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Trump Talks at Prayer Breakfast; Trump's Australian Call; Iran Response to Trump; Trump Talks about Navy SEAL Killed in Yemen; Trump's Joke At Prayer Breakfast; U.S. Diplomacy in the Age of Trump and Tillerson; Addressing the Iran Missile Tests. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 2, 2017 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:30:00] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, you just heard President Donald Trump address the crowd at the Hilton in Washington, D.C., for the National Prayer Breakfast, which is, of course, a tradition in our nation.

Here to discuss what Mr. Trump said is David Swerdlick, "Washington Post" assistant editor, and David Lauter, Washington bureau chief for "The Los Angeles Times," CNN's senior media correspondent Brian Stelter and Jeff Zeleny, he's still manning his post at the White House.

I'm going to start with you, Jeff, because you follow Mr. Trump. He started off by joking about how terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing in the role of his old show, "The Apprentice." And then things went from there. Your thoughts?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, I think that was a moment of levity, I guess, in the room. But I am struck by what the president is saying, not backing down at all from the discussion we've been having all morning about those calls he's been having with foreign leaders. And he said the world needs this. When you have tough phone calls, don't worry about it. I'm here to straighten it out.

But as we are seeing in the right-hand side of the screen there at the State Department, this is something that his new secretary of state is going to have to contend with. The language that the president used to get him to this White House does not sound the same on the foreign stage here. But he was very blunt about this, that he is going to use this same tough talk. Well, that does not always translate well in diplomatic speakers here. So struck by that comment this morning, basically confirming that the White House is just fine with that message being out there, that he was being sort of tough on some foreign leaders, but including our allies, Australia.

COSTELLO: Exactly. And I want to play specifically what you're talking about, Jeff. This is what Mr. Trump said about the world. He said, it is a dangerous place and he is going to fix it. And he also added, don't worry about those phone calls. But I want you to hear President Trump in his own words. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The world is in trouble, but we're going to straighten it out, OK? That's what I do, I fix things. We're going to straighten it out. Believe me. When you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it. Just don't worry about it. They're tough. We have to be tough. It's time we're going to be a little tough, folks. We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It's not going to happen anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: All right, so it's not going to happen anymore. And I just got an urgent about Iran and I will share this with my viewers right now and then I'll address the question to you, David Swerdlick. This says Iran will vigorously continue with its missile activity because, remember, the Trump administration sent out this warning shot to Iran, you know, there's a new sheriff in town and we're going to be ever vigilant and much tougher than the Obama administration was on Iran because Iran test fired a missile. Well, right now, Iran has responded to the Trump administration's words by saying it will vigorously continue with its missile activity. What do you make of that, David Swerdlick?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that the Iranian regime and the Trump administration are testing each other out. The timing of the Iranian missile test and now this message clearly is meant to test President Trump. At the same time, I think the tough language that President Trump and the Trump administration are using are meant to signal both to Iran and to their constituency here at home that they mean to take a different tact than the Obama administration. But what matters more ultimately than the words said, than the - as Jeff said, the new sheriff in town attitude, is what policy backs it up and what actions the administration might take. The forum for challenging the missile test is the U.N. Security Council and I think moves have already been made to go there. But what else will the Trump administration do to set themselves apart from their predecessors?

COSTELLO: All right, Colonel Rick Francona is also joining me.

And I just wonder, from a military perspective, what you thought of President Trump's words at this prayer breakfast in light of all that's happened in just the last day.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I wasn't too surprised. You know, we heard the ever-modest Donald Trump saying he was going to fix things. I didn't really find anything he said today to be either surprising or particularly offensive. He is kind of doubling down on his recent phone call with the Australians. That - the tenor of the phone call with the Australians troubles me a little bit because, as you know, the Australians are one of our closest allies, not just in a military sense, but in a very, very important intelligence operations that we conduct using Australian territory and also with the Australian intelligence services. So that's very interesting.

The Iranian angle, though, is probably even more - more concerning than that. I believe -

COSTELLO: But let's - colonel, I want to focus more - more on Australia for just a second because what you say is very interesting -

FRANCONA: OK.

COSTELLO: Because we - we've come to find out that the phone call between the Australian prime minister and President Trump was rather contentious, right? And you're right, Australia's a very important ally of the United States. And I think that many people might forget that Australia stood by us in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and fought alongside - they were part of the coalition of the willing, right?

[09:35:20] FRANCONA: Of course. And not just did, they still are. They're one of our most important allies in the global war on terrorism. They have - Australian special forces are among the highest rated in the world, and they are there today working very closely with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and also fighting ISIS very covertly in Iraq and Syria. So it's very important that we maintain that relationship.

