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Assad Responds to Attack Claims; Trump Tweets About Russia; Trump Changes Stance on NATO; Carter Page's Sanction Conversations; Lavrov on Chemical Attack; U.S. Drops Largest Bomb in Afghanistan. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:10] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

A president who prides himself on being flexible is more than proving his point. On the world stage, Vladimir Putin now gets scorned, not praise. NATO is suddenly essential. And China moves from campaign enemy to new global partner.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.


KING: And here at home, more big shifts. Kind words for Obama's Fed chairwoman, and for an export bank the Tea Party views as corporate welfare. The GOP establishment is gleeful at the shifts and the remnants of the never Trump movement are full of we told you so's.


TRUMP: We are in a big, fat, ugly bubble and we better be awfully careful and we have a Fed that's doing political things. This Janet Yellen of the Fed.


KING: Plus, more twists in the Russia election meddling spy novel. A Trump campaign adviser says he has no idea how the FBI was able to convince a court he might be working as a Russian agent.


CARTER PAGE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: This is -- it's just such a joke that it's beyond words. All of this false evidence that you've been hearing about myself with the dodgy dossier and other false reports going back through most of last summer, well, that will -- that will have very different implications. This is a real game changer if it turns out to be true.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of "The Associated Press," Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times," "The Daily Beast's" Jackie Kucinich, and Abby Phillip of "The Washington Post."

Two high-stakes international dramas are driving this big news day. In North Korea, satellite images of the key facility suggest a nuclear test could be imminent. This as President Trump sends a naval carrier group to the region with the goal of discouraging just such a provocation. And in Syria, Dictator Bashar al Assad denies any role in the deadly gas attack last week.


PRESIDENT BASHAR AL ASSAD, SYRIA: So there was no order 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 have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.


KING: Assad speaking to AFP TV there. I'm certain you have not forgotten these, the horrific images from Idlib province, but Assad calls it -- look at those pictures -- Assad calls it 100 percent fabrication, ginned up, he says, by the United States and its western allies. And, listen here.


ASSAD: The west, mainly the United States, is hand in glove with the terrorists. They've fabricated the whole story in order to have critics for the attack.

We don't know whether those dead children -- were they kids (INAUDIBLE)? Were they dead at all? Who committed the attack if there was attack? What method? You have no information at all. Nothing at all. No investigators.


KING: Were they dead at all? Were they dead at all? You just heard Bashar al Assad say that. He's denying any involvement here. That a day after the Pentagon and the British government said there was no doubt -- no doubt it was a gas attack by regime aircraft.

Number one, just to those words, it's the first we've heard from Bashar al Assad. We should note to you, as journalists, we're reluctant to even show you that because the Syrian regime put so much control over that interview, over the cameras in the room and how it was conducted. In many cases we wouldn't even show you the video. But because it's the first we've heard from Bashar al Assad, we decided to do that and because what he says is pretty outrageous. The key thing here as you listen is -- is, we're going to talk a lot

in the hour about Donald Trump changing his positions. But when we go through the last several days, besides the air strikes, has anything changed? Russia still stands by Assad. Assad still says, who, me, as if, you know, he'd never done anything wrong. Has anything in terms of the policy changed when you listen to that?

JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Well, I mean, policy change in the sense that the U.S. now has launched air strikes in response to chemical weapons, which is a shift from where we were under the Obama administration. And you also have seen a shift in the rhetoric of the Trump administration where they now are back basically where Obama was, talking about Assad needing to go, talking about how no peace is possible in Syria with him still in power.

But in terms of the situation on the ground and in terms of the roles of these other key players, Iran and Russia, nothing has changed. And what the Trump administration needs to start trying to figure out an answer to is this. They say that Russia -- it's not in Russia's interest to align itself with Assad. How do they make that not in Russia's interest? The Obama administration couldn't figure that out and the Trump administration doesn't seem to have an answer yet either.

KING: Right. And so in that context, none -- the positions of the key players outside of the United States have not changed. Assad still says I'm innocent. This is my country. I haven't done anything wrong. The United States is siding with terrorists. Go away. Putin says, we're with Assad. So the part is what changes.

[12:05:14] Donald Trump seems to think, if you look at Donald Trump's words yesterday, President Trump's words yesterday, what his secretary of state was saying in Moscow, what his U.N. ambassador was saying even more forcefully in New York, you do see the change from the, let's try to be friendly with Putin from the campaign. But I didn't see any evidence yesterday the Russians were willing to change their positions and move. But Donald -- the president tweeted out this morning @realdonaldtrump, "things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time, everyone will come to their senses and there will be lasting peace." Based on optimism or based on something that was told privately to somebody?

