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North Korea Releases U.S. Student Sentenced to Hard Labor, Now in Coma; Trump & Senators Meet Soon Amid Secret Health Care Talks; Senate Judiciary Chief Not Ruling Out Obstruction Probe of Trump. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired June 13, 2017 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: He had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. That is the good news that he was released.

But there is also a very sad, tragic update to this. His parents just released this statement to CNN just a short time ago. I want to read it to you: "Otto has left North Korea. He is on a Medevac flight on his way home. Sadly, he is in a coma, and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago. We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him."

That is from the Warmbiers, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, his parents.

In another twist in this, the Warmbier release comes hours after NBA star, Dennis Rodman, arrived in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

CNN's Will Ripley is there in North Korea, joining me now.

Will, this is hard to wrap your mind around.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And I just want to set the scene, Kate, for a moment. I want you to listen to this. Playing on loudspeaker around Pyongyang. It's midnight here. Every, almost hourly, songs like this are playing in the North Korean capital to remind them of the sacrifices of their late leaders.

And this kind of a scene, is where Dennis Rodman is tonight and where Otto Warmbier was up until just a matter of hours ago, according to North Korean officials, who confirm he has been put on a plane and is in the process of being Medevac'd home.

According to his family, although the North Koreans would not confirm any information about his medical condition, nor would Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who put out this statement, saying, "At the direction of the president, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. Mr. Warmbier is in route to the United States where he will be reunited with his family. The Department of State continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained."

Because keep in mind, Warmbier one. Kim Dong-chul, a nationalized U.S. citizen, is serving 10 years hard labor, and two professors from the United States who were teaching at a university here have also just recently been arrested and are still facing trial on unknown charges, Kate. And so, it's certainly a potentially dangerous situation when Americans come here, living in this, potentially, getting detained in an environment like this. And Otto Warmbier apparently in very serious -- in a very serious medical condition now, a coma for more than a year, 18 months in custody, hasn't been able to speak with his family, and apparently, is in very grave health at the moment.

BOLDUAN: Just unbelievable. Will, and do you know, have you been told at all, given any indication if Dennis Rodman being in the country, if there's any connection there?

RIPLEY: From our conversations with the State Department, this is a strange coincidence, the fact that Dennis Rodman arrived on a flight the same day that Otto Warmbier was being released. When CNN contacted the State Department, they were surprised to learn of his trip and actually asked us to hold off reporting on it for a period of several hours, indicating that there was something else that they were trying to work on inside North Korea that needed to happen first. We now know that that something else was, in fact, the release of Otto Warmbier.

Even Rodman himself, when we asked him at the airport in Beijing, he said that the situation involving the four detained Americans wasn't his mission here, that his mission is sports diplomacy. Remember, he was here four other times, including those notorious trips in 2013 and 2014, where he was documented on film drunk much of the time. You know, he actually had a meeting with Kim Jong-Un that was canceled because of his out-of-control behavior. And he yelled at CNN's Chris Cuomo during a live tv interview. Nevertheless, he is back on the ground in this country.

BOLDUAN: Well, Will, thank you for your reporting. You bring us special exclusive information every time, so thank you so.

We will continue and have much more coverage on this breaking news, next.


[11:38:23] BOLDUAN: And back to our breaking news. North Korea has just released 22-year-old American student, Otto Warmbier. This, after spending more than a year in prison there. He had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. And according to his family, in a statement just released, he is being Medevac'd out of the country and he is also in a coma and has been in a coma since March of 2016.

Let me bring in right now, let me discuss what has happened here -- and of course, you've got Dennis Rodman in the country at the same time, all of this -- "Daily Beast" columnist, Gordon Chang, is here, also the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World"; and Balbina Hwang, former senior adviser to Ambassador Christopher Hill.

Thank you both for being here. Gordon, let me just get your reaction to the fact that Otto Warmbier,

they say he's in a coma, and they say he's been in a coma since March of 2016. That is mind-boggling!

GORDON CHANG, COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: It is a horrific regime, and we have to understand, that's the nature. You can have Dennis Rodman go there and praise Kim Jong-Un, as he's done on his previous trips, but we've got to remember that that's just Dennis Rodman being Dennis Rodman. This is -- you know, Kim Jong-Un is one of the worst despots in the history of the world. There's not much more you can say about it than that.

BOLDUAN: We've heard from Will Ripley, from his contacts and from sources from the State Department, they say this is a strange coincidence that Dennis Rodman is in the country on the same day that Otto Warmbier is released. Do you think there is a connection? Do you think this is a strange coincidence?

