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Trump Fires Tillerson, Names Pompeo to Secretary of State; Congressman Defends GOP Ending House Russia Investigation; Trump Personal Aide Fired, Under Investigation for Financial Crimes; Intervie with Rep. Will Hurd. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer, in THE SITUATION ROOM. See you in two hours.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Rex effects. President Trump fires Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a top State Department official and names CIA Director Mike Pompeo as America's chief diplomat. The president said Pompeo is more in tune with his thinking than Tillerson as the effects of the firing may be felt around the world.

[17:00:37] Trump aide ousted. A longtime personal aide to the president is dismissed and escorted out of the White House under a cloud of controversy. What's behind the sudden firing? And are more changes on the way?

The Russian threat. From sophisticated new missiles to doubling down in support of Syria's dictator to a nerve agent poisoning in Britain, what's behind the wave of chilling new threats from Russia?

And time to buckle up. The deadline comes and goes for the president to accept Stormy Daniels's request to end the confidentiality agreement. Is it time to end the confidentiality agreement? Her lawyer said it's time to buckle up. What's the porn star's next step?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking news stories, topped by the president's sudden and stunning firing of the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. The president has named CIA director Mike Pompeo is Tillerson's replacement.

I'll speak with Congressman Will Hurd of the Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they're all standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with this big Trump administration shake-up. The word came just before the president headed out to California.

Let's to go our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's traveling with the president in San Diego right now. So Jim, take us through this truly extraordinary day. JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

President Trump is addressing U.S. Marines here at this base in Southern California right now. But earlier today, he was defending his decision to fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and he was hinting to reporters that more big staff changes could be on the way. As one source close to the White House told me earlier today, the winds of change are blowing.



ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump's reality-TV-style revolving door keeps on spinning. In this episode, it's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who was voted off the island. And CIA Director Mike Pompeo slated to take his place.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We're always on the same wave length. The relationship has been very good, and that's what I need as secretary of state. I wish Rex Tillerson well.

ACOSTA: Sources tell CNN White House chief of staff John Kelly told Tillerson he was out on Friday, then made that clear over the weekend. Tillerson's firing is just the latest in a slew of high-profile administration departures.

Before leaving for California, the president stated the obvious: that he and Tillerson didn't see eye to eye.

TRUMP: Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We -- we got along, actually, quite well, but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it's terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.

ACOSTA: The president's claim that he and Tillerson had been discussing this for a long time runs counter to what he tweeted last December, when he said, "The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon. Fake news."

Tillerson, whose relationship with the president never really recovered after it was revealed that he had called Mr. Trump a moron last year, sounded ready to move on.

REX TILLERSON, OUTGOING SECRETARY OF STATE: What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges.

ACOSTA: Another thorn the president seems eager to remove is the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump has lashed onto House Republican findings dismissing much of the Russia probe, tweeting in all caps, "THE HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE HAS, AFTER A 14-MONTH-LONG IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION, FOUND NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION OR COORDINATION BETWEEN THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND RUSSIA TO INFLUENCE THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION."

But that puts the president somewhat at odds with Pompeo, the man he wants leading the State Department.

MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR/SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE: I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election, as is the entire intelligence community. And the one before that and the one before that. They've been at this a hell of a long time.

ACOSTA: Though the president is sounding a bit more hawkish on Russia after the British government finding that Moscow was behind the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy on U.K. soil.

TRUMP: It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia, and I would certainly take that finding as fact.

ACOSTA: But he says it's too soon to condemn Moscow.

TRUMP: As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.

[17:05:03] ACOSTA: The president spent part of the day inspecting prototypes for the multi-billion-dollar wall he envisions for the border. The one he vowed Mexico would fully fund.

TRUMP: We have a lousy wall over here now, but at least it stops 90, 95 percent. When we put up the real wall, we're going to stop 99 percent, maybe more than that.

ACOSTA: All this as Washington is bracing for more White House turmoil as the president teased this season of "The Apprentice" is not over.

TRUMP: I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.


