Return to Transcripts main page


Pence on North Korean Options; Trump's Message to North Korea; Trump Foreign Policy; Sanders Worried about Warfare; Georgia Special Election. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 17, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks so much for joining us AT THIS HOUR. "Inside Politics" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your time today. It's Easter Monday or Patriots Day back where I'm from.

Vice President Pence visits the tense demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea and says patience with Pyongyang's missile tests and nuclear program is running short.


MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The era of strategic patience is over.


KING: Plus, there's more anti-Trump energy at congressional town halls.


CROWD: Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.


KING: But with a key test Tuesday in Georgia, Democrats have yet to prove they can translate all that anger into election victories.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: I believe you're going to see it in Montana. I believe you're going to see it all over this country. Is that many so-called red states, working people are going to wake up and say, wait a second, Republicans want to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education and they want to give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent. No, that's not what we elected Trump to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: And, as I noted, it's Easter Monday. That means the 139th annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House. The first for the new president and new first lady.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to come out and enjoy you and enjoy your company for a roll, a great Easter egg roll. And I don't know if we're going to be successful, but I know a lot of people down there are going to be successful. I've seen those kids and they're highly, highly competitive. That I can tell you.


KING: It's good to see young Baron Trump and the Easter bunny there.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, Matt Viser of "The Boston Globe," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and Mary Katharine Ham of "The Federalist."

We begin with the Trump administration's high stakes stare down with North Korea. Vice President Pence is the messenger today in words and in images.


MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All options are on the table.

Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not do test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.


KING: That muscular rhetoric there was after a meeting with South Korea's acting president. The vice president's tone was a bit different as he got a first-hand look and taste of perhaps the most tense place on earth, looking across the fencing and the mine fields that separate North from South Korea. North Korean centuries watching from the other side, snapping pictures of the American VIP just a few hundred feet away. There, in an exclusive interview with CNN's Dana Bash, the vice president's emphasis was more diplomatic.


MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience, but we're going to redouble our efforts to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on North Korea. Our hope is that we can resolve this issue peaceably.


KING: The language has changed. No more strategic patience. Emphasis there at the DMZ of economic, diplomatic pressure. Earlier, though, standing in the region, remember it's not just what he says, it's where he says it. The vice president is standing in South Korea at this tense time, earlier there, starting by making a reference to what we've seen in the past couple of weeks with this president. That seems a pretty direct message to Pyongyang, this president, my boss, Donald Trump, not afraid to use force.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, I mean, and that's something that we've seen this president, you know, willing to do with Syria, first of all, in this meeting with the Chinese president in Mar-a-Lago a couple of weeks ago there. So I was -- I was struck by that language, actually. It was not by accident that he said it there.

But the reality here is, they're still waiting on China. I mean we're seeing a much more diplomatic approach from this administration and, boy, a complete change in language, a 180 or a 360 from the rhetoric of the campaign against China, because now the president hopes and believes that China will be a partner in helping in North Korea. We'll see.

KING: And yet this president hopes, and he had a good meeting with the president of China, that they will be -- they will exert more pressure. We've seen them. They've turned some coal shipments back. They've had some other economic, you know, pause. One of the Chinese state airlines have said it won't fly into North Korea right now. They say it's because of weak sales, but we all get the message that Beijing's trying to send.

But we've been through this movie before. President Obama wanted the Chinese to help. President George W. Bush wanted the Chinese to help. President Clinton wanted the Chinese to help more. The Chinese helped to a degree, but the Chinese don't want a unified Korea. The Chinese don't want the refugee problem from North Korea. They don't want a North and South Korea unified like Germany. And so if history tells us the Chinese will help up to their line.

MATT VISER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": Well, and you're seeing, too, just like the unpredictability right now. You have two leaders in -- both in North Korea and in the United States who are very unpredictable and you don't know what their end games look like. And so Donald Trump, over the weekend, tweeted, we'll see what happens, you know, with an exclamation point. And I think that is what is unsettling to the Chinese and is maybe, you know, maybe successfully pushing them to put more pressure on North Korea.

