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Tillerson & Russian Counterpart Meet Amid Growing Tensions; Sources: Intel Doesn't Support Trump Claim that Rice Committed Crime; Trump Aide Accused of Being Russian Agent; Trump Tries to Clear Up Muddled Messaging. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 06:00   ET



DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person.

[05:58:30] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rex Tillerson face-to-face with his Russian counterpart.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The Russian government have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There's no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the attack.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Quit having your head in the sand. Putin is a war criminal. Assad is a war criminal. They're birds of a feather.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Someone as despicable as Hitler didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know if he needs to be fired. He certainly does need to get better at his job.

SPICER: It was a mistake. I shouldn't have done it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That P.R. nightmare for United has a price tag. A quarter of a billion dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: United Airlines is tail spinning.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Comey and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, April 12, 6 a.m. here in New York. And we do have some breaking news, because at this hour, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart are meeting, and that is generating a lot of headlines. So we will bring you those.

Also, there is a possible of Rex Tillerson meeting with Vladimir Putin, we've just learned. The White House accuses the Kremlin of helping Bashar al-Assad cover up that chemical attack.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And we have major developments in the Russian interference investigation. Exclusive reporting that shows a very different conclusion about surveillance than what Devin Nunes tried to sell. And a big blow to Trump's claim that Obama officials broke the law unmasking officials. Also, an exclusive new report about one of Trump's campaign aides being investigated as a possible Russian agent.

A big day, 83 of the Trump presidency. We have it all covered. Let's begin with Michelle Kosinski, live in Moscow.


Yes, we saw the meeting begin this morning between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Russian foreign minister with a handshake. But then in their remarks, they just got right into it. The matter at hand, the Russian foreign minister calling U.S. airstrikes a violation of international law, saying they need to stop. And also throwing in a dig about top positions at the State Department not yet being filled.

For his part, the U.S. secretary of state focused on trying to find areas of cooperation. Also this morning, we're hearing from both President Trump and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, on this subject.


TRUMP: 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.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Anything Russia says at this point, no one is believing it. No one is. I mean, you can -- the international community sees this for what it is. The international community has watched Russia cover up for Assad for years.


KOSINSKI: You know, it's unusual. That little photo op, basically, before an important meeting is called a spray. Cameras come in. Usually, there are a few pleasantries exchanged: a welcome, a handshake, a few nods or smiles to the camera, where it looks like the two are just, you know, getting their friendly or, at the very least, cordial meeting under way.

But not this time. Just one more thing, as if it was even needed, to highlight the state of tensions between the two countries right now.

There is still a possibility that Vladimir Putin will meet with Tillerson today. The Kremlin is saying it hasn't yet been scheduled, but it is a possibility. They might be just waiting to see how this meeting goes between Lavrov and Tillerson.

You know, a couple of years ago, Tillerson was honored by Putin as a friend of Russia. Just look at the message that sends, that at this point, he's in Moscow, and Putin has not even scheduled a meeting with him yet -- Chris.

CUOMO: And then, Michelle, if they do meet, what will be said in that exchange? Thank you for the reporting. We look forward to developments.

We have a huge CNN exclusive report for you. A review of five documents contradict surveillance claims made by House Intel Committee, Devin Nunes.


REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I was concerned about Americans' identities being either not masked properly or, in fact, being unmasked in intelligence reports.


CUOMO: Now, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN there is no evidence the Obama administration did anything wrong or illegal.

CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto live in Washington with the exclusive details. A little bit of insight now into maybe why Nunes wasn't so eager to share those documents.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Exactly right. You remember, Chris, these allegations, they sparked a firestorm and seem to have led to the president accused Susan Rice of committing a crime. But Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides are casting doubt on claims by Nunes that Obama administration officials improperly requested the names of U.S. individuals that had been redacted in intelligence documents.

CNN sources say that these lawmakers have now seen the same intelligence documents Nunes reviewed last month. And they tell CNN and, I should remind you, people from both parties, lawmakers from both parties, they tell CNN they see no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything out of the ordinary or illegal. One confessional source described the request as, quote, "normal and appropriate."

CAMEROTA: So, Jim, you have talked to the sources who have actually seen the documents with their own eyes. Is there a smoking gun in there?

SCIUTTO: In a word, no. What one source telling us, Manu Raju, my colleague and I, absolutely no smoking gun in these reports. In fact, this person even urging the White House to declassify them to make it clear that there is nothing alarming in them.

