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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg; Tillerson Meets With Putin; Trump Reverses Course on Supporting NATO; Ex-Trump Adviser Responds to Report FBI Monitored Him; Trump Tonight: China Wants to Do "Right Thing" on North Korea. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 12, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: collision course. Discord deepens between the U.S. and Russia over Syria, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clashing in Moscow with Vladimir Putin, saying relations are at a low point. Can the two nuclear superpowers bridge their widening rift?
No longer obsolete. President Trump meets with the head of NATO and reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the organization, which he called into question out there on the campaign trail. We are going to get details of the meeting this hour in my exclusive interview with the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg.
Spying for Russia? Former Trump adviser Carter Page speaks out to CNN about reports the FBI obtained a secret court order to monitor his communications. But now sources tell us former campaign manager Paul Manafort is expected to register as foreign agent. Both men say they are willing to talk to congressional investigators. What would their testimony reveal?
And mixed messages. President Trump says the U.S. is sending a powerful armada amid growing concern of an imminent nuclear test by North Korea. But his secretary of state says U.S. warships now heading to the region are on a routine mission. Will China heed Mr. Trump's request to step up and help rein in Kim Jong-un?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news.
President Trump and his top diplomat speaking bluntly about the worsening relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Following a White House meeting between the secretary-general just a little while ago, the president said ties with Moscow "may be at an all-time low."
The president also reversed course on NATO, which he routinely slammed as a candidate, saying the organization is -- quote -- "no longer obsolete." The deep divisions between the U.S. and Russia were on full display as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russia's foreign minister and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Frosty talks yielding no agreement on Syria, with Tillerson lamenting what he called a low level of trust and declaring relations at a low point.
The administration may be seeing results from its pressure on China to help rein in North Korea and its growing nuclear threat. With a weapons test expected at any time, China is now signaling it may restrict oil exports to the Kim Jong-un regime. And following a phone call with China's president, Mr. Trump says tonight he believes China wants to do the right thing.
We are covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg. And our correspondent and expert analysts are also standing by.
Let's begin with President Trump's grim assessment of the U.S.-Russian relations.
Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, has the very latest.
Jim, the president says ties with Moscow may be at an all-time low.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
President Trump defended his actions in Syria over the last week at this news conference today and sounded surprisingly negative about Russia, something rarely heard from this president, who used to talk up his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Still touting his decision to call in missile strikes in Syria, President Trump made his feelings clear about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's a butcher. That's a butcher. So, I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing.
ACOSTA: Standing with NATO secretary-general, the president did offer something of a shift in his tone toward Russia.
TRUMP: Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.
ACOSTA: But the president stopped short of any criticism of the man who is arguably Assad's biggest backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
TRUMP: Putin is the leader of Russia. Russia is a strong country. We're a very, very strong country. We are going to see how that all works out.
ACOSTA: That's despite the fact that U.S. officials suspect Russia has been trying to cover up Syria's use of chemical weapons. The president even acknowledged the Trump administration is investigating whether Moscow had advanced knowledge of the chemical weapons attack that prompted last week's missile strikes.
TRUMP: I think it is certainly possible. I think it's probably unlikely. And I know they are doing investigations into that right now. I would like to think that they didn't know, but certainly they could have. They were there. So we will find out.
ACOSTA: Syria has placed the president in a tough spot when it comes to Putin.
TRUMP: Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?
ACOSTA: During the campaign and transition, Mr. Trump repeatedly held out hope for better relations between the U.S. and Russia.
TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is number one, tricky. If you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time.
The void was created. ISIS was formed. If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability.
ACOSTA: The president is defending his actions in Syria, saying they were aimed at preventing the deaths of innocent children.
TRUMP: You see these beautiful kids that are dead in their father's arms or you see kids gasping for life. You know it's over. It's over for them.
ACOSTA: But in December of 2015, then candidate Trump scoffed at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons.
TRUMP: Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy. Oh, it's because of gas.
ACOSTA: Another shift for the president on Russia is Mr. Trump's sudden support for NATO, an organization that Mr. Trump once described as obsolete.
TRUMP: I said it was obsolete. It is no longer obsolete.
ACOSTA: Speaking of changes in tone, the president also spoke rather glowingly of Chinese President Xi Jinping after their meeting down at Mar-a-Lago last week.
