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Interview With Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy; Trump Defending Putin; Travel Ban Likely Heading to Supreme Court; Sources: Target of Yemen Raid was Al Qaeda Leader; Trump Administration Files Brief Defending Travel Ban; Oral Arguments Scheduled. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 6, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: travel ban defense. The Trump administration is waging an urgent battle to reinstate the president's immigration crackdown with a legal brief filed just moments ago, this as the president wages a Twitter war against a judge who temporarily halted the ban. Will there be a new court ruling tonight?

Oval firing squad. We're learning now about the infighting within Mr. Trump's inner circle and its impact on the commander in chief. Tonight, why one controversial move caught the president off guard.

Running out the clock. Democrats take to the Senate floor in a last- ditch all-night effort to try to block Mr. Trump's pick for education secretary. Can they find one more rebellious Republican to side with them against the president?

And making an impression, "Saturday Night Live" offers another must- see spoof targeting White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. We will look at Spicer's response and "SNL"'s power to define politicians for better and for worse.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

The Trump administration just filed a legal brief defending the president's travel ban. The Justice Department meeting a deadline that's hitting right now. A federal appeals court is considering whether to reinstate the ban or uphold a lower court's decision to suspend it temporarily.

There are early steps in what's likely to be a broader and historic Supreme Court showdown over the president's constitutional authority over immigration. While the lawyers weigh in, President Trump is sharing his views on Twitter. He's slamming the federal judge who suspended the travel ban, accusing him of putting America in peril.

And he's dismissing all negative polling about his administration as "fake news."

Tonight, Democrats are staging a dramatic all-night protest against the president's choice to the education secretary. They're trying to hold the Senate floor for the next 24 hours, leading up to a vote on confirming Betsy DeVos. They're desperately trying to persuade a third Senate Republican to vote against DeVos and sink her nomination.

Right now, Mr. Trump is back at the White House after visiting the U.S. military's Central Command in Florida. He used his remarks to the troops to make new allegations about the news media, the president falsely accusing journalists of not reporting terror attacks across Europe. Tonight, the White House says it will offer evidence to back up that claim "later."

I will talk with a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Chris Murphy. He's standing by, along with our correspondents and analysts, as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

But first the breaking news. Let's go right to our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown.

What is in this legal brief, Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We're just reading through this 15-page brief that was just filed minutes ago from Justice Department lawyers arguing why they believe the ban should be reinstating, say -- quote -- "The executive order is a lawful exercise of the president's authority over the entry of aliens into the United States and the admission of refugees."

As the legal showdown ensues, President Trump says he believes he will win in the end.


BROWN (voice-over): Tonight, Justice Department lawyers are trying to get an appeals court to reinstate Donald Trump's travel ban, as the president speaking to a military crowd in Tampa remains confident he will win the court battle.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been seeing what's been going on over the last few days. We need strong programs, so that people that love us and want to love our country and will end up loving our country are allowed in, not people that want to destroy us and destroy our country.

BROWN: DOJ's attorneys argue the president, not the court, should make national security decisions in part because courts do not have access to classified information about the threat posed by terrorist operations operating in particular nations.

On Friday, Washington District Judge James Robart set off an immediate chain of events, ruling the plaintiffs, Washington State and Minnesota, demonstrated immediate and irreparable injury from the executive order in areas of employment, education, business, family relations and freedom to travel.


The ruling angered Trump, who fired off tweets, even attacking the judge, who was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush -- quote -- "The opinion of this so-called judge which essentially takes law enforcement away from our country is ridiculous and will be overturned and -- quote -- "Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens, blame him and court system."

But even lawmakers in Trump's own party say the system of checks and balances working as it should.

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: We don't have so-called judges. We don't have so-called senators. We don't have so-called presidents. We have people from three different branches of government who take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: We all want to try to keep terrorists out of the United States, but we can't shut down travel.

BROWN: Tonight, 10 high-ranking former national security officials including CIA directors and secretaries of state have told the appeals court the ban would undermine the national security of the United States and endanger U.S. troops and help ISIS.

As the fate of the travel ban hangs in the balance, people from the seven banned countries are rushing to get in under the wire, like this Somali mother and her children who landed at Dulles Airport.