ACOSTA: And the president is reassembling his national security team at a critical time. He'll be bringing on a new secretary of state just as he's racing toward high-stakes talks with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. And then, of course, there is the matter of picking a new CIA director. The president's pick, as he mentioned earlier today, is Gina Haspel. Wolf, as you heard from top Republicans all day long, including Senator John McCain, they are raising questions about Haspel and whether she's the right pick over at Langley -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, they certainly are. We'll have more on that. That's coming up. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Secretary of State Tillerson learned of his firing via Twitter. The top aide who shared that fact was also probably fired by the White House.

Let's go to our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski. Michelle, it seems like Tillerson was basically told, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out," and you could really see that in his speech today.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: It's hard to describe how palpable this was, sitting only feet away from him. This is a U.S. secretary of state, only recently head of Exxon. To see him barely holding his emotions together, his voice wavering throughout, his face trembling right after he was suddenly fired from the job. Absolutely not the way he envisioned himself leaving this position.

Listen to part of this.


TILLERSON: What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges. As such, effective at the end of the day, I am delegating all responsibilities of the office of the secretary to Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan. My commission as secretary of state will terminate at midnight, March the 31st.


KOSINSKI: So he's up there. He goes through thanking and mentioning his colleagues, the need for leadership, integrity and respect. The American public. But in all of this carefully worded and lengthy statement, not one single mention of President Trump.

And now we're hearing from more sources, too, saying that yes, he was called by White House chief of staff Kelly on Friday, which was Saturday his time as he was traveling in Africa; but that that call was ambiguous. It was along the lines of, "Stuff is moving. It's happening. This is serious. Maybe you need to come back." And that he truly did not know that he was losing his job until this morning, until that Trump -- that tweet from President Trump. And I think you could -- you could really see that in the emotion, as he delivered that message, Wolf.

BLITZER: You've been covering him from the beginning. Was there any sense from him or his team that this firing was imminent?

KOSINSKI: No. I mean, the rumbling has been there for months. It reached a head around the holidays, before the first of the year where people at the White House were saying, "We're just waiting for Tillerson to punch out. His time's up."

But then they seemed to reach some kind of agreement, he and the president. It seemed like things were fine.

Yesterday, one of his senior aides was calling him the secretary of stay and talking about his big plans. So while the rumor was there, it seemed like if he was going to leave, it was going to be down the road, at the very least a few months, and on his own terms, Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the state of the State Department right now, Michelle?

KOSINSKI: Morale is so low that you hear these stories almost on a daily basis of people who say they cry in their car before work. A woman just last week who's been at the State Department for two decades, works in human rights, quit suddenly, because she said, "Nobody here cares about human rights."

There are dozens of open ambassadorships with no nominee from the White House. About a third of senior management, no nominee, and on and on.

But there are two factions here. There are people who felt like, even though Tillerson wasn't necessarily setting the world on fire here as secretary of state, at least not yet, at least he was a counter to certain White House policies. The Iran deal, Paris climate deal, and on and on.

But then there are many people here who are happy to see him go. They felt like he had done nothing to improve morale. And with somebody who is a more political pick like Pompeo coming in, even if they don't agree with him, they at least feel like there's going to be a clearer directive, and a clearer, more dynamic mission of foreign policy that will help them do their jobs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Michelle. Thank you. Michelle Kosinski at the State Department.

Joining us now, Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas. He's a member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees. He's always a former CIA officer.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

[17:10:09] REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: Hey, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: What message does it send that the president of the United States didn't even have the courtesy to personally call the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson and inform him that he was being fired?

HURD: Well, I don't know what message it sends. I probably wouldn't have handled personnel decisions that way.

The one thing that I will say, knowing Mike Pompeo, Mike recognizes the need to boost morale in the State Department. Your previous reporter was talking about that. I've heard that from some of my friends. That is still there.

Mike had to deal with a similar situation taking over the CIA. There was a lot of change happening in the CIA. Rank and file were frustrated with some of the changes. He was able to come in and ready the ship.

And Mike understands the importance of making sure the rank and file are behind you and have job satisfaction. So I think that's important. But he also, I think, recognizes the need that he needs be in lock

step with General Mattis. I think the Secretary Tillerson and General Mattis relationship was important. It was a reason that we've had some diplomatic successes. And, you know, the fact that you have China working with the United States against North Korea, you have the potential of a sit-down talk with North Korea, part of that is because of the work that Secretary Tillerson had done in his diplomatic role. So Mike Pompeo understands the issue.

