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Tillerson: Trump Comments Send "Strong Message" To North Korea; Trump Ramps Up Rhetoric Against North Korea. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 9, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- threatening fire and fury. The Secretary of State, though, saying this morning Americans should sleep well and rest assured.

We begin with some reassuring words from Tillerson after the single most chilling public statement made by the U.S. President in quite a while aimed at North Korea, and you will hear that in a moment. First, Tillerson's comments a short time ago on a flight from Malaysia to Guam. Listen.


REX TILLERSON, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: I think Americans should sleep well at night and have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days. I think the President, again, as Commander-in-Chief, I think he felt it necessary to issue a very strong statement directly to North Korea. But I think what the President was just re-affirming is the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack and defend our allies, and we will do so. So the American people should sleep well at night.


HARLOW: So that is what Tillerson says. Let's contrast that with what we heard from President Trump yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.


HARLOW: The President's statement on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. For its part, Pyongyang is threatening potentially to hit the U.S. territory of Guam.

And adding to the bluster, a new U.S. intelligence assessment that North Korea likely does have and has developed nuclear weapons small enough to fit atop those long-range missiles or these miniaturized weapons. It is important to note, though, CNN's reporting is that they have not been tested yet. Americans are certainly paying attention. A brand-new CNN poll shows

62 percent of Americans consider North Korea a very serious threat to the United States. That is up from 48 percent in March.

Half of Americans, interestingly, think the United States should take military action in response to these North Korean nuclear missile tests. This would be as opposed to 43 percent who do not.

We are covering all of these developments across the globe. Let's begin with our Will Ripley who joins us from Beijing and who has been to Pyongyang more than a dozen times.

Will, what do you make of all of this?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is a lot to unpack, Poppy. Certainly around the region, there are a number of things that have countries, including China where I am right now, cause to be alarmed.

There is growing fear in this region that there could really be an accidental war on the Korean Peninsula. It seems as if all of the stakeholders involved don't want to see war break out, but the concern is that the fiery rhetoric, unpredictable behavior, that one action could lead to a chain reaction from which there is no coming back.

And so that is why, just within the last couple of hours, we received a statement from the Chinese government, which often tries to call for calm when tensions bubble up on the Korean Peninsula.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying, quote, China calls on the relevant sides -- first saying the current situation on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive. China calls on the relevant sides to follow the broad direction of resolving the nuclear issue through political means. Avoid remarks and actions that could aggravate conflicts and escalate tensions -- that's the key word right there -- and make a greater effort to return to the correct path of resolving the issue through dialogs and negotiations.

So China asking the United States to refrain from fiery rhetoric. Also asking North Korea to refrain because it was North Korea that really shocked many in the world by threatening perhaps a direct military strike on U.S. military assets in Guam using their intermediate range missiles, what they -- which they were really testing at a frenzied pace for much of last year.

Now, they're focusing on their ICBMs, but they have a lot of other missiles on their arsenal as well. Whether they would accurately strike the target is a different story. That is up for discussion with a lot of analysts weighing in on that.

Other reaction from around the region, you have most U.S. allies saying that they believe North Korea is the threat to security, trying to avoid direct criticism of President Trump for his remarks with the exception of the -- of New Zealand where they did actually say that that type of bombastic rhetoric is not helpful in diffusing tensions here, Poppy. HARLOW: Well, let me just get your assessment because you have spent

so much time in the region and had this rare contact with officials in the North Korean regime.

I mean, how do they look at this, do you believe? Is this about developing this capability and then hoping to use it, or is this about developing the capability to protect the regime?

I was in North Korea about a month and a half ago talking about this with government officials there, and we've spoken repeatedly about it over the last couple of years. North Korea has it written into their constitution that they want to become a full-fledged nuclear power. They want to have an intercontinental ballistic missile. They want to have a full range of missiles that they view really as a deterrent.

[09:05:01] The goal of possessing these weapons is not to have them so they can use them but to keep the regime led by Kim Jong-un in power. That is their number one priority. They want to -- they basically want mutually assured destruction.

They want the world to believe that if anyone tries to take military action against North Korea, that they can do so much damage. They could destroy large portions of South Korea. They could potentially target Japan. They could target Guam. And with this ICBM, they can also send a very dramatic message that they could potentially strike much of the mainland United States with a nuclear weapon.

And so it is about leverage. It's also about respect. And it is about when there are discussions, being able to have those discussions on North Korea's own terms without concessions, which is what the United States has been insisting on for many years.

HARLOW: Will Ripley, thank you for your expertise and reporting this morning for us. We appreciate it.

Also this morning, the President writing, first order was to renovate our -- and modernize our nuclear arsenal. He went on to say, it is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. The President also adding, there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world.

