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Vice President Pence Answers Question During NATO Trip. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired February 20, 2017 - 10:30   ET


[10:30:00] JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: And we need a strong cooperation between NATO and the European Union, and we welcome the very strong U.S. support for that approach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next question, Ken Thomas, the Associated Press.

KEN THOMAS, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. I wanted to ask you about the dismissal of general Flynn recently. Did you feel like you were misled by members of the Trump administration or were you frustrated that you were left out of the loop on this situation? And what assurances have you received from President Trump that something like this will not happen again?

And for Mr. Secretary-General, both you and the Trump administration have talked about the need for additional funding for defense. What are the consequences for inaction by NATO members? Is there any scenario in which -- in which the Article 5 commitments might be considered conditional if NATO members do not fulfill their defense spending obligations?


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me say, I'm very grateful for the close working relationship I have with the president of the United States. And I would tell you that I was disappointed to learn that the facts that had been conveyed to me by General Flynn were inaccurate. But we honor General Flynn's long service to the United States of America and I fully support the president's decision to ask for his resignation.

It was the proper decision, it was handled properly and in a timely way. And I have great confidence in the National Security team of this administration going forward. The combination of our -- of Secretary Mattis, of Director Pompeo at the CIA, of Secretary Kelly at Homeland Security, I think gives the American people great confidence that the team in this administration is providing the leadership and the direction to those agencies and also to the president of the United States to advance the security of our people.

STOLTENBERG: Our collective defense clause, our collective defense commitment is unconditional. It's absolute. And it's the core of the NATO alliance. And I welcome the latest strong commitment of the United States to this transatlantic bond and to this collective defense clause. At the same time, I fully support what has been underlined by President Trump and by Vice President Pence today, the importance of burden sharing. And I think we have to remember that this is not only something that the U.S. is asking for.

It's actually something that 28 allies agreed, leaders from 28 NATO allied countries sat around the same table in 2014 and agreed to stop the cuts, to gradually increase defense spending, and to meet the 2 percent target within a decade. And the good news is that we are moving in the right direction. After many years of decline, after many years of defense cuts across Europe and Canada, we saw that in 2015 we stopped the cuts the first year after we made the pledge, and then in 2016, we have a significant increase of 3.8 percent in real terms or $10 billion.

There is a long way to go. Much remains to be done. But at least we have turned a corner and we have started to move in the right direction. I am encouraged by that. And I expect all allies to make good on the promise that we made in 2014 to increase defense spending and to make sure to have a fairer burden of sharing.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes. A question to the vice president and to secretary-general. The Germany Foreign minister has called the 2 percent goal too ambitious and said that more spending would not necessarily lead to more security. Are you disappointed by that and what would be the consequence if a country like Germany would not hold up to the 2 percent goal? And the question to the vice president, if I may, President Trump has repeatedly talked about his war with the press. Since NATO is an alliance of values, can you assure the allies that the freedom of press is not under threat in the United States? Thank you.

STOLTENBERG: All allies have committed to the defense investment, meaning to stop the cuts and to start to increase. And that also includes Germany. And it has also been expressed from Germany that they are committed to the defense investment pledge we made together in 2014.

[10:35:07] The good thing is that Germany has started to increase defense spending. In 2017 there will be a significant increase in German defense spending, around or by -- around 8 percent. So of course Germany, as many other allies, have a long way to go. And some allies will meet the 2 percent target within a year or two. Romania declared last week that they will meet the 2 percent target this year. Lithuania and Latvia will soon be able to meet the 2 percent target also within a year or two.

So we are really making progress. Germany has started to increase defense spending. And again, I expect all allies to keep the pledge they made together as leaders in 2014.

PENCE: Let me say again, the president and I, our administration are very grateful to the secretary-general's focus on burden sharing and for our NATO allies, whether it be Germany or other countries, to meet the commitment that treaty allies made to one another. I think it's a demonstration of President Trump's leadership that before taking office, he was speaking about the fact that the United States provides more than 70 percent of the cost of NATO today, and we are committed to continue to do our part, but that the time has come for our NATO allies to step forward. And the secretary-general's strong message on this is in all of our collective interests.

I will tell you that I had very productive discussions with Chancellor Merkel. We spoke about just this issue. And we look forward to a continued dialogue. Our hope is that we will have a date very soon where Chancellor Merkel will come to the White House. I expect the president will talk with her about it as well. But this is simply about all of us doing what we all said we would do, to provide for our common defense. And in the ever changing threat environment in which we live, that's more important now than ever.

