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Trump Reverses Course On Key Campaign Issues; Assad: Chemical Attack Is "100 Percent Fabrication"; Trump Stuns With Economic Policy Reversals. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. We have breaking news this morning. Just moments ago, we got our first look at an interview from the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. He sat down with AFP, Agence France-Presse, and he said that this whole idea of a chemical attack in Syria is a complete fabrication.

HARLOW: The interview is just feeding in right now. We're going to bring it to you in just moments. But as we wait for that, let's go to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with more.

What are we learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, John and Poppy. President Assad of Syria speaking about this, and we have not seen the exact words yet. We are aware that the Syrian government has placed many restrictions on that interview, so we will have all the appropriate caveats on what the Syrians are saying.

However, a U.S. official is telling CNN that the U.S. intelligence and military agencies have intercepted communications, very much solid evidence, that the Syrian government planned and executed this chemical attack. These intercepted communications show Syrian officials discussing it beforehand and perhaps even as it was happening. So they knew about it. They planned it. They executed that attack.

Now, do those communications indicate that the U.S. government knew about it ahead of time? No. The U.S. intelligence community scoops up vast amounts of intercepted data around the world. Once they knew the time, date and place of the attack, they then could go back, electronically sift it all out, and precisely hone in on the intercepted communications from that time period. This is part of the evidence that the U.S. has that makes them say they are absolutely convinced, absolutely certain, over the last several days that the Syrians were behind it.

The big question now, what about Russian involvement? There was, as we have reported at CNN, a Russian drone flying over the hospital in Idlib where so many of the injured had gone to seek treatment. There is also intelligence very much indicating it was a Russian drone. That drone taking images and several hours later, another unidentified aircraft comes in and drops a conventional bomb on the hospital, perhaps trying to destroy evidence of the original chemical attack. In addition, U.S. military officials are saying they do know that there was Russian chemical expertise inside Syria.

So the evidence very much beginning to add up, to pile up, ironclad in the U.S. view on the Syrians. They are still trying to assemble all the data points, all the dots that are going to lead, they believe, to Russian involvement -- John, Poppy.

BERMAN: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Again, U.S. intelligence saying they surveilled, they had communications among the Syrians saying it was a chemical attack. This as we're getting the news right now from this interview with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying it was a 100 percent fabrication, the idea that it was a chemical attack.

HARLOW: So we have this interview now. We're going to play it for you in a moment. I just want to note something really important here. The Syrian government is very involved in monitoring these interviews. They listen to the interview. They have the power to not put out the entire interview.

BERMAN: They practically produced the interview, by the way.

HARLOW: Yes, exactly. And they're --

BERMAN: It's with a government camera.

HARLOW: Exactly. So that's just important. Now watch it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: -- to make any attack. We don't have any chemical weapons. We gave up our arsenal three years ago. Even if we have them, we wouldn't use them. And we had never used our chemical arsenal in our history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: "We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history," which is a pretty shocking claim right there given what happened in 2013.

HARLOW: Absolutely.

BERMAN: Given that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad agreed to remove at least some of these chemical weapons there. He's denying they've ever used chemical weapons despite the evidence then, despite the evidence now.

HARLOW: The attack in Ghouta back in 2013 killed many more people than this chemical attack, and the agreement between the Russians, the United States, and the Syrians to remove those chemical weapons is completely counter to what he just said.

There is more sound. We're going to bring it to you as we can. But as we wait for that, let's go to Ben Wedeman. He is on the Turkey- Syria border with more.

Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, Poppy, well, obviously, this interview with Bashar al-Assad, it's not a surprise that he flatly denies that the regime used any chemical weapons. This has been their line consistently over the last few years.

And it's important to keep in mind, you were talking about the restrictions that were placed on the AFP, the Agence France-Presse, when it came to that interview. It was shot by a crew of the President, not of AFP. They were told beforehand that they could ask whatever questions they liked, but that they would be given only those parts of the interview that the presidency decided to.

[09:05:09] So they only were given a first five questions and the first five answers. So it was probably not perhaps the ground rules that other news organizations might accept under those circumstances.

And, yes, you were talking about the August 21, 2013 chemical attack on the Ghouta, which is just outside of Damascus. That left more than 1,000 people dead. Now, in the immediate aftermath of that attack, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations did conduct an investigation. They checked blood samples, urine samples. They interviewed survivors of that attack.

