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Trump To MSNBC: "Let It Be An Arms Race"; Putin: If There's A Nuclear Arms Race, "It's Not Us"; Trump Releases Letter Putin Sent Him; Berlin Terror Suspect Killed In Milan Shootout. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 23, 2016 - 11:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: John Berman here. Kate is off today. The breaking news this morning, let it be an arms race. Those are the words from someone who will soon have the power to enter the United States into just such a race, President-elect Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump was seeking to clarify, we think, a statement he made less than 24 hours ago, the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such a time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.

The keywords being strengthen and expand nuclear capability, which can mean many things in the realm of nuclear proliferation. It followed a promise from Russian President Vladimir Putin to enhance his own country's nuclear forces.

Our Boris Sanchez is live near Trump's Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Boris, what's the latest on this?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Yes, we have heard two different responses from Trump and his team regarding this tweet. Initially, yesterday, we heard from Jason Miller with the Trump camp saying that Donald Trump was referring to limiting proliferation of nuclear weapons with that tweet.

Specifically when it comes to terrorist organizations or rogue actors getting their hands on nukes. But as you heard, that report this morning, let it be an arms race, apparently in relation to Russia, which is a tone we really haven't heard Donald Trump take before in speaking about Vladimir Putin and relations between the United States and Russia.

After that report came out, we actually heard from Sean Spicer, the spokesperson for the RNC, the future press secretary for Donald Trump. He was on "NEW DAY" and doubled down on Trump's remarks. Listen to what he said.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": There was a phone call that came in from Mr. Trump and as we understand it, she took a phone call from the president-elect and as she reported it, he said to her, let it be an arms race, in terms of building up our nuclear capabilities with I guess against Russia, let it be an arms race, because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all. What does let it be an arms race mean?

SEAN SPICER, PRESS SECRETARY, PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: I think it goes back to what I just said with respect to the tweet that he put out. He is going to do what it takes to protect this country. If another country or countries want to threaten our safety, our sovereignty, he's going to do what it takes.

CAMEROTA: Sure, but he's not waiting until another country threatens us. He's making these --

SPICER: Right, but he's making it very clear that other countries and other companies, you have seen with Carrier, he's going to make it clear that he will be an active president that will get things done.

CAMEROTA: Meaning he will use nuclear weapons if need be?

SPICER: He will not take anything off the table. What it means is he's not going to sit back and let another country act. He needs to send a clear and concise message which he's done that he is going to be a president that defends America's interests and defends the American people.


SANCHEZ: So you heard that strong response from Sean Spicer there. Really, this is raising eyebrows because if Donald Trump follows through with his promise, he would be undoing about 30 years of American policy when it comes to nuclear proliferation.

Right now, he's actually not here at Mar-a-Lago. He's golfing with Tiger Woods at the Trump International Golf Course about a mile away from here though he is expected back at Mar-a-Lago this afternoon where the transition team tells us that he is set to hold some high level meetings -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Boris Sanchez at Mar-a-Lago, thanks so much. Boris, by the way, Russian President Vladimir Putin is shrugging off the president-elect's call for an expansion of U.S. nuclear capabilities. The Russian leader says there's nothing new about that and that any arms race would not be Russia's fault.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): The technical nuclear arms of the United States updated, are modernized there. So if someone accelerates and speeds up the arms race, it's not us, but I would like to underline which is important for our domestic situation and domestic public, I would like to say that we will never once we are in arms race, we will never spend too much.


BERMAN: All right, let's bring in CNN senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance live from Moscow. It was interesting to hear the Russian leader today, Matthew, because he himself had some words that raised eyebrows about nuclear expansion in this case.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, he downplayed the Trump tweet about enhancing nuclear arsenal and the message he put across about an arms race, saying this is nothing new, Donald Trump and his campaign, the president of Russia said, had spoken about renewing U.S. -- the U.S. nuclear arsenal as well.

[11:05:10]He explained that by saying look, Russia has been renewing its nuclear arsenal. We have a very efficient system in place now so it's understandable that the United States might be a little anxious.

