Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump No Longer Picking GOP's Ratcliffe For Intel Chief, Officials Say Trump Was Concerned About Confirmation; Crossing The Threshold; Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) Is Interviewed About Impeachment Inquiry; Majority Of House Democrats Now Support Impeachment Inquiry; Puerto Rican Governor Resigns Amid Scandal, Protests; U.S. Imposes New Sanctions On Russia For Nerve Agent Attack On Ex-Spy In Britain. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 2, 2019 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[17:00:18]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news.

DNI-ed. President Trump pulls the plug on his pick to be DNI, the director of National Intelligence saying he's saving Congressman John Ratcliffe from media slander but Republican senators complained to the White House about Ratcliffe who is also accused of pumping up his resume as a federal prosecutor. Does the president vet his nominees?

Crossing the threshold. With more than half of House Democrats now backing an impeachment inquiry, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says President Trump will be held accountable but will she let the ball start rolling on impeachment?

Lack of agreements. President Trump pulls out of a nuclear treaty with Russia after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement and more. Is this what Donald Trump meant by the art of the deal?

And Putin's poison. After a deadly nerve agent attack on British soil, President Trump is forced by Congress to issue new sanctions against Russia. Why does Vladimir Putin keep picking poison as his weapon of choice?

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Breaking news. President Trump says he'll no longer nominate Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe as director of National Intelligence. The president says he's saving Ratcliffe from months of slander and libel but the reality is that GOP senators voiced concern to the White House about the pick and sources say senior administration officials also had reservations. Ratcliffe, who lacks intelligence experience, won the president's favor with a sharp attack on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Ratcliffe is accused of embellishing his record as a federal prosecutor. Also breaking, 118 House Democrats, that's a majority, are now on record supporting an impeachment inquiry. Nearly two dozen have joined that list since Robert Mueller testified before Congress last week. Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the president will be held accountable. But she has not backed impeachment.

I'll speak with Senator Mazie Hirono of the Judiciary Committee and our correspondents and analysts will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our breaking news. Our CNN White House Correspondent, Abby Phillip is with us.

Abby, a quick about face by the president on his pick for intelligence chief.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Wolf. Just one day ago President Trump was defending John Ratcliffe, the Texas Congressman but now he's become just the latest example of an administration who has put nominees up for jobs without fully vetting them, sources telling CNN that the administration did not do an adequate job of vetting John Ratcliffe and did not anticipate some of these new stories that came out about him in the last week. President Trump also telling reporters that he believes it is the media's job to vet his nominees.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Congressman Ratcliffe is an outstanding man and I'm sure that he'll be able to do very well.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Tonight whiplash at the White House as President Trump abruptly yanks the nomination of Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe to be his next director of National Intelligence just one day after defending him.

TRUMP: I felt that Congressman Ratcliffe was being treated very unfairly.

PHILLIP: Less than a week after announcing the pick, Trump tweeting today that, "Ratcliffe is being treated very unfairly by the LameStream Media. Rather than going through months of slander and libel, I explained to John how miserable it would be for him and his family to deal with these people. John has therefore decided to stay in Congress."

The decision coming amid swirling allegations that the Texas lawmaker fabricated parts of his resume and lack the experience for the job. According to "The Washington Post," Ratcliffe claimed he arrested 300 illegal immigrants in a single day but court records and interviews show that is not true. And "The New York Times" revealed that his claims about prosecuting terrorists as a U.S. attorney were also false. Trump having it both ways, insisting the coverage of Ratcliffe's false claims has been unfair.

TRUMP: I read things that were just unfair. And he's just too good. He doesn't deserve it.

PHILLIP: But also claiming that the press is part of the White House's vetting process.

TRUMP: If you take a look at it, the vetting process for the White House is very good but your part of the vetting process. You know, we save a lot of money that way.

PHILLIP: The two-term Congressman leapt to the top of Trump's list to replace the director of National Intelligence Dan Coats after this exchange during former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Congressional testimony last week.

[17:05:01] REP. JOHN RATCLIFFE (R-TX): Donald Trump is not above the law. He's not. But he damn sure shouldn't be below the law.

PHILLIP: Privately, the president called Ratcliffe a warrior for defending him. But Democrats cited that moment as proof he couldn't be objective.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (D-VA): I'll go back to what I said when Director Coats left. Director Coats was willing to speak truth to power. I've seen no evidence at least from what I read and seen about Mr. Ratcliffe that he'll bring that same level of independence.

