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Senate GOP Did Not Talk to Trump About McCain Insult; North Korea Warns U.S. Over Fate of Upcoming Summit. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired May 15, 2018 - 15:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:30:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: All right, if you can stand by for me, Admiral. I want to bring in Paula Hancocks, she's our correspondent there in Seoul. Paula, what do you make of this that South Korea and North Korea are suspending talks? They were supposed to resume tomorrow, and you have North Korea citing these joint military excises between South Korea and the U.S.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, I'm with John. This is quite a surprising development. And those high- level talks are expected to start or were supposed to start today. It's already Wednesday here, it's 4:30 in the morning. It was just a matter of hours away before the high-level delegation from South Korea was going to leave Seoul and head up to the DMZ to talk with their North Korean counterparts.

So certainly, it is an unusual development considering just a couple of months ago North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, through the South Korean delegation who want to see him, we didn't hear this directly from him. Did say that he understood the need for these joint military drills. Now, this was ahead of the Foal Eagle drill, which every year infuriates North Korea. We didn't see a reaction to that Foal Eagle drill but what we are seeing in this KCNA report, the state-run media, is they believe these Max Thunder drills, the air force drills are against the Panmunjom Declaration, saying there shouldn't be hostilities between the two Koreas.

The U.S. and South Korea consistently say these kind of military drills are defensive, they're annual, they are necessary to keep the two militaries ready, but from North Korea's point of view, in the past they have always seen them as offensive, they have seen them as a dress rehearsal to an invasion. This is the sort of thing we are used to hearing from the previous North Korea. Not the North Korea that we have seen in recent months.

It certainly is a very interesting development. One other point as well is the fact that North Korea suggested these high-level talks just on Tuesday. So, it's still Tuesday in the U.S., it's very recent that they suggested these talks, and now within less than 24 hours they are saying they should be suspended, obviously, hoping or pushing for these military drills to be cancelled.

KEILAR: Paula Hancocks, stand by for us as we dig deeper into this. A stunning turn of event as North Korea/South Korea talks were supposed to resume tomorrow. North Korea has now put a halt to what was supposed to be a precipitating meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. Where does that leave everything?

Let's take a listen to the State Department reacting just moments ago to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: So, I just saw that report as I was coming out here. We haven't had a whole lot of time to dig into that. I will say that Kim Jong-un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the United States and of the Republic of Korea continuing in joint exercises, they're exercises that are legal, that are planned well, well in advance. We have not heard anything from that government or the government of South Korea to indicate we would not continue conducting these exercises or would not continue planning for our meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un next month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They didn't tell you anything about --

NAUERT: We have no information whatsoever. We have to go on is what Kim Jong-un had said before that he understands and appreciates the importance to the United States of having these joint exercises, the Republic of Korea has as well. We have received no formal or even informal notification of anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, you'll continue to plan the summit --

NAUERT: Absolutely. We'll continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isn't the report on the official North Korean news agency at least an informal notice?

NAUERT: Did it actually go out? I got this just as I was walking out here. So, I have not had a chance to fully sit down and investigate but this is -- that would be news to me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It did.

NAUERT: OK, great.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're calling the exercises provocative.

NAUERT: They're certainly not provocative. These are things that we do all around the world with many of our partners and allies. These are things that have occurred for decades and decades. Again, I will say this for a third time, Kim Jong-un has said he understands the importance to the United States that we conduct these joint exercises. These joint exercises continue to go on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Wow, John Kirby, can you react to that, especially as someone who used to occupy that podium. Heather Nauert, the spokesperson for the State Department coming out for the briefing and getting wind of this right before she goes out there and the U.S. government has heard absolutely nothing about this, that these talks between South Korea and North Korea have been suspended.

ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It shows you just how perplexing this really is. I've been in that situation where you're walking out to the podium and somebody hands you a slip of paper and you have to react to it in real time. I think she did as good as could be expected there.

