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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Meet with Russian Counterpart; Congress Members Question Devin Nunes Claims Regarding Unwarranted Unmasking of Americans; Interview with Governor Chris Christie; Spicer Makes Stinging Assad-Hitler Comparison. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Two-plus hours, what's the word?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: This was always going to be an extremely difficult meeting, but that was on display there morning even before this crucial meeting got under way. This was a time for pleasantries and a photo-op. But the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov didn't want to wait. He just got right into it, criticizing U.S. airstrikes on Syria, calling them a violation of international law and saying that they must stop.

He also took the opportunity to slam the State Department, itself, for not having enough people. There are all of these high level positions still opened. He said it's been difficult to communicate.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for his part wanted to stick to the cordiality, talking about the relationship and this being an opportunity to go over areas not only of differences, but also to try to find cooperation.

Also this morning, we're hearing from the Russian government calling U.S. rhetoric primitive and loutish. Russian President Vladimir Putin saying the relationship has deteriorated with Trump as president. But Trump and his ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, had their own words for Russia.


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.

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


KOSINSKI: Tillerson wants to make the points strongly that Russia needs to change its tune and stop backing President Assad in Syria, also to make the point that the U.S. is going to hold Russia accountable for its actions and its responsibility not only there but elsewhere, including Ukraine. We still don't know if there is going to be this meeting between Putin and Tillerson, but the Kremlin says it is still a possibility. Chris?

CUOMO: Tillerson putting out that odd statement about Ukraine saying why would U.S. taxpayers care what happens there? Michelle Kosinski, thank you very much.

We have CNN's exclusive reporting this morning, claims of wrongful surveillance and unmasking by House Intel Committee Chair Devin Nunes being blown up by GOP lawmakers and Dems alike who looked at the same document. Do your remember this from Nunes?


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


CUOMO: We now have multiple sources from both parties telling CNN there is no evidence the Obama administration did anything wrong or illegal contrary to those claims by Nunes and from President Trump.

CNN's Jim Sciutto is live in Washington with the exclusive details. Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides, they are casting, Chris, serious doubt on claims by Devin Nunes that 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. They tell us they see no evidence that the Obama administration officials did anything either out of the ordinary or illegal. One Congressional source describing the requests by these Obama administration officials as, quote, "normal and appropriate for officials in those kinds of positions."

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, so Jim, you and Manu Raju have now talked to sources who have actually with their own eyes seen these documents. What is in them?

SCIUTTO: A very uniform description, really. One source telling us that there is absolutely no smoking gun in these reports. In fact this person who Manu spoke to is even urging the White House to declassify these do you means to make it clear to the public that there is nothing alarming in them. A lot of questions have been around specifically about the role of Susan Rice, whether she acted legally in requesting the names specifically of Trump officials who were incidentally collected in intelligence reports. President Trump, himself, says he believes she may have broken the law. He repeated that claim, speaking to FOX's Maria Bartiromo yesterday, that interview we are airing today.

But again, multiple sources have looked at the actual documents behind Nunes' claim. And they say they flatly don't back up Nunes' claims or the president's claims that she broke the law, that these are routine requests.

CUOMO: Jimmy, let's talk about. That what does that mean, routine requests? What are the rules?

SCIUTTO: So, listen, this is a bit of a sensitive area. These are rules set by the intelligence community. Certain national security officials, the most senior national security officials can make such requests as they're reading every day classified intelligence reports. It's the agencies then, the NSA in this case, that decide whether to grant those requests.

[08:05:08] Now, I'm told in practice, the requests of senior officials, they're rarely denied. If Susan Rice comes to the intelligence communities and asks for an unmasking, to unmask an American, they're going to grant that request.

So when we have spoken to some lawmakers, despite their judgment of what the Obama officials did were within the law, within regular practice, some members of Congress, they want to look at what the justifications are for unmasking requests and what the standards are for the intelligence agencies to grant these requests and look to see if they need to be tightened up in any way. That's a reasonable question. That's something that many members want to look into.

CAMEROTA: OK, Jim, thank you very much for all of your exclusive reporting and sharing it to us.

