Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Fires Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson; State Official: Tillerson Learned Of Firing From Trump's Tweet; New CIA Director Nominee Had Lead Role In Torture Program. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 11:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. We begin this hour with breaking news. Another major shake- up at the top of the Trump White House. President Trump firing a top cabinet member, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and today's exit has been in the works for months.

Roughly since word leaked out that a frustrate Tillerson in private called the president a moron. The president's nominee to replace him, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a longtime ally. The president always putting a premium on loyalty and explaining his decision a short time ago.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Rex is a very good man. I like Rex a lot. I really appreciate his commitment to his service and I'll be speaking to Rex over a long period of time.


KEILAR: CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House. So, Jeff, tell us how all of this played out there.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, we heard the president there saying I'll be speaking to Rex Tillerson for a long period of time. One thing he didn't say, he did not speak to his secretary of state before doing this. At least the president did not directly.

We are getting, though, a bigger picture of how exactly this unfolded. We're learning that last Friday the chief of staff here at the White House, John Kelly, reached out to the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is traveling in Africa and told him that the president had essentially reached the end of the line here with him and he was going to replace him.

But he was not told any timing specifically of when that would happen. So, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, flew back to the U.S. early from his trip to Africa, not knowing the timing of this. Of course, his demise has been rumored and long mentioned for months here in Washington.

But so, he was taken by surprise this morning when he saw the president actually make this announcement on social media. I was told by one White House official who said this is how the president wanted to do it.

But Brianna, certainly, a president who became famous saying you're fired, face to face, in the board room of "Apprentice" has not operated like that as president. So, he had nothing but positive things to say for the secretary of state as he left the White House a short time ago. Let's watch.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time. We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I thought it was terrible. He thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, he felt a little differently. So, we were not really thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it's going to go very well.


ZELENY: Now, certainly, Brianna, in the series of these staff shake- ups here at the White House, this is the most-high profile one we have seen, perhaps I would say perhaps at any point in this presidency.

But it is fair to say that the president and his secretary of state have been on different pages of foreign policy and it certainly has sent questions around the world if the secretary of state is actually speaking for himself or speaking the policy of this administration.

So, it makes sense in in ways, the president does want one of his own advisers, someone who is, you know, essentially a mind meld with him on these foreign policy issues. Particularly, you know, the challenges coming up if he has that meeting with Kim Jong-un, which he's talking about.

Notably the secretary of state was left out of any of that discussion. So, certainly it creates more drama, more shake-up here, but it does make sense in the terms of the president wanting his own advisers around him. It has been clear for months he's on a very different page with his secretary of state -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And Jeff, there's also breaking news on another ouster from the Trump inner circle. Tell us about this.

ZELENY: Brianna, we are getting a reporting this morning that Johnny McEntee, one of the president's advisers, essentially his body man, the person who is next to him at all times, he was fired from the White House yesterday.

And our Kaitlan Collins is reporting that he is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for, quote, "serious financial crimes" or potential crimes. He's under investigation for this. He also is having some security clearance issues here. He was fired yesterday.

We're told he was escorted off the premises, but not out of the Trump orbit all together. The Trump campaign announced this morning that he was going to remain on or come on as a senior adviser to the Trump 2020 re-election campaign. This is certainly an interesting development that someone who is so close to the president is under investigation, we're told.

We're told this has nothing to do with the president himself, just some, quote, "serious financial crimes," potential crimes, so we'll follow that as it develops. But certainly, one more shake-up here and it is only Tuesday -- Brianna.

KEILAR: It is only Tuesday. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you.

Joining me now is CNN military and diplomatic analyst and former Pentagon and State Department spokesman under President Obama, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

[11:05:09] We have CNN Politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cilizza and CNN global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott with us as well. You, Elise, have some pretty intriguing reporting on how Tillerson learned about this.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, I think they're making a real distinction over how he was officially notified versus how he came to know that today was his last day. As Jeff said, you know, John Kelly called Tillerson while he was in Africa on Friday, gave him a heads up that something was coming around the pike.

Obviously, do we know that he said the president has decided to go another way, we're making a change, or did he say get your butt back here, you're in trouble, let's see what you can do. We know that John Kelly was a very close ally of Rex Tillerson.

But Rex Tillerson did comment back, cut his trip early from Africa, got back at 4:00 this morning and his aides are saying, including Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein saying that he learned about his termination officially in a tweet by the president.