[15:35:00] She kept coming back to that one line that Paula reiterated in your interview with Paula just a few minutes ago that Kim Jong-un did say he understands the need for the exercises to continue. That he wasn't going to get animated by. Which just makes this decision all the more confusing. It absolutely contravenes everything the north has said they mean to do in the lead up to the summit. Let's forget about denuclearization and what the results of the summit are going to be. This just doesn't compute, it doesn't make sense with what we've seen them say and how they have actually reacted in real time tangibly to the lead up to the summit. So, it's very confusing, I understand the spot she's in. I think she handled it as good as you can possibly do it.

KEILAR: Truly. And it's interesting though she's saying this isn't what we heard from them before, what we're hearing from North Korean state news appears to a be complete reversal, a sort of pulling out from underneath the administration the rug as they're completely surprised by what they're hearing from North Korea.

KIRBY: That's a great point, Brianna. That's the other thing I'd say. Remember, there's been no official notification, apparently according to Heather, and I would take her at her word on this. Official notification from Pyongyang to the United States side about these exercises. And make no mistake, this isn't just a South Korean exercise. This is a bilateral exercise. We normally contribute the bulk of the resources to it.

So, we are very much a key player in this. You would think there would be some sort of official notification and the fact that hasn't happened yet still makes me a little queasy about how authentic this story really is. I get the press reporting on it. I think if I was sitting in her shoes, I would want to see official government-to- government notification that this exercise is really causing a break in the summit discussions before I would overreact to it.

KEILAR: John Kirby, stay with us as we follow this breaking news. We are going to have much more in this plus more on the president's meeting with Republicans, and what's perhaps surprising is what did not come up.

[15:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: We're going to have more on our breaking news in North Korea, stalled talks between North Korea and South Korea that were supposed to resume tomorrow. We'll be exploring what that means. First, though, the president came out of a meeting with Senate Republicans, and what did not come up was a low-level White House aide's remark about Senator John McCain where she said that he was, quote, dying anyway, when she dismissed his criticism of the president's CIA pick, Gina Haspel.

I want to have a bigger conversation about that now. We have CNN political commentator Angela Rye, she is the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. We have CNN political commentator Doug Heye, he is a Republican strategist, former RNC communications director. OK, Doug, did it surprise you it didn't come up?

DOUG HEYE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST, FORMER RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: It did for two reasons. One, some senators were angry and wanted to bring it up and get an apology. Two, I would have thought the White House might have suggested to a friendly senator, could you bring this up so that Donald Trump not apologize but throw the staffer under the bus, so we can start moving things past. Trump, we know does not want to apologize, throwing a staffer under the bus for what we all know is an awful comment might be a good way to get past this.

KEILAR: What did you think, Angela? It's pretty interesting it wasn't just that comment. It was the Chinese firm, the president is talking about rescuing, the Russia investigation. There were various topics Republicans had some questions about and it sounds likes he did filibuster a bit. But none of these topics came up.

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: At first on John McCain there were reports going into the meeting that there were Senators like Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake who said they weren't going to bring it up. So those are key allies of Senator McCain. If they're not going to talk about this in a meeting with the president, I don't know who else he could stand on. It is definitely not Senate leadership.

You bringing up ZTE is an interesting point because --

KEILAR: The Chinese firm.

RYE: Absolutely.

KEILAR: That the president is going to help.

RYE: Yes, that he is going to help conveniently 72 hours after there were reports that a Trump resort would be benefitting to the tune of $500 million from the Chinese government. So, this is not about him being all of a sudden concerned about Chinese jobs. He doesn't even care that much about American jobs. I doubt that he is just being altruistic and looking to save the Chinese government.

KEILAR: To be clear on that, so that's $500 million coming from the Chinese government to this Indonesia project. It's a theme park but the larger project would feature Trump properties and so these are Trump properties that are going to benefit from the fact that there is this huge influx of money to fund this theme park. There's other issues, though. The president, Doug, has been so anti-China. He has said that China has been raping our country, and yet then he does the flip flop on this with a company and not just with this apparent conflict but a company that used American parts and then sold its product to Iran, sold its products to North Korea against the sanctions that President Trump has put in place and also that the Department of Defense has called a security threat. They won't even sell this company's products on military bases.

