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Tillerson: Military Action 'An Option' Against North Korea; White House Angrily Defends Trump's Wiretap Claim. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2017 - 07:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. Alisyn is off. Poppy Harlow is with me.

[07:00:10] We do have breaking news. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivering a strong warning in Asia. America's top diplomat says the U.S. is prepared to take military action against North Korea if they continue to escalate their nuclear program.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And this is all coming as the Trump White House is distracted by the president's unproven wiretapping claims and battling resistance to his budget plan and to the Republican health care plan, which now may not have enough Republican votes to make it through the House.

A lot going on on this day 57 of the Trump presidency. Let's begin this hour with our Alexandra Field. He is live in Seoul, South Korea, with the breaking details on what the secretary of state said.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, it is no secret that North Korea has rapidly accelerated their missile and nuclear development program.

The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, went to the North Korean border, the Demilitarized Zone, that very heavily fortified border, just this afternoon here in South Korea. And he returned to Seoul just a short while ago, saying that the security threats posed by North Korea are no longer just a regional concern. They are a top security concern for the U.S.

He says that old approaches have not worked. Twenty years of approaches have not worked. It is time for a new policy toward North Korea, and he would not exclude the possibility of a military option being on the table.

He says that, if North Korea threatens U.S. or South Korean forces on the peninsula, that there could be a military option. He also said that, if they continue to accelerate their nuclear and missile program to an extent that could threaten South Korea, that the military option would also be on the table.

However, he did say that other steps would be taken first. Listen to this.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The policy of strategic patience has ended. We're exploring a new range of diplomatic security and economic measures. All options are on the table.


FIELD: From here Secretary Tillerson will go on to Beijing, where he will be calling for China and other countries to fully enforce all sanctions against North Korea as one means of trying to ratchet down the threat that continues to be raised by North Korea. U.S. intelligence officials have seen signs that they believe indicate that North Korea is preparing for more missile tests and possibly another nuclear test -- Poppy.

HARLOW: The U.S. needs China to play ball on those sanctions to have any -- any sort of real effect. Thank you, Alexandra Field, live for us in Seoul.

The North Korean news all coming as the White House continues to angrily defend the president's wiretapping claims. The controversy proving challenging for the president to focus on his agenda.

Our Joe Johns is at the White House this morning with more on that this morning.


Though the president appears to have a serious and growing credibility problem on this wiretapping issue, and it's creating the situation on Capitol Hill, where members of his own party have to challenge him and contradict him. But the reaction in the briefing room so far has been to continue digging in.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Hold on. Hold on. Let me -- I am trying to answer your question, Jonathan, if you can calm down.

JOHNS (voice-over): White House press secretary Sean Spicer defiant and combative.

SPICER: He stands by it, but again, you're mischaracterizing what happened today.

JOHNS: Angrily defending the president's unsubstantiated claim that former President Obama wiretapped phones at Trump Tower, despite leaders from both parties saying there is no proof.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We've cleared that up, that we see no evidence of that.

JOHNS: Spicer continuing to cite media reports to try to justify the president's baseless accusation.

SPICER: There's widespread reporting that, throughout the 2016 election, there was surveillance that was done on a variety of people.

JOHNS: The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee rejecting Spicer's claim in their strongest statement yet, stating, "Based on the evidence available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance."

The Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee firm in saying the president's wiretapping claim is wrong.

MANU RAJU, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Do you have any evidence to suggest that any incidental collection may have picked up Trump's -- Donald Trump's communications at all? Do you have any evidence to suggest?


JOHNS: The ranking Democrat on that committee tells CNN he expects FBI Director James Comey to debunk President Trump's accusation when he testifies before Congress on Monday.


JOHNS: This as the Trump administration confronts sharp criticism from fellow Republicans over the president's budget proposal.

MULVANEY: We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good.

