Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Cancels Summit; Trump Takes Summit Questions; Justice Department Briefing. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 24, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Dodd-Frank disaster, and they fixed it, or at least have gone a long way toward fixing it.

Mike Crapo, thank you very much. Steve Daines. Thank you, Steve. Incredible job. John Kennedy. Thank you very much. Heidi Heitkamp.


We're going to leave the White House live now. The president signing a piece of legislation that rolls back some of the Dodd-Frank financial protections enacted after the 2008 financial crisis.

But the big news, the president talking at the top of that event about the dramatic news he made today, the president of the United States abruptly cancelling his plans for a nuclear summit with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. That summit was scheduled for June 12th in Singapore. The president today releasing a letter he sent to the North Korean dictatorship saying, sorry, sir, the summit is off.

Let me read you just one piece of it here as we continue to watch the president at the White House. The president saying, I was very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate at this time to have this long- planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent at the Singapore summit for the good of both parties but to the detriment of the world will not take place.

The stock market is down because of this announcement. The South Korean parliament emergency national security team is up late in an emergency meeting tonight because of this.

Let's go straight to the White House now, to our correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the president says the summit is off and yet oddly there he said in his remarks that while he was sad this was happening, it is possible still, depending on the North Korean reaction, it could be put back in place. Help me with that.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, and -- John, and that is key. The tone of the president, both in the letter that he wrote to Kim Jong-un and the words that we just heard in there, I think are very important in all of this. This is not the same rhetoric or volume that he was using months ago when he was calling Kim Jong-un rocket man and he was, you know, threatening that North Korea would see a fire and fury unlike the world has ever seen. So they are intentionally keeping the same open door policy, if you will.

We've heard this same thing from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill all morning long. So they are very much in the mind of keeping open the possibility of this meeting happening again.

But, at the same time, we heard the president there saying he has alerted Defense Secretary James Mattis, South Korea as well, you know, putting North Korea on notice that the U.S. is not going to be softer or backing down on sanctions or military possibility.

Now, John, what we're learning here today, what led up to this, indeed over the last 36 hours or so, I am told, that the U.S. became very worried about this. They essentially were not able to hear or get in contact with the people that they had been speaking with in the regime. They were, you know, not believing that North Korea was actually going to go through with this. They were worried that they essentially would be left standing at the altar. The -- you know, the worst case scenario, one official told me, was the president flying over to Singapore, essentially waiting there for Kim Jong-un, and to -- and be essentially stood up.

So the White House, over the last 24 hours or so has been very worried about this. The president, we're told, made this decision earlier this morning himself. Yes, it was because of some of the threatening language with the vice president, but it was far more than that. I'm told substantively they were worried that North Korea was simply not ready to negotiate. The idea of having the meeting had been worked out. The time -- the setting in Singapore. But, beyond that, the details of what would happen in the meeting simply hadn't, you know, been worked out.

So, John, we've seen the president so eager for this meeting to happen. Ever since he walked into that briefing room on March 8th, he wanted this to happen. He's been saying, you know, he was so eager for it to happen, that you have to wonder if they got a little bit ahead of themselves here and this is an attempt to pull back before it was too late.


KING: Excellent way to characterize where we stand right now, the uncertainty.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," CNN's Jim Sciutto, "Politico's" Eliana Johnson, and CNN's Kaitlan Collins.

It is just a wow moment in the sense that both leaders wanted this. Kim Jong-un wanted to be in the room with the president of the United States. That in and of itself would have been history, would have been legitimacy for the regime. President Trump thought he could do what no past U.S. president could do, get North Korea to the bargaining table and somehow get a deal to denuclearize, although their president got a little squishy about the standards in recent days.

Jim Sciutto, I want to start with you.

The White House is saying that this is Pyongyang's fault. That Pyongyang had a very belligerent statement yesterday -- we'll read from it in a minute -- criticizing the vice president, threatening nuclear war, and therefore you don't get a summit if you behave that way. But we also know there were people around this president, and certainly hawks in Congress, who were nervous about the president going into that room, thinking that he might cut a deal way below the acceptability bar.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Typically you arrange the principal's meeting when you have many of these issues already working out. You don't sit the presidents across from each other until you get there. And clearly many of the most basic issues were not solved before the president made this announcement.

[12:05:05] And, lo and behold, North Korea does not change, does not turn on a dime, nor do North Korea's core national security interests. It didn't suddenly discover that it doesn't need nuclear weapons for its own survival. That's basically the way it looks at its issue.

