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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With South Dakota Senator John Thune; Interview With Illinois Senator Richard Durbin; Trump Administration Failing to Reunite Migrant Families?; Supreme Court Confirmation Battle Begins; Interview With Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Aired 6- 7p ET
Aired July 10, 2018 - 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, breaking news: the easiest. President Trump arrives in Brussels for the NATO summit after repeatedly jabbing allies and predicting his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- quote -- "may be the easiest of them all."
Flynn still talking. Fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has his sentencing delayed so he can continue cooperating with Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. And, tonight, we're learning Flynn and his son both have new jobs.
Missing the deadline. The Trump administration is falling short of fulfilling a judge's order to reunite 102 migrant children under 5 years old with their parents.
I will talk about that with the Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar.
And advise and consent. President Trump's Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, heads to Capitol Hill to meet with key senators, as the battle over his nomination begins.
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: Breaking news tonight. President Trump has arrived in Brussels for what promises to be a rather tense NATO summit.
The president taking new jabs at key U.S. allies, as he tweeted from Air Force One, complaining about NATO costs and E.U. trade. We will talk about that and more with Senators John Thune and Dick Durbin and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. And our correspondents, specialists analysts, they are also standing by.
First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, in Brussels for us tonight.
Jeff, hardly business as usual at this NATO summit. JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good evening.
These NATO meetings are generally steeped in unity, with leaders talking about national defense and other matters. But when President Trump meets with European leaders tomorrow morning, the stage is set for confrontation. He is Accusing them of being freeloaders on military spending. And they are worried about his meeting with Vladimir Putin.
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump arriving in Brussels tonight with sharp words for American allies, but a far friendlier posture for old foes like Russia.
Before departing the White House, the president suggested his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki would be a bright spot of his whirlwind European visit.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, I have NATO. I have the U.K., which is in somewhat turmoil. And I have Putin. Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think? Who would think?
ZELENY: Tonight, U.S. allies aren't sure what to think of the president's warm embrace of Putin.
DONALD TUSK, EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT: America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don't have that many.
ZELENY: E.U. President Donald Tusk taking President Trump to task for repeatedly suggesting European countries are essentially freeloaders, not paying their fair share on defense.
TUSK: Dear President Trump, America does not have and will not have a better ally than Europe. Today, Europeans spend on defense many times more than Russia and as much as China.
ZELENY: Trump's summit with Putin is casting a shadow here over the NATO meeting. Asked directly whether Russia is a friend or foe, the president chose another word.
TRUMP: As far as I'm concerned, a competitor. A competitor. I think that getting along with Russia, getting along with China, getting along with others is a good thing.
ZELENY: What Trump has not said is anything remotely critical of Russia. He rarely, if ever speaks of their meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, the ongoing cyber-attacks, the invasion of Ukraine, or the deadly nerve agents in the United Kingdom traced back to Russia. Again today, he saved his criticism for European allies.
TRUMP: We do have a lot of allies. But we cannot be taken advantage of. We are being taken advantage of by the European Union. We spend at least 70 percent for NATO. And frankly it helps them a lot more than it helps us. ZELENY: Yet, the only time NATO invoked Article V of the treaty,
where an attack on one is an attack on all, was when allies came to the defense of the U.S. after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Trump is hardly the first American president to prod allies to spend more on collective defense. But his scolding has carried a sharper sting because it comes as he is embracing brutal dictators far more than all allies.
As he left Washington today, Trump had a bounce in his step, the morning after introducing his second nominee to the Supreme Court.
TRUMP: Judge Kavanaugh has gotten rave reviews, rave reviews, actually from both sides.
ZELENY: Judge Kavanaugh's confirmation fight on Capitol Hill is just beginning, with Democrats and Republicans settling in for a summer battle during an already volatile midterm election season.
ZELENY: Now, President Trump is beginning this whirlwind week here in Europe tomorrow morning with the meetings with European leaders.
They are expected to be tense meetings, Wolf. Then the president going on to the United Kingdom. Of course, there's a government crisis under way there as well. He is set to meet with the queen, and then, of course, Wolf, all eyes are on that meeting next Monday in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin.
The question here though, Wolf, is that meeting go to threaten the unity here against Russian aggression? That's what so many world leaders and European leaders are fearing -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you, Jeff Zeleny Brussels for us.
While the president is clearly taking a softer line when it comes to Russia, Vice President Mike Pence tells CNN the administration has no illusions about the country or its leader, Vladimir Putin
He spoke to our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, about that and more.
Dana, what else did he tell you?
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we talked on Capitol Hill, where a lot of the president and vice president's fellow Republicans are really concerned, Wolf, about the president's upcoming one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BASH: The president before leaving on his trip abroad today said he can't answer whether Vladimir Putin is friend or a foe. What do you think?
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump has met with President Putin before. But the meeting in Helsinki will be an opportunity for the president to sit down and I think evaluate the leader of Russia in a fresh way.
Look, we have got real challenges across the Middle East. Russia is involved on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria. We have troops in harm's way. They have done -- our troops have done a tremendous job destroying ISIS at its source.
But finding a long-term solution in Syria will require some agreement and cooperation with Russia.
BASH: ... obviously is a big issue. But how is somebody who your own intelligence community says was involved in meddling in American elections not a foe of America?
