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North Korea Threat Looms As Trump Heads To U.N.; Trump Arrives At U.N. Ahead Of Big Week. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 18, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: To the crowd. That was fantastic.

All right, John, thanks so much for being here.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Great to be here.

CAMEROTA: Good to see you.

Time now for CNN "NEWSROOM" with Poppy Harlow.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: That made my morning so much that I will forgive Berman from switching sets for the morning.

We miss you, John.

Have a great day and we'll see you guys tomorrow.

Let's get started.

BERMAN: Thanks, Poppy.

HARLOW: Top of the hour. 9:00 a.m. Eastern. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

President Trump is about to kick off a week unlike any he has faced before at a place that he rarely fails to criticize. In just minutes, he will set out from Trump Tower for his first ever meeting at U.N. headquarters. A session fittingly on U.N. reforms.

Now, tomorrow, he will make his debut address at the U.N. General Assembly. And the world is holding its breath, if you will, over what the America first president will say and how he'll say it.

The president also set to meet one-on-one with more than a dozen fellow world leaders, not including Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Angela Merkel. All three of those leaders skipping this year's General Assembly.

Our Jeff Zeleny is, of course, not skipping it. He is outside of the United Nations with a preview of what is ahead for the president. So the big to do is the speech tomorrow, but today is significant,

right, because it's unclear if his message is going to change significantly from where it's been on the U.N.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. That's absolutely right. We've heard President Trump talk so much about the United Nations, and very critical of the United Nations, as some American politicians are. But today he will come here to the United Nations, bringing essentially his America first policy here for all the world to see and dissect.

Now, we've seen the president travel a few times around the world, been on the world stage somewhat during his first eight months in office. But today the world is coming here to his hometown. This week, of course, is a big one for the president. As all of the world leaders are looking to discern what is really in the Trump doctrine, of course the issues on the table here are U.N. reform, like you said, but North Korea and the rising nuclear threat certainly looming large in everyone's mind. The Iran nuclear agreement also important. Climate change, of course, another point of conversation.

But again, North Korea is something that is going to be front and center in conversations and in his speech tomorrow. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, talked about the threat of North Korea on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. Let's watch.


DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR, "STATE OF THE UNION": Was the president's fire and fury remark an empty threat?

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: It was not an empty threat. What we were doing was being responsible. Where North Korea is being irresponsible and reckless, we were being responsible by trying to use every diplomatic possibility that we could possibly do. We have pretty much exhausted all the things that we could do at the Security Council at this point.

Now, I said yesterday, I'm perfectly happy kicking this over to General Mattis because he has plenty of military options.


ZELENY: So by saying kicking it over to General Mattis, of course the defense secretary, General Mattis there, talking about military options still on the table.

But the reality here is, Poppy, that is a last, worst case scenario. There are few people inside the government and indeed the White House who want to use military options. Yes, we heard President Trump last month talk about unleashing fire and fury unlike the world has seen on North Korea. But the reality here is, more people are hoping for a diplomatic solution. We'll see what he says in his speech tomorrow to the United Nations General Assembly, Poppy, but he will be arriving here shortly to talk about U.N. reform before launching a full day of meetings here in New York. Poppy.

HARLOW: Jeff, Nikki Haley calls it a new day at the U.N. with all these changes. We'll see if the president echoes that language.

Thank you very much, Jeff Zeleny, at the United Nations.

With me now in person, we are lucky enough, Jim Sciutto, CNN national security correspondent.

We're usually talking through boxes and you're here, of course, for the big --


HARLOW: For the big week ahead.


HARLOW: So, I mean, this -- this is the America first president. And I think we got a bit of a preview yesterday from his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, on what we may hear from him. Let's play that.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, he thinks the speech is a tremendous opportunity, obviously, to reach too many world leaders at the same time and to emphasize really three themes. The first is to protect the American people. The second is to promote American prosperity. And the third is really to help promote accountability and sovereignty.


HARLOW: American, American and sovereignty.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Listen, sticking with -- there was no softening of the America first line there from his national security adviser.

HARLOW: Yes. No.

