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Interview with Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado; What is President Trump's Military Strategy. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 14, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: -- making it clear, it was a military objective, insisting there were no outside political influences. Have a listen.


GEN. JOHN W. NICHOLSON, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: And the timing of the use of this weapon was simply the appropriate tactical moment against a proper target to use this particular munition. So it is not related to any outside events, other than our focus on destroying Daesh in 2017.


STARR: Not related to any outside events. If the North Koreans see that video on TV they can perhaps draw some of their own conclusions from it, but the U.S. is saying it has nothing to do with North Korea. President Trump asked if he authorized this strike in Afghanistan with his extraordinary first combat use of this weapon, the president was very cryptic.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you authorize it, sir?

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everybody knows exactly what happened. So -- and what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job, as usual. So we have given them total authorization, and that's what they're doing, and frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately.


STARR: Total authorization. So, yes, commanders have authorization to carry out missions. The critical question, however, still unanswered. Did President Trump know about this mission? When did he know about it? It is an extraordinary event. And would the U.S. military have simply let him find out about it by watching cable news? Probably not. But we'll have to see.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we will get those answers somehow, I'm sure. Barbara, thank you very much for your reporting.

Meanwhile, the world is on edge amid mounting fears that North Korea will conduct its sixth nuclear test this weekend. China warns a conflict could break out at any moment as the war of words between the North and the U.S. intensifies. CNN's Alexandra Field is live in Seoul, South Korea with more. What have you learned, Alexandra?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, Washington is preparing for a move from Pyongyang at any moment and that could be the sixth nuclear test that that country has been planning to carry out. We don't know exactly when it will happen, but we do know from White House officials that President Donald Trump, who is spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, is getting consistent updates on the situation in North Korea.

That as Vice President Mike Pence makes his way to the region. He will be in Seoul, South Korea this weekend, and then on to Tokyo and Japan where he will be talking to allies about the options that are being looked at with regard to the growing nuclear threat from North Korea. Those options include a military option, which will be discussed. That's a fear for people who here in South Korea. They do depend on the U.S. for security, but they, of course, have concerns about retaliation from North Korea.

North Korea already taking a very hard line against the arrival of U.S. warships in the waters off the Korean peninsula saying that the arrival of strategic nuclear equipment threatens global security and brings the region to the brink of thermonuclear war. Very strong words accompanied by more propaganda coming from Pyongyang. Images of their leader Kim Jong-un leading special forces in training exercises. This as the country plans to celebrate the most important day on their calendar, the day of the sun. That is the commemoration of the founder's birthday. It is also a date around which North Korea has previously carried out provocative acts as a show of strength and a means of guesting the world's attention. Needless to say here, John and Alisyn, the world is closely watching.

CAMEROTA: Absolutely. Alexandra, thank you very much for all that political reporting.

Let's bring in our political panel now. We have CNN political analyst David Gregory, CNN political director David Chalian, and CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. General, let's start with this news out of North Korea. Their military has just released a statement, as Alexandra reported. Let me just expand on that a little bit. They said just now they would, quote, "ruthlessly ravage the United States if Washington chooses to attack". This as of course, as the USS Carl Vinson is heading in that direction. Where are we with North Korea? Is this just heated rhetoric as we sometimes hear out of there, or is something different happening today?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I believe it's normal language and they're setting up the potential for doing something. And we all know what that something is, the potential test of another nuclear weapon or a multiple launch like they did just a few weeks ago, Alisyn. You're going to see either one of those things. All those kinds of tests and experiments are usually preceded by exactly this kind of language. But it certainly seems like it's been turned up a bit recently, don't you think? JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let me tell you about what we know is going

on with the White House right now. Of course, it's not at the White House, it's at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. We're told by White House officials that the president is closely monitoring the situation on the Korean peninsula. We know there's this secure room that's being constructed at Mar-a-Lago for this.

And we were just told minutes ago by the White House that there are national security staffers with the president to assist in the monitoring of the situation, David Gregory. We don't know who, though. We didn't see Henry McMaster, the national security adviser, get on the plane. We don't think the Pentagon, James Mattis, defense secretary, is down there either.

[08:05:13] Does the fact the president is more or less unstaffed, albeit with some national security presence down there, indicate that maybe they don't think it will get much more serious than it already is, David?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't know. I wouldn't speculate on that. I think they're watching closely. The president has done a number things here recently, right? He carried off a strike on Syria to send a very strong political message. He has been in contact with President Xi of China, talked very seriously about the North Korea problem and how he'd like to see China intervene.