PENCE: Well, I think the president's word today was competitor. And he recognizes that Russia and the United States have competing interests.
BASH: You don't think it's more than that, an actual adversary?
PENCE: Well, I -- I -- I don't think we have any illusions about Putin or about Russia.
But, look, President Trump has made it clear. He believes, as he demonstrated when he met with Kim Jong-un, that it's always better to try and talk to people, to try and find peaceable solutions, whether it be on the Korean Peninsula, whether it be with regard to Ukraine, whether it be resolving the issue in Syria.
And so I think having the president sit down with President Putin, determining whether or not there is an opportunity for us to find common cause to resolve some of these intractable issues that have been between the United States and discuss issues that are great concern to...
BASH: He said it was going to be an easier meeting, easier than the NATO allies.
PENCE: Well, look, the president is going to deliver a message when he arrives in Brussels that it is time for our NATO allies to live up to the commitments that they made.
The Wales agreement they all signed on to said that all of the countries in this important, historic would commit to reach 2 percent of their GDP in defense spending. A very small number of our NATO allies have achieved that number.
The United States spends 3.5 percent to 4 percent of our GDP, depending on how you reckon it, on our common defense. It's time for them to do more. The good news is, I believe the president will reflect this, is that because of President Trump's leadership over the last year-and-a-half, many of our NATO allies are doing more.
They're investing more in our common defense. And America and the wider world are safer as a result of a stronger where everyone lives up to their word.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BASH: The vice president says pressure on NATO has worked. And in some cases, it has.
But that hasn't mitigated deep concerns among America's allies in Europe up about U.S. leadership and that especially, Wolf, vis-a-vis protecting it from Russia.
BLITZER: Especially after that rather awkward G7 summit in Canada not that long ago.
BLITZER: Dana, good work. Dana Bash reporting for us.
Let's get more on all of this.
Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota is joining us. He's the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
SEN. JOHN THUNE (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: Good evening, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's go through some of these issues.
The president has relentlessly attacked NATO in the lead-up to this trip, to this summit in Brussels. He seems to be much more comfortable actually with the upcoming summit in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin.
Is the president putting the very survival of NATO right now in jeopardy?
THUNE: Well, I wouldn't say that.
But I think it is important that we demonstrate a strong commitment to the NATO . I mean, this is something that has served freedom-loving countries well for half-a-century.
And I know we just had a vote on the floor of the United States Senate, a motion to instruct conferees on the defense authorization bill, basically expressing our commitment to NATO and Article V of NATO. Obviously, the president is interested in seeing NATO nations carry
more of the burden for their defense. And that's something that we all agree with. But I think in terms of the commitment that we have to the transatlantic alliance, it's strong coming from the Congress. And I hope that the president articulates that when he meets with them as well.
BLITZER: Well, he certainly hasn't articulated that in the lead-up. Let's see what he does in Brussels.
BLITZER: He does say that Vladimir Putin -- and you heard him this morning just before leaving the White House -- he says that Putin is a competitor of the United States. He refused to say Putin is a foe of the United States.
How do you see it? Is Vladimir Putin a foe?
THUNE: Well, I think that, obviously, when it comes -- Russia and the United States are both nuclear nations. We have 80 percent of the world's nuclear stockpiles.
And so we have to have, I think, an understanding of our differences. And I think that's one thing that perhaps is a little bit lacking. I don't know that I would characterize them -- I certainly wouldn't characterize them as a friend.
But I do think that, and they are potentially an adversary, but I hope that there is a way that we can structure a responsible relationship going forward where they change their behavior relative to some things that are important for our country, first and foremost our elections.
BLITZER: Let me press you.
According to the U.S. intelligence community, they're actively gearing up once again to interfere in the midterm elections. They interfered in the presidential elections.
Wouldn't you describe that as someone who is a foe of the United States?
THUNE: Well, certainly someone that is undermining American interests when it comes to our elections. And we have made it very clear that they have got to stop that behavior.
And I think that was what these sanctions last year were all about. We have sanctions going back to 2014 with our European allies dealing with Ukraine and Crimea. But the Russians have to understand, Wolf, in my view at least, that they have got to change their behavior if they want to have a more responsible relationship with the United States and with our allies.
But one of the reasons I think it's so important that, as the president meets with our NATO allies, that he comes out of that meeting with a united front, is because I think it makes us that much stronger when we have a coordinated strategy in dealing with a country like Russia.
BLITZER: I want to move on.
But, quickly, Senator, why are you afraid to describe Putin as a foe?
THUNE: Well, I mean, I think that they are -- like I said, friend, foe, certainly not a friend.
But I think that we get along on some issues. We do some things together on counterterrorism. We work together on the space program. And so there are some areas where we cooperate.
But I would characterize the relationship between our two countries right now as strained, at best, and probably at a low point relative to any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
So -- but I think it's important that we do our best, realizing that they are a nuclear-capable nation, to have a responsible relationship moving forward. And that means we have got to have a clear-eyed understanding of what our differences are. And they are pretty profound.
BLITZER: You just returned from a visit to Russia with a group of Republican lawmakers.
Why did the Republicans decide to send a strictly Republican delegation to visit this key U.S. adversary? We're showing the eight members of the delegation on the trip. Why no Democrats?
