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The President's Global Vision; Russia Probe Deepens; Afghanistan Attack. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired May 31, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:09] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The White House trying to carve out a foreign policy blueprint, it says America first can also help strengthen global allies. But will skittish foreign leaders buy what this White House is selling?

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Michael Flynn is ready to cooperate with subpoenas in the Russia investigation. But the White House tightlipped on reports of private backchannel overtures to the Kremlin.

ROMANS: And a huge explosion in Kabul's diplomatic quarter killing nearly 100 people, hundreds more hurt. It comes as the president weighs deeper troop deployment in Afghanistan. We're monitoring the fast-moving developments in Kabul.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: And I'm Dave Briggs. It is Wednesday, May 31st. It's 4:00 a.m. in the East.

People here in the United States, as well as Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Norway and the U.K. all trying to figure out what covfefe means and parsing over that word on Twitter.

ROMANS: Covfefe, we'll get to that in a moment.

BRIGGS: We will try to solve that mystery in moments.

But, first, the White House taking new steps to reclaim the narrative on two big stories. First, the president's foreign trip and Russian investigation.

First, on the foreign trip. Two top aides looking to puncture the idea that the president left foreign leaders nervous. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and economic adviser Gary Cohn out with a new "Wall Street Journal" op-ed this morning. It's titled "America first doesn't mean America alone."

ROMANS: Both were on the overseas trip with the president and they offered a staunch defense of his global outlook. They say in part, the president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a global community but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.

Again, the world is not a global arena.

BRIGGS: Quote, we bring unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

Now, their clear message: American strength will keep America first.

ROMANS: This comes hours after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave this less than measured take on the president's trip.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It was an unprecedented first trip abroad, just four months into this administration, and it shows how quickly and decisively the president is acting to strengthen alliances to form new partnerships and to rebuild America's standing in the world. We've never seen before at this point in the presidency such sweeping reassurance of American interest and inauguration of a foreign policy strategy designed to bring back the world from growing dangers and perpetual disasters brought on by years of failed leadership.


ROMANS: All right. All this comes amid what looks like a diplomatic feud between the president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But whether there's actually a rift between the U.S. and Germany, that depends on whom you ask. Chancellor Merkel hammered at her view that Europe must, as she put it, take our fate into our own hands.

BRIGGS: The president back in the Oval Office after his European trip, escalating the rhetoric with, what else, a tweet. He wrote: We have a massive trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay far less than they should on NATO and military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.

ROMANS: Adding a third view, Press Secretary Spicer then downplayed any clash between these two leaders.


SPICER: I think the relationship that the president has had with Merkel he would describe as fairly unbelievable. They get along very well. He has a lot of respect for her. They continue to grow the bond that they had during their talks at the G7.


ROMANS: Fairly unbelievable. OK, the latest now on how this is going on with European allies. I want to bring in senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen. He's live for us in London.

When Sean Spicer said that at a press briefing yesterday after that the relationship between Angela Markel and the president was fairly unavailable -- I mean, that could be read a lot of different ways, you know?


ROMANS: That could be positive or a very big negative.

PLEITGEN: Well, and that's actually I think the way that the Germans probably see pinpoint. They would say very unbelievable but in a different sense of the word. If we go back to that op-ed that H.R. McMaster wrote. He also wrote in there, American first signals the restoration of American leadership.

But it's interesting since President Trump has come back from his first foreign trip, a lot of these European leaders are saying, look, we're not sure we can't rely on American leadership any more. You had Angela Merkel saying Europe needs to take its own destiny in their own hands and doubling down on those remarks several times, and even people who are running against her in the election really forcefully standing behind her and saying, look, we support our chancellor against the U.S. president.

You have the Italian prime minister, Christine, who also came out yesterday and said, we also don't believe we can necessarily rely on America any more. They have a big issue with the currents White House's stance on climate policy. They say it's something that's central to the Italians and many other European countries as well.

[04:05:03] And so, therefore, they are not sure whether or not they really see eye to eye with the U.S. at this point in time.

And if you look at that op-ed by H.R. McMaster which sure tries to outline a lot of the positives of the trip that the president took, he really doesn't ever mention that the U.S. is committed to the European Union which is something that a lot of E.U. leaders wanted to hear and which is why now you're hearing a lot of these leaders in the European Union, Angela Merkel, Macron of France, the Italians as well saying, we need to strengthen Europe because we're not sure that the current White House really believe that the European Union is a good thing. He also doesn't mention in that op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal" climate policy at all either.

So, those are two very big things where these leaders don't see things eye to eye and where really you can see that there is a rift and where American leadership is being called into question.

ROMANS: A rift between the Germans and the Europeans and the Americans on climate change, but there's a rift between American business and this president on climate change. Business including oil companies has been saying we need to stay in the Paris accord.