[12:05:14] MARY KATHARINE HAM, "THE FEDERALIST": Well, and I think, you know, the hope is that a believed promise of force can prevent you from having to use force. And speaking of where you say things, the bombing in Syria was going on while he's talking to the head of China --

KING: Right.

HAM: Which is, I think was a -- a pointed statement in and of itself. But we have been in this situation a long time and when you're doing diplomacy, it essentially is strategic patience. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Right.

HAM: But this is with a different tone, which I think they're hoping will make a difference.

KING: A different tone, but this is the vice president in South Korea today. I want you to listen to the secretary of state in South Korea exactly one month ago.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The policy of strategic patience has ended. We're exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.


KING: So it's the same message. Obviously it's an echo now if you're in Pyongyang and you've had -- you have -- since Secretary Tillerson was there, you have had the military strikes in Syria, the use of this -- the largest non-nuclear bomb at the Air Force's disposal in Afghanistan. But they're in a holding pattern, still waiting on the Chinese. The question is, will this administration -- what the Chinese want, and they made it clear again today, is talks. They want to go back to what were called the six-party talks. Russia's involved, China's involved, the United States is involved, Korea's involved, other parties in the region are involved.

This administration and Secretary Tillerson specifically when he was there a month ago said we're not interested in negotiations. The question is, if the Chinese say to the Trump administration, we're trying to help, but you have to come back to the table, will they change their position?

HENDERSON: You imagine they'll have to. I mean they're saying that, I mean, as in (INAUDIBLE) they're -- they're sort of saying that the era of strategic patience is over, but they're essentially practicing strategic patience because they have to rely on China. You've got Donald Trump, who really is learning on the job how complicated this situation is, talking to the Chinese leader and saying, quite frankly, he didn't know how complicated it was. So you have him changing his positions, him trying to use leverage, this idea of not labeling China as a currency manipulator, to try to figure out what they're going to do.

But, again, I mean this idea that they can use the example of Syria and Afghanistan, two theaters of war, right, in action there to kind of have leverage and to show that they use force. North Korea is a totally different animal, totally different country. So it's not clear that that sort of threat is applicable to North Korea.

KING: Right. And the stakes, the confrontation, are totally different in the sense that not to excuse for a second or minimize for a second the horrors we see in Syria, where Bashar al Assad used weapons, including chemical weapons, against his own people, if you talk about the proximity, North Korea to South Korea, the thousands of U.S. troops, the thousands of South Korean troops, but the millions of people who live in Seoul and the suburbs too, if this even turns into an artillery barrage, the stakes are enormous.

But the president's line has been very clear, he says either China will help us deal with this or we will. So the president's own credibility's on the line here. And I'm just -- before you jump in, I just want to listen, Jim Acosta at the Easter Egg Roll earlier today tried to ask the president about this as he made his way around with the children. Let's listen.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Any message for North Korea, sir, Kim Jong-un?


ACOSTA: Mr. President, do you think North Korea can be resolved peacefully, sir? What are your thoughts on Kim Jong-un?

TRUMP: Probably it can.


KING: Probably can or hopefully it can. The president saying they've got to behave. The other message.

Again, words matter. The vice president going into the region. The trip was scheduled before. But a failed missile test over the weekend, missile launch over the weekend, by North Korea. They did it again after Secretary Tillerson was there. So, so far the words of the Trump administration have not convinced Kim Jong-un to stop what is in violation of international law but certainly in violation of this line the new president's trying to draw.

VISER: But I think the missile test failing is a big indicator of the direction of things. It's not much of a threat from North Korea to continue having failed tests. You know, had that been successful, you can imagine a different posture from the Trump administration. So they do have a little bit more patience to be strategic, you know, for at least the time being it seems.

ZELENY: But the president's message of "gotta behave," you know, it's sort of easy to say that, but what if they don't is the big question then. And this is something that this administration, the last president, President Obama, said that this is the biggest threat that's facing the U.S. when they were having their one-on-one there. This president realizes that. But he also told Jim that he hopes for a peaceful solution to this. So --

KING: But the -- the question is how do you get there --

ZELENY: Right.