THUNE: Well, first off, I think that one thing is, these trips -- I have been on trips that have been Republican and Democrat, some all Republican.
But I think it was really important at this particular time, Wolf, for Republicans to express very clearly, which we did in no uncertain terms, to the Russian leadership that election meddling is not a Democrat issue. It's not something that just Democrats in this country care about.
It is something that Republicans care about. And I think Republicans delivering that message and a very tough message in advance of a visit by the president with the Russian president was a very fitting theme. And I think right now the timing of it could not have been more important.
BLITZER: As you know, one of your colleagues, Republican Senator Ron Johnson, he was on the trip with you. He said that the U.S. sanctions against Russia aren't working. And he also seemed to downplay Russian election interference here in the United States.
That's a sharp departure from what we heard from other Republicans, who say that you guys aggressively confronted the Russians for their meddling in the election. Just update our viewers. What really went on inside those meetings?
THUNE: Well, they -- they were.
It was very confrontational with respect to election meddling. And all the members of the delegation expressed that. There was a hard pushback. The Russians are very defensive on that issue. They're obviously not going to agree with us.
And -- but, as I suggested to them, the best way to demonstrate good faith on this issue is to not mess in our 2018 elections. If they want a different relationship with the United States, it starts with a change in behavior.
And we delivered that message very clearly. So, I think in terms of the Russians understanding of what that we're serious about this, the congressional delegation that was over there delivered that message in very clear and frank language.
And it obviously met with a lot of resistance from the Russian leadership that we met with. But I think they understand what the stakes are and that we mean business.
BLITZER: As you know, the Russian media clearly seized on your delegation's visit tried to Russia.
Do you worry that you and the other Republicans on the trip were used for Russia propaganda purposes?
THUNE: I don't think that's true at all.
I do think it's important. And our ambassador there, Jon Huntsman, was -- has been trying to get members of Congress to come over -- come over to enter into direct discussions. I mean, there's no way to deliver a tough message, better way to deliver a tough message than to deliver it in person.
And I think, as members of Congress, the Article I branch of the government, the Russians need to know that we take very seriously their interference in our election. We believe they did it. We have evidence that they did it. And we delivered that message clearly.
We talked about Syria and Ukraine and nuclear weapons and a whole range of issues, but probably most the time, a lot of the time, I would say, of the many hours that we spent in discussions with their Duma, with their Council Federation, with Foreign Minister Lavrov dealt with the issue of Russian interference in the American elections.
BLITZER: I don't know if you know this, but Russian TV, the Russians were mocking you for carrying a burner phone. They claimed on Russian TV they could easily hack into it.
What's your reaction to that? THUNE: Well, I mean, yes -- they -- at the request of the embassy, I did an interview with a Russian media outlet.
And a question was posed about why we carry burner phones when we travel to Russia. And I -- they said, why can't we cooperate better on cyber issues? And I said, well, we can cooperate better when you quit messing in our elections.
But, obviously, when we travel there, we know that the Russians are constantly trying to hack into our telecommunications equipment, not only there, but here, everywhere in the United States as well. This is a cyber-conflict that we're involved with and, obviously, one we take very seriously travel abroad.
But they want to write it off as U.S. paranoia about Russia. They suggest that nobody else that comes to Russia does this. But the fact of matter is, we know full well that they are constantly surveilling and trying to gather information about our activities.
And we take that very seriously and take appropriate precautions when we travel.
BLITZER: Senator Thune, thanks so much for joining us.
THUNE: Thanks. Thanks, Wolf. Good to be with you.
BLITZER: All right, there's more breaking news.
Sentencing now delayed for Michael Flynn, as the fired national security adviser continues to cooperate with Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
And I will speak live with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. I will ask him why the Trump administration is missing a federal court-ordered deadline today to reunite those migrant children under the age of 5 with their mothers and fathers.
BLITZER: Sentencing for Michael Flynn has been delayed while the former national security adviser continues to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's team.
Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, has the latest information.
Evan, you were inside the federal court. Why are both parties requesting that the sentencing be delayed?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's simply because Mike Flynn is still cooperating with the federal government, with the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
And look, Wolf, we were expecting a bit of a contentious hearing. The judge seemed to be losing a little bit of patience with the fact that this now seven months since Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
And he brought him before court -- into his court before him today and in the end he said he's not in any hurry. He told the government and he told Mike Flynn's lawyers that they can have as much time as they needed while he continues to do whatever it is he's doing behind the scenes with the special counsel, and that especially coming back in August they can come back and give them an update as to when they're ready to go forward with sentencing.
So it looks like whatever Mike Flynn is doing with the special counsel's going to continue while he awaits sentencing in the next few months.
BLITZER: Evan, CNN has learned that Flynn has a new job. Tell us about that.
PEREZ: That's right.
He is now joining an investment consulting firm. He and his son are going to be working with this consulting firm out of New York.
And, Wolf, what's interesting about this is that we don't know -- and it's very interesting that obviously he's awaiting sentencing. He's pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. And it's curious to know what kind of a big companies will be willing to hire Mike Flynn to do -- to provide any kind of investment advice.
It's going to be a very interesting thing to watch.
BLITZER: We're also learning that Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman, he's in jail. He wants to remain in jail, even in solitary confinement. Tell us about that.