SCIUTTO: You might even say a doubling down. I mean the fact is, on some of the most America first positions, there has or at least been signals of softening with confusion. I mean the whole thing about the climate change deal, are they going to back off leaving it.


SCIUTTO: Possibly. I mean clearly there's something going on there. Something of a signal. But to -- admittedly, very skeptical world leaders on that issue.


SCIUTTO: If you look at NATO, I mean his early comments on NATO were obsolete. He would not recognize the mutual defense treaties in his public comments. In Europe, that said, there were private assurances made from other leaders --

[09:05:10] HARLOW: And that he did months later.

SCIUTTO: And then he did -- he did finally -- he did finally do that. So you have some softening of those America first positions. But the truth is, I speak to European diplomats frequently and, of course, there are things they'll say in public and the things they'll say in private. But in private there is genuine, genuine concern, not just about the positions, but also about the style of leadership.

HARLOW: So looking back at some of the specific word choices that he's made over the course of months since the campaign on the United Nations, he's called it, quote, not a friend of democracy, not a friend of freedom.


HARLOW: He's called the U.N. an underperformer and an institution that, quote, causes problems. I mean when Dana pressed Nikki Haley on this yesterday, she said, look, a lot has changed. It's a new day at the United Nations. Is there any indication that the president will see it as anything like a new day at the United Nations and also please his America first base?

SCIUTTO: Well, the fact is, he already has seen it that way, right, because the only U.S. and really western world response to North Korea has been via the U.N., via Security Council resolutions at the U.S., work through Nikki Haley, very hard core.


SCIUTTO: I mean this was a priority. They pushed Russia. They pushed China. They didn't get quite as far as they wanted to in terms of economic sanctions.

HARLOW: Because he called them not a very big deal.

SCIUTTO: Yes. But the fact is, if you look at the policy, even with all of the saber rattling of -- their -- there were military options on the table. As Jeff Zeleny said there, here's the thing about military options. And this is not said in clear terms publicly. Any U.S. military option has enormous human cost for South Korea, Seoul is very close to that border, for U.S. citizens in South Korea, for U.S. troops in South Korea. And not in the hundreds, right, but risking in the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. So is that a cost that the American public is willing to bear and that the president is willing to take his country to.

HARLOW: Right. Right.

SCIUTTO: They have not articulated that case. So any time you hear military options -- and there are military options -- remember attached to them is enormous human cost.


SCIUTTO: And that -- life, right.

HARLOW: Human life.

SCIUTTO: In a scale that we haven't seen since, I mean, frankly, I mean you could say, well, the Vietnam War or World War II, yes.

HARLOW: Do you think Ken Burns' 18-hour documentary "The Vietnam War," kicked off last night, an important sort of perspective --

SCIUTTO: I was watching it, yes.

HARLOW: To give the American people in times like this.

So, stay with us, if you will, Jim.

Let's bring back, and our panel, Jeff Zeleny. Also joining us, Nia- Malika Henderson, our senior political reporter, and Rear Admiral John Kirby, CNN military and diplomatic analyst.

Nia, how do you see it? I mean how will the president's remarks differ (ph) from what Nikki Haley said yesterday?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, that's the thing, with this president, we never really know. And I think also with this president, typically you have major speeches and often they have short shelf lives and I think with this president in particular because he can be obviously very presidential when he is scripted, as sort of teleprompter Trump, but his asides will matter.

I mean does he kind of go off script here? Does he go off script in meetings that he has with leaders? He's got a bevy of meetings today with foreign leaders and throughout this week. And does he go off script on Twitter? I mean that's what we have seen from this president, calling the leader of North Korea rocket man over this weekend on Twitter. You imagine he probably won't say that in his U.N. speech. But that's the thing, I think, with this president, there are many versions of him and a lot of that I think has sewn a lot of confusion and a lot of need for back channeling among people like Tillerson, among people like Nikki Haley, who are often on cleanup duty going behind this president because of him going off script.

HARLOW: Right. McMaster forced to try to, you know, define and defend the rocket man comment, talking about a man who wants to -- or who is provoking potential nuclear war yesterday on the Sunday shows. He had to try to explain the president and what the president meant by that.

