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White House Tries To Clarify Trump's Red Line In Syria; White House Grapples With How To Sell Trump's First 100 Days; United Stock Set To Nosedive After Passenger Dragged. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:08] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: To Russia, but no love here. America's top diplomat heads to Moscow as tensions over Syria reach quite a high point.

North Korea lashes out at the U.S. deployment of war ships to the region. The communist nation says it is ready to war.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And then remember this pledge by then candidate Donald Trump?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I love golf. I think it's one of the greats, but I don't have time.

Because I'm going to be working for you, I'm not going to have time to go play golf.


BERMAN: Well, there's a lot of time to play golf apparently. Plus, President Trump is on pace to spend more on personal travel in just one year than the entire Obama administration.

Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow. It is getting tense this morning. Russian President Vladimir Putin firing off at the U.S. one day before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with his Russian counterpart.

Tillerson, right now in the air, on his way to Moscow for this high- stakes meeting with Sergey Lavrov. A short time ago, he ripped Russia and its steadfast support of Syria, even after last week's chemical attack on civilians.

BERMAN: Yes. He condemned Russia for breaking its promise to the world that it would eliminate chemical weapons years ago.


REX TILLERSON, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: -- demonstrate that Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on its 2013 commitment. It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent, but this distinction doesn't much matter to the dead. We can't let this happen again.


BERMAN: Yes, the distinction doesn't matter much to the dead. Again, those words coming from the Secretary of State just moments ago.

And in breaking news, Vladimir Putin speaking. We'll get to that in just a moment. First, let's go to Italy. CNN's Nic Robertson is there.

You heard the Secretary a short time ago before he left with those provocative words, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: He's had a very strong support here from the G7, also from the Gulf allies -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the Emirates -- all here, as well.

That mandate is to speak to the Russian officials, Sergey Lavrov, President Putin, if he meets him, and say very clearly that you need to back away from Bashar al Assad. You need to work for a ceasefire in Syria. You need to work for a political transition in Syria, to remove President Assad out of office. That's what Russia signed up for under the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.

There is support for the U.S. strikes on Syria last week. There is support for the existing sanctions on Russia that were in place already. But where there wasn't consensus here, and we certainly heard from the British Foreign Secretary here, saying that there should be more sanctions on Russia.

There wasn't consensus on Tillerson going to Moscow with the backing of additional sanctions on Russia. But the Secretary very clear in what his priorities are going forward for Iraq and Syria, ISIS is still the top of the list for the U.S. This is how he put it.


TILLERSON: To be clear, our military action was a direct response to the Assad regime's barbarism. The United States' priority in Syria and Iraq remains the defeat of ISIS.


ROBERTSON: What we're seeing here, more broadly speaking, and certainly what the allies are interpreting here is that the Trump administration, if you will, has caught up with the Obama administration on getting rid of Assad and removing him in a transition from power as a key part of moving forward on Syria. Of course, what this administration has is it's prepared to use military strikes as we've seen -- John, Poppy.

BERMAN: All right, Nic Robertson for us in Italy. Let's get right to Moscow now because there is breaking news. The Russian President Vladimir Putin responding not just to the U.S. action in Syria, but seemingly also to the statements made by Rex Tillerson. Michelle Kosinski is there. What are you hearing, Michelle?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Yes. Well, Russia has repeatedly and strongly denounced those U.S. strikes, calling them inadmissible and aggressive. And now Vladimir Putin compares them to the second Iraq war.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION (through translator): That this resembles very much the situation of 2003 and the war in Iraq, best of all. There was a campaign launched in Iraq, and it finished with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat, and the emergence of ISIS on the international arena.


KOSINSKI: So that amounts to another warning to the U.S., look at what the consequences could be for something like this. But, of course, you know, the U.S. is saying that this was very narrowly targeted, that it wasn't targeting Russia. That it meant to not do any harm to people that were in the area, that there was a warning given. That it was really meant to send a message and to try to prevent chemical attacks.