PEREZ: You can't make this up, Wolf.
Mike -- Paul Manafort has been pleading with the judges to be allowed to come closer to Northern Virginia, where he's going to be going on trial later this month. And, suddenly, after a judge said, OK, you can come to the federal jail in Alexandria, Virginia, they have now reconsidered.
And Paul Manafort says that he's willing to stay in this prison, which is about two hours away. He's subject to 23 hours a day of solitary confinement there. This is something that he's been complaining about in the past.
But now, according to his lawyers, he's concerned about his safety if he were to be moved closer to home at the federal jail here in Alexandria, Virginia, which is just down the road from the -- actually next door to the courthouse where he's going to be going on trial in July. So it appears upon that Paul Manafort has had second thoughts about his safety. He wants to stay at this more secure jail, where again he's locked up 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, rather than being right next door to the courthouse where he is going on trial later this month.
BLITZER: Well, when it comes to his safety, who does he fear?
PEREZ: Look, there's been a lot of speculation that he could be in danger from people inside the -- inside the prison or perhaps he's concerned about the Russians.
We don't know what he's concerned about, Wolf.
BLITZER: Evan Perez, thanks very much for that update.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is joining us. He is a member of the Judiciary Committee. He is a Democratic leader in the Senate as well.
So, Senator, what does it say to you that Michael Flynn is, first of all, continuing to cooperate right now with the special counsel as he awaits sentencing?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: Of course, I'm glad he is cooperating. And I hope we can get to the bottom of it and get to the truth of it. And that's been Bob Mueller's goal. And I respect him very much and what he's trying to achieve.
In terms of his job or what the future for his family, I just can't comment on that.
BLITZER: What does it also say to you that Paul Manafort is so concerned about his safety in prison right now, he's willing to spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, as opposed to be moving to a prison closer to Washington, D.C., where he fears for his safety?
DURBIN: Your colleague had it right. You can't make this up.
To think that Paul Manafort, this gregarious, political man, toast of the town and many continents, now wants to be 23 hours alone in his cell is incredible.
I can't believe there is a real threat to him of that nature. But if he perceives it and willing to sit there by himself 23 hours a day, you have to believe him.
BLITZER: Let's turn to the president's new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
You came out with some scathing remarks suggesting Kavanaugh would turn a blind eye to presidential wrongdoing. Do you believe the president actually nominated Kavanaugh specifically for the purpose of protecting himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation if issues were to come before the highest court?
DURBIN: Well, let's take this in parts.
Here is the president of the United States nominating someone to fill a vacant seat which will tip the balance of the Supreme Court. He has to get it through a Senate that is effectively 50-49 with the majority. They must have done a thorough background check. And how could they have missed the article written by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, which suggested that a president should not be subjected to investigation and prosecution while he is in office?
Do you think the White House missed that fact or failed to bring that up to the president? It's a position taken by Judge Kavanaugh and one that concerns many of us.
BLITZER: You are the minority whip, whip in the Senate.
Are you calling on all your Senate Democratic colleagues, including members running for reelection in November in rather conservative states, including people like Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill, to vote against the nominee and potentially risk losing the midterm election?
DURBIN: Well, my job is Senate whip. And most people think that means that I go around literally whipping my colleagues into shape, getting them into a position that I want politically.
But I know better than that. My colleagues in the Senate on the Democratic side are people of integrity. They make up their own minds. At best, I can discuss it with them and try to bring them to my point of view.
On something as historic and important as the appointment to the vacancy on the Supreme Court, there is not going to be any pressure coming down from above. These individuals have to make up their own mind on this issue.
All we have asked them to do is wait until we have more facts, more information. There is a lot of documentation that needs to be raised and at least considered by the Judiciary Committee before anyone knows the full story of Brett Kavanaugh.
BLITZER: So, you are not going to squeeze, you are not going to press these Democrats who are up for reelection to vote against Kavanaugh?
DURBIN: I have never tried that on any issue, because I know my colleagues. They would not care for it, because I wouldn't care for it. Don't beg. Don't threaten. Don't always believe you are right. That's kind of the credo when it comes to lobbying in Washington.
BLITZER: As you point out, 50-49, with John McCain absent right now. He's dealing with his with illness.
He could still get confirmed if he gets 50. The Republican vice president, he is the president of the Senate. He would break a tie in favor of Kavanaugh. What are you doing, if anything, to try to convince at least a couple
moderate Republican senators like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to scuttle stories nomination?
DURBIN: Well, I'll tell you, I think it is a mistake the opportunities on the Republican side to these two senators, Collins and Murkowski.
Both of them showed extraordinary courage when it came to saving the Affordable Care Act from being abolished by the Republicans. But I think, frankly, many Republican ought to take this very seriously and not just say, "We're automatically going to vote for the president's choice." If they're from the state of Nevada, for example, or whatever state it might be, it could be they ought to take a close look at the nominee and judge that person on the merits and consider their own home base in that final decision.
BLITZER: Let's see what happens during the confirmation process in the U.S. Senate over the next couple months.
Senator Durbin, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.
DURBIN: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. I'll speak live with the Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar. There you see him. He's standing by. And I'll ask him why the Trump administration is missing a deadline to reunite migrant children under the age of 5 and their parents.
Plus, we'll have much more on the president's escalating fight with NATO allies. How will it play out at the summit?