KING: In the sense that, again, this is --

ZELENY: And they don't know.

KING: The structure, the Chinese want us to go back to the big negotiations. This administration has been very reluctant saying that has failed. It failed in the Obama administration. It failed in the Bush administration beforehand. Why are we going back to a structure that has failed, which is a perfectly understandable approach at the beginning. The question is, when you hit the wall and nothing's changing, you know, what's next? Is there another option?

Another thing that happened today, number one, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations is accusing the United States' administration of gangster bike language and he says if there's any military provocation that North Korea's prepared to have a military confrontation back, if you will. But also it was interesting on the Chinese question because to get the Chinese involved, one of the things they don't like is that the United States is sending this THAAD missile defense system into South Korea because of tensions in the region. And, again, the Chinese don't like an escalation of South Korean capabilities or U.S. and South Korean allied capabilities in the region. So as the president asks for help, Vice President Pence was publicly doing something that pokes the Chinese a bit today.

[12:10:31] HAM: Well, and it seems like, to some extent a change of tone has led to some differences in China's behavior, so that's a good beginning. The fact that the missile launch failed also, I'm sure, makes many people feel better in the --

KING: It also makes them nervous --

HAM: Right.

KING: Because it's an embarrassment after the military parade --

HAM: Well, and he's an irrational actor --

KING: It's an embarrassment to an irrational actor. Will they speed up a nuclear test. The window, the intelligence community says between now and the 25th is when they think there's a possibility of another nuclear test. The question is, if Kim Jung-un is mad right now because this was embarrassing, does he lash out.

HAM: Well, and the fact that the messaging on this has been fairly consistent where they are, which is not something we always see from this administration on foreign policy, it seems like they are taking this very seriously in a way that -- with other areas of world have not seen.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: Even though we haven't heard much from President Trump on this.

KING: Right. HENDERSON: He's tweeted about it. I mean the public people, mainly H.R. McMaster, Pence as well, Tillerson, so it's interesting that he is using this sort of Twitter diplomacy for this very serious problem. As you said, President Obama, on his way out, said, this is what you're going to have to do. And we saw early on in the administration having to do with North Korea, with some of the missile tests so far. So we'll see what he says publically.

KING: I think he's mad a bet. The president, I think, it not speaking public very much because he's made a bet that his new relationship with President Xi is going to bring results. We shall see as we go forward. And the question is, how long? How much patience does the president have in this time when he says none with Pyongyang? How much does he have with Beijing.

Everybody sit tight.

In just 88 days, President Trump says he has exposed the foreign policy failures of the past eight years. The president's actions and his Twitter diplomacy, next.


[12:16:25] KING: Welcome back.

The president likes to watch "Fox and Friends" in the morning to be reminded of the flawless job he's doing. And, today, as he often does, he tweeted his approval. "The first 90 days of my presidency has exposed the total failure of the last eight years of foreign policy. So true." That from @realdonaldtrump.

Without a doubt, the military strikes in Syria did win bipartisan praise in part because of the bipartisan frustration that President Obama drew a red line over the chemical weapons use, then failed to enforce it. And the military's use of its most powerful non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan last week, no doubt sent a message to ISIS. But it would be mistake -- sorry Mr. President and at "Fox and Friends" -- to equate two successful military operations with a successful foreign policy too soon. Like President's Obama, Bush and Clinton before him, the president, Trump, is now asking China to use its influence in North Korea. Russia, Iran and Syria are still aligned against the United States and the Middle East, just as they were during the Obama administration. ISIS and the Taliban are still making gains in Afghanistan.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I support what he did and I support the bunker buster bomb, but we've got to develop a strategy. There is still not an overall strategy that he can come to Congress and his advisers and say, OK, this is how we're going to handle Syria, here's how we're going to handle post-Mosul, Iraq, here's how -- we've got to have a strategy and I'll give them some more time but so far that strategy is not apparent.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: I'm making light somewhat of his, you know, state TV or his love of watching "Fox and Friends" in the morning. But this is a question that many Republicans have. Even some people, if you talk within his administration, some of the established foreign policy team, the very experienced foreign policy team he brought in saying, you know, yes, what we did, we think it's important and we think it's right, but it is not a broad policy just yet and it's 88 days in. They -- give them grace and patience on some of these big, vexing questions, but the question some people have is, does the president think that when you launch a missile strike and you launch -- you drop a bomb and it's a successful operation that that in and of itself is going to change factions on the ground.

