Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Names McMaster for Adviser; Opposition to Pruitt; Release of Pruitt Documents; President Trump talks about Anti-Semitism; Trump Tours African-American Museum. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired February 21, 2017 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:00] RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: Well, that's right, Poppy. I mean one of the things about General McMaster is, he's very, very well respected. He's a decorated combat veteran. He also helped revolutionize the way the Army fought, kind of coming up with this idea of counter insurgency tactics during the Iraq War, which helped form the backbone of the 2007 surge strategy under General David Petraeus. Now that - all of that development, that strategic thinking, earned him a lot of plotits (ph) from his fellow military officers, something that Trump himself eluded to when he made the announcement.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: He's also the author of this book, "Dereliction of Duty." It talks about essentially the failures of military leadership during the Vietnam War, failures, he argues, of being upfront with President Lyndon Johnson about what was really going on. Certainly - certainly controversial. What can we - I know you've been poring through this book now since he was named. What can we glean from him and his leadership and his take on the NSC model from what he wrote?

BROWNE: Well, it's an interesting kind of insight into the way he thinks about this. you know, he wrote the book as a very - as a major, a young officer, but it was a very well-received book. Required reading amongst many military officers. And one of the things it talks about is the failure of the military to advise President Johnson and President Kennedy properly about the failures of the Vietnam War.

One thing he looks at in particular was how those NSC's, how those National Security Councils operated under those two presidents. And he was very critical of the fact that both Kennedy and Johnson's National Security Councils relied heavily on trusted political advisers and not military advisers.

HARLOW: Right.

BROWNE: So interesting to see how he approaches dealing with some of the political advisers now that he's joining the Trump NSC.

HARLOW: Well, and now that you have Steve Bannon sitting as a political figure on the National Security Council.

BROWNE: Right.

HARLOW: Thank you very much. Ryan Browne at the Pentagon for us this morning.

And as Ryan just mentioned, Lieutenant General McMaster is getting a big boost of confidence from folks on both sides of the aisle this morning. Senator John McCain, who has needless to say had a tense history with the president, tweeted out this this morning, calling McMaster a man of genuine intellect, character and ability.

Let's go to our military analysts, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

It is nice to have you on the program. And I want to take a little walk down memory lane and listen to what the president said about generals while he was campaigning.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me. I would bomb the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) out of them.


HARLOW: All right, he also said that the generals had been, quote, "reduced to rubble." But now, colonel, if you look at the picture around him, he has a general as national security adviser, he's got retired General James Mattis as secretary of defense, he's got retired General John Kelly heading up Homeland Security, and Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg serving as the chief of staff for the National Security Council. He is someone who said he knew more than the generals. Now he's got a lot of them around him. What do you make of that?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think a dose of reality has set in, that he doesn't know more about than the generals about ISIS or how to run the military, and he needs the advice of the senior officers. And I think it's very good that he's done that because a lot of people, a lot of military officers were a little concerned with his lack of experience in running a government and running the military. So he's surrounded himself with good people. It kind of ameliorates some of the angst that some of the officers were feeling. So I think it's a good thing. And I - General McMasters is an excellent choice for this position for all the reasons that you and Ryan were talking about.

HARLOW: Well, we've also learned from those who have served with him and what he's written, I mean, this is someone who is very candid. He has a loud voice. This is not someone who will be shy about making his opinions heard. How do you expect that he leading - you know, being national security adviser, leading the NSC, will jive with a Steve Bannon sitting on it?

FRANCONA: Well, you know, this is a really key point because since he is a three-star general, that's a senior office in the Army.

HARLOW: Yes. FRANCONA: But in the - you know, among the cabinet officers with whom he's going to deal, you know, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense technically are the - are more senior than the national security adviser. He's going to have to finesse his relationship with that.

I think the biggest challenge, though, as you say, will be getting along with Mr. Bannon because this is a different structure than we've normally seen. We - most of the time the National Security Council keeps politics out of this and focuses strictly on national security. When you start looking at it through a political lens, that gets very troublesome. And General McMaster does not suffer fools lightly. And I'm not calling Mr. Bannon a fool. But he - you know, he has a certain idea of what he wants to do and he's going to have to press forward with that. As we know from his writings and from his conduct as a military officer, he does speak truth to power and I think that's a quality that the president needs right now.

