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Trump: "Tremendous" Day In Saudi Arabia; Soon: White House Gives Briefing Amid New Russian Headwinds. Aired 11a-12p ET
Aired May 20, 2017 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[11:00:11] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, it's 11:00 Eastern hour. And it's 6:00 p.m. in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where President Trump is right now. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We want to welcome our viewers in the U.S. and around the world.
Eight days, five international stops as one enormous controversy looms back home in the U.S. for President Donald Trump. The president in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia today where we are awaiting a press briefing from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. We'll bring that to you live. That's the room where it will happen.
The president just finishing up signing an agreement with King Salman right there in those images, but as the world watches, the president takes his first steps into diplomacy on a grand world stage.
The storm cloud over the White House is growing. With two new explosive reports. Current and former government sources tell CNN that during the 2016 campaign, Russian officials bragged about their relationship with former NSA adviser Michael Flynn and believed that they could use Flynn to influence Donald Trump. And the "New York Times" reporting that during the president's meeting with Russian officials early this month, right there in the White House, the president trash-talked FBI director James Comey and said firing -- the firing rather was done of what President Trump described as Comey as a nut job and that the firing eased, quote, "great pressure of the investigation."
Russia's Foreign minister now denying that topic was even discussed in that room. And amid these new details, it begs the question, does this foreign tour come at the exact right moment or at the worst possible time for the Trump presidency?
CNN's senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta joining me now from Riyadh. He's traveling with the president.
So, Jim, what have you gathered thus far about the president's visit?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, we can tell our viewers that the president right now is just departing this three and a half hour, very lengthy exchange in interaction that he had with the king of Saudi Arabia, King Salman. They culminated a military arms deal worth about $110 billion. Also talked about Syria and other matters in the bilateral discussion. As a matter of fact, at one point during the interactions today, a camera caught the king of Saudi Arabia saying that Syria has essentially destroyed itself through its civil war over the last several years. It was a pretty remarkable moment caught on camera.
And in just a few moments, here at the press hotel in Riyadh where we're gathered, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his Saudi counterpart, the Foreign Minister al-Jubeir, they're both expected to brief reporters on the president's trip so far.
Of course, you know, today was the pomp and circumstance. We saw so much color, so much pageantry as the Saudis really rolled out the red carpet for this president, but tomorrow is when we'll get into the meat of the president's visit here to Saudi Arabia before he moves on to the other countries that are part of this eight-day trip. He's going to be delivering a speech to the Muslim world that will challenge the Muslim world to do more in the fight against terrorism and of course, as we've been reporting, the speech has been crafted in large part by Stephen Miller, his top domestic policy adviser, his speech writer who played a big role in the drafting of that ill-stated travel ban that's been tied up in court since the early days of the administration.
So a lot still to watch from this president over the coming hours and the next couple of days, but in just a few moments, within this hour, Fredricka, we expect to hear from the secretary of state about how this visit is going so far. Should be very interesting to hear what he has to say in terms of what's been going on behind the scenes, but we don't to want bury the lead, we don't want to forget about the headlines that are swirling around this president.
Yes, obviously the Russia probe is something that will be hounding this president all along this eight-day foreign trip, but, so far, he has not had an opportunity in front of the cameras to be asked about all of this and perhaps the secretary of state may be asked about this in the next few moments. But I'm told by a senior administration official, Fredricka, that they haven't even scheduled a news conference for this president during this foreign trip which would be highly unusual for a president to go overseas and not take any questions and some sort of formal setting from the news media.
You just don't see that happen. And I think it underlines some of the caution that this White House is showing right now with respect to that Russia probe. They don't want a lot of questions about that, they would rather show off this pomp and circumstance that we've been seeing all day long today -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: So then, on that note, Jim, is there any way of knowing for this press conference or briefing that's about to get under way momentarily with the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?
[11:05:06] Do we know much about the format if there will be an opportunity that reporters are going to toss questions or will it be designed where it's statement only and then they walk out? What do we know about the potential format?
ACOSTA: Well, I think that's an excellent question, Fredricka, because that is very likely what could happen. You could see that the secretary of state and foreign minister come out and just make statements and leave, but my guess is, is that if they're coming here, they're doing this on camera, they are expecting to take some questions now. They may to want say at the onset of all if they don't want to take questions on anything else, but that's obviously not going to deter the news media from at least trying to ask a question about this Russia investigation that's going on back in the U.S. that's trailing them on this foreign trip, but make no mistake, this is a very ambitious foreign trip for this president.