But this issue of nuclear proliferation is an area where Russia and the Russian president in particular is very comfortable speaking. It's one of the last vestiges of the Soviet Union, that it still has parity with the United States on the issue of nuclear weapons.

And indeed, there was a nuclear agreement done with President Obama at the start of his presidency back in 2010 with Russia's START Treaty, arms reduction treaty, which limited the number of warheads to 1,550 on each side.

Look, I can see a situation in the months ahead where perhaps Russia and the United States under Trump do speak about arms limitation and a new arms treaty. That's an area potentially where they could both cooperate.

BERMAN: Matthew, what did the Russian leader have to say about incoming president-elect or incoming president, the current president- elect, Donald Trump? He was asked repeatedly about Donald Trump.

CHANCE: Yes, he was. He was also asked about the whole notion of hacking. These allegations that Russian hackers interfered or put their thumb on the scales as it were of the U.S. presidential election. You know, it was interesting because he said again this has got nothing to do with us.

It's got nothing to do with Russia, but then at the end of that answer, he said look, everybody thought that Donald Trump couldn't win but we knew, didn't we, speaking to other Russians in the room presumably.

So it was sort of like a little nudge and a wink from the Russian president perhaps or this has been interpreted in that way. He was very vicious though, I have to say, about the Democratic Party and the blame he's been getting, Putin has been getting, for intervening in the U.S. elections.

He said the current U.S. administration always tries to find a scapegoat, the Democrats lost the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Am I to blame for that? Are we responsible for everything?

If you lose, he said, you should lose with dignity. President Putin in these, the final weeks of the Obama administration, really unleashing his true feelings about what he thinks about that president and the Democratic Party.

BERMAN: Some ironic commentary on the democratic process from a man who many people think doesn't particularly respect democracy but interesting to hear. Matthew Chance, thank you so much.

Want to bring in our panel right now. We are joined by CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, CNN's former Moscow bureau chief, Jill Dougherty, a Russian consultant and global fellow for the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Joe Cirincione, president of the Global Security Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and author, "Nuclear Nightmares."

Barbara, let me start with you here. Because the initial statement was that Donald Trump, the president-elect, wants to greatly strengthen and expand the nuclear capability of the United States. That could mean a few things.

It could mean modernize which is within the framework of things that have been discussed over the last several years. However, he seemed to go beyond that this morning when he said let it be an arms race. That would be a change, a big change in U.S. policy.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It would, John. Indeed, undoing decades of U.S. national security policy dating back to Ronald Reagan. Now, Trump likes to cloak himself, he's done it before, in the Reagan mantle of so-called peace through strength.

But remember, it was Ronald Reagan that sat down at the nuclear negotiating table with Gorbachev all those years ago. Mr. Spicer, the spokesman this morning talking about this is all about showing that Donald Trump will be a strong president.

OK. You put that out there on the table, he's going to be a strong president, but an arms race, is that really the way you want to do it, because if Trump is concerned about rogue nations and terrorists getting nuclear weapons, an arms race may not be the best way militarily to go after that.

I think a lot of military experts will tell you the U.S. needs intelligence, reconnaissance, to know where nuclear sites are, to be able to deal with them.

Terrorists not likely to get big intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. Dirty bombs, radiological devices, U.S. nuclear weapons aren't going to be very efficient against that.

BERMAN: You know, Jill Dougherty, this is seen as a response to a statement that Russian president Vladimir Putin said. Help us understand exactly what the Russian leader was saying when he talked about enhancing his own country's nuclear capabilities.

JILL DOUGHERTY, GLOBAL FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: You know, John, I think President Putin is saying essentially to Donald Trump we can match you, we will have every weapon that we need, in fact, he's saying we will have weapons that can overcome your missile defense systems. In other words, forget it, we are equal. He's also saying don't you be the aggressor. He pointed that out several times, don't be an aggressor. In other words, if you and we can cooperate, that's fine.

[11:10:07]But if you try to be the aggressor, we will match you and get right back at you, and then he's blaming everything, any type of potential arms race on the United States. So I think the word downplaying at this point is not correct.