ABBY PHILLIP, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I don't know. I think I have to think it's based on optimism. I think this president from the very beginning has always thought that if we can just establish a personal relationship with Putin, that that will sort of ease his way into a better diplomatic relationship with him. The world is a lot more complicated than that. I think he is learning that pretty quickly.

But there is some optimism there that the president, if you -- if people are paying attention, keeps saying, I don't really know Vladimir Putin. He's -- he's sort of like laying it out as if he hadn't even begun to establish this relationship. And that's true.

But that being said, Putin is -- is sort of not dealing on an interpersonal level when it comes to these issues. He's dealing with -- on a geopolitical level, about how to -- to flex Russia's diplomatic muscle all over the world. And that's a completely different calculous.

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": And we're seeing this education in other ways too with other countries. He said when -- in regards to China, that when he talked to the Chinese president, he said that, oh, it is -- it's a lot harder than I thought for them to control what's going on in North Korea. So we're seeing the progress and some of these other very important international relationships and it seems like he hasn't gotten there yet with Vladimir Putin. I think that people are very much counting on his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to make some inroads with Putin.


KUCINICH: And we just haven't seen that yet on this issue in particular.

JONATHAN MARTIN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Every scholar of Putin will tell you this, that he is driven, consumed by a view that the dissolution of the Soviets was a historic mistake. That that led to the sort of weakening of their hand -- of Russia's hand in the world.

He's determined to restore that kind of standing. To Abby's point, that is what consumes him. Trump is somebody, who, as we know, is very flexible. He wants to make good deals like he says. That's not what Putin's motivation is. And, frankly, at a political level, here in America, it kind of reminds me of Trump's dealing with the more ideological factions in Congress. They aren't driven by good deals and success and poll numbers. They're driven by like deeply held ideological views. And Trump, I think, has a hard time wrapping his sort of head around that mentality because it's so unlike what drives him.

KING: And yesterday was a very important day if you look at the symbolism of it in the sense -- and the words of it in the sense that he called Bashar al Assad a butcher. He said that -- he says that, you know, Vladimir Putin is aligned with an animal. This is what he said, I'd like to get along with this guy. Wouldn't it be great. He still says that. He still says, maybe that will come about. But he has a lot more tougher language that makes Republican hawks a lot more happy.


KING: Makes the Republican establishment, foreign policy establishment a lot more happy.

And on the day his secretary of state is in Moscow, Donald Trump's in the Oval Office with the secretary-general of NATO, which is the thorn in Putin's side, just as much as the United States, because of the neighborhood. We all lived through the campaign. Listen to Donald Trump, now President Trump, then and now.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (March 29,2016): NATO is obsolete. It was 67 years or it's over 60 years old. It is -- many countries, doesn't cover terrorism.

TRUMP (April 12, 2017): I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change. And now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.


KING: Where does this come from? Is this from -- is it from the meeting with the secretary-general? You know, the president was now saying, well, NATO now fights terrorism. And NATO members are now willing to contribute more of their dues. The secretary-general was very diplomatic about it, but he noted, we've been fighting terrorism since the attack on the United States -- you know, since the terrorist attack on 9/11, that NATO's been involved since then. And we started in 2014 passing -- you know, making sure -- putting more pressure on our members. But he did it very diplomatically. But what caused this rhetorical policy shift in the president?

PACE: I think -- I think there's two things on the NATO front in particular. One, it is that he has been getting a lot of pressure from Republicans and from people who are now in his national security orbit to say, you know, NATO actually has been quite a positive influence on the world. Two, this is the -- this is the positive side of Donald Trump being someone who actually does listen to a lot of voices and actually doesn't come in with a really rigid ideology that if you come in and you meet with him and you make a compelling case, he is very likely to come to your side. And he just got out of a meeting with the NATO secretary-general. He probably heard a lot of wonderful things about NATO and its role in the world. He is open to making that change. He talks to the Chinese president and suddenly he realizes that the situation in North Korea is a lot harder than maybe he thought.

[12:10:08] KING: But so are these new views, views that are formed in some cement, or are they views that are formed based on this conversation or that meeting and that next week we could be in a different environment? Is this -- is this learning on the job? And, look, you know, whether you like this president, liked the last president, didn't like the last -- every president learns on the job.

PACE: Yes.

KING: And every president deserves some grace to realize a candidate cannot know the depth of this job. So is it that he's learning and this is where President Trump is, or is this where President Trump is today?