And for the president to have raised expectations to the point to saying, listen, I'm in charge here, I got it, we can sit down, I'm going to work this out was a little unrealistic, let's say. And you're seeing the evidence of that now with the president and the administration realizing, listen, this is not the time for this summit.

I think it's important to note that this is -- this is more than a Washington story. As the president said, it's an enormous setback for North Korea and for the world because remember where we were in the weeks and months leading up to the discussion of these talks. Fire and fury. Real concern, we were reporting just a few weeks ago, that this administration was closer to ordering military action than previous administrations. The prospect of war on the Korean peninsula.

We're not necessarily back there to that point today, because the president does leave the opening for talks going forward, but we've certainly taken a step back, and there are real consequences to this.

KING: Right, and real questions, which is why the South Korean national security team is meeting -- it's past midnight -- they are meeting because the question now is, North Korea has been behaving relatively in recent weeks. No missile tests, no nuclear tests, much -- much reduction in the provocative words, except for yesterday. North Korea saying this, to borrow their words, we can also make the U.S. taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up till now. Before making such reckless, threatening remarks without knowing exactly who he is facing, Pence should have seriously considered the terrible consequences of his words. Whether the United States will meet us in a meeting room or encounter us nuclear-to- nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States.

Now that is the kind of North Korean, in your face, threatening belligerence, that if you've followed this story, you've seen for the past 25 to 30 years, particularly the last five or six years under this younger leader. What happened?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right. Well, I think this seems to have reverted back to what we've seen in the past. And it's been a real pattern between the United States and North Korea. Every time we get close to, and it's not been a lot of times, but, you know, when there is sort of movement toward a potential diplomatic scheme where they can work things out, North Korea flexes its muscles, the United States pulls back.

And, you know, it's interesting, I don't think we're back to fire and fury, that's for sure, but in the president's open letter to Kim Jong- un, he does make this comment about how we have a massive and power nuclear arsenal and I hope to God we never have to use it. So he is sort of, you know, basically making it clear that he's willing to go back there if that's where this is going to go, if that's how the North Koreans want to play this.

But also what's fascinating, from what we heard from the president this morning and from that letter is, he has had supreme confidence, and I think North Korea has as well, in his own personal ability to cut this deal, to sit down at this table. And that is why they didn't do it the way past administrations have with you work out a lot of these really big, important issues before the principals get to the table. And, lo and behold, they found out that you actually do have to do that groundwork. That this -- the dynamic is not going to change just because you have two unusual leaders.

KING: How was he convinced of that is my big question in the sense that -- forgive me, but I do not believe that the North Koreans criticizing Vice President Mike Pence is enough to get Donald Trump to walk away from what he thinks is an opportunity to have a world altering global stage.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So I don't think it was just because they referred to the vice president as a political dummy. We were told that right off the bat, that it was that threat of nuclear war at the end that was a lot more worrisome to this administration.

But we have to look at how quickly all of this unfolded. It was on March the 8th when the president had accepted the invitation to meet. And there is a sense in the past few weeks inside the White House that they were oversold by the North Koreans, who were the ones who extended that invitation on the North Korean's behalf to the president, saying that they wanted to meet. So there certainly was that sense from them.

And we're also learning from officials that in the last, you know, there's been two trips by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo there, that he didn't think they were serious about denuclearizing and they weren't focusing on the logistic -- or they weren't focused on the policy or the issues here, but they were focusing on the logistics of a summit like. So what it would look like. And it didn't seem to -- that they were that serious about denuclearizing.

And then, of course, in recent days, we've had a flurry of statements from them that are very aggressive, talking about John Bolton, talking about the vice president, all of these statements, and a breakdown in communication between the two sides. So you can see how the White House was so cautiously optimistic in the last few days. We all know lately they've been saying privately, it's still going to happen, we're still preparing for it. But, word of caution, it may not happen on June 12th. And now it's not happening at all.

KING: And think of the pendulum and just the president's rhetoric, from locked and loaded and fire and fury, which Jim mentioned, which had a lot of people unease. And then a lot of people saying, well, may that was what got Kim Jong-un to the table, the threat of a more aggressive administration, to, he's excellent, he treated the hostages who were released, the prisoners who were released. He was excellent about that. He's been honorable in the preparations for the summit. A lot the conservatives were aghast at that to hear the President of the United States -- any president of the United States say that, say excellent and honorable about a man who starves his own people, who tortures his own people, who lobs missiles over Japan and the like.

