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One-on-One Interview of Sean Spicer. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 09:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So what was he talking about anyway? CNN exclusive congressional insiders say they see nothing to back up claims from the House Intelligence Chair that the Obama White House collected information on Trump campaign officials.

And an advisor to the Trump campaign investigated as a possible Russian agent? A new report says the FBI had their eye on him for months.

Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: I'm Poppy Harlow. This morning, a bad relationship has gotten worse. In a new interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in dire terms about the back and forth with the United States saying, quote, "The working level of confidence in Russian-American relations, especially at the military level, under the administration of Donald Trump has not improved, but rather worsened."

BERMAN: And he is saying this as the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is behind closed doors right now, meeting with his Russian counterpart, talking about their differences, differences right now that seem as big as black and white.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski in Moscow for monitoring these talks. Michelle, what are you learning?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. You know this was always going to be an extremely difficult meeting. But what was unusual was to see that tension on full display even before it started.

You know, before this meeting, they usually have a photo op. There are just pleasantries exchanged or at least cordialities. But in this case, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, just launched right into it with his sharp criticism of U.S. strikes on Syria, saying that they're a violation of international law and can't happen again.

He talked about the fact that there is not clarity, even, on the U.S. position on Syria. And he took that opportunity to slam the State Department for not having enough people. There are still so many of those high-level positions that are not filled, and he said that it's been difficult to communicate. Here's some of what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SERGEY LAVROV, MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF THE RUSSIA FEDERATION (through translator): And it is important for us to understand your intentions, the intentions of the U.S. and the real intentions of this administration. We hope that we can clear up today these things. Welcome.


KOSINSKI: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for his part in this kind of pre-meeting display, stuck to the cordial. He talked about the relationship, that this is an opportunity to find cooperation as well as go over those differences.

But you hear things coming from the Russian government, I mean, calling the U.S. rhetoric primitive and loutish. But President Trump had his own words this morning in an interview for Russia. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person, and I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world. But when you drop gas or bombs or barrel bombs -- they have these massive barrels with dynamite and they drop them right in the middle of a group of people -- and in all fairness, you see the same kids, no arms, no legs, no face, this is an animal.


KOSINSKI: And what we've been hearing over the past couple of days from each side makes it very difficult to see what cooperation they can pull out of this. I mean, the U.S. and Russia do cooperate on a number of issues. But after this has happened over Syria, we're just going to have to wait and see what comes out of this press conference later. I think everybody is going to be watching that.

It still remains to be seen, whether President Putin will sit down with Tillerson. We've seen a couple of signs that this might happen. But you know, just a couple of years ago, it was Putin, himself, awarding Tillerson with the Order of Friendship here in Russia. What a different message he is sending out right now.

HARLOW: Absolutely. And it would break precedent, if he does not meet with the U.S. Secretary of State especially on his first trip, yes, to Russia.

BERMAN: Every secretary of state since Cordell Hull, that's a long time.

HARLOW: There you go. That's your history fact for the morning. That is a long time, John Berman. Thank you.

Michelle Kosinski, thank you.

So joining us now to talk about all of this is our panel. Retired Commander Kirk Lippold. He's former commander of the USS Cole. And Juliette Kayyem is here, our national security analyst and former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

So, Juliette, let me begin with you. Worse, according to Putin, U.S. relations are than before. So much for a reset.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: That's exactly right. I would say the stakes are higher for Secretary Tillerson than for the Russian team only because he's new to this. And he has to be able to show that not only is he an appropriate Secretary of State, but that there is something that we might call the Trump doctrine. You and Michelle just mentioned Syria and what Russia has been saying about our attack in Syria.

[09:04:58] But also remember, just yesterday, Tillerson has said sort of casually but in, I would say, a very harmful manner, what does it mean to the American taxpayer to defend the Ukraine? That is heard by the Russians as just another sign of a very confused policy, are we going to stand behind Europe or are we going to try to do a reset with Russia? So some clarity is, I think, demanded by the Russians but also by, I think, the Europeans at this stage.

