Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Signals No Punishment for Saudi Crown Prince Over Khashoggi Murder; Former President Obama Jokes About Defeating Trump in 2020. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 20, 2018 - 16:00   ET



SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: We know from press accounts that Jared Kushner is about to roll out their vision for Middle East peace.

And they believe they have to have the strongest possible relationship with Saudi Arabia to do that, and they believe, I guess, that by sanctioning or holding them to account over this horrific issue, that they put all of that in jeopardy.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: So, what's the limit?

JENNINGS: And so what the president, as I understand it, has decided is, we don't want to put the larger peace process in jeopardy.

And it's a terrible choice. And I feel -- I'm still sorting out my feelings on it, because what they did to this journalist is horrific. And it makes me wonder, how can you trust a partner in a peace process if they so willingly lie to the world about something like this?

SCIUTTO: Fair question.

Angela Rye, your reaction to the president's position?


When I -- every time I hear the president open his mouth, I think about the fact that this administration is a walking civil and human rights crisis in itself, in and of itself, embodied.

And I just am so frustrated by the fact that Donald Trump would even compare gas prices in the same conversation about this man who is touted by his colleagues as someone who is so important not just to political discourse in this country, but also across the world.

And so it is truly a crisis, not just when you see how this has been allowed to happen by our lack of accountability for the Saudis in this instance, but also when you see what happens to journalists, some of whom work on this network, every time they're in the press room at that White House. How is this White House going to hold the world responsible for how it

treats freedom of speech, when they also are -- they are a sore thumb in the eye of everything that freedom of the press is about? I question that every single day.

SCIUTTO: Jackie Kucinich, the president ran on a position of strength in U.S. foreign policy.

He continues to claim to be the strongest president in history, he will often say, but certainly in comparison with his predecessors. Do his supporters see the president as strong when they see him, in effect, give a pass on Khashoggi's murder, or the Russian president a pass for interference in the election, or even Kim Jong-un a pass for, again, what his intelligence community says is evidence of continued expansion, not curtailing of its nuclear program?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it depends on what supporters you're talking about.

I mean, you just asked -- Scott said he's still sorting out his feelings over all of this. That said, I think there's a reason the president mentions jobs when he's talking about Saudi Arabia. Never mind that he's completely inflating the number of jobs this would create. He's talking about how he's trying to put America first.

Now, that's undermined by the fact he just said it was permissible to lie to the president of the United States, when you look at what the CIA has reportedly said. He is willing to look past it, as long as there are business interests with the United States.

And I don't know how that sends a message of strength.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And does it send a message of support for American values?


SCIUTTO: Let's go now to CNN's Pamela Brown. She's live at the White House.

Pamela, of course, you were there. You were watching this president now defending his response in no uncertain terms to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, saying -- quote -- and he's used this phrase a number of times -- "It's a very complex situation."

Explain how the administration sees this.


And he said it comes down to putting America first and the economy here in America first, saying that it would be a terrible mistake to abandon Saudi Arabia over the killing of "Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Now, when he was pushed further on that, and whether he was putting U.S. interests over human rights, he deflected from that, saying that Iran is a bigger threat in that regard. And, overall, he said it is what it is when it comes to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.


BROWN (voice-over): In a stunning White House press release exonerating Saudi Arabia and the murder of "Washington Post" writer Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump seemed to dismiss reports indicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing, writing, "Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't!"

The statement coming just before the president was to receive a report from the CIA about the murder.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to have a report on Tuesday. And it will be very complete.

BROWN: A senior U.S. official says the CIA has assessed the crown prince directed the murder of Khashoggi. And just a few days ago, Vice President Pence said everyone involved would be held to account.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States is absolutely committed to ensuring that all of those responsible are held accountable.

BROWN: The president has been steadfast in his commitment to the Saudis as allies, and this is just the latest show of support.

TRUMP: At the same time, we do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.


BROWN: The statement points to the economic ties between the two countries -- quote -- "The kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money."

But the State Department says the U.S. has only received $14.5 billion as part of the deal. The statement coming after weeks of measured rhetoric about the role the crown prince may have played in the murder, going against evidence from the American intelligence community.

