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GOP Sen Asked Why ZTE Issue Not Raised With Trump; North Korea Suspends Talks With South Korea. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 15, 2018 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We start with breaking news in our world lead.

Just minutes ago, North Korea warned the United States that the highly touted summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un is now at risk, this just moments after a surprise move by North Korea to suspend planned high-level talks with South Korea. It is all because of a joint military drill going on between the United States and South Korea.

North Korean state TV is referring to this drill as -- quote -- "provocative military disturbances with South Korea."

Now, talks between North and South Korea were scheduled to resume tomorrow. Making the situation even more precarious, one official telling CNN that the White House was caught off-guard by this warning and announcement from North Korea.

We have reporters and analysts covering this breaking news around the world.

We are going to start with CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, this sure sounds like a major wrench in the works.


At this hour, Washington is scrambling to figure out exactly what the North Koreans are talking about, trying to translate news reports and accounts to get the exact language.

I want you to listen very quickly to what the State Department spokeswoman had to say about all of this just a short time ago.


HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: I will say that Kim Jong-un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the United States and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises. They are exercises that are legal. They are planned well, well in

advance. We have not heard anything from that government or the government of South Korea to indicate that we would not continue conducting these exercises or that we would not continue planning for our meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un next month.


STARR: So, the State Department trying to figure it out here at the Pentagon, taken by surprise, by all accounts that we can see. They really don't know what the North Koreans are talking about.

The exercise, however, they're referring to is something called Max Thunder. This is a regularly scheduled exercise, a couple of thousand U.S. troops and South Korea troops. It's an air exercise that they do every year, something the North Koreans would have been very well aware of.

So, point number one, a meeting scheduled for Wednesday -- and it is already Wednesday in Korea -- suspended. Kim warning about the summit, the U.S. trying to figure out what is going on. And it seems the way ahead right now is very unclear -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us.

Let's go to South Korea right now, Seoul, South Korea, where we find CNN's Paula Hancocks.

And, Paula, the Korean delegations were just hours away from leaving for this latest round of talks. This is quite sudden. Tell us how it is being received there in South Korea.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is right, Jake. It is just about two-and-a-half-hours away when the delegation was going to leave Seoul and head to the DMZ to have that high-level talks.

These are talks that were suggested by North Korea on Tuesday local time, so it's really less than 24 hours before they have had an about- turn and decided that they don't want to go ahead with these talks.

Now, mentioning about the military drills, which is going to take South Koreans by surprise, because when that South Korean delegation a couple of months ago went to Pyongyang, met with Kim Jong-un, he actually said to them he understands the need for the U.S. and South Korea to carry out these joint military drills.

This was just before those massive spring drills, the Foal Eagle, which in the past have always infuriated Pyongyang, seeing them as a dress rehearsal for an invasion. But on this occasion, they had said, Kim Jong-un had reportedly said he understands the need for it.

Now, in this KCNA report, this state-run media, one interesting thing I need to mention is they say we will keenly watch the future attitudes of the U.S. and South Korea. Is this potentially North Korea putting the U.S. and South Korea on notice that going forward what they don't want to see is more military drills, saying that this is against the Panmunjom declaration, that agreement between the North and South Korean leaders which said there wouldn't be hostilities between the two Koreas.

But, potentially here, showing what sort of concessions the North Koreans will want in the future, but I think this will take the South Koreans by surprise -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Paula Hancocks in Seoul, South Korea, thank you so much.

Let's go to the White House now, where we find CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

And, Jeff, we're hearing that the White House was also caught off- guard.


The White House was surprised by these news reports. I'm told by a senior administration official the president was made aware of them, but from news reports, not from any official sources.

So, as Barbara was reporting, buildings across Washington here at the White House, the State Department and indeed the Pentagon were taken by surprise by this. But, Jake, this is all coming as an interesting meeting is scheduled to take place one week from today.


President Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, is scheduled to be here at the White House to talk to the president about that South Korea summit and the North Korean summit in Singapore next month. So all of this certainly is coming up in the air.

But, Jake, we remember very welcome when the president two months ago first agreed to the beginning talks of these meetings. He said that the North had agreed to leave discussions about the military exercises -- to not stop them from happening. So that has always been on the table here.

But, Jake, this is one thing that senior administration officials, some of them, have quietly worried and wondered about. What could North Korea do to potentially disrupt this summit? Is President Trump acting too eager for this summit to happen here? Has he removed the leverage from these discussions?

As all of this has still been coming in and sorted through, I'm told by an administration official, look for some other type of reaction possibly from the White House, once they sort of get a handle on what is going on.

