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Trump Sends Pompeo to Saudi Arabia over Missing Journalist; Senior Advisor: Trump's Handling of Saudis Could Be Most Consequential Decision of Presidency; Graham: MbS Has to Go; Growing Calls in Congress to Sanction Saudi Arabia; Trump: Climate Change Isn't a Hoax, Not Sure if Manmade. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 16, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: His co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, remembers Allen this way, quote, "Paul was a true partner and a dear friend. Personal computing would not have existed without him. "

Just think of that. He's a name not as associated for many people with Microsoft as Bill Gates, but he was so consequential.


HARLOW: Our thoughts with his family.

Thanks for being with us today. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Erica Hill. Kate Bolduan is off today.

President Trump sending his top diplomat to Saudi Arabia to get some answers about a missing "Washington Post" journalist. This morning, the world is waiting for those answers. And what follows could be the biggest decision of Donald Trump's presidency.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting earlier in Riyadh with the Saudi king and crown prince to talk about the fate of their critic, Jamal Khashoggi, as pressure mounts on the kingdom for an explanation. The men were all smiles for the cameras, as you can see. As sources tell CNN, there Saudi regime is preparing to admit Khashoggi was killed while under interrogation.

And a morbid, gruesome clue occurring overnight. Video of people carrying mops and buckets into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was last seen alive two weeks ago.

President Trump promising to severely punish the Saudis if they, in fact, killed Khashoggi. One of the president's senior advisers telling CNN the way President Trump handled this crisis could be his most consequential decision yet.

So far, though, he says he doesn't know what's happened.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just don't know. I'm going to have to see what they say. And we're working very closely with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey, and they're working together to figure out what happened. And they want to know what happened also.

I have heard that report, but nobody knows if it's an official report. So far, it's just the rumor. The rumor of reports coming out.


HILL: CNN's Sam Kiley is live in Riyadh.

What more do we know this morning, Sam, about the meeting that Secretary Pompeo had today?

SAM KILEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the secretary visited first with King Salman, who is the elderly head of state here, who had already handed over most of the reins of power to his son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

That was a 15-minute meeting. He was attended also by the Saudi foreign minister, who went with him where he met MbS, Mohammad bin Salman, the real power in the land. That went on for about 40 minutes.

On the way in, Erica, I think there was a telling exchange, perhaps, when Mohammad bin Salman, who is speaking first, he says, "We're really strong and old allies, so we face our challenges together, the past, the day of, tomorrow." And Pompeo answers, "Absolutely." Now, of course, America's top diplomat could not really have said, well, hmm, we'll wait and see.

But nonetheless, we do hear from sources inside the meeting on the American side that there was a candid exchange of views, which is diplomatic speak for some fairly firm remarks. But how firmly they went beyond saying what they're saying in public, which is they want to see a transparent and timely resolution to the investigation into what happened to the "Washington Post" columnist, Erica, remains to be seen. But nonetheless, just in the last few moments, the agency, the semi-official news agency in Turkey, has reported that the Saudi console has left Istanbul and is already flying back to Riyadh -- Erica?

HILL: Sam Kiley, with the latest for us from Riyadh. Thank you.

Let's take a closer look at what the senior Trump adviser who said this may be the most consequential decision of his presidency.

CNN's Barbara Starr has that new reporting for us.

So what more did this source have to say to you? Those are very strong words, Barbara. BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Strong words, indeed,

Erica, from someone who is in a position to advise the president directly. And clearly, what we're beginning to see is that part of the administration willing to show a little more public view about how concerned they are about this. This person telling us how the president handled the Saudi situation now could be the most consequential foreign policy decision of his presidency.

And why is that? Well, look, it's common sense, isn't it? You're going to have countries now, like North Korea, Russia, other strongman countries around the world, watching to see how the United States responds to this situation. Think of it this way. U.S. diplomats, U.S. military personnel are really on the front line around the world in carrying that flag of the moral high ground, the historic moral high ground of America when it comes to human right, when it comes to not murdering people in cold blood, so to speak. So if the president does not take a strong public stand, it is going to be more difficult for America to hold that moral high ground, for American diplomats, for American military commanders to operate around the world and tell their counterparts in various countries that they really have to adhere to these standards.

[11:05:10] Nobody knows what the president is going to decide at this point. That's one of the concerns, what does he decide. And even more deeply than that, where does Saudi Arabia go from here? One of America's most close allies for decades. Now, what will the succession plan be? Will this strongman crown prince hold on to power or will there be other princes in the kingdom who are unsettled by the situation and may try to reduce his influence, may try to reduce his power even as his elderly father, the king, may find it more and more difficult to rule as he grows on in age -- Erica?

