Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey; Did Trump Administration Mislead Nation About U.S. Navy Movements?; Bill O'Reilly Out at FOX News; Secretary Tillerson Talks Iranian Nuclear Deal. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 19, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump had said just days ago, "I don't think Bill O'Reilly did anything wrong."

This afternoon, we found out that Bill O'Reilly's bosses at FOX, well, they disagree.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska, Syrian jets in that country on the move, Syria's test of the commander in chief, Donald Trump, right now.

The White House today adding to the confusion. The president had said an armada was headed to North Korea, when it was actually first headed elsewhere. It was a shock to U.S. allies Japan and South Korea that it was not on the way there, all the clarity of a game of "Battleship." What's going on?

Plus, an end to the spin zone, the no-spin zone, I guess, a cable news stunner. Bill O'Reilly is out at FOX News after a series of sexual harassment scandals that he could not escape.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are going to begin with some breaking news in the world lead. President Trump right now is faced with major military moves and provocations on different continents, all happening just in the past few hours.

Today, for the second day in a row, nuclear-capable Russian bombers were spotted just miles off the coast of Alaska. The Pentagon also says Syrian fighter planes are on the move to a Russian base inside that country, presumably making the Syrian planes harder to target without sparking a larger global conflict potentially between the U.S. and Russia, nuclear superpowers.

And all of this is happening as the White House today added yet another heaping helping of confusion onto what is a deadly and tricky situation regarding North Korea's nuclear program. Allies are confused by President Trump's comments last week that the U.S. had a -- quote -- "armada" heading for the Korean Peninsula, when, frankly, it wasn't heading there at all.

Let's go straight to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, let's start with the Russian jets buzzing Alaska. How is the Pentagon interpreting this action?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the key question is, is it a military threat to the United States? Is it a military threat to all of us? The answer right now is probably not.

These Russian planes haven't flown up there in about two years, but are they planning to attack the United States? Nobody really thinks that. They are at least 36 miles offshore, close, but not in U.S. airspace. They have got intercepted. The U.S. send aircraft up right away. They keep eyes out all the time and escorted them back out.

They in fact turned around pretty quick and went back towards Russia, but question is, of course, what is Vladimir Putin's intention? What message is he sending? Is he just poking at President Trump, saying, hah, I can fly near your coastline without anybody really stopping me?

So we will have to see how it all sorts out, not a military threat, but definitely an annoyance -- Jake.

TAPPER: And speaking of Putin flexing his muscles, let's turn to Syria.

The Kremlin had to know that Syria has been moving its combat aircraft closer to the Russian air base in Syria. What does the Pentagon make of this?

STARR: Well, by all accounts, it looks like they have moved most of their operational fighter aircraft to this base along the Syrian coastline, quite close to where the Russians have the majority of their military footprint, including Russian anti-air missiles, Russian air defense equipment.

So, the presumption is that Syrians think that they are going to be under the Russian shelter, and that the U.S. can't attack them there. So here's the key question. What if the Syrians do decide to launch another chemical attack using something like sarin? Would the U.S. fly within the range of Syrian air defenses?

How could they counterattack against the Syrians if they are within the Russian military umbrella, Jake?

TAPPER: All these tests and challenges for the president come as the administration is trying to downplay the fact that the president and the White House last week suggested that a U.S. -- quote -- "armada" was approaching the Korean Peninsula, which suggested that that was happening imminently, though we now know that the Vinson strike group at the time of the announcement was actually headed south and not north.

STARR: Right. A lot of confusion day after day about that one, but it turns out that the real facts are that, of course, the carrier always was going south. The Pentagon knew that. The White House had some awareness of it. Reporters covering the Pentagon knew it, and now that carrier has turned again and is headed north towards the Korean Peninsula.


STARR (voice-over): It's a war of images and words that didn't need Madison avenue, North Korea's latest propaganda video, military singers, simulated missiles striking the U.S.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't think we're going to comment on every time they put out a piece of propaganda.

STARR: The Pentagon also entering the messaging arena, announcing to the news media days ago the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was headed near the Korean Peninsula, but not telling the media right away that it would first do exercises off Australia before heading north.

SPICER: It was announced that it was going. It will be there.

STARR: The carrier will arrive as soon as next week on station between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, conducting routine, but visible flight operations, says a U.S. defense official, but that confusing media message could have national security implications.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: This could be just considered a mistake or a miscommunication between the Navy and the Pentagon and the Pentagon and the White House. That's fine. You have mistakes at some times in military operations.

But when you have these kinds of mistakes and it sends an indicator that there is a lack of coordination, a lack of coordinated effort, it could be problematic to both friends and foes alike.

STARR: Defense Secretary James Mattis annoyed at the attention and the confusion.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The bottom line is in our effort to always be open about what we're doing, we said that we were going to change the Vinson's upcoming schedule.

STARR: Mixed messaging on North Korea taking on the good cop/bad cop overtone.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 to test his resolve.

STARR: But the president's national security adviser emphasizing a peaceful solution and noting a reliance on what other administrations have tried.