PHILLIP: In private, Republican lawmakers also voiced concerns about Ratcliffe's nomination to the White House and in public the response was muted.

REP. MIKE ROUNDS (R-SD): I don't know him. I think he deserves to have our consideration. We'll learn more about him. But this one came as a surprise to us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: And, Wolf, last night at a campaign rally in Ohio President Trump continued to criticize Baltimore and highlight the homicide rate in that city and in the district represented by House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings. The president then weighed in on Twitter this morning about a break-in that was reported at Cummings' home over the weekend.

He said, "Really bad news! The Baltimore house of Elijah Cummings home was robbed. Too bad!"

That tweet elicited a response from one of his former officials, Nikki Haley, who said it was completely unnecessary. And President Trump defended himself saying that it was not meant to be in his words, a wise guy tweet about Cummings that he had just read the news and was simply commenting on social media.

Meanwhile, also on Twitter today, President Trump weighed in on the case of rapper A$AP Rocky. He's personally gotten involved in this case, Wolf, calling the Swedish Prime Minister to ask for Rocky to be released. That case is now over and pending a verdict. Rocky is on his way back to the United States. And President Trump tweeted this. And he said this, "A$AP Rocky released from prison and on his way home to the United States from Sweden. It was a Rocky week. Get home A$AP A$AP!" Wolf?

BLITZER: Abby Phillip, at the White House, thanks to that report. As we noted, 118 House Democrats are now on record as favoring the start of an impeachment inquiry and that is a simple majority but a majority nonetheless.

Let's go to CNN's Lauren Fox up on Capitol Hill follow up on Capitol Hill. So what is the latest up there, Lauren?

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Wolf that 118 number very significant because it represents more than half of the Democratic caucus now supports opening an impeachment inquiry into the president. All eyes now on Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, who released a statement just a few minutes ago arguing the Democrats should stay the course on their investigation.

She said, quote, "Democrats in the Congress continue to legislative, investigate and litigate. The president will be held accountable."

Now, some Democrats are arguing with the House Judiciary Committee already investigating those obstruction allegations into the president that that in and of itself is the beginning of impeachment. Here is what one member said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM MALINOWSKI (D-NJ): Concerned an impeachment inquiry has already begun. The Judiciary Committee has made clear that they are seeking documents and witnesses for the purpose of conducting an impeachment inquiry. So, that's what I called for and many others called for a while ago. And it is happening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOX: It is really important. Of course, members are back in their districts hearing from constituents. So that 118 number is expected to grow in the next couple of weeks. Of course more than 20 Democrats have come out in support of opening an impeachment inquiry since Robert Mueller testified last week. Wolf?

BLITZER: Lauren, another well-known Republican moderate is retiring from the House. Is this a trend? Tell us about this.

FOX: Well, it's honestly very significant because Will Hurd was a Republican member of the caucus. He was also the only Black Republican member in the House of Representatives who was a Republican. So very significant, of course, the fact that he's retiring. It really shows the lack of diversity within the Republican conference here in the House of Representatives.

And you know not only that, but he was somebody who was willing to speak out against the President Trump. On issues related to immigration, and also when it came to that chant just a couple of weeks ago, the "send her back" chant, he was very outspoken that was concerning. That he voted against the president and his comments related to those four Democratic freshmen members. He is somebody who is willing to stand up to President Trump and his district really represents one of those places where Republicans have to win if they want to take back the majority in 2020. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Lauren, thank you very much. Lauren Fox up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. She's a member of both the Judiciary and Armed Services Committee. Thank you so much, Senator, for joining us.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): Sure.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction first to President Trump's reversing course on his pick to become the next director of National Intelligence. How does that reflect, do you believe, on his administration?

HIRONO: Oh, to say the least, very poorly. Here is yet another pick that -- of someone who auditions for the job, this is becoming quite a repetitive kind of an experience.

[17:10:02] You had Attorney General Barr, you know, audition and you now have Ratcliffe. So the president and his team, they do not vet these people.

Ratcliffe has very little experience. And frankly, I actually describe Ratcliffe yesterday as -- he's a shield for the president. We don't need someone like that to be the director of National Intelligence.

That is one group of people that we need to make sure that they will tell the -- they will be accurate, not just tell the president what he wants to hear. I think it was a very dangerous pick and thank goodness that some reality sank in but only because certain Republicans, I guess, said this guy is too much even for us to stomach.

