Return to Transcripts main page


Kremlin on U.S. Relations; China Rejects Trump's Accusation; North Korea May Test Missile; Russia Investigation; No Wall No Deal; Trump Golfs With Coast Guard; Clinton Investigation. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 29, 2017 - 13:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar in for Wolf Blitzer. It is 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 2:00 p.m. in San Juan and 9:00 p.m. in Moscow. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thank you so much for joining us.

Unscripted and on the record. President Trump gives an impromptu and wide-ranging interview to "The New York Times." And he says the Russia investigation is making the U.S. look bad.

From Russia with regret. The kremlin sizes up relations between the U.S. and Moscow, calling the current state of affairs one of the major disappointments of the year.

And China fires back, rejecting Trump's accusation of violating sanctions against North Korea and not doing enough to help end the nuclear standoff.

Up first, President Trump has a message for Democrats. No protection for the so-called dreamers without the border wall and changes to immigration.

In a tweet today, the president said the Democrats have been told and fully understand that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed wall at the southern border and an end to the horrible chain migration and ridiculous lottery system of immigration, et cetera. We must protect our country at all cost.

That was just one of the president's tweets today. He also gave an impromptu interview to "The New York Times" in addition.

And Correspondent Ryan Nobles is in West Palm Beach, Florida near Mar- a-Lago where the president is spending the holidays.

So, Ryan, fill us in on the president's tweets and what he told "The New York Times."

RYAN NOBLES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, it seems pretty clear, Brianna, over the past couple of days that the president is setting the stage for 2018, laying out his priorities and also making it clear the areas where he's willing to work with Democrats and areas where he's not going to budge.

And he's also talking about the special counsel investigation into his campaign's alleged ties to Russia. And he's making it very that the special counsel is not going to find anything and that they need to wrap up this investigation as soon as possible.

In this interview, which took place yesterday at his golf course with "The New York Times," the president talked about a number of topics. And when talking about the special counsel investigation, he said this, quote, "It makes the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position. So, the sooner it's worked out, the better it is for the country."

But one of the interesting points that the president made, which to a certain extent is an about face from how he's talked about this investigation in previous interviews, is that he thinks Robert Mueller, the special counsel, will be fair.

And he will treat him fair and that, ultimately, this investigation will exonerate him from any wrong doing. He said repeatedly in the interview there is no collusion.

So, Brianna, the president making it clear that there is nothing to see here, as it relates to his campaign's ties to Russia, and that he wants this investigation wrapped up as soon as possible.

KEILAR: And he talked about his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. What did he say, Ryan?

NOBLES: Yes, it seems as though he is very much smarting about how Attorney General Jeff Sessions handled the Russia issue. And, in fact, he's very upset, still, that he decided to recuse himself early on in this investigation.

And he even compared Sessions to his -- one of his predecessors, Eric Holder, the former Democratic attorney general. And this is what Donald Trump said. He said, Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the things that they did and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that. I'll be honest."

Now, it wasn't all that specific as to what exactly president -- Eric Holder and how he protected President Obama. He talked about the investigation into the IRS going after conservative groups, but he didn't really explain his specificity how Holder was protecting him President Obama from that.

But it gets back to this point of loyalty, Brianna. It's something that continues to be important for Donald Trump. You'll remember, that was part of his dust-up with the former FBI director, James Comey. Comey testifying that the president, essentially, asked him for loyalty. And that James Comey couldn't say that definitely. That he would, instead, be loyal to his country.

So, the president with a lot to say on a lot of topics here, over the past couple of days, in Florida before he heads back to Washington to begin the new year -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, it is a fascinating interview. Ryan Nobles breaking it down for us in West Palm Beach, Florida. Thank you.

And a comment by President Trump about his power over the Justice Department in this interview is raising eyebrows. In this "New York Times" interview, the president was asked whether he would reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

And he said, quote, "I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."

I want to bring in our panel. We have CNN Political Analyst Karoun Demirjian, and CNN Political Analyst David Drucker.

OK, Karoun, your reaction to that statement. And, actually, you know what? If you can hold for one moment, I think we actually have some -- do we have some pictures of Donald Trump playing golf with members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Let's listen here if he says anything.


