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White House: Trump 'Weighed In' on Son's Russia Statement. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired August 1, 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, weighed in. The White House finally confirms President Trump took part in crafting his son's misleading statement about meeting with a Russian lawyer. The admission that the president, quote, "weighed in as any father would" comes after weeks of denying the president's involvement, including denials by the president's own personal lawyer. Does this new revelation create any legal problems for the Trump team?
[17:00:27] Waiting day. Vice President Pence says President Trump will sign the Russian sanctions legislation into law soon. Vladimir Putin already is retaliating. Expelled U.S. diplomats are packing up to leave Russia right now. Why has the president waited five days to act, and how much longer will the president delay?
And military options. Senator Lindsey Graham says President Trump has told him there will be war with North Korea if he continues to develop missiles and nuclear weapons to hit the United States. So why is the secretary of state telling North Koreans, quote, "We are not your enemy"?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news and a huge reversal from the Trump team. After weeks of denying the president was involved in the misleading initial statement about his son's meeting with a Russian attorney during the presidential campaign. Today White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the president, quote, "weighed in as any father would," closed quote.
That undercuts repeated denials from the president's personal attorney and raises serious questions about whether members of the Trump team and even potentially the president himself could be in some sort of legal jeopardy.
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, is complaining that, even though the administration keeps saying there is nothing to the Russian story, they don't act that way at all.
Senator Warner tells CNN it seems a bit strange, he says, that the president of the United States helped draft the statement that, quote, "intentionally deceived the American people." We're following all of the conflicting signals also coming out of
North Korea right now. Senator Lindsey Graham says President Trump told him war with North Korea may be inevitable. Graham also says the president told him that if thousands are going to die, it will be, quote, "over there."
But just this afternoon during an extremely rare news conference, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. does not want regime change and told the North Koreans, quote, "We are not your enemy."
We're covering all of that, much more this hour, with our guests, including Senator Chris Murphy, a key Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
Let's start with our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.
Jeff, tell us more about this afternoon's big flip-flop about the president's involvement in his son's initial statement on that controversial Russia meeting at Trump Tower in New York last year.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.
We have heard repeatedly from the president's lawyer that the president, in fact, was not involved in shaping that initial statement. In fact, he did not know about the meeting until the "New York Times" was on the verge of reporting it.
But today we're learning something entirely different. At the White House press briefing earlier this afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president weighed in. She said, like any father would.
ZELENY (voice-over): New questions tonight for the White House over President Trump's hands-on role crafting an explanation of his son's Russia meeting during the heat of the 2016 election.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.
ZELENY: The White House acknowledging for the first time the president helped write a statement about a meeting that his son, Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort had with the Russian lawyer and four others in Trump Tower.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responding to a "Washington Post" report that said the president dictated that misleading statement.
SANDERS: He certainly didn't dictate, but you know, he -- like I said, he weighed in, offered suggestion like any father would do. ZELENY: But those words directly contradict the president's own
lawyer, who insisted Mr. Trump didn't help write the statement, saying the meeting was about Russian adoption, with no mention of accepting dirt on Hillary Clinton's campaign.
SEKULOW: I wasn't involved in the statement drafting at all. Nor was the president. But I'm assuming that was between Mr. -- Donald Trump Jr., between Don Jr. and his lawyer. I'm sure his lawyer was involved. That's how you do it.
ZELENY: Attorney Jay Sekulow, who's representing the president in the Russia investigation, said it again and again last month on television: the president had no role.
SEKULOW: But I do want to be clear that the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement. It came from Donald Trump Jr.
ZELENY: The statement was drafted aboard Air Force One on July 8 as the president flew back to Washington from the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Initially, the meeting was described like this in a statement to "The New York Times."
"We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up."
[17:05:10] Yet only days later, the real purpose of the meeting became clear when Donald Trump Jr. released e-mails showing it was part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump, from officials trying to take down the Clinton campaign.
The president's son replied, "If it's what you say, I love it."
Tonight it's the latest case of conflicting signals as the White House tries to move beyond the cloud of the Russian investigation. But the questions put the new White House press secretary back on defense.
SANDERS: The statement that was issued was true and there were no inaccuracies in the statement.
I think what the bigger question is, everybody wants to try to make this some story about misleading. The only thing I see misleading is a year's worth of stories that have been fueling a false narrative about this Russia collusion and based on phony scandal, based on anonymous sources. And I think that is, if we're going to talk about misleading, that's the only thing misleading I see in this entire process.