BLITZER: And you heard the president say a few moments ago, he likes it when the news media vets these potential nominees. That saves taxpayer's money. I never heard anything like that. But before - that's what the president said.

The president also says he already has some other potential replacements in mind. What type of candidate do you think can get confirmed?

Senator, can you hear me?

I think we've lost contact with the senator. Senator, are you there?

Well, let's take a quick break. We'll fix the technical problem. Much more with Senator Mazie Hirono right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:16:15] BLITZER: We're back with Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. Senator thanks so much for joining us. We fixed up that technical glitch. The president as you know abruptly pulled his pick to lead the U.S. Intelligence Community. This comes as he continues to doubt Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential election. Watch what he said yesterday. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Mr. President, Robert Mueller said last week that Russia is interfering in the U.S. election right now.

Did you raise that with Vladimir Putin?

TRUMP: You don't really believe this. You don't believe this. OK, fine.

QUESTION: He said it last week. Did you raise that with President Putin yesterday?

TRUMP: We didn't talk about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What does that mean for you when he says -- he was asked about if Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election. He said, you don't really believe that, do you believe that? And then he said he didn't talk about that with Putin when they were on the phone the other night.

HIRONO: Well he's totally contradicting what his Intel people are saying, including Dan Coats, the director who is leaving as well as FBI Director Chris Wray who both testified that Russia continues to interfere with our elections.

So this is once again Trump just hearing what he wants to say and basically he's lying and making up stories all of the time. Thank goodness that he withdrew his nominee because -- I served on the Intel Committee for two years in the Senate and if there is one thing we need to be assured is that our Intel people are giving us accurate information. Not just information that the president wants to hear. That is very dangerous for national security. And, yet, the president apparently doesn't give a rip.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts also on the administration's decision to withdraw from the INF treaty with Russia. When the president first announced his intentions to do so, you told me here in THE SITUATION ROOM that this would be in your words, a gift to Putin. What specifically are your concerns?

HIRONO: Well, my concern is now that our secretary of defense is saying we're now going to start developing and testing missiles that we were prohibited from testing under the INF treaty. So there you go. What is this a new arms race? We don't need that.

I think that Putin is very happy that he doesn't have to comply with anything regarding this treaty. And now on our end we're going to ratchet up our testing. This is a very dangerous circumstance and you got these two powers. And what is the message we're sending to others who have this kind of capability? I think that we're looking at a potential arms race and parts of the world that it is very dangerous -- talking about the Middle East.

BLITZER: The NATO allies did put out a formal statement today in support of the president's decision. They said, "A situation whereby the United States fully abides by the treaty, and Russia does not, is not sustainable."

I assume you agree Russia has been violating the treaty for a while now.

HIRONO: Yes, they have. And I would think since the situation in all parts of the world in my view have gotten worse under this administration that it would be good if I could be assured that very solid efforts toward diplomatically working with Russia to get them to comply would be good. And I have no idea that that was ever tried. No, what we do is we just get rid of the treaty, just says the president gets out of the climate change treaty, just as he gets out of the nuclear treaty with Iran, creating a very, I think, troubling situation.

BLITZER: On the White House Lawn just a few moments ago, Senator, President Trump said he's been speaking to Russia about a new agreement that maybe they'll also include China. Do you think he could accomplish a deal like that?

HIRONO: It is very hard for me to put that -- very much credence, to tell you the truth. I'm choosing the right words -- accurate words I would say, of any kind of deals that the president makes with anybody because for one thing, none of these are very transparent.

[17:20:06] He has these discussions with Putin that he seems to have some sort of a bromance with. And we don't even know what they talk about. And now there is yet another treaty in the offing or agreement, along with, by the way, we all that he seems to have a deep affinity for dictators and strong people, including Putin, including Xi Jinping, including Kim Jong-un.

BLITZER: Senator Hirono thanks as usual for joining us.

HIRONO: Sure.

BLITZER: Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

Let's bring in our political and national security experts. We've got lots to discuss. Ryan Lizza, what led to the president's decision all of a sudden after only a few days to abandon his potential nominee Ratcliffe -- Congressman Ratcliffe to become the director of National Intelligence?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it is the same thing that led to a series of nominees that haven't been vetted properly by the White House and outside lawyers and with help from the relevant Senate committees and the president likes to announce these things before the vetting happens. And then you know reporters start digging into their background and an issue comes up and they immediately lose support.

