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Interview With White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer; North Korea Threatens United States; Secretary of State Visits Russia; North Korea Threatens Nuke Strike Against U.S. If Provoked; Trump's Travel Tab: $20 Million and Counting. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 11, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: No doubt.
Top Pentagon officials say there is no disputing who was behind the gas attack in Syria in a new explanation on why the U.S. retaliated against Bashar al-Assad. Tonight, President Trump is speaking out about his next moves in Syria. I will get reaction from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Face-off with Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow for tense talks about the Kremlin's support for Syria. As the White House accuses President Trump Vladimir Putin of a cover-up, how tough will Tillerson get?
Spoiling for a fight. North Korea threatens to launch a nuclear attack if provoked, as U.S. warships move closer and President Trump warns Kim Jong-un to stop making trouble. Are the two leaders on a collision course?
And high-priced travel. We have an eye-popping new estimate of the cost of the president's frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. Will he spend more on travel in one year than President Obama spent in eight years?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, President Trump addressing fears that the U.S. strike in Syria might lead to a full-scale war, declaring in a new interview that "We are not going into Syria," this as Defense Secretary James Mattis says there is no doubt Bashar al-Assad's regime planned, orchestrated and executed the gruesome chemical attack that prompted President Trump to order the missile strike.
Right now, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he is in Russia to deliver a very tough message to Moscow about its support for the Syrian regime. A senior White House official says it's clear the Kremlin is trying to cover up for Assad.
But the administration is stopping short of directly accusing President Vladimir Putin of being complicit in the gas attack. As tensions escalate, Putin is firing back, denying the Syrian government was behind the chemical attack, claiming Assad was framed by rebel forces, the Russian leader accusing the U.S. of basing its attack in Syria on false information, just as it did during the Iraq War.
Tonight, we're also following new threats from North Korea. State-run media now claiming Kim Jong-un is prepared to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. if provoked. As U.S. warships deploy to the region, President Trump is renewing his vow to act alone to stop North Korea's nuclear ambitions if China refuses to help.
This hour, I will talk with former Obama Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.
First, let's go to our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski. She's in Moscow right now with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
Michelle, the United States and Russia are exchanging very tough accusations as Tillerson begins his visit. What's the latest?
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. What we have been hearing from each side over the course of the day seems only to be widening the gap of understanding between the U.S. and Russia, seems to be making cooperation even more difficult.
For Rex Tillerson, he was here just four years ago being awarded the Order of Friendship by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today, he arrived as U.S. secretary of state with friendship being about the last way you would describe the situation. At this point, Putin won't even schedule a meeting with him.
And Tillerson is preparing to confront Russia over its role in Syria.
KOSINSKI (voice-over): Tonight, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow about to attempt one of his toughest conversations, to tell the foreign minister, if not Vladimir Putin himself, who so far has not scheduled a meeting with him, that Russia needs to "rethink" its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and that the U.S. will hold Russia accountable for the continuing carnage there.
REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It's clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. We are not presupposing how that occurs, but I think it is clear that we see no further role for the Assad regime longer-term.
KOSINSKI: But he's up against a Russia that has called U.S. strikes on Syria an inadmissible act of aggression, intensifying the tension between the two countries.
[18:05:04] Russian President Putin today suggesting that the Assad regime and
Russia are being framed for the chemical attack, saying more will follow.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We have information from various sources that this kind of provocation, I can't call it anything other than a provocation, is being prepared for in other regions of Syria, too, including the southern suburbs of Damascus, where they are preparing to drop similar chemicals and then accuse the Syrian government of it.
KOSINSKI: Comparing it to the Iraq War in 2003, claims of weapons of mass destruction since proven false.
PUTIN (through translator): The Iraq campaign was launched and has finished with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and nothing less than the emergence of ISIS on the international stage.
KOSINSKI: He says Russia will appeal to the international community for a full investigation of last week's chemical attack. But when Secretary Tillerson before landing in Moscow met with G7 nations in Italy discussed the possibility of sanctioning Russia or at the very least allowing there to still be chemical weapons in Syria, they were not on board.
ANGELINO ALFANO, ITALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): We must have a dialogue with Russia. We must not push Russia into a corner.
KOSINSKI: As far as the rhetoric has now gone between Russia and the U.S.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Putin is a war criminal. Assad is a war criminal. And when Secretary Tillerson says he hopes that Russia will realign itself with Western democracies and break away from Syria and Iran, with all due respect, I like Secretary Tillerson. That's pretty nutty.
