Return to Transcripts main page
Crisis in Puerto Rico; Interview With New York Congressman Lee Zeldin; North Korean Leader Threatens United States; President Trump Tweeting. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired January 1, 2018 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: "They give safe haven to the terrorists that we hunt in Afghanistan with little help. No more."
Within the hour, President Trump sent another tweet, this time about Iran. He said -- quote -- "Iran is failing at every level, despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food and for freedom, along with human rights. The wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE" -- all in capital letters.
Now, the president is referring to anti-government protests in Iran that left 12 people dead this weekend. And as he slams these nations on New Year's Day, North Korea's leader is also seizing the moment. Kim Jong-un told his people that the mainland U.S. is within his range and -- quote -- "The nuclear button is always on the desk in my office."
Joining me now is CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip. She's with the president in Florida.
Abby, when he gets back to the White House, what is first on his agenda?
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Hi, Brianna.
Well, the president is preparing to come back to D.C. any minute now this afternoon, and he's going to be really launching into a full agenda policy-wise, talking a little bit about infrastructure over the break.
He's also going to be looking at welfare reform. He's going to be sitting down with congressional leaders in both the House and the Senate, Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, and they are going to be hashing out the plan for the coming months, all of this leading up to his State of the Union address at the end of January, of course.
But overnight at his New Year's Eve celebration at his Mar-a-Lago club, the president really touted some of the things that he is very proud that he was able to do over the last year and suggested that more is coming in 2018. Listen to what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to have a great 2018. It's going to be something very, very special. It's all kicking in. Everybody is going to love what's happening with our country, because we're taking this big beautiful ship and we're slowly turning it around. I would like to do it faster.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PHILLIP: Well, the president also told those supporters and guests of his Mar-a-Lago club that he also had some enemies, but he was hopeful that those enemies would turn around and start to like him or love him more in 2018.
The White House is preparing to also really launch into the midterm elections. And so there's a lot of work being done to prepare for that political, you know, battle that they're facing with Democrats in the fall.
A couple of changes coming staff-wise to the White House. So the president has a pretty full plate once he gets back to D.C. later this afternoon.
KEILAR: All right, Abby Phillip for us in West Palm Beach, thank you so much.
Now, if we hear from President Trump as he leaves Florida or when he arrives in Washington, we could get a response to what's been a very strong statement from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KIM JONG-UN, NORTH KOREAN LEADER (through translator): America will never be able to provoke war or attack us. The entire continent of America is within reach of our nuclear attack.
They must never forget the nuclear button is placed on my desk at all times. They must realize correctly that this is not a threat, but reality.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: Well, that was just a sample of what Kim had to say during his annual New Year's Day address.
And CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is with us now.
So, Barbara, Kim chose to start 2018 with a very strong warning for the United States. What do you make of what we heard there?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, he listens to everything that the U.S. is saying. He, too, is briefed on what is happening.
And so he sees very strong language from President Trump. And I think it's fair to say he's constantly evaluating what that means for him, because his number one threat that he perceives would be anything that would threaten his survival, his family's survival, his regime's survival.
And that -- intelligence experts will tell you that's what he's really aimed at here, keeping himself in power in North Korea. So he constantly is talking about what his military capabilities are. What about on this side?
Well, military commanders here will tell you they always plan for believing that what Kim is threatening is accurate and that he does have the capability to range the United States with his missiles and weapons. Now, there are technical problems. Can he actually point a missile with a warhead, put it at a precise target at a point in time? That's a very complex matter.
And he probably, the assessment is, can't quite do that, but you have to plan for that possibility. And so I think it's fair to say when the Pentagon, when the CIA looks at this, they go into 2018 the same way they came out of 2017, believing his threats are real, providing options to the president.
But here at the Pentagon, what Defense Secretary Mattis will tell you, diplomacy still front and center, diplomacy backed up by economic pressure. They still believe there is room for that to work -- Brianna.
KEILAR: Kim says, Barbara, that North Korea can strike any part of North America. It sounds like you're saying maybe there's the range, but there isn't that specificity.
What do we know exactly about North Korea's capabilities?
STARR: Well, there's something called -- well, we won't get too much into rocket science on New Year's Day, but there is something called reentry.