Now, with regard to your second question, rest assured both the president and I strongly support a free and independent press. But you can anticipate that the president and all of us will continue to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts. And the truth is we have in President Trump someone who has a unique ability to speak directly to the American people. And when the media gets it wrong, I promise you, President Trump will take his case straight to the American people to set the record straight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next question, Julian Barnes with "The Wall Street Journal."

JULIAN BARNES, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Mr. Vice president, over here. You said the U.S. commitment to the EU was steadfast and enduring. Is the administration opposed to further disintegration of the EU, further countries exiting? And on NATO, what is the "or else"? If there isn't more defense spending this year, would you recommend cutting the European Reassurance Initiative? Would you cut back on exercises? What's the "or else"?

PENCE: I think your second question is a very fair one. What is the "or else"? I think when Secretary Mattis was here, he spoke very plainly here at NATO's headquarters about the frustration of the American people that as our country continues to make investments in Europe's security, we see European countries falling behind. The president really put this issue front and center before the American people in his campaign for president, and frankly it struck a very resonant chord.

And so I don't know what the answer is to "or else," but I know that the patience of the American people will not endure forever, that the commitment that we have made to one another, that the American people are keeping with the people of Europe and NATO, is a commitment that the president of the United States and the American people expect our allies in Europe to keep as well. And -- but failing that, questions about the future we'll just leave in the future as hypotheticals.

But I have to tell you, the secretary-general's strong leadership, having made the issue of burden sharing his top priority, having a partnership with so many countries across NATO who in my meetings over this weekend have expressed a desire to step forward and keep their word, I'm very encouraged about the progress. What you see happening here is in a very real sense the result of American leadership. [10:40:03] In President Trump we have a president who is stepping

forward. He's expressing American leadership not just on -- not just on the issue of funding, but also on his call last year that NATO should evolve to widen its tactics to include counterterrorism as a major focus. And NATO has begun to do that. The United States looks forward to supporting that.

With regard to the European Union, my message very simply was that the United States is committed to continuing our partnership with the European union. And I wanted to make that very clear. We understand the relationship between our economies. We understand the deep heritage of member states in the European Union with people in the United States of America, looking for ways that we could reassure this weekend leaders of the European Union of our commitment to ongoing cooperation and maintaining that partnership in the years ahead is hopefully a resonant message that came through. And it was my great privilege to be here to deliver it.

STOLTENBERG: Let me just add that the focus of the alliance is on how can we make sure that we succeed in delivering on what we agreed about fair burden sharing and increased defense spending. And therefore I will not speculate so much about "or else," what will happen if we don't succeed. But we heard a very firm and clear message from the United States, we have heard it from the president, we heard it from the vice president, and from Secretary Mattis at the defense ministers meeting. So I think that just underlines the importance of making sure that we move, that we succeed in increasing defense spending across Europe and Canada. And the good thing is that we started 3.8 percent real increase in 2016 is a significant step, but there is only one step in the right direction. We need much more.

Let me also add that we need both to spend more but we also need to spend better. So the focus of the alliance, the focus of the defense ministers, but also in cooperation with the European Union, is how can we increase efficiency, how can we develop cooperation, how can we make sure that we address the fragmentation of especially the European defense industry so we can reduce costs and get more out of what we invest in our defense.

But there is no way we can choose between either spend more or better. We need to spend both more and better. So what we committed in 2014 was not either to spend more or to spend better, but it was to spend 2 percent of GDP in a better way. And we are doing both things and we are moving forward on both tracks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you very much. This concludes this press point. Thank you.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. There you have a very headline- making press conference, a joint presser between NATO Secretary- General Jens Stoltenberg and the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence.

A few headlines for you here. NATO's secretary-general saying that the United States has made a clear commitment to NATO but that Europe needs to do more in the alliance. The vice president saying, of course we have our differences on some points but strong support of President Trump is clear on NATO. He also talks about the crucial role that the alliance plays in preserving peace.

A very key question, though, that the vice president was asked about other topics, and we'll get to all of that with our panel now. Let's bring back in our political commentator Kevin Madden, also with us now is Paul Bonicelli, he is a former foreign policy adviser to President George W. Bush. Joining us is CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and our Jeff Zeleny, our senior White House correspondent.

Jeff Zeleny, let me begin with you. Some very key questions to the vice president there about the media of course but I think the key one was, who should European leaders listen to, you saying you are committed to the NATO alliance, or the president, who in the past has called NATO obsolete?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Poppy, that was really the first time the vice president has been asked that on a world stage, world setting.