But, Jake, it certainly throws, if not a wrench, at least a warning call in these discussions for that meeting in Singapore next month, but, more importantly, that meeting here a week from today with South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- Jake. TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

We're joined by CNN military analyst Admiral John Kirby, as well as Gordon Chang. He's the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World."

Let me start with you, Admiral.

So, the U.S. and the South Koreans are under the impression that Kim Jong-un himself specifically said that he understood the need of the United States and South Korea to have these joint military exercises. What could have changed?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, it could be that he was referring to Foal Eagle, which was the large exercise two months ago, and didn't realize that Max Thunder was coming up. I find that a little implausible, since Max Thunder was announced through a press release weeks ago, so it was kind of out there.

It could be that he's throwing down as gauntlet, as some of our correspondents have suggested. And it could also be a negotiating tactic. Trump likes to do this all the time, right? Raise the stakes, raise the ante, sow confusion before you sit down at the table.

Maybe they're doing that to. Maybe there is something they want out of this, whether it's something specific about the preparations for the summit or something resulting in the outcome of the summit that they are trying to raise the stakes a little bit.

I don't know. It is very perplexing.

TAPPER: Let me go to Gordon Chang.

Gordon, what is your take on this? Do you think that this is just negotiating tactics on the part of Kim Jong-un or might this really put the summit at risk?


I think that, first of all, the North Koreans do things like this on a regular basis. So this could be just negotiating tactics. But, Jake, we have got to recognize that this occurs just after Kim Jong-un met Xi Jinping for the second straight time in China.

And also you have got the Chinese trade negotiators in Washington right now. I think that Xi Jinping is basically saying to President Trump, look, every solution to North Korea runs through Beijing. You have got to give me concessions or trade or something else, and then I will help you on North Korea.

And what Kim Jong-un has just done is, he's helped Xi Jinping in that bargaining position. So there is a lot of stuff that can be going on. We know that the North Koreans and the Chinese talk all the time. So we have to assume there is a high degree of coordination. TAPPER: So you think, rather than saying that the United States is

being played by North Korea, that this is almost a warning shot from China being fired through North Korea.

Let me ask you, Gordon, while I have you, I have heard national security experts express a concern that President Trump, in being so eager for the summit, has given away U.S. leverage, almost as if the United States wants this summit more than North Korea does.

Is that a concern of yours? And what do you think the United States should do with this news, this announcement from North Korea?

CHANG: Well, I think that certainly we have been eager to have this summit. But I don't think we have given away that much leverage.

There's two things that really give us leverage. One of them is the threat of war. And observers in Asia have been saying quite consistently that the governments of China, South Korea and North Korea were unnerved by President Trump's threats, and that is why they changed their policy.

That is not going to change, because President Trump can threaten that at any time. Also, it is the U.S. and U.N. sanctions that are crimping the flow of cash to Kim. And this is important. Now, we can ramp up those sanctions not only on North Korea, but also its major power backers, Russia and China.

So we can do that at any particular time. So I'm not worried about losing leverage, but nonetheless, at this particular time, the United States has just got to continue assuming that the summit occurs. And if it doesn't, we need to then start increasing sanctions on the North Koreans and the Chinese.

TAPPER: What would be the result, do you think, Admiral Kirby, if President Trump -- and I'm not saying this is on the table -- I have never heard this express this -- I'm just making this up -- if President Trump were to say, OK, let's cancel the U.S. and South Korea military drill?


What would be the reaction and the repercussion of that?

KIRBY: Well, maybe he saves the summit, but I think you really -- you tear asunder the alliance with South Korea.

You give Kim exactly what he wants, which is to see the United States and South Korea move apart, to drive that wedge. And, quite frankly, you make the peninsula and the region less safe. Those troops are there for a region.

There is still a war technically on there. And he, Kim, has obviously created instability in the region. So it makes everything less safe and it certainly is not in our security interest at all. So I still can't see that as a starter at all.

TAPPER: Gordon Chang, what do you think President Trump should do in response to this news from North Korea?

CHANG: Well, there is nothing that we really need to do right now, because the plans for the June 12 summit are still on. And if, for instance, the North Koreans cancel that, well, then we could go back to the old posture that we had of increasing sanctions and making sure that the North Koreans understand that there is no way on earth that we're going to let them keep those weapons.

And one other thing, Jake, I think that Kim Jong-un is maybe a little bit unnerved by all of the momentum of events and maybe he's just trying to slow things down a little bit.

Inside North Korea, there is supposed to be this optimism because of the two summits, the one with South Korea and the one with the United States. Maybe Kim is feeling a little bit nervous about his position at home.