[12:10:08] And today the president saying, a setback for North Korea, a setback for the world. Spoken to the defense secretary, the joint chiefs of staff, South Korea and Japan already on watch should North Korea try any, quote, foolish and reckless acts. So we're back in a different place today.

ELIANA JOHNSON, "POLITICO": That's certainly true. I think what you had here with the non-responsiveness of the North Koreans, as American officials began to make efforts to plan the summit, was the president became aware of the prospect of this becoming a real embarrassment for him, as it has for -- as negotiations with North Korea have become for previous administrations.

This administration said, we're going to be different. It's going to turn out differently. We're not making a bad deal like the Obama administration made with Iran. We're going to distinguish ourselves. And I think when Trump began to see that this could be an embarrassment, and I think that's when he decided to pull back. And that his aides were encouraging that. I think John Bolton, the national security adviser, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, were telling him that it can't hurt to put a little more time and thought into talks before diving in.

KING: And those two gentlemen in particular, Bolton and Pompeo, much more skeptical that North Korea is going to come to the table with genuine goodwill, genuine ability, willingness to give things up.

And so where are we in the sense that you could have a war of words and a test of wills, if you will, between two people with high -- both have high stakes in the conversation, then maybe, as the president said, maybe get this back together. He even left open the possibility of getting it back together on the original schedule. Or are you in a place where after this period of potential at least detente that it collapses and there's huge risks in that if everyone decides now they have to prove themselves again.

SCIUTTO: Something has to change if there's going to be a summit, right, because, I mean, you talk about people inside the administration who are expressing skepticism. The Defense Department just released its own intelligence report which reaffirmed, in their view, North Korea's intention is its own survival. That's its focus. And tied to its own survival is its -- is it's tie -- it's belief that it needs nuclear weapons, right?

I mean the core interests don't suddenly change. So something's going to have to change on both sides. You know, a willingness to compromise, a willingness to give some ground. Perhaps even, if you really want the summit, if you really want an agreement, perhaps even the Trump administration saying, well, denuclearization, in our view, is not a 100 percent cleansing of the slate in North Korea. Maybe there's something we can live with, which would be interesting in light of their view of the Iran nuclear deal. But --

KING: Yes, but this president, after everything he has said --

SCIUTTO: It's a question.

KING: Could this administration do that.

SCIUTTO: If he wants a deal. It's -- something's going to have to change on both sides or suddenly North Korea's going to have to say, you know what, we don't need it for our nuclear weapons. We trust Mr. Trump. It's fine. It's all off the table. But, you know, does anybody see that happening? No one I've talked to.

KING: All right, a quick break and then we come back to more on our breaking news. The Singapore summit is canceled. The South Korean national security team on alert. The president of the United States says, I needed to cancel it, but maybe, just maybe, we can bring it back. How did we get here, when we return.


[12:15:33] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think they want to do what's right. I really think that they want to do -- and it was only recently that this has been taking place. And I think I understand why it's been taking place.

But they want to do what's right. I really believe Kim Jong-un wants to do what's right. So hopefully things will work out. OK?

Thank you all very much.


KING: Just waiting to see if the president takes any more questions.

TRUMP: We have a wonderful dialogue. We have a wonderful -- there's been a very good working relationship. It started with the hostages coming back home. The hostages came home. We didn't have to pay. We wouldn't have paid. But they came back home. They're now safely ensconced in their houses and they're very happy and thrilled, and they never thought it was going to happen.

So the dialogue was good until recently. And I think I understand why that happened.


TRUMP: And -- I won't say that. Someday I'll give it to you. You can write about it in a book.

But I really believe we have a great opportunity. We'll see whether or not that opportunity is seized by North Korea. If it is, great for them and great for the world. If it isn't, it will be just fine.

Thank you all very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Call you, Mr. President? Do you expect him to call you?

KING: The president of the United States lingering, thinking for a second about whether he wanted to answer that last question, do he expect Kim Jong-un to call him.

The president though there after a bill signing, taking a couple of questions again about the big news of the day, his decision -- his decision to cancel. Sent a letter to Kim Jong-un saying, no, I will not go forward, sir, with the planned North Korean nuclear summit June 12th in Singapore.