Now to another story that is getting so much attention, United Airlines facing backlash after this horrible scene. This was a passenger being forcibly removed from his seat and dragged off a plane because he did not want to comply and give up his seat to a United Airlines staffer. This man says he is a doctor. He wanted to get home to see his patients. He felt it was urgent. But United Airlines had a different plan, and they called in basically law enforcement and had him dragged, kicking and screaming, from the plane.

Now, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is calling for action. AND Governor Christie joins us now. Good morning.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Good morning, how are you?

CAMEROTA: I'm well. Who do you blame for this ugly incident?

CHRISTIE: United. I have unique knowledge on this because Newark Liberty International Airport is the United hub. They control 70 percent of the flights in and out of Newark. And if I can tell you, I could fill a book with all the complaints I have about United Airlines from constituents saying --

CAMEROTA: Is there something in particular about United? United does something different in your mind than other airlines? CHRISTIE: I can only tell from the experience that I've heard from

constituents in New Jersey and my own experience that I don't think United has ever really recovered from their merger with Continental. I don't think they've ever established a culture. And you can tell that, Alisyn, from listen to their CEO who had three different tries to try to say what everybody could see here, which is this is unacceptable, to have someone pay for a ticket, reserve a seat, be seated, and then dragged off the plane physically by law enforcement officers at the direction of United. It's outrageous.

That's why I've asked the administration, the Trump administration, to stop overbooking until we set some more, different rules about how the airlines can conduct themselves.

CAMEROTA: Now, of course, your suggestion and what you ask the Trump administration actually wouldn't have solved this problem. This wasn't an overbooked flight. This was a full flight. Then United decided they wanted to get their four staffers to another airport and that that took precedence over these passenger's seats.

CHRISTIE: Well, it shouldn't take precedence over the people who are paying. The fact of the matter is, what I'm talking about is the right of the passenger. When you pay a ticket, and as everybody knows, these tickets are not cheap. Airline travel is getting more and more expensive and United is making more and more money. If you get seated on the plane, this is not asking for people to give up their seat before they get on. You seat them and then come on and say our employees are more important than the traveling customers. That's why I think DOT, the federal department of transportation, has to stop the overbooking rules and stop giving the airlines latitude and take a breath and examine this entire thing, because I will tell you, passengers are fed up. And they should be.

CAMEROTA: Have you expressed your complaints to United directly?


CAMEROTA: And what's been the response?

CHRISTIE: No response yet.

CAMEROTA: OK. We have a response, not to you, but from the United CEO. As you point out, he's taken a few different bites at this apple. First he suggested to his employees that the passenger was being belligerent. Then by today he had worked around to sounding more conciliatory and more sensitive. Here's what he just said on another morning show. Let me play it for you.


OSCAR MUNOZ, UNITED AIRLINES CEO: We are not going to put law enforcement official to take them off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A law enforcement official will not come on to your planes again?

MUNOZ: To remove a booked, paid, seating passenger, we can't do that.


CAMEROTA: Does that go far enough, saying that no law enforcement will ever drag another passenger from a plane.

CHRISTIE: Well, that's a good start. You know, the fact is I think most people would have thought this would have never happened anyway. Why do they offer the option of paying you to get off the plane if it's not an option? Once people didn't want to take the pay to get off the plane, they wanted to get to their destination, then you're going to call the police in to drag you off for a United employee? Work on some other solution to the problem. Do better planning. But instead what they do the customer is always last. With United the customer is always last. And the CEO proved that by having to take three turns to simply say "I'm sorry."

[08:10:00] How could you not look at that video and be mortified as the leader of an organization that your organization permitted that to happen? But it shows you what little regard United holds their customers in. And I tell you, I hear these stories over and over again at Newark International Airport about how awful United treats their customers.

CAMEROTA: By the way, I'm not sure he can't make a blanket statement no law enforcement officer will drag another passenger off the plane because sometimes it is warranted. Sometimes have you an actual incident. So it's a little bit dangerous him saying we will never, ever do this again.

