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Mike Pompeo Meets with Saudi King, Crown Prince Over Khashoggi Case; Saudis May Admit Journalist Died During Interrogation; Democrats Vie to Win the Latino Vote. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 16, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: The first and the most visible this morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the ground in Riyadh for what appears to be pretty convivial talks with the Saudi king, the Saudi foreign minister and the Saudi crown prince. Just minutes ago the State Department spokeswoman said Pompeo, quote, "reiterated the president's concern for Khashoggi's fate," and, quote, "welcomed the Saudi support for a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation."

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Behind the scene, sources tell CNN that the Saudis soon will completely disown their original claim that Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul alive and well soon after he arrived on October 2nd. The new story is expected to be that the Saudi national and "Washington Post" columnist was in fact killed but in a botched interrogation. It was not deliberate, they say.

For their part, Turkish investigators are spending a second day searching Saudi properties for evidence which Turkey's president says may include, quote, "toxic materials."

CNN has a team coverage here. Let's start with CNN's Sam Kiley is in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

What do we know about those Pompeo meetings this morning? They weren't exactly lengthy, were they?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they were pretty brief. Not brisk, I think, but brief. The first meeting was with King Salman this morning. That lasted 15 minutes. Now the king is frail and elderly, and is held -- handed over most of the reins of power to his son, Mohammed bin Salman. That meeting, both of which were attended by the Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, between the crown prince and Mike Pompeo, went on for 30 to 40 minutes. So not extensive there either.

It's very hard indeed to find out what went on behind those closed doors, but there was a pointed remark, I think, going in to the meeting from the crown prince as he was meeting Mike Pompeo. I'll just read you an extract that was sent to us by a friendly pool reporter on the ground. The crown prince said, "We're really strong and old allies so we face our challenges together. The past, the day of, tomorrow." Pompeo replied, absolutely.

Now, of course, what else could he have said in a public forum or semi-public forum to his host as the United States most senior diplomat. And nonetheless, the conviviality of this meeting or series of meetings does indicate perhaps a degree to which the Americans want to try to put this whole episode eventually behind them. But that is going to be a very difficult in a nation which pointing down towards subordinates for responsibility is really not a tradition. Nothing much happens here unless it comes from above.

SCIUTTO: Right. Unless it's convenient to blame those below you.

Thanks very much, Sam.

Let's get the latest on the investigation from CNN's Clarissa Ward.

It was your reporting with Tim Lister yesterday, Clarissa, about this emerging official explanation, sort of dumping off the blame to a rogue operation. Do we know if this explanation is going to become public? Are the Saudis still moving forward with this claim?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far, we've seen no indication as to a timeline, when they might present the results of their investigation. We keep hearing from our sources that it's imminent, that it's imminent. I get the impression that there are people within the royal court who would like to get out in front of this story right now. But there are clearly other forces who are slowing it down.

And in the meantime, what you're seeing, Jim, I think, is that some people are starting to get impatient. Particularly here in Turkey. For the last couple of days, Turkish authorities had been very quiet, very buttoned up. We hadn't seen any leaks. They were speaking in positive terms about Saudi cooperation, in positive terms about this joint working force.

Today, we're starting to see a little bit of a shift. We heard President Erdogan say, you know what, in that consulate, there was potentially toxic material. We had to deal with what was a, you know, painted over area, essentially implying that there was some kind of a hasty cover-up, and the bottom line is the Turks want to see a proper investigation. They want full and unfettered access, and the main question I'm sure that they would like to know is where is that body? Is it here in Turkey? How was it disposed of?

The Saudis are coming under a lot of pressure, both internationally and the sort of sense that outrage that's been galvanized through this, but also certainly I think privately through Turkish sources who are saying enough is enough. We need to see more results. We need to find out definitively what happened to Jamal Khashoggi.

SCIUTTO: Oh, goodness. Basic question, isn't it? A father, a soon- to-be husband, a journalist.

Clarissa Ward, thanks very much.

HARLOW: And where is the body? Right?

We're joined by two of our global affairs analysts. Each with very unique experiences of their own as captives of an authoritarian regime.

[10:05:02] Jason Rezaian, a "Washington Post" writer, a colleague of Jamal Khashoggi, spent 500 days in prison in Iran, freed in 2016. David Rohde, kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008 while reporting for "The New York Times." He escaped seven months later, now executive editor for "The New Yorker" online.

Gentlemen, thank you for being here. Let me just bring everyone some new reporting we just got from our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. A senior adviser to the president tells Barbara Starr that the president's decision on how he handles this crisis with Saudi Arabia, quote, "may be the most consequential decision of his presidency." Again, that coming from a senior adviser to the president.

