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THE SITUATION ROOM
Trump Budget to Boost Defense Spending by $54 Billion, Cut Other Programs; Pentagon Submits Plan to Defeat ISIS; New Wave of Bomb Threats to Jewish Centers, Schools; Trump Budget to Boost Defense Spending by $54 Billion, Cut Other Programs; White House Trying to Plug Leaks; Aired 5-6p ET
Aired February 27, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
TAPPER: That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer.
[17:00:18] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: call to arms. On the eve of his first address to Congress, President Trump calls for a big increase in defense spending as the Pentagon comes up with a plan to defeat ISIS in less than a year.
Special prosecutor. While a key Republican lawmaker says a special prosecutor should investigate alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, the White House is pushing back, supported by the House Intelligence Committee chairman, who warns against a witch hunt.
Plugging the leaks. The White House launches an extraordinary crack- down, including checking staffers' cellphones to see if they're sharing information with the news media. Sources say the president signed off on the move.
And teams of assassins. Did Kim Jong-un order hit teams with female assassins to kill his half-brother? If so, why?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
A day before his big speech to a joint session of Congress, President Trump is making it clear he's planning a big boost in defense spending while other government agencies will be forced to make big cuts.
As his first budget blueprint is passed around Washington, the president says the government must learn to tighten its belt and do more with less. The Pentagon will be expected to do more with more and has sent the White House a blueprint of its own, laying out options for destroying ISIS in under a year. One of those options: boosting the U.S. military footprint inside Syria, including the possible dispatch of artillery units to support anti-ISIS fighters.
And stung by leaks about alleged Trump campaign contacts with Russian intelligence, the White House is now pushing back, saying there's no need for a special prosecutor to look into any Russia contacts; and it's trying to plug the leaks to the point where press secretary Sean Spicer has called staffers into his office for checks of their cell phones. I'll speak with Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice. And our
correspondents, analysts and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, president Trump is gearing up for his big speech to Congress and the American people tomorrow night. What are you learning?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The White House is pushing back on the notion that a special prosecutor is needed to investigate the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia.
The continued questions on Russia come as President Trump tries to reset the narrative here in Washington by offering Congress a sneak preview of his budget.
ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump's message to Washington: get ready for the budget axe.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to do more with less. We're going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people.
ACOSTA: In a preview of the Trump administration's first budget, White House officials say the president plans to ask for a staggering $54 billion increase in defense spending, offset by massive cuts in non-defense programs, as well as foreign aid. The budget boost for the Pentagon is so big it eclipses what the federal government spends at the State Department and EPA.
MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF BUDGET AND MANAGEMENT: We are taking his words and turning them into policies and dollars.
ACOSTA: The peek at the president's budget comes as the White House is still grappling with questions about the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia before the election. Over the weekend, California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, a Trump supporter, suggested a special prosecutor may be necessary to put the matter to rest.
REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: You're right that you cannot have somebody, a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who is an appointee. You're going to need to use the special prosecutor's statute.
ACOSTA: The White House response to that?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I guess my question would be a special prosecutor for what? How many people have to say that there's nothing there before you realize there's nothing there?
ACOSTA: Spicer also defended the White House decision to enlist the two GOP intelligence committee chairmen in Congress, as well as the CIA director, to talk to reporters about the Russia controversy.
SPICER: All we sought to do was to actually get an accurate report out.
ACOSTA: House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes was careful to say he's yet to see proof of any wrongdoing.
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), INTELLIGENCE CHAIRMAN: We haven't seen evidence of anyone from the Trump campaign or any other campaign that's communicated with the Russian government.
ACOSTA: When asked about the prospect of a special prosecutor, the president gave this curious reply.
TRUMP: I haven't called Russia in 10 years.
ACOSTA: That's odd considering Mr. Trump just spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin for an hour a few weeks ago, not to mention his own trip to Russia in 2013 to promote his Miss Universe pageant there.
(on camera): Do you have a relationship with Vladimir Putin, a conversational relationship? Or anything that you feel you have sway or influence over his government?
TRUMP: I do have a relationship. And I can tell you that he's very interested in what we're doing here today. He is probably very interested in what you and I are saying today, and I'm sure he's going to be seeing it in some form. But I do have a relationship with him. And I think it's very interesting to see what's happened.