Candidate Trump once attacked China as destroying U.S. jobs. Today, the president held out hope that he could craft a trade agreement with China and secure Chinese cooperation when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Of course, all of that, Wolf, we will have to wait and see if it actually happens, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.
In addition to the president's shifts on Russia and NATO, he is also changing his tone on China. He's pressuring the country's president to help contain North Korea's nuclear threat.
Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us on that.
Jeff, the president spoke with the Chinese president earlier by phone.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He did, Wolf, indeed.
He had a phone conversation with him last evening, but, Wolf, some of the biggest changes in this president's language comes toward China. No question about it. He delivered tough talk on the campaign trail, accused China, in fact blamed them of taking manufacturing jobs away from America's heartland and accusing them at one point of raping the U.S.
His tone today though far more different, far more conciliatory. You might even say diplomatic.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Last night, separately, I spoke with a man that I have gotten to know. I don't know Putin, but I do know this gentleman. I have spent a lot of time with him over the last two days. And he is the president of China.
You were there, most of you were there, and it was quite an interesting period of time. President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things.
And I said the way you are going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea. Otherwise, we are going to just go it alone. That will be all right too. But going it alone means going it with lots of other nations. But I was very impressed with President Xi and I think he means well and I think he wants to help.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: Wolf, just a complete reversal there in the tenor and tone of his remarks.
Also today in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal," he said he would no longer label China a currency manipulator, something he talked about so often on the campaign trail.
BLITZER: And, Jeff, the president also sounding different than candidate Trump used to sound on some other issues as well. Tell us about that. ZELENY: He is indeed, Wolf. The list is stacking up.
The Export-Import Bank is one of those examples. He talked against that on the campaign trail so many times. He told "The Wall Street Journal" today in a 70-minute interview that he now supports the Export-Import Bank. That's the public/private partnership that brings in some foreign business.
Also, he now supports Janet Yellen, head of the Fed. He was such a strong opponent of hers, a critic of hers. But today he told "The Wall Street Journal" he now supports Janet Yellen.
BLITZER: Very interesting shifts indeed. All right, Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much.
The president's grim assessment of U.S.-Russia relations echoing the view of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after meeting with his Russian counterpart and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Tillerson said relations between the two countries right now are at a low point.
Our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is in Moscow for us tonight.
Michelle, Putin is saying relations with the United States have grown worse under President Trump. Update our viewers.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, nobody today wanted to gloss that over.
This relationship has devolved past that. And Tillerson just laid it right out there.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I expressed the view that the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KOSINSKI: The good news is that U.S. and Russia are talking. They are talking about doing more talking.
And that's about the best that could have come out of this. They are establishing a working group to tackle these issues. They think there needs to be more communication at a senior level. And they're reopening that channel that had been suspended to keep U.S. and Russian planes from getting in each other's ways over Syria.
You can see the diplomatic dance. Each side was looking for some common ground. They didn't want this to be a fight or step backwards, but they still needed to make their point. So, Tillerson did that by getting right to the point, being very succinct. He wasn't going to keep hammering this home.
Lavrov in this venue didn't outright blame others for the Syrian chemical attack. He didn't deny that Assad could have had a role. His deflection here was to keep saying there needs to be an investigation, we need more information, more information. And he did the same thing when talking about Russia's meddling in the U.S. election.
The bad news, of course, is, even through these responses, you still keep seeing seeping through these deep shades of the divisions that still exist. Whether they can be resolved is a question. How long that could take is another.
And what you don't hear is Russia backing away from supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad any time soon, Wolf.
BLITZER: Pretty comfortable in his Role as secretary of state. As you know, Michelle, he spent his career at ExxonMobil. He was the chairman and CEO. Now all of a sudden he is America's top diplomat.
He seemed to come across as pretty serious and pretty much informed on all the key issues.
KOSINSKI: I thought so too. He was measured in his responses. I think this is one prime example that could go for everybody, including this administration, that sometimes just stating your case, getting right to the point, being brief works very well.
And it was a good foil to Lavrov's lengthy explanations, and finger- pointing and blaming the Obama administration. I think Tillerson came out looking like even more of a statesman here.
BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski reporting from Moscow for us, Michelle, thank you very much.
