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Trump: Search for New FBI Director 'Moving Rapidly'; Dems: No New FBI Chief without a Special Prosecutor; North Korea: New Missile Can Carry 'Heavy Nuclear Warhead'. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired May 15, 2017 - 17:00 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. Moving rapidly. President Trump says the search for a new FBI director is intensifying, but lawmakers still have questions about the way he fired James Comey and the threat that followed. Did the president record his conversations, and if so, where are the tapes?
[17:00:34] Prosecutor pressure. Democrats say they'll stall the nomination for the new FBI director until a special prosecutor is named to investigate Russia's election meddling and contacts with the Trump camp. Will any Republicans go along?
Striking distance. North Korea says its new missile can carry a large nuclear warhead and threaten the United States. Analysts say the latest test was successful. How great is the danger to the United States, and can anything be done to stop Kim Jong-un?
And the new bin Laden? As al Qaeda makes a comeback, does it have a dangerous new leader? A new video reveals a chilling threat and a call for revenge from the son of Osama bin Laden.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news. There's growing fallout tonight from the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey and his threat that he may have recorded their conversations.
President Trump says the process for selecting a new director is moving rapidly, but Democrats may try to stall the president's pick as they demand a special prosecutor to investigate Russia's election interference and his contacts with Trump associates.
The White House insists there's no need for a special prosecutor and still won't comment on any presidential tapes. Republicans aren't rushing to embrace the special prosecutor idea, but some are calling on the president to turn over any recordings. The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, says he hopes lawmakers will speak up. Clapper calls the past week's events very disturbing and says U.S. institutions are under assault externally from Russia and internally from President Trump.
After carrying out its most successful test launch yet, Kim Jong-un's regime is warning its new missile can reach threaten the U.S. with a large nuclear warhead. Analysts warn that a U.S. base on Guam is already within range of the missile.
And as al Qaeda makes a comeback and grows more dangerous, there's a chilling new threat and a call for revenge from the son of Osama bin Laden. Could he be the terror group's next leader?
I'll talk to Democratic Senator Chris Coons of the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
Let's get to our breaking news. The president says he's going full speed ahead on replacing fired FBI chief James Comey, but will the process get bogged down on Capitol Hill over the threatening manner in which he got rid of Comey?
We begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, what's the latest?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House did not provide many new answers today about the firing of FBI Director James Comey, but aides to the president say he is making progress on naming a replacement to lead the FBI, and there is no shortage of input coming from Capitol Hill on who the president's pick should be. But at the same time, the overriding question today at the White House appears to be where are the tapes?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How is the process to select a new FBI director going?
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you.
ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump may be making progress in his search for a new FBI director.
TRUMP: Moving rapidly.
ACOSTA: But the White House is clamping down on questions about the firing of the former FBI director, repeatedly refusing to confirm whether or not the president recorded his conversation with James Comey as he hinted last week.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think I made it clear last week that the president has nothing further on that.
I was very clear. I made it clear what the president's position is.
I think the president's position has been very clear.
The president has made it clear what his position is. He said that he has nothing further to add. I've answered the question over and over again the same way.
ACOSTA: The official stonewalling left reporters shouting questions to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
(on camera): Where are the tapes, Sean?
(voice-over): Despite a new poll that shows only 29 percent of Americans approve of Comey's firing and that 78 percent want an independent commission or special prosecutor to investigate possible Trump campaign ties to Moscow, the White House is offering no regrets, even on the Russia probe...
SPICER: There's frankly no need for a special prosecutor.
ACOSTA: ... or on the process to pick a new FBI director.
SPICER: I think this is a process that's running completely as it should.
ACOSTA: Even members of the president's own party are urging Mr. Trump to avoid selecting a politician to run the bureau.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The president has a chance to clean up the mess that he mostly created. He really, I think, did his staff a disservice by changing the explanation. So I would encourage the president to pick somebody we can all rally around, including those who work in the FBI.
[17:05:05] ACOSTA: As for the possibility of White House tapes, leaders from both parties are making it clear any such recordings could be subpoenaed.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Well, first of all, if there are tapes, the president should turn them over immediately, of course. To destroy them would be a violation of law.
SEN. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: If, in fact, there are such recordings, I think those recordings will be subpoenaed, and I think they'll probably have to turn them over.
