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Anthony Kennedy to Retire from Supreme Court; Photos Reveal North Korea Improving Its Nuclear Facilities. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired June 27, 2018 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Breaking news. Justice retires. Anthony Kennedy announces he's leaving the U.S. Supreme Court, taking with him a critical swing vote that's decided some of the biggest cases of the last three decades. Who will President Trump pick to replace him?

[17:00:24] Supreme fallout. President Trump says the search for Kennedy's replacement begins immediately, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says a confirmation vote will come this fall. But Democrats say the vote should wait until after the midterms. Will they try to block the president's nominee?

Putin's summit. Officials confirm that President Trump will meet with his Russian counterpart, with a date and location to be announced tomorrow. Will Mr. Trump call out Putin for Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election?

And Kim's new construction. New satellite images show North Korea upgrading a key nuclear facility used to produce weapons-grade material. Is Kim Jong-un misleading President Trump about denuclearization?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. A growing partisan battle over the next Supreme Court justice as 81-year-old Anthony Kennedy announces he will retire from the high court at the end of next month. Democrats are demanding a confirmation vote on President Trump's eventual nominee wait until after the midterm election, citing Republicans' refusal to consider an Obama nominee until after the 2016 election. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said he plans a confirmation vote before November.

We'll talk about the breaking news with two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse. And our correspondents, specialists and analysts, they are all standing by.

First, let's go straight to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. He's joining us from Fargo, North Dakota, where the president will be holding a rally later tonight.

Jeff, the president now gets to pick a second Supreme Court justice. JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he does get

a second Supreme Court justice. But Anthony Kennedy is so much more than that, so much more than one of nine.

After serving on the Supreme Court for some 30 years, this is a monumental, once in a generation decision the president now has before him. So there's no question President Trump will pick from a list of some 25 conservatives that he has already announced publicly. The question is when that will happen.

Republicans Mitch McConnell leading the charge say that must happen before the mid-term elections. Democrats, of course, are saying it should happen after the midterm elections. Wolf, only one thing tonight is clear. This now will become part of the midterm election fight, and the president will talk about that tonight here in North Dakota.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is a man who is displaying great vision. He's displayed tremendous vision and tremendous heart.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump facing a historic opportunity tonight. To not only fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, but to fundamentally reshape the direction of the high court with a firm conservative majority.

TRUMP: We will begin our search for a new justice of the United States Supreme Court that will begin immediately. And hopefully, we're going to pick somebody who will be as outstanding.

ZELENY: His retirement, kept secret until the end, adds another monumental victory to the president in this pivotal midterm election year. Perhaps nothing fires up conservatives more than a Supreme Court vacancy.

Justice Kennedy delivered the bombshell news himself, carrying his retirement letter with him as he visited the White House, only hours after the court finished its business for the term.

TRUMP: I got his ideas on things, including I asked him if he had certain people that he had great respect for that potentially could take his seat, which is a very hard seat to fill.

ZELENY: That's an understatement. Conservatives will demand a far more reliable vote than Kennedy.


ZELENY: A Reagan nominee and libertarian who sided with liberals on abortion, affirmative action and gay rights. It's a chance for Trump to give the court its fifth full-throated conservative.

TRUMP: We have a very excellent list of great, talented, highly- educated, highly-intelligent, hopefully tremendous people. I think the list is very outstanding.

ZELENY: The president pledged to make his selection from a public list of 25 well-established conservative jurists. He said he would move swiftly, a sentiment echoed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: We will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy's successor this fall. It's imperative that the president's nominee be considered fairly.

ZELENY: McConnell infuriated Democrats by refusing to seat President Obama's Supreme Court nominee during the final year of his presidency. Democrats tried retaliating by mounting a filibuster of Trump's first nominee to the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, but it backfired and prompted McConnell to change the rules of the Senate, which means the next nominee needs only 51 votes to be confirmed.

[17:05:19] Trump often says putting Gorsuch on the court is his biggest achievement since taking office.

TRUMP: I have always felt that, after the defense of our nation, the most important decision a president of the United States can make is the appointment of a Supreme Court justice. Depending on their age, a justice can be active for 50 years, and his or her decisions can last a century or more and can often be permanent.


ZELENY: And that is one of the central reason, the permanent nature of the Supreme Court post and the possibility of appointing a young nominee like Neil Gorsuch is why Senate Democrats are urging a delay on this, Wolf.

