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WAPO: Trump Urged Mexican President To End Defiance On Wall; Now: Trump, National Security Adviser Meet; WAPO: Trump Told Australian PM "I've Had It" In Call; Bipartisan Senate Bill Aims To Protect Mueller's Job; Trump's New Immigration Plan Triggers Bipartisan Furor. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 3, 2017 - 11:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for joining us today. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. "AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts now.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ana Cabrera in for Kate Bolduan. Happening right now, President Trump holding a closed-door meeting with his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster as the White House faces questions about its strategy in Afghanistan and increasing tensions with North Korea, Russia, and Congress.

Just a day after President Trump grudgingly signed a new sanctions bill to punish Moscow's meddling in the 2016 elections, he tweeted this, "Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us health care."

And now we are learning more stunning new details about his phone calls with two key U.S. allies just days after he took office. "The Washington Post" has obtained transcripts from the president's calls with Mexico's president and Australia's prime minister.

I want to bring in CNN's Sara Murray live at the White House with more details on these phone calls, that Sara, really give us a look inside the president's diplomacy.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right. Diplomacy, when it comes to two close allies, we are talking about Mexico and Australia here. These were not particularly pleasant or comfortable conversations. They were, in fact, tense.

So, I want to start with the conversation the president had with Mexican President Pena Nieto. They are talking about paying for the wall, obviously a signature of President Trump's campaign.

This is what Trump is saying to the Mexican president, "If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that." He continues to press Pena Nieto saying, "You have to stop saying this publicly. You have to stop saying it. You cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that."

Instead the president suggests that both he and Pena Nieto say publicly they are working on it. They are working on the relationship with Mexico. Things are no less tense when you turn to his conversation with Malcolm Turnbull of Australia.

Here is a portion of what the president said to Turnbull on this call. He says, "I have been making these calls all day. This is the most unpleasant call all day." Then he goes on to compare his conversation with Turnbull of Australia, a very close U.S. ally to his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has an adversarial relationship with the U.S.

And Trump says, "Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous." Now on the conversation with Turnbull, they were having this back and forth about bringing refugees to the United States.

We know that's something that the president has talked about and has been particularly concerned about. But it does give you a window into how different Trump approaches diplomacy, how different his style is than past American presidents -- Ana.

CABRERA: Meantime, Sara, the president heads to another campaign- style rally tonight while his job approval numbers continue to tank.

MURRAY: That's right. Let's take a look at those approval numbers because they are not moving in the right direction for the president at this point. If you look at this Quinnipiac poll, right now his approval rating is at 33 percent, 61 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the job the president is doing.

That's a shift from June. In June, 40 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing, 55 percent disapproved of that. We are seeing him go to West Virginia tonight. It's a ruby red state.

He is going to try to shore it up the base there, but of course, you need more than just the base when it comes to keeping control of the White House. Everyone knows the president keeps a close eye on those numbers.

CABRERA: Sara Murray at the White House for us, thanks so much. Let's talk more about the meeting that President Trump is having with his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.

Let's turn to CNN's Barbara Starr joining us at the Pentagon. Barbara, this meeting comes as questions are growing about the president's strategies, specifically in Afghanistan.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning. Those questions are out there. A lot of those questions are out there from the president himself, of course. We don't really know at this point what General McMaster and the president are planning to talk about this morning.

The White House has not said. We do know that later today there will be a meeting at the White House of top officials, once again, on a strategy for Afghanistan and the broader region. We are told the president, not likely to attend that meeting.

So, what's really going on here? You know, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, they have been struggling for weeks to try and come up with a so-called strategy for Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan and India, what is at stake, of course, is what to do.

Whether to plus up the 8,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan and the range of options is out there from those in the administration that are advocating for full withdrawal, saying Afghanistan no longer has the same strategic importance, why are U.S. troops really there, to those like the commander in Afghanistan, General Nickelson (ph), who says let me have a few thousand more troops.

Get the Afghan forces better trained up, buy them time, give them the security cushion so they can be better in the next few years and really ensure security and ensure that the Taliban and ISIS don't regain control in Afghanistan.

[11:05:14] The president, by all accounts from officials we have talked to, frustrated and doesn't see an option that he really likes. So, the meetings go on, the frustration goes on, and the rumors go on about what's really on the president's mind and what he might decide.

CABRERA: All right, Barbara Starr, you'll keep us posted on this meeting, thanks. Joining us now to discuss all of this, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Keith Boykin, and national political reporter at the "New York Times," Alex Burns.