Striking again. You just canceled the summit. You've just said the North Korea's belligerent rhetoric of recent days leaves you no choice but to cancel the summit. And then there, though, you're striking a much more optimistic tone. This is the art of the deal president. Is he somehow trying to have a little sugary rhetoric now, I think he means well, I think he wants to cut a deal, this would be a great opportunity for them. Is that the president trying to lure him back in?

DAVIS: I mean I certainly think he's open to the possibility. And if you read "The Art of the Deal," you know, it's all about knowing when to walk away from the negotiating table. In his mind I think there's still a chance. I don't know, though, if there's really a practical chance. And the problem with the decision to schedule the summit so quickly without any of the preparation is that now that you've canceled it, as Jim said earlier, now you have to have a really good reason to go back to the table. And they have to have certain assurances and certain things that they -- that will make them more confident that this just won't happen again. So if this is a negotiating tactic, they've actually raised the bar for themselves significantly.

COLLINS: But -- and just there you heard --

KING: This was the untraditional model, as Jim put it out in the last segment, two presidents coming to the table to make the deal, as opposed to two presidents coming to a table to sign a deal that had already been largely cooked. Maybe one or two last things you have to work out.

In this sense now, to your point, can the administration come back to the table unless they have pretty much a document, something from North Korea in writing, saying, look, we're willing to do -- we're willing to hear -- we're willing to come at least halfway. Now let's negotiate the second half.

COLLINS: Well, that's the question now. And that was really the question before, what have they promised you? What are they -- have they said they're going to do? I mean it was already risky before to go to this meeting and not walk away with anything.

But you heard the president just there say that dialogue with North Korea was very good until recently. And someone asked him why he thought that was. And he said, I'm not going to say.

But we did hear him, just a few days ago, with -- in the Oval Office with the South Korean president say that he thinks that part of the reason things have changed in recent days is because Kim Jong-un met with President Xi and had been speaking with the Chinese.

KING: Right.

COLLINS: So it does seem as though the president thinks that they have something to do with it because in the Oval Office the other day he said that specifically and said that after the two of them spoke that Kim Jong-un and the North Koreans had a very different attitude after. And so the president there seemed to be alluding to that as part of the reason for why the communication between the two of them has broken down.

KING: And that has long been a key part of this intractable riddle in the sense that China does have some influence, there's a debate about how much influence, over the North Korean regime. But one thing we do know, you talk about core interests don't' change. China does not want Germany on its border. It does not want a reunified Korea on its border. And, therefore, anything that might weaken the regime, even though it doesn't like nuclear weapons in Pyongyang, so it is a tough choice for President Xi.

SCIUTTO: And China wants to drive this bus, right? When the president -- when this was a U.S. to North Korea dialogue, China did not like that. There's a reason why Kim Jong-un then went to Beijing. They're trying to reassert themselves into the process. They want to be part of this agreement, help to find this agreement.

[12:20:01] But it's interesting to hear the president there, I really believe Kim Jong-un wants to do what's right. What is that conviction based on? It's certainly not based on history. It's based on the way he has led, based on the way North Korea has broken repeated nuclear agreements. It is not based on what his own intelligence community is telling him. I just said that in the previous segment. The DOD, the Department of Defense says, in fact, North Korea, you know, believes nuclear weapons are essential to its survival. So is it based just on his gut feeling because he -- because of the art of the deal? It's certainly not based on the intelligence.

KING: The evidence -- nor does the evidence of before this period of calm, exponentially missile test increase over the father.


KING: Exponentially nuclear testing and expansion of the program over the father. So, you're right, the evidence doesn't get there.

But I want you to listen to this, though. This is the president in an interview with "Fox and Friends." It was taped yesterday, but aired this morning. What you're seeing today from the Tom Cottons, the Marco Rubios, the more conservative voices on Capitol Hill is, thank you, Mr. President, we 100 percent you should have canceled this, Mr. President. They're putting the blame on Pyongyang. We all know privately they were skeptical the president might go in and lower the bar from complete and verifiable denuclearization.

Listen to the president suggest just such a thing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You OK with the phase-in of a denuclearization if a confidence measures are required?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to see. I'd like to have it done immediately. But, you know, physically, a phase- in may be a little bit necessary. It would have to be a rapid phase- in. But I'd like to see it done at one time.


KING: Now, again, the president didn't give away the candy store there. But just the idea that, you know, I'd like to see it done, you know, a physically a phase-in. That's what made -- that's what made, John Bolton included, around the president, but especially on Capitol Hill, people just saying, wait a minute, this is why, to the point Jim and others have made in the conversation, this stuff has to be written in boldface, in caps and underlined beforehand when you have an unpredictable president.