And the fact that he's coming from the CIA is going to be good. He's been dealing with these issues. He's met a lot of these foreign leaders. And so I think his learning curve is not going to be as steep as someone who hasn't been in these issues over the last year and a half.

BLITZER: The president will nominated Gina Haspel to become the new CIA director. She'll have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Senator John McCain had this to say about this career CIA official: quote, "The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history. The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record and involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program."

You were in the CIA during this period, as well. How do you respond to Senator McCain?

HURD: Well, first off, this wasn't Gina's idea. She was following orders. The attorney general at the time and the president at the time had said this was lawful. And you have to remember where we were at that moment, thinking that another attack was going to happen.

I was the fourth employee in the unit on September 12, 2001, that started prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And at that moment, if you would have said it would be 17 years before another major attack, I would have said you were crazy. We thought another one was coming.

Now, history -- hindsight is 20/20. But I think, you know, about you saying that Gina was responsible for this, yes, she implemented orders and was doing her job.

Gina is a -- is a solid professional. She has great experience. She's smarted; she's talented; she's tough. She has the support of the rank and file and having -- you know, there's not going to be much of a transition issue with her going from the deputy position to the head of the CIA.

She's going to answer all the questions. I'm sure it's going to be an interesting confirmation process. But she is -- it's really exciting, and it's also exciting to have the first female to potentially lead such an important organization.

BLITZER: Yes, she'll have to answer a whole bunch of questions during that confirmation process.

Let's turn, Congressman, to your work on the House Intelligence Committee. Your Republican report, we got the jist of it yesterday. The office of the director of national intelligence says they stand by the January 2017 report on Russian meddling in the election.

But earlier today, you said they relied in that January 2017 report on what you called substandard intelligence. That's quite an accusation. Why do you think the House Intelligence Committee Republicans are in a better position to make that assessment than the major U.S. intelligence agencies, not only the ones that existed in the Obama administration but during the Trump administration, as well?

HURD: Great -- great question, Wolf. Let me make sure to clarify that.

I completely support the fact that the Russians tried to manipulate our elections. This is something that all Republicans agreed on, on the committee. This is something that the Democrats on this committee agree.

But when it comes to the analytical judgment that this was done in order to favor one candidate or the other, that information was relying on substandard reporting. It was thought that, when it was originally collected, that was left, in essence, on the cutting room floor and wasn't included in this report until after the fact.

[17:15:05] I've read all the underlying intelligence. I've read all the underlying operational cables that supported some of these issues. And we talked to -- to senior analysts within the organization about the process of which the ICA was made didn't follow some of the standard process.

Now why -- you know, were the other agencies that agreed with the ICA and all the elements of the ICA, did they know about the process that went through? Did they assume it was, you know, handled the way that most kind of intelligence assessments work? I don't know the -- I don't know the answer to that.

But let me be clear. We're not criticizing the men and women within the CIA that collect information. To be honest, when this information was collected at first, it was handled properly. The case officers, everybody involved in this was doing the right thing. The question is how folks at the end of the process used what could be considered as substandard reporting.

BLITZER: So you consider that, obviously, a major blunder. I'll just point out the statement that was released by Brian Hale. He's the spokesman, the current spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, headed by Dan Coates.

The statement is this: "The intelligence community stands by its January 2017 assessment assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent U.S. elections. We will review the House select committee intelligence report findings."

But as of now they disagree with you. They clearly stand with the original assessment, which was done more than a year ago. But on that point, we'll see what happens down the road. HURD: Absolutely, Wolf. And I think -- I don't know at that point if

they've seen our report. It's a draft report. It's about 150 pages.

BLITZER: Well, you haven't released it publicly yet.


BLITZER: None of us have seen it.

HURD: Right. No, absolutely. Because it has to go through the declassification process, as well. We're also getting input from our Democratic colleagues. We'll be taking feedback from the intelligence community, as well. And that's why it's a draft report.

Unfortunately, when it comes to classified stuff, things get leaked. And people talk about it before we're able to get all

BLITZER: Yes. We'll see if the intelligence community then and now has made a major blunder, which you suggest is the case. We'll find out fairly soon.