You know, Fredricka, we've been talking about this past presidents and you know this, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, they've chosen places like Mexico and Canada for their first foreign trip. President Trump has chosen intentionally to visit the centers of the world's three major religions. And so, obviously, you know, there are diplomatic landmines everywhere he is stepping, but they want to send this -- they want to project the message to the world that the president is one who wants to take on ambitious challenges and he's certainly doing that this week -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: All right, Jim Acosta, we'll check back with you and of course we'll keep a close watch on that room. As soon as that press conference or briefing I should say takes place, including the secretary of state, we'll take you there live to Riyadh.
All right. Meantime, President Trump's first international trip. It's a big one. It is being overshadowed by blockbuster new reporting about President Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey.
The "New York Times" says an American official read a document to them that claims the president told the Russians during that meeting there at the White House just days ago, quote "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
That coming from that document that was provided to the "New York Times."
Let's get right to CNN's Ryan Nobles in Washington for the latest on this flood of leaks involving the president of Russia and the fired FBI director.
So, Ryan, what is the White House saying about these developments and how quickly do they feel compelled to say something given the president was taking off and in the air just 10 minutes before this news broke?
RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a number of things that have developed in the past 24 hours, Fredricka. And the White House hasn't specifically denied many of these reports. And even though the president is out of town, the cloud surrounding the investigations into Russia's attempt to intervene in the U.S. election remains, and the White House wasn't really thrilled with the idea of a special counsel being named, but there was some hope that it would reign in the drip, drip, drip of reports and accusations, but if the last 24 hours are any indication, the leaks will continue. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
NOBLES (voice-over): The "New York Times" is reporting that President Trump bragged to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office about his firing of FBI director James Comey, saying that, quote, "relieved great pressure from the Russia investigation." The report also says Mr. Trump called Comey, quote, "crazy, a real nut job."
The White House is not denying the "Times" story, which is raising new questions about President Trump's intent in firing Comey. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy shared a link to the report on Twitter, saying in his own words, quote, "This is what obstruction looks like." Republican Congressman Scott Taylor isn't so sure.
REP. SCOTT TAYLOR (R), VIRGINIA: Of course there is context with text, and we don't know the context of the meaning itself. And what he was trying to do. We don't know that, of course.
NOBLES: Meanwhile sources tell CNN that Russian officials bragged that they had cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser, retired general Michael Flynn, and believed they could use it to influence Donald Trump and his team.
Officials caution, however, that the Russians might have exaggerated their influence with Trump's team in those intercepted conversations. Flynn's lawyer declined to comment.
In a statement, the White House said, quote, "We are confident that when these inquiries are complete, there will be no evidence to support any collusion between the campaign and Russia."
A member of the House Intelligence Committee is questioning why President Trump remained so loyal to Flynn.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why in god's name did the White House keep this guy on for 18 days after Sally Yates went to the White House and said this guy is a national security risk. So it's one of the weird and unanswered questions in the investigation.
NOBLES: And after days of incendiary headlines, CNN has learned that White House lawyers are researching what a possible Trump impeachment might look like.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: All of this relates to official White House operations.
[11:10:02] So the White House Counsel's Office will handle some of it, but some of it involves Donald Trump personally. And he needs a lawyer.
NOBLES: But sources tell CNN that impeachment is still a distant possibility at this point. White House officials believe the president has the backing of Republican allies in Congress and the Democratic establishment remains cautious about calling for impeachment. (END VIDEOTAPE)
NOBLES: As for James Comey, he has agreed to testify in an open hearing for the Senate Intelligence Committee. That should take place sometime after Memorial Day. Meanwhile, a source familiar with his thinking has told CNN that Comey personally believes that the president was attempting to influence his judgment on the Russia investigation, but whether or not that rises to the level of obstruction of justice is still an open question -- Fred.
WHITFIELD: All right, Ryan Nobles. Thanks so much. We'll check back with you.
All right. So very much to talk about here, I have CNN presidential historian, Tim Naftali. He is the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, CNN global affairs analyst David Rohde, he is the online news director for the "New Yorker" and CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward.
Good to see all of you.
TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Nice to be here.
