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Trump on Party Unity; Trump on Dossier; Decimating ISIS in the Middle East; Russian Sanction Implementation; North Korean Threat. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired October 25, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:00:28] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Hi there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN. Thank you for being with me.

We've got some breaking news this afternoon. Right now President Trump is flying to Texas for this hurricane relief update and two campaign events. But just before he left the White House, he made a string of headlines talking to reporters about taxes, his interactions with a soldier's widow, and two Republican senators who just excoriated his leadership.

You saw right here live during this show Arizona Senator Jeff Flake making that extraordinary condemnation of the commander in chief straight from the Senate floor. It happened just hours after Tennessee Senator Bob Corker strongly criticized the president.

But as the president's party division seems as deep as ever, the silence from other Republican lawmakers is also speaking volumes.

And, President Trump, he's totally dismissing talks of any sort of civil war, labeling it re-election politics. Let me read you a tweet from the president. The reason Flake and Corker dropped out of the Senate race is very simple, they had zero chance of being elected. Now act so hurt and wounded.

And then moments ago he added this.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think so. I think it's fine the way it is. We have actually great unity in the Republican Party. Yesterday I was --


TRUMP: No, that's OK. Look, you know, they have to do their thing. We have great unity. If you look at what happened yesterday at the meeting, we had I guess virtually every senator, including John McCain. We had a great conversation yesterday, John McCain and myself, about the military. I think we had a tremendous -- I called it a lovefest. It was almost a lovefest. Maybe it was a lovefest. But we -- standing ovations.

There is great unity. I mean if you look at the Democrats with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, that's a mess. There's great unity in the Republican Party.


BALDWIN: Let's talk about it. Paul Kane is with me, senior congressional correspondent for "The Washington Post," and CNN's senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Gentlemen, good to see both of you.



BALDWIN: And, Jeff Zeleny, first, I want to get into, you know, all the twists and turns that that almost seemed like a news conference when he was about to heard -- you know, head off to Texas. He stopped -- stopped and talked to reporters for 15 whole minutes. And just watching the president's face, he was almost smiling and feeling vindicated. Did you see what I think I saw?

ZELENY: Sure. I mean the President was trying to, you know, send a message that, look, there's nothing to see here.


ZELENY: There's nothing unusual about what's happened over the last several days. There's nothing unusual about the fact that a former Republican president has denounced me. There's nothing unusual about the fact that some of the top Republican elder statesmen in the Senate are speaking out against me.

But the reality, Brooke, is, we know it is very unusual. The president said great unity there, I don't know, maybe four or five times in a row. Him saying it, even six or seven times, wouldn't make it so.

As Paul knows very well from being on Capitol Hill for every waking hour of the day, there's not unity inside the Republican Party. There simply isn't.

Now the question is, does it matter? We don't know. But there is not unity in this Republican Party. And the president again talking about this and not talking about tax reform, which most Republicans desperately wish he would stick to tax reform and other agenda items.

BALDWIN: All right, so to the man who spends every waking hour on Capitol Hill, our friend Paul Kane here.

You know, when we heard the president talk about the standing ovation this time yesterday behind those closed doors on the tax luncheon, I mean are we not to presume that the standing o was for, you know, talk of taxes, which the Republicans really need to push through, versus, you know, standing ovation for the man himself?

KANE: Yes. It's pretty customary to have a standing ovation for the president of either party. You know, when Barack Obama would come and visit congressional Democrats, he would get a standing ovation at the beginning and at the end. And what we don't know is how many standing ovations Mr. Trump got in the middle of what he was talking about.


KANE: But the feedback coming out of the meeting was OK. It wasn't really effusive. People said it was a civil meeting. But he didn't get into any of the details that Jeff was just talking about. Any of the real details of what he wants to see in this tax bill.

He talked about his accomplishments. He really kind of read from a list of 10, 12 different things that he felt that he's done in the last nine months. That's nice, it was OK, but it didn't really do anything to sell the bigger, broader idea of what they really need right now, a massive tax cut.

[14:05:09] BALDWIN: Right.