Senator Chuck Schumer calls this a once-in-a-generation, at least, decision. He is calling for this to be a vote to be held after the mid-term elections. Democrats, of course, think the Senate is in play. And they argue that, with a third of the Senate up for races this fall, they should wait until after that is selected.

Republicans, of course, are saying not so fast. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear on the Senate floor today, they will have that vote in the fall. The only thing it seems, Wolf, that Democrats can do is slow this down.

But of course, a key question, what about all those red state Democrats like here in North Dakota, Senator Heidi Heitkamp? How will they vote on a nominee? That is all pivotal, and now this is central to the midterm election campaign.

BLITZER: Yes, so much at stake right now. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of the breaking news. Joining us, our chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin; and CNN Supreme Court reporter Ariane De Vogue.

So what does all this mean, Jeffrey? You've served the Supreme Court for a long time. What does it mean for the court?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: You know, sometimes we talk about the terms of abstractions. This has very concrete significance.

Let's talk about abortion rights. Anthony Kennedy was the fifth vote, the fifth and final vote to defend Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade is going to disappear. It arrived in 1973, and it will die shortly.

What that means is that, in a significant part of the country, whether it's ten states, maybe it's 20 states, abortion will soon be absolutely illegal, because there is nothing more important to the conservative movement than getting a pro-life, anti-Roe v. Wade justice on this court. They got one in Neil Gorsuch. They'll get the next one now.

BLITZER: Didn't Chief Justice Roberts say it was settled law?

TOOBIN: You know what? You look -- every time he has had the opportunity to vote on abortion, he has voted with limitation -- in favor of limitations.

All the state legislatures in states like Mississippi and South Dakota, the really anti-abortion states, know that the composition of the court is changing. They are going to pass laws that will challenge the court to uphold or overturn those laws. And I see no possibility anymore that those laws will be overturned, as they had been since 1973.

BLITZER: Ariane, walk us through some of the names that are out there, potential successors.

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT CORRESPONDENT: What's interesting is you'll remember Trump actually put out a list. No other presidential candidate that I can remember prepared a list.

So at the top of the list are two former Kennedy clerks, and Kennedy has two kinds of clerks. He has a lot of liberal clerks. These aren't. These are conservative. And one is a man named Brett Kavanaugh. He's a judge. He's young. He serves here. And just talking about jurisprudence, he recently dissented when his court allowed an abortion procedure to go through in a case about an undocumented immigrant. He was in dissent there.

Another one is Ray Kethledge. He is 51, on the Sixth Circuit, and he has an interesting case on digital privacy. He was actually just reversed at the court by Roberts and the liberals.

And then there's Thomas Hardiman. Now Thomas Hardiman is interesting, because I don't think the Federalist Society folks like Thomas Hardiman as much as the president. He was a runner-up for Gorsuch's seat. He has this family story. No Ivy Leagues, drove a cab for a while. He served on the bench with Trump's sister, so he could be an interesting pick. Maybe not as conservative as some of the Federalist Society people would like.

And then there's Amy Comey Barrett. She is a recent Trump nominee. She got put on the Seventh Circuit. She was at Notre Dame. And what's interesting about her is that during her confirmation hearing, she had strong writings in the past on religion, and that bothered Feinstein. So that could end up being a fight.

And then the two last ones, Amul Thapar, he is interesting, because he is the favorite of McConnell, and that would be an interesting pick.

And then Mike Lee is a little bit of a wild card. He's not a judge. He's a senator. Would it help in this kind of environment to have a senator be put forward?

[17:05:05] So that's where the list is now. It will change. As of this morning when I was talking to some people, they thought Kavanaugh was pretty much at the top.

BLITZER: Yes, Mike Lee actually said he would consider it. Let's see if the president goes forward on that front.

But as you point out, Jeffrey, Justice Kennedy was really the key vote on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, affirmative action. If a new, more conservative justice sits on the court, what happens to those critically important issues?

TOOBIN: The death penalty is another. You know, making it easier to execute people. Limiting universities or prohibiting universities from considering race in admissions. Allowing restaurants, bakeries, hotel owners to say, "You know what? We have religious objections to serving gay people, so you can't take your business here." Those are the kinds of issues where Kennedy voted with the left.

He usually voted with the right. But on issues of individual rights, certain affirmative action and certainly on gay rights, those precedents are going to be gone, because this is a promise that Donald Trump made. That's why he gave those -- he gave that list of 25.