I don't think -- I think the administration wants to make it very clear that they will take a different approach. They might even try a military approach with North Korea, but I wouldn't expect anything rash here. I think, as previous administrations have had to think about, what are the follow-on consequences of dealing with North Korea militarily? What is to be gained? How do you want the situation to end? You have a lot of U.S. troops in a vulnerable position in South Korea. We have our allies in Japan. You have the China question to think about. So I think there's a lot going on here that the president wants to monitor.

And by what he has said this week, he expects China to take some kind of leading role in any kind of repercussion, any kind of consequence for North Korea if they do another test here.

CAMEROTA: Go ahead, David Chalian.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I think what David laid out is spot-on and I think that's why this weekend should North Korea act the way we anticipate that it might is a big test. This is the first nuclear test from North Korea in the Trump era. And how President Trump responds to that is going to be critical. We've seen him starting to take on the commander in chief role in a more active way in this last week, or 10 days or so. And he's clearly has seemed to be more about action than about sort of public deliberation of these thing.

So watching his response to what North Korea does this weekend really will set the table for how the administration is going to try to grapple with this problem that, remember, Barack Obama, when he left office told Donald Trump this is going to be your number one problem.

BERMAN: So General Hertling, just about an hour ago we got our first look at a video of this huge bomb blast, the largest non-nuclear device ever used by the U.S. military in combat in Afghanistan right now. This is what we saw right now. You can see just a huge plume rising from that. What message does this send, general, not just in Afghanistan where the bomb was used and we believe killed dozens of ISIS fighters, the Pentagon says, but around the world?

HERTLING: It was a tactical weapon. You heard me say that repeatedly, John. It was used by General Nicholson to kill his enemy and to stop them from using that area and to eliminate the IEDs that were being set up in defensive positions. But it certainly is a second order effect as this generated some discussion on the air waves by the media and by others that certainly generated some interest of, boy, another bomb strike. Even though it was taken out of context, it certainly sends a signal to a lot of people that this president is allowing that to happen from his tactical commanders.

But one of the things I would mention, too. The president said I've given the authority to my military to do these things. One of the things I'd like to beat home is that's a saying in the military. You can delegate authority. You cannot delegate responsibility. When you tell someone that you trust them to do something, you still own it as a senior commander. And as the commander in chief, Mr. Trump, doesn't get much more senior than that. He owns this and whatever happens in many different hot spots across the world.

CAMEROTA: David Gregory, speaking of all the military action that has happened since President Trump took office, pull it up for people. We have a map. Just because it's been notable how much has happened. So this, the biggest bomb ever, non-nuclear used, as John said. You see that in Afghanistan. You see the air strikes in Syria. You also see a terribly unfortunate friendly fire accident in Syria. You see the Yemen raid that went wrong. So in terms of -- oh, of course, North Korea looming there on the right side of the screen. So in terms of, we're not going to be the world's policemen anymore, how does this fit in to what Mr. Trump's worldview was on the campaign trail?

GREGORY: I think the obvious point is that you've got a new commander in chief who is willing to and wants to be more aggressive with the use of military forces to take on problems that we've been engaged in fighting for a long time. In Afghanistan, use of this MOAB bomb I think underscores the fact we've been there since 2001.

[08:10:02] And of course, commanders are looking for ways to root out the enemy that does not endanger U.S. troops, particularly in remote locations, particularly when you have the add-on of ISIS fighters who are now in Afghanistan that have to be rooted out as well. So this president wants to be more aggressive against ISIS. He has said that. I don't think he wants to occupy Syria or send a lot more troops into Iraq in order to do that, but because ISIS is already degraded, you're going to see more intensity.

He's obviously been more aggressive with regard to his talk about North Korea. We saw the strike in Syria, though that's still limited. So I point all these things out to say he's being more aggressive tactically, and part of that is part of a strategy, but I don't know what the bound of that strategy is right now. I don't think you see an indication by this president to be anymore engaged militarily in terms of a U.S. commitment than his predecessor was, but he may go about the kind of messages he wants to send a little bit differently.