The other piece that really jumped out at me, Jeff, and I think maybe this is where some of the vindication comes from, is the talk of the news today that it was now, you know, not just originally Republican, potentially a Republican rival for the presidential nomination with regard to this dossier, but it was the DNC, it was, you know, the Clinton campaign paying some money ultimately for dirt, for opposition research. And so did it seem to you that the president feels that he's a bit off the hook?

ZELENY: Sure. I mean he definitely wants to sort of direct the view back toward the Clinton campaign. That is something that we've seen from President Trump throughout. I mean he's been arguing and looking for someone, basically an enemy, if you will, and every now and then the Clinton campaign, you know, will serve up something else, even, you know, essentially -- and it's a postmortem state right now. And, of course, this is something that confuses the Russia situation. It gives the president something to point to.

But this is a bit like the old saying, oh, there's gambling going on in the casino. Well, no kidding. All campaign do opposition research. All campaigns do this. The Trump campaign has done it. The Clinton campaign did it. The reality here is, this does not change the underlying fact of the investigations on Capitol Hill and by the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller. Is there any type of collusion here. This is sort of just another extraneous thing out there.

But, look, you can't blame the president from seizing on this. The White House has seized on this as well. Yesterday they were denouncing a "Washington Post" report. Today they're seizing on that "Washington Post" report as evidence of this here.

So, look, they're playing the hand that's dealt them. And the Clinton campaign, again, even in it's -- you know, almost a year after it was put to rest, is still handing him a bit of goods.

BALDWIN: We're going to have a powerful (ph) conversation about that also just on the legality of it in just a second.

But, Paul, here's where I'm also curious because there was one point where the president was saying, and I'm paraphrasing, you know, I'm really -- I'm a nice guy. I'm a very intelligent guy. You know, I went to -- I went to an Ivy League school and he essentially said it was you, the media, to blame for painting him as uncivil. Like you, the media, have sucked civility out of Washington.

KANE: I think for this one I'll just -- I'll just look back at what Senator Flake was talking about yesterday. And he talked about the morality found inside 140 characters. It's the president's tweets that are driving the conversation here. It's the president himself in his own words that are really driving the conversation.

And what these guys up here are constantly reacting to, Republicans and democrats, this -- we're not really -- a lot of what's happening is we are just showing the public his own words, his own tweets, and then they react to it up here. So it's not necessarily something that the media is doing. It's the presidential action often through 140 characters.

BALDWIN: Hashtag whiplash.

Paul Kane, Jeff Zeleny, thank you both very much.

Let's go back to the dossier revelation. Sources now tell CNN that the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC helped pay for it. This is how it all went down. As early as April of last year, a law firm representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC hired this company called Fusion GPS. And it was Fusion GPS that started conducting this opposition research, trying to get some dirt on Donald Trump. And they, in turn, hired Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer, who wrote the dossier. And, moments ago, President Trump was asked to comment on this and he called the revelation a disgrace.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I think it's very sad what they've done with this fake dossier. It was made up and I understand they paid a tremendous amount of money. And Hillary Clinton always denied it. The Democrats always denied it. And now only because it's going to come out in a court case they said, yes, they did it. They admitted it. And they're embarrassed by it. But I think it's a disgrace. It's just really a very -- it's a very sad -- it's a very sad commentary on politics in this country.


BALDWIN: So it's important to note here the Democrats did not bankroll the entire project. And the research firm was initially hired to find some dirt by anti-Trump Republicans during the primaries. So my next guest here is an opposition researcher who has been hired by more than 100 candidates to do exactly this sort of digging. So, Alan Huffman, nice to meet you. Welcome to the show.


BALDWIN: So when you're hired to dig for dirt, essentially, to do this type of work, I mean I am sure there is a fine line between what you can do, what's legal, and what's not. As you've been reading the revelations into this dossier here, are there any red flags to you?

HUFFMAN: Well, I mean, obviously, there's so many layers to who is funding this and where the information is coming from. When we're doing research, we're strictly looking for anything that will lead us to documentation. So the idea of somehow going to a foreign national or a foreign power to acquire information is really outside of our frame of reference because we're almost always looking for public documents here.

