Return to Transcripts main page


Tillerson/Lavrov Wrap News Conference; Tillerson Brings Up Russian Hacking of Election. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 14:30   ET



Lavrov says we have instructed State Department channels and Ministry of Foreign Affairs channels to have people who can talk to each other, he said, without emotion, to try to, you know, to take care of any issues that arise before they become big and unmanageable. So that sort of mini red-line telephone between the two has been established.

Then on and on and on, the differences about whether they hold or believe that Assad used that chemical weapons. And if you heard Tillerson say, we have proof that Assad not only prepared and conducted that attack, he again said it was conducted on the orders of President Assad. He kept using his name and saying we have inconvertible proof. And Lavrov said no, and we want an inconvertible objective investigation by the OCW. Now the Trump administration says, on no account that continuing this line that Assad has a future there. And I thought it was really interesting what Lavrov said, again -- and they've said this before -- but again, he said that we are not wedded to backing Bashar al Assad. That's up to the process, the peace process, and up to the Syrian people. They are not really embracing him but saying they don't like internal -- or outside investigations into internal affairs.

They talked about North Korea. Secretary Tillerson saying that the "Carl Vinson" carrier group is routinely in the pacific and nothing should be read into that. Lavrov saying that we have to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, we cannot have any more military interventions. He also talked about the hacking, that I know you'll want to discuss more of.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let me discuss that with Dana Bash right now.

The issue did come up, the Russian interference in the presidential election. Tillerson saying that everyone in the United States accepts that it is well established on Capitol Hill. He says that it's a serious issue and went on to say that potentially it could attract additional sanctions against Russia.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. We've certainly heard from Capitol Hill and from -- in particular, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill saying that they just will not stand for what they see is absolute evidence that Russia meddled in American elections. He was strong on that. However, I thought the more interesting part of his answer was his

non-answer on a very specific question about not just was Russia involved in meddling but did you take evidence that the intelligence committee says that it has to Vladimir Putin, to the leaders? He sidestepped that. He didn't say yes or no. He simply said, well, it's obvious. We know that it happened and then answered with the sanctions. After that, Lavrov said the opposite. He said not a single fact has been confirmed. No one has showed us anything. We have said to them, show us evidence of these very slanderous attacks. So for people who have been looking into this -- and, again, a lot of the president's fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill who say that the whole reason what the Republican-led Congress is investigating in the first place is to stand up to Russia and say, we know you did this and we will not stand for this. Why didn't the secretary of state bring that evidence to Russia and present it to them as a way to show that they are not going to stand for it? I think the fact that he didn't gives some ammunition to people looking for conspiracy theories. Not that there is any "there" there or we have evidence of collusion, but it's certainly a question mark why he didn't take the first opportunity to do this when this issue has been enveloping the American political discussion and really pushing the Trump administration off course.

BLITZER: He said specifically that Russia is mindful of the U.S. position and that it could attract additional sanctions. Lavrov came back and said the secretary didn't threaten me.

BASH: That's fine. He didn't have to threaten but he also said he didn't give him evidence, which is surprising.


And Elise Labott is with us as well.

Elise, on these two issues, the allegation that Russia used cyber warfare into interfere in the U.S. election and Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons to kill of those civilians, including children, Lavrov was consistent on both, show me the evidence, we haven't seen the evidence, we don't accept it, we're ready to have an international investigation, but you don't show us any of that evidence.

[14:35:18] ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Tillerson is almost saying, it's a fact. We don't even know to show you evidence. We don't know what happened in the meeting but it's clear that Tillerson didn't have a smoking gun in his pocket. Yet, he's talking about relations being at a low point, low level of trust, these two nuclear powers have to improve their relations. And I thought it was so interesting and so remarkable that these two ministers are sitting there and kind of acknowledging. Usually, there's a lot of pleasantries, they say we have differences but we're going to work through them and paper over it. These were two ministers that sat there and basically were bickering to one another in front of the press and in front of the world on live television.

