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Tillerson Meets with Putin; Haley Talks Russia and Syria; Spicer Apologizes for Hitler Comment; Trump on Bannon. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Is the big question on the table.

Great to see you guys. Thanks so much. Thanks for joining us AT THIS HOUR. "Inside Politics" with John King starts right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

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

Breaking news, and high stakes in Moscow, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, sitting down for an unscheduled one-on-one with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That after Mr. Putin acknowledged the obvious, U.S./Russia relations are in a tail spin. Syria, just one of many flashpoints.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world.


KING: Plus, several big, new developments in the Russia election meddling investigation. And all of them are bad for the Trump White House. For starter, Democratic and Republican sources who know the intelligence say there is simply no evidence to back this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you look at Susan Rice and what's going on, and so many people are coming up to me and apologizing now. They're saying, you know, you were right when you said that. Perhaps I didn't know how right I was because nobody knew the extent of it.


KING: And as the 100-day mark for the Trump presidency approaches, the president belittles the role of his chief strategist and the press secretary delivers a huge mea culpa. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I made a mistake. There's no other way - I mean there's no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn't have and - and I screwed up.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, Amy Walter of "The Cook Political Report," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Perry Bacon of FiveThirtyEight, and Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast."

Let's begin with the crackling tensions in U.S./Russia relations and the remarkably blunt and remarkably pointed language being used by key players on both sides today. And as we get started, let me set the table for you. We're waiting to hear from Secretary Tillerson and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. They will hold a news conference. It is scheduled to begin any moment now. They had four hours of tense talks. After those talks, an unscheduled meeting between the secretary of state and President Vladimir Putin. No word on what was discussed in the meeting. But we know the conversations throughout the day in Moscow have been tense. We will take you there live when that press conference happens.

It is hard to overstate the tension here. President Trump says his Russian counterpart is propping up a, quote, "animal" in Syria. And he says Mr. Putin needs to make better choices. And the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says she believes Russia knew Syria planned to use chemical weapons.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: I think they're nervous. I think that they very much feel as if they've been weakened by Assad's actions. And their cover-up, they realize that the international community didn't buy it and is not buying it. And they now have to figure out how to save face.


KING: Ambassador Haley says "save face." But putting back seems to be the immediate Russian strategy. President Putin criticizing the United States and NATO, warning against further strikes in Syria. Russia's foreign minister even working in a dig at the Trump administration's personnel troubles.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): This is particularly important at a time when as far as we understand not all the key posts in the State Department have been filled and it's far from easy to get a quick, clear answer to many current and future issues.


KING: The ambassador follows the news back here in Washington.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is in Moscow as all this unfolds.

And, Michelle, just a few weeks ago people thought this would be a new chapter, a positive chapter in U.S./Russia Relations. A page turning. Instead, I heard you say earlier in the day - describe it as much more of a salvage mission.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean the State Department had framed this trip, the secretary of state, as a kind of exploratory trip to see what he could get out of this, what kind of cooperation there might be in this relationship, what kind of foundation they can now relay, and how to work past some of those differences, not that those were necessarily going to be worked out by any means on this trip, but at least kind of forge a path moving forward.

We're waiting, again, for the press conference to get any more clarity on this because there's not really much information coming out of these meetings. They certainly didn't start great as you saw with the Russian foreign minister really just launching into it. This is a period of time before a big meeting where it's generally a photo-op and there are some pleasantries and welcomes exchanged.

But the Russians wanted to show themselves in a position of power here. They're hosting the U.S. delegation. And they wanted to lay it out, first off, that they don't believe that these U.S. strikes were legal, for one thing, that they should not happen again. And he had those other criticisms as well.

It was also a big mystery for days as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, who just a few years ago honored Secretary of State Tillerson with an order of friendship here in Russia, would even meet with him at all, breaking precedent. Now we know that meeting is still going on. They've been meeting for about 20 minutes. And that, too, will lend a little more into how much movement there could possibly be on these two very hardened stances that we have been hearing over and over again over the last couple of days, and rhetoric that the Russian government today called primitive, John.

[12:05:27] KING: Michelle Kosinski in Moscow. Michelle, we'll get back to you as developments warrant.