[18:35:44] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The Trump administration is set to miss a court-ordered deadline to reunite all 102 young migrant children with their parents. The federal judge who ordered the reunification says about 2/3 of the cases should be resolved today. And CNN was there for one of the reunifications in Michigan earlier today.
Before he left for Europe, the president took a rather hard line on the crisis, created by his own policy. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I have a solution. Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That's the solution. Don't come to our country illegally. Come like other people do, come legally.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And joining us now, the Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.
ALEX AZAR, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Thank you, Wolf. Good to see you.
BLITZER: All right. So today is the deadline, as you know. How many kids will be reunited with their mothers and fathers; and how many families will have to wait?
AZAR: So, Wolf, under the court's order, we had today to reunite kids 4 and under, subject to child welfare protection. And we've been working closely with the court on that balance of timeliness, but while protecting child welfare.
So by today, we should have 38 children who have been reunited. But, the remaining ones are children whose parents didn't confirm to be parents. They were lying about being parents. They're demonstrably unfit. We've got one alleged to be a murderer. One who's a kidnapper. One rapist. One who's a trafficker. One alleged by the child to be a child abuser.
We've got another 23 who are unavailable, because they're in marshal service custody or jails or have been deported. And then finally, another 25 where we have not yet completed the parent checks or the criminal background checks, or they have been released into the interior of the country.
And we continue to work very collaboratively with the court on all of these. Our central mission is protecting child welfare while still reuniting families.
BLITZER: You know, what's really amazing, that this is the United States. In this country, we can go online, track a package from the postal service, or UPS, or FedEx.
But now we're in a situation -- and correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. Secretary -- the federal government is struggling to locate some of these parents, struggling to reunite these little kids with their mothers and fathers. Why can't the government meet this federal deadline by the courts to clean up its own mess?
AZAR: Well, Wolf, we could put children back with individuals who are murderers, kidnappers, rapists or not their parents. But we've worked with the court to ensure that we do our duty, which is to protect child welfare and ensure that they are, in fact, that. I could release all of the kids by 10:55 p.m., but, I don't think you want that. I know the court doesn't want that. And I don't think even our political opponents want that to happen.
BLITZER: But, Mr. Secretary, but you've had these children for a long time. Some of them for months and months. And presumably, you know where their parents are. Unless they were deported to El Salvador, or Honduras or other countries, and they weren't allowed to take their children with them.
AZAR: Well, I don't think a kidnapper, or a child abuser, or a child trafficker ought to be able to take a kid out of country or be reunited in ICE facilities. And I don't think the court believes that either.
And if we hadn't done this work, if we hadn't done our work to protect child welfare by confirming parentage and doing criminal background checks on these individuals, these children would have been reunited in exceedingly dangerous situations.
I'm proud of the work that we do. I believe we are saving kids' lives here, by the work we are doing before. We're connecting these with these purported parents.
You know, we had -- we had three individuals that when, we asked them to do a DNA test, they confessed that they weren't, in fact, the parents. We had two that failed the DNA test.
So, this work we do is important, and the court recognizes that. He's praised our work here.
BLITZER: So how many are murderers and kidnappers, among the people who claim to be parents?
AZAR: Yes, so there are 16 who are demonstrably unfit. Five of them are confirmed -- have failed in terms of either confessing they aren't the parents or have failed DNA testing.
The remainder are individuals where a child has -- there's one where a child in our custody has made an allegation of child abuse against the individual. One is charged with murder back in their home country. One charged -- one of them is a kidnapper. One is rape. One child abuse. One smuggler and trafficker.
[18:40:06] Just -- those are just examples of what we're dealing with here, Wolf.
This is -- this is serious business when we're dealing with children welfare here. Once we have these kids, we have a duty, and we're working with the court to ensure that we're protecting these kids.
And the simple facts show this is a dangerous, dangerous situation. The smuggling, importation and bundling of children into the country illegally is a dangerous business.
Now, there are many genuine, good parents involved here. But there are enough involved -- look at that, 16 out of 102. That's a lot of lives. And those are important lives, and I care about those lives. And we want to --
BLITZER: Well, the very decent -- what about the very decent parents, as you correctly point out? Why haven't they been reunited with their kids?
AZAR: Well, so the ones that we've been able to confirm parentage and suitability have been. That's 38 so far. And we've got another 25 that we just are waiting, still, for the DNA test to come back to confirm their parentage, or there's an issue in their criminal background. It might be a conviction or a crime that occurred some time ago that we're adjudicating to see is this a real child welfare issue? Can we go ahead and reunite?
Our goal is to reunite everyone we can, consistent with child welfare, and to work with the court's order there. So we're working on all of that.
BLITZER: So it's taking a long time, obviously -- these are the kids, as you point out, 4 years old and under -- to reunite -- be reunited with their mothers and fathers. Over the next couple weeks, you've got to deal with, what, another 3,000 children under the age of 17 who have to be reunited. Can you meet that deadline?
AZAR: So, that is exactly why we've been working open and collaboratively with the ACLU, the plaintiffs as well as the court here, to ensure that we will work to comply with whatever requirements the court imposes. I have said that consistently.
