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Vice President Mike Pence Speaks to European Leaders Regarding America's Commitment to Trans-Atlantic Alliance; New Information Released on Death of North Korean President's Half-Brother; President Trump Considering Replacement for Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser; Scott Pruitt Confirmed as Head of EPA; New Orleans Celebrates Mardi Gras and NBA All-Star Game. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 18, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Fredericka Whitfield. The Trump administration is seeking to calm the concerns of U.S. allies overseas by rolling out a show of force at the Munich security conference. Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly meeting with world leaders. In a speech earlier today Pence made clear the U.S. will continue to back NATO and stand firm against Moscow.


MIKE PENCE, (R) VICE PRESIDENT: And know this. The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable even as we search for new common ground, which, as you know, President Trump believes can be found.


WHITFIELD: For more now on this I'm joined by CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott and CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance in Moscow. So Elise, you first. Do we know what Vice President Pence meant by "holding Russia accountable"?

ELISE LABBOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: We don't know yet, Fred, but obviously on the minds of a lot of European leaders is whether the United States will keep up the sanctions against Russia for the seizing of Crimea and its actions in eastern Ukraine. You remember last week, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said that the U.S. would keep those sanctions on Russia until it changed behavior, returned Crimea.

But European leaders are remembering back to the campaign when Donald Trump said that he might forget about those sanctions and lift them. So I think they're getting a mixed message from this administration. Clearly in the last few weeks, the tone has definitely hardened against Russia, and I think now people are hungry for more and want to see some actions by this administration. Vice President Pence was short on what type of policies the U.S. would institute. He kind of talked about these broad concepts. Clearly on the Russia file, they're looking for more information.

WHITFIELD: And so Matthew, that hardened tone coming from the vice president and also the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, how is that being received there in Moscow?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. We can add to that the comments made by Sean Spicer a few days ago about Crimea, and President Trump himself tweeting a few days ago that Crimea was taken by Russia and questioning whether the Obama administration was too soft on Moscow.

I mean, this kind of rhetoric coming from the Trump White House is not what the Russians expected from the man they thought was going to thaw the relationship between the United States and Russia. He's spoken, as Elise was just saying, he's spoken about criticizing NATO. He's spoken about working with Russia in terms of fighting international terrorism and cooperating militarily in Syria. He's spoken about the sanctions as well. And the Russian impression was that, or the Russian belief and hope is that this would be the start of a new era in relations between Washington and Moscow. But obviously there are political issues back in the United States. The issue of Russia is and the connections with the Trump administration with the Kremlin is looming over American politics, and it's become apparent to the Russians as it has to everybody else that Trump is simply not going to be able to embark on that election promise and thaw that relationship to the extent that everybody, including people in Russia, thought he was going to be able to.

WHITFIELD: And Elise, the Trump administration is also trying to soothe any concerns, but there are members of Congress, namely, you know, John McCain, who were at that conference, and they have their own messages. This is John McCain.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: I think that the Flynn issue obviously is something that is, shows that in many respects this administration is in disarray and they've got a lot of work to do.


WHITFIELD: All right, so, Elise, what's the translation? Does he carry a little bit more weight than even say the vice president because of his experience in Washington?

LABOTT: Well, but Fred, that was just one part of what he said. He also said don't underestimate America. Don't count America out just yet. And I think Senator McCain is clearly walking a very delicate line. Clearly he has a lot of concerns about some of the chaos that's been going on in the administration, I think, you know, not only about what he was talking about, about Michael Flynn and the fact that there's not a national security advisor, but just the whole Russia issue in general. And I think that he's been carrying water for a lot of Republicans that also have concerns.

But in the larger issues in terms of the Republicans are holding Congress, both parties in Congress right now, and obviously they're trying to work with this president. They want to move forward, but there are clearly some concerns that he's going to continue to raise the red flag not just about Russia but about the relationship with the intelligence community.

[14:00:02] WHITFIELD: And Matthew, right after the election it was evident in many ways that there were a lot of Russians very excited about Trump's win. Has anything changed in 30 days?

CHANCE: I think so. I think there's been quite a dramatic turnaround in the mood that you hear Russians talk about and certainly in the Russian media when they come to talk about the Trump administration, a real sense of disillusionment.

Again, there were champagne corks popping when he was elected president of United States in Russia, but you don't hear those champagne corks anymore, as it were.

Let me just give you an example of that. "Moskovskij Komsomolets," which is a Russian daily newspaper came out today with this headline "It's time for our love affair with Donald Trump to come to an end." The newspaper compared the recent Trump press conference with -- said it was a clown fest with tragic tones. And it says that Trump's plans to improve the relationship with Russia are crumbling before our eyes.

LABOTT: Can I just say something?

CHANCE: -- Russian media but Russian officials as well.

WHITFIELD: Go ahead, Elise.