BERMAN: I spoke to Alabama Senator Republican Richard Shelby more than a week ago. He says he has not heard a serious strategy yet from the White House. He's waiting. Just a few minutes ago we spoke to Brian Mast, congressman from Florida, who said he too, delicately and politely, he was saying he's waiting to hear what the more global strategy is. David Chalian, the White House hasn't laid it out yet.

And one thing else I want to add here is when you talk to U.S. service members during the campaign, many, most of whom, were supportive of then candidate Trump, one of the things they said he liked was the idea that he would be more restrained in using U.S. military force overseas. And that was from members, the rank and file of the military. I'm not sure that's what we've seen in office here.

CHALIAN: Right, although these have been limited actions. They're not sort of a big military presence or a complete reversal here from what we may have seen in the past.

I think one of the key things to watch that I think may help us understand the strategy as it develops is, sort of, how the Trump administration and White House responds to the impact of these actions, right, the fallout. What -- if things get -- if things shake up because of the strike in Syria, let's say, how does that new landscape, if there is one, become part of a larger strategy? We don't know the answer to that yet.

One thing I think was interesting, and you saw this yesterday when President Trump was asked about the MOAB. And he said my military has the authority do what it wants, and clearly sort of indicating he doesn't need to say, yes, go, on every single decision. But with that comes a lack of explaining to the American public a broader vision, what that strategy is. We haven't heard Donald Trump sort of address Americans in a serious way about these particular instances and how it fits into a larger vision of how he perceives America should be on the world stage right now.

BERMAN: All right, David, General, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it, guys. An important discussion, something we should hear from the president, hopefully soon.

CNN has learned the conversations with the Trump campaign and associates and the Russians were intercepted by intelligence agencies in Britain and other European countries, though communications were shared with intelligence officials here in the United States. CNN's Pamela Brown live in Washington with this story. Pamela, what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we've learned that British and other European intelligence agencies intercepted communications between Trump associates, Russian officials, and other Russians individuals during the campaign and then passed on those communications to their U.S. counter parts.

This is according to U.S. and European sources talk to myself and my colleague Jim Sciutto, and the various communications captured during routine surveillance of these Russian officials and these other Russians known to western intelligence over the course of several months, we're told.

The British and European intelligence agencies including GCHQ in Great Britain were not proactively targeting any members of the Trump team, these sources say, but rather they picked up these communications during what's called incidental collection, which means monitoring these Russian officials, officials overseas. So that is how this came to light overseas in Europe and then was, of course, shared with U.S. counterparts as part of the Five Eyes agreement, and we've also learned that the FBI is using this information that was passed along as part of its counter-intel probe of possible coordination between Russians and Trump associates. Back to you.

CAMEROTA: OK, Pamela, thank you for all of that information. We'll talk about that very soon.

So was that massive bomb that we just saw in Afghanistan a sign of how the president will ramp up the war on terror? We are talking live to a Republican congressman and veteran Mike Coffman, next.


[08:18:22] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We do have breaking news. We want to show you new video of that massive bomb that hit ISIS targets in Eastern Afghanistan. This is just the latest in a string of military actions taken by President Trump.

Joining us now is Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado. He is a member of the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees and a Marine Corps veteran.

Congressman, good morning.


CAMEROTA: You served in both Iraq wars as a marine, we should say. What do you think of this action we've seen? This is the new video we're just looking at. The MOAB bomb, largest-ever nuclear ordnance used by the U.S. That seems like a lot of fire power to kill 36 terrorists.

What do you think the point of using of this bomb was?

COFFMAN: Well, I think there's a couple points. First of all, I think, number one, to accomplish the mission in what was a very hardened target that would have required quite a few casualties in terms of taking a carve and tunnel complex laden with, or strewn with IEDs.

But there's another element to this, too, and I think it's a signal from the Trump administration to the Taliban and a lot of these ISIS fighters are prior Taliban fighters that just happen to change jerseys.

But the fact is, the Taliban has no desire to negotiate right now. They feel that time is on their side and so, there's no -- there's no peace -- opportunity for peace in Afghanistan without some kind of negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

[08:20:00] And so, I think it's a signal for them to -- that the U.S. is going to, you know, strengthen its resolve to bring this war to a close and for them to come to the table.

CAMEROTA: Is it also a message to North Korea?

