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Markets Tank as Trump Slams Amazon, Trade War Looms; Mueller Looks at Possible Meeting Between Roger Stone and WikiLeaks Founder; Kremlin Denies It Approved Attack on Ex-Spy and Daughter. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 2, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: -- to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer, right next door in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:11] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Market effect. Stocks plunge as President Trump steps up his attacks on Amazon and China retaliates for the president's trade sanctions. Is the Trump effect suddenly a negative for Wall Street?

Secret dinner? A new report says the special counsel is probing an e- mail from long time Trump confidante Roger Stone. "The Wall Street Journal" reports Stone claimed to have dined with the founder of WikiLeaks, which published hacked e-mails during the campaign.

Putin invitation. The White House confirms that President Trump and Vladimir Putin discussed a face-to-face after Russia says Putin was invited to the White House. Would the president agree to host such talks when Russia is being blamed for a nerve agent attack?

And charm offensive. Kim Jong-un plays host to a South Korean pop group. Is the North Korean dictator trying to soften his image just before a proposed but still unscheduled summit with President Trump?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, President Trump's attacks on Amazon and a looming trade war with China helped send markets into a tail spin. That comes as the president goes on a multi-day Twitter rant on immigration, blaming Democrats for the death of the DREAMers program, which he moved to cancel.

And on this, the eve of the first sentencing in his Russia investigation, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, tries to keep his team's secrets under wraps.

I'll speak with Congressman Joaquin Castro of the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents and specialists, they are standing by with full coverage.

First, let's go straight to our first White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, another tirade from the president, blaming Democrats for the end of the DREAMers program. JIM ACOSTA, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

President Trump is still venting his frustrations on the issue of immigration. The president is sticking to his talking points when it comes to the young undocumented immigrants known as the DREAMers. He was suddenly silent today when we reminded him he ended DACA.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was supposed to be very rainy and nasty and cold and windy and look what we have. Perfect weather. Perfect weather. Beautiful weather.

ACOSTA: Just before President Trump welcomed the guests to the White House for the annual Easter egg roll, he was hammering away on immigration. Blaming Democrats for failing to extend the program that deports people known as DACA. "DACA is dead because the Democrats didn't care or act," the president tweeted. "And now everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon. No longer works. Must build wall and secure our borders with proper border legislation."

We pressed him on it. He neglected to mention one thing, he terminated the DACA program.

(on camera): Mr. President, what about the DACA kids? Should they worry about what's going to happen to them, sir?

TRUMP: The Democrats have really let them down. They've really let them down. They had this great opportunity. The Democrats have really let them down. It's a shame. Now people are taking advantage of DACA, and that's a shame. It should have never happened.

ACOSTA: Didn't you kill DACA, sir? Didn't you kill DACA?

(voice-over) The president didn't respond.

Mr. Trump launched his immigration tweet storm over the weekend, shortly after a segment on the issue aired on FOX News. But the president's tweets weren't limited to immigration. He also defended the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Company, which has come under scrutiny for asking its local stations to air identical segments that appear to parrot Mr. Trump's attacks on the media.

The president tweeted, "So funny to watch fake news networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased."

Mr. Trump also continued to harass the "Washington Post" and its owner, Jeff Bezos, who also founded the online retailer Amazon, complaining the post office loses a fortune shipping packages for the company. He even took a swipe at the Department of Justice, putting "justice" in quotes, describing officials there as "an embarrassment to our country."

The president's hard line rhetoric comes just as aides confirm he's considering hosting a meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin at the White House, a sit-down he hinted at last month. TRUMP: We had a very good call, and I suspect that we'll probably be

meeting in the not-too-distant future.

ACOSTA: Another sign of the chaotic atmosphere at the White House: the back and forth over whether the president actually fired his Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin. Shulkin says he was fired.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: You received a phone call from chief of staff John Kelly, who fired you?

DAVID SHULKIN, FORMER SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: General Kelly gave me a heads up that the president would most likely be tweeting out a message in the very near future. And I appreciated having that heads up from General Kelly.

CAMEROTA: So the tweet fired you?


[17:05:03] ACOSTA: While the White House had offered evasive statements, insisting Shulkin resigned.

MERCEDES SCHLAPP, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS ADVISOR: General Kelly called Secretary Shulkin and gave him the opportunity to resign. Obviously, the key here is that the president has made a decision.