It gives you a sense, despite the pictures we just saw of a pretty friendly meeting between the secretary of State and King Salman, how important this decision is for the president.

So, David Rohde, to you, what we have seen play out this morning, a 15-minute meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia, is this the sight of the U.S. holding an ally to account?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: No. It's not. And I just, you know, I'm glad, because of my past experience, but whatever happened, and it appears Jamal Khashoggi is dead, he was killed because of his political views. That is just outrageous and unacceptable. You should not be abducted in a consulate and killed because of what you've, you know, written or said. That's a basic American value.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Jason, just the thought occurs to me as I'm sitting next to your colleague, David, and speaking to you. You were both held. I mean, David was held by the Taliban, right? Terrorist organization. You were held by Iran, authoritarian regime. The difference here, this is a U.S. ally. Authoritarian, a royal family, but still a U.S. ally.

What difference does that make? But also, I remember, what difference does it make when the U.S. definitively calls out violations of human rights? Because I think I recall you saying that when you were held, that the Iranians listened to U.S. public statements on your detention and that that made a difference.

JASON REZAIAN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think pressure always makes a big difference in these cases. And I think Secretary of State Pompeo's visit to Saudi Arabia sends all the wrong messages. It sends the wrong message to the people, the dissidents of Saudi Arabia, wherever they are in the world, that, you know, you need to be very careful because this regime can hunt you down wherever you are. It sends a terrible message to American journalists, people working for American media, that your life doesn't really matter.

And I think worse of all, it sends a terrible message to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia that, you know what, this is not that big a deal. And I think, you know, the words coming from the Pentagon, while, you know, potentially reassuring, need to be followed up by a lot of action. And I'm concerned that that's not going to happen.

HARLOW: Some of the additional reporting from Barbara Starr that I want you both to weigh in on, and David, you first, is the reason senior advisers believe that this is such a consequential move and decision and played by the president is because it becomes increasingly difficult for the U.S. Military and for U.S. diplomats around the world to maintain a moral high ground. As Marco Rubio said, what do we stand for as Americans when it comes to human rights?

The longer there is sort of deflection, the longer there is essentially taking, you know, the king of Saudi Arabia on this at face value without knowing the results of an independent investigation.

ROHDE: There has to be a thorough and credible investigation. And then, you know, back to my own captivity many years ago, the Taliban saw the Saudis as corrupt and they essentially saw the United States and all of us as hypocritical that we talk about justice and the rule of law.


ROHDE: And if there's a whitewash here, if the Saudis get a pass because of all the money they have and the oil they have, that will actually help jihadi groups with recruitment.


ROHDE: Because it again shows that we don't really abide by the rule of law. And that's why, again, you know, he was murdered for his political views but there has to be a thorough and credible investigation. This is what Europe is calling for. You know, why can't the United States?

SCIUTTO: I remember being in the region, you know, when the Abu Ghraib photo came out and how that diminished U.S. standing on a number of things.

Jason, if I could ask you, just the chilling effect on journalists and dissidents in the region that something like this could happen and could be allowed to happen by the U.S. how much of an effect would it have on critical voices, folks, Saudis, whether inside or outside the country who are willing to stand up and say, listen, you know, publish critical articles or reveal news, et cetera? Does it have a chilling effect?

REZAIAN: Jim, I think it has a massive chilling effect. When I was imprisoned in Iran, you could see that many of the journalists still working there were writing a lot less, writing a lot less critically, and you know, four years on, that hasn't really changed. Take this to a much more extreme scenario where we're talking about the potential murder of a journalist in a foreign country, NATO ally.

I think that the chill and the fear is something that will be -- something that we're experiencing and seeing for years to come, unfortunately. [10:10:08] HARLOW: So, Jason, what should Americans believe when they

hear members of Congress -- we just heard on our show, a Republican and a Democrat, say we Congress will act. We will hold the Saudis to account. Essentially if the administration does not. Do you believe that? Do you believe that politics aside, enough members of Congress so you can have a veto-proof majority, the Senate will really sanction Saudi on this?

REZAIAN: Look, Poppy, I want to believe that. And I hope that if there's an investigation and the worst turns out to be true, that they will be held to account, but if we look back at history, over the past couple decades, the Saudis have been involved in all sorts of egregious acts and things that we as Americans don't necessarily agree with. And there haven't been any ramifications for it, so I'm not sure what to expect. But I'd like to see Congress, you know, act responsibly here.

HARLOW: That's an interesting point, not just under this administration, you're talking about Democratic administrations as well.