Let's get some more on all of this. The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, is joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Secretary-General, thank you so much for joining us.
JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: Thank you so much for having me.
BLITZER: You had a very, very extensive day of talks with the president of the United States. We saw your news conference.
First of all, he no longer thinks NATO is obsolete. I assume you are pretty happy about that.
STOLTENBERG: Yes, I am.
And I think that reflects the reality that NATO is adapting when the world is changing. So, NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change...
BLITZER: But he told you he is not happy. It is not moving as quickly as he would like. He is still upbeat about that, right?
STOLTENBERG: And I told him that I welcome that he is pushing for more adaptation, that NATO has to continue to change, especially when it comes to stepping up our efforts in fighting international terrorism.
We do a lot, but we can do more. And also when it comes to fairer burden sharing inside the alliance, many allies have to invest more in defense.
BLITZER: I want to through all of those issues.
Let's start off right now with Russia.
Do you believe Russia knew that Syria was going to launch this chemical weapons attack against these civilians, killing all these children? And I assume you agree with the United States that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for this chemical weapons attack.
STOLTENBERG: Any use of chemical weapons is totally unacceptable.
And we have seen that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own population before. And I have all reason to trust the intelligence coming from the United States. This was a U.S. operation based on U.S. intelligence.
But NATO allies have expressed support and understanding, because chemical weapons is...
BLITZER: So, just to be precise, Secretary-General, do the 28 NATO allies all agree that Bashar al-Assad's regime killed all those civilians with a chemical weapons attack?
STOLTENBERG: As I said, this is a U.S. operation, the airstrikes against the airfield, based on U.S. intelligence.
But NATO allies have expressed understanding and some also have expressed very strong support.
BLITZER: As an organization, is there a consensus that the Syrians did it?
STOLTENBERG: NATO's alliance is not present inside Syria. And so this is not an issue that we have in a way been involved in directly as an alliance.
But, of course, all NATO allies are affected, because NATO allies are participating in the coalition fighting ISIL. And, thereby, many of them are present in Syria. And we are concerned about the situation in Syria. So, therefore, we have condemned the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime before.
And we have expressed also that we need a fact-finding mission, which is now established, to sort out actually... BLITZER: So, I know NATO as an organization is not involved in this horrendous humanitarian crisis, the six-year war. Half-a-million people maybe have been killed. Millions have been made homeless.
NATO is involved, as an organization, in Afghanistan, but why isn't NATO involved in fighting terrorism in Syria or Iraq?
STOLTENBERG: Well, NATO is involved also in supporting the fight against terrorism in both Syria and Iraq.
In Iraq, we provide direct support to the coalition fighting ISIL. We have our AWACS surveillance planes helping to improve the air picture over Syria and Iraq. And we train Iraqi officers to help them fight international terrorism.
BLITZER: What is NATO doing in Syria?
STOLTENBERG: We are helping with air picture, with the air operations with our AWACS surveillance planes.
But all NATO allies participate in different ways...
BLITZER: Because the U.S. has, what, about 1,000 ground troops in Syria right now.
How many NATO troops, other than U.S. troops, are in Syria right now?
STOLTENBERG: NATO allies, like, for instance, the United States and United Kingdom, and some others, they have trainers inside Syria.
But NATO, as an alliance, is not on the ground in Syria. What we do as an alliance is deploy support with our surveillance...
BLITZER: Because you know the president has repeatedly said, President Trump, that he is upset with NATO because NATO as an organization is not doing enough to fight terror.
Did he say that to you today?
STOLTENBERG: He said that he would like NATO to do more. And I totally agree with him.
And NATO plays a key role in Afghanistan. The reason why we are in Afghanistan is to fight international terrorism, prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for international terrorism.
Then we are present in Iraq. We are scaling up our training activities there. I strongly believe that the best way to fight terrorism is to enable the local forces to fight terrorism themselves, to stabilize their own country. We are present in the wider Middle East region helping partners like Jordan, Tunisia to stabilize their country and to fight terrorism. And then we help also with the air operations over Syria with our AWACS surveillance planes.
I believe NATO can do more. And that's exactly what we are looking into.
BLITZER: Is now there a new Cold War between the U.S. and Russia?
