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North Korea Nuclear Crisis; Vice President Pulls Political Stunt?; Republican Senator Attacks Trump; Sources: Russian Agents Bought Ads on Google; ESPN Says Jemele Hill Violated Social Media Policy. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 9, 2017 - 4:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: At least when players take a knee, the protest doesn't cost taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Senator Bob Corker helped get Donald Trump elected. He was almost his vice president. Now the powerful Republican says President Trump's behavior could be setting the nation on the path to World War III.

Nuclear watch. After the president teased war with North Korea like it's sweeps week, Kim Jong-un could be minutes away from testing another nuke. How will President Trump respond this time?

Plus, flames moving so quickly, firefighters simply cannot get out in front of them, 1,000 homes, hotels, businesses reduced to ashes as wildfires devour California's wine country.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper today.

We begin with the politics lead.

A prominent Republican senator sounding the alarm about the president's very fitness for the office. Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he fears that President Trump is setting the country -- quote -- "on the path to World War III" and treats the office of the president like a reality show.

Pointedly, he says that many of his Senate GOP colleagues share those concerns. And this is a Republican senator who campaigned with candidate Trump and who the president considered as his secretary of state.

Senator Corker's remarks to "The New York Times" come after the two engaged in a bitter Twitter feud this weekend. And while President Trump golfed again this afternoon, this time with Senator Lindsey Graham, one White House official tells CNN the president is not done with Corker yet.

CNN's Sara Murray has the story from the White House.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're going to see very soon.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Even for a president known for bucking his own party, Trump is kicking off the week with a remarkably public spat with a top GOP senator.

And the senator isn't holding back either. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker turning to "The New York Times" to air his concerns about the president, saying Trump's Twitter threats toward other nations could put America on the path to World War III and adding: "He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation."

While Corker has acted as a Trump ally on Capitol Hill and was even under consideration to serve at secretary of state, he hasn't shied away from criticizing the president either.

Last week, while Trump feuded with his own secretary of state, Corker came to Rex Tillerson's defense.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos, and I support them very much.

MURRAY: The comment seemed to leave Trump stewing. He spent the weekend lobbing Twitter grenades at Corker, who recently announced he won't seek reelection.

Trump tweeting: "Senator Bob Corker begged me to endorse him for reelection in Tennessee. I said no and he dropped out and said he could not win without my endorsement," adding: "Hence, I would fully expect Corker to be a negative voice and stand in the way of our great agenda. Didn't have the guts to run."

Corker's chief of staff disputed Trump's account, saying the president actually asked Corker to reconsider his decision not to seek reelection and said he would have endorsed Corker.

As for the senator unburdened by the constraints of a reelection fight, he fired back at the president, tweeting: "It's a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning."

And he elaborated to "The New York Times," saying: "I know for a fact that every single day at the White House is a situation of trying to contain him."

As the feud played out, administration officials jumped to the president's defense.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: We thank him for his service, but I find tweets like this to be incredibly irresponsible.

MURRAY: And one White House official tells CNN that Trump isn't finished with Corker yet. But other Republicans in Congress warned the president's firestorm against members of his own party could only jeopardize his agenda.

REP. SEAN DUFFY (R), WISCONSIN: I don't think that airing dirty laundry publicly is a good strategy. You know, going after a senator whose vote you're going to need on tax reform is not the best strategy.


MURRAY: Now, while the president believes it's a winning approach to go toe to toe with another top Republican, there are aides in the West Wing and other sources close to Trump who are telling us they do not believe this will be a successful strategy and ultimately could just hurt the president's ability to move forward on his agenda, particularly at an important moment for tax reform, with very few Republicans on the precipice to lose if he wants to be able to move that vote forward.

SCIUTTO: That's right. Bob Corker, a big deficit hawk, he'd have to get him on board.


Sara Murray, thanks very much.

The tension between President Trump and those in his own party comes as tension of a different kind couldn't be higher over a major global national security threat, and that, of course, is North Korea.

It is now dawn Tuesday morning in North Korea, a state holiday there, an important one, and one that intelligence officials tell me could bring could bring another missile or nuclear test.

So, just what is the national security team telling President Trump to do in response?

CNN's Barbara Starr reports.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's as if Defense Secretary James Mattis seemed to almost be speaking directly to Donald Trump.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It is right now a diplomatically led economic sanction-buttressed effort to try to turn North Korea off this path. Now, what does the future hold? Neither you nor I can say.