KOSINSKI: The responsibility falls now on Tillerson, first to sit down face-to-face with his Russian counterpart and try to gain some cooperation with the government he once considered a friend.
KOSINSKI: What we have heard the last couple of days are strong statements from a number of U.S. officials, saying, for example, that the U.S. would be willing to do more militarily.
But as Tillerson is getting ready for this crucial meeting with the Russian foreign minister, he seems to be being extremely careful about not projecting too hard a line. Today, he was saying things like he hopes Assad is not in Syria's future, that he hopes Russia will change course, because, as he put it, what it's doing is not in Russia's best interest -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski in Moscow right now covering the secretary of state's visit, Michelle, thanks very much.
Now to the president's next moves in Syria amid questions, very serious questions about his policy, how far he is willing to go to push Bashar al-Assad out.
Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Sara Murray.
Sara, we are hearing from Mr. Trump in a new interview. Tell us what he just said.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
This is really the first time we have heard from him since he ordered the strikes in Syria. And there have been many questions about what else the administration might be willing to do or where they might draw the line. Listen to what President Trump had to say about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're not going into Syria. But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons, which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.
QUESTION: They said they got rid of them.
TRUMP: What I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it. And you would have had a much better -- I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MURRAY: Really the first indication, Wolf, we have from President Trump that his view at least on putting boots on the ground in Syria does not appear to have been evolved even in the wake of the chemical weapons attack.
BLITZER: Sara, the White House now scrambling to try to clarify a very controversial remark by Sean Spicer about Syrian gas attacks that took a surprising and offensive turn today. Update our viewers on this.
MURRAY: That's right. What we heard from Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, earlier today was his attempt to just sort of I think frame the cruelty of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but he leaned on a comparison that many found offensive.
Listen to what Sean Spicer said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a -- you know, someone as despicable of Hitler who didn't even sink to the -- to using chemical weapons. So, you have to, if you're Russia, ask yourself, is this is country
that you and a regime that want to align yourself with?
When you come to sarin gas, there was no -- he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.
There is clearly -- I understand -- thank you. I appreciate that. There was not in the -- he brought them into the Holocaust center. I understand that.
But I'm saying that in a way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent -- into the middle of towns, it was brought -- so, the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KOSINSKI: Now, somewhat predictably today, the comment drew a lot of outrage, as people were quick to point out that Hitler gassed millions of Jews, brought them to their death in gas chambers.
So, Sean Spicer moved to clarify that again after the White House briefing, this time in a written statement, saying: "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable" -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Sara, thank you, Sara Murray reporting from the White House.
Let's talk about all of this and more, the escalating tensions with Russia and Syria and North Korea.
Joining us, Leon Panetta. He served as defense secretary, CIA director during the Obama administration.
Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us.
LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: I want to move to all those issues, but quickly your reaction to the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's comments about Hitler not using chemical weapons. We know obviously that was false.
PANETTA: It's, I think, a known danger that you don't compare Hitler to anybody, particularly if you're the White House press secretary.
When I was chief of staff, my guidance to the press secretary was just answer the questions and don't embellish. And I think Mr. Spicer has to learn that lesson as well.
BLITZER: Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, says he should be fired. What do you think?
PANETTA: Well, again, I think he probably needs to have a good talk to make sure that when he does these press briefings, he just sticks to the questions, responds in short sentences and doesn't embellish, because when you start getting carried away to try to make a point, you're going to get in trouble.
And he's gotten in trouble a number of times. So I just think he needs to discipline himself when he's doing those briefings.
BLITZER: How many mistakes can you make realistically before your boss, the president of the United States, you are speaking for the president, says enough is enough?
PANETTA: That's something that obviously the president has to ultimately decide.
But, you know, the press secretary is important. He is the one who speaks on behalf of the administration. And when he says the kind of stupid things that he did today, it hurts the administration. It changes the story. And you don't want -- you don't want to change the story. You want to stay focused on what the president did and what he is trying to do in dealing with Russia.
That's the story. And this changes it. And that's not good.
BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, I want you to stand by.
We have a special interview right now. The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, is joining us from the North Lawn of the White House.
Sean, thanks very much for joining us.
I know you want to clarify what you said. But why did you even make that comparison to Hitler on gas attacks? As you know, six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, many of them with poison gas.
SPICER: Well, thanks for having me, Wolf.
I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad made against his own people last week using chemical weapons and gas.
And, frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which, frankly, there is no -- there is no comparison.
And, for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that. And, you know, I appreciate Director Panetta's comments and will keep those in mind.
BLITZER: So, tell us who you're apologizing to right now. There are Holocaust survivors out there who were listening to what you said and couldn't believe a spokesman, the press secretary for the president of the United States, would make such a statement. So, just specifically, tell us who you want to apologize to.
SPICER: Well, clearly, anybody who not just suffered in the Holocaust or is a descendant of anybody, but, frankly, you know, anyone who was offended by those comments.
It's not -- as I said, I'm not in any way standing by them. I was trying to draw a comparison for which there shouldn't have been one. It was insensitive and inappropriate.
So, I'm not looking to quantify this in any way. It was an attempt to talk about -- I should have stayed focused on the Assad regime and the dangers that they had brought to their own people and the terrible atrocities they did. And to drag any other comparison into this was not appropriate.
BLITZER: But why make the comparison at all? Why bring Hitler into this?
SPICER: Well, again, I'm not going to try to quantify it, Wolf. It was a mistake. I shouldn't have done it. I won't do it again. I think Director Panetta's comments were well-received, his advice.
But it was an attempt to do something that shouldn't have been done. And that's all can I say about it. There really is no explaining it at this point. It's just to say that, especially this week, it was not something that -- it was inappropriate and it was insensitive.
And, you know, look, I think I should have stayed focused. The president obviously took divisive action last week to bring an end to the crisis in Syria, take action that hadn't been taken the last six years.
And the focus should have stayed on the president's action, and not in any type of way of drawing anything into this.
BLITZER: Did you not know, Sean, that there were gas chambers where the Nazis brought Jews and others, gypsies, homosexuals and others, mostly Jews, to slaughter them in these poison gas chambers at Birkenau, near Auschwitz, and other death camps?
SPICER: Yes, clearly, I am aware of that.
Again, as I said initially, there is no attempt to clarify. As I say, the point was to try to talk about the use of aircraft as a means by which Assad was using this to gas his people.
But it was -- it was a mistake to do that. And, again, that's why I should have just stayed on topic, stayed focused on the actions that Assad had taken and the horrible atrocities he had committed against his own people.
BLITZER: Have you spoken to President Trump about your blunder today?
SPICER: Obviously, my -- it was my blunder, as you put it correctly.
And I came out to make sure that we stay focused on what the president is doing and his decisive action. I needed to make sure that I clarified and not was in any way shape or form any more of a distraction from the president's decisive action in Syria and the attempts that he is making to destabilize the region and root out ISIS out of Syria.
So, my goal now and then was to stay focused on Assad. And I should have. And I will continue to make sure that I stay in my lane when I talk about that.
BLITZER: I want to move on and talk about some other key issues. But can we assume the president encouraged you to come out and apologize?
SPICER: You can assume that I realized that I had made a mistake, and I did not want to be a distraction to the president's agenda and the action he has taken, and I sought out to make sure that I clarify that.
BLITZER: Well, I'm glad you did. It's an important clarification, especially to those few Holocaust survivors who are still out there right now, and were obviously very, very shocked to hear what you had to say.
But I -- I think it's very important that you came out to formally apologize and correct it.
Let's talk about Syria right now. Is it believed, from your perspective -- and I know you've been well-briefed -- that the Russians played a direct role in that initial chemical attack?
SPICER: There is no consensus within the intelligence community at this time that shows a Russian involvement.
But, obviously, the intelligence community continues to evolve the situation on the ground. The initial consensus, however, it does not lead one to believe that their -- that they can say conclusively that there was a Russian involvement.
BLITZER: White House officials are telling CNN they do believe Russia is trying to cover up for Bashar al-Assad's regime and its culpability.
If this is true, can you really trust Russia in finding some sort of diplomatic solution to Syria?
SPICER: Well, as I noted today in the briefing, when you look at the countries that are standing with Russia -- Syria, North Korea and Iran -- that's not exactly a group of countries that you want to be standing with. All of them are failed states, except for Russia.
I think Russia is on an island to itself at this point. They are the ones who signed international agreements, along with Syria, saying that they would not possess chemical weapons, never mind use them on their own people. And so I think that Russia continues to find itself isolated in their stance.
BLITZER: Does the president believe Bashar al-Assad must go?
But I think the question is, our number one priority is to make sure that we bring stability to the region and root out ISIS out of there. There's no way that I can see a stable and peaceful Syria with Bashar al-Assad in charge.