BERMAN: You know, Commander Lippold, we should note these meetings are happening right now. We're just getting little drip, drip, drips about what they said before and what's leaked out during. Let me read you one comment from the Secretary of State as he was walking in.

He said he wanted to clarify areas of sharp difference so that we can better understand why these differences exist. Areas of sharp difference, I'm not sure I understand what that means.

The United States thinks that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. The Russians, including Vladimir Putin, say that that was staged. That's more than a little difference of opinion. How do you bridge a gap like that?

COMMANDER KIRK LIPPOLD (RET.), FORMER COMMANDING OFFICER OF THE USS COLE: I think the way you graph is you see, just like this morning when the posturing is done, Lavrov won't even look Secretary Tillerson in the eye.

And let's get down to business. Get the cameras out of the room, get the people out of the room, and let's talk. OK, where do the differences lie? What do we see for how we're going to deal with the fact that you failed to get chemical weapons out of Syria because, clearly, they used them?

And, oh, by the way, I think Secretary Tillerson would probably be wise to present the Russians with, here is the evidence. Here's what we picked up with intelligence to be able to confirm with absolute certainty that they carried out this attack, where they carried it out from, and how it was conducted.

Once they have that, OK, we clear the air. Let's lay down, what are our priorities, and where do we have common ground? We still need to continue the fight with ISIS. We still need to clarify that we're not going to tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Now, we need to figure out, is Bashar al-Assad going to stay? Is

Russia going to continue to want to back him? And what are the consequences going to be for Russia if they continue to do that, if he continues with this brutal war against his own people?

HARLOW: Juliette, you pointed out something that Tillerson said that is confounding to many people when he said, why should the American taxpayer be interested in Ukraine? Why should they care about Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine? Why should they care about Crimea?

It's confusing, but on top of that, you had Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, calling out Tillerson and going as far as to call him naive. Listen to this.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: When Secretary Tillerson says he hopes that Russia will re-align itself with western democracies and break away from Syria and Iran with all due respect, I like Secretary Tillerson, that's pretty naive.


HARLOW: Do you agree? Is it naive?

KAYYEM: Absolutely. It's not going to happen. This is where Tillerson's remarks about the Ukraine are so sort of mind boggling at this stage because there are differences. They have to accept that.

And Tillerson by sort of thinking out loud sort of raises the stakes both for Europe and Russia. There is no thinking out loud anymore. You are the Secretary of State. Pontificating about, how do I sell this to the American public, is not his job. He needs to make a bright line statement about our commitment to Europe and NATO, as well as a statement to Russia.

I will say one other thing. With all of this going on -- Syria, Europe, and the relationship between Russia and the United States -- we have this other thing, right, which is Russia's involvement with our elections, which ought to be addressed by Tillerson at this stage to ensure that at least in future elections, Russia does not do what it did in this last one.

BERMAN: So, Commander, what about that? How closely is Russia watching the various election stories coming out of the United States including the news today that Carter Page, there was a FISA warrant on him?

LIPPOLD: I think they're watching it but quite frankly, they're going to be disinterested in it. They waged an information warfare campaign during the election, the degree to which we're still trying to determine if it had any true effect on whether or not it helped President Trump get elected or not.

But at the end of the day, when you go back to the Middle East and look at it, I think Juliette is absolutely right. He is the Secretary of State right now.

Secretary Tillerson, you can't think out loud. What happened in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine is critical because the Europeans do look at that. They look at how the United States reacts to it, how we're going to engage in the future, and what that portends for NATO and all those countries. The Baltic countries, especially, are very concerned. As NATO members, if we are attacked, can we expect the NATO to be backing us?

So we need strong statements. And you need something between what's thought up here and the filter that goes in before it comes out here from the Secretary of State.

BERMAN: Well, look, a lot of people watching these meetings going on right now between the Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister. Again, we will keep our eyes on them as well for when they come out.

Commander Kirk Lippold, Juliette Kayyem, great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

KAYYEM: Thank you.