Also, with us, CNN military analyst, Retired Major General James "Spider" Marks, and CNN political commentator and former senior adviser to the Trump campaign, Jack Kingston.

So, the president saying to the Australian prime minister, as far as I'm concerned, that is enough, Malcolm, I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous."

Now this again was back in January just after the president took office. A few days later, the president tweeted this about the call, "Thank you to the prime minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that fake news media lied about. Very nice."

So again, it seems to have two different narratives now that we have this transcript that was leaked to "The Washington Post" general. Here he is talking to our ally being tough with him while praising our adversary and Putin. What do you make of this?

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's clearly a problem. Our relationship with Russia at the strategic level has always been confrontational. There's always been a balance in terms of where they push and where we, as an international body with our friends and allies can push back.

The fact that at a tactical level he might have civil conversation with Putin is irrelevant to the greater strategic balance that's in existence right here, and then also you look at the ancillary is, we have always had a very, very strong ally in Australia.

I mean, going back years and years and years, let's not forget, Australia was by our side in Vietnam. We had other allies that chose not to participate. They are all in with the United States and we should equally be all in with them. We share common values, common history. We need to be able to embrace that at all levels.

CABRERA: Jack, I know you are a strong supporter of this president, but do you bristle a little bit hearing or reading the president's remarks that he's talking to our allies in this way?

JACK KINGSTON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I don't. In fact, I'm reassured that he feels that he can have a private, frank, and candid conversation with them and yet at the same time diplomatically in public say nice things about them. It is obvious the relationship is a working relationship.

Because the conversation with Australia had to do with an Obama era promise about the treatment of immigrants and we did or the Trump administration did uphold that and say, OK, we are going to agree with you on it. But I think that's what the tension is about --

CABRERA: It had to do with the refugee program.

KINGSTON: It had to do with refugees. But you know, here we are seven months down the road, if there was a big split with Mexico or Australia, we would certainly know about it. So, I think the president was doing the right thing.

He was talking to them privately, it was frank and open. But publicly, they are saying nice things, and I think that we are seeing constructive relationships with the two countries.

CABRERA: Keith, you want to weight in. Is that the way the president should be talking to our allies?

KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think so. I think it's disturbing that this is not just the conversations he had with Turnbull, but also the conversations he had with President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico.

This whole idea that these adversarial relationships with these other leaders and he's dictating how he expects them to behave. This is his first few days in office. On top of that, he seems obsessed with these poll numbers, how the public is going to perceive him, and all the transcript conversations.

He's more concerned about that than actually doing the right thing. And then if you look at the conversations he had with his generals recently in Afghanistan war strategy, it doesn't seem like the president understands what his role as president. Presidenting is hard. He's not campaigning anymore. He's comparing the advice he's getting from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to advice he gets from the consultant about the 21 Club in Manhattan. This is outrageous theater of the absurd from the presidency. I expect more from the president of the United States than we are getting.

CABRERA: Alex, let me ask you about the fact that this was another big leak, this transcript, this conversation, not just one, but two conversations with other foreign leaders. What do you make of the fact that this comes, this leak, just the day before the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is supposed to come out with a big statement on how they are going to crack down on leaks?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I wouldn't want to speculate with how "The Washington Post" does its reporting, but, look, this is a president who is obviously consumed with the topic of leaks.

[11:10:04] And I think that you can imagine that even if he feels that he is in a position to defend all the substance of those leaked conversations, simply the fact that they were leaked, he will take it as an enormous provocation.

I think that we ought to view these conversations in a larger context of the last month and six months of the White House pretty consistently saying something in public to deny our reporting or cast doubt on reporting that is subsequently shown to be less than fully honest.

What we saw, you just read out the president's tweets from earlier this year, condemning the previous reporting about his conversation with the leaders of Australia and Mexico. That these transcripts now fully vindicate it.

One of the biggest challenges for the new team coming in at the White House is going to be regaining, restoring some level of credibility in terms of the public communications that have just been so repeatedly undermined like that.

CABRERA: Jack, going back to the fact that we read the transcript now and then we read the tweet that the president put out just a day later saying it was a civil discussion where it appears that the president wasn't having a real nice discussion, pleasant discussion with the Australian prime minister, even in the transcript. He says I had better discussions with Vladimir Putin. That was pleasant. Go ahead.