BLITZER: Bashar al-Assad -- I know you have mispronounced his name a few times, but it's Bashar al-Assad.
I know the president -- that you suggested yesterday that President Trump might react if barrel bombs, these awful weapons of mass destruction, were used again. But, later, you said there was no new policy.
Could you clarify precisely where the president stands on the use of barrel bombs, if there is another so-called red line?
SPICER: I think it's a combination of a bunch of things.
And I made very clear yesterday that, unlike the past administration, we aren't drawing red lines in the sand, that there are a combination of lines that were crossed last week, particularly the use of chemical weapons against babies and children, that really made the president want to make sure he took decisive action, which he did.
And the world community, both here at home and around the world, heads of state, responded with widespread praise because of that.
BLITZER: All right.
We need to go, but let me ask you one final question, because, as you know, you're the press secretary for the president of the United States at the White House. This is not the first time your comments from the White House, from the lectern there have been criticized.
Are you worried, Sean, that you have a credibility problem right now?
SPICER: No, I think this is why I'm here right now, Wolf.
You know, I think I clearly -- as I said earlier to you, to your audience, when you make a mistake, you own it. And my comments today did not reflect the president's, were a distraction from him, and, frankly, were just misstated, insensitive and wrong.
And I wanted to make sure I clarified them as soon as possible. So, I appreciate you having me on.
But I think that one of the things that I think is important is, we all make mistakes. You have made mistakes. Other outlets, me, and everybody does. And we all hopefully have a bit of forgiveness in us.
And I hope that people who understand know that, when I make a mistake, I'll try to own it, and I would ask people for their forgiveness.
BLITZER: Sean Spicer, it was good of you to come out and apologize to the American people, indeed, to people all over the world for your mistake today.
Thanks very much for joining us.
SPICER: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's get back to Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, the former CIA director.
You just heard him apologize. Not very often you hear a White House official in this new administration being willing to so. But he was very robust in that apology. He admitted it was a major blunder.
Your reaction, Mr. Secretary?
PANETTA: Well, I think it was the right thing to do. And I'm glad he did it.
It is important to set the record straight and to make clear that the American people and particularly those whose families died in the Holocaust understand that he is apologizing to them. So, I'm glad he did it, and, hopefully, all of us can move on.
BLITZER: Is it over now, you think as far as this robust apology we just heard from Sean Spicer? Is there anything else he or others in the Trump administration, you believe, need to do, for example, make a visit over to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from the White House, and do it in a high level?
PANETTA: Well, it is Passover, and it's probably not a bad thing to recognize the importance of that event for those that are part of that faith.
But I think, right now, look, we all know Washington. This is the kind of story that will bounce around for a while. But, you know, hopefully, we will all refocus on the key issues that this country is facing.
BLITZER: Let's talk about some of those key issues right now.
You hear that there is some confusion. There's no consensus in the U.S. intelligence community about whether the Russians actually played a direct role in that chemical weapons attack against the Syrian civilians, including those children.
You used to be the CIA director. Walk us through what is probably going on as far as trying to come up with an assessment.
PANETTA: Well, there is no question that they are probably, you know, exhausting every resource that they have in country to try to determine whether or not the Russians were complicit here. It is clear from what Jim Mattis said today that we have very clear
evidence that Assad is responsible for that chemical attack, that Syria is responsible for what happened to those innocent men, women and children.
And I think that is the issue that now needs to be brought to the Russians by Secretary Tillerson. As to whether or not we ever develop evidence that might indicate that the Russians knew about what was happening, I think that that is going to be probably tough to pin down.
But the Russians are that air base. They knew that there are chemical weapons there. And, you know, there certainly is some smoke here. Whether there's flames or not, we will find out.
BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, there is a lot more for us to discuss. I want to take a quick break, resume our conversation right after this.
BLITZER: We're back with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as North Korea makes new threats against the United States in response to the deployment of American warships moving closer and closer to the Korean Peninsula right now.
Mr. Secretary, North Korea warned it is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S., if the U.S. were to make moves towards preemptive strike. How serious of a threat is this right now?
PANETTA: Well, as we all know, North Korea and the leader of North Korea makes a habit of making those kinds of threats.
And, you know, we understand that, in the end, the leader recognizes that, if he does anything that involves any kind of attack, that his regime is over. That is a reality.
So, I think what we're looking at, Wolf, is that you know, we have this event coming up on April 15, which is the birthday of the founder of North Korea. And every time these special events take place, the North Koreans usually engage in some kind of provocative act.