[09:05:05] But Russia sees this as, again, an aggressive action. And they keep warning the United States against doing more harm down the road if this continues.

BERMAN: All right. Michelle Kosinski for us in Moscow. Thanks so much.

Another hot spot in the world to look at this morning, North Korea issuing a warning to the United States. North Korea is saying, we're ready for war. This comes after the decision to pull a U.S. carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula.

HARLOW: North Korea is saying that it is ready to defend itself against what it is calling reckless acts of aggression.

Our Will Ripley is the only American journalist inside of Pyongyang and he has more. Also this morning, you do have the President tweeting directly to North Korea.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And so we have asked the North Korean government for a response. It's late in the evening here, so we don't know yet if we'll be able to get something tonight.

But let me just read to you the tweets that we just learned about a short time ago. "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them. USA!"

The second tweet, "I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem."

I just came here from Beijing. I was in Beijing for nearly a month. We covered Secretary Tillerson's visit.

And I can tell you that for the Chinese, the trade issue with the United States is an economic issue. Their trade relationship with North Korea is not an economic issue. They trade with this country for political and geopolitical strategic reasons.

They do not want to see a destabilized Korean Peninsula. They don't want to see this economy, which relies on China for 70 to 90 percent of its trade collapse. They don't want to see a refugee crisis. And they certainly don't want to see U.S. control over the entire Korean Peninsula if there were to be a military conflict.

So we need to see what Beijing is going to say, if anything, publicly about this. They recently haven't really been taking the bait when it comes to President Trump's tweets, even ahead of the meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which by most accounts was a cordial meeting. Xi Jinping didn't even mention North Korea when he put out his statement after that meeting at Mar-a-Lago, John and Poppy.

HARLOW: All right, our Will Ripley inside of Pyongyang for us. Thank you for all the reporting, Will.

Let's talk about all of these different foreign policy issues facing this administration. Our military analyst and retired Colonel Cedric Leighton is here, and Steven Cohen. He's a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and at Princeton.

Nice to have you both here. And, Colonel, let me just begin with you. So more of what we're hearing from Rex Tillerson as he heads to Moscow, which is sort of double justification after the strikes on Syria saying, A, we don't want these chemical weapons that are clearly still in Syria to fall into the hands of ISIS, and, B, we don't accept the normalization of them.

Your take on the justification now. Are these things that should have been said sooner, say, even on the Sunday shows?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Most definitely. Because when you have a justification for an attack like this, it's always good to get that out front, to have that as part of the reason, the rationale for an attack or, God forbid, if it goes even further than that, into further combat or further war. So you have to have that out front.

And one of the big problems that you run into, Poppy, is the fact that if you have one series of justifications that comes out first and then another series that comes out later, it's often hard to square the two of them and bring them together. And that's, I think, the difficult that we find ourselves in. The actions were not bad, in and of themselves. The fact, though, is that they have to be part of an overall strategy.

BERMAN: So, Professor, what's going on right now between the United States and Russia? You've called it a new Cold War.

And just in the last few minutes, we had the U.S. Secretary of State saying that Russia is either incompetent or complicit. You have the Russian President saying the United States is trying to fake justify a whole war, saying it's just like Iraq in 2003, which are pointed words, and even suggesting -- by the way, you see it up there on the screen right now -- that the United States has even bigger plans, trying to strike Damascus.

STEPHEN COHEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF RUSSIAN STUDIES, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: What's going on, that was your question, right now. I have been doing this for 40 years. I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

We're in a new and worse Cold War with Russia. There are three Cold War fronts fraught with hot war, the Baltics where NATO is building up, Ukraine -- you all know that story -- and Syria.

Russia thought, for various reasons, that cooperation in Syria would be a way to roll back the new Cold War. As we talk, Russia is preparing for a hot war. They're not going to begin hot war. They don't want it, but they're very worried we might.