But we also are very transparent with the court. There are things we believe we should do and must do to protect the children in terms of confirming these are, in fact, their parents and to confirm that these individuals are suitable for reunification. If the court says, "Take longer to do that," we will take longer to do that. If the court says, "Do it on whatever information you've got," our job will be to work to reunify, even if it's against what we believe in our best judgment is child welfare.
But we're going to stand up say what we think is needed to protect the kids in terms of ensuring these are actually parents and ensure that they are safe individuals for these kids to go back with in whatever setting, Wolf.
I don't think the American people would want anything less of us, especially given we do this. We have 12,000 separated kids, because parents in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, wherever, they send their kids here to come into this country. When they come across the border unaccompanied, they are put in our custody and care. We do this. We do this for over 40,000 kids a year. It has soared because of our broken immigration laws. It's what we do, protecting kids and putting them with sponsors.
BLITZER: Have you -- have you, Mr. Secretary, visited these facilities and spoken directly to these young kids?
AZAR: I have indeed. And Wolf, I'll tell you, these grantees that work with us, these are, like, Lutheran charities, Catholic charities. These are groups of the most well-meaning, altruistic individuals, these grantees that are working with these kids.
These kids were happy. They are loved. They are cared for. There's compassionate environment. And we --
BLITZER: But they miss -- but they miss their mothers and fathers. You hear about them crying all the time.
AZAR: Well, Wolf, you know, 12,000 -- I've got 12,029 kids in our custody right now, and the vast, vast majority, close to 10,000 of them, were sent by their parents or escaped from their parents to come to this country alone. Some of them came in this country illegally and were separated at the border. Some long ago. Some -- some as part of zero-tolerance.
And, Wolf, what we do is we provide as caring an environment. They get education. They're getting athletics. They're getting entertainment. They get medical care, dental care, mental health care, vision care. They're getting snacks.
We -- then of course, the care management, the case management to try to place them with relatives if there -- if it's not about this reunification process. We place them in a safe environment with other relatives who are here in this country, even if they're here illegally. It's what we do as part of this program regularly.
But it's always about child welfare. It's about compassion and love towards these kids.
AZAR: And protecting them. I know that's what you want. Anyone else wants it, too.
BLITZER: Everybody wants -- everybody wants these little kids to be with their mothers and fathers. Mr. Secretary, if you could go back in time, start this whole process from scratch, what would you do differently?
AZAR: Well, Wolf, I'm focused right now on what we do for these kids right now. We've got such a -- such an issue with the court's deadlines to try to ensure child safety and child welfare. And we're doing -- what we're doing is we're going through case by case, individual by individual, to confirm that -- who the parents are, to confirm that it's valid, the assertion of parentage; to confirm that it's a safe individual that they should be with.
And we're sweeping broadly. That's why there's been some confusion about the numbers publicly, because the court order asked to us go back in time, indefinitely. And also not -- was not limited to the zero-tolerance policy.
BLITZER: but it sounds, Mr. Secretary, excuse me for interrupting. It sounds like you really didn't have a plan in place, even though the then-homeland security secretary, now the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, told me in March of last year, more than a year ago, that the administration was considering a family separation policy as a deterrent to illegal immigration.
[18:45:13] The Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he launched that new policy in April of this year.
Why was the administration so unprepared to handle the logistics, the heartbreak of what's going on?
ALEX AZAR, HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Well, Wolf, it is what we do, is handle separated kids. I've got 12,029 separated kids. We handle over 40,000 separated kids a year because their parents send them illegally into this country, or they leave their parents and come in this country illegally. And most recently, we have some that have come to our care through zero tolerance, taking care of these kids in a safe environment and then placing them with --
BLITZER: But why can't you meet --
AZAR: This is what we do.
BLITZER: If this is the policy and it's been in place, it's been in the works for more than a year, you've been gearing up for this. Why can't you meet this federal deadline?
AZAR: Well, Wolf, just two weeks ago, the court said put them back with parents who are in ICE custody within a two-week period. On average, it takes us 58 days for a normal placement of a child to outplace them to a safe environment here in the United States. So, placing them back into ICE's custody with an individual purporting to be a parent was never an expectation. That's never been part of what our Office of Refugee Resettlement program does with these individuals, and certainly not within a two-week time period.
So, we have deployed the full resources of our department to ensure that we can meet the court's deadline as much as possible, as much -- and with the -- with the court's permission to check parentage, and to confirm that these are people that are safe and we have found, as I said, 16 out of 102 individuals, these are not individuals who should have these kids with them.
They're either criminals, or they are not the parents. They have lied about being parents.
BLITZER: It's -- it's here the question, Mr. Secretary. If these kids are -- so happy right now they're playing and, getting an education, and they're being treated with love, why are you turning away members of Congress, the news media, from visiting these facilities to let the world see what's going on? Because you know the, the impression that the entire world is seeing of the United States right now. People all over the world are wondering what's going on?
AZAR: Oh, come on, Wolf. You know media and members of Congress, we've had over 60 members of Congress and senators tour our facilities. We have moved asking them to please do it in groups, where we schedule, because, our grantees are trying to take care of these kids. I've got case managers that are trying to work three each of these individual cases for these individuals to get them reunited with their parents.