[17:05:15] ACOSTA (voice-over): Former President George W. Bush said he might support a special prosecutor if the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Richard Burr, wanted one.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If he were to recommend a special prosecutor, then I -- it would have a lot more credibility with me.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
ACOSTA: Now, the president will have more to say about his budget in his speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night. What's unclear is what the president will propose to repeal Obamacare. Republican leaders in Congress would like to see the president back their plan to get rid of the health care law and replace it with something else.
Today, Wolf, the president himself suggested there are challenges ahead saying, quote, "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated." It is complicated business, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta reporting from the White House. Thank you.
The Pentagon has given the White House a blueprint to defeat ISIS in under a year. That comes as President Trump is planning a big increase to defense spending.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, what is the new battle plan against ISIS?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's all very much in the preliminary stages. The first meeting at the White House scheduled for this afternoon, Defense Secretary James Mattis leading that. You'll remember that the president said he wanted options, ideas for how to accelerate the fight within 30 days. That plan, those options now over at the White House.
Our understanding is it is wide-ranging but very preliminary. Everything from adding troops in Syria for artillery support for the local troops fighting ISIS, the possibility of safe zones for Syrian civilians, something the Pentagon is very skeptical of, adding troops in Iraq. A whole range of ideas. Costly and risky, but this is just the beginning of the discussion, we're told. There will be many more meetings to come on the way ahead, Wolf.
BLITZER: What are you hearing over at the Pentagon, Barbara, about this big proposed budget increase?
STARR: Well, as Jim Acosta just said, $54 billion. But coming at the cost of cutting spending in other areas to a large extent. And it's very interesting, Wolf.
One of the biggest skeptics of cutting funding at the State Department for diplomacy, which the Pentagon sees as vital to fighting ISIS, one of the biggest skeptics, James Mattis. Before he became the civilian defense secretary, a couple of years ago as an active-duty general, he testified on Capitol Hill about what he thought about cutting State Department funding. Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES MATTIS, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I would start with the Department of State budget, and frankly, they need to be as -- as fully funded as Congress believes appropriate because, if you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.
So I think it's a cost/benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department's diplomacy, hopefully, the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STARR: Now, even though that was a couple of years ago, it still gives you an indication of James Mattis' thinking about all of this, because right now, with this draft plan to fight ISIS, the Pentagon is very adamant that it includes diplomatic and financial options, as well, not just the military -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thank you. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Joining us now, Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York, a
member of the Homeland Security Committee. Congresswoman, thank very much for joining us.
REP. KATHLEEN RICE (D), NEW YORK: Thanks for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: So CNN is now reporting that the Pentagon plans to lay out, within less than a year, a plan -- lay out immediately, within less than a year to destroy, completely defeat, ISIS. Is that realistic?
RICE: Well, let's see. We have to see what is in the plan. I think that, to put a time limit on something as difficult as this is probably not wise. But clearly, we have to do something.
But I think that -- what I hope it includes is what President Obama felt was so important, and I totally supported, which is building relationships with all of the Muslim countries in the area, our partners there, so that it's not a go-it-alone philosophy of just us going in with none of our partners in the region with us.
BLITZER: The White House is calling for increased defense spending now. You just heard another 50-plus billion. You think that's necessary for U.S. security?
RICE: We'll see. The devil is going to be in the details. But I will tell you, Wolf, one thing that concerns me about this is, obviously, he has to pay for that. And what we've heard so far is that he's going to do that by cutting aid that, as was just played, that now-Secretary Mattis said is absolutely essential to maintaining safe areas across the world.
And that is money that goes to the State Department, that we use to aid countries, to help keep terrorism out of countries all across the world. If you're going to -- you can't do -- it's not an either/or situation. There is a lot of aid that goes to these countries that actually obviates the need for us to increase military spending.
But again, the devil's going to be in the details. So I'm looking forward to seeing what the plan actually is.
BLITZER: Yes, they say they want to cut foreign aid. I'm looking at the foreign aid that's distributed right now by the State Department, by the U.S. government. The largest economic and military aid recipient is Afghanistan with almost $5 billion a year. Then Israel, all military assistance, $3.1 billion. Egypt, combination economic and military, 1.4, 1.5 billion. Iraq another billion. Jordan, Pakistan, Kenya.
You think that that -- those kinds of aid recipients, that that kind of aid should be reduced?
RICE: No. I think that those are critical investments that we have to maintain, Wolf. There's no question about it.
