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Harward Turns Down National Security Adviser Role; Harward Says No to NSA. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 17, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:34] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. So glad you're with us this Friday.

This morning, the White House is without a permanent national security adviser, and they're pushing back against reports that the Admiral they tapped wanted nothing to do with the chaos surrounding the administration. This, on the same day that the President gave a press conference, certainly, like no other. The man that he tapped to replace his ousted national security adviser says, thank you, but no thanks.

BERMAN: Retired Vice Admiral Bob Harward cited family reasons for turning down the offer, but a friend told CNN he thought the offer was a blank sandwich. Only, he didn't say blank. Just a few minutes ago, the White House claimed there is zero truth to that.

Also, this morning, we are learning that the FBI is not expected to press charges against national security adviser Michael Flynn over his controversial phone call with the Russian ambassador.

We want to bring in Senior Washington Correspondent Joe Johns with all the latest. Joe, the White House, no chaos here, that's not why the Admiral didn't want the job.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. A senior administration official telling CNN and some other news organizations, just a little while ago, that nothing happened with the issue of Bob Harward and his deciding not to take the job.

They say we talked to Bob Harward. Defense Secretary James Mattis was very interested in him. As a matter of fact, they have worked together, and he said let's keep talking, let's move forward. And then Harward said he needed to talk to his wife and family.

And after that, it was a no go. The administration official is saying there's zero truth to the idea that Harward was concerned about chaos in the administration. Of course, yesterday, at that extraordinary news conference, the President of the United States talked a little bit about Mike Flynn and his resignation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple. Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts, so it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it.

I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn't doing it. I didn't direct him, but I would have directed him because that's his job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: So the administration official we talked to this morning did also say they're having no trouble filling the job that was vacated by Mike Flynn, and also pointed out they do have a very adequate acting national security adviser in General Keith Kellogg. But they're also looking at a couple other people in the mix.

And so I asked, well, why not just name Keith Kellogg as the permanent national security adviser? And the official said, there's everything right with Kellogg. We're just making sure, when we pull the trigger and finally pick the person, we have the proper diversity of choice, the words that were used, before the President makes his decision. Back to you.

HARLOW: Joe Johns reporting all the breaking news from the White House. Thank you for that.

Now that Retired Vice Admiral Bob Harward has turned down this job of national security adviser, the White House needs to find someone to replace that role yet again.

Let's go to our Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon.

Barbara, big picture here when it comes to what matters most for the American people, that is national security, what position does this put the U.S. in, not having a permanent national security adviser?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, you do have the Secretary of Defense. You do have the Secretary of State, the President, and the Vice President.

But here is the very crucial problem, at any moment, as we all know, there can be a crisis, a national security crisis with North Korea, with Russia, with Iran. And how are you going to manage that crisis? How is the White House going to quickly and efficiently get all the information, all the options in a crisis to the President if you don't have a national security adviser?

So make no mistake, this is absolutely critical. Otherwise, you know, the job wouldn't exist, right? Now, Harward turning it down, the White House has its public position, but I have to tell you, associates of Harward have told CNN just what you guys said, that he was very concerned about the chaos in the administration.

And the reason this is so relevant is he is a very respected senior retired military officer. They do not talk to the White House about a job. They don't talk about possibly taking a job, unless they are really prepared to take it. They have a very strong ethos of service. That's why you see Mattis

there. That's why you see Retired General John Kelly there.

[09:04:59] A retired senior military officer doesn't get to the point where he has to say no to a president. So this is very key about the possibility of, shall we call it, sort of a vote of no confidence emerging.

Now, President Trump, a short time ago, did tweet -- and I just want to read that to everybody. On this notion of Keith Kellogg and others, Mr. Trump tweeted, "General Keith Kellogg, who I've known for a long time, is very much in play for NSA" -- national security adviser -- "as are three others."

So I think it's going to be very interesting to see if one of those three others is also a retired military officer. Could it be General David Petraeus? We don't know. And are one of them, you know, eventually going to say yes?

BERMAN: It is interesting. Yesterday, at the news conference, the President clearly thought it was still going to be Admiral Harward.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: He said he had selected someone that made, you know, pushing out General Flynn even easier because he had someone in mind. So something changed between when the President spoke and last night, as you say.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: Barbara Starr, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

A lot to discuss here. We want to bring in New York Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks. He's a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC.

Congressman, thanks so much for being with us.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D), NEW YORK: Good to be with you.

BERMAN: You just told us, you're actually headed overseas next week. Congress is out of session next week; you're going overseas to talk to U.S. allies in Germany and other places.