ZELENY: Leading Republicans see it differently on Capitol Hill, where two investigations are under way into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't know what role the president played, if any. Here's what I would suggest. That when you put out a misleading statement, it's going to be hard to convince people to stop looking at other things.
ZELENY: And that comment there from Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, echoes concern from other Republicans, Wolf, because it goes to the credibility of the White House.
Now, all of this happened on Air Force One on July 8, flying back from Hamburg, Germany. I was one of the reporters on that flight, Wolf, and it was about an eight-and-a-half-hour flight or so, and I am told by people on the flight that, for a good share of it, the president's daughter, son-in-law and a couple top aides were huddled with him in his office aboard Air Force One, crafting this statement.
It went out, and then the plane landed back at Andrews Air Force Base about 8:30 or so, Wolf. Four hours earlier, "The New York times" story had already come out. And of course, in the coming days, we learned more and more about that meeting.
So, indeed, that happened after the G-20 summit as they were flying home here to Washington.
BLITZER: Yes. Very -- very interesting, indeed. Jeff Zeleny doing excellent reporting for us, as he always does.
Let's get some reaction up on Capitol Hill. CNN's Ryan Nobles is standing by. Ryan, a top Democrat says the president's son and other top measures of the Trump team have to tell their stories in person. Update our viewers.
RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. We talked one on one with Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. He's important in this process, because he is the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And he told me that, if the president played any role in crafting a statement that turned out to be purposely misleading, it is a serious problem.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: This administration continues to say, particularly vis-a-vis Russia, there's nothing there. Yet they don't act that way at all. And what we have here is where earlier statements have said the president was not involved at all, now it appears that he actually drafted the language in a way that intentionally deceived the American people, because we clearly found that the facts were not as the president laid out, that this was a meeting that was about Russian efforts to try to influence the campaign and try to provide information about Hillary Clinton.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NOBLES: And from Warner's perspective, this steps up the need for the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold interviews with not only Donald Trump Jr. but with Paul Manafort and with Jared Kushner, who has yet to speak to senators specifically. Listen to what he told me about that. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WARNER: We've got a lot more questions for people like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. that we're going to want senators involved in the questioning, not just staff. So more to come.
NOBLES: So do you expect, then, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, all three of them, do you expect them in front of your committee?
WARNER: I don't see any way that some of the principals -- and there are a series of other individuals who have been affiliated with efforts involving the Russians -- they're all going to have to come and appear in person before the senators.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WARNER: Now, Senator Warner did not say whether or not those appearances would be in public or behind closed doors. He said that could still be negotiated.
But Wolf, it's important to point out that I asked him specifically how Senator Richard Burr, who is the chairman of the committee and a Republican feels about this, and he said he has made it clear to Senator Burr that, if these interviews don't happen, this won't be something that the entire committee can sign off on when the final report is issued. So he's left very little room for negotiating.
BLITZER: All right, Ryan, thanks very much. Ryan Nobles, up on Capitol Hill.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, has also been working her stories.
Pamela, the story here keeps shifting, and it's significant. What are you hearing, first of all, from your sources about how that first statement attributed to Donald Trump Jr. was crafted?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we learned, Wolf, my colleagues and I had spoken with several people familiar with the statement's crafting, and we learned that even before the G-20 summit, both Jared Kushner's team and Don Jr.'s legal team felt the strategy should be a detailed account about the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer.
And then it appears the plan changed aboard Air Force One on the trip back from the G-20.
Now, the degree to which the president was involved, what exactly he knew at the time and who else was involved in this initial misleading statement varies depending on who you speak with. We've been told that some of the president's closest aides, as we heard Jeff Zeleny report there, helped strategize on this response.
Now, as we have previously reported, anyone involved in crafting the statement, including the president, could have legal exposure in the special counsel probe and to Russia's interference in the election. So I can bet, Wolf, that Robert Mueller, who is of course, leading that probe, is very interested in who was crafting this statement.
BLITZER: All right. I want to you stay with this. I want to also bring in our other specialists. And Phil Mudd, your reaction to these latest developments, because these twists and turns are dramatic.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, in some ways they're not twists and turns. Let's go to the start of the administration. We have an administration that hates leaks. Let me give you two kinds of leaks, because you're going to hear a lot of confusion about this.