Just one quick follow up for you, Fred. I mean, part of the really remarkable thing to me about that op-ed in the "Wall Street Journal" is this idea that we are no longer a global community, but that we're in an arena where everyone is competing. To me, and tell me if I'm overstating it, that's a rejection of post-World War II policy that has guided the relationship between major economies, isn't it? PLEITGEN: Well, you know, towards Europe I think it certainly is

because one of the things that I think the relationships between the United States and a lot of the European allies has been over the past decades, it's been more really than a competition of different ideas or different strategies, it really has been a big community and one of the things was that collective defense which many Europeans now feel is being called into question. But also, H.R. McMaster had a bit of a paragraph in there where he said, look, he told leaders of the European Union that the U.S. wants to get rid of unfair business practices. But these are business practices that were really set up, free trade that were really set up between the U.S. and European leaders in very long negotiations and something where I think both sides believed they could benefit from this.

So, yes, it really is or was the case that there was more than just an arena of competing interests over the past couple of decades between the E.U. and the United States and I think that's one of the reasons that new sort of mode of being in the White House is one of the reasons why so many European leaders are so alienated now, Christine.

ROMANS: The world is not a global community. It's remarkable thing on hear from representatives for the White House.

All right. Fred Pleitgen, thank you so much.

BRIGGS: All right. President Trump is also trying hard to change narrative but he seemed to run into a glitch finding his own. Take a look at this tweet from just after midnight. The president writing, despite the constant negative press, that's where it hit the glitch, covfefe.

ROMANS: Covfefe.

BRIGGS: Covfefe because you speak fluent French.

ROMANS: I don't know. Does the president French? I don't think --

BRIGGS: It appears to be an unfinished tweet with a bit of a typo if it is a mistake. No one seems to be noticing at the White House it has not been taken down tweets or a matter of official presidential record.

By the way, covfefe is trending number one on Twitter overnight around the world. Not just here in the United States, I mentioned a dozen countries off the top. It is around the world.

ROMANS: How many times did the president's tweet been retweeted?

BRIGGS: More than 100,000 retweets at this juncture.

ROMANS: I mean, one could assume that he misfired a tweet and went to bed. But the world overnight --

BRIGGS: We wait with baited breath an explanation.

ROMANS: All right. Eight minutes past the hour. Now to the Russian investigation. As you saw Press Secretary Sean Spicer back behind the podium but was short on answers about the latest developments. He would not confirm whether top Trump aide Jared Kushner tried to set up a back channel to the Kremlin during the transition. Spicer also would not confirm whether the president knew about Kushner doing so, but he did endorse a recent comment by top administration officials that supported the notion of back channels.


SPICER: I think Secretary Kelly and General McMaster both discussed that in general terms, backchannels are appropriate part of diplomacy.


BRIGGS: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn now saying he will provide documents subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee. A source close to Flynn says he'll deliver the first batch by June 6th. Flynn had refused to comply with an earlier broader subpoena that included more of his personal documents.

ROMANS: Breaking news, a huge explosion rocking Kabul's diplomatic quarter. An Afghan official describing it as a suicide attack near the German embassy.

CNN's Ian Lee has the latest from Istanbul.

And the casualties here are mounting.

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Christine. Eighty people so far have been killed in this attack, 300 injured. But expect that number to continue to increase. We've been watching it all morning as it's ticked up quite rapidly. The bomb considered to be a large vehicle packed with explosives, going off right during rush hour traffic where people were trying to get to work on one of Kabul's main roads.

[04:10:10] This bomb felt across the capital, near the German embassy. We're told that parts of the French embassy were damaged. This comes as President Trump really contemplates one of the main foreign policy decisions of his presidency, whether to spend more blood and treasure inside Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has a plan that would increase the number of U.S. troops up to five additional thousand troops and then also increasing the number of air strikes against the Taliban and also putting more U.S. financial assistance into that country. The Taliban and other insurgents control right now, Christine, control and contest 40 percent of the country.

ROMANS: Wow. All right. Ian Lee, keep us posted as we continue to monitor developments after that huge explosion near the diplomatic quarter. Thanks, Ian.

BRIGGS: Meanwhile, a significant advance to U.S. efforts to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea. The Pentagon announcing it shot down mock intercontinental ballistic missile, an ICBM. The test using an upgraded ground based interceptor system was conducted over the Pacific Ocean. Defense officials expressing confidence the U.S. now has a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.

Let's get more from CNN's Paula Hancock. She joins us live from Seoul with this significant development.

Good morning to you, Paula.


U.S. officials have actually described this as high-speed effort to try and hit one bullet with another bullet, specifying just how difficult it is to take out even a mock up ICBM in mid-flight. But they say it was a success. We heard from the Pentagon and also the Missile Defense Agency saying that it's not just because of North Korea that they are making sure this interceptor missile is successful, but the fact is North Korea is pretty much the only sovereign state around the world at this point that is threatening the United States in such a way.

We heard at the beginning of the year, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un saying that he was close to test launching an ICBM. He has made it clear he wants to be able to hit mainland United States with a nuclear tipped ICBM. So, clearly, this is the concern when the U.S. is thinking about these kind of programs, a $40 billion program.