HARLOW: Right. Right.

So how do you think - I mean "The New York Times" has an interesting segment in their write on this this morning. Let me read this. "His task now will be to take over a rattled and demoralized National Security Council apparatus that bristled at Mr. Flynn's leadership and remains uncertain about its place in the White House given the foreign policy interests of Bannon, former Breitbart news chairman, who is the president's chief strategist."

[09:35:20] Morale. When it comes to what the president has said about intelligence agencies, et cetera, when it comes to the, you know, the fact that the NSC was led by one guy, General Flynn, for three weeks, now he's out. Then the next pick said no to the president. Now this third pick comes in. How does he boost morale?

FRANCONA: Well, by probably leadership by example. But he brings with him a great reputation. And I think people will rally around him. As I said, though, the big challenge will be, how does he get along with the political side of this equation? If he can just stick to the national security and bolster that, I think we'll be in good shape. I think he's the right guy.

You bring up a good point, though. Being active duty, he really couldn't say no to the president.

HARLOW: Right.

FRANCONA: I was surprised that Admiral Harward refused the position and I think it had something to do with this kind of convoluted structure we have right now with the politics intruding into national security decisions.

HARLOW: All right, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, nice to have you on.

Still to come for us, a town hall in Virginia Beach gets loud as protesters shout at their local lawmakers. That's nothing compared to what happened outside.


[09:40:50] HARLOW: Today the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, begins his first day running this agency. What's so interesting about him is he's now running an agency that he has sued more than a dozen times as attorney general in Oklahoma.

Just over two hours from now, he will address employees and not necessarily going to be a warm welcome from all. Why do I say that? Because last week nearly 800 former EPA workers signed a letter urging the Senate to vote down Pruitt, to not confirm him. That, of course, did not happen. He is set to lead this agency starting today. Many of his critics arguing he's too cozy with big oil and coal and gas companies. And they have also demanded the release of e-mails with those companies and to lobbyists that happened as attorney general before he was confirmed. Today is the deadline for that release if we're going to see them.

Our Rene Marsh is following all of this for us.

Good morning, Rene.

Talk to me about what kind of EPA Scott Pruitt is walking into today?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVT. REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I can tell you that he's walking into not very friendly territory. He is the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who will be speaking to employees at around noon today. But as we saw over the last several weeks, we've seen EPA employees rallying against him. Last week the labor union that represents the agency's employees actually urged members to call senators to vote against Pruitt. And you just mentioned up there at the top, nearly 800 former EPA workers signed a letter urging senators to vote no to Pruitt.

So if you're an environmentalist today, today marks the beginning on an all-out attack on the EPA. But if you're from an energy producing state or you're a part of the fossil fuel industry, today marks the road to recovery. Coal country, for example, has blamed over regulation for stunting economic growth. And under Pruitt we do expect to start seeing some of those regulations being eased, Poppy.

HARLOW: Let - OK. And, you know, a lot of Trump supporters that we talked to across the country have said, we want these regulations eased. We want more coal production, et cetera, because of jobs. Obviously there's the balance with the environment on that one. But very controversial in his confirmation, Rene, was these e-mails. I mean what he had done, the work he had done with lobbyist, et cetera, on behalf of big coal and big oil as attorney general there. Are we going to ever see those, because I know the deadline to get some of those released is today?

MARSH: Right. So the deadline is today. The Center for Media and Democracy, they are the watchdog group that actually filed the lawsuit. They requested to see those e-mails while he was Oklahoma's attorney general about two years ago. They said that their request was ignored. And so last week we saw a district judge in Oklahoma come out and order Pruitt to release those e-mails. And within those e-mails is his communications between the energy industry and Scott Pruitt as attorney general.

So I just spoke with the Center for Media and Democracy, again, the individuals who filed this lawsuit. They say unless the attorney general's office files a stay pending an appeal, they do expect to get those e-mails released, over 2,500 of them, by close of business today. And, of course, that will be public. We can start going through it. And, of course, that agency - that watchdog group will start going through it. So we'll start to see what, if anything, interesting is within those e-mails.