One is a leak that reveals national security information, for example, operational information about ISIS. The second is a leak that is not national security but is highly embarrassing. We started down this path with a leak that revealed that General Flynn had misled the vice president about his conversation with Russia.
Fast-forward six months. We have yet another leak that says that initial claim that this was about adoptions, that meeting between the Russians and Don Jr., wasn't accurate.
I can see why the White House doesn't like leaks, but what they're going to tell you is that this is about national security. It's not. It's because the press is finding out dirt that indicates that there's a huge air gap between what they say and what the truth is. We're finding that out, starting with Flynn and going through today.
BLITZER: You know, Rebecca Berg, let me play the clip. This is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, confirming that the president was involved in that initial statement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SANDERS: The statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There's no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That's very different than the statements we got from the president's personal lawyer at the time, Jay Sekulow, who said the president didn't know anything about this and wasn't involved in drafting that statement.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And so you have two potentially troubling explanations for why Sekulow went on television and said what he said. The first could be that he wasn't telling the truth, which, of course, would be problematic for obvious reasons.
The second possibility here is that his -- Trump's legal team, including Sekulow, were not fully informed, were not fully engaged before he went on television to try to represent what the president had been doing. That would also be problematic. So no good answer here, really, for the administration. But certainly, if I were Donald Trump's counsel, it's troubling for
them that he would have been engaged in this process at all. I mean, it really harkens back to what we saw with the president and Jim Comey, when he was speaking with Comey about the ongoing investigation when he should have been just separating himself as much as possible from that process. We're seeing this again, because this is all very personal for the president, and he's having trouble not seeing it as such.
BLITZER: You know, Pamela, based on everything you're hearing from your sources, how problematic, potentially, is this for the president?
BROWN: Well, it certainly could be problematic, because as we previously reported, Robert Mueller, who's leading the special counsel probe, is looking at the obstruction of justice angle of this. And so, of course, if the president was involved in potentially crafting a misleading statement, then what Robert Mueller would want to find out is, was this part of a cover-up? Was this part of an obstruction of justice aspect of the investigation?
Now, the argument legally could be made that you can't obstruct justice when you're talk -- when you're releasing something to the press, to the media. This is not having to do with the investigation.
But then on the flip side of that, the argument could be made perhaps you're trying to mislead the lead investigator, which would be Robert Mueller. So all of this could be taken into account as something that could be of interest to investigators.
And to Phil's point, you know, the leaks that are coming from the White House, I think, are more of a symptom than the actual disease. Because it is so much harder than it should be, Wolf, to get to the truth. Either the president was part of crafting the statement or not. And you hear the lawyer coming out a few weeks ago saying he wasn't involved at all, and now we heard from the White House that, in fact, yes, he did weigh in. What is the truth? Why is it so hard to get to the truth?
BLITZER: Because this is going to be, potentially, Mark Preston, an issue that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is going to have to face. Maybe he's already dealing with it even as we speak, he and his team. What are you hearing from your various sources about the -- this late-breaking development?
MARK PRESTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a couple things. Not only Robert Mueller but what we're seeing up on Capitol Hill, too, and they're actually being very public about it, is that when they see a misdirection by the White House or any kind of evidence that they may be trying to cover things up, they are going to try to investigate it even further.
I really do think that this is damaging not only for the president when it comes to this issue, this specific issue component of the Russia investigation, but anything going forward. Because if you are Robert Mueller, if you are the investigators on the Senate Judiciary Committee or the Senate Intelligence Committee or the House Intelligence Committee, it's just going to force you to think even deeper about what else they may have tried to misdirect on.
And that is a very precarious position to be in if you are President Trump, specifically when we saw him, Wolf, say just a few weeks ago, basically sent out a warning to Robert Mueller saying, "You better not look into my family's finances." Again, all you're doing is baiting Robert Mueller to do that.
BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's a lot more going on, including right now on the Senate floor. Senators are voting on the confirmation of Christopher Wray to become the next FBI director succeeding James Comey who was fired. We'll have that. We should get the result momentarily. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:20:17] BLITZER: We're back with our specialists. We're following breaking news coming in from Capitol Hill. As you can see, the U.S. Senate, the members of the Senate, they're voting to confirm a new FBI director, senators still voting right now on Christopher Wray's nomination.
