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Gorsuch Assumes Seat; G7 Meeting includes Key Players in Syrian Conflict; Tillerson's Atrocities Warning; Trump Officials Send Mixed Signals on Syria; Former CIA Director Warns of Former North Korea's Leader's Birthday. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 10, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:01] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

No vacancy. President Trump's pick, Neil Gorsuch, joins the Supreme Court and a number of big cases will soon test his views and his influence.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I can say, this is a great honor. And I got it done in the first 100 days. That's even nice. You think that's easy?


KING: A happy president there.

Missile strikes in Syria, tough talk toward Russia, and a Navy carrier group now steaming toward North Korea.


DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I think this is the week in which Donald Trump became the commander in chief. You know, this is the welcome to the White House moment.


KING: Plus, more palace intrigue at the Trump White House, but no doubt about one rising force.


CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: Why did you push for Steve Bannon to be taken off the principles committee of the National Security Council?

LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, this is not as significant as it appears I think. The president can get advice from anybody he wants. And he does that.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Sara Murray, Peter Baker of "The New York Times," Carol Lee of "The Wall Street Journal," and CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson.

Judge Neil Gorsuch is now Justice Neil Gorsuch and the Supreme Court is back to its full complement of nine justices. Chief Justice John Roberts administered the official oath at the high court this morning. Then, a second ceremony at the White House where Gorsuch's mentor, Justice Anthony Kennedy, administered the judicial oath, and where President Trump couldn't resist a little politics.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Spring is really the perfect backdrop for this joyful gathering of friends because together we are in a process of reviewing and renewing and also rebuilding our country. A new optimism is sweeping across our land and a new faith in America is filling our hearts and lifting our sights.


KING: CNN's Jeff Zeleny was in the Rose Garden as the president celebrated a win and talked politics in front of justices, Jeff, who like to often avoid politics.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. John, I mean, there are very few audiences, very few opportunities for a president to have an audience in person face to face a few feet away from the entire -- all the justices on the Supreme Court. But that's what happened this morning but you could -- you know, it was a beautiful morning out here. It's a sun splash day in Washington.

And the president indeed had a bounce in his step because this, without question, is going to be the biggest accomplishment, at least so far, of his first 100 days in office. The nomination and indeed the confirmation wasn't always as pretty there. Of course the Senate had to change the rules. But this is a moment for the president's legacy and this is a moment where he believes that this young justice, age 49 years old, will be serving on the Supreme Court for, you know, potentially three decades or more to come here.

Now, Supreme Court justices can often, you know, not necessarily not surprise. I mean we've seen many times over the course of history that justices have different rulings and things that they believe. And the conservative base believes that Justice Gorsuch is someone who is going to be on their side and indeed is a worthy replacement for Justice Scalia.

Now, but so interesting that the president talked about the first 100 days. It's clear that they are on his mind. He said that's not easy. He's right about that. He has seen that, of course, you know, more than anyone else here. But the president was reading by a teleprompter this morning. All of those words meant to send the message that he got a victory and it felt pretty good, at least judging by the smile on his face. John.

KING: Certainly a good day for the president today. Probably back to reading notes about health care reform, tax reform and other big issues coming up. But a win for the president.

ZELENY: Not to mention foreign policy.

KING: Not to mention foreign policy.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks.

Let's bring it in the room right now.

This is a win for the president. And oddly, Supreme Court confirmation battles often become the overwhelmingly dominant story in Washington. But because there's so much going on in the early weeks of this new administration, it was almost under the radar. But Neil Gorsuch is 49 years old. Forty-nine years old. He just left the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. He clerked for Justices White and Kennedy. A Harvard Law degree. Alliance with Scalia's judicial philosophy. Some big cases about to come before the court. This is a huge deal for this president and for the country and it was almost a blip.

PETER BAKER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes. That's right (INAUDIBLE) because we had, in fact, a missile strike. We had, in fact, the Russian investigation. We had so many things in our paper, Gorsuch's confirmation was below the fold on the front page and they had to, in fact, change the rules. It was a big blow from the Senate. So that does tell you a lot.