[14:10:22] So I think, you know, everyone's a bit confused about, you've got both parties who are funding it. I don't think that in itself is that unusual. You do opposition research. You're going to look at your candidate and the other side. You're going to be doing basically the same thing.

BALDWIN: Listen, we know everyone does some form or fashion of this. We know, you know, about the infamous Trump Tower meeting, Don Jr. and others wanting dirt on Hillary Clinton.

My question to you is, what's the difference for that versus, you know, Clinton campaign and DNC paying for this dirt from this former British intel officer?

HUFFMAN: Well, as an opposition researcher, you're sort of on the front line of gathering this information. And once you turn the information over, it becomes the product of the campaign. So when you have, in the case of Hillary Clinton buying this information, they went through several layers. So the opposition researcher would have been way down on that level. The idea that Republicans initiated it or a Republican initiated it and the democrats took it up I think indicates that they're both on the same path.

As to how that differs, it's really beyond my personal understanding because I don't really know what happened within the campaign other than what I've read from "The Washington Post" and heard.

BALDWIN: Sure. Let's take two steps back for people who are not in the world of politics. How common is it for a candidate from x or y campaign to call someone like you up and say, hey, I need some opposition, you know, research on my rival?

HUFFMAN: I mean basically everybody does it. But what is important to understand is that you operate the same way you would if you were an investigative reporter. So you hire us. We're going to look at you with the same level of scrutiny that we look at your opponent. And the other side is doing the same thing. When you -- when you're researching, if you have to go into a courthouse looking for documents, you're going to hear that, oh, somebody was in here yesterday looking for the same thing. You're building a case against your own candidate at the same time you're building a case against the opponent. That's just the nature of it because it's all about the fact.

So when I look at this dossier, you know, I think, yes, we'll talk to anybody. We'll talk to a guy that says President Reagan left a pony in his yard, if that -- because everybody knows something we don't know. But if it doesn't lead to documentation, it's meaningless for our purposes.

BALDWIN: I got you.

Alan Huffman, thank you very much.

Coming up here on CNN, we're taking you inside North Korea. Hear what one of Kim Jong-un's top officials is telling us about its warning over a possible hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific.

Also, did local villagers in Niger play a role in the ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers?

And did President Trump authorize that mission? CNN is in Niger. We will have a live report for you ahead.

And later, why the NAACP is warning African-American passengers to avoid a major American airline.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN.


[14:17:57] BALDWIN: All right, back to our breaking news here. This candid question-and-answer session with President Trump before he was off to Texas. So let me turn to another comment from the president specifically about the war on terror.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are decimating ISIS in the Middle East. What's happening is they'll go to parts of Africa, they'll go to other places. When they get there, we meet them. And we're beating ISIS very badly. You look at what's happened in the Middle East. We have done more in eight months than the previous administration has done in many years. Now, what happens is you decimate them, and that's what we've done. We have decimated ISIS in the Middle East.


BALDWIN: Let's talk about that with CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. He is also the national security correspondent for "The New York Times."

David Sanger, we have decimated ISIS in the Middle East, so says the commander in chief. Can you fact check him for me? DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Sure. He's

-- he's more than half right. ISIS' concept was that they would not just be a traditional terrorist group, they would actually hold territory. And the Obama administration sort of laid the predicate for a show, careful plan to drive them out of Raqqa and other strongholds and to do it using as many indigenous troops, rather than American troops, as they could. That took a while. And the president is right that more of it was executed on his watch than was executed on President Obama's watch, though I think the Obama folks would tell you they -- they gave him the run-up.

The bigger question now, though, Brooke, is a more complex one, which is, once ISIS no longer has this territory, do they then turn to the kind of more traditional efforts to try to strike back at the United States, at Europe, bombings, cyber work, things like that? And certainly you'd rather be in that position than have them doing that while they were holding territory. And certainly the president has cut off a good deal of their oil revenue.

[14:20:05] BALDWIN: Right.

All right, so that's ISIS.

What about Russian sanctions in the wake of election meddling? Congress overwhelmingly approved this. The administration has missed a deadline to actually implement the sanctions. The White House is pointing fingers at the State Department. What's the deal with the hold up?