STARR: More North Korean missile launches, possibly an ICBM next are expected. Mattis' call for diplomacy may not satisfy the president, who tweeted: "Agreements violated before the ink was dry, making fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work."

QUESTION: What's the one thing that will work with North Korea?

TRUMP: Well, you will figure that out pretty soon. STARR: The drama didn't stop. Republican Senator Bob Corker, already

at odds with President Trump, publicly suggesting what some already believe, that there is a team of Trump whisperers, including Defense Secretary Mattis.

CORKER: Those people that help separate our country from chaos.

STARR: But that kind of high profile puts Mattis and the Pentagon potentially in Trump's crosshairs. The president already is making mystifying comments in front of his commanders.

TRUMP: It may be the calm before the storm.

STARR: And this blunt criticism.

TRUMP: I also expect you to provide me with a broad range of military options when needed at a much faster pace.

STARR: But just last month, Trump said this about military options for North Korea.

TRUMP: I am more confident than ever that our options in addressing this threat are both effective and overwhelming.

STARR: Mattis making publicly clear the president knows the options and the risks.

MATTIS: We have many military options, and the president wanted to be briefed on each one of them.

STARR: The head of the U.S. Army cautioning of the horror of a Korean war.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: The damage to infrastructure, the economic effects, the casualties, the humanitarian impacts would be enormous, yes. It would be horrible. There is no question about it. But so would an intercontinental ballistic missile striking Los Angeles or New York City.

STARR: And reminding the world it will be a presidential decision about what to do next.

MILLEY: We're not going to make the decision. That decision will be made by the duly elected representatives of the United States of America.


STARR: And decisions that would have to be made before North Korea could launch an attack -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Is the president sending the country on the path to World War III, as Senator Bob Corker claims?

We will ask the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, what he thinks. That's right after this.



SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

And sticking with our world lead, Kim Jong-un declaring that he will not give up his nuclear program because it -- quote -- "guarantees his country's sovereignty."

Meanwhile, the president keeps sending out provocative tweets. And Defense Secretary Mattis said today that the U.S. military does stand ready if diplomacy fails.

Joining me now is the former director of national intelligence under President Obama, retired General James Clapper.

I do want to get to North Korea, but I want to start first on the president himself. You said on this network in August that you question President Trump's motivation and his fitness for the office.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: Yes, I did say that. And that was on -- right after the Phoenix rally, and I did share right on that broadcast my concerns about his temperament, and much along the lines of what Senator Corker had said -- said then as well.

SCIUTTO: So do you -- what I was going to ask you is, do the president's latest comments, his behavior in recent weeks, including threatening, it seems, via Twitter military action against North Korea, does that increase your concerns about his fitness?

CLAPPER: Well, it does, more for my understanding of what the impact of that kind of bellicose rhetoric has in North Korea, which is already extremely paranoid.

And so threats such as was -- came out of the during his -- the president's United Nations General Assembly speech about we're going to completely destroy North Korea, and words like that only heighten the paranoia and cause, I think, the regime there to counter with more provocative acts.

So I wouldn't be surprised at all if they have another missile test or something just to reaffirm their own safety and security and their sovereignty. And, of course, when they do these things, by the way, they're not just doing it for the external audience. They're doing it for their domestic audience in North Korea as well.

SCIUTTO: Do you think that the North Korean leadership takes the president's words at face value?

CLAPPER: Oh, absolutely. They do.

And I think, in their mind, they could easily construe what he's been saying as a declaration or at least a threat of war, which really heightens the paranoia there.

[16:15:06] And what concerns me about North Korea is -- and the fact that the -- all the decisions are vested in one person. You know, President Trump is surrounded by some exceptional advisers who are sober, sane, mature and seasoned, and Kim Jong-un, the leader in the DPRK or North Korea is surrounded by sycophants, (INAUDIBLE) generals who tail after him writing down his every utterance in a notebook. They're not about to push back.

And I do think about or worry about what is the fuse -- what is the ignition point for Kim Jong-un's fuse with this provocative rhetoric? I understand, you know, military -- Secretary Mattis saying the right things. Sure, the military has got all kinds of options. The only problem with the options is it's going to be very difficult to limit the damage that's caused by the exercise of those options to purely north of the DMZ. That is not going to happen.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Briefly, the president tweeted this morning that our country has been unsuccessfully dealing with North Korea for 25 years, giving billions of dollars and getting nothing. Policy didn't work.