Let's go to the Pentagon and bring in our Barbara Starr.

Now, Barbara, I think it is important to point out in terms of this new capability that we know of, or at least the miniaturization of this weaponry, it's not a consensus agreement across all U.S. intelligence that this is where North Korea stands right now, correct?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. There is an assessment, you know, but that's what it is, an assessment, not a hard fact. Because you really have no way of absolutely knowing, and there isn't full agreement.

What some in the intelligence community have assessed is that North Korea has produced -- and that's a key word, produced -- a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could go on a missile. But, look, the North Koreans do have their own challenges ahead of them with that warhead.

Has it ever been tested? They don't -- the U.S. doesn't think so. Could it go on the front end of a missile? Could you fire that missile with a warhead? Could it survive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere? Do the North Koreans have the kind of precision targeting need for the credible threat of striking a particular point, whether it's Guam or Japan or South Korea?

They can fire their missiles. We've seen it time and again, not, you know -- and it's not clear that they have that precision targeting. They fire into the ocean, and it lands where it lands. So can they take really the next step, do this precision targeting, and carry out such an attack?

A lot of big-time rhetoric from the North Korean regime. Very hot, fiery rhetoric. Hot, fiery rhetoric back from President Trump. All of it with a reality check.

The President indicating that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is more powerful since he came into office. Maybe a reality check on that because much of what happened to the U.S. nuclear arsenal is heavily regulated by international treaty -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you for your reporting as always.

Let's take you now to Seoul, South Korea. Leaders there this morning calling for a complete overhaul of their military defense. Alexandra Field is live for us.

What else are you hearing, given obviously the proximity to the regime?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy. This is a really tough needle to thread for leaders here because they want to tame tensions, and they also want to protect their people against the possibility of a misstep that could lead to conflict here. That's the risk when you wage a war of words really all across the globe.

So leaders in this part of the world have been calling for calm. At the same time, these are the words that came from South Korea's dovish president, the man who was elected to power just a few months ago, advocating for greater dialogue with North Korea.

Here's what he said today -- I believe our given task is reform of the military. It should be an intensive one. I believe we need a complete overhaul instead of defense reform at the level of minor improvements or modifications.

To put that into context, these are words that he spoke at a ceremony. He said these words to military commanders. These were not a direct response to the ratcheting up of rhetoric that we have seen from both South Korea and the U.S., but this is certainly a realization of the intensity of the situation that has unfolded on the peninsula and the security threat that South Korea very much feels that they are under. They've lived under a threat for decades. It has certainly reached

its highest level when you talk about the fact that North Korea has shown that they can test these ICBMs, that they may have the capacity to miniaturize a nuclear weapon.

Look, North Korea doesn't need to use nukes. They don't need to use ICBMs to launch an attack right here in the region. They can use the conventional weapons that are just on the other side of the DMZ. And should they be provoked somehow, even if by mistake to do that, the South Korean government foresees it as their responsibility to be ready as best they can be, Poppy.

HARLOW: Alexandra Field for us in Seoul. Thank you very, very much.

And I do want to go now to Joe johns, our senior Washington correspondent. He's in Bedminster right now where the President is right now on his working vacation.

And, Joe, you've got some new numbers out certainly to tell us how Americans are feeling amid all of this.

[09:10:04] JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. The President has no public events on his schedule today, and staff did not explicitly say he's going to receive his intelligence briefing. However, he has received it every day this week.

The latest developments come at a time when the public seems to be expressing some skepticism about the President's handling of issues related to North Korea. The SRS poll conducted for CNN, a number of questions. Let's just go to the graphic.

When asked about Mr. Trump's handling of the North Korea situation, 37 percent said they approve, 50 percent said they disapprove, 13 percent not sure.

When asked about whether they favor military action in response to North Korea's weapons testing, three-fourths of Republicans approve, about half of independents, about a third of Democrats.

And when asked about the comparative threats to the United States, ISIS and North Korea got just about top billing with almost the same amount of concern. Sixty-four percent to 62 percent.

So that is American public opinion, at least right now, on North Korea by the numbers. Poppy, back to you.

HARLOW: Joe Johns, thank you very much for the reporting. Let's get more perspective on all of this.

Joining me now, CNN military analyst and retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. And fellow and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Lisa Collins. It is nice to have you both here.

And, Colonel, let me begin with you. It's a very different message within a 24-hour span of time from the President, the words he chose to use yesterday, and what Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, said this morning as he was flying to Guam. I mean, urging Americans to sleep well at night. You know, there is -- you know, you should not be in fear right now.

He is the one who has been pushing for weeks for what he's calling peaceful pressure, saying they're not looking for regime change, willing to sit down at the table with North Korea. Is the President undercutting his Secretary of State?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Poppy, I would say that the answer is yes, and probably it was unintentional. But it really makes it much more difficult for Secretary of State Tillerson to do his job.