So, I would not be surprised if they use that event in order to either send off a missile or do a nuclear test or do something that is provocative.
But, as always, I think we have to be prepared to make sure that it doesn't cross that line, that we would consider some kind of direct attack either on South Korea or Japan or on the United States.
BLITZER: Tell us a little bit about Kim Jong-un, how unpredictable this young leader of North Korea is. We had, I think, a lot better information about his father.
But take us a little bit behind the scenes in what we can anticipate from Kim Jong-un.
PANETTA: Well, he is without question very unpredictable, although he comes from a long bloodline of very unpredictable and unstable leaders.
And he is somebody who obviously has acted against those who he suspects are not loyal to him. He's killed a number of the members not only of his family but of the military, individuals that are close to -- to the leader. He obviously killed, or was involved in killing of his own brother. So we know that he is somebody who obviously is concerned about loyalty.
[18:30:36] He's tightening his reigns on that position. He obviously is trying to maintain very tight control.
But I think what I -- what I'm concerned about the most is that every leader of North Korea has to understand that, at some point, you've got to improve the economy of North Korea. You've got to improve the situation with the people of North Korea. And yet every one of these leaders focuses on militarization, on developing missiles, on spending their economic wealth on focusing on military areas, as opposed to developing their economy.
And I think ultimately, they will pay the price for that. One way or the other, this regime cannot last based on what they're doing.
BLITZER: As you know, the president tweeted today that the U.S. will solve the North Korean problem alone if China refuses to help. Do you think a unilateral move against North Korea is the right move, given all the dangers it could potentially develop?
PANETTA: No, I don't think that's the right move. You know, I think that what we need to do right now is to obviously increase our support and strengthen the defenses in South Korea, in Japan, as we have been doing, which I think is important.
I think, secondly, we ought to take steps to tighten the sanctions on North Korea. There are sanctions now but very frankly, they're not -- they're not as tough as they should be. They're not as tough as the ones we had in Iran. So I think we ought to try to toughen up those sanctions.
And then thirdly, continue the pressure on China to try to work with the North Koreans to ultimately agree to some kind of negotiation in the future. That's what we ought to focus on.
I think the problem with doing anything unilaterally and suddenly trying to conduct some kind of attack in North Korea, and obviously, we have all kind of plans, to -- to look at those kinds of targets. But the problem is that we don't know the consequences. We don't know what's going to happen. We don't know how effective those kinds of pinpoint attacks can be, and they could produce horrendous consequences with the reaction we could get from North Korea. I mean, we would be in a war on the Korean Peninsula.
And so I just think we need to be very careful. We can be tough but at the same time be careful about how we deal with North Korea.
BLITZER: Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary. Thanks, Mr. Secretary, for joining us.
PANETTA: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: We're getting a lot of reaction coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, the reaction to my interview with Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. You heard his robust apology for his blunder in making that comparison to Hitler. Much more on that and all the day's news, right after this.
[18:38:19] BLITZER: We've got the breaking news. You just saw it live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, a robust apology for him for a major blunder on his part, making the comparison to what's going on in Syria to Hitler, saying that was a big mistake.
Listen to what Sean Spicer said to us just a few moments ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas and, frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison. And for that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our experts, our analysts.
Abby Phillip, you cover the White House. How often have we heard, in this administration, a senior official come on television and issue such a formal public apology?
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Really incredibly rarely. I mean, I think the only other time I can think of is when Kellyanne Conway went out in the public, and she was pitching Ivanka Trump's products, and that -- that situation created an ethics complaint which is a legal problem for them.
In this case, it was Sean Spicer essentially apologizing for something that was almost universally thought to be completely inappropriate and a real apology. It wasn't -- it wasn't, "if anybody was offended" apology. It was a real one, and I think that's pretty significant for this White House. They very publicly said that they don't believe in sort of giving their enemies any more thought or by admitting mistakes.
BLITZER: Let me play another clip, David. This is from the interview with Sean Spicer. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Tell us who you're apologizing to right now. There are Holocaust survivors out there who were listening to what you said and couldn't believe a spokesman, the press secretary for the president of the United States, would make such a statement. So just specifically tell us who you want to apologize to.
[18:40:16] SPICER: Well, clearly, you know, anybody who, not just suffered in the Holocaust or is a descendant of anybody, but frankly you know, anyone who was offended by those comments.
