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Syria Looms Over Tillerson Visit; Tillerson Echoes Kerry; Kansas Special Election is Today; Pyongyang Responds to U.S. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:06] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow, Syria tops the agenda and the Kremlin already making clear it doesn't appreciate the U.S. tone.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I hope that what the Russian government concludes is that -- is that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al Assad.


KING: Plus, Congress is home for recess and the mood among conservatives who refuse to back the president's Obamacare repeal plan suggests more trouble ahead for the GOP and for the Trump agenda.


REP. JUSTIN AMASH (R), FREEDOM CAUCUS: We either change in direction from this speaker or we need a new speaker.


KING: And ruby red Kansas? For a day anyway is ground zero in American politics. Republicans are jittery as voters replace a congressman tapped for the Trump cabinet.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: We've been given something historic. We have a Republican president, Republican heads of every executive agency, and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Now, it's real simple. We've got to deliver. Today the eyes of the whole country are on Kansas.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, "The Atlantic's" Molly Ball, CNN's Manu Raju, Shannon Pettypiece of "Bloomberg Politics," and Mary Katharine Ham of "The Federalist."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow and you can forget all this talk of, oh, well, just getting on along. Syria tops the agenda. And Secretary Tillerson says Vladimir Putin's close ties to Bashar al Assad means the Kremlin shares responsibility for last week's sarin gas attack.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: It is also clear Russia has failed to uphold the agreements that had been entered into under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent. But this distinction doesn't much matter to the dead.


KING: Now you might remember back in his Exxon Mobil CEO days, President Putin once awarded Tillerson a medal of friendship. But as now secretary of state, Tillerson flies to Russia, the very different mood was obvious. President Putin suggesting anti-Assad forces were preparing new chemical attacks so they could blame the regime. He also compared the U.S. case against Assad now to its weapons of mass destruction claims against Saddam Hussein 14 years ago.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We say that this resembles very much the situation of 2003 and the war in Iraq. First of all, there was a campaign launched in Iraq and it finished with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the emergence of ISIS on the international arena.


KING: Is there any hope -- we start with the secretary's mission. A very different tone than we thought his first trip to Moscow would bring. Can there -- is there any reason to be optimistic that with all this tension the Russians are going to reach across the table to Secretary Tillerson and, OK, let's do something to advance the ball toward a political solution in Syria?

MOLLY BALL, "THE ATLANTIC": That certainly is not the tone that this has taken so far. That, as you said, it's been surprisingly sort of bellicose from both ends. There isn't -- they're not really even tiptoeing around the fact that both sides are feeling pretty aggressive about this. So, you know, there's always a chance of (INAUDIBLE), and especially with the background of Tillerson and of Trump. With Putin you would think that that's possible, but at this point it doesn't look like it.

KING: You would think that is possible. But if you look back in history, every time a new U.S. secretary of state, a new administration has gone on this first trip to Moscow during the Putin years, they've had a meeting with Putin. Maybe it will happen, but there's no Putin meeting on the schedule. And to your point, that's unusual anyway, but especially because these two men know each other and know each other well from the business dealings. So that's Putin --


KING: That's Putin making a point.

PETTYPIECE: I don't necessarily think it's in Putin's best interest to be friends with the U.S. right now.

KING: Right.

PETTYPIECE: Putin and Russia need an enemy. He's strongest when he has the U.S. as an enemy as far as mobilizing his people.

KING: Right.

PETTYPIECE: So, yes, they would like sanctions lifted. They would like economic conditions improved there, but it's not necessarily in his interest to have Trump and him and Tillerson looking buddy buddy as far as it's projected to his people.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: And it will be interesting too, John, to hear what the White House's message is going to be, especially after Putin's pretty provocative remarks from this morning. What does Spicer say at the 1:30 briefing this afternoon because you've heard a sharp tone from other people in the Trump administration, Tillerson most recently, but you haven't heard as much from the White House itself, certainly not from President Trump about Putin, about Russia's alliance with the Assad regime. To what extent do we start hearing that directly from the president and from the White House I think will be a key question today and going forward.

