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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger; Great Barrier Reef Dying?; Nuclear North Korea Fears; Afghanistan: MOAB Killed 36 ISIS Fighters. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 14, 2017 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The North Koreans are now celebrating a holiday that has the rest of the world on edge.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Nuclear watch, North Korea marking the biggest holiday on its calender with a U.S. aircraft carrier and the U.S. vice president heading towards the region and a stark threat to the U.S. from the regime.

Bombing ISIS, a blast visible from 20 miles away. We're now getting an idea of the impact of the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed by U.S. forces in combat. How many insurgents does the Pentagon think it killed?

Plus, what they are calling cooking and dying, shocking images of the Great Barrier Reef, with scientists warning that hundreds of miles of the natural wonder are boiling because of a phenomenon that President Trump has called a Chinese hoax.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are going to begin with the world lead, as the world's attention turns to skies over North Korea, where it is now Saturday morning, a national holiday, the date of the founder's birth.

To mark the occasion, the leader of the rogue regime is promising to put on a show. Will Kim Jong-un, the dictator of this reclusive and oppressive nation, celebrate Founder's Day by testing yet another nuclear device, and, if he does, how will President Donald Trump respond?

As the president receives updates in Florida on any signs of provocation, Vice President Pence is preparing to travel to Seoul, South Korea, this weekend in part to assess military options against Pyongyang.

CNN correspondent Alexandra Field is live for us in Seoul, South Korea.

And, Alexandra, today is the big day. What is latest on whatever Kim Jong-un might have planned? ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we fully expect that

this day will begin with a military parade to mark the celebration, the most important date on the North Korean calendar.

It's typically a show of strength, a show of military might and prowess. But the much more alarming possibility on this morning of the Day of the Sun is that Kim Jong-un could decide to also mark this day with a far greater show of strength, a nuclear test, which would be the country's sixth nuclear test.

It's impossible to predict when exactly he could carry out such a test, but analysts in the U.S. and officials in Washington believe that this country is in fact ready to carry out that test.

The wild card here is in trying to understand how exactly the U.S. would respond to that, and it seems at this point that this kind of provocation would certainly beg an international response.

In an exclusive interview with the AP, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said that the Trump administration's policies are more aggressive toward North Korea. You have also heard from an army spokesperson in North Korea saying that any provocation from the United States would be met with a merciless response.

The U.S. has already deployed the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier strike group, to the waters off of the Korean Peninsula. That's a move that's supposed to be sent as a sign of deterrence to Pyongyang. It has enraged officials there. They are now saying that the presence of strategic nuclear assets in the region is threatening global peace, threatening global security and bringing the region to the brink of a thermonuclear war.

Those words being carried by state news in North Korea, just as the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence makes his way out here. He will be stopping in Seoul. He will also be going on to Tokyo, where North Korea and the mounting nuclear threat there will be the top topic of conversation. We understand they will be talking about all the options that Washington is looking at when it comes to dealing with North Korea, and, of course, Jake, the military option.

That's the one that poses the most concern here in South Korea, where people here are depending on the U.S. for security, but also fearing retaliation from North Korea -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alexandra Field for us in Seoul, South Korea, thank you so much.

Over the past eight days, the president and his military surprised the world with strikes in Syria and then in Afghanistan. Is there a larger strategy behind those attacks, and could they be seen together in any way as a warning to Kim Jong-un?

CNN's Athena Jones is live for us at the White House.

Athena, what are officials there saying?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake.

This is interesting. The president was asked that very question about the bombing in Afghanistan, and his answer was, I don't know. I don't know if this sends a message to North Korea. He went on to say that it doesn't matter if it sends a message to North Korea or not, North Korea is a problem that will be taken care of.

But as with any complex foreign policy challenge, that's easier said than done.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): President Trump is spending Easter weekend with his family in Florida, where he was spotted today on links of one of his golf clubs.

[16:05:00]

Following the president to his Mar-a-Lago resort, rising tensions with North Korea. Asked if Thursday's bombing of ISIS targets in Afghanistan, the second significant show of force by the U.S. in a week, was meant to send a message to the rogue regime, the president would only say:

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know if it sends a message. It doesn't make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.

JONES: It's a thorny foreign policy challenge then candidate Trump foreshadowed last year.

TRUMP: If you look at North Korea, this guy, this -- I mean, he's like a maniac, OK? And you have got to give him credit. This guy doesn't play games, and we can't play games with him, because he really does have missiles and he really does have nukes.

JONES: The president has been pushing China, North Korea's biggest trading partner, to help curb the nation's nuclear ambitions and is trying to use a promised trade deal with the world's second largest economy as an inducement.

TRUMP: President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things.

And I said the way you are going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea. Otherwise, we are going to just go it alone.

JONES: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looked to put Pyongyang on notice during a trip to Asia last month.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The policy of strategic patience has ended.

JONES: But there are no easy solutions to the issue. Negotiations with North Korea in recent years broke down, in part

because Kim Jong-un sees his country's nuclear program as necessary for the security of his regime. This weekend, the North is expected to celebrate the birthday of the country's founder with a military parade, and it could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test, experts say.