STOLTENBERG: It's not a new Cold War, but we have seen increased tensions. And the relationship between NATO and Russia has been worse for many years.
And, for me, that just underlines the importance of what we call the dual-track approach from NATO. That is that we need to have strong, credible deterrence, combined with political dialogue with Russia, because Russia is our biggest neighbor. Russia is here to stay.
And so we have to find a way to manage our relationship with them, and we have to avoid a new Cold War and a new arms race, and therefore what NATO does is proportional, defensive. But we are reacting when we see a more assertive Russia.
BLITZER: But the president, President Trump says there is fear in Europe, there is fear among the NATO alliance, among the NATO allies of Russia right now. Is that fear justified?
STOLTENBERG: We don't see any imminent threat against any NATO-allied country. But we see a more assertive Russia, which has used military force against the European neighbor Ukraine, and which is using hybrid warfare, cyber-attacks, to intimidate also NATO-allied countries.
And, therefore, we are stepping up our collective defense. We have implemented the biggest reinforcement to our collective defense since the end of the Cold War, and at least we are working on, for instance, cyber-defenses.
BLITZER: The whole NATO alliance is built under the assumption, as you know, Secretary-General, that if one NATO ally is attacked, it is an attack on all the NATO allies.
Is that still applicable? Now if the Russians, for example, were to take steps against one of the NATO allies closest to Russia, would all the other NATO allies, including the U.S. and Canada and Britain and everyone else, respond immediately?
And that's the core responsibility of NATO, that it's based on one for all and all for one. So, an attack on one ally would trigger the response...
BLITZER: So what's your message it Putin right now on that? Because there is a lot of fear in some of those NATO alliances closer to Russia that Putin could take some steps, as he did with Ukraine, for example, take some steps that would be rather provocative.
STOLTENBERG: Well, Ukraine is not a member of NATO.
We provide support for Ukraine, but Ukraine is not covered by the NATO security guarantee.
BLITZER: That's correct.
STOLTENBERG: Yes. The Baltic countries, Poland, other eastern...
BLITZER: A lot of nervousness in Poland right now.
STOLTENBERG: Yes. But we don't see -- it is important now to react in a measured and responsible way.
We see increased tensions. We see a more aggressive Russia, but we don't see any imminent threat for military attack against any NATO ally country, not least because NATO is strong and NATO has increased our military presence in the eastern part of alliance with U.S. troops, with Canadian troops, with German troops, with troops from the United Kingdom.
So, we are increasing our presence in eastern part of the alliance to send the clear signal of credible...
BLITZER: Because I know, in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, there's a lot of tension and nervousness right now.
Ukraine. Do you believe Ukraine should be a member of NATO?
STOLTENBERG: That's for Ukraine to decide whether they want to apply. Then for NATO to decide whether they want to apply.
And then if Ukraine applies, then it's for 28 NATO allies to decide whether Ukraine qualify. Ukraine has clearly stated that they now are focused on reforming their defense sector to meet the NATO standards and then later will decide on whether they will apply for membership.
We have clearly stated that NATO is always open, but to become a member, you have to qualify. You have to meet the NATO standards.
BLITZER: The whole notion of NATO expanding right now is one that you clearly support, right? You're about to admit maybe another country?
STOLTENBERG: Yes, we are very close to admit Montenegro.
BLITZER: And President Trump said he would support that.
STOLTENBERG: Yes. And he has signed, and everything is in order.
The ratification process is now finished or completed in the United States.
BLITZER: We have a lot more to discuss.
But, very quickly, when will all of the 28 NATO allies pay -- spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense? Right now, only a handful do.
STOLTENBERG: Well, what we decided in 2014 was to stop the cuts and then gradually increase and then move towards spending 2 percent within a decade. And I expect all NATO allies to make good on that promise.
BLITZER: When? By when?
STOLTENBERG: Within a decade.
BLITZER: Within a decade. Right now, only five of the 28 countries do that.
STOLTENBERG: But the good news is that next year, we likely go from five to eight.
But perhaps even more important, we see also older allies which did not meet the 2 percent have started to increase defense spending. So, after many years of decline, 2016 was the first year we saw a significant increase in defense spending.
BLITZER: Because I have interviewed President Trump. This is a big issue, as you well know. I'm sure he was railing on it at the White House today.