CHRISTIE: Alisyn, you know, you see this many times in your job. This is what happens when people don't know what they believe. And they take a couple different shots at it. Now he's going to the other extreme to seem more compassionate, more understanding, when, in fact, he has a tin ear on this, and he proved that by sending the internal e-mails that blamed the customer. I thought the customer was always right.

Now, we know they're not always right, but that's the attitude that business should start from. But because this business, they are given so much latitude by the government to conduct it the way they want to that they feel it disregard common courtesy to a customer.

CAMEROTA: So you want to see that change. Will you ever fly United again?

CHRISTIE: I'm going to have to. It's 70 percent of the flights from Newark airport. So, you know, I'm just like any other person who lives in the northern part of my state. If I don't want to come to New York City and fly out of LaGuardia or Kennedy, which is much less convenient, or drive to Philadelphia, which is much less convenient, I am already required to fly United because of the dominance of this airline at Newark International Airport. And that's why there are so many complaints.

I'll tell you this, Alisyn. This is easy to fix. The government should take a deep breath and say prove to us what these rules should be because you've obviously abused them, and we are tired of having our customers and our citizens abused.

CAMEROTA: OK, let's move onto the news of the day. We want to get your opinion on some things.

Steve Bannon, "The New York Post" has an interview with Donald Trump in which he says this about one of his top strategists, in fact his top strategist, "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," no offense, "and I didn't know Steve. I am my own strategist and it wasn't like I was changing strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary. Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will." Are Steve Bannon's days numbered after you hear that?

CHRISTIE: Who knows? But I think the president said something that needed to said there at the very end, which is staff are there to serve the president of the United States. They're not there to serve themselves. And I think what he said at the end there, and I think that was not only to Steve but to all the staff, which is straighten out these problems that are being reported all the time and the backbiting and the infighting that's being reported on or I'll straighten it out.

I think that's the president of the United States taking control and saying, listen, I've let you guys do these things that hasn't gone well, so you need to straighten out these problems. So I wouldn't jump to conclusion about that, except that I think the president was sending a very strong message, which knowing him, I assume he has also said in private, which is I don't like this bickering, and enough already, and get your act together.

And what I would say is I know Steve. Steve is a very bright guy. I got to work with him during the campaign. I think he was a big help to the president during the campaign and everything that I saw he was involved in. But staff are there to serve the principal.

CAMEROTA: It sounds like the president is also not happy people call him, you know, that he's basically Trump's brain or that he's the chief strategist and he's feeding information to President Trump. President Trump is saying, no, I'm top strategist, basically.

CHRISTIE: Listen, every principal, whether are you the government or the president, you are ultimately responsible for everything that goes on. And so the fact is I wouldn't want anybody saying that they were my brain and I'm sure the president doesn't like it either. And by the way, it's not true. Steve has the ability to give advice to the president, but in the end, these decisions are the president's. And so I've always thought that was an awful characterization because the president is responsible for his own decisions. And I've watched him, Alisyn. He makes his own decisions.

CAMEROTA: I want to ask you about Jim Sciutto's reporting that you just heard, exclusive reporting. He has spoken to both Republicans and Democrats on the House Intel and Senate Intel Committees. They have seen the same documents that Devin Nunes saw. They have seen the same documents that it appears Mr. Trump is basing his claims that Susan Rice, former NSA director, did something wrong. They say there's nothing in there. They don't see anything illegal. They don't see anything wrong. It was completely customary what she called for. Is it time for President Trump to correct his own record here?

CHRISTIE: You know, I think what we should do is allow this entire investigation to play out, Alisyn. You know, I understand that people will give information privately to the media and allow that to come out and be reported. That's a part of your job and I totally get that. But we have an investigation going on, on that issue and on even larger issues regarding Russian interference in the elections. I trust the Senate Intelligence Committee to do this the right way.

[08:15:01] I think the two leaders of the intelligence committee on the Senate side have shown themselves to be objective and quiet. They're doing their job. So, I'd say that nobody should be saying a whole lot more of anything else until we let these folks do their job.

CAMEROTA: OK, when they're done and when they conclude that Susan Rice did nothing wrong, then should President Trump correct his record?

CHRISTIE: Well, we don't know if that's what's going to happen.