And if you look at those 25 names, there's not a moderate there. There are no Anthony Kennedys there. This is going to be a different Supreme Court starting on the first Monday in October.

BLITZER: Ariane, you've covered the Supreme Court for a long time. Why do you think Justice Kennedy decided to step down at this point, because there's a lot of speculation he actually may have wanted President Trump to name a more conservative justice.

DE VOGUE: Well, the thing is at the end of the term, he was a little bit odd. He didn't take -- he didn't bite a couple of big cases that we thought he would regarding partisan gerrymandering, for instance, and that Masterpiece cake shop.

I think at the end of the day, the answer probably is he's a grandfather, and he wanted to spend time with his kids. He wanted to do this before the elections. He did he not want to sort of draw a vacancy at the court any more than he had to in an election skirmish.

But I think probably, at the end of the day, he's 81 years old. He spent more than 30 years on that bench, and he wanted to step down. TOOBIN: And he's also a Republican. You know, he made his name as an

-- as an aide to Ronald Reagan in Sacramento when Ronald Reagan was governor. He was a friend and a protege of Edwin Meese, who promoted him to the Ninth Circuit and then to the Supreme Court.

So yes, there are a certain number of areas where he has voted with the liberals, but by and large, Anthony Kennedy -- and we especially saw it this year, whether it was the travel ban cases or the Masterpiece Bakery case, he is a conservative person, a Republican. And he gave his seat, as most presidents [SIC] do, to a president of his -- as most justices do, to a -- to a president of his party.

BLITZER: He was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, about 30 or so years ago.

Guys, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Joining us now, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. He's a key member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: So let's talk about what you plan to do. Do you plan to vote against any nominee the president puts forward in the coming few months, no matter how qualified that individual might be?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think that plan is going to develop in the days ahead. We don't even have a nominee yet. This is just today's news.

What I would say is that it's extremely ironic that this announcement should come today, which is the day that every single Senate Democrat got behind and filed a piece of legislation to rid our elections of dark money.

The dark money problem was brought to us by five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court and then, in the Garland-Gorsuch confrontation, it turned around, and dark money preserved the five Republican majority on the Supreme Court.

I think in all of this you can look forward to intense -- intense pressure by the big special interests behind the Republican Party to make sure that whoever the next Supreme Court justice is, they will continue to support the unlimited money and the dark money that have allowed big, big special interests --

BLITZER: Well, let me just press you.

WHITEHOUSE: -- to bedevil American politics.

BLITZER: Senator, let me just press you. Are you going to vote against the president's nominee if it happens before the mid-term elections, no matter who that nominee might be?

WHITEHOUSE: I haven't seen a nominee to vote against at this point.

BLITZER: So are you saying you're open-minded?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, I've got a lot of skepticism about this president. I've got a lot of skepticism about the nominations process, which looks like it's a special interest obstacle course, to get a checklist as to who nominees will agree with before they get on the court.

I think the recent spate of 5-4 decisions from the Supreme Court is really alarming, in terms of 5-4 partisan decisions that have a big special interest right behind the curtain when you look at who the winners are. So is my skepticism at an all-time high? Oh, yes it is.

[17:15:06] BLITZER: Listen to what your Republican colleague, Orrin Hatch of Utah, had to tell our correspondent up on Capitol Hill, Manu Raju. Listen to this.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: This is not close to a presidential election.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's close to a midterm election where Senate seats are up.

HATCH: But that's different. We're going to still have the same people that are -- that will hear this any way and frankly --

RAJU: A third of the Senate is up, though.

HATCH: Well, so? That doesn't mean the Senate doesn't function. Especially when it comes to picking a Supreme Court justice. We should -- we should move ahead on this.


BLITZER: So should -- should this nominee, this vote on a next Supreme Court justice wait until after the election. The McConnell rule, they waited --

WHITEHOUSE: That would be consistent with the McConnell rule. But when you look at the way the Republicans approach the Supreme Court, you cannot look either at principle or precedent or at process. You can only look at one thing. And that is power. The desire to seize control of the Supreme Court for right-wing and big corporate special interests.

That's just the record that has developed through these 5-4 decisions. It's the record of Justice Gorsuch, and it's a record that Americans need to look out for. Because as bad as it is to have big corporate special interests taint legislature and taint our politics, once they start pulling strings on courts, things get really bad.

BLITZER: But you heard Senator Orrin Hatch say there's a difference between waiting until after a presidential election and waiting in advance of a midterm election. Because as you know, President Trump, he's president, at least, for the next two and a half years.