But you're right, he's young. He's 49. The last justice to retire was John Paul Stevens. He retired age 84. Think about that. That means if Neil Gorsuch retires at the same age, he'll be making decisions until 2052.

KING: 2052. And let's -- some of the key cases coming up right away. Number one, the president's travel ban might make it on the Supreme Court pretty soon. We'll see what happens there. But there are big separation for church and state questions that will be before the court in a few weeks. Right to carry guns outside the home. Gun control before the high court. The legality of North Carolina's voter I.D. law. And there are other state challenges to voter I.D. laws. A huge voting rights issue there. Due process of undocumented immigrants, another giant issue soon to be before the court.

[12:05:19] That -- it's been 14 months, 14 months since Justice Scalia died and, of course, Democrats still have hard feelings about President Obama not getting his pick. But, again, I'm just struck by the fact that this was not all consuming in Washington, or at least not -- the country didn't see it that way because of so many other things happening in the first 100 days.

CAROL LEE, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": That's about to shift because all of those cases that you just outlined are very, very divisive issues. And if, like you said, if the travel ban were to reach the Supreme Court, as we expect that it will, that's another divisive issue. And you have a very conservative judge who is now sitting on the Supreme Court and that this White House clearly, with that ceremony, which was an unusual ceremony to have, hopes will rule in the direction that the conservatives and Republicans want him to. And so, you know, we may not have paid that much attention to it because of different things that were going on before, but these are all very -- very high stakes and very divisive issues and they're ones that politically people really care about.

KING: And on domestic issues, we'll get to the foreign policy questions in a minute, but on domestic issues, there's been a lot of chaos. The president couldn't negotiate Obamacare repeal and replace. That was supposed to be his signature, the great negotiator.


KING: There's been a lot of trouble, turbulence and some failures in the first 100 days. This one is, without a doubt, from the announcement now to the finish line a big success for the president.

HENDERSON: A big success. And it was sort of under the radar for Washington, for "The New York Times" in terms of placement on the page. But for conservatives, this is what they were counting on. This is what they were embracing. This is what they were looking forward to. This is why Donald Trump was able to consolidate Republicans and they say why he got elected.

I do say it will be interesting to see some conservatives are slightly worried about this pick. The idea that is he going to be more like John Roberts, who disappointed a lot of conservatives because he upheld Obamacare, or is he going to be in the mold of Scalia and Thomas? And they'll get to see right away with all these religious liberty cases that are going to come up. So they'll get to see it.

KING: It's a great point because, you know, conservatives always worry once it's done, is this a David Souter or is this a John Roberts.

HENDERSON: Right. Right.

KING: TO hear the president heap so much praise on Anthony Kennedy at that ceremony, a lot of conservatives will be watching at home saying, whoa, no, no, no, no, no, no, no because he's been a swing vote who's often gone against them.

You know, sort of the conspiracy theorist in me, is one of the big conversations in Washington is, that Justice Kennedy has told some friends, you know, he might want to retire. He might want to have a life after the Supreme Court. Was the president of the United States saying, hey, love you, bud, you know, give me another one?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes. And you can trust me because look at what a great pick I'm making right here. And so, you know, maybe if you provide me another vacancy, I'll make another pick that makes conservatives happy.

But, you know, there certainly is reason to be concerned because we've seen what these confirmation hearings are like and they're a dance around, basically not answering the question of how you would rule on anything. And now we're going to get a much better sense of where Gorsuch actually stands on these issues. For the Trump administration, in terms of the politics of this, the challenge of the fact that they were able to do this under the radar and do it very smoothly, the rollout was smooth. Getting him through, yes, they made a -- you know, they broke some glass in terms of changing the rules of the Senate, but it went pretty smoothly. Now they have to try to get the credit for that and they say, hey, we actually did this really enormous, meaningful thing in our first 100 days, and even though nobody was paying attention to most of it, we still deserve a pat on the back.