JOHNS: Congressman Harold Rogers deeming the budget "draconian, careless and counterproductive." Senator Marco Rubio says proposed cuts to the State Department "undermine America's ability to keep our citizens safe." The budget aims to slash billions from government agencies to boost military spending, hitting hard social services like afterschool programs for children and programs that feed the elderly.

[07:05:11] MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that's a state decision to fund that particular portion of it, to take the federal money and give it to the states and say, "Look, we want to give you money for programs that don't work." I can't defend that anymore.

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R), NEW YORK: Meals on Wheels is a wonderful program. It is one I would never vote to cut even one dollar.

JOHNS: The White House also facing another sobering reality. The GOP's healthcare bill may fall short of the votes needed to pass in the House. CNN's whip count now has 21 Republicans saying they will vote no or are leaning against it. House leadership can't afford to lose another vote.


JOHN: And we've got another big day scheduled here at the White House. The president is hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, so there will be, at least in theory, an opportunity to ask President Trump a question or two about the latest developments, Chris.

CUOMO: Joe, appreciate it. Joining us now is Republican Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. It's good to have you, Congressman, as always.

REP. SEAN DUFFY (R), WISCONSIN: Chris, good to be with you.

CUOMO: All right. Let's begin with this breaking news out of North Korea. The idea of the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, saying that the era of strategic patience basically is over and that military options are on the table with North Korea if they continue their nuclear ramp up. This is different than what we've heard in the past.

How real should Americans see the chance of an actual military exercise directed at North Korea?

DUFFY: Well, what I think we have to realize, Chris, is that there's a real threat from North Korea. Not only do they have nuclear weapons, but they're advancing their ballistic missile technology that can deliver a payload of a nuclear weapon not just to Europe but if we wait much longer we make it to the U.S. So this is a real threat to American security, and I think we have to take it as such and discuss our options whether military strikes first are appropriate. I'm not going to go there.

But we can't sit back, and I think that time will heal all rifts with North Korea when they're a rogue radical regime that has nukes.

CUOMO: Right. But the only reason I'm asking is that, if we're not going to do diplomacy any more than you need to have a line that, if they cross, that's when military becomes real. Anything short of an attack on the United States or an ally, could you think of something that would trigger an actual military response?

DUFFY: Well, I think you find yourself in a situation where you do have missiles and nuclear weapons. If they strike first, you're in real trouble and again, they're not a rational set of folks, and there's no diplomacy with them right now. They're this rogue machine.

It makes it really challenging, and that's why I think it's important to address these issues in their infancy. The longer you wait, like we have with North Korea, the harder it becomes to address these problems. So whether it's North Korea or Iran and their effort for nuclear weapons, the longer you wait with radical individuals, the harder it becomes to address concerns.

CUOMO: The reason they wait is because, once you go military, there's no going back.

All right. Let's switch to paradigm. We're going from a place where we have a lot of proof, and we're trying to figure out the conclusion in Korea to a situation where we have conclusion and not a lot of proof. The wiretapping. Let's put on the screen now members of your party who have come forward to say, "Listen, we've been doing the research. We've been doing the investigating. There is no proof of what the president alleges." These are all top Republicans. You know, they're top Democrats, as

well, but top Republicans within your own party and you saw what Sean Spicer did. He refused to own the status quo on this. Why?

DUFFY: Well, first, I haven't seen any evidence that would back up the claim whether it was wiretapping or surveillance of Trump Tower. Donald Trump or any of his friends or colleagues.

But the administration is coming out and saying we have evidence. I think they should show the evidence. Let's see it. They're asking for a little bit more time. And I'm willing to give them some more time, but again, if you have evidence that you have been surveilled, let's see the story behind us. I think that's appropriate.

CUOMO: Here's why. Look, I get why you'd be patient, especially in party. I get it. And there's not necessarily a rush. But I'm just saying, why does this make sense to you? The man who can get the answer most quickly is the president of the United States. He has not done so.