WHITEHOUSE: A presidential appointment still needs to go through a Senate confirmation. And there is as good a chance right now that Democrats will take the Senate as there was that Donald Trump would win the election when McConnell made that promise.

So in terms of giving the American people a chance to weigh in, if the Republicans were going to be consistent, they would have to follow the McConnell rule. In fact, the odds are probably greater of Democrats taking the Senate than of Trump winning back at that point.

So the point is here, you really can't look at them either for precedent or for principle or for process. They're going to want to put a conservative, somebody who will do the bidding of big interests, onto that seat, and they'll do whatever it takes to get there.

BLITZER: The Democratic Party, there's a 51-49 Republican majority in the Senate right now. The Democratic Party can vote en mass against the president's nominee, but the Republicans still have the majority. And as you well remember, Harry Reid, who was then the majority leader in the Senate, he did away with that judicial filibuster when Democrats controlled the Senate. Looking back, was that a major mistake?

WHITEHOUSE: This is actually driven by Leader McConnell's decision to get rid --

BLITZER: Yes, but Leader McConnell cited Harry Reid's the decision for earlier judicial nominees.

WHITEHOUSE: But you're assuming -- you're ignoring what I said, which is that, when it comes to Supreme Court nominees, the Republicans don't care about process or precedent or principle. They want to control the court, and they will do whatever it takes to get there.

Had Harry not done that, and had we had a lock-up on the Supreme Court nominee, Mitch McConnell would have done exactly the same thing that he did. We'd be in the exact same position, no matter what Harry Reid did.

BLITZER: All right. Well, was what Harry Reid did, as far as judicial nominees -- he didn't include the Supreme Court but all the other judicial nominees -- was that a mistake on his part?

WHITEHOUSE: Not one that affects us today. I mean, obviously, we're seeing it in the circuit court nominees that we've had run through and the district court nominees that we've had run through, but I think the notion that this wasn't going to be done by the Republicans is fanciful.

BLITZER: Senator Whitehouse, thanks for joining us.

WHITEHOUSE: Good to be with you. Pay attention, this is going to get bumpy.

BLITZER: Oh, trust me, we're paying attention. Thank you. The breaking news continues. How the White House is now preparing to pick a new Supreme Court justice and bracing for a very intense confirmation battle.

Plus, the just-announced summit between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, why it's rattling U.S. allies in Europe.


[17:23:35] BLITZER: The breaking news this hour. The retirement of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the battle brewing -- and it will be intense -- over President Trump's second Supreme Court nomination.

Let's get some more from our specialists and our analysts. And Anne Milgram, you're our legal analyst. What does his retirement mean for the makeup, the ideological makeup of the United States Supreme Court?

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So it means that it's going to change, without question. And, you know, we've talked about this a little bit already, but the court and Kennedy himself has been conservative, but he has been a swing vote. And by that, we mean that there are times and occasions where he becomes the crucial fifth vote.

The court has nine members. We have to have a majority to get a decision. The majority opinion, for a decision. So you need that five -- that fifth vote.

Kennedy has frequently been that vote. And he hasn't always been consistently conservative. He is a conservative jurist, but he has voted in favor of upholding women's right to choose. He's voted in favor of eliminating the death penalty for juveniles, in favor of same-sex marriage.

And so he's made the court and the decisions of the court, in some instances, far less conservative than they otherwise would have been with the kind of person who Donald Trump, we know, will nominate to replace him.

BLITZER: On those significant issues, Jamie Gangel, could Justice Kennedy's replacement significantly alter what is now the law of the land?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. We used to hear 4-4, 5-4. A Republican called me up today and said, "Listen to this. The new number is going to be 6-3."

[17:25:02] This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the court. And when you have issues like abortion rights and gay rights, it can have a massive impact.

The Log Cabin Republicans put out a statement today. They said, "No Supreme Court justice in history has done more to advance gay rights than Justice Kennedy." That he authored all of those opinions. That alone could be a big, big change. BLITZER: Abby Phillip, you cover the White House for us. How is the

White House, the president, how are they preparing for what will be a significant battle over this confirmation process?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's no question President Trump has been eagerly awaiting this opportunity. But this all goes back to the campaign, when they first drafted up a list of potential Supreme Court justices that he could tap, and that list importantly, was crafted in -- with conservative groups in mind. It was basically a group of potential justices who were vetted by conservative pro-life groups and by others. And so this is already a list that's quite conservative, and they've already committed to picking from that group.