PHILLIP: I think that that's a really critical question because the corollary to this whole idea of Trump going into meetings and changing his mind, the fact he had a meeting with Angela Merkel a couple of weeks ago and came out of that meeting not quite as far along this road as he is now. So the question is, what has happened between now and then. And the only thing I can think of is that this moment in Syria has really clarified something for Trump that he's never expressed an interest in prior to this point, which is that the United States has a role in the world that is unique in that we are sort of responsible for kind of keeping it together. And there's nothing like, as he pointed out, seeing children dying in the streets to really clarify that in one's mind. And the presidency changes people in that way.

MARTIN: It's certainly the flexibility that we all know, but it's also something else. It is coming to this job with no or very little historical perspective. And there was a striking report that we had here at CNN last night, John, that he was so struck by the use of chemical weapons in Syria that he requested actually the history of the using of chemical weapons.

KING: And yet he slash it to President Obama very forcefully when it happened before and there were similar images out there a few years back telling the president, don't go in. Don't take the bait. Look away.

PACE: He just wasn't in position to have a (INAUDIBLE).

MARTIN: But he doesn't know about, you know, World War I and the use of mustard gas in the trenches. This is all a kind of a revelation to him. It reminds me of the great Mark Twain line, which I'm going to paraphrase here, that he left home at 18, came back at 20, and he couldn't believe how much his father had learned in those two years. Well, you know, he's finding out a lot of new things here himself.

KING: To that point, let's listen to the voice of a man who's had the job. A governor from Texas who came to Washington, wanted to have a humble foreign policy in the region, wanted to keep his hands off the rest of the world, that George W. Bush was changed by 9/11 and other things. Here's his take.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT (voice-over): Our country goes through these kind of, I guess, mood swings is the right way to say it. And it seems to me that in both parties there was an isolationist and protectionist sentiment. On the other hand, the realities of the job sometimes undermine those sentiments.


KING: Fair point?

MARTIN: You know, last year, when he was on the campaign trail quietly holding fundraisers for a lot of Senate candidates because he was basically doing jobs that folks in his party wouldn't do, he had this line and it was basically that line. He said it over and over again, he was troubled by the kind of rising isolationism in both parties, but he kind of meant Trump, it was pretty obvious.


MARTIN: But then a little bit of a victory lap there at the end by old W. Isn't -- you know, but, you know, being in the job there kind of undermines those sentiments. You know, he -- KUCINICH: I think it's too -- I don't mean to be the pessimist at the table, but I think it's too soon to tell whether this has changed, solidified as a change.

KING: Right.

MARTIN: Oh, absolutely, yes.

KING: That's -- yes, that's right.

KUCINICH: Because -- I mean because he's done one thing.

MARTIN: There's no cement here, right?

KUCINICH: Definitely. And so we'll have to see. There is no Trump doctrine yet.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: And so this is a very much evolving issue.

KING: Right. Is it -- is it that Michael Flynn is gone and Steve Bannon is diminished, or is it that Donald Trump, President Trump is just changing his ways and learning and growing?


KING: And we're going to see. We're going to see.

PHILLIP: Because --

KING: Hang on. Hold the thought. We'll come back to these changes a bit later in the program.

Up next, though, spy games. A former Trump campaign adviser says no, then, I'm not sure when asked if he might have discussed lifting U.S. sanctions in conversations with Russians during last year's campaign. Well, how the FBI just might know the truth.


[12:18:23] KING: Welcome back.

Russia's unwieldy influence on the 2016 election still very much on the mind of the FBI director.


JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: We'll do everything we can to identify, investigate and call out foreign efforts to influence our electoral process.


KING: Now, as we learned yesterday from "The Washington Post," part of that investigation includes a court ordered warrant to surveil Carter Page. He's a former Trump policy adviser. The campaign once promoted his involvement but now says he was a nobody. Yesterday in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, listen here, Page firmly denied his talks with Russians ever included the possibility that candidate Trump, if he became President Trump, might ease sanctions on the Kremlin.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE LEAD": Did you ever talk with anyone there about maybe President Trump, if he were elected, then candidate Trump, would be willing to get rid of the sanctions?

CARTER PAGE, FORMER TRUMP FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER: Never any direct conversations such as that. I mean, look, it's -- it's --

TAPPER: What do you mean direct conversation? What -- what do you -- I don't know what that means, direct conversation.

PAGE: Well, I'm just saying, no, that was never -- never said, no.

TAPPER: You never said that to anybody, that you think that -- that president -- that if Donald Trump won, he might be willing to get rid of the Russian -- the sanctions against Russia?



KING: Well, now listen again this morning as never becomes, well, I don't remember.