ACOSTA: Even former advisers to the president are beginning to see Mr. Trump as damaging to the country.
JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: In many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally and that's -- that's the big news here is the Russian interference in our elections system, and I think, as well, our institutions are under assault internally.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Internally from the president?
ACOSTA: The constant swirl of questions appear to be aggravating the president, who is threatening to halt the daily briefings in favor of less frequent news conferences, starring who else but Mr. Trump?
TRUMP: What I'd love to do is stop them. We don't have press conferences and we do... JEANINE PIRRO, FOX NEWS: You don't mean that?
TRUMP: Well, just don't have them, unless I have them every two weeks, and I do it myself. We don't have them. I think it's a good idea.
ACOSTA: Now the president is just days away from his first official foreign trip, but the nagging questions about the firing of the FBI director and whether there are White House tapes are sure to follow him overseas.
If the president is taping his private meetings, he isn't doing it with a system he inherited from the Obama White House. Former Obama White House officials tell me they never recorded secretly their meetings with people who came to visit the president -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jim. Thank you. Jim Acosta with the latest from the White House.
Meantime, up on Capitol Hill, there's also growing fallout over the president's firing of James Comey and the way it was handled. Let's go to our senior congressional reporter Manu Raju.
Manu, how much pressure is there from Capitol Hill about replacing the FBI director?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A significant amount, Wolf. A number of Democrats are saying that they will not actually agree to a new FBI director until the Justice Department names a special prosecutor in the Russia probe. In order to block an FBI director, they need three Republicans to defect, at least three, and block this FBI director from going forward.
And one of those Republicans is at the center of a lot of battles and often defects and votes with Democrats is the Maine moderate Susan Collins, who also sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Now earlier today she told me she did not like the Democrats' approach, does not think that's a good idea. And is throwing her support behind two other names, Mike Rogers, the former congressman, former FBI special agent; as well as Merrick Garland, President Obama's former choice to head the Supreme Court -- to sit on the Supreme Court.
Now, I talked to her about those names as well as the demand to -- from members of Congress to release those Trump tapes, if they did actually occur. Here's what she said.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I thought that was a terrific suggestion. No one could argue that he was beholden to anybody in any way, and he would bring integrity and independence to the position.
RAJU: What about your colleague, John Cornyn. Is he too political to have him in that spot, do you think?
COLLINS: I think the world of John Cornyn, and he would be a great choice in normal times, but we're not living in normal times.
RAJU: The president suggested he may have some tapes of their conversation. Should the Intelligence Committee have access to those tapes?
COLLINS: We have no idea whether or not there are tapes, but if there are tapes, then they should be turned over. That issue was settled many years ago when the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that the tapes that president Nixon had should be turned over to Congress.
I do want to make the point that anyone who thinks that the firing of Director Comey is going to slow down or impede the FBI's investigation of the Russian attempt to influence the elections or the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation is sadly mistaken.
RAJU: So you heard there Susan Collins reference John Cornyn, who of course, is the Senate majority whip, who also serves with her on Senate Intelligence Committee. A number of Republicans are actually concerned about going that route, naming John Cornyn to that position, because they believe it would be viewed as too political at a time when a lot of critics are questioning whether James Comey was fired from that position.
I did, Wolf, earlier today talk to John Cornyn about his conversations with Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, the No. 1 and No. 2 at the Justice Department. He said they talked for 45 minutes on Saturday. He would not reveal more about their conversations, but, Wolf, I asked him if there are any follow-up conversation planned and he said, no, not at this time -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Manu, thank you. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.
Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf.
[17:10:08] BLITZER: President Trump said today a search for a new FBI director is moving rapidly. You're on the Judiciary Committee. Eventually you'll have to question, eventually confirm the next FBI director, so who would you like to see in there -- this -- in this critically important role? Is there anyone you'd like to support among the names that have already been floated?
COONS: Well, Wolf, I think it's essential that President Trump take a moment here and reflect on the decision he's about to make. He has really un -- he has destabilized his own presidency and the public's confidence in the FBI in the way that the FBI director Jim Comey was fired and in the competing explanations that have been put out by the White House, by the vice president and now by the president himself.
He must nominate someone who is a career prosecutor, who has served at the most senior levels of the government but who is not a partisan elected official. I agree with a number of Republican senators who have said that, although they respect their colleague, John Cornyn of Texas, this is not the right time to nominate someone for FBI director who's been an elected official.