Now, a lot of questions have been around the role, as I said, specifically of Susan Rice. Whether she acted legally in requesting the names of Trump officials who are caught up in this incidental collection we know that U.S. intelligence agencies do overseas. President Trump has said he believes she may have broken the law, but

multiple sources who have reviewed these documents that Nunes saw say flatly they don't back up the president's claims that she may have broken the law, that these are routine requests; that the president himself has not revealed what intelligence he's relying on to make that assertion that Rice broke the law. We don't know. Is it possible he saw something else? But as far as Nunes was talking about, those documents, they've been reviewed. No evidence there, according to the sources we're speaking with.

CUOMO: All right. So because we're talking politics here and not just law, if the Obama administration did act properly, what are the rules for actually making and granting these unmasking requests?

[06:05:10] SCIUTTO: It's a good question, Chris, because there is an open question here. You know, is this something that should be done? How often should it be done? These rules are set by the Intelligence Committee. Certain senior national security officials can make such requests, of course, including the national security advisor.

Then the intelligence agencies, principally the NSA, in this case, they have to decide whether to grant those requests. But the fact is, in practice, I'm told, the requests of senior officials are rarely denied. And now, despite the judgment that Obama officials' requests were within the law and regular, some members of Congress do continue to have concerns about the justifications given for unmasking the identities of U.S. citizens and the standards that the intelligence agencies follow to grant these requests.

CAMEROTA: Jim, thank you very much for all of that reporting.

We are also following another story this morning. "The Washington Post" is reporting that the FBI obtained a warrant to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, because there was probable cause to believe that Page was acting as an agent of the Russian government.

We have so much to discuss with all of these news stories this morning. So let's bring back in Jim Sciutto and the rest of our panel. We have CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein and Carol Lee, the "Wall Street Journal's" White House reporter.

Guys, thanks so much for being here to help us go through all this. Let's start with Russia, because there are headlines already coming out of this meeting between the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Rex Tillerson, our secretary of state. Let me read you some of the big headlines, Ron, already.

So Lavrov says that the U.S. strikes in Syria were, quote, "a violation of the law." Lavrov says it is important that the U.S. never repeat such strikes. Lavrov says -- I believe it was Lavrov; it might have been the Kremlin. Relations with the U.S. are worse now under President Trump than they were before. What do you make of these conversations that are happening as we speak?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think -- I think it just underscores how unrealistic the expectations were on both sides about how much leeway a President Trump would have to fundamentally reset American relations with Russia given the difficult divergence in their -- in the priorities of the two countries around the world.

I mean, as we talked about, during the campaign, in fact, the principle benefit that candidate Trump talked about for rethinking the relations with Russia was ostensibly more cooperation against ISIS. But that overestimated how important that was that dislodging ISIS was not as important to Russia as reinforcing Assad. And once Assad crossed a line that the administration properly felt the world had to respond to, I think it just illuminated how big a gulf separated the two sides.

And now you are seeing, I think, kind of the dashed expectations, perhaps of President Trump and President Putin of what is possible in kind of the harsh light of how much our interests diverge in Syria.

CUOMO: I mean, it's not just the interests; it's the reality. Right? I mean, Carol, you have the White House struggling with what their message is and what the line is that they will tolerate in Syria. But certainly, believing they had actual intelligence about the recent chemical weapons attack.

The Russian president denying that reality, saying he has two theories for what happened. One was that it was a near miss about some rebel munitions dump, and the other is that it is completely fake. I mean, how do you bridge that gap?

CAROL LEE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": It's going to be very difficult to bridge that gap. And I don't think that they expect to be able to do what they're trying to do is to get something in Russia that the previous administration was unable to do. And it's going to be very challenging for this administration to get.

If you step back and you look at how this relationship has unfolded three months in, this had been building for some time. This was a White House that started to recognize that Russia was not what it thought, that the reset was actually -- was not going to be working out. It wasn't just Syria. It was Ukraine. There were other issues that the -- you know, the way Russia's relationship with Iran.

And then you had last week what caught the White House, obviously, by surprise with Assad's move. And that just sealed the deal. And now there's very low to no expectation that this relationship will be able to get off to any kind of start.

The one area where you -- when you talk to officials about what they want from Russia in terms of cooperation, it's fighting counterterrorism. But that hasn't materialized, and it's not clear that it will materialize. Because their interests, as you just pointed out, are not aligned.

