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Trump Driving Conflict to Brink; Tillerson Meets with Trump; Trump on Military Options; Trump on Military Options; Trump Thanks Putin; Trump Surprised about Manafort Raid; Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 11, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Altercation threat on Twitter saying, military solutions against North Korea are, quote, "fully in place."

Plus, the president is publicly rating his own team, things with the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, they're fine. His national security team, outstanding, tremendous and fantastic. His new FBI director, Trump says he'll be fantastic, too.

But the president's point man in the Senate, he's on notice.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If he doesn't get repeal and replace done, and if he doesn't get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn't get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure, if he doesn't get them done, then you can ask me that question.


BASH: People close to the president had told reporters he was considering firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But ask the president now, he says he has no idea what you're talking about.


QUESTION: Mr. President, you've thought -- or thought about or considered leaning (ph) to the dismissal of the special counsel. Is there anything that Bob Mueller could do that you would -- send you in that direction?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't given it any thought. I mean I've been reading about it from you people. You say, oh, I'm going to dismiss him. No, I'm not dismissing anybody. I mean I want them to get on with the tank. But I also want the Senate and the House to come out with their findings.


BASH: Here to share their reporting and insights, NPR's Steve Inskeep, Jackie Calmes of "The Los Angeles Times," Yahoo!'s Olivier Knox, and Margaret Talev of Bloomberg. Well, the president speaks and often you wonder just exactly what he

means. Sometimes you don't get an answer. Other times you do. Like when everyone wondered what the president meant when he said that he could be tougher on North Korea, then warning of fire and fury.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If anything, that statement may not be tough enough.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would be tougher than fire and fury?

TRUMP: Well, you'll see. You'll see.


BASH: Well, this morning, at 7:29 a.m. Eastern, the president fired off this tweet. Military solutions are now fulling in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong-un will find another path.

Well, whatever the president's end game, this is something he'll likely hear when he meets with his secretary of state, his national security adviser and his U.N. ambassador later today. U.S. defense officials doubt a preemptive strike of any size, using any weapon, would eradicate North Korea's arsenal of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads. That could leave the fate of the U.S. and its allies in the region up to untested missile defenses to stop the killing the thousands.

Friends and foes alike are alarmed by this verbal one-upmanship and some are taking action. Japan says it's deploying missile intercept systems just in case. South Korea alerted all its military personnel to maintain full readiness, while China and Russia claim that they are collaborating on a plan to prevent a full-scale war.

And covering all of this is CNN's Will Ripley in Beijing. And he has been to North Korea, we should say, more than any other western journalist. Also joining us, our White House correspondent Sara Murray. She's in New Jersey with the president.

Will, I want to go to you first. North Korea, this statement, this threat this morning, how do you read it?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I read it as a return to business as usual for North Korea. We did not see them dial up the rhetoric even further with perhaps greater details of their plans. They announced earlier this week about what would have been their most provocative missiles strike ever, launching four Hwasong-12 intermediate range missiles and putting them down less than 20 miles from Guam. And that doesn't mean that North Korea isn't going to do that. They said that they were putting together a plan that Kim Jong-un would then sign off on it and then the United States, they would be watching and listening to the rhetoric from the United States.

So, obviously, all eyes remain on the peninsula. But as of now, there are no imminent signs of a launch. And this statement out this morning from North Korea doesn't seem to up the ante like the statement that was insulting President Trump yesterday. I'll read you just a portion of it.

It says, Trump is driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war. That's a statement we've heard North Korea say many times before about the United States. And saying, making such outcries as the U.S. will not rule out a war against the DPRK.

Obviously those are very strong words, but we've heard those words from North Korea repeatedly. What was different earlier in the week was this detailed technical plan that they announced that so far it's just words on paper. This is still a war of words. As Jim Sciutto put it yesterday, a rhetorical escalation, not a militarization.

But the joint military drills are happening in this part of the world this month, as they always do in August and in April. The U.S. and South Korea will be practicing their war games. Something that North Korea always gets agitated about. And that's why you had the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, saying that Russia and China would like to see the U.S. freeze the drills and then they think maybe North Korea would stop launching missiles. But both parties involved have not given any indication they'd be willing to do that, Dana.

[12:05:01] BASH: Will Ripley, thank you so much for that report.

Let's now go to Sara.

Sara, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she sees no military solution to the North Korean conflict. She adds that escalating rhetoric is the wrong response. What's the White House saying this morning?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dana, obviously President Trump isn't toning down his rhetoric whatsoever. You mentioned his tweet today saying that the U.S. is locked and loaded, prepared for anything North Korea might do.

But if you look at the meetings the president is holding today, he's going to be meeting with Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.