And while the president takes to Twitter to blast the regime and prod China, tweeting Thursday: "I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S. with its allies will. USA."

North Korea is responding. The country's vice foreign minister telling the Associated Press that Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words.

The back and forth comes as Vice President Pence will soon embark on an 11-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region, his first stop, South Korea, a senior administration official saying Thursday that military options with regard to North Korea would likely come up during Pence's visit.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: So, we're hearing some pretty ominous words from North Korea. That vice foreign minister also told the AP the country was ready to go to war.

Meanwhile, China has consistently pushed for a peaceful solution to this issue. And a report in "The Washington Post" suggests that China may be stepping up the pressure. China has been turning away North Korea's coal ships from its ports since mid-February.

And "The Post" cites an editorial in a semi-official Chinese publication that warns the North that unless it reins in its nuclear ambitions, China's oil shipments to the country could be -- quote -- "severely limited" -- Jake.

TAPPER: Things are escalating.

Athena Jones, thank you so much.

With North Korea raising the stakes and claiming it's ready for another nuclear test, how will President Trump respond? A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Adam Kinzinger, will join me next.

Stay with me.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:10:02]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We have more in our world lead now and new threats today from North Korea, including one saying that they might launch a preemptive strike against the United States as the ruthless dictator Kim Jong-un gives further indications his country is preparing for another nuclear test.

Joining me now to discuss it all is Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. He's on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives and he served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

How should the U.S. respond, do you think, if North Korea does conduct a nuclear test that would be number six this weekend?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: Well, in my view, a nuclear test is not the impetus for an American response and a strike.

What really is, though, would be if we see that ourselves or our allies are actually in immediate threat or even close to threat. I think the thing we have to keep in mind here, there was all this discussion about Iran, the Iran deal, what the end state of Iran was going to be under the deal.

North Korea is now where we were scared Iran would get to, which is, they have a nuclear weapon, and they are working on the delivery systems for this, whether it's hitting our allies or an intercontinental ballistic missile that can basically go in space and hit the United States.

So, you know, the key in the administration -- remember, President Obama told President Trump this is going to be your key issue, something you have to pay attention to. The key for the Trump administration is to say when they hit a point of no return or you feel an imminent threat is present, then you probably will have to take military action.

I don't think that's this weekend, but I think obviously there's some real concern here in general.

TAPPER: And everybody talks about, oh, we want China to do more. President Trump is not the first one to say that. Every U.S. president wants China to do more.

China is in a situation where they don't want a U.S. ally stronghold right there on its border, and they don't want North Korea so destabilized that millions of North Koreans create a refugee crisis in China. What can China actually do?

KINZINGER: So, China can enforce sanctions.

China can weaken the nuclear power of the regime in the North. It can weaken the regime's hold on its people. Look, the regime falling and now having in essence no government in North Korea and a starving population would be a huge logistical nightmare, something South Korea fears, too.

But what you have now is instead a leader that's basically insane that's trying to push the nuclear button, that's trying to achieve nuclear weapons. And while we need the posture to do what we can to strike if we had to do that to protect our allies, China really has the key. And right now, up to this point, they have determined that having North Korea is more of a benefit to them than engaging with North Korea with sanctions and such.

TAPPER: During the campaign, you expressed concern about President Trump's temperament many times. Are you at all worried that someday he's going to get up and send a tweet about North Korea that could make things much, much worse?

KINZINGER: Well, I think if a tweet would lead to worse things in North Korea, that would probably be on the dictator, and not necessarily on the president.

[16:15:00] Look, I have actually been very impressed...

TAPPER: Well, the dictator is the bad guy. Don't get me wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: But I'm just saying, like, things are fraught with tension, and Kim Jong-un is not a rational actor.

KINZINGER: No, he's not. He's not rational.

But, look, is that a concern? Always. There's always a concern that something could happen, no matter who says it or who does it, that can blow up a very, very tension-filled situation like we have in North Korea. But what I've seen in the president lately, frankly, is listening to his advisers, a lot more restraint on foreign policy, and it's like he's accepting the mantle and understanding that -- look, his words and deeds have a huge impact.

And I just got back from Europe and I'll tell you our allies were thrilled on the strike in Syria because they said America has taken its role back in the Middle East, and we've stood and actually enforced the red line that said chemical weapons don't have a place here.

TAPPER: You served in Afghanistan. The Trump administration, the Pentagon dropped a huge bomb on a bunch of is tunnels in Nangarhar province on the eastern side of the country. When asked if he authorized the strike, President Trump wouldn't say yes or no. It seems -- and we don't have a definitive answer -- but it seems based on what the president has said and what the Pentagon has said, that he has given the Pentagon a lot of latitude to make decisions like this.

KINZINGER: Yes.

TAPPER: Does that concern you at all?

KINZINGER: No, I think that's actually a good thing. I think on broad strokes, the president needs to make that decision. So, hey, we're going to start this war here, bomb here, you know, generally, we're going to -- we're going to take military action.