And President Trump, after having gone through -- having gone through Neil Gorsuch, he's ready to kind of make his own mark on this choice. I think the last time around, he leaned heavily on his advisers. I wouldn't be surprised if President Trump was a little bit more forceful this time around.

BLITZER: As you know, Ryan Lizza, the Democrats, they're the minority. Republicans have 51; the Democrats have 49. You need a simple majority to be confirmed, 50 because if it's a tie, then the vice president, Mike Pence, he breaks the tie in favor of the Republicans.

So do the Democrats have any leverage right now?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well they don't have the filibuster anymore. And, well, they have a couple of options.

One, they could make this argument that I think Sheldon Whitehouse was making before we came out here, that "Oh, you know, we should wait until after the midterms before choosing this." I think that will fall on deaf ears. Obviously, Trump is not going to do that. It was sort of an absurd argument when McConnell made it last time around, and it's even more absurd that the president shouldn't be allowed to --

BLITZER: And he succeeded, because they had the majority.

LIZZA: Absolutely. They had the votes.

But the idea that the president shouldn't be allowed to pick a Supreme Court justice whenever there's a vacancy is absurd, and that's not going to go anywhere.

What they can do, and their only option is some kind of delaying tactics that would get this after the midterm, and then if they had a majority in the Senate. That seems unlikely.

Or they can find two votes. They can find two Republicans who are bothered by whoever this nominee is.

So the White House has to make sure that whoever they choose, that you know, the Susan Collins of the world, Lisa Murkowski, anyone that is not fully in line with the most conservative -- the conservative legal agenda, and on some big issues like -- like abortion, this could become important, they have to make sure that they have those 51 Republican votes locked up and that the Democrats don't have an opportunity to get two votes to full raucous (ph).

BLITZER: Anne, Ryan makes a very important point. You've got a couple -- you know, a few Republican -- moderate Republican senators like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski who support abortion rights for women. If they were to go against the Republican majority, go with the Democrats, that could hold things up.

MILGRAM: This is so important. And it's so important, because that list -- the 17 individuals who Donald Trump had put out as potential Supreme Court nominees on his behalf, there's a greatest hits of deeply conservative -- and I would argue extreme conservative people. Jurists -- and most of them, 16 of them are judges in our country. And I would argue most of them are not in step with the vast majority of Americans.

And so what that means is that, for the more moderate Republicans like the two Senators we just discussed, I think it's going to be critically important for them to require that the nominee is reflective of more of America than just the extreme right, which seems to be dictating a lot of the politics in the court right now.

And so this is a decision that -- you know, this is going to last for -- they're going to nominate somebody who's, you know, probably late 40s, early 50s. This individual will sit on the court for 30 years.

And so these two senators and, really, a handful of senators are going to be able to really decide, does the nominee -- is he or she within the heartland of America or are they somebody who's going to be an extreme far-right conservative, that may undo existing laws and so -- and rulings. And so this is critically important for -- that's the conversation we have to have.

BLITZER: These are lifetime nominations, appointments --

MILGRAM: That's right.

BLITZER: -- to the United States Supreme Court. So 30, maybe even 40 years someone could have a seat on that Supreme Court.

I've been asking people. Do you think that Justice Kennedy's decision was deliberate so that President Trump could nominate someone?

GANGEL: We've heard rumors about this for quite some time. I think he was ready to go. He's a Republican.

But you know, it's interesting. Even if this happens before November, and there is no delay, I think this is going to energize the base on both sides in November. Because we've heard that Trump has speculated that he may have more seats to fill. It's -- in 18 months he's had two. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85. They're elderly. So what happens in November, whether or not it affects this confirmation, could very well affect what happens afterwards. [17:30:20] Everybody stand by. I want to get some more reaction right

now. Joining us, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Will you vote against any nominee put forward by President Trump, no matter how qualified that person might be for the job, if all of this is played out before the midterm elections?

DURBIN: Of course not. I'm going to judge that person on the merits, and I hope it's a good moderate person to replace Justice Kennedy. I'm hopeful, but I'm not confident that's going to be the case at all.

BLITZER: If Mitch McConnell was wrong to deny President Obama's nominee a fair hearing before the presidential election, why should the Democratic Party repeat that mistake now and try to prevent a nomination from going forward before the midterm congressional elections?