Now, Ratcliffe didn't have support. He wasn't enthusiastically supported by Republican senators to begin with which is you know the first thing you need. But it reminds me of Ronny Jackson, who's nominated to the V.A. and he wasn't vetted and there were some issues there and you know Trump pulled the plug on him. So, two things, Republicans weren't enthusiastic about him to begin with and he wasn't vetted properly.

BLITZER: You know it's interesting. April Ryan, this is the latest in a series of examples of the administration failing to vet candidates. So look at this growing list and we'll put it up on the screen. Candidates who were mentioned and potentially very quickly removed, the president deciding after a lot of controversy he's not going forward with the nominations.

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, the vetting machine, Wolf, is broken. This administration makes knee-jerk reactions and they don't vet properly. They say they're not a traditional administration but there is something left to be said for tradition and how you vet someone.

And I think back to a conversation I had with first son-in-law Jared Kushner, a one-on-one conversation I had with him about the administration. This was a few months ago when that large weeding out process, people were being fired almost every Friday and you know people were leaving. And he said, you know, we really now have a good machine. The machine is working. We are really set where we want to be.

But this shows that they're not. You know there continues to be problems. People continue to leave. The vetting -- this is not as you said the only time or the first time that someone had to withdraw. So the machine is broken. And how they will fix it or if they will fix it remains to be seen.

BLITZER: You know it is interesting, Rebecca, because the president, once again, he said he likes it when the news media vets these candidates because it saves the taxpayers' money but it could potentially humiliate and embarrass a lot of these candidates. That is why you're supposed to vet these candidates privately behind the scenes, using sensitive information and if there is a problem you don't release it and nobody even knows that individuals are going to be removed from consideration.

He's also blaming what he calls the Lamestream Media but CNN though has learned that there were several Republican senators who voiced their concerns about Ratcliffe's nomination.

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Right, a lot to unpack here, Wolf. First of all, the president is trying to have it both ways with the media. He's crediting the media for doing the vetting process for him and then saying it is the media's fault that they uncovered anything about his candidates who he didn't vet in the first place. So there is that.

Yes, there was a great deal of concern among Republicans, among the Intelligence Community with this nomination. And if the president had gone through the normal process, he would have known these things beforehand but instead he just likes to float these names out there and this goes to the first thing you were saying, Wolf, who would want to go through this process.

Who would submit themselves to this potential public humiliation by the president? The reason you go through the vetting process is not only to save face for the White House but also for the people who are going through this process, submitting themselves to this public scrutiny, the White House is doing nothing whatsoever to back them up.

BLITZER: So awkward and so embarrassing. Mark Mazzetti is with us as well. You know he clearly seemed to be auditioning for some job, Ratcliffe, during the confirmation - during the hearings - the Mueller hearings and all sorts of other statements he was doing. And the suggestion was the president really values that kind of loyalty as opposed to real intelligence experience.

MARK MAZZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right. John Ratcliffe was not a household name in the national security world. He wasn't even a household name for the Senate colleagues. They said they didn't know very much about him, right?

I mean, let's go back a really long time. Last week when Robert Mueller testified, it was only last week when Ratcliffe kind of had his coming out party when he was grilling Mueller.

[17:25:03] And that is - it was a line of questioning that the president clearly liked. It was going after this idea that there was a conspiracy against the president and that led to days later the idea that John Ratcliffe is going to take over the intelligence apparatus.

And so, as you said, it is this idea of loyalty to the idea of this is someone who is going to go after the deep state, go after the apparatus that Trump clearly likes.

BLITZER: Six months on the Intelligence Committee but not necessarily a history of intelligence expertise when it comes to becoming director of National Intelligence. Stand by, everybody, a lot more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:30:18] BLITZER: We're back with our political reporters, our analysts. You know, Ryan Lizza, more than half of the Democrats -- 235 Democrats in the House of Representatives, more than half now, 118 --

LIZZA: Yes.

BLITZER: -- formally support beginning an impeachment inquiry. That's going to put increasing pressure on the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to get that ball going. LIZZA: Absolutely. I think that this means that we're going to have

some kind of more formal investigation. And it's -- Jerrold Nadler and the Judiciary Committee is going to have to do something that is not just what they have been doing recently, which is sort of impeachment-like activities. But they're going to -- there's -- a formal inquiry is on its way.