ZELENY: I think not but I think one thing in foreign policy we've seen that he is flexible above all. And I think the -- I mean he railed against what China has done to America's heartland. You know, he said it was the rapping of the U.S. Now he has changed his tenor and tone completely. So I think he's very flexible on this. But we have heard him, as Nia was saying before, he barely speaks about foreign policy at all. He doesn't give that many public speeches at all, actually. You know, he's not had big rallies like he promised to do or said he would do. He's not given sort of a big speech since that one to the House and Senate. But I think there are a lot of people wondering what the Trump doctrine foreign policy is. He is willing to use the military and the use of force, but beyond that he's not filled in the gaps of this.

But I think one thing that's also clearly, the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, is definitely in the driver's seat now and a lot of his commanders, the defense secretary, James Mattis, and the Pentagon also sort of driving things. So I think we're seeing it shape (ph) but we seldom hear him talk about it.

KING: The team is winning a lot of praise. To you question, a lot of people say we need to hear more from the president. And, again, if he's thinking things through, and he's planned it down the road a little bit, that's one thing, but we -- that is true, we don't hear a lot. But the team itself is getting a lot of praise. Even -- Democrats may not like some of the things they do, but they look at this team and they say, wow, that's an a plus team.

HENDERSON: That's right. And some people are concerned that it's too heavy with generals, right? A lot of these positions typically civilians take them. And so we've seen, I think, from this president that he likes symbolism in terms of these muscular approaches to foreign policy, the mother of all bombs dropped in Afghanistan, this 59 missile strike in Syria. And he certainly must sit back and look it -- sort of a television reviews of this and sort of the televised nature of this and think it's a success. And what I think the question beyond all of this is what happens next. And then, obviously, John McCain laying that out there and nicely he's going to have -- I mean hawks who have praised him really say what's next. What does the Trump doctrine look like other than the kind of one-off strikes in these different regions.

[12:20:34] VISER: One irony here though, you know, is the America first president. I mean the guy who talked so much during the campaign about fixing things at home domestically is now, over the past week and a half, involved so much abroad, you know, in all of these -- all of these conflicts. And it's one area I think too that he has a lot of latitude in foreign policy. And you often see presidents toward the end as a lame duck had abroad to try and do things.

President Trump has had a lot of trouble domestically with Congress and in this two-week congressional period he's kind of strengthened his hand in, you know, polling is probably taking up for him in approval ratings, which may change things -- change the dynamics domestically, you know, when Congress returns next year.

KING: It's strength and toughness is without a doubt a Trump brand that emerged from the campaign. But it is somewhat, to Jeff's point and Matt's point is, the specific actions are somewhat at odds from a candidate and then a private citizen who repeatedly told President Obama, don't take the bait, don't go into Syria.

HAM: Right.

KING: Even after a chemical weapons attack. So the strength and the toughness part I think is consistent with the Trump brand, but the America first part is a little odd.

HAM: Yes, I think there isn't a Trump doctrine, but it's promising who it looks like the folks are in charge of forming it. And there will be people who are angry about the political rhetoric from the candidate being abandoned when he's sort of faced with reality of the world stage. But we are a country that was chastened by the Bush doctrine, was frustrated -- voters being frustrated by the Obama doctrine and wanted something different. And Americans also love divisive action, but maybe not too much. And so these moments for him, I don't think it's a terrible political bet that even without the cohesive message around them, Americans will say, yes, I like that. I don't think that's a bad bet at all because they don't want to be in these deep conflicts on the ground.