He has lots of bipartisan support. We've heard, though, some key Democrats already voting no. He was unanimously confirmed, I believe, by the Senate Judiciary Committee. We should have the results momentarily on that.
As we await that, Phil Mudd, our own Jake Tapper, he reported that a prankster in the U.K. was able to trick a bunch of White House officials into believing they were getting e-mails from colleagues on the White House staff, pretending to be other White House officials, including the now former communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, and the homeland security adviser to the president, Tom Bossert, who's an expert, supposedly, on cyber warfare. What concerns does this raise that they were duped by this prankster in the U.K.?
MUDD: My concerns are not on the duping. This happens every day in corporate America. Every corporation in America should be undergoing tests to determine whether their employees will pick up on an e-mail like this.
I think we have a couple questions. No. 1, I assume, you got to hope that people in these positions are trained to look at what we call phishing e-mails. Which is what this is.
There's a more significant question. And that is the cyber folks at the White House have a question to answer about, when this stuff gets through, is your software good enough to flag it?
I think, though, anyone who wants to come and attack the White House better sit back and ask themselves one question. Are you sure, with the quality of some of these e-mails coming in, that you wouldn't fall prey to the same thing? I fear I would. These guys are pretty good.
BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, because the president, President Trump and his aides, they constantly mock Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, the DNC for their lack of cyber security, but does this prank that this guy in the U.K. launched seriously embarrass the White House right now that they could have been duped along these lines, Mark?
PRESTON: Yes. Certainly, it's embarrassing that they fell for this, but I think Phil makes a very good point. We're all susceptible to this now. It is very high-tech, and they're very clever in how they do it.
But it does beg, you know, the question: how did it actually get through the system at that point, and what safeguards are being put in place to prevent it from the future?
And we should note, this didn't just happen in the Trump administration. We saw similar instances like this happen back when President Obama was in office. So this is a greater problem, I think, and really -- really, really is not a partisan one.
BLITZER: All right. The U.S. Senate has just confirmed Christopher Wray to become the next FBI director. Overwhelming vote, 92-5, 92 in favor of confirmation, only 5 opposing. Christopher Wray, the former assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush. He worked under James Comey at the Justice Department.
In private practice, by the way, he represented Governor Chris Christie during what was called Bridgegate. You know, Phil Mudd, 92- 5, that's pretty good.
MUDD: Great news, and I think great news for the FBI. You go back just a couple of months, remember, we had news that the president of the United States, President Trump, was going to visit the FBI. He never visited. My friends over there and others are saying if he had gone there, it's not because everybody at the FBI loves Jim Comey -- many do -- it's because the president fired the man responsible for the Russia investigation.
I think what Wray has to do is go into an organization that's been under a lot of stress and say, "Look, we've got a lot of work to do." There's an opioid epidemic in America. There's gang activity the president has talked about. There's a Russia investigation. I'll talk to Bob Mueller. If I were the FBI director, keep your head down. The White House takes head shots. Go low. Don't say anything publicly, and keep the business of the bureau going. And I think the worse force will respond.
BLITZER: Will he -- he's going to be sworn in by the president, the vice president, whoever swears him in. That's probably going to take a day or so. But will he get directly involved under Mueller or helping Mueller in this whole Russia investigation?
MUDD: There's only one key way I think he would be involved. I'm assuming they'll talk within a day of him coming in if they haven't talked already, and that is on the technical side.
When you're running this kind of investigation, think of what's happened with the president's son, for example, a lot of technical information including e-mails. That requires a lot of manpower. So if Robert Mueller needs anything, he's going to go to the new FBI director and say, "I need resources." Beyond that, he should be operating independently.
BLITZER: Ninety-two to five, that's quite a vote, you know, 92 to 5, Rebecca Berg. The only votes against five Democratic senators, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley. They voted against confirmation.
This is a vote of confidence in the president's selection of this new FBI director.
[17:25:00] BERG: Absolutely. And even more incredible, Wolf, when you consider the firestorm that the president sparked when he fired James Comey under the circumstances that he did and the very tough pushback that he got from not only Democrats but also Republicans, and sort of this high bar that they set at that time for whatever nominee he would select.
It's a pretty amazing situation that we're in, to see that the president was able to pick a nominee that won such broad bipartisan support, and you know, it's amazing from a political perspective. The Democrats decided they weren't going to make this a political issue, that they had enough confidence in Christopher Wray to get the job done.