HURD: And Wolf, and again, the agreement is that the Russians were trying to get involved --

BLITZER: All right.

HURD: --- and manipulate our elections. And so we need to move to the point where how do we make sure that we're protecting ourselves from that in the future.

BLITZER: Congressman herd, thanks so much for joining us.

HURD: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, a long-time personal aide to the president is dismissed and escorted out of the White House under a cloud of controversy. So what's behind the sudden ouster?


[17:22:20] BLITZER: Breaking news, President Trump fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, naming CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. And after a top State Department official declared that Tillerson was blindsided by the president's move, the White House promptly fired him, as well.

We also have breaking details about another sudden dismissal at the White House. A personal aide to President Trump escorted out of the White House under a cloud of controversy. And sources say more moves are coming.

Let's go to our White House reporter, Kaitlan Collins. What are you hearing, Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's right. This aide, Johnny McEntee, is certainly not as much of a household name as the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was but he did have a very crucial role in the West Wing; and he was a near constant presence around President Trump and traveled with him on many occasions, including, he was scheduled to travel with him to California today before he was abruptly fired yesterday, escorted off the White House grounds.

And today we have learned that he is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for what sources say are serious financial crimes. Now, we are told that these crimes are not related to President Trump himself. But Johnny McEntee is very much remaining in the president's orbit. Because just minutes after this news broke of his departure, the Trump campaign announced that they had hired him to work as a senior adviser for those re-election efforts in 2020.

But back here at the White House, this is someone we have just learned did have a permanent security clearance in the West Wing. Something that has obviously been in the headlines lately with the resignation of that one top aide who was accused of spousal abuse and with the president's son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner. So he's very much under scrutiny.

But he was someone who was able to secure a clearance, Wolf, but now he is under the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security. It's certainly becoming something newsworthy even on Capitol Hill as the House Oversight Committee, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, have now sent a letter to the chief of staff, John Kelly, requesting documents related to Johnny McEntee's clearance here at the White House, Wolf.

So this doesn't seem to be something that is going away for them any time soon.

BLITZER: Very strange story, indeed. All right, Kaitlan. Thank you very much. Kaitlan Collins reporting.

Coming up, there's more breaking news. The president fires Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and moves to replace him with the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, saying they're on the same wavelength. But what will the impact be around the world?

And the deadline passes for the president to accept Stormy Daniels' request to to end a confidentiality agreement, as her lawyer warns it's time to buckle up.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories. During an emotional farewell address this afternoon at the State Department, the outgoing secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did not thank President Trump for letting him serve. The president is nominating CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson.

Let's bring in our experts and our analysts. Jeff Zeleny, these two men did not have a good relationship at all. That was well-documented. But still, how much of a surprise was the timing of today's announcement?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the timing was definitely a surprise, but it was, in many respects, one of the most anticipated things in all of Washington. In fact, it's been talked about so much people had actually thought that, you know, things had moved on.

[17:30:19] But what the president clearly was waiting for was the secretary of state to step aside, was to resign. But he made clear repeatedly that he was going nowhere. He was going to force the issue and make the president fire him, and that's, in fact, what happened.

But Wolf, so striking was the timing. The secretary of state lands at 4 a.m. at Joint Base Andrews. Had barely made it home, had not even made it into the office at the State Department, and he was fired by Twitter. The president told the world that, his 49 million followers, before he picked up the phone and called the secretary of state.

So it was the timing that was a surprise. The secretary knew from a phone call with the White House chief of staff over the weekend that this could happen at some point, but the timing was unclear. But Wolf, certainly a long time coming. And as of midnight tonight, the secretary is surrendering his authority at the department.

BLITZER: Yes. You know, and Jeffrey Toobin, Tillerson, once again, he found out that he had been fired from Twitter just before 9 a.m. Eastern. In his statement later in the afternoon, Tillerson said that he did get a call from Air Force One from the president around noon eastern, some three hours later. Did get a call from him.

What does that say about President Trump's leadership style?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it says he doesn't say, "You're fired." It says you were fired. I mean, you know, it was a demeaning way to treat Rex Tillerson.

But I think the larger message of today, including the forced departure of his -- of his junior aide, is that we are in completely unchartered waters. There has never been turnover like this in any kind of White House, much less a modern White House. Personally, I don't know what that means. I don't know how that will affect the operations of government. But this is a completely different situation than we've ever seen before.