He said, if it's for the Coast Guard, I don't mind waiting. I said, that's OK, you're going to wait.

Thank you though. I just want to thank you. You know, we've had (INAUDIBLE.) I know a lot of you are from beyond Lake (INAUDIBLE.) So, I said, would a couple of people -- this is for you guys. Would a couple of people like to play golf? And I had about 50 people raise their hands. And about 75 people showed up.

So, today, today's the course is just -- we closed the course. No tourist is going to use the course. Have a -- you're going to have a little tournament. You're going to determine who the best player is, right? Maybe it's the boss, I don't know.

But we'll make a determination as to who the best player is. The media is terrific. Any sports media there? Any -- I know you are not sports media there? Any other sports media? They can have a little Coast Guard challenge.

So, enjoy the course. One of the great courses of the world, as you know. This is the 17th hole and I think all of you were watching my shot, right? Did you see it? The shot and a birdie. And I made it. They'll say a took a triple bogey, but I actually got a birdie.

Just go when you're good. I know you ate.

It's an honor to have you at the course, and you will come back and we'll do this a little bit.

And the job you did in Florida, and, frankly, the job they did -- as you know, the job they did in Texas saved 16,000 people. It's unheard of. So, I just want to thank you. The Coast Guard is fantastic. And I said, come use my course. I didn't know I'd be flooded. But that's OK. You guys go have a good time. Let me know who won. We'll get another trophy, OK?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Is he a tough guy to work for?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. Thank you.

KEILAR: All right, President Trump there meeting with members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Mostly men. I do see a woman in there golfing. And as a female golfer, I have to say, go her.

And they're going to have a competition, it looks like. I couldn't make everything out, David Drucker. Maybe you could hear some of the things I didn't.

But it's unclear to me whether he's actually going to be playing golf with them or if he just invited them in, sort of, a gesture for all of their hard work during the hurricane that hit Houston, if that may be part of the reason why they're there.

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and I couldn't tell either. This was one of those moments, I thought, where it was a really nice gesture, on the president's part.

And all presidents do things like that, but he was actually able to use the fact that he owns the course to, sort of, give back.

And it's probably a thrill for most of them to be able to be invited by the commander in chief. When you're in the military, that's a -- it's a very important, amazing thing and given this treat.

And so, look, we look at how Trump treats his properties quite often, wondering if money is going into his pocket. And it's a little bit of a different situation than we've seen with other presidents.

But this is one case where I think it played well for him. It looked good and it made, I think, the people involved appear to be having a really good time. And there is nothing wrong with that once in a while.

KEILAR: Yes, they seem happy to be there. And he said they're going to have a competition. So, we'll see. We'll see who wins. He said, we'll see who wins.

DRUCKER: And if plays, will they play him hard or will they let him win?

KEILAR: That's right. I mean, as we know, you always let him win. That's what we heard from people who play with him. All right, I want to get back to the news and bring in Karoun Demirjian, while we look at the pictures again.

OK. So, talking about this "New York Times" interview, really fascinating here. Where he said -- in response to a question about whether he would order the DOJ to reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

[13:10:06] He said, I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department. But for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.

Your reaction?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, if the president decides to get involved with this particular matter, which he did involve himself, in commenting on the campaign trail and he's tweeted about this several times. He's not completely keeping himself above the fray in it.

He's going to face a lot of the blowback that Republicans in Congress have faced. Which is that they are being accused of re-raising the issue in order to distract from the Russia investigation into the president's alleged ties with Russian officials.

If the president decides to do the same, especially at a juncture where it seems like that probe may be getting too close for his comfort, to himself, to the people that are close to him in his -- in his administration, then there is going to be some political blowback to that.

So, there is a calculation that the president will make. I mean, in general, you don't want to see presidents getting too close to investigations in the Justice Department to try to steer them one way or the other, for political reasons.

It's true that he can hire and fire who he wants of the political appointees that he made and that can shake things up dramatically and affect the Russia investigation.

But, yes, if he's saying that he realizes that the optics of this are bad, that is an acknowledgement of something that is just fact. It's not necessarily that he's doing the Justice Department a favor by staying out of the way.

