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Coats Says Homeland Security Leads on Cyberops; Conway Violated Hatch Act; Trump Touts Progress with North Korea. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 6, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:14] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

A busy news day it is. President Trump insisting there's no chaos in his White House, yet a tweet insisting the West Wing is full of, quote, great energy, also hints at more staff turnover.

Plus, bluff or breakthrough? North Korea says it wants to talk and is willing to discuss getting rid of its nuclear weapons. Be skeptical, and then some. But this offer presents President Trump with a big challenge.

And the nation's top intelligence official insists the president takes the Russian election meddling threat seriously. Listen. You make the call.


SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: Why do we not have a whole of government strategy?

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I don't have a specific answer to your specific question, which is, which agency or which individual person has taken the lead at this point.

HIRONO: Don't you think there should be a lead agency, maybe the State Department, which has $120 million to do the exact thing we're talking about?

COATS: Well, I think that's a decision that has to be made by the president and the White House.


KING: There's also this breaking news this hour. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel says White House Adviser Kellyanne Conway broke the law. The office says she did that by stumping for the Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore in her official capacity as a White House staffer. More on that story in a moment.

But let's get back to what we just heard from the nation's top intelligence official and this question, bureaucratic confusion or covering for the president's big blind spot? Two very different tales now coming from the very top of the intelligence community.

The Trump appointed Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, you just heard him there, says the president has given him permission to do whatever needs to be done to fight Russian cyberattacks.


DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I have discussed it personally with the president of the United States. He has said, I assume you're doing your job, all of you who head up these agencies relative to cyber. But if you need for me to say -- direct you to do it, do it.


KING: But just one week ago, listen here, a very different take from the head of the National Security Agency, Admiral Mike Rogers. He said he hasn't been told to do anything. And he said, absent permission, an order from the president, he can't.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you been directed to do so given the strategic threat that faces the United States and the significant consequences you recognize already?



KING: So, then, how does Director Coats explain the difference?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said that he had not heard from anyone in the administration or the White House about taking any action to respond to what Russia is doing to interfere in our elections. But it still sounds to me like you're saying something different. So --

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, the NSA, which Admiral Rogers directs, is one component of many agencies that are involved. DHS really has taken the lead on this.


COATS: The White House has been engaged on this. The Department of Defense. Other agencies have been engaged on this.


KING: We'll try to sort through this.

With us this day to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Sahil Kapur of "Bloomberg," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and Catherine Lucey of "The Associated Press." Director Coats there trying to say, well, Admiral Rogers is just one

of many agencies. Sorry, sir, Admiral Rogers heads the agency that has the buttons. If you're going to use cyber war to attack, counter attack, to try to take out say the agency in Russia, the business in Russia that is viewed as responsible for these cyberattacks, that has to come from the NSA. So who's telling the truth here or is Director Coats spinning us?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting, the White House did not use that defense last week when they were asked about this the first time. I was in the White House briefing that day and Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, sort of walked around this issue saying he has the authority, but did not say specifically that, no, he's wrong. It's DNI said to me that sounded more like a former Republican senator, which, of course, he was from Indiana and a member of this administration, rather than a career service person here. It sounds like spin to me.


SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": That's a key point, I think, because the fact that Dan Coats is a former politician means he understands the PR problem created by a president appearing disengaged on an issue that is so momentous, like Russian meddling, as we are beginning the first primaries in the 2018 election. So it's possible that Coats is trying to do a little bit of a workaround where the president didn't have to say it director. He said the White House is actively engaged, not the president is actively engaged, and maybe getting his preapproval to do what needs to be done.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I never thought I'd say this, but let's hope it's spin --

KING: Right.

BASH: Because if it's not, it's a very dangerous example of the chaos that goes into the policymaking inside this White House. Obviously we've seen that over the past few days with the trade issue. This is something that is serious when it comes to national security and is important vis-a-vis this election coming up in November. So let's hope it's not just that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is and that they actually do have their act together behind the scenes despite what they're saying in public.