There are a few federal judges and former prosecutors who I think could be promising candidates. I look forward to our having a broader conversation about this on the committee, but I think we first should get the briefing this Thursday from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, so we can begin to get a better handle on why the FBI director was fired and what the standing is today of the FBI investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
BLITZER: Yes, Rosenstein has agreed to meet with all of the U.S. senators, but that's behind closed doors, so we'll see what he has to say in the process.
You probably know the press secretary, Sean Spicer, said today that the process is running completely as it should when he was asked specifically about criticism of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions', involvement in the search for a new FBI director. Do you believe Sessions should be involved in the selection process. I ask the question because, as you know, he recused himself from any probe involving the 2016 campaign?
COONS: Wolf, more importantly, the attorney general committed to us that he would recuse himself from matters involving both Hillary Clinton's e-mails and that investigation, and an investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Both of those have served, at different times, as competing justifications given by the White House and the president for why the FBI director was fired, so I don't think it's appropriate for Attorney General Sessions to have been involved in firing the FBI director or to be involved in selecting hits successor.
BLITZER: So what, if anything, can you do about that?
COONS: Well, a number of of us have called on the inspector general of the Department of Justice to review whether the attorney general is acting appropriately, is acting outside the scope of his recusal. We'll have to wait the see outcome of that investigation. The inspector general, I'll remind you, is an independent investigator. There's one in every federal department, and he's the appropriate person to review this matter.
BLITZER: Sean Spicer also said there's no need for a special prosecutor. Is there any indication you will get a special prosecutor named by the executive branch of the U.S. government, by the Justice Department? Are there any Senate Republicans on board?
COONS: Well, Wolf, I do think it will only happen that we'll get a special counsel appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein -- that's the person who would do it -- if there is pressure from both Republicans and Democrats. And I don't yet see the kind of stepping up to the plate and responsible ownership of the importance of an independent FBI investigation on the part of Republican senators to create that pressure.
I appreciate and respect those who have confidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee and the progress that its making, but I think it's vital that the FBI counterintelligence investigation be given the resources, the support and the independence that it needs in order to get to the bottom of this matter.
BLITZER: So, so far Rosenstein says there's no need for a special prosecutor. The Republicans don't see a need. The president says he doesn't see a need. If they continue to maintain that position, what, if anything, can you do about that?
COONS: Well, if the Republicans continue to support President Trump and to stonewall on the need for there to be an independent counsel overseeing the FBI investigation, we have relatively few options.
The Democrats here in the Senate could shut the Senate down, but that is an extreme step for us to take, and there may well be other things that would justify us taking a step that strong. I know we're going to have a debate, a discussion about that among our caucus this week.
Personally, I want to first hear what the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, has to say about his role in the firing of the FBI director and his justification, his reasoning for why he doesn't believe there needs to be a special counsel appointed.
BLITZER: You'll hear from him on Thursday, the deputy attorney general.
COONS: That's right.
BLITZER: The president tweeted last week that Comey better hope there are no tapes of their conversations and, when asked about this, press secretary Spicer wouldn't comment further. Do you think these tapes exist?
[17:15:12] COONS: I don't know. This is yet another bombshell thrown into this conversation by President Trump. He was known to have widely taped conversations when he was a businessman. You've heard reports earlier today from former Obama officials that they did not have a taping system in place. So if those conversations were taped, it would have be as a result of President Trump installing some new system.
And those, of course, would be subject to subpoena, because they would be critical evidence in what is now an ongoing investigation, both a counterintelligence and criminal investigation by the FBI. And I do think you would have bipartisan support for securing those tapes.
So it's really quite a remarkable thing for the president to be, I think, implicitly threatening the former FBI director in this way and for there to be competing stories from the former FBI director and the president about what was said at their meeting in January not long after the inauguration.
BLITZER: So do you believe there will be bipartisan support to subpoena those recordings, assuming they exist?
COONS: We've heard statements, strong statements from a number of Republican senators in recent days, and I have to remain hopeful that they would see clearly just how essential these recordings would be to getting to bottom of what the president's actions and intentions are around the firing of the FBI director.
BLITZER: Senator Coons, I need you to stand by. We're going to continue this interview in just a moment. There are other developments unfolding even as we speak. We'll be right back.