[11:39:58] CHANG: No, this is not a coincidence. I think what the North Koreans are trying to do, basically, is start talks with the United States. I don't know if the Chinese had been leaning on them to do that, and that's also a real possibility, but one way or another, the North Koreans want to talk. And so, what they've done is they decided to release one of the people that we want, Otto Warmbier, and at the same time, they thought that they could start a back- channel to President Trump with one of his friends. You know, Dennis Rodman is the only person in the world who knows both Kim Jong-Un and Donald J. Trump, so this is a perfect opportunity for the North Koreans to start a dialogue. And so, I think you have to look at those two events in that context.

BOLDUAN: It's almost impossible to kind of wrap your mind around all of these various elements, but can I just also get your reaction, just on the most personal level, it is impossible for me to wrap my mind around the fact that this 22-year-old boy has been in a coma for, according to his parents, for over a year, and his offense was trying to take down a propaganda banner from the hotel he was in. He didn't even take it. He left it there on the floor, and then he was arrested at the airport, and he's been in a coma for a year.

BALBINA HWANG, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO AMBASSADOR CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, it is certainly very shocking but, unfortunately, not at all surprising. We have to remember, again, as Gordon Chang just stated, this is a regime that goes back 60 years or more and has actually terrorized and brutalized many U.S. citizens, including, you know, killing over 30,000 Americans during the Korean War. And many were in POW camps. Many thousands are still unaccounted for. So, again, this is really not very surprising, although shocking.

BOLDUAN: What does the -- can you decipher this State Department statement for me, Balbina, as you worked there? I'll read it again, just read it for our viewers: "at the direction of the president, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family. Department of State continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other citizens detained. Out of respect for Mr. Warmbier and his family, we have no further comment on Mr. Mr. Warmbier."

Other than to say Dennis Rodman had no hand in it he's there as a private citizen. Can you take me behind what's going on?

HWANG: Yes, well, I think that's a masterful and diplomatic statement, which I don't think is a bad thing at this current time of tensions.

Now, I do think that -- I don't think the U.S. government is being disingenuous. I do think that the timing perhaps is coincidental, that Dennis Rodman arrives on the exact same day. However, what is not a coincidence are these two acts. And again, Gordon Chang, I agree with him. I do think that this is an indication that North Korea is interested in opening some dialogue with the United States. Now, we have to be very careful. This dialogue is not going to include anything that, frankly, we are most interested in, which is North Korea's nuclear programs and its missile programs, and that is made very clear. And so, what North Korea is trying to do with Dennis Rodman is to completely separate sort of personal diplomacy, perhaps even directly with President Trump, but separate out all the issues that, frankly, that matter to us the most.

BOLDUAN: That matter, and should matter to every American from Washington onward.

Balbina, Gordon, thank you both for bringing the perspective. I appreciate it.

The good news here is that he will be released and he will be back with his family very soon. Our hopes, prayers and best wishes are with the Warmbier family right now.

Let me turn a quick focus, though, back to Washington on a very different topic. On Capitol Hill, all the focus is on, of course, the blockbuster Senate Intelligence Committee hearings. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, will be testifying in just a few hours. Rod Rosenstein, his deputy, testifying today as well.

But there are also critical health care talks under way. Remember health care and how important that is to Republicans to get that passed and through? Just moments from now, President Trump will be hosting 13 key Senators for a lunch to push for action on this very issue. Senators have been working on their own version of the health care fix for weeks after the House passed their own version. This has largely been happening behind closed doors. So far, no public hearings. No one's seen any text of what they're actually putting together so far.

Let me go to Capitol Hill right now. Republican Congressman Dave Brat of Virginia is joining me, who is very involved in the House discussion of putting the health care bill together there.

So, Congressman, let me ask you, this process in the Senate, it seems even that it's been more secretive than the House process, which has some complaints when that was all going on. Do you know what's on the table on the Senate side? REP. DAVE BRAT, (R), VIRGINA: No, not really. I mean, the shocking

part, as you've accurately just said, it's been a few weeks they're talking about a health care bill. They've had seven years. We ran on repeal of Obamacare. That's not too hard to unpack the meaning of that phrase. And so, seven years later, it is a little bit shocking, and we need $1 trillion, which is a thousand billion, to do tax reform. So, if you lose the border adjustable piece on tax reform and you don't have the health care trillion, that's $2 trillion, that $2000 billion that we need in order to do tax reform. And so, any day now, we're waiting. A lot of us voted for a bill we didn't think was perfect, but at least it solves kind of, it stabilized the health care market for the short run. And so, I hope they feel a little bit more urgency and get a bill through, like now.

