Return to Transcripts main page


Nikki Haley Talks About Syria; Bannon Removed from NSC; Jordan's King at White House; Trump Condemns Chemical Attack; Susan Rice Discusses Unmasking. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: You see the president of the United States heading into the White House there with King Abdallah of Jordan. The First Lady Melania Trump and the queen of Jordan, Rania, also going into the meeting.

Important meetings for the president of the United States on this day. A key U.S. ally in the Middle East, Jordan, coming into the White House just a couple of days after the president of Egypt was here. A huge meeting for the president tomorrow in Mar-a-Lago, Florida. He will meet with the president of China. And at the United Nations, today, a big day of breaking news on the global (INAUDIBLE). Testing time now for a commander in chief who's been on the job just 76 days. An apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria, helpless children among the scores of victims and another ballistic missile test by North Korea. This after the Trump White House warned Pyongyang its patience is exhausted. Pressure now for the president on two big fronts, pressure to consider a muscular response, including possible military force.

So Syria first. At the United Nations this morning, an emergency security council session.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action. For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same. The world needs to see the use of chemical weapons and the fact that they will not be tolerated.


KING: Remember those words from the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley saying the United States could feel compelled to act if the United Nations will not. The president will speak to this issue next hour, we are told. The meeting at the United Nations, though, a complication. Bashar al Assad's protector, Russia, asking, why the rush? Why doesn't the council slow down? Again, we're told we'll hear from the president on this later today. Yesterday, he issued a statement blaming the attack on President Obama's Syria policy. Now hawkish Republicans in Congress, while no fan of Obama's approach, say the Trump White House may have emboldened Assad by publically saying it was no longer demanding regime change.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: It's my belief that if you're Bashar al Assad and you read that it is no longer a priority of the United States to have you removed from power, I believe that - that that is an incentive to act with impunity.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights this hour, Ashley Parker of "The Washington Post," Michael Bender of "The Wall Street Journal," Perry Bacon of FiveThirtyEight and Margaret Talev of "Bloomberg Politics."

I want to start with what we just heard moment ago from the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This was a candidate Trump and a President Trump who has been very reluctant to talk about projecting American force, especially unilaterally. Nikki Haley just sounded there at the United Nations as if she was essentially laying out what we used to call the Bush doctrine. Either the world acts or we will act alone. I assume she would not go out there and freelance. I assume that we are going to hear something similar from President Trump when he has a news conference with King Abdullah next hour.

ASHLEY PARKER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": That's exactly right. But looking at Ambassador Haley, there have been instances, especially on Russia, where she has seemed to operate from a bit of distance and impunity from the administration. She had said previously, you know, we're putting Russia on notice. We don't trust them. We believe they've meddled in the U.S. election, which is not exactly what the president is saying. And so far the White House has been able to wipe it away by saying, you know, they're saying the same thing in different words. But at this point it seems like there may be a call to action and the president will actually have to make a decision and it will - be interesting to see how much in line he is with what she just laid out.

KING: It would be pretty hard and it would cause a diplomatic dustup of its own if the president of the United States didn't back up what she just said?

MICHAEL BENDER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": It would, but it wouldn't be unprecedented here. I mean we've kind of seen different approaches from a number of - different members of Trump's administration. Ambassador Haley here is definitely owning this. I mean not just what she said, but holding up the pictures from the victims from these chemical weapons attacks. It would give the air of the Trump administration owning this issue now. We'll wait to see what he says. You know, Trump, just the other day, you know, seemed to double-down on his sort of isolationist tendencies. We haven't heard anything really from this on Secretary Tillerson so that it's a - I think it's an open question what - whether this can - the administration can jell around this issue.

KING: Open question, 75 days in, when they are facing a lot of pressure again on two fronts - we'll get to North Korea in a minute - also faces some staff turmoil within the White House. Again we are told that Steve Bannon, the president's chief political strategist, has a spot on the National Security Council. The White House has now changed that. Steve Bannon no longer will be on the National Security Council. We'll get to that in a minute.

But I want to stay on Syria for a minute because the test - testing time for the president, also testing time for his team. We're just getting to know them. As Ashley noted, it has seemed at times like Nikki Haley, a more traditional, hawkish, establishment Republican, it seems at times that she's trying to pull the president along to be tougher against Russia, to say things that are more consistent with traditional orthodoxy in the Republican Party.