STOLTENBERG: Absolutely. And I agree with him.
When NATO allies have made a promise, they should deliver it. But they didn't promise to meet the 2 percent target next year. They promised to move towards 2 percent within a decade from 2014.
BLITZER: And what does he mean, the president, when he says all of these NATO allies, they have to repay for the money they didn't spend in years past? He raised that with you today, too.
And he has expressed the same view in meetings with other European leaders. I have stated that I expect NATO allies to start to increase defense spending. And they have started to move in the right direction. After many years of cuts, defense spending is now going up in Europe.
BLITZER: All right, Secretary-General, there's more issues I want to raise with you.
I need to take a quick break. we will resume our conversation right after this.
BLITZER: We're back with NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who just wrapped up his meetings with the president over at the White House.
About a year or so ago, Secretary-General, I interviewed then candidate Donald Trump, and we had this exchange on NATO. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you think the United States needs to rethink U.S. involvement in NATO?
TRUMP: Yes, because it's costing us too much money. And frankly they have to put up more money. They're going to have to put some up also. We're playing disproportionately. It's too much. And frankly it's a different world than it was when we originally conceived of the idea. And everybody got together.
But we're taking care of -- as an example, the Ukraine. I mean, the countries over there don't seem to be so interested. We're the ones taking the brunt of it. So I think we have to reconsider keep NATO, but maybe we have to pay a lot less toward the NATO itself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, today, the president said he no longer believes NATO is obsolete.
Did you ask him at the White House to make that statement?
STOLTENBERG: I didn't ask him.
But we discussed how NATO is adapting, how NATO is responding and changing, because the world is changing. And I stated clearly that NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able again and again to change when the world was changing.
But I agree with President Trump that European allies and Canada have to invest more in our collective defense. And that's exactly what they have started to do.
BLITZER: How upset were you, Secretary-General, when he called NATO obsolete?
STOLTENBERG: Well, he has said that during the election campaign.
I was -- as I say, I knew very well that NATO has responded, has proven that we are not obsolete by changing the way we respond to a changing world.
BLITZER: Because he said it also after he was elected, before he took office.
STOLTENBERG: Well, the important thing for me is probably that he has clearly stated today that he doesn't regard NATO as obsolete.
But, second, I think that it is good that he has been focused on how NATO can change and adapt and respond to a different security environment.
BLITZER: So, do you trust him?
STOLTENBERG: I welcome his very strong message on defense spending, on burden sharing, and also on NATO's role in fighting terrorism, that we have to step up and do more. And these are the issues we discussed today.
BLITZER: But do you trust him?
STOLTENBERG: I trust his very strong commitment to NATO, of course, because he has shown it not only in words, but also in deeds.
The U.S. is now increasing its military presence in Europe for the first time in many, many years. And he has expressed very strong support to NATO.
This is important for Europe, but it's also important for the United States. In a more unpredictable world, the U.S. needs friends and allies. And, in NATO, the United States gets the best friends and best allies.
This is a big advantage, strategic advantage, for the United States, that they have friends and allies like they have in NATO.
BLITZER: And do you trust him as a leader?
STOLTENBERG: I trust him as a leader because he was elected by the people of America. And he was elected in a democratic process in a NATO-allied country.
And I think that one of the strengths -- an important part of NATO is that we are 28 democracies, and in democracies, the voters elect different peoples. People with different views, different positions. But the -- but the strength of NATO is that we have always been able to agree on the core task of NATO, that we protect each other, that we stand together because we are stronger together than alone.
BLITZER: The only time that NATO banded together and acted with the self-defense clause was right after 9/11. The -- and NATO decided to act as an organization and work together to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Since then it hasn't done that, right?
STOLTENBERG: No, because we have been successful in providing credible deterrence, telling -- or sending (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to any potential adversary. That NATO's territory (ph) defend all allies. And therefore, we haven't been attacked. So the success of NATO is that we haven't been attacked.
Then we had 9/11, and that was the first and so far the only time we have evoked our collective defense clause. And hundreds and thousands of European and Canadian soldiers have been in Afghanistan, fighting shoulder to shoulder with U.S. soldiers; and more than a thousand have paid the ultimate price. And this shows that NATO is there also to help and protect the United States, because the only time we invoked Article V was after an attack on the United States.