So, I think the secretary obviously knew that something was coming down, didn't know that the timing was today. And I think we have seen over the last couple of months there has been a lot of, you know, wondering about whether Secretary Tillerson had kept his job.

He told me in that interview earlier in January, I plan to stay here through the year. His aides had started calling him the secretary of stay. They thought he had weathered the storm. Clearly, the president had other things in mind and has been planning this for a while.

KEILAR: John Kirby, what is your reaction to all of this?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: First of all, just getting past the egregious manner in which it has been handled. This is not the way you terminate the employment of a cabinet official. A man who gave up a year of his life to serve his country like that, to be done in a tweet like this is just egregious and ungentlemanly in the extreme.

That said, I want to pick up on something Jeff said. There is benefit -- he's the president. He deserves the secretary of state that he wants and somebody who is aligned ideologically with his world view and how we relate to the world on the global stage.

And so clearly, there were tensions there, differences over policy. He has a right to have the secretary of state that can voice -- be his voice in the world. Tillerson was not seen as a credible voice for President Trump for a long, long time.

That said, Tillerson and Mattis were also sort of moderating influences on President Trump and some of his more extreme world views. And so, I think even while foreign leaders may take comfort --

KEILAR: To be clear, they were very plugged in together as sort of having a mind meld, right?

KIRBY: They were -- on the Iran deal, on North Korea, and the push for diplomacy. We're talking about now potential talks with Kim Jong- un, to the degree that the Trump administration can say the pressure campaign worked, they should credit Tillerson and Mattis for putting that in place.

KEILAR: Chris, I want to ask you because the president just acknowledged to reporters that he and Tillerson have had their differences, right? The Iran deal, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is also something that we should note. Whether or not the U.S. should open talks with North Korea, even the steel tariffs, you have said that President Trump wanted a secretary of state that he could control.

CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, I mean, he wants -- I think the admiral is right, John is right in that you, when you are president, you do get to pick who you want and who reflects your world view. So, I don't think that's crazy that he did that.

But let's remember, Donald Trump picked Rex Tillerson as the crown jewel of his cabinet 14 months ago, 15 months ago. I think what happened there was he liked the idea of Rex Tillerson, right? Exxon, head of a big company, making good on a campaign promise, I can bring in these titans of industry, no one else can.

Rex Tillerson was that guy. No one expected it. Never underestimate that, Trump being able to pull one out of a hat, no one saw Rex Tillerson coming. So, there was all that. I think the actual reality of Rex Tillerson was more difficult for Donald Trump because Rex Tillerson had been a titan of industry.

He was someone who thought that he had more of a leash than Donald Trump wanted him to have. I think this is a moving back toward what we know about Donald Trump, which is he likes people who say nice things about him, and who largely do his bidding.

KEILAR: You know what is not nice a thing to say about someone is to call them a moron, right? So that, to me, that, to me, is the -- that, to me, is the -- he didn't deny it, right? So, the story breaks months ago. He basically confirmed it. So, which begs the question, Elise, if Rex Tillerson had not called the president a moron, would he have kept his job, do you think? Do you think it comes down as simply to one word?

LABOTT: I think that that -- the president never got over that.

[11:10:05] KEILAR: We thought how can any president -- how can any president tolerate that? How can this president?

LABOTT: He can't tolerate that. It is clear he never got over it. But as John and Chris have said, you know, there is a long litany of issues where they did not agree, where essentially where he's come out and said that he disagreed with the president.

And our understanding is in National Security Council meetings he was dismissive of the president. It was just not working, and I mean, I think that the secretary knew it wasn't working. I think he wanted to go out on his own terms.

He thought maybe this North Korea issue might have given him a Hail Mary and helped them kind of go out with a little bit more dignity. But this was always why after that whole moron issue that the secretary was trying to repair the relationship with the president because he didn't want to walk out the way he finds himself walking out today.

But I do think that this president, you know, he was -- on Twitter, with all of -- it is interesting, though, the president is saying on Twitter to Rex, don't worry about little Rocket Man, diplomacy isn't the way to go, he actually has moved towards --

Secretary Tillerson's policy on a lot of things. On North Korea, for now he's staying in the Iran deal. I think he's going to have someone in Mike Pompeo that will be a yes man. Whether we're going to see that's the best advisor for him, we don't know.