DURBIN: Well, I think that Mitch McConnell ought to stick with his story. He said he couldn't fill the vacancy under President Obama, because the American people had an election coming up, and they should make the decision.

We're four months away from another election and the decision of who will be in charge in the Senate. Using McConnell's logic, we should wait until the new Congress is sworn in before we consider this vacancy. I'd be surprised if he did it.

BLITZER: Yes. Everybody would be surprised if he accepted that advice.

As you well know better than anyone, the Republicans still have a majority: 51 votes in the Senate. The Democrats have 49. The judicial filibuster for Supreme Court nominations is dead. So what leverage does the Democratic Party have right now?

DURBIN: Well, I can tell you, within the Senate rules very limited leverage. But we do have the court of public opinion. The American people will get to judge whether or not Donald Trump's selection for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land is consistent with American values or represents an extreme point of view.

If they think it's extreme, they can make their feelings felt, not only by contacting Congress, but by their votes in the next election.

BLITZER: Will you try to slow down the calendar and take as much time as possible to slow down the debate?

DURBIN: You know, there's a limited opportunity for the minority to slow anything down under the rules of the Senate. I've been here for a few years, and I've watched it play out. If I remember right, the Gorsuch nomination start to finish was around three months. So if there's a hurry-up play, we're likely to see it happen before the election.

BLITZER: Yes. That's what everybody suspects.

You're the -- in the leadership, the minority whip in the U.S. Senate. Will you push the entire Democratic caucus, all 49 Democrats, two independents among those 49 Democrats, will you push all of them, including some of the more conservative members, let's say, like Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, who are up for re-election in heavily Republican states this year to vote en masse against the president's nominee, even if that puts them at risk of losing their seat?

DURBIN: Listen, Wolf, I'm skeptical that this president is going to come up with a good moderate for the U.S. Supreme Court. Let me make that my starting point.

But I think it's irresponsible for anybody to announce this far in advance, sight unseen, on voting against the nominee, whoever it is. We have a responsibility to the Constitution and to this country to fairly judge whoever that nominee may be. I'm not hopeful. But I'm going to stick around and wait for the president's choice.

BLITZER: The confirmation fight is going to certainly energize Republicans heading into the mid-term elections. Do you think the same thing could be said for Democrats?

DURBIN: Absolutely. We understand the high stakes here. This isn't just a decision by the president on a travel ban or how to treat immigrant children at the borders. It's a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.

That court will decide issues that affect every single American family and business. Whether we're talking about health care and the admissions (ph) of the Republicans to eliminate coverage for pre- existing conditions, reduce the opportunities for health insurance for millions of Americans; or it gets down to basic rights of women in the future; or gun safety; environment. All of these issues can come before the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: Senator Durbin, thanks so much for joining us.

DURBIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get some analysis.

What we just heard, Ryan Lizza, he's pretty realistic.


BLITZER: You just heard him say that there's limited options for the Democrats right now.

LIZZA: I mean, just completely resigned that this is a fait accompli. I mean, he went and pointed out that there is just nothing in the Senate rules that they can do. I did not see a whole lot of fight in Dick Durbin, and that is surprising even just for the theatrics of it.

GANGEL: What did he say? Three months start to finish. So that's, you know, before the first Monday in October.

BLITZER: July, August, September.

GANGEL: And it's not as if the president has to start from scratch. He has this list.

LIZZA: Yes, yes.

GANGEL: It has been vetted. He knows what it is.

[17:35:04] LIZZA: And the Democrats know who's on that list, so they've already started doing their homework and their opposition research.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is important to reiterate that there really are two really important Republican votes in this matter. And we don't know exactly how far Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are willing to go on the issue of abortion.

And right now that is all the talk. That's what everybody is talking about, because it's believed to be the first thing that could go if this court swings dramatically to the right.

So I think we really don't know how they're going to move their weight around in the Senate with it so narrowly divided. Every single senator has -- especially on the Republican side has a lot of power to kind of affect -- maybe not the timing but the tenor of the debate about the Supreme Court justice.

GANGEL: Well, with 25 candidates, there are some on there who are conservative, young, and that the president thinks can get through the litmus test, in effect, of Susan Collins and Senator Murkowski for blowing up his nomination. He doesn't want that to happen either.

BLITZER: Anne Milgram, is there anything realistically, you think, the Democrats can do to prevent a roll-call vote on the floor of the United States Senate until after the mid-term elections?