REZAIAN: I'm talking about decades of American administrations.


SCIUTTO: Yes. David Rohde, Jason Rezaian, two Americans who were imprisoned by U.S. adversaries and thankfully came out alive.

HARLOW: Thank you both.

SCIUTTO: Next, we head to the White House. All eyes on the president. How will he respond to all of this as the evidence accumulates? Plus, Secretary of Defense James Mattis says the president is with him 100 percent. Of course, a very different message after the president's interview with "60 Minutes" on Sunday where he said, Mattis, well, sort of a Democrat and may leave his position.

HARLOW: With just three weeks to the day before the midterms, Democrats are in a tough race to capture the Latino vote. A predicament they very well may not have expected to be in three weeks out. And pulling out all the stops to generate enthusiasm across some Hispanic communities.


[10:16:18] HARLOW: All right, welcome back. There is this morning still no new clarity from President Trump on what he would be willing to do if Saudi Arabia is in fact responsible for the death of missing "Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is a stark contrast to lawmakers in both parties who are saying we will sanction Saudi. We will take this into our own hands.

Let's go to the White House. Abby Phillip joins us there this morning. So, Abby, the president did take to Twitter and he did weigh in on

Saudi Arabia, but the only thing he said about it this morning pertains to his own finances and Saudi Arabia. Not to Jamal Khashoggi.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Poppy. The president this morning has been tweeting quite a bit about Elizabeth Warren, about the jobs and the economy, and now about Saudi Arabia, but not in the way that you would expect.

He is defending himself from accusations that perhaps he's not willing to go farther in confronting Saudi Arabia because he has financial interests in that country. He says, "For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia or Russia, for that matter. Any suggestion that I have is just more fake news."

But, Poppy, first of all, we should say that the president and his companies have had long standing financial ties to Saudi Arabia. And we don't know what the status of those ties are right at this moment because the president hasn't released his tax returns. But putting that aside, this tweet seems to be a response to really growing pressure, bipartisan pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill and even from within his administration to speak up more forcefully about what's going on in Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday, President Trump spoke to reporters, and he offered an alternative explanation for what might have happened to Jamal Khashoggi, saying that it could have been rogue killers operating within the consulate in Turkey, an explanation that a lot of people found hard to believe.

So I think right now the question for President Trump is, is he going to accept some kind of alternative explanation or is he going to be willing to be forceful on this as many in his own party want him to be. The issue at hand here is about human rights. President Trump, however, has made it clear that he's also concerned about whether or not punishing Saudi Arabia could have a negative impact on the U.S. economy over the next 24 to 48 hours. He has some big decisions to make on this, Poppy.

HARLOW: Very consequential ones. Abby, at the White House, thank you very much.

What strikes me, Jim, is that this is a president who has not hesitated from calling out allies. Canada, on issues of trade. Yes, this is an ally, but this is an issue of life and death and human rights.

SCIUTTO: In the strongest terms.

Joining us is the former director of Legislative Affairs under President Trump, Marc Short. We should note that Marc Short signed a non-disparagement agreement when he worked on the Trump campaign.

Marc, you've heard the comments today. And I'm just going to cite the Republicans here. You have Marco Rubio saying today that the Senate is going to pursue a bipartisan effort to change the U.S.-Saudi relationship for the foreseeable future. You had Lindsey Graham more colorfully saying today that he's going to, quote, "sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia." And you have Bob Corker, another Republican who's seen the intelligence, and he says that they will not stand for this.

Why has the president himself not definitively called this out as something that the U.S. will not accept in the simplest terms?

MARC SHORT, FORMER DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS UNDER PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, I think that having Mike Pompeo there is actually a good thing. Despite what your previous guest said, I think Mike is a very direct person. When there's commentary the meeting only lasted 15 minutes, I think it's probably because Pompeo was very direct to Saudi Arabia about needing to come clean.

But I'll say 100 percent with what Marco said on your show earlier today, that there's no amount of jobs or financial interests to the United States that compensate for our credibility overseas. And I think that Saudi Arabia is underestimating the risk here as to what Congress could do in pulling back that arms sale.

[10:20:02] HARLOW: Marc, if you were in the White House still, how would you advise the president on this?

SHORT: Well, I would advise the president, I think you have to come clear and say that if evidence proves true that this journalist was killed by the Saudis, that that has to be something that is denounced sooner and has to be without any ambiguity. I do think that right now --


HARLOW: But, Marc, let me jump in and ask you, is it beyond denouncing? Right? Is it beyond words? And is it action that you are saying --


HARLOW: -- Mr. President, you have to do this?