(on camera): What were you feeling when you were getting on the plane?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So scared that she will be turned back after the hassle alone and the baggage. It's very hard.


BROWN: And the next step in the legal process is to wait for the Ninth Circuit Court to decide whether the ban should be reinstated while the appeals process goes through the court system.

But it's likely no matter which way this court rules, the losing side will likely appeal, meaning it will go to the Supreme Court for the emergency motion, Wolf.

BLITZER: Like you, I'm just reading this appeal, this brief that the Justice Department filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

That first sentence, the executive order is a lawful exercise of the president's authority over the entry of aliens into the United States and the admission of refugees, they are making a very, very firm case that exactly what the president did in putting forward this travel ban on these seven Muslim majority countries is constitutional and legal.

What are you seeing?

BROWN: That's right.

What you're seeing the Justice Department do is sort of double down and bolster the argument that was made over the weekend, that the president has wide discretion when it comes to immigration.

Here is a quote that was taken directly from the brief that was just filed. It says: "The state asked the courts to take the extraordinary step of second-guessing pursuant a formal national security judgment made by the president himself, pursuant to broad grants of statutory authority."

Basically they're saying that, look, it should be the president and not the courts when it comes to matters of national security because the president has classified briefings. The president knows what is going on in these seven countries that were identified in the travel ban.

What also stuck out to me is sort of going through, poring through this brief is that the lawyers argue that it says -- quote -- "Aliens outside the United States have no due process rights with respect to their attempt to gain entry into this country."

That's an argument you have heard from the other side, that this could be a violation of constitutional due process rights, equal protection, but what the government is arguing here is that these are people outside the United States who don't have a direct tie, in other words, they're not citizens and they have been to the U.S. and therefore they shouldn't be afforded constitutional rights.

But then if you go to the very end of this brief, Wolf, it talks about at most this injunction, the ban should only apply to those that the state is focused on, those who have already been to the United States, who have already been granted visas, Wolf, and those who want to leave the United States and return back here.

BLITZER: I'm reading this brief together with you, 15 pages long, but the key point they make, these are the president's lawyers, the deputy solicitor general and other lawyers from the Justice Department, they describe what the president has done as a temporary suspension of entries through the refugee program and from countries that have a previously identified link to an increased risk of terrorist activities.

That's the bottom line point they're to make, that if the president has this information, he has determined that these people if they're allowed right now to come to the United States they pose a threat to American citizens.

BROWN: That's right.

They argue that the law gives him this broad discretion to identify countries that could pose a risk and to be able to manage immigration. And something else you will see the department focus on and as I read through the brief, I believe it touches on the fact that standing -- whether or not the states actually have standing to claim injury by the travel ban.

That's something else the government is focused on. Now it's really a waiting game, Wolf, to see how the Ninth Circuit is going to rule. As I said earlier, it could decide, we will keep the ban, it's not going to be reinstated, or we can reinstate the ban as the appeals process works its way through the court.

But as I pointed out, the losing side will likely appeal, meaning it will likely go to the Supreme Court for an emergency motion. But what's interesting here, too, is this really doesn't go to the merits, Wolf. It is not even looking at the constitutionality of this. It's looking at whether or not the ban should be reinstated during the appeals process.


BLITZER: Yes. And it's interesting they do refer to this other ruling from another district court I think in Boston in which the president's action on the travel ban was justified.

BROWN: That's right.

This was actually just hours before this ruling came from Washington State where they said, yes, the ban can go into effect as the appeals process goes through, but the ruling out of Washington State from this Judge Robart sort of dwarfs the Boston ruling.

It takes precedent essentially with this nationwide ban. That's why we're watching so closely what the Ninth Circuit will do in this case.

BLITZER: Continue reading this 15-page document. I will as well.

I want to go right to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Is there any word, any reaction from officials there to the government's appeal? We just got this 15-page document.


But we do know from hearing from White House officials over the last 72 hours they believe this ban is legal, that it will be reinstated. That is why they have a high degree of confidence in making this filing late today.

But, Wolf, we heard the president earlier today talking tough on terror. President Trump is once again lashing out at the news media as well today. In front of a military audience at the U.S. Central Command in Florida, the president accused the press of intentionally downplaying terrorist attacks. The president did not specify which attacks he was referring to in his remarks, but here is what he had to say.