CAMEROTA: Jim Sciutto, people are just waking up and tuning in. I want to go back to the big story that you are breaking this morning, and that is that you have spoken to both Democrats and Republicans. You have sources that are connected to the House and Senate Intel Committees that have now seen the very same classified documents that Devin Nunes did.

[06:10:08] Remember when Devin Nunes said that this was not about Russia? Do your sources say that whatever those documents are or were, were about Russia or not?

SCIUTTO: They say they're about more than Russia. That the intelligence reports underlying these, quote/unquote, "unmasking requests" where you have senior Obama officials asking to unmask the identities of Americans mentioned in these reports, they involved conversations

intercepted overseas regarding a number of countries, including Russia, but also dealing with Israel, with Taiwan. All the countries that matter to the U.S. and that, therefore, are the subject of eavesdropping in effect, overseas. The fact is, the U.S. eavesdrops -- we know this -- on both friends and adversaries as part of intelligence collection. It is about more than that.

I think the big headline is this. This was a big deal when Nunes came out and said the Obama administration, they were doing something wrong here. And then the president followed up and went even further. He said, "I believe Susan Rice committed a crime."

Now you have Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. They looked at these underlying documents to look at the request that were made. They said, "You know what? This is what national security advisers do. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing illegal." And it contradicts Nunes, but it, in effect, contradicts the president, as well.

CUOMO: Yes. I mean, this is like the biggest one-two punch Trump has taken on this so far. The only thing that Nunes was right about is it being broader than just Russia. Everything else that he pointed to was false. There's a huge hole blown in it. What Susan Rice meant and how important this was, and what it showed about the administration in trying to protect the White House.

Ron, according to Jim's reporting and how it's being echoed otherwise, there is zero to that, according to Republican lawmakers. And now, the only "there" there is what would be the worst reality for the Trump administration. A judge found probable cause to do surveillance on his adviser, Carter Page. That's worse than nothing happening.

BROWNSTEIN: That's right. That is -- these are both big developments in a story that clearly is going to continue to unfold. And I would say that there is a clear cost.

I mean, if you look at where President Trump is, President Trump has a much lower approval rating than any new president at this point in his presidency. Part of that, I think a relatively small part of that is his agenda. Yes, the health care bill in the end was unpopular. The executive order on Muslim immigration had a majority disapproval.

But I think the principle reason, if you look at the polling, why his numbers are so much lower and Republicans are nervous after the results, for example, in that Kansas special election last night, where they won by seven points in the district that Trump carried by 27 points, is largely about the conduct, basically the temperament and the -- and the competence as president and making charges like this that the Obama administration broke the law without being able to support it is the kind of thing that is causing him problems.

And one of the reasons he was elected is so many people doubted whether Hillary Clinton was honest and trustworthy. His numbers on that kind of personal value are now miserable as well and as bad as hers ever were. So it is exactly these kinds of questions about whether he is someone who is disciplined, you know, kind of controlled enough as president that I think are causing the bulk of the -- of the unusually low numbers that he has seen.

CAMEROTA: Carol, let me read you Carter Page's response. He gave one to CNN's Manu Raju about he -- Carter Page -- being the subject of this FISA warrant. He said, "There have been various reports [about these FISA documents and FBI surveillance of him]. But I was so happy to hear that further confirmation is now being revealed. It shows how low the Clinton-Obama regime went to destroy our democracy and suppress dissidents who did not fully support their failed foreign policy. It will be interesting to see what comes out when these unjustified basis for the FISA requests are more fully disclosed over time, including potentially the" -- quote -- "'Dodgy Dossier' -- a document that clearly is false evidence, which could represent yet another potential crime."

Carol, what do you see here?

LEE: Well, he's trying to politicize a FISA warrant, which is, you know, if you look at what it takes to get a FISA on somebody, it is -- it's a very rigorous, complicated, scrutinized process. This is not just somebody going in and saying, "Hey, we want, you know, to wiretap this person."

And so but he -- they're trying to -- and this is what the White House and the Trump folks have done for some time, which is to say that this is a partisan -- this is a partisan investigation and that this is just aimed at -- they've tried to politicize it. And that's what Carter Page is doing here.

I'd also say that this was the White House which has really distanced itself from Carter Page over time. You know, the president said when he was a candidate, that he named Carter Page as one of his top foreign policy advisers. And they've since really reeled that in and walked that back.