BLITZER: Secretary-general, good of you to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for joining us.
STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much.
BLITZER: Good luck.
STOLTENBERG: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, former Trump advisor Carter Page now speaking out to CNN's Jake Tapper about reports that the FBI obtained a secret court order to monitor his communications.
And with a new weapons, nuclear weapons test expected literally at any time, is China ready to take action to reign in North Korea?
[18:36:37] BLITZER: President Trump taking a tougher line today against Vladimir Putin, acknowledging U.S./Russian relations right now may be, in his words, an at all-time low, even after the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, met with Putin in Moscow.
Our political and international experts are here to talk about all the breaking news.
Dana, it looks like a very different Donald Trump speaking about Russian-U.S. relations, as opposed to only a few weeks ago, certainly during the campaign.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot more realistic, no question about it. And much more so from his secretary of state, from Moscow, in Moscow, sitting next to the foreign minister there. Much more blunt than we should have or would have or could have expected from the very first visit from Rex Tillerson, who was beaten over the head by fellow Republicans during his confirmation hearings for being too cozy with Vladimir Putin. Certainly didn't look and seem cozy there.
But I think, Wolf, as -- as sort of realistic as Donald Trump sounded and heard today with regard to Russia-U.S. relations, he declined more than one time -- I think three times altogether -- to criticize Vladimir Putin personally. And that, frankly, is what struck me.
That, while even before what happened in Syria, you heard Republican leaders across the board, from Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, to others calling Putin a thug, and a CIA [SIC] agent, and even a terrorist and a killer, when it came to the president, he was asked specifically about his feelings about Vladimir Putin, and he tried to kill him with kindness. Again, despite the fact that the relationship has definitely -- not great.
BLITZER: Yes. First time we heard, David Chalian, the president say the U.S.-Russian relationship right now, in his words, may be an at all-time low. Is there a new Cold War we're now witnessing?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I mean, it seems that there could be one. We'll see where this goes. But as Dana's saying, if there is one, it's coming from the most unexpected quarters if anybody was paying attention to Donald Trump's public statements over the last two years.
I will say this. This is what public diplomacy or the choreography of public diplomacy looks like in the Trump era. You have Tillerson delivering the very same "low-point" message in Moscow. Donald Trump doing that here. Whether that is a negotiating a tactic to start in a place or a clear sense and frustration.
This is the president who not that long ago, Wolf, was hoping for a warmer, more open relationship with Russia; today calls it a low point.
BLITZER: Yes, he certainly does. And the president also shifted his position, Jackie, on NATO. He used to call it obsolete, and today for the first time, he says, "You know what? NATO is no longer obsolete."
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is just another example of Trump moving away from sort of that Steve Bannon nationalist platform that he espoused on the campaign trail.
We had this "Wall Street Journal" interview today where he said he's not going to label China a -- sorry...
CHALIAN: Currency manipulator?
KUCINICH: Thank you very much. Currency manipulator.
He -- so you just keep on seeing -- the XM Bank seems like it's in good shape on his -- budget director said that this week. So you're seeing these steps where he's going much more toward being a, you know, normal Republican rather than what the populist that he was elected as.
BLITZER: Yes. He also said Janet Yellen, he may ask her...
BLITZER: ... to stay on as head of the Federal Reserve.
[18:40:03] Shadi Hamid is with us, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
He was really tough on Bashar al-Assad, calling him a butcher, a monster. How is that going to play? SHADI HAMID, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: So this is really interesting
that this is a president who didn't talk much about human rights abroad. He wouldn't talk about our values. It was very much about narrow national self-interest.
But now you -- you get this instinctive sense from Trump that he's moved by these images in Syria. He's calling Bashar al-Assad a butcher. And just over the past week, we even hear him referring to the word "values" and kind of really making that a focus, which he hadn't done before. So that suggests to me that Trump is actually, as he says, more flexible than we perhaps thought initially; and that he's going back to this idea of America upholding the international liberal order, the fact that values and interests have to be balanced.
And that's even a shift from just last week where he had President Sisi, who's not -- who's a repressive dictator. There was no mention of human rights in that meeting. And then with the Syria strikes, we see this shift.