BLITZER: You know, Mark Preston, there was a, what, a 92-8 vote in the United States Senate on another issue the other day: the Russia sanctions, Iran sanctions, North Korea sanctions legislation. The president still hasn't signed that into law. What's the problem, what's the delay?
PRESTON: Well, we're hearing from the White House that it's a very complicated legislative measure, and they want to review it, which I find really interesting. Because if they don't know what's in that legislation right now, or as it was going through committee and then to the House and the Senate floor, you have to wonder, what were they thinking?
I do think there are a lot of people out there, specifically in Washington, who are involved in this, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, Wolf, that are wondering why hasn't he signed this into law? Clearly, it has the full support of both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, and by delaying it, it only adds more questions than giving us answers about what the next step is going to be with Russia, specifically when we see Vladimir Putin now sending home a lot of our members who work, you know, U.S. people who work over in the embassy in Moscow.
BLITZER: Yes. More than 700 Americans and Russians who work at the U.S. embassy, Phil, or the U.S. consulate, they're being told by September 1 they're out of there, no more work for them.
But the president remains silent. The vice president speaking out very forcefully; others speaking out very forcefully. Why is the president silent, not tweeting about this at all? MUDD: You stumped the Trump on this one. I mean, he's got to sign
the legislation, because it's a foolproof majority from the Hill if he sends it back, which he won't. They're just going to vote him down.
I think, to give the White House credit, there's an additional angle here, which we've seen in the past 48 hours. That is the Russians coming out with some pretty aggressive actions. If you're on the National Security Council in the White House, you have to be sitting out saying, are we sure we understand every implication from the Russian side as soon as the president puts his signature on there. There's got to be a lot of coordinating with State Department and the White House about what happens after the president signs.
BLITZER: All right. There's more news we're following. Everybody stay with us. We're going to -- about to get some more reaction on today's flip-flop over at the White House after weeks of denying President Trump's involvement in his son's initial, misleading statement about that meeting with the Russians last year at Trump Tower during the campaign. The White House press secretary now says the president, quote, "weighed in as any father would."
And Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you see him there live. He's about to join us. Lots to discuss. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news: today's astonishing flip- flop over at the White House, which now admits the president did weigh in on his son's initially misleading statement about a meeting that he had with a Russian lawyer last year in New York.
[17:32:46] This comes after weeks of denials that the president was involved at all, that he knew anything at all about the meeting.
Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, so what do you think about this flip-flop? The president was involved in crafting that initial statement, the White House says, as any father would?
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Honestly, Wolf, I've been a little bit more focused on our health care debate today, but it is hard for me to keep track of this ever-widening web of lies that is coming from this administration.
What we know is that, for a very long time, the White House was not telling the truth about the extent of contacts between the campaign, the highest levels of the campaign and the Russian government, and they went to great lengths to try to cover it up. The only way this information ever comes out is through disclosures that are made by law enforcement or disclosures that are made by independent media.
So I think you're going to continue to find out that the Trump administration has been trying to hide the contacts that they have had with the Russian government, and so none of this should be surprising. BLITZER: You say you're focusing on health care. There's some
concern out there that the president may suspend what are called these cost-sharing subsidies that allow -- that help millions of Americans get the kind of health insurance that they need. What are you hearing about that?
MURPHY: Well, you know, that is what's taking up our time today. We announced a process, finally, a bipartisan process today in the Health Committee that will start to try to bring Republicans and Democrats together to stabilize these markets. And stabilizing these markets includes taking away from President Trump the power to undermine our health care system.
He has threatened to pull payments from insurance companies, which would cause them to walk away from millions of customers, creating a crisis in our health insurance industry. And we are awaiting word from the president as to whether he is going to take out his anger on consumers and patients all across this country.
In the meantime, at the very least, there's good news in that we have started a bipartisan process to try to take away from the president this discretionary power to hurt patients because of how mad he is that his bill has not passed.
[17:35:05] BLITZER: Well, what do your colleagues believe? Do you think he would actually do that in the coming days? Because he has said, he's tweeted several times the best thing that he could do is simply let Obamacare implode.