TRUMP: All over Europe, it's happening. It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported, and in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.


ACOSTA: Asked for an explanation of the president's comments, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Mr. Trump believes terrorist attacks are not covered to the degree he would like them to be.

Spicer also said, Wolf, the White House would provide a list of attacks that they believe warranted more coverage. But, Wolf, as we know, these claims strain credulity, as terrorist attacks are always covered as major breaking news around the globe. It's not exactly clear what the president is referring to in this case.

BLITZER: As you know, Jim, the president also made some pretty controversial comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend. There's been a lot of fallout as a result of that.

What is latest?

ACOSTA: That's right.

Some little notice comments from the president, Wolf. President Trump is defending his comments, we should point out, about Russian President Vladimir Putin to FOX News. In that interview with FOX News, the president seemed to compare Putin's past deeds with the actions taken by the U.S. government. First, let's play a little bit of what he had to say on FOX.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Do you respect Putin?

TRUMP: I do respect him.

O'REILLY: Do you? Why?

TRUMP: Well, I respect a lot of people, but that doesn't mean I'm going to get along with them. He is a leader of his country.

I say it's better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, major fight, that is a good thing.

O'REILLY: Right.

TRUMP: Will I get along with him? I have no idea. It's possible that I won't.

O'REILLY: He is a killer, though. Putin is a killer. TRUMP: A lot of killers. We have got a lot of killers. What, you

think our country is so innocent?


ACOSTA: But we should point out, Wolf, in an interview that did not get as much coverage with Westwood One Radio, which was really also part of the Super Bowl coverage, the president said he doesn't have to clarify his remarks on Vladimir Putin.

The president went on to cite Vladimir Putin's poll numbers in Russia as justification of his praise for the Russian leader.

Wolf, all of this goes back to what we heard time and again out on the campaign trail, which is that Donald Trump believes that some sort of alliance with the Russians might be able to tip the balance in the fight against ISIS.

But, Wolf, a lot of Republicans and Democrats are wondering here in Washington at what cost when the president continues to talk about Vladimir Putin in this fashion -- Wolf.

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

Let's talk about the breaking news on the president's travel ban.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy is joining us. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Sure. Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: I have had a copy now. I don't know if you have had a chance to read it yet. It's 15 pages.

The Justice Department just filed this brief in support of this motion for an emergency stay of the federal judge's temporary retraining order which halted the president's travel ban nationwide against these seven Muslim majority nations.

The administration's main argument is you know what, these courts don't have access to classified information, therefore, they shouldn't be second-guessing the president's judgment. He's in charge when it comes to national security, when it comes to immigration, when it comes to allowing refugees into the country. What do you make of that argument?

MURPHY: I think there are two responses to it.

First, the law is the law. And the 1965 immigration law says that the president cannot, cannot discriminate against immigrants based on their country of origin or their religion.

[18:15:03] So he's got no blanket national security waiver to that underlying

requirement, that prohibition on discrimination. But, second, you don't need access to classified information to know that these little girls, these people fleeing terror and torture from places like Syria and Iraq pose no national security threat to the United States.

Why? Because since September 11, there has been no refugee from any of these countries that has undertaken a terrorist attack against Americans here. In fact, if he really was concerned about terrorism, then maybe the countries from which the 9/11 hijackers came from would be on that list, but they're not, because this is all about politics and discrimination and racial bias.

It has nothing to do with national security and I think the courts are seeing through that argument.

BLITZER: But he argues, and the White House argues that these seven countries, these Muslim majority countries, these countries were identified back in 2011 by the Obama administration as countries where there's a hotbed of terror activity involving ISIS, involving al Qaeda.

He didn't come up with that list. He says the Obama administration came up with that list.

MURPHY: And that's why the Obama administration put in place strict vetting procedures to make sure that the bad guys don't get here.

Let's be clear about what is happening here. In five of these seven countries, the United States is either dropping bombs or supporting countries that are supporting bombs. So we are creating or we are complicit in creating these humanitarian disasters that we are trying to rescue people from.

There is no doubt that there are dangerous people in these countries, but there were dangerous people in Vietnam, there were dangerous people in the Balkan states, but while we were dropping bombs on those countries, we said that we can also rescue people who are fleeing from that humanitarian nightmare.