[07:21:13] BLITZER: We're talking with Senator Chris Coons. Senator, stand by for a moment. There's another development unfolding right now. Experts say North Korea's latest missile launch is its most successful test yet, and Kim Jong-un's regime warns its new missile can threaten the United States with a heavy nuclear warhead.
Let's go straight to CNN's Will Ripley. He's joining us from Tokyo right now. He's just back from his 12th visit to North Korea. Will, what's North Korea saying about this missile?
WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I was there during two failed missile launches last -- last month, Wolf. We spoke both of those times, and I said at that time that the rocket scientists would not be deterred, and they certainly haven't.
North Korea is really celebrating this. Most military analysts believe that this is their most successful missile test ever, and it comes at a time, a big moment for China, a big economic forum. Also a time of political uncertainty, even turmoil in Washington.
Could Kim Jong-un be taking advantage of all this to push his agenda forward of becoming -- trying to become a nuclear power?
RIPLEY (voice-over): North Korean leader Kim Jong-un testing the patience of two world powers: his strongest ally China and who he sees as his No. 1 enemy, the United States.
New images show North Korea's supreme leader all smiles, supervising the test of what Pyongyang calls a new kind of nuclear-capable ballistic missile. North Korea says it can hit the mainland U.S. and its Pacific operation, a claim most analysts say is exaggerated but still highly troubling.
Sunday's missile test represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile, says think tank 38 North. North Korean state media says Sunday's missile reached an altitude of more than 2,100 kilometers, or 1,300 miles, higher and further than other recent launches, traveling from a launch site near the Chinese border to the waters off Vladivostok, Russia, home to the Russian Pacific fleet.
The launch, coming at a highly embarrassing time for China, North Korea's chief ally and economic partner, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosting a major global trade forum, which includes a North Korean delegation.
ROBERT KELLY, PUSAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: If China were to cut off the North Koreans they would have sort of a crisis of things like food and energy, external resources, all things that North Korea needs for the lifestyle they enjoy. So China has a lot of leverage here. North Korea doesn't actually want to become a colony of China.
RIPLEY: China under mounting pressure to do something it has resisted for more than a decade: put crippling economic pressure on North Korea, a regime it has supported as a strategic buffer between U.S. allied South Korea.
(on camera): It's interesting. A lot of the canned food items you see here come from China.
(voice-over): During my 12th visit to Pyongyang last month, I saw plenty of evidence of Chinese trade pumping billions into the North Korean economy, even as North Korean officials say domestic production is increasing and insisting China will have zero influence over their nuclear or missile development.
"Whatever new sanctions we're likely to face, whatever trade restrictions, we're not afraid," said Sak Cho Wan (ph), a North Korean official given rare authorization to speak with CNN last month.
The latest launch coming as the Trump administration deals with massive fallout from the firing of FBI Director James Comey. North Korea's leader choosing a time of political turmoil in the U.S. to advance his weapon's program one step further but holding off, at least for now, on a sixth nuclear test, a test that could force the U.S. and China to take stronger action against a regime racing to become a nuclear power.
[17:25:01] RIPLEY: The White House is calling for heightened enforcement of international sanctions, even stronger sanctions as a result of this, although we know that that strategy over the last decade has failed to stop five nuclear tests and dozens of missile launches.
Even the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, forced to speak about this at that economic forum in Beijing, the missiles landing very close to his Pacific fleet. He condemned the launch as dangerous, Wolf, but he also -- and this message was really aimed for the U.S., he warned against provoking or intimidating Pyongyang, because Russia, like China, shares the view that the United States is escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula by continuing its military exercises with South Korea in the waters just off the Korean coast.
BLITZER: Will Ripley reporting for us. Very, very dangerous information indeed.
We're back with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.
Senator, would you support U.S. military action in dealing with North Korea if it's thought Kim Jong-un's regime does have this kind of long-range nuclear capability?
COONS: Well, Wolf, this is a moment for serious reflection and for bipartisan action. This is not the moment for President Trump to proceed with his dangerous budget proposal to slash funding for our diplomats in our State Department by nearly a third, and this is not the moment for us to focus on other issues and other distractions around the world.
China needs to step up to its responsibility and apply significant pressure on North Korea or face the very real likelihood that the United States will feel compelled to act.