Again, we're waiting for the Putin/Tillerson meeting to break up. Then waiting for a press conference, Secretary Tillerson and his counterpart, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

Let's bring the conversation into the room.

It is remarkable the tone and the tenor here. Even when things are tense, back in my days covering the White House, when you go to a big meeting like this, normally they try to turn the temperature down saying, yes, we acknowledge we're having some differences, but let's have some frank and cordial conversations, let's see if we can work together. Instead, Putin says the United States violated international law. Donald Trump says Putin's making a bad choice associating himself with an animal. The Russians saying there's a way to move forward here, stop launching military strikes. Both sides, forgive me, ladies, but this seems to be a testosterone test at the moment.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's right. And I think, you know, what's so striking about it is, it's such a changed tone for this president. I mean we have - I mean he is one of the really last officials left in this town in Washington who has not sort of conveyed the obvious about Russia here. But in his interview this morning, he's sort of getting there, I think.

But, look, I mean this is a high-stakes moment, but so interesting, every movement that this president has, every drama inside the White House plays out on the world stage. And Russia has been watching the staffing issues. I thought that was a fascinating reminder of, you know, we know all your key positions aren't filled, so every tweet is a (INAUDIBLE).


KING: Right. Right, it's a key source of tension between the secretary and his boss, and Sergey Lavrov just -

ZELENY: It is, sort of going right in the middle of it there. So this is absolutely fascinating in the history of this young administration here and what comes out of that meeting today, just fascinating.

KUCINICH: But they seem to have ignored previous history before coming into this office.

ZELENY: Right.

KUCINICH: Because when Trump - I keep on thinking back when he was on the campaign trail saying, wouldn't it be nice if we could have a better relationship with Russia? Sure, that would be great. But reality is a very different set of circumstances. And they're running into that full-on. And we saw it with the sudden turn-around on Syria. It wasn't news to any of us that Assad was using chemical weapons on his own people. Apparently it was news to the president.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: And so - and so we're seeing this happen in live time. But they did - it's not like this is all new information.

KING: It's a key point because the question - and the question is, if it's not new information, do you think you're the one who can change it?


KING: President Trump does think he's the great negotiator. But yesterday Secretary Tillerson saying, you know, Russia can make a choice, step away from Assad, step away from Iran, step away from supporting Hezbollah. Well, that's what the Obama administration asked of Putin.

WALTER: That's right.

KING: That's what the George W. Bush administration, in the end, after trying a fresh page, that's what they said. This is not new.

WALTER: Well, and to watch the internal dynamics of the White House, beyond just the issues on staffing, but that you seem to have players within the administration saying different things about what we're doing at different times. So our U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, making pretty forceful statements about Russia. She's been doing it all along. The president now seems to be following in that same - same path.

KING: Following her, right.

WALTER: You're getting Rex Tillerson on the Sunday shows saying this isn't a change in policy. We're still focused on ISIS first. Now it seems that we're actually changing our policy. And nobody really knows who's leading the charge with the president who ran on and is still very proud of the fact that he's an unpredictable character in an unpredictable world.

KING: It's a very important point because, a, who's leading the charge. Who has the most influence? And, b, the list of options is still bad. That's why this was so hard for the Obama administration.

WALTER: Right.

KING: The list options is terrible. The president is telling Fox Business News, we're not going into Syria. By that he means boots on the ground. But the White House also says we don't rule out more military action if he uses chemical weapons again, laying on the table, maybe even if he uses other barrel bombs and other weapons against children, but they're unclear on that point. And then you have Putin, who's - this is about pride and about power. And at the United Nations, as we speak, about to be a big press conference in Moscow, President Putin trying to say, we are a power to be reckoned with here. Listen to the ambassador, Nikki Haley, you just mentioned, she's - they're trying to pass a resolution today at the United Nations Security Council condemning this action. Russia, of course, has veto power. Nikki Haley trying to say, you should be embarrassed of yourselves.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: To my colleagues from Russia, you are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad's planes drop another barrel-bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death. People, not just in the west but across the Middle East and the world are speaking out against Assad's brutality. It is long past time for Russia to stop covering for Assad.