LABOTT: Fred, quick point. Look, President Trump's gradual about- face on Russia is no different really, if you think about it, than President Bush and President Obama. President Bush came in saying he could see into Putin's soul. President Obama, Secretary Clinton tried to push that famous reset with Russia, and then ultimately, like the relationship, the actions of Russia, like lack of common interests, ended them all up at the same point.

And a lot of foreign oil experts think that, and not just because President Trump is very fickle and he's very transactional, and he wants to see something from Russia too. So a lot of foreign policy experts think that ultimately Donald Trump is going to go the way of President Bush and Obama and judge President Putin on his actions, not just this kind of grand idea of a better relationship.

WHITFIELD: Deja vu, eh? Elise Labott and Matthew Chance, thank you so much.

Coming up, the president narrowing down his picks of who may take on the position of national security advisor. We'll give you a short list after this.


[14:10:56] WHITFIELD: Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says the Trump administration is weighing issuing an alternative version of its much criticized travel ban. Kelly made the comments during a panel discussion at the Munich, Germany, security conference. He says the news order could include a provision that allows people already on planes to enter the U.S. after they land.


JOHN KELLY, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The president is contemplating releasing a tighter, more streamlined version of the first E.O. And we will have this time opportunity, I will have opportunity to work a rollout plan, in particular to make sure that there's no one in a sense caught in the system of moving from overseas to our airports, which happened on first release. So that's where we are in that, David.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So people who have valid visas will be allowed to enter, people with green cards are allowed to enter, I'm assuming.

KELLY: It's a good assumption. And as far as visas go, again, if they're in motion from some distant land to the United States when they arrive, they'll be allowed in. That said, we will have a short phase-in period to make sure that people on the other don't get on airplanes. But if they're on an airplane or inbound, they'll be allowed to enter the country.


WHITFIELD: Still unclear when the Trump administration might issue that amended executive order.

All right, a busy weekend for President Trump. We're just hours away from his campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Florida. We'll bring that to you live as it happens. The president also expected to meet with these potential candidates to head the National Security Council, retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. This comes after the president asked for the resignation of Michael Flynn.

CNN's Washington correspondent Ryan Nobles joining me live now. So Ryan, according to a senior administration official, John Bolton is gaining the support of Trump staffers. Tell us more about these candidates.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think it's safe to say, Fredricka, at this point John Bolton is the frontrunner to replace Michael Kelly as the national security advisor, but these same officials that are telling us that Bolton is rising up the ranks, they're also saying nothing is official until Donald Trump formally makes that decision.

Bolton certainly has the resume for the job, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a former U.S. assistant attorney general. But he is a little controversial. You remember when he was appointed during the Bush administration, it was done through a recess appointment because Democrats were very much opposed to his pick, and he was also a strong supporter of the Iraq war, something that Donald Trump was not a supporter of.

Now Trump is also going to interview two other potential candidates. One of them is the man that's currently in the job, Keith Kellogg. He's serving in an interim basis. He took over after Flynn left that position. And then of course H.R. McMaster is the third candidate. This is someone who is well-respected in the national security community and someone that Donald Trump is going to give an opportunity to state his case.

This is something that Donald Trump wants to get right after everything that happened with Flynn in that position. He doesn't want to make the same mistake and he wants to get the National Security Council back on track in his White House, Fred.

WHITFIELD: Meantime, back to the campaign mode for Donald Trump. What do we know about what might unfold in Melbourne, Florida today?

NOBLES: In many respects, Fredricka, it's going to be like we're looking back in time. This is very much like those campaign rallies that Donald Trump held all through the last 18 months and then even after he won the election. This rally in Melbourne, Florida, this is a place that is filled with Donald Trump supporters. We're expecting a big crowd there, and they will be very supportive of this president, something that he seems to need after what has been a combative couple of weeks in the first part of his administration.

WHITFIELD: Ryan Nobles, thanks so much.

NOBLES: Thank you.

[14:15:00] WHITFIELD: The Environmental Protection Agency welcomes its newly confirmed leader, Scott Pruitt, and in the same news release the agency also included criticism of himself, lawmakers and others, calling the EPA tone deaf, adversarial, and a runaway bureaucracy out of touch. But as Rene Marsh reports, they bigger controversy centers on Pruitt, and it's far from over.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nomination is confirmed.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Scott Pruitt confirmed to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the same agency he fought against as Oklahoma's attorney general. The confirmation coming as Pruitt faces a new court order.

LISA GRAVES, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY: The American people have a right to know what Scott Pruitt is hiding.

MARSH: A watchdog group filed a lawsuit to get access to Pruitt's e- mail communications with the fossil fuel industry. Thursday an Oklahoma district judge ruled Pruitt must turn over 3,000 e-mails by next Tuesday.

GRAVES: He's been hiding information from the Senate and from the American people about the truth of the relationship, how deep his ties go to the industries that he would be basically charge with regulating.

MARSH: He's filed at least a dozen lawsuits against the EPA. And in his confirmation hearing senators revealed Pruitt used Oklahoma state stationary and signed his name to letters drafted by energy lobbyists. Those letters were then sent to federal agencies criticizing environmental regulations. Democrats pushed to delay Pruitt's confirmation vote to allow time to review the e-mails.