[12:05:02] KING: But what Admiral Rogers said a week ago, again, it's very important, to do what most intelligence operatives would tell you what's necessary, launching a cyber counter attack against Russia. Dick Clarke (ph), the former Bush administration official, used the word "fry," fry the computers, send some sort of malware, some sort of virus, some sort of attack in. You need a presidential directive because of the severity of that. Admiral Rogers said he didn't have it. Director Coats there trying to suggest, well, he's not the key guy.

LUCEY: Yes. And Rogers said last week, I believe, that he didn't have the, quote, day to day authority he needed to, you know, attack this stuff quickly. And we haven't heard if anything has changed in the -- in the intervening week. Obviously these remarks today from Coats. But even Coats today said that a coherent strategy was still something they're working on.

KING: Still something they're working on. We are at one year, one month plus into the administration. This has been a pretty obvious problem since even before the election. And let's listen to your point. We've had a Democrat from Hawaii, a Democrat from New Hampshire in the questioning there. So if you're watching at home and you think this is just the Democrats beating up a Republican official, here's Senator Lindsey Graham asking his former colleague, Republican colleague, a friend, saying, what's the plan this year?


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: So how likely is it the 2018 election is going to be compromised by Russia?

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: We have not seen evidence of a robust effort yet on the part of Russia, but we know they're maligned activities continue.

It's highly likely that they will be doing something, we just don't know how much and when and where.


ZELENY: He said highly likely that they'll be doing something. So I mean the reality is, the midterm election campaign is not really fully engaged yet. It's the first primary today. So, I mean, everything that we saw in 2016, if that is going to be repeated, that would come sort of months from now.

But he says highly unlikely. It's one thing we do not hear the White House talking about. We've seen the president virtually every day or every week certainly talking about, what did the Obama administration not do in 2016? Very little talk about the forward looking step for 2018.

KAPUR: And how you define robust activity, right?

KING: Right.

KAPUR: We know that there are bots and trolls and online activities that the Russians have continued to engage in, well into 2017 and 2018. So is it going to be that or is it going to be something more serious?

LUCEY: And another thing we hard last week from Rogers, he raised the concern that he felt like Putin had concluded from '16 that there wasn't -- there weren't great consequences for meddling.

KING: Right. And so aside -- I would hope -- I would hope, regardless of your --

BASH: I wonder if he still thinks that.

KING: Yes, I wonder if he still thinks it.

But I would hope anybody watching, whatever your politics, would think 2016's over. Forget about it. There's nothing we can do about it. We can't go back. Donald Trump is president for three more years. You'd like to hear from this administration that the Defense Department is doing this. The department of Homeland Security is working and State officials to make sure they don't hack into the computer systems. The National Security Agency is doing everything it can, not only to block the Russian cyberattacks, but to counterman them and to essentially send a message by blowing up their computers. What you'd like to hear is boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

But listen again, Dan Coats knows he's going to be asked this question. Here's Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut, saying, lay it out.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Can you assure the American people that the president told you to take effective, deterrent action in addition to what we're doing in the past?

DAN COATS, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: The president told me to do my job. My job is to collect -- to oversee the 17 intelligence agencies.


KING: Why is this so hard? My job is to, what, collect paper? Why is this so hard?

BASH: It shouldn't be. I mean it's certainly hard to execute a plan to fight the Russians, but it shouldn't be hard to create one. This is not a surprise.

And the fact is, these are not gotcha questions. These are fundamental, basic questions that are being asked and need to be asked by members of Congress doing their oversight responsibility. You know, a lot of times on Capitol Hill we have a lot of hot air and we have a lot of sort of, you know, talking for the cameras and speechifying. That's not what this is. This is genuinely trying to get answers and frustration because there aren't clear answers that should exist.

ZELENY: Especially in the Senate.

BASH: Yes.

ZELENY: I mean senators are being as respectful as possible to him. I mean -- I mean if that was in the House or someplace else, it would have been much more outrageous. But this is an attack, a cyberattack, the commander in chief has essentially been silent on. He talks a lot about other threats. He's talked very little about this.