[12:05:18] MARY KATHARINE HAM, "THE FEDERALIST": Yes, I think it's an interesting shift. NSC, today, is supposed to release a document going after Russia about, among other things, disinformation campaigns, about what happened in Syria. And, obviously, with Tillerson not meeting with Putin, this is an interesting shift. But I think with the Trump administration, you often see shifts, but this does not necessarily follow that that is doctrine or policy.

KING: Right.

HAM: So that's what's interesting here. There's also I think the -- the element of the story about Russia in America. They are somewhat dis-incentivized to have Tillerson look friendly with Putin, even if it might help in the situation in Syria.

KING: And the Russians have already put on the record, Tillerson will meet starting tomorrow with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, who after those meetings are done, is going to meet with the foreign ministers of Syria and Iran. So the Russians have already made clear, we know who our friends are. Yes, we have to have this meeting with the United States, then we're going to move to this, which makes it interesting because the big question is what transaction is Tillerson trying to do? What is he trying to get out of this meeting? He went into it with a very strong message saying, he wants to tell the Russians, I think you're making the wrong choice. You're lined up with the wrong people, the Syrians and the Iranians. The problem is, that's a case that's been made before.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it's also worth thinking about, Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah. Is that a -- is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia's interest?

JOHN KERRY, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE (October 2015): If they're there to support the Assad regime, Russia has made a catastrophic mistake because they will be siding with Assad, with Iran and with Hezbollah against the entire rest of the community in that part of the world.


KING: That is not to criticize anything Secretary Tillerson said there because that is the rational argument. You want to be with us or you want to be with them. And the them, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Assad. A pretty long list of atrocities you can attribute to the them. But this is -- it's just further proof when you look at how close Secretary Tillerson is to Secretary Kerry. It's the same list of bad options for the Trump presidency that they faced in the Obama presidency.

BALL: Yes. I mean this has always been an impossible situation and that was why it was so difficult for Obama before and this is, I think, another instance of Donald Trump, the change agent and shaker up of Washington running smack dab into reality and running into the complicated situations that leaders face when, you know, his campaign and his message has been so sort of glib on these things.

RAJU: And its -- so, you know, you heard a lot of Republican leaders when you asked them about Trump's relationship with Putin, does that concern you, about his willingness to work with Putin. It's that -- including Mitch McConnell said, look, once he starts dealing with Russia, it's going to be a lot more difficult. He's going to learn what other leaders learned. Like what George W. Bush learned when he said, you know, famously, he can look into Putin's soul.

You know, this is a realization perhaps for the White House that there are serious strategic interests that Russia has in Syria. They can't just turn on a dime and change their position that they have had for years because they're vital national security for their own country and -- which are directly at odds with where the United States stands right now.

KING: It's a great point in the sense Mitch McConnell said this throughout, just watching Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, who was on with Kate Bolduan in the last hour, and he was praising the president, praising him for the tomahawk cruise missiles, praising him for the tougher tone toward Moscow, trying to push him to do some other things. I'm not sure the Trump administration is prepared to do. But the praise after, remember, during the campaign, the hawks in the Republican Party would go nuts -- and I'm being polite -- when then candidate Trump said things like this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wouldn't it be great if we actually got along with Russia? Am I wrong in saying that? Wouldn't it be great?


KING: That's over, right?

HAM: Well, look, I think everybody finds out that authoritarians and dictators don't respond well to the wrong side of history argument. So that's what he's running into right now. But I do think there is an element of damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, both with media reporting about too close to Russia and then, oh, wait, you're not working with Russia in this way that you said you would. And also with the Republican Party, it cuts the other way, where they're angry if he's getting too close and then angry if he's not.

KING: Right.