To put a long-range ballistic missile on a target with that warhead striking, you have to go way up into the atmosphere, be able to come back down, reenter the atmosphere, have the missile and the warhead survive the heat and pressure of reentering the atmosphere, and have the guidance systems to take it exactly to a target.
That's his challenge right now. But, again, when you look at that, you're looking at that through Western eyes. That's how we would see the challenge. If it came to it, would he be satisfied just basically launching a missile and letting it go wherever it goes, Brianna?
KEILAR: A scary thought. Barbara Starr for us, thank you so much.
New protests broke out in Iran's capital today, as demonstrators continue to vent their anger against the government. So far, 12 protesters and one police officer have been killed, which first broke out in more cities last week,. But now we're seeing more unrest in Tehran, where some have been shouting -- quote -- "Down with the dictator."
CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is watching the protests from neighboring Istanbul -- or from neighboring Turkey there in Istanbul.
So, what can you tell us about the new protests, Arwa, and the Iranian government's response so far?
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, these protests, especially that they're taking place in Tehran, are being described as something of a cat-and-mouse game, where you have small groups of protesters coming out, shouting slogans in front of the riot police, and then running away into the alleyways.
But we are seeing this momentum over the last few days continuing, despite the fact that the Iranian government is to a certain degree trying to calm down tempers.
Over the weekend, 12 people died, two on Saturday, 10 on Sunday, and then we have just heard about an incident that took place in the center of the country, where a protester who was described as creating a disturbance used a hunting rifle to shoot and kill one police officer, wounding another three in the city of Najafabad.
Now, Iran's president has come out on a number of different occasions over the last few days, recognizing to a certain degree the need for economic reform, accepting the fact that these protesters, when it comes to the economic downward spiral that Iran has been in, do have legitimate cause for a grievance.
In fact, after a meeting with members of Parliament, President Rouhani said, we have no bigger challenge than unemployment. Our economy requires major corrective surgery.
But the government has been cracking down on these demonstrations, and it has repeatedly been saying that people that go out and cause chaos and violence will be dealt with. There's also been quite a bit of back and forth between the Iranian and U.S. president, with President Rouhani most recently coming out and saying that President Trump has absolutely no right to criticize the Iranian government, and has absolutely no right to sympathize with Iran, because, in the past, he's called the Iranian people terrorists.
And President Rouhani has also been saying that it is Trump that is constantly creating problems for Iranians, including these visa and financial interests. Now, it's worth to note that what's interesting, at least for observers, when it comes to these protests is that they're happening across the entire country.
And there doesn't seem to be a particular group or a particular individual that is leading them. So, outside of this anger that we're seeing percolating, brewing on the streets, it's unclear as to whether or not these protesters themselves actually have a definitive, specific goal in mind, Brianna.
KEILAR: Very good point. Arwa Damon in Istanbul, thank you for that report.
Next, we will discuss the White House response to North Korea and Iran with Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin.
And the Rose Bowl kicks off this afternoon. We have a live report from the sidelines.
And then more than three months after Hurricane Maria, will a new year bring new hope to Puerto Rico? CNN will take you there, where many are turning to a higher power for help.
KEILAR: Welcome back.
While the president has a big domestic agenda planned for 2018, right now, foreign affairs are on his mind, judging from his Twitter feed.
And with me now to discuss this and more is Congressman Lee Zeldin. He is a Republican from New York. And he is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congressman, a very happy new year to you, and we certainly appreciate you spending your holiday with us.
REP. LEE ZELDIN (R), NEW YORK: It's great to be with you. Happy new year.
KEILAR: Happy new year.
So, I want to start with the protests that we have seen in Iran. The president has responded to this. He tweeted. And it was at the end of the tweet that really is sort of something that I think is raising some eyebrows, because he says time for change.
It's a situation in Iran where it's really unclear kind of who is leading the protesters, the -- it seems to be pretty diffuse as far as the organization. Do you think that it's smart for him to say time for change at this point in time?
ZELDIN: Well, I do.
I have been outspoken for years in favor of there being a regime change in Iran. What's really important to note within Iran is you have millions of Iranians who want, desperately want a free, stable, democratic Iran.