KING: And the issues we see before us, whether it's the civil war in Syria, and the atrocities of the Assad regime, the broader Islamic terrorism fight, Afghanistan, elsewhere in the Middle East or in North Korea, these are -- those three themselves, three of the most vexing, complicated issues facing any president. What is -- any president -- any president.

What's been interesting is that, to your point about, Democrats heard America first. A lot of Democrats liked the America first part. Let's not have military involvement in the Middle East. Let pull back and create jobs at home. Listen now to Bernie Sanders criticizing Donald Trump, who he thinks is going the wrong path.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: I do not want to see the United States get sucked into perpetual warfare in the Middle East, see our men and women get killed, trillions of dollars being spent.


KING: It is not -- that is not something on day one of the Trump administration, you did not think the Democrats were going to see that opening. It's politics. It's politics. You know, Bernie Sanders said some of that during the Obama administration as well, through the drone strikes and the like, but that is -- it's striking that that's where we are three months in.

HENDERSON: Yes, well, but it's also -- I mean in some ways it feels like Donald Trump could have said those words that Bernie Sanders just said.

ZELENY: Right.

HENDERSON: I mean he's given no indication that he wants to get sucked in towards any -- either. That he's going to put troops on the ground. All of his folks have essentially said that there isn't any intention to get bogged down in Syria. So I think the way he's going about this, I think it does in some ways dovetail with the America first because it's sort of easy. You go in. You do something. It makes headlines. It's big. And beyond that he doesn't seem so interested in doing it.

HAM: Well, and when it comes to how Trump perceives things, the reviews of those one-off strikes will be pretty good --


HAM: Until you get roped into something that's far more complicated and has more blood and pressure at stake and then the reviews go bad and he pays a lot of attention to that.

KING: Everybody sit tight.

Next, anti-Trump energy is a staple as members of Congress hold town halls back home. But with the big, special election looming, Democrats look to translate anger into victory.


[12:28:09] KING: Welcome back.

Congress now halfway through a two-week recess. They prefer to call them home working periods. And we're seeing a healthy dose of anti- Trump energy at some of the town halls held by Republican lawmakers.


CROWD: Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.


KING: That's Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake at the end of that.

Plus, the president was taken to task in tax marches -- that's a tough one -- taken to task in tax marches Saturday across the country. I wrote it. Critics asking sometimes colorfully why he refuses to release his income taxes. Take a look at some of the pictures from those marches up here.

The challenge for Democrats, though, is to translate all this anti- Trump energy into wins at the ballot box. A special election tomorrow in suburban Atlanta is a giant test. Thirty-year-old Jon Ossoff is the leading Democratic candidate in a crowded field vying for the House seat that was held by Tom Price, a Republican, until he joined the Trump cabinet. Among those trying to boost Democratic turnout tomorrow, the actor Samuel L. Jackson.

Oh, thought we had an ad there with Sam Jackson. I guess we don't have that.


KING: Somebody at the table want to do an impression?

HENDERSON: No snakes on a plane.

KING: No snakes on a plane.

The question is, this race, there was a special election last week in Kansas. The Democrats came close. They were hearted by that, but they still lost. Close doesn't count in winning special elections. This one is Tom Price, if you look at the district, it's a Republican district. But Democrats see some hope in the presidential election results there. They see some hope in anti-Trump energy in the suburbs. Republicans enter tomorrow much different mood than they were ten days ago. The Republicans I've talked to think they're confident they can keep Jon Ossoff under 50 percent. That means a runoff. If he gets 50 percent, he's the congressman. What's -- who's got the intel?

[12:29:51] ZELENY: I mean the rules help them a lot here because there will be a runoff in Georgia and it's in June, so it gives Republicans a lot of time to, you know, sort of rethink this in to rally their -- their base here. But if Democrats -- if Jon Ossoff would get over 50 percent, that would be huge. I think that's pretty unlikely.