HAM: So I think there's -- there's -- it's problematic for them on the perception front, which is, of course, something Donald Trump pays attention to.

PETTYPIECE: Yes, I mean I -- I don't think this is the last time we're going to hear, oh, you said this in the campaign, now you're doing this. And I think that's just natural with any administration as you were sort of pointing out. I mean when did Obama close Guantanamo Bay? You know, I mean, there's always going to be things that once you get into the presidency, the weight of the presidency, information that you then receive through classified briefings changes your perception on the world. And I think we're just going to continue to see that. Anyone looking for any clear idea on what the Trump doctrine is, it's just going to have to wait as he figures it out himself.

[12:10:07] RAJU: But I want to get back to the main point, that we have not heard this much from the president himself.

KING: Right.

RAJU: We heard it from his surrogates. We heard it a little bit from Spicer. But the president has not been out there on what he -- how he views Putin and his relationship with Assad. Wait -- we certainly hear a change of tone from the president. That will be very significant in -- I don't think we can necessarily rely on what the president's thinking based on what Rex Tillerson is saying.

BALL: Well, but you make an interesting side point there, which is that they have put Tillerson out front on this --

KING: Right.

BALL: Which is a very significant relationship, a very significant historical moment, a very significant political test for the administration. Tillerson has had such a rough role out and gotten so much bad press --

KING: Right.

BALL: And for how he was being sidelined. And so this is very much his audition and his chance to turn around some of the perceptions both within I think the administration and eternal.

HAM: Well, that would (INAUDIBLE) --

KING: And a test of whether that friendship, a test of whether he can get something from the previous history that a lot of people criticized, the closeness with the Russians, whether he can get something out and have a tough talk with someone he knows.

I'm sorry.

HAM: I was going to say, I would add Haley to the mix too.

KING: Yes. Right.

HAM: Has -- who has done very well in her rollout and how she's performed. But both really clear and pointed in their language about Russia.

KING: Right. Right.

All right, everyone sit tight.

Up next, there's no place like, yes, Kansas, if you want to test the country's political mood 82 days into the Trump administration.


[12:15:46] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Today, the eyes of the whole country are on Kansas. This election, the special election tomorrow, makes a difference not just for Kansas, but for the whole country.


KING: That was Senator Ted Cruz campaigning in Kansas yesterday, saying the eyes of the country are on Kansas today. Kansas? President Trump won with 57 percent of the vote. Hillary Clinton, 36 percent of the vote. But there's a special election there today. Despite all this red, Republicans are nervous.

Let's take a look at what we're looking at. This House district down here, the fourth congressional district, the incumbent last time won it with 61 percent of the vote. But Mike Pompeo is now the CIA director. There's a special election today to fill this House district. Republicans are nervous for a couple of reasons. They know Democrats are fired up because they don't like President Trump. Still, the Democrat didn't even get 30 percent last time. But Republicans are also worried that there's maybe some Republicans don't want to come out to play and there's a third party libertarian candidate that worried that could draw away some Republican votes.

So even though this is about as red as it gets, Republicans sending in staff, sending in money, sending in people like Ted Cruz, the Chamber of Commerce going in, even the president of the United States getting involved.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (voice-over): On Tuesday, Republican Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly. Ron is a conservative leader who's going to work with me to make America great again. We're going to do things really great for our country. Our country needs help. Ron is going to be helping us big league. But I need Republicans like Ron Estes to help me get the job done.


KING: That's a defining test there, the president on the robo call essentially putting his own credibility at stake, his own popularity among Republicans. Really, are we worried? Are Republicans really worried or is this just extra caution?

PRETTY PIECE: Well, when it comes to him being able to get his agenda through Congress, which we obviously saw with health care, the next big battle is going to be tax reform, Republicans are nervous. I mean and you're much more plugged in on The Hill than I am, but they sound very nervous. On the moderate side and the Freedom Caucus feel emboldened. So if they see a close race in Kansas, it's going to be even harder to convince them that the president is the most popular person in the Republican Party that they should fall in line behind, versus the most toxic person who they should be running from.