[09:09:57] BERMAN: We have a CNN exclusive this morning. Congressional insiders telling CNN the documents they have seen may contradict claims made by the House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes. Both Democrats and Republicans tell CNN they've seen no evidence that the Obama administration did anything wrong. One source even says there is absolutely no smoking gun here.

HARLOW: So in an interview with the President taped before this new CNN exclusive reporting, we saw the President double down on his allegations, that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice committed a crime. Listen.


MARIA BARTIROMO, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: She said she didn't do it for political reasons. Susan Rice told Andrea Mitchell --

TRUMP: Does anybody really believe that? Nobody believes that. Even the people that try to protect her in the news media. It's such a big story, and I'm sure it will continue forward. But what they did is horrible.


HARLOW: CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto reporting that story, helping break this news. What have you learned?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, in short form, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, frankly, are not backing up the President's claim. They're casting doubt on claims by Devin Nunes that the Obama administration officials improperly requested the names of U.S. individuals that had been redacted in intelligence documents. CNN sources say these lawmakers have now seen the very same

intelligence documents that Nunes reviewed last month and then shared with the White House. Although, we then learned that the White House actually shared with him. They tell CNN they see no evidence that the Obama administration officials he mentioned did anything out of the ordinary or illegal. One congressional source described the request as, quote, "normal and appropriate for senior national security officials in these positions."

HARLOW: And I know that you and our Manu Raju have talked to multiple sources, people who have seen, held, read through these documents. What did they tell you about their concerns?

SCIUTTO: One source telling us that there is absolutely no smoking gun in these reports. In fact, this person, in particular, even urging the White House to declassify them to make it clear to the public that there is nothing alarming in them. A lot of questions have been raised in particular.

We heard the President mention there as well about Susan Rice, whether she acted illegally in requesting the names of Trump officials, incidentally collected in intelligence reports. President Trump, as we've said, says he believes that she broken the law.

But, again, multiple sources and from both parties who've reviewed these documents say flatly they just don't back up the President's claims, she may have broken the law. These are routine requests, and they're ones that might happen as senior intelligence officials are looking at these reports. They see an American citizen mentioned there. And to understand what's behind the reports, they might then ask the intelligence community for that American's identity so they can understand the gravity of those intelligence reports.

BERMAN: So what is that process, Jim? Lay out the process for actually unmasking the identity of someone in a report like this.

SCIUTTO: So this is how it works. These rules were set by the intelligence community. Certain national security officials can make some requests, a very limited number. The intelligence agencies, principally the NSA in this case because it involves communication intercepts, they then decide whether to grant those requests.

Now, to be fair, I am told that, in practice, the requests of the most senior officials are rarely denied. If Susan Rice comes to the intelligence community, asks for an unmasking, they're really not going to tell her no. So some of the members of the House and Senate Committees that we spoke with said, despite their judgment, that they haven't seen anything untoward in the requests made.

They do have legitimate questions about how these standards are set. Are they too loose? Should they be tightened up? Should it be harder for administration officials to request unmasking? They have those questions. Those remain legitimate questions.

HARLOW: So, Jim, another leg, another branch of this whole Russia story and saga, is Carter Page, right? Someone who billed himself as a foreign policy advisor to the President while he was running, someone who the President has certainly distanced himself from. "The Washington Post" is reporting this morning, the FBI obtained a FISA warrant for months to monitor his conversations.

And that's pretty extraordinary because they would have to convince a judge there is probable cause that someone -- it would be Carter Page at this point -- was working as an agent of a foreign power.

SCIUTTO: Listen, if confirmed by others -- "The Washington Post" is certainly credible -- it's significant story because, to this point, we've known that the FBI is investigating possible links between Russians and Trump officials.

BERMAN: Yes. And --

SCIUTTO: Now we know they took the step of issuing a warrant because they have probable cause. That's --

BERMAN: Jim Sciutto for us in Washington. I don't mean to cut you off, Jim, but I want to go to Washington right now. Listen to Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, speaking a day after his explosive claims about Adolph Hitler.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- each person can understand that part of existing is understanding that when you do something wrong, if you own up to it, you do it. You let people know and I did.

