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North Korea Nuclear Crisis; Mattis to North Korea: Stop Actions That Could End Regime. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 9, 2017 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in the world led. The rhetoric in the U.S.-North Korea standoff intensified again today, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis the latest to issue a stark warning, telling Kim Jong-un his country -- quote -- "must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons" and -- quote -- "cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people."

The U.S. and North Korea are trading threats after U.S. intelligence assessed that North Korea has produced missile-ready miniaturized nuclear weapons, crossing a key threshold in its nuclear program.

We're also learning today that the president spoke extemporaneously, according to sources, when he issued that stark warning yesterday of "fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen" if North Korea continues to threaten the U.S.

North Korea then made another threat, preemptive military strikes against the U.S. territory of Guam.

Our team of CNN reporters is spread out across the globe, from Beijing to Pentagon, from Guam to the president's vacation spot in New Jersey, covering all angles of this fast-moving story.

Earlier, the president tweeted what was presumably intended as a NATO warning to North Korea, writing -- quote -- "My first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. Hopefully, we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!"

The presidential memorandum to which he was referring, actually the ninth, not the first one issued, directed the Pentagon to launch a review of U.S. nuclear posture and strategy. It is unclear how much modernizing has happened since that order was issued to make the arsenal "stronger and more powerful than ever before."

It has, after all, only been six months since Mr. Trump's order. And the Pentagon has said the review did not actually start until April.

But it is a move that will require billions to be allocated by Congress. And it would be subject to treaties with other nuclear powers.

What is clear is that the tweet from earlier today, as well as yesterday's threat of fire and fury directed at North Korea, fits the pattern of President Trump speaking more loosely, and in the view of critics, recklessly about the most devastating weapon known to man, more so than leader of any Western nation.

We have analyzed two decades' worth of comments about nukes by President Trump and we found three recurring themes that pose significant breaks from the consensus of Western leaders on this issue.

First is the president expressing confusion as to why the U.S. possesses nuclear weapons if it is not willing to use them. There doesn't appear to be any concept in these statements of the lethality of the weapon, nor the moral, strategic and environmental risks using these weapons might pose.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nuclear weapons should be off the table. But would there be a time when it could be used? Possibly. Possibly.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: OK. The trouble is, when you said that, the whole world heard it. David Cameron in Britain heard it. The Japanese, where we bombed them in '45, heard it. They're hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.

TRUMP: Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?


TAPPER: This dovetails with the second theme, the president's position in favor, in favor of nuclear proliferation. This is a staggering break from the widespread view that the U.S. should do all that it can to dissuade other countries from pursuing these deadly weapons.

As he told Wolf Blitzer last year, the president is more than willing for other countries to develop their own nuclear arsenals.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: But you're ready to let Japan and South Korea to become nuclear powers?

TRUMP: I'm prepared to -- if they're not going to take care of us properly, we cannot afford to be the military and the police for the world. We are right now the police for the entire world. We are policing the entire world.


TAPPER: A third theme we have seen throughout two decades' worth of statements is a clear lack of policy depth on this issue, one in inverse proportion to the force with which Mr. Trump expresses his views on nuclear weapons.

As was seen perhaps notably at a CNN debate in 2015, when conservative talk show radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Mr. Trump about the nuclear triad, that is the U.S. strategy of having nukes on land, in the air and at sea.


HUGH HEWITT, MODERATOR: Of the three legs of the triad, though, do you have a priority? I want to go to Senator Rubio after that and ask him.

TRUMP: I think -- I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.


TAPPER: That is a confusion as to why the U.S. has taken the use of nuclear weapons off the table, a desire for increased proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a clear lack of policy depth about nuclear weapons.

That brings us to the current standoff.


TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.


TAPPER: Speaking of fire and fury the world had never seen, we should note it was on this day in 1945 that U.S. forces dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, immediately incinerating 4,000 people.


Three day before that, the U.S. had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, killing 70,000 people instantly. The actions brought the end of World War II.

To state the obvious, this is a time when words should be chosen and measured carefully. White House sources tell us that the president spoke extemporaneously when he made the statement about fire and fury.

Perhaps now might not be the best time to improvise.