ANNE MILGRAM, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, I think obviously, it's very hard. But I also feel that we've seen some extraordinary things happening in politics lately. And I think that there's a level of frustration with American politics that we haven't seen in a long time, and it's on both sides of the aisle.

And so I think when people start to understand that this is not just about our lifetimes; it's about our children's lifetimes and our grandchildren's lifetimes. Like, we are talking about the court swinging in an incredibly conservative direction for the next 30, 40 years minimum. And if there are six -- if there are six -- you know, if there end up being six conservatives, we really do end up not having the kind of balance that I think benefits our country when it's a more bipartisan court, candidly. And so, you know, who knows what the American people can do? I still

have to have hope that there's a possibility that we end up with somebody who's more in the mold of Sandra Day O'Connor or Justice Kennedy.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Ryan, because all the Republicans, and at least most of them that I've spoken to, they think Neil Gorsuch, that the president put on the U.S. Supreme Court, was a brilliant idea from the president's perspective, from the Republicans' perspective.

If he does that again, will he be able to rally those Republicans and say, "Look what I'm doing, not for the next four years or eight years but potentially the next 30 or maybe even 40 years," depending on the age of the new nominee.

LIZZA: Absolutely. It's one of the things that, in his first year, Trump and the White House handled without bungling. Right? The Gorsuch nomination.

GANGEL: One of his best days.

LIZZA: Right. That's what Reince Priebus always used to brag about, you know, it's the one thing they got right during his tenure. And every Republican that you talk to and say, "How could you support this -- you know Donald Trump? He doesn't agree with you on this, and he says all these crazy things," they come back to you and what do they always say? "The Supreme Court, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court."

Those Republicans today are saying, "This is why we took a gamble on this guy."

PHILLIP: By far this is a bigger issue for Republicans at the ballot box and for Democrats. So I don't think that's going to change a whole lot this year.

BLITZER: Good discussion, guys. Stick around.

Coming up, national security advisor to the president John Bolton, he's in Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, setting up a summit between the Russian leader and President Trump. We have new information.

Plus, more on the battle to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created by today's surprise announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement.


[17:43:09] BLITZER: Today in Moscow, the U.S. national security advisor, John Bolton, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, nailing down the details for the next one-on-one meeting between President Trump and President Putin.

Our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

So what do we know, Michelle, about this upcoming summit?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a big deal. This is the big sit-down between Trump and Putin. July 15 is the date we've been hearing. We think that Helsinki, Finland, is the likely location.

But of course, we won't know any of these details until they're officially announced tomorrow in this coordinated release of those details with Moscow. So we can see some of the showiness of this already coming through. There's kind of an element of suspense there for the last couple of weeks.

But today we saw the intriguing pictures of the president's national security adviser, John Bolton, somebody who has spoken out repeatedly very harshly against Putin, against Russia, sit down with Putin and start to hammer out some of these details. I mean, he has, for a long time, criticized the idea of the U.S. sitting down with enemies, but here he is saying that this summit will be in the U.S.'s best interests. Listen.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO DONALD TRUMP: The fact is that it's important for the leaders of these two countries to meet. There are wide range of issues, despite the differences between us, w here both President Trump and President Putin think they may be able to find constructive solutions. I'd like to hear someone say that's a bad idea.


KOSINSKI: It's not so clear what, if anything, is going to come out of this. There's obviously a lot to talk about. There are a lot of issues of disagreement.

But our sources are saying that there are people within the State Department and even within the White House who are questioning what the real purpose of this is. And that the president has been pushing for this as a meet and greet, and he also loved the attention and the -- the eyes of the world on him during the summit with Kim Jong-un. And he sees this as something similar and, you know, a potential positive.

BLITZER: It's presumably going to take place right after he meets with the NATO allies in Europe. I know you're really well plugged in. What are you hearing from some of those NATO allies about their anticipation of this meeting?

KOSINSKI: Yes. Well, there was a lot of concern that before NATO was considered as a date. Now, we know -- or we're confident that it's going to happen after the NATO. So that reassures them that there's not the optic of him meeting with Putin first and then going to NATO. Not that that necessarily matters. But there are concerns out there even though some are saying this is

fine. I mean, we heard the Secretary General of NATO saying this is absolutely fine and could be a positive.

But U.S. allies are concerned that in this meeting, what if President Trump subtly or not so subtly gives Putin signals that, for example, Crimea belongs to Russia or that sanctions over time, could be lifted and, oh, Europe will be on board or signals that Assad will stay in power in Syria.