But significantly, that investigation did not actually lay the blame on anybody. Their mandate was very narrow. Their mandate was to find out what happened in terms of whether chemical weapons were used or not, and they verified that, indeed, a sarin gas was used in this instance. But the report did not say who fired it.

Now, it's been discovered afterwards that the missions used, which was a surface to surface missile, to deliver the chemical weapons was a missile that is only, to the best of everyone's knowledge, a missile in the possession or in the arsenal of the Syrian government. So that flies in the face of what we heard from Syrian President Bashar al- Assad today. But as I said, his denial comes as no surprise -- John, Poppy.

HARLOW: All right. Thank you very much, Ben Wedeman on the Turkey- Syria border. Let's bring in David Andelman, a CNN.com opinion contributor and editor emeritus for the "World Policy Journal."

This is not surprising that Assad would deny this, of course. He said, morally, we would never do that. We gave up our arsenal three years ago. It's just not fact.

However, how much do you believe Russia not being willing to say at all that Assad has responsibility for this gives him more power to say things like this?

DAVID ANDELMAN, EDITOR EMERITUS, WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Oh, there's no doubt about that. And one of the goals of Russia is to keep Assad in power and to let him be able to do what he wants there. HARLOW: Sure, they love their air base there.

ANDELMAN: Right, and there are reasons for that. Remember, Russia has its only warm water port south of the Black Sea in Syria on the Mediterranean. They have to have that for strategic reasons, and it had that there for years. And they're going to guard that and hold on to that as much as they possibly can, as long as they possibly can. That's the center of the entire Russian strategy right now, is that naval facility and air base.

BERMAN: When Bashar al-Assad does interviews like this and says things that are patently false, that Syria has never used its chemical arsenal before when there is evidence to the contrary three years ago, there's evidence to the contrary, you know, 10 days ago, who is his constituency? Who is he playing to there?

ANDELMAN: He's playing to his own constituency, obviously. He's playing to the Russian constituency. Russian television will carry this to a fare-thee-well.

BERMAN: It's interesting, by the way, that you say his constituency is Russia and not the Syrian people.

HARLOW: Yes.

ANDELMAN: Oh, no, absolutely. I mean, the Syrian people will see this, obviously, as many of the people still have television. By the way, we still have electricity in Syria because so much of the country has been bombed out. But remember, his main constituency is the people of the world who want to believe this. And, obviously, his own people, his own military, and that's very, very important to him.

HARLOW: But why would he talk to AFP, right? He is speaking to a European news agency. He could just speak to R.T., which is basically a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. He could just speak to Syrian state television. Why do this, granted with all these restrictions? Why talk to a European outlet?

ANDELMAN: Well, Syrians had a long relationship with France going back to the colonial days, so there is this sort of, you know, they kind of love the concept of France and the French people. And the French did, in fact, rule them for quite a long time, so there is that ancestral historic condominium, should we say, between them and the French.

So if he's going to choose a western news organization which, again, would give him a certain degree of standing to be interviewed by an objective journalist from the west. That's very important to him as well. Remember, you say something that's false long enough and loud enough, some people will begin to believe it. And that's what he's hoping for.

BERMAN: Yes, and that seems, too, what happened. You say objective interview with Syrian television cameras, the Syrian government --

ANDELMAN: Of course. BERMAN: -- editing the questions, feeding out the tapes, so, you

know, we need to take that for what it's worth.

ANDELMAN: Objectivity, Assad style.

BERMAN: David Andelman, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about. We're going to get back to Syria in just a moment, but there is a lot more going on. Namely, circumstances change. That's how the White House Press Secretary is explaining an astonishing display of policy reversals and contradictions from the President in just one day.

HARLOW: That's right. The President showing flexibility, shall we say -- a flexibility like an Olympic gymnast would envy -- back flipping on several issues that were bedrocks of his campaign, on China, on NATO, even policy decisions on your money.

[09:10:13] Strap on a neck brace. CNN's Joe Johns walks us through some of these breathtaking about-faces.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a stunning reversal, President Trump abandoning his often repeated hardline position on NATO.

TRUMP: NATO is obsolete. In my opinion, NATO is obsolete.