[12:09:59] KING: Now this is Cold War-like, new Cold War-like rhetoric, the two sides against each other. The question is, you know, a, does somebody blink or if nobody blinks and the Trump administration is new to this posture, the Putin administration has been pretty strong on this posture, if nobody blinks, what happens next, because there cannot be a political solution unless Assad comes to the table. Assad won't come to the table unless the Russians bring him to the table. Assad's not going to leave unless the Russians say, sorry, bud, you lost our support. So unless there's a big change here, this is high drama and there are other ripple effects - Russian progression in Europe, Russian steps otherwhere (ph) in the world, other things happen in the Middle East. But if nobody blinks, this is just talk.

PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: It is such a huge shift. You think about in November, when Tillerson was picked, we all thought, whoa, Trump picked someone who's so close to Putin. Does that mean that we're going to have a pro-Putin government in some ways in the U.S. here. Now Tillerson is there, you know, he's talking this very aggressive language about the shift. So I do think someone has to blink here, but it's not clear, like we're saying, it's not clear what exactly Trump's policy wants to be. They're debating it internally a lot. Someone has to blink. Putin will not blink. It sounds like Trump will not either.

KING: All right, what's a - at the State Department, Jeff, they call these CBMs, confidence building measures. When you're in a rut like this, and they're in a rut, you look for something. You look for something - yes, we disagree about just about everything, but we've agree to do this to try to take a step forward. What is it? What is Secretary Tillerson look for at this meeting to come out to say, OK, maybe is it to go to Geneva and start those political conversations again that so frustrated the Obama administration? Because the United States comes in with the goal of getting Assad out of power. The Russians come in with the goal of keeping Assad in power. And so they don't get anywhere.

ZELENY: Without a doubt. And for all the talk of cleaning house and getting the Obama administration people out of the State Department, I mean the reality is the challenges are exactly where John Kerry left them, (INAUDIBLE), keep the briefing books on the table and everything is exactly the same.

KING: I would only add - I don't mean to interrupt, but I would only add, except this president did decide to use military power inside the border of Syria against the regime.

ZELENY: Without a doubt. Without a doubt.

KING: So I know they want to call it a one-off, but he owns a bigger piece of this now than President Obama was ever willing to own.

ZELENY: Without question. And for that he got I think some widely deserved, you know, that he was hailed as actually doing something, and by Democrats and Republicans alike.

But the - this policy, though, is a bit - you know, there's been a bit of a vacuum about it. What is the administration's policy towards this? But yesterday I noticed a change in Washington in the Trump Washington in the last four or five days or so. They are really trying to put a lot more information out.

That Pentagon briefing yesterday, I was told that the president was specifically - he was specifically, excuse me, wanting to hear from his defense secretary to put information out there, to show that we're strong on other things. We had a briefing at the White House yesterday by four senior administration officials in the very high levels of the National Security Council talking directly about why they believe that Russia was complicit in all of this. So there are more things going on behind the scenes than there were a few weeks ago, without question, but there still isn't a policy, necessarily. And we don't know what the president's view of Putin is now. Has that changed at all? At some point he will have to come out to say that more explicitly.

WALTER: And the - that's right. And the public isn't any more enamored with the idea of more involvement in Syria than it was when Obama was president.

KING: Exactly right.

ZELENY: The polling says that so far.

WALTER: The polling showing that.

KING: Right. Cruise missiles get public support. When you start talking about boots -

WALTER: And even the missiles, you start asking -

KING: Yes.

WALTER: In the ABC/"Washington Post," OK, yes, do you support it? A bare majority saying they support it.

KING: Right.

WALTER: Should we do more of these? No. It's more than just boots on the ground.

KING: Right.

WALTER: The idea that we're going to be doing these sort of strikes over and over again, also not getting a tremendous amount of support.

KING: So if - so if the policy is changing, number one, we'll hear from our secretary of state. But, number two, it's got to the president's -

WALTER: But it's not that the public - and they don't think - the other thing the poll brought out, they don't think it's particularly effective.

KING: Right. So the president - if the president's going to change the policy, the president is going to have to explain what it is. It's got to pull the public, lead the public with him.

WALTER: Yes. Yes. KING: We're going to - again, we're keeping our eyes on Moscow. Secretary of State Tillerson, his Russian counterpart, scheduled to speak to reporters at any minute. We'll take you there live when it happens.