[11:45:28] BOLDUAN: Are you comfortable -- you know, some would say the argument is, the secretive nature of what's going on in the Senate is out of necessity, because if it's out in the public, everyone's going to just go back to their corners, all the main issues are going to hold up these Republican talks as they have. Are you comfortable with the process being secretive in the Senate?

BRAT: Yeah. I mean, I don't know if it's secretive. They've got a committee of 13 people that represent the people, and then they represent the Senators, hopefully, a broad base of the Senate. And so, yeah, they're being strategic in the short run before they lay out their bullet points and see how that floats with the public. And so, right now in the short run, I don't see a problem.

BOLDUAN: One of the big issues, of course, has been the Medicaid expansion issue and about to phase that out. I remember that with a huge part of the conversation on the House side. What if the phase- out coming back from the Senate is seven years, as some Republican Senators want? Could you get on board with that?

BRAT: Well, it's a whole package, so we'll look at that, and the major piece I've heard that gives a little bit of good news is they're looking at ways to lower the price more, right? Under Obamacare, the price is going up 30 percent, the average person in small business is broke.


BRAT: Our plan, the price still goes up too much. And so, if they couple, right, if they want to do a little phase-in or glide path or whatever they're calling it, but they can show price reduction in some other way, then you know, we're flexible as long as it's better health care outcome for the American people.

BOLDUAN: What about Obamacare taxes still included?

BRAT: Well, that's a problem, right, to do tax reform. That's the biggie, right? I mean, this is kind of Obamacare's in the ditch, we've got to fix it, so no one's going to be in love with the product. But tax reform should ignite the whole party. And if you get the economy moving again, you'll get rid of some of this political tension that's in the air across the country, and that, you know -- (CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: But, Congressman, in theory, shouldn't you all love the product? I mean, if you've got Republicans in charge of the Senate and the House, in a theoretical world, when as you said, you've all been running on it for seven-plus years.

BRAT: Yeah.

BOLDUAN: You should love the product coming out. Are you already saying you don't think you're going to love it?

BRAT: Well, I love Adam Smith and Milton Friedman and free market stuff. I don't love federal programs, right? So, I'm bending over backwards trying to do this team player thing, and it's not optimal from my point of view. Obamacare was structured in a way that, as an economist, I knew it would fail in several years. It's structured top-down. Central planning never works. And I'm afraid ours is doing too much of that as well, but we can tweak it, and we have several good bills coming up this week on like medical malpractice, to lower the cost, and so, we can keep fixing the parts. The initial thing I'm not in love with. Maybe I'll fall in love later.

BOLDUAN: You mean -- you let me know if you're falling in love. I can't wait to hear.

BRAT: Right, I will.

BOLDUAN: First things first, let's see what comes out of the Senate.

BRAT: Right.

BOLDUAN: And when that actually happens and when they get a vote.

BRAT: Right.

BOLDUAN: That's a big question as well.

Congressman, thank you so. Much. Appreciate your time.

BRAT: You bet. Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up next, staying on Capitol Hill, we have breaking news. The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee is not ruling out investigating President Trump for obstruction of justice. We have breaking details coming in. A lot going on today. I'll have that coming up next.


[11:52:39] BOLDUAN: More breaking news from Capitol Hill. The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee is not ruling out investigating President Trump for obstruction of justice. Let me repeat that. He is not ruling out investigating the president of the United States for obstruction of justice.

Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. He has this breaking news.

Manu, what do you know?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I just talked to Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He had been asked by the top Democrat on the committee, Dianne Feinstein, to look into the issue of obstruction of justice, saying this is the purview of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We have not heard Grassley respond until moments ago when I put this question to him is this something the committee will look at. He said we're going to talk about it.


RAJU: Feinstein says that she wants the Judiciary Committee to investigate potential obstruction of justice.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY, (R), CALIFORNIA: Let me give you a process answer because this is where we are. Senator Feinstein wanted to talk to me by phone today. I sent word back that I'd like to have her and I sit down face to face and we'll work out all of the subpoenas and all the stuff we have to do in the future and work out a whole program.

RAJU: Are you OK, though, looking at the potential obstruction of justice? Is that something for your committee?

GRASSLEY: We'll want to leave that to a conversation with Feinstein.


RAJU: So saying that we're going to leave that to the conversation with Feinstein on the issue of obstruction of justice, Kate. Showing that this is something that the Judiciary Committee is not ruling out.