SHORT: Absolutely. As I have said many times on your show that, look, a free and fair press is foundational to any democracy. And it is -- killing journalists is something that I think would send shockwaves across the Middle East. But I also think we have to be a little bit cautious. A lot of information we're getting is from Turkey. We have to remember, Turkey is a bad actor in a lot of things, too. They just released an American pastor who was kept in prison for over two and a half years under trumped up charges. So we have to, I think, let some more of the evidence come out at this point.


SCIUTTO: Yes. Although the difference there, of course, is that we knew that pastor was alive. We don't have a body with Jamal Khashoggi, which is --

SHORT: Yes, but look --

SCIUTTO: Which would be a basic way to address this.

SHORT: Of course. Yes, but, Jim, also, you have to acknowledge a lot of information we're getting is coming from Turkey that has no interest in wanting to protect Saudi Arabia. They're actually enemies. And so it's important to remember that Saudi Arabia is somebody who is a check on Iran's aggression in the Middle East. And so just like your previous guest said, the last administration, when Congress passed legislation to allow Americans to sue those who were killed in 9/11, to sue foreign governments like Saudi Arabia, it was President Obama who vetoed that legislation. Other presidents have had to deal with the very tricky situation, too.

SCIUTTO: I hear you. It's a fair point because Republicans and Democrats for decades have accepted a lot coming from the Saudi regime.


SCIUTTO: Not the first time they have imprisoned dissidents, journalists, et cetera.


SCIUTTO: That's a fair point, but I do want to ask you this, because there's a why question that maybe you could provide some insight for us. And this is a why question asked not just by Democrats but by Republicans. The president's been slow, I think you'll admit, on being definitive in criticizing what or just making a stand on what the Saudi Arabian government is accused of here.

He has never publicly criticized with enthusiasm Kim Jong-un's record on human rights. He has accepted Vladimir Putin's denial, firm denial for interfering in the U.S. election. Why does this president hesitate to hold those authoritarian leaders to account? Why?

SHORT: Yes, I'd be cautious to paint with a broad brush here. I think it's important to remember he did help get dissidents in North Korea released. His actions in North Korea have helped to stop --


SCIUTTO: It's the public comment. You know, from a U.S. president saying we are America. We will -- our values state that we will not stand for this. Why all those contexts is that not an easy thing to say?

SHORT: Yes, sure. And Jim -- yes, Jim. It should be in this case. I accept that. But I also think there's a reality that this president also actually engaged in Syria when the previous president drew a red line on a map. So this president has engaged where he has seen human rights violations go too far in actions that other administrations have not taken. HARLOW: Right. So that --

SHORT: I accept your point that they can be more outspoken here. That's a fair point.

HARLOW: That's a fair point, but it is selective, right? When he has done that, and the question is, does America just have a bar, that this is what we stand for and this is what we don't stand for.

Let me ask you this. If it turns out, if you buy what is emerging as a Saudi explanation from Clarissa Ward and Tim Lister's reporting that this was an attempt to capture, kidnap, you know, a Saudi citizen in a different country, interrogate him, take him back for whatever punishment, and then he just died in a botched interrogation. If you accept that, should the response from the U.S. government and the president be any different than if they set out to murder him? If it's the same end result?

SHORT: No. No. No. Absolutely not. I think the response will need to be substantive.


SHORT: But I also think that Saudi Arabia needs to take action themselves because as I said, I do think there's a greater risk to Congress pulling back that arms sale deal.

HARLOW: Thank you, Marc Short.

SCIUTTO: Thank you for taking the hard questions.

HARLOW: Appreciate you being here.

So next, fascinating story from our Kyung Lah on Latino voters, a key voting bloc obviously across this country and in the midterms. Why are so many Democrats in districts struggling to get their support? Next.


[10:29:15] SCIUTTO: With the midterm elections just three weeks away, Democrats are in a race to drum up enthusiasm in particular among Hispanic voters.

HARLOW: The president's policies combined with hostile remarks toward immigrants especially Mexican immigrants seemingly should be an easy target for Democrats to rally the Hispanic base, but now there's an ever growing fear within the party Latinos may stay home and not go to the polls.

Our Kyung Lah joins us live in Phoenix with more.

I'm fascinated by this, looking at the numbers and really interested in what they told you.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If you look at the numbers of who is eligible to vote among Latinos, it's 30 million people, Poppy. That number alone is astonishing. And they could have a major impact on the midterms. But Democrats fear that once again, they may not live up to expectations.


LAH (voice-over): The push for the Latino vote.