WHITFIELD: OK. So there is a lot overshadowing this international trip. So, you know, David, you first, what does President Trump need to happen? What does he want, you know, to happen from this journey to try and get out in front, redirect the dialogue about all of this controversy in the cloud hovering over the White House?
DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Very simply he needs to keep the word Russia out of the headlines. This is his trip, I think, to sort of scuttle. These are very scripted events. You know, he's delivering the speeches. He should be able to have nine days of images of him meeting with other leaders and changing the narrative that has come to dominate his presidency. So this is an easy test. We will see how he does in the next few days.
WHITFIELD: Tim, what would make this trip successful for Trump?
NAFTALI: Well, the pictures that Saudi television sent our way were, I assume, helpful to the White House. The president looks presidential. He's, you know -- he is the head of state and he's acting like one. So the images, the optics that'll come from this could be very helpful to the president.
I would caution, though, that it'll be very difficult for Russia to stay out of all of this, simply because there is no question that the Russians want a different role, a bigger role in Yemen and this is an issue for the Saudis. And there is no question in my mind that the Saudis and the United States are discussing what role Russia should play. Russia wants to be a mediator in the Yemen civil war and is looking to get possibly a port in Yemen.
So I don't think that President Trump will want to talk about this publicly, but it'll be very interesting if we find out what position the United States is taking vis-a-vis Russia's interests in Yemen at this point.
WHITFIELD: And of course, you know, the president may not want to mention the word Russia, we heard from our own, you know, Jim Acosta, that so far there isn't even a scheduled briefing involving the president of the United States while he is there in Saudi Arabia, however, you're looking at live pictures there from Riyadh, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be speaking in part of a briefing. Still unclear whether he's going to make a statement and leave out of the room, but reporters are likely to ask some kind of question as it pertains to Russia.
So, Clarissa, you know, the president, however, is focused on delivering a speech to majority Muslim audience tomorrow. Some of them representatives from countries listed on the president's initial travel ban. And furthermore, the speech is largely written by Stephen Miller, who has gotten a lot of credit or blame, whichever way you want to look at it, for some of the language that president has used in terms of, you know, Islam not being a friend of the U.S.
So given all of that, what is the reception of the Muslim country leaders and how does that differ from the audience of citizens of these mostly Muslim nations who are part of this meeting?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, I think you really highlighted an important distinction there. The leaders versus the populist. For the leaders, particularly of the Gulf Sunni Muslim countries and Saudi Arabia specifically, they are very happy with President Trump. The relationship with President Obama was not a good one. They felt that his handling of the Syria crisis were egregious. They of course were dismayed by the Iran nuclear deal which gave Iran a lot more power. They view Iran as being an existential threat.
And I think you saw that pleasant relationship exemplified by the fact that the king himself went to greet the president off of the plane. When President Obama visited Saudi Arabia, the Saudis sent the governor to greet him off the plane. This was almost seen as something of a snub. So make no mistake, the Sunni Muslim countries are hopeful that there can be a reset of U.S.-Arab relations underneath President Trump, that there can be a re-focusing of the Syria policy that there can be a future containing of Iran.
[11:15:15] Now when you're talking about the average Sunni Muslim Arab living in the region, it's a different story because while politically they may be open to some of the changes that a Trump presidency could portend, there is no doubt that they have been deeply offended by the type of rhetoric that they have seen on the campaign trail, divisive language, talking about this sort of idea of radical Islamic terrorism, essentially trying to highlight the nexus between extremism and between the fate itself.
And so I think that the president will really have to walk quite a fine line between placating both his supporters back home here in the U.S., who voted for him specifically in many instances because he does speak so stridently about these issues and between placating the average people who are living in that region, who while they would like to see a better relationship with the U.S., many of them would also like not to feel insulted or humiliated by having the president talking about Islam, which let's face it, Fredricka, is not a subject that he necessarily has an intimate knowledge of.
WHITFIELD: Right, and you know, at the root of some of the differences as to how Obama was treated in Saudi Arabia versus Trump, I mean, Saudi Arabia was not happy with the fact that the way President Obama was embarking on a deal with Tehran on the whole, you know, nuclear deal, Donald Trump taking it completely opposite view.
So, David, with Donald Trump also being able to celebrate this more than $100 billion now deal, economic deal, military deal, how does that color and dictate the reception of these Muslim nations when they meet with Donald Trump tomorrow?