We have a vetting procedure that can keep this country safe. What he's doing is just based on politics and based on a discriminatory policy that I think the courts are seeing through.

BLITZER: His argument also is that if you take a look at these countries, whether Syria, whether Somalia or Sudan or Yemen, there really is no government there that can allow the U.S. to properly vet these individuals. They can make up stories, whoever they are and there is no real authority to go and check them out.

MURPHY: Let's be clear about who we're bringing to the United States.

And 95 percent of the people that are coming here as refugees are non- military-age males, meaning they're largely little boys and girls and women who are fleeing refugee camps. Even in countries that don't have stable governments, we go through an

exhaustive vetting procedure that guarantees, as best as we can, that these people are not terrorists.

And let's be clear. If you're going to try to come to this country as a terrorist, you probably wouldn't go through the trouble of a 20-step interview process through the U.S. refugee program. You would probably come here illegally through another means.

So, it just doesn't bear credibility to suggest that the current vetting procedures don't work here. And again the proof is in the pudding. Since September 11, we have not had a terrorist attack on our soil from these countries. But let me tell you, that run may end because this ban has become recruitment fodder for all of these jihadist groups.

They're saying to potential lone wolf attackers in the United States, go do work in the name of jihad because of this ban. He's making this country less safe, not more safe.

BLITZER: Senator, there is more to discuss. There is more information coming in, in this brief that the Justice Department just filed. I want you to stay with us.

We've got to take a quick break. We will be right back.



BLITZER: We're following the breaking news.

The Trump administration has just filed this 15-page legal brief just moments ago in the legal battle over the president's proposed travel ban against seven mostly Muslim nations.

The appeals court has now scheduled oral arguments before the court via telephone tomorrow afternoon. That's the next step in this process.

We're talking about that and more with Senator Chris Murphy.

Senator, let's turn to the president's strong, I would call a pretty strong defense of Vladimir Putin. When Bill O'Reilly said Putin is a killer, the president came back and suggested, well, there are killers here in the U.S. government as well.

What do you think of that comparison between the United States and Russia under Putin?

MURPHY: Well, if Vladimir Putin really was pulling the strings of this administration, these are the things that President Trump would say.

I mean, that is a fairly outrageous defense of Vladimir Putin, to try to equate the fact that Vladimir Putin kills his political opponents with things that the United States has done to protect its national security. I guess that's the thread that I'm trying to imagine that he's drawing between the terrorists that we have killed and the political opponents that Vladimir Putin has killed.

And it's just a long -- it's in a long line of really disturbing remarks that he has made suggesting that he admires the fact that Vladimir Putin has used violence to stamp out dissent in his country. I'm not suggesting that that's what Donald Trump is going to do here, but it should make everybody nervous that he seems to hold Putin on a pedestal for what is a really, really autocratic way of running his country.

BLITZER: The president argues he wants a better relationship with Russia and with Putin because he thinks Putin can be a partner with the U.S. in fighting ISIS, in fighting terrorism.

Do you think Russia is capable of that role?

MURPHY: I do not think Russia is capable of playing that role. Why? Because I have watched what they have done inside Syria.


Russia has been complicit in the bombing of Aleppo that has resulted in thousands and thousands of civilians being killed. And it has added fuel to the fire of Sunni extremists that this coalition, which to them looks like Russia and the United States, is out to get them.

There are more terrorists that are being created inside of Syria than Russia is killing because of the indiscriminate nature of their bombing campaign.

In the end, Russia cares about one thing and one thing only inside Syria, keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. Their goal is not to eliminate ISIS. And it's a fiction that we could ever get on the same page with them in that fight.

BLITZER: Senator Murphy, thanks for joining us.

MURPHY: All right, thanks a lot.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, we will have more on the legal showdown over the president's travel ban. We're standing by to see what the federal appeals court does next. We have new information coming in.

Also, are Trump aides spending too much time trying to downplay reports of infighting? We are going to tell you what our sources are revealing. That's coming up.


BLITZER: Breaking news. We're following a federal appeals court has just scheduled oral arguments on the president's travel ban against seven mostly Muslim-majority countries. They'll be conducted by phone tomorrow. The oral arguments just moments -- all this coming just coming moments after the Trump administration filed its 15-page legal brief defending the president's travel order.