First of all, you're not going to be able to pay for the kind of increase that President Trump is looking for. There just isn't enough money in the foreign aid coffers. There just isn't. He doesn't want to touch the entitlement programs, because that was a campaign promise that he made. So he's trying to look for it elsewhere, and there just isn't enough money elsewhere.
But I also hope that people like Secretary Mattis will stay true to his word of a couple of years ago and explain to the president that it really is very short-sighted to cut foreign aid to these essential countries that we need to help in the fight against ISIS.
BLITZER: It's not just foreign aid. He wants to cut a lot of the spending of the Environmental Protection Agency. That's another big target for reduced spending. You with him on that?
RICE: No, absolutely not. But, you know, that -- I'm not surprised. I mean, that was something that he talked about in -- during the campaign. He's a climate change denier. I mean, there's no question that he was going to go after the EPA. So I'm not surprised about that.
BLITZER: You're a former federal prosecutor, Congresswoman. Amid reports that the White House reached out to the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, do you think your colleague, the House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, can lead a fair, bipartisan investigation?
RICE: There's no question that what he did was completely inappropriate. And this is exactly why the Trump administration needs to just bite the bullet and support an independent commission. That's what they need to do here.
You can't have an administration leaning on chairmen of relevant committees of jurisdiction that are supposed to be looking into this in order to get their help in a P.R. campaign. I mean, this is just ridiculous that we're even in this position.
As a prosecutor, you would never comment on an ongoing investigation. It would be totally inappropriate. And it would affect the legitimacy of the ultimate outcome, as well.
So the answer to -- in my mind, is just take it away from Congress. Take it away from the president and set up an independent commission. Just like we did after 9/11. And so the American people can have faith that the conclusions that they came to were not driven by politics.
BLITZER: The president's national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, said the use of the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" doesn't help the U.S. in working with its allies to defeat terrorist groups. Clearly, he was breaking from the president's view on that phrase. Is that encouraging to you? Where do you stand?
RICE: I hope he does that more. My hope is that, when you have people like him and like Mattis and Tillerson, people who get the international scene and what is going on in a way that this president, quite frankly, just doesn't, I hope that he actually listens to them. Put them in place. Hopefully he'll listen to them because they have decades and decades of experience. And hopefully he'll listen to what they have to say.
BLITZER: Congresswoman Rice, there's more for us to discuss, including the latest developments involving Jewish community centers, Jewish schools. Threats today. Desecration of another Jewish cemetery outside Philadelphia. I want your thoughts -- you're a member of the Homeland Security Committee -- what's going on on this front. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Bomb threats were phoned in today to Jewish community centers, Jewish day schools across 11 states, forcing toddlers to be evacuated in their cribs. Dozens made in recent weeks and follow the weekend vandalism at another Jewish cemetery, this one outside Philadelphia, the second such incident recently. The White House is calling the actions cowardly and hateful.
We are back with Democratic congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Your district -- it's on long island, I know -- has seen threats to Jewish community centers there. You are on the Homeland Security Committee. I assume you have been briefed. Has anyone been arrested? Do you know who is behind these threats?
PRICE: There is no evidence yet as to who is behind this. It may be one individual. They are going down that path to see if that is possible. But this is just so disturbing, Wolf. I represent one of the largest Jewish communities in this country. One of these threats came into my district. So a couple of things have to happen.
We have to support law enforcement and their attempt to do a robust investigation to try to find out who or how -- what group or individual or individuals are behind this. But we also need to speak out and condemn this kind of bigotry and this kind of hatred in the strongest terms whatsoever.
BLITZER: These threats seem to be coming in waves. There was, what, at least another 11, maybe 15 today, including a Jewish day school outside of Washington, D.C., one in suburban Maryland, one in northern Virginia. Does it appear to be some coordinated assault?
And I just want to reiterate. As far as I know, no one has yet been arrested in any of these threats. And there have been dozens and dozens over these past few weeks.
RICE: No. There are no arrests yet. But there's no question that law enforcement all across the country is working on this. It's priority No. 1. There's no question about that.
But look, what we need to do is people in positions like mine, we need to come out and strongly condemn this kind of bigotry and this kind of hatred. And I've got to tell you, I think that we need -- our top leaders -- and by that I mean the president -- to come out immediately and condemn this kind of activity, this kind of criminal behavior that is so disturbing and is causing such a terrible fear and unrest in Jewish communities all across this country. And I hope that President Trump is more forceful in his condemnation
of this behavior.