It's not -- as I said, I'm not, you know, in any way standing by them. I was trying to draw a comparison for which there shouldn't have been one. It was insensitive and inappropriate. So I'm not looking to quantify [SIC] this in any way. It was an attempt to talk about -- I should have stayed focused on the Assad regime and the dangers that they have brought to their own people and the terrible atrocities they did; and to drag any other comparison into this was not appropriate.
BLITZER: But why make the comparison at all? Why bring Hitler into this?
SPICER: Well, again, I'm not going to try to quantify [SIC] it, Wolf. It was a mistake. I shouldn't have done it. I won't do it again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That was pretty amazing to hear that kind of robust apology from the White House press secretary. He did the right thing.
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": He did the right thing. It was a robust apology, and it was important that you pressed him on that point, Wolf, because oftentime, public figures make these general apologies and never specifically say who they're apologizing to. In this case, he clearly owed an apology at least to Holocaust survivors and their families and also to the American public, because they expect better from the press secretary.
I think this apology came so swiftly in part because the White House has become more sensitive to the fact that these verbal gaffes and mistakes are piling up on them and really costing them trust with the American public.
BLITZER: Yes, it could be part of a, you know, new strategy. You make a -- you make a bad statement; you go out and you try to fix it, you correct it, instead of trying to cover it up and move on.
SWERDLICK: Yes, and he -- and I think press secretary Spicer did that.
PHILLIP: And I think for this White House, they've had a number of run-ins with the Holocaust, repeatedly making blunders that are -- force their allies to come to their defense. That gets tiring over time, and at some point, they needed to show their willingness to be contrite, to correct mistakes and to move forward. It's not something that can be sustained forever, where everyone gives them the benefit of the doubt for making mistakes that are offensive and that are meaningful to people who have families who survived the Holocaust or who themselves survived the Holocaust.
BLITZER: And for the president, Tara, this hits home. His son-in- law, Jared Kushner, Kushner's grandparents were Holocaust survivors. So this is something that really, really hits home to the entire Trump family and especially at a time like this during these days of Passover.
TARA MALLER, COUNTER EXTREMISM PROJECT: Absolutely. Not only was it an offensive remark, you should never compare the atrocities of one dictator to another. You should never be comparing or trying to make moral equivalence or lack of moral equivalence between the killing of individuals in gas chambers in a chemical attack. These are all horrible humanitarian, terrible atrocity situations. And for Sean Spicer to make that comparison, not only is it offensive; it's distracting.
There's a lot on the agenda today. There's a G-7 summit meeting. There's Rex Tillerson going to Russia. There are issues that the administration wants to be focused on. So I think they wanted to do their clean-up fast, and I think that's smart. I'm all for apologies. I'm all for personal responsibility and self-awareness. And this was one example of the administration doing that when they haven't traditionally done that in the past.
BLITZER: Abby, listen to this other clip. This is from the interview I just did with Sean Spicer. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Have you spoken to President Trump about your blunder today?
SPICER: Obviously, my -- it was my blunder, as you put it correctly, and I came out to make sure that we stay focused on what the president is doing and his decisive action. I needed to make sure that I clarified and not was, in any way, shape or form, any more of a distraction from the president's decisive action in Syria and the attempts that he's making to destabilize the region and root out ISIS out of Syria.
So my goal now and then was to stay focused on Assad, and I should have; and I'll continue to make sure that I stay in my lane when I talk about that.
BLITZER: I want to move on to talk about some other key issues. But can we assume the president encouraged you to come out and apologize?
SPICER: You can assume that. I realized that I had made a mistake, and I did not want to be a distraction to the president's agenda and the action he has taken. And I -- I sought out to make sure that I clarified that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So Abby, I can only assume the president must have been very, very angry.
PHILLIP: Yes, and as you know, Wolf, he watches those briefings. He's a very voracious watcher of television, and it is on every single day. And for that moment to really take off on social media would not have gone unnoticed from this president.
And beyond that, as Spicer pointed out in his interview, it is a distraction from a moment when the White House wants to be talking about how the president moved forward on Syria. He did something where his predecessor failed to do. That's the narrative that they want to have. And this moment for Sean Spicer really overtook that. And that's something that the president does not like.
BLITZER: And the press secretary -- and I've been a -- I'm a former White House correspondent. You have to have credibility out there. Not just with the reporters on the White House beat but with the American public, indeed, people all over the world. That's why I asked him this question, David. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: As you know, you're the press secretary for the president of the United States at the White House. This is not the first time your comments from the White House, from the lectern there have been criticized.