KING: And now it's out of the president's control. Once you get them confirmed, the justices --


KING: It's a lifetime appointment. We'll see how it turns out.

But to see that remarkable ceremony. You notice how this went back to the Reagan administration who started doing this and sometimes other justices didn't want to come because they -- they don't like to be publically associated with politics and that's a political event. But to see the entire court there, it raises the question, the president said the other day, maybe I'll get three, maybe I'll get four. That would require either sadness, tragedy on the courts, somebody passing, or retirements.

This came up, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a critic of President Trump during the campaign, was out at Stanford a couple of months ago and she was asked this question, are you going to hang around?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of people have been expressing encouragement that you eat more kale, so to speak, so that you can continue doing the public service work that you're doing for as long as possible. And to that tune, I was wondering, who do you want to eat more kale in Washington?



KING: Proof there of how well she knows the politics with the court and the philosophy of the court, that Kennedy has been the swing vote, and that Gorsuch, for Scalia, is a conservative for a conservative. So we get a new, young justice who will be here for 30 years or more, perhaps. But ideologically, the expectation -- we'll see what happens -- the expectation is the court goes back to where it was 14 months ago. The question is, is there another one that would allow this president to actually alter the balance of the court when you're talking about issues like, whether it's same sex marriage, whether it's abortion rights, whether it's some of these state, federal issues. [12:10:05] BAKER: Well, the Kennedy gambit is really interesting right

now because, in fact, you're right, they are targeting Anthony Kennedy in the sense that they -- you know, he's begun to slow down. People noticed it. You know, at a certain point in life you might want to go, in fact, do some other things. He didn't go to Salzburg last summer, where he often goes to teach. He's having his annual -- every five- year reunion a year early this year with his clerks. People noticed that. So they're looking for tea leaves. Then he didn't hire clerks right away. Eventually he did for next term, but people -- that -- that can change.

So what did the White House do? They picked Neil Gorsuch, not just because he's a respected member of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, but because he was Justice Kennedy's clerk.

KING: Right.

BAKER: And they leaked to my colleague, Adam Liptak, the name of two other people they're considering if there happens to be another opening. Both of them happen to be former Kennedy clerks. So the idea is that obviously Justice Gorsuch might be more conservative than Justice Kennedy, but he respects him. And the idea is we're not going to put some flame thrower, somebody who you can't respect in your seat if you choose to give it up.

LEE: And yet can I just say that because they changed the rule in the Senate, the president's going to be under tremendous pressure from conservatives --

KING: Right.

LEE: To nominate someone who's very conservative because he can get them through.

KING: If there is another one. You're right, they're going to say, we went through all this, we changed the rules. Now, going even beyond this, we'll see if the president sticks to that list from the campaign.

Everybody, sit tight.

Up next, tough talk from the secretary of state and a warning from the former CIA director about North Korea getting frisky.


[12:15:45] KING: Welcome back.

New fallout today from the cruise missile strikes President Trump launched in Syria last week. Iran's president is sharply critical, accusing the United States of helping terrorists and, he says, of violating international law. And at the G-7 foreign minister meeting in Italy today, a late decision to bring in some major stakeholders in the Syrian conflict, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Turkey among the countries.

CNN's Nic Robertson is in Lucca at that event.

Nic, is this an effort -- do they really believe bringing in the stakeholders, that there's some impetus to revive what has been failed conversations about a political solution, or is this everyone just comparing notes at this point?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: You know there's a real effort to get a unified voice behind Secretary Tillerson when he heads to Moscow later in the week. You have the British, you have the French, the Germans, the Japanese and the Canadian foreign ministers all here, all keen to learn the nuances of the U.S. position. Of course, it seems to them to have changed a whole lot from about 10 days ago when Secretary Tillerson was at a NATO meeting of foreign ministers. So there's a lot of discussion about what that position may be. The United States' precise position may be on Assad, ISIS, Iran.