I'm not sure that there was a clear answer to that. He said that the president supports NATO in its broad outlines here and that they -- he was trying to suggest that he of course serves at the pleasure of the president and they can believe the president. But I'm not sure that it was as crisp an answer as perhaps that reporter wanted.

But, Poppy, I think a headline as well, the vice president for the very first time talking about General Flynn and that entire episode of his abrupt resignation last week.

[10:45:04] It was because General Flynn apparently lied to the vice president or certainly didn't tell him the truth. And the vice president said for the first time, "I was disappointed to learn the facts conveyed to me were inaccurate," and said, "I fully support the resignation there." So that is something also headline-making that he said this morning in Brussels -- Poppy.

HARLOW: And for our viewers who may have missed that moment, because it is a critical one, let's listen to it.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I wanted to ask you about the dismissal of General Flynn recently. Did you feel like you were misled by members of the Trump administration or were you frustrated that you were left out of the loop on this situation? And what assurances have you received from President Trump that something like this will not happen again?

PENCE: Let me say, I'm very grateful for the close working relationship I have with the president of the United States, and I would tell you that I was disappointed to learn that the facts that had been conveyed to me by General Flynn were inaccurate. But we honor General Flynn's long service to the United States of America, and I fully support the president's decision to ask for his resignation. It was proper decision. It was handled properly and in a timely way.

And I have great confidence in the national security team of this administration going forward. The combination of our -- of Secretary Mattis, of Director Pompeo at the CIA, the Secretary Kelly at Homeland Security, I think gives the American people great confidence that the team and this administration is providing the leadership and the direction to those agencies and also to the president of the United States to advance the security of our people.


HARLOW: Jeff, just to be clear, this is the first time that anyone from the White House is actually saying essentially that former National Security adviser Michael Flynn lied to the vice president.

ZELENY: Exactly, Poppy, this is the first time that he has talked about it and he said he was disappointed to learn this. And I am told that his anger actually at the time was far hotter than that. The vice president was speaking in a very measured way, as we would expect him to, of course, on the world stage. But it is my understanding based on reporting here that the reason that General Flynn was asked to resign was because the vice president was as mad as he has ever been, he feels like he was lied to, and he was also left out of the loop.

But, Poppy, it is an open question, and it raises a question to what their relationship is. Every president and vice president of course have to work through their relationships here. And this showed that the vice president was simply not brought in on this by the president. What we don't know is if that will change going forward here. But that is certainly something interesting worth watching.

HARLOW: Paul Bonicelli, glad you're with us. Your experience in the Bush White House as foreign policy adviser, let me get your take on that key question out of the gate from that first reporter to be called on from the BBC, said, look, Europe is confused, who should European leaders listen to, what you're saying about NATO and the U.S.'s strong commitment to it, or, you know, the president, who has on the multiple occasions called NATO obsolete and called into question how much the U.S. is contributing to NATO? Do you feel like we got an answer from the vice president on that one?

PAUL BONICELLI, FORMER FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER FOR PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I do. Because I hope they listen to both. I hope they do what all of us in America are doing, which is understanding a different kind of president. We saw him through the 18 months of the campaign, we see him as president, and we see two things. We see him as a negotiator who lays down and sets the table the way he wants it, but he backs away from the most -- the furthest point he had, like any negotiator does, because he's trying to what was really his optimum.

So he has said what he said about NATO, and I believe he's cleared that he believes that it's a worthy --

HARLOW: But sir --

BONICELLI: -- organization that we have a role to play.

HARLOW: But, Paul, it's clear from that reporter's question and our reporting that European leaders are not clear on, you know, where this White House stands when it comes to how solid their commitment is to NATO because the president has used words like "obsolete," I mean, you heard Ohio Governor John Kasich on this network just yesterday saying that's what he's hearing from European leaders. That they don't have that clarity,

If you're advising this president just as you did former President Bush, would you tell him we need to be more clear, you need to be on more of the Mike Pence page on our commitment to NATO?

BONICELLI: I probably wouldn't tell him he needs to be more on his vice president's page. I actually do not think that there is an unclear message. I think the message from the president is, I want change, I want Europe to pay more, but we are not un-commitment to NATO, we are committed to NATO. We just need it to perform in a way that's greater -- that's more on the U.S. interest.

HARLOW: Barbara Starr, to you at the Pentagon. I mean, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, brought up Article 5 which of course states that any attack on an ally is an attack on one of us in the NATO alliance, and noted the first and only time it has been invoked is to help the United States after 9/11.