[09:15:00] So for me, I mean, obviously, there's two take-aways. One is it's a very holy week for both the Jewish people and the Christian people, and this is not -- to make a gaffe and a mistake like this is inexcusable and reprehensible and so of all weeks, this was not, this compounds that kind of a mistake.

But second of all -- so first of all, it's obviously -- it's really is painful to myself to know that I did something like that because that obviously was not my intention and to know when you screw up you possibly offended a lot of people.

I just, you know, and so I would ask obviously for folks' forgiveness to understand that I should not have tried to make a comparison. There's no comparing atrocities and it is a very solemn time for so many folks, that it's a part of.

So that's obviously a very differently thing personally to deal with because you know that a lot of people that don't know you wonder why you would do that. So that's first and foremost.

Secondly, from a professional standpoint, it's obviously disappointing. I think the president's had an unbelievable couple of weeks. He took a very decisive action in Syria. He made tremendous progress with President Xi of China.

And your job as the spokesperson is to help amplify the president's actions and accomplishments. I think he's had an unbelievable successful couple of weeks. When you are distracting from that message of accomplishment, that's your job is to be the exact opposite.

On a professional level, it's disappointing because I think I've left the president down and so on both a personal level and a professional level. That would definitely go down as not a very good day in my history.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Did the president say anything to you last night?

SPICER: I did not talk to him. No, I haven't talked to him this morning.

SUSTEREN: Any message to anyone else and the president?

SPICER: I don't get into private conversations, again, this was my mistake, my bad. That I needed to fix and so I'm not going to get into any additional conversations that I may or may not have. I will say, this is mine to own, mine to apologize for, moo into ask for forgiveness for.

SUSTEREN: Turn to other issues, you think the press is fair to you or gunning for you?

SPICER: I don't think it's monolithic. I think some folks clearly have an agenda. Some folks are open minded, and some folks probably root for you, but they're sort of a spectrum.

SUSTEREN: What's the surprise in the job for you? If we were over at the Republican headquarters for a number of years. What's the surprise in this job?

SPICER: I don't know that there's a time. I think the level of scrutiny is obviously, I wouldn't say it's a surprise, but it's sort of the magnitude to which it exists is fairly unbelievable. No matter what you do, what you wear. It may kind of gets amplified to a degree that you couldn't imagine.

And so I think what the priorities are about what gets covered. What doesn't get covered? I think in sort of the obsession with some of the process, which I always understand, I have been doing this for a long time. I understand the process. I understand ups and downs.

But I think when you look at the issues that our world and our country are dealing with, sometimes the obsession with, you know, who's up, who's down in one week or who said what in a meeting versus the substance of what's being taken to improve the lives of the American people or protect us or deal with world incidents is sort of intriguing.

SUSTEREN: Do you have a sense you work for the president, the White House or the American people? Who do you think you are working for?

SPICER: Well, to some degree it's all. SUSTEREN: How do you reconcile that? Because sometimes, you know, are you in a position of advocating for --

SPICER: At the end of the day, the president won an election by -- you know that the American people voted in. So I ultimately answer to him. It is his agenda that is being pursued as, you know, that's the case of anyone in office. You are elected by a group of people.

You pursue an agenda that you feel that you communicated to those people or are accountable to those people, whether or not you brought it up during a campaign or not.

So first and foremost, it is the president, my job is to go out there and help amplify and discuss what he's doing and why he's doing it and the accomplishment that he's having.

SUSTEREN: How much access under the president?

SPICER: Plenty. That's not a problem.

SUSTEREN: You can talk to him every day, spend time with him every day?

SPICER: Every day.

SUSTEREN: How does your day start?

SPICER: I get up around 5:00, 5:15, I start reading e-mail and then usually try to do some kind of exercise.

[09:20:07] And then again we kind of monitoring the news of the day, the issues of the day, going over what the events are, we have meetings early in the 7:00 hour.