And I think that maybe the election really wasn't what Secretary Tillerson was going to talk about. The more immediate issue is Syria and how the U.S. is going to work more cooperatively on this issue. Secretary Tillerson came with a very pointed message and said in his press conference that it's time for, you know, the Russians to end their support for Assad, that Assad is a liability and Russia's isolation is only going to increase if they don't kind of get with the program. I thought it was -- you know, he said Russia needs to recognize the reality that Assad is going. This needs to be done in an orderly way and I think that -- you know, when we talk about that the Russians are not wedded to Assad, I think Secretary Tillerson was trying to find common ground there. He was there to say we know you have interests in Syria. We'll help you preserve these interests but this is a sinking ship and we'll help you get off.

These two men, Secretary Tillerson is very calm, very plain spoken. Minister Lavrov is this kind of word smith and constant diplomat. You can see, even through their bickering, that they are trying to find common ground together. And I don't think it's the same with Secretary Kerry when he would get run around by Lavrov. As blunt as it gets. And I think through it all, you're going to -- even though there's so much tension, I think the U.S. relationship with Russia is going to be in a much more honest place now.

BLITZER: He did say, Tillerson and the others, that they are gathering evidence to bring Bashar al Assad before an international war crimes tribunal to get rid of him and his family, end that reign. And then we heard Lavrov said removing a personality is not on our agenda.

Michelle Kosinski is there traveling with Secretary Tillerson.

What did you make about the interactions between these two men, the secretary of state and foreign minister?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yeah. We know obviously, these were difficult conversations to have. For four hours they sat down. Half of that time, two hours with president Putin. And you know how he is when he speaks. I don't think for that reason this was the time or the place to bring hard evidence. Those accusations have been out there for a long time. The U.S. has stated clearly what its position is there. I don't think this was the time or the place to level the accusations, to demand action right now. I'm sure that Secretary Tillerson and based on what other U.S. officials have said, made the point clearly that Russia would be held accountable for its actions and how the U.S. feels about backing Assad.

I think what you saw in this press conference, it was really interesting, especially in the beginning, they're wanting to focus and highlight areas of cooperation but the situation is so bad at this point that the best that could come out of this is an agreement after four hours of talks to talk some more. So that happened. I mean, that goal is out there. They now have this working group to try to work on the relationship. But to hear Lavrov not accuse others or blame others for Assad, not try to deflect, not try to deny it, and that's what we've been hearing from Russia, you know, denials that the Assad regime was behind this, what he did was call for that investigation. That's kind of his way of hiding today, so not being so aggressive as to blame anybody else but to use that full investigation as the kind of deflection point. Not great news, but it's a softer tone. He did the same thing on the hacking. We don't have any evidence. We haven't seen anything. He was able to use that and hide behind for the purpose of trying to work together.

I don't think this was the time to -- for Tillerson to try to fight it out in these conversations. Remember, the point of this is to try to find any common ground that is possible. You know, this, is Russia not putting forward any conspiracy theories. But, at the end, you heard Lavrov put that out there when he was talking about how he feels the Obama coalition against ISIS has failed, saying that they think that the coalition spared al Nusra to lead to a reason for regime change. So he's back to blaming the U.S., formulating these series. What it ultimately does is, even though there's some desire for cooperation, it lays bare those very stark differences. He's not backing away from Assad any time soon.

[14:41:24] BLITZER: He certainly isn't.

Michelle is in Moscow. Stand by.

I want to bring in our military analyst, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

Did you hear these two men, did you hear anything to suggest that the U.S. and Russia are getting closer on issues as critically important, for example, as Syria, or is the gulf deepening?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILTIARY ANALYST: Well, as the great correspondents, they have taken all of my talking points, Wolf. So I think the key here was the common ground that they are not -- if they have a regime that they can influence that is not Bashar al Assad, we may have talking points there.

But as far as the investigation into the attack that happened on the 4th of April, we're so far apart on that. Each side is holding to its positions. If there's going to be an independent investigation, it's going to be just what we saw in August 2013. The U.N. will come in and make their investigation and list a whole string of findings but will not assign blame. We don't need a repeat of that.

Plus, the area in which this chemical attack took place has been bombarded daily by incendiary weapons. I don't know what kind of physical evidence we'll be able to get, but they are relying on maybe exchanging information. And judging from what I've heard from Secretary Mattis and now Secretary Tillerson, I don't think we'll be willing to share that information. It's probably a little too sensitive.