The answer he gave most recently is because he doesn't want to disrupt or cause trouble for a government agency. We have seen him do little but that when it serves his own purposes. Do you believe that the White House has proof that they were surveilled during the campaign?

DUFFY: I don't know that. I haven't seen any evidence. Here's what pause I have in answering that question.

When Sean Spicer comes out so strongly yesterday -- you've aired that clip many times -- and Donald Trump hasn't walked his comment back, it leads me to believe they may have something. So I don't want to condemn them yet.

[07:10:05] CUOMO: What comment have they ever walked back, though, Sean? Three to five million voters, that hasn't been walked back. The birther claims weren't walked back until it was torture for him during the campaign.

But I mean, remember how long it took and what it took to do that, and that was, like, a no-brainer on the birther thing. Everybody knew that garbage from jump. But I'm saying you haven't seen this White House back off. The reason I'm asking is this isn't cherry picking. This isn't playing to advantage. It's leadership.

That's what's being put on you guys right now. We keep coming to you to to justify these claims, because you're leaders, too. And what we ignore, we empower.

DUFFY: But Chris, so I'm not sitting on the Intelligence Committee. I've heard what statements the committee members have made. I'm willing to give President Trump and Sean Spicer a little bit of time to show us what you have. I am encouraging them this morning, as I have other days, to put it out more quickly if they have the evidence. I think put the story behind us and focus on the economy. Focus on health care. Focus on tax cuts doing a kick star, and improve people's lives. That's what's key here. That's why he was elected. Talking about stories like this distract us from the real mission of making America great again.

CUOMO: If you were in this situation, Sean Duffy, what would you do? If you came out with something and you made a claim. You told people to look at it, even though you can give us the answer yourself. It's looked at. No proof comes up. Eventually, what would you do?

DUFFY: First, listen, I would make sure I have the evidence. And I would drop the evidence after I made the claims.

But I will say this, and you parsed this language well, Chris. We do have General Flynn, who did have his conversation surveilled with Russia and the contents of that conversation was released. I brought this up before. But Dennis l former congressman that got approval to have a conversation with Muammar Khadafy in Syria, and he was doing research on whether we should be going -- he's a liberal guy. Whether we should be engaging with Libya and wanted research on what we should do.

His conversation was surveilled and the contents of his conversation was released. I have a concern -- I'm pivoting a little bit.


DUFFY: ... about what are intelligence communities doing with surveillance of Americans and releasing that information publicly. That's absolutely wrong. That's a little bit different than Donald Trump...

CUOMO: A little bit different?

DUFFY: ... making the claim that he was surveilled.

CUOMO: It's a little different than him saying Barack Obama wiretapped the tower and not only accusing him of -- but calling him bad and sick? It's a little different.

DUFFY: Well, it is different, but my point is General Flynn, who was on the Trump team, was surveilled.

CUOMO: You are parsing -- when you're parsing, you've got to be careful. He was not wiretapped. There was no warrant out looking for Flynn to our knowledge and the knowledge of all proof provided to leaders within your own party. He got caught up in surveillance of the Russian ambassador, OK?

DUFFY: Chris...

CUOMO: And the bigger point is this. That's not what the president was talking about. You know that. I've been talking about that.

DUFFY: Well, Chris I'm acknowledging the difference in the two. Donald Trump said, you know, we were "wiretapped," in quotes, surveilled. But my point to you is very serious in that he only reports on it once.

General Flynn was surveilled and it's one thing to get caught up in the surveillance of the Russians but to take that conversation and release it publicly, not mask the information and content of who the recipient of the Russian conversation was, which was General Flynn, it's concerning.

And we have to -- I want to give the intelligence community all kinds of power and assets to keep us safe, because they do. But when we use information that they have on Americans and they release it, like with General Flynn or with Dennis Kucinich, all of a sudden it undermines their credibility. That's beyond the point of Donald Trump.

CUOMO: I hear you about that.

DUFFY: Donald Trump should release what information he has about the surveillance of Trump Tower or Donald Trump himself and put the story behind him. I agree with you on that.