Are you worried, Sean, that you have a credibility problem right now?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, I think this is why I'm here right now, Wolf. You know, I clearly -- as I said earlier to you, to your audience -- when you make a mistake, you own it. My comments today did not reflect the president's, were are a distraction and frankly were just misstated, insensitive and wrong, and I wanted to make sure I clarified them as soon as possible. So, I appreciate you having me on.
But I think that one of the things that I think is important is we all make mistakes. You made mistakes, other outlets, me, and everybody does. And we all hopefully have a bit of forgiveness in us and I hope that people who understand know that when I make a mistake, I will try to own it and I would ask people for their forgiveness.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You know, as I said before, you don't hear that very often from this administration asking for forgiveness.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. It was very robust. He said more than once to you, Wolf, that he did make a mistake. He owned it. He should get credit for that, but he does have a credibility problem, Wolf.
Look, today, he went out to the briefing. He mispronounced Bashar al Assad's name more than once I think. He referred to Iran as a failed state more than once. Whatever people think about Iran, it's not a failed state. It's a regional power. And he also got into this thing where, as Tara said, he made a
comparison between Hitler and Holocaust and another atrocity which is never a good idea. They did try and clean it up. But I think they see now that they can't let their war of words get ahead of what they are actually trying to do.
BLITZER: Do they have to do something, Tara, that will underscore this understanding of the enormity of the mistake that the White House press secretary made? For example, in a few weeks, there's a big diner that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is having. It happened every year. It's probably a dinner that at least Sean Spicer might want to attend if not go to an actual tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum.
TARA MALLER, COUNTER EXTREMISM PROJECT: I think -- and that's a good point. I think the real issue here is it goes not just to the offensive nature of the comment, but it goes to the expertise and credibility surrounding foreign policy issues. The administration has a number of serious issues on its plate right now, from North Korea nuclear -- a potential missile test in the upcoming week, to safe haven of issues in Syria, to what they're doing with the Assad regime, and the chemical attack that they responded to and no one is clear in terms of what comes next.
These types of issues when you're mispronouncing foreign leaders names, when you're making statements about atrocities that aren't historically accurate to be frank, the Holocaust, millions of people were in gas chambers, so his comments just weren't even accurate. So, when you make those kind of gaffes over and over again, apologizing for them is great because it shows that you are aware that you made the mistake. But it goes to your credibility, particularly on foreign issues.
This is the press secretary at the White House. You have to be sort of -- you can't really afford mistakes in that role. It's a very important role and it's very important in terms of not just the domestic audience but internationally.
One general rule: you know, don't make gaffes at the podium at the White House, and, you know, don't make gaffes on your tweets at 3:00 a.m. If they could just, you know, stick to those, that might help U.S. foreign policy.
BLITZER: Yes. But Sean Spicer, he did the right thing, he came out and he apologized. That's very significant.
Just ahead, new threats and growing tension as U.S. warships approach North Korea.
Plus, President Trump's travel tab. How much are those Florida golf outings costing American taxpayers?
[18:53:12] BLITZER: A sharp exchange of threats between the Kim Jong- un regime and President Trump has tension growing on the Korean Peninsula right now.
CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us.
Brian, North Korea is making new threats as the U.S. warships approach the region.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They certainly are, Wolf.
Tonight, we're told U.S. intelligence officials are watching for any signs that North Korea will conduct another nuclear or missile test in the coming days, including the birthday of Kim Jong-un's grandfather this Saturday. This comes as tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest level in years, with an ominous warning coming earlier today from Kim.
TODD (voice-over): A stunning new look tonight at the public facade of the brutal North Korean regime. Kim Jong-un, in newly released video, strutting center stage at a gathering of his handpicked elites, who dutifully applaud the dictator. On state TV, a fawning news anchor narrates the gathering, the Supreme People's Assembly.
At the same time, Kim Jong-un is conducting this show of political force. Kim's regime is warning America over the deployment of the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula, calling it an act of aggression.
A regime statement hand-delivered to CNN says, quote, "If the U.S. dares to choose a military option, the DPRK is willing and ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S."
BALBINA HWANG, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: I think it's North Korea essentially saying, look, we are pursuing nuclear weapons for a reason. This is exactly why. You are the world's most powerful nuclear power. If you dare to strike us, we will strike back.