I want to go now to CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Barbara, extraordinary this afternoon from the secretary of defense

essentially threatening the end of North Korea's regime and destruction of its people if the nuclear weapons program persists.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: James Mattis making statements that surprised a lot of people, very tough talk from a secretary who just months ago warned war would be a bad idea.


STARR (voice-over): Tonight, a dire warning from Defense Secretary James Mattis that North Korea should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.

Warlike language. Mattis also telling the world, "North Korea's military will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict."

A very different tone than Mattis' previous statement emphasizing diplomacy and what war would mean for South Korea.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It will involve the massive shelling of an ally's capital, which is one of the most densely packed cities on Earth. It would be a war that fundamentally we don't want.

STARR: Kim Jong-un's regime undeterred.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Any desire to execute a preventive war devised by the U.S. would be met with an all-out war, wiping all the strongholds of enemies, including the U.S. mainland.

STARR: All of this after North Korea threatened to attack Guam, a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, where U.S. bombers are based and other aircraft that could be used to attack his regime.

TRUMP: He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement.

STARR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Trump's warning would hopefully keep Kim from reacting.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.

STARR: If Tillerson was playing good cop, Mattis and the president were not.

TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

STARR: The commander of U.S. missile defenses told CNN the U.S. can defend against North Korean missiles today and in the future.

LT. GEN. SAMUEL GREAVES, DIRECTOR, MISSILE DEFENSE AGENCY: We can deal with the current threat as presented today. As the threat matures, we have a plan in place to mature our capabilities to deal with that threat.

STARR: The secretary of state still trying to reassure.

TILLERSON: I have nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 44 hours. And I think Americans should sleep well at night.


STARR: And, for now, there is no indication of any additional U.S. military forces moving to the Korean region -- Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Let's go now to CNN's Sara Murray. She is in Bridgewater, New Jersey, near where the president is on a working vacation at his Trump National Golf Course.

Sara, what do we know about how the president arrived at those words fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen?


There's been a lot of speculation about that, Jake. And we know that he mentioned when he was actually at an opioids event. There were a couple sheets of paper in front of the president. Those had to do with the opioid crisis, not the situation in North Korea.

We have been learning from sources today that the president essentially spoke off the cuff when it came to that specific terminology.

Here's what Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, had to say about that statement today. She said: "General Kelly and others on the NSC team were well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery. The words were his own. The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand. They," meaning General Kelly and others on the NSC, "were clear the president was going to respond to North Korea's threats following the sanctions with a strong message in no uncertain terms."

It certainly was a strong message, but definitely not the kind of terminology we're used to seeing from presidents, especially in a situation like this.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you so much.

How will Kim Jong-un react to President Trumps' strong words? We will talk to CNN's Will Ripley, who has been to Pyongyang more than other Western journalist, coming up next. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back on our world lead. President Trump's "fire and fury" threats against North Korea, in addition to fresh warnings from Defense Secretary James Mattis, today are raising new fears of war, which could, of course, have catastrophic implications.

President Trump has expressed disappointment in China and President Xi for not doing more to push back North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions. The East Asian powerhouse, which shares a border with North Korea, would not of course want full-fledged operations on its doorstep, nor would it want a refugee crisis spilling into its northeastern provinces.

Let's bring in CNN's Will Ripley. He's live in Beijing.

Will, some experts say President Trump's threats are actually also intended to push China to do more. Is there any indication that China is getting the message and might be ready to get more involved in trying to stop North Korea?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's no secret, Jake, that a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula right on the doorstep of China would be a nightmare for the government here in Beijing.

But are they willing to do what the United States really wants them to do, to cut off North Korea completely economically, to force them to come to the bargaining table from a position of desperation?

[16:15:02] China has not indicated a willingness to do that. They believe they are upholding their end of the bargain in terms of U.N. sanctions thus far, and now, they did vote in favor of this new round of U.N. sanctions designed to cut North Korean export income by a third. But is that going to be enough to stop North Korea? The North Koreans would certainly say no.

TAPPER: You've been to North Korea 13 times, more than any other correspondent. You've said North Korea takes pride in their advancing missile capability. Will North Korea continue to push for nuclearization even if it could potentially hurt their longstanding relationship and patronage from China?

RIPLEY: Short answer, yes. I have been in some very heated discussions with North Korean officials over this issue, because we have reported that China does hold a considerable amount of economic influence over the country.