ROHDE: Again, I agree with the distinction you made. The leaders will welcome this arms deal, but the average public will not. The Obama administration sold a huge amount of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, roughly $60 billion, the Saudis used American F-15s then to drop bombs on civilians in Yemen as part of that civil war. At least 2,000 Yemeni civilians have died by Saudi airstrikes using weapons that were sold to them by the United States.
That's very unpopular with the public in the region. So this big arms deal doesn't solve the problem of, you know, Islamic terrorism of ISIS. It does not. It's a good headline. It's American jobs, but this is not a long-term strategy for dealing with this threat.
WHITFIELD: All right. We'll talk some more, thanks to all of you, Tim, Clarissa, David. Appreciate that.
And again live pictures right there from Riyadh because momentarily, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be part of a briefing there along with the Saudi Foreign minister, of course we'll take that as it happens.
Meantime, back in the U.S., fired FBI director James Comey has agreed to testify publicly. Meanwhile, a special counsel is digging around the Trump administration for possible collusion with Russia. The newest head winds facing the White House after this.
[11:22:33] WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back, live pictures right now of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This is the room with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveling with President Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia will be attending a briefing there. Navigating this briefing along with the Saudi Foreign minister, al-Jubeir. When that takes place, we'll take you there live.
Meantime this week has brought bombshell after bombshell. Nearly every day with a new blockbuster story about the White House.
First, we had former FBI director Robert Mueller appointed special counsel to investigate Russian meddling including potential ties between the Russians and the Trump campaign. That happening as the search for a new FBI director continues. And, as we learn of a stunning new report about what the president reportedly told the Russians about why he fired FBI Director James Comey, and what it felt like after the firing, the "New York Times" report quoting the president as telling the Russians by way of a document that was supplied to the "New York Times," while meeting the Russians in the Oval Office earlier this month, saying, quote, "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off," end quote.
Russia's Foreign minister now denying that topic was even discussed while in the White House, meeting with the president of the United States.
All right. Back with us now, CNN historian Tim Naftali. Also joining me is Steve Moore, a CNN law enforcement contributor and a retired supervisory special agent with the FBI.
All right. Steve, good to see you. Your reaction now on the reporting of this document, president using the word nut job and also talking about the relief feeling -- he's feeling after the firing of Comey and at the same time now, Russia denying that this conversation ever took place.
STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CONTRIBUTOR: Well I think the best word to provide is all is provocative. But as I learned in my career in the FBI, provocative doesn't always translate to juries. Again, we're talking two different standards of evidence based on what political bent you're looking at or what official title you have. We're looking at what the Congress considers potentially an impeachable defense -- offense and we're looking at what a lot of people think are criminal events.
[11:25:11] And I still don't think that this reaches a criminal level, but how it's going to go politically, I don't know.
WHITFIELD: But this -- what it does, that document quoting the president, what it does do, does it not reveal some intent behind the firing and then that coupled with Donald Trump's interview with NBC saying that the Russia thing, the Russia investigation and the firing were connected?
MOORE: Well, certainly it does, Fredricka. I agree with you. But whether that will translate to -- whether that would translate to a jury with a clever defense attorney there sitting here saying, hey, he's a showboat himself, and he was probably just blowing off steam and trying to look important in front of the Russians.
WHITFIELD: As opposed to obstruction of justice, trying to get in between or interfere with this process, the investigation.
MOORE: Right, if you could prove that that statement was true in court, yes, that goes a long way toward obstruction. I'm just saying that we might have trouble proving that in a court of law.
WHITFIELD: OK. And so, you know, Tim, we have seen White Houses deal with investigations while simultaneously try to govern. We saw it in the Reagan years, we saw it in the Clinton years. As it pertains to this White House, do you see that it's particularly complicated or what are the challenges that you see for this White House to be able to govern, whether it be getting business done here abroad or domestically and at the same time simultaneously respond to a growing investigation?
NAFTALI: Well, one thing that I think we have to keep in mind is that unlike previous crisis, this one involves a relationship with a foreign country. Watergate, there were a lot of crimes, it's truly a sad moment in American history, but it did not involve the president -- suspicions of the president's relationship to a foreign country. That complicates this whole investigation.
And what is absolutely striking is that the president himself -- if this report from the "New York Times" is accurate, the president doesn't seem to even understand that there's so much scrutiny on him that he ought to be careful with his words, particularly with the Russians. So I would -- I would say that what makes this a very singular crisis is that the president himself seems undisciplinable. He's not disciplined, he doesn't seem to be learning that he's in trouble.