MURPHY: Well, he's been engaged in a campaign of sabotage since inauguration day. He signed an executive order ordering all of his agencies to undermine the Affordable Health Care Act. He pulled the advertising and marketing dollars. He told the IRS to stop enforcing the individual mandates. So if he were to stop paying insurance companies, it would be consistent with a pretty regular campaign of sabotage.
And so we're not expecting anything other than for that trend line to continue, which is why it's really important for us to take away the keys to the American health care system from the administration and do that as soon as possible.
BLITZER: Let's move on to some other important issues. When asked why President Trump still hasn't signed the Russian sanctions bill, which you and your colleagues in the Senate approved 98-2, the White House pointed to the legal review process that is now underway at the White House, reviewing all aspects of that legislation. Do you buy that?
MURPHY: I'll take the president at his word on this. I mean, this is a complicated piece of legislation, and I expect that he will keep his word and ultimately sign it, now that we know that the Russians have taken these anticipatory, retaliatory actions. It's more important than ever that we show strength.
The reality is, is that Vladimir Putin is a leader who really only understands strength. He will continue to bully you unless you push back. And the administration wasn't willing to do that, so Congress has to pass a sanctions bill and I'm going to keep -- hold the president to his word that, before the end of this ten-day period, he will sign it.
BLITZER: Are you comfortable with the way the White House and the State Department are characterizing what they describe as the intent of the sanctions bill which, as you know, reduces the president's ability to ease sanctions down the road without congressional approval?
MURPHY: Let's admit that this is a fairly extraordinary piece of legislation. It is not often that Congress takes away from the president discretionary powers on foreign policy. But both Republicans and Democrats are greatly worried that this president is compromised when it comes to his relationship with Russia, whether it be because of revelations that will come out about the extent of his campaign's contacts with Russia or perhaps financial interests that he's trying to hide.
So this is an extraordinary piece of legislation. But in the end, the one thing Donald Trump is right about is that it would be better if the United States had a more functional relationship with Russia. I think this shows that we are serious about pushing back against them, and maybe over time, it will lead to an understanding between our two countries that we're better off standing down on these escalatory actions.
BLITZER: Senator Murphy, when it comes to Russia, do you believe the president is compromised?
MURPHY: Everything I've read so far is we haven't seen the full story yet of the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign's story with Russia. I hope we don't hear that the Trump administration's and the Trump campaign's relationship was with Russia. I hope -- every single day I hope that we do not receive word that the Trump campaign was actively coordinating to undermine the American election with the Russian government.
Unfortunately, as every day goes by, the evidence gets closer to that revelation. I'm still hoping that that's not the outcome.
BLITZER: All right. There's more we're going to talk about. Got to take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:43:18] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, Secretary of state Rex Tillerson today said the U.S. isn't an enemy of North Korea and that they'd like to eventually have a dialogue with North Korea. How realistic is that?
MURPHY: I think it's only realistic after we build up a series of multilateral sanctions that brings North Korea to the table. Obviously, China has to be at the forefront of that effort.
But I think it's right for Secretary Tillerson to make it clear to the North Koreans that the end result of this crisis does not have to be regime change, that if they are willing to talk to us about curtailing their nuclear program, we can help them with some of their enduring economic challenges.
The trouble here, Wolf, is that a diplomatic solution needs diplomatic personnel, and they just don't exist right now at the State Department. We don't have an assistant secretary for Asia. We don't have an ambassador on the Korean Peninsula. We have a secretary of state who doesn't have experience in this region. So we need some personnel, high-level experienced personnel at the State Department soon if we want to actually build up that kind of sanctions regime that worked in Iran that could work in North Korea.
BLITZER: Secretary Tillerson contradicted what your Republican colleague, Senator Lindsey Graham, said this morning. I want you to listen to this. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: He's not going to allow President Trump the ability of this mad man to have a missile to hit America. If there's going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there. They're not going to die here, and he's told me that to my face.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you think? Do you think that the secretary and the senator are on the same page?
MURPHY: Wolf, I didn't get that audio, actually.
BLITZER: Let me read it to you.
BLITZER: This is what Lindsey Graham said on "The Today Show," he's not going to allow President Trump the ability of this mad man to have a missile to hit America. He's referring to the president. "If there is going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there, they're not going to die here, and he's told me that to my face."
He's referring to a conversation he had with the president, which raises questions about whether the president and the secretary of state are on the same page?
SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, let's be clear about what would happen on the Korean Peninsula if military hostilities were to break out. It wouldn't be that thousands would die. It would be that hundreds of thousands if not millions would die. Remember, Seoul itself, one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the world lies within striking distance of the North Koreans. If they were to take out their capacity via military strike, they would obliterate big parts of South Korea.
Now that doesn't mean that you don't make clear that we have the military capability to do that. But ultimately this isn't just about a few thousand-people dying, this could be about hundreds of thousands of North and South Koreans dying. So that's why we have to have a diplomatic strategy here, a defensive strategy that ultimately can work.
BLITZER: Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, thanks for joining us.
MURPHY: Thanks a lot.
BLITZER: Coming up, more on today's huge change in the White House story about President Trump's involvement in his son's initial misleading statement about meeting with a Russian attorney.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, conflicting signals about the possibility of war between the United States and North Korea. Even though the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this afternoon told North Korea, quote, "We are not your enemy."
The U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said that the military option is inevitable if Kim Jong-un continues developing missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons.
CNN's Brian Todd has been looking at the consequence of a war. What have you found, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we're getting a brutal assessment of potential casualties from a war on the Korean Peninsula. Estimates go as high as 300,000 dead in the opening days of a conflict. This comes as Senator Graham takes heat for what he said about casualties.
TODD (voice-over): All-out war with North Korea, a real possibility being put forth tonight by a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC's "Today Show," President Trump told him there will be war with North Korea if Kim Jong-un's regime continues on its path of threatening America with its missile program. Graham says Trump discussed the possible casualties with him.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If there is going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there. They're not going to die here. and he's told me that to my face. TODD: Graham says no one wants a war, but says the president has more of a responsibility to protect the American homeland than the region around North and South Korea. General James "Spider" Marks who led U.S. military intelligence in South Korea said Senator Graham's remarks don't help the situation.
GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What Senator Graham is saying that a whole host of those folks are going to die. That's a message we do not have to remind the South Koreans of. They know that. It's unfortunate that he said it.
TODD: Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein who is on the Intelligence Committee told MSNBC there's more to the danger than Senator Graham seems to realize.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: My reaction is that Lindsey Graham should get a classified briefing like the ones I have had and sit down with Secretary Mattis, which I have done.
TODD: President Trump's defense secretary recently issued a dire warning about armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we have seen since 1953. It will involve the massive shelling of an ally's capital which is one of the most densely packed cities on earth. It would be a serious -- it would be a catastrophic war.
TODD: Kim Jong-un has a million-man army and has bolstered his infantry and artillery near the DMZ. The Pentagon says much of those forces are in underground bunkers, ready to fire on Seoul at the first whip of an attack by the U.S.
GENERAL WALTER "SKIP" SHARP (RETIRED), FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. AND SOUTH KOREAN FORCES: The number of missiles that they have, that they could launch into South Korea, they could cause a lot of damage.
TODD: There are about 28,000 U.S. troops in the region. Experts say the U.S. and South Korea would win that war, but some studies project tens of thousands of people killed in the first couple of days.
MARKS: It would be a very nasty fight. The maneuver forces from the United States and South Korea moving into the North would encounter barriers of very tough foe. They have been there forever so they know the terrain.
TODD: The Pentagon is not commenting tonight at all on Senator Graham's remarks. A White House official would not comment directly on what Senator Graham said, but told us the president often consults with members of Congress for their input and said the president is committed to using economic and diplomatic means to get North Korea to change course.
Now, on the criticism that Senator Graham is receiving, an aide to Graham told us it is worth pointing out that General James Marks, who we interviewed for this story was a supporter of Hillary Clinton during the campaign, which General Marks says is irrelevant -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thanks very much.
Coming up, more on the breaking news, after weeks of denying the president was involved at all in the misleading initial statement about his son's meeting with a Russian attorney. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, now says the president, quote, "weighed in as any father would."
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, Russia denial, the White House contradicts President Trump's own lawyer, saying the president did weigh in on the son's misleading statement about a meeting with a Russian lawyer. Why did the president's attorney repeatedly deny the president's role?
Not your enemy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ratchets down U.S. rhetoric toward North Korea and calls for talks with the Kim Jong-un regime, even as it aggressively pursues its nuclear missile program. How will North Korea respond?
Rebuking Trump, the chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration tells his employees not to listen to the president's advice to be rough on suspects. Was the president just joking as administration officials insists?