BLITZER: Because we did see the vice president. He went to that cemetery, that Jewish cemetery outside in Missouri. And he personally got involved in helping to clean it up. Those tombstones were overthrown. And he spoke out very passionately in Missouri. We are seeing similar desecration of a Jewish cemetery outside of Philadelphia. What specifically would you like to see the president, as opposed to the vice president, do?
RICE: I'd like to see him -- maybe he could have done what the vice president did. I mean, that's the kind of leadership that we need, Wolf, when we see this kind of bigotry and this hatred being played out in communities all across this country and instilling such a level of fear in people's lives that is just unnecessary.
So it would be nice if he were to go out and actually show not just through his words but through his actions like the vice president did, how strongly he feels about this kind of intimidation and bigotry. And back it up with some actions.
BLITZER: Congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York, thanks so much for joining us.
RICE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, we have new details about the plot to kill the half-brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Investigators have discovered two separate assassination teams were involved.
[17:26:56] BLITZER: Just moments ago the Oval Office, the White House, the president met with a large group of leaders from historically black colleges and universities who have come to Washington. Let's listen in briefly for a second.
TRUMP: Now can we move back a little bit? The Oval Office. People love the Oval Office. We had a meeting at another office. I said, "How about the Oval Office?" Everybody agreed unanimously let's do it, right? This could be a new record forever. What you're doing is fantastic. You are special.
BLITZER: Hard to hear, but he joked at one point that he didn't think that there had ever been this many people in the Oval Office before.
These are representatives, leaders, from the historically black colleges and universities who have come to Washington. I know that Howard University here in Washington is celebrating this week its 150th anniversary. They'll be having a special event over at the museum, African-American Museum of History later in the week. The president receiving these leaders in the Oval Office. We'll check in and see what else happened there.
In the meantime, the president's team unveiled details of a budget plan that features a $54 billion increase in defense and security spending, to be paid for with major cuts across government agencies.
Let's get some insight from our political experts. Guys, thanks very much.
Dana, let me start with you. Ten percent increase, in effect, for military defense spending, along with tax cuts. A lot of tax cuts. We have no idea when they're going to be implemented, when they're even going to be announced. Now the president says he's got to deal with health care before he can deal with tax cuts. This is a very ambitious plan, but details are thin.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Details are thin. But it is pretty clear that, along with the increase in defense spending that the president is proposing, it is intended to be offset by cuts, pretty dramatic cuts, in order to not be even more in the red. The idea would be probably about 10 percent across the board. And some agencies would very likely get deeper cuts than others. And that would probably -- his idea would not be a surprise to those who listened to him on the campaign trail. The EPA. Even the State Department, foreign aid, potentially. He would propose that to be cut. Major portions of the State Department, even. I was seeing special envoys. Parks, education, medical research.
However, here's the most important thing to remember. This is a budget blueprint from the president of the United States. A document that he puts out there. It is his wish list. It is the way that he would like the government to be funded and what his priorities are.
Then it is up to the Congress to not only create their own budget but, which would just be a blueprint and not the law of the land, but then actually turn that into legislative priorities when -- with regard to appropriations and so forth. So that is the key thing to remember, that this is his wish list, but just because this is what he says, it doesn't necessarily mean what's going to happen.
BLITZER: These are recommendations...
BLITZER: ... from the executive branch to the legislative branch.
BLITZER: So they eventually have to go through the budget process, the appropriations process themselves.
Ron Brownstein, what -- let's say they accept the president's ideas. What would the impact be of major cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department's foreign aid program, which would represent, you know, several billion dollars, clearly?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think you've got to -- you've got to see this budget as a milestone in Donald Trump's goal of redefining the Republican Party as a nationalist workers' party. And as such, it is a challenge both to Democrats and to congressional Republicans. I mean, I think the key to understanding this budget is that, not only
does he want to increase defense spending by offsetting it with cuts in domestic discretionary spending, he wants to exempt as much as possible from any cuts the biggest drivers of the long-term federal deficit, which are the giant federal retirement programs for the elderly: Social Security and above all, Medicare.