CAMEROTA: Sure. But if it were?

CHRISTIE: Well, you know, I mean, listen, there is a whole bunch of hypotheticals that can happen here.

I think everyone needs to take responsibility for whatever role they played in whatever happened during the election. And I think the first and most important thing for us to determine is, what role did Russia play in trying to influence the election? And that's the most important, because that's the threat for a democracy.

CAMEROTA: And on that, point, we now know from other reporting that Carter Page was the subject of a FISA warrant, that the FBI felt he was cooperating somehow or coordinating somehow with Russian operatives. You were a part of transition team. What is your impression of Carter Page?

CHRISTIE: I never met him. So, I don't have any impression at all.

All I can say though, is, Alisyn, let's be careful about not convicting people before they have even been charged of anything or accused of anything. So, just because are you the subject of -- I did a lot of FISA warrants when I was a U.S. attorney for seven years. What you try to do is find out information through the use of that.

So, I'd be very careful about convicting anybody in public opinion, because that's an awful thing to happen to somebody, too. They can't even defend themselves at this point in a way if the investigation is ongoing.

So what I'd love to see is everybody take a deep breath. I saw your current 83 days of the Trump presidency. The coverage has been breathless, I'm not saying good or bad, but like I'm tired from listening to it.

CAMEROTA: Not just the coverage, the news has been breathless, everything coming out, all of the developments, you're right, it is a breathless news cycle.

CHRISTIE: What I would say, when we jump to conclusions, I don't know carter page, I don't know him. Everybody in this country deserves, me, you, Chris, everybody else, deserves the presumption of innocence.

And just because somebody was the subject of a warrant according to these reports, we don't know if that's true. Let's say he was, that doesn't make him guilty of anything.

And so, as a former prosecutor, I used to tell my prosecutors all the time, that the name of our department is not the department of prosecution, it's the Department of Justice. Our job is to do justice, justice is about first and foremost protecting the individual rights of everybody. So, let's not jump to conclusions.

CAMEROTA: Very quickly, it's day 83 what has been the president's biggest accomplishment?

CHRISTIE: Neil Gorsuch, no question. Getting someone in the first 83 days confirmed to the Supreme Court, a big accomplishment for the president. He deserves an A-plus for that one.

CAMEROTA: Governor Chris Christie, thanks so much. Great to have you in the studio.

CHRISTIE: Alisyn, thanks for having me.


CUOMO: All right. The White House showing it can apologize. Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivering a rare mea culpa after making a startling comparison between Bashar al-Assad and Hitler.

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

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Chris, you know, it has been a tough week for the message machine here at the White House. There was confusion over the policy in Syria, then a big gap that completely pushed the White House off the important message of the day.

So, it was no surprise really when the president, himself, stepped in to try to clear up some of the questions about Syria.


TRUMP: We're not going into Syria.

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

TRUMP: They have these massive barrels with dynamite. They drop them in 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: These comments are in stark contrast to Trump's position four years ago when he argued there was no upside 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 is accused of worse acts than Hitler.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't sink 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.

[08:20:01] JOHNS: Spicer attempting to clarify his statement during the briefing.

SPICER: There was not in the -- he brought them into the Holocaust center. I understand that. But I'm saying in a way Assad used them. He went into town, dropped down to innocent, into the middle of town.

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

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

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

HALEY: 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 a lot more about history when he's making his comments. Those comments were insensitive and ignorant without question.

(END VIDEOTAPE) JOHNS: Not to be overlooked on the important news coming out of here, a senior administration official accusing Moscow of trying to cover up Syria's involvement in that chemical attack, though the White House cannot say for sure whether Russia colluded with Syria on the attack -- Chris and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Joe, thank you very much.

More on Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a high stakes meeting with his Russian counterpart. So, what will come out of today's meeting? We discuss next.


CUOMO: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, lasted just over two hours.

[08:25:05] Both sides trading barbs over the Syria crisis. Lavrov says the U.S. strikes in Syria were unlawful and cannot happen again. The U.S. is accused of helping Assad cover up a chemical attack.