The good news is, in that context, that they know Mr. Tillerson very well. They did -- and by "they," I mean Putin himself -- one of the biggest economic financial investment deals ever made. That was when ExxonMobil got access --

[09:10:10] HARLOW: The Rosneft deal.

COHEN: That's right.

HARLOW: The oil deal.

COHEN: No, it's not -- all right, but the point is that was an enormous decision by Russia. They know Tillerson. They know him to be, unlike many American representatives, a deeply serious and competent man and straight forward.

So what's going to happen -- and by the way, Putin was supposed to meet with him but apparently he's not, but that's not certain yet -- they are going to have some hard questions for Mr. Tillerson. And the answers they get may influence what happens next. And next is the possibility of war with Russia.

HARLOW: Colonel, do you agree with that, that Russia does not want, as the Professor put it, hot war, but they fear that the U.S. does? And therefore, what do you make of the comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin, not just condemning what Tillerson said but arguing that the U.S. is doing something akin to 2003, akin to, you know, making a justification for the war in Iraq?

LEIGHTON: So looking at President Putin's comments first, I think he is overdoing it because when it came to the weapons of mass destruction issue in Iraq, there was a lot of intelligence information that turned out to be basically false when it came to them being in Iraq at the time that they were talking about.

The information that we have on Syria right now is a very different set of information. And it is based on the fact that they've actually used these weapons against their own people. So there's a big difference there. The sarin gas had to come from somewhere. And that is the one big difference between then and now.

As far as what Professor Cohen said about this being akin to the ramp up to the hot war with Russia, I think it is definitely approaching that. And I do agree with that aspect of what he said because when you look at the way in which Russia has deployed its forces, when you look at the way in which the dialogue has now morphed between the United States and Russia, these are absolutely very dangerous times.

And the other thing is that the Russian military has reorganized itself into a much more competent force than it has ever been before. So they are getting ready for something.

BERMAN: If these are as dangerous times as you both seem to be saying they are -- in somewhat alarming terms, by the way, I must say -- then clarity seems to matter more than ever. Clarity from the United States. And I'm not sure we are getting clarity in what the U.S. position is.

Take just where the lines are right now, right? Sean Spicer, yesterday, said the U.S. might do another missile strike if Syria continues to use barrel bombs. By the way, Syria has been using barrel bombs, hundreds a month, for months and months and months, and the U.S. hasn't done missile strikes there. So if you're in Russia right now, what do you think you're getting from the United States, Professor?

COHEN: We have some disagreements at this moment, but I don't want to argue with the Colonel.

BERMAN: I appreciate it.

COHEN: There is zero evidence to tie Assad to that gas attack.

LEIGHTON: I definitely disagree with you there, Professor.

BERMAN: Well, let's leave that aside because the United Nations says there is. The people in the area say there are --

COHEN: No, the United Nations has not said that.

BERMAN: Nations around there have said they may have seen evidence of it.

COHEN: The United Nations has not said that.

HARLOW: So Turkey has said it, Professor.

BERMAN: Turkey has said.

HARLOW: The United States has said it. BERMAN: The United States has said it. I think that that's a

fruitless argument, but let's talk about how Russia is perceiving this right now.

COHEN: It's not a fruitless argument if the Russians think somebody is running false flags to get Russia and the United States into a war.

BERMAN: So you genuinely think Russia thinks that someone else is doing this to make them look bad?

COHEN: Let me answer your question because it's more important. What you just reported that Putin said today, it seemed quite harsh, correct?

BERMAN: Right.

COHEN: You agree, that's your headline. But there was something harsher said, and this has not been reported.

The second most important man in the Russian government is the Prime Minister. His name is Dmitry Medvedev. He sat in for Putin as President when Secretary of State Clinton and Obama tried the so- called reset. He is inside Russia, in the power league, considered the most pro-western member of the Putin leadership, all right?