KINGSTON: Well, Ana, one of the shortcomings of the written transcript is you don't know the tone of it.

CABRERA: That's true.

KINGSTON: So -- and anybody that sent a text message or e-mail knows this. Hey, I had a better discussion with Putin. What's going on? Between friends you can say things like that. When it's written, oh, gosh, what was the tone of this.

But again, I want to go back to this was seven months ago, and if we had a breach in our relationship with Mexico or Australia, we would know about it. It would be well publicized by this point. And so, I do think --

CABRERA: Got you -- but I think the bigger question that I'm trying to get at is, is the president's credibility issue because it's not just what was said, but the fact that it wasn't transparent on the back end in which he called people fake news for reporting on those calls based on what people were hearing from sources inside the administration.

Now we have the transcript that backs up what the recording was at that time. In addition, I know that was seven months ago, but even to this day, this week, we have been talking about phone calls the president said he had and how he's characterized those phone calls with leaders from the Boy Scouts, to, again, the president of Mexico in which leaders of Boy Scouts and the president of Mexico have pushed back and said those phone calls never happened.

KINGSTON: You know, President Obama said in a conversation with Russia, let me get past the election, I'll have more flexibility. We, as Republicans jumped on him for that. I think the truth of the matter is, the commander-in-chief needs to have some latitude here, some flexibility.

He needs to be able to maneuver and sometimes cajole people, sometimes kid with them, sometimes be frank and sometimes just disagree without necessarily his (inaudible) every step of the way.

As we Republicans were guilty of doing with Obama. I think at this point, maybe the Trump critic should step back a little bit and say let's let the president have the latitude that he needs.

You know, I do think, for example, that Congress did ramrod through the Russian sanctions. There were certainly good arguments for it. I think they were acting politically. They were feeling the heat on Russia. Wanted to do something but when they did that --

CABRERA: It was bipartisan, largely in the House and the Senate. More than 500 members of Congress believe that was the right move.

KINGSTON: But, as were the Iranian sanctions that were bipartisan that were passed under Obama, he did not want those. The reason why, commanders and chief, Democrats and Republicans don't want them, they want to have maximum flexibility when they are dealing with our adversaries. So, you know, and that's just the dynamic tension of equal branches of government.

CABRERA: Does that tell you that Congress does not trust this president?


CABRERA: Even his Republican leaders in Congress, given it is a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate?

KINGSTON: Well, I wouldn't say the Democrats did not trust President Obama, yet they thrust through the Iranian sanctions when he was president. I think it's part of one branch of government takes care of politics as they see it, as they need to. Another branch looks at it differently. You know, I do think that Congress did tie the president's hand at a time when he needed more -- he needed more latitude on Russia.

MARKS: Can I jump in?

CABRERA: Go ahead.

MARKS: I don't disagree with the congressman. My view is governance and our democracy has this inherent competition and tension that exists. This is all about leadership and what you want from the chief executive, from the commander-in-chief, is the notion that we can argue and have some tough conversations whether it's internal to our government or external.

[11:15:04] But at the end of the day, the chief executive stands up and says, I've got this, I'm all in, regardless of how you made this, whatever the toxic mix was or messy, chaotic process look like.

At the end of the day, that chief executive, commander-in-chief takes ownership of it. That's the thing I think where there needs to be greater alignment and predictability that we would all prefer.

CABRERA: All right. Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you all for joining us.

Coming up, the new bipartisan push to protect the special counsel investigating the Russia election meddling. But can Congress keep Bob Mueller out of the president's reach? Details ahead.

Plus, is the White House purging allies of former National Security adviser, Michael Flynn, from the administration? The new firings that have insiders on notice.

And the Anthony Scaramucci show goes on. The president fired him after just 11 days on the job, but apparently that's not stopping the mooch from staying away from the spotlight. Details straight ahead.


CABRERA: On Capitol Hill right now, there is growing support for a bipartisan effort to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from potentially being fired by President Trump.

[11:20:01] Now brand-new legislation being introduced today would bar the president from directly firing any special counsel and it would be retroactive to Mueller's appointment back in May.

Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware is joining us. So, Senator, this bipartisan effort to protect Special Counsel Mueller from being fired by the president, your thoughts on this? Is this really necessary?

SENATOR TOM CARPER (D-DE), HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS: We are not sure if it is going to be necessary or not, Ana, but it sends a very clear message to the president even though it's not likely further legislation introduced today is going to be enacted in the House and the Senate. The message is, don't do this, don't go there.