This is a grave moment. And the fact that a North Korean dictator who has repeatedly threatened the American homeland has now demonstrated a missile capable of striking probably Guam, a facility that has a significant American Air Force base, and probably Japan, South Korea and American installations elsewhere in the region raises real concerns.
While president -- while President Kim Jong-un is probably boasting without foundation in his claims that he could hit the United States mainland, that's frankly no longer the issue. It's clear that he could hit a major American facility and kill tens of thousands of Americans, frankly at will, and we now need to focus on a strategy that can succeed here.
President Trump ran in the campaign, in part, on being unpredictable in foreign relations. This is a moment when he needs to be clear about what his strategy is and then try and get all of to us support that strategy.
We had a briefing from the Trump administration a month ago that was, frankly, confusing, because they laid out their diplomatic program of trying to contain North Korea through partnership with China but then continued to suggest that they're going to cut funding for our State Department by 30 percent.
We need a clear strategy from President Trump, and I will work across the aisle to find a way that we can apply appropriate pressure on North Korea, whether through China or international fora like the United Nations.
BLITZER: There's another very disturbing development today, Senator. The State Department now saying that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is using a crematorium to dispose of the remains of dissidents so there will be little evidence. This clearly is another indication that the Syrian leader is a war criminal. I assume you agree with that.
What should the U.S. do about this? And they released those photos of this crematorium?
COONS: Wolf, Bashar al-Assad is one of the most brutal dictators in modern history, a war criminal who has used every possible tool of repression and brutality against his own people. He's used cluster bombs, barrel bombings, SCUD missiles, chemical weapons.
This latest evidence of his depravity is just another reminder of why Bashar al-Assad should be treated as a war criminal and why the position taken by the Obama administration about Assad and his future status is the right one. My hope is that the Trump administration will return to a previous position that puts human rights right alongside national security in our agenda in dealing with Bashar al- Assad.
BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks for joining us.
COONS: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: This important note to our viewers. Later tonight, don't miss Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives. Our own Chris Cuomo moderates a live CNN town hall tonight, 9 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.
And John Kasich and Bernie Sanders, they battled in Congress for years. Now they'll face off on health care, the economy, other issues facing the country. A live CNN debate. That's tomorrow night, 9 p.m. Eastern.
Coming up, an old enemy with a new face. Osama bin Laden's son and a resurgent al Qaeda once again threatening the west. Could they form an alliance with ISIS?
BLITZER: We're following breaking news. President Trump this afternoon declaring the process of picking a new FBI director is moving rapidly.
[17:34:03] Let's get the insights of our political specialists, starting with Nia-Malika Henderson.
Nia, the White House continues to dodge questions on the president's tweet about tapes. He used that word, "tapes," that the president may or may not have involving conversations with the fired FBI director, James Comey. Listen to the press secretary, Sean Spicer, today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think I made it clear last week that the president has nothing further on that.
I was very clear. I made it clear what the president's position was.
I think the president's position has been very clear.
The president has made it clear what his position is. He said that he has nothing further to add. I have answered the question over and over again the same way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So Spicer said repeatedly President Trump's position is clear, but we still don't know what that position is. Aren't they going to need to come clean at some point and say, "Yes, there are tapes," or "No, there are not tapes"?
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. I mean, that's the big questions that reporters were asking. That was the question that Donald Trump himself got this past weekend where he also offered the same explanation, which was he didn't want to say anything. He had nothing further to add, which is where the White House is in the form of Sean Spicer is right now. He doesn't want to get out further than the president.
So, you know, you imagine that, when the president sits down for another interview, this will keep coming up and this idea that they don't have any further comment on it really is unsustainable, primarily because the president himself is the one who brought this up. No one was talking about the tapes until the president tweeted this. Of course, he tweeted "tapes" in quotation marks. We don't know what -- what that means.
But now, you have a situation where Republicans are interested and concerned about whether or not there are any tapes that actually exist and Democrats, of course, too, asking if there are any tapes, that they should be turned over as part of this investigation and part of this inquiry into Comey, as well as into Russia.
BLITZER: Mark Preston, lawmakers from both parties seem to agree that, if there are tapes and they do exist, they need to be turned over to Congress. Do you think the bipartisan -- that kind of bipartisan cooperation will extend to other aspects of this overall investigation?