SANGER: Well, that's a good question because the overarching mystery around this administration's foreign policy is why you had a president of the United States, who's been incapable of saying anything critical of the Russians involving Ukraine, involving the election meddling and so forth. Others in the administration have. Nikki Haley has. At various points Rex Tillerson has. The president has not.

The sanctions that were passed by Congress were not complicated to implement. And if those same sanctions had been about Iran, I suspect by now they would have been implemented. So the question is, is this just bureaucratic snafu or is someone slow walking it? I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of that yet.

BALDWIN: OK. Finally, North Korea here. This is what we teased a second ago. This North Korean official told our correspondent, Will Ripley, who has now been to Pyongyang something like 16 times, and they told him that they should, quote, literally take this warning from North Korea's foreign minister about a possible strongest hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean. Here they were.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Should the world prepare for North Korea to detonate a nuclear device above ground?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The foreign minister is very well aware of the intentions of Iran's supreme leader. So I think you should take his words literally.


BALDWIN: How should -- David, how should the U.S. take that?

SANGER: Well, I think they should take it literally. I mean --

BALDWIN: You do?

SANGER: First of all, atmospheric testing, while it was banned by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1963, in the first big arms control agreement, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which Kennedy signed just before his assassination, has banned the United States from doing this. But we did a lot of this in the '50s and the French continue to do it. The Chinese did it as late as 1980. So the North Koreans will have a case to take, not a strong case, but a case to make saying that they are simply doing what other states did at similar early stages in their nuclear development.

At the same time it is now concerned to be an environmental disaster to do this. And I think that the big decision that will be facing the Trump administration is that if you believe an atmospheric test is coming, and you don't know when the missile's on the pad where it's headed, do you take it out on the pad? Do you try to shoot to down using missile defenses? And that's going to be a very big decision because once you've done that, you're on an escalation ladder you may not be able to get off of.

BALDWIN: All of this swirling ahead of the president's first big swing to Asia, heading to South Korea early November. We'll be watching for that very carefully and see what he says.

David Sanger, we'll talk again. Thank you so much.

SANGER: Great to be with you, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

We're staying on our breaking news this afternoon, hearing from the president moments ago speaking to the media on a wide range of topics as he was leaving the White House. And he specifically addressed his conversation with the widow of this fallen soldier. Why the president says he disputes the claim that he forgot Sergeant La David Johnson's name.

Also, did President Trump authorize the mission in Niger? We will have his response.

And we're also asking, did the locals -- did local villagers in Niger play a role in the ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers. CNN is live on the scene. We'll take you there, next.


[14:28:16] BALDWIN: All right, breaking news here. The president stopping and speaking to media before he headed off to Texas. And in part of the conversation he defended his conversation with the widow of the U.S. soldier killed in Niger. The widow says she was hurt by the tone of his condolence call. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I respect her. I respect her family. I certainly respect La David. He -- who, I, by the way, called La David right from the beginning. Just so you understand, they put a chart in front, La David. It says La David Johnson. So I call, right from the beginning, here's no hesitation. One of the great memories of all time.


BALDWIN: He also made news about the operation itself. This was a president, when he was asked specifically about who was it, who authorized the mission.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a dangerous business. I have to say, it's a dangerous business.


TRUMP: So, what? No, I didn't. Not specifically. But I have generals that are great generals. These are great fighters. These are warriors and --


TRUMP: I gave them authority to do what's right so that we win. That's the authority they have.


BALDWIN: U.S. officials say this team was collecting intelligence on a terror leader, a high value target in the area. Their mission was not to kill or capture. U.S. officials are also looking into whether local villagers perhaps set the soldiers up by tipped off the attackers to the fact that they were there.

Meantime, we are also now hearing from the father of fallen soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson. He is demanding answers about what happened to his son.

[14:29:51] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TERRENCE MCGRIFF, FATHER OF SERGEANT LA DAVID JOHNSON: First of all, I don't even know if he was buried, to be honest with you. That's the way I feel as a father because me, his wife, no family member, nobody ever seen a body yet. The comment I heard Trump made about my son, it was crazy to me. It was really crazy. I mean I felt sometimes that we -- but his comment, and how people are taking it, is