ACOSTA: Now, as for DACA, the president apparently does not have his facts straight. He keeps saying people are flowing into the U.S. to take advantage of DACA, but newcomers would not be eligible for the program, in part because the president ended it himself.

As for the president blaming Democrats for DACA, that's also false. Democrats and Republicans have both offered proposals to save the DREAMers from deportation. But Wolf, the president has rejected those plans time and again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.

On this, the eve of the first sentencing in the Russia probe, let's bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz. Shimon, "The Wall Street Journal" reporting that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is looking into long-time Trump ally Roger Stone's 2016 claim that he actually met with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. They're reporting that, in August of 2016, Julian Assange sent an e-mail to Sam Nunberg, who as we know was a former campaign adviser, as well, to the Trump campaign. In it, "The Wall Street Journal" says that he -- this e-mail he said that Roger Stone said that, I quote, "I dined with Julian Assange last night."

BLITZER: This is an e-mail from Roger Stone to Nunberg.

PROKUPECZ: That's correct. And the importance here is, as we know, part of this collusion and interference investigation, and the bigger picture here of this conspiracy that the special counsel is looking into to kind of sort of defraud our election process.

This will be a significant piece of information, because we know at this point, Julian Assange was already dealing with some of the -- perhaps some of the DNC hacked e-mails. We know that Julian Assange, certainly, based on some of our own reporting, that he's in the crosshairs of Robert Mueller, the FBI, and the Department of Justice have for a long time have been trying to find ways to bring charges against Julian Assange for the various hacks and various things that he has certainly been part of.

So this perhaps could give them a window, the Department of Justice, the special counsel, to bring charges against Julian Assange.

And then more importantly, obviously, is Roger Stone. We keep hearing his name come up in different ways about whether or not he met with Julian Assange, whether he did. And he denied it. He claims that this e-mail is not true.

But clearly, we keep hearing Roger Stone come up time and time again from people who have been before the special counsel, who have been before Bob Mueller. And even Sam Nunberg said that when he testified in the grand jury, he was asked questions about Roger Stone.

So certainly, a significant piece of information, if true, Wolf. If this is in fact -- was a true e-mail and that he, in fact, did dine with Julian Assange, that would be a pretty significant detail for the special counsel.

BLITZER: What he says, Roger Stone, is that yes, he wrote that in an e-mail, but he said he was joking.


BLITZER: You shouldn't take it seriously. And he argues in "The Wall Street Journal" that he can prove it; he's got evidence to prove that he never met with Julian Assange.

PROKUPECZ: Right. He does have that evidence. We don't have that evidence -- I think it may have to do something with flight receipts or tickets that he bought or where he was at the time.

But look, the fact of the matter is, this has always been a question about Roger Stone. Was there a connection to Julian Assange? Was he in communication with Julian Assange? Did he get a heads up about some of these e-mails that were about to be published?

All of that has remained kind of a mystery. And Roger Stone has denied it. But certainly, we know from the special counsel, up until a few weeks ago, these were questions that were still being asked of witnesses who were appearing before the grand jury.

BLITZER: Now tomorrow will be the first sentencing for some of the suspects who have pled guilty going forward. Set the scene for tomorrow's first sentencing. PROKUPECZ: Right. So this is the lawyer. He's here coming out of

the SUV here, Alex Van der Zwaan. And essentially, he pleaded guilty to lying to the special counsel.

Now he was doing some work for the -- for Manafort and for Gates, for some Ukraine stuff, lobbying work. He had lied to the special counsel about a conversation he had with Rick Gates.

In particular, there was one thing that was just revealed last week. That a Russian intelligence official was present during some of these. Was in communication with Rick Gates in October of 2016. And that was revealed in last week's court filing.

And then today, the special counsel also filed something, the court files, basically asking to protect the privacy, some of the information they have in the case. Because they're concerned that once Van der Swann, who's going to be sentenced tomorrow and perhaps could face jail time. That's the big question here for tomorrow. Could ask for some of the information to be made public. And the special counsel obviously still in the middle of this investigation, says they need to protect that because he knows information about this case that no one else knows.

[17:10:05] BLITZER: He has been -- in exchange for his guilty plea, he has been cooperating, and he's expecting a reduced sentence.

PROKUPECZ: Well, not necessarily. The special counsel has not made a recommendation to the court about -- they're not saying either way what the court should do, and they're leaving it up to the court.