CABRERA: is it symbolic?

CARPER: Yes, it's symbolic. It's an important symbol. It's a bipartisan symbol. Senator Coons and Senator Tillis are the co- authors and their views reflect the clear majority of the Democrats in the Senate and the clear majority of the Republicans in the Senate.

Firing Bob Mueller, he is one of the most admired people that I know, if you fire him, you'll create a fire storm here.

CABRERA: Let me read you the president's latest tweet this morning. He said, "Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us health care." So yesterday, he also said the Russian sanctions bill was seriously flawed. What is your response?

CARPER: My response to that, I was a naval flight officer for 23 years in Southeast Asia. I remember what it was like to fight a war against communism in the late 1960s. I served as a P3 aircraft mission commander to the end of the cold war in 1991.

I remember what it was like to take on the Soviet Union. Cold war and hot war. I remember what it was like during the Cuban missile crisis where you thought any minute the world could blow up.

To say somehow this is the lowest time that we have experienced with the Russians, I would say the words from Harry Truman, the only thing that is new in the world is the history we forgot or never learned. This is some things this administration has forgot or never learned.

CABRERA: He is blaming Congress for the relationship right now with Russia.

CARPER: I'm sorry, say again.

CABRERA: He appears to be blaming Congress for the relationship with Russia.

CARPER: I fought for the country. Leaders have a great team around them when the team does well. The team gets a credit when the team does not do well. The leader takes the blame. That's the kind of leadership I have tried to provide.

I would love to see that leadership from this president. We don't make ourselves bigger by pushing other people down. A primary lesson for leadership. It's one that's obviously he never learned.

CABRERA: We just spent the last segment talking about the leaked transcript of the president's calls in January with the leaders of Mexico and Australia. What do you think of the president's approach? Because we just heard from one of his supporter who said it was refreshing to hear the president speak so candidly to our allies.

CARPER: There are times when you need to speak, not so necessarily to power, but to speak to people and tell them what they need to hear and know. If you are going to have a good relationship with another country, you need to be candid. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person that you are talking with.

How would you want to be treated if you were in their shoes? It's a careful balance. I think the golden rule applies here, treat other people what you want to be treated. It turns out well for me and I think, really, for our country.

CABRERA: Do you approve of the way the president spoke with those two leaders? What he said to Mexico, for example, about the wall and that the president of Mexico needs to stop saying they are not going to pay for the wall because it makes him look bad. That was a key campaign promise for him and bad for him politically.

CARPER: I think most Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, I can't speak in the House, they think the wall from, you know, sea to shining sea, is a foolish idea. There's places a wall makes sense. The idea we are going build a wall for thousands of miles and get the Mexicans to pay for it is nonsense.

We ought to look for multipliers, things that make sense to strengthen the security of our border. The other thing that is important, the reason why all these people sought to get into country from Mexico and Guatemala, the reason they come up here is because we are addicted to drugs.

Those drugs are trafficked through those countries. We send in exchange for the drugs, guns, money and bad people that we arrest and we somehow expect them to do just fine. We put them in a terrible position. We are complicit in misery and they are trying to escape. We need to address the root cause. Part of it is because of our behavior.

CABRERA: As you know, the White House spent a lot of time yesterday focusing on immigration, specifically legal immigration. A couple of your Republican colleagues proposed a merit based immigration system. What do you see as the impact of this?

CARPER: There is a lot of positions in this country, we have a lot of agriculture in Southern Delaware, folks with landscaping business. They have a hard time getting Americans to be willing and able to do the work, to go in and pick fruit and pick other products.

[11:25:12] Our farmers are leaving crops to rot on the field. They ought to have the ability to bring in, if nobody in this country wants to do the work, it's hard work, bring workers in from other countries to do the work, not as citizens, but guest workers.

As Democrats and Republicans agree on a good guest work. They don't want to come here and be citizens, they want to work and go back and forth and be with their families. That's a smart policy. The other smart immigration policy is people come here, get an education, they are in science, technology, engineering and math. We ought to let them stay here and start businesses here and grow the economy. Send them back home to home countries to compete against us makes no sense.

CABRERA: Senator Tom Carper, thank you very much for your time, sir.

CARPER: Thank you, Ana.

CABRERA: Thank you for your service as well.

Coming up, a purge at the White House? Allies of former National Security adviser, Michael Flynn, ousted from the administration. The new firings that have insiders on notice, when we come back.