And remember, also, the White House chief of staff, General Kelly. His job is hanging by a thread. General McMaster, the national security adviser, his job is hanging by a thread. So I mean, we could be looking at a turnover of almost the entire administration except for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, his daughter and son-in-law. It's just an amazing situation.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Bianna, in that goodbye statement, Tillerson also called out Russia, saying a lot of work remains to respond -- his words -- to respond to the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government. How did Tillerson's views on Russia play into his firing?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I mean, one can question what role, if any, his views played on Russia. Remember, when he first took the job, there was a lot of skepticism about what kind of diplomat he could be in this role, given his past as a CEO and his somewhat cozy relationship, having received the Medal of Friendship from Russia.

And he's proven to really stick diplomatically to traditional U.S. values when it comes to calling Russia out on human rights abuses, on let's say, their involvement in U.S. election meddling. It's something that the president wasn't necessarily aligned with. We heard Rex Tillerson call them out. We didn't hear the president call them out. So whether it had one -- one had to do with the other really isn't as important as a question, because at least symbolically, you saw that the two weren't aligned.

BLITZER: Juana, the -- there were certainly a lot of policy differences between the president and the secretary of state, but these two men just did not have a good relationship. Most notably, there were reports that Tillerson privately had called the president a moron. At the end of the day, was that the nail in the coffin for Tillerson?

JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICAL WRITER: Well, Wolf, there were certainly a lot of nails in that coffin. Most notably about that incident, though, where Tillerson reportedly called the president a moron, is that in a very un-Washington kind of way, he didn't come out and publicly deny and say, you know, "I didn't say that."

But to your point and to Bianna's point, as well, we see these are two men who were just not on the same page about fundamentals of policy. There's a long list. Just look at the Paris Accord, for example. Tillerson want to stay part of that Accord, but the president pulled out of it.

On the issue of Iran, you know, Tillerson again, he supported the Iran-nuclear deal. The president called it an embarrassment to the United States. He fundamentally was someone who wasn't seen as being able to speak for the president on a host of critical policy issues, and there has just been this disconnect there for months and months, these 14 months that Rex Tillerson was in this job.

BLITZER: And Bianna --

GOLODRYGA: And yet there was --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: I was going to say, and yet, there was no love lost at the State Department. Because while he may have called out human rights abuses once or twice, he said that wasn't going to impact U.S. policy directly. And of course, that changed the narrative at the State Department. A lot of people there upset about those statements. So you could say that there aren't that many people who are sympathetic to him leaving. They may be more sympathetic to how the president handled this, which was not very diplomatic.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by for a moment. Quickly, we're getting some breaking news right now.

I want to go to Kaitlan Collins. She's over at the White House.

What are you learning, Kaitlan?

[17:35:04] KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a series of departures. And now there's another one that could be in the mix. Because we have learned that President Trump has grown very frustrated with his veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin, and is now making plans to move him out of his job as the secretary of veterans affairs.

Now, this comes as the Veterans Affairs agency has been embroiled in several scandals, including ones that involve the secretary himself. It's beginning to really frustrate the president. And now he's looking at not only getting rid of him but who he's going to replace him with.

And one name that he has floated is then energy secretary, Rick Perry. Now, I should note that Trump and Rick Perry had lunch at the White House yesterday. And I'm told by sources that they discussed moving him, potentially, over to veterans affairs.

Now, as for the relationship between Trump and Shulkin, it was never good. The two of them never have gotten along. The president has been very frustrated with him, and he's only grown more irritated as the more scandals have come out of the V.A.

But on the other hand with Rick Perry, he feels that the two of them have some kind of personal chemistry. He thinks he's very high energy and thinks he would be a better fit there, because there have not been as many scandals that have happened over at the Energy Department since Rick Perry has been in charge, And he sees that he could be a better fit there instead of David Shulkin.

Now of course, Wolf, this is President Trump that we are talking about, so it does not seem clear that he has made up his mind on Rick Perry. But what he has made up his mind is on David Shulkin. He has grown very frustrated with him.