So here's the problem with NATO. It's obsolete.

JOHNS (voice-over): Asserting also that it was his criticism that prompted the alliance to start fighting terrorism.

TRUMP: I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change. And now, they do fight terrorism.

JOHNS (voice-over): Despite the fact that it has been a central focus of the military alliance for years. This about-face coming as Trump seeks support from U.S. allies amid worsening relations with Russia.

TRUMP: Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all.

JOHNS (voice-over): A geopolitical foe he has resisted criticizing in the past.

TRUMP: I think I get along very well with Vladimir Putin. I just think so.

Putin says very nice things about me. I think that's very nice.

JOHNS (voice-over): The President now hardening his tone but again, stopping short of going directly after the Russian President.

TRUMP: I'll also see about Putin over a period of time. Be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin.

JOHNS (voice-over): However, Mr. Trump did make his feelings clear about Syria's brutal dictator.

TRUMP: That's a butcher. That's a butcher.

JOHNS (voice-over): A stark contrast to comments from administration officials last week who said, then, their priority is not toppling Assad. President Trump still gushing over his summit last week with China's President.

TRUMP: President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. We had a very good chemistry together.

JOHNS (voice-over): Telling "The Wall Street Journal" the Chinese are not currency manipulators after repeatedly saying so on the campaign trail.

TRUMP: They are a grand master at currency manipulation. Nobody has ever manipulated currency like China. Label China a currency manipulator.

JOHNS (voice-over): The President even offering an olive branch to Federal Reserve Chief Janet Yellen, telling the "Journal" he respects her after saying this last September.

TRUMP (via phone): I think she's very political and to a certain extent, I think she should be ashamed of herself.

JOHNS (voice-over): Trump also telling reporters he prefers that Yellen keep interest rates low.

TRUMP (via phone): I think our dollar is getting too strong.

JOHNS (voice-over): The President's comments causing a sell-off of the dollar. Another reversal coming on health care.

TRUMP: I have to do health care first. I want to do it first to really do it right.

JOHNS (voice-over): It was just last month that the President said he was abandoning the issue after a bruising defeat in Congress. Now, he's threatening to cut off federal payments to insurance markets in hopes he will be able to force Democrats to the negotiating table, a move that could trigger turmoil in the insurance markets. Despite the flurry of flip-flops, the President insists one by one, we are keeping our promises.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: All right. Joe Johns, thanks very much.

Back with us now, David Andelman; April Ryan, CNN Political Analyst, White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks; Mary Katharine Ham, CNN Political Commentator, senior writer for "The Federalist"; and Alice Stewart, CNN Political Commentator and Republican strategist.

Mary Katharine, circumstances change, says Sean Spicer. Do they change that much that fast in one day? Are they the circumstances that have changed or the President who just changed?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: Yes, there are two things at work here. Circumstances do change. And I think some of this, especially on foreign policy, can be the President coming to face reality that he was not facing when he was on the trail. You learn more things when you're in the presidency.

But Trump is an imminently changeable man when it comes to policy. Depending on who is talking to him, depending on who has power within the White House, and then depending on how he's feeling that day. I mean, this is just part of who he is.

So when he changes position, I have never found it particularly shocking, even when it's something that he stuck to pretty consistently. In this case, the two things that he stuck to consistently through the campaign were a bit more friendly relationship with Russia and the idea that, on trade, we were going to be tougher on folks like China. So those are two large changes, but I don't find them shocking.

HARLOW: Yes. Are these, Alice Stewart, flip-flops and, therefore, by definition you can flip-flop back, or are these fundamental changes? And if they are fundamental changes, doesn't that alienate his base and possibly hurt him the next time around?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: A lot of that remains to be seen. Look, I don't think people should be surprised at the West Wing whiplash that we're seeing here. Look, if the voters thought that Trump changing his position was an unforgivable sin, he never would have won the nomination, and he never would have become President. That's something they've just come to accept.

[09:15:00] And in his mind, he would much rather prove to be someone that's inconsistent than to lose. And certainly, as Mary Katharine said, the situations in the White House are different than the situations when you're on the campaign trail.

The real test will be, though, he cannot continue to flip flop and not have any successes. He needs to by the summer start showing some success and getting things done when it comes to key issues such as Obamacare and the border and creating jobs.