Where this goes, who knows, but the fact of the matter is, Richard Nixon understood that in time that he was in trouble. Did some very bad things to stay in office, but he tried to restrain himself. Ronald Reagan allowed people to do investigations because he understood that his administration was in trouble.
WHITFIELD: Well, might it be interpreted that the firing of Comey was a level of admission that something's awry? There may be some trouble and then of course reportedly now we're hearing that a White House official may indeed be a person of interest in all of this as well. So is it that I'm in trouble might be conveyed in different ways?
NAFTALI: Well, that's a very dangerous way to show that you know you're in trouble. To do things that only deepen the hole you're digging for yourself. We've got to be very careful about assessing what the threshold would be for criminal prosecution or impeachment or anything like that. What we know for sure is that the president has not helped himself at all. We saw it in the campaign after the hacking that became known and the fact that Russia was likely behind it, then the candidate, Mr. Trump, didn't do anything to distance himself from this problem. In fact, he made it worse by continuing to praise Putin.
We've seen the same kind of self-defeating behavior, doubling down instead of perhaps thinking of being a little bit more self- protective. That's -- that's what makes this particular crisis so interesting. That we see publicly a president who's not willing to protect himself. Richard Nixon did a lot of that privately. We know about it from the tapes. But he didn't do it publicly until the last few months of his administration.
WHITFIELD: All right. We'll leave it right there for now. Thank you so much, Tim Naftali. Steve Moore, appreciate it. Again live pictures there from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We're awaiting
the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with the Foreign minister of Saudi Arabia to conduct a briefing there.
We'll take that live as it happens. Meantime, after the break, with President Trump in Saudi Arabia, all weekend long, how does he deliver a message of unity, given his track record with Islam? That is next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. I want surveillance of certain mosques. I think Islam hates us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. More live pictures right now out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, momentarily the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson along with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister are to conduct a briefing there. Reporters are awaiting.
And thus far, we understand from our own White House press corps that there is no scheduled briefing so far from the president of the United States, but, according to our traveling press corps, we have learned that President Trump did tell reporters while in Riyadh that he had a, quote/unquote, "tremendous" first day in the Saudi capital.
[11:35:10]And that quote, "That was a tremendous day, tremendous investments in the United States," Trump said, and he goes on to say, quote, "Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs," end quote from the president.
This on the heels of a more than $100 billion deal cut with Saudi Arabia on more defense spending. Good trade of arms with Saudi Arabia between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. So more on that.
Meantime, when that press briefing, including the U.S. secretary of state takes place we'll take you back there live to Riyadh.
So we are meantime continuing to follow major developments this hour. The Saudis have rolled out the red carpet for President Donald Trump as he embarks on his first trip overseas. The world is closely watching Trump's rhetoric since he has been known to use strong language against Muslims and their religion. CNN's Brianna Keilar has more.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As a candidate, Donald Trump drew wide criticism when he falsely claimed Muslims cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. PRESIDENT TRUMP: And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.
KEILAR: Just weeks later in December 2015, Trump first announced his proposal to ban Muslims. It came in the wake of the ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California by a U.S.-born Pakistani-American and his wife.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.
KEILAR: As Trump surged in the primaries, he said the religion as a whole was anti-American.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think Islam is at war with the west?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I think Islam hates us. There's something, there's something there that is a tremendous hatred there.
KEILAR: A message heard loud and clear in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Trump is now there to give a speech intended his top aides say to unite the Muslim world against terrorism.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: And it is there that we will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism, and violence, and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.
KEILAR: He'll have a lot of explaining to do, particularly on his travel ban of several Muslim majority countries, now tied up in the court system.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: First of all it's not a travel ban. He's been very clear that it is extreme vetting.
KEILAR: And also clear that it was indeed a ban.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: We're going to have a very, very strict ban and we're going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years.
KEILAR: That ban offered with significant input from top White House aide, Steven Miller, who is also the main author of the remarks that Trump will deliver on Islam. As a college student, Miller worked with the Terrorism Awareness Project, a group considered an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Brianna Keilar, CNN, Washington.
WHITFIELD: All right, let's talk more now. Let me bring in Gary Grappo. He is the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia and former U.S. ambassador to Oman. Good to see you. So what is your feeling about the president, his expected remarks to the Muslim community tomorrow, addressing some 50 Muslim nation leaders?