The question for me is how long will he sustain this? Is this kind of a blip on the screen? Or is this a new Donald Trump that will stay with us for some time?
BLITZER: You spent a lot of time studying Syria. Is Bashar al- Assad's days -- are his days numbered?
HAMID: So it's very hard to see how he's going to leave any time soon. I mean, he has been having battlefield victories over the past, really, two years or so.
So the question now is what is the broader strategy for Trump? So we have these one-off punitive strikes. Does it end there? Or will he tie this to a broader strategy to push Assad to come to the table and to actually make real compromises? That's what we haven't quite seen yet.
And that's why it's almost hard -- it's become a full-time job to follow Trump's Syria policy. He's all over the place, right? So I think there's a real -- there's a real need for him and his senior advisors to really make clear what happens next.
BLITZER: We'll watch it. Very quickly.
BASH: Very quickly. Related but different. I have a different take on his "NATO is no longer obsolete" statement today, which is that he doesn't think it's obsolete, because he now has his imprint on it. He feels that he was able to change it. So it's not obsolete because of him.
BLITZER: Because it's evolving, as they say.
Everybody, stay with us. Just ahead, the breaking news in the Trump- Russia investigation. The former advisor to Mr. Trump speaks out right here on CNN. Stay with us.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:47:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We are following breaking news on the Trump investigation. Sources say former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is expected to register as foreign agent to help resolve questions about his past work for Ukraine.
This as another former Trump adviser is speaking out to CNN about his Russian ties in a new report that the FBI got a FISA court warrant to monitor him.
Let's go to CNN's Jessica Schneider.
Jessica, the former Trump adviser, Carter Page, he spoke to our own Jake Tapper just a little while ago.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he did, Wolf. And Carter Page stated emphatically that he never talked with Russians about the campaign and in particular never discussed the possibility of the Trump team removing Russian sanctions. All of this coming on a day when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Russia's attempt to interfere in the U.S. elections were a serious issue that could potential attract additional sanctions.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Carter Page denies he ever acted as a foreign agent for Russia telling CNN's Jake Tapper --
CARTER PAGE, EX-TRUMP ADVISOR: It's just such a joke that it's beyond words.
SCHNEIDER: According to "The Washington Post", the FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court order to monitor Page during the campaign last summer. Something that would have required a showing of probable cause that Page was conducting clandestine activities on behalf of the Russian government. Page acknowledged he communicated with a Russian man he believed to be working at Moscow's U.N. office in 2013.
PAGE: I never gave him any information which is material or classified or in any way improper and the assumption is that it would go back.
SCHNEIDER: But this FBI complaint detailed how Russian spies worked to recruit Page as an intelligence source. Carter Page has described himself as junior member on the foreign policy advisory team during the Trump campaign.
President Trump's team has tried to distance itself from Page but then-candidate Trump acknowledged Page was joining the team in this March 2016 interview.
FREDERICK RYAN, JR., WASHINGTON POST PUBLISHER: We heard you might be announcing your foreign policy advisory team soon.
DONALD TRUMP, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are going to be. Carter Page, PhD. SCHNEIDER: FBI Director James Comey has confirmed the Feds are
investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia but Comey has declined to discuss, details only explaining the amount of evidence it take to get a FISA warrant is significant.
JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: It is a pain in the neck to get permission to conduct electronic surveillance in the United States. A pain in the neck. And that's great.
SCHNEIDER: Carter Page has offered to testify before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE VICE CHAIRMAN: I can't comment on the FISA warrant. But if a FISA warrant has been issues, it is a very, very serious matter.
SCHNEIDER: The Intelligence Committees plan it talk to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort whose sources say is expected to register as a foreign agent. Manafort's spokesman says past consulting work he did for the pro-Russia political party was completely transparent.
[18:50:02] "Mr. Manafort's work in Ukraine was totally opened and appropriate and wire transfers for international work are perfectly legal."
This as sources tell CNN that documents House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes insisted showed improper unmasking of American identities actually showed nothing illegal or improper. Democrat and Republican lawmakers who have viewed the classified material say Obama national security adviser Susan Rice followed protocol when requesting certain identities be unmasked. But President Trump is standing by his accusations that Susan Rice broke the law.