[12:05:13] This is a big moment for her too. She just assumed the presidency of the Security Council. To Michael's point, if you haven't seen these images, we'll show you some of them during the hour, but we are not going to over show you these images. They are heinous and horrible to see young children and others who were killed and hurt in this attack. Nikki Haley deciding, as she made her plea today for action at the United Nations to be quite dramatic. Let's watch.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Yesterday morning we awoke to pictures, to children foaming at the mouth, suffering convulsions, being carried in the arms of desperate parents. We saw rows of lifeless bodies, some still in diapers, some with visible scars of a chemical weapons attack. Look at those pictures.


KING: That's drawing a pretty sharp line.


KING: Right.

TALEV: So, there have - there has always been this kind of natural strain of tension inside the Trump administration between the kind of nationalistic threat and messaging, we've got to take care of our own first. We're not a policeman to the world. And the idea of projecting strength in the contrast with Obama, who President Trump would repeatedly say during his candidacy didn't show strength, was weak and feckless and that was a signal to world leaders.

Yesterday seems to have been a tipping point in that calculation inside the Trump administration. How far he's willing to go now has yet to be determined. But one of the real kind of questions about how all of this comes together is that on President Trump's initial approach toward Russia, on President Trump's initial approach toward the idea that we're not going to go insert ourselves into what other countries do. And on President Trump's initial approach to human rights, none of the policy has been tracking in this direction. And so if yesterday was indeed a turning point, it sets off a series of recalculations, both inside the White House, the Oval Office, and inside the National Security Council, where we will now see the kind of McMaster/Dina Powell theory of how the U.S. should conduct itself playing out. And that may be what we're seeing right now.

PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: The question also is, what do we do? Our last U.N. ambassador in December actually gave a somewhat similar speech to this, very much saying there's carnage here, what is happening? Samantha Power gave a very direct, very angry speech about what's happening in Syria. Now a policy change. So we now have today, Nikki Haley gave a similar kind of speech. Donald Trump and Barack Obama have had - neither one of them have really taken aggressive action to remove Assad. Has that now changed? We'll learn about that in the next couple of hours, I assume.

KING: And it's a fascinating question because, let's be honest, the United States, under the Obama administration, actually lost credibility on this issue. The president of the United States drew a red line, then President Obama, about chemical weapons attacks. Then he did not do anything when Assad went forward with that. You mentioned a lot of protests, a lot of tough rhetoric at the United Nations and not a lot of action from the Obama administration. I think after what we just heard from Nikki Haley the question is, does the Trump administration want to end up in that same box, having the word look at what the United States says and says it's just words, they won't back up these words.

That's a test for the president next hour. This is a decision the president will make by calling in his team, by listening. What does it mean that Steve Bannon - there was a lot of eyebrows raised when the chief political architect, the chief political strategist, an America first voice in the administration, someone who doesn't want - who thinks George W. Bush made a mistake in Iraq, who doesn't think the United States should be projecting force around the world, it should be worrying about its economy and its people here at home. Now that he's been pushed off the National Security Council, what meeting - and the White House says he was there to help the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, organize the place, to devolutionize (ph) it, to send more power back to the Pentagon, more power to the State Department. They say mission accomplished. I would say that's spin. But what - you guys, because we have three people at the table who spend almost every day at the White House, what does this mean?

BENDER: Well, I think it - part of this is a reshuffling of the White House and then settling in. I do think there's a little bit of truth in both those points about Bannon. Steve Bannon likes to have his hands in almost every issue in the White House, but they also - the problems with Flynn were early and often for them. And early and often within their own team. And Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner were called in quite frequently to settle down their secretary of state, their incoming secretary of defense over how Flynn was handling the NSC. So I think there was - there is some truth to that, that Steve Bannon was on that council as sort of a reassurance to others. There's no question about Steve's ambition and interests in wanting to be involved in those issues. We'll see how it plays out. I mean I think we're seeing this on a couple of different levels, and that they're just now figuring out some of these staffing issues. PARKER: But this is a White House also, more than any White House,

where rules and titles are absolutely interchangeable and in many cases meaningless. So you even see with Secretary Tillerson, he is the secretary of state, but Jared Kushner is basically behaving as the shadow secretary of state and a shadow diplomat. So Bannon may now be off the council, but I don't think in a White House where people have walk-privileges, where friend can call the president late at night in the residence and influence policy, that it means he won't be involved in decisions he wants to be involved in.