Let's discuss with CNN chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto, CNN military and diplomatic analyst and former State Department spokesperson, John Kirby, and congressional reporter for "The Washington Post" Karoun Demirjian.

Karoun, good to have you on.


CUOMO: Karoun, give me the proper pronunciation of the game. You're going to be a part of the family. Let's get it right.


CUOMO: You said Karoun. You tried throwing me under the bus.

So, it's good to have you on. I appreciate you being here. You get the first question, we are ethnically sensitive here, as people with names get mangled on a regular basis.

So, this state of play, they have the big meeting. Tillerson said he wanted to go into the meeting trying to figure out what the basis of differences are between the two countries. He must have a clear reckoning of that right now. They say, according to President Putin, they don't know if this bombing happened as the U.S. says it did in Syria.

Where do you go from there?

DEMIRJIAN: It's a difficult place to start from when you can't even agree on what happened and whether there was an actual strike that involved chemical weapons or whether it was a warehouse where they happen to be stored, and you had that on display as soon as the meeting started with Tillerson trying to very diplomatically say, we don't agree on anything here, and Lavrov saying, well, our bottom line is, you know, don't attack the Syrian government again.

So, how you get to the point of reconciling that and establishing re- establishing these de-confliction lines and getting to a point where you can ease the tensions in Syria, not very clear when you can't even agree on what happened in the first place.

CAMEROTA: And, John Kirby, that's where you come in. You've had many meetings with Sergey Lavrov. You know how he operates. So --

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: He called for me to get fired.

CAMEROTA: There you go. So, you have a special relationship with him. So, at what point does he start at? How does he operate? What is Tillerson likely to walk away with from that meeting?

KIRBY: Well, look, I think you know, Lavrov is about as subtle as one of the president's tweets. So, when you had that photo sway, it was predictable that he would come out hard, swinging against the attack on the airfield and that was pretty predictable, and I'm not surprised he took a swipe at State Department staffing. You know, that's also in line with this sarcastic demeanor.

I think what is really important is when the cameras go away and the doors close and they sit there for a couple hours, what the tone and the tenor is. I'd be interested to see how that goes.

There's no question the United States and Russia are on completely two different sides here with respect to Syria. And it's also -- there is no doubt in my mind that Russia is not going to change their calculus, it's not that they're trying to see the perpetuation of Assad, they want a stable regime in Syria that can support their national security interest here. They're not going to let go of that.

Now, what I do think is, it's possible the that this strike on the air field might have given Tillerson a little leverage that Secretary Kerry didn't have when he would sit down with Lavrov, because I think that strike, no matter how much they might have tried to dismiss it or called it illegal, I think it rattled their cage a little bit, and I think, hopefully, Tillerson went in how to use that as leverage to get the Russians back to the diplomatic table.

CUOMO: Hey, Jim, what does it mean to you that the president seems pretty inconsistent on not tweeting about Syria, laying out any policy there, not tweeting about Russia, specifically, or about Putin or any of their wild allegations? But he does keep tweeting about North Korea. He just did within the last five minutes or so, saying he had a good call with the head of China about the menace of North Korea.

What do you make in the preference?

SCIUTTO: I got to tell you, if I were to choose a countries not to tweet about, it might be North Korea, I mean, particularly, yesterday the comment from him on Twitter. I can't quote it exactly, it's something like, we're watching, you know, and brace yourself in effect for the reaction. This is a country that is very good at provocation, right? So they

can match your provocation with their own and as John Kirby knows, that can be very dangerous. It can be a missile test. It can be shelling islands, you know, it could be sinking a warship, right? They do this kind of stuff. It's very dangerous territory.

We are now in a real life experiment as to how Donald Trump Twitter diplomacy if you want to calm it that, how that plays out in the most volatile national security crisis on the planet right now. That's a real question.

On the other stuff, it's always hard to say what captured the president's attention at any given moment that he then tweets about. Is it a part of a strategy or a plan that he's not making Twitter comments about Russia, for instance, or about Syria or about a planet policy for Syria going forward? Is that a part of a plan or it not a priority when he wants to seek a -- that public bully pulpit of Twitter, of the Twitter world.