What's interesting is, yes, he did come into the special counsel. He did meet with them in a session over two days, and in that -- during that time is when he lied to them about e-mails that he destroyed, and he lied to them about some of the conversations that he had with Rick Gates.

But we kind of never really understood what Van der Zwaan's role was in all this until, really, last week when that court filing came Tuesday, late at night. And it revealed that he was he aware that Rick Gates was communicating with a Russian intelligence official in 2016, right around the height of the election in October of 2016.

BLITZER: Rick Gates was then campaign chairman. A significant role in the Trump campaign. Thanks very much, Shimon, for that report.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, a key member of the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, before the "Wall Street Journal" reporting, had you seen this August 4, 2016, e-mail from Roger Stone describing a dinner he supposedly had with Julian Assange?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: No. I don't believe that I did, actually. But I can say this, Wolf. That I can't tell you exactly what he said in the interview. But in Roger Stone's interview with the House Intelligence Committee, it was quite disturbing, because he gave inconsistent answers. Or I should say conflicting answers about whether he had advanced knowledge of the Clinton e-mail dump.

So I'm not surprised at all now that he's basically publicly given both a "yes" and a "no" about whether he knew ahead of time and whether he may have met with Julian Assange and whether -- and also that he's told that to other people, because he was inconsistent and conflicted in his response to us.

BLITZER: Is this the type of development you were concerned about when your Republican colleagues, members of the House Intelligence Committee, the Republican majority leadership, decided to end your committee investigation?

CASTRO: Yes. The fact that more information would come out. There's a lot of investigative journalism going on right now. And so more information is going to come out. And it's clear that the investigation should not have been closed.

But also, the fact that the Republican majority, unfortunately, turned a blind eye by not issuing any subpoenas for bank records, travel records, phone records, anything that would verify what the witnesses who were coming in, in front of the committee, who were actually telling us, so this ended up being a "take their word for it" kind of investigation. It was basically a slight once over.

BLITZER: What are you hoping to learn about the Mueller investigation from Alex Van der Zwaan's sentencing, that schedule for tomorrow?

CASTRO: It will be interesting to see what comes of that and, of course, the charges lying to the FBI or the special counsel. What he knows about Rick Gates' role and the role of others in the campaign, like Paul Manafort, with respect to Russian operatives. Because a lot of that information, I think, was probably not told to the House, at least. And I would imagine, the Senate committee.

BLITZER: What message does it send in your mind, Congressman, for President Trump to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House?

CASTRO: I think very responsible. He called to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election, even though Vladimir Putin would not allow his main opponent in the country to run for president, even though there was video of what looked like ballot stuffing going on by -- by Russian campaign workers or voting records.

So to call to congratulate him when this is a person who probably ordered that our election be interfered with by Russian intelligence units, I think it is astounding. But also to do it around the time when Vladimir Putin also probably issued the order for a nerve agent to be used against a former spy for Russia and his daughter who were still recovering in a hospital, to invite him to the United States or to sit for a meeting, I think, is completely irresponsible.

BLITZER: As you know, the president has often congratulated various international strong men for their elections. We've got a picture of a few of them on the screen right now right there. The Philippine leader, Duterte; the Egyptian president, El-Sisi -- CASTRO: Right.

BLITZER: -- as you know; Erdogan of Turkey; Vladimir Putin. Those elections clearly --

CASTRO: Can I make one point with respect to that?

BLITZER: Go ahead.

CASTRO: And I want to make one quick point. I think when you think about human rights around the world and the respect or disrespect for human rights, the fact that you have the leader of the most powerful nation on earth embracing somebody like Vladimir Putin or Duterte in the Philippines who's engaging in these extrajudicial killings, to me it sends a signal out to the world and to dictatorial leaders that the United States is no longer watching anyone. That they can do whatever they want. And you've seen of these authoritarian figures step up their campaigns against different peoples in their countries.

[17:15:14] BLITZER: There was a pretty stunning tweet from the president today. He continues to attack the country's top law enforcement agencies. Let me put this up on the screen. Quote, "So sad that the Department of 'Justice'" -- and he puts "Justice" in quotes -- "and the FBI are slow walking or even not giving the unredacted documents requested by Congress. An embarrassment to our country."

Do you believe the Department of Justice and the FBI are an embarrassment to the United States?