JOHNSON: Yes. The reason that not only the president's advisers, but his allies on Capitol Hill were nervous, is that normally the way that these summits take place is that they're like plays where all of the lines are scripted and you have the two leaders get together and it's essentially a photo op where President Trump would read his lines and president -- or King Jong-un would read his lines, but they're entirely scripted by aides beforehand in the meetings leading up to them.

I'm sure your viewers have noticed that President Trump doesn't read from a script. And so that made people very, very nervous. He was going to go into this and his desire for a deal would lead him to wing it. And, yes, certainly that -- that had people incredibly nervous that he would go into the meeting and lower the bar due to his desire to come out with a big deal.

KING: I need -- switching the conversation here. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is on Capitol Hill testifying. He was asked a question about the president's conflict of interest, real or perceived. Listen.


SEN. TOM UDALL (D), NEW MEXICO: Given that the president refuses to disclose his tax returns, how can you assure the American people that American foreign policy is free of his personal conflicts of interests?

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Senator, I -- I -- I find -- I find that question bizarre.

UDALL: I didn't -- you don't want to answer it then?

POMPEO: Senator, I've --

UDALL: If you just want to describe it as bizarre and not give me an answer?

POMPEO: I've -- yes, I do. I think that's indicative of my answer, senator. I've been incredibly involved in this administration's foreign policy now for some 16 months and I have seen literally no evidence of what you are scurrilously -- scurrilously suggesting.

UDALL: Well, that's what I want to ask you -- ask you -- ask you specifically about.

POMPEO: Scurrilously (INAUDIBLE).

UDALL: No, it is not scurrilously.

POMPEO: It is an -- it is an outrageous suggestion.

UDALL: My friend, it is not scurrilously. This has been raised by a number of people out there.

POMPEO: Yes, sir. Yes, sir, it has. You want me to tell you who those folks are and what their political interest may well be.

UDALL: Yes, oh, I know, it's fake news.

Now let me --


KING: A remarkable exchange there. The senator, Tom Udall, a Democrat, questioning the secretary of state, who's bush -- pushing it back quite aggressively, calling it scurrilous to the idea because we don't know the president's taxes and we do know the Trump Organization has international interests but we don't know the details of them without having the president's taxes. Fair question from the Democratic senator there or, as the secretary of state wants to push back saying this is scurrilous?

SCIUTTO: Well, I mean, listen, his sanctimonious response there was, shall we say, a little rich. I mean it's at least a fair question. He's a president. Previous presidents have had very -- of Democratic and Republican parties have had very liberal disclosures, financial disclosures, their taxes, et cetera. Previous presidents have not had the global business interests that this president has. Why is that not a reasonable question to ask?

And, listen, yes, it's principally been coming from Democrats, but not exclusively Democrats. People from previous Republican administrations have made the same point.

KING: And it comes a day after -- another issue we're going to get to in a moment or two, the president says he wants full transparency about the Russian meddling investigation. So, on the one hand he wants full transparency about some things. We have limited to no transparency about other things, meaning, his tax returns, which every president since Richard Nixon has put in the public domain, this president will not.

DAVIS: Right, and there -- and there is, in fact, no way to answer the question that Senator Udall posed, which is, how can you assure us that there aren't conflicts of interest without that transparency? So he is, you know, he's leaning hard on the outrage factor.

[12:25:00] But the fact is, there's no answer to that question unless there's a public record of it. And there is no public record of it unless the president provides one.

KING: And some will say, on a day like this, that's not the question to pose to the secretary of state at a public hearing on a day like this. Others would say, you get a very rare opportunity to question anybody from the Trump administration in a public setting, a secretary of state, because of the global interests. Welcome to American politics 2018.

Up next for us, the guest list expands at the last minute for a big meeting at the Justice Department about a big issue, did the FBI really spy on the president?


KING: Welcome back.

Now to the other big breaking news story playing out this hour in Washington. Right now intelligence officials and Justice Department officials potentially sharing highly classified documents about the Russia investigation with members of Congress. Also on hand, the president's chief of staff.

[12:29:56] Some big, late changes, important changes, to the guest list. This initially was a Republicans only meeting, but top Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff now attending. He's taking the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi's invite. And after bipartisan complaints, there's also a second briefing later today. The issue what the president calls a spy scandal and what the former