And I saw some of the fallout in the Australian press. And they're beginning to question, do they want to continue this level of relationship military to military with the United States. And that's where this becomes very dangerous because we don't want these discussions over a refugee issue, which could be settled diplomatically, to escalate to where it challenges a very important relationship, one that we rely on. We worked hand in hand with the Australians.

COSTELLO: And, by the way - yes, and, by the way, the Australian prime minister is also a big-time businessman and he also is tough. So we'll see what happens.

I want to go back to the subject of Iran and I want to go to Fred Pleitgen, because he - he was just in Iran.

So this new urgent (ph) that came out about - about Iran, that Iran will vigorously continue with its missile activity. What do you make of that, Fred?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's absolutely correct. And it seems as though the Iranians and right now the new Trump administration seem to be testing each other and seeing who blinks first, if you will. Certainly I don't think it came as any surprise that the Iranian's did this missile test shortly after Donald Trump came into office, testing to see what the reaction of the new administration was going to be. I don't think necessarily that they thought it was going to be as vigorous as it actually was with, of course, Nikki Haley coming out, then with Michael Flynn coming out and saying that Iran was being put, quote, "on notice."

But I think what we're also seeing, and this is something that the Iranians have been telling me for a very long time, is that they are going to wait and see what the Trump administration does, but they certainly aren't going to back down from any of their core positions. That's something that was very important to them and certainly they feel that testing these ballistic missiles is something that they're allowed to do.

It's no doubt a very provocative action. It's something where it's not really clear whether or not it violates a U.N. resolution. The Iranians say it would only violate it if these missiles were capable of carrying nuclear warheads. But certainly this is something that does put oil on the fire and seems to indicate that there is going to be a very confrontational relationship between the U.S. and Iran over the next four years. And that certainly isn't something that bodes well for the easing of tensions that we've seen when the Obama administration was still in office.

And I can tell you also from being in Iran, Carol, I think this is very important, a lot of Iranian's very, very concerned about what the next four years might bring with the new Trump administration. They, of course, were looking forward to possibly getting some easing of those sanctions.

COSTELLO: I also found it very interesting that during this prayer breakfast that Donald Trump talked about this U.S. Navy SEAL who was killed in the raid in Yemen. And I want to pose this question to you, David Lauter, because there are some publications out there that say - saying that the first - because Mr. Trump OK that raid and that raid didn't go down as expected. Civilians died, including children. There are grisly pictures out there right now of dead children that are being circulated and probably will be used by ISIS in the long run. So I found it very interesting that Mr. Trump spent a lot of time talking about Chief Petty Officer and Navy SEAL William Ryan Owens, the man who died in that raid. Your thoughts, David Lauter?

DAVID LAUTER, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, President Trump, as presidents typically do, wants to portray this as a heroic mission and focus on the American service member who died. But there are going to be questions inevitably about, was this mission planned properly, was it reviewed properly? Any time you have a transition from one administration to another, there's always the danger that something slips through that isn't quite adequately vetted. And, of course, those questions have been heightened by the sense that the Trump administration doesn't have everything nailed down quite as firmly as they should.

So this was a mission that was planned initially by the Obama administration. President Obama left the final decision to his successor because military wanted to use a moonless night for the raid, and the next moonless night was going to be after President Trump took over. So they passed the decision on to the next administration. But there's always, you know, questions about, were the last-minute checks done adequately? Was there enough scrutiny of the military planning by the people in the White House? The White House obviously would prefer that the public not focus on those questions and instead would rather focus attention on the heroism - undoubted heroism of American forces.

[09:40:03] COSTELLO: OK. And then some of the language that Mr. Trump used in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast - I want to pose this question to you, Brian Stelter. He said, "freedom is a gift from God." He talked about religious liberty, but he said that in America we treat people of all religions the same. He said it is God who gave us life and liberty, not, of course, the, you know, mere men who wrote the Constitution and came up with the Constitution and our way of government. So what do you make of that?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: He also said to the chaplain, the hell with it at one point. But I was focused on his words about "The Apprentice," talking about wanting to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger's ratings. Look, on one level, just a joke, right? Just a joke. But a joke in a setting like this seemed shocking to the folks who were following along on social media.

On another level, not a joke -

COSTELLO: Well, let's pause then since you bring that up.

STELTER: Yes.

COSTELLO: Because we have that bite - that sound bite ready to go.

STELTER: You wouldn't believe it unless you see it. We should look at it again.