That will be a big test and that's important and it's certainly much more of a focus for the base showing successes than whether or not he's taking different sides on different positions.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All I can say is west wing whiplash is an alliteration that I wish I had thought of myself so thank you for that, Alice. April, you know, you cover the White House, you're there. There are a lot of people wondering what's going on inside the west wing that Alice was just talking about right there. Does this indicate the rise of someone like Gary Cohen, Jared Kushner and the fall of Steve Bannon? When you see these shifts that some perceive as a shift to the center?

APRIL RYAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: Well, there's going to be a rise and fall no matter what. I mean, this president continues to have this kind of apprentice mentality. You know, I believe that there may be a shake-up before the 100 days because it seems so evident.

He keeps talking and talking but, really, the issues are altogether encompassing but, yet, they are different. You have to remember, if this president is flip flopping, he's flipping now towards speaking with one voice with the world community.

He's getting ready to go to the NATO summit in Brussels in May. He just met with the NATO secretary-general and they were talking about terrorism. He can't flip-flop. He has to speak with one voice with the world community so that they can help with issues of Russia.

They can help with issues of North Korea. So there may be some issues going on in the White House, but he has got to be consistent. Once he changes, he's changed from who he was on the road to this person now, he's got to be consistent so the world community can look at him as a credible leader and work with him on these major issues.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, so we have also guys some more sound that just came in from the interview with Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad and he not only says that the United States is defending ISIS. He says the U.S. and the west are hand in glove with ISIS, and then he made this shocking statement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA: Whether those dead children, were they dead at all? Who committed the attack, if there was attack? You have no information at all. Nothing at all. No investigators.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're saying it's fabrication?

AL-ASSAD: Definitely 100 percent it's fabrication. We don't have arsenal. We're not going to use it. They have many indications, if you don't have a proof, no one has concrete information or evidence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Despite the pictures, despite the video, David, he is saying we don't even know if those kids were dead at all.

DAVID ANDELMAN, EDITOR-EMERITUS, WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Again, saying a lie loud enough and long enough and people, some people will begin to believe it. He really needs to have some of his people believe this. He needs to have his military believe it and the Russian military and people.

He needs to have a certain ratification by a western news organization that he's said this in some kind of an objective fashion. Obviously it wasn't. The interview was fabricated in so many ways as the original --

HARLOW: I mean, remember the journalist may have pushed back on him after that and we wouldn't know it because they have the ability to edit what goes out. And that's the central problem.

ANDELMAN: It's not -- what he said is not surprising at all. But it does give -- it gives some quotes to his people. Look, Assad says it's 100 percent fabrication so, of course, it is. This is all part of this propaganda machine engineered in many respects from the kremlin, from the Russians filtered through into Syria. He's adopted very much a kremlin pattern in this respect.

BERMAN: Those are shocking words. Those kids, were they dead at all. Let that sink in for a moment there. David, thanks so much. April, Mary Katherine, Alice, thanks so much for being with us. Really appreciate it.

In other news, holy shift, with an "f" there, the president's stunning reversals on his economic policies shocking his backers. We'll ask a key economic adviser if he's still on board.

HARLOW: And primed and ready, satellite pictures showing North Korea could be gearing up for yet another nuclear test. How will the U.S. respond this time?

Also United Airlines paying big time for that forceful removal of a passenger. All the passengers on that plane being reimbursed. This morning, we'll hear from the attorney of the man, Dr. Dao, who was dragged off that plane. First time we're hearing from them straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:24:20]

BERMAN: All right, the question this morning, who is President Trump? Is he the same guy with the same positions that he was last week, let alone last year? Besides foreign policy changes, he just made three stunning flip-flops when it comes to economic policies. So this was then --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I'm going to instruct my treasury secretary to label China a currency manipulator. They are the greatest currency manipulators ever! We have a fed that's doing political things. This Janet Yellen of the fed. The fed is not doing their job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: But now the president is making a number of breathtaking reversals. Now he says China is not manipulating its currency. Fed Chair Janet Yellen, quote, "I like her. I respect her." He's willing to keep her.

[09:25:12]And that so-called export/import bank that he mocked last year and has been called crony capitalism by some conservatives, now Trump says it helps a lot of small companies and it's a very good thing.