KEILAR: Do you agree, though, the moron, what do you think?

KIRBY: I think that was certainly a big nail in the coffin. I don't think it was the final nail, but it set him back in ways that I don't think it would have otherwise. His policy differences, if he hadn't said that. Look, I think, again, the good news is that American foreign policy under Pompeo now will have one voice, which it hasn't had. My worry is that voice is nothing but a scream. It is going to be a mad scream at the world.

CILIZZA: Just remember, this is a president, Brianna, who talked on Saturday for about the billionth time about how he went to Wharton, he's really smart, calling him a moron strikes at heart of his insecurities. Don't underestimate -- it is only an hour-long show. KEILAR: He's the president, though. It is hard to imagine any president tolerating that. Chris Cilizza, John Kirby, Elise Labott, thank you so much.

Coming up, we're going to have much more on our breaking news, the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson including what it means for the State Department and the CIA.

Plus, Republicans on the House Intel Committee declaring no collusion and breaking with the entire intelligence community on whether Russia tried to get Trump elected. One Republican flat out saying the CIA is wrong. Stay with us.



KEILAR: Back to our breaking news now, President Trump firing Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, nominating CIA Director Mike Pompeo for that role. That, of course, left vacant the top job then at the spy agency and Trump is now naming CIA veteran, Gina Haspel for that job. She would be the first woman to lead the agency.

I want to bring in CNN's Barbara Starr from the Pentagon. What can you tell us, Barbara, about Gina Haspel?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Gina Haspel is a career CIA officer. You're right, Brianna. The CIA, you know, already pointing out she would be the first woman to head the agency. But the key question, of course, is she qualified?

She joined the CIA back in the 1980s. She has been by all accounts in the operations side of the agency for many, many years. She was part of the National Clandestine Service. She is very familiar with covert action. She has been in the operations directorate.

This is the, you know, the most secret part of the CIA. That's pretty obvious. She knows operations around the world. As the deputy to Mike Pompeo, she has taken on a lot of responsibility in the last year, in that job, for operations and making sure that everything is being carried out that the CIA deems a priority.

But she is not someone without controversy, she is said to have been involved in the so-called Enhanced Interrogation Program in the years after the 9/11 attacks. There are stories out there alleging that she was directly involved, for example, in the interrogation of Abu Subayeda, a senior al Qaeda operative detained at a secret CIA prison in Thailand.

This is some of the -- of the questioning that she is very likely to get at her confirmation hearing, especially from Democrats who have been very much involved over the years in the Enhanced Interrogation Program criticism.

The CIA may be forced to finally publicly answer whether she was directly involved in interrogations, was she present at them or did she just oversee them and know about them as many senior CIA officers did?

So, I think her confirmation hearings are going to be exceptionally interesting because all of these issues have not played out in public for many years. And some of them still remain some of the CIA's most tightly held secrets.

Her confirmation hearing will put her in the public eye for the first time front and center and she may be facing some very tough questions about all of this -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Indeed. Barbara Starr reporting from the Pentagon. Let's talk more about this shake-up with CNN national security analyst, Shawn Turner. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 21 years and also as a press secretary for the National Security Council under President Obama.

Michael Allen is a former majority staff director of the House Intelligence Committee. He's a former George W. Bush White House staffer. So, Michael, it is very interesting to hear Barbara reporting there on Gina Haspel, who the president wants to take over the CIA. What kind of confirmation process do you expect from this?

[11:20:02] MICHAEL ALLEN, MANAGING DIRECTOR, BEACON GLOBAL STRATEGIES: Well, there will definitely be hurdles. The enhanced interrogation techniques are still a controversy covert action program. I think she'll ultimately get over them because she's fundamentally nonpolitical. She is very professional and has run serious CIA operations overseas. I think she'll win the day, but it won't be without a lot of controversy en route.

KEILAR: Shawn, of course, she will be taking over presumably if she does get through the hurdles because Mike Pompeo will be going to the State Department from the CIA. The president told reporters that he and Pompeo, quote, "are always on the same wave length." What does he mean by that?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, you know, I think others have suggested that the president gets to pick the people that he surrounds himself with. I think that's absolutely right.

But when the president says that he and Pompeo are on the same wave length. He also said that they agree a lot. I think that one of the things that we have to be mindful of is that there is a very thin line between surrounding yourself with people who support the world view and who will carry out your policies and surrounding yourself with people who will simply say yes to you at all costs.