And I imagine one of the things they will be looking at is this news reporting this morning that Admiral Harward turned down the job of national security adviser. What kind of message does that send?

MEEKS: Well, it sends a message of nervousness. Our allies are nervous. As I talk to various embassies here in United States and we have our dialogue, they have never seen the United States in a position as we are in now, with chaos.

I know the President says it's a fine-running machine, but on the views of everyone else, whether it's foreign countries, our allies, or, you know, other than his base supporters, we see chaos, every day.

HARLOW: So let me just push back in that. You say other than his base of supporters. That's not just a few people. That's a lot of folks.

And what we're hearing from reporters who've been in the field with them yesterday, during the press conference, like Salena Zito who'd be on the show a little later -- here's what she tweeted, "Listening to the press conference in the middle of Pennsylvania. Watching press on my Twitter has been like a parallel universe -- people think he's doing well."

A lot of voters heard exactly what they wanted to hear from the President yesterday.

MEEKS: Well, yes, if you look at where he's at in the polls, somewhere between 35 and 40 percent. So those 35 to 40 percent --

HARLOW: Yes, but among Republicans, Congressman --

MEEKS: Those 35 --

HARLOW: -- he had 84 percent approval.

MEEKS: Those 35 to 40 percent of individuals, even the -- if you listen to my Republican colleagues, behind the scenes, they're all nervous. And they're --

HARLOW: We have one joining us next hour.

MEEKS: They're all nervous, you know. And we will see what takes place because, you know, at some point, you know, the people that really know, we have to put our country before our party. And we know that our country is in danger right now because of the chaos, if we cannot get it right, if we're not sending the right messages to our allies.

And we've got mixed messages, you know, sometimes hourly from this President. You know, the question was, is this President concerned about having someone at the NSA? I would say he's probably not.

Why? He told us during the campaign he's his own boss. You know, he can make the decisions without anybody.

And so the question that's still we'll rely is, even with the people that he has in place, and I would hope General Mattis or General Kelly, he listens to. But that's another question up in the air. And I think that's part of the reason why Harward did not come on board. He couldn't name his own staff people.

BERMAN: The President yesterday said he's accomplished more in one month, maybe, than any president ever. And not only did he say that, but he said that when he came into office, things were essentially awful. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: To be honest, I inherited a mess. It's a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. I just want to let you know, I inherited a mess.

ISIS has spread like cancer. Another mess I inherited.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Did he inherit a mess?

MEEKS: Absolutely not. If you look at where the country was eight years ago and where we are now, he has no clue what a mess really is.

You know, we were engaged in the worst recession since the Great Depression. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month as opposed to recent -- you know, we've had the largest job growth in our history actually, gaining over 16 million jobs.

Just recently, in the Financial Services Committee hearing that we had with Ms. Yellen, she talked about how the economy is moving in a very positive direction. It's slow but we need to move it forward, and we've come a long way, you know, in the last past eight years. And so we won two wars at that time.

[09:10:07] So it is clearly a demonstration that Donald Trump has no idea of what being the President of the United States is really all about and how hard the task really is and what you need to do to move forward.

HARLOW: There was a moment that got a lot of people talking yesterday, and that's when the reporter, April Ryan, asked the President about what he would do for inner cities, and then there was this change. Let's play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

APRIL RYAN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: Are you going to include the CBC, Mr. President, in your conversations with your urban agenda, your inner city agenda, as well as --

TRUMP: Am I going to include who?

RYAN: Are you going to include the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as --

TRUMP: Well, I would. I'd tell you what. You want to set up the meeting? Do you want to set up the meeting?

RYAN: No, no, no. I'm --

TRUMP: Are they friends of yours?

RYAN: -- just a reporter.

TRUMP: No, set up the meeting.

RYAN: I know some of them, but I'm sure they're watching right now. TRUMP: Let's go set up a meeting. I would love to meet with the

Black Caucus. I think it's great, the Congressional Black Caucus. I think it's great.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: The CBC sent a letter on January 19th to the President outlining priorities. You're a member of that group. There are people who are pointing to that and saying, did the President only ask her to set up the meeting because she's African-American? And, you know, they saw it as demeaning, to say the least. How did you read it?

MEEKS: I'm scratching my head still today. He's the President of the United States. Members of Congressional Black Caucus who serves on various committees, important committees, who have ideas on what to do legislatively, we sent him a letter to engage.

And every president, since the creation of the Congressional Black Caucus, has reached out. Here's this President, no response to the letter, and his response to April Ryan was, to me, I would say baffling but really insulting, into a large degree.