But Haley and Tillerson have really been the key players in pursuing some kind of diplomatic approach when it comes to navigating this situation in North Korea. They were both pivotal in securing the votes necessary at the United Nations to get that unanimous agreement to slap sanctions on North Korea. So it will be fascinating to see if we see any change in the president's tone coming out of that meeting.

As of right now, we're expecting that all to be behind closed doors. Obviously the president rejiggered plans yesterday, though, and decided he wanted to talk to reporters. So it's always possible that could happen again this afternoon.

And all of this is playing out while President Trump is on week one of what is essentially a two-week working vacation here in New Jersey. We're also learning that he is expected to jet back to Washington, D.C., on Monday for a brief period of time. Unclear exactly what he'll be heading there for, if there will be meetings related to the situation in North Korea and this ongoing national security threat or if it's something else entirely, Dana.

BASH: Sara Murray, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's now take it around the table.

And, Steve, I want to start with you and I want to talk just about the region and how they're reacting. China. China's obviously a crucial, crucial player here. One that the administration was hoping that, like other administrations in the past, they could use to help put pressure on North Korea. But here's what they said through Chinese state-run media this morning. China should make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. territories and triggers U.S. retaliations, China will stay neutral.

STEVE INSKEEP, NPR: China will stay neutral. Well, it's hard to say exactly what that would means for China precisely, but it's a reminder that for all of the different players in this conflict, as they say, all politics is local. And apparently that includes all nuclear politics. It is presumed by North Korean analysts that North Korea uses such extreme rhetoric for its own domestic political purposes. We can guess that President Trump is perhaps using that literate rhetoric, as you eluded to, for domestic political purposes. He sound tough. He sounds strong. Maybe he can go on to more alliteration after locked and loaded, like powerful and prepared, gripped and ready. There are many things that can happen there. But --

BASH: Think he's in the words business (INAUDIBLE)?

INSKEEP: There's a -- there we go. But there's a domestic component to this of sounding tough and at the same time we find out through the Associated Press today that there are quiet talks going on between the two countries. In the same way, you have to presume that China will consider its own domestic interests. And it has a very difficult game to play with very few options because North Korea is right there.

BASH: And, Margaret, the president, as Sara was talking about, has his U.N. ambassador up there today in New Jersey. Has his secretary of state and so forth. And Steve mentioned China. I mean it seems like 100 years ago now, but it was just a few days ago over the weekend that Nikki Haley was successful in bringing China onboard diplomatically with some tougher sanctions against North Korea. So, you know, China is saying, it would stay neutral in a war, but we're hopefully far from that. The question is, can they discuss ways to bring China into the fold diplomatically in the short term?

MARGARET TALEV, "BLOOMBERG POLITICS": Yes, sure. And so locked and loaded is what -- until ripped and ready, which is going to be the best next week, locked and loaded is what everyone's talking about right now.

But it's the second half of that tweet that's really important from a policy perspective, which is to say, the president's saying, if the North Korean regime acts first.

BASH: Yes.

TALEV: Not, the U.S. is thinking about acting first. Look out, we're going to act first.

BASH: That's key, it's not pre-emptive.

TALEV: So that -- the optics of having not just Nikki Haley, who we knew from the public schedule was going to be there, but the addition now of Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, who came up there earlier this week. It certainly signals both to North Korea, but also to China, to Japan, to South Korea, to Russia, to allies, that this is a meeting to discuss diplomatic pressure.

BASH: Exactly.

TALEV: And that could mean positive diplomatic pressure. That could mean the threat of more sanctions, banking sanctions, unilateral sanctions, secondary sanctions, more U.N. sanctions, all of those sort of options being on the table also.

INSKEEP: The administration has made it clear for months, they wants talks. They do want to talk with North Korea, although it's not clear they can agree on the basis for this (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: Which hasn't happened in a couple of administrations.

INSKEEP: In a big way. That's true.

BASH: In a big way.

You mentioned the diplomatic solution in that that is the only solution right now. I want to read what Jeffrey Lewis (ph) wrote in "Foreign Policy" magazine. He's with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. On good day, maybe we get most of the missiles. We save most of the cities, like Seoul and New York, but lose a few like Tokyo. Two out of three ain't bad, right? I kid, but not really. Welcome to our new world.

[12:10:13] I mean that is the reality when you're talking about the sabre rattling, right, Olivier?

OLIVIER KNOX, YAHOO! NEWS: Yes. I mean it's our dangerous and debonair military, I guess, is backing up our dramatic diplomacy.

No, I mean the point of the rhetoric over this week, with the exception of the president's first remarks. I want to get back to that in a second.

BASH: Yes.