Yesterday -- it may have been the day before because of the time difference -- he said, in the aftermath of this Syrian event, but also in connection with what people are calling Kremlingate in Washington, he said, Russian-American relations are utterly ruined. I don't ever remember a Soviet or Russian leader saying that. And secondly, he said, you probably noticed this, we are at the brink of war with the United States.

Keep in mind that this is the most pro-western member of the leadership. And imagine what the non-pro-western leadership are telling Putin. So for the straight talk, that's what Mr. Tillerson is. But Russia has two questions on their mind, and he's going to have to answer them in a way that's credible to them. They don't pay any attention to Spicer.

[09:15:07] HARLOW: Look, it's a very important point. The interesting thing is, Tillerson will be dealing with Lavrov who said --

COHEN: It doesn't matter.

HARLOW: -- on Friday that this is not irreversible.

COHEN: That's right. But Lavrov is on the ropes. His position has been terribly weakened because he represents the face of Russian diplomacy. The question is, have we moved beyond diplomacy and now to a war make?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Professor, Colonel, thanks so much for being with us. These are big, weighty discussions obviously. We'll have to see what comes from this meeting between the secretary of state and whoever exactly he meets with.

All right, coming up for us, he says Donald Trump, the president of the United States, says we would be sick of winning with him in office. So why is the president's team now holding backdoor meetings to show how many victories they've actually had.

HARLOW: Also, fly the friendly skies if you do not get dragged away first. United Airlines in damage control this morning. What happened? Why? And could it happen to you?

Also, a CNN exclusive in the sky, onboard an American tanker plane, refueling the fighter jets that are striking ISIS. You will not want to miss this. That's next.



HARLOW: So in just 18 days, President Trump hits a historic milestone, of sorts, 100 days in office. And inside the White House, officials, we've learned, have been holding very urgent meetings with their whiteboards and big pieces of white paper, drafting down what the plan is going to be to message the 100 days.

BERMAN: Joining us now to discuss, David Drucker, CNN political analyst, senior Congressional correspondent for the "Washington Examiner," and Salena Zito, CNN contributor and reporter for the "Washington Examiner." Welcome to you both.

I think we'll get to the 100-day discussion in a little bit. But first, if we can stay on Syria for one minute and clarity of message, Salena. Because again we heard Sean Spicer briefing people, talking about what we thought the new lines were from this White House when we might see further military action.

He said, "If Syria uses barrel bombs," well, Syria has been using barrel bombs, a lot of them. Hundreds and hundreds every month. I think we have a graph to show how many hundreds Syria has been using every month. It's a lot, right?

And then the White House said, backtracking, clean it up, and say, we weren't talking about barrel bombs, exactly. We were talking about chemical weapons. But, look, if things are as tense as they are between the U.S. and Russia, if things are as tense as they are in Syria, how much more clarity do you think we need from this White House?

SALENA ZITO, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we need a lot of clarity. This is a very serious situation. Having said that, you know, there were a lot of people in this country that applauded what the president did last week, in taking, in using the missiles and taking that message that, you know, we are not going tolerate that kind of action against your own people.

But up until that moment, we really didn't understand sort of what the administration's foreign policy position has been on Syria. And I think we're still unclear as to what it is today, you know, four or five days later.

So I think that's an important thing for them to get out. I think that we will see a more clarity after Tillerson returns for his meetings over there, but right now, we're kind of unsure.

HARLOW: And one of the reasons, David, that we are unsure is because no one has heard directly from the president on what the strategy is going forward, after his statement announcing the air strikes.

A new CBS News poll shows how Americans feel overall. You've got about 60 percent of them supporting the air strikes, but then they're very divided when it comes to what do we do after?

Look at these numbers, 18 percent of Americans do favor the use of ground troops, 30 percent say air strikes, but no ground troops, 26 percent want only diplomatic talks, and 15 percent want to more U.S. involvement. Is it time that we hear from the president tonight go- forward plan?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think for the president to prosecute a successful strategy in Syria and in Asia, and we're seeing how complicated this gets, because this involves the Russians in the Middle East and in Asia, it involves China.