They're literally going back decades. They have been fighting, waiting for an opportunity, but fighting a dictatorial regime that has suppressed human rights, economic opportunity. They see money get squandered on pointless exercises outside of their own borders, and they want a better way of life for their people.
So, these people who are taking to the streets, it's just really important as we're watching it just to note that history and how desperate -- that we are witnessing literally millions of Iranians who want regime change for what seems to be all the right reasons.
KEILAR: They have some different reasons, though, Congressman, as you know, and they do seem to be a little -- there seems to be some variance between the protesters and what they want.
How careful does the U.S. government have to be about weighing in, appearing to put a finger on the scale for the protesters, when a lot of what's going on is unclear, especially when you look back to some of the lessons of the Arab Spring, which was, it is difficult to see at the time when something is happening what the exact objective is, if you do call for change, what comes in the wake of change?
Should there be caution on the part of the American government here?
ZELDIN: Well, one thing that would be very helpful is if Iran was truly holding democratic elections and the Iranian people were able to choose a better future for themselves.
Some of the coverage here in the United States will cover an Iranian election and say that the Iranian people elected the most moderate names that are on the ballot. And to a certain point, that's true. However, it's really important to note that the 12,000 most moderate candidates will be kicked off the ballot before that opportunity actually to cast that vote will take place.
So, I really -- I have faith in the Iranian people when given that opportunity to truly be able to elect those who are leading them in Tehran that they will be casting a vote for a different future, a better future for their country. We don't have to do that for the Iranians, but what we also want to be very careful about is, if we are too cautious to the point where we're actually propping up this current regime, and there's any missed opportunity of empowerment for those Iranians, that would be unfortunate at the same time.
KEILAR: So Senator Lindsey Graham actually wants the president to do more, and he tweeted this. He said: "I would explain what a better deal would look like. It's not enough to watch. President Trump is tweeting very sympathetically to the people of Iran, but you just can't tweet here. You have to lay out a plan."
Do you agree with him?
ZELDIN: Well, there's no doubt about that as it relates to the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA and the path forward with regards to our relationship with Iran and the international community's relationship with Iran, there are some really bad flaws with the deal that have to get corrected.
First and foremost is the sunset provision that takes place, but beyond that, there's still a lack of clarity on the verification regime. KEILAR: But he's saying the president -- this is about President Trump. This isn't about the Obama Iran deal.
He's saying the president shouldn't just be tweeting. You can't just tweet here, he says.
Do you agree with that?
ZELDIN: I don't think the president is just tweeting here.
He over the course of the last couple of days have put out a number of tweets with regards to what we're talking about, but going back to the end of 2017, over the course of the last couple of months, there was a decertification of the Iran nuclear deal.
The president made a speech that went -- putting aside the nuclear deals, Iran -- dealing with Iran's bad activities, they're test-firing intercontinental ballistic missiles, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions -- the international community really needs to deal with that strongly.
The Iranians have overthrown foreign governments and their efforts in Yemen or financing Hezbollah or Assad in Syria. I just got back from the Middle East a few days ago. I visited Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan. There's a lot of concern for Iranian activities in these other countries.
And these other Arab nations are deeply concerned with Iranian aggression. So, beyond Iran's rhetoric of calling the United States the great Satan, pledging death to America, are these real concerning activities of aggression within the Middle East.
The president, over the course of the last couple of months especially of 2017, though, they were weighing in with Iran's other bad activities beyond just talking about the nuclear deal.
KEILAR: Let's turn to North Korea, because the president -- obviously, there's always been a lot of fiery rhetoric coming from the president when it comes to North Korea, but are you convinced that the administration has a strategy about how to deal with North Korea?
And as it relates to identifying good options, this has been the huge challenge, because no one knows of any good options for dealing with North Korea that doesn't involve China.
All of the options, when we're talking about multilateral diplomacy, ramping up economic pressure against the North Koreans, the I in the DIME principle, which is information -- so this is diplomacy, information, military, economics -- working all of the other levers other than the military option, any good option is going to involve China. There have been some positive developments in 2017 over the summer.