[18:30:59] Let's bring in our experts and panel. Pam Brown, let me start with you, because you've gone this 15-page document right now. The judges, they say they want oral arguments tomorrow. They'll give both sides an - opportunity -- what, half an hour each side -- to make their case. Then they'll make a decision. That's supposed to happen 6 p.m. Eastern tomorrow.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And going through the Justice brief that was just filed, it's clear that the Department of Justice is trying to make the argument that the president has broad discretion when it comes to immigration, both in the Constitution and with the law. It pointed out this law that says that "The president has broad discretion to suspend the entry of any class of any aliens into the United States." That is something that we've heard from the lawyers before over the weekend.

And they also made the point that people from these seven countries identified in the travel ban who have never been to the United States should not be granted constitutional rights. They say that they should not be afforded rights under equal protection, due process.

And what's interesting here, at the very end, though, of this 15-page brief that says, "at most, the injunction should be limited to the class of individuals on whose the state claims rest. So previously admitted immigrants who are temporarily abroad now or wish to travel and return to the United States in the future."

BROWN: Let me bring in Steve Vladeck. He's a professor of law at the Texas University School of Law, CNN contributor.

Steve, I also want to point out, we should disclose that you and some of your clients have filed amicus brief to help the 9th Circuit Court understand what's at stake in this case. Given what President Trump has said about a Muslim ban when he was a candidate, could that hurt him before this court?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, Wolf, I really think it could. I think the big question -- Pamela is right about how the government has now argued this case. The big question for the court of appeals tomorrow is how much of the merits do they really want to get into? Do they want to get into whether this is religious discrimination? Do they want to get into whether this is a violation of the Establishment Clause?

Wolf, we're at such a preliminary posture in this litigation it's entirely possible the court of appeals looks at the case, looks at the district court's order from last Friday, and says, "Let's let things go ahead. Let's let the litigation proceed, as opposed to this crazy emergency posture, before we reach these very weighty constitutional questions."

BLITZER: The fact that the president called one of the federal judges a "so-called judge" -- earlier when he was a candidate, he referred to another federal judge, saying his legitimacy in the Trump University case was questionable because of his, quote, "Mexican heritage" even though he was born in Indiana. Do federal judges in a U.S. court of appeals, for example, do they take that as a slight? And could that hurt the administration?

VLADECK: Well, obviously, formally, they don't and they can't. There's no way in which they're going to hold those kinds of statements against President Trump when ruling on this application, when ruling on the legality of the executive order.

But Wolf, these are human beings. They don't live in a vacuum. And I think they're not going to be bullied by these attempts to, you know, cow them into submission. To the contrary, I think if anything, they're going to be reinforced on the need for vigorous judicial oversight of the new president's actions.

I think, again, the question is what that looks like at this very early stage, is that a ruling on the merits, or is that simply a, you know, terse procedural ruling that allows the litigation to go forward while keeping the executive order on hold?

BLITZER: Gloria, we're only, what, in the third week of a new presidency right now.


BLITZER: We could be heading towards a constitutional crisis, right?

BORGER: We could, eventually. This could eventually end up before the Supreme Court. I think right now what you've got is a process argument, and that will get resolved one way or another.

And then you're going to get to the weightier constitutional issues, which is how much independent constitutional authority does the president of the United States have over immigration, and what authority does the Congress have. So yes, this is going to be a showdown.

And if you take a step back for a minute, and you see this particular situation that we are in, which is we have a Supreme Court nominee that is going to go before the Congress, the issue of immigration and where he stands on these kinds of constitutional issues will now be front and center in his hearing before the Congress. And so it just opens up a whole can of worms.

[18:35:16] BLITZER: And Brianna, the president didn't just tweet about this "so-called judge." He also suggested that, if there were some terror attack, this judge would be responsible for that.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And in that regard, he's potentially putting that judge at risk.

We've seen Donald Trump, though, he doesn't necessarily consider those things all the time. I think we saw that with Judge Curiel in the other case, although there were racial undertones with that one.

I think that this is significant, because it's going to tell us a lot. As Gloria mentioned, if this goes to the Supreme Court, as it could very well do, this could be an early test of the system under a Donald Trump presidency.