The fact is that, you know, over 70 percent of Americans over 45, those on the programs are either -- or nearing those programs, are white. And that older white constituency is the cornerstone of the new Republican coalition. A majority of Donald Trump's votes came from whites over 45.
On the other hand, the domestic discretionary programs that would be enormously squeezed under this vision of the budget primarily benefit younger people. They're the investments in the productivity of the future generations. Nearly half of Americans under 30 are non-white. And those are the cornerstone of the Democratic coalition.
So what you've got here is a budget that threatens those Democratic interests but also says to Paul Ryan, who has been pushing since 2011 to restructure Medicare as a premium support system, "Those are now our voters. You have to back off." And that will be an interesting, fascinating collision if the Trump administration holds to that position.
BLITZER: Yes. Throughout the campaign and since, he always said he's not going to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. for that matter, either.
He did have a chance, Mark, to meet today with the House speaker, Paul Ryan, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. They spoke about health care. And all of a sudden, the president is declaring, "You know, it's much more complicated than anyone thought."
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: "It's an unbelievably complex subject" is how he described it to the nation's governors, who were in town over this past weekend.
Look, this is one of his biggest challenges that he's going to have to face. He has talked about repealing and replacing legislation without actually having anything in place that would be able to take care of those who are provided health care through Obamacare.
You know, to Ron's point right now, too, you have to wonder about the coordination between the White House and congressional Republicans. We do know Phil Mattingly, our colleague, has a very deep dive. You can read it on CNN.com, a very deep dive about how Paul Ryan is trying to merge the White House with congressional Republicans to get things done, Wolf.
But the fact of the matter is, when you have Donald Trump out there making these bold declarations without backing it up, it really puts...
BLITZER: Let me play the clip -- let me -- hold on one second. Let me just play the clip, Dana, for what the president said about health care and how difficult it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have come up with a solution that's really, really, I think, very good. Now, I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You're smiling.
BASH: Yes, they did. They did know.
BLITZER: A lot of people knew.
A lot of people knew. And that's the reason why it was so incredibly difficult to get to where President Obama got, even and especially among the Democrats. Remember, President Obama only passed his healthcare law with Democratic votes, and even getting to that point, to negotiate among Democrats, was incredibly difficult.
So yes, everybody knew that it was -- it was hard. It is even harder, in fairness to President Trump, given the fact that this is now a benefit in place. It is flawed. It is not perfect. There are a lot of things that even Democrats say that would need to be changed. But it is there, and people view it as a benefit. And so it does make it harder for him to, in some cases, take it away and, in other cases, try to amend it.
BLITZER: Very quickly, Ron, go ahead.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes. The same distributional issue we're talking about with Medicare and Social Security looms over this. I mean, Obamacare has a lot of problems, but one thing it systematically did was it asked younger people and healthier people to pay more so that older and sicker people would pay less and face less financial risk.
The Republican solutions are about deregulating insurance in a way that unravels that risk sharing and would, in -- probably in almost every case, increase costs and risk for older and people with greater health needs at a time when those are their core voters.
Again, a majority of Donald Trump's votes came from whites over 45. Sixty percent of the House Republicans represent districts that are older than the national average. Finding a replacement for Obamacare that does not hurt their own voters is a very difficult circle to square. And that's one of the reasons this is so hard to move forward.
BLITZER: Yes. He said he's not going to move forward on tax cuts, including huge corporate tax cuts, until they figure out how to deal with the health care issue.
All right. Everybody stand by. We're getting new information about the extraordinary efforts to stop leaks over at the White House.
And later, disturbing new details emerging from the investigation into the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's older half-brother.
BLITZER: Talking about leaks about alleged Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials. The White House is pushing back against an investigation, and it's trying to plug the leaks, even to the point of calling in staffers for checks of their cell phones.
[17:35:10] CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is looking into all of this for us. What are you learning, Jeff?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning the White House is increasingly concerned about leaks. They're trying every way they can to shape the message of this administration.
And the president is deeply involved in this. After all, he is someone who has had a long relationship with the media. He often shaped his own coverage when he was a billionaire businessman. Now he's asking his staff to also try and plug those leaks.
ZELENY (voice-over): The job of White House press secretary Sean Spicer increasingly includes being President Trump's enforcer.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We did our job...
ZELENY: At his briefing today, Spicer would not directly say whether he asked the director of the CIA to HELP push back on news reports about alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives.