TRUMP: He told me that he had nothing to do with it. He told me that, I would say, maybe five times.

BROWN: It's not the first time the president has gone against intelligence agencies. Despite an August report by a United Nations nuclear watch group, Trump denied that the North Koreans were continuing to develop their nuclear capabilities.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": Even though there is talk about that they're putting new sites?

TRUMP: Yes. Maybe they are, maybe they're not. I don't believe that.

BROWN: And perhaps most notably he's spoken out against allegations that Russia has meddled in the 2016 election.

TRUMP: All I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

BROWN: While the president says members of Congress may go a different direction when it comes to repercussions for Saudi Arabia, he's also downplaying any further evidence.

The White House writing -- quote -- "We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia."


BROWN: And President Trump also telling reporters he's willing to sit down and meet with the crown prince at the G20 next week if he is there.

Now, one thing he didn't address, Jim, is why he thought it was necessary to include in a statement today how the Saudis view Jamal Khashoggi, or at least some Saudis. He said that some of them view him as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as an enemy of the state.

But he went on to say that didn't impact his decision. So the question is, why was that included? And we should note that Jamal Khashoggi's son has come out strongly to denounce that and said that is simply not true.

SCIUTTO: Listen, it's Saudi propaganda that was repeated from the president's mouth, implying that it was true.

Pamela Brown, thanks very much from the White House.

I want to bring the panel back now.

And, Scott Jennings, I want to go to you, because the president creates, in effect, a false choice here. He says if the U.S. were to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for this murder that he calls terrible, that the U.S. would then be abandoning Saudi Arabia.

But the U.S. has complicated relationships with countries around the world, allies, that it sometimes calls out. After all, this is a president who called out the NATO alliance for not paying its fair share, but did not abandon the NATO alliance. Why can't the president call out the Saudis for a horrible murder and maintain the relationship based on other shared interests?

JENNINGS: Well, we don't know yet.

We don't know what is going on behind the scenes as the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel try to work out a peace plan that recognizes one of the biggest threats to the United States and to stability of the Middle East is Iran.


SCIUTTO: I didn't say if there were other threats. I said, can the U.S. have a relationship with another country and call it out for reprehensible behavior and maintain that relationship, as this president has done with far closer allies of the U.S. in Europe? Why is that not possible?

JENNINGS: Well, and my answer is, we don't know yet, because we don't know what negotiations are going on behind the scenes as these countries try to work out a process to hold Iran in check.

There's a missing piece of information here. And that is, we don't know what the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel are discussing as it relates to Iran moving forward.

SCIUTTO: That's not what I asked.


SCIUTTO: I asked you, can you hold someone, you know, accountable, a nation accountable for a horrible crime while talking about other shared interests?

But let's move on.

Phil, I want to ask you about another thing. The president, in that statement -- and Pamela Brown teed this up -- and it's a very important point -- he included what is an unfounded smear against Jamal Khashoggi, saying that the Saudis call him an enemy of the state.

Let me just note, he was for years an adviser, a close adviser of the royal family, including the interior minister, on issues of national security. So if he was an enemy of the state, why did they keep him as adviser for that long?

And also this membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, as if that is the equivalent with terrorism. Why is Trump using rhetoric that is effectively Saudi propaganda here that was living in the dark recesses of Twitter, frankly, until a couple of weeks ago? Why is the president of the United States including that gratuitously in an official statement from the White House?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think this is pretty straight forward.

The president has a potential interest in maintaining jobs in America, and to maintain jobs, he looks at the Saudis and says, if you make a tremendous mistake, forget about whether this person was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Forget about whether he was an enemy of the state. This is murder.


This is not just a killing of a...


MUDD: This is murder.

SCIUTTO: The point is, he brought up something that's not true...

MUDD: It doesn't matter, Jim.

SCIUTTO: ... as a sort of backhanded justification for a brutal murder.

MUDD: It doesn't matter. It's -- let's say it is true. What difference does it make? A journalist was murdered.