I think Vladimir Putin is answering what Donald Trump is saying. They may like each other, they may want to work together, but essentially Donald Trump is an American, comes from the United States, and Russia is going to defend itself against the United States.

This is all very serious and it's very imprecise by Donald Trump to begin a conversation like this by saying let's have an arms race or let there be one, because there's no way that that is going to work out very well. It may be a negotiating tactic. He may be throwing everything he can out there, but it's very, very destabilizing.

BERMAN: Joe, let me talk about what Jill just mentioned talking about the imprecision in the language being used in this case by President- elect Donald Trump. This is an area of your expertise. You full well know that when talking about nuclear arms, precision in language is something that has been part of it for decades and decades.

You don't want to make a mistake with a word that could end up costing millions of lives, perhaps, here and people are questioning whether nuclear policy is something that should be in 140 characters or less on Twitter.

JOE CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: That's exactly right. Nuclear policy, every word matters. That's why the president's nuclear posture review that every new incoming president performs, takes about a year to do. That's why aides and officials and military officers work for months on a president's statement on nuclear policy.

This is unprecedented. It is bizarre. He has upended as Barbara said four decades of U.S. nuclear policy, Republicans and Democrats have been reducing our arsenals for the last 30 or 40 years, and he does it with a tweet before he's even president.

He is sowing chaos to our alliances and it's not just about the U.S. and Russia. The whole world is listening to this. China is following this very closely. If the U.S. and Russia, who each have about 5,000 weapons in their active stockpile, say they need more weapons, well, how about China, who has about 200, 250?

Do they need more? What about India? What about Pakistan? That's why this tweet and the follow-up statement today, let there be an arms race, is so worrying, so not the kind of statement you want to make.

Ronald Reagan never said something like this. He said a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The exact opposite of the message Donald Trump is putting out today. BERMAN: Barbara Starr, we all know there's always a great deal of reaction to what Donald Trump puts on Twitter and often there's overreaction, to be fair, to what Donald Trump puts on Twitter.

When he talks about greatly strengthening and expanding the nuclear capabilities, now, before he talked about an arms race, modernizing the nation's nuclear force is something that's going on right now.

It's something President Obama is committed to. Modernizing means in some cases improving, right, and changing and modifying over time. That is something where there is broad agreement, correct?

STARR: There is indeed, John, and the Pentagon has been spending considerable amount of money over recent years and plans to spend even more on just that. A good deal of the nuclear arsenal is quite old. Mr. Trump has talked about that. He is correct about that.

The president, President Obama, has already been working on that for the last several years. So there is a very strong case to be made to modernize the nuclear force and part of that is for reasons of technology.

You want it to be secure and stable and the most efficient technology you have while it sits in those silos or on those submarines. You don't want out of date technology. Quite different, that is not an arms race.

That is improving what you already have. The Russians also doing some of that, also modernizing their force pretty assertively but again, not an arms race, not adding to your stockpile in some fashion to try to beat the other guy to some perhaps imaginary finish line.

BERMAN: Right. Because Joe Cirincione, nuclear policy right now, even if you are for enhancing nuclear capability, it's not a numbers game anymore. This isn't the cold war even for those who do want to see a strengthening of nuclear policy.

CIRINCIONE: Right. So there's two things --


CIRINCIONE: I'm sorry. Was that to Jill? Excuse me.

BERMAN: Joe first, then Jill.


[11:15:02]CIRINCIONE: Sorry, there's two things here. One, suppose this is a gambit. Suppose this is Trump's negotiating style. Reopen closed issues, sow confusion, and create leverage for negotiations. Then he will have a chance to cash this in early in his administration.

This issue and his meeting with Vladimir Putin early in the administration could be the most important challenge confronting the new president and he has a chance to make history. He could take a page from Reagan's playbook.

He could make a deal with Vladimir Putin if he wants to improve relations between the two countries to cut both sides' nuclear arsenals, cut them in half the way Reagan did, or George W. Bush did, or H.W. Bush.