He campaigned -- and people delivered for him at the ballot box -- on this idea that the system is broken. I think we see him here, whether he's trying to do this is such a concerted way or not, kind of, like, kicking the system a little bit to see what parts fall off. And this will tell us a lot about how future cases going before the Supreme Court may pan out for President Trump.

BLITZER: You know, it's very interesting, David Swerdlick. The vice president, Mike Pence, his job, at least in part right now, is what they're calling Mr. Cleanup. The president says something very controversial. Mike Pence goes out there and tries to clean it up.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, he has those skills, right? As a former member of Congress, former governor, the vice president has the ability to speak more like a politician than the president and also is familiar in the ways with which conservatives talk about particular issues.

The way President Trump is talking about, let's say, Russia is not the way conservatives have talked about Russia in recent years. And so it takes Vice President Pence to walk that line between not disrespecting the president or disregarding the president's views but, at the same time, making his views more palatable to a wider audience.

BLITZER: Because Gloria, a lot of Republicans out there very critical of the president's comments equating Russian, quote, "killers" with U.S. killers.

BORGER: Most Republicans.

BLITZER: A lot of Republicans are worried about that, and not happy with the way this travel ban was laid out, if you will.


BLITZER: And they're criticizing. But inside the White House, all these officials, they have to be very protective and defensive of the president.

BORGER: Well, you have a very combustible situation inside the White House, Wolf.

You have a president who likes to freelance, on the one hand, very late at night, very early in the morning through his tweets. And you have a White House that is trying to get on track with some kind of a management system through chief of staff Reince Priebus. And you have competing ideological centers also in the White House.

I was told by somebody who's very close to Donald Trump that, look, this is a man who likes to manage by conflict, because in the end, then, he can steer a decision any way he wants. That worked for him in business. It worked for him in the campaign. We do not know whether it's go work for him in the White House. Because so far, quite honestly, it's created a lot of chaos.

BLITZER: We're going to pick up that thought right after a quick break.

Just ahead, the infighting within the president's inner circle, did it contribute to a situation where the president was blindsided?


[18:42:43] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news on President Trump's travel ban. A federal appeals court has just scheduled oral arguments tomorrow on whether to reinstate the ban or uphold the lower court ruling to suspend it.

This just moments after the Trump administration filed its legal brief defending the travel ban order. Right now we're getting a new peek behind the curtain, at the infighting, the rivalries that are playing out within the Trump administration.

Let's go to our White House correspondent Sara Murray. She's on the scene for us. Sara, what are you learning?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Trump has certainly had a busy first two weeks, but amid all of that activity, there have also been turf wars; and there's been a whole lot causing officials in Washington a lot of heartburn.

Now, the Trump administration is changing some of their tactics, but if you're expecting President Trump to change, those Washington insiders might be very disappointed.


MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump's top aides are taking pains to insist everything's going smoothly in the West Wing.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: We're a very tight group, and we all lived in a foxhole are going well.

MURRAY: In a whirlwind two weeks, Trump has delivered on many of his campaign promises.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll begin immediate construction of a border wall.

MURRAY: But he's done so with chaos churning in the background. The president faced backlash for putting chief strategist Steve Bannon on the principles committee of National Security Council.

And the rocky rollout of Trump's travel ban was panned even by his close allies, who say he wasn't well-served by his advisers.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: The president has a structure in the White House with three folks who are predominantly in charge of operations at the White House: Mr. Bannon, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Priebus. I think anyone who looks at this knows that it could have been and should have been done better.

MURRAY: While Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged there were some missteps.

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll concede that sometimes the usual Washington niceties of informing members of Congress were not, you know, fully -- fully implemented.

MURRAY: It's part of a learning curve for Trump and his team.

Advisers say the president didn't realize how controversial it would be to put Bannon on the principles committee. And with the travel ban, now embroiled in legal challenges, Trump has tasked Priebus with ensuring future agenda items are implemented smoothly.

[18:45:06] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Reince is fantastic.

MURRAY: But sources tell CNN the Trump administration is putting more energy into downplaying reports of staff fighting than actually solving tensions that persist between Priebus, Bannon and others in the West Wing. Those tensions may put Trump's GOP allies in Washington on edge.

But there is little sign they bother the president. This weekend he tweeted, "I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it."