One of the key things that I think the Secretary was trying to do in his statements there about sleeping well at night was really to try to reassure people that he had things under control and was working toward a peaceful resolution of this issue. But I think this is an area where we need to be very cautious, very vigilant, and it's going to be, you know, a time with a lot of danger in it, I believe.

HARLOW: Lisa, to you, the assessment from some Republicans in Congress. You have John McCain, you know, quoting Teddy Roosevelt and saying, you know, carry a big stick but walk softly, right, and saying you don't say things unless you are ready to act and questioning whether the President is ready to act.

And then you have Darrell Issa making this equivalent to saying we haven't seen anything undoubtedly like this since the Cuban missile crisis. So are those, do you think, correct assessments at this hour?

LISA COLLINS, FELLOW WITH THE KOREA CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, I think that we are not on the brink of war with North Korea, although the tensions are very high.

North Korea has been working on the technology to develop a nuclear nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile for many years, so I think that they are very rapidly developing this technology. And we see that through the continual testing that they've conducted over the last few years.

And I think this new assessment that came out just yesterday is definitely somewhat troublesome, but I don't think it is news to those who are watching the situation very carefully.

HARLOW: And, Lisa, I want to qualify that and just ask you, is it important to note that U.S. intelligence before has overestimated North Korea's capability and speed?

If you look at 2000, if you look under President Bush, there was an assessment that the regime was very close to developing this technology, an ICBM, and they weren't at that time. Is something remarkably different now, or is there a lesson to be learned from that? COLLINS: I don't think things are markedly different now. There has

always been a difference of opinion in terms of experts thinking about how fast North Korea is developing its technologies.

I think that there are still experts who believe that North Korea doesn't have the important technology for re-entry of a nuclear-tipped missile, and there are also some questions about whether or not the guiding system which would accurately target a city would actually work.

So I think there are still variances within the expert community about how advanced North Korea's nuclear program actually is, but I think it's important that we not underestimate them because they are not afraid of failures and they continually test. And each test that they conduct, they learn something new. And I think that they are very rapidly escalating and advancing in their technology.

HARLOW: Colonel, to you, the people around the President, especially his new Chief of Staff, General Kelly -- General Kelly, H.R. McMaster, you know, General Mattis, et cetera -- do you think that they would have signed off on the President using the words that he used yesterday, the fire and fury rhetoric?

[09:15:10] LEIGHTON: I don't think so, Poppy. I think they would have preferred much more measured language. I think there is also a time and a place. Sometimes language like the president used yesterday is very appropriate. But it is usually done when there is a situation that has actually happened or we know is about to happen.

At this juncture for the president to use the type of rhetoric that he used and the idea of fire, the idea of using all means of national power against North Korea, all of that is certainly true if the event of hostilities.

But it is perhaps an unnecessary reminder at this juncture that that would be the consequence of any type of action that the North Koreans would engage in, were it to be a hostile action, especially against the mainland U.S. or U.S. territories like Guam.

HARLOW: Colonel Leighton, thank you. Lisa Collins (ph), we appreciate your expertise.

A lot ahead. The words of the president, "like the world has never seen," that is a phrase he used yesterday regarding North Korea. As we've seen it is a repeated phrase that he uses often in different situations as well.

And blame it on Bannon? A "Wall Street Journal" editorial from the "Wall Street Journal" editorial board rips into the president's chief strategist for causing what it is calling dysfunction in the White House and, quote, "The vilification of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster."

Plus, a legend has passed. Country music star, Glen Campbell, passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer's. We remember him ahead.



HARLOW: The president's comments on North Korea drawing sharp criticism from some Republicans and Democrats who are accusing the president of escalating tensions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the president was sending a strong message to North Korea. He also says though that Americans should sleep well at night.

Joining me now, CNN senior political analyst and senior editor for "The Atlantic," Ron Brownstein. Also, back with us, our military analyst, Colonel Cedric Leighton. Thank you both for being here.

Ron, given the stakes, given the bellicose rhetoric coming from the president, it's interesting to juxtapose it was just days after they had this huge diplomatic achievement at the United Nations with these unanimous sanctions, getting China on board, getting Russia on board.

Winning that diplomatic battler to sanction further North Korea, do you believe the president boxed himself in, in a sense, with the choice of words he used yesterday?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the president kind of underscored the unusual terrain that we are on, not only in the nature of this crisis with North Korea, but the nature of his leadership.

I mean, I don't know if we've had an international crisis of this magnitude at a time when we have a president facing such doubts among the American public and for that matter the leaders of most of our allies about both his judgment and his veracity.