They each cut the arsenal in half. Trump could be that kind of president. If he does that, that's the deal of a lifetime. That will ensure his place in the history books. But remember, we still have 30 days before he becomes president.

What's Obama going to do? He has a chance to take some actions now that could reduce the hair trigger alert status of our nuclear forces, make sure that when Donald Trump comes in, he can't launch a nuclear weapon within 4 minutes as he can now.

BERMAN: All right, guys, stand by for a second. Jill, something just happened which I'm thrilled that you guys are here to help me understand. We just received a release from the Trump transition which included a letter that the Russian leader Vladimir Putin wrote to Donald Trump on December 15th. So one week ago.

Let me read the letter that Vladimir Putin wrote to Donald Trump, "Please accept my warmest Christmas and New Year's greetings. Serious global and regional challenges which our countries have to face in recent years show that the relations between Russia and the U.S. remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security in the modern world.

I hope that after you assume the position of president of the United States of America, we will be able by acting in constructive and pragmatic manner, to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level.

Please accept my sincere wishes to you and your family of sound health, happiness, wellbeing, success" and he added, "all the best." Let me read you what Donald Trump just said about that. He said, "A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin, his thoughts are so correct.

I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts and we do not have to travel an alternate path." So wow. We are sitting here talking about what could be a new arms race and here we have this release of an exchange of letters between the two men who will lead the two greatest nuclear powers as of January 20th. Jill Dougherty, your take on this?

DOUGHERTY: John, I think that Vladimir Putin is no fool. I think he probably expected that Trump would be doing unpredictable things. I think there's probably a percentage that he takes off these comments to bring them back to some type of normality.

So he looks at that and says well, that's an opening gambit that is Mr. Trump, talk about an arms race, that's an opening gambit, but what we really want to do is maybe work together. That's been the hope all along. So what President Putin is setting up, is he's saying the old guy, President Obama, who is leaving, is the bad guy and the previous presidents, the United States which walked out of the ABM Treaty back in the Bush days, now we can start fresh with this new president who wants to work with us.

I think there's a lot of posturing, message sending, and ultimately he wants to work with Trump, but I don't think he totally trusts that Trump can deliver. So I'm reading this as very subtle messaging.

BERMAN: It's interesting. Some of the key language here from Vladimir Putin is restore the framework of bilateral cooperation. He's talking about collaboration on a qualitatively new level. Barbara Starr, that language from Vladimir Putin to me signals clearly he wants a very different relationship with the United States than he currently has.

STARR: Well, maybe it would be useful for the entire world at this point to ask why Putin wants that. This is not a guy who by any stretch is just into feel-good feelings with the United States and Donald Trump. That would be a fundamental misreading of Vladimir Putin by any stretch.

Putin wants sanctions lifted. He wants cash back in Russian pockets. The oil prices have been down. He needs to get those sanctions lifted. Even when he was talking about modernizing nuclear weapons, his military is under financial pressure.

They may be huge but they are poorly paid. The Russian economy has been suffering because of the sanctions imposed after Russia's incursion into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has an agenda and nobody should misread that.

It would be -- it would really be a mistake. Does he want better relations with the U.S.? Yes, of course, but you know, he's not -- let me put it to you this way.

[11:20:04]I don't think I have spoken to a U.S. military commander or secretary of defense or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in recent months who believes much of anything that Vladimir Putin has to say.

BERMAN: Joe, let me read you again just part of the line that Donald Trump wrote because I think that, too, is very instructive here. He was talking about how nice the letter was from Vladimir Putin. He hopes the two countries can live up to it, but he adds at the end, he hopes that they can live up to it so we do not have to travel an alternate path.


BERMAN: That to me was a foreboding line or a warning from the president-elect at the very end of this gracious letter.

CIRINCIONE: Yes. I think Jill and Barbara have this exactly right. This is a very difficult and clever adversary in Vladimir Putin. You see that kind of I don't want to pull out the dagger kind of language that he uses there.

And there's concerns about whether Donald Trump is up to the task. There's concerns about the conflict of interests that his secretary of state designate, Rex Tillerson, has. He just concluded a $500 billion oil deal with Vladimir Putin that's being held up by sanctions.