TRUMP: So many people are coming up to me and apologizing now. They say, you know, you were right when you said that. Perhaps I didn't know how right I was because nobody knew the extent of it. It's such a big story and I'm sure it will continue forward. But what they did is horrible.
SCHNEIDER: President Trump has not revealed which intelligence reports he's relying on to make his charge that Susan Rice may have acted illegally. But those lawmakers who say they was absolutely no smoking guns on those intelligence reports, well, they're now calling on the White House to declassify the material to make crystal clear there's not alarming about the documents -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jessica Schneider reporting for us -- thank you.
Just ahead, China warns Kim Jong-un, don't mess with the U.S., after President Trump turns up the heat and issues his own warning about the North Korea, quote, "menace".
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:55:50] BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump says he believes China's leader wants to do the right thing and act to diffuse the North Korea threat. Mr. Trump speaking after a phone conversation with President Xi that apparently spurred China to issue a new warning to Kim Jong- un's regime.
Brian Todd is looking into all of this for us.
Brian, the U.S. is pressuring China to confront what he calls the North Korea menace.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He is leaning heavily on China, Wolf.
Tonight, President Trump is promising to send a strong message to North Korea, militarily, economically. He says Kim Jong-un is doing the wrong thing and he's again signaling China that they've got to do more to get Kim to halt his nuclear program. The Chinese have rarely if ever been under as much pressure to rein in their aggressive neighbor.
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, a high stakes game of chicken between President Trump and Kim Jong-un has China squarely in the middle, with an American aircraft carrier and other warships steaming towards the Korean Peninsula.
TRUMP: We are sending an armada, very powerful.
TODD: With concerns that North Korea may soon conduct a sixth nuclear weapons test, possibly around the birthday of Kim's grandfather this weekend, Mr. Trump speaks with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the phone and later tweets that the call was about, quote, "the menace of North Korea."
The Chinese later issue a statement calling for a peaceful resolution.
BRUCE KLINGNER, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: I think China is under tremendous pressure. They need to move forward. That the Trump administration indicated they don't want to have a business as usual. We don't want to have a lengthy inaction by China.
TODD: Today, President Trump talked about how he leaned on Xi to rein in Kim Jong-un when he met the Chinese leader face to face.
TRUMP: I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things. And I said, the way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea. Otherwise, we're just going to go it alone.
TODD: Today, "The Global Times", a state-run Chinese newspaper, ran an editorial, saying, quote, "If the North makes another provocative this moth, the Chinese society will be willing to see severe restrictive measures such as restricting oil imports to the North."
Analysts say "The Global Times" likely would have not printed that without at least tacit approval from Chinese leaders.
(on camera): If China were to reduce oil exports to North Korea, how much would it hurt the North?
ANTHONY RUGGIERO, FORMER TREASURY DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think that it would hurt the North Korean economy. I think they used it -- used versions of it for factories, for heating purposes and other. And that would impact the North Korean economy.
TODD: Despite China's economic leverage over Kim, would the brash young leader care if Beijing tries to big foot him?
KLINGNER: He has to be concerned if China actually implements strong measures. China's responsible for 90 percent of North Korea's economic engagement with the outside world. If Beijing were to take steps, it could significantly put pressure on the regime, but they've always failed to do that so far.
TODD: Experts say China will likely continue to feel pressure from the Trump administration to clamp down on Kim but that Beijing probably won't pressure North Korea to completely shut down its nuclear program. They say China would rather have a nuclear armed North Korea than see Kim's regime collapsed and have millions of refugees and possibly U.S. and South Korean troops on its border -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, there seemed to be some conflicting messages from the Trump team tonight on that deployment of the U.S. aircraft carrier Vinson, the strike force that's moving towards the Korean peninsula. Is that right?
TODD: That's right, Wolf. Just a short time ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he would not read too much into the deployment of the Vinson, that the carrier group is, quote, "routinely" in the Pacific and there's no particular objective in its current course toward the Korean Peninsula.
But President Trump specifically said he is, quote, "sending an armada" in the context of what North Korea has been doing lately and a U.S. defense official has told CNN the movement of the Vinson is in response to North Korea's recent provocations. The Trump team maybe not coordinating that messaging so well.
BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you. Brian Todd reporting.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.