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, I think it's inevitable in many ways, and the reason being is that we've already seen it in the United States Senate when it comes to the Intelligence Committee and their investigation. We have seen how the House of Representatives bungled their investigation initially and caused a lot of concern about that.
But you have to wonder, at some point, when will Republicans decide to go forward and ask themselves for a special prosecutor? To them, that is a political advantage, because it takes it off of their plate. It allows someone else to go in, actually do the investigating; and then they can, you know, wipe their hands clean of it.
In the very least, you would wonder why they wouldn't ask for a bipartisan commission along the lines of the 9/11 Commission. For them, you know, there's a lot of criticism, Wolf, that Republicans don't want to touch this because of political reasons, and that's very dangerous politically, heading into the mid-term elections; but it's also very bad for our country. BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, a new poll, as you know, from the -- from
NBC News and "The Wall Street Journal" shows Americans overwhelmingly prefer a special prosecutor taking the lead on this investigation rather than simply leaving it to Congress. How is the White House going to withstand that kind of pressure from the American public?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think what they've shown consistently from really, you know, from inauguration day forward is that they are governing with an eye primarily on their base, whether it's policy, rhetoric, tone and tenor. As long as they feel as though their base is with them, they are willing to advance positions that they recognize the majority of the public opposes. For example, the -- the replacement to the Affordable Care Act, which faces overwhelming opposition in polls even out today from the NBC/"Wall Street Journal."
So I think they -- they are willing to hang tough. The bigger question is the one that Mark alluded to, which is how long congressional Republicans are willing to kind of stay -- circle the wagons around President Trump on this. Because on the one hand, I think their dominant calculation is they're all in this together; if he's weakened, their chances are weakened.
On the other hand, they face the reality that a lot of Americans are ambivalent about -- at best about this administration, and the biggest risk they face in 2018 is that voters who ordinarily vote Republican for Congress will say they have to vote Democratic to provide more of a check on the president if the Republicans won't do it themselves.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's other breaking news unfolding. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:42:57] BLITZER: We're back with our political specialists. Nia, the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, generated a lot of headlines with his testimony up on Capitol Hill last week. Now he's back in the news with some highly-charged comments about President Trump. Listen to what he told Jake Tapper yesterday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's take a wider view of this for one second, and then I went to get back to some of these more detailed questions. This week where the president firing the FBI director while this investigation is going on and then saying that he was thinking about the Russia probe when he was making the decision, have we crossed a line here?
JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, I will just say that the developments of the past week are very bothersome, very disturbing to me. I think, in many ways, our institutions are under assault both externally -- and that's -- that's the big news here is the Russian interference in our election system; and I think, as well, our institutions are under assault internally.
TAPPER: Internally from the president?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Nia, what's your reaction to that?
HENDERSON: You know, really stunning words, and in some ways he's picking up on something that Condoleezza Rice also said. She expressed concerns about the erosion of trust in American institutions. She didn't talk about any, necessarily, internal threat -- threats to our institutions, but this is a conversation that has obviously been going on around the FBI, around Russia, around Donald Trump's decision to remove the head of the FBI.
And I think one of the things it starts to get at is Republicans, right? And what will Republicans do? Do they feel like they need to be sort of a stop-gap measure in terms of what the president is doing? You heard Lindsey Graham, for instance, talking about who the new FBI director should be. He said it should be someone who's above politics, who probably hadn't been a politician, who comes internally from those ranks to really kind of, I think, restore trust in the FBI and restore trust in whatever comes out of this investigation into Russia.
BLITZER: Mark, as you know, President Trump has, shall we say, a complicated relationship with national security professionals. Do you think we're going to see more and more of these high-profile officials speaking out in rather blunt terms about the President's decisions?
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think there's a lot of concern right now, not only in the intelligence community here in Washington, D.C., and around the globe, for that matter, as well as the law enforcement community, who do feel like they are under attack.
While I don't think it will be a fire hose of criticism that will come out, I do think you're going to see it here and there where you will see former high-ranking officials come out and express concern. Not because they don't like President Trump or they don't like his politics, but they don't like his actions and his words about the men and women who are really putting their lives on the line to try to protect the nation.
I've got to tell you, just over the past week or so, just talking to folks in both the community, they are very, very frustrated. That is the law enforcement community and the intelligence community. They're frustrated because they do feel like they are being politicized by President Trump, and it's not a position they feel very comfortable with.