He's going to have to be more clear and more vocal so that both our allies and our adversaries know what to expect. I know the president likes to rely on this notion of unpredictable. And unpredictability in terms of tactics is a good quality, but unpredictability in terms of values and frameworks is problematic.

Because if the Syrians and the Russians and the North Koreans don't know what the line is and what the line isn't, then they're apt to test the president and see what they can get away with, and their tests could be the kind of provocations that make things even worse.

And I think, then in this vein, it's also important for the president to talk to the American people because if we're going to be more active overseas and potentially militarily, and there's a good argument to make that this is something that really needed to be done, the way you bring along the American people is to explain it to them and justify it and ask for their support.

You're likely to get it in cases like this, because I think even though there's a lot of hesitancy in terms of more military involvement in terms of boots on the ground, I think Americans understand that the U.S. needs to be a leader, but they're not going to be with you if you're not willing to sell it.

BERMAN: Let's talk about the 100 days. We're 18 days away from the 100 days. The White House having meetings because it wants to sell that the first 100 days have been these great things. They're going to point to the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, point to rolling back TPP, point to the Keystone pipeline and things like that, but they've had a lot of other things not go their way.

There's no health care bill or travel ban. They've already lost the national security adviser. I'm kind of struck by the fact that they're already having message meetings to how to sell these first hundred days in a positive way -- Salena.

[09:25:03]ZITO: Well, I mean, first of all, one of the biggest problems the White House had, for half of these, you know, for 40 days is that they didn't have a central person as their communication person and you need that kind of person to help keep the team on message.

So they lost half of their time right there. I think it's -- I don't think it's unusual to have a messaging meeting, especially with a president that's this different, unpredictable, disruptive and, you know, sort of outside the lines, but, you know, they certainly have their work cut out for them.

As you said, they have had some successes, but they've also had some battles, especially over health care and over the travel ban. I think what's important for them is just to say, hey, you know, this is what Washington is like, this is what we have to fight against.

And you know, and we're doing our best, but, you know, those kinds of meetings, I think, are important. What I thought was fascinating was is that with less than an hour after they have the meeting, somebody leaked it out of meeting. I mean, wow.

BERMAN: Yes, close up those leaks. All right, Salena Zito and David Drucker, great to have you with us. Thanks so much. The issue of management, press management.

The stock market opens in just a few minutes and shares for United Airlines, they're going to take a nosedive after this video of a passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight.

HARLOW: All right, we're going to have a lot more on that a little bit later this hour.

First, though, our chief business correspondent, Christine Romans is here. This is United in damage mode. A PR nightmare. The stock taking a hit.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, about 2.5 percent, we think. It had been down 6 percent so it's moderated from those losses. But look, this is a company with huge plans for expansion in China, where this video has been seen 100 million times. So that's a number that really matters here.

You talk about trying to get the support of the American flying public. This is an international story, at this point here. Look, the CEO has to come out and has come out and supported his employees, but a lot of people thought that was tone deaf.

He apologized for having to re-accommodate these customers, didn't apologize for the fact this man was dragged off a plane and is bloody. So there could be some better messaging from this company. We have a "CNN Money" story about how this has turned a bad situation into a PR disaster for this company. Overall for the stock market, we're expecting a little bit lower today. A lot going on, bank earnings coming up later this week, we've got earnings, I think, are really going to drive this overall.

And still, again, you're talking about the hundred days and the checklist of what has been accomplished, elite infrastructure spending, infrastructure plans still need tax reform and the president's meeting with a bunch of CEOs, the really important CEOs later this morning.

BERMAN: You know, United Airlines, you called it damage mode, not damage control mode. I think (inaudible) has to be true. They are in damage mode. They're still damaging themselves by making it worse.


BERMAN: All right, Christine Romans, thanks a lot. A lot more to come. We'll be right back.