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Report: State Department, Rex Tillerson in Cone of Silence; Conservative Conference, CPAC Changing in Trump Era; Trump comments on DNC Race. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired February 22, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Usually critics of the Trump administration are pretty quick to attack what is said but right now the spotlight is what's not being said at all. For more than a month as the U.S. floated new terms of Middle East peace, watch North Korea test of a ballistic missile and propose overhaul ties with Russia, the state department has been silent. And as secretary of state Rex Tillerson made his debut on the international stage over two days in Europe he uttered just 50 words to the press. We've go P.J. Crowley who used to serve as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, he wrote the book "Red Line, American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing states." Michelle Kosinski is with us, CNN' senior diplomatic correspondent, welcome to both of you, Michelle, first explain to me, we outlined some of it in the lead but with the extent of the silence at stake is what?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's an unusual situation the fact at times we will get no readout of an important phone call with an ally from the state department but the information will immediately come from the other party. Other countries will give more information there have been days it's easier to get information from government spokespersons out of Russia than it is to get detail and information here. I think usually the statement that we get from the state department is to refer us to the White House for any more detail and information. And it is kind of hit or miss whether the spokespeople will respond to our e-mails or calls, that's been a pretty difficult road there but also the fact that there are no briefings here. Usually, it's a daily occurrence at the state department. I think you have to step back and say OK, Rex Tillerson has only been in his position a couple weeks, he is not somebody who is used to being on camera, there are layers of management, positions like under-secretaries and assistant secretaries, spaces that haven't been filled, and that is going to take some time.

So, I think there's a grace period, but what's not clear is how long this is going to take and does the new state department under the Trump administration care about getting that information not just to the press but ultimately to the American people, and I was at an event last night where there were multiple ambassadors to the U.S. attending and several of them separately came up to me and all asked the same questions, first was what is going on at the state department? Then they asked when are those positions going to be filled? And all of them also cared about the press briefings, that's because briefings aren't just an obligation, they can convey real foreign policy and real details about situations that other countries around the world are watching. So, these are close allies, and they noticed it and clearly want to see it happen.

BALDWIN: Explaining U.S. foreign policy to the world. Michelle, I can only imagine the questions you are getting. P.J., I watched you sort of laugh when she mentioned, we find out some stuff from Russia, it is like are pigs flying. I think we found about the Tillerson trip to Mexico from Mexico. I was reading some of our reporting and one anonymous state department worker told CNN, this whole thing is paralyzing, what kind of confusion is created by this?

[15:35:00] P.J. CROWLEY, FORMER ASST. SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it's a vacuum. And as Michelle said, we might see some activity as early as tomorrow when the secretary is in Mexico, I think there are some press activities planned during that visit, but I think the silence is a second or third order effect of a couple of realities. I don't think that the Trump administration used the transition effectively, they weren't literally prepared to begin to govern on day one, if you contrast that with 2009 when Barack Obama convinced Hillary Clinton to become secretary of state. Part of the deal was that she was able to name her own team and she brought that team from her campaign straight into government and got off to a very, very big start.

I think a second factor is the Obama administration in 2009 said look, outreach is going to be a specific objective of U.S. foreign policy and so all of a sudden you had emissaries from secretary Clinton to George Mitchell in the Middle East to Richard Holbrook on Afghanistan and Pakistan and they were out and about rather quickly connecting or reconnecting the U.S. to the rest of the world. And I think that's where Tillerson I think is you know determined to take a slightly lower profile than some of his immediate predecessors.

But you have the absence of that middle group, the assistant secretaries who actually give depth to the U.S. foreign policy and they themselves are spokespeople. Until you know exactly what your foreign policy is I understand perhaps why the state department has temporarily decided they shouldn't have a briefing because they don't really know what to say.

BALDWIN: I was having a conversation with Tony Blinken whether it is a state of elsewhere, the number two position they are just aren't filled at these agencies. How big of a deal is that Tillerson and President Trump, his entire circle around entirely on the same page?