CHARLES SCHUMER, (D-NY) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: It's not the worst thing in the world to take a few extra days to properly vet someone who will have immense power.

MARSH: But Senate Republicans refused to delay.

MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: It's pretty clear what's happening. They want to move him as slowly as possible, and on the ones they have deemed controversial, they want to give their leftwing agitators enough time to get up and get organized.

MARSH: Democrats accuse Pruitt of being pro-industry.


MARSH: Pruitt's track record makes him attractive to Trump and Republicans who are desperate to rein in an agency they say is wasting taxpayer dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I get no joy being one of those states at the end of America's tailpipe.

MARSH: From an all-nighter on the Senate floor to protests outside of the EPA and the union urging its EPA members to tell their senators to vote no, despite the resistance, a fresh tweet from the agency, for the first time in weeks, welcoming Scott Pruitt.

I'm Rene Marsh reporting.


WHITFIELD: Still ahead, another twist in the death of the North Korean leader's half-brother. One suspect says she thought the entire thing was a prank. Details on that straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: Here in New Orleans it's Mardi Gras. It's All-Star weekend, and I've got my buddy here Steve Smith, and we've got our all access at the NBA All-Star weekend coming up at 2:30 eastern time. Why is it this weekend, no matter what city, it's become a real cultural event?

[14:20:13] STEVE SMITH, FORMER NBA PLAYER: It is because, one, I think you get a chance to celebrate all our stars in the game. You get a chance to have guys come and just have a fun weekend, and everybody gets a chance to watch basketball at its highest level. And then you talked about it. You add Mardi Gras and the city of New Orleans, this is going to be a big party. WHITFIELD: And already this is a festive city. We were on Bourbon

Street. You can hear the traffic here. This is an exciting place. So there are many reasons to come to New Orleans this weekend.

SMITH: Yes, it is. Like I said, you get a chance to see some fabulous basketball. You get a chance to celebrate Mardi Gras. And for me, it's the food and the music. I'm excited.

WHITFIELD: It's all about the food. Thanks so much, Steve Smith, 2:30 eastern time. We've got you covered for 30 minutes, All-Star weekend.


WHITFIELD: All right, it's a bizarre twist in a high profile murder investigation. One suspect accused of killing the half-brother of North Korea's leader says she thought the entire thing was a prank. And now investigators are trying to figure out who planned to kill Kim Jong-nam at a Malaysian airport earlier this week. CNN's Brian Todd has the latest developments in this case.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A murder case so bizarre that a suspect was captured on surveillance wearing a loud white shirt with "LOL" emblazoned across the front. Now another strange twist in the killing of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong- un. According to Agence France-Presse, one of the suspects, an Indonesian woman, told police she thought she was taking part in a harmless prank as part of a reality TV show. That suspect's mother told Reuters about her daughter being tricked.

BENAH, MOTHER OF SUSPECT: She said she wanted to go to Malaysia for filming on a show to make people surprised by spraying perfume on somebody else.

TODD: According to AFP, an Indonesian police office says at least one of the female suspects in the murder had been paid before to spray a substance in people's faces in public. But this time, he says, there were dangerous materials in the sprayer. Kim Jong-nam got sick while at the airport at Kuala Lumpur this week. Malaysian police told Reuter he felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind, then he got dizzy and asked for help at a counter. He died on the way to the hospital. South Korean officials have called it murder and say he was poisoned.

BRUCE KLINGER, FORMER CIA OFFICER: This perhaps may have been the target of opportunity. He was in Malaysia for a week. He was flying back to Macao. They may have just thought this was the opportunity that they had.

TODD: Now a key question remains. Did Kim Jong-un order the mother of his half-brother? A South Korean intelligence official told lawmakers that the North Korean regime did kill Kim Jong-nam but he didn't explain how he knew it. MICHAEL GREEN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIST AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: It

could palace intrigue. It could be part of a pattern of paranoia and executions that have characterized Kim Jong-un's leadership.

TODD: North Korea's ambassador says Malaysian officials told him Kim Jong-nam died of a heart attack. And in another strange twist, Malaysia now says it will not release the body to North Korea or release the autopsy report without DNA from the Kim family.

There's no word if North Korean officials will supply that DNA, but North Korea's ambassador to Malaysia has demanded the immediate release of the body. North Korean officials also say they will reject the results of what they called the forced autopsy which they say was not witnessed by North Korean officials.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


WHITFIELD: Thanks so much for being with me today. I'm Fredericka Whitfield. All Access at the NBA All-Star weekend, a CNN Bleacher special report happening right now.


WHITFIELD: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredericka Whitfield in the heart of New Orleans. And what a time to be here because this is the NBA All- Star weekend. And of course, it's Mardi Gras, and of course I am with my great buddy here, my favorite NBA All-Star, Steve Smith. What an exciting weekend.