Admiral Kirby, to you. You are not optimistic heading into the president's remarks. So, what would surprise you to the upside?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: What would surprise me are three things, and I actually have no expectation of being surprised.

One would be on Syria. I haven't heard this administration talk specifically at all about a political diplomatic solution to the crises in Syria. They do a good job of talking about how they're going after ISIS. And, frankly, we are going after ISIS in conjunction with the coalition. But you never hear anything about a diplomatic solution to the crises in Syria and how we're going to move forward to create an atmosphere there where people don't have to leave and seek refuge and where terrorism doesn't take root.

Number two, North Korea. We've talked about that already this morning. Again, you hear a lot of saber rattling, fire and fury, you know, kick it over to General Mattis, who I think he's now Secretary Mattis. And I think the last thing he wants to do is explore military options. I mean, obviously, he's got to have them ready. I don't hear anything specific about the diplomatic solutions that they're pursuing. They keep giving sort of lip service to, well, we're still pursuing diplomatic -- but they don't talk about it in any kind of detail with any kind of fidelity.

[09:10:00] And, lastly, and this one I really don't expect to hear it. When, you know, McMaster, last week, when he went to the podium at the White House, he talked about how the president's speech is going to focus on sovereignty and accountability. And he mentioned that on Sunday as well, sovereignty and accountability. Ideally what he's talking about is protecting our sovereignty in America and holding others accountable.

Well, I think we ought to flip that a little bit. I mean we ought to be able to understand that sometimes protecting our security and prosperity is about protecting the sovereignty and the interests of other people elsewhere. And it also means holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard of governance, of anti-corruption work, of human rights. And I don't really think that when they say sovereignty and accountability that they're going to be pointing the finger at them a little bit.

HARLOW: Jeff Zeleny, the president is set to meet later today with Emmanuel Macron of France, who he has a much better relationship now it seems after his visit there than previously. And also Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. The key in that Netanyahu meeting is clearly going to be Iran and what the U.S. decides -- what he and his administration decides to do regarding the Iran nuclear agreement.

ZELENY: No question, Poppy, that is one of the issues front and center. If it wasn't for North Korea, I mean that (INAUDIBLE) without question is the biggest challenge on the president's desk. But, of course, Iran also front and center. And we do not hear the president talk about it very much. Of course when he ran for president he said he would rip up that agreement. Well, of course, that has not happened. One deadline after another has passed here.

So what's interesting about this president, Poppy, we see and we're learning as he grows in office, we hear him say a lot on social media, on Twitter. We do not hear him talk much about specifics of Iran, specifics of really anything he'll do on the world stage or the Trump doctrine. So I think this week gives him that opportunity to fill in some of those blanks here. But the question here is, you know, what will come of it at the end of the week. And I do not hear any particular conclusions. The White House is not telegraphing any of those. The reality here is the sovereignty as general -- as Ambassador Kirby was just saying, is that -- to America first. This is the America first agenda the president is going to bring here.


ZELENY: We'll see how many specifics, if any, come with it.

HARLOW: Very quickly, before we go, Jim, what are you listening for? We're going to hear from -- it will be Nikki Haley, the secretary general, and then the president in about 30 minutes.

SCIUTTO: Well, I'll tell you one thing, I spoke with a senior White House official on Friday who said that one thing that they want to highlight at this U.N. General Assembly is that the president has better relationships with senior officials, world leaders like a Macron of France or even a Pena Nato of Mexico than people realize. That personally they get along much better than the public knows. And that's something that they want to show here.

HARLOW: This is a chance for him to do that in those bilateral meetings.


HARLOW: With about a dozen world leaders.

Thank you all very much.

Stick around as we await the president and Nikki Haley speaking. A lot ahead for us.

Hours before his debut at the United Nations, the president tweeted this, a pretty shocking video edited to show him hitting a golf ball, then knocking over Secretary Clinton. What will world leaders think? What should they think?

And tell us how you really feel. A pair of President Trump's lawyers go out to lunch at a D.C. restaurant very close to "The New York Times" offices, and they speak really loudly. One of them slamming another attorney on their team. We're going to talk to the reporter who heard it all and it must have made his jaw drop.