And I get very fierce pushback from the North Koreans, even as recently as a month and a half ago whenever we imply that, because they say that they have been through such hardship, they've been through famine, that even if China stops trading with them, even if China were to cut off the oil pipeline into their country, that they would still continue to develop these missiles because they feel that they're under threat of imminent invasion by the United States. And they point to things like fiery rhetoric and tweets from President Trump, along with military exercises, as proof of that, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Will Ripley in Beijing, thank you so much. Let's bring in my panel. We have with us, retired Four-star Air Force

General Michael Hayden, who also served as director of the CIA and NSA. Also with me is Robin Wright, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

General, let me start with you. You've heard the language coming from the president and from Secretary Mattis and from North Korea. How concerned are you that the U.S. is actually headed for a military confrontation with North Korea?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET), FORMER NSA DIRECTOR: You know, the rhetoric is not useful, particular the president's rhetoric. I think General Mattis' language was more of a caution to the North Koreans rather than a threat. And I think the president was clearly using a threatening language yesterday.

I'm kind of siding towards where Secretary Tillerson is. All right. It's a problem. It's a serious issue, but we don't need to hyper ventilate about it right now. We've got a little bit of time. There are other things going on.

And so, serious, need to work the issue, but I don't think we're facing some imminent catastrophe. A good sign, we haven't changed the watch condition for U.S. forces in Korea. We haven't changed the DefCon, the defense condition for U.S. forces in Korea. We have not decided to pull any American dependents out of Korea. We have not moved U.S. forces in the direction of Korea. I think those are the real indicators, Jake.

TAPPER: Robin, take a listen to former director of national intelligence and retired general, James Clapper, talking about the president's language.


JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: What is bothersome to me is for years, decades, we've heard this kind of rhetoric coming out of North Korea, and typically, we ignore it. Certainly at the presidential level, we ignore it. So the rhetoric itself is not -- is not helpful.


TAPPER: You wrote an article for "The New Yorker" recently about everything that President Trump doesn't know about the job that he is doing and his lack of curiosity. How concerned are you that the language he used yesterday, which we're learning was extemporaneous and ad-libbed by him could actually be getting us into a more dangerous situation?

ROBIN WRIGHT, JOINT FELLOW, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE: Well, we're ad- libbing our way into a contribution. That's what concerns I think a lot of us who look at this challenge. It's been there for a long time. We've been heading in that direction.

You have a sense that it's not a good cop-bad cop approach here, that you actually have the secretary of state, the secretary of defense actually thinking through what the strategy is, and the president kinds of throwing out these inflammatory words that provoke the situation and actually feed the kind of psychological of confrontation that we saw in some ways in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

TAPPER: President Trump is not wrong when he expresses frustration about China and China's willingness to do --

HAYDEN: No, no, I think that's the key. I actually do think, Jake, that there is a coherent strategy behind this inartfully executed yesterday by the president, all right?

So, you had the Obama administration, strategic patience. I think they made the judgment that anything we could do that would really stop the North Koreans would be too dangerous. And so, we tried to slow the program down, but then robust up our defenses and deterrence in the region.

The Trump administration decided that is not their course of action. They don't want the U.S. to have this capacity. They recognized that the leverage point is through the Chinese. The Chinese won't act because the Chinese frankly, I use the metaphor, they have a toothache. The North Koreans is a bad tooth. They would rather suffer through the day than go in for the root canal.

I actually think it is conscious American policy to make the Chinese tooth hurt more. And so, you're seeing the language, again probably overdone yesterday, you're seeing U.S. forces in the region, the Navy deployment, the B-1 bombers that flew over South Korea, all designed to make the current circumstances more uncomfortable for the Chinese and make them more likely to really lean on the North Koreans.

[16:20:03] TAPPER: There is legislation in the U.S. to impose sanctions on 10 Chinese banks that do business with North Korea. That, obviously, those banks were not part of the U.N. Security Council resolution that passed over the weekend. There is a way to get more serious with China if the U.S. Congress and the president want to.

WRIGHT: Absolutely, and I think that's the administration's strategy as it is. But the reality is the United States and China do not share the same approach or the same goals when it comes to North Korea. The Chinese do not want to see the regime toppled. They don't -- you know, they don't want to see a conflict but they also don't want to see North Korea become in a pro-West sphere. This is kind of a buffer for them.