But the idea that all these additional stakeholders, as you say, coming from the gulf, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates, the Qataris, can amplify that voice that sends a message to Russia, back away from Assad, bring a cease-fire and get a political solution going. But I think we heard -- when we heard from Secretary Tillerson early this morning, he made a priority, attending a commemoration event for an atrocity that happened in World War II, August 1944. Nazi troops in a small mountain village here killed 560 local people, refugees, 130 of them children, gunned them all down in three hours. So when we listened to what Secretary Tillerson had to say in commemoration, there's a very clear message there. This is what he said.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We remember the events of August 12, 1944, that occurred in Sant'Anna. And we rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world. This place will serve as an inspiration to us all.


ROBERTSON: So you'll find a lot of support around the table for those views. But the key getting that -- getting the cease-fire and that political transition, that's what he's going to hear from the allies around the table here, John.

KING: Nic Robertson for us live in Lucca.

Nic, appreciate the reporting and the insights. Thanks. Looks beautiful there.

What is the next step here? This is -- this is a shock to some of the allies who were worried or concerned about the Trump administration. What are we going to make of this? Are they going to pull within the America first, you know, and not project American might in the world? Now there's still a lot of questions, but what are we learning about the new administration and the new secretary of state as he's, first, at a very important meeting now, but then the next step, when he goes to Moscow and tries to -- I'll call it make detante (ph) because there's no peace in sight. What's next?

BAKER: Well, that's a great question. In fact, look, the air base that President Trump's cruise missile strike hit, it's already up and operating again.

KING: Right.

BAKER: This is a one-off thing. As long as it's a one-off thing, it sends a signal but it doesn't actually change the broader dynamics on the ground. That can only happen if Secretary Tillerson makes common cause with Russia or there's some other breakthrough that we don't see right now. Secretary Tillerson knows Vladimir Putin pretty well. He was the chief executive at Exxon Mobil. They have a relationship. A good relationship. But it's been strained these last few days. He's been pretty tough on him, saying a lot of things you haven't heard this administration say before about Russia, about how they were responsible for the fact that we had this chemical weapons attack because they were, in fact, Bashar al Assad patron.

HENDERSON: And Nikki Haley hasn't -- has been the toughest on Russia and really I think foreshadowing something different in terms of what Tillerson's foreshadowing for -- Tillerson essentially saying the policy is the same. This is a pin-pick strike. It's basically a brushback to Assad. And Haley, who, of course, at this point is becoming the darling of hawks, is saying Donald Trump is prepared to do more, that Assad shouldn't stay and that there can't be any diplomatic solution as long as Assad is there.

So you're getting really different points of view from these two very prominent officials. Something that typically happens behind closed doors or, of course, differences in Obama's circle when he was dealing with Syria. So you have these two officials, you know, sounding very different notes and communicating to Donald Trump really via television, right, in the way that we know that he pays attention to television. So that's been interesting over the last couple of days.

[12:20:13] And as in Moscow and in Tehran and elsewhere in the world, they try to process, was this a one off or is this American president prepared to use military might when he has a point he wants to make. We have a U.S. Naval carrier group now steaming toward North Korea. The president had a meeting with President Xi of China last week and interestingly to me anyway, the Chinese have not publicly condemned the Syria strike, which they used to do saying the United -- you know, if you're -- any strike -- any strike in somebody else's country they would criticize. They haven't even criticized the United States for sending naval vessels into their neighborhood right now.

I want you to listen -- this is the president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, essentially telling Pyongyang, you saw what we did in Syria, pay attention.


H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: North Korea has been engaged with -- in a pattern of provocative behavior. The president has asked us to be prepared, to give him a full range of

options to remove that threat to the American people and to our allies and partners in the region.


KING: How much more meaning do those words have being, because it's three or four days after the president launched 59 tomahawk cruise missiles?

LEE: They have meeting and part of the goal was to show that this administration has -- is willing to back up whatever it says with a credible threat of force, which people felt the Obama administration didn't have. But, you know, to be clear, North Korea is a totally different ball game.

KING: Right.