When it comes to execute the war, the president needs to leave this decision to commanders in the field that understand this. Every time you add a layer of bureaucracy for decision-making, you lose intelligence because you may find where something is, but it has to go to the White House to approve, and he's made this I think much more active and much more responsive.

And frankly the use of a MOAB, it's not just a psychological, although I think it will have a psychological impact. It, you know, killed a number of ISIS fighters and collapsed their tunnels which they were using to kill, you know, Americans and Afghan civilians.

TAPPER: Whatever the reason, and, look, innocent people die in wars. It's a horrible, horrible thing that happens. But whatever the reason, the U.S. has now killed civilians in Mosul. There was an air strike called in on allied fighters this week, and then obviously civilians were killed in Yemen. Might that be another result of letting the military commanders do what they want to do and maybe even having less regard for the former rules of engagement?

KINZINGER: I don't think so much. I think that's a result of, you know, maybe our allies on the ground there called an air strike incorrectly. That's possible. We can also misidentify targets. Munitions can go off the rails and go where it's not supposed to.

But you're seeing a much more aggressive war against ISIS right now. You're seeing it in areas in Yemen that you haven't seen it as publicly as you have in the past. When you aggressively engage in war, there are going to be, unfortunately, sometimes civilian casualties and allied casualties, but this is how you actually defeat the enemy.

The Russians, remember, they like to use precision-guided munitions in Syria to blow up hospitals and kill civilians. So, I will say our military and NATO militaries are very unique in that we do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties. It's just not always possible.

TAPPER: Congressman Kinzinger, always good to see you. Thanks so much for coming in.

KINZINGER: You bet.

TAPPER: Coming up, the Trump administration stays it will not be releasing the White House visitor logs. Why officials say you should not know who is coming and going into the Oval Office. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:22:15] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Our politics lead now: the U.S. military defending its decision to drop the country's most powerful bomb since Nagasaki, describing it as a tactical move. The Pentagon released a video of the largest non- nuclear bomb it's ever deployed, a blast that could be seen reportedly from 20 miles away.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty joins me now.

And, Sunlen, the Pentagon signaled there were no second thoughts about using this weapon.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. They are clearly trying to push this message that everything went exactly as they had planned, and really trying to explain their decision to drop such a powerful bomb.

(BEGINVIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): New dramatic video of the blast, showing the moment of impact by the massive 11-ton bomb.

ISMAIL SHINWARI, ACHIN DISTRICT GOVERNOR (through translator): It was really powerful. It was used to destroy all their tunnels and caves.

SERFATY: A strike in a remote mountain valley along the Afghan- Pakistan border took out three underground fortified tunnels that ISIS or Daesh had been using to stage attacks on government forces, destroying ammunition and weapons along the way, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

PALSTAR KHAN, ACHIN DISTRICT RESIDENT (through translator): There were ISIS bases over there. They had activities in those areas. Last night's bomb was really huge. When it was dropped, it was shaking everywhere.

SERFATY: Thirty-six ISIS fighters were killed, Afghan officials say, but no civilians were hurt.

GEN. JOHN W. NICHOLSON, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: Let me be clear: we will not relent in our mission to fight alongside our Afghan comrades to destroy ISIS-K in 2017

SERFATY: The U.S. military today defending the decision to deploy the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, dubbed the "mother of all bombs".

NICHOLSON: This was the right weapon against the right target.

SERFATY: A U.S. Air Force spokesperson tells CNN each bomb cost about $170,000 because it's built in-house and created from parts of existing systems.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's constrained. There's no civilian collateral damage. It will collapse tunnels. It will explode the IEDs.

SERFATY: But beyond just it's physical impact, military analysts say there's also some payoff in flaunting such a huge weapon, which a military official tells CNN can destroy nine city blocks. It could also rattle ISIS on the ground.

HERTLING: It will have a huge psychological effect on this area that has a lot of transitioning between Pakistan and Afghanistan ISIS fighters.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are very proud of them, and this was another very, very successful mission.

SERFATY: The White House is attempting to frame this mission as one in a series of recent military successes.

TRUMP: Another successful event.

SERFATY: But there have been challenges in the larger fight against ISIS. Just this week, the U.S.-led coalition in Syria killed 18 of its own allies from the Syrian democratic forces.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:25:06] SERFATY: And there's been more scrutiny beyond just that misdirected strike. In the past month, there have been two other U.S.-led airstrikes, which killed civilians or allies. One in Mosul, the other, Jake, in Raqqa.

TAPPER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty, thank you so much.

The Trump administration says it will not be releasing White House visitor logs. Could a court force them to? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Let's stick to the world leader. Russia is standing in solidarity with Syria and Iran, demanding that the United States take no further action against the Assad regime because it will have, quote, "grave consequences for global security".

Let's get right to CNN's Matthew Chance who's in Moscow for us.

Matthew, at the meeting today, the Russian, Syrian, and Iranian foreign ministers all demanded an independent, international investigation of this chemical weapons attack.