SPICER: Respectfully, I have -- I think it's interesting that I'm being asked what's appropriate when what we're doing is actually urging reporters to engage with subject matter experts who can corroborate whether or not something is accurate or not.
ZELENY: But the White House did enlist Republican chairman of the House and Senate intelligence committees to talk to reporters, urging them to speak out against news accounts of reported Russia links.
SPICER: I think we did our job very effectively.
It was about the accuracy of the reporting and the claims that were made in there.
ZELENY: Spicer is also leading a crackdown on leaks inside the White House, going as far as launching a random check of staffers' phones during an emergency meeting last week to see if they were sharing information by text or e-mail or using encrypted apps to do so.
The White House counsel's office authorized these checks, and CNN has learned President Trump directly signed off on the move, eager to send a signal across the administration that he is furious at leaks during his first five weeks in office.
CNN has learned that Spicer also had the president's blessing last week in blocking reporters from "The New York Times," CNN and other organizations from a White House news briefing. The extraordinary moves have added tension to an already combustible environment in the West Wing.
From the moment he stepped into the briefing room the second day of Trump's presidency, Spicer has been a lightning rod.
SPICER: This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging, the bringing about of our nation together, is making it more difficult.
ZELENY: He soon became an easy caricature on "Saturday Night Live," with comedian Melissa McCarthy amplifying his anger.
MELISSA MCCARTHY, COMEDIAN: You know what that was? That was me blowing away their dishonesty.
ZELENY: He's become one of the leading faces of the Trump White House, which can be tricky terrain, serving under a president who has long managed his own press. Republicans close to the White House say Spicer is trying to prove his loyalty to the president.
TRUMP: A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.
BLITZER: The last Republican to occupy the office, former President George W. Bush, disagreed with that assessment, during an interview today on NBC News.
MATT LAUER, NBC: Did you ever consider the media to be the enemy of the American people?
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I consider the media -- media to be indispensable to democracy. That we need an independent media to hold people like me to account.
I mean, power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.
ZELENY: Certainly, a different tone there from that president to the current one in the White House.
But just a short time ago, Wolf, an interview with the president and Breitbart News was released. The president had stinging words for "The New York Times," a publication he often talks about. He said that their intent is "so evil and so bad." But Wolf, we should point out, this is part of the president's
strategy here to de-legitimize the media and also have someone to run against. He long had an opponent. His opponent now, he hopes, is the media -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny at the White House. Thanks very much.
Dana, why does he think he will get this kind of benefit from going after the mainstream media or some elements of which he calls fake media?
BASH: I'm not so sure that he -- he really thinks that he's going to get a benefit, ultimately. I just think what Jeff Zeleny just said is right on, that he operates in a world where he needs an opposition. He doesn't necessarily have one at the ready right now. Nothing and no one as sort of -- as interesting as the media.
And it, of course, continues to rile his base. And once he loses his base or if he loses his base, then he starts to really, you know, begin to crumble. So he needs to continue to do that.
I'm just not sure if going the extra mile, continuing to go after the "New York Times," you know, CNN and others, is going to get him anywhere, because the more he does that, the more those of us in journalism, you know, feel -- feel compelled to double and redouble and triple our efforts to do our jobs.
BLITZER: Because some have suggested, Ron, there during the campaign he had "Low-energy Jeb," or "Lying Ted," "Little Marco," then in the general election, "Crooked Hillary." Now he's got, you know, "fake news," "fake media." Do you see a pattern there?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah. There's an us against them nature of all these populist nationalist movements around the world. There are a lot of different thems (ph) that President Trump has kind of pointed the finger at. I mean, you know, you have elites at home broadly speaking, not only the media but corporate elites that he accuses of shipping jobs overseas.
He's raised questions about Muslims. He's raised questions about undocumented immigrants. He's raised questions about foreign trading partners. So, I mean, there is kind of the us against them nature that he is standing for the people against all of these forces who would bring them down is a constant, I think, a core theme in these kind of populist movements around the world.
The other thing in which this I think has to be seen is that he has been extremely critical and seeming to try to delegitimize not only the media but really any institution that can act as a check. I mean, he's accusing intelligence community of behaving in a way that we've seen in Nazi Germany. He's attacked John McCain and Lindsey Graham -- I mean the most independent of Senate Republicans. I mean, there is a broader pattern here going after pretty much any institution that can offer a check on the direction that he wants to set.