MATTIS: This problem is coming to a head, and so it's time for us to undertake all actions we can short of a military option to try to resolve this peacefully, and so we're going to rely on our allies like we always do.


STARR: "Rely on our allies like we always do," that is something that many administrations over the decades have tried, and it looks like the Trump administration is trying the very same thing -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us, thank you so much.

For more on this and many other issues, I'm joined by Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts. He's on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Thanks so much for joining us, Senator. Appreciate it.

SEN. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

TAPPER: So, today, for the second time in 24 hours, nuclear-capable Russian bombers were spotted just miles off the coast of Alaska. Do you think that Putin is sending a message, and how would you recommend President Trump respond?

MARKEY: Well, I think that obviously Putin is trying to remind the United States that they also have massive military capability that can do tremendous damage to the assets of the United States or of our allies.

And it is just something that we constantly have to remember, in the same way that we have to remember that North Korea right now has nuclear weapons and they have a capability of delivering those nuclear weapons on a strike towards South Korea, where we have 28,000 troops which are based.

So, all of this is just a reminder that we are playing with dangerous situations, and everything that we do should be carefully calibrated to illicit specific responses from those with whom we have dealing, and we cannot act in a way that's reckless, cavalier with the facts, or could ultimately wind up with a dangerous response from those with whom we're dealing.

TAPPER: Senator Markey, stick around. We're going to take a very quick break. We have got a lot more to talk about, including the head of the EPA paying a visit to a city where industrial pollution forced hundreds of people from their homes.

Stay with us. We will be right back.



TAPPER: Welcome back. We're back with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey.

Senator, last week, President Trump said he was sending a -- quote -- "armada" to the Korean Peninsula in the midst of this standoff with Kim Jong-un, but the aircraft carrier group was actually headed in the opposite direction at the time.

This afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer maintained that the president and the White House were correct because the carrier was eventually going to go to the Korean Peninsula, and it actually is right now, so technically it was always heading there.

What you do you think?

MARKEY: I think they have a big credibility problem.

They obviously had no idea where this aircraft carrier fleet was going, or they did know and they decided to lie about the fact that it wasn't heading towards North Korea. Either way, if you're an ally of the United States, you're just wondering, what's going on inside of there administration?

And if you're North Korea, if you're President Kim, you're wondering, who are you dealing with here? Is there anything that can be relied upon?

And it's on same weekend when the national security adviser, McMaster, said that all -- only diplomatic resolutions of this conflict were on the table right now, not military, on the same day the Vice President Trump (sic) is saying all options are on the table.

So this is really a rudderless administration, from its aircraft carrier fleet fiasco, to their lack of coordination in their messaging, and it's just something that has to get corrected, so that we don't slip into an accidental confrontation with another country that has weapons that can kill not just Americans, but other people on this planet.

TAPPER: You said Vice President Trump. I think you meant Vice President Pence there.


MARKEY: Vice President Pence. I'm sorry.


[16:15:00] I just want -- I want to ask you. "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting this afternoon that ExxonMobil is seeking a waiver from U.S. sanctions on Russia, so that they can drill with a state-owned oil company in Russia.

As you know, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was until recently the head of Exxon.

What do you think about this request for a waiver? MARKEY: Well, the big problem about Rex Tillerson being named as the

secretary of state was and remains the fact that ExxonMobil controls an area the size of Wyoming inside of Russia for the right to drill for oil and natural gas. So, that's a huge conflict of interest that the secretary of state has, and because of the activities of Russia in Ukraine, there are sanctions that make it impossible for ExxonMobil to do that drilling.

And so, this goes right to the heart of what American policy is with regard to Ukraine, with regard to Crimea. In fact, with regard to Syria in terms of what it is that we expect the Russians to do to act cooperatively in order to resolve each one of those situations, and by ExxonMobil using its special relationship with Rex Tillerson to now propose a waiver, it again calls into question whether or not we are going as a country to stand up to Putin, stand up to Russia and have American national security interests be made primary and not the economic interests of ExxonMobil and other commercial interests in our country.

TAPPER: Switching gears, I want to ask you about the fact that the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt visited Chicago and Indiana today to shine a light on the tragic lead contamination issue in that community. It's a story we've covered before.

Some environmentalists have noted that President Trump's budget would call for cuts to the EPA's environmental justice program which they say could help solve this problem. What's your response to him visiting this housing project?

MARKEY: Scott Pruitt, as attorney general of Oklahoma, sued the EPA 19 times on clean air, clean water, soot, smog, all the way down the line. When he was up before the committee that I serve on for confirmation, I asked him if he would recuse himself from all of those cases. He said no, which makes him the plaintiff, the defendant, the judge and the jury in all of those cases.

And now, the Trump administration is proposing a 31 percent cut in the EPA budget. Well, that goes to the ability of the federal government to help a poor community deal with a superfund site, with toxic chemicals in their soil or in their water or in their air, and it's not just poor communities, it's every community in our country. And what Scott Pruitt intends on doing, what Donald Trump intends on doing, is turning the EPA into every polluters' ally.