I mean, you know, if you look at polls, again, CNN poll out, 60 percent say they do not believe he is honest and trustworthy. We've had 60 percent or more in other polls saying they don't consider him level-headed.

I think it is a challenge for the president to reassure the country and the world that in fact this genuine real challenge is being dealt with in a measured and stable way.

Because I think there are a lot of people, both at home and abroad, who are simply worried that he is too volatile to deal with something like this. And language like that, whatever it means in North Korea, I think adds to those doubts here in the United States.

HARLOW: So Colonel, the language also echoes what President Truman said more than 70 years ago talking about a day of ruin from the air, a day the likes of which has never been seen here on earth.

Now there is an important difference here, He said that 16 hours after the bomb, the first a bomb was dropped in Hiroshima a few days before Nagasaki so that was a reality, and from this president, it was a threat. Your thoughts.

LEIGHTON: Well, I agree, Poppy, when President Truman made those remarks we had a major event, major cataclysmic event that was the detonation of a nuclear bomb over a Japanese city.

And that is something that so far at least has not been repeated in any type of conflict that we've had since then. When President Trump made these remarks yesterday, it was basically in a situation where there was no similar type of military action.

The only other close time to something like this that I can remember was when President Reagan, when he was president-elect, was asked about the Iranian hostage crisis and he very specifically said the Iranians better be very careful, they better not test me in this particular area.

Then he said it very effectively, then what he ended up doing was slamming the trunk of a car so that he emphasized his point. Then after that we all know of course that the hostages were released from Iran once he was inaugurated. The precise second that he was inaugurated, and that is perhaps analogous.

But again, there were precipitating events. Here there was not that one precipitating event besides all the testing that we've seen and that does not normally warrant that kind of rhetoric from a president.

HARLOW: Ron, there is an interesting column in the "Washington Post" this morning, David Ignatius -- he doesn't say the president is right to use this rhetoric, but he also doesn't say the president's wrong. He says we'll see what happens.

And he does point this out. He says, you should take McMaster, the president's national security advisor, at his word, and he says the fact that McMaster said a nuclear North Korea is intolerable. Those are words from McMaster you should take. Your thoughts on that.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I mean, as I said, this is a very unusual situation in that we have a president who is facing such doubts in the public really about -- the core of the doubts go to his ability to handle a crisis like this.

[09:25:12] And you add to that kind of a structural doubt about the White House. You teased at the last break a "Wall Street Journal" editorial arguing Steve Bannon should be fired because he's trying to undermine through his media allies and force out the national security, General McMaster.

HARLOW: But I think what McMaster is pointing out -- frankly, is that the other strategies from preceding Democrats and Republicans who have sat in President Trump's seat has not worked.

BROWNSTEIN: Exactly. But what most experts will acknowledge about North Korea is there simply are not good options, and a military option involves -- even without an escalation to nuclear warfare, the possibility of an enormous -- as Colonel can tell you -- an enormous conventional attack on Seoul that has been seen as the inhibiting factor for obvious reasons.

So, I think finding a path through this is a delicate and complicated challenge. I think the president needs to understand that he has to reassure the country and the world that he is capable of doing that, and in many ways that's where I think this language may be the most counterproductive.

HARLOW: Ron Brownstein, thank you very much. I was hoping this morning we would also be talking about your great column in "Fault Lines." We'll have to get to that another day. Everyone should read it. Thank you for that. Colonel, thank you as well. We appreciate it.

President Trump's warning, those words to North Korea certainly shook global markets overnight. How will U.S. markets respond when they open in 4 minutes? Christine Romans with us before the bell.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I suspect they'll be down a little bit this morning. You saw global markets fall a little bit because this is the kind of thing that tends to dent optimism among investors, investors who have had a stellar year.

Dow futures down about 0.2 percent. S&P down as well, and you saw Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo all closed lower. Where we saw the action, Poppy, was in the scary cat plays, if you will, people running into the bonds market, people running into gold, people running into the Swiss Franc.

Because gold prices popped 1.4 percent overnight. That's just the overnight performance there. You can see, that tends to happen when you're running out of the stock market, into the safety of something else.

I want to put this in context. Yes, this breaks a very long streak of records for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, nine days higher in a row. But this is what it looks like for the year, in a way you could almost argue that it wouldn't take much to stop that kind of ascent because we've had such great returns so far this year.

You know, the Dow is up 19 percent since January. That's a wonderful rally. You'd like to have investors looking for a reason to take a profit. So, we'll watch to see -- I thought maybe that the market might turn around a little bit this morning. The futures market might turn around on those Rex Tillerson comments but they didn't move at all.

HARLOW: It shows you don't have a White House on the same page. Christine Romans, thank you.

Meantime, Bannon under fire, but not from a place you would expect.