And I think that, as you know, as I said before, I look at the world through a national security and foreign policy lens. And one of the worst things that a leader can have in that space are people who simply say, yes, sir, and march forward.

The president really should want to surround himself with people who aren't afraid to disagree with him and speak truth to power. So, I was a little concerned when he said, you know, Rex and I disagree on a lot of things because in most context when you are talking about national security, that's actually a very good policy.

KEILAR: There is disagreeing, right, and then sort of publicly -- it seems like there were two tracks in which they had issues, right, whether they disagreed on things and also the temperament, right? Was that your read on this?

TURNER: Yes, I think so. Look, Rex Tillerson wanted to do the kind of diplomacy that recognized the U.S. role in the global stage and preserved our leaders with our partners and allies. The president's type of diplomacy is one in which the United States really projects our power in a much more forceful way.

So, I think there is certainly a difference of approach there. I think that Mike Pompeo, who if you listen to what he said in the past several weeks, is kind of steeped in policy. I think that he will be a much better fit for the president with regard to his style of diplomacy.

KEILAR: So, tell us about Mike Pompeo from your time, certainly just being in the intel community, but on the House Intel Committee and what you're expecting his process of confirmation to be like.

ALLEN: So, Director Pompeo, when he was a member of Congress from Kansas, was on the House Intelligence Committee when I served as staff director. He was a terrific member, a quick study. Got things the first time. Here is what I think is most important for the country and in foreign policy.

And that's that the secretary of state has to have a wonderful relationship with the president to be honest with you. All power is sort of derivative and if people smell on you, so to speak, like with Rex, that there is distance between the secretary of state and the president, it affects his ability to do his job.

KEILAR: They don't believe what he's saying, right?

ALLEN: They don't because they don't think he has got the direct connection to the president and so it is sort of a nice meeting to have, but it is not like you're talking to the boss. Everyone will know that Pompeo has a great rapport. He's no shrinking violet. On balance, I think Tillerson is a good man, but this is a great elevation.

KEILAR: Pompeo has said things about Russia. He's gone so much further than Trump has, Shawn, when it comes to the issue of Russia.

TURNER: Yes, and I think that will be a good counterbalance. I mean, one of the questions we have been asking ourselves for a long time is why the administration has not been harder on Russia and more willing to call Russia out.

So, what we'll be watching very closely, particularly in the intelligence community to see if Pompeo takes that next step and to see how that changes the relationship with the president. If Pompeo can lead and say that Russia absolutely has behaved in a way we find unacceptable and can call Russia out, and the president gets on board with that, that's a much better message for our national security and foreign policy.

KEILAR: Or even if the president just sort of allows him to be a stronger voice on it than the president is. We have seen that with some of the other folks close to the president in his circle.

TURNER: We have. If that's the case, then one of the challenges has been matching that up with what the president says when it comes to some of those leaders. So, we'll have to see if those things match up.

KEILAR: The buck does stop with him. All right. Shawn Turner and Michael Allen, thank you so much to both of you.

Coming up, President Trump today celebrating the partisan conclusion to the House Intel Committee's Russia investigation, saying there is no doubt that his campaign did not collude with Russia. But is that really true? Stay with us for that.



KEILAR: President Trump this morning claiming the House Intelligence Committee has left no doubt that there was no conclusion between his campaign and Russia. The president ignoring the fact that it was a highly partisan report and it was only Republicans on the committee who have reached that conclusion, contradicting the entire intelligence community's assessment that Russia did favor Trump.

Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah telling CNN the CIA, quote, "got it wrong."


REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS STEWART (R-UT), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: When we released that report, we're going to be able to show you know what, the CIA just got it wrong. Just like they did, by the way, in the Gulf War, they said there was weapons of mass destruction we didn't find. The CIA is not perfect and we're just going to have to show people they were wrong on this. They just misinterpreted some very key intelligence and drew the wrong conclusion.


KEILAR: Shawn Turner and Michael Allen back with me now. Michael, what is your reaction to this? It seems that he's actually -- this isn't the same as the WMD thing being wrong.

ALLEN: I think we're going to have to really look at how they came to this conclusion. I think they're going to concede there was Russian interference, but that it wasn't on behalf of the president. They are going to say in (inaudible), social media outlets and the rest. That Russia's --