LEE: I mean they have nuclear capabilities. You know, Syria is already a war zone. North Korea is very isolated, the most isolated country in the world. And so to use military force there is much different than going in and taking out an air base or part of an air base in Syria.

KING: Right. A lot more complicated and the most unpredictable regime in the world. Listen to the former CIA director, Michael Hayden, here noting that all this takes place, April 15th is the birthday of North Korea's founder, the grandfather of the current ruler. Michael Hayden on the significance.


GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I think sending the Vinson group there is probably a useful thing. You know, we've got an anniversary coming up. April 15th is Kim Il-sung's birthday. They get frisky around that date every year. So that might be a very useful presence there so that the North Koreans don't do anything particularly provocative. It also demonstrates to the Chinese that their client, and I know they don't want to claim us (ph) as a client, that if their client colors out of bounds here, we're going to do things.


KING: That's the biggest hope, that the Chinese get the message and use whatever leverage they have. And, again, there's a debate about how much they have. At least the Chinese like to say, you know, we've tried before. But he talked about how useful he thinks it is to send a carrier group there. But if there is some provocation from North Korea on the 15th, as they often have done in the past, that's also risky. You're -- it just opens the door for a miscalculation.

LEE: Well, right. And as Carol pointed out, this is a much more complex situation to deal with when you're the president. It's also something that he's been thinking about a lot longer than he's been thinking about Syria. He sort of dismissed Syria on the campaign trail, basically said it wasn't or problem, and then decided to do this. That's not how he's approached North Korea. He has been thinking about this problem since he's come into offense with his various advisers. He's said privately to people that he thinks Kim Jong-un is a crazy person. That he thinks he's deeply unstable. And so he knows what, you know, sort of an unstable, bizarre person he's dealing with.

But there's no good solution for what to do next, I think. I think, you know, it's promising to a lot of people that he is bringing H.R. McMaster and others closer who might be able to offer him more valuable guidance on what to do next than people like Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, who don't have any foreign policy experience. But this could be one of the most vexing challenges of his presidency. It is worth noting, though, that his meeting with Chinese President Xi appears to have gone better, at least from the American side, than they expected.

KING: Right, a positive meeting. We'll see what the results are from it as we go forward.

Everybody sit tight.

When we come back, we'll explore this questions a little deeper. Trump's national security adviser says everyone's on the same page when it comes to Bashar al Assad's future. Well, not every Republican who listens to the words coming from team Trump agrees with that.


[12:28:06] KING: Welcome back.

Last week's cruise missile strikes were a message to Moscow as much as to Damascus.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Russia needs to provide some answers.

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: How could it be if you have advisers at that air field that you didn't know that the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons?

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I hope that Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al Assad.


KING: But team Trump doesn't always speak with such clarity. The question of whether regime change in Syria is now administration policy is one example.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Our priority is first the defeat of ISIS. Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that, and it -- and it is going quite well, then we hope to turn our attention to achieving cease-fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad's not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.


KING: Now the -- H.R. McMaster would tell you what Secretary Tillerson said and what Ambassador Haley said are the same thing, just said differently. It doesn't sound that way when you listen to them.

LEE: No, it definitely does not sound that way. And you've seen Tillerson and McMaster take a more cautious approach to Assad and Nikki Haley has obviously gone further. We also -- if you look at what the president himself has said, he's been asked this question and has not said specifically Assad must go. So they're leaving themselves some room for negotiation on a political resolution.

We've also even seen some differences in terms of whether the goal is to deal with ISIS and Assad at the same time or if the goal is to deal with ISIS and then deal with a political resolution. And so there's a lot of different mixed messages coming out of the administration. I think people are looking for Secretary Tillerson to give some clarity when he's in Moscow.

[12:30:02] KING: All right, to that point, and, again, if you go back to the previous administration, and now in this administration, there are no good choices.


KING: When you look at the list of options in Syria, there are no good choices. But now that you've punched Assad and you're already fighting ISIS inside of Syria, the question is, you're going to have two enemies.