CROWLEY: I think that's a factor of what's called the deputy's process and in the departure of Mike Flynn now the naming of H.R. McMaster, I think we should see progress in the next 30-45 days but that process actually starts with the deputies and here I think the distinction between the Trump administration and its predecessors is that Donald Trump came in as an anti-establishment candidate. And in doing so he has robbed himself of a lot of the expertise within the Republican Party that to fill these positions and to begin to build traction and momentum for the U.S. foreign policy and at the state department Rex Tillerson wanted to name Elliott Abrams as the deputy secretary of state.

BALDWIN: And told me he thinks it was Steve Bannon who said no. CROWLEY: He would be the link between the Trump administration and

the career foreign service but until you get that kind of senior management position you just have silence from top to bottom and for an ambassador around the world they have really nothing to echo at the present time.

BALDWIN: Sounds like people at the state are saying that the silence is deafening. Thank you so much.

CROWLEY: You're welcome, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Thousands of conservative leaders attending a conference right now with panel discussions like if heaven has a gate, a wall and extreme vetting, why can't America? We will discuss how the annual gathering is changing in an era of President Trump.


BALDWIN: It is an annual boot camp for politicians, snagged the party spotlight today thousands are flocking to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference right outside of Washington, but the itinerary is looking less conservative than previous years and more like they could be transcripts from the President's twitter feed. Here is a sampling. "Fake news and the lame stream media." "Free

trade, fair trade or phony trade?" And "if heaven has a gate, a wall and extreme vetting, why can't America?" Joining me now to talk about this is David Weigel he wrote about this in "The Washington Post". David, how is this a shift from past years?

DAVID WEIGEL, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, it's a much more nationalistic program for CPAC and a list of speakers than we saw in the past, the American Conservative Union puts this on, has policed to some extent what the boundaries of conservatism are. It will have a speech tomorrow morning from a member of the board criticizing the alt-right for example. But in the past Donald Trump was kind of an interloper at this conference. In the straw poll he would get 3 to 4 percent. Last year he bailed on the conference at the last minute and Ted Cruz made fun of him from the stage, there was criticism the way he viewed the world and the way he wanted to turn the party against trade and immigration. And that has kind of gone, there will be some debate about that but the Trump style of politics is now dominant.

BALDWIN: On the speakers, there is sort of a new dynamic emerging when you at this, as you said no to Senator Paul who won the CPAC straw poll three years straight, yes to the Dog, bounty hunter and several editors of Breitbart. Who are the new conservative voices we will actually see?

WEIGEL: Breitbart had been sponsoring the conference for years and this is a not so secret secret, the bigger the sponsor gets the more time they get on stage and Breitbart made this bet on the site, but also had events called the uninvited with foreign policy and immigration backgrounds not allowed to speak they're kind of all on the main stage, Steve Bannon is going to appear for Reince Priebus, Mike Pence is there.

[15:45:00] BALDWIN: Steve Bannon, what do you expect to hear from him?

WEIGEL: He's going to be describing the administration's agenda in the way he's done on the record lots of time, this is going to be pro- America first trade policies, pro-infrastructure, he's going to try the pull I think the Republican messaging, away from this kind of global we can win if we have open markets thinking to something much more I think national. Keep using the word nationalistic, that's the best way to describe them that are going to be front and center this time.

BALDWIN: OK. A new era, a new CPAC, David Weigel, thank you, we will be covering it through the week, thanks so much for excellent reporting at "The Washington Post."

Coming up next as DNC candidates get ready to debate tonight on CNN, President Trump weighing in on one in particular, could it be an endorsement quote unquote? We'll discuss.