KING: And, again, to your point, Dan Coats has been on the other side. He's asked tough questions before when there was a Democratic administration, somebody else in the chair, he should have been better prepared, number one, and we would hope they're actually doing a little bit more. But we'll keep an eye on that one.

Up next, one of the president's closest aides accused of breaking the law.


[12:13:36] KING: Welcome Back.

Some breaking news now.

A top White House adviser, the counselor to the president, in some legal trouble this hour. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, that is an existing government office. It's not the Russia special counsel. The Office of Special of Counsel says counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, broke the law. The OSC special counsel, his name's Henry Kerner, says Conway violated the Hatch Act. That's a law that prohibits mixing government business and politics. He says she broke the law when she said this on CNN's "NEW DAY."


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: When the president endorsed Luther Strange, Luther Strange shot up in the polls tremendously by double digits. When the president endorsed Roy Moore, when he started to talk about Doug Jones, the opponent here, which you still don't want to talk about but the president does, Roy Moore took a lead in the polls again. Why is that? Because the president himself came out and said he doesn't want a liberal in the Senate. He doesn't want a liberal Democrat in the Senate. He wants a reliable vote or taxes, for life, for (INAUDIBLE), for borders, for crime, for --

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": You'd rather have an accused child molester than a Democrat?

CONWAY: The president also said something else that you don't seem to ever want to reflect, which is the president said Roy Moore has denied those allegations and the president said you have to take that into account too.


KING: CNN's MJ Lee is tracking the breaking developments here. MJ, what can you tell us about this complaint?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, this is certainly a significant development for one of President Trump's top aides, Kellyanne Conway, the Office of the Special Counsel, different special counsel than the one that we have been talking about a lot the last couple months, as you pointed out, John, saying in a new report today that Conway violated the Hatch Act on two separate occasions, including in that "NEW DAY" interview that we just heard. The other was in an interview that she did with Fox News back in November of 2017. [12:15:12] Just to remind everyone, the Hatch Act basically prohibits

federal employees from using their official authority to try to interfere with an election, to try to influence an election, or to impact the outcome of an election. They are allowed to do this in their capacity as private citizens, but they cannot do this in their official capacities in the administration in the government.

Now, as we heard in that sound bite from the CNN "NEW DAY" interview, which is from December of last year, we heard there Conway was speaking against Doug Jones, a Democratic candidate in the Alabama Senate election. And very interesting, John, if you read this report, it goes to point out that Conway was standing on White House grounds and that our colleague, anchor Chris Cuomo on "NEW DAY," actually referred to her multiple times as counselor to the president. And in the chyron (ph) too, the report points out, she was titled as counselor to the president.

All of this going to show that she was certainly speaking in her official capacity when she was saying things to oppose the candidacy of Doug Jones. Not allowed to do that.

Now, the question, John, that's not clear, we don't have the answer to yet, is what exactly will happen to Kellyanne Conway, if anything. The White House is the agency that would take action, to take disciplinary action against Kellyanne Conway. The special counsel, Henry Kerner, said in a letter to the president that he is referring the violations to him so that he can consider any appropriate disciplinary action.

Again, we don't know yet what Trump will do, if anything, in reaction to this report, which says that Kellyanne Conway violated the Hatch Act on two separate occasions last year.


KING: MJ Lee with the breaking news.

MJ, appreciate that. We'll reach out to the White House, to the press office and Kellyanne Conway as well for their reaction.

A couple of interesting points. Number one, it is up to the president to decide what to do here. And that's the way this law works.

Number two, a lot of people don't like this. A lot of people in prior administrations too don't like this. They say, if you work for a Democratic or Republican president and you're standing on the White House grounds and you're espousing exactly what the president says, what the party says, why is that against the law? A lot of people say this should be re-written. But it is -- it is the rule. As of now, it is the rule.

What's interesting in this complaint is, number one, the Fox interview came first, then the complaint says she was briefed by the White House counsel about the dos and don'ts of the Hatch Act and then she did it again in the CNN interview. That's one thing that's interesting.

The other thing is that the Office of Special Counsel says it asked her to cooperate and to talk and to give her reaction and that she refused to answer their inquiries.