RAJU: They should --

KING: That's an important -- that's an important point, that even if it's close, if the Republicans were the close one, because they usually win that district quite comfortably, there is a technical term in politics called bed wetting that happens -- it happens on occasion.

RAJU: Yes, and that's exactly right because they should win this seat tonight.

KING: Right.

RAJU: And I think both sides are expecting the Republicans should hold this seat. The question is going to be on the margin. How big of a victory? If this is a two to five-point victory, then that bed wetting may start to occur. With a ten-point victory, they start to rest a little more comfortably, which is one reason why you're seeing these resources go in there. And it's also a prelude to next week's special election in Georgia where the Democrats have a very serious shot at picking up a seat, and Tom Price's old seat, in the Atlanta suburbs, something that would, if they do lose that seat, would be a huge psychological blow for the Republicans ahead of next year when presumably, if there's a wave and if Trump becomes less popular, the Democrats have a shot at taking back the House. So that is -- that's going to be -- next week will be even a bigger deal than today.

KING: Right.

BALL: Well, but it's -- we should know that it is basically a requirement for the national political media to read too much into special elections.

KING: Correct.

BALL: So we are just doing our job right now. And people who are in Kansas will tell you that, you know, there's some special characteristics to this. The Republicans are fielding a weak candidate. The Democrats have an unusually strong candidate. There's the dynamic with Governor Brownback being unpopular, which has contributed a lot to Republican woes in Kansas and is -- and is playing a role in this race. There's also a third party candidate.

All that being said, that they would not be throwing the kitchen sink at this race if they weren't worried about it. And I think that the Georgia race next week is going to be a much better test because you have a Democrat who's much more generic, fewer local factors and -- at play and there is no way Democrats win that seat without a surge of enthusiasm among their base and negative galvanization by the Trump administration. So that's the one I'm watching more.

[12:20:10] HAM: Yes, I mean, I think this is mostly insurance and the hope in the special election in Kansas is that you could build toward a narrative that would help in Georgia and a bunch of Democrats in that district would go, oh, look, the resistance, look, we're doing it. We'll get out there. As of yet we have not seen that that's shown electoral results, the resistance movement, and this would be a good sign for them if they got it close, but notably the DCCC (ph) is not spending any money helping out in Kansas as of yet. And today's Election Day. So --

KING: Right. James Thompson is the Democrat. Ron Estes, as you can see from the Cruz appearance, is the Republican there.

Let's just get a little flavor of the TV ads.


JAMES THOMPSON: I'm James Thompson. I'm running for U.S. Congress. And I'm going to go to Washington, D.C., and fight for your family.

The beautiful thing about our district is we have all of the family values. We are the heartland and we're the best part of America because we have everything here to raise a family and to be good Americans.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Taking your money, violating your values. Obamacare, higher taxes, late term abortion. That's James Thompson. Even more extreme than your typical D.C. liberal.


KING: Bold.

RAJU: Yes.

BALL: Well, it's so telling that both of those ads are about the Democratic candidate.

KING: Right.

BALL: The Democrat going positive. Republican going negative. That tells you something about the relative strength of the Republican candidate.

RAJU: And it's interesting that you compare that to the ads that are running in the Georgia race we were just talking about. The Democrat is being attacked there, not as this arch liberal, more on character issues because that is more of the swing district. It actually -- it was just a one-point race during the presidential race, that Georgia district was, versus this very conservative Kansas district. So you see the change in their strategy there. We'll see how much it works because if you go and you attack someone being too liberal, you're going to probably encourage some of those liberals to come out to vote.

KING: Right. And I think everyone agrees, the Georgia race, one week from today, is the bigger one.