CUOMO: Talking about putting the story behind him. He's got to own what he says. This whole literally seriously thing, that time has passed. He's the president of the United States. Everything he says matters. So that's what it's about.

But just to be clear put those tweets back up again, because I don't want to add to the misinformation going on here from Donald Trump. I think we have four tweets up there, and I think in a couple of them, there were quotes around it. The first one, two of them have quotes around wiretap. Two do not. Now, is that dispositive to anything? I would argue no. But that's been made part of the state of play by the White House.

What I'm saying is this. You make legitimate points about the privacy of American citizens and how our intelligence communities go about their work. Those are not new questions. They're still important questions.

The president wasn't talking about them ever in any context of this. This was about him and his people and Barack Obama and arguably distracting from a story he didn't like, and that's all politics. What's going on now is the problem.

[07:15:03] You have the White House press secretary gets into a hissy fit with the media with no proof. What's going to happen when we have to believe these people about something that's going on in North Korea? That's the question, Congressman.

DUFFY: You put up the tweets, and I would just -- I would tell you that, whether you're wiretapping, which the White House, technology or surveilling, both are equally bad. So I don't care about it.

CUOMO: But he wasn't saying that and now there's still none...

DUFFY: You're parsing.

CUOMO: I'm not parsing. I'm taking him at his word and giving him the benefit of his own alternative.

(CROSSTALK) CUOMO: That's what I'm saying. Congressman, just to be clear, he never said surveillance. But even if -- you know how in the law they always say that -- you're wrong in your main argument but even if you want to extend it to any type of anybody listening to you in any way, at anytime, anywhere, there's still no proof. And it was never about what the intelligence community does. That wasn't...

DUFFY: Listen, take a step back. If you want to -- if you want to put them in a box and go, "Well, it's only wiretapping, that's only -- that's the only bad one, because that was what he said in his tweet." Well, we'll also say to Americans, if you're wiretapping or surveilling the president-elect or the -- a major party candidate for president, that's bad stuff.

CUOMO: But there's no proof.


CUOMO: So right. OK. Well it's wiretapping or surveillance. Let's see the proof. I agree with you. You and I are on the same page. I think it's incumbent upon Donald Trump to present the evidence.

CUOMO: Yes, but you heard what his evidence is. You had Sean Spicer out there. You saw what he was quoting. You saw what reports he's basing it on, and just remember this: the idea of the White House needing to look at media reports about this is absurd.

They can pick up the phone and get the correct entail.

DUFFY: Hold on a second. You have to look at this and go, "Does the intelligence community under Barack Obama's presidency come at this with clean hands?"

CUOMO: I don't see why you have to do that at all here. Why would that be the question?

DUFFY: General Flynn.

CUOMO: They weren't surveilling General Flynn.

DUFFY: In General Flynn's conversation with the Russians...

CUOMO: They were surveilling the Russian.

DUFFY: ... in transition to government. So it's not like he's a private citizen. He's in transition to be the national security adviser. He would of course talk to the Russians and everybody else. He was surveilled, and the content of that conversation.

CUOMO: The Russian was surveilled.

DUFFY: That has great concern. Well, you know what? Part of that conversation and so too was General Flynn, and the contents of that conversation was released. For what purpose, Chris, was that released? To go after Donald Trump from the intelligence community and it was under the leadership of Barack Obama and... (CROSSTALK)

DUFFY: The most concern...

CUOMO: The most invasive hack that we know about in our election history, and you're saying it's about gotcha politics.

DUFFY: That -- Chris. We should all be concerned when the intelligence community is used to go after anybody. Especially the national security advisor. That concerns me. It concerns me that Donald Trump makes points he can't back up. Both of those should concern all of us as Americans.

CUOMO: Honestly, I don't see the equation between the two things. I think the credibility of the president is one thing, but just to be clear, that surveillance of the Russian ambassador was Russian interference in this election. It wasn't a Trump gotcha game. There's no indication of that.