There's all these issues swirling around. But let's stop an imbalance we do have a fork here, we do have a choice. Donald Trump can play this in a way that gets something from Putin, that eliminates some of the nuclear weapons we worry most about.

That contain his adventures in the Middle East, and he could make a deal to give up some of the weapons that Putin worries the most about. That could be an historic deal or he could go down this path of rhetoric and arms race and ill-considered language that may trigger a crisis that he himself doesn't really want.

A lot is resting on what the president of the United States, the new president, does in the next six months or so.

BERMAN: Barbara Starr, Jill Dougherty, Joe Cirincione, glad you guys were here to help me digest this breaking news. These letters just in to CNN. We will take a much greater look at them and come back to this in a little bit.

Also breaking today, the suspect in the German Christmas market attack shot and killed by police in Italy. Now video of that man pledging allegiance to ISIS. The question investigators are asking this morning, did he have any help carrying out this attack? We are live on the scene after this.

Also two hijackers took over a flight carrying more than 100 passengers, threatened to blow the plane up. Details on that story next. We got a lot going on today after a quick break.



BERMAN: All right, we have breaking news in the Berlin terror attack. A video just uploaded by ISIS affiliated media claims to show prime suspect, Anis Amri, pledging allegiance to ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi.

This video emerging just hours after Amri was killed during a shootout with police near Milan in Italy. That's more than 500 miles from where he carried out his attack.

CNN's Ben Wedeman joins us now from Rome. Ben, give us the details of this altercation.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, what happened, John, was that about 3:00 in the morning in a Milan suburb, a police patrol which was just checking people for identification stopped a man they said was acting suspiciously. When they asked him for his I.D. instead of showing them an I.D. he pulled out a .22 caliber pistol, shouted "police bastards" and opened fire on the police patrol, wounding one of the police officers in the shoulder.

Another officer, however, was able to get behind this man Anis Amri who had hid behind a car and shoot him fatally in the chest. Now they did find on his body not only the pistol but also a small knife and several hundred euro.

Police are obviously looking at why perhaps he was in that particular neighborhood of Milan, very much a working class neighborhood. Keeping in mind, of course, that Amri had spent several years in Italy after having come here from Tunisia in the beginning of 2011.

But much of his time in Italy was spent in a variety of prisons in the south. He was originally sentenced for setting alight a refugee center in an Italian island between Sicily and Tunisia.

This is a man who obviously had connections in Italy and the thoughts are that perhaps there was a network that provided the support that allowed him to carry out those -- that attack in Berlin -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Ben Wedeman for us in Rome. Of course, the Italian angle, back to Berlin where we find CNN's Erin McLaughlin, where this attack took place. Erin, what are German investigators saying?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, they are saying this investigation is far from over. Today, the federal prosecutor outlining remaining priorities. They are looking to see if 24-year- old Tunisian national, Anis Amri had any help.

After all, we know that he was a member of a pro-ISIS recruitment network. Individuals from that network, leading figures having been arrested in November, according to investigation files he had expressed interest in the past in carrying out terror attacks.

Members from that network offering to hide him. So the question being, are the remaining members of the network out there who could potentially have helped him carry out this attack?

BERMAN: All right. Erin McLaughlin live in Berlin. We hear the bells behind you. It is nice to hear people celebrating the Christmas season in Berlin after the week they have had there.

German intelligence officials now say that Anis Amri was on a list of the nation's most dangerous Islamist threats and he was on that list for months before the attack.

Want to bring in our CNN terrorism analyst and editor-in-chief of the "CTC Sentinel," Paul Cruickshank. Paul, this is something that you've been digging into. What are you learning?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: John, yes, he was put on that list in March so nine months before the attack, we understand. So for nine months they have been aware that this individual was dangerous, was a risk.

And they knew that because they had a police informant inside the terrorism network he belonged to, the jihadi recruitment network he belonged to in Germany, feeding them back all kinds of details.

We've been reporting some of that details included the fact that he wanted to launch an attack and other members of his circle wanted to launch truck attacks --