HARLOW: Yes, you'll bring us that reporting when they're released. Rene, thank you. We appreciate it.

[09:44:29] Coming up, you're going to want to stay with us because the president just sat down for an interview and he talked about this wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks. What the president said on the other side of this break.


HARLOW: All right, let's get straight to Joe Johns at the White House because President Trump has just sat down for an interview with MSNBC addressing this wave of anti-Semitism attacks across the country. He did this interview while visiting the National Museum of African- American History and Culture there in Washington.

Joe, what did the president say?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you know, Ivanka Trump has addressed this, as well as Hillary Clinton in tweets this morning. And the president, using the occasion of traveling and visiting over at the African-American museum, which is just a short distance away, to make some rather extensive comments on the issue of anti-Semitism. So let's just listen to it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will tell you that anti-Semitism is horrible, and it's going to stop, and it has to stop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you're denouncing now, once and for all?

TRUMP: Oh, of course. And I do it - wherever I get a chance I do it. It's just age old. It's - there is something going on that doesn't allow it to fully heal. Sometimes it gets better and then it busts apart. But we want to have it get very much better, get unified, and stay together.

[09:50:09] But you've seen it where oftentimes it will get much better and then it blows up. And part of the beauty of what you're doing here with the museum and the success of the museum - the success is very important because it's doing tremendous numbers. Tremendous numbers of people are coming in. I think that really helps to get that divide and bring it much closer together, if not perfect.

We have to have a safe country. We have to let people come in that are going to love the country. This is about love. This building is about love. And we have to have people come in that are going to love the country, not people that are going to harm the country. And I think a lot of people agree with me on that.

So we'll have various things coming out over a period of time. And you'll see them as they come out. And we'll let you know exactly what they are. But we have to let people come in that are going to be positive for our country.


JOHNS: Interesting the president making those comments at the African- American history museum, which opened just last September here in Washington, D.C. There's another big museum which was the last sensation, if you will, the Holocaust Museum.

HARLOW: Right.

JOHNS: And the president also said that he intends to visit there as well.


HARLOW: All right, so, Joe Johns, stick around for me a little bit as we look at that empty podium, soon to be filled by the president. He is expected to make remarks. We weren't sure if we were going to hear from him this morning but h will make remarks after touring this Museum of African-American History and Culture.

But, Joe Johns, a lot of context here that's important, right? First of all, the fact that he has not yet met with the Congressional Black Caucus after they sent that letter to him with a number of recommendations back on January 19th, and then his controversial exchange with a reporter, April Ryan, last week during the press conference saying, you know, do you want to set up the meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, et cetera.

JOHNS: Sure. Yes. This is kind of rough stuff, but it's at the early part of an administration. It was pretty clear from Congressman Cummings that he'd like to meet with the president and many other members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well. April Ryan, who is something of a fixture here at the White House, has been here for a long time, making it clear that it's not her job as a journalist to set up meetings between politicians and the president of the United States.

So certainly awkward, but perhaps the beginning of a dialogue between the president and some African-American leaders in the country to try to get the ball rolling on some of the issues the president says he wants to do. HARLOW: Right. Right. I mean this is - this is what he largely

campaigned on in inner cities saying, you know, his words, what do you have to lose? Vote for me. Trying to get more African-American voters on board to support his - his candidacy. The question now becomes, what is he going to do as command-in-chief to implement those promises that he made on the campaign trail. He did meet and mark National Black History Month by meeting with some of his supporters on the campaign who are African-Americans, including Ben Carson, Omarosa Manigault, the former "Apprentice" contestant who now works at the White House. However, that meeting, Joe, did not include leaders of the NAACP or members of the National Urban League, something else the president was criticized for.

JOHNS: Right. And add to that, I don't think we've talked too much about it because it was sort of forgotten in the run-up to the inauguration, but there was also that dust-up with the civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis -

HARLOW: Right. Of course.

JOHNS: Who indicated that in his view this was not a legitimate presidency or words to that effect because of questions about Russian interference. And the president responding essentially that John Lewis was all talk.

HARLOW: Right.