GARY GRAPPO, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION, U.S. EMBASSY IN SAUDI ARABIA: This is going to be a very interesting challenge for the president, we're going to be hearing I think something very different from the president than we've ever heard before, certainly much different than during the president's campaign and even his address to Congress back in February because what he wants to do is rally these Arab and Muslim countries together with the United States and other countries of the west in combatting extremism around the world.
WHITFIELD: Is he the one who can accomplish that in your view?
GRAPPO: It's going to be a challenge for him. This is going to be quite a lift for President Trump. There is a lot of skepticism among these leaders who are going to be gathering there to listen to the president, and I think there are probably more curious than anything else to see how the president shifts gears and how he presents this challenge to them to join us and other western countries, which by the way, many of them already have, and combatting the worst form of extremism that we see in the country.
[11:45:04]It's going to be hard for him, and I think his domestic audience is also going to be very much tuned into this to see thousand squares with what he said during his campaign.
WHITFIELD: And just as a reminder for some who may have forgotten what it was to hear Candidate Trump, this is what he said to my colleague, Anderson Cooper.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I think Islam hates us, there's something, there's something there that is a tremendous hatred there. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us --
COOPER: In Islam itself?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: You're going to have to figure that out, OK. You're going to have to figure that out. But there is a tremendous hatred, we have to be vigilant, careful and can't allow people who have this hatred of the United States.
COOPER: I guess the question is --
PRESIDENT TRUMP: And of people that are not Muslim.
COOPER: I guess the question is, is there a war between the west and radical Islam or is there a war between the west and Islam itself?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: It's radical, but it's very hard to define. It's very hard to separate because you don't know who is who.
(END VIDEO CLIP) WHITFIELD: So if you're in the audience tomorrow in Saudi Arabia and you are a leader of a Muslim nation and you recall hearing that from Donald Trump, what are your expectations? How do you prepare yourself for a message from the president of the United States? Is it with open arms? Let me hear what you've got right now, or is it with crossed arms of I'm not so certain about what you have said and don't like it?
GRAPPO: I think what many of these leaders are going to want to hear is that the president wants to be a partner with them in combatting these forms of extremism. They all know the challenge of extremism, particularly in the Middle East, but elsewhere in the Muslim world.
They all know that, every bit as well as we do. But they want to know that the president and the United States as well as our allies in the west are with them in combatting this problem and confronting it.
And some of the rhetoric doesn't mesh with what we have tried to convey previously in terms of partnering with them to fight these worst forms of extremism.
So they're going to be very curious to hear what the president has to say, is he sincere, is he genuine as opposed to some of the remarks that they heard during his campaign.
WHITFIELD: And we're awaiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take to the podium there along with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia for a briefing. Is it your feeling that what we hear from a Rex Tillerson is a prelude to the president's message?
GRAPPO: It could very well be. I don't think the president nor Secretary Tillerson is going to want to see the secretary steal his thunder so to speak, but he will no doubt elude to what the president's priorities are during this visit and especially in the remarks he's going to be delivering to these leaders tomorrow.
But it's important to keep in mind that the Saudis very much want this to be a very successful visit for the president. Like all presidential visits anywhere, it's heavily scripted, and it's very much scripted in the president's favor to make him look good.
And so, if he can deliver remarks that are consistent with this overall presentation that the Saudis will make, he will come across as having had a very successful visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with these Arab and Muslim leaders.
WHITFIELD: All right. So Gary, I want to partner this conversation now with Haroon Moghul, a senior fellow and director of development at the Center for Global Policy also with us.
So Haroon, is it your feeling that Rex Tillerson will stick to script that President Trump will stick to script because when you've got reporters in the room, there will be questions which means you have to be ready for some spontaneity, is it your concern at all that there will be consistent messaging on this trip from Riyadh? HAROON MOGHUL, SENIOR FELLOW AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR GLOBAL POLICY: I mean, it's Donald Trump, there's never consistent messaging. He talks tough on Twitter, he bashes people, he insults people, he mocks a whole religion, and then the minute it comes down to, it bends over backwards to apiece people.
I think part of the problem here and the reason that this is firstly nothing new and secondly, literally nothing is going to be accomplished by this trip, other than more weapons to the most regressive regime in the world, which is sort of ironic --
WHITFIELD: And what's the message sent by that?