PAGE: I never offered that, no, nothing along those lines, absolutely not. I mean, it may -- topics -- I don't remember the -- we'll see what comes out in this FISA transcript. Something may have come up in a conversation. I have no recollection and there is nothing specifically that I would have done that would have given people that impression.


[12:20:02] KING: Talk about being flexible.

MARTIN: Gumby-like.

PACE: This is why you don't do television interviews when there's a FISA warrant out for you, right?

KING: Right.

PACE: Or whether you're the center of an FBI investigation.


MARTIN: Julie, we want him to do TV every day. KING: No, but he --

MARTIN: Don't you dare say that.

KING: You make -- you make --

MARTIN: On the hour.

KING: You make a key point.

MARTIN: Every day.

KING: Here is -- here is someone who, you know, wants to blame President Obama for this warrant and if he can prove that someday, you know, let's see the evidence. But it's very hard to go to the FISA court, the foreign intelligence court, and get a warrant on an American citizen. The FBI has a pretty high bar to make the case that -- to get this extraordinary power that we believe and here's probable cause that this person is acting as an agent of a foreign government. That's a big deal.

Now, to your point, if you look -- the answer with Jake last night, which became a different answer with George this morning, it sure sounded to me like somebody talked to his attorney.


KUCINICH: Also, is this the third Trump advisor who's forgotten their conversations with Russia bout sanctions?



KUCINICH: At least. I mean these -- I guess these conversations are just so forgettable that -- but I think you're right, I think he probably talked to his lawyer and that he can't say never.

KING: Be a little bit more careful, yes.

KUCINICH: For sure.

PHILLIP: If you are Carter Page, you probably shouldn't be on television talking about this stuff in the first place. But also, it's important to know that if -- this is the person we're talking about. The White House and the Trump campaign have been trying for a long time to get rid of Carter Page because he's a problem for them.

KING: Right.

PHILLIP: And it's pretty apparent why he's such a problem. But the question remains, why was he brought in, in the first place? Did he come to them? Did someone go to him?

MARTIN: Yes. PHILLIP: He said with Jake yesterday in an interview that the last time he talked to Trump associates at the White House, campaign, whatever, was January 20th. Why so late if the campaign had -- and the White House had distanced themselves from him since last summer? So a lot of unanswered questions here. The White House knows that he's a problem. I remember early in January Sean Spicer saying, we've put Carter Page on warning for so long. That's the kind of language that you use when you're trying to get someone to be quiet and stop incriminating himself.

KING: And to this point, it's the -- the first face-to-face in Moscow, the secretary of state met with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, yesterday.

PACE: Yes.


KING: The secretary of state spent four plus hours in meetings with the Russian foreign minister. As we know, the president of the United States call it a hoax, tries to belittle this investigation into Russian election medaling. Well, Secretary Tillerson said that, asked and answered, he believes that there's no reason to discuss with the Russians because he's seen the evidence and it's true. Listen to the Russian foreign minister on that subject saying, no, we don't think so.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): I can only say once again that justice and the case for the so-called Russian hackers and the chemical incidents in Syria, we would very much like to get some complete evidence, not just words. So far we have not seen any facts.


MARTIN: I couldn't quite make out from the translation there, but I think he said a 400 pound guy in New Jersey?

No, it's --

KING: They've seen no facts, no evidence.

MARTIN: Yes. I mean, look, it's deadly serious business, but -- but what's so striking about this whole story is that whoever the Russians were paying was giving them some bad political intel because they invested a lot of capital in trying to get the platform changed at the RNC last summer.

PACE: Yes.

MARTIN: As all of us here know, and lots of folks at home know, the platform of a party has zero impact on actual governance in this country. It just doesn't -- it doesn't sort of document that actors argue about and it means nothing. And now here we are and you've got, you know, sort of cold war level hostilities back and forth between the president and Russia less than 100 days in. So it just strikes me as the Russian money was not well spent.

PHILLIP: Although maybe the objective here was signal sending to sort of send a broader signal beyond the United States political scene --

MARTIN: Yes. Sure.

PACE: Right.

PHILLIP: About where the Republican Party or perhaps the Trump administration is heading. It's a little unclear what that was about. But, you know, even if it was sort of misguided effort, it's really puzzling why the Republican Party would allow themselves to be used in that way.

MARTIN: Totally.

PHILLIP: A party that for many, many years --


PHILLIP: Has had a very hawkish view of Russia. Changing on a dime like that is something that should raise a lot of eyes.