BLITZER: Yeah. He spoke about a federal judge, a so-called judge, as we remember, going after the judiciary. And just the other day, he went after the FBI. They can't even control their own leakers, so you make some point.
All right, everyone stand by. There are now also some disturbing new details emerging about the plot to kill the half-brother of the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un. Investigators now believe two assassination teams worked independently and then came together just before the killing.
[17:51:29] BLITZER: Another stunning new twist tonight in the assassination of the North Korean leader's half-brother. Brian Todd has been digging into the story for us. What are you learning, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are getting some jarring new information tonight on just how organized this alleged plot was. According to South Korean intelligence, it involved two hit teams working separately who came together at the last moment to target Kim Jong-nam.
TODD (voice-over): New information tonight indicating a precise sinister plot to kill Kim Jong-un's half-brother.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible), happy holiday.
TODD (voice-over): South Korean intelligence says King Jong-nam was targeted by two North Korean assassination teams. The teams work independently, each recruiting one of the women accused of attacking Kim before coming together in Malaysia shortly before the murder. That's according to a South Korean lawmaker brief by intelligence officials.
Why were they working two teams and then come together right before the attack?
ERIC O'NEILL, NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGIST, CARBON BLACK: So one of the ideas is that you double your chances of committing the assassination. If you have two teams that may not know all of the details of each operation, in other words, one team is coming from one side and one is the other and they haven't coordinated completely, if one team is compromised the other can survive to carry out the task.
TODD (voice-over): Eric O'Neill is a former FBI counterintelligence officer who helped capture Russian mole Robert Hanssen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are you going?
TODD (voice-over): O'Neill is played by Ryan Phillippe in the spy thriller "Breach." In the Kim Jong-nam case, one suspect, a young Indonesian woman was paid about $90, and an Indonesian diplomat said.
Her aunts told CNN she thought she was taking part in a T.V. show "Prank," claiming she had previously done it with body lotion and tomato sauce. Malaysian police insist she knew it was a toxic substance, but not everyone is convinced.
O'NEILL: It's a good chance that they were dopes and the idea behind that is that she use people who -- when they're caught can't really explain much that leads back to intelligence.
TODD (voice-over): Kim Jong-nam's level of poisoning with the V.X. nerve agent was so high, Malaysia's health minister says that he likely died a painful death within 20 minutes of being exposed. He has seen slapped over at the airport clinic in a Malaysian newspapers' photo.
A South Korean lawmaker says this killing was an act of systematic terror ordered by Kim Jong-un, but why?
MARCUS NOLAND, PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: Well, to make a baseball analogy, some people regarded King Jong-nam as the relief pitcher waiting in the bullpen. He was in China and the idea was if things became too unstable in North Korea, the Chinese could ease Kim Jong-nam into power.
TODD (voice-over): The North Koreans vehemently deny any involvement in Kim Jong-nam's death and accuse South Korean media of publishing false reports.
Tonight, a South Korean lawmaker briefed by their intelligence agency says Kim Jong-un has gone on another execution binge ordering at least five senior security officials to be killed because they gave what the lawmakers said were false reports to Kim.
TODD: Now, expert say the reported executions of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam could also be a signal to the elites inside North Korea to stay in line and to not defect since Kim Jong-un will seemingly stop at nothing to kill his enemies, even a brazen public attack in an airport overseas using a deadly poison. Wolf?
BLITZER: Is there, Brian, any information on the alleged North Korean handlers who might have work with these two women in Malaysia?
TODD: Wolf, a South Korean lawmaker says four members of that assassination -- of the two assassination teams got out of Malaysia and fled to North Korea right after Kim Jong-nam's killing. They could be out of reach for international law enforcement.
[17:55:03] Analysts say, it is unusual for the North Koreans to actually recruit foreigners to carry out assassinations abroad, usually, they say the North Koreans use their own agents who are trained to swallow cyanide pills if they're caught.
BLITZER: Brian Todd, reporting. Thank you.
Coming up, a candidate Donald Trump may have thought it would be a snap to replace Obamacare, but President Donald Trump doesn't sound so sure.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ] DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Now, I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody new that health care could be so complicated.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLIRZER: Happening now. Big money, the Trump White House offers a peek at the president's bottom line with plans to add billions to the military budget and slash millions from just about everywhere else as Mr. Trump prepares to address Congress in the nation.