KNOX: Has been, we are looking for a diplomatically led solution, that's Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis' point. It's all diplomatically led right now. But behind it are military possibilities. But Margaret's point's really, really important. That first statement

that the president made, on the eve of the anniversary of the Nagasaki atom bomb drop, when he said, you know, fire and fury, the -- like the world has never seen before in response to threats, not in response to actions. Well, you've seen since then is in every statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Jim Mattis.

Jim Mattis put out a statement that sounded very harsh, but every clause had that condition, if they initiate something. If they start something. We're all going to relearn the language of the pre-Iraq War. A preemptive strike, maybe, but that requires somebody to be on the launch pad, which Will pointed out is not the case.

BASH: Right.

KNOX: Preventive is what we're talking about, really, which is a military action now to try to knock out the program absent an imminent threat. And I don't see them doing that.

JACKIE CALMES, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Right. This I'm -- what's striking to me is that, you know, this really should and has opened up a debate on just what the powers of the president are in this situation, that he can order this and his military advisers either have to follow through, follow his commands, or resign. And it is the single greatest power a president has, I would argue. And, you know, I think there will be a debate as to whether there should be perhaps controls on this.

And the statements the president's making with all this alliterative threats and then all of his advisers having, you know, sort of the -- the good cop/bad cop routine, I would -- I think people would feel a lot more comfortable if they thought this was strategic rather than the president is just doing his thing and they're trying to make up for it. It doesn't feel strategic to me at all.

BASH: Well, the president was asked about what people have seen as mixed messages when he spoke to reporters. Listen to how he responded to that.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are no mixed messages. There are no mixed messages. I heard -- I mean, to be honest, General Mattis may have taken it a step beyond what I said. There are no mixed messages. And Rex was just, you know, stating the view. But, look, here's the view. I said it yesterday. I don't have to say it again. And I'll tell you this, it may be tougher than I said it, not less. It may very well be tougher than I said it.


BASH: Conservative Rich Lowry wrote, one theory is that Trump and Tillerson are deliberately playing different rolls, but there's a good cop/bad cop and then there's the Keystone Kops. And to your point, Jackie, some unpredictability at the top can be welcome so long as it's calculated unpredictable not random popping off that catches a president's own foreign policy team off guard.

INSKEEP: Well, Olivier's correct, the president said that Mattis' statement was tougher than mine, but in reality it dialed it back. It reset the conditions. It essentially said if North Korea doesn't fire first, everything is going to be OK. Are they playing different roles deliberately? That is hard to say from the outside. But Secretary Tillerson has spoken differently for months at a time. He's spoken about direct talks with North Korea. He wants a condition for those talks that the North Koreans are nowhere near being interested in, the elimination of their nuclear program, but he is attempting a diplomatic role and collaborating we know with Mattis and others in the cabinet on that.

CALMES: Dana, could I just say, at the risk of conflating a subject with a subject that you're -- want to get to later, I find it astounding that we're talking about -- for days about being on the precipice of nuclear war at a time when the president has a two-front war going on. It's inexplicable. Why at a time like this, on such a serious subject at hand, would you be fighting with the leader of your Republican Party in Congress? I mean at a time -- you would think he would do everything possible to have unity in the country, in his party let alone the country. It's just astounding that these two things are happening in (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: It really is. And I guess, as he would argue, he can walk and chew gum at the same time. Just not sure that that walk and that flavor of gum are the right -- are the right pick.

Stand by, everybody.

Up next, why in the world would President Trump say thank you to Vladimir Putin for kicking U.S. diplomats out of Russia?


[12:18:55] BASH: North Korea isn't the only foreign power on President Trump's mind. On Thursday he gave a stunning response to Vladimir Putin's decision to expel hundreds of U.S. diplomats from Russia.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to thank him because we're trying to cut down on payroll. And as far as I'm concerned, I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There's no real reason for them to go back. So I greatly appreciate the fact that they've been able to cut our payroll for the United States. Save -- we'll save a lot of money.


BASH: Those of you at home keeping what is now a very long list of things we don't expect to hear from a president, add that one.

The seemingly sarcastic rift (ph) was the first time we actually heard from him. First time he weighed in on Russia's decision to kick 775 U.S. diplomats and American staff our of Russia. Now, Putin's move was meant as a retaliation last month after the president reluctantly signed a sanctions bill against Russia.


[12:20:00] KNOX: Well, he was sarcastically dismissing this entirely and dismissing Putin.

BASH: Right.

KNOX: Those diplomats don't actually leave the payroll. You're a foreign service officer, you come back to Washington, you're still on the payroll, unless the president was firing them, which would be a little -- would add a layer of bizarre to this exchange.

James tried to dismiss it and play it down. Got a really horrible reaction at the State Department, where people --

BASH: I can imagine.