[12:10:22] TALEV: Look, my colleague, Jen Jacobs (ph) (INAUDIBLE) the story early this morning, a lot of the implications of this are still kind of being borne out. But Steve Bannon retains his - all of his security clearances and Steve Bannon retains the ability in his capacity to walk in and sit down in a national security meeting - council meeting anytime he wants to. But if you are H.R. McMaster, if you took over for Michael Flynn, if you have a storied military career and if you want to set the policy, a couple of things happened, the Bannon announcement happened as Tom Bossert was moved back into what had traditionally been kind of a quasi-subordinate role as Homeland Security Council director. To some extent this is McMaster and the people who support McMaster saying, he needs to be the boss of the National Security Council. There needs to be no mistake about that.

KING: And -

BACON: I do think staffing's not that important. We overstate it a little bit.

KING: Right.

BACON: But in this case, the people who are now talking about foreign policy, like Nikki Haley, agree more with John McCain or Marco Rubio than the president himself.

KING: Right.

BACON: And I do think it's important we're seeing the kind of - Trump said this week, I'm not the president of the world. But the people who are speaking, like Nikki Haley, do view the U.S. as the leader of the free world and that more traditional role. And the more influence they gain, and the diminishing influence on foreign policy of the sort of nationals wing, is a big story and I think could potentially means we're going a different direction in foreign policy.

KING: I think you're dead right that sometimes we overemphasize titles and staffing in Washington. However, I do think, because of this particular administration, the president, who's never served in government, never served in the military, and most of his senior staff never served in the federal government in any capacity at all, including Steve Bannon, the chief of staff, that it is interesting to watch and play around. And, plus, what we know about this president, that he's a loyalist, he likes his - whether it's Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, whether it's Steve Bannon, he likes people loyal to him to know what's going on so that they're his antenna to what's happening in the administration. BENDER: And that was a lot of the rationale for Trump voters that

voted for him. They understand that dynamic of what you're saying. This was not a guy without any political or government experience, but he will put good people around him.

KING: Right.

We're waiting right now. We're going to see the president of the United States. You saw him going into the White House at the top of the program with King Abdallah of Jordan. We're going to see some tape of them inside the White House in a moment. Reporters have been brought in to see at the beginning of their meeting and we'll play you that tape as soon as we can. This is somebody who knows the neighborhood. This is a traditional U.S. ally, Abdullah. This is somebody who has pushed many administrations, including the previous administration, the Obama administration, to try to do more in Syria. But again, there are no good choices here.

Let's be clear, there are no good choice for President Obama. There are no good choices for President Trump. But when it comes to Assad, they publicly said what had become essentially accepted knowledge in the Obama administration, that Assad is not going anywhere in the short time, especially as he gets both military, economic and political help from Russia. You've heard Republican hawks this morning on television saying, you know, do something - use military power, which would be unilateral. I would assume the United Nations ready - ready to embrace this. Russia will object to the Security Council. Take out command and control centers. Yo know, pocket the air strips. All the air strips where they use military aircraft, crater them, take them out with military - is this a president of the United States who, again, is also going to deal tomorrow with the Chinese president and the possibility of another provocation with North Korea, is this a president whose prepared to do that in Syria?

PARKER: Well, you have a president who has really sort of two conflicting world views, and one is, as Margaret said, sort of, he cares deeply about the projection of strength and about winning, even though that's a weird word to apply to, you know, a war or a humanitarian crisis, and he gravitates towards strong men. But by the same token, he does not view his role the way President Obama did, the way President George W. Bush did, as exploiting democracy or American values abroad. And you'll see those two come into sort of stark conflict as he grapples with what to do on Syria.

KING: Right, and he said it just yesterday, I don't want to be president of the world, when he was speaking to a labor group here in Washington. But I remember Georg H.W. Bush left Bill Clinton a little note in the desk - the presidents always leave a note - he said, I know you want to focus like a laser beam on the economy. Guess what, the world has a way of crossing your desk."