[06:15:14] CUOMO: Well, they've been pulling a little Manafort move there, trying to get some distance. Easier to do with Carter Page than, obviously, a bogus attempt to do with Manafort.

Thank you very much, panelists. Appreciate it.

Jimmy, big reporting from you. Thank you for advancing the story.

Sean Spicer, another big headline, he apologized after he touched on the third rail with his comments at the White House press briefing.


SPICER: You had a -- someone despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to the -- to using chemical weapons.


CUOMO: Now, it's untrue. It's inaccurate, and it was hurtful. But Spicer did apologize. The question is, is that enough to maintain credibility to even maintain his job? Our panel discusses next.


CAMEROTA: So the White House press secretary said something shocking yesterday. Sean Spicer claimed that Hitler had never used chemical weapons.

CNN's Joe Johns is live at the White House with the latest. What is the latest, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest, quite frankly, Alisyn, is that the president himself has seemingly been trying to clear up some of the muddled messaging that's been coming out of the White House, which has been complicated, quite frankly, by gaffes and missteps in the briefing room, which has stepped on some of the key messages of the week, including the White House assertion that Russia tried to cover up Syria's involvement in that chemical attack last week.


TRUMP: We're not going into Syria.

JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump asserting definitively that he has no plans to escalate the involvement in Syria after last week's strike. Stressing that he was compelled to act because of the Syrian dictator's use of chemical weapons.

TRUMP: You have these massive barrels with dynamite, and they drop them right in the middle of a group of people. You see the same kids. No arms, no legs, no face. This is an animal.

JOHNS: President Trump also blaming President Obama's inaction for the crisis in Syria.

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.

JOHNS: But these comments are in stark contrast to Trump's position just four years ago, when he argued there was no up-side and tremendous downside to Obama taking action in Syria.

Meantime, press secretary Sean Spicer facing intense backlash after suggesting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who's guilty of acts worse than Hitler. SPICER: We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You know,

you had a -- you know, someone despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to the -- to using chemical weapons.

JOHNS: Ignoring history by falsely asserting Hitler did not use chemical weapons.

SPICER: 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.

JOHNS: Spicer attempting to clarify his statement during the briefing.

SPICER: It was not in the -- he brought them into the -- to the Holocaust center. And I understand that. But I'm saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns and dropped them down to innocents into the middle of town.

JOHNS: And subsequently apologizing in a written statement and again on CNN.

SPICER: There really is no explaining it at this point, is just to say that, especially this week, it was not something that was appropriate. And it was insensitive.

BLITZER: The blunder coming during the beginning of Passover, provoking sharp condemnation and sparking speculation about Spicer's future in the administration.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: It's unfortunate, and we should never have comparisons with Hitler. Ever.

REP. ADAM SMITH (D), WASHINGTON: It's obvious that Sean Spicer needs to know more about history when he's making his comments. And those comments were insensitive and ignorant, without question.


JOHNS: Also new this morning, the president seemingly giving a less- than-definitive assessment of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. When asked by "The New York Post" whether he still has confidence in Bannon, the president as quoted saying, "I like Steve. But you have to remember, he was not involved in my campaign until very late" -- Chris and Alisyn.

CUOMO: Joe, appreciate you teeing it up for us. Let's bring on our panel. We'll discuss both. Carol Lee and Ron Brownstein are back with us, and joining us now is politics editor at "The Root," Jason Johnson.

All right. Look, inaccurate? Of course? Insensitive. By anybody's light. Also, violates this rule about comparing things to the Holocaust to mean simply merely terrible.

CAMEROTA: Everyone gets in trouble. When they use a Hitler analogy, everybody gets... CUOMO: And it's been happening more and more, frankly. So it's a cheap thing to do. Shouldn't be done. All true.

Now it comes to what does it mean for Spicer and in this context? Is it a one-off or do you believe that it's a symptom of something?

JASON JOHNSON, POLITICS EDITOR, "THE ROOT": You know, it's the office culture. Remember, you had Ben Carson saying that slaves were immigrants. Right? They tried to defend that. This is not the first, the last, the second, the third or the fifth time that this administration has shown insensitivity, whether it's from an administration or it's from Sean Spicer. I don't think he's going to get fired.

The fact that he threw himself on the sword after this is kind of novel. But I think that's about protecting himself, because if he asked his boss, he'd probably say, "Don't apologize. You can just move on." I think this is about the office culture of this administration. And unfortunately, it's not going to change.