And I should note that it's not just the president. Chief of staff John Kelly has actually been frustrated with him, as well. Because after he met with Shulkin at the White House last week, and the two were discussing the ills that have followed the Veterans Affairs Agency, Shulkin went to the media after and talked about what they had said during their meeting, and actually implied that John Kelly had given him leeway to fire staffers who he felt were disloyal to him over at Veterans Affairs.

Now John Kelly was very frustrated with that. He did not feel that was an accurate portrayal of what happened during that meeting between him and Shulkin. And he didn't like the idea that Shulkin went straight to the press with that -- with what they had discussed and what they had talked about.

So a lot of frustration stemming at him. And what is clear here, Wolf, is that the president, his chief of staff, senior aides, want David Shulkin out of Veterans Affairs.

BLITZER: Very, very interesting, indeed. All right. Thanks very much, Kaitlan Collins, breaking that news for us.

Much more on all the breaking news right after this.


[17:42:02] BLITZER: We're following breaking news, the aftershocks from President Trump's abrupt dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. While saying good-bye to his colleagues this afternoon, Tillerson went out of his way to criticize what he called the troubling behavior and actions of the Russian government. He also spoke of the close relationship between the State and Defense Departments.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, we know that Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, they were close allies, talking frequently, coordinating their positions before they went to the White House. While much of the focus is certainly on North Korea and Russians -- Russia's election meddling, we now know that both have deep, deep concern that Russia actually poses a much bigger threat to the United States than many folks realize. What's happening?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: What is happening, Wolf, tonight is that U.S. military officials are taking a much harder line on Russia than the White House is.

Today the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff had to talk to his Russian counterpart in Moscow, because Russia had been threatening to attack if the U.S. struck certain targets in Syria. That is just the beginning.

The head of U.S. nuclear weapons calling Russia an existential threat to the U.S., the only country that could actually threaten the existence of the U.S.

We see several things that Russia is up to. Putin poking away with his military, looking for Donald Trump's limits and not finding any limits. So he keeps poking.

Here's a couple of things to consider. Right now, Russia is building a number of new weapons that can fly hyper sonically. That means five times the speed of sound. A very advanced class of weapons.

They are putting nuclear-capable weapons on NATO's eastern flank in Europe. They are supporting Bashar al-Assad's attacks against civilians in

Syria, causing a humanitarian disaster there. Russian mercenaries also moving against U.S. troops in southern Syria. The U.S. struck back at them. Those mercenaries said to be reassembling in that area.

And so what is the U.S. doing about all of this? Well, the Pentagon looking to build a new class of nuclear weapons it hopes will deter Russian aggression, warning, however, that U.S. missile defense and U.S. satellites are not optimized at this point for these new Russian weapons.

And essentially, there are no military orders at this point to fight back on any of what the Russians are up to. This is calling a lot of consternation, even the head of U.S. military operations in the Middle East calling Russia, Moscow, essentially an arsonist, saying that they are putting flames on the fire. And there is a good deal of concern tonight something needs to be done about it, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Thanks very much for that.

Let's get some more reaction now from Moscow. Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is joining us live. What are the Russians saying about Tillerson's firing?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes, Wolf, tonight I think it's safe to say the Russians are not unhappy about the firing of Rex Tillerson. It's been a pattern here in Moscow for them to believe that the State Department and Secretary of State Tillerson were much tougher on Russia than President Trump was. That's been going on for a very long time.

But then, of course, Wolf, in the past couple of days, you've had this case of that Russian spy who was poisoned in the United Kingdom where Secretary of State Tillerson came out with some very strong words almost immediately while the White House seemed to be a lot less tough.

There were some Russian publications who even put headlines out here, saying that the White House refused to name Russia as the probable culprit overall of this.

And then there is one very prominent Russian journalist -- her name is Olga Skabeeva. She actually anchors the Russian version of "60 Minutes," which is a daily talk show here. I want to read to you what she had to say because it is actually quite remarkable.

She says, quote, yesterday, Tillerson supported Theresa May in her highly likely Russian accusation -- of course, referring to the fact the British Prime Minister said it was highly likely that Russia was behind it -- and Trump immediately fired him. Trump is ours, she said.

So there you have some reaction there from one very prominent Russian journalist.