HEYE: It's a real problem in and of itself, plus the other questions of whether there are any financial issues involving the Trump resort. It's why you seen a lot of Republican senators who typically haven't spoken out against Trump saying we need some answers here. There are very serious problems.

[15:45:00] And coming after the Michael Cohen, AT&T and other company revelations shows that the swamp is not be drained, it's just getting higher.

KEILAR: I want to bring in David Catanese to join this conversation with us. Especially as we go back to this lack of apology when it comes to President Trump. The president doesn't apologize. That's pretty clear. It's very rare. We've seen a couple. They were apologies in a very Trump style. It doesn't seem like he but also his White House are going to say that they are sorry for what this aide said about McCain. And then we just end up talking about it every day.

DAVID CATANESE, SENIOR POLITICS WRITER, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": They're not going to do it but really that is the job of the Senate. Which is the check and the balance. It's really easy for the senators to go up to Manu and all the Capitol Hill reporters and criticize President Trump, the administration. If they don't do it when they are in the room with him. They had an hour in the room today. They let him filibuster.

Where is the courage of Senator Jeff Flake, who is John McCain's home state colleague to say, Mr. President, apologize to the American people, reprimand that staffer, do it publicly, and then we can move on. Where is Senator Bob Corker? Where is Senator Ben Sasse? These are guys who are supposedly part of the check and the balance who go up to New Hampshire and Iowa and talk about it in rooms, but they never do it when they're in the room with the president.

And I think that is a lack of courage and backbone. And I think also sends a larger picture about why politicians are phony. And why people don't trust what they say. Because here is an opportunity for them to do it. You're telling me President Trump had an hour and they sat back on their laurels? I think that's a fear then they don't have the courage to step in and defend their colleague, a man that is now on his death bed. And something that was disgracefully said about him. And Jeff Flake's answer is, well, President Trump is not going to change his mind anyway. So maybe someone else will ask.

KEILAR: And Jeff Flake, it's not like he's really got anything to lose here. He's not facing reelection.

HEYE: A whole big part of this conversation is about leaks. If someone had brought this up, we know it would have leaked out. This is an opportunity for a senator to leak out that I asked the president the tough question or for the White House to leak out, he threw the staffer under the bus. But we know not only is it in

this White House's DNA or the president's DNA, his staff then reflects that they won't apologize either. If they do apologize, here's their political problem, they're going to have to apologize for every other self-created outrage du jour. Which we know may come tomorrow, next Tuesday, the Tuesday after. We know there will be more storms.

KEILAR: Or they could not, right, they could at least put this aside. It seems sometimes that the White House decides to defy that idea, that well, the president, maybe they would think that the president or this staffer apologizes for something, but they don't apologize for everything. We've seen the president apologize very rarely. But, Angela, if you're staffing someone, and they have a number apologize strategy, I mean what would you say to them?

RYE: I think fortunately working for almost 50 black members of congress, I didn't work for any of those.

KEILAR: I'm sure someone owed an apology at some point and resisted apologizing.

RYE: I never had to be a part of that conversation. The chair at the time was Congressman Cleaver. The boss that I had before that the Homeland Security Committee was Vinnie Thompson, and they are humble public servants know their first order of business and their duty is to serve the American people. And they carry themselves in that way. I think unfortunately, we can't expect from a staffer in the White House something that the commander in chief himself won't do. Leadership starts at the top and he's always demonstrated he won't do that. I know that Zach demonstrated a great timeline earlier. One of the things I was surprised was left off, the birther controversy, he was the chief spokesman of that. He never apologizes for that. He was like OK, OK, he was born here. There was never an apology. So, I don't know why we would expect anything different.

KEILAR: And David Priess says Republican senators also did not discuss the issue of this Chinese firm.

HEYE: Right.

KEILAR: The president trying to position himself as very tough on trade when it comes to China and completely back pedaling when it comes to this Chinese firm. I listed off the litany of reasons for why it just kind of doesn't make sense. What do you think about that?

HEYE: And the Department of Commerce has been very clear in the past about the security risk that comes from this company.