COSTELLO: Right. Exactly. So he's at the National Prayer Breakfast and this is a very somber occasion. You're trying to get people on the same page and you're talking about your own faith and spirituality. And this is how President Trump started it off. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had tremendous success on "The Apprentice." And when I ran for president, I had to leave the show. That's when I knew for sure I was doing it. And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes. It's been a total disaster. And Mark will never, ever bet against Trump again. And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: Like I said, on one level, it is a joke. On another level, it's a pretty egotistical self-serving statement. He was talking to his old producer friend in the room, Mark Burnett, who created "The Apprentice" with him a number of years ago. Mark Burnett always attends this - this - the breakfast every year with his wife, Roma Downey. So he was bragging that "The Apprentice" is not doing well now that Arnold's taken over for him. Now, there's some truth to that. But the setting for it, it's one thing to tweet about that, another thing to say it from the podium at the National Prayer Service - at the National Prayer Breakfast.

COSTELLO: And you mentioned the chaplain too. So the Senate chaplain got up -

STELTER: Right.

COSTELLO: And gave a very fiery - I mean it was a very moving -

STELTER: Beautiful, yes.

COSTELLO: Moving prayer before Mr. Trump spoke. And he said to the chaplain, I don't know how you're hired or anything, and maybe the Senate is responsible for that -

STELTER: Right.

COSTELLO: But I'm going to keep you.

STELTER: Right. Right.

COSTELLO: Right, to hell with how looks (ph) -

STELTER: He's been the chaplain for a number of years. Right, to hell with it is what he said, yes. You know, later on, Trump said the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success. I think those are the kinds of words that resonate in that room and with the viewing audience at home. To go from that comment to his own material success about "The Apprentice" is what felt off.

COSTELLO: OK. Well, I've got to take a break, but we have much more to talk about, including new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. He begins his first full day today. He was at the Hilton listening to President Trump. And look at all of these people gathered, waiting to hear what Rex Tillerson has to say. And, boy, does he have a full plate on his first day. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:47:16] COSTELLO: It is U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's very first day on the job. He is expected to address State Department employees at any moment now. You see them gathered there. That's actually inside the State Department in the lobby. They are awaiting Rex Tillerson. There's, of course, no shortage of issues to face this morning as President Trump makes headlines for his comments on Iran and his talks with foreign leaders and foreign allies. Tillerson was sworn in just last night, just a few hours after the Senate voted to confirm him 56-43 in favor.

As the nation's top diplomat, Rex Tillerson will be charged with carrying out Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy. So let's talk about that. With me again, David Swerdlick, "Washington Post" assistant editor, David Lauter, Washington bureau chief for "The Los Angeles Times," and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. Fred Pleitgen also joins us from London.

Thanks to all of you.

So, David Swerdlick, I will start with you. Donald Trump was very complementary of Rex Tillerson at this National Prayer Breakfast meeting. He says Red Tillerson, it's a good thing he gets along with all of the foreign leaders, but that seems at odds with what's happened with Mr. Trump and foreign leaders over the past few days. So how do you suppose that might play out?

SWERDLICK: Yes, here is the rub, Carol. Last night in his remarks at Secretary Tillerson's swearing in, President Trump said it's time to bring a clear-eyed focus back to foreign relations. And yet the clear- eyed focus that he's sort of handing off to Secretary Tillerson in his inbox is, you know, sort of a war of words with Australian's prime minister, with Mexico's president, a standoff - a brewing standoff now with Iran over their missile program and some doubts among our NATO allies about President Trump's approach to NATO. Secretary Tillerson, on day one, already has his hands full.

I think the other thing we also learned, just as an aside, about Secretary Tillerson's confirmation, Carol, is that there was an opportunity for some Republican senators, Rubio, McCain, Graham, to demonstrate some independence from President Trump. They took a pass on that and voted for Tillerson despite early on objecting to him.

COSTELLO: OK. So, Fred, I want to go to you and talk about a clear- eyed focus on the part of Rex Tillerson and the Trump foreign policy. There are some who might say that when Mike Flynn, the national security adviser to President Trump, put Iran on notice, that was certainly the clear-eyed vision. So what - is that right or wrong?

PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, it certainly makes clear that the U.S. is going to take a stronger stance towards the Iranians. But the big question is, how are you going to follow up on that? I mean if you - if you look at that region, there certainly is a big - a potential for an escalation between the Iranians and the U.S., Carol. You look, for instance, at the Persian Gulf where you've had run-ins between the U.S. and the Iranian navies. In fact, you have them on a fairly frequent basis. And so the big question is, how are you going to escalate that situation short of starting violence, short of possibly even starting a war in that region.

[09:50:08] You know, there have been warning shots fired by U.S. vessels at Iranian vessels in the past. Is that going to change? Are they going to really fire at those vessels in the future? Certainly the Iranian's, for their part, they really do seem to be testing the Trump administration with that ballistic missile that was fired. Clearly waiting to see what sort of reaction they were going to get. And, again, I'm not really sure that they thought it was going to be this vigorous, that it was going to be this forceful.