Let's make sense of this, or try to, with CNN chief business correspondent, Christine Romans, and Stephen Moore, CNN senior economic analyst. He is also a former senior economic adviser to the Trump campaign.

So, Stephen Moore, you acknowledge these are breathtaking reversals, I assume. Are you worried? Are you personally worried that the president is abandoning some really core things about his -- I mean, his entire run?

STEPHEN MOORE, CNN SENIOR ECONOMIC ANALYST: Well, look, Donald Trump clearly said some bombastic things during the campaign. That's one of the things a lot of the voters liked about him. I think he was wrong in the beginning about China being a currency manipulator. I think he's come to the right conclusion here. That they are not manipulating their currency.

Although there are problems with trade with China that need to be resolved but they were never a currency manipulator. Janet Yellen will be replaced next year. You heard it first here on CNN. She is not going to be reappointed.

I think he's just trying to make nice with her and make sense because the fed chairman has a lot of power for the next year or so. But the main point is the economy is doing a lot better. You were asking, would I still support him. Yes.

Look what's happened with investor confidence, consumer confidence a couple of years ago, a couple of weeks ago was higher than it's been in 20 years. The economy has picked up speed. That's ultimately where the people are going to decide about --

BERMAN: That's a different issue. That's a different issue, though, than whether he's flip-flopped or flop-flipped or done both at the same time here. I mean, he has moved --

MOORE: John, let me just --

BERMAN: No, let me finish the question.

MOORE: Don't you want him to get it right? Isn't that the most important thing to make sure he's making the right decision?

BERMAN: I think the standard for correctness applies during the campaign just as it would apply during the presidency. So I think we all want everyone to get it right always. But my question is, if he's changed on these positions, and some of them aren't right or wrong. Some are value judgments like the export/import. As a supporter, are you concerned that he's abandoning some values? Do you think there's a risk to changing too much, Stephen? MOORE: Yes, yes, I do. I do. I think he's got some core promises that he made to his voters on cutting taxes, repealing Obamacare and many other, and getting tougher with China, and you're right. He has to do that. Those core promises.

But sometimes, look, when circumstances change, you have to change your opinion and I think that's -- look. I want him to be presidential. I want him to adapt to the changing circumstances, and I think this is, on balance, a good thing. But you're right, you can't abandon all the promises you made during the campaign trail.

HARLOW: So you always win on this show if you say Berman is right. So I have a belief that Stephen --

MOORE: I never said that.

HARLOW: You said it twice. Christine Romans to you. OK, so there are real impacts to what the president said. What happens to the dollar yesterday? We see the U.S dollar slumps. Treasury bond yields fall. This is after he said he basically doesn't want so strong of a dollar which is fascinating because a strong dollar is a good thing for him. It mirrors well on him and makes him look like a strong president. What's going on?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It's an indicator of strength in the American economy and outlook. He said the dollar is too strong right now and he took credit for it being too strong as the president often does and it immediately fell.

He's saying it's too strong because it hurts American manufacturers who are exporting their goods overseas when the dollar is too strong. And Stephen Moore has been around as long as I have on this. Presidents don't talk about the value of the dollar.

Treasury secretaries don't talk about the value of the dollar. They say their policies and things they do in the economy and in the structure of the American economy are what move the value of the dollar. It's very rare to see something like that.

Stephen, you talked about the adaptability of this president, the growing into being presidential, changing his mind on some of his stances on China. There's also learning on the fly and those in the market who feel the president spent 10 minutes with President Xi and suddenly he abandons his tough talk completely over 10 minutes because of the North Korea factor. And what is being presidential and adaptable and what is learning as you go?

BERMAN: We have about 30 seconds until the markets open. What do the markets think about this?

ROMANS: Markets are pretty much flat here, maybe down a little bit this morning. You know, we're not seeing a lot of action. They want infrastructure, tax reform. They're still curious about the president putting health care reform out there every time he does an interview. Wants to get health care reform done before tax reform. You're seeing blah in the market overall. They've had a big Trump rally. Now they want to see some big structural changes.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: Christine Romans, Stephen Moore, great to have you with us this morning. Stephen, you will be invited back. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

All right, we have new reports this morning from North Korea. That country might be primed and ready for a new nuclear test, that's next --