MOGHUL: Well, the message is that -- I mean, on the one hand, there's nothing new here, it's the exact same policy that's led to complete dead end in the Middle East. And second that Donald Trump doesn't actually have any courage. He's a narcissist, yes, but he's also deeply insecure.
So everywhere he goes, he tries to appease the people he's talking to. When he's talking to racists, he mocks Islam. When he's talking to Muslims, he'll tell us how great Islam is. Probably in the middle of both of things, he talks about his Electoral College victory.
[11:45:08]The problem here is that Saudi Arabia neither represents Islam, nor is a regime that can actually fight extremism because it's a primary driver of extremism. Giving tens of billions of dollars to a government that has fermented extremism and violence across the Muslim world is not going to stop the terrorism problem, it's going to inflame the problem.
WHITFIELD: So you don't see Saudi Arabia as being particularly influential at this juncture given that they have invited, you know, leaders of Muslim nations to be part of receiving a message from the president of the United States tomorrow.
There is more than $100 billion economic military deal that Saudi Arabia embarking on this or trying to strengthen U.S. relations does not send a message to a Muslim nations to be more cooperative with to work together with the U.S. as it tries to stamp out ISIS or anything else to the detriment of --
MOGHUL: No, I wouldn't say that at all. I'd say first the fact that Saudi Arabia is sucking up to a person who's mocked the state religion of Saudi Arabia indicates how weak and uninfluential Saudi Arabia actually is.
There's no desperate to lash on to a president who is tanking at home and whose international reputation is in tatters indicates that this is a country whose foreign policy is basically entirely failed.
Secondly, I would just say to viewers, Islam is not a religion that's organized hierarchy (inaudible). Saudi Arabia does not represent Islam. No country actually represents Islam. There's nothing to that. The fact of the matter is Saudi Arabia has failed in the Middle East. It has very few friends or allies, and it's basically desperately burning through its oil wealth trying to bolster its position in the region.
And Donald Trump is not going to make this better, he's going to make it worse. We're all as Americans and as people throughout the world going to be victims of the extremism that he's going to make worse.
As an American Muslim, that comes back to me. He should not be going to Saudi Arabia to talk about Islam, he should apologize to Americans who are Muslims, for insulting our religion because he's the president of the United States of America, not Saudi Arabia.
WHITFIELD: All right. Haroon Moghul, hold on, and Mr. Gary Grappo as well. I really want to get, Gary, your reaction to a lot of what Haroon just said.
Meantime, we are going to take a short break, but for now, again live pictures out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, awaiting a press briefing involving the U.S. secretary of state and the Saudi foreign minister. We'll be right back.
WHITFIELD: Welcome back. At any moment now that room will be filled with the U.S. secretary of state and a Saudi Arabian foreign minister. They'll be conducting a briefing there while the president of the United States is there visiting in Saudi Arabia, the first stop of his eight-day five-nation tour.
Until they begin their briefing, I want to continue our conversation and bring back my panel, CNN presidential historian, Tim Naftali, CNN global affairs analyst, David Rohde, senior fellow and development director at the Center for Global Policy, Haroon Moghul, and Gary Grappo, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy at Saudi Arabia and former U.S. ambassador to Oman.
All right, welcome back to all of you. Before the break, Haroon, you said some very strong things saying that, you know, Saudi Arabia is essentially sucking up by having this meeting with the president of the United States and signing on to this more than $100 billion financial, economic and military deal.
You said that Saudi Arabia has failed in the Middle East and that Trump is simply making it worse there. So Gary, I wanted to get your view, given that you were once the ambassador there in Saudi Arabia, do you agree with Haroon's assessment and how much of the Middle Eastern community might be viewing this visit from the president of the United States?
GRAPPO: Well, I don't think there's any question some of the very critical and actually very awful things that the president said during his campaign about Muslims in general and specifically about Muslims in the United States, he was, obviously, way off base in those remarks.
Nevertheless, the Saudis and Arab countries in general understand the American political system quite well. They know a lot of rhetoric flies back and forth during an American presidential campaigns.
I once had a Saudi foreign minister comment to me, it's the funny season in America when this happens. So they'll take all of that with a grain of salt.
They're focusing on the here and now and the fact that they want a very strong relationship, the kind of historical relationship, they've traditionally had with the United States.