Interesting also to see some already looking forward to the future. There was a prominent Russian politician who came out just a couple of hours ago, and he was asked whether or not he thought that, under the new leadership, the State Department might take on a different role, and with that, the Trump administration as well. He said we'll have to wait and see.

They're not sure at this point, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thank you.

There's more breaking news coming up. Stormy Daniels' attorney just told CNN -- I'm quoting now -- the deal is dead. Will Stormy Daniels tell what she knows?


[17:51:19] BLITZER: We have breaking news in the controversy over porn star Stormy Daniels. She had offered to pay back what she calls a $130,000 hush payment, so she could talk about her alleged decade- old affair with the President. Let's bring in our national correspondent, Sara Sidner.

Sara, what's Daniels' attorney now saying?

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we just got off the phone with Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' attorney, and he said this about the deal offered to President Trump and President Trump's attorney.

He says it was a one-time deal and that deal is dead.


SIDNER (voice-over): Stormy Daniels' lawyer is warning the President and the public in a tweet that it's, quote, time to buckle up, after President Trump's lawyer refused to respond to a deadline set for a settlement offer the porn star proposed on Monday.

Daniels said she'd pay back $130,000 in hush money Mr. Trump's lawyer paid to her to keep quiet about an alleged sexual affair she had with Donald Trump back in 2006.

In exchange, Daniels' lawyer said she'd be free to talk as well as to share text messages, photo, and videos she may have related to the President.

Sources tell CNN confidantes of the President are encouraging him not to respond or to fight Daniels' attempts to break the agreement for fear anything he says could make him look guilty.

It may be too late as more evidence is emerging Daniels had a sexual relationship with Trump after meeting him at a golf tournament in 2006, including an interview Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, gave to a Florida radio personality in May of 2007, months after the alleged affair started.

The radio host mentioned the interview in a recent show, explaining how he asked Daniels to write down the names of the famous people with whom she had sex.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you write down --

STORMY DANIELS, ACTRESS: -- not on the ass.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you write down a name and we won't say it on the air?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just for our own --

CLEM: She writes down Donald Trump.



CLEM: And you can tell it's him because listen to how she described it.







UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me see, bro.

CLEM: We're going to hand it around.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on, pass it around.

CLEM: Hold on, hold on. Everybody be careful on this.


CLEM: And so now I'm asking, I know it's Donald Trump, but I'm like be careful. This isn't Vince Neil or Tommy Lee or David Lee Roth. This is a guy that's, you know, litigious and got money.

SIDNER (voice-over): Michael Avenatti, Daniels' new lawyer, seems ready to litigate as well. He has filed a request to change the judge overseeing the case and is continuing to blanket television with appearances goading the President.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: They can run, they can hide. But we're not going home, Don. I mean, sooner or later, the President is going to have to answer three very basic questions.

SIDNER (voice-over): The three questions he says they want answered -- did the President know of the agreement when it was being negotiated just before the election, something Trump's attorney has long said he did not?

Did Mr. Trump sign the agreement? The nondisparagement agreement that has been made public shows Mr. Trump did not sign it.

And what was Donald Trump's involvement in all this?

The questions Avenatti is asking are some of the same questions a watchdog group wants answered too.

Common Cause filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, alleging the deal involving then-presidential candidate Trump is a violation of campaign finance law.

PAUL RYAN, VICE PRESIDENT OF POLICY AND LITIGATION, COMMON CAUSE: I don't think the FEC has any choice but to look into this matter, to investigate and enforce here. This is really starting to shape up like a slam-dunk violation of federal campaign finance law.


SIDNER: And I just want to reiterate, we had a conversation with Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' lawyer, and he said this, again, about the deal that they offered Donald Trump and his lawyer, Michael Cohen.

He said, look, it was a one-time deal. That deal is dead.

[17:55:02] He said they are more interested in trying to keep Ms. Daniels quiet than they are in dealing with the First Amendment, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thanks so much. Sara Sidner reporting.

Coming up, breaking news, President Trump fires Secretary of State Rex Tillerson without the courtesy of a heads-up phone call and names CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. Are even more changes now on the way?


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, Rex-pelled. President Trump fires Rex Tillerson one day after the Secretary of State criticized Russia. Tillerson learning of his dismissal on Twitter. Are more heads about to roll?