Trump is often the driving force behind the cycles of chaos and then calm, that were all too common in his presidential campaign.

The big challenge for his team: moderating the impulse to act first and deal with the fallout later.

DOUG HEYE, FORMER RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Donald Trump doesn't have the filter that Barack Obama or George W. Bush had. That can be a strength to communicate his message directly to voters. It obviously also causes a great deal of concern amongst White House aides and the press operation. That's where they need to do the job of cleanup on aisle five.


MURRAY: Now, those who know President Trump well say he thrives in tumultuous environments. But that's necessarily true of everyone he surrounds himself with. In fact, even though there is a lot of jobs still open in the West Wing, some former campaign staffers are offered positions in other government agencies. One person said, that's to avoid the West Wing circus.

Back to you, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Sara Murray standing outside the West Wing -- Sara, thanks very much.

Let's get back to our political and legal experts.

Gloria, you've done a strong article at about this infighting that's going on inside the White House. How is it working? GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's got problems.

I mean, people went out of their way to go on the record this past weekend to say how well that's working. That's always in Washington a sure sign that there are sure problems, right?

And I think what you have is a situation where you have ideological differences, you have chain of command confusion, and you have a president who goes upstairs at the White House at night. He lives home alone, his wife is in New York, his family is in New York. And he watches television, and he tweets about what he sees on television, and that creates more and more chaos.

And so, when you have a president who wants to freelance and then use that agenda and you have to defend what your president has said the next morning, it upsets the apple cart. I think it's a very tough situation and they -- the president is not as fully informed and briefed as he should be. You know, as Sara reported, he didn't know that putting Steve Bannon as a principal on the National Security Council was going to be controversial. That's a staff's fault.

BLITZER: Brianna, is the president running the White House now, only three weeks into the new administration, the way he run the campaign, or the way he used to run his business?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think he might be running it in both ways, but they're very different systems. I mean, we know that governing is different than campaigning and we know that running a business is different than both.

So, the question is does that approach really work for all of these different systems and I think we're learning at least initially as this is such a sticky situation, with the immigration ban, for instance, at least right now it doesn't seem to be working when you're looking sort on a micro level, but I think it's really too soon to tell exactly if he's accomplishing what he wants or not. Part of it was that he wanted to disrupt the system and I think his supporters are loving that part of it.

BLITZER: Yes, there's a lot of discussion, as you know, David, that with this -- the commotion over the travel ban may be going to the Supreme Court, there is a lot at stake right now for his top strategist Steve Bannon.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, if you go back to the latter stages of the campaign, Wolf, the intellectual or ideological through line from then until now, through the transition until the first weeks of the Trump's presidency seems to be the influence of Steve Bannon, in terms of the issues that are being prioritized. So, yes, if the travel ban has problems with core challenges, if some of these other issues stall out, it will reflect on the Bannon agenda.

BLITZER: Steve Vladeck, I wonder if you've thought about the initiate that comes before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the travel ban, how that will impact if you believe it will impact the confirmation process for Neil Gorsuch to become the next United States Supreme Court justice?

STEVE VLADECK, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS SCHOOL OF LAW: Well, Wolf, it's certainly going to come up and I think the question becomes, whether senators on Judiciary Committee are going to ask Judge Gorsuch what he thinks about in general these kinds of policies, will he ask them about some of the older Supreme Court precedents in the immigration field.

You know, Wolf, we already know that Judge Gorsuch while on the federal appeals court in Denver has written a number of opinions expressing skepticism that courts should defer too much to the executive branch in the specific context of immigration policy.

[18:50:02] You know, one wonders if that's going to give us a clue about how a Justice Gorsuch might rule if this case would ever to reach the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: How long do you think it's going to take for that confirmation process to go forward? Because at some point, assuming that the court of appeals can't make up a firm final decision, it goes to the Supreme Court, eight justices instead of the required nine would be there.

VLADECK: Yes. No, I mean, it's entirely possible that anything that happens in the next couple of weeks, Wolf, even the next six weeks to two months. You're going to have a short-handed court, which as you say, is going to handicap the justices a bit in what they can do. If this case actually ends up in the Supreme Court on the merits, that is without these early stage procedural maneuverings and wrangling, I think that's going to happen sometime in the fall, probably October and November.