BERMAN: Why?

MEEKS: Because, first, he acted like he didn't know what the CBC was until she came back, and she explained it was the Congressional Black Caucus.

Then for him to ask her, a reporter, maybe simply because she is African-American, for her to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, when he is the President of the United States, the executive branch that should be working with the legislative branch to talk about possible pieces of legislation and policy making that can make a difference in this country is important.

Yet, you know, this President has not seen fit -- clearly he's invited others to come talk to him but none of which have the ability to talk about policy. In fact, most of the African-Americans that he has invited, they specifically stated they have no clue about policy and what to do in regards to politics and how this country should move.

The people that do are sitting as members of Congress, and they sit on substantial committees that can make a difference in this country. And he has chosen, until now, maybe April has caused him, to send a letter to meet with us, because it will not be just something for a sound bite or photo op. It will be about substance and trying to really get something done for the benefit of America.

BERMAN: Well, I hope you do get a chance to meet with the President. I think the more people that can meet with the President and more people can meet Congress is a good thing.

So, Congressman Meeks, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

HARLOW: Thank you.

MEEKS: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. Coming up for us, President Trump's plan to bring a new leader to his national security team hitting a major roadblock this morning after a decorated former military admiral turns down his offer. So the question becomes, what is next? Who will the President tap next?

BERMAN: And what does Russia have to say about the President's news conference yesterday? You know, he had a lot to say about them. Their response? They had more important things to do than to watch.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:17:48] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This morning a decorated 40-year Navy veteran has rejected President Trump's offer to be the national security adviser. What does that say about this White House? What does that mean right now for our country in the national security?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Here to discuss that and a lot more, Kimberly Dozier, our global affairs analyst, and senior national security correspondent for "The Daily Beast" Alex Burns joins us. Our political analyst and national political reporter for the "New York Times" Alice Stewart is here. CNN political commentator and Republican strategist as well. Salena Zito, a contributor for us and a reporter for the "Washington Examiner."

Kimberly, let me get to you first because you do have some new reporting on who may be tapped next for this role and if they want it because it is pretty stunning, isn't it, that Harward said thank you but no thank you to an offer from the commander-in-chief? And his friend told CNN that he called the offer a blank sandwich. Rhyming with a lit sandwich.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I don't know, Poppy, that I have the person who's going to be chosen because right now the White House is gun shy. They had confirmed that this was President Trump's first choice earlier this week. They want to make sure that the next person really says yes.

Now we know that General David Petraeus was one of the people that they were considering. I've talked to people close to him, however, who think he's not going to like being second in line after Navy SEAL Admiral Bob Harward.

The problem is with Harward they were telling me is that at the White House the story is he couldn't get clear of his Lockheed Martin commitments and that his wife really didn't want him to go. But others close to him say he wanted to bring in his own team. That's going to be bad news to anyone else they want to bring on board.

One person told me at this point there is no plan C but of course you had the White House saying they have other candidates in mind. In the meantime, Dr. Seb Gorka, one of the top White House advisers said that the National Security Council is getting ahead with its work. It's working on a national security strategy that we'll see soon. So that pushes back on these reports that there's chaos and nothing going on in the old executive office building next to the White House right now.

BERMAN: But General Petraeus, Kimberly, who we understand was, at a minimum, pushing for the job or open to the job.

HARLOW: Yes.

[09:20:03] BERMAN: You have some reporting now that he has concerns about the job?

DOZIER: Concerns about the job in that if he's not going to be able to bring his own team, he has -- he would have questions about that. What I understand is that KT McFarland is very well-liked as deputy national security adviser inside the White House and that that was one of people that Bob Harward wanted the freedom to change and now David Petraeus has to consider, is he going to keep the staff the way it is? Some of the people already on staff, he worked with in war zones, they were his top choices. But KT McFarland, that's a question mark.

HARLOW: Alex, to you, just your read on overall what seems to be a divide between how many of Trump's supporters and the people who voted for him see all of this. They -- you know, many of them don't see chaos necessarily. And how the White House is saying there's nothing to see here and how the pundits are analyzing it because you have -- you know, you had left leaning and right leaning pundits all saying they were astonished at what they saw yesterday in the press conference and then how it has played out with Harward not wanting the job this morning.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES: Right. I think a lot of the people who are most rattled by what we've seen over the last few days, Poppy, it's folks in Washington in both parties who were expecting to be able to work with an administration that was basically stable and basically in terms of its policy approach, administrative approach, certainly more conventional than what we're seeing now, and then Trump ever was during the campaign.