BLITZER: All right, guys. Everybody stand by. A very quick note to our viewers. Tune in tomorrow for a CNN exclusive. The former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who was fired by President Trump tells her side of the story to Anderson Cooper. Be sure to watch tomorrow, 8:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN. Up next, a new and very alarming video from Osama bin Laden's son
vowing revenge on the West for killing his father. Is al Qaeda strong enough to make good on that threat?
[17:51:05] BLITZER: A chilling new threat and a call for revenge from the son of Osama bin Laden. It comes as al Qaeda is making a comeback and growing more dangerous. Our Brian Todd has been digging into all of this.
Brian, tell our viewers what you are learning.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're getting new information tonight that al Qaeda is back on the march, gathering new strength and getting itself in better position to recruit young jihadists who had been flocking to ISIS. Part of that game plan? A new video from Hamza bin Laden, who, a counterterrorism official tells us, is becoming more of an inspirational figure for terrorists.
TODD (voice-over): From al Qaeda, a new threat from a young terrorist with a familiar name. Hamza bin Laden, son of al Qaeda's founder, believed to be in his mid to late-20s, puts his voice to a new video, departing from his father's play book and calling for lone wolf attacks on America and its allies with any weapon a jihadists can find.
HAMZA BIN LADEN, SON OF OSAMA BIN LADEN (through translator): If you are able to pick up a firearm, well and good. If not, the options are many.
TODD (voice-over): In the video issued by al Qaeda's media arm, Hamza bin Laden calls for attacks on America, on Jewish interests, NATO, and Russia.
Does it appear now that Hamza wants to avenge his father's death?
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. I mean, I think avenge his father's death, show a new face of al Qaeda.
TODD (voice-over): Analyst say al Qaeda is seeking to reshape its image, moving away from the low-production videos issued by its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and is now targeting ISIS' younger fighters. Hamza bin Laden is crucial to that effort. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official tells CNN tonight, al Qaeda could be grooming Hamza for future roles, leveraging the family name.
Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan has analyzed the cache of documents seized in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He says Hamza is a natural.
ALI SOUFAN, FORMER AGENT, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: When he was a kid, he add lot of charisma, and you can see that in the propaganda videos of al Qaeda. He told his father in one of the letters that, I am forged of steel at this point, and I'm ready. I am ready. I'm ready to march with the armies of the Mujahidin.
TODD (voice-over): A U.S. counterterrorism official says Hamza bin Laden was at his father's side right before and after 9/11, then went on the run and wasn't with Osama bin Laden when he was killed. Hamza could soon be at top ranks of an al Qaeda that has made a major come back.
NICK RASMUSSEN, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER: -- the strikingly resilient and capable organization. That worries me. And I would argue, it should worry all of you as well.
SOUFAN: He have affiliates now in places like Iraq, in places like Syria, in places like Yemen, in places like Somalia, in places like Algeria and Mali. And those affiliates are very strong, and each one of them is way stronger than what bin Laden had.
TODD (voice-over): With ominous signs for the future. Iraq's Vice President recently said al Qaeda and ISIS are discussing a possible alliance. U.S. intelligence officials won't comment.
BERGEN: As ISIS gets, you know, really kind of smaller, for ISIS, it actually might be a good idea to align with al Qaeda, which is now pretty big organization in Syria. And that would be, unfortunately, a pretty, you know, lethal combination.
TODD: Analysts say if al Qaeda and ISIS form an alliance, there could be some dispute over who leads them, a dispute among Hamza bin Laden, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, current al Qaeda leader Ayman al- Zawahiri, or another leader. But they say, either way, that new alliance would likely present a significantly increased threat to the Middle East, Europe, and to the U.S. homeland -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It certainly would. Brian, you've also gotten some additional information today indicating that Osama bin Laden and his son had been working on some kind of plan for a succession when bin Laden died. What are you learning?
TODD: That's right, Wolf. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official telling us today that documents recovered in that 2011 bin Laden raid show that Hamza bin Laden had written a letter to his father asking to be trained with al Qaeda and that Osama bin Laden's aides attempted to reunite Hamza with his father. Not clear how close he came to being in that compound when Osama bin Laden died.
[17:55:06] BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Brian Todd, thanks very much. Coming up, as President Trump looks for a new FBI director, there is growing fallout over his admission that he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he fired James Comey.
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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.
(END VIDEO CLIP)