By that point, I have to think that Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed. Or if he's not, if something goes wrong in the Senate, that there will be another candidate. It seems likely that at least by the time the court sits down in October, it will have a full bench.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, standby.

We're getting some breaking news. Jim Sciutto is in the CNN newsroom for us right now.

Jim, what are you learning?


A senior U.S. military official confirming to CNN that that raid, that special forces raid, U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen a week ago Sunday that left a U.S. Navy SEAL dead, as well as a number of civilians, including an eight-year-old girl, that the target of that raid not just intelligence collection, but in fact the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, Qassim al-Rimi. He was a target of the raid. He was not killed in the raid, and since that attack last Sunday, he's gone and put out an audio recording mocking President Donald Trump in part for his surviving this attempt to kill him. But the key information there, Wolf, is that there was a significant target in this raid. It helped explain the enormous allocation of resources, all those special forces, those U.S. Navy SEALs, those special forces from the United Arab Emirates as well, the great risk taken in this operation. The main target, though, was not taken out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jim Sciutto with the breaking news -- thanks very much. We're going to get more on this late breaking development. We'll take a quick break and we'll be right back.


[18:56:38] BLITZER: Tonight, many Americans have a new image of the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stuck in their heads courtesy of "Saturday Night Live."

CNN's Sara Ganim is with us.

Sara, Melissa McCarthy's spoof of Spicer was, shall we say, memorable.

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was. And, you know, her appearance was a surprise. McCarthy wasn't announced. She came on at midnight 30 minutes into the show. Still, it's being called one of the best examples of satire in years.


MELISSA MCCARTHY AS SEAN SPICER: I came out here to punch you.

GANIM (voice-over): It's the comedic impression that's making a political one.

Melissa McCarthy taking on controversial press secretary Sean Spicer.

MCCARTHY: I would like to begin today by apologizing on behalf of you to me, for how you have treated me the last two weeks. And that apology is not accepted.

GANIM: "Saturday Night Live" doing more than just comedy, taking on the new administration using its own words.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wanted to ask about the travel ban on Muslims.

MCCARTHY: Yes, it's not a ban.


MCCARTHY: It's not a ban. The travel ban is not a ban, which makes it not a ban.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you just called it a ban.

MCCARTHY: Because I'm using your words. You said ban.

GANIM: That satirical exchange not far off from an actual exchange Spicer had with reporters last week.

REPORTER: He says it's a ban.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He's using the words that the media is using.

GANIM: What many are calling McCarthy's uncanny impression of Spicer --

MCCARTHY: Stop writing that down.

GANIM: -- followed the portrayal of chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, played by the Grim Reaper.

ALEC BALDWIN AS DONALD TRUMP: Steve, I think that was bad, was that bad?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it went just according to plan.

GANIM: Over the years, impressions had impacted the public's perception of political figures, including comedian Tina Fey's performance as Sarah Palin.

TINAY FEY AS SARAH PALIN: And I can see Russia from my house.

GANIM: Some people believed Palin said those words. What she actually told ABC's Charlie Gibson was this.

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.

MCCARTHY: I'm here to swallow gum and I'm here to take names.

GANIM: Spicer told the entertainment show "Extra" --

SPICER: Melissa McCarthy needs to slow down on the gum chewing.

MCCARTHY: When it comes to these decisions, the Constitution gives our president lots of power. And Steve Bannon is the key advisor, OK?

GANIM: President Trump didn't directly respond to the sketches, but he has repeatedly tweeted about Alec Baldwin's impression of him, calling "SNL" unwatchable and not funny, tweeting, quote, "The Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad."

BALDWIN: I've had a long day. I'm tired and cranky, I feel like I could just freak out on somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe you should call Australia.

GANIM: But the ratings, which Trump which so often values, say differently. "SNL" was the highest rated show on Saturday, and is enjoying some of its strongest ratings in 22 years.

MCCARTHY: That's enough for the day, Spicy's going to go bye-bye right now, I need a big boy nap. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GANIM: President Trump hasn't tweeted anything about "SNL" since the show. And while Spicer took it in stride, he did defend his boss, saying that Alec Baldwin in his portrayal of Trump has gone from funny to mean, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Ganim, reporting thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.