Let's see, can we put up on the screen, are five of these. Four House members joined the Trump cabinet. So four of these special elections we're going to have in the coming weeks. But for Republicans, you see them there, there's also one in California. A Democratic congressman became California's attorney general. That race was -- is coming up as well. It matters for this -- for the mood. And, again, you're dead right, these things get often and overplayed, although the Scott Brown win did affect things. It affected the mood, but it also affected votes. And because they couldn't get the Obamacare repeal plan through, you know, even though you look at the Republican majority in the House and you think oh there's enough votes there, we learned every single one of them counts. Paul Ryan wants at least those four red ones to come back red.

PETTYPIECE: And in these conservative areas, too, the -- I mean the president has to be careful there. I mean he was not overwhelmingly popular at first among conservatives. He's won some credibility with them because of his pick for the Supreme Court. But things like Planned Parenthood funding, if that gets taken off the table in the health reform debate, he's going to lose some support from conservatives. I mean he really has to maintain this strong pro-life stance that they want to see or he risks losing them and other members getting sort of taken out by the right on the other side.

KING: Taken out by the right. You had a point? No? HAM: Well, I will add real quick, in the Georgia race, this is a side show, but there was a -- an attack ad against him for some dopey Internet video he made in college, which kind of flopped.

KING: Right, a beer pong --

HAM: And I just say -- I just say that that's good news for all of us who may have dopey Internet videos from college, that we can just (INAUDIBLE) move passed them.

KING: As the -- as the old guy in the -- as the oldest guy at the table, nobody had a phone with a camera in it when I was in college. Thank you, God.

All right, next, the White House is promoting its first 100 days as an action packed success, but many of its biggest initiatives failed and the continued Republican infighting suggests there could be more trouble ahead.


[12:27:37] KING: As President Trump deals with the fallout from his tomahawk cruise missile strikes last week in Syria, he's also sending U.S. naval personnel to waters off North Korea to send a message to Pyongyang, which apparently has just responded with some quite belligerent language.

Let's go live to CNN's Will Ripley. He's in Pyongyang.

Will, I understand from state media a message to President Trump.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, state media here in North Korea saying that if the United States provokes them, they are prepared to fire back with a nuclear strike. Now, we have heard this kind of rhetoric from North Korea before, but why this feels more serious and fast moving at this moment is, one, there's uncertainty here in Pyongyang among government officials about what the Trump administration is capable of. Two, we know that North Korea's weapons programs have become far more advanced than even just a couple of years ago with a frantic series of missile test and intelligence in both -- by both the U.S. and South Korea indicating that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, could push the button on a sixth nuclear test pretty much at any time.

There are some new images this have been coming out just within the last couple of hours of the North Korean leader presiding in front of hundreds of delegates at the Supreme People's Assembly here in Pyongyang. It's designed to look like a legislative gathering, but all of the votes are always unanimously in favor of what Kim Jong-un puts before them after coming up with the policies with his close circle of advisors.

We're still trying to get detailed information about what happened in that gathering. It was only about a 20 minute highly produced video that was released on state TV telling the North Koreans what their government will be doing for the next year. There is not much political transparency in this country, as you know, John, and political dissent is also not allowed. So if you ask people on the streets of Pyongyang, they say that they feel festive, looking forward to a big holiday weekend and they say they feel perfectly safe in the hands of their leader, Kim Jong-un, a leader who in his early 30s is controlling a growing and becoming increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal. He also has a very large arsenal of conventional weapons that are pointed directly at a key U.S. ally, Seoul, South Korea, 30 miles from the demilitarized zone with tens of millions of people. The North Koreans could certainly do a lot of damage if they felt put in a corner and they are feeling increasingly cornered as we're seeing with these war ships approaching the Korean peninsula, John.

[12:29:53] KING: And, Will, one of the big questions has been, what would the impact of the Syria strikes be on the regime in North Korea. I assume that belligerent talk from state media threatening a possible nuclear strike in the United States is part of the answer.