We're going to take a quick break. Up next, we'll take you inside the White House. The president is meeting with the king of Jordan. We'll see that tape in just a few minutes.

And also, she who must not be named. For Republicans, the mere mention of one former Obama administration official's name inspires fresh questions about the big spy novel playing out here in Washington.


[12:17:37] KING: Welcome back.

We're just moments away from an inside look at the White House. President Trump meeting this hour with King Abdallah of Jordan. An important conversation anyway. All the more urgent today because of a heinous chemical weapons - apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria yesterday. If you've seen the pictures, children among the scores of people killed and maimed in this attack.

President Trump's United Nations ambassador just moments ago saying that if the United Nations won't act, that the United States might feel compelled to act. The president of the United States will have a press conference next hour. Stay with CNN. We'll bring you that live, where the president himself has issued a paper statement on the Syria crisis, has - we have not heard from him at all yet. Perhaps we'll hear from him here in this meeting with King Abdullah at the White House. he also, again, will have a press conference next hour. A line drawn, though, by his United Nation's ambassador today saying if the U.N. will not act after this latest chemical weapons attack inside Syria, she says the United States might feel compelled to attack.

Let's listen.


Hold it, hold it, hold it.

I think we ought to do something (INAUDIBLE).

I just wanted to thank our friends, our great friends. These are very troubled times in the Middle East. And we see what happened just recently yesterday in Syria. Horrible, a horrible thing. Unspeakable. But I want to thank you both very much for being at the White House and we're going to have some very interesting discussions today.

Thank you very much.

KING ABDULLAH II, JORDAN: OK. Thank you very much.

TRUMP: OK, thank you very much.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Perfect. We can go this way. Just walk on out this way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, (INAUDIBLE) Syria attacks with chemical weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president says thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Terrible. Do you plan to take any action?

TRUMP: (INAUDIBLE) Terrible. (INAUDIBLE) it's terrible and a threat (ph) to humanity. I can tell you, terrible.


TRUMP: You'll see.

KING: You'll see, the final words from the president of the United States there. Reporters being ushered out of the Oval Office trying to ask, will there be any action from the United States relating to the attack in Syria that the president was talking about. He called it horrible. Then he called it unspeakable. The king of Jordan sitting silently throughout that. You saw the queen of Jordan and the first lady there as well. Horrible and unspeakable, but he did not give any clue as to whether he will embrace the words of his own ambassador to the United Nations. But, again, we will hear from the president next hour.

[12:20:10] BENDER: Yes, I think it's not only a question of what he's going to say, but also of whether or not the American people are going to - how they're going to feel about this, right?

KING: Right.

BENDER: These images remind me of those ISIS beheadings back in 2014 that really sort of focused Americans for the first time on ISIS. But that still wasn't enough to get Congress to vote on Obama's request for military authorization. Will this be any different? Will sort of the rhetoric about these images resonate back home and convince the Trump administration to take action?

KING: And convince the president that maybe understanding the mood in the country -

BENDER: Right.

KING: That sometimes a president has to look the country in the eye and say, I know you don't want to do this. I know this is hard. I know we've been at war in the Middle East a long time, but I feel a moral obligation to act. That's what some president - that's one option for the president. The other is to use tough words and put the blame on the United Nations, or yesterday he put the blame on the Obama administration.

PARKER: Yes, and on the one hand President Trump would be especially well position if he did choose to take action, to make this case, because he doesn't hail from the neocon wing of the party or the hawkish wing of the party. He could sort of plausibly say to his voters and to the country, as you said, I know this is a hard choice. I was against the war in Iraq. I am very hesitant to go in. but you saw these images. This is something we absolutely have to do. It's a question of what the president wants to do and if he has the will to do it.

KING: And understanding anything he does do is also - the domino effect of that is, any confrontation with Assad is a confrontation with Putin. TALEV: Well, yes. And this is where two questions, the will of the

American public, to go back into anything approximating war, military action. And a - and a political issue, or a reality, which is the president's polling - poll numbers among Americans, and - and how Americans view him on issues like credibility, because part of everyone's resistance ties back to the war in Iraq and the questions of WMDs. It's unquestionable, we see what happened yesterday, or at least the effects of what happened yesterday. So that part isn't disputable. It's undeniable.