MARTIN: And it shows how adrift they were too after Trump seized the nomination, right? And sort of shifting sands of the party. Nobody knew who actually was in control and you had Trump's staff was just constantly moving around and they were kind of vulnerable to this.


KING: Right. I need to stop the conversation there.


KING: We have some break news. I need to go to CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Apparently the United States military has used an extraordinary military ordinance in Afghanistan.

Barbara, give us the details.


We are just now learning, and CNN has this exclusively right now, a short time ago the U.S. Air Force dropped a 21,000 pound bomb in eastern Afghanistan, the first use ever of this weapon in combat. This is a weapon called the Massive Ordinance Air Blast Bomb. It was dropped in eastern Afghanistan, in Nangarhar province, against a complex of ISIS tunnels, personnel, that had been assembling in that area of Nangarhar. The U.S. military had this weapon in development for years, but now today, just a few hours ago, dropping the bomb in combat, according to U.S. officials, for the first time ever. This massive 21,000 pound bomb, we have video we're showing of the testing of the bomb, but again, not used in combat until today we are told. [12:25:42] This is such a heavy bomb. Such a large bomb. It is put in

the back of a cargo plane, a special operations cargo plane, and basically pushed out the back of it. Now they've dropped it on this ISIS complex of fighters in eastern Afghanistan. This is an area where just a few days ago a U.S. special operations soldier was killed in action in a fire fight with ISIS fighters. It's an area the U.S. has been trying to go after to clear ISIS out of there.

An extraordinary use of this weapon to put mildly how seriously the U.S. Air Force takes this bomb. The official name is the Massive Ordinance Air Blast Bomb, MOAB. The nickname inside the Air Force for this, quite seriously, is the mother of all bombs.


KING: And, Barbara, we're watching the testing video. And you watched the impact of this play out. You mentioned, this was developed some time ago. Is the fact that it hasn't been used before because there was not an opportune target or because it's controversial if you're going to drop the mother of all bombs, as you just noted, obviously a president, a commander in chief, a defense secretary has to sign off on the stakes of what they're doing.

STARR: Well, indeed they do and I would think it's very fair to assume it's a combination of both things, John, that you just mentioned. This is a bomb that was designed years ago when the U.S. was at war in Iraq and they were looking at going after a number of targets of Saddam Hussein type targets. They never had the opportunity to use it in part because they could never match up just what you said, the right target with the right weapon. Plus, it's no small proposition to drop 21,000 pounds at one time.

So clearly for reasons that we're still trying to puzzle out here, they felt that this was the right target. If you want to go after ISIS tunnels in eastern Afghanistan, which is a very remote area, this might be the weapon that you would choose because you can assure destruction of the tunnel. If they're in a rock area, in a hard dirt area, this is a bomb that -- where you -- the target is killed off essentially by air blast. It's not like a penetrator into a bunker that we've all seen for so many years. This is an air blast weapon. The air blast is essentially what kills the target.

They would have been very concerned about civilians in the area, civilian casualties, and presumably they felt that they could use this without risking civilian casualties in the area. Because, again, it was just a few days ago that U.S. troops were there, special operations forces engaged in combat with ISIS fighters there. A U.S. soldier killed in combat. And, you know, once that happens, they do look for a way to try and go back and finish what they were doing there and they decide to use this.

We know, by the way, from our own Pentagon reporter, Ryan Brown, that this weapon had been in theater, had been in Afghanistan for some time. So they had it on standby. They were obviously waiting to find the right target to use it. And today they did, dropping this bomb, we are told, just a few hours ago. They are conducting battle damage assessments. They are flying reconnaissance over the target to see if they caused the exact damage that they want to cause or whether they will have to go back and restrike again. But it's very early into this extraordinary mission and we don't have an answer to that yet.

KING: Barbara, I appreciate the breaking news coming in and your contacts.

All right, I'm going to let you go for a minute so you can get back to your reporting. Come back as soon as you have some new information.

As we let Barbara get back to her reporting on this dramatic, breaking news, let's bring in our CNN military analyst, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

General Hertling, let me just start with this. You're familiar with this weapon. What does it tell you? What is the significance of this breaking news Barbara Starr just brought to us?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST (voice-over): Well, the Air Force is very good, John, at using the right weapon for the right target. And, truthfully, I -- I haven't heard the term MOAB since about 2003. I was in the Pentagon as a joint planner before we went into Iraq and there was discussion of using a MOAB, not only in Iraq against a potential Saddam target when we got it, but also during the Tora Bora fight in Afghanistan when we were just entering that battlefield going after Osama bin Laden.

[12:30:12] It is, as Barbara stated,