Up next, though, an apology from a top White House aide after an insensitive and inaccurate Holocaust reference and an eye-popping quote from the president about another aide in hot water.


[12:18:15] KING: Welcome back. I want to remind you, you're waiting for a big event in Moscow, a press conference between the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. We'll take you there live when it happens.

As we wait, the White House press Secretary, Sean Spicer, is on an apology tour, first on CNN last night, then at a big forum at the Newseum here in Washington this morning, trying to make amends for an offensive Briefing Room blunder that ignored history and defied common sense.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to the - to - to using chemical weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Quote, "Hitler didn't even sink to the level of using chemical weapons." What did you mean by that?

SPICER: I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no - he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.


KING: Uh-huh. Sean Spicer spent much of Tuesday afternoon on the telephone apologizing for that. There was actually more. We edited it down. Then he made a public apology here on CNN. This morning, there was more.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I made a mistake. There's no other way - I mean there's no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn't have and - and I screwed up.

It's a very holy week for both the Jewish people and the Christian people and this is not to - to make a gaffe and a mistake like this is inexcusable and reprehensible. On a professional level, it's disappointing because I think I - I've - I've let the president down. And so on both a personal level and a professional level, that will definitely go down as not a very good day in my - my history.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Let's start with that that's not a very easy thing to do. He works in one of the highest profile, one of the toughest positions in this town. To go out there publicly to say I'm sorry I screwed up, I messed up, and let my boss, the president of the United States, down, it takes a lot. And so props to Sean Spicer for the apology.

[12:20:04] A couple issues here. Number one is, he's had credibility questions in the past from day one of the administration about some things said from the podium. So people say, well, is this a domino effect? Number two, number outside, mostly Democrats, but some groups associated with Jewish-Americans have called for his ousting. Is there any evidence, Jeff, I'll start with you, you cover the White House, is there any evidence he's lost the president's support?

ZELENY: We don't know at this point, to be quite frank. We've - I've been working the phones this morning and last evening as well. And to a person, everyone was saying, we're going to see how the president reacts to this, which means, they're going to wait to see how the president reacts to the news coverage of this. They're waiting to see if he still has the support.

We do not - I do not think that he has lost the support immediately on this, but there was definitely an issue or reason that Sean Spicer went out on the apology tour last night. He had no choice. He was told by top advisers to the president, perhaps not the president himself, but he conveyed that as well, to go out and do this right now.

The interesting thing about this is, though, Sean Spicer, I am told, was not, you know, completely making this up, pulling this out of the air. There has been a lot of chatter on Fox News and some other places on some other news mat (ph) sites about the Holocaust, about Assad. So this has been out there in the ether. Unclear, you know, if he was pulling from that or not, but this has to have -

KING: So a guy who has the resources of the entire U.S. government at his disposal looking for historical references about -

ZELENY: Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

KING: Deciding to go into the alt-right Internet where there are routinely offensive and at times anti-Semitic things said. Great.

ZELENY: Exactly. But the - the challenge - or the problem for Spicer is he had multiple times to clean this up yesterday in the briefing room, in a statement, and, you know, he finally did. And, you're right, that was not easy for him. I was talking to him as he was walking back into the White House after his interview with Wolf Blitzer and it was a - a humbled Sean Spicer, no question about it. A - he said, I came out here on my own. I'm trying to set the record straight. Not I did, I'm trying to set the record straight. A tough thing for him to do.

KUCINICH: I think the other problem here is, other than the fact you don't compare anything to Hitler just as a rule, is, this isn't the first time that this White House has said something or done something that's offensive, particularly to the Jewish people. Let's not forget, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when they decided to omit Jews from their statement, and defended that. Not to mention how long it took for the president to come out and condemn some of the anti-Semitic events that were going on around the country. So if this was an isolated incident, you know, and you're absolutely right, Sean Spicer did - that's not easy what he did. But when you stack it on some of the other things that have happened in other parts of this administration, it's not good.

WALTER: Well, and also this - to the challenge for Republican - the Republican base, right, back when President Obama was president, they were very much against any involvement in Syria, even bombing in Syria. Now they have a Republican president. They want to be supportive of this president. They're looking for reasons to not be upset about an American first president going in and making a military strike in another country. What's one way that you help to generate enthusiasm? You say, look, this Assad guy, he's so, so bad, right?