Experts saying it's still not perfect, success rate of two out of five in recent years and certainly, it's moving forward. But they need to do more. We also know as well that in this region at this point, there were two U.S. aircraft carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan. A U.S. defense official telling CNN that they are expected to carry out military drills as early as today, as early as this Wednesday. This is in waters just off the Korean peninsula.

We haven't had a reaction from North Korea at this point, but it is clear that they will not be happy with this. They have mentioned both of those aircraft carriers by name over recent days, saying that the U.S. is pushing tensions on the Korean peninsula -- Dave.

BRIGGS: So, success is at 40 percent but still a significant advance. But, Paula, thank you.

All right. A mea culpa from comedy Kathy Griffin.


KATHY GRIFFIN, COMEDIAN: I beg for your forgiveness. I went too far. I made a mistake and I was wrong.


BRIGGS: That apology follows a controversial photo shoot that even appeared to get attention from the Secret Service.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [04:17:40] ROMANS: Seventeen minutes past the hour.

President Trump vows the replacement health care bill will be more affordable than Obamacare but many Americans don't agree. Nearly half of consumers think costs will be worse under the American Health Care Act. That's according to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation and that percentage is an increase from foundation's last survey in December.

Also up significantly, concerns over the quality of care. More than one-third of those polled think access to care will get worse under the new bill. Respondents gave a few reasons for that belief. Provisions such as cutting essential benefits, raising costs for older consumers and those with pre-existing conditions.

Also not helping the matter, report from the Congressional Budget Office that found the bill leaves 51 million Americans without insurance by the year 2026. President Trump has said this bill would be better than Obamacare and even though Senate Republicans are currently overhauling the House version, most in this Kaiser survey still preferred Obamacare. Forty-nine percent gave Obamacare a favorable rating over the GOP bill. That's the highest rating for Obamacare since it became law back in March 2010.

BRIGGS: Kathy Griffin apologizing this morning after facing major backlash for taking part in a despicable photo shoot that showed her holding up a blooding head resembling that of President Trump.


GRIFFIN: I sincerely apologize. I've just now seen the reaction of these images. I'm a comic. I crossed the line, I moved the line and then I crossed it. I went way too far.

The image is too disturbing. I understand how it offends people. It wasn't funny. I get it. I made a lot of mistakes in my career. I will continue. I ask your forgiveness.


BRIGGS: Griffin asked the photographer to take down the picture which has already spread virally online.

ROMANS: We're not -- CNN is not showing that gruesome image this hour. We should note, Griffin has partnered with CNN for a New Year's Eve special for several years.

CNN in a statement says it found the photo disgusting and offensive, mirroring what all of us here think. It's placed it has been taken down. The network is evaluating the New Year's Eve coverage with Kathy Griffin.

Obviously, the photo was meant to be shocking. It was no question it crossed the line.

BRIGGS: And for those of you wondering about Anderson Cooper's opinion on this, he tweeted: To be clear, he is appalled by this photo shoot.

[04:20:00] It's clearly disgusting and completely appropriate. I think echoing the sentiments of everyone here at the network.

An angry outburst in court by the man accused in a deadly stabbing spree in Portland.


JEREMY CHRISTIAN, STABBING SUSPECT: You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism. You hear me. Die!


BRIGGS: That's not all. More of what he said at his arraignment, next.


ROMANS: Disgust in a Portland, Oregon courtroom, as a suspect in a fatal train stabbing makes his first appearance. Jeremy Joseph Christian is accused of stabbing three men, killing two of them. The victims were coming to the aid of two women allegedly target by Christian with hate speech.

[04:25:03] One of the women was wearing a hijab.

During the hearing, repeated verbal outbursts from the suspect.


CHRISTIAN: Free speech or die, Portland. This is America. Get out if you don't like free speech.

Death to the enemies of America. Leave this country if you hate our freedom. Death to Antifa! You call it terrorism I call it patriotism. You hear me? Die.


ROMANS: And two men came to the aide of women he was screaming and yelling at and telling them to move back to Saudi Arabia. Two men coming to the defense of those women were stabbed to death. Christian will be back in court June 7th. Federal authorities are still deciding whether to prosecute him for hate crimes.

BRIGGS: The Department of Homeland Security signaling it's open to alternatives to expanding an electronics ban on commercial flights. Airline industry sources telling CNN random passenger screening is one measure that could be considered. They say talks with European officials may have given the Trump administration pause about a proposed ban on laptops from the cabins of flights between the U.S. and Europe. But officials say the move remains on the table as they examine intelligence about terror threats.

ROMANS: One of the issues is all those batteries in the laptops in the hold of the plane, what if something goes wrong?

BRIGGS: More terrifying perhaps.

ROMANS: Trying to figure out what is the safest way to address this but clearly there's an intelligence link there that has some concerns.

BRIGGS: Far from an answer.

All right. Can President Trump put America first without leaving the rest of the world behind? The president's top aides saying he can with major decisions ahead on some central global issues.