There was a lot of hope that this would look like a Pence administration and that there'd be, you know, hand in glove cooperation with the Republican Congress. We have seen very, very little of that so far.

So, Poppy, I think if you look back at the events of the last few days, the big story here is it's a reality check for folks in government about what this administration is going to be like to deal with. It's not terribly surprising that there are people outside of D.C. who remain steadfastly supportive of the president, including in all the particulars, even after a sort of unusual performance like the press conference yesterday.

Every president has a base that stays with him almost to the very end. It would be really strange if Trump didn't have that at this point but those people don't really drive how government operates and they don't necessarily drive the outcome of down-ballot elections in the off-year and the midterm year as Barack Obama found.

BERMAN: They may have driven the result of this past election, though, and Salena Zito, you were watching this news conference yesterday with some of these folks in Pennsylvania. And you noted that they had a different reaction than the people that Alex was just talking about who may have been inside the Washington establishment.

SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, and to Alex's point, it's interesting that he said that, because at an interview with Mitch McConnell on Wednesday --

BERMAN: I think we're not getting Salena's audio here.

ZITO: Do you not hear me?

BERMAN: Yes, go ahead, Salena.

ZITO: OK, you know, so the people outside of Washington, as Alex said, this is who they wanted, this is who they elected. When they saw -- when they watched this press conference yesterday, this is exactly what they expected. For them they saw him read off the list of things that he has accomplished or tried to accomplished since he took office. And then he was combative with the press and they sort of like that about him because they believe that our profession is sort of part of Wall Street, Washington's culture and Washington's culture is what they've sort of rebelled against.

And so they were happy with that. But I wanted to make a point that when I interviewed Mitch McConnell on Wednesday, he told me he was very reassured and very happy with President Trump so far. He did say I don't like everything he always says but I do like what he does. So, you know, there's kind of a bunch of interesting different things going on.

HARLOW: Alice, to you, our Tom LoBianco reporting that one Republican in the House told him that this press conference is all, quote, "part of a new normal, we're just trying to manage this blank," which once again rhymes with lit.

BERMAN: Right.

HARLOW: I guess lit rhyme -- is the word of the morning. But -- and then that congressman just threw his hands in the air. As someone who's been a Republican strategist and knows, you know, the Republican establishment well, what do you make of their reaction? What do you make of the press conference in general?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's under -- that's an understandable reaction from a communication standpoint. I don't think it's a great idea for the principal or in this case the president to be picking fights with the media and outlining statements such as leaks are real but you're reporting is fake. It doesn't make sense. From a communication standpoint overall, it doesn't make sense. But from a Trump standpoint it makes perfect sense.

[09:25:04] And his goal going into that was to change the narrative from campaign collusion with Russia and White House in chaos to Trump fights with the media and he inherited a mess. And with that being the goal, mission accomplished and he did exactly what he set out to do. And this is the new normal and people need to just get used to it.

I do want to make a point on Harward. With regard to any personnel decision, you're always going to have his side of the view, the administration's side point of view with regard to why the offer was turned down. The truth is in the middle. The reality is, we need to get someone in that position right away and as Kim says, they need to pick their own team. It's critical. We have issues like North Korea, Iran and Syria bubbling over, and we need to get a strong national security team in place to deal with issues the sooner the better.

BERMAN: You know, indeed we do. And the president's news conference didn't change that, right? In fact it may have exacerbated the problem if Admiral Harward's concern was some of the turmoil within the administration, it may have presented that very face.

And Kimberly Dozier, to you, the question is, what does this look like from abroad, do you think? What do you think they're saying right now in Moscow or in Beijing or in Brussels about this news conference?

DOZIER: Diplomats are saying -- they're shaking their head with each day with some of the tweets that come out of the White House and now this press conference. Because to them, this is not how a world leader operates. A lot of them are also trying to figure out what's the truth of the matter in terms of U.S. policy and their countries. Is it what they hear from the U.N. representative? Is it what they hear from General Mattis when he travels overseas to defense conferences? Or is it the next thing that comes from Trump behind the podium?

And I've had at least one diplomat tell me that they are -- they are baffled and they're just going to sit and wait and see how this shakes out before making any major decisions about how to proceed.

HARLOW: We heard the congressman tell us he's going to Germany next week to what he says he wants to reassure our allies.

Guys, thank you, have a good weekend, Kimberly Dozier, Alex Burns, Salena Zito, and Alice Stewart.

Still to come for us, we will get more reaction from overseas to the president's press conference. Moscow saying they were too busy to watch.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)