DUFFY: But did you have any evidence that this was a conversation between General Flynn and the Russians about Russians' involvement in an election? This was the national security adviser that was about to take office with Donald Trump talking to the Russians.

CUOMO: But it's never been -- it's never been alleged that it was about fixing the election.

DUFFY: Do you not have a concern that the contents of that conversation, the next national security adviser and his conversation with the Russians, that conversation, that transcript was released publicly. Do you have no concern over that? What if it was Hillary Clinton's national security adviser before they were about to take office had a conversation with the Russians or anybody else?

CUOMO: I want to see it. If you have it, I want to see the transcript. Because I think Russians' interference in the election is a huge hit on our democracy, and it seems we're trying to have that.

DUFFY: You have no evidence that that was a conversation about it.

CUOMO: Nobody's ever alleged that is. Nobody's ever said that's what it was about.

DUFFY: You saw the transcript. It wasn't about Russian interference in the election.

CUOMO: I actually haven't seen the transcript. I have not seen the transcript.

DUFFY: ... involved in the transition. So don't make assumptions.

CUOMO: I'm not. I haven't made a single assumption about it. You're making the assumption. I didn't say anything about the content of the call.

DUFFY: But the bottom line is that you don't have a concern about a national security adviser coming into the new White House and having his -- the contents of his calls surveilled and then released. That should concern you.

CUOMO: I think you're twisting the context of what was going on. And I think the questions about surveillance in general are legit. I just don't think they should be used as cover for an allegation by a president that was done without proof, he could get, and now a position he's sticking to, despite his own party saying he should back off.

DUFFY: It think you're -- I do think you're feeding (ph), Chris. I'm agreeing with you.

CUOMO: Forget about feeding. I'm just telling you what the record is. You're thinking you're feeding.

DUFFY: The record, Chris, though, is that General Flynn, who was the national security advisor for Donald Trump, had his conversation surveilled and the contents of that conversation...

CUOMO: It was the Russian ambassador's conversations that they were looking at because of what happened during the election. That's the context. We're going in a circle here, but I'm just saying it matters. It matters. The context matters.

[07:20:14] DUFFY: Both of these matter, Chris. You can't put blinders on...

CUOMO: Absolutely they both matter.

DUFFY: And so then we're in agreement.

CUOMO: They both matter. I'm just saying I wouldn't use one as a defense for the other.

DUFFY: I was saying they're not on two different sheets of paper. The sheets of paper are the same. And I want to -- I want to bring Donald Trump to the forefront to release information. But I also want to condemn the intelligence community about what they've done with General Flynn and the actions, at least in the contents of that conversation.

CUOMO: And Congressman, that is your right. Have a happy St. Patrick's Day. Thank you for being on NEW DAY.

DUFFY: You, too.

CUOMO: All right. Coming up in our next hour, Republicans trying to get lawmakers on board with the GOP health care bill. House whip Steven Scalise, he's the guy who's got to get his party on this. What does he think of the CNN whip count showing he may not have the votes?

HARLOW: Look forward to that.

If you weren't awake this Friday morning now you are after that interview. Coming up for us, a congressman and a Marine veteran says Russia poses the single greatest threat to the United States right now. But as a Democrat, does he think the Obama administration owns some of that blame? He's going to join us next.


[07:25:10] HARLOW: More now on our breaking news. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the United States is prepared while he's saying everything is on the table against North Korea. If they continue to escalate their nuclear program. Listen.


TILLERSON: All the options are on the table. Certainly, we do not want to -- for things to get to a military conflict. We're quite clear in that in our communications. But obviously, in North Korea takes actions that threatens South Korea forces or our own forces then that will be met with an appropriate response.


HARLOW: "All of the options on the table." Some very important words. Let's talk about that and more with Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. He is a former Marine veteran.

Thank you for joining us, sir.