The question is, as we get closer to next year's election, how do Democrats weigh these two options, right? Because the debate in the Democratic Party is, is it just better to defeat Donald Trump definitively at the ballot box or to go through this long arduous impeachment process where the American people are not sold on this and, certainly, the Republican Senate is not sold on this? And that -- you know, that debate is going to be, you know, more fraught for Democrats as they go forward.

BLITZER: As you noted, the Speaker has been reluctant to begin that formal process. Any indication she's beginning to change on impeachment?

BUCK: None right now, Wolf, but, obviously, the political pressure from the Democratic base is growing. And that's why you're seeing more and more of these Democratic members supporting an impeachment process, but the political facts remain.

You have Republicans in control of the Senate. And there is a legitimate concern that if Democrats were to pursue impeachment even on the House side that that would not only energize the Democratic base but also energize the Republican base for Donald Trump.

And so, that's the last thing Democrats want to do, especially when they have a very good chance of winning this election. And so, I think, politically, the best option for Democrats is going to be to just run the clock out on this and get to election day 2020 and see what happens there.

BLITZER: Almost all, Mark, of the House Democrats who formally support impeachment, an impeachment process, represent districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. One -- and we'll put it up on the screen. You can see there was one Democratic member that -- one in a Trump district that supports the impeachment process.

If vulnerable Democrats are reluctant to go forward, that could undermine this process right now because, certainly, the Speaker doesn't want to lose the majority in the House of Representatives.

MAZZETTI: Yes, and that's the calculus that Nancy Pelosi is using right now. She's looking at those districts. She's looking at who is vulnerable. Remember, the August recess is when people go home and they talk to constituents. They -- they'll get a pulse of people, like whether people want this or support this or not.

I still -- like Rebecca, I still think that this is something that seems less likely. It's -- if you think about the clock going forward, you're -- we saw debates this week where they're -- you know, they're trying to winnow down a field, choosing the next person who's going to against Trump.

And if they're doing this parallel process of actually then trying to remove the President before this election, it could be a distraction. It still seems that that's what Pelosi is thinking about. There's not that much time left.

BLITZER: There are 31 House Democrats right now serving in the House of Representatives who won in districts that Donald Trump carried in 2016, and only one of them, so far, says go ahead with an impeachment inquiry.

Will Hurd, the Republican congressman, he announced today he's not going to seek re-election. He now becomes, what, the sixth GOP member of the past two weeks to decide not to seek re-election. What does that tell you?

LIZZA: You know, two things are going on as Donald Trump becomes more and more important in the Republican Party and sort of solidifies his grip on the Republican Party.

One is that the people who are considering -- considered rising stars pre-Trump are all -- are retiring, getting defeated, you know, leaving in one way or another. Hurd is a great example of that. He was considered someone in the pre-Trump era as a different kind of Republican, someone that would be the -- you know, the face of the party in the future.

And the second thing, of course, is it shows you that being one in the minority is not so great for Republicans, and, two, that they -- you know, they're looking at a very, very difficult election in 2020 with Trump's being a pretty unpopular president. And usually, when you have retirements, same party retirements, it suggests that you don't think your presidential candidate is all that strong.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, April, he's the only -- Will Hurd, the only African-American Republican in the House of Representatives.

RYAN: Yes.

BLITZER: He's leaving behind a caucus that is severely lacking in diversity. What does that say to you?

RYAN: Wolf, it speaks volumes. You know, Will Hurd, it's hard for him to be a Black man with his mindset in this Donald Trump Republican Party.

[17:35:01] The Republicans didn't like what he had to say when he was talking about the racial issues, most recently with the squad, and the rest of the issues that have been coming of late with this president. There was a fear that he was not going to win re-election because of his stance, and Republicans who are close to this president believe that his district will go to Dems.

But, you know, it is sad when it comes to issues of diversity in the Republican Party. You have so many people of color who are in the Republican Party because of the principles of which it stood before this new revitalization -- I'm not even going to call it revitalization, a reforming or a reformation of the Republican Party, the Trump Republican Party.

And people, a lot of African-Americans in particular, are having gut- wrenching moments, heartfelt moments, trying to figure out if they want to stay. And Will Hurd is now in a process of realizing he cannot win re-election going against this president when many districts -- Republican districts or people who are Republican are really in support of this president on matters of race. Even if they don't like it, they're still supporting him.