At the same time, the Iranian's are saying they're going to continue with their ballistic missile program. They are not going to back out. And then the big question, of course, is, what is the Trump administration going to do next? Because I can tell you one thing, the next ballistic missile test is going to come. And something that the Iranians have been doing even after the nuclear agreement came into play. And then the big question is, does this endanger the nuclear agreement itself? And I think one of the things that I'm reading out of the tweets also that we've seen from Donald Trump this morning where he said, look, America gave Iran this nuclear agreement. I mean we also have to keep in mind that the nuclear agreement is not just between Iran and the U.S., There's other countries involved as well, like, for instance, the Germans, like, for instance, the Chinese, the Russians also, who are all now doing business with Iran. So it certainly is a lot more complicated than just getting tougher on Iran. And certainly it seems as though Iran is going to be a delicate issue over the next four years.

COSTELLO: But, so, Colonel Francona, you know about these things. So how might the United States retaliate when Iran is surely to conduct another missile test?

FRANCONA: It goes beyond the missile test. I think the - the greatest potential we have for military confrontation right now and in the near future is going to be in the Persian Gulf between U.S. Navy units and the Iranian IRGC navy and the regular navy. It - they are very close. Everybody's on a hair trigger out there. And in the past, under the Obama administration, there was a lot of restraint put on the commanders there. I still wonder what the new orders to those commanders are going to be. Are we going to be more aggressive toward the Iranians? And if that's the case, I think as Fred points out, a military escalation possibly ending in a violent confrontation out there is - is not only possible, but it's even growing more likely.

I know the Iranians are going to continue their missile tests. I think we are going to protest that, but there's not much we can do about that. The wording in the U.N. resolution gives them enough wiggle room to do that. I'm more worried about the freedom of transit through the Strait of Hormuz. So I think that's where we're going to see a possible confrontation, possibly a military confrontation between the two countries.

COSTELLO: OK. So, David Lauter, you have Rex Tillerson, who's going to be our new secretary of state. He has no diplomatic experience. He's businessman. But I guess he gets along with foreign leaders. So how might that play on the world stage?

LAUTER: Well, I think the - one of the biggest issues, probably, for the new secretary of state is something that we heard the president say at the prayer breakfast just a few minutes ago. It's a phrase that Donald Trump has used over and over again through his campaign. He said, all the rest of the world has taken advantage of the United States and we need to be tougher. The rest of the world, of course, sees it exactly the opposite. They see the United States as the big bully on the world stage. The richest, the most powerful - the country that's always throwing its weight around and telling other countries what to do. So there's this huge gap in perception between most of the rest of the world and the president about who's getting the short end of the stick here. And I think Secretary Tillerson is now going to be the person in the middle who's going to have to try to bridge that enormous gap, and using his skills as a businessman and a maker of deals, make he can do that. Make he can find areas in which he can say to the rest of the world, well, here's what we need to do and bring them along. But it's going to be extremely difficult if the president constantly thinks that the rest of the world is trying to take advantage of the U.S. and the rest of the world sees the U.S. as pushing them around.

COSTELLO: Well, here's the other thing, David Swerdlick, that came out of that National Prayer Breakfast. Donald Trump talked about General "Mad Dog" Mattis, and he did use the nickname "Mad Dog," which General Mattis really does not like, but he used it. He said, you know, I'm going to make the world a safer place. I have General Mattis in place. He's never lost a battle. What do you suppose Donald Trump meant by saying that?

SWERDLICK: Well, I think we saw throughout the campaign, Carol, that President Trump liked to refer to generals, liked to refer to General Mattis. He previously liked to refer to Generals Patton and MacArthur from yesteryear as a way of showing that he was pro-military, that he liked aggressive, you know, generals who sort of talked tough and then backed it up. But again the question becomes, no one doubts that General Mattis is a highly capable leader on the battlefield as a general and certainly a capable leader of the Department of Defense. It's the policy that will go behind it.

[09:55:08] I just want to just throw in one more thing about the prayer breakfast, if I can, Carol. I thought President Trump gave a fitting tribute to William Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who died in Yemen, by quoting from the book of John, but then I thought he weakened that message by throwing out all these shout-outs to General Mattis and to Mark Burnett and to Vice President Pence. You know, it was sort of an odd mixture of messages in that speech - short speech.

COSTELLO: All right, we're going to continue to talk about this, but I have to take a break. I have to go for my next show. David Swerdlick, David Lauter, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona and Frederick Pleitgen, thanks to all of you.

The next hour of CNN NEWSROOM after a break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: And good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me.

[09:59:56] The Trump White House rattling nerves among friends and foes alike as America's foreign policy takes on a more combative tone. Just minutes ago, at the National Prayer Breakfast, the president ignoring the conciliatory tone typical of this long-time presidential tradition. Instead, Mr. Trump dismissed concerns and said it's time for U.S.