CAMEROTA: Ron, Sean Spicer did apologize here on CNN during Wolf Blitzer's show. And look, we all understand the perils of Sean Spicer's job. Speaking extemporaneously every day in front of that huge press corps is not for the faint of heart. But does this run in a different category?

BROWNSTEIN: It is, and look, I think that job is hard under any president. It is especially difficult under this president for the reasons we talked about in the last segment, which is that he regularly says things that he simply cannot support with evidence. And that you, as the press secretary, are forced to go out and, in some cases, defend what appears to be indefensible.

[06:25:05] I think -- look, Sean Spicer's -- you know, that is a -- that is a structural challenge that goes with being the press secretary for a president, you know, with this kind of -- with these kind of inclinations.

Having said that, he has had a number of rough days. And, you know, it is not -- it is not unprecedented for a president to go in a very different direction for the podium early on. I don't know if you will remember. George Stephanopoulos was the press room briefer for Bill Clinton at the beginning of his presidency. That didn't work out so well. They made a change, and I think that the issue here is going to be whether those above have, you know, confidence that is projecting the kind of mastery, confidence and direction that they want in that job. And he's had a number of days where that cannot be the conclusion they've reached at the end of the day in the White House.

CUOMO: Carol, you have competence, OK? You have accuracy. Facts. Those are all things that Spicer has been getting dinged with. Certainly the White House. And the president has been, as well. You have general sensitivity. Do you make anything of this notion that there is an insensitivity, part of what Jason's calling the office culture there? Do you buy into that, as well? LEE: This was -- struck me as just Sean Spicer speaking, you know,

and not knowing what he is was talking about. It wasn't -- you know, he was -- if you look at how he first -- his first comment about it. And then you try to clean up. And then he tried a written statement. And then he -- it wasn't working. And there was a lot of frustration inside the White House because this stepped over everything that they thought was going well for the president, including the praise he was getting for his action in Syria. He got a Supreme Court justice. And so he was forced to go out there and apologize.

But if you step back and look at this, you know, he has not -- this relationship did not start out well. He is -- his first day, his first appearance at that podium, he -- you know, he lost credibility with the press and potentially with the public. And we've seen a number of instances in the weeks since where, you know, he's kind of outside the bounds. And this one obviously went too far.

And we saw this White House, which rarely almost never does, apologize for something. So it was -- it was a pretty remarkable moment. And I think now we're just waiting to see kind of how the rest of this plays out. He doesn't have a press briefing today. The president has a press conference. So we won't see him. And, you know, how does he -- does he manage to hang on and move past this? We just -- we don't know.

CUOMO: It's worth watching online Wolf's interview with him, just to button up this conversation. Because Wolf was going at it a more than just a gaffe. You know, the basis of why would you talk about the Holocaust this way? Why would you say "Holocaust centers" instead of talking about gas chambers? Why would you do that? And it's worth listening to his responses and get a feel where he's coming from.

CAMEROTA: OK. Next important name in the news, Jason, Steve Bannon. There's been a lot of reporting in the past several days that there is a feud between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in- law. It turns out that's true. The president confirmed as much to "The New York Post" in this interview.

And his language around Steve Bannon was noteworthy, so let me read this to you: "I like Steve, but you have to remember, he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all of the senators and all the governors and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist. And it wasn't like I was going to change strategies because I was facing Crooked Hillary. Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will."

Damning the man with faint praise.

JOHNSON: There is no loyalty in this administration unless you are, like, a blood relative of Donald Trump. Because, you know, I remember -- most of us remember -- it was Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. When they came onto the campaign, that's when his campaign straightened up.

For President Trump to say, "I didn't really like Steve." No, Steve Bannon helped save your campaign. To say you don't want anything to do with the guy.

And here's the thing. I've always thought the president can pick who they want for their administration. But Steve Bannon is a problem. He's a white nationalist. He sympathizes with white terrorist organizations. He's an anti-Semite. I don't think he had a role in this administration. But the idea is that Trump is unhappy because he's making him look bad. Not because of the -- not because of the ideology he brings to the administration.

CUOMO: Reality is, is he going to go anywhere? Let's see. I'm a seller (ph) on that.

CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much.

There's more news. The president warning North Korea an armada heading to the region. Pyongyang threatening a nuclear strike if they're provoked. What will happen next? We take you live inside North Korea.