JOHNS: So that came right around the middle of January, which, by the way, was about the time the White House was - actually the incoming president, the Inauguration Committee, was getting ready for President Trump to be inaugurated. And at the same time, he was thinking about coming to the museum. But that date got changed, we're told, because of the Secret Service saying it wasn't secure enough to do it on such short notice. So that -

HARLOW: Joe Johns, stay with -

JOHNS: It's a big swirl.

HARLOW: Oh, I apologize for interrupting you. Stay with me.

Let's bring in our colleague, Mark Preston, who also joins us from Washington as we await the president.

We've gotten what they call, Mark, the two-minute warning. So the president could walk out at any moment.


HARLOW: But what do you expect to hear? We just heard a little bit of what he said to MSNBC talking about the importance of - the symbolic importance of this museum and many people coming to it. We heard him address this wave of anti-Semitism across the country. But after the dust-up to April Ryan in that exchange at the press conference last week, what do you expect to hear from the president after this tour of the museum today on these issues? PRESTON: Well, you know, very likely, Poppy, he will be more subdued

in his tone and discussing the symbolism of the African-American museum. There's a lot of controversy actually about where that was going to be placed along the mall when it was being built. I man Joe and I had covered that several years ago.

[09:55:14] But I think you are going to hear Donald Trump be a little bit more softer in his delivery in how he says things. I do think we will hear him talk about, you know, the anti-Semitism, this wave of anti-Semitism we've seen, you know, going across the country.

You know, in many ways this is an easy layup for Donald Trump, for him to come out there and to talk about, you know, Black History Month, the contributions of African-Americans to this nation. And, quite frankly, if he's smart, he will try to tie some of his economic policies and what he's trying to do with infrastructure, building across the country into creating more jobs.

HARLOW: OK. Mark, let me - stay with me. We're watching as the president is walking in, along with Ivanka Trump, Ben Carson and his wife, Senator Tim Scott. Let's listen to the president.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, everybody. It's a great honor to be here. This was some beautiful morning and what a job they've done, like few others have been able to do.

I am very, very proud of Lonnie Bunch. The work and the love that he has in his heart for what he's done is - I always talk about you need enthusiasm, you need really love for anything you do to do it successfully. And Lonnie, you are where? Come on. Where's Lonnie. You should be up here, Lonnie, come on. And, David, we have to get David up here, too. David Skorton is tremendous and he was singing Lonnie's praises all morning long. So you two should at least be here. So we appreciate it very much.

And David Rubenstein, who's here someplace. He is - come on, David. You have to get up here, David. You certainly deserve it. He's a very, very successful guy who spends money doing great things. And he's been a great help to so many different groups. And this one in particular.

Thank you. It's a privilege to be here today. This museum is a beautiful tribute to so many American heroes.

Heroes like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, the Greensboro students and the African- American Medal of Honor recipients, among so many other really incredible heroes. It's amazing to see.

I went -- we did a pretty comprehensive tour, but not comprehensive enough. So Lonnie, I'll be back, I told you that because I could stay here for a lot longer, believe me. It's really incredible. I'm deeply proud that we now have a museum that honors the millions of African- American men and women who built our national heritage, especially when it comes to faith, culture and the unbreakable American spirit. My wife was here last week and took a tour, and it was something that

she's still talking about. Ivanka is here right now and it really is very, very special. It's something that frankly if you want to know the truth, it's doing so well that everybody's talking about it. I know President Obama was here for the museum's opening last fall and I'm honored to be the second sitting president to visit this great museum.

Etched in the hall that we passed today is a quote from Spottswood Rice, a runaway slave who joined the Union Army. He believed his fellow African-Americans always looked to the United States as the promised land of universal freedom. Today and every day of my presidency, I pledge to do everything I can to continue that promise of freedom for African-Americans and for every American. So important, nothing more important.

This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.

TRUMP: I want to thank a great friend of mine, Dr. Ben Carson, and his beautiful family, Candy and the whole family, for joining us today. It was very special to accompany him and his family for the first time seeing the Carson exhibit. The first time. I love this guy. He's a great guy, really a great guy. And he can tell you better than me, but I'll tell you what, we really started something with Ben. We're very, very proud of him.