The president sees an interest in saying, A, for America, I want jobs to continue or potentially there are hundreds of millions of defense contracts. And, B, I don't want the media telling me how to do my business.

So, to further that end, instead of doing what previous, including Republican administrations have done -- remember the Chinese in Tiananmen Square 25-plus years ago. A Republican administration had a challenge of a key international state, that is the Chinese and a human rights violation -- and George W. Bush, H.W. Bush, the senior, figured out what to do.

Bring pain and also maintain a relationship. This president has said it will embarrass me to isolate the Saudis, so I'm going pretend that a human rights violation wasn't committed. It was. I don't care about the explanation. He was murdered.

SCIUTTO: Right. Well, no U.S. administration -- and that was a Republican one, by the way -- denied that Tiananmen Square happened, which is in effect what the president is raising here.

But, Angela, sorry. Your thoughts as you look at the president's response here.

RYE: Yes.

I think there are a couple of things.

I am concerned that we would even be stunned by this response. Right? This is very consistent, not only with his behavior, but with his rhetoric. Donald Trump is regularly using words to put people in danger.

Again, we have seen people on this network who have received death threats because of the things that he says, who have been threatened at rallies because of the things that he says. And I don't know why we would see this as any different. Yes,

someone was killed, but, to him, nothing else matters but dollars and cents. And he said -- he even said, unprompted -- nobody asked him in this presser -- where he said, I don't have any direct business interests with the Saudis. Now I'm questioning whether he does, because nobody even asked him

that. There is something that bars this man's brain from conflicts. There is no such thing as a conflict of interest in this administration. And the only conflict he starts regularly are people -- with people who hold him accountable, even with that's with a question in the press room.


KUCINICH: It's clear that -- sorry, go ahead, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Sorry. Go ahead, Jackie.

KUCINICH: So, it's clear also that foreign governments have figured out that this president will repeat their propaganda.

RYE: Yes.

KUCINICH: Look at what happened with Kim Jong-un. The president referring to military exercises between South Korea and the United States as war games.

Again, he has he has done that with Russia as well in things that President Putin has said. They're watching. Foreign governments notice these things. And the Saudis use it to their advantage.


And let's be clear about this, again, to talk about the facts about Jamal Khashoggi. He lived in Tysons Corner, Virginia, outside of D.C., OK? He was a U.S. resident, not a green card holder. His kids went to university in the States. At least one of his kids is a U.S. citizen.

Journalist, appeared around Washington all of the time, wrote a column for "The Washington Post." So let's set aside the lie that the president put in that statement here, seemingly as a backhanded justification for this.

I want to read now a statement from "The Washington Post" publisher, and CEO Fred Ryan responding to Trump's statement. And we're going to read this in full, because it does bear repeating. And I want to hear your reaction to this.

It begins: "President Trump's response to the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a betrayal of long-established American values, of respect for human rights and the expectation of trust and honesty in our strategic relationships. He is placing personal relationships and commercial interests above American interests in his desire to continue to do business as usual with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

"The Central Intelligence Agency has thoroughly investigated the murder of this innocent journalist and concluded with high confidence that it was directed by the crown prince. If there is reason to doubt the findings of the CIA, President Trump should immediately make that evidence public.

"President Trump is correct in saying the world is a very dangerous place. His surrender to the state's ordered murder will only make it more so. An innocent man brutally slain deserves better, as does the cause of truth and justice and human rights.

"In this failure of leadership from President Trump, it now falls to Congress to stand up for America's true values and lasting interests."

Scott Jennings, I want to ask your reaction to that. Was there anything in that statement that you disagree with?


Look, I don't like that we are acquiescing to the Saudis here. I know they are sort of our friends in this region. But, clearly, their willingness to lie to the world calls into question how much you can trust them.

I do think the statement brings up an issue about how the U.S. government may wind up dealing with this ultimately, and that is, the president goes down the road that he thinks he needs to go down, and the Congress goes down the road of sanctions, just the way we have done on Russia.

I mean, look, the president has had his issues on Russia

[16:15:07] I mean, look, the president has had his issues on Russia and Congress has been really tough on Russia and it may be the Saudis run into a Congress, a bipartisan majority in Congress in January, that says we're going to do what we're going to do. So there may be a bifurcated response from the federal government here of the United States and that ultimately is how we hold them accountable.