And then we basically are just trying to figure out what we're advancing as well as what the incoming is, if you will, what are the issues that are playing hot. What are the issues we think will overtake the day. What are the events that are happening and how we are going to communicate those?

SUSTEREN: In terms of dealing with the media, I assume you get complaints from the media, right?

SPICER: One or two.

SUSTEREN: What are the complaints you get from the media?

SPICER: There's always going to be an issue with access. They want more.

SUSTEREN: Access to you or the president?

SPICER: To everything. I mean, it doesn't matter, to the parking lot, to the front line, trees, I mean, there's nothing that they don't want access to. So that's probably first and foremost what they want and then obviously administration officials, the president. You name it.

SUSTEREN: And other complaints in the press?

SPICER: I think there has been one or two.

SUSTEREN: I'm trying to see how you facilitate a better relationship between the press and the White House?

SPICER: Look, I think it's naturally combative because no matter what the administration is, the party is, the press is always going to want more of what it is, and that's the nature of the relationship.

But I think that there are some things that to your question, I think the advent of social media and I know Ari has talked about there a lot. Dana Perino has talked about this, the sort of most recent Republican press secretary on the advent of the Republican side.

That there is an element of being first and try to get things on the ether on social media, et cetera that has really changed the dynamic by which that room and the relationship exists.

SUSTEREN: All right, one thing, people would much prefer not to have anonymous sources, much prefer. Yet when you --

SPICER: I think there is a different, just so I'm clear, like there are people on a policy level, right, who are implementing, you know, helping to shape policy and because of the nature of what they do. They don't want their names out there.

Not because they're hiding, but because they're there to serve the people and the government. It's not they're hiding. I think when the press, you can bring someone into a briefing room and say this briefing is on background, but everyone can see who they are.

They are talking -- that's a much different thing than we'll get a phone call and say we have five backgrounds sources that say you crossed the street the wrong way. The question is there is no accountability. We don't know who they are.

Are they inside the White House, outside the White House, do they breathe? There is a lot of -- that is very difficult to respond to because you are shooting at almost a ghost.

I think we, we try to minimize the use of and I would say anonymous sources, but background sources to make sure people see the individuals. That they know they're real and they're reading stuff.

But I think for a lot of folks in government they're there to serve the American people, to work really hard to work on a particular issue. They don't necessarily want to have their name and their family particularly exposed to some of the --

SUSTEREN: But I've we heard the complaint coming generically from the White House, from people in the White House, complaining about the over use of anonymous sources by the media and then I see members of the media sort of rolling their eyes, thinking that some of the people who are saying this are the very people who are making statements and wanting to be anonymous.

SPICER: Well, again, I think there is a big difference. We get hit with a lot of this -- you know, there's 18 people that said the following, and we won't tell you who any of them are.

So we have no idea who -- again, what I think a lot of times happen is somebody will say, I know someone who knows someone who lives next to two people whose brother Jimmy is friends with them on Facebook.

That's not really a source. When are you basically defending you know, that's not somebody in the room. I'll get sometimes well have an event in the oval office or in a particular room and there will be four or five people there.

And I get a call from reporters, six sources, who said there weren't six people there and so it's very hard to imagine. We talk to people who talk to people. We all seen the game of telephone.

If you just do it among children, you will get clearly the reason we access, you know, teach them sometimes the game is to show how a message will vary by the time it gets two or three people deep.

I think the question is how reliable is that source? When you get four or five people that say, we were in a room that didn't happen, and they go, yes, I know you have four people who were actually there willing to go on the record.

But we are not going to accept because we have two people who knew two people that followed them on Twitter. You have to weigh that difference of who the sources are. I don't think that's getting as much of a play as it should.

SUSTEREN: Is there a two-way street? Even the president will tweet things, for instance, he was surveiled by President Obama and it's like, we don't get the sources on that. Yet we are the rather dramatic assertions.