HILL: So much at stake.

Barbara Starr, with the latest for us from the Pentagon. Thank you.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, and CNN counterterrorism analyst, former CIA and FBI official, Phil Mudd. Phil also worked for the Saudi interior ministry after leaving the U.S. government.

As we look at all this, it has now been more than two weeks since Khashoggi has been seen. The story, Clarissa, after two weeks, is this is an interrogation gone wrong. Why did it take two weeks to get to that explanation?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, and don't forget, Erica, even though we're hearing that this is the explanation they're planning to offer, they haven't actually offered it yet. So two weeks in, with news already having leaked out that this is going to be their official story, we have yet to see Saudi authorities stand up to the international community, and particularly to the family of Jamal Khashoggi, to the "Washington Post," and also to Turkey, and explain exactly what happened. Meanwhile, we're seeing Turkish authorities once again starting to

leak little bits of information. We heard the Turkish President Erdogan today saying, on the premises of the consulate, there were traces of toxic material found. He also hinted at a sort of quick cover-up job from the Saudis, saying they had painted over some things. The Turks would like at this stage, I think, Erica, to know where is the body? When can this investigation begin in a serious manner? And how can it begin without a transparent sense from the horse's mouth of what exactly happened?

HILL: And that, in fact, the question of where is the body? Senator Marco Rubio asking the same question this morning.

Phil, you have that happening as this explanation that we, as Clarissa points out, we expect to be given is this is an interrogation gone wrong. What does this really tell you happened, Phil?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: A couple things. First, the Saudis are operating with impunity. You go overseas -- and they're talking about an operation gone wrong. They're going overseas with people as part of that Saudi party that included medical personnel. Clearly, they anticipated not an interview but as you say, interrogation. That is physical duress of somebody in an overseas consulate. That's remarkable. That's not a rogue operation. That's planning beforehand, before you leave the Saudi capital of Riyadh, that you're going to push somebody around in an interview in a foreign country.

The other thing it tells me, may be more significant, that is the first interview the secretary of state had was with the king. The king is in his early 80s. He's not going to have any answers. The power here, as we talked about, is Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince. I have to believe he authorized that. That tells me a lot about how he thinks the Americans would react. He must have thought we would let this go.

HILL: In terms of how Americans are reacting, I want to play a little of what Senator Lindsey Graham had to say this morning. Take a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: This guy has to go. Saudi Arabia, if you're listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MbS has tainted your country and tainted himself.


HILL: A strong statement that he has to go, Dana, saying to the Saudis, are you listening? Is it your sense that Lindsey Graham is speaking only to the Saudis with that statement or is he perhaps trying to appeal to President Trump?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: That's an astute question. Everybody. And he's trying to clearly make the case that if somebody like Lindsey Graham, who has been a big advocate for arms sales, for example, to Saudi, if he is saying, enough already, this guy has to be replaced, then you can bet that there's going to be bipartisan support for that notion. Which is why how President Trump deals with this is about as important and delicate as it gets when you look at the broader U.S. relationship with not just Saudi but the very complicated relationship with all of the other countries in the region and how that puzzle goes together.

And look, I mean, it is -- it's an unusual situation, not unprecedented, but an unusual situation for American politicians and leaders, particularly in foreign policy, to be saying to a country that has been an ally, Saudi Arabia, you have to get rid of this guy. Especially, especially since the Trump administration has, you know, wrapped their arms around him with a giant warm hug, as somebody who is going to be the next great thing to reform, to change the way the country is going.

[11:10:18] I think Phil and Clarissa said something really important, which is they're used to getting these hugs for the past year and a half from the Trump administration. Maybe they just didn't realize how big of a problem it would be to intentionally or not kill an American journalist and to throw into the wind every bit of diplomatic norms or human decency that America has historically held dear.

HILL: That part of it is fascinating to me. This sort of, the potential this was all in many ways a miscalculation. Not only in terms of how upset and, rightfully so, people would be around the world, not just the family of Jamal Khashoggi, but so many other people and the concerns that brings.

But, Clarissa, too, the fact it has, and I keep hammering this point because it's so important, has been two weeks, it took two weeks to actually get even some sort of a semblance of an idea of where we're going. And that, as we know, was not the story from the beginning. That gross miscalculation in terms of the impact here, I find that surprising, Clarissa.

WARD: You know, if you look at the historical record of Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince, I think it will help to alleviate some of your surprise, Erica.