And Sean Spicer hits the Emmy stage, cracking jokes about crowd size, but essentially conceding that he misled the American people? Funny or too far?



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, arrived moments ago at the U.N. for the beginning of a very big week at the U.N. here in New York, the U.N. General Assembly. She and the president along with the secretary general will speak in just moments about reforming the U.N. We'll bringing those remarks live.

Meantime, this morning, all eyes are on President Trump at the U.N. He is preparing to address world leaders for the first time today and his big address to them comes tomorrow. Looming large over the annual gathering, North Korea's nuclear threat and of course, U.S. officials warning Pyongyang time is running out for a peaceful solution.

Joining me now Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. Sir, it is nice to have you here. Let's start with North Korea. As I'm sure you heard Nikki Haley yesterday on this network talking about the latest round of sanctions unanimously passed by the Security Council as sanctions that have, quote, "strangled North Korea economy."

Interestingly, when the president weighed in on them, he called them, quote, "not a big deal." How do you see it?

SENATOR MIKE ROUNDS (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: Well, first of all, any time we can bring the United Nations together and we work in unison, we're better off than if we don't do it. Second of all, North Korea is a threat not just to the United States but to a lot of people in that region. They are a threat to world peace.

That's just the way that it is. So, the fact that the United Nations is working with us right now, that's a positive thing. I hope the president's message tomorrow is one that acknowledges the fact that the U.N. Right now is working with us and reinforces that positive approach in the future.

HARLOW: Nikki Haley also made very clear yesterday that the road for more diplomatic option is short and running out, and she is more than happy, if necessary, to kick it over to General Mattis. Of course, that means the Pentagon and a potential military solution. Is there any preemptive military strike, military action on the peninsula that you can support?

ROUNDS: What we know is that we cannot have a nuclear North Korea. Long-term it simply is not a message that we can allow the rest of the world to see. If North Korea is allowed to maintain nuclear weapons and make threats to its neighbors and the United States, that means other rogue nations can expect to be able to do the same.

HARLOW: But we do have a nuclear North Korea, Senator, that's the reality right now.

ROUNDS: We have a nuclear North Korea but one which at this point cannot do anything with those weapons, but they are getting very, very close.

[09:20:11] As they continue to improve their rockets, as they continue to downsize the size of a nuclear weapon, and as they improve the re- entry capabilities of the rockets that they want to use, the missiles they want to use, they become more of a threat. The challenge there is then why can't other nations think they can do exactly the same thing, and the proliferation out of North Korea with other rogue nations will continue. This is simply a case of at some point you can't allow that to continue on and the message --

HARLOW: What does that mean, Senator? I want to be clear for our viewers. Are you saying when North Korea accelerates its program and now those nuclear weapons you believe and experts believe are deliverable to the United States, you would be supportive of some ground invasion, some sort of preemptive strike?

ROUNDS: Let's put it this way. I think any action that we take should be done when it best suits us, and we have to have the -- we have to have a clear understanding that we will not allow the United States to be an object of threat by North Korea.

North Korea has to, at some point, recognize that they can go so far and then any kind of a reaction from the United States basically means the termination of that regime in North Korea. The challenge for us is let's not do that until we have exhausted all diplomatic means, and right now I think China is very much a key to that.

They don't want to see their people in South Korea, they've got over 130,000 people that live in south Korea, they don't want them at risk for retaliation from North Korea. We've got over 250,000 Americans in South Korea. There's over 10 million South Koreans that are just in Seoul alone.

So, look, we don't want war but the reality is North Korea continuing to make threats will at some point have to be dealt with, and we prefer to do it diplomatically, but the military, the military option is on the table.

HARLOW: That was made very clear as well by Nikki Kaley yesterday. Before you go, quickly though, the way that the president communicated this yesterday through Twitter was to talk about his phone call with the South Korean president and then refer to Kim Jong-un as, quote, "rocket man," as I'm sure you saw.

Now, McMaster, his national security adviser, was forced to try to defend that, explain that, on the Sunday shows yesterday. He's talking about a man that is pushing nuclear war, right, that is advocating wiping the United States off the map.

Is that appropriate language to use, rocket man, and what do you think it signals to the world community as the president gets ready to speak at the United Nations?