They don't see this as, necessarily, you know, a positive. But one diplomat was telling us, well, if it is all smiles with Putin and at NATO, it is all snarls as it was with the G-7, that is going to send a very bad signal.

BLITZER: Good point. All right. Thanks very much, Michelle Kosinski, for helping us appreciate what's going on.

Coming up, new photographs now reveal North Korea is making improvements to its nuclear facilities. Is Kim Jong-un trying to get away with something?

Plus much more on the day's major breaking news. The battle lines shaping up over the brand-new vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.


[17:51:13] BLITZER: Tonight, despite the hopes created by President Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un, there are now some troubling signs emerging that North Korea is making improvements to its nuclear facilities.

CNN's Brian Todd has been checking with his sources.

Tell a more about these recent -- tell us more about these recent changes, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we're told that one North Korean facility in particular, which has produced plutonium, a critical component in nuclear weapons, has undergone an upgrade.

This despite all of Kim's promises at the summit and then President Trump's declaration that there's no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, new evidence that Kim Jong-un could still be tweaking, making improvements to his nuclear facilities, despite his promise to President Trump to draw down his nuclear arsenal.

New satellite images from the monitoring group 38 North suggest Kim's regime is making upgrades to its nuclear research facility at Yongbyon, upgrades which the group says are being done, quote, at a rapid pace.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And how's the meeting going so far, sir?

TODD (voice-over): 38 North believes much of that work took place before President Trump's summit with Kim on June 12th. But it says some of the work probably occurred after the Singapore meeting, after Kim's promise to work to denuclearize.

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Now, if you were about to demolish your house, would you be up upgrading the kitchen?

OLIVIA ENOS, POLICY ANALYST IN THE ASIAN STUDIES CENTER, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: I think that that definitely calls into question whether or not Kim Jong-un came to the table in good faith.

TODD (voice-over): 38 North says it believes Yongbyon is no longer producing plutonium crucial for nuclear weapons, but the latest photos show the Kim regime has made modifications to the cooling system for a reactor that has produced plutonium.

JOEL WIT, CO-FOUNDER, 38 NORTH: It is an important reactor. And you can draw the conclusion, of course, that if they intended to operate it in the future and it operated more efficiently, then it could, more efficiently, produce plutonium.

TODD (voice-over): 38 North also says its photos show Kim's regime has built two new small buildings at Yongbyon, which it believes could be intended for VIPs.

WIT: They could be outside inspectors intending to verify any new agreements, or they could be VIPs. Whether it's visiting foreign press or North Korean leaders.

TODD (voice-over): Neither the White House nor U.S. intelligence officials are commenting on these new images tonight.

38 North's Joel Wit says some of these upgrades could be so routine that they may not mean that Kim is going back on his pledge to denuclearize. Other analysts believe they know which way the dictator will go when he's pressured for specific cuts to his arsenal.

MICHAEL GREEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR ASIA AND JAPAN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: He has been very clear he wants to keep his nuclear weapons. He has declared that. It's in the North Korean constitution. Nothing in the Singapore summit changes that.

TODD (voice-over): Which leads tonight to a lingering question -- why did Kim come to the table in Singapore?

ENOS: I think that they are hoping to so normalize and so sort of sanitize Kim Jong-un's image. I mean we saw these selfies with the Singapore Prime Minister, walks along Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, handshakes with the President.

He wants to sanitize his image, so that he can then be included among other nuclear powers like, for example, China or Russia.


TODD: Analysts say all of these now puts more pressure on President Trump, Mike Pompeo, and the rest of the Trump team tonight to exert their own pressure on Kim Jong-un to be more specific about the weapons that he is going to draw down and to get some of that in writing.

Now, experts say Kim may very well balk at that. He may stall, he may deceive, but they say it's still important for Kim not to be seen as being the one who is dictating the terms of this agreement right now, Wolf. They've got to press him.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.

There's breaking news. The battle brewing over the next U.S. Supreme Court justice as Anthony Kennedy announces he is retiring.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Justice departs. President Trump is searching for a new Supreme Court nominee after the bombshell announcement that Justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring. A heated partisan battle now is underway in the Senate over how and when to vote on Kennedy's successor.

[17:59:57] Supreme change. As the high court loses a justice known for casting a swing vote, some historic decisions like Roe versus Wade may be at risk of being overturned. We'll talk about the legal and the political impact of Kennedy's exit.