CASTRO: No, I don't. I think that the FBI and the Justice Department are doing their jobs. We may not always agree with the decision they make or a prosecution that they pursue or a case they pursue, but these are hard-working, earnest people who, for the most part, are doing their jobs honorably. And I'm quite surprised, as many people in the country are, that Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's hand-picked leader of the Department of Justice, attorney general, would stick around for that kind of abuse when it's clear that the president has very little respect for him.

BLITZER: Quickly turn now to the president's renewed attention to DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the so- called DREAMers. The president said once again on Twitter that Democrats are the ones who really let down those DREAMers. How do you respond?

CASTRO: Well, that's ridiculous. First of all, the president is the one that terminated the DACA program that was in place because of President Obama. But more than that, every time there's been a legislative bill that has come up and started to gain some kind of bipartisan momentum, this president has signaled very clearly and strongly that he won't accept it, that he won't sign it.

So what happens at that part, at that point, is that Republican support for the bill tends to fall apart. And on one level, it's understandable. Because if you're a Republican who may be thinking about going out on a limb and compromising with Democrats on a bill that, perhaps, you're worried about whether your primary voters are going to like or not, and the president says, "Well, it doesn't matter if you pass it, because I'm going to veto it," then you know, of course, you're going to take a step back. And he's done that time and again.

Also, every time the president gets in a political pinch or when the chaos of the days slows down, and the drama slows down, and he needs to spice things up again, he goes back to beating up on Mexicans, beating up on immigrants and creating more chaos.

BLITZER: Congressman Joaquin Castro, thanks so much for joining us.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, British investigators believe the nerve agent attack on an ex-spy must have been approved by the Kremlin. Top Russian officials are now in full denial mode.

And Kim Jong-un plays host to a South Korean pop group. Is the North Korean dictator trying to soften his image just before the proposed summit with President Trump?


[17:22:30] BLITZER: British investigators have been zeroing in on the source of the nerve agent poisoning of a former spy and his daughter. And according to a source, they believe the sophisticated attack required the approval of the Kremlin. Top Russian officials are denying responsibility.

Let's go live to Moscow. Our senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, is joining us with the very latest. What are you learning, Matthew?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, the British are making no bones about who they believe are responsible for this. They're saying the Russians had the intent -- the intent, the ability and the track record of poisoning dissidents.

Also, the fact that the substance was used was novichok. It's something that's distinctly Russian, produced in Russia. The Brits again say that points firmly to the idea that this was a Russian- instigated attack on the streets of Salisbury. It was used in quite large quantities, smeared over the door handle of Sergei Skripal's door in Salisbury. The British say that that would have taken a high degree of training and that only the top leadership of Russia, the Kremlin itself, would have been able to give that kind of authority. And so the Russians are really strongly pointing the finger of blame at the Russians when it comes to nerve agents attack -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What is the Kremlin saying about this?

CHANCE: Well, the Kremlin are not accepting those allegations for a moment. They're categorically denying them, and they're doing what they often do when they're confronted with serious allegations that they violated international law, which is to deny again and again that they've got anything to do with it.

But also to spread conspiracy theories and alternative narratives as to what could have happened. And, you know, there are more than a dozen narrative that have been spread so far by Russian officials and by the Russian media to give an alternative explanation of what could have happened to Sergei and Julia -- Yulia Skripal.

The latest one that's come about is being voiced by none other than the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. He's suggesting the British themselves could have orchestrated this in order to, you know, distract public attention in Britain from the problems associated with the Brexit negotiations. And so pretty farfetched conspiracy theories.

But you know, it's common in Russia to hear this kind of conspiracy theory, even coming from top officials when they're faced with these serious allegations against them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Common but still very disturbing. All right, Matthew. Thanks very much. Matthew Chance in Moscow.

[17:25:00] Coming up, there's breaking news. A new report says special counsel Robert Mueller is probing an e-mail from long time Trump ally Roger Stone, claiming to have dined with the founder of WikiLeaks, which published hacked e-mails during the campaign.

And why has North Korea's violent dictator, Kim Jong-un, suddenly gone on a charm offensive, even hosting a South Korean pop group. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. A new report in the "Wall Street Journal" says the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, investigators are asking questions about an August 2016 e-mail in which Trump ally Roger Stone wrote he dined with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

[17:30:20] Let's bring in our analysts. And Bianna, how would this e- mail fit into the bigger picture that we've seen emerging between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, if at all?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Roger Stone has been at the front of this relationship with WikiLeaks and whether or not there had been a relationship. There's this recurring theme of have you spoken with Julian Assange? When did he speak with WikiLeaks?