KING: Right.

WALTER: We had to do this.

KING: Right.

WALTER: The president's so strong to stand up to him. None of this is new to anybody who's been paying attention to Syria that Assad's a really bad guy who's been doing really bad things. But if you want to keep your base from getting sort of squeamish about the fact that this president who ran as a nationalist is now becoming more internationalist, you've got to keep the focus on, look how bad this Assad guy really is.

BACON: I think the problem is the administration had two spokesmen, Nikki Haley and Jim Mattis, out there speaking of these issues, speaking very openly, speaking very intelligently about the subject. And having Sean Spicer say something - he didn't necessarily need to talk about this at all, but his way - (INAUDIBLE) the action was like - was odd. And then Mattis and Haley were doing just fine explaining the policy and doing pretty well explaining the policy, I would say.

KING: That's smart. You could say, Secretary Haley speaking - Ambassador Haley is speaking about this, Secretary Mattis is speaking, I'll leave it to them. They outrank me. But that might have been a - he's probably wishing he did that today. He's probably writing those notes down.

Another big story, if you pick up "The New York Post" this morning, a newspaper the president - real estate mogul Donald Trump liked to talk to "The New York Post." He liked to flip around gossip in "The New York Post." This morning if you pick up "The New York Post," "I like Steve, but you have to remember, he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist and it wasn't like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary." He ended by saying, "Steve's a good guy, but I told him to straighten it out or I will." The Steve happens to be Steven Bannon, who came into the Trump

campaign actually at a very sensitive moment and became the chief strategist. And who also, if he's not - if he's - if he's nobody, as the president seems to suggest there, why is he called the chief strategist for the president of the United States and why does he have an office across the hall from the chief of staff of the United States if he's, you know, nobody?

ZELENY: It makes zero sense.



[12:24:59] ZELENY: The fact is, Steve Bannon was one of the earliest cheerleaders, one of the biggest supporters. It was why he was brought in, because some outside groups and others thought that he would be the, you know, the perfect - the perfect person to lead this. Donald Trump praised him in his victory speech. They are very close. And this is absolutely absurd.

KING: If you picked up the newspaper this morning and your boss was quoted saying, I like Amy, but -

WALTER: Yes. I would start putting - taking the things off the wall in my office and putting them in a nice little box, you know.

KING: But can he afford to leave - can he lose Steve Bannon?

KUCINICH: That's -

KING: Steve Bannon. You have, you know, Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, Mr. Washington establishment, Mr. Political establishment, former state party chairman out there. You have Jared Kushner, a Democrat or an independent, close to the president, a family member, represents the business community, represents the New York part of Donald Trump. But then you have Steve Bannon, who is American first, Tea Party, energy in the party, Breitbart News, the conservative slice of the media. Can you lose that constituency? If you're Donald Trump, that's the base - that's the one base that you have.

KUCINICH: Well, if you ask Donald Trump, that's his base. That's not Steve Bannon's base.

KING: Is he willing to test that?

KUCINICH: And that' - and that's the question, whether he's willing to test that -

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: Because you do see on some of these news organizations that there is some unrest about Bannon's place. But Bannon made a very big mistake in going up against the president's son-in-law. He's very big on his family and that is never going to change.

KING: Red line.

ZELENY: Yes, there is a worry. I talked to a Republican close to the White House this morning who said, you can't have him become an enemy.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: Because Steve Bannon on the outside is very dangerous to this administration.

KUCINICH: That's right.

WALTER: Right.

KUCINICH: That's right.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: Having him on the inside, which is why the president says the ball is in your court, sort of change how you're doing business here. But they don't want to have him on the outside. That's risky.

KING: If the president wants to test that theory, he could talk to the guys he used to call lyin Ted and little Marco and Jeb Bush, low energy Jeb Bush. They understand what it's like to have those guys coming at you.

Up next, President Trump says he believes former top Obama aide Susan Rice committed a crime, but Democrats and Republicans who have reviewed the intelligence have a different conclusion. They tell CNN what Susan Rice did was her job.