SCIUTTO: Jackie, you spent a lot of time on the Hill, speaking to Republicans and Democrats. And Scott mentioned after the president wobbled, shall we say on Russian interference in the election, including raising questions again about an intelligence assessment, it was a nearly a 100-1 vote, I think it was 98-2 vote in the Senate, requiring sanctions. Is there from your sense in the public statements you've seen a similar building of support here, including among Republicans in the Senate to hold the Saudis accountable if the president will not?

KUCINICH: It's really hard to say, Jim. There's a new Congress coming in. They only have a couple weeks to do that. And some of the leading voices, someone like Bob Corker, isn't going to be there any more.

Now, on the House side, where they don't have as much control over foreign policy, I'm sure there will be investigations. But we're going to have to wait and see what kind of mood the Senate is in when the new Senate is sworn in. We just don't know.

SCIUTTO: And, of course, you have the Democrats controlling the House. Phil Mudd, in the meantime, let me ask you this -- if I were a

dissident, not just in the Middle East, but anywhere in the world, frankly, because remember, Jamal Khashoggi went to Istanbul, a NATO ally, to get marriage papers, to marry his fiance. Imagining that he was safe and he was killed and dismembered and his body disappeared.

If I'm a dissident, whether from Saudi Arabia or Russia or China, and I hear the president's words today, am I worried today about my life and my safety, that other strong men will take this as a -- an okay to knock out their opponents, even abroad?

MUDD: Why would you worry more today than you did yesterday? The president has affiliated himself with the leadership of the Philippines, which has murdered people routinely, extrajudicially. The president has affiliated himself with the Turks and the Egyptians, long-term American allies, that have been anti-democratic during the president's administration.

The president has been more courteous towards Vladimir Putin than he has been toward NATO allies. Vladimir Putin, a man whose opponents, including journalists, have been murdered. Why would you look today differently than you would look at yesterday? If you're someone who has looked as American values and say America will reflect democratic values and the right of a free press, you would say under this administration, Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, no, they won't. That's not America any more.

SCIUTTO: A sad statement to hear.

Angela Rye, before we go, I want to get your sense of what, if anything, Congress will do now, if that is truly the backstop here? We had a strong statement from Democratic Senator Mark Warner, of course, the ranking member on the intelligence community, Senate Intelligence Committee. He said his failure to hold Saudi Arabia responsible in any meaningful way for the death of Khashoggi is just one more example of this White House's retreat from American leadership on issues like human rights and protecting the free press. It's hard to imagine that this type of action this would have taken place under a Reagan, Bush, Clinton, or Obama administration without facing serious repercussions.

So will Congress generate those serious repercussions now?

RYE: I think they absolutely have to. Instead of being able to just function as a third branch of the government, they also have to function as the adults in the room, or adult in policy. And that's exactly what they're going to have to do. Whether it's talking about sanctions or also an investigation, there are already so many examples of investigations that at least the House side has talked about wanting to conduct on not just the Trump administration, but Donald Trump himself.

It's worth looking into again now that he's brought up unprompted, that he has no business interests with the Saudi government. Prove it. And I think that that's a good place to start, because his response is not just irresponsible, it is dangerous, Jim. And, again, we have seen all of the ways in which this can play out.

SCIUTTO: Angela, Scott, Phil, Jackie, thanks very much. It's a tough issue. We appreciate you being here with us as we break it down as it's happening, as always.

Thanks very much to all of you.

We should point out that this is not the first time Trump has ignored and disparaged the work of U.S. intelligence agencies when that work proved inconvenient for him. He notoriously stood next to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki, and repeated that Putin had denied Russians interfered in the 2016 election, despite the confident assessment of U.S. intelligence. More recently, he dismissed evidence that North Korea is expanding, not curtailing its nuclear and missile programs as fake news, again, despite assessments to the contrary by U.S. intelligence.

[16:20:03] This is an established and dangerous pattern with this president.