KEILAR: And the DOD.

HEYE: Informed by the intelligence committee and the defense community and that's why in is an issue. Suddenly it's being used as a -- I don't know what. Maybe a preemptive give to the Chinese, if not for the Indonesia properties. Which is a possibility. But also, to say, OK, we're giving you something, China, let's see how we can move forward on the wider issues of tariffs.

Well, again, that's not a productive deal making strategy, when the thing they want the most in negotiations is the thing you give up before you go in. [14:50:00] That show as a lack of progress in strategic thinking in

the White House about how do we get across our wider goals? That's not going to be fixed unless the president stops making policy by tweet. And having the whole bureaucracy work around that because that is the kind of thing that is usually worked out in an interagency process and a unified message comes out, not a random note about how everything is being overturned.

KEILAR: And every treat is kind of contradicting the last thing that a secretary said. It's really interesting. All right, I'm going to have you guys stand by as we have a lot of breaking news right now. We'll have more on our breaking news story that we learned President Trump has just been informed of North Korea's warning about the upcoming summit and the White House is preparing a response. We're going to bring that to you as soon as we have it.

[15:55:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: We're back now to our breaking news. CNN Jeff Zeleny reporting President Trump is aware of the North Korea warning and preparing a response. North Korea says the U.S. should carefully consider the fate of the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un after what it calls provocative military drills between the U.S. and South Korea. And we're also told that White House aides were completely caught off guard by this. I want to bring back Robin Wright who was just at the DMZ last week and we also have Bruce Klinger, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea. Bruce, you have worked in the past on talks with North Korea. What did you make of this surprise today?

BRUCE KLINGER, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIVISION CHIEF FOR KOREA: Well, certainly another startling development in what has been a year already of historic surprises. I'm in Seoul right now and yesterday we had an expert round table discussion with U.S. and South Korean experts where we were debating how far this summit would go in creating a perhaps historic agreement. So, waking up this morning to this is quite a shock. The inter-Korean meeting which is supposed to happen today in Seoul -- or in Seoul time has been canceled an t-- -- and the north is threatening to pull out of the summit and I'll try to find out what is going on here.

KEILAR: Robin, what do you think? You were just in the DMZ, there have been so many expectations, extra-ordinary expectations for this time where you have an expected discussion to go on between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore. The location has been set. What do you make of this in the turn-around since you were just in the DMZ last week?

ROBIN WRIGHT, JOINT FELLOW, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE AND WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER: Well, Kim Jong-un is a master games player and remember he is a third generation in a dynastic controlled North Korea now for seven decades. And the idea that this would be easy diplomacy or the kind of theatrics or pageantry the inter-Korean summit was really going to then play out in some kind of an easy summit with President Trump was always an illusion. Remember, there is also another big deadline out there, just over the weekend North Korea announced it was going to plant explosives in Mount Punggye-ri which is the site of the all six nuclear tests since 2006, and it had pledged it would destroy its facility to test nuclear weapons as a sign of good faith.

And it pledged to do this next week between massive ceremony with American and other western journalists would be allowed to witness over a three-day period from May 23rd to the 25th and so there was a lot set in motion besides just the meetings by heads of state and there was a process that was supposed to begin to play out. That affects not just the meetings but also North Korea's nuclear capability and facilities and plans.

KEILAR: Robin Wright and Bruce Klinger, thank you so much to both of you as we follow this breaking news. North Korea pulling out of talks scheduled for tomorrow with South Korea and warning the U.S. about what is supposed to be upcoming talks between Kim Jong-un and Trump. We'll have more after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: More on the news involving the royal wedding. Meghan Markel's father Thomas Markel who backed out of his duties now wants to walk her down the aisle according to :TMZ." But his health may prevent him from traveling overseas. Thomas Markel faced a lot of criticism over the staged paparazzi photos shows him preparing for the wedding. He did later apologize and said he doesn't want to further embarrass his daughter nor the royal family. The Kensington Palace spokesperson said this is a difficult situation and they ask for understanding and respect. Thank you for joining me. "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts right now.