[10:50:15] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, that's right. And I guess as a reporter covering all this, I'm a little puzzled at times. Because either you have an unshakeable commitment to NATO or you have one that's vulnerable and shaky. There isn't a lot of in between. And I think one of the things that wasn't answered at this press conference is the what-if, the what-else.

So if these nations don't come up to the full 2 percent gross domestic product spending on NATO, which is the requirement that NATO agreed to some years ago, long before the President Trump presidency, what is going to happen? Is there going to be some shake in that U.S. commitment? Is there a suggestion that NATO becomes a pay-for-play kind of operation?

I don't think there is at this point. I think that the secretary- general made what is perhaps the key point. This whole debate about NATO spending has in fact been going on for years. The debate about NATO getting into terrorism operations, terrorism analysis, has been going on for years. None of this is new. NATO inside the alliance has been working away at it. Mr. Trump certainly highlighted it on the world stage. It plays to his political base.

But it's really up to NATO now. And I think the secretary-general was very strong in making that point. The problem for the president, he has to demonstrate whether it is an unshakeable commitment on the part of the U.S.

HARLOW: Well, Kevin Madden, to you, because Barbara's right, I mean, the Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg did come out and say, you know, it's been very clear to me, the president has made very clear to me his commitment to NATO, and that is what the vice president said. But those are not the words that the president has used publicly about NATO.

Do you see it as Paul Bonicelli sees it, as a negotiating tactic by the president, or do you see a real divide here between what the vice president is saying and how the president feels?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's a little bit of both. I disagree with Paul on whether or not there has been clarity. I noticed that the vice president kept saying over and over, reassure, reassure, reassurance. And I think that is because all parties recognize that there is a great deal of skepticism by many of our NATO allies about what the president has said publicly about the commitment to and the efficacy of NATO.

So there seemed to be a hypersensitivity there, just as there was, and this is where I think Paul is right, is that the secretary-general of NATO, Secretary General Stoltenberg, was constantly coming back to the point about how NATO is and will continue to press on with meeting the GDP threshold obligations. So clearly that is now a front and center.

Barbara is right, it has been talked about in the past, but it's clearly now front and center both amongst our NATO allies as well as here domestically. I think one of the last points I'd make, though, is that, you know, a NATO alliance is only as good as its weakest members and it's only as good as its weakest -- as only as strong as its weakest commitment. That was where I think some of the headlines are going to be made in Europe, was this reference to the "or else."

There has to be a greater commitment or a greater sense of understanding that the U.S. is unwavering in its commitment to NATO if we're going to address some of that skepticism that our allies have.

HARLOW: Yes. All right, and before we go, Jeff Zeleny, just back to you at the White House, because another question that was asked, a critical question, when it comes to, you know, American democracy, is what the German reporter asked, can you ensure, to the vice president, the freedom of the press is not under attack in your country? Your thoughts, Jeff.

ZELENY: Well, I think the vice president said -- he said the president and I support a free press but then went on to say the press has to be accurate. And, you know, he's said that the president has a unique ability to speak to his supporters. So look, the vice president as we've seen for a long time --

HARLOW: He said, Jeff, when the press is playing, quote, fast and loose with the facts.

ZELENY: Right, exactly. So -- but then he went also on to say, that look, the president communicates with his own supporters. The translation of all this is, the bottom line, Poppy, the vice president cannot control what the president says, what he sends out on social media, other things. Mike Pence is a former radio announcer. He has been in the press.

He's actually supported some press shield laws and other things in Congress and in Indiana as governor. He cannot speak for the president there. So this is something I think that's squarely on the president, who started all of this by saying the press is the enemy of the American people.


ZELENY: But now you're seeing why it matters.


ZELENY: Because the vice president is being asked this on the world stage, Poppy.

[10:55:03] HARLOW: Absolutely. In a press conference where only four or five questions were asked, that was a key one that that reporter chose to ask something that is top of mind, of course, for our allies, as well. He made clear.

Guys, thank you all very much for being here for this breaking news, Jeff Zeleny, Barbara Starr, Kevin Madden and Paul Bonicelli, we appreciate it.

Thank you all for joining me. I'll see you back here tomorrow morning. "AT THIS HOUR WITH KATE BOLDUAN" begins after a quick break.


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Ana Cabrera in for Kate Bolduan. Great to have you with us.

We begin with some breaking news, Vice President Mike Pence has just spoken publicly about the resignation of National Security adviser Michael Flynn after it became public that Flynn had misled the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

Now here's the vice president speaking just moments ago in Brussels.


PENCE: I was disappointed to learn that the facts that had been conveyed to me by General Flynn were inaccurate.