If he decided to force them to re-raise the Clinton issue, he -- we know what the reaction of that is going to be from the Democrats already because we're seeing it happen in Congress.

KEILAR: But this assertion, David Drucker, that I have the absolute right. I mean, we've discussed before whether he has the ability, but also how it would play if he does something. Is that a reflection, how do they see that? I could argue that that seems to be a lack of appreciation for some institutional boundaries that are pretty traditional in the U.S. DRUCKER: And I think it's because President Trump doesn't necessarily

understand the boundaries that govern the executive branch.

A couple of things here that I think are important. One, the Department of Justice is not an independent entity. It is accountable to the president who is accountable to the voters.

So, in that sense, he has oversight. If he doesn't like the job the attorney general is doing or, as Karoun said, other of his political appointees that are influential in how the department runs. Rod Rosenstein, Deputy Attorney General, he can fire them. He can replace them.

But the president, as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, per the Constitution, does not have the right to simply prosecute people because he wants to.

And this is where, I suppose, he could direct the Department of Justice to investigate somebody because, on a whim, he wants to. But -- and he might be able to get away with it, because he runs the department. But, politically, it could be problematic.

And even legally, we have come to expect that there are barriers so that we don't have a Nixonian president that decides that these lawyers work for me. They don't work for him, in the sense that they are his lawyers.

They are to give him cover and prosecute his enemies. They are there to prosecute the laws of the United States. He oversees them so that there is accountability through him to the voters.

And I don't know that, given his background and how he looked at government when he came in just a little under a year ago, if he fully understands all of these things. And I think that has been part of his frustration, going back to his firing of James Comey and everything else.

He says, Karoun, as well, that he thinks he's going to be treated fairly by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But we've been seeing, well, from a growing number of members of the Republican Party there, undercutting Robert Mueller or they're taking aim at the DOJ or the FBI.

The president has as well. How do you square him saying he believes he's going to be treated fairly with the fact that he has been trying at every turn to undermine the DOJ and the FBI?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, I mean, we don't know exactly what the president means by being treated fairly. I'm sure his definition of fairly is, potentially, very different than Mueller's own definition of what is fair here.

It is interesting that he's coming out and saying this, at a point, though, when, as you just said, the fever pitch of people calling out Mueller, being against Mueller, thinking he should step aside in the GOP on Capitol Hill, that pitch is rising. So, to have the president say he thinks he's going to be treated fairly maybe takes -- puts a little bit of a pause on that.

But, again, what is the next tweet from the president going to be? What is his next reaction going to be to if there's another plea deal or if there are reports of the next people Mueller is looking at? Or if somebody is interviewed close to the president.

Now, granted to say he will be treated fairly is also a little bit different than what we were hearing from some of Trump's lawyers which is that they believe that they would get exoneration from Mueller in the next -- very, very soon.

So, either Trump is sitting in a position where he's feeling pretty good about it, or he's making a wise decision, frankly, to step back for a second. And maybe, maybe if this I'll be treated fairly means stop throwing darts for a little bit, that is actually what his advisors have wanted him to do for a very long time.

[13:15:00] DEMIRJIAN: Wise decision, frankly, to step back for a second and maybe, maybe if this I'll be treated fairly means stop throwing darts for a bit, that is actually what his advisers have wanted him to do for a very long time. But I think it -- the determination of what this really means will be, in the days ahead, as we get back to the non-holiday season in Washington, and as we see what the next steps for Mueller are because the president has reacted to those in real time in ways that do not always match what he says he's comfortable with, what he says that he believes will eventually result, which he thinks he's going to be cleared.

KEILAR: All right, Karoun Demirjian, thank you so much.

David Drucker, thank you to you as well. Appreciate it.

China fires back after Trump accuses the nation of allowing oil into North Korea. This coming as the president says he's been soft on China. We are live in Beijing next.

Plus, after 100 days in the dark, some Puerto Ricans are celebrating getting back on the grid, while others are facing the prospect of no power until the summer. That is right. We have a special report live from San Juan later this hour.