BLITZER: Yes. He served in the CIA as a clandestine officer before becoming a United States -- a member of the House of Representatives. Is it further proof, Rebecca, though, that -- forget about diversity, that if you disagree with the Republican president, there's really no room for you in Congress anymore? Because that's -- a lot of people have raised that fear.

BUCK: Absolutely. It is Trump's Republican Party, Wolf, there is no question. And I think it also shows just how frustrating Congress can be for Republicans like Will Hurd who want to be consensus builders, who want to work across the aisle, actually get things done, who don't really like this partisanship that we've seen, this polarization in the United States Congress.

And so, it's sort of a gut punch to people who actually do want to get things done on the Hill to see someone like Will Hurd stepping down because there are fewer and fewer of those Republicans every day. And because they are in the minority in the House, there are even fewer than there would be or have been in the recent past because these are the most conservative districts. There is no political incentive for the remaining Republicans to try to work across the aisle.

BLITZER: Yes. Mark, let me get your thoughts on the President announcing that he's pulling out the United States -- the United States is pulling out of the INF Treaty with Russia. Already pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal. He hasn't any replacements, new plans, in mind to replace any of this. He's got some talk. Has the deal maker lost his edge right now as we're watching all of these unfold?

MAZZETTI: Yes, I -- well, I think that this is different. The INF Treaty is different than, as you said, the Paris climate treaty, the Iran deal. This had, you know, NATO allies who, as you said earlier, were arguing that, you know, this is a deal that is defunct anyway because the Russians were cheating.

And so, this is a long time in coming, but what is coming forward is, of course, a bigger deal which is they could pull out of the START Treaty which is for longer-range missiles. And that is what nuclear experts really worry really could have a real, lasting impact.

And in the short-term, this idea that we're now testing more missiles. And we're doing it primarily not because of Russia but because of China and because of the concerns about Chinese missile development. And pulling out of the INF for this White House is primarily focused on countering the China threat, so that's what, I think, has a lot of people concerned.

BLITZER: Yes, very concerning. The Russians have been cheating on this for a long time including during the Obama administration.

MAZZETTI: Right.

BLITZER: But the Obama administration made a specific decision not to pull out of the treaty.

LIZZA: Interesting.

BLITZER: And the Trump administration made a very different decision and it happened today.

Everybody, stand by. There is a lot more we're following including breaking news in Puerto Rico where crowds are now in the streets as the island's embattled Governor makes good on his pledge to hand over power.

After a deadly nerve agent attack, President Trump is forced by Congress to scalp -- to slap, I should say, new sanctions on Russia. But is it just a slap on the wrist?

[17:39:07] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news, after battling weeks of scandal and facing growing pressure from protesters, Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello is finally resigning. Let's go to CNN's Leyla Santiago -- she's in the capital of San Juan -- for an update.

Leyla, what is the very latest?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this crowd is cheering -- or was cheering just a second ago because a protester just announced that Pierluisi who Rossello, the now-former Governor of Puerto Rico, said will be sworn in as Governor has just arrived at La Fortaleza.

And this crowd will not back down. That is why they are listening, paying attention to see what is happening at the Governor's mansion and promising not to back down because they don't want him as their leader either.

I had an interesting conversation with one protester, and he said, we don't want Pierluisi. We don't want Vasquez. We just want decency, so we will continue to protest despite Rossello stepping down.

Now, there are a lot of questions about the legality of whether or not Rossello having sworn in Pierluisi can actually be valid. Whether or not he is legally allowed to be the Governor of Puerto Rico, given that the Senate has not confirmed him yet and said that they will not consider even taking up the issue until next week.

[17:44:57] BLITZER: Leyla Santiago in San Juan for us. All right, Leyla, you have -- you'll stay in touch with us. We'll, of course, keep our viewers updated. Very important story, indeed.

Just ahead, the United States is slapping new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for a deadly nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom. Did Congress force President Trump to punish Putin?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:49:59] BLITZER: The United States is imposing new sanctions on Russia for a deadly nerve agent attack carried out on British soil. Brian Todd has been looking into this for us. Brian, this is apparently something the President wasn't eager to do.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: By most accounts, he was not very eager to do this, Wolf. President Trump wants to cultivate closer ties with Vladimir Putin. But tonight, evidence makes it clearer than ever that Putin's government likely carried out a brazen poison attack on a former Russian spy last year, and the President was forced to act.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): It was one of the most brazen and reckless attacks Vladimir Putin's government has ever launched, the poisoning last year in Britain of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with the now-banned nerve agent, Novichok.