And everything that they're doing during this president's visit is pointed toward fortifying that relationship with the United States and ensuring that the president's visit to Saudi Arabia comes off well, not only with Saudis, but, of course, before all of these Arab and Muslim leaders who are gathered.
Now, as Haroon also said the president's greatest enemy in this visit is going to be him. If he sticks to his script he'll do all right, I'm sure, but if he veers from script and we've seen him do that all too often, we could see some difficulties for him here.
He needs to present himself as an American statesman. That needs to be his focus. Veering off script, sending the off tweet is not going to show the president as a statesman that I think he wants to be, that Americans are looking to see, and, in fact, Saudis and Muslims and everyone around the world would like to see the American president to be.
[11:55:04]WHITFIELD: So then David, there's a lot weighing on the president of the United States, his words, the choice of words that he makes tomorrow, no one expects him to make an apology. Haroon was talking about this president ought to apologize for the language that he has used and that includes the initial idea of banning Muslims from the U.S. So how careful is this president going to be with his word choice in this speech tomorrow?
DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: He needs to be extraordinarily careful. Again, the fact that Stephen Miller, the architect of the Muslim ban wrote this is extraordinary, and I agree with Haroon about the broader problem in the region.
My colleague at the "New Yorker" Robin Wright has a story today about how tens of thousands of people across the Middle East don't have electricity, major cities have blackouts, go for 12 hour periods where they don't have electricity.
These are regimes and governments and economies most importantly that are not functioning. So selling a bunch of weapons to Saudi Arabia on top of the weapons President Obama already sold doesn't improve the lives of average people in the region.
ISIS uses that frustration, the view of corrupt, ineffectual governments that can't deliver basic services to recruit people and they use the fear that the Islam baiting that President Trump used during the campaign as a recruitment tool also.
So his words matter an enormous amount during the campaign and they matter even more in the speech he is going to give tomorrow.
WHITFIELD: And Tim, at any moment now, we do understand that the secretary of state and foreign minister of Saudi Arabia will be walking into the room. When that happens we will go there live.
But in your view, you know, what is the goal of President Trump to embark on this very ambitious eight-day tour, starting with Saudi Arabia, and beginning with -- and actually let's hold off on that question and go to the room with the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and Saudi Foreign Minister Al Jubeir.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are we ready? OK. Good evening, everybody.
ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI ARABIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Are we ready? OK. Good evening, everybody. I would like to welcome all of you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It's a great pleasure and honor for me to welcome my colleague and friend Rex Tillerson, on his first visit to Saudi Arabia as secretary of state.
Mr. Secretary, while this may be your first visit as secretary of state, you have been here many, many, many times over many, many years. You know our country and our region extremely well and I believe your country is fortunate to have you as secretary of state during this period.
We in the region feel very fortunate having you at the helm of the State Department.
We -- today was a truly historic day in the relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States. And we believe it's the beginning of a turning point in the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic world.
The -- his majesty, the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and President Donald Trump signed a joint strategic vision declaration which sets the stage for the building of a truly strategic relationship between our two countries.
It will -- our relationship will evolve into an even more strategic partnership. It will deal with ways to cooperate in terms of violent extremism, financing of terrorism, terrorism, increasing defense capabilities, working on a defense architecture for the region, initially between our two countries and then looking at how other countries can join.
The strategic vision also includes trade and investment, education, and working in all fields in order to enhance our common interests and deal with the challenges that face both of our countries.
This is unprecedented. We have not had an agreement, I believe, signed by a king of Saudi Arabia and a president to codify the strategic relationship and where we want to take it moving forward. So this was a great accomplishment, and Mr. Secretary, thank you for your efforts in this regard.
The -- in addition to the signing of this strategic vision declaration, the two countries signed a series of agreements, both commercial as well as government-to-government, that involve trade investment, that involve infrastructure, that involve technology, that involve defense sales, that involve Saudi investments in American infrastructure as well as American investments in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whether in the form of building up our defense manufacturing capability or other areas.
The total value of those investments is in excess of $380 billion. I will not get into the details because I believe our colleagues have briefed the media about this extensively.
We expect that these investments over the next 10 years or so will provide hundreds of thousands of jobs in both the United States and in Saudi Arabia.
[11:30:00] They will lead to a transfer of technology from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, enhance our economy, and also enhance the American investments in Saudi Arabia which already are the largest investments of anyone.