But the other point was, as Michelle said, the Russians claiming that we were not bombing Nusra is flat-out wrong. So I think Mr. Lavrov was steering things a little toward the Russian position. Of course, that's his job. He's the foreign minister. I think the opening, the key that I'm taking away, they are not wedded to Assad. Maybe we can do ISIS first and then have ISIS militarily and then a political solution that gets rid of the Assad family, but probably keeps a secular regime that the Russians can influence. I think we can live with that.

BLITZER: Let's see.

I want to bring in Matthew Chance. He's in Moscow for us right now.

Matthew, we've learned that the Russian President Vladimir Putin is open to trying to re-establish that U.S./Russia air safety agreement. How significant is that? That's what Lavrov, in this news conference, seemed to suggest, that maybe this can get back on track to avoid any potential for a U.S./Russian military encounter.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERANTIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I think it's really significant. It's one of the first things that the Russians did after the U.S. missile strikes last week, after the 59 tomahawks hit that Syrian air base. They said, from now on, we're suspending that military-to-military contact. It's important because it prevents U.S. and coalition and Russian airplanes colliding or conflicting in the skies over Syria. But also -- and this is crucial -- it was the conduit by which the United States military warned the Russians on the ground that were incoming missile strikes. So it enabled them to get out of the way, move their equipment out of the way, their personnel out of the way and make sure they were not caught up in those strikes, because the last thing the United States wanted is to kill Russian soldiers on the ground with these missile strikes. This would have brought them potentially into confrontation with nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed Russia. Taking away that line meant it raised the risks in of military planners in the United States in the future to carry out future strikes, and so that was important. The fact that it's re-established, again, on the basis that it's used only to deconflict on issues when it comes to attacking terrorists on the ground, al Nusra and ISIS, it is very significant.

[14:45:17] But let me just speak for a minute about the tone I think that was struck, because I think, actually, for a very inexperienced diplomat, which is what Rex Tillerson is -- he's only been in the job for a few weeks -- he struck a very conciliatory tone, particularly when it came to Bashar al Assad. Because even though he said it is our view that the reign of Assad's family is coming to an end, he made it clear that that was the U.S. view. He didn't insist, like he had previously, that Russia distanced itself from Assad, which was quite a confrontational remark that he made at the G-7 meetings the day before. The reason he dropped that insistence is that he was probably told firmly by Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, and firmly by Vladimir Putin in this two-hour meeting with the Russian president as well, that there was very little chance that Russia, who has invested so much money and prestige in backing Assad, that he was going to turn away. Yes, there is a comment by Lavrov that we are not insisting on personalities, but when you've been watching Russia closely like I have, the Russians say this a lot. They often say we are not married to Assad. But he's the man that they back, and the secretary said that they are going to continue to back them.

BLITZER: No sign that they are moving away from Bashar al Assad.

Matthew Chance, good analysis. Thanks very much. We have a lot more information coming in. Watch this. These are live

pictures coming in from the White House where President Trump is getting ready to speak to the news media following a meeting with the leader of NATO, the secretary-general of NATO. There will be a joint news conference in an hour or so from now. We'll have live coverage of that. The U.S./NATO alliance -- the NATO alliance once slammed by then-Candidate Donald Trump as obsolete. We'll hear what he has to say today. We'll have details on those remarks. This meeting potentially could be awkward. Joint news conference coming up in about an hour.

Our coverage continues right after this.


[14:51:17] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for being with me. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

We're talking Russia and the United States. Live pictures here as President Trump meets with NATO as his administration is confronting Russia. Such a strong contrast to Candidate Trump, who did the opposite. Moments from now, the president will meet with the leader of NATO at the White House. Keep in mind, this is after President Trump called NATO obsolete.

Let's begin with this unexpected face-to-face of what many are calling the new version of the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin's nearly two-hour meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Until it happened, it was entirely unclear whether the two would actually see each other in person. Just six days ago, the U.S. launched a missile strike in Syria, which Russia condemned, as Vladimir Putin backs Syrian leader, Bashar al Assad.

Moments ago, we saw Secretary Tillerson there in Moscow holding this news conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. They were candid about how it's a "low point" -- Mr. Tillerson's own words -- especially regarding Syria. Russian's foreign minister insisted on an independent investigation over who was behind the chemical weapons attack, despite the U.S.' certainty that Syria is to blame, that the Assad regime is to blame.

Here's more from that news conference.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The current state of the U.S./Russia relations is at a low point. There's a low level of trust between our two countries. The world's two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.