REP. SETH MOULTON (D), MASSACHUSETTS: It's good to be back.

HARLOW: You sit on the House Armed Services Committee. You're a former Marine. I want to get your assessment before we move on to your comments that are making major headlines about Russia. Let me get your take on what Tillerson just said.

I mean, the secretary of state saying every option is on the table. Nikki Haley, U.N. ambassador, saying the exact same thing to Erin Burnett in their interview last night. As you see it, Congressman, where is the greater threat to the United States right now? Is it from North Korea or is it from Russia?

MOULTON: Well, I think the greater threat is Russia, and I'd be happy to discuss that.

But let's be clear: North Korea is entirely unpredictable. And North Korea can go into crisis tomorrow. And so what the secretary of state said is important. We have to have all options on the table to deal with North Korea.

We also, though, have to be talking to China. And some of the president's inflammatory rhetoric against China is not helpful in that discussion. Because if North Korea collapses, which could also happen. Like, they might attack South Korea. They might also just collapse as a regime. And if that happens, China is going to be pushing in from the north. The South Koreans and United States will be pushing from the south, and we've got to have a plan that we don't have. HARLOW: Congressman -- Congressman, walk me through your logic as to

why you believe Russia is the greater imminent threat to the United States right now? We know what a threat from President Obama thought North Korea was. We know what a threat the president and secretary of state. They clear think they are -- these ICBM tests constantly, right? The provocation that we're seeing.

The press conference that they held, you know, in Beijing yesterday. North Korea's embassy saying that, you know, this is all a defensive move against the United States. Why is it, make the case that the greater imminent threat right now is Russia?

MOULTON: Well, the issue with Russia is that they don't -- they don't only pose a military threat to the United States and to our allies in Europe, which they always have. But they also pose a real threat to our fundamental democracy. And the way that they are trying to undermine democracy here at home and now, with elections in Europe as well, it's a serious threat to the United States.

HARLOW: You're not talking about militarily? You're not talking about a potential attack on the United...

MOULTON: No, I said militarily, as well. And let me explain that piece. Russia has now violated the intermediate nuclear forces treaty. I asked a question of the vice chairman of the chiefs of staff on the Armed Services Committee about that. And for the first time the chiefs admitted, yes, Russia is in violation of this treaty.

And by the way, the Trump administration is not doing anything about that. This is a serious issue.

HARLOW: Right.

MOULTON: Violating a nuclear treaty with the United States of America.

HARLOW: This is the 1987 treaty. It was your question that brought about that answer. But, look, you said at South by Southwest this week, and this is what is getting all the headlines, quote, "We could literally have a nuclear war with Vladimir Putin." What tells you that right now?

MOULTON: Because -- because Russia has not only violated this treaty. They've also changed their doctrine. For a long time, Russia and the United States had this sort of mutual agreement, mutually assured destruction, that you know, if they shot all their weapons at us, we would shoot all of their weapons at them. And therefore, the nuclear war was unlikely to happen.

But what Russia now says is that they will quote, "escalate to deescalate." They are willing to use nuclear weapons to deescalate a conventional attack. And I think that the problem here is that we don't really have a plan to deal with that.

If Russia starts using nukes against our allies in Europe, we may well use nukes in retaliation. What if they target American troops -- like the American troops who are training right now in Poland -- with a nuclear attack? What are you going to do?

HARLOW: Congressman?

MOULTON: And how quickly can that get out of control.? That's why this is such a serious threat and why the Trump administration has had to take this more serious.

HARLOW: Well, I hear you, Congressman, but you know, there are many voices, critics, even those who supported the Obama administration, who would say part of this blame, if not a lot of this blame, doesn't fall on the failed policies of the Obama administration, the failed Russian reset. I mean, isn't there more that should have been done then so we weren't sitting in this situation now? To that you say?

MOULTON: I think there should have been more done under the Obama administration. Now, the Russian reset under Obama is very different and pales in comparison...