it and makes decisions.
And that's my responsibility. I'm here to serve his presidency. So, I've had to spend a lot of time understanding how to best communicate with him so I can serve his needs with information.
I do think one of my roles is to always give him all sides of the issues, even when I know it's not the side that he really wants to consider, I think it's part of making good decisions, is that I know he at least has had visibility to all aspects of the decision he's about to make. And that's my role as secretary of state, is to provide him that full 360 visibility of what these decisions mean for our foreign affairs with allies, with partners and with adversaries.
And I think what comes out sometimes, what people see then, is they think that is conflict when it's not. It's a normal process of having the president look at all sides and then saying I don't like that. And that's healthy. That's good.
I mean, people should feel good about the way decisions are made because it's not just one of giving in to what you think the president wants, rather helping him see the full array of all of the options and what the implications of those are and he decides, he's the commander- in-chief, he's the president, he decides and we'll implement against his decisions.
LABOTT: You know, reflecting back, what have you learned about yourself and what might you do differently next year?
[18:50:00] TILLERSON: You never stop growing as an individual. So, in terms of what I would do different, I'm going to build on my ability to communicate with the president better, ability to communicate with others better. As I said, something I had to learn is what is effective with this president?
He's not typical of presidents of the past. I think that's what I recognize. That's also why the American people chose him. They were tired of what was being done in the past, they wanted something to change.
So, I've learned over the past year better how to deal with the president, to serve what he, I think, he needs to know, so he can make good decisions. And I've learn add lot about the interagency process, which was new to me. And that will get better all the time as well. But that is our role here at the State Department.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Elise is joining us right now.
So, what's your main takeaway from this extensive interview you had with the secretary of state?
LABOTT: Look, Rex Tillerson is not a creature of Washington, OK? He came from Texas where he lived for the last 50 years or so, and he was -- you know, no government experience.
And I think he was very reflective about the fact that he had a little bit of a rocky year trying to get his sea legs and get to know how to work for this president and I think really trying to say, like, I'm here now, I'm learning the ropes, I'm getting to know Washington, I'm getting to know the government interagency process. And I'm going build on that.
I think he knows he needs to engage a little bit more with congress, build that political constituency, and wants to stay. Obviously, made clear he's not going anywhere, Wolf.
BLITZER: Very good interview. Thanks for doing it. Elise Labott reporting for us.
Just ahead, North Korea agrees to face-to-face talks with the South Koreans. U.S. intel insiders share their doubts, though, that Kim Jong-un has peacemaking on his mind.
BLITZER: Tonight, Russia's warning the Trump administration not to undermine landmark talks between North and South Korea. Representatives of the two countries will meet face-to-face on Tuesday.
Brian Todd is joining us right now.
Brian, now that North Korea has accepted the South's proposal for talks, what can we expect?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we're told that U.S. officials are going to be watching these talks intensely. They could be absolutely crucial in dialing back tensions in the region. But at the same time, serious warnings, we've spoken to more people who have dealt face-to-face with the North Koreans than just about anyone and they say be wary of Kim Jong-un's diplomats potentially acting like mobsters next week.
TODD (voice-over): In a message sent by fax, Kim Jong-un's regime says it will come to the table and engage in peace talks with its South Korean enemies, days after holding a muscle-flexing rally in Pyongyang. It will be the first high-level contact between the rivals in more than two years. Diplomats will meet face-to-face next Tuesday. The day after Kim's birthday in a place called the peace house in the DMZ.
The talks will center around the possibility of North Korea sending athletes to the winter Olympics next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Which many observers feel could ratchet down boiling tensions in the region.
But tonight, several U.S. officials tell CNN American military and intelligence officials are viewing these peace overtures with some skepticism and those who've sat face-to-face with the North Koreans say there's a good reason for it.
EVANS REVERE, FORMER U.S. DIPLOMAT IN SOUTH KOREA: The first round of any negotiations with North Koreans is usually very tough, sometimes even confrontational. Often very, very demanding.
TODD: We've spoken with several former U.S. officials who've negotiated directly with the North Koreans. They expect Kim's diplomats to try to exact concessions from the South Koreans in exchange for sending North Korean athletes to the Winter Games. To press for economic help, and they'll likely demand a scaling back of joint U.S./South Korean military exercises.
These veteran diplomats say at the bargain table, the North Koreans can be friendly, charming, persuasive and then sometimes can turn into gangsters.
Evans Revere was with U.S. envoy William Perry during talks in 1998 when the North Koreans got frustrated.
REVERE: One of the North Koreans turned to Secretary Perry and said to him, we can even turn your home of Palo Alto into a sea of fire.
TODD: And the North Koreans have carried out threats made at the bargaining table. Former NSC official Mike Green says in 2003 North Korean negotiators told him the U.S. had better end its hostile policies toward Pyongyang or else.
MICHAEL GREEN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The North Koreans said they would transfer their so-called deterrent, the nuclear capability, to another country. Four years later, the Israeli Air Force bombed a nuclear reactor being built by the Syrians with North Korea's help. So, they clearly demonstrated they're willing to transfer this capability.
TODD: And tonight, these diplomats warn beware of North Korean promises. Former envoy Joe DeTrani says when the U.S. and North Korea struck their first big nuclear deal in the 1990s, the North Koreans promised to stop producing plutonium but secretly started producing uranium instead.
JOSEPH DETRANI, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY TO NORTH KOREA: That was in violation of the agreed framework -- certainly the spirit of the agreed framework. We learned that and we put it to them. And they admitted to having the program.
So, were they, if you will, being disingenuous? Absolutely.
TODD: Still, if the talks next week go well, experts say they will be helpful in at least starting to dial back the tensions on the peninsula and at this point, Wolf, that's really all we can hope for.
BLITZER: There's another potential warning, Brian, regarding just who the North Koreans will send to these talks.
TODD: That's right, Wolf. Analysts say most of the North Korean negotiators who previously dealt with South Korea during these earlier periods when the relations between the two countries were much better, well, those officials have been purged or executed by Kim Jong-un and they include Kim's uncle, Jang Song-thaek.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting, thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.