[09:25:01]SPICER: Well, again, I think that there is a question though about how this happens. We have asked for investigation in that front through appropriate channels that were -- I mean, a lot of that material is at a classified level.

SUSTEREN: After the bomb was struck. I mean, essentially after the tweet. The tweet came first from the president.

SPICER: I understand that, but what I'm saying is that there is also how classified information gets handled is a whole separate discussion. Again, I think that we have seen, and you have seen both very bipartisan outrage on this.

There is a level to which classified information is being shared with journalists and others who are not cleared and that presents a danger to our country.

I think while journalists sometimes want to toil on this and people want to read the sensational story, there is a reason it's classified. It's because it threatens the safety of the United States and there are sources that are being protected.

I think that we shouldn't be applauding the leaks of classified information. I think the president is right to call this out as a major concern. I think you have seen people on both sides of the aisle who have been involved in this world to call that out.

But it is concerning when we have classified information in sources that are being used to perpetuate a narrative. Again, if you think about it, it ties your hands when you respond.

Because you can't, just because you claim you know something classified, you call up. You can't then fight back on it because it is classified so us engaging in that conversation, puts us in a very difficult spot.

SUSTEREN: And not to belabor a point, but this is a city where virtually a lot of things get classified that probably don't need to be classified. I mean, for decades, there has been an over classification in this city, which protects --

SPICER: That's a whole separate --

SUSTEREN: But not an insignificant one. I mean --

SPICER: I think with matters of national security when you are talking about sources and methods and the use of things for inappropriate purposes. That is not an over classification.

SUSTEREN: The president tweeting, I mean, he says he will continue to tweet and I imagine it complicates your job somewhat.

SPICER: Well, I think that's the default narrative, but I also think that when you realize that he has an ability to all the channels that he has for over a hundred million people that he can reach out to.

And I think some of the media's frustration is that he does have this direct line to the American people, where he can communicate accomplishments, thoughts, and push back to false narratives and stories that frustrates people who want to control that narrative.

SUSTEREN: I think another to look at those, he drops some stink bomb essentially and in 140 characters or less and then leaves. There is no sort of follow up or tapes.

SPICER: I think for a lot of people especially outside of Washington, they have yearned for an authentic voice that has not tried to strip everything perfectly as a lot of politicians have done and the president, you know, even if you disagree with him on policy.

I think one of the things that people given high marks for his keeping his word and being you authentic. I think that is something that has been missing a lot of times in Washington.

SUSTEREN: Again if you don't have the give and take, you can't do a follow up. That's the problem. SPICER: We do. But again, I would argue, that if you look at our engagement. The president in terms of myself and him, and other members of the staff, we are engaging with the media and with outside groups and coalitions and individuals, unions, members of Congress in an extremely robust way so that there is follow up, a discussion. It is not sort of in a vacuum that that's occurring.

SUSTEREN: Yes. Last night he gave an interview in which he said that the U.S. is not going into Syria. Did you see that?

SPICER: I did.

SUSTEREN: OK. One other thing he said is he's not going to telegraph his plans. He has telegraphed to Assad and ISIS that he's not going in. How do you reconcile that?

SPICER: Well, I think that specifically ground troops -- I think there's two issues, one is that doesn't mean A, how we will deal with ISIS as a whole. So I thought if we have to deal with ISIS and it moves into Syria, that's one thing.

I think going in and occupying Syria for the express purpose of regime change, it's something the president has been clear throughout the campaign. I think to sort of try to extrapolate that.

This is something he talked about well into the campaign the use of force and military troops and something like that. So that shouldn't be a shocker, that's something he has been talking about for a while.

SUSTEREN: So Assad should not comment, we're not going into Syria to mean that he is not going to do another airstrike necessarily?

SPICER: Absolutely not.

SUSTEREN: So that's still --

SPICER: It's 100 percent. I think the president said that in the same interview that should they continue to use gas, especially against children and babies, that, you know, all options remain on the table.

But make no mistake about it, I think the president showed last Thursday night that he will use a decisive, justified and proportional action to right wrongs.