ROUNDS: I think that message is meant for as much of the heartland of America as anybody else, and what he's doing is the tradition that he started which is he may not be able to sit across the coffee table from you, but right now he's doing the same thing that he's done for the last year, and that is he's speaking directly to the American public and he's doing it in a very casual conversation.

If you take a look at what he is doing, he's doing exactly what happens across coffee tables across the United States. That doesn't mean that the actual actions he takes will mirror the type of an attitude that he lays out in the tweets.

But clearly people in the United States look at it and those same kinds of conversations go on in coffee shops across the United States. Let's be clear, he identifies and he's communicating with the American public, and I think that's what a lot of this is all about.

Long term when we talk about the United Nations I think he'll use different terminology and I suspect when Secretary Tillerson communicates with his peers, he uses a different type of approach as well.

HARLOW: Senator Mike Rounds, we appreciate you joining us on such an important day and such an important topic as North Korea. Thank you, sir.

ROUNDS: Thank you.

HARLOW: Ahead for us, a power lunch. You can call it that again, served with a side of White House intrigue. Could the president's lawyers overheard griping about their colleagues and the strategy for the Russia probe. At the table next to them, a reporter for it "The New York Times" who will join me next.



HARLOW: President Trump pulling up to the United Nations behind the security teams there. You see Nikki Haley in the gray suit. This is very significant. This is the first time as a sitting president he will address the United Nations.

His remarks today along with Nikki Haley's remarks and the secretary general's remarks on a panel concerning reforming the United Nations. The title of it, reforming the U.N., management security and development meeting. That's today.

That is significant in its own right because this all comes from the America first president who has been very critical of the United Nations, calling it unproductive, et cetera. You see the president there shaking hands, greeting the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who has very much taken a front seat in all things diplomacy, some say even trumping of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

This begins at 9:50 Eastern Time. We don't know what we will hear from the president. We have not received a plan for remarks from the White House on this one. Again, this is the America first president who has questioned the utility of the United Nations, who has said the United States gives far too much to the United Nations. So, it will be fascinating to hear from him certainly today.

Jim Sciutto is with us as well. It doesn't look like the president made remarks. We're going to try to listen in, but what are your thoughts as they head in, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think McMaster's comments yesterday and Nikki Haley's comments yesterday on the Sunday shows indicate there's going to be no softening of this America first message. Clearly on some policy positions there's been consideration.

We talked about this a few minutes ago on climate change, maybe if they can find a better deal they might stay engaged. Listen, they're talking about accountability of other states, about shared burdens.

This goes back to the message in NATO that yes, we will help make the world secure but other countries have to do their part. This has been a frequent Trump message. So don't expect a warmer and fuzzier Donald Trump as he approaches the podium here.

And I think, again, when I spoke to the White House last week, they're confident in that message, that this is Trump and this is what defined him and in their view helped elect him and they're going to stay with that message.

HARLOW: The language though that he chose on the campaign trail -- let's go back to March 2016. The United Nations is not a friend of democracy, is not a friend of freedom. Not likely words we will hear today.

SCIUTTO: No. You do expect for him to be the scripted Trump in this message, not the Trump of Twitter, and we've seen that frequently when he is following prompter, reading prepared remarks that Donald Trump's message is more on message as it were.

Donald Trump also is famous for his off the cuff improvisations that he'll often have at the podium. Will it do it here, I don't know. He's clearly been -- there's been a lot of preparation to this. There's a lot of investment in time. There's a lot of -- I don't know if we can hear what he's saying here.

BERMAN: We couldn't. I believe we have General McMaster as well with the president. We'll see if he goes off those remarks.

SCIUTTO: For President Trump, for all those very public not just critical but dismissal comments in years past, Donald Trump has shown up and he's been here and he's got a lot of bilats arranged, a lot of one-on-one meetings with world leaders. This is his hometown.

HARLOW: And he's comfortable here frankly.

SCIUTTO: Keep in mind, he's showing up in a way that some other world leaders who have been less critical of the U.N. and more dependent on it, China's president is not here. Russia's president is not here. Angela Merkel is not here as well.