So, I think that relying on the Chinese is not the way out of this crisis. At the end of the day, the only way out is through diplomacy. The military option is not attractive. It could be counterproductive long term. But diplomacy is one way, and the question is, is the Trump administration willing to engage when it's used such inflammatory rhetoric and put kind of absolutes on the table of what North Korean can't have.

TAPPER: You two stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about. We're going to take a very quick break.

Stay with us.


[16:25:23] TAPPER: We're back with our world lead and the escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. Defense Secretary James Mattis warning Kim Jong-un earlier today to cease any actions that would lead to the end of the regime and the, quote, destruction of its people.

Let's continue our conversation with former CIA and NSA director, retired General Michael Hayden, and Robin Wright, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Robin, the State Department said earlier today that the administration is speaking with one voice. I don't think that's true. I also think it's possible that it's strategically not speaking with one voice, but you have Tillerson being somewhat benevolent, Mattis being aggressive, the president talking about fire and fury.

Is this a strategy, do you think, or is it kind of ad hoc?

WRIGHT: I don't think it's much of a strategy, and I certainly don't think the international community understands what the Trump administration really is trying to do here. I think they want to -- everyone wants to make sure that North Korea doesn't move any further in its nuclear program, but I don't think it's clear how the administration plans to do that.

We've reached a point that there's certain realities on the ground, and the idea that Kim Jong-un is going to roll back his program, going to denuclearize, none of that seems feasible. It's a question of how you manage the problem as it is today.

TAPPER: General, take a listen to Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from North Carolina, talking about the use of force.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: There are two scenarios where we would go to war with North Korea. They attack Guam or some other American interest or our allies, or if they try to keep developing an ICBM with a nuclear weapon on top to hit the homeland, we would act. President Trump has basically drawn a red line, saying that he'll never allow North Korea to have an ICBM missile that can hit America with a nuclear weapon on top. He's not going to let that happen. He's not going to contain the threat. He's going to stop the threat.


TAPPER: Do you think that President Trump has boxed himself in, that that is now considered his red line, he has to now do that?

HAYDEN: I fear that he has, I hope that he hasn't. I mean, the president has been inconsistent with his language in the past. This is a time where I hope he views some flexibility going forward. So, we'll just -- we'll just have to see.

Senator Graham makes an interesting point, and something that I think is kind of lost in the conversation. You know, we're screaming over the heads of 50 million South Koreans, all right? We're actually saying we can't live with a North Korean ICBM that potentially could threaten the United States. And therefore, based on what Senator Graham said, we would opt for aggressive action on the Korean peninsula that would almost certainly lead to the death of tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Korean friends.

That's got to be a scary scenarios and then we come back to what Robin and I said earlier, I think there is a strategy, I think there is some coherence there. But the implementation has to be so carefully orchestrated that this could lead if not carefully done, into a much worse place. We don't get the Chinese doing what we would like them to do, the North Koreans continue on with the program.

And I agree with Robin, the end point here is not denuclearization. The end point here at best is probably freeze. You may not get that from the North Koreans, and now we've got a president who's made these kinds of commitments and we'll see.

TAPPER: And, Robin, you were talking earlier -- we were talking about China and what China needs to do and Chinese President Xi. And you made an observation about the way that President Trump speaks to President Xi on Twitter.

WRIGHT: Yes. Well, this is what I think is electrifying, particularly dealing with Asians who are face conscious. The President Trump tweets about President Xi Jinping in the same way he tweets about Jeff Sessions. This is not the way to deal diplomatically, to build partners. I mean, this was a relationship he supposedly enriched over a piece of chocolate cake in Mar-a-Lago and cemented a relationship, and look how long it lasted. And to dismiss it this quickly, and when we rely on China as the only interlocutor with North Korea, there are not a lot of other players who can do that. So, I think he jeopardizes it by insulting the president of China, s the most populous nation on the world, that will have influence on other common issues and flashpoints as well.

TAPPER: Fascinating stuff. Robin and General, thank you so much. Appreciate you being here.

So, why threaten Guam? We're going to go there live and talk to the governor. Stick around.

And then the president calling out the Senate majority leader on Twitter, of course. This is after Senator Mitch McConnell said the president had, quote, excessive expectations about the way things work in Washington. Stay with us.