Also the idea of subpoenas, issuing subpoenas for further information about the Russia probe, including those Comey memos the Judiciary Committee has been calling for that actually went to that Comey friend, Daniel Richmond, the professor from Columbia. They have not gotten that memo yet. They're open to issuing subpoenas for that. Showing a new area of investigation within the Senate. Even as Senate Intelligence Committee is doing its own probe, Kate, clearly, the Senate Judiciary Committee also wants a piece of the action, possibly even obstruction of justice as well -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yeah, and Lindsey Graham hot on getting those memos for sure. He's been telling you he is open to and will not rule out to issuing subpoenas for that.

Great reporting, Manu. Thank you so much.

Let me bring in Kayleigh McEnany, CNN political commentator, contributor to the Hill; and Matt Bennett, Democratic strategist and he also worked in the Clinton administration.

Let's get to it. Kayleigh, your reaction. Chuck Grassley, tried and true Republican,

not ruling out, did not take the opportunity to say, Manu, that's premature, don't ask me. He did say I'm going to leave that to a discussion right now with Dianne Feinstein on obstruction of justice investigation.

[11:55:15] KAYLEIGH MCENANCY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You provided a better answer than Grassley himself did. I would have preferred, as a Republican, who believes in this administration, that he said look, I've seen no evidence of obstruction of justice. Point to Comey's words where Comey said I felt that I was directed by the president to stop this. However, the words on the paper when Comey was asked, did the words on the paper suggest a directive, and he said no. The words on the paper are what matters, not how Comey felt. I wish that Grassley would have pointed that out.

BOLDUAN: Is that troubling? This is more investigations now, more avenues of investigations rather than less now that you've got a special prosecutor happening with respect-led committees.

MCENANY: I don't find it troubling because, at the moment, I see no evidence of obstruction of justice or Russian collusion. If there's evidence it's troubling but we have no evidence there's any of that.

BOLDUAN: Matt, what is your take? Dianne Feinstein said she would like the Judiciary Committee to investigation obstruction of justice. Where do you think this goes?

MATT BENNETT, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: We have no idea. I mean, predicting anything in the Trump world is dangerous. But we really have no idea where such investigation could end up. I mean, look, is there actual smoking gun right in front of us? Evidence of obstruction of justice? No. But the fact of the matter is he fired James Comey. There very well could be something that the president is very much afraid of coming out. We don't know that yet.

And I applaud Senator Grassley for having the wherewithal to say, sure, we're going to follow this where it leads.

BOLDUAN: As a Democrat who wants this investigated thoroughly, if you're being honest, you think that he probably did obstruct justice. Do you think this gets in the way of the special prosecutor's job?

BENNETT: I think that the Judiciary Committee will be very careful not to do that. I would guess if they're going to coordinate closely with Mr. Mueller to make sure that they don't step on him in any way or provide some sort of cover for witnesses that he has to investigate more thoroughly.

BOLDUAN: You mentioned firing. Let's talk about the issue of firing. Not of James Comey, though, but of the potential perspective maybe, maybe not, of the special prosecutor himself, Robert Mueller. This all started with allies of the president kind of targeting Mueller, then word that the president was considering firing Mueller for a reason we don't know. Then you said -- then we heard clearly from this man on your screen, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who would be the man that would be charged with firing following -- with the firing, and he said he see no good reason to fire Robert Mueller. When asked, he said, I will not follow any orders unless I believe they are lawful and appropriate orders. Case closed?

MCENANY: No. We still need to wait for this to develop. He may need to fire at some point if Mueller leads a partisan investigation. Newt Gingrich has brought up excellent points. Why is Mueller staffing a staff full of four attorneys who have all donated to the Democratic Party? One was a Clinton Foundation lawyer --

BOLDUAN: Ken Starr gave money to Republicans. Republicans were fine with that.

MCENANY: But it's more than the money. It's the fact that one of these attorneys argued for the most expansive concept of obstruction of justice ever argued for and the Supreme Court rejected it 9-0. These are the people being staffed. That's crazy.

BOLDUAN: Matt, respond.

BENNETT: That was his job as a lawyer. He was an advocate in front of a court. That's ridiculous. If this president fires Mueller by firing Rosenstein, which he would clearly have to do, his presidency will be over. He will so horribly shoot himself in the foot. He will be unable to proceed forward.

BOLDUAN: Stand by to stand by, folks.

Special coverage of this continues in just a moment.

Thanks, Kayleigh and Matt.


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Welcome to "Inside Politics." I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

There are a lot of big moving parts here in Washington this afternoon. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the day's star witness on Capitol Hill, set to give public testimony about his election-year meetings with Russian officials and --