Does he have a point?

CLAPPER: In some respects, he does, but I would also offer that for 64 years we have had roughly speaking, with some exceptions, but generally speaking, peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. And -- so, you know, we have a bad hand to play, and I think past administrations realize that and played as best they could.

It's frustrating dealing with the North Koreans, but I do think that's why I'm a big proponent of what Secretary of State Tillerson is trying to do. I do think the only way ahead here that is reasonable is through diplomacy.

SCIUTTO: Director Clapper, please stick around. There is a lot more to talk about, including whether Secretary of State Tillerson will be shown the door. That story right after this.


[16:21:22] SCIUTTO: We're back now with our world lead.

It turns out that Russian operatives also used Google products, including YouTube and Gmail, to interfere in the 2016 election. Sources telling CNN that Kremlin-backed agents purchased ads on Google as part of their campaign to sow chaos and racial division during the campaign. These advertisements, however, do not appear to have been purchase bid the same Russian troll farm that bought $100,000 worth of ads on Facebook.

We're back now with retired General James Clapper, former director of national intelligence.

I mean, what you're discovering with Facebook, Google, these are the most popular digital platforms that most Americans probably use every day. Do they have reason to doubt what they're seeing on these platforms going forward? I mean, an element of doubt at least has been injected into this.

CLAPPER: Absolutely. I think, first of all, let me preface, Jake, the Russians have a long history during the Soviet era of interfering in elections, theirs and other peoples. And what is so dramatic about this case is because of all of these tools made available by the age of the Internet that the Russians have astutely applied. We addressed this sort of the tip of the iceberg in our intelligence community assessment that we published last January, and now the depth and the scope and the magnitude of this activity by the Russians, targeting specific audiences and the whole objective here is to undermine confidence in our system. And they're succeeding in that.

And I worry about our general public awareness of this and what do we do about it. Because what this is leading to is a number of different realities that people have about what -- what are the facts? So, this is not surprising. It's very consistent with what they've always done in the way of information manipulation. It's just they have so many more tools to use than they did in the heyday of the Cold War.

SCIUTTO: It's a force multiplier, I suppose you could say.

Final word on Secretary Tillerson. You've served in government, multiple administrations for decades. A secretary of state in effect being derided by his commander in chief in public via Twitter and other public comments. Can he survive that and should he in your view? Should he stay?

CLAPPER: Well, I don't know. I would hope he would, but I think it's going to be increasingly difficult for him, too, with the president kind of undercutting what he's trying to do. And I think Secretary Tillerson's got the right instincts about, particularly with respect to say North Korea, that exploring what the -- what the potential paths are diplomatically. And I think that's the only way -- way ahead. So, to me, Secretary Tillerson is a voice of reason.

SCIUTTO: Director Clapper, thanks very much, as always. We appreciate your comments.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: The vice president of the United States flies from Las Vegas all the way to the Indianapolis Colts game only to walk out before that game even started. Was the whole thing a political stunt funded by you and me?


[16:28:39] CLAPPER: Welcome back.

In the sports lead now -- ESPN today suspended host Jemele Hill, saying that she violated the network's social media guidelines for a second time. This comes after Hill in a tweet said her followers should consider boycotting Dallas Cowboys advertisers because the Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened to bench any player who kneels during the national anthem. Later, Hill clarified, we should say, that she wasn't advocating an NFL boycott. ESPN, of course, is a broadcast partner of the NFL, the home for "Monday Night Football."

Hill remained on the air a few weeks ago after calling the president a white supremacist on Twitter. The White House called for her firing in response to that tweet.

Now to our politics lead. A closer lock at how much you and I paid for the vice president to take a stand against an NFL protest of a different kind. His travel is under scrutiny now after he and his wife walked out on yesterday's Colts/49ers game when several players took a knee during the anthem.

To get to the game, Pence traveled cross the country from Las Vegas to Indianapolis. Then after his exit from that game, Pence got on a plane again and went back west to Los Angeles for private fund-raisers and a tax reform event. The cost of those flights, they add up. He also missed the main event, we should say.

Team Pence says he made that special trip to Indianapolis to support former Colts QB Peyton Manning who was honored at the half time. Instead, Pence tweeted he didn't want to dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag or our national anthem.