KNOX: Just jaws dropped everywhere all over -- all over foggy bottom. People feeling that he can't say a bad word about Putin. And people say he can't say a good word about the State Department. And they are -- they are very upset.

CALMES: You know, the people that serve in places like Moscow, they are harassed on a routine basis. I mean there was a story not long ago about one of the people -- a fella that was over there and their young son. There was -- something came through the window and right by the bed of the six-year-old son. And it's -- things like that and on the street and it's just something you live with. And to just be so dismissive of people that serve this country --

KNOX: Yes. They come home and find furniture moved in their houses. I mean there's that sort of a steady -- steady pressure from --

BASH: And, by the way, you know, you could -- one could argue that if there was any country in which the U.S. has diplomatic relations where the U.S. wants to keep all these personnel there, it would be Russia.


INSKEEP: Can I mention -- Olivier's right, this was clearly an attempt to dismiss the sanctions to say -- it's almost the kind of thing you'd say in a New York real estate negation that's gone a little bad. I don't care about the tough thing you're trying to do to me. I really don't care. Fine. Thank you. Bring it on. Bring some more.

But there's this damage you describe and there's a way that it could be said, and that other people have said the same thing that might have been just as effective. You can point out factually correctly that a lot of the people who are going to be dismissed are actually Russian nationals working for the United States. So it's Russians who are going to lose their jobs if anyone does lose a job. And a lot of the things that they were doing involved Russians applying for thousands and thousands of visas to visit the United States and presumably that work is going to be curtailed. There are ways the president of the United States could have said Putin is only hurting himself. That's just not the way that he phrased it.

BASH: OK, let's -- let's talk about a related topic. What the president said when asked about Paul Manafort, who was his campaign chairman for a while, having a morning raid at the end of last month by the FBI. This is how he responded.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I thought it was a very, very strong signal or whatever. I know Mr. Manafort -- I haven't spoken to him in a long time, but I know him. He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time, relatively short period of time. But I've always known him to be a good man. I thought it was a very, you know -- they do that very seldom. So I was surprised to see it.


BASH: I'm going to let you unpack that, Margaret, since you cover the White House on a daily base.


BASH: A very strong signal. What do you think -- strong signal of what?

TALEV: I'm going to say that there was a different strategic kind of impulse driving that response than driving the response to the Putin and diplomacy expulsion question.


TALEV: But they both shared the same thread, which is that the president is sick of talking about Russia, is sick of having all of this hung around his neck. And at the same time is understanding increasingly that this is real and not going away. We've seen him retreat a little bit on Mueller in terms of position and say --

BASH: Yes, he (ph) did that yesterday.

TALEV: This is not -- forget about it. That's not happening. And, look, there's two people to keep your eye on. One's Michael Flynn, the other's Paul Manafort, in terms of sort of people of interest, in terms of where it appears that Bob Mueller's team is looking. And it's definitely in President Trump's interest to be signaling to both of them, I'm not throwing you under the bus, and I think you're good people and I'm going to tell everybody that I think you're good people. That's --

BASH: So, I got your back. Please have mine.

TALEV: He didn't say that, but --

BASH: I'm trying to analyze you analyzing him. Very meta. This is very meta.

What do you think?

INSKEEP: I'm surprised that the president or also today the president's lawyer, one of the president's lawyers, would speak up on this subject at all. The president of the United States, whoever he is --

BASH: Yes.

INSKEEP: Would have a grave need, a constitutional need to be above all of this. And if other people have to fall or be prosecuted, whatever happens, he needs to be beyond that in his own self- interests, in his party's self-interest, possibly even in the country's self-interest. It's remarkable that he would involve himself in this.

BASH: He's definitely not following the president's playbook of just, don't say anything.

TALEV: Especially if it sailed (ph), I mean don't you think, a while ago?

BASH: Yes, it sailed. I don't even think it was ever in the harbor. But, anyway.

Before we go to break, politicians, they say the darndest things. And we have a flashback this Friday, turning back the clock to another president talking about a geopolitical foe. On this day in history August 11, 1984, President Ronald Reagan was caught on tape joking about bombing Russia.

[12:25:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT (August 11, 1984): My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.


BASH: Now, that happened during a sound check while President Reagan was preparing for his weekly radio address. The audio leaked and, well, let's just say, not everybody found it funny, especially during a campaign year. But President Reagan, obviously, recovered from that gaffe. He went on to win election by a landslide.

We'll be right back.


BASH: President Trump is not letting up on publicly berating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, telling his fellow Republican to, quote, get back to work on health care. Here's the president going off on McConnell at yesterday's press conference.

[12:30:09] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm very disappointed in Mitch. But if he gets these bills passed, I'll be very happy with him. I'll be the first to admit