I can't have them running tours, while they're trying to do that vital work, OK? So, we're trying to manage it. We've worked with the chairman of the judiciary, and ranking members, judiciary in the House and Senate to coordinate that. We've had media through the facilities. Come on, Wolf, you know we
have been open, transparent. You know what happens? People go in. They complain. They raise a fuss. They go in to these facilities. They see the love, compassion, the care with the kids that we, that our grantees deliver to the kids. And, and they're impressed by what is happening there, Wolf. You know that's the case.
BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, we have tried to visit these facilities. You let occasionally some reporters go in. But no cameras are allowed. We can't see what is going on. Why not let the, the CNN, other news organizations go in there, take a look and show the world, all of the good stuff that you say is going on.
AZAR: Again, Wolf, you know better than that. I can't let a camera go in and shoot the face of a minor child.
BLITZER: We would blur the face. We would blur the faces of the kids. As we always do. We don't want to show faces of the kids. We just want to go in there.
AZAR: Hey, Wolf. I've went on a tour the first lady. Media was there and they were able to show the back of the kids, were able to take the pictures of the back of kids' heads. Members of the media were able to watch as we went through the tour there. We talked to them.
So, I mean, Wolf, our mission is protect child welfare. I'm sorry if it doesn't work for a TV camera angle. I'm sorry. At the end of the day, these are minor children, if they're in our custody, we are going to look out for their welfare and treat them with the respect, the privacy that they deserve. And we'll be as transparent as possible, consistent with that.
BLITZER: They deserve that privacy. I'm just saying, we would guarantee that they would blur their faces. No one would see the kids' faces. We just want to go in and do our job. If there is nothing to hide, I don't see what the problem would be.
AZAR: Wolf, we are happy to work, we want to be transparent. We have nothing to hide about how we operate these facilities, our grantees. It is one of the great acts of American generosity and charity what we are doing for unaccompanied kids who are smuggled into our country or come across illegally.
So, we don't have anything to hide about it. We just have to protect privacy. We'll be happy to work with you to see if there are ways to accommodate that. It is not about hiding it. It's about how do we fulfill our mission of reuniting the kids that are under this court order first. How do we protect their privacy and how do we protect our grantees as they do their work.
But we really believe we have got a lot to be proud of. I really do believe that on these 102 kids talking about right now, by the work that our people have done, the all hands on deck work that we have done under court supervision here.
[18:50:05] We save kids' lives by keeping them from being with some really evil people, some of them, or keeping them with people who are not their parents, keeping them with people that a kid accused of being a child abuser.
We're doing -- we're doing work to protect these children and protect child welfare, even while we work as expeditiously as possible reunite them with their parents. You know, that's our mission. With any normal unaccompanied kid who comes in the country, as quickly as possible, even as good environment as we provide, we want them to get out and be placed with a family who is here in the United States.
That is our mission and our charge. So, that's our business, that's what we do, Wolf, and we're happy to keep working on that.
BLITZER: We are a all concerned about the young kids being separated from their parents. We want them as quickly as possible to be reunited with their moms and dads.
Finally, before I let you go, Mr. Secretary. A different issue, did you speak with the president today on the very sensitive issue of rolling back prices on drugs?
AZAR: I actually did speak to the president today about that issue. Yes.
BLITZER: Tell us about that.
AZAR: Well, I'm not going discuss my conversation -- the details of my conversations with the president, but I will tell you, I speak with the president about every day about the issue of drug pricing, and I did in fact speak with him from Europe today about this issue. He cares passionately about this issue and we are in constant communication.
He is going to bring down drug prices. It's not going to be solved overnight, there's to silver bullet. But he -- I cannot overstate his commitment and his drive and the demands he places on me and our department to make it happen.
BLITZER: I ask the question, Mr. Secretary, because he just tweeted, and I'll read it to you. This is the president. He is in Brussels for the NATO summit.
This is what he tweeted: Just talked with Pfizer CEO and Secretary Azar on our drug pricing blueprint. Pfizer is rolling back price hikes so American patients don't pay more. We applaud Pfizer for this decision, and hope other companies do the same. Great news for the American people.
So, the president is talking about it right now. You want to elaborate on anything that he is suggesting?
AZAR: Well, first, that shows a strong president who's made clear his determination that Americans are paying too high drug prices and the drug price increases must stop and it shows a constructive, professional, appropriate approach by Pfizer in interacting with the government and with the president here to be part of the solution here and not part of the problem. I commend them for that. But this came about with the strong leadership of a strong president who is committed fervently on the issue of bringing drug prices down in this country for the benefit of our patients.
BLITZER: Yes, I think everybody agrees, drug prices are too high. We all want to see those drug prices go down.
Mr. Secretary, you've been very generous with your time on these very sensitive but critically important issues. Thanks so much for joining us.
AZAR: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: We will continue the conversations with Alex Azar down the road for sure.
Let's get some more right now with our reporters and commentators and analysts.
And, Jackie Kucinich, what did you make of the secretary's explanation for why the administration is missing today's very important deadline for the children 4 and under?
JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: I mean, it -- I guess they have to say something. But, you know, one of the things that struck me about the secretary's comments is that he said -- he's talking about all the bad people that were coming in with these children. I mean, I was on the call today, they outlined I believe 14 people, he outlined it there.
You know, what he didn't not mention was the fact that they are separating children from parent who are asylum seekers. That's legal. That's how people come to this country and they apply for asylum, and those parents are being separated from those children. He has not addressed that and the administration should.
BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, what did you make from what we heard from the secretary?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: You know, the whole thing remind med of a bank robber saying, you know, we are -- I'm working so hard to give the money back and I'm trying to collect it. It's like don't rob the bank in the first place. I mean, don't separate the children so you have to work so hard to get them back together.
I mean, yes, it does seem like there's good faith efforts under way, but you know, sometimes people talk about it as if it's like Hurricane Katrina, which was, you know, sort of the beginning of the end of the George W. Bush presidency, but that was an act of god. That was something that was, you know, that was a terrible response, but George Bush didn't start the rain in New Orleans.
This is a completely Trump administration created crisis and the fact that they are stumbling to a partial solution, they get less than partial credit.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick, what did you make of what the secretary said, that so many of the so-called parents, he's not even sure they are parents, are criminals, they're murderers, child molesters and they have to do some DNA testing and they've only started in recent days?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Wolf, I think this is a problem with the administration and President Trump's posture in various tweets and statements over the last few weeks about not needing judges and just needing to just sort of send people back, almost wanting to say toss people back across the border.
Look, there are going to be legitimate asylum claims as Jackie said, and there are going to be claims that are illegitimate.
[18:55:02] That's why we as the world's largest superpower, the world's wealthiest country have to put the resources out there to adjudicate these things according to the rule of law. Have hearings. Have more judges if need be. Do this in an orderly fashion and obviously don't have a situation where you're taking kids away from parents and/or guardians without having a system in place to bring them back together at the end whatever their legal disposition is.
BLITZER: And, Rebecca Berg, let's not forget, today's deadline imposed by a federal court was only for about 100 of these children, 4 and under, but in the next couple of weeks, there's, you know, 4 and under, but in the next couple of weeks, they've got to deal with another 3,000, 17 and under.
And it looks like there's no way they're going to be able to meet this deadline in a couple of weeks.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, Wolf.
And the secretary really did not have an answer for you, an acceptable answer for you as to how the government is going to pick up the pace here and reunite these children in a timely fashion that meets the court order and that also, you know, considers the welfare of these children as he said, he and the government are aiming to do.
And, I would anticipate, and expect that you are going to be hearing a lot from lawmakers about this over the coming weeks. This is not a problem that is going away for the administration and clearly they are not handling it in a timely fashion.
BLITZER: Jackie Kucinich, what did you think of the explanation why they won't let the news media go in the facilities where these young kids are with cameras, knowing we would blur the images of the children themselves, but we'd be able to show the American public, the world, the positive story he claims is going on?
KUCINICH: Well, it seems like an excuse to me, you know? And it's not only reporters they are not letting in. They are not letting lawmakers in. We had a reporter down in Miami last week with Congressman Carlos
Curbelo. He made an appointment, he went through the steps that HHS asked him to do, he got a call the day of, saying that someone from Washington couldn't come down to the local detention center where there were HHS -- local HHS people working to guide him through the center.
That, I mean, he said that was unacceptable. This is how these things are checked to make sure that these are the wonderful centers filled with happy children that he claims there are.
BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, the president, when he was leaving the White House earlier in the day was asked what could be done to reunite these kids with their mothers and their fathers and he said, simply, you know what could be done? Don't come to the United States illegally. What did you think of the answer?
TOOBIN: I thought that was pretty chilling. I mean, you know, even -- even his secretary of HHS right there was trying to show a measure of humanity. I mean, I think, you know, Secretary Azar was trying show that these kids were being treated well.
The president, he didn't even try, didn't even assert that these kids are being treated well. He just said, they shouldn't have been here in the first place. So I guess these 2 and 3-year-olds who were brought here should have made a different decision and, you know, they are paying the consequences for the poor decisions they made by being born.
BURNETT: And, you know, it's still pretty shocking, David Swerdlick, to think this has been the works, this child separation policy going back to March of last year when John Kelly told me they wanted to do this, they were in the works of working it out and in April and May, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced they were doing it as a deterrent to people coming to the United States illegally.
But only in the last few days have they actually come to grips with the enormity of the tragedy that's unfolding.
SWERDLICK: Right, Wolf, announced in one instance, publicly in a speech at the border by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This was not some memo that was slipped on to someone's desk.
And yet, what you see here is the situation where there was a lot of thought put into the idea that, yes, we're going to rip babies away from parents as a, quote/unquote, deterrent, but not thought to having a basic system in place, whether it's paper, whether it's electronic, what-have-you, or some kind of data base so that when parents and children had to be brought back together, either so they could come into the United States or so they could be sent back to countries of origin, that there would be an orderly fashion and orderly system to do this. Not just have this sort of near chaos that we have now.
BLITZER: And the next two weeks, Rebecca Berg, it looks like there's no way that they're going to deal with the 3,000 kids who are still separated from their moms and dads. BERG: Absolutely, Wolf, and the administration really needs to answer
for why were they not prepared for this. Why didn't they anticipate this problem when they put this policy into place, and it's just so illustrative, so reflective of what we've seen from this president and this administration. Time and again, a lack of planning, a lack of foresight, just shooting from the hip on policy, and there are consequences.
BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much. The story clearly is not going away by any means.
That is it for me, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.