There was a unanimous vote at the U.N. Security Council that effectively cuts off over a third of North Korean exports. That's great.
There was a setback towards the end of the year. There's a development that I'm looking forward to getting more information about with regard to oil exports from China into North Korea. Now, when you put aside all the good options and you look at what would be the last possible option that we should ever be considering, but one that you have to be prepared for, the full range of conventional to unconventional military options, there's no good option there.
I know that over the course of the year, there was a very serious, conscious effort to get the full range of options as prepared as possible, but none of those options are good. And I will also add, too, in talking to our military, even though I was in the Middle East, talking to some of our generals and those who were running the operations there, you can tell when North Korea came up, that they are hugely sensitive to just how serious from a military perspective those possibilities are.
And I have not met a single person in the United States government, it doesn't matter whether you're a Republican, Democrat, whether you're in the legislature or in the executive branch -- I have not met anyone who wants war with North Korea.
But I have also met a ton of people who understand we have to be prepared for it if it came down to it.
KEILAR: All right, Congressman Lee Zeldin, thank you so much for talking about all of these issues with us. We appreciate it and happy new year.
ZELDIN: Great to be on with you. Happy new year.
KEILAR: And up next: As President Trump winds down his working vacation at Mar-a-Lago, his former chief strategist says January could be pivotal for his presidency. We're going to discuss what's on the agenda.
And more than three months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, thousands still do not have power. Some don't have homes, And as we found out firsthand, hope is also hard to come by as the new year begins.
KEILAR: Within the hour, the president is expected to take his first Air Force One flight of the year to Washington, where he plans to embark on a -- quote -- "great new year."
That coming from one of his first tweets of 2018. So, how will his second year in office go? Joining me now to talk about it is Franco Ordonez, White House
correspondent for McClatchy's Washington bureau, and Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun-Times."
OK, so we know, Franco, that the president is hoping for an infrastructure bill. He's hoping for some bipartisanship with Democrats. Democrats want to get a fix for the dreamers, young people who came to the U.S. undocumented, but really have no home but the U.S. What are the chances that there could actually be bipartisanship here?
FRANCO ORDONEZ, MCCLATCHY: I think there is a potential for some bipartisanship.
I mean, Trump is talking a big plan. He's talking optimistic. He's talking a lot about bipartisanship.
As we know, he's a deal-maker. He wants to make the deal. He's not driven by necessarily ideology. He's made it tough for himself lashing out at Democrats. But I think right now, after Alabama, after Virginia, as well as tax reform being done and giving some space, I think there is an opportunity in those two areas that you talked about.
KEILAR: How does he win some Democrats over, other than, I guess, their priorities being aligned? But doesn't some of this also have to do with he might have to personally make overtures that would make them want to work with him, Lynn?
LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, yes and no.
Here's what he probably will come to realize, that you don't make a demand and call this a negotiation, when you say I will do something for dreamers if you build a wall and we pay for it.
May I suggest that is not the best way to start off on having a negotiation? Look at something both sides want and that you need 60 senators to execute. Oh, what could that be? Infrastructure. Not high on everybody's agenda.
So if you tie the deep-priority desire of the Democrats to let the dreamers remain in the United States legally with the desire to get something done on infrastructure, you might have some more makings of a deal than just trying it to a demand to one Trump-identified priority, which, by the way, the president had said Mexico will pay for it, not the United States.
KEILAR: Is he making this a -- is he attaching a poison pill, the wall, which a lot of folks have said, look, this could look like different things? He could say it's a wall, but really in certain areas could not be a wall.
SWEET: Wall-ish. KEILAR: Wall-ish. Fence-ish, whatever.
ORDONEZ: The fence.
KEILAR: Is that, though -- even just with the rhetoric, does he create a situation where then some voters, some supporters potentially of Democrats would say, no way, you're going along with the wall? Like, we're not OK with this. We're not going to support you for that.
ORDONEZ: I think there is that risk, but I see it more as a leverage point.
I mean, the wall and chain migration, I think he's trying to push as far as he can and see what he pulls back on. As you pointed out, it could be a fence. It could be some other type of border security.
He is having these conversations privately. He's saying some type of border security with protections for the dreamers. I think it's potential.