But what is going to be the kind of end game of any sort of a military maneuver that one would undertake or - you see Republicans now, today, consistently saying, we have to revert to the policy of Assad must go. That has to still be the policy. But then what? Then what?

KING: Right. And it's also - no disrespect intended - it's also easy for people in Congress to say things. They're not there. They're not the commander in chief. They're not accountable. It will be interesting to see, this is a new national security team, not just a new president, what options they bring to the president, whether that think there are some viable, limited options to do something. That will play out in the hours ahead. Again, we're going to hear more from the president next hour.

Let's shift gears for a minute, though. Bring up the name Susan Rice and brace for swift condemnation from the right.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS (voice-over): Susan Rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy. Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it, whether it was these allegations of the improper unmasking and potential improper surveillance, whether it was Benghazi, or many of the other fiascos over the eight years of the Obama administration.


KING: Susan Rice, of course, was President Obama's national security adviser. She's back in the news because of what some Republicans say should now be a critical piecing of the Russia election meddling investigation. Allegations by team Trump that the Obama White House played loose with sensitive intelligence information. Two weeks ago, Rice was on PBS and said she knew nothing about such allegations. But she changed her story yesterday, while still insisting she did nothing wrong.


SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes, that's absolutely false. There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to. Name not provided, just U.S. person. And sometimes, in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out, or request the information as to who that U.S. official was. But let me -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But you leaked the name of Mike Flynn -

RICE: I leaked nothing to nobody. And never have and never would.


KING: She says she did her job. One complication is, she said I know nothing about this when Judy Woodruff asked her about two weeks ago. There was a way to not answer that question without saying that.

The other issue here is, Democrats say this is a distraction. Democrats say the issue is, what did Russia do in the election? Was there an collusion between team Trump and the Kremlin as that was playing out. They think this is a bright, shiny light. But if you say the word - if Susan Rice says, that was a great sunrise or the sun rises in the east, Republicans saying, no, it doesn't.

PARKER: Well, she is the perfect boogiewoman, as it were. And this goes back to not just sort of the original sin on this issue where she said in that first PBS interview, I know nothing about it, so people will be able to point to, you know, she lied then, she misled us then, how can we trust her now.

But actually really going back to, of course, Benghazi, which riled up the Republican base and where she originally came out and sort of put forth the theory of the administration of how that attack and uprising happened, that ended up not being true. And it - she may very well be correct, that she did nothing wrong and what she was doing was, of course, in the routine sort of portions of her job. But the issue, as you said, is so polarized that Republicans are just - anything she says going to demonize her.

[12:25:16] KING: And so polarized, is that why the Republicans are trying to make this about Susan Rice. Listen to Joaquin Castro on with Wolf Blitzer yesterday. Republicans - I mean Democrats have been saying, we need to get through this investigation. We think there's something there. And then this.


REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: If somebody asked me my impression, I would - my impression is that people will probably be charged and I think people will probably go to jail.


KING: I used to cover the courts and, you know, the cops and the prosecutors have this little interesting theory that we'll investigate first. They're getting way out ahead of themselves here, aren't they?

TALEV: Yes. But let me - well, yes. OK. Put a pin in it.


TALEV: But let's go back for a second to the Susan Rice question, which is, it's entirely probable there's at least an intense discussion about calling her and under what circumstances to call her.


TALEV: The danger zone for the Republican is that if they call Susan Rice to testify on questions that inevitably will lead back to Benghazi, Susan Rice is going to attempt to answer questions about unmasking -

KING: Right.

TALEV: Within the parameters of how much gets declassified. If it doesn't get declassified, she'll say, you're making it impossible for me to answer these questions. If it does get declassified -

KING: Well, the president could declassify this with a stroke of a pen, I've been saying this for a few days, and allow her to explain what she did. Whether it was right or whether it was wrong. She could be questioned on that, and allow her to also explain -

TALEV: And who in this campaign -

KING: Also allow her to explain what it was she was looking at, which I suspect the White House doesn't want out there. We shall see.

Everybody sit tight.

Up next, the president's already betting on serving two terms, but his poll numbers, 75 days in, pretty horrible.