TODD: A U.S. defense official tells CNN the carrier group was sent to patrol near North Korea because of Kim's recent provocations -- his missile tests and test of engines for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
[18:55:03] Tonight, CNN is learning more specific information about what the U.S. carrier group could do off North Korea's coast if ever ordered to strike. Analysts say the Vinson strike group has two destroyers and a cruiser with more than 300 combined missile tubes. They carry the same type of Tomahawk missiles the U.S. fired into Syria, and could shoot down some North Korean missiles if they're test-fired.
DAKOTA WOOD, WEAPONS EXPERT, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: The CG-47, the Lake Champlain, the ship on the right, carries over a hundred vertical launch missiles. Some of those would be equipped to able to interdict shorter or medium range ballistic missile.
TODD: Will those American warships be ordered to shoot down North Korean missiles if they're test-fired while the carrier group is nearby? Pentagon officials won't comment.
But the movement of the warships comes as President Trump tweets, "North Korea is looking for trouble and that if China doesn't help," quote, "We will solve the problem without them."
Experts worried tonight about a point of no return for the tough- talking leaders of the U.S. and North Korea.
HWANG: The two leaders could indeed be headed for a collision course, essentially a game of chicken. And many worry that once they're on this path, there's no U-turn or left turn or a stop.
TODD: And don't look for China to help steer the two leaders off that path. Despite President Trump's messages to China, even saying that a Chinese trade deal with the U.S. would be better for Beijing if it helped with North Korea. The Chinese has made no promises of specific action to rein in Kim Jong-un -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, how vulnerable is that U.S. aircraft carrier strike force to North Korea -- to a potential North Korean attack if Kim's regime decides to go after it?
TODD: But, Wolf, there are three things that Kim could throw at that carrier group. He could throw ballistic missiles, attack planes and submarines.
But one weapons expert tells us, the Vinson strike group is ready for all three. He says North Korea's missiles are not sophisticated enough to hit the carrier group before they would be blasted out of the sky. North Korean planes wouldn't stand a chance against the American attack planes on the carrier. And he says the U.S. would deploy attack submarines along with the carrier group, which could detect and take out North Korean subs which this expert says are very noisy.
BLITZER: Brian Todd, reporting for us -- thanks very much, Brian.
A final story for us tonight: the cost of President Trump's cost of frequent trips to his Florida resort clearly adding up. He's now on track to spend more on travel in his first year in office than President Obama did in eight years.
CNN's Tom Foreman has been looking into all of this for us.
Tom, the president, what, heading back to Florida later this week.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and at a very time that he's saying to other government agencies, "you need to be more frugal, you need to save money," he still appears to be acting like a jet-setting billionaire on the taxpayers' dime.
FOREMAN (voice-over): The president keeps taking off and the bills keep piling up. The latest getaway itinerary?
SPICER: The president plans to spend the Easter holiday in Florida and he'll return to the White House on Sunday.
FOREMAN: Since assuming office, President Trump has spent six weekends at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, for a Super Bowl party in early February, a meeting and dinner with the Japanese prime minister, a little golf a weekend after that, a little more golf two weeks later, still a few more holes in mid-March and then his meeting in early April with the Chinese president.
To be sure, he ordered the strike on Syria during that last visit and his staff insists he is always working.
SPICER: And I think the president wherever he goes, he carries the apparatus of the White House with us. That's just something that happens.
FOREMAN: But in just 80 days, Trump's travels have cost taxpayers an estimated $21 million, all while drawing attention to and boosting the value of his private properties. Membership fees at Mar-a-Lago, for example, have already doubled to $200,000.
The Secret Service insists it can handle the load of protecting all that travel. The head of homeland security notes agents are pulling long shifts.
JOHN KELLY, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We need a larger Secret Service because we need to get some of these people a little bit of time at home with their families.
FOREMAN: Law enforcement officials in Florida say they, too, are spending tens of thousands a day and working their officers as if a hurricane has hit.
SHERIFF RIC BRADSHAW, PALM BEACH COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: Which is 12-hour shifts and cancel vacations and we're going to use all our manpower that we have at our fingertips.
FOREMAN: And in New York where First Lady Melania Trump lives, taxpayers are shelling out up to $146,000 a day to secure Trump Tower.
FOREMAN: The White House says, as summer comes on, the president's trip to his Florida resort will decrease, but there are indications that will just mean more visits to other Trump resorts in New Jersey and in Virginia -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Tom Foreman reporting for us. Tom, thanks very much.
That's it for me. Thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.