TAPPER: And, Admiral Kirby, what do you make of the fact that White House was caught off-guard and learned about this, at least some people in the White House, from media reports?

KIRBY: Yes, great question, Jake.

And I think that you bring up a really important point. We have got press reports right now. We don't have official notification. Certainly, got government-to-government notification of this.

And I think it is really important for us to get that first so we can better understand what exactly has been decided, if anything has been decided.

So the fact that it is a press report tells me that there is probably more to it we don't know, and I would rather wait until we get some sort of official word before we react.

TAPPER: All right, Admiral Kirby and Gordon Chang, thanks so much.

We've got more breaking news.

Republican senators, given an opportunity to confront President Trump about the frustrations they have been voicing for days, went behind closed door, had President Trump right there. So what did they do?

Stay with us.


[16:16:21] TAPPER: In our politics lead today, moments ago, President Trump left Capitol Hill where he had been meeting with Republican senators .

Now, for days, Republican senators on and off the record have been quite chatty about concerns they have about President Trump and his White House. Most recently, they've been worried about the president talking about helping Chinese telecom giant ZTE. ZTE which national security officials in the Trump administration have been warning should not be allowed into the United States because of concerns about cyber and espionage and more.

Here is Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas before meeting with President Trump.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Businesses by China are opportunities for them to steal intellectual property by cyber theft and to imbed in our telecommunications infrastructure in a way that raises huge national security issues. So, that's a concern that I have with state-owned enterprises like ZTE.

REPORTER: You're planning on trying to address them (ph)?

CORNYN: Absolutely. Yes. We'll have that conversation.


TAPPER: Another long-standing concern, the tone being set by the president in the context of comment made last week by special assistant to the president, Kelly Sadler, who attempted to joke about Senator John McCain's opposition to Trump's nominee to be CIA director by saying that McCain is, quote, dying anyway. John McCain as you know is battling brain cancer.

Here is Republican Senator Susan Collins before meeting with President Trump.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: The best way to put this to rest and it should have happened immediately would have been for the White House to issue a public apology to the entire McCain family.

REPORTER: Trump should, too, the president himself?

COLLINS: I think it would be helpful if the president made clear that those kind of comments are not acceptable, rather than criticizing the leaker.


TAPPER: The president's meeting with Republican senators ended just a few minutes ago and we're told by senators that neither Chinese telecom ZTE nor the twisted remarks about John McCain were discussed at the meeting or even raised.

I want to go to CNN's Phil Mattingly who's on Capitol Hill.

And, Phil, the senators doesn't discuss either of these, one of them is the denigrations of one of their colleagues who's dying.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, that's correct. Resigned to reality, that's the rational one Republican senator gave me before the meeting on why he didn't think the McCain issue would come up at all, that reality being the White House and president wouldn't apologize and therefore it wasn't worth bringing it up.

Now, it's worth noting, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did say there was a need for public policy, but whether it was on John McCain or whether it was on the ZTE issue, there was a lot of we ran out of time and just didn't get to it, Jake.

Take a listen.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: The person who said that should apologize and apologize publicly.

REPORTER: Anyone ask him about it.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: No, we just had a couple of questions. But it really was mostly about trade with China, that, you know, we're going to work with them on North Korea and not let them rip us off and he kept saying that over and over again.

REPORTER: Nobody questioned him on ZTE. Why not?

SEN. JOHN HOEVEN (R), NORTH DAKOTA: You know, he just covered a whole range of subjects and it was -- was there for well over an hour and we -- you know, I was on focus on the ag, and other people were focused on other things. So, just a litany of things we covered, that is one we didn't get to.


MATTINGLY: Now Jake, I'm told basically from people in the room that the president riffed for about 45 minutes of his time while he was there making a couple of jokes. One senator told me it is as buoyant as he'd ever seen the president, talking a lot about the midterm elections, talking a lot about getting the places like West Virginia and Indiana, even making a joke at one point that his wife's poll numbers Melania are so good, he's hopeful that she just won't run against him.

[16:20:10] But when it came to those specific issues, that as you noted, Republican senators have been repeatingly telling us for the last couple of days they had problems with it, a confrontation even behind closed doors simply wasn't in the cards, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you so much, Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.

The panel joins me now.

Republicans have been talking quite a bit about their concern about letting ZTE into the United States, and cyber espionage concerns they have about the Chinese and the fact that a White House aide made fun of their colleague dying. Are you surprised they said this in front of the cameras but then behind closed doors wouldn't even bring it up?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm a little surprised. I mean, you give the president space of 45 minutes and you don't know how much you have at the end. If I had a choice, I'd probably choose the ZTE question because I don't think you're getting any new news out of Donald Trump about the comments that Sadler made and I think it is a bit hitting your head against a wall. But on ZTE, you could find out a bit about his thinking on this, which is what has been opaque to us thus far aside from the tweet and rapidly ordering everyone to get in line on this.