"The Atlantic" had, earlier in this year, reported about communications between WikiLeaks and Julian Assange and Twitter exchanges on October 13 and again on November 9. And they were actually pretty heated. It seemed that Roger Stone might have even been a bit offended at how WikiLeaks had been treating him or what they may have tweeted about him.

But this is the first time we're hearing about this earlier communication. And aside from Roger Stone, who by the way, said this was a joke. I don't know what's so funny about joking about dining with Julian Assange. He said he has some proof and airline tickets, what have you. So there's clearly more to investigate here.

But he's not the only one in the Trump camp and the Trump circle to have communicated with WikiLeaks. Remember the report that Donald Trump Jr. had been exchanging DM's with WikiLeaks, as well.

So all of this is confusing. At the same time, offers a potentially huge treasure trove for the Mueller investigation.

BLITZER: And tomorrow, Jeffrey -- you want to make a point, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Just remember, Mueller has already filed an indictment of 13 Russians in connection with the social media attempt to influence the campaign. What he has not yet done is file any criminal charges in connection with the hacking. The WikiLeaks obtaining of the DNC e-mails and the John --

BLITZER: Podesta.

TOOBIN: Podesta e-mails. Sorry about that. Those e-mails, that part of the case has not yet been filed. That's the part of the case that Roger Stone is relevant to. So this part of the investigation would certainly be very much alive at this point.

BLITZER: And Jeffrey, put on your legal hat once again. Tomorrow is the first sentencing of any of the suspects who have pled guilty now in Robert Mueller's investigation. This 33-year-old Dutch lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, he worked for a major U.S. law firm. He's about to be sentenced tomorrow. What might we learn in the context of that?

TOOBIN: Well, I've got to say probably not much. You know, what's unusual about his guilty plea is that there was no cooperation agreement. He didn't agree to cooperate, because apparently, he had nothing to offer the special counsel.

Now, that's somewhat peculiar, because in the sentencing process, the special counsel's office has indicated that he does -- did have information about Rick Gates communicating with individuals who may be affiliated with Russian intelligence. So I don't anticipate that Van der Zwaan will get any jail time. I mean, his sentencing guidelines suggest that probation is a possibility. That seems likely.

But his future involvement in the investigation is somewhat mysterious because of this lack of a cooperation agreement.

BLITZER: Yes. He's pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators, and that's a felony.

You know, Sabrina, he did have a close relationship, apparently, for a while with Rick Gates, who was the deputy Trump campaign chairman, who apparently also had a relationship with someone the U.S. considers a Russian intelligence operative.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Right. That was one of the key pieces of information that we learned from these court filings. And the contacts with this individual, who may have been linked to Russian intelligence. That continued in October of 2016, so just weeks -- in the weeks leading up to the November election.

I also think it's significant to note that, according to court findings, Van der Zwaan not only withheld but potentially destroyed documents that the special counsel's office is arguing could be very material to the investigation.

This also leads back in some ways to Paul Manafort. I think this -- this helps Paul -- this helps the special counsel build his case against Paul Manafort, who has resisted thus far plea deal. We know Rick Gates is already cooperating with the special counsel's office.

BLITZER: We know, Chris, that on March 20, the president had a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin. He congratulated him on his win, even though his advisors said, do not congratulate. He didn't raise some of the most sensitive issues, including Russian meddling, in the elections or the poison attack on an ex-Russian spy in England.

But apparently, now the Russians are pointing out, and the White House is not necessarily denying it. The president, President Trump, actually raised the possibility of inviting President Putin to the White House.

[17:35:01] CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes. In fact, just to add to the White House not denying it. What they're essentially saying, Wolf, is "We broached this already. The issue is we didn't necessarily invite him to the White House. We said we'll figure out some locations where it can happen."

In a vacuum, OK, consistent with Donald Trump promising he wants to redo our relationships around the world, renegotiate them. Whether that's through trade, whether it's through diplomacy.

Of course, the world doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's a lot of water under the Russia bridge at this point. Most notably, the poisoning of the former Russian spy, the meddling in the election. And I'll remind people, Donald Trump's response to Vladimir Putin saying he didn't do it was, "Well, what do you want me to do? He said he didn't do it."

So you know, given all of that context, it's, I would say, surprising that Trump has been as willing as he has been. I guess maybe not all that.