As you know, the USS Carl Vinson is heading in that direction to North Korea. That's certainly gotten the attention of North Korea, and they, in fact, released this statement. This was from their foreign ministry, "The U.S. is disturbing the global peace and stability and insisting on the gangster-like logic that its invasion of a sovereign state is divisive, just and proportionate, pushing the situation in the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a war."

How do you interpret their stance?

COFFMAN: Well, first of all, there's no question the use of this MOAB, the largest conventional munition in the U.S. inventory on this particular target, also would send a message to certainly North Korea, China, Russia and Iran, of the narrative that this president is going to be decisive in terms of protecting America's national security interests. And so -- and, obviously, I hope that it, that the president, does some to be moving this direction, putting pressure on China, who really controls the cards in this region in terms of North Korea --

CAMEROTA: Yes, but --

COFFMAN: -- to try and bring peace to this --

CAMEROTA: I mean -- sorry to interrupt you. It doesn't feel like it's deescalating. It feels like it's escalating. If the North tests a nuclear -- does a nuclear test this weekend, or fires a missile, how should the U.S. respond?

COFFMAN: Well, I think -- well, I don't think we should respond in terms of going to war. I think -- I think our concern is that it is, it is another step towards North Korea gaining the capability to not only attack targets within its region but also the United States.

And so, again, I think showing I think resolve from a military perspective all options are on the table, but I think, sending a message to China we are serious. China is North Korea's only true ally, true trading partner and I do think by putting pressure ultimately on North Korea, we can -- it's the only way we can resolve the situation. I mean, with China, it's the only way to resolve this situation with North Korea.

CAMEROTA: Congressman, let put up a map for you of the interaction since President Trump came into the Oval Office, because there are lots of places, hot spots where the U.S. already acted. There is, of course, Syria. There was the strike on the air base there. There was also a terrible friendly fire incident there.

There was Yemen and the failed raid that killed the -- well, I shouldn't say failed raid. The one that went wrong and killed civilians as well as a marine. You see what's happening in Afghanistan. You see what's happening in Somalia. You see what's happening in North Korea.

Is it time for President Trump to consult Congress for permission on some of these things?

COFFMAN: Well, I think if we look at the situation in Syria, he certainly consulted congressional leadership within 48 hours.

I'm looking at tightening up what we call the War Powers Act of 1973 that kind of defines the relationship between the White House, the president as commander-in-chief, and Congress in terms of authorizing military action. But I think the president certainly was within the parameters of current law in what he's done.

CAMEROTA: OK. Congressman Mike Coffman, thank you very much for being with us on NEW DAY this morning.

COFFMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

CAMEROTA: Over to John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thanks, Alisyn.

On the campaign trail, President Trump promised an American-first policy. In just 85 days, he's made several reversals on that vow. Is there a strategy?


[08:28:16] BERMAN: Eighty-five days in and President Trump has ramped up military engagements in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan.

Just this morning, we have this new video that's coming in just minutes ago. This is of that massive bomb, the largest non-nuclear device ever used by Americans in combat. We're told by Afghan officials it killed some three dozen ISIS fighters in Eastern Afghanistan. Effective in that sense.

The bigger question is, what is President Trump's overall military strategy? Does he have one?

Joining us, CNN senior political correspondent, former senator of Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, and former Democratic congressman from New York, and CNN political commentator, Steve Israel.

Senator, I want to start with you here. Does the president have an overarching global strategy right now? And if I had to ask you to explain, could you? RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I would say

overall global strategy number one, as he talked about during the campaign, confronting and defeating radical Islamic terrorism and particularly ISIS. I think that has been his focus, that was his focus, he said he would keep his eye on the ball with respect to that.

And if you look at the actions he's taken, that's taken place in Somalia and in Yemen, and certainly, the bomb that took place in Afghanistan, we've seen a huge rise of activity of ISIS in Afghanistan where we've seen casualties, U.S. casualties. We've seen attacks in Kabul.

This is a growing threat. It's one of those things where the president said, well, things have changed the last eight weeks. Well, it hasn't necessarily been eight weeks, but it has been the last several months during the end of the Obama administration, you saw this rise, and the military commanders have been advising him, Donald Trump is a pragmatic guy. He's not an ideologue and I think they brought the case to him and he said, you know, look, this is -- this is a problem that we need to deal with.

BERMAN: He did say throughout the campaign he would take on ISIS. That's true. He distinctively said he would not take on Bashar al- Assad, and that is something he has done in 10 days.