KEILAR: Russia says its relationship with the United States is one of the major disappointments of the year. This, of course, coming one day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote this in a "New York Times" op-ed. Quote, on Russia we have no illusions about the regime we are dealing with. The United States today has a poor relationship with a resurgent Russia that has invaded its neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, in the last decade and undermined the sovereignty of western nations by meddling in our election and others.

[13:20:20] CNN's senior international correspondent Matthew Chance live for us in Moscow. So, Matthew, what prompted these statements?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was a daily sort of conference call that the Kremlin gives in which we and other journalists get a chance to ask him questions. The Kremlin was actually reacting to that impromptu interview that President Trump did with "The New York Times" asking what the Kremlin felt about these ongoing investigations.

And the Kremlin spokesman's response to that was that, you know, this is anti-Russian hysteria. That's a phrase they've used quite a lot. They said they were perplexed at the ongoing investigation and that they believe that they were damaging U.S./Russia relations. And so sort of reflecting a similar, you know, kind of sentiment that President Trump himself expresses about those investigations.

But it's that other line about how the relationship between the United States and Russia is such a disappointment. The main -- or a major disappointment of the year. I think he's very telling because back in January, when Trump was inaugurated, the Kremlin had high hopes that this was going to be the guy who would turn around the very rocky relationship between Russia and the United States. They thought they were going to cooperate on all sorts of issues, like international terrorism, Syria, NATO, things like that. In fact, it's gotten much, much worse. The relationship is still in a very poor state and is deteriorating. And the sanctions, which the Russians hopped would be lifted, are intensifying, Brianna.

KEILAR: Matthew Chance in Moscow, thank you so much.

And in that same "New York Times" interview, President Trump defended his decision to keep trade active with China, pointing to the threat with North Korea saying China's hurting us very badly on trade, but I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war.

This interview came on the same day that he accused China of selling oil to North Korea despite the U.N. sanctions that prohibit that. Now China is responding. And CNN's Alexandra Field has the latest from Beijing.


ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, this has been a year of almost constant provocations from Pyongyang that have been met with a series of sanctions aimed at cutting off the resources that are flowing into North Korea and cutting off those revenue streams that help to fuel a rogue regime and its elicit activities. A key objective here is to cut off the flow of oil that runs into North Korea, largely coming from China. And now there are bold accusations from President Trump that China is allowing for this flow of oil into North Korea to continue.

This is an issue that the Treasury Department first flagged back in November. They suggested that there was a network of illegal ships doing oil transfers that are prohibited under the sanctions. This week South Korean media came out and said that Chinese ships were involved, along with North Korean vessels, in those illegal transfers.

Then you had this tweet from President Trump saying that China had been caught red handed. Chinese officials in Beijing are sharply denying those claims. They say that they have fully upheld the U.N. Security Council resolutions. They say that if there is any evidence of Chinese ships or companies participating in illegal oil transfers, that those entities will be dealt with.

But despite the denials from Beijing, South Korean officials now say there is evidence of an illegal shipping network. In fact, they say that they have seized a ship with Hong Kong registration that was being leased to a Taiwanese company. They took that ship back in October and they say that in October the crew aboard that ship had been involved with the illegal transfer of oil to a North Korean vessel. That ship remains in the custody of the South Korean government. The crew also still being detained and questioned.


KEILAR: Alexandra Field, thank you for that.

I want to bring in my panel to talk more about this. We have CNN national security analyst and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Gayle Lemmon, and Gordon Chang is the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World." He's also a columnist for "The Daily Beast."

Thanks to both of you for being here.

Gordon, I want you to comment on some reporting that we have from CNN's Barbara Starr that indications are that North Korea may be making some moves towards a ballistic missile test sometime after the new year, instead of a possible satellite launch, which had been an option. It seems like it's leaning more towards a ballistic missile test. The significance of that, what is it?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: NORTH KOREA TAKES ON THE WORLD": Well, it would be certainly significant if it were the test of a thermonuclear device over the Pacific. In other words, an atmospheric test.

On September 25th, the North Korean foreign minister in New York said that was going to happen. And, as you know, a North Korean official told your -- one of your correspondents that they should take North Korea's threats literally.

[13:25:03] So clearly this is something that North Koreans are going to do. They may not do it in the next week or so, but if it does, this is the game changer. You know, every nation with nuclear weapons has done an atmospheric test, so you'd expect the North Koreans will carry through on the threat at some time.