BLITZER: Bianna, you're an expert on Russia. Is that a big deal if Putin comes to the White House, has an Oval Office meeting with the president? Maybe they have a joint news conference, they have a couple of perks that go on? How big of a deal would that be for the Russian leader?

GOLODRYGA: It would be a huge win for Vladimir Putin and a huge slap in the face for England, our closest ally, and Theresa May.

But in addition to that, this is not the first time that Russia has preempted U.S. in the White House with coming out with this type of information about their phone conversations. This is probably the second or third time that the Kremlin has released information that the White House would then have to walk back or sort of deny or corroborate but say, "That's not really how it transpired." So you're put in a position where you don't know who to believe, ,the Kremlin or the White House.

And what's also curious is that the Kremlin has been clearly sitting on this information for a few weeks now. That conversation was on March 20. Why they decided to release that today is a bit curious to say the least.

CILLIZZA: And by the way, just -- Bianna, just to add a little meat to that point. Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Lavrov, the meeting in the Oval Office with Donald Trump, we learned about from the Russians first.


CILLIZZA: Not from -- there it is, right? -- not from the White House. Which again, I think is worth noting.

BLITZER: The Russian foreign minister and the president of the United States. And the former Russian ambassador, Kislyak, to the United States.

All right. There's a lot more going on. I want everybody to stick around. Coming up, surprise and anger over President Trump's off- script prediction that the U.S. will be pulling out of Syria very soon.

And later, what's behind the latest charm offensive by North Korea's Kim Jong-un?


[17:42:29] BLITZER: Today the Pentagon revealed that the United States and the British soldiers killed by an explosion in Syria were on a classified mission to kill or capture a known ISIS member. The explosion happened on Thursday. That's the same day President Trump unexpectedly predicted that the United States is very close to getting out of Syria.

Let's take a closer look at exactly what the president said.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNTIED STATES: We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon. We're coming out.

We're going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it, sometimes referred to as land. We're taking it all back. Quickly. Quickly. But we're coming out of there real soon.


BLITZER: Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, is in Damascus for us.

Fred, what's the impact of the president's words over there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's a huge impact. On the one hand, it certainly marginalizes America's standing here on the ground.

You know, a lot of groups that were fighting alongside the Americans against ISIS over the past couple of years, especially the Kurds here in Syria, they -- they say they thought that the Americans were going to take care of them after ISIS was defeated, and certainly, a lot of those groups now are pretty angry at the words that the president spoke there a couple of days ago. And many of them are actually speaking to the Russians, because they don't know what exactly their future is going to bring.

But it certainly also puts the Russians in the position where now Moscow is calling the shots here in Syria, Wolf. You look at the future of this country. Right now, the Russians certainly are the strongest foreign power involved here in Syria.

And I can tell from you being on the ground here in Damascus, right now here, the opposition is losing one stronghold after another. In fact, there's one really big one called Guta (ph) just outside of Damascus where opposition fighters are being bused out. And the negotiations for that are being led by Moscow, as well.

And you have also a conference that will take place tomorrow. It's going to take place in Turkey. The countries there that are deciding the future of Syria, essentially, are going to be Russia, Turkey and Iran. The U.S. again does not have a place at that table.

And certainly, if you have the president now speaking out about pulling out, also withholding -- think about withholding some funding for rebuilding Syria afterwards, that certainly does not bode well for any sort of American aspirations here in Syria in the medium-term future, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. The president withholding $200 million in appropriated funds to help Syrian refugees, among others.

What are you learning on the ground there, Fred, in Syria? How strong is the Bashar al-Assad government, the regime, in the ongoing civil war?

PLEITGEN: Yes, yes. Well, you know, it's really gaining strength. It's really interesting to see. I've been here 20 times in Syria now, and it really is consistently over the past couple of years [17:45:00]

that the Assad government certainly has gained in strength. And you can tell how the Russians are becoming more and more important to that.

You know, I mentioned one of those enclaves of the opposition that's right outside of Damascus. That had 400,000 people in it, and it's almost empty now because a lot of the opposition fighters and also a lot of civilians have had to leave. And again, it was the Russians who were calling the shots there.

And if you look at the political process, Moscow has made it very, very clear that they want to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. They're going to keep their military here. So certainly, it seems as though they view this as a long-term stronghold for Russia for, really, decades to come, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure the regime will be happy to see those 2,000 American troops out of Syria very soon, according to the President. Let's see if that actually happens.