[15:50:00] BALDWIN: Tonight, CNN is holding a debate as Democrats to determine who should become a leading voice in their party. I'm talking about the chair of the DNC, the Democratic national committee. Here are the Democrats who want the job, but the only one that got a shout out from the highest office in the land from President Trump is as follows. Let me read his tweet. Quote. "One thing I will say about Congressman Keith Ellison is his fight to lead the DNC is that he was the one who predicted early that I would win, which is true, he did."

Gloria Borger is with me, CNN political chief analyst to walk through this one. Does the President want him? Seems like the President wants him to win.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL CHIEF ANALYST: I don't think the President has much of a say in the matter.

BALDWIN: He doesn't. What's up with the tweet?

Borger: Keith Ellison tweeted back to him and said "my latest call America is coming together like never before well stop your drive to divide us." Take that Donald Trump. I think he's not going to be a factor here. What the Democrats are trying to do, you'll see in our debate tonight is try and figure out who is the best spokesman against Donald Trump for the Democratic party and what kind of politics should that person have. You know, Keith Ellison is to the left.

BALDWIN: He's like left of Bernie.

BORGER: Left of Bernie, right. So, you have Tom Perez, a little bit more centered than Joe Biden wants to represent the party. So, you're going to have to see how that debate shakes out tonight because the chair of the DNC is going to be a really important job over the next four years.

BALDWIN: So, let's just remind everyone because tonight we do have the debate, 10:00 eastern here on CNN, debate moderated by Chris Cuomo and Dana Bash. Stand by because I have more for you, Gloria Borger, another interesting moment here what the white house said when asked whether President Trump and his inner circle are micro managing their cabinet members. We'll be right back.



SEAN SPICER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They're called political appointees for a reason. The idea is that people who come into this government should want to support and enact the President's agenda that he campaigned on with the American people. And I think one of the reasons that you see in recent polls, the President -- people, even if they don't agree with the President, they give him high marks for keeping the promises he's made to the American people and getting things done that he actually said which is not always the case in Washington. We want to make sure the people who staff a Trump administration are committed to a Trump agenda.


BALDWIN: The White House Press Secretary just last hour responding to criticism the White House is micro managing who cabinet secretaries should be choosing as staff. Gloria, you know, Sean Spicer deny, deny, deny. What's the sense, what's the culture in Washington, how does this work?

BORGER: Look, when you were staffing the bureaucracy and you're running the government, you want like-minded people to be a part of your government


BORGER: That's what elections are about. So, that's perfectly fine. What's different to me about this is that there seem to be a lack of trust in your own cabinet members to staff that bureaucracy as you would like.

BALDWIN: Which that's kind of an issue.

BORGER: That would be kind of an issue if you believed, for example, that your cabinet members may not agree with you on all kinds of policy, which we see playing out, whether it's a question of how Rex Tillerson feels about NATO, for example, and so this may be where a lot of the conflict comes in. I mean, normally you would just say to your cabinet people who you think are like minded, just staff it. But there seems to be some kind of a conflict there. And that's what's unusual to me.

BALDWIN: I've got 60 more seconds and I just really want to pick your brain on these town halls. We talked to Republican Congressman from Virginia who disagrees with what the President has tweeted, but also says yes, there are some people there who clearly are there to scream and make noise.


BALDWIN: I talked to people who showed up who feel like there is this big trust gap with members of Congress.

BORGER: To me this is a little bit of Deja vu all over again with the tea party totally. And you remember how the tea party was showing up at town halls.

BALDWIN: And Republicans supported that.

BORGER: And the Democrats were saying, oh, this is organized and it's, you know, it's organized by the Republicans. This is what democracy is about. You have a member of Congress, whether you agree or disagree, you show up at a town hall. There is organized resistance out there and that's what happens in a democracy. And some of the people are showing up because they have real questions to ask and other people are showing up because they want to voice their disagreement with the Congressman.

BALDWIN: Fascinating talking to these people and will to these members of Congress. Gloria, always a pleasure, thank you very much.

BORGER: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Thank you for being with me. I'm broke Baldwin.