ZELENY: To some it sounds like a quaint, old-fashioned White House scandal, I mean, of days of old.

Look, I mean, shocking, there's gambling in the casino. Yes, of course, there -- the White House is talking about politics. Specifically she was advocating for or against a specific candidate standing on the lawn there. You know, I'm not sure that this is -- if this was all the Trump organization had to worry about, I think it would probably be a pretty sunny day.

KAPUR: It makes you wonder also if this speaks to kind of a blase -- a bit of a blase attitude in the White House, in the administration, about norms as a result of, you know, serving a norms-shattering president. And that's how you get expensive flights by cabinet secretaries, that's how you get a $31,000 dining set at HUD. That's how you get the president himself and some of his family members who are serving, mixing the presidency with their personal businesses. It's a broader thing and sometimes it crosses a legal avenue.

KING: And it's not the first time for her.

LUCEY: And we saw Ivanka -- yes, I was just going to say the same thing, that Ivanka got a -- that she -- sorry, Kellyanne got flagged (ph) before for speaking on TV telling people to go by Ivanka's stuff at a moment when the sales of the Ivanka Trump clothing line were apparently on the decline. So she has come, you know, under the scrutiny of these rules before.

KING: Right. And the -- what the rules are supposed to -- because she is standing on the White House lawn, again, if you're watching at home, of course, the president's counselor agrees with the president when he gets involved in a political race. So some people are going to say, what is this about. But, again, the rules are the rules. When she's asked those questions, she's supposed to say, Chris, or to the "Fox and Friends" host, I can't answer that question. I'm standing on the White House grounds. You know what the president has said. You can play what the president has said. We're going to Alabama next week or whatever. But she's supposed to stop. Will there be consequences?

BASH: You said that it's the president that has to decide her punishment.

KING: Right.

BASH: What do you think?

KING: She was told last time when the Ivanka thing came up, when she talked in the briefing room about go online and buy these products, she was told, please, don't do it again.

BASH: Yes.

KING: In this case, she was briefed between the interviews and she still did it again. BASH: Yes. I mean, look, I think the answer to that, in all

seriousness, the answer to that is unlikely. I think if I were Kellyanne, I would try not to do it again so that I don't have this kind of publicity. But it is the question of publicity and not the question of fear of real retribution from her boss, the president of the United States, for doing something like this.

KING: And for all the turnover, she has been a survivor.

BASH: She's absolutely a survivor.

KING: Now she has stepped back into the shadows -- she's gone back into the shadows a little bit, even from the Moore campaign, she kind of disappears and chooses her moments more. But she is, for all this talk of Jared and Ivanka being, you know, pushed down in the chain, Kellyanne Conway is still there.

[12:20:09] LUCEY: No, she is someone who is incredibly loyal to the president. As all these people keep leaving, she is hanging on. She has found issues -- she works on the opioid issue. She's found things to work on. And she does do a lot of these TV interviews and the president, you know, likes her performances.

KING: And we'll see again, we're waiting to get reaction from Kellyanne Conway personally, from the White House press (INAUDIBLE). It may come up later in the day over there. We'll keep an eye on it.

Up next, North Korea, big news, says it's willing to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons. But -- it's a big but -- will the regime actually follow through and what will the White House do?


KING: Welcome back.

President Trump is touting possible progress -- emphasis on possible -- as North Korea says it is now willing to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons and willing to stop missile tests during negotiations. This from the president this morning. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The world is watching and waiting. May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction.

[12:25:11] Now, the North Korean offer came in new discussions with South Korea. Mark the nation's intel chiefs down as more than a little skeptical.


DAN COATS, DIRECTOR NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Hope springs eternal, but we need to learn a lot more relative to these talks.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: There's no reason to believe that Kim Jong-un is going to be a changed person. But I think the news last night that he's actually made a response to the message that was sent, and that he's ready to negotiate, he's ready to stop his nuclear activity and testing, do you -- do you share my somewhat optimistic view of what happened, general?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY, DIR., DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Senator, right now I don't share your optimism. That's kind of a show me. And so we'll see how this plays out.