Fred Pleitgen, in Damascus. Thank you.

Coming up, North Korea's brutal dictator tries to soften his image. What is Kim Jong-un's charm offensive all about?


[17:50:48] BLITZER: The White House just announced that President Trump is hosting Japan's Prime Minister in a little over two weeks. Their get-together at the President's Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, where they also met last year, comes as the President prepares to meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us right now.

Brian, it looks like the North Korean leader has started his own pre- summit charm offensive.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He has, Wolf. And so far, Kim Jong-un has scored some real propaganda victories. But two key questions tonight -- will Kim end up getting what he wants from these charm offensives, and what happens if he doesn't?


TODD (voice-over): A K-Pop band called Red Velvet, wildly popular in South Korea and around the world, performs in front of an elite audience in Pyongyang.

One of their most adoring fans, North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, leads the applause.

He and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, once an orchestra singer herself, greet the bands off stage, all part of a full-fledged charm offensive.

DR. BALBINA HWANG, VISITING PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Kim Jong-un is trying to show his audience that he is the young leader, he is dynamic, that he is actually the -- the younger generation, that he is in touch with pop culture. And I think he's also trying to show that he can compete with the global popularity of K-Pop.

TODD (voice-over): Kim's charm offensive on the diplomatic front is every bit as choreographed and calculated. He sent his sister, Kim Yo-jong, to the Winter Olympics, where the

groundwork was laid for a summit between Kim and the South Korean President this month.

Kim just made a secret trip to Beijing to consult with his closest ally about the summits.

Last month, he made a surprise invitation to President Trump for a one-on-one meeting, but neither Kim nor his regime have spoken about that since then.

A source with knowledge of the situation tells CNN Kim was taken by surprise by how quickly Trump accepted his invitation. Kim hasn't tested a missile in over four months, but tonight, human rights monitors warn of his deceptions.

TODD (on camera): What is the reality there during this charm offensive?

GREG SCARLATOIU, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: The reality of North Korea has not changed. This regime is keen on developing its nuclear weapons, its ballistic missiles. While it is doing that, 30 percent of North Korea's children are malnourished, 120,000 men, women, and children are held as political prisoners.

TODD (voice-over): A desperation reflected in this dramatic scene in November. A young North Korean staff sergeant scrambled across the border to defect, was shot several times by his comrades, but survived.

And Kim's regime could get even more desperate. A U.S. intelligence official telling CNN tonight, U.N. sanctions have snatched away key sources of revenue for Kim. And they foresee more economic pressure in the months ahead.

Experts say relief from those sanctions is one of Kim's key goals in this charm offensive. Another goal?

HWANG: Well, most certainly, it is to whittle away the U.S./South Korea alliance. The longtime goal is to end the Korean War, act -- and to get the United States not only to leave the Korean Peninsula but essentially move United States out of East Asia.


TODD: But analysts are warning tonight what Kim Jong-un might do if he doesn't get sanctions relief or other things he wants from this diplomatic charm offensive.

They say he might go back to testing nuclear warheads and missiles. He probably will. And that would leave the U.S. with few options left for how to stop his weapons buildup, but to at least consider a preemptive first strike on North Korea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, but for the moment, Kim is getting much of what he wants, and he's had an effect on those joint military exercises ongoing between the U.S. and South Korea, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Those exercises have just kicked off, but because of Kim's diplomatic offensive, the exercises were delayed until after the Winter Olympics.

And at this time, the exercises are only going to last about four weeks, half as long as previous drills. This is all a result of Kim Jong-un's maneuvering. He has gotten everything he wants so far in this diplomatic shuffle and has given up nothing.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens in the days and weeks to come. Brian, thank you.

[17:54:59] Coming up, there's breaking news. A new report says the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, is looking into longtime Trump ally Roger Stone's 2016 claim that he met with the founder of WikiLeaks, which published hacked e-mails during the presidential campaign.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. WikiLeaks dinner? New reporting tonight on Trump ally, Roger Stone, under scrutiny in the Russia investigation for a claim he met with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

Mueller's secrets. The Special Counsel is trying to keep a lid on potentially crucial details about the Trump/Russia probe as he's about to mark a milestone. The first sentencing of a key defendant.

[18:00:05] Hosting Mr. Putin. New confirmation that President Trump spoke with the Russian leader about a possible one-on-one meeting at the White House.