KEILAR: So you're saying an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon. I just want to be very clear about what you're saying it potentially could be.

CHANG: It -- potentially it could be. Now, it could be a run of the mill test --

KEILAR: So not just -- not just -- not -- or it could be a missile launch. But that would be a very different situation if you're talking about an atmospheric test, not an underground test of a nuclear weapon, an atmospheric test of an actual nuclear weapon.

CHANG: Yes. I mean the North Koreans have said they're going to do it. I believe that they will. And clearly this is something that everyone's looking at.

It could be a run-of-the-mill missile test. I mean of course we don't know and we won't know until this thing is actually in the air.

But, nonetheless, this is the event that will change relations with Beijing, with Russia and indeed with the North Koreans themselves, of course.

KEILAR: What would China do, Gayle? How would China respond?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: This is exactly the question, right? The United States has successfully deterred three generations of the Kim family. And the question is whether 2017 marks a turning point.

You know, you talk to U.S. military officials and China is a question, Russia is a question, and there's really a question of how prepared the United States is with military plans against North Korea, or to counter the North Korean threat. Given that in the post-9/11 war, so much attention has been elsewhere. So certainly the United States military is prepared for whatever comes, but the war planning is going on even as, you know, the likelihood of military action is increasing.

KEILAR: Can you give us some context, Gayle, for an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon, if that is a possibility? How real of a possibility do you think that it? And then just express how significant that would be.

LEMMON: It would be very significant. And I think this -- what happens next? What happens in the first half of 2018 is a real question for U.S. policy makers because for the United States, the question is, how does U.S. policy goal meet the North Korean reality and what is North Korea aiming to do, right?

There's one word that sums up the Kim family's goal, it's survival. And if they think that is what is required, that is what they will do. And there is a lot of discussion right now, Secretary Mattis spoke about this actually today, that the military wants to see it diplomatic, the economic hammer, the diplomatic hammer before military might. But if North Korea forces its hand, it does need to say it is prepared to respond.

KEILAR: Gordon, the president said in this interview with "The New York Times," China has a tremendous power over North Korea, far greater than anyone knows. China can solve the North Korea problem and they're helping us and they're even helping us a lot, but they're not helping us enough. What's your reaction to that? CHANG: Well, I think that the president is right, that China could

solve this. You know, China, of course, has -- accounts for 92 percent of North Korea's trade last year. It has been supplying ballistic missile technology and equipment, components, equipment, all sorts of things for the nuclear weapons program.

But the most important thing, Brianna, that China supplies, it's confidence to regime elements in Pyongyang. And if Beijing signed it was no longer supporting the weapons program, I think that you would see, one way or another, that this program would end within, let's say, six months, probably earlier, because North Korean officials realize that they're there only because China lets them be there. And once you have China change its mind, then all sorts of things are going to change that everyone thought to be impossible just a few weeks ago.

KEILAR: China seems more concerned, Gayle, with not destabilizing the region, whereas the U.S. is very concerned, obviously, about the nuclear weapons direction of North Korea. Is there any way for the U.S. to align China more with its objectives or no?

LEMMON: You know, that has been the central question policymakers have faced, right? If survival is the Kim regime's -- is Kim Jong-un's goal, then stability is China's, right? And so they do not want to see 52 card pick up in their neighborhood. But the United States has said it does not want to live with a nuclear North Korea, even though, you know, there's a lot of discussion about whether it already is.

So I think you will see American pressure continue to increase. And, in fact, some of the rhetoric you've heard, some of the more bellicose rhetoric out of the United States, as some analyst say, is actually aimed at getting the Chinese to come out and say, OK, OK, let's all calm down a little bit. Now we'll do more, especially as the Olympics come.

KEILAR: Of course. That's a very good point.

Gayle Lemmon, Gordon Chang, thank you so much to both of you. Really appreciate it.

And next we are following a string of recent attempts by some in the GOP and the president to discredit Robert Mueller's investigation. Trump now says he thinks the special counsel is going to be fair to him. Well, we're going to ask a Republican congressman if his party sees it that way too.