HILL: Yes.

WARD: This is a man who has waged a war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands, that has left millions on the brink of famine. This is a man who has waged a sort of diplomatic war with Canada over a tweet that he didn't like. Who has arrested female driver activists after allowing women to drive because he didn't like the way they went about it. Who essentially kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, forced him to resign on television. This is not a man who has shown any sense that he understands the limits of his power and the boundaries of human decency.

Nor is there any sense that the Trump administration has been particularly effective in conveying to him and to the rest of the Saudi leadership that there are certain kinds of behavior that are simply not accepted on the international world stage. So it's entirely possible, from where I'm standing and what I'm

seeing, to understand that he would never imagine that there would have been a problem, that one day Jamal Khashoggi would go into the consulate to get some visa papers to get married and would never again leave the consulate. He would probably be abducted and renditioned to Saudi Arabia where he would face some kind of a show trial for his alleged dissidence. This, as far as the crown prince would be thinking, and using the parameters of the logic we have seen him use before, is simply par for the course -- Erica?

HILL: To your point there, too, do we have a better sense -- we touched on this a little bit, but these conversations that Secretary of State Pompeo is there to have, how much of that is the message, do you believe, that is coming with Secretary Pompeo to MbS specifically?

Clarissa, I'll throw that one to you.

WARD: Oh, I'm sorry. Repeat that again. I'm sorry.


HILL: No, no, no. Sorry. So how much of that message -- just to your point, how much of that message could be coming from Secretary Pompeo at this point to MbS, that this is outside the norm, this is not what we can continue to do. We cannot continue to turn our head the other way. Is that message really coming or are some of these meetings in many ways more of a photo op?

WARD: Well, on the surface, from what we have seen publicly, we saw lots of smiles and hand shaking and sort of nice talk about jet lag. That is normal to have a sort of public convivial face, and then privately deliver some of the tough love or the hard message. We are hearing from the pool reporter that a message was delivered that there needs to be an impartial investigation, that it needs to be thorough, and it needs to be timely. I don't, however no, and I don't have the sense from anything I have heard coming out of the White House yet that they have really held their feet to the fire and said, you know, exactly what you were saying, that this is unacceptable.

Of course, there are a host of strategic considerations here, Erica. There's cooperation on Iran, cooperation on terror, $110 billion in weapons deals. So they're trying to weigh up, you know, the calculus being, what's more important, delivering this message, alienating an ally, and it's a very difficult line to walk.


HILL: Go ahead, Dana.

[11:14:48] BASH: Just real quick, that has been the sort of conflict that President Trump, in particular, has been trying to figure out how to navigate. Because he is admittedly a transactional guy. So his initial focus on arms sales, his focus since the beginning of his administration on fighting terrorism, that is more in his natural wheelhouse. Being a moral leader, the way that America has been expected to be on basic issues of human rights, never mind diplomatic norms, making sure somebody is safe in a consulate, never mind journalists, never mind freedom to travel, all of those basics. That is not something that comes, I think, naturally to this president. That is why this is a big, big test on how much he's going to lean into that, which is an expectation and a very, very, very robust bipartisan way, the other branch of Congress, the other branch of government, the United States Congress.

HILL: That's why we hear a senior adviser to the president telling our own Barbara Starr this may, in fact, be the most consequential decision of his presidency.

Dana Bash, Phil Mudd, Clarissa Ward, appreciate your insight, always. Thank you.

MUDD: Thank you.

HILL: Up next, if President Trump won't act, as Dana pointed out, Congress is saying, "We will." That's the pledge from some Republicans on Capitol Hill as pressure mounts on Saudi Arabia. So what exactly would that action look like?

Plus, the DNA debate heating up as President Trump lashes out, firing back against Senator Elizabeth Warren over those test results. Did Warren help or hurt her 2020 chances?


[11:20:45] HILL: This morning, there are growing calls in Congress to sanction Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The outrage is expressed on both sides of the aisle.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R), FLORIDA: We lose our credibility and our moral standing. We criticize Putin for murdering people, Assad for murdering people, Maduro, in Venezuela, for murdering people. We can't say that anything about that if we allow Saudi Arabia to do it and all we do is a diplomatic slap on the wrist.

SEN. BEN CARDIN, (D), MARYLAND: There are going to be consequences and we're going to take action. We're an independent branch of government. We have shown that before in our relationship with Russia, we've show it with North Korea, and we'll show it here with Saudi Arabia.

LINDSEY: I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia. We deal with bad people all the time, but this is in our face. I feel personally offended. They have nothing but contempt for us.