And this visit by Scott Pruitt is nothing more than a photo-op that belies the reality of the actual Trump policies that are going to cut at this historic commitment since Earth Day back a generation ago began this movement towards ensuring that we were going to leave a legacy of cleaner air and water for each generation. This administration is walking away from that legacy.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Ed Markey, thank you so much. Appreciate your time, sir.

Coming up, there's no way to spin this one. FOX News showing Bill O'Reilly the door after a series of sexual harassment scandals. That's coming up.

Stay with us.


[16:22:50] TAPPER: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is speaking now about Iran at the State Department. Let's listen in.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Interdictions by Emirati forces in Yemen and coalition forces in the Arabian Sea have revealed a complex Iranian network to arm and equip the Houthis. Iranian naval vessels continue to undermine the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf by harassing U.S. naval vessels that are operating lawfully. Iran has conducted cyber attacks against the United States and our Gulf partners.

Iran has been behind terrorist attacks throughout the rest of the world, including a plot to kill Adel al-Jubeir who was then the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Whether it'd be assassination attempts, support of weapons of mass destruction, deploying destabilizing militias, Iran spends its treasure and time disrupting peace. Iran continues to have one of the world's worst human rights records. Political opponents are regularly jailed or executed, reaching the agonizing low point of executing juveniles and individuals whose punishment is not proportionate to their crime.

Iran arbitrarily detains foreigners, including U.S. citizens on false charges. Several U.S. citizens remain mission or unjustly imprisoned in Iran. Apart from the abuses inside Iran's own borders, it is the threat it poses to the rest of the world. Iran's nuclear ambitions are a grave risk to international peace and security. It is their habit and posture to use whatever resources they have available to unsettle people and nations.

With its latest test of a medium range ballistic missile Iran's continued development and proliferation of missile technology is in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, and it has previously stated it will conduct a second test flight of the Simorgh space launch vehicle which would put it closer to an operational intercontinental ballistic missile.

[16:25:03] Any discussion of Iran is incomplete without mentioning the JCPOA. The JSCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran. It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state. This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea.

The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran. The evidence is clear. Iran's provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world.

As I indicated at the beginning, the Trump administration is currently conducting a comprehensive review of our Iran policy. Once we've finalized our conclusions, we will meet the challenges that Iran poses with clarity and conviction. Thank you. REPORTER: Mr. Secretary --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll take a few questions. Andrea Mitchell?

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal. If you break out of that deal, won't that send a signal to North Korea and other rogue nations that the U.S. can't be trusted to keep its end of the bargain, and Iran is already being sanctioned for its terrorism, for its missile advances by the U.S. Is another option was that many Republicans on the Hill have suggested to increase those sanctions to punish Iran for those --

TILLERSON: Well, Andrea, I think it's important on any conversation on JCPOA, and I think that this was one of the mistakes in how that agreement was put together is that it completely ignored all of the other serious threats that Iran poses, and I just went through a few of those with you. And that's why our view is that we have to look at Iran in a very comprehensive way in terms of the threat it poses and in all areas of the region and the world, and the JCPOA is just one element of that.

And so, we are going to review completely the JCPOA itself. As I said, it really does not achieve the objective. It is another example of buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions. We buy them off for a short period of time and then someone has to deal with it later.

We just don't -- we just don't see that that's a prudent way to be dealing with Iran, certainly not in the context of all of their other disruptive activities.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that the JCPOA is another example of the failed approach likening it to the strategic patience of North Korea. On North Korea, is there a serious consideration being given to list them as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation (INAUDIBLE)

TILLERSON: We're reviewing all the status of North Korea both in terms of state sponsorship of terrorism, as well as all the other ways in which we can bring pressure to bear on the regime in Pyongyang to re-engage, but re-engage with us on a different footing than the past talks have been held. So, yes, we're evaluating all of those options.


REPORTER: Are you worried about the situation in streets of Caracas in Venezuela?

TILLERSON: I'm sorry, I didn't catch.

REPORTER: The situation in Venezuela, there's lots of turmoil on the streets of Venezuela protesting the government. Are you worried about this situation there?

TILLERSON: Well, we are concerned that the government of Madura is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in a way that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people.

Yes, we are concerned about that situation. We're watching it closely and working with others, particularly through the OAS to communicate those concerns to them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much.

TILLERSON: Thank you.

TAPPER: That was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson basically saying that even though the State Department has concluded that Iran has complied with its end of the deal when it came to the JCPOA, the Iran deal, the nuclear deal, he is not yet convinced that sanctions should be lifted as was part that have agreement because Iran continues to do a whole host of nefarious acts, including funding terrorism throughout the world. So, that Secretary Tillerson taking a couple of questions after making the announcement.

Let's talk about this with our panel.

Susan Page, let me ask you first. You heard a reporter, I believe it was Andrea Mitchell, asking the question that if the Trump administration does not agree to do what the U.S. agreed to do, lift the sanctions as long as Iran complied, then how can anyone in the world ever trust that the United States will uphold its obligations?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Yes, a very fair question, and that's an important issue in part because President Trump was so clear during the campaign that he was going to tear up this deal on day one, it's the worst deal ever negotiated.