BALDWIN: Joining me now is someone who has been inside these high- stakes meetings in Russia, Jon Finer, the chief of staff for Secretary of State John Kerry.

Jon, thank you so much for joining me.


BALDWIN: So you have Secretary Tillerson, relatively inexperienced diplomat, out on the world stage talking about this international crisis. How do you think he did?

FINER: I thought Secretary Tillerson did fine. It was a perfectly credible performance. To be honest, my biggest take away was de ja vu of what was a classical performance of Sergei Lavrov right down to the condescending tone with spiced in biting remarks along, a history lesson of someone he referred to as essentially as a new person on the stage under -- in diplomacy, and then frequent requests when pressed for evidence to back up American claims. This is a constant Russian tactic, both in negotiations and public presentations, in part, because they know some evidence is acquired through intelligence we cannot just hand over to them. In many ways, this was a very par for the course for Lavrov, and I thought Secretary Tillerson performed just fine.

BALDWIN: Sitting there and watching, because we heard from Secretary of Defense Mattis yesterday, echoed by Secretary Tillerson today, absolutely without a doubt that attack in Idlib was coordinated, executed by Assad. And yet, flash forward, two feet sitting next to him is the foreign minister of Russia saying, eh, we're not so sure, let's look at the independent investigation. How awkward must that be?

[14:55:49] FINER: You know, Brooke, to be honest, there were two areas of agreement that they seemed to have found. One, on the need for resuming this deconfliction channel, and another that got a bit less attention but where Secretary Tillerson said the U.S. would be open to increasing our military-to-military contact with the Russian military. This is something the Russians have sought for some time.

But the overall time was taken up much more by profound areas of disagreement, as you just described. A total disagreement on responsibility for the chemical weapons attack, with Lavrov raising the possibility that this could have been something that the opposition was part of. And then on the future of Assad, with Foreign Minister Lavrov basically saying that they were never going to support a policy that led to the change of a personality. And Secretary Tillerson doing a 180 from his position a couple weeks ago saying that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.

BALDWIN: Well, under the column of doing a 180, this is Secretary Tillerson's inaugural trip as secretary of state. Any secretary of state meets with the head of either the Soviet Union or, now, Russia. And initially, Putin was not -- that wasn't on the table. Here you have this 11t h-hour meeting, lasted about an hour and fifty minutes. You've been in meetings like these, Jon. Who is in there? Give me some color of just the room.

FINER: Sure. One thing worth underscoring is the notion this meeting was not confirmed and was somewhat uncertain. We made at least a half dozen trips to Moscow during my time when I was with Secretary Kerry. I don't think we ever had a meeting fully confirmed when we hit the ground in any one of those cases. So this is --


BALDWIN: What's that about? Just playing games?

FINER: I think it's bit of a power play, a bit of a game. And they will play games with the manifest, meaning who is allowed to attend. They will sometimes say it's the only secretary of state plus one of his advisers or maybe only two, the room is small, and then you arrive and the room is enormous. So these things tend to happen. I wouldn't read too much into that.

To be honest, the most disturbing thing that came out of today and out of the press availability is no sense of a way forward in Syria. Neither Foreign Minister Lavrov nor Secretary Tillerson gave comfort to people hoping that these very significant acts that took place, the military strike and horrible attack by the Assad regime, may lead to momentum behind the diplomacy. But all we heard is that proposals would be reviewed.

BALDWIN: Mr. Tillerson himself called it a low point, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. We should just mention that Tillerson stopped just short of calling Assad a war criminal.

Jon Finer, thank you very, very much. I appreciate your voice in this conversation.

Let's move on, though, because there is an explosive report that the FBI got this warrant to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser on the belief he was acting as a foreign agent for Russia. How big of a deal that is, coming up next.

Also ahead, the fate of two members of President Trump's inner circle in question right now. Sean Spicer saying he let the president down over his Hitler remark in the briefing room yesterday, and President Trump with strange words about Steve Bannon, his supposed chief strategist. Is a shakeup coming?

I'm Brooke Baldwin. This is CNN's special live coverage.


[14:59:55] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN special live coverage. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Here's a heads-up for what we're all watching for. First of all, if you look at pictures of the White House, a big arrival in front of the West Wing. You see military, meaning the president is in residence. He's awaiting --