KING: Joining me now, CNN military diplomatic analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral, locked and loaded, fire and fury, rocket man. There was a lot of criticism of the president's rhetoric here. Is this evidence the Trump strategy is actually working?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I think it's no question a positive development, John. There's absolutely no doubt about that. And I do think the Trump administration deserves a little credit here in terms of the pressure that they have put on the North, the sanctions are starting to bite. They're the toughest sanctions ever put in place. And I think also he's created some uncertainty in Kim Jong-un's mind when he talks about military options the way he has. So I think there's something there.

But I also think there's more to it. Kim is not his father. He is in a much stronger position now with more advanced nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. So he's going to go to any table with a little bit stronger hand at play. Plus, he's also taken full advantage of the fact that in Moon Jae-in he has a partner across the border who is more pliable, has a much more liberal view of talking about reunification and all that that entails. And so he would be foolish not to take advantage of that.

What I worry about, John, is the diplomatic strategy going forward. And that's what I'm not starting to really see out of these guys. The Trump administration was caught off guard and by surprise by how quickly and aggressively Moon Jae-in moved forward with engagement prior to the Olympics. They also didn't really afford themselves too many opportunities at the Olympics. They didn't play themselves very well. Vice President Pence I'm talking about specifically.

So I think while they get credit for maybe getting the herd of cattle sort of moving in the right direction, they're not driving this herd. I think they're chasing it.

KING: Admiral Kirby, appreciate your insights. We'll watch this one as it plays out.

Also joining our panel and discussion here in studio, national security correspondent for "The New York Times," David Sanger.

The question is why. As the admiral was just noting, Kim Jong-un thinks he got some pretty good global publicity with his diplomatic initiative during the Olympics. Does he just want to be in the global spotlight as someone who's trying to, you know, hey, I'll come to the table and talk, or behind the scenes it's hard to get intelligence but is -- are the Chinese helping the Trump administration? Are -- is it getting tighter -- is the noose getting tighter and he feels he has to come to the table?

DAVID SANGER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I think you have to give President Trump credit for the fact that he got going sanctions and enforced the sanctions that President Obama could have done and didn't. And they've been much more effective. And I'm sure that Kim is feeling that.

At the same time, he thinks he's got to basically get President Trump, at this point, in a wrestler's grip, where the president is stuck in this set of negotiations, where you can't take military action while you've got the talks underway. This is exactly what President Trump was afraid would happen when he used to warn that he wasn't going to make the same mistakes that his three previous predecessors did. And those mistakes were essentially getting into endless negotiations.

So look for the White House to sort of put very sharp time limits on this. Look for Kim to say, if I'm going to be secure, it means you have to pull all your troops off the Korean peninsula. And my guess is that's where this begins to come apart.

KING: That would be a non-starter. But it's the first test for Kim Jong-un. If you've covered previous administrations, we went through this with the father. The Clinton administration gave them a deal. They immediately cheated on it. And so there's a lot of skepticism -- deserved skepticism --

SANGER: Father and grandfather.

KING: Father and grandfather. Here's what -- here's the vice president's take, and, remember, he just -- Vice President Pence led the opening ceremony of the Olympics. There was some talk, would he sit down, would he have any interaction with Kim Jong-un's sister who was there? He did not on purpose. He says this, whichever direction talks with North Korea go, we will be firm in our resolve. The United States and our allies remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program. It goes on to say, all options are on the table. They need to see credible, verifiable, concrete steps. That's the big question.

Kim can't get the United States to the table unless he agrees the subject is de-nuclearization. But is there anybody at this table who believes this regime is going to give up its nuclear weapons, which are its leverage in the world?

[12:59:44] BASH: No. It's not just leverage of the world, it's their reason for being. It's the entire focus of the entire country. I mean, remember, he starves his people. He does everything he can to use whatever dime and nickel that they have to go towards making this nuclear dreams possible. And so it is -- to me, I mean David's certainly the expert, but just having witnessed this and covered this for --