You could find out some new things there. So ask the question because it's important.

TAPPER: It is important.

Symone, I want you to take a listen to this Republican senator explaining why these issues did not come up at this meeting.


REPORTER: Senator, are you disappointed that the topic of the comments that a White House official made about Senator John McCain did not come up?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUSIANA: Look, this wasn't that kind the meeting.


TAPPER: It wasn't that kind of meeting said Senator Kennedy I believe from Louisiana.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm trying to figure out what kind it was then, if you are meeting with the president of the United States, the head of your party, the president of the United States, the head of the Republican Party has made some very problematic statements over the last couple of days, there needs to be some clarity coming from the White House.

And if the Republicans senators on Capitol Hill ain't going to get the clarity, who will, Jake? This particularly -- precisely is the reason why Republicans on Capitol Hill are in trouble when it comes to the midterm elections. Republicans have failed time and time again to hold Donald Trump and this White House accountable and now, folks are like, look, maybe we should give Democrats a try because clearly you are not doing their jobs.

TAPPER: I want you to take a listen to one of the president's top picks for a national security job testifying before Congress today about ZTE. The Pentagon has already told military installations to stop selling ZTE phones they are concerned. Here's the president's top pick for a top national security job today.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Would you ever use a ZTE phone?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would not, Senator. RUBIO: Would you recommend anyone in any sort of position that is

sensitive, whether in commerce or in government or in contracting use a ZTE phone?



TAPPER: I mean, and Senator Rubio has been outspoken publicly about this as well. I get that President Trump speaks for a long time extemporaneously and riffs and such, but it seems like if this is a national security issue, that this is something, as you say, the people want to at least hear what President Trump's thinking is.

HAM: Well, I'm like, when it comes to something like this, I'm a free trader. I'm not here for his trade wars. I am not here for his isolationism on that issue.

But I am here for actually punishing bad actors, and ZTE quite clearly, two strikes in, is a bad actor who can be dangerous to us on the national security level. Rubio does care about it. It's something you should put to the president when you're in the room with him partly because these things are so hastily thrown together and I don't think there's a lot of thought involved that pushing him on what the thought process is.

Why are we doing it? Is it to help de-escalate the trade war with China and you're giving them a chip in order to do that? Is it to keep North Korea, keep them helping keep North Korea at the table?

I would like to know these things and not that many people get a chance to ask the president.

SANDERS: And I mean -- and the senators noted in the meeting that they did talk about trade relations with China, but exactly that does that even mean? Do we talk about currency manipulation because this White House is yet to hold China accountable for currency manipulation? We don't have the details. Not to quote Kanye, we don't have the answers. You know, who is going to get the answers, Jake?

And clearly, the Senate Republicans were not there to get the answers from the president today.

TAPPER: And if I could also say, I mean, this has bee a very distressing week for the McCain family. We've seen Meghan McCain talking about it publicly. We've seen a couple of tweets from Cindy McCain.

But the very fact that a White House aide would make a joke about a war hero and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain who is dying of brain cancer and not only has she not apologized, but nobody at the White House has apologized. I don't even understand the way of thinking about this.

I mean, forget about whether or not she should lose her job or anything like that. There is just a tenet of human decency of the president secretary coming out, which she has not done, and said that was a horrible comment, we're shocked, we're stunned, it shouldn't have happened, our deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the John McCain family. Why is that so difficult?

HAM: There are many things easy that are difficult for this White House. It's easy to separate policy disagreements with John McCain from your his best wishes for his health.

[16:25:03] I have done it for a long time because I have many disagreements with him as well.


HAM: It is easy if you get in a position where you said something you regret, and to want to apologize and say this does not reflect who I am, I made a mistake, I was under the gun, I did the wrong thing and I deeply apologize and there are some suggestions that perhaps she wanted to in the White House, but they have this bunker mentality that makes the original sin even when it's really egregious, the response outweighs it because here we are day six or seven dealing with something that could have just had an apology.

TAPPER: It should have been a one day story and now, it's day five, day six.

Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

The attorney for Stormy Daniels is revealing brand new information about who attended a meeting at Trump Tower. That attorney Michael Avenatti is joining me next. Stay with me.


TAPPER: Welcome back. We have more breaking news.

You're looking at images of President Trump leaving the White House. We learned just now that he has arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center where he is visiting his wife Melania Trump. As you may recall, she was admitted at Walter Reed yesterday to have surgery, to treat a benign kidney condition.