The Skripals went into a comas but survived. A bystander was also exposed and later died. And U.S. and British intelligence pointed the finger squarely at Russia.

THERESA MAY, PRIME MINISTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM: It is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Putin's' government is under new sanctions ordered by President Trump for the Skripal poisoning. The administration was required to sanction Putin last year if the Kremlin couldn't or wouldn't show it was no longer using chemical weapons.

Experts say it's not clear if the President really wanted to sanction Putin for the attack. Instead, it appears he was forced to this week after the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee pressured the President to get moving on sanctions or risk Congress acting again.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS: There seems to be continuing this coddling of Russia, this not going after the Russians.

TODD (voice-over): Still, analysts say these new sanctions don't hit Russia that hard and that's the way Trump wants it.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, DIRECTOR OF THE KENNAN INSTITUTE, THE WOODROW WILSON CENTER: They took action, but they didn't do anything that's likely to radically change the relationship because they are trying to pursue normalization of, at least, basic diplomatic ties after last year's breakdown. TODD (voice-over): Experts say, tonight, Putin doesn't appear to be

getting tough punishment, even though there's official documentation that he's not stopped using the most toxic poisons to hit his enemies. It's a tactic Putin seems to have honed from his Cold War ops as a ruthless KGB lieutenant colonel.

ALEXANDER GOLDFARB, AUTHOR, "DEATH OF A DISSIDENT: THE POISONING OF ALEXANDER LITVINENKO AND THE RETURN OF THE KGB": Poisoning is much easier to conceal. You know, it's very difficult to deny if he was, you know, stabbed, for example, or shot. Secondly, it's very painful and unpleasant. And third, this has been a traditional weapon of choice of Russian secret services for years.

TODD (voice-over): Vladimir Kara-Murza, an anti-Putin activist, says he was poisoned and sent into a coma twice.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, VICE PRESIDENT, FREE RUSSIA FOUNDATION: I think it's another reminder that it is a dangerous location to be in opposition to Mr. Putin's regime.

TODD (voice-over): Former intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko had been digging up information damaging to Putin when, in a Cold War- style operation in 2006, someone slipped the radioactive substance, polonium, into Litvinenko's tea in London. It ultimately killed him. British authorities also tied that attack to the Kremlin.

Analysts say poison works as an effective weapon for Putin and his spies, not just because it takes out enemies but because it sends a clear signal to others.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, SENIOR DIRECTOR, PENN BIDEN CENTER FOR DIPLOMACY AND GLOBAL ENGAGEMENT: Specifically, to send that message, we did this, we are not going to be held accountable, there is impunity here, come get us, come try, we're going to keep doing this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Putin and his aides have repeatedly denied any involvement in all of these poison attacks, but analysts say these attacks are likely to continue. And there could be plenty of people left on Putin's poison hit list, political opponents at home, Russians abroad, who he perceives as traitors like spies and diplomats.

Would he ever go after any American politicians who oppose him? Experts say the Russian President is probably too cautious to cross that line. But one analyst says if there's a poison that's untraceable enough, he wouldn't even rule that out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Brian, you're also learning about other covert, subtle tactics Putin's operatives could be using to hit back at their enemies.

TODD: Right, Wolf. In addition to getting that so-called kompromat, the real compromising information on an adversary, analysts tell us the Russians are getting pretty proficient at so-called deep fakes. That's the tactic of superimposing the face of your adversary onto a piece of salacious, compromising video or a picture. Maybe we should look for that in the election cycle next year.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.

Coming up, President Trump abruptly pulls the plug in his pick for intelligence chief after Republican senators and even administration officials voice concerns about GOP Congressmen John Ratcliffe.

[17:54:35] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Off a Ratcliffe. President Trump pushes out John Ratcliffe, his pick to be Director of National Intelligence. He is blaming the news media after reports showed Ratcliffe lied about his experience as a prosecutor. Tonight, the search is on for a new director as questions swirl about whether the President vets his nominees.

More than half. A majority of House Democrats now support an impeachment inquiry. The numbers are increasing almost daily. Will it force Speaker Nancy Pelosi to move forward on impeaching the President?

[18:00:01] Firing recommendation. New York City's Deputy Police Commissioner recommends the officer accused of putting Eric Garner in a chokehold should be fired.