So what happens when the commander-in-chief repeatedly ignores intelligence on America's most pressing national security priorities and gives no credible explanation as to how this makes Americans safer? That is today's experiment. And we are the subjects of that experiment.

What President Obama thinks about who should run for president against Trump, perhaps, in 2020? David Axelrod, he sits down with his former boss, and that is next.



DAVID AXELROD, HOST, THE AXE FILES: But you think if you were on a ballot in 20 that you would defeat President Trump?



[16:25:03] SCIUTTO: Quite a moment there.

Former President Obama showing some confidence that he would be victorious over President Trump if he could legally run against him in 2020. In a new interview with David Axelrod, the host of CNN's "THE AXE FILES," Obama said that President Trump has capitalized on political division and demonization and weighed in on the future of the Democratic Party as well.

Joining me now is David Axelrod, who served as senior adviser to President Obama.

David, thanks for joining us. Clearly an interesting interview.

I want to play a clip where you asked Obama about Nancy Pelosi, of course, in a fierce fight now within the Democratic Party to be speaker of the House for a second time. Have a listen.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: I think Nancy Pelosi, when history is written, will go down as one of the most effective legislative leaders that we -- this country has ever seen. Nancy is not always the best on, you know, cable show or with the quick sound bite or what have you. But her skill, tenacity, toughness, vision, is remarkable.


SCIUTTO: So not quite a unqualified expression of support for Pelosi. How did you -- how did you take that statement? A statement of support in the midst of this leadership --

AXELROD: Well, he was very clear, Jim, that he isn't going to wade in on House Democratic politics. But I think he feels a real sense of allegiance to Pelosi and certainly a sense -- or certainly a sense of gratitude, because for eight years, she -- you know, she never promised more than she could deliver the president. She never delivered less than she promised. And she was a wise counselor to him.

And I think he said what he believes, which is that she is an extraordinary legislative leader. Not necessarily an extraordinary spokesperson.

So, you know, I think between the lines what he is saying is, you know, you need leadership within the four walls, but the party has to develop other figures to speak for the Democrats in the House.

SCIUTTO: Interesting point. As you know, the president hit the stump quite a bit in the run up to this month's midterm elections. Democrat, of course, retook the House. They did not take the senate, though the math was a bit of an uphill climb.

Was the president, in your view, satisfied with the result of these midterms?

AXELROD: He -- you know, he was a little -- having weighted -- really against his wishes because his wish was to -- like other former presidents, be able to take a back seat. But he felt the need to jump in. I think he was not all that eager to sort of spike the football today. But he clearly was happy with the result. And he's particularly highlighted the youth involvement in this campaign and the fact that young people voted in much larger numbers than they had in past midterm elections.

And that's something that, of course, is of a big interest to him. He was here for his Obama summit, where he brought young leaders together, and he was at my institute of politics, which is committed to drawing young people into the public square. So, that was something that he wanted to emphasize.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes. I've seen it. I've been out there and seen it in action. You asked the president about an issue that certainly has been close to his heart. He's commented about frequently -- that being the heightened divisions here in the U.S.

I want to play his answer on that topic.


OBAMA: What's unique about America is our aspirations to be a large, successful, multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, pluralistic democracy.

AXELROD: You think that's President Trump's vision?

OBAMA: No, obviously not. We have contrasting visions about what America is.


SCIUTTO: So let me ask, I'm curious if the president who, of course, was ground breaking, the first black man elected to the president of the United States and. I should add, in the face of a lot of folks who said that couldn't happen. Does he believe that because of the current divide, it is less likely that this country would elect another black president or perhaps the first female president?

AXELROD: You know, I asked him that very question, Jim. And he was resolute in saying that's not the case. That he didn't think that we should view candidates in that way.

He did talk about the kind of candidate he thought could win, and he said it has to be someone who has convictions and willing -- is willing to stand up for those convictions, even if they're risky to their political enterprise, someone who wasn't driven by polls, but driven by principle. He thinks the country needs that, is hungry for that. And he said he didn't care what the particular demographic group that candidate fell into, but that's the kind of candidate he believed could win.