HILL: Here to give us his take, Republican Congressman Tom Reed, of New York.

Sir, good to have you with us today. We heard from a number of your colleagues. What do you believe needs

to be done?

SEN. TOM REED, (R), NEW YORK: I believe that is the appropriate approach. I think when you're looking at what Saudi Arabia is potentially going to be demonstrated to have done, killing a journalist, there needs to be a strong message sent from America. And I will join my colleagues in saying that is unacceptable. All sanctions have to be on the table. We have to wait and see what the evident shows. Was this an intentional murder, an accidental murder? All of these factors hopefully will be shown to the world so we can hold them accountable for that --


HILL: Do you believe you're going to get those answers?

REED: I believe we will. I believe -- you know, we have investigations going on, is my understanding of the situation. And we're going to get some recognition, is what it seems to be coming from Saudi Arabia about the death. So at least we're going to have more information. That will determine what level of sanctions we're going to be talking about.

HILL: You're saying it will determine the level of sanctions. But at this moment, based on what we know now, based on the behavior we have seen and the history here, do you believe there's a call for sanctions regardless across the board?, it's a matter of how severe they should be? Because the president himself said severe punishment, those were his words on Sunday.

REED: I would agree with that assessment, because everything we're hearing -- and I don't want to rush, and that's why all sanctions have to be on the table to determine what level would be appropriate. But it is clear. This individual went into the Saudi consulate and did not come out alive. And if the recognition is that Saudi Arabia had something to do with this, which it appears to be, we need to hold them accountable and have our allies also join us in condemning this barbaric act.

HILL: I hope you could hear a little bit, but even not, I know you know the reporting. We heard from our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, who laid out, I mean, really just the resume, if you will, of deeds on behalf of -- on the part of MbS and the behavior we have seen that flies in the face of so much of what Americans hold dear, just in terms of behavior, whether it be diplomatic or simply moral standing. Is there a stronger message that needs to be sent to him specifically on the part of the United States? And are you confident that Secretary Pompeo was conveying that?

REED: You know, I know the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, having served with him. I know he is the right man in the right place at the right time. I was so pleased to see the president send Mike Pompeo directly there to meet with the king face-to-face. That showed we took this very serious. That was a signal that was the right signal to deliver. And now accountability will be imposed, and that's the right path for us to take.

HILL: Do you believe that Secretary Mnuchin should attend the Davos in the Desert Concert?

REED: Obviously, there's multiple strategic interests here. And so what the treasury secretary potentially may have to do is reconsider that as the evidence comes out. But right now, obviously, we have to continue to move forward.

HILL: Right, but is it your gut, your take here? The president has said the secretary needs to decide. What would you advise him to do at this point based on what we know?

REED: Obviously, we want to get this information out as soon as possible so we can take the appropriate action. My position would be let's put pressure where pressure needs to be. Get the evidence out. And then we make firm decisions paced on that. But I caution, to engage with Saudi Arabia at this time with such a grievous action is something I would not be very supportive of.

[11:25:04] HILL: I do want to get your take on something else. You have said as recently as last week, there's no doubt that climate is changing. You believe there's a human role here, that humans have definitely played a part. As we know, the president said on Sunday he does not believe that to be the case. You also called out China and India, saying we need to see more action from them on this front. Does there need to be more action from the United States, especially in light of some of the changes we have seen under President Trump and the pulling back on the part of the U.S.?

REED: I think we're already leading, as Americans, as the United States. So I recognize that climate change is something we need to deal with. We need to be proactive and we need to be responsible with it. But we also need partners that can change the dial. And those partners, in my opinion, are China and India. They're some of the world's largest, if not the largest polluter in the world. And what we need is to make sure that we get a coordinated effort to make sure our climate, whatever we can do to help it, we do it. That's where I stand on it. And I think we can do this if we all put our shoulders together and solve it for the next generation.

HILL: Is it your sense that the president is committed to leading on that?

REED: I believe he is. But I think he's also recognizing that we can't do this alone. If we don't have partnership in this, we could destroy America's economy. We could see this economic growth go down the tubes. And that would be devastating for us, as Americans. What we need is a coordinated effort across the world. And that's where -- and real agreement, real accountability to people like China and India that have to contribute to this just as much as Americans are being asked to do.

HILL: Congressman Tom Reed, appreciate your time today. Thank you.

REED: It's always a pleasure to be with you, Erica. HILL: Up next, Senator Elizabeth Warren taking on Trump with a DNA

test, as the president backtracks over that million-dollar pledge. So who won this first battle in the war of words?